Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by Suntory. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
There is no room here to elaborate on the entire history of Japanese whisky making, the reasons for its growing international popularity, or its scarcity. But this is a great place to talk about one of the pillars of Japan’s robust whisky scene and one of the most recognizable Japanese blends available to American consumers: Suntori Toki.
The art of blending is at the core of Suntory’s brand history and distilling philosophy. Founder Shinjiro Torii apprenticed at a pharmaceutical wholesalers’ in Meiji-era Osaka where he became familiar with both Western liquors and the craft of blending. On opening his own business as a purveyor of imported and fortified wines, Torii cultivated the ambition of creating a Scotch-inspired whisky from Japanese ingredients, aged in the climate of Japan.
He picked the location of the Yamazaki distillery, opened 1923, to employ the special climate and the soft waters of the Katsura, Uji and Kizu rivers converging on the outskirts of Tokyo. After an initial run that proved too smoky and Scotch-like for popular consumption in Japan, Torii released the Kakubin (“square bottle”) which caught on and became quite popular.
As the business grew, it was re-branded “Suntory” (from the English “sun” and an anglicisation of Torii’s name) and actively expanded whisky drinking culture in Japan, popularizing the whisky highball in the post-war years and promoting the international reputation of Japanese distilling on the world stage. Suntory’s mega-acquisition of Beam in 2014 has made it one of the world’s largest makers of distilled beverages. Today the initial Yamazaki distillery continues to produce and also houses Suntory’s whisky library, a collection of over 7,000 unblended spirits.
Suntory’s entry level for foreign rather than domestic consumption is Toki, meaning “time” in Japanese. Credited to third generation master blender Shingo Torii and released in 2016, it is a blend made up of Suntory’s signature lines including single malts from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and their Chita distillery’s single grain.
The concept of time is obviously relevant to aged spirits, but it is also a gesture to the blending of old and new that Japanese whisky represents. Japanese whisky is a young category relative to the Scotch distilling traditions that inspired Shinjiro Torii at the turn of the 20th Century. Whereas from the point of view of Japanese culinary tradition, whisky itself is the new arrival. In either case, whisky’s adaptation to employ the available ingredients and suit the palates of the Japanese islands rather than the British Isles is an exciting innovation, a blending of traditions.
Tasting Notes: Suntory Toki
Vital Stats: No age statement given, 43% ABV, average retail price $40
Appearance: Distinctive light straw color, noticeably clear.
Nose: A round malty sweetness with a chamomile-like herbaceous quality lingering at the fringes
Palate: Big impression of grains with honey, butter, and dried fruit. Crisp with a mild minerality, this feels like the whisky-cousin of a refreshing lager. The sweeter fruit aspects of the flavor persist into the finish while the mineral flavors transition into a light tingle of ginger spice.
Suntory Toki’s popularity as an introductory Japanese whisky for international consumers makes a ton of sense. The low proof makes the crisp, well integrated flavors very accessible. The analogy to Johnny Walker is almost too obvious (though of course the range of expressions within this blend is not so wide). This pour is not quite on the same level as your favorite single malts, but that’s not what this is about. Its role is to be accessible both on the market and to the palate.
A decent sipper, this bottle is likely deliberately designed to make an excellent highball. I tried out a very simple iteration with lemon-flavored seltzer with a lemon twist and found it an incredibly refreshing porch beverage during the recent heatwave. Next time I’ll be adding ginger. Those of you with better imaginations and cocktail chops than me will enjoy this blend’s broadly compatible flavor profile.