The early history of Japanese whisky is pretty much the history of Suntory. Founded by Shinjirō Torii in 1899 under the name Torii Shōten and later named Kotobukiya, Suntory did not acquire its present name until the 1960s. It was the first company in Japan to make whisky, aiming for an authentic flavour profile that would be a hit with Japanese palates.
The young entrepreneur founder of Suntory, Shinjirō Torii, was born in the major Japanese business hub of Osaka in 1879. Torii left school at 13 to pursue apprenticeship as a storekeeper. He had a particular interest in brewing and studied techniques for blending sake, and also learned about foreign drinks such as wines. In 1907 Torii launched a brand of sweet wine called Akadama Port Wine which proved a great success and boosted his company considerably.
Creating just one successful wine was not enough for Torii. He wanted something more. After tasting a few bottles of wine that had lain forgotten in his cellar, he became interested in the concept of maturation. This was to be the catalyst for creating Japan’s first ever whisky.
At the time the idea didn’t impress the directors of his company who thought that making real whisky was not possible outside the cold climates of Scotland and Ireland. Investing all the company’s hard-earned money into a distillery seemed enormously risky. Fortunately for Suntory, Torii was undeterred. Around this time, he met Masataka Taketsuru, a young man who had spent time in Scotland learning the art of whisky-making. Like Torii, Masataka was obsessed with whisky-making and wanted to open up a distillery in Japan.
In 1923 Torii invested most of his company’s assets into building the Yamazaki distillery, the first distillery in the country. The chosen location was close to Mount Tenno, famed for pure and undiluted water. Masataka was appointed chief of operations. He would work for the company for over a decade, overseeing the brewing of the first genuine Japanese whisky which launched in 1929 under the simple name of “Suntory Whisky”. Colloquially this brand-new product soon became known as Shirofuda (literally, “white label”) after the colour of the label on the flask.
Suntory’s initial reception was disappointing; Japanese drinkers were not used to the strong taste of whisky and turned their backs on it. It wasn’t until 1937 that a whisky the Japanese would truly appreciate arrived. This was called Suntory Kabunin (“square bottle”) and is still widely sold to this day. Despite the success of Kabunin, the whisky industry was operating at a loss up until the advent of the Second World War. The Japanese army and navy were mad for whisky, and after the war the U.S. army proved no less a fan of whisky. Business was booming.
By the 1970s, demand for whisky was such that another distillery was set up, deep in the forests of Mount Kaikomagatake in Yamanashi prefecture. Today Suntory has two whisky distilleries: Hakushu and the original Yamazaki site. Each distillery’s whisky is a little different from the other’s, mostly due to the water. The water in Hakushu passes through the granite layers of Mount Kaihomagatake, making it extremely pure. The Hakushu distillery also focuses on malt whiskies, creating a distinctive flavour profile.
Along with Nikka, Suntory is the best-known whisky maker in Japan today. Its whiskies, especially the Yamazaki and Hibiki, have won several international awards and recognitions. The Yamazaki 12 Year Old was the first Japanese whisky to win a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge in London in 2003. In 2010, Suntory was awarded as the best distiller in the world, while Hibiki has been consistently named the best whisky in the world year after year.
Suntory does not only make whisky; the company also produces beers, cocktails, liqueurs and spirits as well as non-alcoholic drinks. In 2014, the company bought the U.S. bourbon maker Beam Inc which is now named Beam Suntory, and the drinks division of British-based GlaxoSmithKline was also acquired. All eyes are on Suntory and its whiskies in the coming years as the company expands and its world-class whisky conquers new markets.