Things have calmed down a little bit in the world of Japanese whisky, but it’s still a pretty hot item. This is particularly true when it comes to age-statement expressions, which is why major companies like Suntory and Nikka have turned to new non-aged-stated blends and expressions. The latest from the former is Ao, a blend of whiskey from five different countries—and this just might be your new highball pour.
It’s worth a reminder that age isn’t actually an indicator of quality in whiskey, but the single malt and blended expressions from Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki brands ranging in age from 12 to 30 years (and well beyond if you’re really willing to drop some cash) have all been consistently excellent. The company introduced Toki a few years ago, an NAS blend that is affordable and works well in cocktails like the classic highball. Ao, though a bit more expensive at $55, could easily be substituted in this or any variety of whiskey drink.
Japanese world whiskey releases like this aren’t new, but up until recently many brands didn’t disclose if the whiskey in the bottle was actually distilled and aged in Japan or not. In 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association instituted rules for its members regulating this and other defining characteristics of the category, but it should be noted that this won’t be enforced for another year and even then it will be voluntary (so basically kind of toothless, but welcome all the same). The good news is that many brands are complying, and companies like Suntory aren’t too concerned because their products already meet the standards of “Japanese whisky”—unless stated otherwise, as is the case with Ao.
The whiskey in the blend comes from Beam Suntory-owned distilleries in five different countries—Ardmore and Glen Garioch in Scotland, Cooley in Ireland, Alberta Distillers in Canada, Jim Beam in the USA and Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The name Ao means “blue,” which is supposed to signify the oceans in between all of these countries that both separate and connect them. Suntory’s chief blender Shinji Fukuyo is the force behind this whisky, as he is for all of Suntory’s products. Ao was previously available in Japan and global travel retail, but launched here in the US (and other countries) this winter.
The nose is full of vanilla, caramel and some bright citrus and berry notes, a pretty intriguing way to start off here. The mouthfeel is notably creamy, with rich, syrupy notes of milk chocolate, oak, maple syrup, brown sugar, honey and a hint of tannin and spice on the finish. Can you taste the different elements that each whiskey brings to the palate here? Well, maybe, but it’s difficult to say since there are some overlapping characteristics among them. But there’s a hint of that Irish fruitiness, followed by some bourbon vanilla, with a dash of Canadian sweetness rounded out by some malty citrus. Then again, maybe that’s not the point; maybe the point is to simply enjoy the melding of literally different worlds in whiskey form.
This is a whiskey that grows on you as you sip, with unraveling layers of complexity slowly revealing themselves. Ao won’t be a substitute for your favorite bottle of Japanese whisky, or any other bottle for that matter, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Again, even if it’s not marketed specifically as such, Ao seems like a great cocktail option, but would also be enjoyable over a large ice cube. In a world of so many whiskeys, this world whiskey is a decent option to add to your home bar.
- 100: Worth trading your first born for
- 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet
- 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram
- 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market
- 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable
- Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this
Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.