Not one to shirk a challenge, Suntory decided to launch its new world travel retail brand Ao during a global pandemic, when international travel is at an all-time low. The spirit itself was also quite a feat, being a blend of whiskies from the five countries where Suntory owns distilleries – Scotland, Ireland, United States, Canada and Japan – with the concept behind it being a whisky that is all things to all whisky lovers the world over. How could it possibly succeed? Suntory’s Mike Miyamoto, whose brainchild Ao is, explained to Geoffrey Dean the thinking behind the brand which involved an ingenious tasting of different components to illustrate what each country’s whisky brings to the party.
“We could have held this innovation back until well after the rebound,” Stening said, “but we feel it’s a great opportunity to throw some energy back into the travel retail channel and give some of the things we’ve all been going through over the last nine months a bit of a break.”
Despite the uncertain economic times, Beam Suntory, the oldest Japanese whisky producer, has boldly embarked on a worldwide launch of an innovative brand, Ao that is now available in global travel retail. A blend of whiskies from the five countries where Suntory owns distilleries – Scotland, Ireland, United States, Canada and Japan – Ao is the brainchild of their global brand ambassador, Mike Miyamoto, who has been involved in whisky production since 1978.
Suntory’s refreshing determination not to bow to Covid-inspired doom-and-gloom mongering fits in with their company motto, “Spirit of Bold Ambition” (‘Yatte Minahare” in Japanese). That motto dates back to 1923 when the company’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, built its first distillery at Yamazaki. His blending ability was passed down to his son and his grandson, Shinji Fukuyo, who is the current chief blender at Suntory.
The concept behind Ao, which was initially sold only in Japan from early 2019, was explained in a Zoom call by Miyamoto, a much respected figure in the whisky industry. “We wanted a whisky that brings the world together ‘as one’ through Japanese craftsmanship,” he said. “We called it Ao as that means ‘deep blue’ in Japanese, reflecting the oceans that link it. The bottle has five faces to represent the five countries.” The celebrated Japanese calligrapher, Ogino Tansetsu, designed the bottle’s fetching label.
The whole blending exercise was, Miyamoto admitted, a difficult and complicated exercise, taking as many as 100 trial blends before Fukuyo felt they had got it right. “We had four main challenges,” Miyamoto continued. “First, what should the flavour of the final product be? Secondly, how will each region perform within the blend? Thirdly, which component whiskies should be used to represent best each region’s characteristics as we had a choice of distilleries; and lastly, what is the availability of each component whisky, and how should that supply be managed? This was all very tricky for Shinji as he had to achieve harmony but some individuality, which was contradictory.”
To get journalists to best understand the composition of Ao, Beam Suntory sent out five different samples of whisky to show what each region offered. What was imaginative was the fact each sample was the final Ao blend without one region’s component whisky. So sample 1 was the blend without Scotch, sample 2 was the blend without the Irish whisky, sample 3 was without the Bourbon, sample 4 was without the Canadian whisky and sample 5 without the Japanese. A sixth sample was the finished Ao blend.
The samples showed precisely what each region brought to the blend. Miyamoto’s commentary during the tasting was pertinent: “The one without the Scotch lacks a bit of smokiness and spiciness as well as some complexity,” he declared. “The Ardmore gives smokiness and the Glengarry spiciness, while both provide richness and depth of flavour, which is the role of Scotch. Sample 2 is a bit flat without that much kick, so the Irish whisky from our Cooley distillery also gives that depth of flavour and some complexity; the Bourbon from Jim Beam adds some bright aroma and some vanilla sweetness from the new American oak; the Canadian from the Alberta distillery adds some smoothness and sweetness; the Japanese components from our Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries help round off any roughness, for the smokey malt from the latter is much softer than the Ardmore smokiness. So the role of the Japanese whisky is bringing together the parts into a whole. So it is a co-ordinator of perfect balance.”
What though of Ao itself? (RRP US$65 or €65). Miyamoto revealed that the five components were aged for between five and 18 years in Bourbon casks and sherry butts. The nose was bright with a top note of vanilla and pineapple-like fruitiness. A sweet, woody aroma with honey and cinnamon-like spiciness preceded a smooth and sweet mouthfeel with smoky, spicy and woody notes. Then came a very long, lingering finish with many layers of complexity. In short, a terrific whisky in complete harmony.
Ed Stening, Beam Suntory’s marketing manager, revealed more of the rationale behind Ao’s release. “We could have held this innovation back until well after the rebound,” he said, “but we feel it’s a great opportunity to throw some energy back into the travel retail channel and give some of the things we’ve all been going through over the last nine months a bit of a break. So we’re pretty excited to get this out. It’s in the UK and has just arrived at Dublin airport and JFK in New York. It’s also available in Canada, Australia, China, India, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong as well as European countries such as France, Germany, Netherlands and Turkey.”