Japanese whiskey is still a bit of a novelty, but it’s nowhere near the level of obscurity that it once was. For me, Suntory Toki was one of the first Japanese whiskey bottles I ever saw on a store shelf years back. At the time, I had no idea the history and the craft that went into that product — its strange to look back and realize how little I knew, but I’m happy to say I appreciate this spirit on deeper level today.
Learn More: A Brief History of Japanese Whiskey
As a country, Japan has a long history of isolationism. Wary of outside influence, including foreign traders, there are numerous examples of governing leaders enacting policies (even creating entire islands) to minimize and control this growing influence over the years. And they were pretty successful… that is, until Commodore Perry arrived with his American battleships in 1853 and forced the country to be more open to outside traders (an action which would later coin the term “gunboat diplomacy”).
Throughout the decades that followed, foreign goods and especially foreign spirits started appearing on Japanese shelves, making quite a bit of money for the Japanese importers and distributors in the process. One such business named Kotobukiya was run by Shinjiro Torii, who had founded his wine importation business in Osaka, Japan in 1899. The business was extremely successful with its importation operations, but Torii wanted to do more than just import whiskey from other countries — he wanted to make Japanese whiskey specifically designed for the Japanese people.
Against the wishes of the other executives in the company, Torii started working with a man named Masataka Taketsuru to develop this new kind of whiskey. Taketsuru had spent a great deal of time in the 1920’s traveling to Scotland and learning from the masters about the process of whiskey distilling. He brought that knowledge back with him and applied it as master distiller when Torii founded the Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1924, using some of the same water sources that had attracted famous traditional tea houses to the area centuries earlier. And while the production process would be similar to the Scottish style, the Japanese influence of soy sauce brewing and shochu distilling can still be seen in the end result. After his contract expired, Taketsuru would leave to found his own distillery that would eventually become the Nikka brand we know today.
Production was temporarily halted during World War II but re-started in 1946 and became a popular brand in Japan. The company expanded into brewing beer in 1963, and re-named itself Suntory after the brand name of whiskey it had been producing. It briefly entertained the idea of being purchased by the Kirin Brewing Company (the same company that owns Four Roses) before terminating those negotiations.
Over the years, the company would continue to diversify its portfolio, buying the popular Orangina beverage brand in 2009. In 2014, the company purchased the American spirits giant Jim Beam, creating the third largest spirits producing company in the world and renaming itself Beam Suntory.
As is typical with Japanese whiskey, this is a blend of multiple different varieties of spirits produced at different distilleries all owned by Suntory. Specifically, this starts out life as a combination of malt whiskey and grain based whiskey from the Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries that is blended together and aged for an undisclosed period of time.
Which is somewhat strange, as the word “Toki” translates to “time.” Time is actually something that this spirit doesn’t seem to have a great deal of, as it’s a “young” whiskey that would not have been aged very much at all.
The bottle is amazing, in my opinion.
Overall, this thing is built like a brick — flat straight walls and sharp corners, with a quick taper to a medium length neck. The bottle is significantly wider than it is deep, which gives us more surface area to view the whiskey on the shelf.
Speaking of viewing the whiskey, this label avoids the primary complaint that I have for most spirits bottle designs in that it actually lets you see the whiskey within. The label is large enough to seem proportional and to provide a good billboard for the branding, but it doesn’t take up nearly as much of the bottle as it could. It takes up just enough space to convey necessary information and leaves plenty of space on the bottle to let the whiskey shine through, which is always a win in my book.
The whole thing is capped off with a screw-on top, as is common for Japanese whiskey.
It’s a very sweet whiskey, but not in the same way that an American bourbon nearly hits you in the face with brown sugar aromas. There’s some delicate honey notes coming off the glass, accompanied by some floral tones as well. It’s like sticking your nose into a bouquet of flowers… but one that has a bottle of alcohol hidden in it somewhere. Mixed in is a bit of citrus, like a lemon zest that adds some lightness and complexity to the experience.
The actual flavor of the whiskey delivers almost exactly on the promise of the aroma. It’s light and cheerful, heavily tilted towards the honey and lemon zest aspects of the flavors. As the flavor develops, there’s some green apple that fades into view just a little bit, and the experience finishes with a bit of ginger root.
The truth of the matter is that ice only really benefits bad whiskey. It has a tendency to smooth out rough edges and hide imperfections in the taste profile, which is great when you are on a whiskey budget. But with a whiskey like this, which resides on the more delicate side of the flavor spectrum, it’s a massacre.
There’s a bit of honey sweetness remaining but, much like the final survivors in Seven Samurai, it’s all alone and missing the playful interaction it once had with the other flavors. You can almost hear the honey lamenting that “in the end, we lost this battle too.”
When it comes to emulating the Scottish tradition with a Japanese twist, this whiskey is a fantastic example. It’s a whiskey that has some of the same concepts as something like the Glenmorangie Original, but seems to take it in a slightly different direction and add its own uniqueness to the experience. The only difference is that while the flavors in Glenmorangie are up to the task of making themselves known despite the ice cube, in this they just aren’t strong enough to overpower that massive force.
|Suntory Whisky Toki
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $30.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
The benchmark for a solid Japanese whiskey.