top of page

From Beautiful to Bizarre - Suntory Whisky, Ceramics & Oddities

Updated: Mar 2

Hibiki 21 year old ceramic decanters

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


In 2023, Yamazaki distillery and Suntory celebrated their 100th anniversary. Although the company was founded in 1899, it became known for its whisky when it opened the first Japanese single malt whisky distillery in 1923.


While many people are familiar with Suntory's range of single malts from Yamazaki and Hakushu and its blend Hibiki, not many have heard of the other bottlings sometimes presented in quirky ceramic and glass decanters.


In this article, we'll explore the history of Suntory whiskies and some of the beautiful and, many times, bizarre bottlings, with a few interesting single malts and brandies that we couldn't leave out - 231 decanters in total.


Let's dig in.



 

Brief History of Suntory & Its Whiskies


The company was founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii from a small store in Osaka called Torii Shoten. In 1907, Torii blended and introduced his famous Akadama Port Wine - a sweet grape wine. This achievement enabled him to establish his first plant in 1919 in Osaka and establish Kotobukiya Limited in 1921.


Suntory history line

Images by Suntory / Nikka - Shinjiro Torii, Masataka Taketsuru, Akadama Port Wine ad, Suntory plant 1919, Yamazaki distillery 1923


In 1918, Settsu Shuzo company sent Masataka Taketsuru, a young organic chemistry and distilling enthusiast, to Glasgow University in Scotland to study chemistry and learn how to make whisky. However, upon his arrival to Scotland, Taketsuru discovered that the company had abandoned its plans to distil whisky in Japan. Instead, Shinjiro contacted him and became his sponsor. Together, they opened the Yamazaki distillery in Kyoto in 1923. Torii owned the company, and Taketsuru worked under a 10-year contract as a distiller. After a decade, Taketsuru left to establish his own company, Dai Nippon Kaju Co., Ltd., which was later renamed Nikka. To this day, Suntory does not acknowledge Taketsuru as part of its past due to the betrayal felt by Torii.


Suntory released its first whisky in 1929, named 'Suntory Shirofuda, Rare Old Island Whisky'. This was followed by Hermes gin in 1936, and in 1937, Suntory introduced its first blended expression, Kakubin 12-year-old. The 1950s saw more releases, including Hermes vodka and Finest Old Liqueur Suntory Whisky, which was initially announced in 1940 but postponed by World War II. Torys Classic, bottled at 37% ABV, was introduced in 1947.


In 1961, Keizo Saji, Torii's son, became Suntory's second master distiller, and a year later, Shinjiro Torii passed away. Saji changed the company's name from Kotobukiya Ltd. to Suntory Limited in 1963.


Old bottlings of Suntory

Image by Suntory / The Whisky Ardvark



In 1972, the Chita grain distillery was established, and in 1973, the Hakushu distillery was officially opened to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary. The first single malt, Pure Malt Yamazaki, was launched in 1984, followed by Hibiki blended whisky in 1989 to commemorate the company's 90th anniversary. The first Hakushu single malt was made available in 1994. It's worth noting that many of the company's limited edition products have only been available for sale in Japan.


Shingo Torii, Shinjiro Torii's grandson, was appointed the current master blender in 2002. The Suntory portfolio now includes single malts of Yamazaki and Hakushu, grain whisky Chita, and blends of Kakubin, Hibiki and Toki. All Suntory whiskies have been bottled at 43% ABV, with only a few exceptions.


Suntory Whisky in a Nutshell

First whisky distillery, Yamazaki - established in 1923

First whisky, Suntory Shirofuda - launched in 1929

First blend Kakubin - introduced in 1937

Torys Classic - introduced in 1947

Finest Old Liqueur Suntory Whisky - introduced in 1950

Suntory Royal Whisky - introduced in 1960

Suntory Red - introduced in 1964

Suntory White - Suntory Shirofuda renamed Suntory White in 1964

Suntory Special Reserve Whisky - introduced in 1969

Chita distillery - established in 1972

Hakushu distillery - established in 1973

Suntory Excellence - made between 1979 and around 1989

Yamazaki Pure Malt - introduced in 1984

Hibiki Blend - introduced in 1989

Suntory Crest blend - made between 1989 and 2006

Yamazaki 18-year-old - first release in 1992

Hakushu Single Malt - introduced in 1994

Hibiki 21-year-old - first release in 1994

Royal 12 and 15-year-old - introduced in 1997

Hibiki 30-year-old - first release in 1997

Yamazaki 50-year-old - first release in 2005

Hakushu 18-year-old - first release in 2006

Chita Single Grain - introduced in 2015

Toki Blend - introduced in 2017

Information collected from Suntory's official websites



 

The Ceramics


Storing wine and spirits in pottery and ceramics has been a practice for a long time. Nowadays, only a few whisky makers still use ceramic bottles to present their whiskies, perhaps due to their higher cost compared to glass bottles.


Despite Suntory switching to glass bottles for their whiskies, they went through a phase of introducing unique ceramic bottles with no limits to their design. This trend started in the late 1970s and ended in the 1990s. Nowadays, the rare ceramic bottles are reserved for limited special editions and are hand-painted by two renowned Japanese ceramic houses from the island of Kyushu - Arita and Kutani.


Please note that Suntory has offered its whiskies in various bottle sizes, including 50cl, 60cl, 70cl, 72cl, and 75cl decanters.



 

Hibiki 21-year-old Ceramics


Hibiki blend is a stable product in the Suntory portfolio that was created in 1989 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Suntory. The blend is available in multiple variations, including Harmony bottlings and 12, 17, and 21-year-old expressions, and has become a preferred choice among Japanese whisky enthusiasts.


Between 2001 and 2014, Hibiki was also bottled in exquisite hand-painted 60cl decanters made by Arita and Kutani. These exclusive releases for the Japanese market were produced in limited quantities of around 600 bottles each, making them highly sought-after.


Additionally, we have included a bottling of Hibiki, a 21-year-old from 2020, in this section, presented in an attractive light blue Arita decanter.


Hibiki 21 year old Arita and Kutani
Hibiki 21 year old Arita and Kutani

Images by The Whisky Ardvark



 

Hibiki 30 and 35-year-old Expressions


Only a few limited edition bottlings of Hibiki are older than 21 years. One of them is the 30-year-old Arita-yaki ceramic, which was released in 2014. Some whisky enthusiasts have been confused about the age of the blend, as it's not as visible as in some of the other Hibiki bottlings. However, the age statement can be found on the neck of the bottle and the box, although sometimes the box can be missing.


In 2016, one pair of 35-year-old Hibiki Arita and Kutani butterfly and peony ceramics was bottled - creating a lovely contrast between the two ceramic makers. Only 150 bottles of these and other 35-year-old releases have been made worldwide. Needless to say, these attractive bottles are extremely collectable.


Hibiki 30 year old and 35 year olds

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Suntory Celebrations


Suntory has launched several commemorative bottles to celebrate its landmark years. The count starts from the year 1899 when Shinjiro Torii founded his store in Osaka. Bottles have been released for the company's 80th, 90th and 100th anniversary - not to be confused with the 100th-anniversary bottlings from 2023, which commemorate the centennial of the establishment of Yamazaki distillery.


Notably, many Suntory whisky expressions such as Hibiki, Royal, Excellence, and Special Reserve were introduced over the years to commemorate these milestones.

Suntory whisky celebratory bottlings

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

Other Suntory Bottlings


Below are some other whisky releases from Suntory, including blends and single malts that are presented in eye-catching and memorable designs.


Suntory whisky ceramic decanters
Suntory whisky ceramic decanters
Suntory whisky ceramic decanters
Suntory whisky ceramic decanters
Suntory whisky ceramic decanters

Images by The Whisky Ardvark




 

Suntory Granville World Posters


The Suntory Granville Collection is a set of seven 60cl ceramic book ceramics. These containers feature poster artwork from the 1890s by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (I, II, III, IV, VII) and Alphonse Mucha (V, VI). However, there is no information available on when these were produced. After conducting some research, we found that the first mention of these ceramics was in a Japanese 'Idea' magazine in 1992, but we were unable to find further information available beyond that.


Suntory Granville World Posters 1 to 7

Images by Bonhams / Gnesin Academy



 

Suntory Zodiac Decanters


These animal-shaped 60cl limited bottles of Suntory Royal, which were first introduced in the early 1980s, are still being produced to commemorate the Asian Zodiac calendar. They are usually released alongside a more straightforward black glass bottle. In the early 2000s, the annual release was made available in two ceramic options: a 12-year-old standard Royal whisky ceramic and a 15-year-old red ceramic.

Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters
Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters
Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters
Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters
Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters
Suntory whisky Zodiac Ceramic Decanters

Images by The Whisky Ardvark



 

Suntory Golf Decanters


Hawaiian Open

From 1978 to 1998, Suntory bottled commemorative annual whiskies inspired by Hawaiian culture to widen its collection of whimsical bottlings for the American Airlines Hawaiian Open, now known as the Sony Open in Hawaii. Please note that we have excluded some expressions from this list as they were presented in glass bottles of more standard shapes.


Suntory Hawaiian Open Golf Tournament ceramic decanters
Suntory Hawaiian Open Golf Tournament ceramic decanters

Images by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Suntory Open

The Suntory Open was a professional golf tournament that took place in Shizuoka and later in Chiba from 1973 to 2007. To celebrate the tournament, Suntory released a range of bird-themed decanters of Special Reserve, Crest, and Royal whiskies, starting from 1978 and continuing until the final year. However, it's worth noting that we have excluded the 1992 release from the pictures since it was presented in a glass decanter.


Suntory Open Golf Tournament ceramic decanters
Suntory Open Golf Tournament ceramic decanters

Images by The Whisky Ardvark



 

Suntory Instruments


Suntory has a collection of mysterious whiskies known as the Instruments Collection. These were mainly bottled during the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, we couldn't find information about all the release years. However, we do know that Suntory Hall, a concert hall, opened in 1986. This event inspired Suntory to bottle whiskies in classical instruments.


The music-lovers whisky (and brandy) decanters in this collection are quite unique and stand out. Although some other producers have tried to imitate the designs, these decanters are still eye-catching and memorable.


Suntory whisky instruments
Suntory whisky instruments
Suntory whisky instruments

Images by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Thank you for visiting The Whisky Ardvark! Please find more of our interesting articles listed below.



691 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page