In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, renowned as Japan’s most celebrated tea master, regarded the pristine forest stream water of Yamazaki as ideal for his tea ceremonies. At the same location on the outskirts of Kyoto, Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, established Japan’s inaugural malt whisky distillery in 1923, selecting the same water source highly prized by Japan’s “The Way of Tea” master.
As Suntory commemorates a century of crafting whisky, it is advancing a mission of unwavering quality through Japan’s art of monozukuri craftsmanship, all the while championing a sustainability endeavor firmly rooted in the preservation of water resources. For Suntory Holdings CEO Tak Niinami, the waters of Yamazaki, a misty valley where three rivers converge, are the wellspring and inspiration behind Suntory’s devoted commitment to whisky-making in harmony with nature.
In this context, Niinami aptly captures the essence, “We must think about what heritage means to us. What is Shinjiro Torii’s legacy? It comes down to providing something new. Something for people to feel — something we call ‘the brilliance of life.’ It’s not about selling products. It’s about the experience. We have to pursue innovation, even in the traditional world of whisky. We must find harmony among humanity, innovation, and nature.”
Suntory has been experiencing a surge in global demand for its premium whiskies like Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu, positioning them among the most sought-after whiskies in the world. This success has put Niinami under substantial pressure to expand production, a path he refuses to take in order to uphold quality.
“As CEO, I have to always follow this discipline, even if it’s my job to boost revenue. The reason? We need to surprise consumers by exceeding their expectations,” Niinami affirms, emphasizing the uncompromising spirit that governs Suntory’s commitment to quality.
Shinji Fukuyo, the fifth in a prestigious lineage of chief blenders, elucidates the critical role of pure water, which flows down mountain streams and permeates through rock, in determining the quality and natural harmony of Suntory whisky. This water, enriched by nutrients and minerals from the fertile terroir, remains a mysterious and essential element.
“In whisky-making, it’s water as much as barley and yeast that’s crucial,” Fukuyo asserts. “Water ultimately determines the success of each whisky we make. We haven’t fully understood what it is in the water that makes Suntory whisky special, but we know it brings out its unique character.”
Fukuyo elucidates how Suntory’s premium whiskies like Yamazaki and Hakushu, through maturation in their unique terroir, culminate in “a resonance between humans and nature.” The diverse climate and humidity of Yamazaki create ideal conditions for cask aging, a phenomenon known as “Suntory maturation.” This process yields the subtle and nuanced refinement of Suntory whiskies, in harmony with Shinjiro Torii’s original vision.
“Our whisky remains faithful to the outlook of our founder,” says Fukuyo. “He sought to create a whisky that appeals to the sensitivity of the Japanese sense of taste. For a hundred years, we’ve been cultivating this refined taste with unwavering dedication to quality.”
Beyond the world of whisky, Suntory is dedicated to nurturing water sanctuaries, including those deep in Japan’s Minami Alps, where Hakushu whisky is crafted. These sanctuaries play a vital role in preserving pristine groundwater and sustaining life’s most precious resource while bolstering whisky quality.
Today, Suntory’s water sanctuary project spans roughly 12,000 hectares in 22 locations across 15 prefectures in Japan, replenishing more than twice the water consumed by Suntory’s plants.
Niinami underscores the commitment to replenishing the water used for production, noting that, “We have a passion for cultivating water resources in forests. Natural water is not owned by us, but by society.” Globally, Suntory has extended its water sanctuary initiatives to Scotland and Kentucky, collaborating with local communities to support the environment.
As Niinami affirms, “Water scarcity is a global crisis. We must be a solution, not a cause. Our commitment is to contribute to natural water in the world. That’s the commitment of all Suntory Group companies.”
Water conservation is an integral part of Suntory’s broader global mission of sustainability, grounded in the vision of humanity living in harmony with nature. Suntory is actively engaged in developing innovative technologies for plastic recycling, including PET bottles, and collaborates with over 40 companies, including competitors, to advance recycling technologies on a large scale.
“Biodiversity is a key part of the lifeline for the world, not only for humankind but also for all land and ocean life,” emphasizes Niinami. “We need to work with partners to resolve pressing issues such as sustainability, and we want to be a center for it.”
This forward-looking vision encapsulates the legacy of Shinjiro Torii, who believed in nature’s blessings to humanity and sought to pay them forward.
As Niinami aptly states, “Nature gives us blessings. We have to return our due.”