And so it was last Friday when I had the chance to meet Jon of LivingRoom whisky – a blog started in Birmingham by two friends and neighbours.
It had happened by chance – I had recently run a competition on Miss Whisky with Suntory to win a bottle of Hibiki 17 and a cocktail lesson with the company’s UK brand ambassador and cocktail king Zoran Peric. Out of the many entries thrown (quite literally) into a hat, I pulled out Jon’s partner-in-blogging crime’s name – Mike. However, as Mike is a teacher, he was unable to make it down to London for the cocktail lesson, which he kindly passed on to Jon and his wife Sharon in his stead. How benevolent!
The event took place in the suave Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel – a plush 5* hotel hidden down Whitehall Place near Embankment. Upon arrival, I found Zoran prepping the bar, bottles of Suntory whisky lined up like soldiers awaiting orders.
I have written about my enjoyment of Suntory brands in the past (see: here). A go-to favourite is the gently peated Hakashu but I also enjoy the Yamazaki 12 as a standard bottle that will usually find itself in my cupboard. As I was there to be more of an observer, however, I was keen to see Jon and Sharon’s reaction to the drams.
As a bit of background, Japan exports a fair old schwak of whisky and if you’ve not tried them or not realised they’re rather tasty, I’d definitely recommend giving any of them a go. One of my most pleasing discoveries of last year was the Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu the First and I’ve yet to try a bad Japanese whisky.
But, much of the history starts with the Suntory group, which was founded by Shinjiro Torii who built Japan’s first distillery in the 1920s. While it wasn’t an easy start (the company almost failed a decade later) it rallied on release of its Kakubin blended whisky. The company expanded when Torii’s son built Hakushu distillery (the world’s highest distillery) in 1973.
Soon after Jon and Sharon arrived, Zoran explained the history before launching into a tasting session, regaling us with tales of his trips to Japan. One of his favourite places, he said, is high up at the Hakashu Distillery, which sits in a forest.
“You can sit there and if you close your eyes and if you have a glass of Hakashu in your hands, everything makes sense,” he said.
Sounds enlightening indeed!
The tasting started out with the Yamazaki 12, which is a single malt whisky made from 70% American white oak barrels, 20% mizunara oak barrels and 10% Olorosso sherry barrels. It is the mizunara wood that gives it a distinctly Japanese touch – the wood comes from Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, and adds deep jammy fruit, citrus and sandlewood notes.
“It smells like walking into a temple,” explained Zoran of the casks.
This is a decadent sweet whisky, perfect (I find) as an after meal dessert replacement. Notes of banana and pear, toffee, butterscotch and cream flow through. It was Sharon’s favourite of the three we tried.
This was followed by the Hakushu 12 – a fresh, apple and pear whisky with teeny hints of smoke from the peated barley used in this brand – and the Hibiki 17. The latter is made of 30 types of grain and malt whiskies made at the Suntory distillery, and won the best Japanese blended whisky at this year’s Whisky Magazine, World Whisky Awards.
But, as the day was about cocktails, it was soon time to move on to allow Zoran to show off his skills with a shaker.
He demonstrated the ways to make two classic cocktails – the Rob Roy and an Old Fashioned – and another made up off the top of his head dependent on the preferences of the guests.
Jon’s favourite was the Old Fashioned made with Hibiki 17 – a labour intensive drink (if made correctly) that includes whisky, sugar, angostura bitters, orange peel and a drop of soda water. To make it correctly, according to Zoran, one must stir it for five to seven minutes to fully dissolve the sugar cube.
“These things take time to make. So it’s very Japanese,” he quipped.
Sharon, meanwhile, leaned towards the newly invented drink, which Zoran concocted from muddled fresh apricots, peach liqueur, orange bitters, Yamazaki 12 and a dash of ginger liqueur.
All in all, it was an interesting and fulfilling afternoon, a great pleasure to meet more people from the old Twittersphere and an even better excuse to have cocktails in the afternoon!
For more information about Suntory, its whiskies and history, visit: www.suntory.com/whisky