When it comes to craftsmanship, it is pretty close to universally accepted that whatever market the Japanese put their mind to, the product will be meticulously and methodically executed. That rule holds true when it comes to malt whisky. Taking into consideration Japan's excellence in the engineering of electronics and automobiles, it may not be surprising to learn that Japan is the second largest malt whisky producer in the world, after Scotland. Last month, at a large photo and event space in the West Village, Toshi Kumakura, CEO of Suntory USA, presented The Art of Hibiki: A Blend of 24 Seasons, in participation with Seiichi Koshimizu, Suntory INC.'s Chief Blender.
Suntory was founded in 1899, and is now a global food corporation, with its headquarters in Japan. Shinjiro Torii founded the Torii Shoten store in Osaka in 1899 and in 1907 launched Akadama Sweet Wine, which became a huge success. Intrigued by the results of cultivating and maturing liquor in Japan, Torii dreamed of creating an original Japanese Whisky made from Japanese nature and by her people. In 1918, he invested his family fortune and pursued his dream of building Japan's first whisky distillery, and in 1923 the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan's first single malt whisky distillery began construction in Yamazaki on the outskirts of Kyoto. The pure spring water that bubbles up from the bamboo groves at the foot of Mt. Tenno proved to be the deciding factor in the location for the distillery.
In 1989, Suntory introduced Suntory Whisky Hibiki, considered the paragon of the art of Japanese whisky. Hibiki means "resonance" in Japanese, and the whisky is indeed a harmonious blend of innumerous malt and grain whiskies, which are meticulously blended to create a full orchestra of flavors and aromas. Hibiki is not only Japan's highest awarded blended whisky, but one of the most highly-awarded blended whiskies in the world. In 2010, The House of Suntory became the first Japanese whisky manufacturer to be awarded the International Spirits Challenge (ISC) award, and went on the receive the award for a second time in 2012 and a third in 2013.
At The Art of Hibiki presentation, Suntory introduced the long awaited launch of Hibiki 17 Years and Hibiki 21 Years in the United States with a food pairing from Chef David Bouley and Chef Isao Yamada of Brushstroke. For the Hibiki 17 Years, finger foods like Golden Crab and Wild Mushroom Chawanmushi, Truffle Ankake with Spring Onion Blossom and Hamachi Tartar with Soba Chips, White Asparagus and Buckwheat Seed were passed, and for the Hibiki 21 Years, Wagyu Sirloin Beef Jerky, Kuzu Crisp with Aligote and Black Truffle and Smoked Bamboo Shoot on Cherry Wood over Heirloom Japanese Black Rice made the rounds. There were also Hibiki infused Vanilla Macarons, which brilliantly complemented the palate of toffee, black cherry, vanilla and Mizunara (Japanese Oak).
Hidetsugu Ueno, widely known as the greatest bartender in Japan, from Bar High Five in Ginza Tokyo, made a very special appearance to demonstrate carving a Hibiki original 24-faceted iceball. In Japan's intense humidity and heat, refreshing one's palate with ice was once a privilege restricted to the ruling class and regarded as a symbol of power. Today, ice is an indispensable item in Japanese bar culture, and a Japanese bartender as host, most often carves his own ice for guests. The iceball, like anything Japanese, is more than aesthetic but serves a functional means, as the spherical shape allows the ice to melt slower without diluting the whisky. The entire event that night was framed by the Hibiki Art Installation, featuring the work of Motion Graphics Artist, Tetsuro Mise, who also provided the aural landscape as DJ.
The rapid spread of globalization has created a higher demand for variety and more discernment amongst connoisseurs of finer drinking experiences. Where once it was rare to find a single bottle of Japanese whisky on a bar shelf, it has quickly become commonplace to see a large selection of Japanese whiskies in venues, and Suntory is Japan's biggest player in the whisky game.