The rise and fall, and rise again of Japanese whisky
Designing a whisky for a delicate palette
With over 35 years of experience in the whisky industry, Mike Miyamoto has been with Suntory through the ups and downs of Japan’s economy, and now through the current whisky craze and worldwide popularity of the brand’s Yamazaki brand.
In town to launch the very elusive Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016, of which there are only 5,000 available worldwide, we sat down with Miyamoto to chat about how the whisky industry has changed…before he headed out to get his much-loved chicken rice and ba ku teh.
LifestyleAsia (LSA): You have been in this industry a long time, how do you think whisky appreciation has changed over the last 37 years?
Mike Miyamoto (MM): When I joined Suntory in 1978, whisky was still on the upswing. In 1983, it hit its peak in the Japanese market. So for the first five years at Suntory, I saw steady growth. But after 1983 there was a sharp decline, all the way until 2009 and then all of a sudden, we saw whisk become popular with young people again.
Mike Miyamoto has been with Suntory since 1978.
LSA: Why do you think interest in whisky bounced around this way?
MM: We have tried to analyse what happened in the whisky market at the time. We think one reason was the high tax. Prices went up and at first we didn’t think it would make a huge difference, but consumers thought it was too much and started looking for other alcoholic beverages, like soju, which is much cheaper.
LSA: How did Japanese whisky become such a global phenomenon ?
MM: It wasn’t just Japanese whisky that became big at the time, it was the Japanese image as a whole and Japanese products. This happened around the seventies and eighties. In 2003, the Yamazaki 12 Years Old received a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge. That really got the attention of whisky fans the world over. Now there is curiosity and interest and after taking a sip of Suntory whiskey, people realise Japanese whisky is really tasty.
LSA: What do you think whisky drinkers today are looking for ?
MM: It is difficult to predict. But ultimately, we offer a whisky that is very different from Scotch, Bourbon or Irish whisky. There are no tricks, we just make authentic whisky. The founder of Suntory, Shinjiro Torri, who was basically the father of Japanese whisky wanted to make something that appealed to the Japanese palette. The Japanese people don’t like rich, smokey flavours, so this is how the taste of our whiskies came about. We haven’t changed that philosophy since. It seems to be one of the reasons people seem to like Japanese whiskies. This drink is both richly-coloured and flavoured, making the taste highly complex and sought after by whisky connoisseurs.
LSA: Why the decision to create Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 now?
MM: When we launched the Yamazaki Single Malt 12 Years back in 1984, it included flavours from the sherry cask, so there is precedence for this. We have used sherry casks in our blends but never on its own. So we decided now was the time.
LSA: Is there anything new going on in Japan with the way they drink whisky?
MM: Enjoying the highball style in a jug, like a beer, is very fashionable amongst youngsters now. Squeeze in a bit of lemon or maybe lime or even mint leaves, to accentuate the flavours. Whisky goes very well with food too, particularly izakaya-style.
LSA: What is the next step for Suntory ?
MM: I would like to see our whiskies stay a must-have item amongst whisky fans. We’ve been very popular these last ten years but I would be sad if this was just some trend. I want our whisky to be a “standard” for fans. Though we do have a slight issue with supply since we didn’t make enough 10-12 years ago. We did not anticipate our own popularity, but I guess this is a good problem to have!
Gunasellan, V. (2016, April 29). The rise and fall, and rise again of Japanese Whisky. Lifestyle Asia. Retrieved http://www.lifestyleasia.com/sg/en/scene/people/feature/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-again-of-japanese-whisky/