Japan’s next conquest: Vodka? «
The backstory: If you didn’t know much in the past about the Japanese booze giant Suntory, chances are you’re quickly becoming familiar with it. The company, which is behind such brands as Midori liqueur and Yamazaki whiskey, just announced that it’s purchasing Beam Inc., the American producer of the namesake bourbon as well as other spirits, in a $16 billion deal. But in a much smaller way, Suntory has also been in the news for its recent introduction of Ao, a high-end vodka made from rice. It’s clearly an attempt by the company to become part of the premium-vodka boom, a trend that’s been in motion for nearly two decades — since the introduction of Grey Goose in 1997 (that brand was sold to Bacardi in 2004 for $2.2 billion).
Click to Play Japan booze giant aims to break into vodkaSuntory, which just announced the purchase of Beam Inc., is also aggressively moving into the American vodka market. Catey Hill joins the News Hub to sip the Ao, a high-end vodka made from rice. Photo: Suntory Ltd.
Suntory says what distinguishes Ao, which is on sale in select retail outlets as well as online ( Crush Wine & Spirits carries it) is its “simplicity, refinement and subtle complexity” — all characteristics that are “at the heart of Japan’s culture.” The company also touts that it uses the purest water sourced from a volcanic region and takes advantage of a “proprietary distillation method” to give the vodka a “distinctive rice character.”
But all this is in spite of the fact that vodka “is not a very popular spirit in Japan,” say Toshi Kumakura, chief executive of Suntory’s American arm. (When it comes to clear spirits, the Japanese prefer their sake or soju, Kumakura adds.) Then again, Suntory isn’t necessarily targeting Ao at Japanese consumers — at least at first: Kumakura says the plan is to create some buzz in the U.S. — Suntory is making a push with bartenders, too — then bring the vodka back to its country of origin.
As for what “Ao” means, the vodka takes its name for the Japanese word for “blue.” But make no mistake: Ao is as colorless as they come.
What we think about it: This has got to be one of the cleanest vodkas we’ve ever tried — there’s not a hint of alcoholic harshness, but there is a subtle sweetness that’s likely from the rice. Our only complaint is that it goes down a little too easy — it’s a vodka that drinks like water, but in the best possible sense.
How to drink it: Suntory sees Ao as a sipping vodka, not a mixing one, and says it’s best enjoyed cold with a simple, Japanese-inspired garnish — say, a slice of cucumber or Fuji apple. The brand also suggests that Ao is a vodka that can be paired with food, especially fish (think sushi).