Japanese whiskies are a conundrum. As previously reported, few are actually made in Japan and can be sourced from anywhere in the world. So, rather than perpetuate the prevarication, Suntory created Ao, Japanese for “Blue,” a whisky that quite literally celebrates that it’s not Japanese.
Suntory, AKA Beam Suntory, is a monster in the world of beverages, health and wellness, and much more. They manage some of the world’s biggest spirits brands within that beverage portfolio, especially whiskies. Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Ballantine’s, Canadian Club, The Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, and Glenfiddich all fall under their moniker, plus a slew of Japanese whiskies (one’s really made in Japan). So, with all that firepower, Suntory looked to make some magic.
Suntory Ao is a blend of whiskies from five nations; Japan, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the USA. Representing Japan are Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. Cooley Distillery provides the Irish component. From Scotland, they used Armore and Glen Garioch Scotch. The Canadian inclusion is rye from Alberta Distillery. Finally, from the USA, they included their namesake, Jim Beam. They describe the whiskey as a celebration of Japanese craftsmanship but with a world-uniting message. The bottle is designed with five sides, and its unusual shape is intended to convey the message further. Even its name, Ao, was selected to represent “the sea that unites the continents.”
My initial experience with Ao left me a bit confused. The component whiskies seemed to compete in a cacophony of competing flavors. However, after my first stumbling attempts at enjoying the dram, I realized the problem was with me! This is a whisky that needs an open mind. The color is deep golden amber- whether from caramel coloring or cask aging, I’m unsure. The initial aroma is sweet, with corn, oak, honey, and vanilla evident. Deeper sniffing reveals some bright fruit notes- blueberries, melon, and lemon zest most noticeable. There are also malty notes, with hints of phenolic, band-aid (sherry?), and cereal. It feels like an olfactory war between bourbon and malt!
The mouthfeel is fat and substantial but mild, with minimal heat provided by 43% ABV. Sweetness leads the sip, with notes of caramel, vanilla chews, chocolate-covered orange rind, cooked cherries, fresh citrus, and more oak. Backing all are hints of rose petals, honeysuckle, mown grass, roasted nuts, and marzipan. The finish is moderately long, with hints of toffee, fruit, and finally, a mild dose of peat along with rye spiciness.
On paper (and maybe, in the glass as well), this whisky shouldn’t work, but it does. Despite what initially may seem like a competing mess, Ao has a warm, inviting, and happily odd alliance of flavors that somehow join together for a satisfying unique dram. I’m sure it would work nicely in cocktails (not a fan), but I’m enjoying it as a stand-alone sipper.