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

By Jake Emen
Tue, Oct 10, 2023 9:09amGrey 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 flavor 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 flavor 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 flavor and aroma, we carefully proceed and blend various types of whiskies in a skillful 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 emphasized 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 prioritize 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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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”