There’s been an explosion in the popularity of Japanese Whisky the past few years, especially here in Los Angeles. You can find a bottle at nearly every restaurant and bar now, and allocations are getting scarce of their aged blends and single malts.
Suntory started the whole movement in Japan in 1923 when a wine blender who was making port wine, Shinjiro Torii, envisioned making a whisky for the delicate of the Japanese at the time. He chose an area in Yamazaki, Kyoto, and inspired by traditional Scottish whisky, built a distillery. He had sent a young man, Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn how they made those amazing whiskies there. The first whisky they made, Suntory Shirofuda, was a rousing failure, and it strained the relationship between the two men. And Taketsuru ending up leaving and starting a rival distillery, Nikka.
At this point Shinjiro realized the palate of the Japanese was different than the other Scotch drinkers of the world. He realized the blend was the key to their hearts and palates. He became a master blender and worked hard at his blends. Then in 1937 he made Suntory Kakubin, which has a square bottle, and is still the number one seller today! He took all the things the Japanese cherish and put them into the bottle, a sense of nature, a sense of heritage and craftsmanship. In 1970 he introduced a new way to drink whisky, the highball, blending whiskey with water and ice. In 1973 they opened their second distillery, Hakushu, and to start making single malts, which they released in 1984; Suntory Single Malt Yamazaki. 1989 their Hibiki blended whisky was released. Then 1994 they released Hakushu, a single malt as well.
Things changed in the whole world of Whisky when in 2003 the Yamazaki 12 years old wins the Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge, and was named the best whisky in the world.
Now Suntory has three distilleries all with their own sense of place, and which create their unique blends, each adding its own terroir and flavors. Their distillation process is also unique. They use 16 different pot stills of 7 different types, to make all the different blends. They also use casks made from all types of various wood. This could allow them to make up to 70 different blends and depth of flavor.
This philosophy leads to their ongoing mission statement, “Subtle, Refined, yet Complex”.
The family of the founder Shinjiro Torii still work at the distillery today, and his son Keizo was only the second blender in their history when he created Hibiki and it’s 24 sided bottle. They have 5 main component whiskies that make Hibiki Harmony. A chita grain whisky, American white oak cask malt whisky, sherry cask malt whisky, Mizunara cask malt whisky and smoky malt whisky. Those are the five components. If you’ve never tried it, go out and check it out. You don’t even need to invest in one of the aged versions, as the regular old Harmony is absolutely elegant as is.
And now they are releasing a new blended whisky, Toki. Here they make a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky, at a nearly 50-50 level. The malt whisky is from two distilleries, Hakushu and Yamazaki. While the grain whisky is from the Chita distillery. Most blended whiskies start with a large amount of grain whisky to start off, then add a base malt which adds the base aroma and taste. Then they add a key malt/dresser malt to the blend which makes it the character it is. With Toki they add the elements together more evenly to create their harmony. It is outstanding in character, and has just the touch of smoke, and is absolutely smooth beyond belief for the price. Yes, this is their “mass produced” which is the wrong term to use, but it’s the closest analogy. Since it is not a single malt, or aged, they can make it and keep up with demand, which will keep the price down, and the availability high. I believe you can actually find it for under, yes UNDER 40 bucks. Drink it solo or make a highball. If you haven’t had the pleasure of a proper highball, stay tuned, as I will be giving my opinion and recipe for a proper highball. It will be your new drink of the summer.