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Spirits Were High: ‘In Praise of Time’ Gathers Whisky and Culinary Experts for Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience in Portland Japanese Garden

Suntory Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Portland Japanese Garden has always simultaneously been, outside of Japan, a place of unparalleled Japanese landscape art and North America’s foremost Japanese cultural organization. Just as the Umami Café offers guests the rare opportunity to enjoy world-class green tea direct from the acclaimed 160-year-old Jugetsudo tea company or how our exhibitions showcase some of the finest traditional and contemporary Japanese artists, the organization is always seeking to broaden understanding of the many fascinating qualities of Japan. In July, the organization turned its attention to one such item: whisky.

“In 2019, we presented our first-ever Japanese whisky tasting, featuring commentary by one of Japan’s most revered whisky masters, Seiichi Koshimizu, Chief Blender Emeritus of Suntory Yamazaki Distillery,” shared Aki Nakanishi, Portland Japanese Garden’s Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education. “It was a special evening and we wanted to make this a more regular event here at the Garden, but, of course, the pandemic necessarily stalled those plans.”

“It was very exciting to bring Suntory back to the Garden this year,” Nakanishi continued. “They are Japan’s preeminent whisky brand and one of the greatest distilleries in the world. 2023 also happened to be an auspicious year for both Suntory and Portland Japanese Garden. As we are celebrating our 60th anniversary, they just reached a major milestone themselves.”

An Event 100 Years in the Making

Yamazaki 55 in the center of this lineup from Suntory. Courtesy of Multnomah Whisk{e}y Library, photo by Dylan Harkavy.

In partnership with Multnomah Whisk{e}y Library (MWL), the Garden built upon its 2019 programming and gathered some of the world’s most acclaimed leaders in beverage and culinary arts for an event titled In Praise of Time: Celebrating a Century of Japanese Whisky. MWL, in just 10 years of operation, has become one the nation’s most revered whisky bars and social clubs. In 2020, the organization had acquired one of only 100 bottles of Yamazaki 55, a Suntory whisky crafted in the 1960s by Suntory founder and Japanese distiller Shinjiro Torii. They decided to open and share the bottle with the community and believed Portland Japanese Garden would be an ideal collaborator, noting the Garden’s history of peacemaking and human connection through cultural exchange. The two organizations are further bonded through the Garden’s International Advisory Board Member, Alan Davis, who owned MWL before its current proprietor, Ed Hutson.

Portland Japanese Garden International Advisory Board Member, Alan Davis. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Just one day of programming would not suffice for the opening of such a rare spirit. Yamazaki 55 is a liquor that has been passed down through the generations at Suntory, Japan’s first and largest whisky company. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2023, Suntory was founded by the aforementioned Shinjiro Torii in Osaka Prefecture. Despite a meticulous approach that has produced excellent malt, grain, and blended whiskies, Suntory would wait 80 years before it received its due international recognition, in the form of a Gold Award for its Yamazaki 12yr at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge. It would be the first time a Japanese whisky had achieved such an honor.

While the second night of the two-day event would see the 55 be opened at MWL, the first evening took place at Portland Japanese Garden. Offerings of other highly regarded Suntory whiskies were provided to attendees on this night. However, Suntory was not just a menu item, it was also an honored guest. Among those who traveled to Portland for this special occasion was a group of representatives from the company, including its Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo. The fifth Chief Blender of Suntory, Fukuyo was a guiding presence throughout the night.

Engaging with Whisky Through a Garden

Spirits writer Dave Broom (left) walks with Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education, Aki Nakanishi (center, black shirt) during a tour they co-led. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Before Fukuyo would speak on Suntory and whisky, however, the evening began in the soft and mellow sun of twilight. Guests gathered in the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Courtyard to enjoy cocktails prepared by James Beard Award-winning mixologist Jim Meehan. The evening then commenced with a tour of the Garden, led by Nakanishi, Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom, Garden Curator Hugo Torii, and acclaimed spirits writer Dave Broom.

The Glasgow, Scottland-born Broom was yet another key element that elevated In Praise of Time into the truly special event it was. The author of 14 books, including The Way of Whisky: A Journey into Japanese Whisky, Broom is an award-winning thought leader on liquor. He noted that when he was first told about the event, he was “intrigued.”

Acclaimed spirits writer Dave Broom. Photo by Nina Johnson.

“Part of what intrigues me about whisky and one thing that kind of keeps me going with whisky is looking at it in the dark void of context, and finding new ways in to talk about it,” Broom told the evening’s guests. “I think if you only look at it as a liquid…you have missed the point, because whisky is part of life, it’s part of culture. And if you can find different ways of getting people engaged with whisky, whether it’s through music, or art, or walking through a garden, that is brilliant. So, I was immediately on board.”

Suntory Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Fukuyo, too, was captivated by the concept of In Praise of Time. Suntory has long held an interest in promoting cultural activities, having established the Suntory Museum of Art in 1961 and the Suntory Foundation in 1979 to promote scholarship, arts, and culture. Beyond that, however, Suntory and Portland Japanese Garden are two examples of how human ingenuity can combine botanical science with artistry to achieve new heights. Suntory is situated at the foot of Mt. Tennozan, where the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu Rivers intermingle. This area’s water has achieved such renown that it has been selected as one of the sites of Japan’s hundred best natural mineral waters by the nation’s Ministry of the Environment. Recognition of the site’s natural splendor dates back through history—it is the location of Tai An, a 16th century tea house designed by Sen no Rikyū, one of, if not the greatest, masters of Japanese tea ceremony. Simply put, Suntory’s achievements are made possible because of the gift of nature, just as Portland Japanese Garden’s are. “I was so impressed with the Garden,” said Fukuyo following the tour. “It’s almost Japan, I feel. After the tour I was very excited to talk about our whisky.”

The Power of Cultural Exchange

As the garden stroll concluded, guests made their way into the Yanai Family Classroom for a presentation and whisky tasting led by Fukuyo. This stage of the evening began with a presentation of a video tribute to Suntory made by director Sofia Coppola and featuring actor Keanu Reeves.

In pointing out how Suntory got started, Fukuyo wound up drawing a parallel to Portland Japanese Garden – both organizations reflect the power of cultural exchange. The Garden is the manifestation of both Japanese and American influences—while it is authentically Japanese in its presentation, it has never been intended to be wholly Japanese nor wholly American, but rather serve as an example of the beauty that can arise when ideas, values, design, and more are shared among open-minded peoples from different backgrounds.  

Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom speaks to the evening’s attendees ahead of their tasting. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Were it not for cultural exchange, Suntory may not have achieved the reputation it has earned. Before Suntory was Suntory, its founder Shinjiro Torii had apprenticed at Konishi Gisuke Shoten, an Osaka pharmacy that imported Western liquor. There Torii learned blending techniques that would lead to his first beverage-related success, Akadama, a fortified wine still available today. He also employed Masataka Taketsuru, the scion of a sake-brewing family who had apprenticed at three Scottish whisky distillers. Taketsuru would take the lessons he gleaned in the U.K. and help set up Torii’s distillery. Torii and Taketsuru’s incorporation of Western techniques and knowledge of the Japanese palette helped create the refined taste that characterizes Suntory whisky. This cross-pollination did not end in the first half of the 20th century – Fukuyo himself conducted research on whisky at the University of Edinburgh for two years and worked at a Glasgow distillery for another four before he returned to Japan.

After an overview of Suntory’s history, Fukuyo then led attendees through a flight of different Suntory beverages, including a Yamazaki 12yr, Hakushu 12yr, Yamazaki 18yr, Hakushu 18yr, Yamazaki 18yr Mizunara 100th anniversary edition, and Hakushu 18y Peated Malt 100th anniversary edition.

A Meal Paired with a Conversation

The dining portion of the evening. Photo by Nina Johnson.

After the tasting concluded, guests moved to the Living Room area of the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center to enjoy a meal prepared by chef and culinary experience curator Marybeth Boller. Following her studies at Providence College and the International Culinary Center, Boller would be mentored by celebrated chefs Jean Georges Vongerichten and Michel Roux before becoming the Executive Chef at the legendary dining destination, BG at Bergdorf Goodman and then the U.S. Embassy residence in Japan under Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. Working with the team at Devil’s Food Catering, Boller’s menu for In Praise of Time included halibut tataki, langoustine (shrimp pillow, shellfish broth, and warm ginger vinaigrette), a pan-seared American Wagyu hanger steak, and aged soy sauce and hazelnut cake for dessert, all paired with cocktails from Jim Meehan.

After the guests had finished dining, Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom welcomed Shinji Fukuyo and Dave Broom to the Cathy Rudd Cultural Corner for a conversation that explored connections between the craft of whisky and Japanese gardening – two pursuits that may not appear related at first blush but do share common characteristics upon closer inspection.

CEO Steve Bloom moderates a fireside chat with Suntory Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo and spirits writer Dave Broom. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Fukuyo’s thoughts on the work he does as a blender evoked similarities with the gardeners of Portland Japanese Garden. Fukuyo’s disciplined life of early morning wakeups, the nosing and tasting of hundreds of samples of whisky, and simple meals that won’t imperil his highly trained palette brought to mind the dedication of niwashi (garden masters). He also discussed how he and the blenders he directs must always consider the person who will ultimately enjoy the fruit of their labor. “Blenders are a kind of gate for the consumer,” Fukuyo shared. “We have to protect them and maintain the quality [of what we distill].” Likewise, gardeners carefully articulate the landscape in a way that will provide the best experience possible for those who walk it.

The conversation turned to another aspect that both gardens and whisky share: generational thinking. Portland Japanese Garden’s landscape is the result of the hard work of the organization’s Garden and Facilities Departments over the course of 60 years. Those who maintain and foster the land are stewards in a lineage that extends into the future. As Chief Blender, Fukuyo is responsible for maintaining the liquid quality of all Suntory whisky brands. And yet, he will not see the results of much of the work he is doing now, just as Torii’s Yamazaki 55 was distributed by colleagues hired long after his passing. “Our blender team consists of over seven blenders over a span of different ages, so people in their 20s up to myself in my 60s,” Fukuyo noted. “Whisky requires many long years of maturation; the liquid is handed over from generation to generation.”

James Beard Award-winning mixologist Jim Meehan and Chef and Culinary Experience Curator Marybeth Boller speak to attendees. Photo by Nina Johnson.

The conversation also touched upon other aspects of whisky with Broom noting a distinction between Japanese and Scottish distillers. “I think…a big difference between a Scotch approach to whisky making and the Japanese approach the whisky making is that in Scotland, consistency has been the big thing, making the same whisky today and tomorrow and the day after, etc. And then you go to Japan, and it’s kaizen (continuous improvement). It’s a tradition, but it’s moving forward and continuing to move forward.” The kaizen approach has been one Portland Japanese Garden has adopted since its founding—while it seeks to honor the principles of its original designer, Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, it does not turn away improvements that make the Garden more accessible for modern audiences.

Broom spoke positively about the concept of kaizen, noting the adage that, “’Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition.’ If you don’t evolve the craft and don’t evolve a tradition, it dies. There’s a huge amount to learn from that approach in terms of whisky.”

A Groundbreaking Program

From left to right: Portland Japanese Garden’s Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education Aki Nakanishi, Suntory Executive Officer and Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory Europe Limited President Kengo Torii, and House of Suntory at Beam Suntory Brand Manager Taki Nakatani. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

In all, the evening lived up to its high expectations. “Now that we have successfully done two truly unique and extraordinary whisky pilot programs featuring the best of its class and genre, Portland Japanese Garden looks to roll out a more regular series of smaller whisky-themed programs in partnership with Suntory who looks forward to pushing their side of the envelope with us as well, making it a genuine cross-pollination,” Nakanishi added with excitement.