When I think of whiskies owned by Suntory, the Japanese drinks conglomerate, I can’t help but think of one of the greatest travel films of all time: Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray’s character, a faded Hollywood star, is filming adverts for Suntory whisky in Tokyo where he spends a week in the alienatingly corporate Park Hyatt Hotel. Like all the best travel films, Lost in Translation is really about an inner voyage or, in this case, a kind of inner drift. Here, the character’s estrangement is triple-distilled – he’s baffled by Japanese culture, by his own image and by what his life has become – and this disconnect is heightened by the sanitised hush of the Park Hyatt’s soft-carpeted corridors and low-lit, piano-sprinkled bars, where he sips his complimentary whiskies. The good news is, he says, the whisky works. So does the film.
For good or for bad then, Suntory is forever associated in my mind with surreality and even in today’s globalised world there is something surreal in the idea that Tokyo-headquartered Suntory owns (among other Scottish whiskies) Auchentoshan: a distillery that to the untrained ear almost sounds Japanese but was founded 9000km from Tokyo on the outskirts of Glasgow, its white brick and black lintels and lettering overlooking the north bank of the Clyde.
An estate called ‘Auchentoshan’, meaning ‘corner of the field’ in Scottish Gaelic, was recorded in the 16th century. Some say whisky was being produced there as early as 1800. By 1817, we know the whisky was called Duntocher and was owned by a John Bulloch. After Bulloch’s bankruptcy, an engineer called Thorne obtained a license in 1823 and named his distillery (which may or may not have been Duntocher) Auchintoshan. There’s also nigh-heretical talk of links to Ireland due to the triple-distillation method, unusual in Scotland.
Auchentoshan (pronounced ‘ock*en*tosh*en’) has base notes of biscuits, of grass, of acetone. Different maturation barrels then impart different characters. Bourbon lends toffee and marmalade. Oloroso sherry gives a more cocoa and dark fruit profile. For the afficionado or collector, special bottlings are released occasionally – the oldest dates from 1957 and was not released until 2008. It’s been compared to crème caramel, tobacco, eucalyptus, pencil shavings and mint tea. If you’d like to taste it for yourself, you’d better have deep pockets – that is, if you can find a bottle still for sale.
Back on earth, the beauty of Auchentoshan is that it’s a ‘Lowland’ style whisky, soft and accessible to even the timidest drinker. Its triple-distillation makes it even lighter-bodied than its other Lowland compatriots. Indeed, it’s so light and smooth, some call it a ‘breakfast whisky’ – which sounds to me like something out of Alice’s Wonderland.
You might well wonder if someone slipped some whisky into your morning muesli if you ever have the pleasure of a trip to Auchentoshan’s well-reviewed visitor centre. Great copper pot stills squat outside, necks curving like ear-trumpets. What appears to be a mock 12th century defensive tower stands in the courtyard while the yeast store has an almost Japanese pagoda-shaped roof.
The distillery was bombed during World War II. Stories tell of scorched whisky running into the Clyde. And with its outlook from the foot of the Old Kilpatrick Hills, Auchentoshan certainly has a close bond with the river. It has witnessed the pride and joy of Clyde shipbuilders – great ocean liners like the Queen Mary and both Queen Elizabeths – sailing out toward the world. The controversial recent announcement that Boris Johnson intends to build the UK a new ‘national flagship’ means Auchentoshan will perhaps see such sights again. And who knows, maybe the distillery will put aside a celebratory ‘special’ to be issued in another fifty years’ time? At least that gives us plenty of time to save up. If I make it that far and manage to lay hands on such a bottle, I’ll make damn sure I drink it like Bill Murray, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. After all, the good news is, the whisky works.