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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Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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