For all the triumphs he has brought to Suntory, Shinji Fukuyo is proudest of the humble whisky highball.
Before he became the House of Suntory’s fifth-generation chief blender in 2009, Fukuyo was part of the company’s whisky branding and production efforts, which resulted in the Kakubin whisky highball campaign during the mid-2000s. The initiative was such a roaring success around the world that any decent bar today is bound to have a similarly-styled drink.
“Before that, whisky sales were declining in Japan for almost 25 years,” he said during a July 2023 visit to Singapore for the brand’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. “But during my era, it went from being difficult to sell whisky to a highball boom globally, which made not only Suntory but Japanese whiskies successful.”
Since then, Fukuyo has been responsible for Suntory’s most critically acclaimed expressions from Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki. He also formulated the blend that eventually led to Yamazaki 55 Years Old, currently the world’s most expensive Japanese whisky.
The process of humble whisky highball –
Fukuyo joined Suntory in 1984 and later spent four years in Scotland studying the whisky-making process. Once back in Japan, he implemented traditional techniques at Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries to improve their quality. One of them is direct heating of the pot stills, which gives the spirit more flavour. A recent addition is floor malting, where barley is germinated across the ground to create a distinct character.
“The new-make spirit is much better than before,” Fukuyo said, referring to the clear distillate before it turns caramel in the oak barrel. “It also gives the whisky a longer peak maturation period. Some whiskies peak at 12 years, others at 15 years, but we hoping for much longer. With the current new-make spirit, after 55 years, it will be much better than Yamazaki 55.”
A number of famous Scotch whisky producers have long abandoned these practices due to their difficulties, but Fukuyo believes he can still learn from them. In 2022, Scotch whisky’s global exports were worth almost USD 8 billion (SGD 10.6 billion), dwarfing Japan’s figure of around USD 400 million (SGD 531 million). Additionally, the tradition of Scotch whisky makers swapping liquid to create different styles has not taken hold in Japan.
“Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal compete with each other, but they support each other by sharing liquid,” Fukuyo said. “We still cannot achieve that in Japan because we don’t have a long history, but it’s a good system for the industry.”
This has prompted Suntory to make a diverse range of whiskies at one distillery, which are blended together to form the final product. Other releases are a combination of the company’s liquid across multiple facilities, such as Kakubin and the Japan-only Torys. The latter also happens to be Fukuyo’s favourite whisky in a highball, of course. And his formula?
“Big glass, a lot of ice, Torys, soda, and lemon peel,” he said. He then held up a tall plastic cup and pointed just past its halfway mark. “The normal recipe at the izakaya is 1 part whisky to 3 parts soda, but I like more whisky!”
This story first appeared here.
(Hero and featured images credit: House of Suntory)