The following article was produced in partnership with the House of Suntory.
The story of Japanese whisky cannot be told without Suntory. Back in 1923, Suntory founder Shinjirō Torii established the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first commercial whisky distillery, just outside of Kyoto. His dream? To create an original Japanese whisky blessed with the riches of Japanese nature and craftsmanship – to create something uniquely Japanese.
This was no mean feat, establishing a whisky tradition in a country thousands of kilometres away from the world’s traditional whisky producers. But Shinjirō and Suntory succeeded, revolutionising the whisky industry and kickstarting a now grand heritage of world-renowned whiskies.
Indeed, it’s this century-long story of overcoming adversity, championing innovation and centring craftsmanship that defines Japanese whisky, particularly the House of Suntory. Suntory’s distilleries, while all different in their approaches to whisky, are all defined by their respect for and pursuit of monozukuri – Japanese craftsmanship – and their meticulous approach to distilling, aging and blending fine whiskies.
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the House of Suntory has unveiled several limited-edition whiskies that highlight the unique Japanese craftsmanship at Suntory’s most prestigious whisky distilleries. Rare, refined and thought-provoking, these are some truly special drops.
Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara
The first of these special releases is Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara, a potently Japanese expression from Japan’s oldest whisky distillery.
It’s exclusively aged in mizunara, also known as Japanese oak. One of the rarest and most expensive types of oak in the world, mizunara poses both challenges and rewards for whisky makers. It has a much higher moisture content yet is more porous than other types of oak. It doesn’t grow straight and takes an exceptionally long time to mature. It also imparts overly intense woody flavours in the early stages of maturation.
On paper, this makes mizunara sound ill-suited for whisky barrels – but as the House of Suntory discovered back in the 1940s, if one is patient, perseveres and overcomes mizunara’s challenges, it rewards whisky makers with unbelievably complex and unique flavours.
This brings us to Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara, which is a masterclass in the delights of mizunara. It kicks off with stonefruit notes on the nose, with a hint of spice that builds and dances on the palate. It’s got a really intense incense note – like walking through a Japanese temple – with the slightest hint of sea salt.
Those flavours then build to a pleasantly woody and natural finish, with characteristic sandalwood, dried coconut and clove. A surprisingly sharp sweetness rounds things off: it reminds me of konpeitō, Japanese sugar candies.
“Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara was blended for our 100-year anniversary and features a rich texture created from a long aging process. This expresses the delicate and meticulous attention to detail that went into its craftsmanship,” says Fifth Generation Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo. “I believe this whisky embodies the founding family’s spirit to pursue quality, and I am honoured to share this with the world.”
Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt
Also joining the celebrations is Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt, an eclectic and beautifully complex whisky that epitomises the meeting of East and West that defines Japanese whisky.
Nestled deep in Mount Kaikoma, in the heart of Honshu, the Hakushu distillery is defined by the area’s unique terroir, climate and exceptional mountain water, which is filtered through granite rocks. Water, of course, is the most important element of whisky: you can’t make a good whisky without exceptional water.
Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt is comprised of meticulously selected malt whiskies all aged for a minimum of 18 years. As the name implies, it places a unique emphasis on peated whisky, using peat imported from Scotland to malt Japanese barley – a distilling challenge made possible by the Hakushu distillery’s pure and unique water, which softens the whisky’s signature smoky taste. It too is aged in mizunara casks.
“Blending is at the heart of everything we do at the House of Suntory, and we hold each of our whiskies to the highest standards throughout the process… I am proud to share the release of Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt with the world,” Fukuyo-san relates.
On the nose, ripe green apple, sage and licorice abound. It’s bright and ever-so-slightly spicy. It’s undoubtedly smoky, but in a comparatively subtle way: it’s not a massive smoke bomb, nor does it hide the peat away. It actually reminds me a bit of tarte flambée, thanks to its funky, meaty and sweet notes.
That smoky and umami palate gives way to layers of grapefruit and honey, with a pleasantly smoky finish that lingers with undernotes of fresh green citrus and fine tobacco. It’s really something.
Special limited-edition bottles for Yamazaki 12 Year Old and Hakushu 12 Year Old
Alongside these rare and extraordinary expressions, the House of Suntory has also unveiled limited-edition 100th-anniversary celebratory packaging for two of their flagship whiskies: Yamazaki 12 Year Old and Hakushu 12 Year Old. These special designs are a homage to monozukuri craftsmanship – a Japanese principle that embodies elevated artisanship, relentless pursuit of quality, ingenuity and expressiveness.
The illustration on Hakushu 12 Year Old’s bottle captures the Hakushu Distillery in soft hues of verdant green, representing the forest surrounding the distillery, while the bottle design for Yamazaki 12 Year Old captures the legendary distillery in deep copper tones from a low angle, looking up – a reminder to always stay grounded. Both designs pay homage to Shinjirō Torii’s dream of making whisky blessed with the riches of Japanese nature and craftsmanship.
“Hakushu and Yamazaki whiskies are gifts from our past handed down by generations,” Fukuyo-san emphasises. “It is fitting to release limited editions as part of this incredible milestone, as they represent our relentless pursuit of quality and symbolize our promise to carry our philosophy on for the next one hundred years and beyond.”
Find out more about the House of Suntory and its limited-edition special releases here.