Suntory’s Forgotten First Foray into Vodka: Mild Vodka

Aaron Gilbreath
4 min readJan 20, 2020

The Japanese corporate giant has tried it all since they started selling alcoholic beverages in 1899.

Image from kolektado

Before Suntory launched its new “craft” vodka brand, Haku Vodka, in 2018, Suntory sold Mild Vodka in the early 1980s.

Suntory is most widely known for its award-winning Hibiki and Yamazaki whisky lines, but the beverage giant sells everything from canned beer to bottled green tea, and it has tried to make in-roads in various liquor categories throughout the decades. In the late 1960s, it sold green tea liquor and plum liquor domestically. It sold sweet red wine, Suntory Dry Gin, and “VSOP” Brandy in the 1970s. Its biggest hit might be Midori Melon Liqueur, which it launched in 1978 and is still used in cocktails throughout the world. Mild Vodka did perform as well. Distributed in Japan as Mild Vodka, and overseas as both Mild and Bonzai, few people seem to remember Haku’s forgotten predecessor.

Most recent posts about Haku Vodka say things like “Beam Suntory Looks Beyond Whisky With A Japanese Craft Vodka” or says that Suntory is trying something new, which is regurgitated PR copy. Look deeper and you’ll see that Haku wasn’t Suntory’s first attempt at tapping the vodka market.

Since first launching Kakubin whisky in 1937, Suntory recognized that part of its success would require tailoring some of its spirits to the Japanese palate to pair with subtle Japanese food. And they tried to tailor their products for the very different consumers overseas. For instance, Suntory had the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev appear in an advertisement.

As an export vodka, Haku’s focus is very different than Mild’s. PR copy tells that Haku Vodka markets the spirit’s Japaneseness to the US audience, capitalizing not on mild flavor but on unique ingredients that will capture the interest of those currently interested in the uniqueness of Japanese whisky: “The House of Suntory introduces Haku Vodka exclusively in…

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Aaron Gilbreath

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