Six Old School Japanese Whiskies from Decades Past

Great new Japanese whiskies abound, but bygone eras were filled with equally interesting blends and experiments.

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Everyone who loves Japanese whisky knows it’s difficult to get any of the aged whiskies that earned Suntory and Nikka world renown. No more 10, 12 or 15 year old Yoichi and Miyagikyo. No more Hibiki 12 or 17 or easy-to-find Hakushu 12. For now, these whiskies’ production has been halted or entirely discontinued. I wrote about how that happened in a James Beard Award-nominated story at Longreads. Now let’s tour the deeper past, to see bottles produced before Japanese whisky was well-known outside of Japan and became a hot commodity.

There is no single source of information or graphic that lists all the vintage Japanese whisky lines and dates they were produced. Information from inside Suntory and Nikka is scant. Many of the blenders who worked on 70s and 80s blends have probably retired or died. The best timeline is arguably the chronological display of bottles at Yamazaki distillery. Stefan Van Eycken’s book Whisky Rising is the second best source of information. Whiskybase contains a wealth of info but inconsistent production dates. By chance, I bought a printed 1999 Suntory Product Index that helps sort certain details. Details about bottles that came and went remain hazy. Here’s what I’ve gathered about a few cool bottles:

PS: If you have information about when these brands were produced and distilled, I invite you to share this info in the comments section. Let’s get this as accurate and detailed as we can.

Suntory Royal 60

1959–1970s?

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Royal 60 was first sold in 1959, to celebrate the 60th annivesary of Suntory’s founding in 1899. Distilled entirely at Yamazaki, Suntory bottled Royal 60 for many years after that 1959 anniverary date, keeping the big 60 on the attractive gold label, and packaging it in a square squat bottle with a fancy T-shaped cap, which they also used for Royal 12 and 15 year.

Royal 12 tastes more like bourbon than Scotch. I haven’t tasted this 60 yet. Reviewers say its malty, smooth, aromatic and “multi-faceted.” My only beef is with Suntory’s copywriting: Putting the word royal in quotation marks really undermines the legitimacy of the word. Do you say “King” of England? “Queen” Elizabeth? No, they’d be off with your head if you did. Own it: Royal 60. It’s regal. It’s special. Sixty years is a long time. And Royal 60 is good enough for kings and queens and salarymen who don’t mind hangovers, real or “fake.”

I have this poster in my office, which hung in liquor stores throughout Japan possibly during the 70s or 80s.

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Nikka Grand

1970s

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This stuff could be trash or tasty. The label says it’s the “very finest old malt whisky” and was “blended by our own experts,” but most whiskies say that in one way or another. Japanese mass market blends from the 70s were not so great that blending experts would come rushing forward to take credit for them, but maybe this one’s the exception?

Nikka Grand was produced during the 1970s; I can’t find more details than that. This particular bottle has rarely appeared on auction sites. It doesn’t appear in Whiskybase. Even Whisky Auctioneer calls it “an unusual bottle.” Between 1989 and 1996, Nikka sold another blend called Nikka Grand Age. Part of its “Art of Blend” series and aimed at the high-end consumer, Grand Age contained well-sherried whiskies and came in a very fancy, faceted bottle with a trapezoidal cap that looks like a geodesic dome. Nikka Grand is different. If you have more info, I’d love to hear it. It’s a curious fleeting piece of Japanese whisky history.

Nikka White Whisky

1970s?

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I don’t when Nikka made this or how it tasted, but I did buy this empty bottle from Japanese eBay because it looks cool next to my other empty whisky bottles. It’s a piece of Japanese whisky history, even if I don’t know where the piece fits — 70s, maybe?

White is often associated with light flavors, so I imagine this blend offered drinkers a light, clean drink compared with Nikka’s richer, heavier blends bearing the Black.

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The label is surprisingly well-made. I would bet the label looks nicer than than the whisky tasted. The colored panels on the lable are all raised, making it textured to the touch, like colored tiles. Mine is also weathered, though I don’t know if that’s from storage or intentional clever marketing.

Suntory Excellence

1979–2004

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Excellence was launched in 1979 to commemerate the 80th anniversary of Suntory’s founding in 1899. Raised glass lettering says 80 on the back of the bottle; as you can see, Suntory’s marketing department loves anniversaries. Some drinkers say that Excellence was discontinued when Hibiki was launched in 1989, but my 1999 Suntory Product Index includes it in the lineup, so it was probably discontinued very soon after. (Bar Yoh, in Hiroshima, says 2004.) Later versions didn’t have the dangling medalion featuring the Scottish-style clan label. Their medalion is affixed to the bottle. The bottle was meant to look super classy. Decades later, it bears the dated markings of the gaudy, over-the-top early 80s, and I like it.

The whisky’s good. It’s sweet and spicy. It’s arguably excellent. It’s a specia grade blend of Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies. Some reviewers interpreted the text on the Italian version’s label to mean the blend includes some 30-year-old Yamazaki whiskey. I’m not convinced a large portion of the blend is as old as that. It does have an impressive nose. You can smell that some of the blend was aged in sherry casks, but as much as I enjoy its body and complexity, for sherry fans, it lacks the force of a very sherried whisky like Aberlour A’bunadh. Still, it’s a delicious blend.

Suntory Crest 12

1989–2006 or 2009

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According to Stefan Van Eycken’s excellent book Whisky Rising, Crest and Hibiki were launched simultaneously on April 3, 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s 90th anniversary. Both were luxury blends. The first Hibiki was meant to show the world how precise masterful blending could create a world class whisky with no age statement listed on the bottle. (Those first Hibikis used whiskies between 15 and 25 years old, and are some of the best Hibikis.)

“Suntory’s luxury blended whiskey,” writes the Kabuki Whisky, “was sold as ‘Blended de vintage’ until 2006. After that, the sale ended as the Hibiki 12 years lineup was done.” Other sources say Crest was discontinued in 2009, when Hibiki 12 was introduced.

This bottle doesn’t have Suntory’s pixelated-looking 1990s logo, so it’s either from 1989, Crest’s first year of production, or from right before Suntory switched to their new crest sometime in the early 90s.

Don’t let Crest’s gaudy crystal decanter and crown-like cap mislead you: this stuff looks like it was made for status-conscious businessmen, but it’s delicious sipping whisky with an impressive pedigree. You have to remember: a lot of these blends from the 80s and early 90s were produced for the domestic market, frequently packged to give as gifts, as part of the Japanese gift-giving tradition called omiyagi. You can see the slogan on 90s-era gift boxes of Suntory Royal, Reserve, Excellence and Crest: “A Cheerful Present for Pleasant Memories.”

You can also watch Sean Connery try to seduce you, the drinker, in a commercial.

Suntory Za

2000 — ?

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Za was the first commercial blend that Seiichi Koshimizu released as Suntory’s chief blender. Anyone with a new high profile job tries to make a splash. He designed his debut to complement the flavors of Japanese meals. Suntory aged some of Za’s component whisky in oak barrels with Japanese mizunara cedar lids. As Clint A. at Whiskies R Us writes, “the blend however never really took off and was a slight check in progress for the now renowned chief blender.” Suntory pulled it from the market after a few years.

Quaffing his bottle, Clint initially smelled “overpowering aromas of baked white fish meat” and said the jarring maritime notes of “soft dried kelp and mellow hints of brine” gave way to the pleasing scent and flavor of cedar.

Suntory aged some of Za’s component whisky in oak barrels with Japanese mizunara cedar lids. Mizunara is very rare, expensive, and popular now. Za wasn’t Suntory’s first experiment with wood. In the 90s, Suntory filtered its Southern Alps Pure Malt through charcoal made from birch wood, which produced this mild discontinued whisky’s fresh, clean, forest flavors. In the early 2000s, Suntory filtered its Zen whisky through charcoal made from bamboo. And Yamazaki has always contained some whisky aged in mizunara casks.

Back in 2014, Clint A. still frequently found bottles of Za in mom and pop liquore stores around the Kobe area where he lived. I bought mine for dirt cheap online, because with “aromas of baked white fish meat” as a description, few gaijin seemed to want this stuff, but I did. I love baked fish and maritime flavors, but I don’t care what Za tastes like. I love the squat, almost temple-like bottle, with its texture of carved wood — or maybe a golf ball — and I love that the spirit is an irreplaceable piece of whisky blending history. That said, I do plan to open mine one day.

Nikka Gold & Gold

1968 — present

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First released in October 1968, G&G has remained a part of the company’s core line ever since. Nikka even sells an overpriced duty-free version in airports, where the bottle comes with a large plastic samurai crown, as if any adult needs that.

As Van Eycken writes, G&G was a special grade whisky — not super premium first-grade, not second-grade economy — and was one of the first Japanese special grade whiskies to be sold not specifically as a gift in department stores, but served in bars. G&G is golden hued, easy to find, easy to drink. Rather than great, it’s passable. This bottle could be from the 70s or 80s. There were many variations in the label and color, even volume, that I can’t tell. I don’t even care. I just like how it looks and believe that even the cheapo blends should be appreciated for their historical value. In a sense, if there was no G&G, there’d be no Yoichi 15. Nikka and Suntory are always building on their past experiments and achievements.

Suntory Whisky Extra Gold

1970s

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The contents of this mass market second-grade blend are cheap and bracing, but they contain some quantity of whisky aged in sherry barrels — not that it tastes like it. Whisky reviewer Dramtastic said he tasted “plasticine and glue,” declaring it “Not Suntory’s finest hour.” Extra Gold is a bit gold, a bit red, slightly spicy from the unwelcome burn, but as you’d expect, it lacks complexity. My advice: Instead of the booze, buy the old plastic clock version of this whisky, which Suntory sold as a promo and can still be found on auction sites like Buyee. That’s where I found mine. Shipping cost more than the damn clock, and it doesn’t even work! Still better than the actual whisky.

NOTE: You can buy vintage bottles at auction sites like Scotch Whisky and Whisky Auctioneer. Don’t buy from Dekanta. They rip everyone off.

Cheers,

Aaron

Written by

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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