The tease was on the table for only a few minutes and then it was gone. Hiroyoshi “Mike” Miyamoto smiles. Nothing gets him more ecstatic than a dram of single malt, but this bottle is special. It is the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 and, with a twinkle in his eye, he reveals its bloodline. It is 2013’s lovechild, says Miyamoto, Suntory’s global brand ambassador.
To put it in perspective, the 2013 single malt won the coveted World Whisky of the Year award last year and started a frenzy for Japanese whisky, especially Suntory’s stable of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki stocks. Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible that bestowed the accolade, gave it a score of 97.5 out of 100. That’s a dragon-slaying feat by a non-Scotch.
There is more to the story, Miyamoto lets on. The 2013 star was at least 12 years old and what was not bottled was aged for another two years in the original oak, and served as the base for the 2016 sequel. Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo added into it various rare sherry-cask single malt whiskies, some of which are more than 25 years old.
The result: a potential blockbuster. “The previous one was sweeter, but the 2016 edition is more mature and, personally, I feel it is also more acidic, which gives the whisky its overall smoothness.”
Three years ago, the company had stock for 2,600 bottles and could distribute it only to Japan and Europe. It originally retailed for £100 (S$200) but overwhelming demand for the limited supply saw prices skyrocketing up to £3,350 at online markets.
When Suntory rolled out its 2016 edition in January, it pegged the price at 38,880 yen (S$483) per bottle. But, with 1,500 bottles produced for Japan, 500 for the US and the remaining 3,000 for the rest of the world, that price is unlikely to hold.
There are no indications how many of these precious bottles are heading to Singapore, which Miyamoto says is among Suntory’s top four international markets for its top-of-the-line whiskies. The others are the US, France and Taiwan. Singapore aficionados, he points out, have had an affinity with Japanese whisky long before Yamazaki’s seminal 2013 milestone.
“Singapore is also our biggest market in Asia for premium whiskies. Consumers here are discerning and they rushed into the Japanese whisky market, after Yamazaki’s 12-year single malt won the gold medal at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge. They understand and appreciate Japanese quality, even before the boom in demand.”
Winning gold in whisky categories is par for the course for distillers, but winning the king-of-kings crown is special and Miyamoto says is no fluke. He raises two important points to explain why Suntory’s place among the leading whisky makers is secure.
“The first came in 1987 when we closed our distillery to renovate our production facilities, and replaced all our steel fermentation tanks with traditional wooden oaks. We originally used oak when we started in 1923 but, as we did not know how to maintain it, switched to steel tanks. But now we have the knowledge to keep our oaks in good condition.”
The distillery reopened in 1989, and the wooden casks bred a Yamazaki single malt whisky for 12 years to snag that gold medal. But Miyamoto reckons Suntory’s winning edge over the venerable competition, the Scotch, lies in the way it pushes the envelope.
And he is quite an authority, because after Suntory took ownership of Scotland’s Morrison Bowmore Distillers in 1994 – and the Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch distilleries – he was their point man there for 11 years. “Those distilleries are my sons and we learnt a lot from them for 20 years or so, but nothing else after that. Scottish distilleries are faithful to tradition and hold the philosophy that ‘if my grandfather and father did it this way, we will continue to make it this way.’ They won’t change the way they do things.
“In Japan, especially at Suntory, we experiment a lot without compromising on quality, not even if marketers ask us to tweak it for certain palates. But we try different techniques and methods continuously to try and perfect the way we make whisky. This is why I believe our whiskies can only get better.”
JAPANESE FOOD AND WHISKY: BREAKING WITH TRADITION
Whisky and water is supposed to be an aberration, and dining with it a scandal. Indeed, pairing the golden liquid with food would risk masking its notes – notes like sherbet, dark chocolate and caramel.
But Suntory paved the way for this because, as its global brand ambassador, Mike Miyamoto, says, the Japanese palate is delicate. In 1970, it introduced “Mizuwari”, a blending of whisky with water, and paired it with Japanese cuisine. The combination was a hit, but it has not quite caught on outside Japan. With Yamazaki’s 2013 single malt in the spotlight after winning World Whisky of the Year award last year, Miyamoto has gone on a crusade to break tradition.
He has been selective, though, preferring to pair it with Japanese fine dining. In Singapore, his choice is Shinji by Kanesaka at the Raffles Hotel. His pick for master chef is no less than Koichiro Oshino, who has worked with two Michelin star chef Shinji Kanesaka for 20 years.
The menu was an elaborate seven-course affair, from marinated tofu, steamed abalone and king crab, to caviar, sea urchin, white shrimp, and fatty tuna in egg yolk. Four Suntory whiskies from its Hakushu, Hibiki and Yamazaki labels were paired with the spread, with the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 taking centre stage.
The most versatile of the lot is the Hibiki 17-year-old, which has notes of honey, wax, raisin, cooked fruit, and even custard. Says Miyamoto: “There are so many flavours in the blend. Whether it is spicy or bland, Hibiki can go with any kind of food.”
Suntory’s flagship Yamazaki 12 on the rocks pairs well with grilled food that has a hint of sweetness, but especially with sashimi, as the malt’s fruit flavours are a fine match with the clean freshness of the fish.
Miyamoto has made inroads with Asian whisky fans, but he says it is still a steep climb with Western consumers. “They are biased against whisky going with food. It is very difficult to break barriers. But maybe in Australia, it is different, because they are just catching up on whisky.”