Indians like to drink their whisky with soda, ice, or water, much like the Japanese, so a perfect blend for them is something which should taste good in their glass even when it is diluted, says Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at Japanese brewing and distilling company Suntory.
Fukuyo has created a special blend for India, which Beam Suntory, part of Japan's Suntory Holdings, recently launched under the brand Oaksmith. The company says it is a “harmonious blend of matured Scotch Malts that adds a strong flavour profile and American Bourbon whiskey, aged for at least four years in American Oak barrels”. The company also launched its most popular Japanese whiskies—Yamazaki and Hibiki, and Japanese craft gin Roku in India.
Fortune India caught up with Fukuyo, the creator of some of Suntory’s most fabled whisky brands, and talked about how he created a blend for India. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You have visited India six times in the last year, how has your experience been and how did it help you create a blend for India?
Firstly, when I was asked to deliver a whisky for the Indian market, I had very little information about Indian products. I really needed to understand which kind of tastes and aromas will be accepted by Indian consumers. Then I also visited some liquor stores and restaurants, tried some drinks and snack,s and talked with distributors and our sales teams. I made some test blends; we also did market research and after getting results, I modified (the blends).
You say that you tasted Indian snacks and did your own first-hand research and then decided what the blend is going to be. Could you tell us more about that?
Compared to Japanese cuisine, Indian cuisine is very spicy and has very strong aromas. From my point of view, Indian consumers tend to drink whisky with soda and water, diluted. So the whisky itself should include aromas and flavours, so it can be enjoyed even after being diluted with water... then (it is) enhanced by smokey malt, but not too much; My research tells me ‘too much smokey’ doesn't always work with Indian consumers.
Could you tell us about Japanese whisky?
We started whisky production in 1923, 96 years ago and the first product was launched in 1929. Particularly in the last 10-15 years, our whisky has been accepted worldwide. We have also won whisky competitions, we have won gold medals and trophies. Our whisky is now very popular, especially brands like Yamazaki, Hibiki.
The whisky production (in Japan) was inspired by Scotch whisky. The style is quite similar, but Japanese craftsmanship, Japanese nature, water, Japanese climate have created (unique) Japanese whisky characteristics.
The way whisky is consumed in Japan is also different, for instance in a highball and as Mizuwari (with water and ice). Could you tell us more about that?
In Japan, sake was the most popular drink many years ago. It has about 15-16% alcohol content, beer has about 5-6%, Japanese domestic spirits have 20-25%. Whisky generally has about 40-45%. In Japan, people demanded whisky that (we could drink) with ice and water, it happened 50-60 years ago. So Japanese people could enjoy whisky with a suitable percentage (of alcohol)... in summertime, particularly, when it is hot and humid. So Mizuwari—ice, water and whisky—is easy to drink. In the last ten years, we also introduced the highball campaign. Highball is similar to Mizuwari, it is with soda; it is another whisky drinking trend.
What are some of the things that you keep in mind while creating blends for India? Do you believe your blends are more suited to the Indian and Asian palate?
We always think of the occasion when the consumer drinks, not just quality in the bottle, but quality in the glass, too. That’s why our whisky can be diluted. Even after diluting with water and soda, you can still enjoy the aroma very well. We always think about the drinking occasion, it is a Suntory tradition.