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The movie centers around Bill Murray, who comes to Tokyo to promote the Japanese whisky marketed by Suntory, one of the largest liquor producers in Japan.
As the company's whisky operation takes over 60 percent of Japan's market share, Suntory is well known in Japan as we know of Jack Daniel's in the States. For a large Japanese company like Suntory, it is not unusual to pay multi-million dollars to hire an aging American actor to promote the company's proud product to the Japanese consumers who are fascinated by the American Hollywood starts.
Whisky, whether domestic or imported, is a very popular drink among Japanese consumers, perhaps even more popular than Sake. The term 'Sake' can actually mean all types of alcohol in general.
As you see in Lost in Translation, in Japan alcohol is much more socially accepted and exposed in public compared to the United States; vending machines sell alcohol on the street, whisky advertisements are everywhere and Bill Muarray gets lost in translation while making television commercials of the whisky.
Drinking has been a big part of Japanese society for centuries. The history of Japanese whisky-making goes back to the early 20th century. Masatake Taketsuru was the first one to bring the whisky distillation techniques home from Scotland in 1917, after learning the art of blending at the University of Glasgow. He established Nikka company in 1934.
Shinjiro Torii of Suntory was the first one to built the distillery in 1923. His goal was to produce a whisky that goes well with Japanese traditional food. He also sought for a steady balanced taste that could not be broken by diluted water. As a result, "Mizu-wari" became a common way of drinking whisky, "mizu" means water and "wari" refers to "to cut" or "on the rocks." Mizu-wari whiskies are usually taken with meal instead of before or after meal as in Western countries.
Because Japanese learned whisky making from Scots, it is spelled 'whisky' without an 'e' as in Scottish way, unlike American bourbon whiskey or Irish whiskey, spelled with an 'e' with some exceptions.
Hibiki brand portfolio includes Hibiki 17-year-old (9,190 yen), Hibiki Gold Label (10,000 yen), 21-yea-old (20,000 yen) and 30-year-old (80,000 yen, almost $800 in USD as of January, 2004) By law, if a label says 17 years, it means all the blends that go into the whisky must be aged for a minimum of 17 years in a barrel.
More about whiskey
About Scotch whisky
Tasting Scotch whisky
Suntory Hibiki Whisky website (in Japanese)
Lost in Translation website