“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”–Bill Murray’s character, “Bob Harris,” advertising Suntory in Lost in Translation
[Sip & Tell features barstool interviews with spirits industry professionals.]
You probably recognize the above quote from the 2003 film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Around that time, Suntory was still best known for its melon liqueur, Midori, but over the past few years, its single malt whisky, Yamazaki, has infiltrated U.S. shores and quietly stolen the hearts of many a scotch drinker. Yamazaki 12 year and 18 year, both prize-winning in blind tastings, are made at Japan’s oldest distillery, founded by Scotland-educated Shinjiro Torii in 1923. Created with the level of craftsmanship the Japanese are known for, the whisky is aged in Japanese, American, and Spanish oak casks, lending a full-bodied flavor and silky smooth finish.
Over the past year, many of NYC’s best-known cocktail bars have featured drinks made with Yamazaki, such as the “Gold Rush” at Goldbar and the “Murray Sour” at Minetta Tavern. This is mainly due to the work of Gardner Dunn, North American Brand Ambassador for Suntory Whisky.
Gardner, a mixologist who is as recognized for his creative cocktails as his off-kilter hairstyle, travels around the country for several days (if not weeks) every month. He says he’s seeing a younger crowd show interest in the brand. “Scotch used to be a status symbol, something your dad drank,” he said. “Now I’m seeing younger people wanting to try new stuff. They’re interested in hearing about the distillation and the history.”
Gardner recently got an advanced course on all things Yamazaki when he traveled to the Suntory distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto, a location chosen for its water source. The Vale of Yamazaki, hailed by famous master of the tea ceremony, Senno Rikyu, is legendary for its pure water. Inspired by the art of Japanese bartening, which includes techniques such as ice ball carving and the hard shake, Gardner set out to gather Japanese bartending tools to show to the many skilled bartenders he’s met stateside. He’s put together a “Godzilla Kit,” with tools including crystal mixing glasses with a lip, bar spoons with forks on the opposite end, and Japanese jiggers, which have a thinner and deeper design and more balanced weight than standard jiggers.
The Godzilla Kits are just one bonus in what is turning out to be an exciting year for Suntory. Later this month, the hotly-anticipated Hibiki 12-year blended whisky (aged in plum liqueur casks and filtered through bamboo charcoal) hits shelves in NYC and California, its first debut stateside. Also, just in time for the holidays, a limited edition of 300 bottles of 1984 Yamazaki will be released, for $550-$650 a pop.
Gardner says he finds himself crafting cocktails less and less and carving ice balls more and more as he focuses on educating people everywhere about the history and philosophy behind Suntory. “Cocktails are not the goal [for Yamazaki], but it does mix very well,” he said. “It doesn’t have a lot of heat, but it has honey overtones that pair well with other spirits.”