Today, Japan has two dominant whisky brands: Torii’s House of Suntory and Nikka Whisky Distilling. The rival companies have a unified history: Torii originally employed Masataka Taketsuru, and the two of them created Japan’s first whiskies together at Suntory in 1923. They eventually split, and Taketsuru founded Nikka’s first distillery in 1934.
Torii founded his first distillery, Yamazaki on the outskirts of Kyoto, in Shimamoto, which sits at the confluence of three rivers, where the Katsura, Kizu and Uji become the Yodo River. The region, and more importantly its water, was known for a purity so famed that Sen no Rikyū, the legendary founder of the Japanese Way of Tea, established his ceremonial tearoom there in the 16th century. Shimamoto is uniquely Japanese, tucked into the hilly forests of the Kansai region in central Japan, where the urbanized connections between Osaka and Kyoto give way to tall trees.
Torii took his whisky influences from Scotland, as the spelling without the “e” indicates, and sought to make a whisky in a Scotch style. But his first bottling, the Suntory Shirofuda, largely flopped. The problem was that rather than a whisky made in and for Japan, it was more an imitation of the smoky style of Scotch synonymous with Scotland’s Islay region. The Japanese culture of food and umami call for a whisky with much more delicate and nuanced flavors and character.
The whiskies that Suntory made at Yamazaki have evolved over the years and developed a worldwide reputation for excellence. On more than one occasion, Yamazaki single malts have won awards as the best whisky in the world. A far cry from the peaty pastiche of their first bottles, today’s Suntory blends and single malts offer intricate flavors and delicate character—and Japanese whisky is now seen as a natural pairing with Japanese cuisine.
At Yamazaki, as well as at the Hakushu and Chita distilleries, Suntory creates a diverse range of Japanese whiskies. The recipe has been a commitment to innovation and a respect for whisky’s original traditions created and honed in Scotland. Like Scotch, Japanese whisky relies heavily on malted barley, and much of what goes into the whisky production comes from Scotland—the barley is even often imported from there. The Japanese producers import their pot stills from Scotland, and many are working off of the original recipes and methods that Masataka Taketsuru brought back so many years ago from his time working in Scottish distilleries.
Despite the deference to the birthplace of Scotch, Japan’s whisky has its own quality. The purity of Japanese water, the use of native Mizunara oak casks (in addition to Sherry and American oak), and the higher elevations of their distilleries all play a role in the creation of a nuanced whisky. Yet what may truly set Japanese whisky apart from Scotch is perhaps no surprise: the meticulous approach the Japanese take to creating it. At Yamazaki and other large distilleries, master blenders start with many more separate batches of whisky than one may typically find at other distilleries. Each one imparts unique and subtle characteristics; a broader palette of flavors and aromas results in a final dialed-in blended whisky with delicate character. Where much of the whisky- and whiskeymaking world views their blends as also-rans, or affordable money makers for day-to-day drinking, the Japanese whisky makers find an art form in blended whisky. This makes for a higher price point, but a fine whisky that has been given as much attention and care as the prized single malts.
The demand for Japanese whisky has caught the industry off guard. As a result, some of the prized Suntory aged whiskies, including the 12-year-old Hakushu and the 17-yearold Hibiki—famous for being pitched by Bill Murray in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”—are going extinct, at least for a time.
The overall demand for Japanese whisky and the multiple awards that these two bottles in particular have garnered, along with the demand for the well-made and affordably priced blends, mean that Suntory has not been able to release aged whisky for a given vintage. The company intends to increase production in the short term, but the last of these whiskies (for now) will be released this year. There are plans to bring back these favorites, but I would suspect that the earliest we might see them would be in 12 years’ time, because it takes that long to age a 12-year-old whisky.
Japan is the land of the whisky highball. While whisky and soda probably got its start in the United States, Japan, as it often does, perfected it. The drink is essentially whisky and (soda) water, but the Japanese have taken it to new heights, crafting whiskies blended just for mixing. The highball is to the Japanese what rosé is to the French: light, refreshing and perfect with food. While whisky is often seen as too strong to be refreshing, the light-flavor profile of Japanese whisky makes it perfect for a drink that, once mixed, is no stronger than a beer. While approachability is part of the highball’s charm, plenty of craft bartenders throughout Japan and beyond are creating classic highballs with artisanal and bespoke takes on the drink, from special ice cubes to herbal infusions.
Though its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, the cocktail has a long history in Japan. In the 1950s, Suntory opened a series of whisky bars intended to sell whisky cocktails and, foremost among them, the pre-bottled highball. The company launched the most recent highball craze in the middle 2000s as a response to declining domestic sales of Japanese whisky and on the strength of a celebrity marketing campaign. Today, the canned highball is a staple of Japanese restaurants and available on street corners, often in vending machines and often priced cheaper than beer. Re-infused for a new generation, the highball is here to stay.
The embrace of whisky cocktails has even led to Suntory’s creation of the Toki, a lightly hued whisky that seems made for a highball. Light golden in color, the Toki is elegant and its character seems accentuated in a cocktail with ice. Aromas of green apple, honey and ginger, and light elegant touches of flavor that include mint, citrus and herbs, with a sweet finish kissed with vanilla and candied ginger. The Toki is a blended whisky from all three of Suntory’s distilleries with an eye toward accessibility and is a natural in a highball glass. $30
The Hibiki line of Suntory whiskies was introduced in 1989 and, as they’ve become established, the aged blends have been heavily awarded and sought after by whisky drinkers the world over. So much so that Suntory hasn’t been able to keep up with demand and so fans of those 17- and 21-yearold whiskies will have to be satisfied with the Harmony, and this whisky definitely does not feel like settling. The 24 edges of the Hibiki bottle represent the 24 seasons of the Japanese lunar calendar, and the whisky itself aims to create a harmony that tells the story across Suntory’s three distilleries. Whisky batches are hand-selected to create a delicate, elegant final product with a dark amber hue, with aromas of ginger, thyme and sandalwood and a delicate palate of orange zest, honey and vanilla that has a beautiful lingering finish. $70