One of the things I find constantly fascinating about the whisky industry is learning how different blenders approach their art.
Whether that blender is one who specialises in single malts and is looking to marry different casks of malt whisky together, or one who creates blended whiskies, and needs to know the subtle nuances of grain and malt to understand how they can merge to become one beautiful product – a master blender’s abilities leave me filled with intrigue and great respect.
This was most recently highlighted to me at an event launching Suntory’s two new (for the European market at least; they’ve been available in Japan for two years) no-age statement whiskies for its two main brands: Hakushu and Yamazaki.
On hand was the company’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo – a master of masters, who has worked with Suntory for 30 years. He was there to take attendees through the range of three cask samples, each of which is blended together in various quantities to make up each of these new releases (e.g.: three whiskies go into the making of the Distiller’s Reserve Yamazaki; three different whiskies for the Distiller’s Reserve Hakushu, all of which will be reviewed at the end of this post).
But it was not a comment he made during the presentation of the main whiskies of the day that really caught my attention. After the initial talk, I had the rare chance to speak to him one-on-one about his work. When asked about how he approaches blending and his thoughts on NAS, Shinji responded:
“If we would have had to put a particular age statement on this whisky, I couldn’t have made it. I understand age, and it can show quality. But making no-age statement whiskies are very helpful if you want to create a particular flavour. Sometimes this flavour comes at 12 years. Sometimes it comes at nine years. Sometimes it’s about age; sometimes it’s about concept. It’s really about having a particular target in mind when creating.”
In order to achieve this, he will often nose between 250-300 samples a day so he knows exactly what he has to work with.
“Sometimes I file certain ones in my memory so that they are in my mind when I can think about character. If you find the whiskies that have character, that can lead to quality.”
This was distinctly shown when we were moving through the individual cask samples at the event. On show for the Yamazaki release, for instance, was a wine cask finish, a sherry cask matured sample and mizunara (Japanese oak) cask sample. The sherry cask example – at around 20 years of age – was, he said, overaged. But, while it was overaged and he wouldn’t release it on its own, it was still an integral part – in small measures – to that final blend.
The session I attended also included a talk from Dave Broom, who summed this logic up nicely: “With Japanese whisky, it is about many flavours coming together to create a harmonised whole. That is what is important to the blender and how the Japanese view a single malt. An over-aged whisky is great for a blender because it gives structure, creates a home for the other whiskies.”
And it is Shinji’s attention to detail and ability – like many blenders – to remember exact casks that aided in the creation of the Hakushu release.
This was explained through two examples: one of a single cask heavily peated version of Hakushu, the other of a lightly peated version. For the final blend, Shinji said he was looking for four characteristics: simple, clean, refreshing and smoky. But what he discovered while analysing casks surprised him.
“I couldn’t find these same characteristics in the lightly peated version when it was over 12 years of age. It took on too much cask influence and the smokiness disappeared. I discovered this accidentally when I was testing casks. This is why the lightly peated whisky I used in the final product is around five to six years of age.”
This realisation is what helped to lead to this project, which is mean to put a focus on “Young Talent” in the company’s stocks. It also, naturally, helps to keep the costs down of the final product, which means these two new whiskies will act as entry level components – price wise – for the Suntory range in the UK and elsewhere.
But regardless of age, it is that skill and the ability to see all these individual parts and weave them together into one final whole that impresses me most and is what I always believe should be fully respected.
As Dave concluded: “That’s what a great no-age statement whisky is about: bringing old whiskies and young whiskies together to create something with character and depth using all of the parts. Age is a number; maturity is how it has interacted with the cask so don’t just think the older the better. It’s about totality.”
So what did I think of the whiskies? Here’s my run down of each of the cask components, along with each final blend.
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve Cask Components:
Part A): Bordeaux red wine, French oak cask finish sample: 45%:
(n): Very fruity: red fruits with great acidity. Fresh orange peel follows then chocolate covered strawberries. The wine influence is there but it’s not overwhelming. With water, more peachy notes along with some cedar and wood elements.
(p): Sweet at first then after a couple of seconds, that acidity found on the nose comes through and there’s a nice cranberry acidity there along with chocolate and a bit of a dry/sulphury note runs through, before a final peak of strawberries. A proper roller-coaster of a dram. With water, texture changes and becomes more rounded and velvety, with a slightly ashy finish.
Part B): Sherry Cask sample: 62%:
(n): Very full nose: sticky cake, apricots, red liquorice and candied oranges. With water, the orange note is extended, and there are more brown sugar and sticky toffee notes.
(p): Very with without water: popcorn, liquorice, dark prunes and chocolate. With water: bold, spicy, dark fruits and coffee.
Part C): Mizunara cask sample: 58%:
(n): Lovely and fruity: plums, dark cherries, oranges along with incense and vanilla sugar. With water: more vanilla comes through and becomes a bit more acidic and zingy.
(p): More gentle than expected: fennel, spice, flambeed peaches and oak. With water, palate is unbelievable: so fruity but manages to also be creamy. Texture is brilliant with a bit more brown sugar and a floral note. Glorious.
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve: 43%:
(n): Red fruits (berries and cream), beeswax, honey and coconut oil. With water: more vanilla and marzipan comes through and brings down a bit of the waxy characteristic. Peaches also come through.
(p): Very delicate: lots of peach, pear and strawberry foams come to the fore for me. Less waxy than the nose would suggest, but it’s very tactile, sticking to the top of the palate with that coconut note from the nose and some nice spice at the tip of tongue. With water, some milk chocolate and lemons break through.
Conclusion: an extremely well balanced whisky. It’s not half as punchy as even the 12 year old Yamazaki so might surprise those used to a richer profile from this distillery but this will make for a great summer whisky and a prime introduction to Japanese whisky with its balance and delicacy.
Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve Cask Components:
Part A) Hakushu Lightly Peated: Ex-bourbon cask matured:
(n): So bright and refreshing: complex and acidic with notes of peaches and zingy red grapefruit, vanilla, marzipan and just a teeny bit of smoke. With water, more apples and freshly mown grass.
(p): Lovely light palate filled with green apples and excellent texture. With water, more beeswax and honey.
Part B) Hakushu Heavily Peated: Ex-bourbon cask matured:
(n): Bit of cedar, mint, medicinal with lemon balm, beeswax, cream and honey. With water, much less smoke and far more acidic – nice pineapple fruit influence.
(p): Surprisingly sweet: chocolate lime sweeties, then charcoal, fresh forest floors, oats and hay. With water, more vanilla and then leather.
Part C): Hakushu Aged (18-19 years): American Oak:
(n): Honey nut Cheerios, fudge, cinnamon and almost a liqueur like note…something creamy.
(p): I fell in love with this on the palate – absolutely stunning: big, bold, bright tropical fruits: pineapple, guava, watermelon, frozen red grapes, honeydew and lemon sherbet with liquorice dip. Gorgeous.
Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve: 43%:
(n): That beeswax note from the heavily peated sample comes through plus cedar, vanilla, pineapple, coconut and grapefruit – really note the various elements coming into one.
(p): Lighter flavour on the palate than I would have expected, again, like the Yamazaki; vanilla, cream, sugar and yuzu fruit plus excellent texture – really filling.
Again, like the Yamazaki: lighter than a normal Hakushu many people might be accustomed to but so well made and structured. Highly drinkable – beware!