That’s right, it’s been 80 years since Suntory first released the Suntory Kakubin! To celebrate they have a pop-up bar coming to Roppongi Hills for 4 days only: August 31st to September 3rd. Kaku Highballs are only 300 yen! You can also get a “re-issued” Kaku Highball for 350 yen — this one is supposed to taste like the original Kakubin from 1937.
The Suntory Kakubin is the product that put Suntory (in those days called Kotobukiya) on the map. The Yamazaki Distillery was completed in 1924 and whisky was being made under the direction of Masataka Taketsuru. Things got off to a rocky start, since whisky isn’t exactly easy to make. The first few Japanese whiskies rolled out by the company, such as Shirofuda and Akafuda, were basically failures. The Japanese simply weren’t ready for some peaty scotch-like whisky.
Taketsuru left the company in 1934 after disagreeing some fundamental points with Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii. With the company on the verge of failure, Torii-san decided to re-analyze what his customers wanted. He finally struck gold in 1937 with the October 8 release of “Suntory Whisky 12 Year,” which was nicknamed the “Kakubin” for its distinct square-ish bottle. Several different factors contributed to the success of the Kakubin: continued trial-and-error with the peat levels, whiskies reaching maturity at the Yamazaki Distillery, a pre-WW2 ban on imported whiskies(!), and Torii-san himself educating bartenders in Ginza about how whisky is supposed to taste.
The Kakubin went on to be even more successful thanks to WW2. It became a “Designated Navy Product” of the Imperial Japanese Navy, meaning Suntory got priority access to raw materials like malt and grain to make it even during wartime. The Army also kept it in stock as a luxury item at their PXs. Only a year and half after its release, some 9600 bottles were shipped to Manchukuo for soldiers stationed there. The Yamazaki Distillery made it through the war undamaged.
These days the Suntory Kakubin is a must-have for every izakaya, bar, and restaurant in Japan, since it makes a decent yet affordable base for a whisky highball. I think I’ll drink one right now…
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