Suntory Whisky’s Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo on Preserving a Legacy
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Suntory Whisky’s Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo on Preserving a Legacy

By Jake Emen
Tue, Oct 10, 2023 9:02amGrey Clock 4 min

When Shinjiro Torii founded the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923, few would have been able to forecast the enormous force his company, Suntory Whisky, would go on to become a century later.

Over the past decade in particular, Japanese whisky has evolved from a curiosity known only to connoisseurs into a powerhouse beloved in every corner of the whisky world. As chief blender for Suntory Whisky, Shinji Fukuyo has spearheaded this modern surge, and enjoys a unique position as the House of Suntory celebrates its 100-year anniversary.

“Witnessing the global impact of Suntory whiskies brings me great personal fulfilment and fuels my passion for creating beloved whiskies for everyone to enjoy,” Fukuyo says. Over the 100 years the company has been producing whisky, he is only the fifth person to hold the title of chief blender. He was named to the position in 2009 after an extensive history working for the company at the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first whisky distillery.

Suntory has been hosting a year of celebrations in honour of its centennial, the highlight of which has been the release of a suite of Centennial Limited Edition whiskies. The lineup includes Yamazaki 18-year-old Mizunara (US$1,500), Hakushu 18-year-old Peated Malt (US$1,200), and a centennial bottling of Hibiki 21-year-old (US$5,000). Each of the three was blended by Fukuyo to showcase a unique flavour profile and characteristic that stands apart from its typical bottlings. The Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies were released this May, while the Hibiki debuted in a separate release last month.

Suntory has been hosting a year of celebrations in honor of its centennial, the highlight of which has been the release of a suite of Centennial Limited Edition whiskies. The lineup includes a centennial bottling of Hibiki 21-year-old (US$5,000).
House of Suntory

Another component of this year’s ongoing Suntory centennial fete was the Sofia Coppola directed Suntory Time tribute film, as well as the Roman Coppola directed docuseries, The Nature and Spirit of Japan, both of which starred Keanu Reeves. Elsewhere around Japan, other prominent businesses have been getting in on the fun as well. For instance, a 30-minute drive from the Yamazaki Distillery, Hotel the Mitsui Kyoto’s signature restaurant Toki—which happens to share the name of a Suntory Whisky product—has unveiled an elaborate Hibiki whisky pairing dinner, while its Garden Bar has offered an exclusive menu of Hibiki cocktails.

Fukuyo spoke with Penta about the century-long legacy of the House of Suntory, as well as the creation of this year’s honorary Centennial Limited Edition whisky releases.

Penta: What does this special occasion signify for you?

Shinji Fukuyo: Shinjiro Torii’s legacy began with a dream to create an original whisky that would suit the delicate palate of the Japanese consumers that is blessed with the riches of Japanese nature and craftsmanship. As chief blender, I am dedicated to upholding Suntory’s rich legacy and traditions, while expressing our craftsmanship through the whiskies that my team and I create.

As Japanese whisky has soared in popularity over the past decade, what are the qualities that define Suntory’s whiskies and have helped make them so special for drinkers around the world?

We use high-quality natural water, which has been nurtured over many years, to produce a delicate spirit. The natural environment and climate of where our distilleries sit in Japan also influences our whiskies. Our climate highlights the dynamic changes of the four seasons, including humid, hot summers and dry, cold winters to give our whisky a deep sense of maturity.

The quality of whisky is showcased in the flavour and aroma that is developed over time by producing a rich distillate from good raw materials and placing it in high-quality casks. Also, to bring out the harmony of flavour and aroma, we carefully proceed and blend various types of whiskies in a skilful balance, which I believe embodies the delicate Japanese craftsmanship.

What was your approach with this year’s limited-edition whiskies?

The existing Yamazaki 18-year is a product that combines American oak, Spanish oak, Mizunara oak, and smoky Yamazaki malt to express complexity while highlighting the character of Spanish oak. On the other hand, the limited-edition Yamazaki 18-year-old Mizunara uses only malt whiskies aged in Mizunara barrels for a minimum of 18 years and features cinnamon and nutmeg aromas, with undertones of Japanese incense, sandalwood, and dry coconut emphasised in the finish, with subtle spices.

For Hakushu, both our existing Hakushu 18-year-old and the limited Hakushu 18-year-old Peated Malt are blended with various whiskies aged in Hakushu, including American and Spanish oak, heavy peated and non-peated, for a smoky yet fruity and sweet finish. The limited edition is balanced with several peated Hakushu malt whiskies aged in American oak for over 18 years to produce a fresh and crisp smoky taste.

Celebratory bottles for existing core whiskies include a special Hakushu 12-year-old (US$185).
House of Suntory

Looking ahead to the next few decades, how do you envision Suntory continuing to evolve? How about Japanese whisky as a category on the whole?

For these 100 years, we have been striving to create a culture where Japanese consumers can enjoy whisky. These are values we still prioritise today, as our team is constantly in the pursuit of enhancing our quality and craftsmanship. As we look to the future, we have seen a growing global interest in Japanese products and believe that there are further opportunities to spread the excellence of Suntory Whisky throughout the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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Should AI Have Access to Your Medical Records? What if It Can Save Many Lives?

We asked readers: Is it worth giving up some potential privacy if the public benefit could be great? Here’s what they said.

By DEMETRIA GALLEGOS
Tue, May 28, 2024 4 min

We’re constantly told that one of the potentially biggest benefits of artificial intelligence is in the area of health. By collecting large amounts of data, AI can create all sorts of drugs for diseases that have been resistant to treatment.

But the price of that could be that we have to share more of our medical information. After all, researchers can’t collect large amounts of data if people aren’t willing to part with that data.

We wanted to see where our readers stand on the balance of privacy versus public-health gains as part of our series on ethical dilemmas created by the advent of AI.

Here are the questions we posed…

AI may be able to discover new medical treatments if it can scan large volumes of health records. Should our personal health records be made available for this purpose, if it has the potential to improve or save millions of lives? How would we guard privacy in that case?

…and some of the answers we received. undefined

Rely on nonpartisan overseers

While my own recent experience with a data breach highlights the importance of robust data security, I recognise the potential for AI to revolutionise healthcare. To ensure privacy, I would be more comfortable if an independent, nonpartisan body—overseen by medical professionals, data-security experts, and citizen representatives—managed a secure database.

Anonymity cuts both ways

Yes. Simply sanitise the health records of any identifying information, which is quite doable. Although there is an argument to be made that AI may discover something that an individual needs or wants to know.

Executive-level oversight

I think we can make AI scanning of health records available with strict privacy controls. Create an AI-CEO position at medical facilities with extreme vetting of that individual before hiring them.

Well worth it

This actually sounds like a very GOOD use of AI. There are several methods for anonymising data which would allow for studies over massive cross-sections of the population without compromising individuals’ privacy. The AI would just be doing the same things meta-studies do now, only faster and maybe better.

Human touch

My concern is that the next generations of doctors will rely more heavily, maybe exclusively, on AI and lose the ability or even the desire to respect the art of medicine which demands one-on-one interaction with a patient for discussion and examination (already a dying skill).

Postmortem

People should be able to sign over rights to their complete “anonymised” health record upon death just as they can sign over rights to their organs. Waiting for death for such access does temporarily slow down the pace of such research, but ultimately will make the research better. Data sets will be more complete, too. Before signing over such rights, however, a person would have to be fully informed on how their relatives’ privacy may also be affected.

Pay me or make it free for all

As long as this is open-source and free, they can use my records. I have a problem with people using my data to make a profit without compensation.

Privacy above all

As a free society, we value freedoms and privacy, often over greater utilitarian benefits that could come. AI does not get any greater right to infringe on that liberty than anything else does.

Opt-in only

You should be able to opt in and choose a plan that protects your privacy.

Privacy doesn’t exist anyway

If it is decided to extend human lives indefinitely, then by all means, scan all health records. As for privacy, there is no such thing. All databases, once established, will eventually, if not immediately, be accessed or hacked by both the good and bad guys.

The data’s already out there

I think it should be made available. We already sign our rights for information over to large insurance companies. Making health records in the aggregate available for helping AI spot potential ways to improve medical care makes sense to me.

Overarching benefit

Of course they should be made available. Privacy is no serious concern when the benefits are so huge for so many.

Compensation for breakthroughs

We should be given the choice to release our records and compensated if our particular genome creates a pathway to treatment and medications.

Too risky

I like the idea of improving healthcare by accessing health records. However, as great as that potential is, the risks outweigh it. Access to the information would not be controlled. Too many would see personal opportunity in it for personal gain.

Nothing personal

The personal info should never be available to anyone who is not specifically authorised by the patient to have it. Medical information can be used to deny people employment or licenses!

No guarantee, but go ahead

This should be allowed on an anonymous basis, without question. But how to provide that anonymity?

Anonymously isolating the information is probably easy, but that information probably contains enough information to identify you if someone had access to the data and was strongly motivated. So the answer lies in restricting access to the raw data to trusted individuals.

Take my records, please

As a person with multiple medical conditions taking 28 medications a day, I highly endorse the use of my records. It is an area where I have found AI particularly valuable. With no medical educational background, I find it very helpful when AI describes in layman’s terms both my conditions and medications. In one instance, while interpreting a CT scan, AI noted a growth on my kidney that looked suspiciously like cancer and had not been disclosed to me by any of the four doctors examining the chart.

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