Keanu Reeves On Suntory Whisky, Building Motorcycles, & Japanese Philosophy
The “John Wick” icon and Suntory whisky ambassador is just as cool as you would expect.
Keanu Reeves has been in Manhattan for about six hours. It’s a quick turn-and-burn from Los Angeles ending in a nondescript building on the Lower East Side. From the outside, the only thing to suggest something interesting might be going on within is the presence of three bouncers clad in all black guarding the doorway, one holding an iPad.
Once you’ve been granted access past the doors, a few hostesses do a redundant name check ahead of the evening’s hush-hush Japanese whisky-tasting event to commemorate Suntory’s 100th anniversary.
A long flight of stairs ends in a makeshift Japanese bar. Vinyl records, highballs, and neon signs add mood. A curtained hallway leads into a grand dining space where 100 seats along two long tables await guests.
In an hour, the basement of this space (which very much resembles the kind of industrial venue where the character of his current most popular franchise might have left those guards in a lifeless pile) will fill with celebrities, influencers, and whisky writers, who are in attendance for the debut of two new whiskies from Japan’s best-known brand.
Actor Darren Criss and Saturday Night Live cast members Heidi Gardner and Sarah Sherman are among the attendees, and Sofia Coppola (who is making her Suntory directing return for a docuseries with Reeves as host) will share a first-look trailer.
But before the other guests begin arriving, I watch this scene shrink through the windows of a glass elevator, which shepherds me up to the top floor overlooking the space.
Light pours in now that we’re above street level, and among an arrangement of houseplants and publicists from the celebrity and distillery teams, sits Keanu, still rocking his long frame of John Wick hair and an impeccably tailored suit.
He stands and offers his hand for introductions, and before the questions start flowing, he makes sure whisky is offered. He doesn’t partake but offers a confident “Kanpai” to begin the interview.
Suntory Reserve and ‘90s Ads
“Kanpai” has been in his vocabulary for more than three decades. Reeves first entered the world of Suntory in the early ‘90s with the debut of his surrealist ad campaign for Suntory Reserve. Alongside figures like Sammy Davis Jr., Mickey Rourke, and Sean Connery, his ad was equal parts unexpected and memorable.
But before Reeves entered Suntory’s world, Suntory entered his in an equally memorable fashion.
Reeves had his first taste “probably when I first had the opportunity to come to Japan when I was working on publicity for a film —probably when I did Point Break. I had my first Japanese whisky then.”
He recalls his experience at the legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which famously drew his praise on other occasions, but refers today to the Old Imperial Bar.
“Have you been there? It’s fantastic. It’s fantastic. I tried a couple of the Japanese whiskies on their menu. That’s when I had the chance of, probably, first taste of the Hibiki 21.”
Perhaps intentionally, The Hibiki 21 is what’s been poured for Reeves’ guests for this interview. Keanu declines a glass for himself, knowing there will be half a dozen whiskys to come during the dinner.
I ask Reeves what he remembers from filming his commercial — an intentionally head-scratching assemblage of Keanu, a cat, and a beautiful woman — who may also have been the cat.
“It’s trippy. I remember there being a script. It was like — artist, musician art, alone in a moment. A vision, a woman who then transforms into a cat, and the musician falling over off a chair having this, kind of, moment. I don’t know what it all means, which is [the] great [thing] about art. For me, it was, kind of, fun. I mean, I had done commercials before but I liked the, I liked not the — I want to say the weirdness of it, the fantasy of it.”
Like so many millennial men, Reeves’ 1999 film The Matrix was one of the first DVDs I ever owned, and having watched that commercial a dozen times in preparation to interview him, I can’t help but point out the parallels. Keanu is in front of a computer running green text. A cat appears in a confusing moment. A beautiful woman appears and, suddenly, transforms.
He nods. “I haven’t seen it in a while. It was ahead of its time. It was French surrealistic influences with some American noir, and it felt kind of futuristic too. There might have been something about that.”
“But it’s like Matrix-y before Matrix,” I offer. “You were ahead of yourself.”
Reeves laughs, shrugging and lifting his hands in a gesture of humility to agree. “I was ahead of myself.”
Arch Motorcycles and Making a Marque
Reeves’ publicist wants to wrap things up, but I have to squeeze in a quick question about his motorcycle company Arch, which he co-founded in 2011 with Gard Hollinger, who he’d previously hired to build a custom Harley for his recreational time.
Reeves, who has been engaging so far, finds a new level of enthusiasm and, with a fist pump that causes his shoulder-length hair to bounce, clasps his hands in a bowing gesture. “Let’s see! Well, thanks for asking. I really love being a part of Arch Motorcycle and the company.”
Right now, he and the company have a singular focus. “We’re trying to develop our own engine, so that’s exciting. We’re working with a Swiss company called Suter to try.”
Reeves notes that it’s maybe not a great time to be developing a combustion engine, but it felt like something necessary to build what they really want the brand to be. “Gard Hollinger’s ambition [and mine] was to make our marque you know, a marque, M-A-R-Q-U-E. Like a marque.”
“To me, it’s like you’re not really a motorcycle company until you make your own marque. I mean, I don’t think that we’re not real, but you can’t be a marque. You could be a motorcycle company, but you’re not like, you know, Ford, Ferrari, Yamaha, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Triumph.”
“What’s it been like,” I ask, “to try and develop an engine from scratch?”
Reeves smiles, sighing. “It’s been very exciting, and frustrating, and exciting again, as things work — because they go from working to, there’s not work, to working. And it’s taking time. We’re two years in and there’s a lot to do, but it’s exciting and everyone loves the project. It’s special to have the opportunity, so we try, so I’m excited about that.
I ask Reeves if — in the 12 years since they founded the company — there’s something he’s particularly proud of.
His hands rotate around an invisible object between us. “The motorcycle. The motorcycle is mint. The Arch KRGT-1, and the 1S, are amazing motorcycles to ride. They’re designed to ride. They’re amazing big V-Twins. And the designs, and the aesthetics of them, I think are beautiful. But to actually sit on one of those bikes and ride them, is where it sings. It sings looking at it, in the presentation, but then to taste it and to ride it, it’s made for that.”
Developing a Whisky Palate
Thirty years later, Keanu is humble about his growth as a whisky drinker. “I just have had more experiences, a wider kind of selection of whiskies with whatever it was, Scottish or Japanese, Indian. Having the chance to work on the docuseries, and meeting master blenders and having a chance to actually sit with them, and kind of go to master blending Introduction 101.”
“One of the things that really struck me was how they usually have this contrasting dialogue of “tension” with what they make. It’s the [flavor of] fruit and the smoke. I like the fruit, honey, and I like the smoke and the peat.
Reeves is humble about his palate. “I don’t know. I try to taste what I’m tasting, but I don’t know if I’ve done the work that’s necessary to really be accurate — it’s such a subjective [thing]. I’ve experienced it with wine as well. For me, that experience of going to Japan is definitely, I don’t know if the word’s better, but I have a sense of being able to taste and try to express what I’m tasting in a more, not accurate, but more detailed way.”
“I love how they make me feel too. I feel like different things that we put in our bodies make us feel different. And some whiskies make you feel this way. With Japanese whisky, you might want to just think, talk, feel, hang out, and philosophize.”
Suntory and Sofia Coppola
The docs-series, by the way, is Sofia Coppola’s first return to Suntory since a little film called Lost in Translation catapulted Suntory to new heights as the backdrop for a story acted out between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. In a way, this makes Reeves Murray’s spiritual successor.
Reeves is hesitant to let those comparisons be drawn. “[You] just know that you’re not going to be walking in those footsteps. That is an original journey. That is someone who’s extraordinary, and so that film Lost in Translation, that artist Bill Murray is incredible.”
Reeves’ project is admittedly very different, first and foremost because it’s nonfiction. “I think in speaking with Sofia and seeing what [Suntory] was interested in doing … with me, they were like, this is what we would hope to speak about, but basically please”— he gestures graciously— “It’s like a ‘please.’ It was a question. It was like, ‘so, we want to talk about the water. Please learn about what we do, but how you do that and how you come to it [is up to you]. We’d like this part of you, the way that you feel and think.’ I appreciated that.”
That dialogue with Suntory is a touchstone of Japanese culture that he has great respect for. Reeves’ respect for Japanese culture has grown, adapted and changed over the years. “When I was younger, and a kid, [I appreciated] Japanese anime, Japanese cuisine, Japanese movies.”
“Then actually going to Japan and spending more time working with Japanese artists like Hiroyuki Sanada [whom I did a film with] called 47 Ronin in 2010, 2011, [I began to really appreciate] Japanese Buddhism, the idea of the moment, being in stillness, trying to come to a realization through quiet, or doing through the process or stillness, or sweeping the floor, or getting a lesson.”
“There is something [about] how they deal with nature — how they deal with anything, the ceremony that goes into so many aspects of the culture — the paper, the denim, architecture, shape, meaning, nature, design, there’s such a specificity in all things. That way that they peer in, like, ‘Grr.’ And they’re fierce about it.”
“Even in decay, wabi-sabi, it’s the formalization, but even then the deconstruction, or the falling apart, that ending of … Just how there’s beauty everywhere. And then that interaction between our flesh, and blood, and mind, and thought, and heart, and spirit with all things nature around us, and how they…”
Reeves gestures at a plant on the table — not a bonsai, but a small centerpiece designed to look like one. “I mean, they even look to control plants, right? Some miniaturization, trimming, and cutting, and culling, and … But then they’ll do flower arranging, and see the expression of shape, and emptiness, and form, and color.”
“I guess just, I appreciate it. It is to my taste. Not to how I live, or what I do, — I don’t follow in their shoes, but … Basho, the poetry, so form and structure. It’s looking at form and structure, and then release. The knotting, the way that the Japanese do knots, tying, and bondage. The tension of their own culture, of individuality and group. Your service, and subservience, but at the same time, your own individuality.”
Our time is wrapping up and Reeves returns to the whisky, gesturing at the bottle of Hibiki 21. “And there’s this, when I speak to them, it’s this idea of pursuit of perfection, with the idea that you know that you’ll never have it. And you’ll never … The point is almost to pursue it, not to have it. And that if it can just be, then that’s what … But it can’t just be anything.”
Searching for more to say and running out of words, Reeves shrugs. “I don’t know. I haven’t even had any whisky. But maybe it’s time to have a whisky.”
Clay Whittaker is Maxim contributor covering lifestyle, whiskey, cannabis and travel. His work has also appeared in Men’s Journal, Cigar Aficionado, Playboy, Esquire, Forbes, and Town and Country. Check out his other work here, and follow him on Instagram for more whiskey lifestyle.