The first time I truly enjoyed a Japanese Whisky was in 2009, interestingly in Scotland. On a mission to buy Casks for future investment, I had tasted 16 Samples & was done for the day… or so I thought! Back at the hotel, I was offered a dram of a Japanese Single Malt whisky. The Nose was charming, light spice, vanilla & the whisky carried a fine balance. It was the Yamazaki 10 YO, a beginner`s malt. Age was a key determinant of quality, taste, & commanded a premium, as such it was astonishing to find a 10 YO so clean & mature. Two Drams & my love affair with Japanese whisky started! Over the years, Japanese whisky has been a constant companion, both in India & Overseas. One of the finest experience was enjoying a Yamazaki 25 YO at the World Whisky Awards in the UK, a few years back. I have been following new Launches & Distillery Collections, quite keenly & even enjoying some of them.
As such, It was a pleasure to know that Beam Suntory, one of the largest Spirits Company in the world, recently launched the House of Suntory in India. The House of Suntory portfolio includes two single malt whiskies: Yamazaki – the pioneer of Japanese Single Malts & Hakushu – verdant, fresh, and delicately smoky. Besides, it also includes Chita, a single grain whisky: and two blends: Hibiki & Toki – ideal for Japanese highballs. The introduction of Roku Japanese Gin and Haku Japanese Vodka adds two premium white spirits created from Japanese ingredients by the master artisans at The House of Suntory to the collection. India witnessed the launch of Yamazaki Distillery Reserve, Hibiki Harmony & Roku Gin, a few days back
Suntory, headquartered in Tokyo, was established in 1899 and since 1923, it has pioneered Japanese whisky, Suntory Whisky`s are renowned for its House of Master Blenders and for their Art of Blending. The founding father of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii, dreamt of creating an authentic Japanese whisky, by choosing a terrain & climate completely different to that of Scotland, thereby cultivating unique conditions for maturation. Japan’s first malt whisky distillery Yamazaki was launched in 1923.
In order to understand The Suntory Story better & the future of Japanese Whiskies, I met Mr. Shinji Fukuyo, Executive Officer and Chief Blender of Suntory Spirits Limited, the first and the largest Japanese whisky company. Shinji was born in 1961 at Nagoya-city, Japan. After graduating from Nagoya University, he joined Suntory Limited and his first assignment was as scientific staff at Hakushu distillery. Since then, he has continued to work in the field of whiskey research and production rigorously. In 1992 he was appointed as a blender at Yamazaki distillery and 1996, he was sent to Scotland to conduct whisky-related research at the prestigious Heriot-Watt University. After 2 years of research at Heriot-Watt, he worked at the subsidiary of Suntory Limited, Morrison Bowmore Distillers at Glasgow, for 4 years as a Board of Director. He returned to Japan in 2002 and resumed his role as a blender at Yamazaki distillery. Shinji Fukuyo was appointed to the position of the fifth chief blender of Suntory whisky in 2009 and Executive Officer in 2014. He is responsible for the liquid quality of all of the 7 million cases of Suntory whisky brands. In 2018, he was also appointed to the Whisky Quality Advisor of Beam Suntory Inc., which has Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskey brands. His knowledge mainly covers malt whisky production process, whisky inventory management and whisky design by blending. Products he has blended, such as Yamazaki Sherry cask, Hibiki Japanese Harmony, Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve, have received numerous awards in international competitions. He lives in Kobe with his wife and two sons.
A walk through with Shinjisan…on Whisky!
- …..Making the BestOne of my Mentors & Predecessors, always said that you should think of Whisky all the time time, that is the best way to get the finest results. So I follow that advice and am constantly thinking of Whisky. This means constantly creating new experiments in the distillery & challenging one`s own self towards new products. I am also working with my colleagues on new ideas & concepts, based on Customer Preferences, the evolving Palate, assessing the market situation, stock in hand & the inventory available for new products. My role is to coordinate all areas and ensure that all teams and people work together.
B. …..Soul of Whisky
The Soul of Whisky lies in understanding the entire process of making Whisky. This includes the quality of the water to the right Grain, Fermentation, Casks & the Distillation process. A good distiller will arrive at the best combination, which will produce a balanced whisky. Personally, I start with the Nose of the Whisky, to understand what nose are we really looking at creating. Various experiments are done to develop a certain character & nose of the Whisky. Once we have arrived at the desired nose, we work backwards on creating that flavour profile. My travels across the world have helped me understand and appreciate sophisticated flavour profiles.Blending spirits is about creating a harmonious flavour by weaving culture and tradition along with one’s own form of self-expression. This is an art in itself.
“While making a new blend, I ensure that it resonates specifically well with the target audience while being truly international in its spirit. Sometimes, I travel across various countries to understand the different food cultures and flavours. Eventually what I see, hear and taste, helps me to explore a variety of flavour profiles and finalize a harmonious blend, which has the finest flavour & Japanese craftsmanship”.
C …..Wood Policy
Suntory mostly uses Ex-Bourbon Casks to mature its whiskies. Though increasingly, it has used Spanish Oak and Japanese Whisky as well. Keeping in view that Cedarwood does not bend as easily, it is normally used for cask ends. Suntory is also considering Wine & Brandy casks. Different styles of wood add interesting Flavours, more complexity & above all-new styles of whisky are created. With a more discerning palate, customers are also used to experimenting with different flavors.
D. New Projects
The AO project in 2014 included Scotch Whiskies, Kentucky Whiskies & Japanese Whiskies. The AO project in 2019 uses whiskies from Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and USA. Based on the success of AO project, Suntory will also look at including more styles & countries of Whiskies.
In the Future, Craft Whiskies will be popular. Craft Distillation is catching up across the world. Most Craft Spirits are known for quality, new products & a personal connection with the customers.
E. …..On Mixology
Mixology is not my core area, but I feel that it is really catching up & there are some good bartenders, who are bringing out the Best in whiskies. They are using techniques & ingredients to ensure that Cocktails are good to taste, presented well & are enjoyed by the guests. I also see a lot of Bartenders experimenting with new ingredients. The Art of mixability is getting very popular, with more and more enjoying Cocktails. Besides Ingredients, Ice & Glass are also making a lot of difference. It will be interesting to work on blends, for new-age Cocktails. Personally, I enjoy the Highball & find it well balanced, not very sweet or heavy. I would give it a twist by adding the Yuzu, which will add a touch of Citrus to the same.
F. …..Managing Myself
I regularly nose hundreds of samples to secure the taste consistency of various whisky brands as well as to create new products. In order to achieve the blender’s job which depends on five senses, mainly tongue and nose. To stay fit, I pay attention to my physical conditions and try to keep a regular life. A Balance between travel, new projects & being in the Distillery is maintained. I also get inspiration from the Japanese Seasons & try & develop blends based on nature. This requires a lot of time to be by myself and create new projects.
Shinjisan is a remarkable person and I have known him for over 5 years. Though a man of few words, he opens up to talk about Whisky. and now even Whiskey. I also discovered his love for Indian food, as I walked him across the vast Indian Menu, during the House of Suntory reception. He tasted almost all dishes, remarked on the flavours and then settled for Biryani & Kebabs… must say impeccable taste, even whilst enjoying Indian food!