Great discussion on the last post regarding Carignan from Albert Beltran, Robert Gomez, Nathan Pihl, Jenica Flippo, inderpal singh, Jeremy Eubanks, Greg Harrington, Molly Brooks, Robert Stelmachuk, Geoff Labitzke MW and Michael Winterbottom. I didn't expect so much response and that's awesome! So much love for Carignan! Thank you everyone for your input.
This week: Suntory
What labels are produced under this iconic whisky company? What are the top bottlings? Where are they located?
I've spent quite a bit of time studying Japanese Whisky, and I've prepared and given classes on the subject, so I know a decent amount, and have the hard facts somewhere, but I'm going to shoot from the hip and give the story more or less as I might introduce it to an interested staff member or guest. So please excuse me if my timeline/facts are not 100% spot on, but my general overview should be pretty sound.
Okay. So it's hard to talk about Suntory in any depth without also talking about Nikka, the other incredibly large producer of Japanese Whisky.
Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory, was a cultured and ambitious businessman with the goal of turning Japan into a great whisky-making nation. He already had a popular beverage company that sold sake, spirits, beer, and a sweet wine called Akadama. Akadama was a huge hit and Shinjiro parlayed his profits from the success into a whisky-making venture.
This was in the early 1920's. He needed someone with the knowhow to make whisky and sought expertise in Scotland. He had no encouraging prospects. Then someone asked why he wasn't using the Japanese man who'd learned the trade.
Apparently, a man named Masataka Taketsuru had been sent to learn whisky making a few years earlier on a sponsorship with another small company. The company went under while Masataka was abroad, and yet he stayed on in Scotland. He took classes in organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow and went in search of distillery work. He was met with not just suspicion, but at times outright racism. His great stroke of fortune was his future wife. It was his landlord's daughter, Rita. Rita secured him work in a number of distilleries and Masataka took extensive notes on everything he learned, to the extent that he diagramed the different mechanisms he came to learn to use -- like the pot still, for instance. Longmorn, Hazelburn, and Bo'ness are some of the distilleries where he worked.
Fun fact: The love story of Rita and Masataka was recently the subject of a soap opera that was very popular throughout Japan. And Rita's role in Masataka's success cannot be understated. She went with him to Japan, never to return to Scotland, and was his rock through the many difficult years ahead.
Anywho, Masataka was seemingly the perfect partner for Shinjiro, and he was employed to help plan and build Yamazaki distillery in Osaka prefecture, using the copious notes he'd taken as an apprentice.
Unfortunately, the first whisky released under the Suntory label (Shirofuda?) was a failure. It was too much like Scotch for the gentle Japanese palette, they did not drink much Scotch at the time. Shinjiro placed the blame upon Masataka, and banished him to the beer brewery. Masataka maintained his honor, working out the full ten years of his contract with Shinjiro in his diminished role. In the interim, Suntory was able to produce a softer, commercially viable bottling -- the still popular Suntory Whisky Kakubin ('Square Bottle') label. Unavailable in the states, Suntory promotes Kakubin as the ideal whisky in a highball after work.
Once free of his employment at Suntory, Masataka sought out his own investors. He could not secure a substantial loan so long as he told investors he planned to make whisky, due to his last attempt failing.
But Masataka knew he could make a whisky the world would love, and had even found the perfect place to do it. It was an apple orchid located on the chilly northern island of Hokkaido. So Masataka told investors he wanted to start an apple juice company, and was able to secure a loan. Dainippon Kajuu KK (Great Japan Fruit Juice Company) was born; later, once the whisky venture was a success, it became known as Nikka. That original distillery is the now famous Yoichi distillery.
It's important to know the Nikka story to fully understand Suntory, and Japanese whisky in general, because then you understand the bad blood between the two founders, Shinjiro and Masataka. On the one hand, their fierce competition drove each to strive to outdo the other, and Japanese whisky making benefited greatly. The slightly more idiosyncratic result was that, unlike in Scotland where it's somewhat typical for distilleries to be amicable to the extent that they will swap new-make spirit so that each will have a more diverse palette of expressions from which to blend, this trend never took hold in Japan. The bitter rivals of course refused to engage in such trade, and in order to diversify their range of new-make spirits, they each built a second distillery in a different locale with different styles of stills and methods of production.
Nikka eventually opened Miyagikyo outside Sendai city. Whereas Yoichi employs coal-fired pot stills to make peaty, masculine expressions, at Miyagikyo they use column (continuous) stills, producing fruity yet bold expressions.
Suntory, likewise, opened a second distillery, Hakushu, in Torihara. Hakushu is apparently a gigantic operation, and at one point produced more whisky than any other distillery in the world. They've since cut back production, though a lot of spirit is still produced. Hakushu Single Malts are notable for their verdant, forest flavors -- I personally really enjoy Hakushu.
Suntory has since opened a third distillery, Chita, which produces grain whisky for the company's entry-level blends, such as Toki (an America-only release, which has spirit from all three distilleries).
So in summary:
Yamazaki - Juicy, fruity, approachable
Hakushu - Floral, verdant, spicy;
Habiki - Blended from all 3 distilleries
Toki - Blended from all 3 distilleries
Yoichi - Pungent, peaty, masculine
Miyagikyo - Rich, bold, complex
Taketsuru - Blend of Yoichi and Miyagikyo
In recent years Japan has begun to release more NAS ('No Age Statement') bottles as they struggle to keep up with demand, and thus finding the typical 12, 18, 21 year tiers can be difficult. However, lots of exciting things are happening in the country, and the Japanese have a penchant for unique releases with various finishing casks or other differentiating markers. My favorite smaller producer is Ichiro Akuto, founder of Chichibu Distillery - find his whisky and drink it.