Bottle #55: Suntory Royal

Bottle #55 is Suntory Royal, a Japanese whisky. It was a surprise for me to find in Grandma’s collection, because until the early 2000s, Japanese whisky was little known outside Japan. This bottle is from 1983 to 1985, which I know thanks to its handy tax strip.

The founder of Suntory, and one of the two fathers of Japanese whiskey, was a man named Shinjiro Torii. He was a wine and spirits merchant who started his company in 1899, and beginning in 1907, made a ton of money marketing a blend he’d come up with called Akdama Port Wine. This sweet wine was a hit with Japanese customers, and helped along by some risqué advertising. While he had a flair for marketing, an interest in Western products, and money, he wasn’t necessarily particularly interested in or knowledgeable about Scotch.

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Fortunately for him, Masataka Taketsuru was both of those things. He was a trained chemist from a family of Sake brewers, and he loved Scotch — so much that he went to Scotland to study at Glasgow University and work in Scottish whisky distilleries. He returned in 1920 with a Scottish bride and the knowledge to make Scottish-style malt whisky in Japan. But, he didn’t have the capital to start a distillery.

When these two met, the result was a match made in heaven. In 1923, they built Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery outside Kyoto.

The initial Suntory offerings in 1929 & 1930 were not successful. Japanese consumers mostly weren’t interested in the peatier style of whisky. But by 1937 Suntory hit upon the right flavor profile, and the release that would become known as Kabukin was a big hit. Post-World War II, Suntory Old was released in 1950 and then Suntory Royal – like my tiny bottle – in 1960 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company’s founding. Taketsuru didn’t create it; he remained a Suntory executive for the first ten years before leaving to found his own distillery, Nikka.

For a long time, the Royal bottling was the top of the line. As a review I found online described it:

“Old was positioned just above Kakubin but below Reserve and Royal in Suntory’s hierarchy of blended whiskies. When you graduate from university and start your life as a salaryman, the idea is that you drink Kakubin. When you get promoted to your first management role, you drink Old. When you get promoted to middle management, you drink Special Reserve. When you move into executive-level positions, you graduate to the highest: Suntory Royal.”

That would change in 1984, when Suntory released its first Yamazaki single malt. And these days, Japanese whiskies are some of the most sought after and expensive in the world. The move from an almost purely domestic product to an international one was kickstarted when a 10-year-old single malt from Nikka was named “Best of the Best” against all kinds of whisky by Whisky Magazine in 2001. More accolades would follow through the years.

And then in 2008, faced with slumping sales domestically, Suntory worked to rehabilitate the Whisky Highball. This combination of whisky and soda was seen as old fashioned, but a strong marketing campaign featuring a popular young actress and model turned that around. And when international craft cocktail bartenders got their hands on that drink in the 20-teens, suddenly Japanese whisky was everywhere.

I’ve read some reviews of 1980s bottles of Suntory Royal, and it sounds like it can be quite tasty, so long as the closure has held up. My bottle has a great fill level, so I’m hopeful on that score. As far as I can tell, Royal hasn’t been available for purchase in the US since the end of the 1990s, but I have a bottle which I picked up at the duty free in the 20-teens, so that will offer an interesting comparison.

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Bottle #55: Suntory Royal

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Bottle #55 is Suntory Royal, a Japanese whisky. It was a surprise for me to find in Grandma’s collection, because until the early 2000s, Japanese whisky was little known outside Japan. This bottle is from 1983 to 1985, which I know thanks to its handy tax strip.

The founder of Suntory, and one of the two fathers of Japanese whiskey, was a man named Shinjiro Torii. He was a wine and spirits merchant who started his company in 1899, and beginning in 1907, made a ton of money marketing a blend he’d come up with called Akdama Port Wine. This sweet wine was a hit with Japanese customers, and helped along by some risqué advertising. While he had a flair for marketing, an interest in Western products, and money, he wasn’t necessarily particularly interested in or knowledgeable about Scotch.

Fortunately for him, Masataka Taketsuru was both of those things. He was a trained chemist from a family of Sake brewers, and he loved Scotch — so much that he went to Scotland to study at Glasgow University and work in Scottish whisky distilleries. He returned in 1920 with a Scottish bride and the knowledge to make Scottish-style malt whisky in Japan. But, he didn’t have the capital to start a distillery.

When these two met, the result was a match made in heaven. In 1923, they built Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery outside Kyoto.

The initial Suntory offerings in 1929 & 1930 were not successful. Japanese consumers mostly weren’t interested in the peatier style of whisky. But by 1937 Suntory hit upon the right flavor profile, and the release that would become known as Kabukin was a big hit. Post-World War II, Suntory Old was released in 1950 and then Suntory Royal – like my tiny bottle – in 1960 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company’s founding. Taketsuru didn’t create it; he remained a Suntory executive for the first ten years before leaving to found his own distillery, Nikka.

For a long time, the Royal bottling was the top of the line. As a review I found online described it:

“Old was positioned just above Kakubin but below Reserve and Royal in Suntory’s hierarchy of blended whiskies. When you graduate from university and start your life as a salaryman, the idea is that you drink Kakubin. When you get promoted to your first management role, you drink Old. When you get promoted to middle management, you drink Special Reserve. When you move into executive-level positions, you graduate to the highest: Suntory Royal.”

That would change in 1984, when Suntory released its first Yamazaki single malt. And these days, Japanese whiskies are some of the most sought after and expensive in the world. The move from an almost purely domestic product to an international one was kickstarted when a 10-year-old single malt from Nikka was named “Best of the Best” against all kinds of whisky by Whisky Magazine in 2001. More accolades would follow through the years.

And then in 2008, faced with slumping sales domestically, Suntory worked to rehabilitate the Whisky Highball. This combination of whisky and soda was seen as old fashioned, but a strong marketing campaign featuring a popular young actress and model turned that around. And when international craft cocktail bartenders got their hands on that drink in the 20-teens, suddenly Japanese whisky was everywhere.

I’ve read some reviews of 1980s bottles of Suntory Royal, and it sounds like it can be quite tasty, so long as the closure has held up. My bottle has a great fill level, so I’m hopeful on that score. As far as I can tell, Royal hasn’t been available for purchase in the US since the end of the 1990s, but I have a bottle which I picked up at the duty free in the 20-teens, so that will offer an interesting comparison.

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