The House of Suntory – The Nature and Spirit of Japan
Despite an obvious preference for single malts, and usually those of a Scottish persuasion, we have talked previously about the tremendous talents of whisky blenders. And it doesn’t matter what part of the world they operate in – that they can combine very different component whiskies into great blends demonstrates amazing skill.
Pat recently attended a Japanese whisky master-class.
Under the impression that he was going to a tasting of the range of Japanese whiskies on sale. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was attending a very informative presentation on Hibiki whisky and the components that go into the various versions of Suntory’s Hibiki blends.
The Japanese multinational brewing and distilling company group, Suntory Holdings Ltd, was first established in 1923. The company now turns out more than 50 whiskies, including the flagship offerings of The Yamazaki single malt and the popular leading blend range, Hibiki.
Suntory comprises five separate distilleries – Yamazaki in Kyoto, Hakushu, Chita, Osaka, and Osumi. Hibiki Japanese Harmony Blend is made from key components from the Yamazki, Chita and Hakush distilleries.
Five of the six whiskies presented at the tasting are exclusive to Suntory’s blending process. The whiskies normally never leave the distillery, so it is a great rarity to try them. All of the drams were 50% abv, natural colour and non-chill filtered.
The first whisky to taste was a white oak cask offering from the Yamazaki distillery. Golden yellow colour. On the nose, wetness, sweet, bourbon and apricot. Palate is clean, mushroom, dry at the end with tannins.
Second was a Chita heavy double distilled. This is a grain whisky showing sherry, golden syrup, wood chips on the nose, a clean taste, tannic and sweet.
Third, a Chita French red wine cask. On the nose smooth, slight bicycle rubber, sweet, a palate of mushroom, and light tannin.
Fourth, a heavy peated from Hakushu. On the nose there is blue cheese, peat, sweet, bacon. Taste is sweet, salty, tannin, pepper like a Kilkerrin heavy peated and tons of character.
Fifth was a Yamazaki Minzunara cask, on the nose sweet, red fruits, cherries and wine gums,. Palate: dry, vaguely sweet and mushroomy,
And then the final product – the Hibiki Japanese Harmony at 43%, super smooth and refined
This was indeed a very special tasting. The Wellington Suntory rep, Rory Donnelly, was extremely knowledgeable of the history and processes of Suntory whisky. He did the presentation without benefit of screen or notes to refer to and was passionate about the product he sells.
In my opinion, it is a very great shame that the component drams aren’t bottled separately – each one had plenty of character to be a stand-alone whisky.
Qinghau Fenjiu presents as a whisky.
The box looks like a whisky, the bottle looks like an upmarket whisky bottle. It smells like a whisky ….
And that’s really where any similarity ends.
My son was taken by my daughter-in-law elect ( my apologies to W.S. Gilbert and The Mikado) to meet her parents in Shanghai. On their way back to NZ they purchased a bottle of Qinghau Fenjiu from DutyFree at Shanghai airport for me to try, as you rightly should.
There is just one less-than-helpful factor – all the information is in Mandarin!
One out of the Box
Qinghau Fenjiu has a very striking visual presentation.
A reflective electric blue box, contains a tactile ceramic bottle with brush-sweep decoration in the same electric blue.
As with Scottish malts, the box has a lot of product detail information written on it.
There is just one less-than-helpful factor – all the information is written in Mandarin!
Non-speakers can find an isolated bit that says “53%”. which the discerning rightly assume is the percentage abv. Also, a number “20” in big print subsequently proves to be the matured age.
Getting at it – an exercise in frustration
Opening the box to release its contents is an exercise that escalates through ingenuity and frustration to tantrum and brute force: pretty much in that order and mostly brute force. To plagiarise the American poet, Ogden Nash, the total exercise and the outcome is reminiscent of a lioness opening up an antelope – although I doubt that lionesses use that much bad language getting at their lunch. The task was not aided by the resident Mandarin-translating daughter-in-law elect missing the bit of very small calligraphy that translated as “Open Here”.
After all the trials of getting to the damned thing, opening the bottle and having a drink to calm the spirit had become a necessity!
But hang on. This stuff looks more like Japanese saké than whisky. It’s as clear as mountain spring water. But the nose is something else entirely: grassy, sweet honey, chocolate powder, apples, pears, greengages, and feet. With enough alcohol content to eat its way out of the side of the glass.
Take a sip and hold it in your mouth for the requisite 20 seconds.
When your eyes have stopped watering from the massive alcohol hit, sufficiently to allow logic to be applied to what you’ve just swallowed, the honey notes continue into the palate. The heat mercifully fades a bit to leave a sweet, strong honey flavour, and a slightly oil-coated mouth and tongue.
For a very long time!
What a drop! If I was to whisky-score it, it would have to be a straight-up 9.5. Magnificent!
Qinghau Fenjiu is not whisky. It is a colourless liquor – known in China as baijiu .
If baijiu is not something you have previously experienced, here’s a bit of background research done after my world had returned to a more level keel.
Baijiu is the most-consumed hard liquor on the planet (north of US$95 billion worth in 2022). The global market size of whisky for the same period was US$64 billion. It reportedly can turn an innocuous game of Mah Jong into an hilarious blood sport!
The Fenjiu baijiu is a grain drink, made from organic sorgum. It is the oldest baijiu in China, with a history reportedly dating back 6,000 years. It is double fermented, with corn husks added to the fermented grain, and a long maturation in ceramic pots (which explains the clear colour – no wood contact).
Solid State Fermentation & Ceramic Maturation
Baijiu relies on a “solid state” fermentation.
Unlike whisky, a liquid is not boiled in a still and the vapour re-condensed. Rather, yoghurt-like bricks of wet rice or sorghum are heated in a still so that the alcohol vapourises.
The resulting liquid is then matured in ceramic jars that allow micro-oxygenation of the spirit and impurities removal, all without adding flavour or colour.
A Little Lie-Down
If you haven’t already been on the receiving end of baijui, I can strongly recommend you lay your hands on some to try. You may also want to check that you are handy to somewhere to have a little lie-down afterwards.
As a result of the experience, my opinion of Chinese bravery has increased considerably!