Today marks the start of a week of postings related to Suntory. Many in the US are familiar with Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskies as they are the only Japanese whiskies currently on the market and easily accessible in the US. But how much do we really know about Suntory and the whisky they produce?
We are lucky enough to have Neyah White, Yamazaki’s West Coast Brand Ambassador, provide some insight into Japanese whisky and Suntory’s whisky-making methodology. Possessing a prodigious amount of knowledge concerning all things distilled, Neyah has produced from his trove of personal experience some insight into Suntory’s philosophy and the role and development of whisky in Japan.
The major difference between Japanese Whisky and Western Producers is not one of style, goals or ingredients. The difference is in intention and approach. Whisky in the West began as imported alchemy (middle ages), became an agricultural product (1600’s to 1700’s) then became a branded market (1860’s and invention of the column still and blending) and finally reached artisanship. This history is deeply ingrained in modern producers and shows itself in the decisions that are made at every step of production. The practicality of the farmer-distillers of the 18th century shows up again and again in the decisions made by modern producers.
Japan discovered whisky at the end of the 19th century which means they don’t carry that baggage of history. When they fell in love with whisky it was already a fully developed culinary endeavor. Consequently, when they started producing, they had fewer emotional ties and traditions constraining innovation. They easily adapted whisky to their lifestyle where alcohol is always accompanied by food. This means whisky being served at lower abv so as not to over-power delicate Japanese cuisine, which in turn means that the whiskies must be very purposefully blended so they can stand to be stretched with water. Lacking the hundreds of neighboring distillers with their many hundreds of flavor profiles to trade Japanese distillers have to produce their own component whiskies to achieve the layers that make their whiskies, both blended and single malts, dense enough to serve the native palate.
At Suntory, this means each distillery utilizes many tools to achieve a variety of flavors. Multiple still sizes and shapes, different firing methods, different condenser styles, multiple peating levels, 2 different yeasts, a huge array of barrel sizes and wood types and finally, the option of bamboo charcoal filtering (Hibiki). I have been to quite a few Scottish and American distilleries and have never seen anything like it. Glenmorangie and Bruichladdich may be as freewheeling with their barrels, but the base spirit doesn’t vary. Four Roses may play with yeast and mash-bill, but the wood doesn’t change. Only the Japanese go this far to ensure they have the tools to make whisky this complicated.
To be completely honest, this effort is lost on most Western drinkers. I, like most Americans, like to drink with my throat and belly. I grew up throwing back shots, swallowing before I could taste anything, then savoring the afterburn. While I’d like to think I have matured and savor my drink, I am still quite hasty when compared to my Japanese friends. They taste with their noses as much as with their mouths (maybe why Japanese whisky is doing so well in France?) So why does Suntory bother with the US when they could easily sell it all in their more appreciative homeland? Because they feel a responsibility. Their founders’ mission was to create a Japanese whisky for the Japanese people and clearly, that has been achieved. The focus now is to honor that by proving Japanese Whisky to be a category in it’s own right and worthy of standing on it’s own.
My job, as I see it, is not to tell people that the whisky is good. Rather, I want to provide a perspective and context so the taster understands not just how it was made, but why it was made that way.