Earlier this month, we were privy to an exclusive launch of some delicious Japanese spirits in the capital. At the sparkling event, Beam Suntory launched a range of four premium spirits in India, including the iconic Japanese whiskies Yamazaki® Distiller’s Reserve and Hibiki® Japanese Harmony, along with Roku® Japanese Craft gin, from The House of Suntory portfolio. Another highlight was the launch of Oaksmith® Indian whisky, created by Shinji Fukuyo, Chief Blender, Suntory, using traditional Japanese craftsmanship, blended with fine Scotch Malt whiskies and American Bourbons. Over a glass of Suntory’s premium spirits, we caught up with Mr Fukuyo for insights into the brand and its latest offerings in India. By Sumeet Keswani
1. What does it take to be the chief blender of a historic whisky maker like Suntory?
Suntory is known to create superior whisky that is renowned for its flavour and craftsmanship. To become a chief distiller and blender, one needs to have certain attributes to ensure they create blends that touch the hearts of consumers. Firstly, one must have an understanding of the product, the blending techniques, and the consumer perspective. The job requires time, patience, dedication, honesty, and perhaps most importantly, a strong sense of smell.
You need to have the nose for the job. That’s where the secret to blending lies. You should be able to nose a whisky and decipher each intricate flavour and smell. The nose of a Master Blender holds the key to creating some fantastic flavour combinations. Being able to taste through smell is essential. Blending is a delicate art, and having a good palate is important as you will be able to match flavours, as well as keep up the consistency and quality of the final product.
Time and creativity are also important. Time is needed to make sure each blend is up to the standards. A master blender has to be inventive, as blending is not just about getting the right flavour combinations but also about creating new ones.
2. What changes have you made to the processes since you took over? Were there any changes required to meet demands after Yamazaki first beat Scotch whiskies to be rated number one in the world?
Japanese whisky focusses on quality instead of quantity. And I have ensured this does not change in a desire to become more commercial. Our distilleries in Japan are distilling spirits at their maximum capacity, and we are slowly and steadily growing the same. But unlike Scotland, we are not rushing to produce more and setting up supply chains to cater to this. We have also made investments on our warehouse capacities to meet future demands of production.
I attribute the success and superiority of Japanese whisky to the convergence of three rivers outside the distillery in Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto in Japan. This confluence of the rivers gives the water a soft texture and makes it incredibly pure. As this is the distillery’s main water supply, The House of Suntory whiskies are of high quality. Japanese weather adds another layer to this as it is extremely dynamic, with very hot and humid summers and very dry and cold winters. This change plays a major role as a catalyst in the maturation process.
3. How many types of whiskies do you make in all at Suntory, and which one would you regard as the most premium bottle?
We have five world-renowned whiskies in our portfolio: Yamazaki, Hibiki, Chita, Hakushu, and Suntory Whisky Toki. While every bottle of Suntory whisky is premium in its offering, Yamazaki is the pioneer of Japanese whisky. This single malt whisky has been perfected to suit and appeal to all possible sensibilities of whisky or single malt drinkers worldwide.
4. What made Suntory come to India now?
Indians are already among the world’s largest consumers of whisky, and their love for the spirit is rapidly moving towards premiumization as they are increasingly opting for quality over quantity and blends that soothe the palate. Apart from the rising popularity of premium and luxury whiskies, in recent years, there is a strong trend among urban Indians to explore and also opt for gin owing to its refreshing appeal and exclusive botanical flavours, especially in cocktails and at brunches. To cater to this growing demand, we knew the time was right to bring our luxurious The House of Suntory portfolio to India with the launch of two of the most iconic Japanese whisky brands in the world–Yamazaki and Hibiki–and the Japanese craft gin, Roku. Through the launch of the brands under The House of Suntory umbrella, we want Indian consumers to experience these beautiful spirits that are high in quality, and give them a chance to explore Japan while sitting at a premium restaurant or bar in India.
5. You told me this is your seventh trip to the country. What’s the best and the worst aspect of travelling in India?
Each of my experiences in India has been different from the other–there are no bad aspects of travelling anywhere in the world, especially in India. There are certain similarities to Japanese culture that I have picked up on during my travels, one of them being how in-tune Indians are with their culture. Indians are very much like the Japanese: they love to celebrate festivities with family and friends and have an undying passion for food, leisure, and the arts. Also, India is a young country, and that clearly shows when you go out.
6. Any favourite Indian whiskies? And preferred Indian food pairings with Suntory whiskies?
Indian food goes well with whiskies, especially the peated ones due to a lot of grilled tandoori dishes. I would recommend you try Oaksmith, as it will completely change the way Indian whisky is perceived, and the balance of international flavours can be enjoyed by everyone. I personally love eating chicken tikka with my whisky.
7. Where in India will the whiskeys of House of Suntory be available? And what kind of price point can we expect?
The House of Suntory brands are being launched across all major cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Yamazaki® Distiller’s Reserve Single Malt Whisky will be available in the range of INR 10,900 to INR 20,000 across different states; Hibiki® Japanese Harmony Blended Japanese Whisky from INR 10,900 to INR 20,000, and Japanese Craft Gin Roku® for INR 5,500 to INR 7,100. While Yamazaki and Hibiki will be available only at leading hotels, restaurants, and bars, Roku gin will be available across retail outlets, bars, and hotels.
8. Tell us all about Oaksmith, the Indian blended whiskey made by you.
We recently launched Beam Suntory’s first truly international Indian whisky called Oaksmith. With the launch of Oaksmith, we plan to enter the 200mn case Indian whisky segment, slated to grow between 12-15% by 2030. We are confident that Oaksmith will become the largest brand for Beam Suntory India as well as global in terms of volume, and eventually account for more than half of the 1bn USD revenue ambition we have set for ourselves for 2030.
I made the blend for Oaksmith using traditional Japanese craftsmanship, blended with the finest Scotch Malt whiskies and American Bourbons to make a whisky unique and authentic to Indian taste. Oaksmith is a celebration of mastery and global collaboration, combining the best of East and West in a bottle. It is a harmonious blend of matured Scotch Malts, which add a strong flavour profile, and American Bourbon whiskey, aged for at least four years in American oak barrels, which lend it an unmatched smoothness. That gives the brand its unique name and also inspires the round bottle labels celebrating its distinctive craftsmanship.
Two variants of the product–Oaksmith and Oaksmith Gold–have been launched in the state of Maharashtra, and this will be followed by the rest of the country. Both the variants will be premium in their respective categories.
9. What are the major differences between Indian and Japanese whiskies? And between the whisky-drinking habits of both the countries?
Japanese whisky is completely different from all the other whiskies from around the world. While its roots are deeply seeded in how Scotch was distilled; the taste, blend,m and quality of Japanese whiskies sets it apart from those of other regions. In Japan, we focus on ensuring the highest quality of blends are made and not on increasing production volumes to make larger amounts. Hence, Japanese whiskies are created in smaller quantities but with the highest quality. Japanese whiskies have a clean and beautiful taste. It’s hard to explain in words. The whisky has an unpredictability that makes it fun. They are soft, silky, not jarring, elegant, and friendly, while having the structure of a good whisky, which is very important.
Indian whiskies are very nice as well, and they are doing very well in the domestic market. They are usually more fruity and malty, as India’s extreme climate speeds up the maturation process. There are plenty of tropical fruit and toffee flavours, and of late, there have been a few peaty offerings, too. Indian whiskies are often examples of youthful exuberance, are quite enjoyable, and have a defined style in their own right. Due to the extreme weather, the angel’s share accounts for a loss of around 12 per cent alcohol by volume per annum. Thus, Indian whiskies tend to be much younger than their Gaelic counterparts.