Saturday, Apr 01, 2023

Know The Finer Points Of Japanese Whisky From Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo

Know The Finer Points Of Japanese Whisky From Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo

Know the finer points of Japanese whisky from Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo, who crafted a blend especially for India

Shinji Fukuyo

We knew the Japanese drank sake – Lots of it! However, there’s a sudden buzz about whisky from Japan. For decades, Japanese whisky was largely a domestic phenomenon, but that changed dramatically this millennium, thanks to whisky aficionados searching for new experiences as well as the slew of International awards that Japanese malts have garnered over the last decade. Recently, Fukuyo helmed the release of Suntory’s new Whisky 'Toki', a blend of whiskies crafted specifically for mixing into cocktails. It’s well balanced and silky – On the palate, you’ll taste grapefruit and green apple. Also some peppermint. The finish is sweet and spicy. It’s an exceptionally versatile whisky.

Whisky-making in Japan started in 1923 when the construction of the Yamazaki distillery began. The first authentic Japanese whisky product was launched in 1929, but it didn't sell well because it was inspired by Scotch whisky. The smokiness was a bit too strong for the Japanese consumers at that time.

After a lot of blending trials, the first successful Japanese whisky was launched in 1937, more than 80 years ago. After World War II, due to Japan's high economic growth, whisky sales also increased drastically. The peak of whisky sales in Japan was in 1983, but then it saw a long decline. However, whisky sales have recovered since 2008 due to two reasons. One is the high reputation of the premium whiskies globally, and the second is the boom of whisky high-ball in Japan.

Just like the Japanese, Indians like to drink their whisky with soda, ice, or water, so a perfect blend for them is something which should taste good in their glass even when it is diluted.

Outlook’s Eshita Bhargava caught up with Shinji Fukuyo, a chief blender at Japanese brewing and distilling company Suntory, and talked about how he created a blend for India, what makes Japanese whisky unique, the right way to drink whisky, and much more.


How and when did you get interested in whiskies?

I started drinking whisky when I was a university student, but I didn’t think I would work for whisky at that time.

After graduation from university, directly I joined Suntory. The Suntory Human Resources department accidentally appointed me to the Hakushu distillery, in 1984. I was immediately interested in whisky.

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

Materials and production processes are similar to Scotch whisky, but Japanese nature and craftsmanship create the distinctive characteristics of Japanese whisky. The quality is subtle and well balanced, yet complex. In Japan, we have very pure and clean water and a unique climate like hot and humid summer and cold and dry winter. It helps in producing sophisticated whisky spirits. The Japanese craftsmanship is famous in the world for automotive and watches manufacturing, pottery, cuisine, Manga-animation, and so on, which are so precise and detailed. This craftsmanship is also reflected in Japanese whisky production. In addition, blending requires various types of component whiskies, but there are not enough malt distilleries in Japan for blending. Therefore, the distilleries are making great efforts to make various types of whisky in a single distillery by using different distilling malts and yeast, installing pot stills that have different sizes and shapes, aging whisky in casks with different wood and shape, and so on. This diversity of whisky making is also our unique craftsmanship.

For a layman, how is sake different from whisky?

Both use grain/cereal as raw materials, but Sake uses rice and whisky usually uses barley and/or corn. In the case of sake, rice starch is digested by KOJI mold, but whisky uses malted barley for saccharification of grain starch. Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage and its alcohol content is about 15%. Whisky is a distilled spirit that has much higher levels of alcohol and the colour is amber-like by wood extraction because, after distillation, the spirits are filled in wooden casks for long maturation.

The way whisky is consumed in Japan is also different, for instance in a highball and as Mizuwari (with water and ice). Could you tell us more about that?

In Japan, alcohol frequently accompanies a meal. Whisky is usually consumed either as Mizuwari - that is mixing of water not only to reduce alcohol stimulation, but also to enhance the aroma and flavours - or highball, which is similar to Mizuwari, but instead of water, sparkling water is used for a refreshing taste. This versatility shall be brought forward through the launch of Suntory Whisky Toki as it can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, as a highball, or concocted into a cocktail. The Toki highball is a meticulously designed cocktail with careful attention to details that create a vivid blend with carbonated water on the rocks. The result is a balanced refreshing drink to perfection that enhances the delicate sweetness with perfect aromatic notes of Toki. 

Several countries apart from Japan -- that includes India -- make some exceptional single malts these days. How do you think the Scots view the popularity of these whiskies?

For long years, the big four whiskies have been popular and dominant, which are Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, and Canadian. I think that the success of Japanese whisky motivates whisky making in other countries. I don't know what the Scots think about this trend, but I guess that they might take it as a good opportunity to expand whisky culture over the world and might also be a bit worried and try to protect and emphasize their own whisky history/culture.

You have visited India five times in the last year, how has your experience been and how did it help you create a blend for India? 

The idea to visit India was to get the consumer insights on whisky and interact with them personally to understand their needs and wants to create an ever-improving experience. This proved to be very fruitful as we got tremendous and extremely significant insights into how Indian consumers enjoy their drinks, especially whisky. As we continue to develop our presence in India as the growth engine of the future, we are looking at unlocking new growth opportunities to build scale. These visits help us in driving our vision and help us understand how we should make our product as it is important to understand the pulse of the consumer and know what they want before making it. From these visits, I also got to experience what Indian bar food tastes like and what flavors would go well with it. 

I read somewhere that you visited thekas, ate bar food to understand how Indians want their drink. Is that true? If yes then how did you do it? How were the experience and findings?

Yes, that is correct. My visit to India was planned to achieve the best out of the personal interactions and experiences to recognise what the Indian consumer desires in their whisky. Thus, giving way to Oaksmith in India. Keeping in mind that we are a premium spirits company, our vision was to create a blend that resonates and complements the consumers' palate. During this process, I visited India six times and traveled across the country from Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Goa, and several other cities, to study how Indians like to drink whisky and what they enjoy. In Japan, we have a practice called ‘Gemba’, which basically means ‘the real place’ - the idea is you go to the source to do your research and know what the masses want. We believe an on-ground interaction will provide us with the insights that might skip on online research or survey. Hence, on all my visits  I made sure to visit small and big joints including ahatas, bars, and thekas, to see how Indians are consuming whisky and what they are consuming it with. This helped us understand the nuances of Indian food and flavours and what matched it perfectly.

This has helped me in creating a blend that appeals to the sensibilities and the palates of all Indian consumers - beginners and connoisseurs alike. The insights obtained were extremely significant helping us in navigating our vision further. As we continue to develop our presence in the Indian market with our premium products, with these visits we have also been able to understand the other requirements such as what Indian bar food tastes like and what flavours would go well with it. 

What are some of the things that you keep in mind while creating blends for India? Do you believe your blends are more suited to the Indian and Asian palate?

India is a vast country - each region has a different language, culture, and food that is uniquely their own. During my travels, I found it to be crucial to visit cities in India to help me understand the customers’ priority and to cater to their demands accordingly. Oaksmith was created, keeping Indian consumers at the center. 

Is there a correct way to drink whisky?

The appropriate way to drink a Japanese whisky would be as per an individual's preference. There is no single best way. However, there are essential styles for enjoying a drink such as neat, on the rocks, pouring whisky onto crushed ice for extra refreshment, and highball. With the launch of Toki in the Indian market, to experience the versatility of the spirit, the best way to consume it would be as a highball or as a Perfect Serve. The Toki Highball is a well-crafted beverage with the specific observation of details, creating a unison of the vivid blend with carbonated water on the rocks. It is a refreshing drink with a perfect balance of this fresh and distinctive serve. The Perfect Serve is served by filling the glass to the brim with ice and adding one measure of whisky. The contents can then be stirred to cool the whisky and the glass and then topped off with chilled sparkling water along the side of the glass to avoid losing gas, with a twist of citrus.

Lastly, how is each whisky from the brand different from another? Especially the new one?

As part of The House of Suntory portfolio in India, there are three world-renowned and award-winning whiskies - Yamazaki and Hibiki, and more recently, Suntory Whisky Toki. The Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve Single Malt is a rich and easy-to-drink whisky. To the nose, the beautiful liquid gold whisky has a sweet, fruity smell derived from strawberry, cherry, and Mizunara, while the palate is complex with notes of raspberry, white peach, and a touch of coconut giving it a round-body and a profound taste. The Hibiki Japanese Harmony is a harmonious blend of malt and grain whiskies, blended meticulously to create a symphony of flavours. The beauty of this whisky is that its complexity lies in the subtlety of flavours that lingers on one’s palate, leaving behind a subtle and tender long finish. Suntory Whisky Toki is a contemporary and modern spirit that is both groundbreaking and timeless, a harmonious balance that lingers in your palate. To fully appreciate this silky whisky with a subtly sweet and spicy finish, Toki is best enjoyed as a refreshing Japanese highball. Toki can also be enjoyed neat on the rocks or mixed in a simple cocktail to showcase its versatility and vivid character.