The story of VARON × whiskey

100 Years of Crafting Japanese Whisky

In just one year since its launch in 2022, VARON has been tried by 300,000 men in Japan. But did you know that Suntory’s history of whisky-making was behind this innovative product?

Suntory Whisky celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023. The 100 years since Suntory opened the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923, Japan’s very first malt whisky distillery, are the history of Suntory continuously taking on new challenges.

Today, Suntory Whisky, lauded as one of the world’s Top 5 whiskies, is loved by aficionados around the world and has been decorated with numerous awards at international whisky competitions. But did you know that Suntory Whisky’s history has not always been this rosy?

Let’s take a brief look at the history of Suntory’s whisky business, from its beginnings in the face of fierce opposition until today, and how it connects to VARON.

The Rise and Fall of Whisky Culture

Whisky distilling is a business that takes considerable time and money, from initial preparations until the final product blossoms. Therefore, Suntory’s endeavor could be considered reckless, given the enormous amount of money involved, the idea of creating a market unheard of in Japan 100 years ago, the difficulty of sustaining funding during the long whisky maturation period, and a myriad of other objections. Despite all these obstacles, Suntory, through repeated trial-and-error, gradually made whisky a part of Japanese lifestyles and, riding a boom in Western wines and liquors, managed to form a whisky culture in the country. In 1983, whisky consumption in Japan set a record high. But then suddenly, whisky sales entered a period of decline that would last for the next quarter century.

What triggered whisky’s downfall, and how did Suntory respond to this existential challenge? Let’s take a look at this chapter in Suntory’s history, in which One Suntory stuck to its “never give up and never give in” attitude even in the face of adversity — an attitude that led to the superb quality of its whisky today.

Background to the Whisky Slump

After its peak popularity in the early 1980s, whisky faced a long downturn through the 1990s and 2000s. Despite a recovery in sales in the West, the rise in popularity of other alcoholic beverages in Japan and other factors fueled a prolonged slump for the whisky business. After a number of surveys and analyses, Suntory discovered that one main explanation for the drop in sales was an entrenched image that whisky had adverse health effects.

Examples of things said about whisky at the time:
Whisky leads to bad hangovers, while you feel clear-headed after sobering up from shochu Whisky upsets the stomach Whisky causes the blood to thicken, while shochu promotes good blood circulation Whisky raises uric acid levels (leading to gout)

A Project Team Takes on the Whisky Decline

In light of plummeting whisky sales, there was a fervent desire throughout the Suntory organization, from top to bottom and across all divisions, to bring whisky back to its former glory. This led to the formation of the Whisky Revival Project, which examined whisky from every possible angle. The project team undertook scientific verifications of the many claims about whisky, because if they were true, measures to deal with the health ramifications would need to be taken. What the project team concluded, however, was that all the claims were rumors and not based on facts. Moreover, it confirmed that whisky congeners actually provide positive health benefits, contrary to the rumors. Acting on these findings, Suntory made a company-wide effort to revive whisky through carefully planned step-by-step activities. These included giving presentations on our research at academic conferences around the world, submitting academic papers, publishing summaries of our findings, and holding seminars to support sales across Japan.

The Project Team’s Findings

While examining the erroneous claims about whisky, the project team also studied whisky, whose aroma and flavor increases as it matures, with an eye to whether its ingredients could be used in other ways. The team discovered that beneficial ingredients gradually seep out of the oak used for the barrels during the maturation process, deepening the aroma and flavor. In its investigations, the team confirmed that Spanish oak, which is over 100 years old, not only produces higher quality whisky but also exudes large quantities of polyphenols (lyoniresinol). The team then redirected its research focus on both whisky and the polyphenols contained in oak. The research found that the polyphenols could be used in cosmetics as antioxidants, and laboratory results indicated they could prevent wrinkles and blemishes in the skin. These findings paved the way to using polyphenols extracted from oak barrels in cosmetics.

The Whisky Revival and Large-Scale Skincare Research

The hard work and grassroots activities by the Whisky Revival Project gradually eased the opposition to whisky. Following this, the company launched the Kaku Highball marketing campaign in an effort to break out of a quarter-century of market stagnation.

The long-running Kaku Highball promotional activities and marketing activities centered on izakaya pubs eventually bore fruit, bringing whisky — which had been in a tailspin for nearly 25 years — back into the spotlight. These efforts are why whisky enjoys its sterling reputation today.

During this period, Suntory also began looking at avenues to utilize the knowledge it had gained during its struggles, launching large-scale studies of using whisky ingredients in skincare products and formulating product concepts.

Hopes for Skincare Applications

Suntory began researching skincare products in earnest in the early 2000s. The reason being that Suntory’s aim is “vibrant lives” and that to experience this state of vitality and radiance requires not only deliciousness and health, but also confidence in one’s skin and facial appearance. And for this reason, Suntory wants more mature men to incorporate skincare into their lives.

To do this however, we needed an unprecedented product that provides complete skincare in just one bottle. We ran more than 1,000 experiments based on the concept of whisky barrel wood extracts that the Whisky Revival Project had discovered. Ultimately, we successfully developed and patented WOW high-penetration emulsion technology, a three-phase formulation that has the ingredients penetrate the skin in a specific order with a single application. This technology paved the way to the development and commercialization of VARON.

VARON’s Development and the Next 100 Years

Suntory VARON came out in 2022, more than 20 years after the company actually began developing the product’s ingredients. VARON only came about through the combination of research into barrel wood extracts, which began while aiming to revive whisky sales, and proprietary skincare research. The timing seems perfect that barrel wood over 100 years old creates both whisky and skincare products that address the desire of mature men to live longer and age stylishly in this 100-year lifespan era. We believe VARON resonates with so many customers because of the product’s benefits and because mature men wish to put their best face forward as they age if they are destined to live longer. To ensure VARON continues to satisfy this desire, we will continue to tackle new challenges and make VARON better.