There’s no greater testament to the power of Japanese whisky than just sitting in Suntory Hall. The February 1st press conference celebrating the 100th year anniversary of Suntory whisky took place in what was supposedly the smaller event space, despite what the seemingly endless number of journalists in the room would indicate. Each attendee, including myself, was greeted with a bottle of water (Suntory water, of course), a few paper packets, a gift bag— and two small tasting glasses of Suntory Yamazaki 12 and Hakushu 25, neatly covered by little embossed plastic lids.
Suntory is a Japanese institution in every sense of the word. It’s a household name, it’s a multinational giant, and it’s been a trailblazer in the field of Japanese alcohol culture for, you guessed it, 100 years. (Actually, if we consider their port wine genealogy dating back to 1899, it’s more than 100 years – but 100 years for whisky.)
While competitors might try their best to subvert this, when you think of Japanese whisky…well, Bill Murray may have said it best. It’s Suntory time. And the same goes for the ubiquitous highball. Ordering a highball at an izakaya conjures up usual images of cold, thick-handled glasses as well as the iconic yellow label design of Suntory Kakubin whisky. And this is no accident or lucky coincidence.
A highball is very simple– it’s just whisky and soda water. It was one of the most popular drinks in Japan in the 1950s because it went well with Japanese bar foods and had a fashionable, cosmopolitan (and dare I say manly) air to it salarymen enjoyed. But over the years, the variety of alcohol served at izakayas and bars around Japan grew. That same appeal that the highballs and whisky in general had to that older male population led to a sharp drop in its public image to the younger crowd, which had more options and were thus free to distinguish themselves from the ojisan (Japanese old man) vogue. But between 2007 and 2009, highballs started to have a resurgence in popularity, and Suntory was the company that led this “highball boom”.
To understand the boom, you need to understand drinking culture in Japan. You don’t drink at home with your friends, you go out to the bar and drink. You go from bar to bar on your first, second, third and possibly fourth dates. You go to the bar with your entire office after work. You go to the bar to close deals with business associates. You don’t want to get too drunk, but you also don’t want to be caught without a glass in hand. Enter the dilemma – how do you go about drinking for hours with people you want to make a good impression on without getting so shit-faced that you jeopardize your professional, romantic, and public standing?
It’s no surprise that draft beers between 4 and 5 percent alcohol are hugely popular to meet this demand. As are the endless varieties of chuhai (shochu and soda water, among other mixers). And Suntory realized that maybe the way to get Japanese people interested in whisky again wasn’t by pushing whisky itself but by pushing highballs as an option of a low-alcohol, low-calorie drink that people could drink for a good long time without embarrassing themselves in front of a cute girl or their office manager.
And, what singular drink can span the range of dirt-cheap to top shelf in quite the way that whisky highballs can? You can split any good whisky with soda water if you want to and price it accordingly. In the mid-2000s Suntory introduced Toki whisky, a new whisky blended specifically for highballs, to the global (particularly American) market. It was wildly popular, and distinguished Suntory as the leading authority on Japanese whisky and highballs simultaneously. It had a significant impact not only on their global marketing, but also was a plus for their domestic marketing aimed at younger drinkers. There’s nothing quite like international recognition to raise the national spirit (pun intended). Domestically, Suntory rebranded its Kakubin whisky to be the iconic yet affordable whiskey for highballs. They introduced highball dispensing machines to make a stupidly easy drink to make in the first place even easier for fast-paced izakayas to serve by the 100s per night. To get highballs out at an even greater scale, they started to distribute canned highballs, of which Suntory today makes 13 different types.
And that’s soon to be 14. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Suntory Whisky, the Hakushu canned highball goes on sale June 6th, 2023, for 600 yen a pop.
And if you’re willing to fork over the cash, the special 100th anniversary edition bottles of Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as the 12-year-aged versions of both, go on the market this April for a limited time. Be warned – as one attendee bravely noted, bottles from Suntory’s premium whisky lines are notoriously difficult and expensive to acquire, and I can’t imagine these will be any easier.
That may be the lasting legacy of Suntory– a whisky for any occasion, for anyone. The highball is the everyman’s cocktail. Simple, delicious, and versatile. And when you drink one, something magical happens: you get more interested in the star of the cocktail. You start to look for the best whiskies, you start to build preferences.
With the help of the humble highball, whisky culture flourishes. Suntory is free to go off and invent meticulously blended premium whiskies, ready to be received by a public with a newfound appreciation for the drink. And it helps that the quality of Suntory’s most accessible (read: cheapest) whiskies are still leagues above anything I’ve ever skimmed off my father’s emergency bourbon stash. Imagine how good the good stuff is.
Their premium whisky, painstakingly crafted with what the pamphlet describes as among the best water in Japan, using carefully selected malt, surrounded by dense, lush, forest, literally serenaded by birdsong (there’s a bird sanctuary at the Hakushu distillery where they feed the birds surplus grains)…I forgot where that sentence was going. That’s how good it is.
Suntory celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. May many more follow.