Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Suntory Whisky Toki: An Intriguing New Blend

In 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan to negotiate a treaty to open Japan to the world, he brought a few hundred gallons of American whiskey with him as a gift. The Japanese were quite taken with it and tried to imitate the whisky by adding additives to Sake and Shochu but that was largely a failure. I've read of an incident during World War I, when a couple U.S. transport ships landed in Japan, en route to Russia. At a local bar, the American soldiers drank some Japanese-made "Queen George" whiskey and an American officer stated "I never saw so many get so drunk so fast."

Deliverance finally came in the form of Masataka Taketsuru, whose family had been Sake brewers since 1733 (and still are involved in Sake production). In 1918, Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn the secrets of distilling and eventually brought his new knowledge back to Japan. Taketsuru ended up working for Kotobukiya (which became Suntory). In 1923, Shinjiro Torii then built Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto, and Taketsuru assisted with the distillation.

In 1972, Torii’s son Keizo Saji, as well as Suntory’s second master blender, constructed the Chita Distillery near Nagoya and then in 1973, he created the Hakushu Distillery in the deep forests of Mt. Kaikomagatake. Each location is intended to focus on their specific terroir, delivering different types and styles of whiskey, and using different still shapes, fives types of casks, and three types of wood. Suntory, which currently produces over 100 malt and grain whiskies, is now led by Shingo Torii, the grandson of Shinjiro.

Japanese whisky production is about 90% similar to that of Scotch however one of the most important differences involves their use of wort, a liquid produced during the mashing process. In Scotland, they generally use a cloudy wort, which contains husk chunks, and will add grain flavors to the whiskey. The Japanese though use a clear, or crystal, wort, which doesn't contain anything else. Thus, the wort doesn't add any grain flavors to the whisky and it leads to Japanese whiskies often being said to have a purer or brighter flavor.

One of the latest offerings from Suntory is the Suntory Whisky Toki ($39.99), a whiskey that has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. It is a blend of whiskies from all three of the Suntory's distilleries, Hakushu, Yamazaki and Chita. Usually, their whiskey blends are based on Yamazaki malts but for the Toki, they chose to focus on the Hakushu American White Oak Cask malt, balanced with a Chita heavy-type grain whiskey. As a final component, the blend includes two Yamasaki malts, one American white oak and the other Spanish oak. This is a more unique blend for Suntory, indicative of their innovation and desire to continue to push the envelope.

I received a media sample of the Suntory Whisky Toki, which is 86 proof, and it possesses a light golden color. On the nose, it is appealing with interesting notes of honey and citrus, with a slight herbal accent. Tasting it, I found it to be easy drinking, with notes of bright citrus, hints of vanilla, a blend of herbal touches, and a mild spicy hint on the finish. Though you can enjoy this on its own, I think it also does very well in a simple cocktail.

The Highball, basically a blend of whiskey and sparkling water, has been a popular cocktail in Japan since the 1950s. Suntory has their own recipe for a Toki Highball, which is to: "...fill a tall glass to the brim with ice. Add one measure of whisky. Stir to cool the whisky and glass. Again add ice to the brim. Pour three measures of chilled sparkling water along the side of the glass to avoid melting the ice or bursting the bubbles. Add a twist of lemon. Enjoy."  I made my own Highball at home, using a Lemon/Lime Seltzer water as a mixer with the Toki, and it was good, refreshing and tasty.

Japanese whiskey is a fascinating category, and they are able to compete with the best whiskies from the rest of the world. They present their own unique take on whiskey, showcasing their terroir, and it is well worthy of your attention. The Suntory Whisky Toki is a good introductory Japanese whiskey and should be on your bar. Use it to create some whiskey cocktails.

(Both photos are credited to Suntory Whisky)

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