Whiskey is not traditionally known as a specialty of the Japanese, prior at least to the production of Suntory Whiskey. Even today most people are probably not aware even of the existence of fine Japanese Whiskeys. Sake yes, but whiskey? Whiskey is Scottish, or American, but not Japanese.

This is the story of Suntory Whiskey, and how a rebel named Shinjiro Torii revolutionized the Japanese alcohol industry.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Suntory Whiskey, even if you don’t know it. In the 2003 film ‘Lost in Translation’ by Sofia Coppola, the commercial Bill Murray travels to Japan to film, is for Suntory Whiskey. Sofia’s father Francis Ford Coppola was featured in a commercial for Suntory Whiskey filmed by Akira Kurosawa.

Shinjiro Tori opened his first store in Japan in 1899, at the time selling only imported wine. Before too long Shinjiro was not satisfied with only selling imported wines, and produced the company’s first Port Wine, which would become the stepping stone to many other products, not the least of which (of course) would be Suntory Whiskey. Shinjiro wanted to produce his own, purely Japanese whisky. Despite strong opposition from his executives, he began what would be a laborious (but ultimately satisfying) process.

It should be noted that there were Whiskeys produced in Japan prior to Suntory, but they were not mass produced and origins are unclear. One of the few recorded experiences with a pre-Suntory Japanese whiskey is found in the records of the American Expeditionary Force Siberia (Deployed during the October Revolution to Siberia to protect American assets) in 1918, and it was referred to as ‘Queen George’. We’re not even sure what was in that stuff.

Essential to the aforementioned process was a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru. Masataka has quite a tale of his own, which is worth looking at as it pertains to the story of Suntory Whisky. Masataka originally attended University of Glasgow in Scotland to study Organic Chemistry, and while there had internships at two different distilleries. Masataka learned his trade well at both Longmorn and Bo’ness Distilleries. A love of Scottish Whiskey was not the only thing he took from Scotland, as he also married Jesse Roberta Cowan, later to be known as Rita Taketsuru. Later Masataka would break off from Suntory and open his own Distillery, creating the now equally well known Nikka Whisky. It is also worth noting that Rita Taketsuru died of liver failure, so maybe not so much with the constant whiskey drinking.

Shinjiro Tori

Shinjiro saw Masataka’s skill and procured him to become his Executive Distiller at the production facility he planned to open in Shimamoto Japan, in Osaka Prefecture. This would become Japan’s first whisky distillery when it opened and began production in 1924. Five years later it would produce it’s first completed batches of single malt whiskey. This would be the first single malt whisky made in Japan. The location of the distillery is significant, as it was selected for the near legendary purity of its water. It was called the ‘Yamazaki Distillery’ and it sat in a place called the ‘Vale of Yamazaki’. This is also how one of the brand’s premier whiskies received it’s name.

With the outbreak of World War Two and the resulting limited resources, production had to be ceased, making the pre-war stocks (actual whisky, not paper stocks) of Suntory Whisky quite valuable. After the war, production resumed and the whisky became quite popular in post-war Japan.

In 1963 the company would officially change its name to Suntory (previously Kotobukiya) in homage to it’s wildly popular whiskey.

Prior to 2000 the market for Japanese whiskies was primarily Japanese, but with the arrival of the 21st Century came award after award for both Suntory and Nikka whiskies, giving them not just a seat the table with the best Scottish Whiskies, but many would argue a seat at the head of the table.

In 2015 Suntory’s Yamazaki Single malt sherry cask 2013 won the top slot in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. That’s no joke, and the first time they had beaten the Scottish, quite literally at their own game.  

How big is Suntory today? They bought Jim Beam Whiskey