In the ever-changing landscape of Japanese alcohol, beverages such as sake, shochu, and whisky have battled each other for the top spot in the eyes – err, mouths – of Japanese drinkers.
Recognizing what shochu has done to gain popularity within Japan – and in other markets worldwide – Suntory is doing the same thing: Refining the taste and developing blends that appeal to a broader range of drinkers. Not only is Japanese whisky experiencing a resurgence among its nationals, it is gaining high honors and respect worldwide. Chris Bunting, author of Drinking Japan, the definitive guide to Japanese spirits, says Suntory, the whisky-producing arm of Asahi, and Nikka, Suntory’s biggest rival, won best blended whisky and best single-malt whisky, respectively, at the World Whiskies Awards in Glasgow in 2008.
“No serious whisky critic would challenge the Japanese drink’s right to be considered on an equal footing with Scottish, North American, and Irish products,” writes Bunting.
That statement was solidly backed up last week, when Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world’s best whisky in the 2015 World Whisky Bible. The book, which was released on November 3, is compiled by whisky expert Jim Murray, who characterized the Yamazaki as having a “nose of exquisite boldness” and pointed out its “near indescribable genius” while awarding it a score of 97.5 out of 100. It was the first time in the guide’s 12-year history that a Japanese whisky won the title.
In May of 2012 Hiroyoshi “Mike” Miyamoto, former Master Distiller of Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and current general manager of Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, was in New York for a one-week visit culminating at a seminar for The Gohan Society held at the French Culinary Institute in SoHo (now the International Culinary Center).
Making the push to put Japanese whisky more prominently in the minds of New Yorkers, Miyamoto teamed up with Lee Anne Wong, a “Top Chef” and member of The Gohan Society’s board of directors, to discuss the different brands of whisky made by Suntory and to pair those brands with non-Japanese foods.
In an interview with JapanCulture•NYC prior to the seminar and tasting, Miyamoto described the drinking scene in Japan as a back-and-forth battle.
“In the past shochu was the low-income labor drink,” says Miyamoto. “Shochu is just made of alcohol. Whisky caught the attention of consumers who hadn’t had a taste of real whisky. We hit the market in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the economy started booming.”
Japanese whisky may have garnered after World War II, but Suntory’s history is much older. In 1923 Japanese businessman Shinjiro Torii established Yamazaki, Japan’s first single malt whisky distillery. Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had spent two years in Scotland learning the secrets of making Scotch, to help develop the brand. Yamazaki’s first whisky, called Suntory Shirofuda (White Label), was produced in 1929. Shirofuda didn’t appeal to the Japanese palate and failed, and Torii understood that he couldn’t simply make Scotch; he needed to make Japanese whisky for Japanese people.
Taketsuru would later establish Nikka, Suntory’s rival, which produced its first whisky in 1940 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, and is the subject of the drama Massan, currently running in Japan on NHK.
“We introduced a much, much better whisky, Suntory Kakubin [in 1937], which is the longest seller in Japan,” says Miyamoto. “Whisky became very popular among the people, and shochu was kind of pushed aside. In the late ’80s and early ‘90s, the [Japanese] economy started declining. As the economy went down, people were concerned about their own spending. Shochu was very cheap at that time, so instead of paying money on whisky, they just moved to shochu. At the same time the shochu industry made a real good effort to improve the quality of the product.”
In 2009 Suntory introduced a highball-style drink that mixed whisky with soda. Because this was more palatable to younger drinkers, Suntory started attracting a different type of customer.
“We do have a responsibility to lead the whisky market in Japan,” says Miyamoto. “And also we have a responsibility to lead Japanese whisky abroad to the worldwide audience.”
Still, Miyamoto says that at times Japanese whisky is a hard sell outside of Japan. “Whisky has been recognized for a long, long, long time, but there is some confusion among American people about Japanese whisky,” says Miyamoto. “People don’t have an idea. They ask, ‘Japanese people are making whisky?’ Once we break that image, it’s easier.”
Two and a half years after Miyamoto made that comment, it seems he and Suntory are, indeed, breaking that image. Japanese whisky is the best in the world.