How Suntory became world-famous with the Yamazaki, Hibiki and other prize-winning whisky

SINGAPORE – Whisky fanatic Steven Yeoh remembers well the days, a decade ago, when he could purchase a bottle of Yamazaki 18 Years Old whisky for $200.

“Now, they cost at least $2,000 to $3,000 each,” says Mr Yeoh, 57, who is also the co-founder of Rare Malts, a whisky boutique which specialises in Japanese whiskies.

The highly sought-after Japanese whisky has become a thing of legend. Acquiring a bottle at retail price is next to impossible, and on the secondary market, it can easily go for eye-watering five-figure sums – such as upwards of $19,000 for a bottle of Yamazaki 25 Years Old.

But the craze is not limited to Yamazaki, even if it is the most coveted and well-known iteration of Japan’s homemade whisky offerings.

Hakushu, another whisky produced by Suntory – Yamazaki’s parent brand – also goes for big bucks on the resale market: at least $6,500 for a Hakushu 25 Years Old, on the lower end of the price range.

Rival whiskies produced by Suntory’s domestic beverage rivals – such as Nikka by Asahi and Fuji by Kirin – are also extolled liquids in their own right. 

“You cannot even find popular Japanese whiskies in Japan today because demand is just so great,” says Mr Yeoh.

“I remember just before the Covid-19 pandemic, fights nearly broke out while patrons were queueing for Japanese whisky bottles at the Tokyo Bar show.”

The present-day fanfare is a stark contrast to 1929, when Suntory released the first real Japanese whisky, Shirofuda White Label, into the market. 

“It actually didn’t sell well because it was too smoky,” admits Mr Shinji Fukuyo, the fifth-generation chief blender at Suntory.

Mr Masaki Morimoto, president of Suntory Spirits and Beam Suntory president in the Asia-Pacific, says: “When our founder Shinjiro Torii set out to make whisky, no one in Japan knew about it. He had to make the effort to establish the culture and demand around it.”

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