Conversation with Yoshi of Suntory

The setting for lunch was the heralded Soba Totto which serves up authentic Japanese fare. In walked Yoshi Morita, Suntory’s Executive Manager of Sales and Marketing. Hard to think of a better spot to chat about Japanese whisky than Soba Totto which makes you feel like you might be in Tokyo. While slurping hot soba noodles we discussed the Suntory brand and the future of Japanese whisky in America.

I met Yoshi at Whisky Jewbilee a few weeks ago at the Suntory booth. One would not have guessed that such a humble man was the head of sales and marketing. Yoshi is responsible for sales and marketing of Suntory’s whisky in the US. He is tasked with growing Suntory’s brand and ensuring sales are in line with targets. Which means that brand ambassadors like Gardner Dunn and others all report back to Yoshi. In other words, he’s the ambassador Boss Man. Some of his daily duties include maintaining a strong relationship with their importer (Campari America), distributors, retailers and planning Suntory’s marketing strategy for the US. And of course he also conducts tastings of delicious whisky as well.

One difficulty Yoshi faces in his task to grow the Suntory’s presence in the US is the paucity of Japanese whisky.┬áThe demand for Japanese whisky in the US and the world is higher than its ever been. This excess demand is causing a problematic shortage of Japanese whisky. Yoshi explained that Suntory is addressing this problem by investing in their main distillery. Back in March of this year Yamazaki distillery installed four new pot stills which brings their total to sixteen. As a result production will be increased by 40%. In ten years time they expect this investment to pay dividends. In the meantime we will have to sit tight and wait patiently. If you’re reading between the lines this means that if you are a fan of Suntory whisky, buy now because prices are going to increase as the shortage continues.

Next, Yoshi and I discussed the effect of Japanese culture on the quality of Suntory’s whisky. Yoshi noted that Suntory initially sought out to produce whisky for the Japanese palate. The Japanese prefer flavors that are concise, subtle and well rounded. As a result Suntory’s whiskies are very precise and full bodied malts which are smooth and easy to drink. Whenever I taste Suntory’s whiskies I always marvel at the distinct flavor notes that come across very clearly on the palate.

Another key cultural impact on Suntory’s whisky is the idea of shokunin. A shokunin is a craftsman who makes it their life’s work to perfect their art. If you’ve seen acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi then you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. Yoshi gave an anecdote to help drive home the meaning of shokunin: Suntory’s Master Blender has eaten the same lunch (tempura udon) every day for the past twenty years so that his palate will be consistent. Throughout the day he tastes exactly 200 whiskies. This obsessive attention to detail and pursuit of perfection has resulted in numerous awards for Suntory’s malts.

This year Suntory added Hakushu Heavily Peated and Yamazaki 25 to their lineup which includes Yamazaki 12, 18, Hibiki 12 and Hakushu 12. Next year expect to see Hibiki 17, 21 and Hakushu 18 make their way to the States. Those of you who have an insatiable appetite for Japanese whisky may be wondering when they’ll bring in even more expressions. Unfortunately, due to US liquor laws it takes Suntory about nine months to obtain necessary approvals to bring over a new expression. Despite that impediment Suntory is trying to bring over additional expressions in 2014. I’m hoping that Suntory opts to bring over some of their cask collections like Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel (my personal favorite) and Yamazaki Mizunara. You can help by inquiring often and loudly for these releases to your favorite retailer/distributor.

Special thanks to Yoshi for generously sharing the ins and outs of Suntory.

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