Monday, February 15, 2010
Dating Suntory Old bottles
A 1950 Suntory Old
I have a feeling this post is going to disappoint some people. I get a lot of questions emailed to me and posted as comments here about the age and value of Suntory Old bottles. There are Japanese whiskies with older traditions, but I think the emphasis on age on this whisky's label raises hopes.
The first thing to clear up is that, although some bottles of Suntory Old have the date 1899 printed on them, none are that old. Suntory dates itself to 1899 but all bottles of Suntory Old date from 1950 onwards.
There are several generations of Old, reaching right up to the present day. Despite its name, it is not a particularly long matured whisky. It is a mid market blend (below Hibiki in Suntory's blended whisky pecking order but above Kakubin and the bargain basement Torys.) There are various ways to tell younger bottles from older version. Early bottles had the slogan: "A Blend of Ancient Whiskies". That was still on the bottle until at least 1868. Even after Kotobukiya changed its name to "Suntory" in 1963, the Suntory Old bottles appear to have continued to bear the "Kotobukiya" name. One way to tell really old Olds from 1960s versions is the addition of technical information at the far left bottom and far right bottom of the main label.
I am not sure when exactly things changed but, by 1994, " the label was different. The "Ancient Whiskies" were dropped in favour of "A Blend of the Choice Whiskies" and the main title on the whisky changed from "Suntory Whisky" to "Suntory Old Whisky". The line "Mild and Smooth" had also been added to the label by 1994 and the neck label had a completely different design. In 2006, there was another redesign, as you can see below:
The "Extra Special" bottle:
This bottle is owned by a reader of Nonjatta in Brazil and I must admit it has got me scratching my head. I have called it "Extra Special" because those words appear in the middle of the label and I have not seen them on other versions of Suntory Old. The owner says his family were given it by a Japanese diplomat in the 1980s. I have had questions from other readers about this particular bottling. Unfortunately, I have not been able to pin it down to a very precise time period.
I do know that a bottle similar to this was marketed abroad by Suntory and there does appear to have been a "Discover Suntory" campaign in the U.S. in the late 1960s that featured this brand. I say this because of this magazine advert:
It features our "Extra Special" bottle. This photo appears to be from the same campaign and its owner told me that his 1967 dating is based on a clear July 2, 1967 date on his slide mount (I have also dated the TWA campaign in the same picture to the same period). I think I can tentatively conclude from this that the "Extra Special" version of Suntory Old was sold abroad around 1967. It is almost definitely post 1963, because it is not described as being made by Kotobukiya, which was Suntory's company name before that date. The "Kotobukiya" name is echoed on the label, however: the kanji in the middle is "kotobuki", which has meanings associated with congratulations, happiness and long life (the same kanji is featured on a lot of neck labels for Suntory Old).
We have a fairly firm start date for this type of Suntory Old in the mid-1960s and some evidence from the marketing that it might have been exported in quite large amounts (perhaps even specifically made for foreign markets). What I don't know is when it stopped being distributed. The fact that the owner of this bottle thought it was given in the 1980s raises the possibility that it was produced over quite a long period.
There is one more detail that I should point out on this bottle which may or may not date it later than 1967. On the reverse of the bottle there is raised lettering on the bottle which says "A blend of the choice whiskies". If you look higher up in this post you will see that that phrase is featured on a mainstream bottle of Suntory Old in 1994 but not on its equivalent in 1968. I don't know when exactly Suntory started using that phrase, instead of referring to "ancient" whiskies as it had done earlier, but it may indicate that this is a later bottling. There may have been early "Extra special" bottling with the ancient description but I have never seen one. Another explanation might be that the change from "ancient" to "choice" may have been initiated on the "Extra Special" bottles and later carried over onto other versions. Here is the raised lettering:
Update 30.7.2010: My goodness, this post is getting really dorky but I just want to note that the strap line on these Suntory Old does appear to have varied considerably over the years. Another variation is below. It is another "Extra Special" Suntory Old but I think it would be a mistake to think that the "blend of rare selected malt whiskies" means this was a vatted malt. I think Old has always been a blend and that what that strapline means is that it is a "blend involving rare selected malt whiskies". Thanks to Tim from The Whisky Exchange for the photo, who said it came from a collection in Spain with a lot of bottles from the 60s and 70s.
Update 9.1.2010: Another reader has sent in some photos of an old bottle, which I am guessing comes from before or around the same time as the 1968 bottle at the top of this post. It carries the "Extra Special" mark and "kotobuki" characters. My current theory is that these marks were associated with bottles for export, and this one was exported into the U.S., as the photos below show. The use of "Kotobukiya Ltd." instead of "Suntory Whisky" might be taken to imply that this was exported prior to 1963, when the company changed its name. However, the photos at the top of this post show a bottle dated by Suntory as being distributed in 1968 also using the Kotobukiya name. My guess is that this is a bottle from the 60s or, possibly, earlier. As the reader who sent in these images points out, the back of the bottle is subtly different from the Suntory Old I posted about above: "On the back, where the bottle you posted has the company symbol, we have the same Japanese symbol as the front label."