Yamazaki. Hakushu. Hibiki. When a Westerner thinks of Japanese whisky, they think of names under the House of Suntory. Which makes sense, of course — Shinjiro Torii’s company, founded in 1923, is Japan’s first and most popular whisky maker. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1929, Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru to create the world’s first Japanese whisky. They got it wrong. The expression, called Suntory Shirofuda, tasted too much like Scotch — too peaty, too powerful. Torii realized the Japanese palate didn’t want ultra-smokey peat bombs; it wanted finesse. So they made what has since become the most popular whisky Japan: Suntory Kakubin. It’s light, punchy and floral, the baseline for all Japanese whiskies to come.
Since then, Suntory’s whiskies have grown in volume, quality and prestige. It operates three whisky distilleries across Japan — Yamazaki Distillery, Hakushu Distillery, Chita Distillery — each with its own purpose and flair. Here’s everything you need to know.
Suntory has recently discontinued many of its expressions, citing the growing popularity of Japanese whisky and general stock shortages. Those are included in this guide, as they remain available in limited quantities in and outside of Japan.
The most luxe of Suntory’s whisky holdings also happens to be its most Japanese. Hibiki, which first hit shelves in 1989, was designed as a more palatable alternative to blended Scotch, meant to be sipped neat or over ice.
Each Hibiki expression is a blend of dozens of whiskies produced at all three of Suntory’s whiskey-making facilities and, as with each Suntory whisky brand, may contain spirit aged in new American oak barrels, Spanish Olorosso sherry casks, ex-bourbon barrels, ex-wine casks and the legendary (not to mention extraordinarily expensive) Japanese Mizunara oak barrel.
The size and variability of the Hibiki toolkit is what separates it from Suntory’s other whiskies. It’s the only of the company’s whiskies that contains parts from every distillery, every wood type and every barrel in its repertoire. The results are intensely floral and fruity that, as you climb in years-in-barrel, present more depth, citrus notes and tannic twists.
And let me tell you that the whisky is pretty popular in Asia. So what did they do right in terms of marketing? Here’s three areas the company looked at:
- Local first, global later. Win over your local industry through quality products and innovative marketing.
- Capitalize on your initial success and reinvest accordingly.
- Be so good that people start talking and advocating for you.
Yet, the Japanese whisky wave was neither blind nor bullish. The introduction of Japanese whiskies into the European market was a careful and meticulous process, selecting only the best and premium brands to be marketed to construct a deluxe brand consciousness.
It’s one thing to reignite demand and interest for Japanese whisky within Japan itself. It’s another when Japanese whisky takes over a Western market so accustomed to their own whiskey brands. In this respect, Japanese whisky distilleries have truly achieved the impossible.
Check out my related post: How is Scotch Whisky made?