By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
When the heat and humidity seem at about their worst in July, it’s a sure bet that the Tales of the Cocktail spirits events will bring a refreshing opportunity to sample and sip a variety of potent potables in air conditioned comfort at various venues around town.
Of course, the headquarters for this year’s events presented by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation is firmly entrenched at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. But this year, as was the case last year, a number of nearby partners at cozy bars such as Curio, The Chart Room and Justine’s are all hosting events throughout the day to encourage attendees to venture out from the seminars and tastings being held at the hotel.
Under the helm of foundation leaders Neal Bodenheimer and Gary Solomon, Jr., the dizzying series of TOTC events have included several established industry players like William Grant and Sons Global Brands and local favorite, the Sazerac Company. But, since it became a bona fide non-profit foundation last year, the focus of the conference has moved away from massive parties to more socially-aware and responsible programs dealing with empowerment and opportunities for advancement in the spirits industry.
In addition to some of the expected crowd pleasers, every year presents new opportunities for industry leaders to unveil some of their latest creations, many of which have taken years to distill, age and blend.
Such is the case with the combined portfolio of Suntory, a prominent Japanese whiskey distiller noted for its legendary blending techniques, and Kentucky Bourbon mainstay Jim Beam. Suntory acquired the Jim Beam brand in 2014 and is now beginning to bring to the market some of their most innovative new products. These take the best of Beam’s bourbon line and blend it through the genius of the fifth generation Japanese master blender Shinji Fukuyo.
“He is among the greatest, most pristine blenders in the whiskey world,” said Dan Cohen in an exclusive interview with the CCJN at Tales of the Cocktail on Thursday. Cohen is Suntory’s senior director in charge of public relations and social media and is no stranger to New Orleans.
Cohen attended Tulane in 2000 through 2003 and graduated from the Uptown university while becoming a member of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity (ZBT). His grandmother was the former Janet Rau, of blessed memory, a member of the well-known family associated with fine antiques and art.
“The idea of the Beam distillation and aging traditions and whiskey that dates back to 1795 (and) taking that heritage and distillations and merging it with the art of blending that comes out of Japan,” he explained.
The result is Legent Bourbon, bottles of which are in New Orleans this week, but only for sampling at Tales of the Cocktail.
Whiskey enthusiasts have acclaimed the Japanese style of blending, which are meticulous and require long hours of sampling and mixing until a final product is readied.
Cohen is quick to point out that bourbon can be manufactured and is manufactured in every state across the nation, but in order to qualify as Kentucky bourbon, it must be made from a mash that is 51% corn and is aged in unused American oak barrels that have been charred and aged in Kentucky.
“Over 95% of the world’s bourbon is manufactured in Kentucky,” Cohen added. “Bourbon was invented in Kentucky.”
By contrast, most Japanese bourbons are made out of a mash of multi-barley, sometimes peated, he explained in order to get the enzymes working effectively to convert the starch into sugars that can then be distilled into whiskey. But, it is also for the flavor.
“The malt phase is what informs Scotch and it’s what informs most Japanese whiskies,” he added.
Suntory also utilizes five different types of wooden casks in its aging process, he said. These include Sherry barrels, used bourbon barrels and a variety of different copper pot stills and column stills. “Ultimately, you know, the climate is different,” he confided. “In Japan the water is so pure.” He described it as a soft distillate.
The limestone from which water is derived in Kentucky ensures that it is calcium rich and iron-free. “It just gives you the best indigenous water for bourbon,” Cohen boasted.
“When it comes out in tasting, bourbon is typically very sweet. You get some caramel notes, oak (and) vanilla,” he continued. “Japanese whiskey has more complexity to it. Often it has a bit more depth of different flavor profile – not just sweet, you might get some spice.”
Fred Noe, whose great-grandfather was Jim Beam, distilled and extra-aged the beginnings of what has become Legent for five years before Shinji and he met and determined that the whiskey would be secondarily aged even further in three different wooden casks. One was the base bourbon in its bourbon cask, while the other two were a red wine cask and a Sherry cask.
“It just gets to this perfect profile,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t finish like a bourbon. It holds up nicely in cocktails.”
It’s available in select states and in some cities, Cohen stated. The price point is approximately $35.