While doing research for my upcoming book on vintage spirit collecting, “Dusty Booze,” there was one tiny thing I couldn’t quite figure out. It related to the first-ever release of The Yamazaki, a wildly coveted Japanese single malt whisky from the distillery of the same name. According to a historical timeline on the the distillery’s website, Yamazaki first released a single malt in 1984. A photo of the supposed release is accompanied by the caption “Suntory Single Malt Whisky Yamazaki is introduced.” And yet, the only bottle of Japanese single malt I could find from that year was something called “Suntory Pure Malt Whisky.”

Suntory is, of course, the Yamazaki Distillery’s parent company, but still, I couldn’t resolve this discrepancy. There was literally nothing on the internet that could explain what the difference was, nor were my missives to Japan returning any answers to that burning question:

What was Pure Malt?

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“Indescribable Genius”

The creation of the Japanese whisky industry is so well told by now that I only need to quickly recap it:

Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, began importing wines to Japan in 1899. Successful for two decades, in 1923 he decided to start making Japan’s first whisky, building a distillery in a suburb of Kyoto named Yamazaki. Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied distilling in Scotland and used his knowledge to produce Japan’s own “Scotch-style” whisky.

In 1929, the Yamazaki Distillery released Suntory Shirofuda, a vatted blend, and, for the next 80 years or so, Japanese whisky would mostly exist as a local phenomenon, especially as imported whisky was capped in the country until the 1970s and 1980s (when a bourbon boom oddly ensued). Sure, Americans and other westerners might have tried Japanese whisky on their travels to Asia — might even have even heard about it via commercials and advertisements featuring well-known U.S. celebrities, or “Lost in Translation” — but it was hardly celebrated abroad.

That all began to change in the early 2010s when Yamazaki and Suntory’s other two distilleries (Hibiki and Hakushu) began cleaning up at international spirits contests like San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the World Whiskies Awards. When famed whisky critic Jim Murray described a 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask as “near indescribable genius” and named it his whisky of the year, American collectors suddenly began to scramble. (Murray has since drawn widespread criticism for sexist language included in the reviews in his annual “Whisky Bible.”)

The early 2010s marked the last time Yamazaki was easily found on American store shelves, and the last time consumers would ever pay retail value for the Yamazaki 12 Year Old (then only $40 MSRP) or Yamazaki 18 Year ($120). Once a $70 bottle, today that 2013 Sherry Cask sells for tens of thousands of dollars. In 2021, a 55-year-old Yamazaki single malt sold for nearly $1 million.

The Beginning of Japanese Single Malt

Though it was the first Japanese whisky brand, and though Suntory seems happy for people to believe otherwise, the Yamazaki Distillery did not actually release Japan’s first single malt whisky.

After helping establish Suntory, Taketsuru left to found his own distilling company, Nikka, in 1934. Today, it’s Japan’s second-biggest whisky producer. By 1982, Nikka’s Yoichi distillery had released a single malt, two full years before Yamazaki would. (Over the years Nikka has also sold a Taketsuru Pure Malt that is not a single malt, but rather a blend from its two distilleries.)

Even before that there was Ocean Karuizawa, released in 1976. And, though Karuizawa has since become a ghost distillery with bottlings that fetch thousands on the auction market, this 1976 release is rarely discussed among vintage collectors or remembered among whisky historians.

(In addition, last year, Japanese conglomerate Tomatin Distillery Co. Ltd. released a 1958 distilled single malt from the long-shuttered Shirakawa distillery — the oldest example of Japanese single malt to ever hit the market.)

The fact of the matter is, single malt as a concept — that is, whisky produced exclusively from malted barley and distilled at a single distillery — was not on most drinkers’ radars until the 1980s. Though it’s readily claimed that Glenfiddich released the first commercial single malt in 1969, that’s not true in the least. It was probably the first widely sold release, however.

(“Pure malt” as a term had been used in various capacities in both the Scotch and Irish whiskey industries since at least the turn of the century.)

Even so, most people across the globe were still drinking blended Scotch and few distilleries were releasing their whisky as single malts until recently. Even when Florence Fabricant of The New York Times wrote “Sales Soaring for Tongue-Twisting Single-Malt Scotches” in 1985, the style still only made up 1.5 percent of the Scotch market in the United States that year. Sales were beginning to surge, however, not just stateside but in Europe as well.

“To make matters even more confusing, Suntory also had products that were labeled as ‘pure malts’ that were technically ‘pure malts’ or ‘blended malts,’ as we would call them now — i.e., vattings of malt from more than one distillery.”

Meanwhile, Yamazaki had just celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1983 and Keizo Saji, one of Shinjiro Torii’s sons and the then-chairman of Suntory, felt it was finally time for his company to release a single malt.

An Extract of Japan

With the rise of vintage spirits collecting and drinking over the last decade or so, more and more dusty bottles of the mysterious Suntory Pure Malt have begun to appear on bar menus. (That’s how I first encountered it.)

“I always try to have one available for tasting,” says David Tsujimoto, owner of the Aloha Whisky bar in Tokyo, which charges about $30 for a half-ounce pour.

Tsujimoto is a Pure Malt obsessive, having procured several bottles over the years (despite its rising secondary market price) and even displaying a watercolor painting of it in his small bar. He calls it “one of my favorite Japanese whiskies of all time.”

Though that first Pure Malt release was purportedly distilled at Yamazaki in 1972 and released in March of 1984 it offered no age statement on its label. (The word “Yamazaki,” however, does actually appear in kanji script.) Tsujimoto claims it “tastes nothing like the standard [Yamazaki 12] of today,” describing it as stronger and more “amplified.” Chief blender Ken Sato reportedly took two years to develop the flavor profile.

The nose has notes of incense, dashi, mushrooms, and sandalwood, while the palate is very sweet with hints of sherry, according to Tsujimoto, who describes it as “very risk-taking” for its era. Indeed, in this time before luxury bottlings it even came in a fancy wooden box (unlike today’s version) and was only released to the Japanese market.

“If you ever have a chance to try this, please, please do so,” Tsujimoto implores.

Suntory would add a 12-year age statement to the label in 1986 and continue to release Pure Malt until at least 2003. There would be sherried versions, ones with different age statements, and cask- strength editions as well.

“To make matters even more confusing, Suntory also had products that were labeled as ‘pure malts’ that were technically ‘pure malts’ or ‘blended malts,’ as we would call them now — i.e., vattings of malt from more than one distillery,” writes Stefan Van Eycken in “Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan.”

In 2004, Suntory finally phased out Pure Malt as its standard-bearer single malt and changed the 12 year old’s label to simply read: The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky.

The Marketers Made Us

In mid-May of this year, my manuscript was a week away from being sent to the printers and by then I had already forgotten about Pure Malt.

“If 1984 was the first year for Yamazaki, then what was Suntory Pure Malt?”

On a random Tuesday night, however, I found myself at a lavish Manhattan event celebrating the 100th anniversary of The House of Suntory. At some point I found myself at a small tasting with current chief blender Shinji Fukuyo, who has been with the company since that magical year of 1984.

As he talked us through two new releases — Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara and a limited-edition Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt, both stellar — he continually referenced 1984 as the first year for Yamazaki single malt.

At the end of the tasting he offered an impromptu Q&A and I recalled that Pure Malt issue that had once so vexed me.

And so I asked him: “If 1984 was the first year for Yamazaki, then what was Suntory Pure Malt?”

He smiled a little bit, clearly recalling something he hadn’t thought about for a long time.

“The marketers didn’t think anyone in Japan would know what single malt is,” he explained.

“So they made us call it Pure Malt.”