OSAKA – After giving the amber liquid inside a few swirls, Yuri Yamada brought the glass to her lips.
It could be a common scene at any of Japan’s thousands of bars on any given night, but Yamada is surrounded by hundreds of whiskey bottles, and she isn’t enjoying the liquor the way most of us would.
Yamada, 28, is practicing to become Suntory Ltd.’s first female whiskey blender — a profession said to require memorizing the individual tastes and aromas of whiskeys in nearly 10,000 different casks.
Working in the blending room at Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, Yamada said the biggest challenge is describing the bouquet.
“I choose my words very carefully so that I can explain to people exactly what I smell,” she said.
Suntory officials say there are at least 20 basic aromas used in describing the smell of a whiskey, including “the scent of toasted bread.” There are even such distinctions as “the smell of lard,” and blenders are required to combine these various phrases to express what they smell.
Suntory has more than 1 million casks of whiskey in storage. The casks themselves are made of different types of wood, each lending a different scent. Differences in climate and temperature at each distillery also help broaden the whiskeys’ character.
Suntory currently has seven blenders, all men. They must taste dozens of samples of whiskey from the distilleries to develop new blends.
“All of us experienced dangerous workplaces where casks weighing at least 500 kg were rolling about all over the place,” said chief blender Takahisa Fujii, 42, Yamada’s instructor, in explaining why there have been no women in the field.
Yamada majored in chemistry in college and joined Suntory in 1999 because she liked alcoholic beverages and wanted to work in a field in which she had interest.
To keep her senses sharp, she avoids makeup and cooking with garlic on weekdays.
“I’m most happy when my superior asks me, ‘What was this aroma?’ and he agrees with my reply,” she said.
“My dream is to develop a product that uses an instinct that men cannot understand.”
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