It’s not every day that you get to sit down with the master distiller of Jim Beam and the fifth-ever chief blender at House of Suntory. But that’s exactly what we did to discuss the launch of the innovative Legent whiskey with the legendary Fred Noe and Shinji Fukuyo.
When Beam and Suntory merged in 2014, it was fairly obvious that it mean the two enormous whiskey brands would do a fair amount of collaboration. You could expect to see an exchange of casks, for example, and the sharing of expertise. Perhaps even a nice bottling of something exotic as a Christmas bonus.
What nobody predicted was the creation of the first-ever bourbon-Japanese whiskey crossover, which is what we got in March 2019 when Legent (pronounced ‘lee-gent’) debuted. It’s been billed as a genuine first-of-its-kind product, a combination of styles that has essentially created a new, and as of yet, undefined category. It’s the first new standalone bourbon brand to come from the company in 27 years: a blended bourbon that’s brought together East and West, as well as two masters of their art, Fred Noe (the great-grandson of Jim Beam) and Shinji Fukuyo.
“Shinji and I were tasked to work together to create a product that would combine bourbon-making and blending by the senior leadership of the company. We were trying to bring the two cultures together. We put our heads together and that’s how it got started,” says Noe. “Bringing our company together, bringing East and West together was a very important thing as we’re one big family now from all over the world. We’re lucky we can do it within that one Beam Suntory family.
Legent was created using one of Noe’s historic recipes, a mashbill of corn, rye and malted barley that is initially matured in charred virgin white oak for four years. Portions of this aged Kentucky straight bourbon are then finished in California red wine casks (for approximately one extra year) and sherry casks (for approximately two extra years), and the three are finally blended by Fukuyo. “From my experiences, the wine cask finish gives a sweeter profile and the sherry cask finish gives it a tannic element and spice. These were the flavours and aromas that weren’t necessarily in the base bourbon itself, so I thought it would probably be a good combination,” says Fukuyo.
It’s an experimental process that many will have never seen the like of before, but, as Noe points out himself, the profile of Legent is still bourbon-forward. “The big thing was we didn’t want to change the bourbon, we just wanted to add to it and take it to another level. What it’s done really is it adds more layers to the aroma and the finish when you taste it. So it’s a labour of our love and it was fun to take bourbon in different places,” says Noe.
It might sound as if this bottling is more Beam than Suntory, but it’s worth noting that Noe and Fukuyo very much see each other as equals and are keen to heap praise on the other. For Noe, it was a thrill to witness the master blender at work. “There was a lot of art that Shinji brings to blending to Kentucky, taking different liquid streams and bringing them together. We’ve done some finishing before, but we’ve never finished and then blended those finished liquids together. That’s kind of a new technique for us in Kentucky,” says Noe.
For the immensely modest Fukuyo, the joy was learning first-hand the production process of a style of whiskey he was less acquainted with. “I had to learn what bourbon whiskey really is. Japanese whisky was inspired by Scotch whisky, so we are very familiar with Scottish production, but not so familiar with bourbon itself,” explains Fukuyo. The climate of Kentucky was also a learning curve. “After the first summer, I was so surprised by the progress. We had to so be careful with our observations of what was happening during the finishing process.”
The duo present a united front when together and the mutual respect is palpable. When discussing what challenges arose during the collaboration, the two are honest in admitting that initially it took time for them to be working from the same page. Fukuyo’s English is outstanding. Noe concedes his Japanese could do with some work. But these guys have been in this game a long time. The respective knowledge of the craft was always going to shine through eventually. “We figured it out through the language of whiskey,” says Noe. “You could tell when we were getting closer and when we were getting farther away, just by the look in each other’s eyes. You know you don’t have to talk a lot of times to know if you’re going in the right direction or not. There was a lot of trial and error”.
Noe and Fukuyo are aware that Legent represents a risk. But the early signs are very much that it was one worth taking. The reception it’s received excites them both. “It was really cool and to watch people experience it for the first time. Especially with people who were very sceptical. We gave them a little pour, and then they would look at their friends and say ‘Oh, that’s pretty good!’ It’s great to know there’s more of that to come because we’re just getting it out there and more and more people are discovering it,” says Noe. “It worked. We did something right.”
So, what collaborations can we expect in future? Will Fukuyo bring something more Japanese whisky-based to the table? Will the duo continue to experiment with the Legent brand? They’re surprisingly forthright. “Well Legent is a stand-alone, but will we collaborate more? I’m sure we will. We’ll come up with something new.” says Noe. “We enjoyed working together. Who knows, we may bring some of our other compadres in from one of our other distilleries or my son as he’s taking over from me, he’s the future of the bourbon side of our company. I’m sure going down the road Shinji and Freddie (Noe’s son) will have a long career together creating great whiskies for the world, and I’m sure other folks in the industry will be doing things similar if this product is successful.”
It’s interesting to consider the implications of Legent. Noe is right, if this continues on its promising path then it’s surely only a matter of time before we see more innovations like this. It’s also interesting to see this level of collaboration involving a major figure from Japan’s whisky industry, which is notoriously siloed. Given that Japanese whisky is becoming increasingly expensive and rare, perhaps this kind of project offers one solution for ensuring Japanese expertise remains well-represented.
Legent may well then be an indication of what’s to come. It was only a matter of time before the multinational companies that dominate the industry would bring together the depth of resources and expertise at their fingertips. Noe recognises the strength of Beam Suntory’s position: “With all the different spirits we produce in all different parts of the world, we can all come together and use products that are from within our family. Other bourbon producers would have to go outside of their company to be able to do something like this. We’re the only bourbon producer that has ties to Japan, Cognac, Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky, Canadian whisky, tequila, rum, and all of us are very passionate about what we make,” he says. “But not only are we creating a new product, but each process like fermentation, distillation, maturation – we can share that information with each other and influence each other, which leads to progress,” adds Fukuyo.
But for now, only one big question remains: how does Legent taste? Is this the result of a welcome marriage of meticulous Japanese blending and traditional Kentucky bourbon-making, or a marketing-laden gimmick that’s best avoided? It’s certainly not like a bourbon I’ve ever tasted. But it works. Very well, in fact. It’s quite lovely. Its success is that it hasn’t shoe-horned two styles together in a vague attempt to seem complex or innovative. This doesn’t taste as if Jim Beam bourbon was lazily chucked into a Yamazaki cask or like some concoction made by a mad scientist who distilled KFC and green tea together. Legent has subtly, character and a profile that suggests that a good Old Fashioned is very much on the cards. In fact, the brand has put together some interesting cocktail recipes, including the Kentucky Kyushiki a twist on the aforementioned classic serve.
The cask influence might frustrate those who want big notes typical of wine and sherry casks, but personally I enjoyed the delicate manner in which these elements present themselves. The balance is very impressive, it’s rich, spicy, creamy and bold and none of those characteristics overwhelms the other. I wanted another glass, which is really the only compliment any good whisky needs.
Legent Tasting Note:
Nose: Plenty of classic bourbon character is at the forefront of the nose but the cask influence adds balance and depth. Brown sugar, toasted almonds, jammy fruits, butterscotch, vanilla and orange peel combine initially, with delicate warmth and spice provided from ginger root underneath. A hint of Pinot Noir and stewed black cherry emerge as the nose develops, with milk chocolate, sandalwood and hints of leather.
Palate: An initially deliciously silky delivery leads with rich caramel, floral notes and a suggestion of marmalade before chewy rye spice initially makes things more complex among savoury notes of roasted peanuts and a slightly bitter quality from charred wood, coffee beans and unsweetened dark chocolate. Dark cherry jam and stewed plums then burst through adding vibrant fruitiness alongside the sweetness of vanilla, cake batter, muscovado sugar and a hint of cola. Warmth from freshly-ground black pepper is present in the backdrop.
Finish: Chocolate-covered cherries, black fruits, sugary cereals (Sugar Puffs, mostly) and a hint of liquorice fade ever so gradually; while the nutmeg and oak spices play about for longer.
Overall: In all the intrigue and innovation, Noe and Fukuyo clearly didn’t forget that the most important thing to ensure about Legent is that it’s delicious. Which it is. Very much so.
Legent will be available at MoM Towers soon.