Suntory Old vs New Japanese Blend

Suntory is the grand daddy of Japanese whisky and a fitting place to begin our evening comparing old and new blends.

So what exactly was Suntory Excellence? It was from Yamazaki distillery, likely released in 1980, possibly using whiskies aged 30 years old. Some sources indicate it was created to start competing with Scottish blends – at a time when Japanese whisky was little known beyond certain circles! Hence their putting it in a ‘decanter’ bottle with a glass stopper rather than the kind of bottles that were standard at that time.

While we assume it was a blend, I came across a few references that indicate the expression was intended as a pre-cursor for easing into single malts. Specifically, the Yamazaki which was then launched as a single malt in 1984.

Blend or not (though likely a blend!), Suntory Excellence had two versions – the 1st sported a neck ‘ring’ like the one we tried vs another which came out later that had the “excellence” tag integrated as part of the bottle.

Could you find it today? Primarily the later avatar seems to pop up on auctions and was last seen with prices in the GBP 450 range. Our version? The closest I could find was on auction for $3,800.

The second one we tried – Suntory Old – is a popular blend that was first produced in the 1940s. Suntory’s founder Shinjirō Torii dreamed up this blend. First produced in the 1940s, bottle and label hasn’t changed much in the last 70 years.

What did we think?

Suntory Excellence 43% from 1980s

  • Nose – Chorus of perfume, concentrated maple treacle, aged prunes… as it opened fruits became more prominent – peaches? Was promisingly rich, caramel cream
  • Palate – Started a tiny bit sour, thin, alcohol, perhaps even a bit metallic? Slightly flat and bitter.. but then something began to change…  by the 2nd sip it warmed up, and the 3rd was even better… dried black current, anise…
  • Finish – A light spice burn

This was a curious one… for the nose we initially kept being reminded of other spirits like calvados, cognac or even armagnac. It teasingly reminded our host of his Christmas pudding made a year in advance, kept in the fridge enabling the alcohol to concentrate… However on the palate it was a shadow of the promise – like wine that gets too old and become a bit watery.

As for me? Confession time… I was down with a nasty flu so truly could not give justice to the experience… So I took a wee sample of the original with me back to Germany.

I finally re-opened it this evening…. The aroma initially had an intense varnish dimension, then shifted into dates, a sweet salty caramel on the palate with an aged cognac like quality. It was similar to our original impression with something peculiar and distinct about it that differed from most modern blends.

And with a splash of cool water? The fruitiness that was hinted on the nose came to the fore, the varnish tamed and the intensity dampened. But that element that came across as being more akin to calvados than whisky was even more pronounced. Interesting… and remarkable to have an opportunity to try it some 40 years after it was originally bottled.

So what about its modern cousin?

Suntory Old 43% from 2010s

  • Nose – Salty, citrus, a bit of nail varnish, maybe a bit nutty, we struggled to say something about the nose beyond this
  • Palate – Sour, much more bitter than would have expected from the nose, a bit of spice tingle
  • Finish – Um… no… not very favourable

This one just landed in the middle of our tongues and then nothing. We really tried to find something.. one even piped up maybe jelly beans?

Not bad, holds up better as a blend. For some this pair were the winners of the evening. But don’t take my word for it! I encourage you to check out the fabulous tasting notes on the Whisky Ladies of Mumbai blog!

What about other whiskies sampled from the Suntory stable?

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