Tuesday, June 2, 2009

For relaxing times...Make it Suntory time!

Fans of the 2003 comedy, Lost in Translation, may recognize the above phrase as the slogan voiced by the character Bob Harris (Bill Murray) for Suntory brand whisky. For those outside of Japanese cultural and whisky enthusiast circles, this mention may have been their first exposure to the world of Japanese whisky, as Suntory as a brand has historical been more familiar for its melon flavored Midori liquer.

Until a few years ago, it was next to impossible to find Japanese whisky in the U.S. outside of Japanese restaurants and enclaves, save for a bottle of Super Nikka or Gold & Gold (both decent, but nondescript blended whiskies). The release of the movie more or less coincided with the release of the Suntory Yamazaki line of Japanese single malts in the U.S. market, the first of what will hopefully be many releases of premium Japanese malt on this side of the Pacific.

Founded in 1923 by Scotland educated Shinjiro Torii, Suntory is the oldest provider of Japanese whisky, and their Yamazaki product line consists of a 12 and an 18 year old single malt product distilled and bottled at the Yamazaki distillery, located in Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan. Manufactured in the Scotch style with imported Scottish barley malt, the whisky has scotch characteristics while being uniquely Japanese.

One differentiation is the use of Japanese oak in addition to sherry and bourbon barrels during the aging process. Japanese oak, which is a denser wood, adds a spicier element. In addition, the Japanese environment, with its unique terroir, affects the whisky during maturation. However, in a reference to its origins, the Japanese largely spell their whisky ending with a "y" as they do in Scotland, vs. an "ey" as is done in the U.S. and many other countries.

The late whisky critic Michael Jackson described the 12 year old as " A pioneering malt in Japan, for which Suntory deserve great credit. In its early days, it was rounded and delicate, as though wary of offending anyone. Now it is more intense, confident and elegant." Playboy Magazine gave the 18 year full marks (Yes, Playboy does, in fact, write some thoughtful liquor reviews). Your host personally enjoys the 18 year malt, as it's rich and dark without the smoke characteristic to many Scottish whiskies (apparently the Japanese dislike the taste of peat). Adding a little water to the whiskey will uncover aromas of fruit and strawberries.

Your host recently had the opportunity to attend a private tasting of several Suntory whisky products at the Guanxi Lounge of Shanghai 1930, a private cigar lounge within the art deco inspired Chinese restaurant, located in San Francisco's financial district. The tasting was lead by Gardner Dunn, North American Brand Ambassador for Suntory whisky, and Indah Marcelly, the local San Francisco based ambassador for Suntory products. Those familiar with the New York cocktail scene may know Gardner as a consultant for 33 Libations, a firm that consults on beverage programs.

Gardner walked attendees through Suntory history, with flair and colorful language, and provided samples of various Suntory products. Samples included the aforementioned 12 and 18 year Yamazaki single malts, as well as samples of component whiskies, including 12 year old cask strength (110 proof) whisky aged in Japanese, bourbon, and sherry woods. In addition, the standard Hibiki blended whisky, as well as the 17 year Hibiki blend in a lunar new year ceramic ox figure were available for tasting (See photo).

The Hibiki line, not yet available in the U.S., provided an interesting contrast to the more robust Yamazaki single malt line. The 17 year Hibiki was excellent, and had a silkier mouth feel and cleaner taste than the Yamazaki 18, characteristics of good whisky blending. Harking back to Lost in Translation movie references, the Hibiki line was the one featured in the mock commercials (look closely at the bottle in the movie). In Japan, blended whiskies have historically been more popular than single malts. Indah mentioned that neither the Hibiki, nor any other Suntory whiskey product, will be imported until distributors exhaust the 10,000 cases of Yamazaki product already shipped to the U.S.

This current presentation was a far cry from when Suntory first started to market Yamazaki in the U.S. market. At a tasting event your host attended a few years back, an older grey haired gentleman walked the audience through the nuances and subtleties of Japanese whisky. In a quest to appeal to younger audiences, Suntory appears to have moved on to more lively, hipper, spokespeople.

Expect to pay around $40 for a bottle of the 12 year Yamazaki, and between $80 and $110 for the 18 year. Most high end liquor stores in the Bay Area should carry the product. It's less prevalent in bars and clubs in San Francisco, but check out Whiskey Thieves, Nihon Whisky Lounge, Yoshi's, or any bar in Japantown.


Locations Mentioned:

Shanghai 1930
133 Steuart Street
(between Howard & Mission Street)
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 896-5600

Commentary: While the Guanxi lounge is private, anyone can eat in the restaurant, which offers Asian specialties and jazz music. It's one of a few restaurants in San Francisco located below street level. The bar usually stocks Yamazaki.

Whiskey Thieves
839 Geary St
(at Larkin St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 409-2063

Commentary: There is arguably no bar in SF with a better selection at such reasonable prices (Scotch, bourbon, Irish, craft, Japanese, etc). For many years, this bar allowed smoking due to a special owner-operator status (one of just a handful in San Francisco). This recently changed, and now you don't need to elbow aside chain smoking patrons at the bar on weekend nights. Located in the tenderloin, the atmosphere definitely has the dive bar vibe.

Nihon Whiskey Lounge
1779 Folsom St
(between 14th St & Erie St)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 552-4400

Commentary: This upscale Japanese lounge offers an impressive whiskey list, as well as decent sushi and Asian food. It's definitely a good option if you are looking to dress up and have a whisky themed evening.

1330 Fillmore St
(between Eddy St & Ellis St)
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 655-5600

Commentary: Located in the revitalized Fillmore Jazz District, Yoshi's provides a nice bar setting, as well as the restaurant and Jazz theater. In addition to the Yamazaki line, Yoshi's sometimes carries the Nikka Gold&Gold, often priced cheap like a shot of Jim Beam.

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