Meet James Buntin, House of Suntory Ambassador in Australia
James Buntin has been many things over his 55 years.
Educator. Orator. Entertainer. Throughout his years in the industry, he has been synonymous with both Scotland and whisky, representing and showcasing brands such as Chivas and The Glenlivet, and most recently Glenfiddich and The Balvenie.
Whilst the lyrical Edinburgh accent will never escape him, the remit now extends outside the whiskies of his homeland to those of Japan, as James takes on a new challenge as the first House of Suntory Ambassador in Australia.
Fresh off the back of celebrating Suntory’s 100th Anniversary in New York with Keanu Reeves, the addition of James into Beam Suntory’s stable of ambassadors lends a quiet authenticity to their direction, as much as the role does for James’ career. It’s a natural progression, one in which the stories of distillation in Scotland and Japan are entwined and constantly evolving.
That continuity from Scottish to Japanese whiskies is one similarly identifiable in the path Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii set Masataka Taketsuru on 100 years ago, to gain knowledge from Scotland and bring it back to Japan.
We sit down at Ante in Newtown on a sepia-filtered Sunday, jazz spinning and highballs within arm’s reach at all times.
‘Whisky is a gateway into the past. The bottles on a backbar aren’t just labels, but a library of stories. Each one has flavour profiles and aromas that can transport someone back to a point in their lives. I’m excited to taste these whiskies with both consumers and the trade and recollect those moments and experiences together, as a shared journey and experience.’
The last 10 years have seen Suntory’s distilleries reach, and to some surpass, the rarefied heights of their Scottish compatriots, so I ask James whether the products he’s speaking to represent a step sideways or up in terms of quality.
‘This certainly feels like a step up. There’s a level of craftsmanship that doesn’t necessarily go into a lot of whiskies, not necessarily on the production side and the ‘how’, but the approach and the ‘why’.’
As much as whisky is the hero of Suntory’s portfolio, the introduction of ROKU Gin and HAKU Vodka write a necessary chapter in the story, allowing a thread of continuity to be woven into the Suntory tapestry.
‘This is a brand-new role, so there’s an element of figuring out how we do things, how we sculpt both our journey and the one we get to take people on. I’m particularly looking forward to looking at how our spirits pair with Japanese cuisine, where everything on a plate or in a dish is there for a reason. It’s very similar to how they craft their spirits.’
Another highball replaces a recently empty example.
James thanks the Japanese server in Japanese.
He's commended on his pronunciation, and I ask if it’s something he’s intent on learning and if the language barrier will be an issue.
‘I’ll try to learn some basic Japanese. There are a few phrases I know already from trips past, but I don’t see there being a barrier. Storytelling is as much about emotion and body language, and they’re both universal.’
Anyone who has ever sat and had a drink or been in one of James’ education sessions will attest to this. Oddly for most of us with a natural fear of public speaking, it’s on stage in front of up to 1000 people that he feels most at home, conducting an audience and taking them on a journey.
‘When I’m with a smaller group or one on one, there’s that brief moment of ‘Do I belong?’ It’s a figuring out period which leads to those wonderful authentic interactions that define our industry. On stage your’re playing to a crowd whereas those intimate moments you’re shaping a dialogue.’
I nod, guided and engaged. James turns to have a conversation with a Scottish ex-pat and his son sitting next to us at the bar who has heard the accent and can’t help himself. Whether he notices it or not, he’s still the conductor, leading those in his orbit on a merry dance of shared human interaction.
‘I remember watching a program before I went to Japan 15 years ago. This guy had made noodles the same way for 70 years and he was asked what his biggest regret in life was, and his answer was that he hadn’t got his noodles quite right yet.’
‘That concept of ‘Kaizen’ or continuous improvement is one that really speaks to both myself and my career. Before it was just stitches and fabric; now it’s starting to look more like a jumper.’