While whiskies aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks are gaining popularity outside Japan, such as in the Scotch whisky industry, the chief blender at the famed Suntory-owned Yamazaki distillery feels that the Japanese still do it best.
Mr Shinji Fukuyo wants to prove this with the distillery’s latest release – the Yamazaki Mizunara 2017 edition – which he says contains the distinct “Mizunara-ness”.
“Other competitors have launched Mizunara whisky, but I’d like to show them that this is Mizunara whisky,” the 56-year-old tells The Sunday Times. “It is 100 per cent Mizunara wood, from new-make spirit to the bottle.”
The name Mizunara – “mizu” means water in Japanese and “nara” means oak – comes from the wood’s high moisture content. The oak imparts distinct sandalwood and rich, spicy flavours to the whisky as it ages in it.
Yamazaki’s familiarity with the wood boils down to history – the 94-year-old distillery has worked with it since the 1930s and 1940s.
Mr Fukuyo says: “During World War II, it was difficult to get casks or wood from abroad, so to continue producing whisky, we had to create casks from domestic wood.”
Japanese Mizunara wood is famously hard to work with – compared with the widely used American and European oak – due to its permeable character and the difficulty in joining the hardwood pieces to create casks that will not leak.
Only a select few Yamazaki whiskies are aged in Mizunara casks, which, Mr Fukuyo says, occupy only “less than 1 per cent of our inventory”.
Unlike previous Yamazaki Mizunara releases that came out in consecutive years from 2009 to 2013 and had no age statements, the 2017 release has an age statement of 18 years. This means that the youngest whisky in the blend is 18 years old, but a very small portion exceeds 50 years of maturation.
The rarity of the product means there are only 5,000 bottles available worldwide and they do not come cheap.
The recommended retail price of each bottle is US$1,000 (S$1,350) and a very limited number is available here, at retailers such as The Oaks Cellar and Auld Alliance.
Since Mizunara stocks are so carefully managed, Mr Fukuyo does not foresee another Yamazaki Mizunara release in the next two to three years, but he adds: “If there’s some surplus, I’d like to launch it again.”
He is well aware of how high in demand Yamazaki whiskys are. “Fortunately or unfortunately, now our supply doesn’t meet demand and everywhere in the world, even (our primary variant) Yamazaki 12 Years Old is not enough,” he says.
But he hopes that putting out special- edition offerings such as the Yamazaki Mizunara 2017 will help to keep interest in the company’s products.
While Japanese whisky production is modelled on the way Scotch is made, it has found its own place in the whisky world and Mr Fukuyo hopes that other up-and-coming whisky-producing countries can find their own niche as well.
He says: “I hope that even Australian or Taiwanese whiskies (for example) will try to find their own, local distinct flavour that’s not similar to Scotland or Japan.”
This, he adds, would help get more people interested in whisky. But he is not one to rest on his laurels and there could be exciting offerings from Suntory in the future.
The company’s takeover of United States spirits-maker Beam in 2014 and its portfolio meant the acquisition of Scotch, American, Canadian and Irish brands such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Canadian Club – all of which have piqued Mr Fukuyo’s interest.
“We have exchanged experiences and information with one another and maybe in my next trial, I would like to reflect the new information and new history we share,” he says.