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Travel & Holiday

Suntory's casks of gold

Japanese label Suntory exported about 2,000 whisky cases in 2003. Now, it is 30,000 cases
The Straits Times - May 8, 2012
By: Tan Hsueh Yun
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Suntory's casks of gold The cool, misty environs of Yamazaki make it the perfect location for Suntory's whisky distillery, set up in 1923. -- PHOTOS: SUNTORY

When the founder of Suntory, Shinjiro Torii, got it into his head that he wanted to make Japan's first whisky, he set up a distillery in Yamazaki in 1923.

The area, on the border between Osaka and Kyoto, was home to the Yamazaki Gorge, which provided the good quality spring water needed for whisky-making and a damp, misty environment for maturing the drink.

But soon, people who lived nearby started wondering if the factory was, in fact, home to a monster. Large amounts of grain kept going in but nothing ever came out.

It was not until 1929 that Japan's first whisky, Suntory Whiskey Shirofuda, was unveiled. Whisky, the neighbours soon realised, needed time.

It is a luxury the food-and-beverage conglomerate can ill-afford.

Travellers hoping to find bottles of it in duty-free shops here and in Kuala Lumpur will be disappointed.

Beam, the company that distributes the brand, has pulled them from the shelves, so that the stock can be sent to bars and restaurants that serve the drink and shops that sell it.

Speaking to a group of Singapore journalists in the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka, Mr Mike Miyamoto, 59, general manager of the whisky department, says plainly: 'We have an inventory problem. We didn't anticipate the growth of consumption and we didn't make enough 12 years ago.'

Exports have been growing, he adds.

He says that in 2003, Suntory sold 2,134 cases of Yamazaki, each with 12 bottles, overseas. Last year, it was 30,000 cases, and the biggest markets are Europe and the United States.

In Japan, sales are rising after a slump.

About 30 million cases of whisky were sold domestically in 1983, the peak year for Suntory whisky. That fell to five million in 2008 but climbed to six million last year.

Mr Shinichi Adachi, 52, executive general manager, says this was due in part to shochu becoming popular among Japanese drinkers.

The marketing team fought back with the Highball in 2009. The cocktail, made with one part whisky and three parts soda water and a lemon twist, became hip, drawing younger drinkers.

Whisky lovers elsewhere also started taking notice when in 2003, Yamazaki 12-year-old won a gold medal in the United Kingdom-based International Spirits Challenge, a respected competition.

Mr Miyamoto says of the marketing team: 'They realised they had to get the whisky onto the international stage.'

He adds: 'Japanese people tend to be influenced by overseas opinion.'

Suntory might be racing to keep up with demand for its Yamazaki whiskies, but none of that is evident in its serene distillery, where members of the public can sign up for tours.

Visitors are taken through the whisky-making process and end their visits with tasting sessions.

They will find out that the signature Yamazaki single malt, the 12-year-old introduced in 1984, is made up of whisky aged in three kinds of oak barrels.

There is Puncheon, a white oak sourced from the United States. Whisky aged in these casks have a soft, sweet, biscuity flavour. It forms about 80 per cent of the 12-year-old.

The remaining 20 per cent comprises whisky aged in Sherry Butt or Spanish oak casks, previously used to mature sherry; and Mizunara casks, from Japanese oak sourced in Hokkaido.

12-year-old an all-rounder

The Sherry Butt whisky contributes to the caramel and spicy notes in the whisky and the Mizunara, with cedar and cinnamon notes, to its sweetness.

It is still considered a single malt because the term refers to whisky made in one distillery from one kind of malted grain.

Sherry Butt whisky makes up more than half of Yamazaki 18-year-old, launched in 1992. There is also Puncheon in it, and less than 1 per cent of Mizunara.

The 25-year-old, which is hard to find here, is all Sherry Butt whisky. The blenders manage to rein in the sweetness and the whisky is good with chocolate. It was launched in 1998.

The 12-year-old is an all-rounder that makes a Highball worth drinking but is best drunk neat or on the rocks. It is good with most kinds of food.

The bracing 18-year-old is best paired with sweets and smoked food such as sausages.

Suntory is working with Japanese restaurants here to offer kaiseki meals paired with its wares. It is one strategy for extending the reach of its whisky.

What are the others?

Mr Miyamoto says: 'We wish we could read minds. We need a crystal ball.

'Marketing is important to draw people to the whisky scene. If the quality is good, they will drink it.'

The writer's trip was sponsored by Suntory.

Premium's diamond deal

If your glass of Suntory The Premium Malt's beer tastes different, you are not imagining things.

The Japanese company decided to introduce a new version of its best-selling all-malt beer in March this year in Japan.

Singapore will get the beer this month, at about $4.50 a can.

What makes the new beer different is Diamond Malt sourced from the Czech Republic. The barley malt is said to add richness and umami to the beer.

Mr Ichiro Izawa, 50, general manager of Suntory's Kyoto Brewery in Nagaokakyo City in Kyoto Prefecture, says: 'We want to produce a beer you can drink 100 glasses.'

The beer was introduced in Japan in 1989 as Malt's Super Premium in limited release.

In 2003, it was renamed The Premium Malt's but sales did not take off until 2005, when it won a Grand Gold Medal in the beer division of Monde Selection. The Brussels-based institute tests the quality of consumer products ranging from chocolate and health products to spirits and water.

The beer took the gold medal again in 2006 and 2007, leading sales to soar last year to almost 15 million cases, each containing 38 334ml bottles or 36 350ml cans, up from just 4.9 million in 2001.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that it is pointless to fix something that ain't broke.

But Suntory is No. 3 in Japan in terms of beer sales, after giants Asahi and Kirin.

It also came into the beer business later than the others. Asahi debuted its Asahi Draft in 1892. Suntory got into the beer business in 1962 and introduced its first draft beer in 1967.

The company had to play catch up in a country where beer is the No.1 alcoholic drink.

Suntory is hoping the Diamond Malt in the new formula will find favour with beer drinkers.

A side-by-side tasting of the two beers back in Singapore shows that the old formula has more body and a deep, complex bitterness.

The new beer keeps the complex flavours but has a cleaner, lighter and more refreshing taste.

Suntory's brew masters may well have achieved what they set out to do: create a beer that most people will want to keep drinking.

BOOK SUNTORY TOURS

You can call ahead and book tours at Suntory's brewery and whisky distillery:

Suntory Brewery Kyoto

Where: 3-1-1 Tone, Nagaokakyo-Shi, Kyoto

Info: Call +81-75-952-2020 between 9.30am and 5pm Kyoto time on weekdays

Yamazaki Whisky Distillery

Where: 5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka

Info: Call +81-75-962-1423 between 9.30am and 5pm Osaka time on weekdays

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