SB Meets… Shinji Fukuyo, House of Suntory

The legendary master blender behind some of the world’s most coveted Japanese whiskies – including Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu – tells SB about overcoming challenges while perfecting his craft.

How did you first get into the whisky industry?

Actually, after graduating from university I joined the Suntory HR department. They told me you should go to Hakushu distillery in 1984, and since then basically I have always worked in whisky production. At the distillery, I started as scientific production staff. I worked in Hakushu until 1992 when I moved to the Yamazaki distillery. I then spent some time in Scotland and worked at Morrison Bowmore Distillers, and then I came back to Yamazaki in 2002. Since then I have been in charge of blending.

You recently collaborated with Fred Noe on Legent. What did you enjoy most about the partnership?

Japanese whisky production was inspired by Scotch whisky. That’s why Bourbon whiskey production was very new to me, and from Fred’s point of view, probably Japanese whisky production was new to him. Then we exchanged the processes and techniques with each other. But the final product is a Bourbon whiskey. I think I definitely learned about Bourbon more than Fred learned about Japanese whisky. [Laughs]. It was an enjoyable experience, because Fred is a distiller and I am a master blender.

Is there anyone in the industry you would like to work with who you haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with yet?

Diageo, William Grant, they have Scotch and Bourbon distilleries. But since being taken over by Beam, in particular the whisky area has tried to exchange information and engineers, production people, and open discussions as a company. We are very proud of Japanese whisky’s success.

What is the most challenging thing about being a whisky blender?

In general, the blender is in charge of making the recipe to create the product, the brand, but behind that we are also in charge of inventory management, which is quite important. To create good whisky and to maintain the interesting product and brand, but if we don’t manage the inventory it can be very difficult to achieve that.

Can you tell me about any new products or experimentations you are working on currently?

We launched Suntory World Whisky Ao earlier this year. After the integration [of Beam and Suntory] in 2015, we started a whisky council in Beam Suntory, a collaboration of five whisky countries. The idea for Ao came from this and management came to me and said ‘we have five big whisk(e)y-making countries, why don’t you create a new product together?’ So we decided to create a new product using the five whisk(e)y regions – Irish, Scotch, American, Canadian and Japanese distilleries.

It was a great idea, but to produce it as a blender was very difficult. Let me explain how difficult: if you get a bass and saxophone, you have a good combination. If a piano goes in there, that’s OK too. But if you have to also include a Japanese instrument or bagpipes, it becomes very difficult to create good music. But I believe a big orchestra can create beautiful symphonies, and that is what we have done with Ao.

A lot of Japanese whisky producers have struggled with stock shortages? Has this been a problem for you and how have you adapted to meet demand?

Since the 1980s, Japanese whisky consumption declined for 25 years. During that time, we continued trying to increase whisky quality to sell more in the domestic market in Japan. In the early 2000s, we started receiving Gold medals in different competitions. Our whisky quality was then being accepted globally.

In the late 2000s, maybe 2008, the Highball campaign got success in the Japanese market. Fortunately as well, many people throughout the world started wanting to drink Japanese whisky. But we need a long time to make whisky because of the long maturation. So our supply doesn’t meet the demand.

Now, we try to control supplies and some particular brands have to be allocated area to area, so we try to keep supplies where we can. I don’t want to terminate supplies of any brand but it’s about balancing supply and demand. We are trying our best to create more whisky and mature more whisky, but it will take time. We can just do our best.

Out of all the whiskies you have blended for House of Suntory, which has been your favourite and why?

This is too difficult to answer – it’s like choosing your favourite kid. But I will say at home I enjoy standard whisky, Kakubin. Give me 30-year-old, and I can’t enjoy it because it’s such a prestigious whisky. At home, I enjoy communicating with my family or watching TV, so a standard whisky is best for me. I enjoy a Highball and whisky on the rocks. In the last couple of years, I also enjoy an Old Fashioned.

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