Best Japanese whisky: The finer points of your favourite drink from the land of the Samurai

Beam Suntory, the third largest producer of distilled beverages in the world, recently entered the Indian market with Hibiki, and the hard-to-get Single Malt Yamazaki. Shinji Fukuyo of Suntory Spirits Limited on the reason behind all the buzz about whisky from Japan


We knew the Japanese drank sake. Lots of it. But suddenly there is a buzz about whisky from Japan. Beam Suntory, the third largest producer of distilled beverages in the world, recently entered the Indian market with Hibiki, and the hard-to-get Single Malt Yamazaki. THE MAN met Shinji Fukuyo, Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Suntory Spirits Limited, in a freewheeling chat at the launch in Delhi. Excerpts:

How is Japanese whisky different from Scotch? Irish? American?

Japanese whisky is completely different from all other whiskies. While  initially, it was inspired by the way Scotch was made, today, in spite of having a similar production process, the taste, blend and quality are completely different. The focus has been on making smaller amounts of the highest possible quality whisky. Japanese whiskies have a clean taste and an unpredictability that makes them fun. We have created whiskies that have a subtle taste with impeccable balance and are soft and silky — not jarring at all — with the structure of a good whisky.


Also read: Beginner's guide to whiskey: Everything you need to know about Bourbon, casks, ingredients

What is a typical day for you? 

I start the day with an early breakfast and usually avoid strong tasting food, to keep my taste buds pure. My job consists mostly of tasting whisky, hundreds of blends with the team. I do 100 tastings a day, sometimes more than 200.

What are the challenges in the business of whisky?

In general, the blender is in charge of making the recipe to create the product, the brand, but we also manage the inventory. It’s a mystery how whisky ages. What’s important for whisky is that its taste must deepen with ageing, it should get more delicious as it sits in casks over long periods of time. Through constant efforts and by using different temperatures and yeast combinations for fermentation, we have developed our own array of flavours. We have also developed more complex methods of distillation to improve taste and quality. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the flavours of each cask have to be mixed just right, to create various kinds of whisky and develop new ones all the time. 


How do you enjoy your whisky?

My favourite way to drink whisky depends on my mood and what I am doing. When I am in the mood to read or ponder over something alone, I prefer my whisky neat. When out with a big group of family, friends or colleagues, I enjoy a Japanese drinking tradition called the Highball Mizuwari, which is basically whisky in a tall glass with lots of ice and a dash of lemon. Soda is optional and it is almost like a whisky cocktail. Mizuwari means “to mix or blend” with water. This does not dilute the whisky but brings out Yamazaki's deep and delicately complex flavours, and is the preferred accompaniment to meals. 

I also enjoy my drinks on the rocks which is actually the most popular way to drink whisky. In fact, the Japanese believe in the luxury of time. The Hibiki Japanese Harmony is best enjoyed on the rocks with an ice ball. Enjoying a whisky on the rocks with an ice ball is savouring time itself. The ice ball is said to symbolise the rocks from a riverbed that become rounded with the passage of time. As with any Japanese ritual, the ice ball is more than an aesthetic. The spherical shape allows the ice to melt slower without diluting the whisky. One aspect of these Japanese whiskies is that they are made with the intention of being diluted with water or ice. We make sure that the taste or the combination of flavours won’t be lost when water is added. 

Also read: Best American whiskey: It's time you looked beyond Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam

Are Japanese single malts better or do you think your blended whiskies are better?

Both Single Malts as well as blended whiskies are generally on the super premium end of the price spectrum. Both are different, yet extremely luxurious. 

What's your go-to drink when you want to unwind? Is it whisky or something else? 

This is too difficult to answer, it’s like choosing your favourite kid. But I will say at home I enjoy standard whisky, Kakubin. I can’t enjoy a 30-year-old whisky at home because it’s too prestigious. I enjoy a Highball or whisky on the rocks. Of  late, I have also started to enjoy a good Old Fashioned.

What's the reason Japanese whiskies have been winning awards? 

The relentless quest for perfection and commitment to using only premium quality ingredients has given Japanese whiskies global recognition. The real finesse lies in the maturation process and the high quality of ingredients used. This ensures perfectly balanced yet layered Japanese flavours. The growing popularity of our cuisine has also helped in getting a following for its whisky as it was specifically designed to be consumed with food.

To What do you attribute its success?

I attribute the success of Japanese whisky to the convergence of three rivers outside the distillery in Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto. This confluence gives the water a soft texture and makes it incredibly pure. The dynamic weather with hot and humid summer and dry and cold winter adds another dimension as it plays a major role as a catalyst in the maturation process.

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Three important traits that make a good master blender?

Understanding the product, blending techniques and the consumer perspective. Being a master blender is a lot of hard work: the job requires time, patience, dedication, honesty and, perhaps most importantly, a strong sense of smell. The secret to blending lies in having a nose for the job. You should be able to nose a whisky and decipher each intricate flavour and smell. Being able to taste through smell is essential. It may be easy to taste through the tongue, but being able to smell each gentle and elusive element of the whisky is important. Blending is a delicate art and having a good palate is important as you will be able to match flavour. Time is needed to make sure each blend is up to standard and patience is needed as there will be lots of misses. A master blender has to be inventive as the job profile is not just about getting the right flavour, but also creating and discovering new ways blends can interact with each other. 

Shinjisan's personal notes

What is luxury for you? For me a truly high quality, smooth and delectable whisky represents luxury. The process of maturation, the selection of casks, the essence of craftsmanship, all contribute to creating a product that symbolises true luxury in the world of spirits.


Also read: Best summer cocktail recipes with gin, vodka, scotch and more

What do you do in your free time? I mostly spend time at home, enjoy communicating with my family or watching TV.

Some values from childhood that you carry to your profession...: My values of honesty and dedication. I try to be very gentle, and of course, honest with my work. One does not need to always talk or explain everything. One must watch and learn. This might sound old-fashioned, but it’s part of my value system.

What goes into making a legendary whisky (eg. Yamazaki)?: The most important thing for any legendary blend is the quality of ingredients used and also the blend itself. I am very particular about the barrels I choose as I believe that every barrel is different and hence, recipes must be changed every year.


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