Whether you’ve been browsing the dekantā website, or if you’re simply clued up on the ins and outs of Japanese whisky, you will most likely have stumbled across Suntory Old – a whisky available in an array of varieties, including Suntory’s famous zodiac-shaped bottles. Our customers are continuously asking us about the real age of those bottles. Is it really old? Is its name a cunning marketing ploy to convince consumers that their purchase is of aged value, when in fact, it is not? The answer to both questions is no, it’s not that old, and no, this is not marketing spin. We’re also asked whether Suntory Old is any good, and the answer is yes! Most people are pleasantly surprised when they try out Suntory Old.

Don’t get us wrong, Suntory Old isn’t in the same class as the Yamazaki and Hibiki, but for its own grade, it is an excellent whisky. In fact, quite remarkably, we have never heard anyone complain about Suntory Old; it tends to receive good reviews, and this whisky is, in short, one of the better Japanese whiskies for casual occasions.

Often described as being dark, and somewhat wooden in colour, Suntory Old has not too big a nose, but not to small either. With menthol, as well as a hint of licorice, the palate is smooth to begin with, but ends with a slight kick. The alcohol is notable, but not too prominent. In our opinion, this drink is very Japanese, but has a more aggressive taste than many finer Japanese whiskies.

But what about the name? And why do the older labels have the year 1899 inscribed on them? Well…

Suntory began making whisky in the 1930s. Its first bottle was Suntory White, which is still sold today, and is by no means a bad whisky. However, Suntory White was the company’s first attempt at whisky, so we’d ask that you don’t expect your whole world view to change when tasting it. Its second whisky, Suntory Red, was somewhat of an improvement, but was still not considered classy enough.

Suntory Old was the company’s first attempt at marketing a luxury whisky, and for all it’s worth, it sells rather well. Back in the 1950s and 60s it was in fact as prestigious as Japanese whisky could get.

It first came on the market in 1950, although it was produced as early as 1940, in the midst of war. The army was obsessed with whisky, and considering the circumstances, recruits had no time to consider luxury whisky – they simply wanted a good drink. At the time, Suntory failed to obtain a license to market its new luxury product and was told to focus on its current projects. Suntory Old was first unleashed to the markets in 1950, and as it was considered such a classy commodity at the time, and so out of reach to the majority, people virtually adored it. Until the 1980s or so, Suntory Old was as classy as they came, especially where the world of Japanese whisky is concerned.

Inscribed on the bottles is the year 1899, which is a reference to the founding year of the company. The ‘Old’ reference was taken from the legend of Old Tom Parr, and was perhaps more of a wish that the whisky would be in circulation for a lengthy period, rather than the cunning marketing ploy that people believe it to be (which would not have worked in Japan anyway).

For several decades, Suntory Old was as classy as Suntory whisky could possibly get. In 1981, following Japan’s rapid economic growth, approximately ten million bottles of Suntory Old were sold annually. Sales, however, were decreasing. Not only did Suntory Old gain competition from foreign brands of whisky (Bourbon and Scotch), but also from wine, liqueurs, and more. Because of this, Suntory delved into the production of alternatives – most notably the Yamazaki in 1984 and the Hibiki in 1989 and Suntory Old was demoted to mid-range whisky by Suntory standards.

Nonetheless, to this day, people generally have a positive view of Suntory Old. Many expect this drink to be relatively plain, but are pleasantly surprised when they take the plunge and try it out. Our favorites consist mainly of Suntory’s zodiac bottles, being excellent collector’s items, and often ingeniously shaped. If, however, you are merely looking for a day-to-day sipping whisky, you could do far worse than to try this one out.

Henry Baldvin