Think back to 2003: What were you drinking? If you were right around the legal age to enjoy alcohol, odds are it wasn't Japanese whisky. Between trips to the keg and sugary mixes to deaden the taste of bottom-shelf spirits, the closest thing you got to an import was probably a bottle of Corona, or Johnnie Walker and coke when your parents were paying. But then, with a little money and a desire to graduate your tastes, you took direction from a familiar face in a beautiful movie.
"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."
In a career filled with famous roles, characters, and quotes, it ranks towards the top of Bill Murray’s most memorable lines. As the aging American actor Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, a tuxedoed Murray's turn to the camera might have made a more lasting impact on Japanese whisky sales in America than a century of quality product. Because, while Suntory whisky has been produced in Japan since the early 1920s, if you asked the average American if they had ever tasted it before 2003, they would probably just look confused and tell you they didn’t even know Japanese whisky existed.
Today, Japanese whisky, specifically the stuff Suntory is making, is on the verge of Pappy Van Winkle-like hysteria. After acquiring the U.S.-based Jim Beam in 2014 for $16 billion, the brand has started importing more bottles of American whiskey into Japan, and in turn is also starting to ship more Japanese whisky into the States. It's been a gradual process. As NPR reported in 2013, Suntory and its contemporaries were "playing hard to get," creating excitement for its product just as whiskey was about to overtake vodka as America’s favorite spirit. And while it may not have sold many bottles in the States immediately after or in the years following Lost in Translation, now impressionable young drinkers can walk up to most bars and state that it's Suntory Time.
"I've seen it a couple of times," Gardner Dunn, Suntory Brand Ambassador says with a pause. "Maybe four years ago I was in L.A. at Father's Office. They hide all their whiskey — I don't know why — so I asked if they'd be interested in trying some of mine: Yamazaki. They said, 'Oh, we have that.' You just have to say 'Suntory time' and they'll pull it out from behind the counter." Dunn understands the phenomenon. He admits that when Lost in Translation was released in theaters, "everyone in the U.S. thought it was some fictional company, people thought it was some weird name they used for the movie’s sake." Winning the top award at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge proved Japanese whisky was already great, but Bill Murray made it cool.
"There's no stronger friendship than that between these two men," the narrator says in the 1980 Suntory commercial starring famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his American colleague Francis Ford Coppola. Over 20 years later, Coppola's daughter, Sophia, would recall the ad in her second feature film. Suntory had used a number of American stars as spokesmen before, most notably spaghetti western badass Lee Van Cleef and Sammy Davis Jr., and all of the commercials share a common thread of men that represent the best of the west, classic, middle-aged Americans who all have one thing in common: they supposedly drink Suntory. Yet it's the 1992 commercial starring a Scotsman, Sean Connery, that might most resemble the kind of spot Sofia Coppola had in mind when she was coming up with the commercial Murray's character was supposed to act in: suave, refined, and masculine without trying. While Dunn says that the Suntory people had no prior knowledge that Coppola used the brand until after she approached them for permission, telling them the whisky was already written into the script, they probably had no idea what an impact the movie, made with a $4 million budget, would end up having.
In the end, it might be the greatest free advertisement any spirit company could've asked for.