Suntory’s Forgotten First Foray into Vodka: Mild Vodka

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

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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.

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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 the U.S. in October 2018. This premium craft vodka is made from 100 percent Japanese white rice which is used to make a rice spirit that is distilled and ultimately filtered through bamboo charcoal, a process unique to Suntory that preserves and enhances the rice’s delicately sweet and subtle flavors.

Mild’s marketing was pretty cool. The bottle, like the glasses, had design elements and textured edges that evoked a cold northern snow forest. It suggests purity, like melted glacial ice.

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There isn’t much info about it online.

In March 1988, The Orlando Sun published an article about a new group of vodkas that were hitting the market, and differentiating between the new premium imports. Entitled “Vodka With a New Twist,” the article said: “There’s also an exceptionally wide range of packaging from the stodgy socialist realism of the “Stoli” label to the sculptured bottle of Finlandia or the triangular Denaka. The most striking are the clear glass bottles of Absolut and Suntory: The first is a laboratory-style jar with blue script while the latter has a white forest scene painted on the back that shows through the flat-sided bottle.

Here is a cool, 1982 magazine ad for the brand.

Here’s a vintage Mild Vodka commercial

And another Mild Vodka commercial:

And a third:

Knowing any of this won’t affect your enjoyment of the Haku Vodka, but if you appreciate Japanese distilling, or are a fan of Suntory and Nikka as I am, you will enjoying deepening your knowledge of their history.

Kampai.

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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