Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka pref. near Kyoto has been a home of fine water from ancient times. This is the first malt whisky distillery in Japan, which began groundbreaking in 1923 and has operated for over 90 years. In recent years, Japanese whisky has earned a worldwide reputation for high quality. This distillery can be called the birthplace of all today’s Japanese whiskies.
“Naturally, when the company was founded, we started out by learning to make Scotch whisky. But we aimed to create world-class quality with uniquely Japanese taste that we could proudly present. So we’ve continued to introduce innovations while sticking to the original production process of Scotch whisky.”
“90 years of innovations have culminated in the high reputation of today,” says Seiichi Koshimizu, the emeritus chief blender. Mr. Koshimizu is the foremost blender of Suntory, who brought Suntory classics such as Yamazaki and Hibiki to the world.
There are 16 pot stills (distillation stills) of various shapes at the Yamazaki Distillery and each still is used to produce a distinct type of whisky. This is a unique characteristic of the distillery that is almost unparalleled in the world. Producing various whiskies in a distillery and blending them to create whiskies with complex aromas — this is the Suntory way.
“I think this represents unique Japanese manufacturing. You can find artisanal spirit in attention to detail and a strong will to improve in every process of production. As long as the workers continue to build on the tradition of improvement, I believe Japanese whiskies will achieve further advances.”
Mr. Koshimizu, who has spent over 40 years in whisky making, still encounters new discoveries today. And this is what enthralls him about whisky making.
“Blending well-made whiskies does not necessarily produce a good-tasting whisky. Also, while the balance in flavor is important, it does not simply mean making the blend mild by softening the edge of taste. What’s most important is to draw out the distinctive quality of each whisky and give a character to the final product.”
“Highball” is one of many ways to enjoy whisky. It’s a cocktail of whisky and soda. We call whisky and ginger ale or whisky and cola “highball” as well. It was first popularized by TV commercials in the 1960s, and it has become popular again in recent years. We went to interview Kazunari Maguchi of Ginza “Rock Fish” bar, the self-proclaimed “house of highballs” which ignited the 21st century highball boom.
“In our bar, we pour 60ml of whisky into a glass that has been cooled in the freezer, then add 190ml of soda. A lemon peel is added for flavor. We pour the soda quickly so muddling isn’t necessary. We don’t even put in ice cubes. Highballs are great for a group having a fun time. They go well with any type of food so people can enjoy a wide range of cuisines.”
An appetizer made of canned sardines in oil is popular among the bar patrons. The simple recipe is as follows. You add sake and soy sauce to the sardines (oil removed), and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes with Japanese pepper berries on top and a hint of black pepper. According to Mr. Maguchi, this goes better with blended whisky than malt whisky. His style is to use “revived” Suntory Whisky Kakubin 43%. The trick to enjoying highballs at home is constant strength, as drinks tend to get stronger as you go.
Tasting glasses are indispensable to the work of blenders. Scale lines are inscribed on the glasses for tasting watered-down whiskies to evaluate changes in taste. Blenders may taste up to 200 samples before noon only.