Sip & Tell: Gardner Dunn of Suntory Whisky

Nov8 003 "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."--Bill Murray's character, "Bob Harris," advertising Suntory in Lost in Translation

[Sip & Tell features barstool interviews with spirits industry professionals.]

You probably recognize the above quote from the 2003 film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Around that time, Suntory was still best known for its melon liqueur, Midori, but over the past few years, its single malt whisky, Yamazaki, has infiltrated U.S. shores and quietly stolen the hearts of many a scotch drinker. Yamazaki 12 year and 18 year, both prize-winning in blind tastings, are made at Japan's oldest distillery, founded by Scotland-educated Shinjiro Torii in 1923. Created with the level of craftsmanship the Japanese are known for, the whisky is aged in Japanese, American, and Spanish oak casks, lending a full-bodied flavor and silky smooth finish.

Over the past year, many of NYC's best-known cocktail bars have featured drinks made with Yamazaki, such as the "Gold Rush" at Goldbar and the "Murray Sour" at Minetta Tavern. This is mainly due to the work of Gardner Dunn, North American Brand Ambassador for Suntory Whisky.

Gardner, a mixologist who is as recognized for his creative cocktails as his off-kilter hairstyle, travels around the country for several days (if not weeks) every month. He says he's seeing a younger crowd show interest in the brand. "Scotch used to be a status symbol, something your dad drank," he said. "Now I'm seeing younger people wanting to try new stuff. They're interested in hearing about the distillation and the history."

Gardner recently got an advanced course on all things Yamazaki when he traveled to the Suntory distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto, a location chosen for its water source. The Vale of Yamazaki, hailed by famous master of the tea ceremony, Senno Rikyu, is legendary for its pure water. Inspired by the art of Japanese bartening, which includes techniques such as ice ball carving and the hard shake, Gardner set out to gather Japanese bartending tools to show to the many skilled bartenders he's met stateside. He's put together a "Godzilla Kit," with tools including crystal mixing glasses with a lip, bar spoons with forks on the opposite end, and Japanese jiggers, which have a thinner and deeper design and more balanced weight than standard jiggers.

The Godzilla Kits are just one bonus in what is turning out to be an exciting year for Suntory. Later this month, the hotly-anticipated Hibiki 12-year blended whisky (aged in plum liqueur casks and filtered through bamboo charcoal) hits shelves in NYC and California, its first debut stateside.  Also, just in time for the holidays, a limited edition of 300 bottles of 1984 Yamazaki will be released, for $550-$650 a pop.

Gardner says he finds himself crafting cocktails less and less and carving ice balls more and more as he focuses on educating people everywhere about the history and philosophy behind Suntory. "Cocktails are not the goal [for Yamazaki], but it does mix very well," he said. "It doesn't have a lot of heat, but it has honey overtones that pair well with other spirits."



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Dizzy Recap: Classic & Vintage Artisanal Spirits Launch

Dolls in Mustangs added to the atmosphere. Aware that the Tippling Bros. would be in charge of the drink offerings, I was revved up to attend last week's Classic & Vintage Artisanal Spirits launch party at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan hosted by Domaine Select Wine Estates. The Classic & Vintage collection is a line of boutique products including: Averna, G'vine, Death's Door, Tuthilltown, Benromach, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Rhum J.M., and The Bitter Truth Bitters, plus many more. This is an unprecedented collection of rare small-batch gems made available to the masses, greatly due to the increasing interest in classic cocktails.

This event was one of the better-organized cocktail parties I have seen in a while, and the Tippling Bros' (Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay) event planning skills really shined, as did the stunning collection of classic cars. Tad and Paul are brand ambassadors for the Classic & Vintage collection, and they gathered top mixologists to mix drinks for the event: Danny Valdez (New Orleans), Sean Kenyon (Denver), Misty Kalkofen (Boston), Justin Noel (NYC), Jason Littrell (NYC), Tonia Guffey (NYC), Frank Cisneros (NYC), and Gianfranco Verga (NYC).

One highlight for me was that I got to try Ransom Old Tom Gin for the first time. Created by Sheridan, Ore. winemaker/distiller Tad Seestedt with the input of cocktail historian David Wondrich, Ransom has yet to launch on the shelves of NYC. The gin manages to marry maltiness and herbaceous sweetness (orange, cardamom, juniper) magnificently.

Ransom is based on 18th century distillation and aging methods, and Tad has sought to make the most historically-accurate Old Tom Gin in the world. The base wort uses malted barley to impart a subtle malty sweetness, and the final distillation is run through an alembic pot-still for maximum aromatics. Then the whole batch rests in neutral Pinot Noir barrels for texture and color. The gin has a warm golden tinge to it, and I have to say, I love the apothecary-style bottle design. Sipping it neat was pure pleasure, and I could also imagine it working perfectly in a Martinez.

File Under: Label Porn

conjure1 Let's see, Diddy has Ciroc, Lil' Wayne has Halo Champagne, so why wouldn't Ludacris get in on the hip hop-spirits brand love affair? Launching this month, Conjure Cognac is a collaboration between Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and renowned cognac house, Birkedal Hartmann. Reportedly, Ludacris is a connoisseur of fine cognac and he tasted more than 40 blends before deciding on a cognac that would appeal to the urban market.

Who knows how it will taste, but what's interesting is that the bottle designed by Margot Hallac for Barker DZP manages to marry both the sophisticated allure of classic spirits and the bootylicious world of hip hop. I'm sure it won't be long before someone requests this as their wallpaper.

"Woke up the next morning and all I can remember Was taking shots and tippin the bartender Surrender to the women end up bringin me home Cause she started lookin better every shot a Patron"

--Ludacris, "One More Drink" (2008)