Production

The next evolution

Dave Broom looks at the new steps for Japanese whisky maker Suntory
By Dave Broom
Japan's HiBall Revolution has been well documented in these pages during the past five years, but there was always a question nagging away at the back of commentators' minds - what happens next?

This wasn't just driven by their insatiable lust for newness and inbuilt short attention span, but the feeling that getting new drinkers into whisky through HiBalls should just be the start. What was needed next was a bridge between this easy drinking entry point and the wider whisky world.

Not building the bridge would expose the HiBall firms to the vagaries of fashion and the possibility that other spirits or serves would come along, flutter their eyelashes at these new drinkers and lure them away."

The HiBall boom has supported whisky sales and is now established as a starting point for whisky in Japan;" says Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory's chief blender. "But many of consumers don't understand what they are drinking is whisky, so our job now is to bring them into the authentic whisky world." It would seem that even the advent of the HiBall Tower, effectively whisky soda on draught, offering Yamazaki and Hakushu 10 Years Old in HiBall form, isn't sufficient. "The cheapest Yamazaki is still a big jump in price from Kakubin," Fukuyo explains. "We needed an easy drinking, authentic whisky at the right price." The solution, now launched in Japan, are two No Age Statement [NAS] expressions of Yamazaki and Hakushu. Not having an age statement allows younger stock to be used, which in itself answers two problems. One is the squeeze on stock within the whole Japanese industry at the moment. Until recently, distilleries were on short-term working so liquid availability is tight. The second is that using younger whiskies will allow a lower price point to be achieved. There is an element of expediency about this as well as the desire to create the bridge.

While it ticks the boxes as far as marketing and accounts are concerned, from a whisky maker's perspective although NAS allows a freedom and ability to work to a flavour rather than an age, it also necessitates creating a spirit which has balance and complexity. It's not just as simple as just sticking a young whisky in a bottle and forgetting to say how old it is.

"What people don't understand is that blending is not 1+1 = 1+1," says Fukuyo, somewhat enigmatically. "My starting point for Yamazaki was putting it into red Bordeaux casks for between two and seven months. I used a light, young spirit which took on the wine cask influence quickly." The resulting whisky had the hue of onion skin and a mix of stewed fruit - strawberry and rhubarb on the nose and while there was a slight youthful greenness on the palate the creamy texture and Yamazaki peachiness came through.

Light, slightly sweet and approachable it would work well in a HiBall. Job done?"I took this to my boss - Suntory's chief blender Shingo Torii. His response was that it needed to be more challenging. The aim is not just to take new HiBall consumers into whisky, but not to lose existing Yamazaki lovers." It was back to the drawing board."

The wine cask was a prototype and has ended up as an element within the final product. But Torii-san was right, we needed to be bolder." So Fukuyo went to the other extreme, to super-aged stocks, like a Yamazaki 25 Years Old from a first-fill sherry cask. Coffee coloured, it has massive amounts of extract mixing with the raisin and walnut flavours.

Astringent is the word, yet this mouth puckering quality was precisely what Fukuyo needed to add depth and seriousness to the new product. "It's an instructive whisky and while we don't use much of this, it is a very important whisky for a blender." The end result [see box], although more than just a blending of wine cask and old sherry, has retained the sweet red fruits of the former, while the latter is bedding flavours down on the tongue, allowing a greater Yamazaki succulence to be shown.

It was a similar story with the Hakushu, which started not, as might be expected with freshness and delicacy, but with smoke. "We used to use lightly peated malt at Hakushu, but stopped it in the 1990s and started blending together unpeated and heavily peated spirit. What we discovered however was that the blend - even though it might have the same phenol reading - doesn't give you the same result. The conclusion was that lightly peated malt was started once more in 2005.

"The peating is so light that you would think it would have disappeared, but while the smokiness has gone, its accent has remained." The youthful base for the NAS has none of the rubbery notes you often get from young smoky whiskies and has retained the green apple notes of Hakushu alongside a lifted mintiness with just a puff of smoke on the palate. Again, this was not quite serious enough, but rather than adding a structural depth as with the more robust Yamazaki here Fukuyo played with extending the line of the whisky along the palate by bringing in a textured older whisky - in this case an 18 Years Old Hakushu from refill cask. The palate here was chewier, the apples cooked, with elements of white chocolate and a subtle silky mouth-feel. The end result is a NAS with mouth cooling freshness, even a hint of basil and mint tea, but with a creamy, pear-like softness in the middle.

"In whisky there is simplicity and there is complexity," says Fukuyo. "Even that 25 Years Old Yamazaki is a simple whisky. We can think of these whiskies having no age, or having timelessness. Each whisky has its own peak. Young whisky in the wine cask hits the peak early, as does the light peat." In other words, the whiskies are used not because they are a certain age, but because they have reached a desired flavour profile.

It is both a quality judgement and a flavour-led one which takes us into a deeper understanding of 'age.' For while it is hard to argue that age is a determinant of quality, it is equally true that extended ageing can give some remarkable qualities to a whisky. Age isn't the issue, maturity is and maturity should bring with it desirable flavours, complexity and balance. You can have a mature four year old, just as you can have an immature, or over-matured, two year old.

You can have a NAS whisky with young and old within it which is fresh, approachable, serious... and mature.Oh... what does 1+1 equal Shinji?"Something different!"


Cask info



Suntory uses three types of oak in maturation: Quercus alba (white oak from America), Q.robur (European oak) and Q.mongolica
(Japanese oak, aka mizunara). These are utilised in five cask sizes; 180l ex-bourbon barrels (Q.alba); 230l ex-Bourbon hoggies (Q.alba); 480l puncheons made at Suntory’s cooperage from new Q.alba; 480l ex-sherry butts (Q.robur) and 480l butts (Q.mongolica). Examples of four of these (barrel, puncheon, sherry butt and mizunara) have now been released as a limited edition Cask Collection, bottled at 48% and non chill filtered. While Yamazaki’s distillates are equally complex with different peating levels and six different pairs of stills, this does give the consumer a rare chance to get to grips with the effect that different wood types have.


Tasting notes (Japan)



Yamazaki

NAS (43% )
Currently Japan only – ¥3,500
Nose: Deep, sweet and fruity with butterscotch, spices and a mix of red and black fruits. Quite fleshy with light dark chocolate and a hint of cedar in the back.
Palate: Thick but pure. Starts creamy then dips into succulent persimmon. Chewy and juicy with just sufficient acidity to balance.
Finish: Tingling spice and a hint of smoke.

Hakushu

NAS (43%)
Currently Japan only – ¥3,500
Nose: Pale colour with very pure clean fruits. Apple, pear and mint to the fore. With water some pine and very subtle smokiness.
Palate: The smoke continues here but very delicately. Vanilla creaminess cut with limey zestiness, grass, kiwi and lychee
Finish: Cools into mint tea and basil.


Tasting notes



Yamazaki

Cask Collection, Bourbon Barrel (48%) – £70
Nose: Clean and crisp with light soft fruits - the classic banana and persimmon mix. Gentle caramelised notes behind.
Palate: Gentle and soft. Vanilla pod, gentle peachy fruits and a crisp toastiness adding structure.
Finish: Fresh.

Yamazaki

Cask Collection, Sherry Butt (48%) – £70
Nose: Dark with full-on sherry accents: walnut, fruit cake, espresso.
Palate: Slightly bitter and grippy, with just some of Yamazaki’s inherent sweetness showing.
Finish: Long. Coffee grounds.

Yamazaki

Cask Collection, Puncheon (48%) – £70
Nose: Lighter in colour than the barrel. Refined and quite delicate. Elderflower, sweet apple, pineapple.
Palate: Clean and succulent. Still has retained freshness but with an anchoring soft fruitiness. Low oak impact.
Finish: Lively.

Yamazaki

Cask Collection, Mizunara (48%) – £250
Nose: Perfumed and ‘exotic’. Sandalwood, incense, cinnamon with hints of ginger.
Palate: The most acidic and citric with some gentle red fruits and a little vanilla.
Finish: Long, spiced and scented.