Historically, the world’s most popular vodkas have hailed from legacy distilling destinations such as Russia, Poland, and Sweden. These countries have gifted the world with beloved brands including Smirnoff, Belvedere, and Absolut, respectively. In more recent years, USA-made vodkas have skyrocketed in popularity, with labels like Tito’s, Hangar 1, and Crop Organic quickly gobbling up valuable market shares. But recently, a surprising newcomer has emerged on the international playing field that’s poised to shake things up within the vodka category: Japan.
Up until a few years ago, most Americans would have been hard-pressed to name a Japanese alcoholic beverage aside from sake. At best, they might have been able to rattle off a Japanese beer, like Sapporo or Kirin. But that conversation shifted drastically in 2015, when Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible crowned House of Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the World’s Best Whiskey―beating out stiff competition from the likes of Scotland, Ireland, and the United States.
Since then, people from all over the globe have turned their sights to Japan, eagerly anticipating their next move. Now, with Suntory’s latest release, Haku Vodka, the future is clear.
“Global appreciation for Japanese culture and craftsmanship is on the rise,” says Gardner Dunn, U.S. senior brand ambassador for House of Suntory. “We’ve seen this in the continued increase in demand for our Japanese whisky portfolio, but we’re also seeing a broader appetite for other well-crafted premium Japanese products, like Haku.”
The vodka was released exclusively for the U.S. market less than one year ago, but has already built a loyal following. Made from 100% white rice, the spirit embodies more than just another vodka. It’s a representation of Japanese culture at its finest.
“Pure, white Japanese rice is respected as a luxury. It’s the ultimate symbol of Japan,” says Kazuyuki Torii, Suntory’s senior specialist for gin and spirits, and one of the masterminds behind Haku Vodka. “Traditionally, it was reserved for worship, as well as for the noble classes, including the Imperial Family. By using it for Haku, it conveys Suntory’s commitment to working with the best and most authentic ingredients from Japan,” Torii adds.
The process begins in Kagoshima, Kyushu, a region historically renowned for producing rice-based spirits. Here, white rice is fermented with koji rice to create a mash, which is first distilled in pot stills, then distilled a second time using two different processes to create a uniquely flavored base spirit. From there, the liquid is blended and filtered through bamboo charcoal in Osaka, Japan.
As of today, Haku is the world’s only vodka made from Japanese white rice and filtered through bamboo charcoal, which succeeds at preserving and enhancing the rice’s delicately sweet flavors. The proprietary technique may be painstaking, but it’s what sets Haku apart from its global competition, while showcasing the brand’s emphasis on creating an authentic Japanese masterpiece.
“Bamboo is abundant in Japan and is another icon of Japanese nature,” says Torii. “Bamboo charcoal has been used to filter water for many centuries. It not only has the ability to remove more impurities than other charcoals, due to its unique porous structure, but it’s also rich in minerals that, when imparted in water, improve the flavor and make the liquid smoother.”
The name, branding, and packaging were also each carefully considered before its debut. The name “Haku” was chosen because it literally translates to “white,” rooted in the word hakumai, which is Japanese for “white rice.” But the subtlety of the language and versatility of its kanji characters allow for several nuanced meanings. For example, “haku” can also be used to evoke “junpaku,” alluding to untainted brilliance―a clever play on words to illustrate the spirit’s pure ingredients and clear, crisp qualities.
Its bottle also mirrors the vodka’s expert craftsmanship while paying homage to Japanese culture. A series of curved lines run up and down the body of the glass bottle, representing the glistening streams of water that flow across Japan’s dramatic landscapes. Even the label design (embellished with kanji calligraphy with sumi ink) is made using pure white Junpaku washi paper, symbolic of Japanese white rice and the star ingredient behind the vodka.
“Haku offers a great opportunity for craft spirits enthusiasts who are eager to discover new tastes and experiences, Japan lovers who seek the quality and the cultural approach of our products, and Suntory fans who trust our meticulous approach to spirit-making,” says Dunn. “With the launch of Haku, we’re continuing to prove our commitment to staying true to this philosophy with an innovative and challenging spirit.”
The success of Haku within the U.S. market has proved that Americans are still excited about the vodka category as a whole, and―more importantly―willing to give newcomers and underdogs a shot. Only time will tell if the intrigue will last, or if the general public will grow fatigued. Nevertheless, Suntory’s recent triumph will continue to usher in an optimistic wave of healthy competition from other distillers in the region.
“We’ve already seen an increase in Japanese spirits flooding the market, and interest from consumers,” says Dunn. “With the launch of Haku, Suntory is paving the way for more brands…some good, some bad,” he warns.
The artisanal spirit can be found in your local bottle shop or through online retailers like Drizly for less than $30. Wondering how to enjoy it? That all comes down to personal preference. For diehard vodka-lovers, Dunn recommends drinking it neat or on the rocks to appreciate its slightly floral aroma and starchy, sweet flavor. For cocktail connoisseurs, he proposes mixing up a Haku-Hi.
How to Make a Haku-Hi
- 1.5 parts Haku Vodka
- 4.5 parts chilled premium soda water
- Lemon peel
- Fill a highball glass to the brim with ice. Add Haku and top with chilled soda water. Stir and garnish with a lemon peel.