Timpani, flutes, clarinets, piccolo and strings – How Beam Suntory composed an international symphony

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Just a few months ago, the notion of a ‘virtual tasting’ by wines & spirits houses may have seemed awkward, contrived, even far-fetched. But in this strange, often isolated, frequently locked-down COVID-19 world, the concept (unlike most of us) has taken flight.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending several such events, including during our recent Virtual Travel Retail Expo, and I dare to say that they actually offer some advantages that a face to face or physical event cannot.

Such was the case last week when, from the comfort of my Interim Moodie Davitt Hung Hom Bureau, I was able to sample a new international whisky from Beam Suntory under the tutelage of a renowned expert in the field and in the good company of fellow whisky lovers around Asia.

‘International’ whisky? That’s right. Emphatically so, in fact, in that the beverage in question represented the triumphant fusion of whiskies from five different countries – Canada, Ireland, Japan, Scotland and the US.

It’s called Ao and its unveiling was described by Beam Suntory as the first innovative whisky launch in global travel retail since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Many of you will have attended the Ao session featuring House of Suntory Master Blender Shinji Fukuyo and House of Suntory’s Global Brand Ambassador, Mike Miyamoto during the Virtual Travel Retail Expo. If you didn’t, click here and you can watch my interview with them.

I was delighted to be talked through the concept in even more depth by Miyamoto san last week, in the comfort of my now de rigueur ‘Zoom suit’ (jacket and open shirt on top, shorts and slippers out of sight below). And this time I was able to taste the fruit of Shinji Fukuyo’s beautiful labours.

Ao is a blend of whisky from renowned Beam Suntory-owned distilleries in Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US. Ao means blue, a reference to the oceans that connect the five countries.

The blend is designed to marry the heathery flavour of Ardmore and Glen Garioch (Scotland); the complexity of Cooley (Ireland); the smoothness of Alberta (Canada); the vibrance of Jim Beam (US); and the subtlety of Yamazaki and Hakushu (Japan).

So how would a virtual tasting proceed? When a bottle of Ao arrived at my Interim Bureau along with some miniature samples of five liquids, it seemed pretty obvious. We would taste the whiskies from the individual countries and then compare them with the final blend, right? Wrong. Miyamoto san had a better way to show us what each constituent brought to the party.

He did that ingeniously. Whisky number one was the final blend minus one component, Scotch whisky. Number two, sans Irish and so on through five blends. Miyamoto commented expertly how the final product fell short in various ways due to the absence of a key element of the quintet.

Number one, for example, lacked the marriage of smokiness and spiciness that the combination of Ardmore (Highland) and Glen Garioch bring. Number two, and Cooley’s disappearance from the blend robbed it of complexity, “kick and sensation”. Number three, devoid of Jim Beam, took away that delicious, slightly sweet, vanilla overtone that characterises fine bourbon.

Number four was actually a very drinkable blend. But by taking away the Canadian whisky, the end result was a much harder, stronger dram than the ultimate Ao blend. The Canadian element brought gentle aroma and some of Alberta’s grain whiskey-driven mildness and gentle sweetness on the palate.

The final nosing and tasting saw Ao stripped of its Japanese constituents – the sweet and sour impact of the Yamazaki sherry cask malt and the soft smokiness of Hakushu. “So the role of the Japanese whisky is bringing together the parts into one. It performs as if it’s a coordinator or organiser,” said Miyamoto.

In the question and answer session that followed, I asked Miyamoto san if he ever feared that  in creating such an ambitious multi-national blend as Ao, that the qualities of the individual whiskies would be lost rather than accentuated.

“This is a really big challenge to us,” he replied. “We never thought about this until we actually acquired Jim Beam, who used to own [whiskies from] the four major regions. Once we joined up, we realised that we now own whiskies from the five major regions. We have the DNA of our founders… challenging spirits. If you wouldn’t do it, you wouldn’t find out anything. That’s the spirit of our founders and we have that DNA in our blood.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we just put all the five regions’ whiskies together in a blend? Why not? It may be really good. So that was our challenge.”

So, what was the verdict? Was it really good? It’s in answering such questions that I realise how blessed I am to do this job and to be a story teller about our amazing industry – itself a fusion of so many nations.

Given the history (since 1924) and the purist nature of the House of Suntory approach to whisky making, it won’t surprise you that the blend is a refined and elegant dram. Renosing and retasting the six samples today (including Ao) a week after the tasting , I realised that each of the first five blends resembles a symphony being performed with key members of the orchestra missing.

Imagine, if you will, Beethoven’s Fifth (which seems singularly appropriate). Take away the timpani (Scotch whisky, I think); the flutes (Irish); the clarinets (Jim Beam definitely); the piccolo (Canadian); or the strings (the Japanese) and it just wouldn’t sound the same.

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