It’s a Japanese whisky showdown today as we look at the two giants of Japanese whisky Nikka and Suntory and try to decide which is best. We’ll be looking at history, whisky-making techniques, awards, popular culture, and, of course, the finished products.

Right, it’s time to choose your player. Let the battle commence!


Both Nikka and Suntory have a rich and long history. In fact, they share a common father in Taketsuru Masataka. Let’s take a closer look.


The Suntory story starts in 1879 with the birth of founder Shinjiro Torii who, in 1899, opened a wine shop in Osaka called Torii Shoten. In 1923, Taketsuru Masataka joined Suntory and the firm built Yamazaki in Osaka, Japan’s first whisky distillery, using the knowledge that he had acquired in Scotland working with distilleries including Longmorn and Hazelburn. In 1929, Suntory released its first whisky, Shirofuda, or ‘white label’. It has gone on to be a giant of Japanese and global distilling. 


Taketsuru Masataka was born in 1894. In 1918, he went on his fact-finding/ technique-stealing tour of Scotland. While there he fell in love with Jessie ‘Rita’ Roberta Cowan and the couple got married. They returned to Japan and he worked for Suntory before going solo in 1934 with the formation of Nikka and the foundation of a distillery in Hokkaido called Yoichi. In 1940, Nikka released its first whisky.


Right, that is a very brief history of how the two companies were founded. Really not much in it, is there? Suntory is marginally older but Nikka was founded by the father himself, Taketsuru Masataka. Let’s take a look at the firms’ distilleries:

yamazaki distillery


Yamazaki Distillery 

Located on the outskirts of Kyoto, this is Japan’s oldest malt whisky distillery, established in 1923. It didn’t, however, release its first single malt until 1984. In 2006, master blender Shingo Torii switched to smaller pot stills, and the distillery expanded in 2013. Yamazaki’s flexible processes, using various washbacks, yeast strains, stills, and casks, allow for diverse flavour profiles, aiding in blending. 

Hakushu Distillery 

Situated amidst the forests of the Southern Japanese Alps, Hakushu, the distillery started operations in 1973 and produces both lightly peated and heavily peated malts. Today it has a three million litre capacity distillery with twelve stills which are in a profusion of varying shapes and are all directly heated by coal fires. 

Chita Distillery 

The Chita distillery was founded in 1972 in the city of Chita in the Aichi Prefecture in Japan, by Suntory’s second master blender, Keizo Saji. This facility primarily produces grain whisky, used as the component in Suntory’s blended whiskies though you do occasionally see single distillery bottling. 

Yoichi distillery


Yoichi Distillery 

Located in Hokkaido, this distillery was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky. It produces full-bodied, peaty whiskies using six stills, which are lit by coal fire – a technique that Scottish distilleries have all but stopped practising these days. It wasn’t until 1982 that Nikka released the first Yoichi single malt. 

Miyagikyo Distillery 

Founded in 1969 near Sendai, Miyagikyo Distillery was established to complement the whisky production of the Yoichi Distillery. The distillery has eight pot stills and two pairs of Coffey stills making its capacity more than double that of its more famous elder brother. 


Whiskies from Nikka and Suntory have won numerous awards and accolades around the world. Here are a couple highlights:


In 2003 the Yamazaki 12 Year Old became the first Japanese whisky to be given a Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge.


In 2001 Yoichi 10 year old single cask won ‘Best of the Best’ title in a Whisky Magazine tasting – the first non-Scottish whisky to receive this honour.

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation - Suntory

“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

In popular culture


Japanese whisky burst into the Western consciousness when Sean Connery drank Suntory in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Suntory also had a starring role in 2003’s Lost in Translation with Bill Murray: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”


Very impressive, no doubt, but there was a whole mini-series called Massan made about Taketsuru Masataka and Rita Cowan that was hugely popular in Japan when it aired in 2014. 

Yamazaki 55 year old

Yamazaki 55 – it’ll cost you


And finally, let’s take a look at some of the popular whiskies from these two giants of Japanese whisky. All of the distilleries above release single malts, some of them extremely rarified like Yamazaki 55 year old which broke the record for Japanese whisky when a bottle sold at auction in 2020 for $795,000. Here are a few that are a bit more affordable:

Nikka vs Suntory


Toki Blended Japanese Whisky 70cl

Toki has a different composition to another Suntory blend, Hibiki, as its main components are Hakushu single malt and Chita grain whisky with a little Yamazaki malt. 

Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky 70cl

Hibiki Japanese Harmony is made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from the Chita distillery.

Yamazaki 12 Year Old – 100th Anniversary Limited Edition Whisky 70cl

Sadly this icon of Japanese whisky isn’t the bargain it once was, still, it’s always worth trying for a taste of that Yamazaki magic.

Nikka vs Suntory


Nikka from the Barrel 50cl

The blend combines both single malt and grain whisky from the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries, which are then married in a huge variety of casks, including bourbon barrels, sherry butts and refill hogsheads creating a blend with a huge depth of flavour.

Nikka Coffey Still 70cl

A single grain whisky, Nikka Coffey Grain was launched in 2012 and made using the two Coffey stills at the Miyagikyo distillery. With its sweet, smooth profile, it has proved a hit in particular with bartenders. 

Yoichi Single Malt Whisky 70cl

This NAS Yoichi Single Malt (made of whiskies of various ages) is a great ambassador for this special distillery’s direct-coal-heated, peated yet fruity style.

So who is the winner? Nikka or Suntory?

As usual with these things, we can’t pick a winner because they’re both excellent. Nikka or Suntory – you really can’t go wrong.