Despite my best efforts I know that I am a weak man. I have the willpower of a two year old sat unattended in front of a trough of paint and can have troubles putting down a packet of Polos until I have finished the pack (not advisable with sugar free mints – they hurt you). So, when the illustrious Mr Standing, currently US exiled co-founder of Whisky Squad, told me that a space had come up at the second Squad meetup of June, the meetup that I had deliberately not tried to get a ticket for to allow others to experience the wonder of The Squad, I couldn’t really say no. In a similar fashion to the first meetup of the month this one was also all about Japanese whisky, but in contrast it was a) all about the works of Suntory and b) an away fixture, taking place at Albannach in Leicester Square.
Leading the show this time were co-founder Andy, who had managed not to be exiled to the US, and Zoran Peric, UK Brand Ambassador for Suntory. I’ve bumped into Zoran a number of times at whisky shows, where I have made no lasting impression as ‘drunken punter #93’, and was looking forward to seeing him do something other than throw whisky at a baying crowd, a task that he has performed admirably and with style in my experience. He’s been a barmen for years but after being introduced to Japanese whisky in 1999, by the ever present Colin Dunn during his Morrison Bowmore days (a company owned by Suntory), he fell in love with the stuff, eventually ending up in his current position. He mainly deals with the on-trade side of things, so proselytising to a band of whisky drinking punters was a bit of a different game for him than normal.
While I’ve written a little bit about Suntory before, it’s mainly been as the springboard for Nikka, the smaller of the two big Japanese whisky companies, rather than as a company in its own right. The company started in 1899 as a drinks shop in Osaka called Torii Shoten, opened by Shinjiro Torii and mainly dealing in Spanish and Portugese wines. They expanded and in 1921 became the Kotobukiya company. Seeing the potential demand for a domestically produced whisky Torii started building the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto in 1920, finishing it in 1923 (the officially listed founding date) and starting production in 1924. Their first product was a blended whisky named Suntory Shirofuda (Suntory White Label), appearing in 1929. The White Label wasn’t a particularly popular product, thought to be due to its clashing with a Japanese palate used to shochu and sake. After further development they released Suntory Kakubin in 1937, a mild, sweet whisky with a hint of smoke that is still produced today as their standard blend. In 1961 the success of Suntory whisky led to the company changing their name to Suntory, a brand which now encompasses a wide range of drinks across Japan.
The element of the story that I’ve heard before is the departure of Masataka Taketsuru, which I wrote a bit about in my write-up of the last Whisky Squad tasting. I’ve not heard the Suntory side of it before and was happily surprised that Zoran’s explanation was very respectful of the father of whisky distilling in Japan. Taketsuru left the company in 1934 to found the Yoichi distillery and the company that would become Nikka, and the Suntory explanation is simple – he wanted to stay true to the Scottish style of whisky while Torii wanted to adapt to produce a whisky more suited to Japanese tastes. That may have led to some sidelining of Taketsuru before he left, but it does make a lot of sense. As part of this move Suntory pushed south, with all of the locations staying south of Sendai, while Taketsuru pushed north, initially to the more Scotland-like climes of the Hokkaido, Japan’s north island. The more tropical climate of the south effects the maturation of the whisky, producing a quite different style of spirit to Scotland and Yoichi.
First up for us to try was a golden dram that Zoran sensibly poured us before launching into his explanation of the history of Japanese whisky. On the nose it had sweet glue, maple syrup, white grapes and honeysuckle – very reminiscent of the elements of a grain whisky that I most enjoy. To taste it was spicy, with a caramel start going sour over time. There was a sweetness at the edges of the tongue, a slap of wood down the middle, and cinnamon and dried orange peel over the whole lot. It finished quite quickly, with some sour grapes and green wood. An interesting mix of traditionally grain and malt flavours that was revealed to by Yamazaki 12 year old, a single malt. The whisky is made up mainly of ex-bourbon cask matured whisky (mainly Puncheon casks – large ~300l casks that are mainly assembled onsite by the Japanese distillery’s coopers from imported wood), with 10% from sherry casks and 20% from Japanese oak, Mizunara. This last component provides a distinctly perfumed woodiness, often thought as being similar to sandalwood. It is the best selling Japanese single malt both inside and outside of Japan, including the UK despite its cheaper 10 year old sibling (a whisky more designed for the traditional Japanese palate, with softer flavours) being readily available in supermarkets.
Unfortunately the popularity, as well as the pushing through supermarkets and other high turnover retailers, has had its toll and at the moment Suntory have been forced to ration exports of their whiskies, as stocks are running low – Zoran recommended that we grab bottles of the 10 year old if we see it, as we may not for much longer. Hopefully things should calm down over the next year and prices will stop rising (as they currently are), with stock hitting a sensible level as supply and demand level out.
Yamazaki is based on the outskirts of Kyoto, an area much famed in the past for tea making and especially loved by tea master Sen no Rikyo. The three nearby rivers, Katsura, Uji and Kizu, provide water and help propagate a damp and humid climate, which helps with the ‘Japanese’ character that Suntory strive for.
For maturation they use mainly sherry casks and puncheons, and are fairly modern in their production methods. They use a combination of steel and wood washbacks for fermenting their wash, and have a good chunk of automation and monitoring. To distill the spirit they have 6 wash and 6 spirit stills, all in different shapes and sizes, allowing them to make a wide range of different styles of spirit. This is very important in Japan, which doesn’t have the tradition of swapping and selling between distilleries that there is in Scotland, leaving each company to their own devices when it comes to producing the whisky for their blends. About 60 different whiskies are produced by Yamazaki…
The next whisky on the mat was a similar colour as the first, with a nose that continued the sweet and gluey idea of the Yamazaki 12 year old. This also had dry fruit, dry wooden planks, spiced pears, vanilla and a hint of hammy wood smoke. To taste it started with a little bit of that hammy smoke, moving through a dry woody middle to a long, dry and buttery finish. In the middle there was also a little bit of waxiness and some red berries. The hint of smoke gave this one away – it was Hakushu 12 year old. This is matured in 100% bourbon casks, but is made at Suntory’s second distillery, based at the southern end of the ‘Japanese Alps’, about 100km to the west of Tokyo, and 1/3rd of the way from Tokyo to Yamazaki.
Hakushu has a different approach to whisky manufacture to Yamazaki. They are very traditional, using wooden fermentation vessels, and hogsheads and barrels for maturation. The distillery is also very picturesque, hiding in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by 800 square kilometres of greenery and mountains. They draw their water from local springs, filtered through the granite of the mountains to give a very soft water, much preferred by Japanese distillers for whisky production. Hakushu is actually two distilleries, with the original ‘Hakushu West’ being built in 1973 and the newer ‘Hakushu East’ in 1981. The older half has now gone silent and the newer east wing produces peated single malt. All of Suntory’s malt is imported from Scotland so the Hakushu smoke comes from the same source as that of Scotch – Scottish peat.
The third whisky to be poured was much darker, towards mahogany, what Zoran described as ‘XO colour’ – like an aged cognac. On the nose it had the gluey note from before, glacé cherry, spiced rum and armagnac. To taste it was initially sweet but swished through sour cherry and treacle toffee into a dry wooden board middle with a touch of sour green wood. The finish was long with tobacco and spicy wood getting sweet and fruity over time, like a good dark chocolate. This was revealed to be Yamazaki 18 year old, one of their most critically acclaimed whiskies. It’s a mix of 70% oloroso casks, hence the colour, and 30% bourbon/mizunara. Annoyingly this has risen in price quite dramatically over the last year, with awards and restricted supplying both doing their magic, now topping £100 a bottle. Which is a shame as it deserves to be tasted more widely, even if it was a bit woody for my taste.
Whisky number 4 was slightly lighter with a coppery hue. On the nose it had glue (naturally), maple syrup, apples and custard, and candied lemons – ‘Apple tart with cream’ my notes read. To taste it was generally sweet with butter, sweet apple, vanilla cream and perfumed wood. It’s finish was long and spicy, with green apples and a lightly tannic woodiness hanging around. This was my favourite of the night and in true blind tasting fashion it was a bit of a shock when the label came off – Hibiki 17, a blended whisky. It has about 30 component whiskies ranging from 17 to over 30 years old and its name means ‘harmony’, something that it achieves. The bottle is worth a mention, as while it is a bit lighter than the chunky decanter it seems to be, its form has meaning – there are 24 faces on the bottle, one for each hour of the day or month of the old Japanese lunar calendar: a whisky for any time…
The last scheduled whisky of the evening was quite light in colour and had a nose that my notes list as ‘Ham sandwich on brown bread’. Expanding a bit more, it had a light touch of hammy smoke, a chunk of bready grains, some sour plum jam and sultanas. Mr Matchett flexed his whisky powered metaphor muscle to come up with ‘Like the bowl in a rice cooker that has been used to cook rice with ume plum, after the rice has been scooped out’. I leave you that with no comment. To taste it had a rich malty sweetness, vanilla caramel, a hint of cream, sharp grapes, butter, walnuts and sour wood. The finish had a lightly lingering smoke, cinnamon, liquorice, oats and light dry wood. My notes have it down as ‘Like Weetabix with too much milk’, which I also leave you without comment. The label came off to show that this was Yamazaki Puncheon. This is a no-age-statement (although Zoran let on that it’s about 15 years old), 100% puncheon cask matured whisky, using white oak that has been seasoned with grain whisky from Chita, Yamazaki’s grain distillery, based to the south of Nagoya, on the coast to the south-east of Tokyo. Puncheon is a limited release that appeared in 2010, so if you’re interested in trying some get in there soon.
Zoran then pulled out a bottle from a hidden location, saying that as we’d been well behaved he’d let us have the whisky that he’d brought just for that situation. On the nose it had medicinal peat, swimming pools, brine, mud and a savoury, lightly hammy note. To taste it had sharp citrus, a chunk of sweetness and big meaty coal smoke. Water calmed things down a bit and emphasised a fruity note to the sweetness, added lime and butter, and broke down the coal smoke into coal dust. The finish hung around for a while with honey roasted ham, menthol and lime. A big peaty dram and one that wasn’t too surprisingly revealed to be Hakushu Heavily Peated. It’s been hard to get your hands on the more heavily peated examples of Hakushu in the past, and seeing this Suntory decided to give in and release this expression. It does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s Hakushu and it’s heavily peated, and it works quite well.
With that Zoran tried to slowly edge his way to the door, before being cornered at the bar by a magically never emptying beer glass, and more whisky was drunk. A Yamazaki 12 Mizuwari (whisky and iced water in about a 1-4 ratio) was constructed and passed around to universal acclaim – a bottle of the 12 will be appearing in my cupboard soon to make me some refreshing summer drinks.
Anyways, the next Whisky Squad is already down to waiting list only. I might have been able to blag a ticket after singularly failing to book one up on the morning that they were released – they sold out yet again rather quickly. It’s another international edition next time, with bourbons on the mat. We might get back to Scotland one day…