This year, the multi-award-winning Suntory Whisky, distiller of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki whiskies, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Far from being a replica of a Scottish dram, Suntory has crafted a unique taste of the Japanese highlands
[You have to be careful with advertorials not to toe the PR line too heavily. Often they’d be, “Can you put the company name in bold and in capital letters throughout?” We had a fair amount of clout at GQ where we could say, “That’s not the sort of thing we do here,” and the PR mob would usually back down. This promo for Suntory Whisky was fairly simple – company history with a twist, as it involved us visiting the leather interiors expert Bill Amberg in his workshop in West London. Meeting people who are involved with the product usually brings that bit more out of the advertorial writer.]
GQ promo, 2013
Despite the cultural differences between Britain and Japan, there’s more common ground between our two island nations than you might think, especially our appreciation of life’s finer moments. For instance, we’re close cousins in modern fashion, we have a similar respect for the edgier ends of music, we both love the taste of raw fish and we have a fondness for a whisky at the end of a busy day.
For the British, there’s manly prise in knowing what constitutes a decent whisky, and although the auld country is a trusted source of superlative sips, those with a sense of adventure are discovering the subtle flavours of Suntory Whisky. In Japan, if you enjoy a dram, you order Suntory Whisky. The brand is omnipresent in Japan, a frequently spotted logo in the spotlessly clean prefectures of Tokyo and beyond. Suntory Whisky has been around for much longer than most connoisseurs imagine – this year, it’s celebrating its 90th anniversary and, having been presented with the Distiller Of The Year award at the International Spirits Challenge (ISC) in 2012, Suntory is sitting on top of the world.
Its whisky story began in 1923, an operation masterminded by Shinjiro Torii in the misty hills of Yamazaki on Osaka’s southern outskirts. Torii’s plan was to create a subtle yet complex whisky for the more delicate palate of the local populace. Since then, a portfolio of whiskies has been developed, yet the distillery remains in the same location, amid bamboo groves, surrounded by Japan’s clearest, freshest, softest water.
Torii was to spend much of the Twenties fine-tuning his whisky, understanding the harmony between the seasons and the ageing process. The task was then passed to his son, Keizo Saji, who sought to create a unique taste and diversity in malt types. In 1973, a second Suntory distillery was built in Hakushu, deep within the forests of Japan’s Southern Alps, to cope with a growing demand for Japanese whisky. Although Suntory takes its inspiration from Scotch whisky, it doesn’t attempt to replicate the Highland tang. Its flavour is driven by the position of its distilleries: the foot of mountains create the ideal damp conditions needed for ageing casks.
Suntory produces three whiskies in the luxury category. The pioneer Yamazaki single malt is still produced in Japan’s original distillery, while in Suntory’s forest setting, the crisp, fresh Hakushu single malt is made. Hibiki is the icon of Suntory blended whisky, with harmonious notes and a cut-glass bottle that subtly evokes the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar.
The multi-layered, complex and deep-tasting flavour of Suntory Whisky is now winning fans in faraway places, and over the last ten years, awards have arrived thick and fast. In 2012, Suntory became the first distiller in the history of the International Spirits Challenge (ISC Whisky Category) to win two category trophies – a trophy is the ISC’s highest accolade – with its single-malt Yamazaki 18 Year Old and Hakushu 25 Year Old whiskies. To top a huge night, Suntory was named Distiller Of The Year for the second time since 2010, an honour given to the brand that continually produces a supreme variety of top-notch whisky. More recently, Hibiki 21 Year Old was awarded World’s Best Blended Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards 2013.
Today, there’s no need to travel 6,000 miles to sample Suntory Whisky’s award-winning wares – you can easily find Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki in Britain (although everybody should visit Tokyo at least once in their lifetime). Whether Suntory Whisky founder Shinjiri Torii could have envisaged that his mountain-side distilleries would, in 90 years, lead the world is difficult to gauge. But he’d be proud to know that the internationally renowned whisky that Suntory is producing is a truly Japanese experience.
DISTILLER OF THE YEAR 2012
Winner at the International Spirits Challenge, for consistent excellence across a large spirit portfolio
“My father had a whisky cocktail every day at 6pm,” says Bill Amberg, the London-based leather interior designer and creator of bespoke leather accessories. “Consequently, my brother and I grew up with a healthy interest in alcohol.” Bill is a frequent traveller to Japan: his range of handcrafted leather bags, briefcases and wallets is big business in the Far East, which is how he came across Suntory Whisky. “I’ve been going to Japan every year since the early Nineties and I’ve discovered some great whisky bars over there,” Bill explains. “Suntory isn’t a copy of a Scotch whisky. It has its own rich, textured flavours, and there are great varieties of flavour within the brand. The Japanese palate is different to ours. That’s reflected in their food, but also in their drink.”
For a craftsman like Bill, comparisons between his leather trade and the art of making whisky are easy to recognise. “There’s this idea of ‘tasset knowledge’,” he says. “Tasset knowledge is built up until it becomes intuitive. Time and whisky are great companions, and it’s similar to what we do with leather. It takes time, patience, consistency and concentration. I’ve talked to whisky makers and intuition is their thing. Smell, feel, touch, taste, we’re all dealing with senses, after all. It’s an emotional response.”