People

Suntory time

Dave Broom talks plum liqueur, the boom years and Japan's drinking culture with the quiet genius behind some of country's best loved whiskies.
By Dave Broom
The once was a young man who loved staring at the stars, picking his way through the map of the sky in the night with his friends. It would get chilly on these long vigils. The only central heating was a warming draught of whisky. “It was so cold,” says Seiichi Koshimizu recalling those days. “Whisky was good to keep you warm.” He pauses and gives one of his slow smiles. “It was probably Suntory Red.It worked!” Now the chief blender at Suntory, Koshimizu-san is one of the giants of whisky, but like most in his profession, he prefers to let his whiskies do his talking for him. Yet, this modest, almost bashful man has both starred on Japanese television and is becoming an established speaker at tasting events around the world. As retirement looms, the quiet man is emerging.Did the notion of becoming a blender come to him when he sipped that star-gazing Suntory Red? It appears not. In fact, whisky wasn’t even top of his mind when he left Yamanashi University in 1973 to join Suntory; wine was. He had studied oenology and as the firm had a winery in the same area it was a logical destination. That said, he didn’t end up making wine, but working in whisky bottling. Then came the idea of becoming a blender? He laughs one of his silent shoulder-shaking laughs, arms folded across his chest. “To be honest, no, because we didn’t even know what a whisky blender did! They were hidden from us, they were secret figures.” And now you are one of those mystery men? His shoulders shake again. Did curiosity get the better of him and he applied for a job in blending? It’s more prosaic.“Suntory human resources decided for me!After working at Hakushu, I began working with the blenders and from there they sent me to the blending rooms as part of the blending team, then in 1991 I was made chief blender.” End of story. See? Modest. Though he doesn’t like talking about himself, he’s more voluble about whisky.The era when he started blending was a very different time for Japanese whisky. The whisky boom was still in full flow – in the 80s Suntory Old alone was selling 12.4million in its home market. To put that in context, these days the biggest selling Scotch blend, including all its variants, is Johnnie Walker which sells 14million cases.Though Koshimizu-san took the reins at the end of this boom, the volumes were still enormous. “You can’t compare with today,” he says. “Even the number of TV commercials for whiskies were huge. The presence of whisky was different. Nowadays it is single malt which is getting all of the attention, but in those days it was blends.” The assumption might be that his job would be to maintain the ship’s course, produce the big selling brands consistently. Far from it.“Because the market was so big at that time we could be innovative at our distilleries and in our blending and try out new whiskies. You can’t do that unless the distilleries are open.” So a boom time is good for innovation? “Of course.” It strikes me that the Scotch industry has always played this differently. While Japanese blenders see a high mark in sales as the ideal moment to try new ideas and expand the market further, their Scottish colleagues tend to turn to innovation when they need to kick-start the industry back into life.But even with innovation, were the whiskies different from now? “That was the time when mizuwari was the most popular way of drinking. What people wanted was something well-balanced, a drink which they could drink several glasses of. Now people like single malts with distinct individuality.” It was different, he continues, because of wider influences. “If you look at the styles which were the big sellers at that time it was [Suntory] Red, White (aka Old), Kakubin, Gold, Reserve and Royal. It was a pyramid with a unified ‘Suntory’ style. In society there was also a pyramid and if you were promoted, you would try a higher level whisky; so as you moved up through that hierarchy, so you changed your whisky.” And that’s changed? “The idea of hierarchy has. Now you don’t just drink a ‘higher’ whisky because you have been promoted, but because you want to try it! So, even as beginners, younger drinkers are trying premium and malt whiskies.” This rise of the individual in Japan, has also reflected in the whiskies. “They are all still Suntory but each brand has greater individuality than before.” It underlines how blends, whiskies as a whole, don’t exist without society but are driven by the big sociological trends and changes in occasion.Keeping pace with this is where innovation comes in. A case in point is Koshimizu-san’s newest arrival, Hibiki 12 Years Old which contains old whiskies (malt and grain), filtering through bamboo charcoal and a malt that’s been aged in plum liqueur casks.It’s this last element which adds a mouthwatering, refreshingly acidic finish to the classic silky soft Hibiki style.What’s the starting point for a creation like this? “First you have an image of the taste, then you have to find the makes to match.Having that flavour picture in your head is very important. It’s also important to appeal to new drinkers, hence the use of plum liqueur casks.“The 30 Years Old had been highly awarded, but not everyone could afford to buy it, but we wanted everyone to learn about Hibiki. Therefore we wanted to make something that was good, approachable, which was Hibiki and which would also satisfy the world market.” Did the fact that the 12 Years Old is being released in Europe before it appears in Japan have an influence on the blend? He shakes his head. “From the beginning we knew it was to be marketed overseas and I know that the overseas consumer prefers to drink either neat or with a little water, so I paid attention to that as well when I made this.” Don’t however think that there’s been a shift to make an ‘international’ whisky. In many ways, the use of Japanese plum liqueur casks has made Hibiki 12 Years Old more Japanese, not less.The importance of innovation also should explode the myth that Japanese distillers and blenders are somehow more analytical and ‘scientific’ than their colleagues in the west.“Science is just the tool,” he says. “Creativity comes first.“If you are making whisky in Japan you have to have variations in each distillery, therefore you have to be innovative and use many tools. Every year when we review the portfolio we always want to improve. We’re never satisfied, so innovation is needed and we use it as a meaningful tool.” So it’s not finished? A shake of the head. Shoulders shake. “It’s not done yet!” The bottom line to this need for innovation comes partly from historical reasons: Japanese distilling started with the building of Yamazaki in 1923 and being a blend-based category, Suntory had to supply as many flavour variants as possible immediately.Because of the no-exchange rule between firms, this approach has continued.According to Koshimizu-san, this has had an impact on the single malt ranges. It’s not quite as simple as bottling a single distillery character however.“Because we have many variations of makes from each distillery, each age expression is a different blend of these. Even though Yamazaki, for example, is a ‘single malt’, we’ll use different whiskies with different profiles for each expression. That’s an approach which, I believe, is unique to Japan.” In Scotland, each malt distillery has (on average) a single distillery character.Therefore, a distillery’s 15 Years Old expression has the same underlying distillery character as its 12 Years Old, but with three more years and conceivably a different wood mix. For Suntory, however, as Koshimizu-san says each expression of the core Yamazaki range will be a blend of different types of whiskies from that distillery. The art of blending is therefore central to the creation of both blends and single malts.“Tastes change and people change,” he says reflectively. “Blending was never visible to the consumers, but that environment has changed now that now that whisky fans are increasing their knowledge. We can now open the doors to Yamazaki or Hakushu and show these different styles, such as through the single cask bottlings which show different flavours of spirit or different wood types.” So, we’re in a better position now than when you started? There’s a long pause.“Nowadays younger people tend not to drink, but I hope they will understand the pleasure that can be had in it. Alcohol is a tool which enables communication, it helps establish relationships and it is an important tool in society. An understanding of the pleasure and fun within whisky is something that’s required.” But can you do this in a recession? There’s another pause. He’s a deep thinker, the words are measured but the answer always comes. “Recession is only a phase. I think in a society that’s getting busier so there’s a need to be able to relax, and that’s what whisky can help you do.” Somewhere no doubt, there is a young student gazing at the stars, sipping on one of his whiskies. They might be using it as central heating, but they might get a glimmer of the craft that’s involved: of how Koshimizu-san has charted a universe of possibilities, made the abstract real, mapped a world of flavour in his mind.