You don’t have to depend on duty-free purchases anymore. Beam Suntory has made its famous brands — Yamazaki and Hibiki — available in India, including the recently launched—and very affordable—Toki.

The origin story of Japanese whisky has been oft-told, but it does bear a retelling, as it makes our friends in Scotland happy. Masataka Taketsuru, as a young man, visited Scotland to master whisky making, picking up in parallel a Masters of Chemistry, as well as Jessica Cowan, a Scottish bride. After his studies and internship, he returned to Japan, where he received a warm welcome from Shinjiro Tori, the founder of Suntory (now Beam Suntory), spending just a few years there, but enough to set Suntory on the path to glory.

After spending some time in Suntory, Taketsuru san left to establish a distillery of his own, and found Hokkaido to be his dream destination. As Hyderabad-based whisky connoisseur, Krishna Nukala, says, “Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, and it is a replica of Scottish Highlands, both topographically and climatically. Just as the Gulf Stream brings rain to Scotland from the Atlantic Ocean, the warm Kuro Siwo currents bring copious rains to Hokkaido from the Pacific Ocean. The result is that the entire region is blessed with crystal clear waters, and what more, they flow through unending peat fields. You cannot have a better combination to make whisky.”

The distillery he went on to found was Nikka, which, along with its arch-rival Suntory, dominates the Japanese whisky industry. In the 2015 edition of his Whisky Bible, an annual pronouncement of who’s king of the mountain in the whisky world, Jim Murray said the crown belonged to the Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask Single Malt, from Suntory distilleries in Japan. He described it as a drink of “near incredible genius”, and gave it 97.5 marks out of 100.

Japanese whiskies

Post-2011 was the first that we began to find Japanese whiskies in Indian market, namely the Yamazaki 12-year-old Single Malt, and the Hibiki 17 Blended whisky. Supplies were, however, restricted due to limited allocations to the Indian market. Come 2020, and we’re fortunate to find three top-quality Japanese whiskies back in the Indian market. The first to enter were Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve Single Malt, and the Hibiki Harmony Blended Whisky. More recently to enter is another blended whisky called Toki.

At the launch, I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr Shinji Fukuyo, the worldrenowned chief blender of the House of Suntory. We spoke about the worldwide shortage of Japanese whisky, as quality labels from Japan have continued to find favour amongst whisky connoisseurs the world over. Supply restrictions have contributed to fairly high pricing for these whiskies in India (anywhere from Rs. 11- 20,000 for Yamazaki and Hibiki depending on the state). This however has been no deterrent to demand.

Fukuyo san told me, “Over the last five years, we have expanded our distillation capacity, we have added two more pairs of pot stills each in Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, so we have much more distillation volume, and, as a result, we need more warehouses. So, every year, we are building more warehouses.” What adds to the popularity of major labels as well as emerging craft whisky from Japan, is that there are no clear standards as to what exactly is Japanese whisky. This enables many fly-by-night operators to call their whisky Japanese, but leave consumers in the dark as to exactly how much Japanese whisky forms a part of the blend.

The Yamazaki Distillers Reserve has some whisky matured in Japanese Oak (also known as Mizunara) as a part of the mix, along with whisky matured in Bordeaux wine casks (made from French oak), and sherry casks, all contributing to a fruity palate, with notes of raspberry and fresh peach, and a touch of coconut. The Hibiki Harmony is a blend of 10 malt-and-grain whiskies, leaving a honey-like sweetness on your palate, along with flavours of candied orange peel and white chocolate. The scarcity and high prices of Yamazaki and Hibiki is what makes the recent launch of Toki so exciting. Toki is a blended whisky available at price points of between Rs 4,000 and 7,000, and uses grain whiskies from Suntory’s famed Chita distillery, and malts from the Hakushu distillery, along with select malts from the Yamazaki distillery. All of these components make Toki a great value proposition for the value conscious Indian consumer. A Toki highball is a good way to consume it, with one part Toki combined with three parts soda or sparkling water in a highball glass, and a twist of citrus. This is also Fukuyo san’s favourite whisky serve in the summer months. As he told me, “I still have a lot to understand about the Indian palate, but so far, I think that the Indian food and snacks are very spicy, and high strength alcohol may not go very well with that, which is why Indians might be diluting their whisky with water or soda”. The Toki highball is a perfect fit in this context. For the Yamazaki and Hibiki, a splash of water will suffice to drink it”.