Jim Beam Goes Japan: 7 Things Bourbon Drinkers May Not Know About Suntory

Suntory whiskey Jim Beam
A Japanese beverage giant made a bold move into Kentucky when it acquired the fabled bourbon maker. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Japanese beverage giant Suntory made a bold move into Kentucky this week when it announced plans to acquire fabled bourbon maker Jim Beam for $16 billion. Given Suntory’s reputation for quality back home, there’s probably no need to horde Beam’s signature white-labeled bottles, but there are a few things that fans of a smooth drink on the rocks may not know.

1. It’s all about the water. “Bringing Water to Life” has been Suntory’s slogan since 2005. Seeking the purest water in Japan for the site of his first distillery in 1923, Suntory Founder Torii Shinjiro chose a suburb of Kyoto where three rivers converge.

2. OK, it’s also about the air, the temperature and the atmosphere. A 1964 British novel includes this passage about Suntory: “Went up to the distillery some whiles ago and met one of the family….He said you can only make good whisky where you can take good photographs….Said it was something to do with the effect of clear light on the alcohol.”

3. That 1964 novel was You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming. Since then, Suntory has more than returned the favor to James Bond with commercials like this one from 1992 featuring Sean Connery.

4. Indeed, Suntory was a pioneer in using Western celebrities in Japanese TV commercials, which, in the pre-Web days, provided stars a way to make millions for a few days’ work without embarrassing themselves at home. These commercials were the inspiration for Bill Murray’s “Suntory Time!” TV spot in the movie Lost in Translation.

4b. Bonus fact for Jim Beam executives: Be warned, business meetings between American and Japanese executives facilitated by an interpreter often go exactly like Bill Murray’s exchange with the director on the set of the “Suntory Time!” shoot.

5. Sammy Davis Jr. may or may not have sampled the product before shooting this Suntory White Label commercial.

6. Sammy Davis Jr. was a good brand fit for Suntory, whose original slogan was Yatte Minahare, “Go for it!”

7. In all seriousness, this short video, “The Art of Whisky,” conveys the dedication and attention to detail with which Suntory’s distillers approach their craft. 

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