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Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo brings his expertise to India

Shinji Fukuyo, surrounded by wooden whisky barrels, at the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto

Shinji Fukuyo, surrounded by wooden whisky barrels, at the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto  

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Chief blender Shinji Fukuyo on the Japanese brand’s India launch and why whisky is always on his mind

The first time I truly enjoyed a Japanese whisky was in 2009. Ironically, on a visit to Scotland, I was offered a dram of Yamazaki 10-Year-Old. The nose was charming (light spice with vanilla), the balance perfect, and my ‘love affair’ with Japanese whisky began.

Over the years, I’ve followed every new launch and distillery collection. So, it was a pleasure to learn that Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Spirits Limited, one of the world’s largest spirits companies, recently launched the House of Suntory in India. It brought down the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve single malt, the Hibiki Japanese Harmony whisky, and a Japanese craft gin, Roku. The whiskies will retail at select stores for around ₹20,000 a bottle.

The Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve single malt, part of the House of Suntory launch

The Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve single malt, part of the House of Suntory launch  

The headline maker
  • Fukuyo joined Suntory in 1983, as a scientific staff at the Hakushu distillery. His work in production and whisky research (including a two-year stint at Scotland’s prestigious Heriot-Watt University) saw him rise up the ranks, till, in 2014, he was appointed Executive Officer. In 2018, he was also appointed to the Whisky Quality Advisor of Beam Suntory Inc. He has blended such beauties as the Yamazaki Sherry cask, Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve and the Hibiki 21-Year-Old, which was awarded the Best Blended Whisky for a record sixth time at the World Whiskies Awards last year.

One of the highlights, however, was the unveiling of two made-for-India blends, OakSmith and OakSmith Gold. Shinji Fukuyo, the Chief Blender — responsible for the seven million cases of whiskey released from Suntory Distilleries — put a lot of research into the scotch and bourbon blends, including five trips to the country in 2019, to understand the Indian palate. As the 58-year-old told Business Today, “I tasted local whiskeys and drew from consumer research… I found Indians drink whiskey with water and soda; they dilute it to lower the alcohol content. But they still need good aroma.”

Even as Suntory promises more age statements soon (we’d like the Yamazaki 12-, 18- and 25-Year-Olds, for starters), I sit down with Fukuyo to understand his Suntory story better.

Whisky on your mind?

“One of my mentors said ‘you should think of whisky all the time’ to get the finest results. I follow that. I’m constantly creating new experiments in the distillery and challenging myself [to create] new products. I also work with my colleagues on new ideas and concepts based on customer preferences, [constantly] monitor evolving palates and assess the market. My role is to coordinate all areas and ensure all teams work together.”

Shinji Fukuyo demonstrates how he examines whisky at the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. “What’s important for whisky is that its deliciousness must deepen with aging, sitting in the casks for a long time,” he says

Shinji Fukuyo demonstrates how he examines whisky at the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. “What’s important for whisky is that its deliciousness must deepen with aging, sitting in the casks for a long time,” he says   | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Koji Ueda

The OakSmith range
  • Rich on the nose, with a bright, smooth and unexpectedly long finish, OakSmith is categorised as an Indian made foreign liquor. Fukuyo says you can enjoy it “Indian-style”, with water and soda, or even with Coke. Retailing in Maharashtra and Telangana for ₹800 and ₹1,300 (OakSmith Gold), and ₹600 and ₹900 (OakSmith).

Creating the flavour profile?

“It lies in understanding the entire making process — from the quality of the water, the right grain, fermentation, casks and distillation. Personally, I start with the nose of the whisky and then work backwards to create the flavour profile. My travels across the world, and what I see, hear and taste, help me explore a variety of profiles. Blending spirits is about creating a harmonious flavour, by weaving culture and tradition along with one’s own form of self-expression. It is an art in itself.”

Is 2020 about sharing?

“In 2019, we released the Ao whisky, featuring whiskies from Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and USA. [We realised that the Suntory production system can be good for other groups, so we’re sharing methods.] Based on its success, Suntory will now look at including more styles and countries. Craft distillation is catching up and craft whiskies — known for quality, new products and a personal connection with the customers — will only gain in popularity.”

Japanese craft gin, Roku, which was launched in India recently

Japanese craft gin, Roku, which was launched in India recently  

Secret to the Highball?

“Mixology is not my core area, but I feel that it is really catching up. There are some good bartenders out there who are using new techniques and ingredients. It will be interesting to work on blends for new-age cocktails. Personally, I enjoy the Highball; I find it well-balanced, not very sweet or heavy. I’d give it a twist by adding the [Suntory] Yuzu, which will add a touch of citrus to it.”

Finding inspiration?

“I regularly nose hundreds of samples to understand the taste consistency of various whisky brands and to create new products. I also get inspiration from Japan’s seasons and try to develop blends based on nature. To do a blender’s job well, you need all your five senses, but mainly your tongue and nose. [Fukuyo is up every morning at 4 am to run because he believes one must follow a strict routine to keep one’s senses sharp.] I also try to balance travel, new projects and time in the distillery.”

Sandeep Arora is founder and director of Spiritual Luxury Living. He used to be a consultant with Beam Suntory for events.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:35:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/suntorys-shinji-fukuyo-brings-his-expertise-to-india/article30470946.ece

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