Meet Japanese whisky connoisseur Gardner Dunn

Meet Japanese whisky connoisseur Gardner Dunn | Soho House

As an ambassador at Beam Suntory, the musician-turned-mixologist is finding exciting ways to introduce people to a breadth of whiskies

Tuesday 15 November By Austa Somvichian-Clausen Photography by Reggie McCafferty

In his previous life, musician-turned-mixologist Gardner Dunn admits that he was somewhat of a ‘hired gun’. One minute he’d be touring with blues, ska and punk bands, and the next he’d be in the studio helping acts round out the sound for their albums – that’s when he wasn’t on stage drumming at festivals like Warped Tour. Now, as brand ambassador of Beam Suntory, Dunn’s lifestyle has taken quite a different turn – one that feels right. 

The shift came after a break-up and a wrist injury that coincided with an opportunity to leave Europe (where he was living at the time) and head home to the States. Trading drumsticks for a Boston shaker, Dunn found himself behind the bar after gaining a liquid education from the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR). Despite the change in industry, his ambitious spirit led him to work as a bartender at some of the top spots in New York City, while entering international cocktail competitions. Shortly after – now nearly 13 years ago – he was approached by Beam Suntory.

‘They asked me to work on their whisky, and funnily enough, Midori,’ says Dunn. At the time, Beam Suntory was known predominantly for the green-hued melon liquor, which is a popular cocktail ingredient. ‘I ended up cutting my teeth on that and then they noticed that I was really more about the whisky. I started growing its popularity by doing a lot of events, transferring 100% over to their whisky portfolio on a national level, and the rest is kind of history.’

Dunn’s work as an ambassador for Beam Suntory has taken him around the world, particularly to Japan. His role has evolved significantly over the past decade – he spent the early years educating US consumers about the benefits of Japanese whisky. Attitudes around it have since changed, with the best bars in the country lining up to stock the vintage bottles, such as Suntory’s Yamazaki 55 – the oldest Japanese whisky to be released – with a price tag of $60,000.

‘Thirteen years ago Japanese whisky was stored in the saké section of liquor stores. I would walk in and say to the owners: “look, man, it says single malt whisky on the label.” They would tell me: “get out of here, kid.” So, it was definitely more of a struggle in the beginning to legitimise Japanese whisky as a category. Now it’s more about working with artists, working with musicians, and figuring out different ways to express the culture.’ 

Meet Japanese whisky connoisseur Gardner Dunn | Soho House

A lifelong appreciator of Japanese culture, much of what Dunn works on with Beam Suntory is shining a spotlight on monozukuri, a term referring to skillful and passionate craftsmanship –
whether that means working with Japanese knife makers or glassblowers. 

‘We do a lot of stuff with chefs, and then bring in people who are, for example, crafting pewter and relate it to the washi paper design that we use for our labels, or the craftsman who create the cloth that we put into the boxes of whisky,’ says Dunn. ‘All that craftsmanship has really made me excited about branching out a little bit more, where it’s not just me talking about the whisky, but also the craftsmanship of Japan and some of the cool stuff that they’re doing. The traditional stuff, but also the modern.’

Dunn says that the biggest issue right now isn’t selling whisky, but making more of it to meet demand for a product that requires years of aging. 

‘We're launching all these really high-end whiskies, like Hibiki 30 at the end of the year, and we can only get seven bottles. We’re working with whisky collectors who have been loyal to Suntory, but only seven of them can get the bottle. So, it’s been a real challenge to manage expectations on the brand and how much we can release to the United States.’

Speaking of expectations, next year marks the 100th anniversary of the brand – a monumental occasion for Beam Suntory. While Dunn can’t give us too many details on programming just yet, he teases that celebrations will involve “an ode to Lost In Translation”

In the meantime, New Yorkers can book a unique Beam Suntory experience in the form of a five-month pop-up at yakitori spot, Kono. Visitors will get to sip on Japanese whisky while soaking in 1970s hi-fi vibes, courtesy of vinyl sounds from the country.  

For those based outside of New York, or who prefer to enjoy their Suntory whisky from the comfort of their own home, we suggest mixing up one of Dunn’s favourite cocktail recipes –
a Toki Highball in the warmer months, and an Old Fashioned for the winter. His secret tip? Use Japanese whisky and sweeten it up with some Okinawa black sugar. 

Give it a try now, you can thank us later. 


1.5 oz/45 ml Suntory Whisky Toki, chilled
[add quantity if we have it] soda water, chilled
Citrus twist, for garnish

Fill a highball glass with ice, then stir in the Suntory Whisky Toki. Discard the ice and add fresh ice. Then, add in the chilled soda water. Garnish with a citrus twist. 

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