Keanu has been in Manhattan about six-hours. It’s a quick turn-and-burn from Los Angeles ending in a nondescript building on the Lower East Side. The only thing that suggests something is going on inside the building from the outside are the three bouncers dressed in all-black, with one holding an iPhone, who guard the entrance.
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.
The end of a long flight ends with a Japanese bar. Vinyl records and neon signs create a mood. The curtained hall leads to a large dining room with 100 chairs at two long tables.
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.
Darren Criss is an actor and Saturday Night Live Cast members Heidi Gardner, Sarah Sherman and Sofia Coppola will be in attendance. Sofia Coppola is returning to Suntory for a Suntory docuseries that Reeves will host. Sofia Coppola’s first look trailer.
Before the guests arrive, I see this scene disappear through the glass windows of the elevator that takes me to the top level, where the room is located.
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 offers his hand and stands to make an introduction. Then, before the questions begin, he ensures that whisky has been 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. His ad, which featured figures such as Sammy Davis Jr. Mickey Rourke and Sean Connery was both 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 the Old Imperial Bar, and not the Imperial Hotel.
“Have you been there? It’s fantastic. It’s fantastic. I tried some of the Japanese whiskeys on their list. 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 refuses to drink a glass, knowing that there will be a half dozen whiskies served 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 was a written script. It was like — artist, musician art, alone in a moment. A woman transforms into a kitty, the musician falls off of a chair, and a vision appears. I don’t know what it all means, which is [the] Then, you can enjoy the greatness of your own home. [thing] Art is important. It was fun for me. 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 sitting in front a computer that displays green text. In a moment of confusion, a cat appears. A beautiful woman appears, and then transforms.
He nods. “I haven’t seen it in a while. It was a film ahead of its times. It was a mix of American noir with French surrealistic elements, and felt futuristic. There might have been something about that.”
“But it’s like MatrixBefore a y Matrix,” I offer. “You were ahead of yourself.”
Reeves agrees and laughs. He shrugs, raises his arms in a humble gesture. “I was ahead of myself.”
Arch Motorcycles – 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’s engagement has increased. He gives a fist bump that makes the hair on his shoulders bounce and clasps his hands to bow. “Let’s see! Thanks for asking. I really love being a part of Arch Motorcycle and the company.”
He and his company are focusing on a single goal. “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 laughs while 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 revolve around an invisible object that we can’t see. “The motorcycle. The motorcycle is in mint condition. Arch KRGT-1s and 1Ss are great motorcycles. They’re designed to ride. They’re amazing big V-Twins. The designs and aesthetics are stunning. The real magic happens when you get on the bike and start riding. It sings looking at it, in the presentation, but then to taste it and to ride it, it’s made for that.”
How to Develop a Whisky Palate
Keanu’s humbleness about his whisky drinking growth is evident thirty years on. “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 smoke. Honey, fruit and smoke are my favorites.
Reeves has a humble attitude towards 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 think that different things we put into our bodies can make us feel differently. Some whiskies can make you feel like this. 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 Translation Lost Suntory was catapulted to new heights when it became the backdrop of a story played out by Scarlett Johansson, and Bill Murray. In a way, this makes Reeves Murray’s spiritual successor.
Reeves doesn’t want these comparisons to be made. “[You] just know that you’re not going to be walking in those footsteps. This is a unique journey. That is someone who’s extraordinary, and so that film The Lost 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 let us know what you do and how you got there. [is up to you]. We’d like this part of you, the way that you feel and think.’ I appreciated that.”
Whiskey Wabi Sabi
The dialogue with Suntory has a great deal of meaning for him. 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 [who I did a film with] Call us today to learn more about our services. 47 Ronin 2010 and 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 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 Japanese knotting style, their tying and bondage. Their own culture is a tension between individuality, group and their own culture. Your service, and subservience, but at the same time, your own individuality.”
Reeves, who is now wrapping up our conversation, returns to the bottle of Hibiki 21, and gestures towards it. “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.”
Reeves, out of words but still searching for more to say, shrugs. “I don’t know. I haven’t even had any whisky. But maybe it’s time to have a whisky.”
Clay Whittaker, Maxim’s lifestyle contributor, covers whiskey, cannabis, and travel. His work has also appeared in Men’s Journal, Cigar Aficionado, Playboy, Esquire, Forbes, and Town and Country. View his other works Here is a link to the articleFollow him on Twitter Instagram For more information on the whiskey lifestyle.
Keanu Reeves On Suntory Whisky, Building Motorcycles, & Japanese Philosophy