In 2010, House of Suntory brand manager Taki Nakatani and chief blender Shinji Fukuyo flew to New York City while “mixology” was having its moment. At a city bar, they watched as their bartender — or, ahem, “mixologist” — poured Yamazaki, Suntory’s flagship single-malt whisky, into a punch bowl, mixing it with pineapple juice. “We were really surprised,” Nakatani tells VinePair. “But we thought, ‘If this is the way that the international consumers drink whisky, in a cocktail, why don’t we create a whisky that can satisfy these consumer needs?’”
With that burst of inspiration, Suntory Whisky Toki was born. Toki is a blended whisky made in Japan with American millennials in mind. The liquor brings the subtle, complex, and refined qualities of the House of Suntory’s Japanese whisky to the Western market by blending the best of the old and new. “Whenever we need to describe Suntory whisky in very few words,” Nakatani says, “I always say, ‘It’s all about blending.’”
House of Suntory History: Blending East and West
House of Suntory was founded by Shinjiro Torii in 1899, shortly after the borders of Japan were opened to international markets and the country began to welcome Western culture. Western liquor tended to overwhelm the Japanese palate, which was accustomed to more understated flavors. Torii established the first Suntory distillery nearly a century ago, in 1923, with the vision to create a spirit inspired by the West but suitable for the Japanese market.
The start of the Suntory story didn’t exactly go down smoothly. The distillery’s first recipe, Suntory Whisky White Label, was bold and smoky like the Scotch whisky it was inspired by. The unfamiliar liquor did not succeed with Japanese consumers because of its intense flavor. Unfazed, Torii went back to the drawing board.
Torii ultimately found success in the perfect blend of East and West. He released a more subtle and refined whisky called Kakubin, named after its square-shaped bottle. The bottle represented the juxtaposition of its contents: traditionally Japanese etchings in the glass, with a more American-style Gothic font on the label.
Today, the House of Suntory remains in the family. Shinjiro Torii’s grandson, Shingo Torii, is the brand’s third-generation master blender. “Every whisky that we create, they’re the final approvers,” Nakatani says of the Torii family. “So this skillset is inherited, which also makes Suntory very, very unique.”
The Distillation Process: Blending Tradition and Innovation
Single-malt whiskies traditionally include key malt and base malt components, while blended varieties also incorporate grain malt for a smoother, milder flavor. Most blended whiskies are made up of 60 to 70 percent grain whisky and 30 to 40 percent malt whisky. Suntory Whisky Toki is unique in that it splits the grain and malt whiskies 50-50 to highlight both components.
Toki is infused with whiskies from Suntory’s Yamazaki and Chita distilleries, but its primary component comes from the Hakushu distillery. Also known as the Mountain Forest Distillery, the Hakushu distillery is nestled in the southern Japanese Alps, with Mount Fuji in the distance. Hakushu produces peated whiskies using wooden fermentation tanks and direct-firing distillation. Because the distillery is situated at a higher altitude and in a colder climate, the peated whiskies brewed there are kept in smaller-than-usual, 230-liter hogshead barrels.
Toki’s innovative blend would be incomplete without a hint of tradition, so the whisky matures in Spanish oak casks like those used in the original Yamazaki distillery. “Spanish oak is our tradition, and where we started from,” Nakatani says. “I said, ‘We’re using all this innovation, but where’s the old?’ A small amount of Spanish oak completes the story.”
The Taste of Toki: Blending Smooth and Bold
Peated whiskies have distinct flavor profiles at different stages of maturation. At first, they carry a smoky, almost tar-infused flavor. After about four to six years, the liquid takes on a fresh, clean flavor akin to green apple and white grape. This smooth flavor is highlighted in Suntory Whisky Toki and balanced out with heavier grain whisky. The smooth Toki “nose” carries light flavors like basil and honey, while the finish has hints of white pepper and ginger from the grain whisky. The traditional Spanish oak element adds complexity and depth.
The Toki Highball: Blending Simplicity and a Kick of Flavor
The signature cocktail for Suntory Whisky Toki is the Toki highball. Highballs are characteristically simple drinks (some kind of liquor, something carbonated) but, like any recipe, they would be bland without a little seasoning to spice them up. The Toki highball incorporates an element of surprise in the slightly spicy, gingery finish of the whisky blend. “People always say, ‘I prefer smooth drinks,’” Nakatani says. “But if it’s [too] smooth, they would not come back to the drink. It needs a flavor kick.”
The Toki highball sparkles when served with chilled whisky, chilled glassware, and chilled soda with the optimal level of carbonation.
The Food Pairing: Blending Whisky and the Culinary Arts
With a crispness that has been compared to that of white wine, Suntory Whisky Toki pairs well with food. The delicate blend complements delicacies such as gyoza dumplings, yakisoba noodles, fried chicken, and Wagyu steak ramen. “In New York … there are people drinking highballs with ramen,” Nakatani says. “So that’s a new culture we’ve helped build, and we’re seeing that success all around the world right now.”
No matter where you are in the world, you can taste Japan’s blend of history and innovation in a chilled glass of Suntory Whisky Toki.
Suntory Whisky Toki® Japanese Whisky, 43% Alc./Vol. ©2022 Beam Suntory Import Co., Chicago, IL.
This article is sponsored by House of Suntory.