Singapore, June 4, 2010
10AM is not exactly the best time to be making friends with a whisky, but there I was, being introduced to three Suntorys by the Japanese distillery’s chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu one morning last week.
Having worked with Suntory for over 30 years, he knows his products.
In fact, he’s credited with having developed some original touches to the whisky-making process in his country, namely, Bamboo Charcoal Filtration and Japanese Oak Cask Maturation.
Ask him about these methods and he patiently explains, through a translator, that Bamboo Charcoal Filtration was the result of his desire to work with the bamboo that grows all around Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery which was built in 1923.
He says the filtration method – the bamboo is charred and whisky poured over the resulting charcoal – adds a vanilla-like flavour to the spirit. But it’s not done for every product in the Suntory stable.
The Japanese Oak Cask Maturation, as the name signals, uses locally sourced wood for the barrels the whisky matures in.
This gives the spirit a sweetness and an Oriental – Mr Koshimizu likes to use the word “Asian” – scent.
Mr Koshimizu, who joined Suntory Limited’s Tamagawa plant way back in 1973, proceeds to tell me more about the three Suntory whiskies – they are distributed here by Beam Global Asia – he has lined up on the table.
While many whisky fans may raise an eyebrow at Japan’s whisky-making lineage, the truth is that Japanese whiskies have started garnering a fan following. This is supported by the major awards that have come Suntory’s way of late – it was named Whisky Distiller of the Year in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky 2010 ratings which looks at the global whisky trade and it picked up gold awards at the International Spirits Challenge last year and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year.
Pointing to the Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky (right, top), which is aged 12 years at the Yamazaki distillery, Mr Koshimizu tells me that it has a fruity aroma but delivers a sweet, mellow flavour on the tongue.
Moving onto Hakushu Single Malt Whisky (right, middle), Mr Koshimizu tells me that this too is aged 12 years, but at the highest and most remote distillery in Japan.
He claims it is a lighter flavour than the Yamazaki, with a richer aroma that has hints of fruit and smoke.
The unique climate where the Hakushu distillery is located – it has four clear seasons but the mercury can drop to minus 10 deg C – makes it perfect whisky-making territory.
Finally, we get to the cream of the morning’s crop: Hibiki Suntory Whisky (right).
This, he tells me, is aged 17 years and is a fantastic blend of over 30 whiskies from Suntory’s three distilleries.
Proof of that is the gold award it won at last year’s International Spirits Challenge.
In Mr Koshimizu’s words: “There are many flavours, but they combine in harmony.”
Perhaps that’s why Suntory named this whisky Hibiki… it means harmony in Japanese.
Our conversation then meanders towards a master blender’s job: This man has to taste whisky from 200 to 300 casks every day at work.
He says the nose and taste buds can be trained, but without a love for whisky, one shouldn’t bother applying for his job.
I ask him how he manages to stay sober.
He tells me that he spits out the whisky after rolling it around his mouth and getting a “taste”.
Then, almost conspiratorially, he adds that he does feel a little tipsy on some afternoons.
And what does a veteran whisky blender splash into his glass when he puts up his feet and relaxes?
“A nice shot of Hibiki, either 50-50 (about the same amount of water as the whisky in the glass) or on the rocks,” says Mr Koshimizu.
By the way, if you’re wondering… we didn’t open the bottles that morning.