Japan’s Master Distillers: Suntory whisky

PORT charts the history of Japan’s biggest whisky producer and meets the master distiller at the helm

Yamazaki Suntory Distillery, Japan
Yamazaki Suntory Distillery, Japan

WHISKY WEEK: Whisky is believed to have first appeared in Scottish tax records as early as 1494. In the 521 years since, Scotch has endured an illustrious and complex history to become the standard bearer of international whisky. However, over the last decade another nation has become a recognised contender for the crown: Japan.

In just a fraction of the time that Scotland’s been making single malts and blends, two Japanese brands have shown that high quality Scotch-style whisky doesn’t need to be produced in the West. By intertwining traditional Scottish practices and Eastern beliefs, Suntory and Nikka Whisky Co. have both brought a new, and very welcome, approach to the art of whisky distilling.

yamazaki distillery archives edited
Yamazaki Distillery, from Suntory archives

Although Japanese whisky production began in 1870, Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii set up the country’s first commercial distillery in 1923. Combining his knowledge of Japanese culture with innovative ideas about whisky making, Torii decided on the Vale of Yamazaki as the site for his groundbreaking distillery. His approach was to select whisky distilling climates based on their diversity and, rather than trying to maintain a consistency of cask temperature, he believed in ‘cask breathing’, insisting that the shifting humidity and temperature in the Yamazaki valley could help the whisky age rather than hinder it.

The valley is also where the Katsura, Uji, and Kizi rivers converge, creating a unique climate and an ideal place to collect the ‘soft water’ that Torii and Suntory’s current master blender, Shinji Fukuyo, believe is the key to Japanese whisky.

Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at Suntory
Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at Suntory

According to Fukuyo, whisky made in Japan is “characterised by complex and delicate tastes” and “differences in environment”, which, he suggests, offers different notes to traditional Scotch. “There is soft water in Japan, which is good for making whisky. The climate is warm and wet, making it suitable for aging it too,” Fukuyo adds. “In addition, we have created our blended whiskies in accordance with original Japanese culture – drinking whisky with water.”

A member of the Suntory team at work
A member of the Suntory team at work

Today, Suntory’s two single malts, Yamazaki and Hakushu, and blended Hibiki whisky, continue Torii’s philosophy and follow a respect for the natural ingredients and processes that created them. “We aim high in terms of achievements and work hard developing the refined, balanced whisky range,” Fukuyo adds.

Hakushu distillery, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
Hakushu distillery, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

The purity of the water is of particular importance to Suntory – the water at Hakushu, for example, offers a ‘rare softness and purity’, as the rain and snow is filtered through thousand-year-old granite rocks. According to Fukuyo, sustainability and Suntory’s distilleries’ consumption of resources form an integral part of the business. “To maintain the sustainability of the groundwater, we signed long-term contracts with forest owners that last decades,” Fukuyo tells me. “And in 2003, we began developing forests in Japan to create that water. We also preserve the forests surrounding the distilleries too.”

Suntory engineers create Mizunara oak cask
Suntory engineers create Mizunara oak cask

As well as water, wood selected for casks is another vital consideration for Fukuyo’s team; Suntory was the first company to create casks using Japanese oak (also known as Mizunara), which results in whiskies with distinct vanilla, floral and honey notes.

Perhaps it’s this willingness to break from Scotch tradition that saw Japanese brands sweep up some of the industry’s top honours in 2015. Nikka earned best blended whisky at World Whiskies Awards, while Suntory secured the top trophy at the International Spirits Challenge for the third year running with its Hibiki 21. In a world where Scotch has dominated but is bound by strict tradition, Japan’s whisky houses are quickly catching up, bringing an art to whisky making that marks a new era in the spirit’s history.

More information on the award-winning Suntory whisky house and its history can be found here

Milroy’s of Soho: four essential whiskies

The staff of London’s oldest whisky shop, Milroy’s of Soho, recommend four of their favourite drams from around the world

WHISKY WEEK: Walking down Greek Street in Soho it’s easy to pass by an integral part of London’s drinking history without even looking twice. Milroy’s of Soho, widely considered to be the city’s oldest whisky shop, was founded in 1964 by John ‘Jack’ Milroy as The Soho Wine Market. Its owner at the time, John ‘Jack’ Milroy, soon decided to start stocking premium spirits and, at one point, even counted a former Prime Minister as a regular customer. But far from becoming a dusty relic or a tourist trap, Milroy’s has aged gracefully in the 51 years since it opened its door, establishing itself as a regular haunt for serious whisky drinkers and collectors alike.

In 2014, Milroy’s’ current owner, Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson, converted the building’s basement into The Vault – a cosy speakeasy bar that lays claim to the largest selection of whisky in the capital, and boasts a secret entrance hidden discretely behind a bookcase.

Sourced from all over the globe by its team of connoisseurs, Milroy’s whisky cabinet appears to have all ends of the spectrum covered – from Scotch single malts to rare ryes and lesser known Japanese whiskies.

To celebrate Whisky Week on PORT, we head down to The Vault and ask the Milroy’s team to select four of their favourite whiskies from around the globe.

Balblair 2003, Highland Single Malt (Scotland)
Balblair 2003, Highland Single Malt (Scotland)


“The Balblair 03 is not your standard bottle, nor is it the niche whisky geek kind… it’s very much in the middle. Matured in ex-bourbon casks, Balblair has a bit more of a vanilla flavour, which comes from a compound in American oak called vanillin that is in the actual makeup of the oak itself. It would go well with something like Victoria Sponge or light tropical fruit…

“Balblair as a brand likes release whiskies in vintages and there is a difference in the whisky each year. They’re blending for single malt and will make maybe 50 to 100 carts as a batch, so they’re blending for quality rather than quantity. So, a Balblair 2004 vintage release will be similar to this 2003 next year, but they do allow a little bit of variation.”

Glendronach 1995 Single Cask 19 Year Old, Speyside Single Malt (Scotland
Glendronach 1995 Single Cask 19 Year Old, Speyside Single Malt (Scotland)


“The vast majority of Glendronach’s whisky is usually matured in ex-sherry barrels, which is also what Macallan and Glenfarclas do. Most distilleries these days use ex-bourbon casks, but 5 to 10 per cent use sherry casks, which gives you a much richer aroma. The Balblair is 46 per cent ABV and the Glendronach is 55.4 per cent ABV, so this is a much punchier whisky.

“Glendronach is renowned for top, top sherry cask whiskies. Sherry seeps into the cask’s oak during the day when it’s warmer, then at night it contracts and leaves particles in the oak, which affects the flavour of the whisky.

“Sherry casks are a great thing to go to if you are wanting to move up a stage, mostly because they’re a bit sweeter. You don’t get big peaty notes or big burnt notes, so they’re a lot easier to drink.”

Whistle Pig 10 Year Old, Straight Rye
Whistle Pig 10 Year Old, Straight Rye (Vermont)


“Rye whiskey is one of our favourite whiskies right now. If you like Scotch go for a rye, you get more of a kick, like an Islay whisky. It’s a good gateway whiskey. Those who like Scotch and are trying to get into bourbon should go through rye first. The spices take away the dryness associated with Scotch whiskey.

“Bourbon is made up of at least 51 per cent corn – the rest can be more corn, malted barley, wheat, rye or whatever else. However, rye is the other way round and has to be at least 51 per cent rye… the rest can be more rye, malted barley, wheat, etc. Overall, rye tends to have a much spicier, orangey flavour.

“People assume that bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County in Kentucky, but it doesn’t. Bourbon has to be made in the USA, that’s the only rule. We have seen the interest for American whiskey really grow, with lots of Scotch drinkers starting to move across. There’s been a serious change in market and some people say that it’s because of TV series such as Mad Men.

“Jim Murray, the whisky reviewer, claimed in his annual essay that he thinks American whiskey is now better than Scottish whisky, which is quite a controversial thing to say. But, he may be onto something in the sense that in, terms of value, bourbon is probably better than Scotch. Also cocktails are very popular now and bourbon is much more versatile than Scotch in that respect.”

Nikka whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo (Japan)
Nikka whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo (Japan)


“Japanese whisky is basically Scotch that isn’t made in Scotland. It’s produced using exactly same process, especially in single malts with malted barley and copper pot stills. Japanese distillers tend to use American oak barrels or sherry casks. The key difference is that Japanese distillers can choose to use Japanese oak for casks, which creates a coconut-like flavour. The problem with this is that it leaks a lot… it’s quite porous. Japanese oak produces lovely flavours, but it’s impractical, so it’s only brewed in small quantities.

Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. was founded by a Japanese man called Masataka Taketsuru, who studied chemistry in Glasgow and worked at a number of distilleries including Ben Nevis. He married a Scottish girl, moved back to Japan, took his craft with him and started Nikka.”

“Miyagikyo is a lighter, more floral whisky than Yoichi, for example, which is another Nikka whisky that’s made in a more peaty style.”

Milroy’s of Soho, 3 Greek Street, London, W1D 4NX.

Illustration Jennicka Sapigao
Additional words Ben Browne and Ray Murphy

The Experimental Whisky Blender: John Glaser

Meet John Glaser – the US-born experimental whisky blender whose unorthodox techniques are redefining Scotch as we know it

WHISKY WEEK: John Glaser has an unorthodox approach to blending whisky. Since setting up London-based Compass Box Whisky Co. in 2000, his blending methods, commitment to cask quality, and experimental recipes, have seen him called alternately ‘an artist’ and ‘a rule-breaker’ by drink industry journalists. His experimental work has also begun to earn him a number of prestigious awards; in 2014 Compass Box won the Drammie award for ‘Most Exciting and Innovative Whisky Producer’, and it has won Whisky Magazine’s ‘Innovator of the Year’ prize five times.

Despite the praise he’s received in the fifteen years since founding Compass Box, John Glaser has stepped on a few traditionalists’ toes with his ideas for treating casks, often borrowing techniques from the world of wine in order to create whisky with greater depths of flavour.

Rather than operating within the stringent boundaries laid down by tradition, Glaser uses the rules of Scotch whisky as a starting point and hopes to see how far he can stretch them, all the while asking the Scotch whisky association to kindly keep any comments to itself.

We caught up with Glaser to discuss the Compass Box philosophy, finding inspiration in everything from literature to liquor labels, and how Johnnie Walker made him fall in love with Scotland.


How did you start in the whisky industry?

I began by studying wine. I left university, I studied literature, but then decided I wanted to make wine. I went to France for a year and then California. Eventually, I got offered a job with a company in New York… a Scotch brand that you might have heard of, Johnnie Walker. I was offered a job in marketing there and I took it thinking I’d do the Scotch thing for a while before moving on to the wine side. But I started being sent to Scotland on various trips and I fell in love.

When did you first try whisky?

I don’t remember the first time I tried whisky, but I do remember the moment that I really began to love the stuff. I was in the Talisker distillery on one of my early trips. I was in the warehouse one crappy, grey, cold, windy, January morning and we were given Talisker out of the cask. The maker made us drink it out of a tall glass measuring cylinder. When it hit my lips – that was the moment I fell in love. It changed my life, literally. It was like an epiphany.

Where is your Scotch produced?

We’re blenders at the end of the day; we buy whisky from a dozen different distilleries across Scotland. Compass Box is carrying on the tradition of whisky blending houses that goes back to the middle part of the 19th century in Scotland. Many of the houses then were not distillers, they were just blenders, and that’s what we are.

We buy whiskies aged and we buy them off the still. We put them into our casks and age them for the future. Then we use those raw materials to create our recipes, before blending and aging further. So a lot of what we do to create a distinctive style is through the maturation process.

Myself and my assistant Greg Glass are in charge of the blending – Greg is there on the day-to-day basis, tastings, developing recipes, while I often work on the ‘bigger picture’ stuff.


What difficulties have you faced in creating your own brand of Scotch using non-traditional methods?

We have been challenged by various powers for things we have done… Years ago, we introduced a whisky where we bought aged whiskies from a couple of different distilleries and then put them through a second aging. We put them in casks with inner staves – an idea technically borrowed from the world of wine, lots of wineries around the world have used this technique for decades. We were buying the very highest specification of oak for these inner staves so it was all about quality, all about making more interestingly flavoured Scotch whiskies.

We also created the Spice Tree blend because the French oak inner staves we were using gave this clove character, a clove, gingery character. The Scotch Whisky Association took us to task for that because it was not what they deemed to be ‘traditional practice’ and in their interpretation one must be traditional to make Scotch whisky.

We lost the battle but we didn’t lose the war. We continued to use this high-quality French oak, and in the end we were allowed to bring back the blends as Scotch whisky.

As a business, we’re not about trying to fit in. We do things that sometimes people think is unusual for Scotch whisky, because Scotch whisky has been so stayed and so tradition-bound for so many years, decades. We do a lot of things that people don’t expect a Scotch whisky producer to do.


Where do the names and concepts for your blends come from?

I came up with a lot of them, over the years. Not all of them thought, ideas can come from anywhere. Things outside our industry i.e. songs, beers. As with any creative business we’re always looking around and making notes, remembering things that appeal to us.

I’ve always got this long list of name ideas. There’s about a hundred of them right now. For example, ‘This is Not a Luxury Whisky’ was inspired by the famous René Magritte painting The Treachery of Images, which contains the phrase ‘this is not a pipe’. Names can come from all over the place.

Can you tell us about your approach to creating beautiful labels for your whisky?

We’ve worked with company Stranger & Stranger for many years and it’s been so fruitful. Sometimes we go to them with a very specific idea, or other times we just given them a name and a story. We’re working on something right now called ‘The Circus’. The name idea was originally inspired by the old Charlie Chaplin film and we thought the theme of the film worked nicely with the idea of the whisky.

One of my favourite briefs was for ‘The Spice Tree’, when I just said: ‘imagine you’ve just taken LSD and you’re lying on your back under a spice tree’. It was a one-sentence brief.

What’s the story behind ‘The Lost Blend’?

That was inspired by an O. Henry story that I read years ago. It’s a beautiful short story. It’s about two guys who try to create this spirit blend with seemingly magical properties. That’s what on the surface it’s about. Beneath that it’s about a boy that meets a girl and falls in love.


Can you talk about the types of casks you use?

We are fanatical about oak and oak casks, because you have to be to make great whisky. Around 60–70 per cent of the flavour from well-aged whisky comes from the oak. I have a real problem with the way the Scotch whisky industry approaches oak, actually. They re-use the cask far too many times and you end up with a whisky, aged for many years, that is sometimes kind of boring without a lot of flavour.

We’re inspired by the wine industry which loves to talk about the ‘provenance of the oak’ that they use for their barrels. If you use higher quality oak with more interesting flavours and flavour compounds, you’re going to have more flavourful, interesting whisky. Simple as that. We do experiment with lots of different types of oak maturation – you have to use oak by law in Scotch whisky, but who cares? So we are also looking at other types of wood, other than oak, such as acacia. They’re just experiments, just ideas.

Photography by Asia Werbel

Compass Box Whisky Co. is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a limited edition range ‘This is Not a Luxury Whisky’