My personal bias toward the complex flavors and lingering finishes of brown spirits makes it difficult for me to see the value in expensive bottles of vodka. However, Suntory's newest release, Ao Vodka, has me seriously reconsidering that prejudice.
Ao is Suntory's bid to enter the top shelf vodka marketplace, despite the fact that vodka as a category isn't very popular in Japan. They've just released the juice stateside in select markets and online, hoping to build buzz and a base for the product to eventually drive sales back home. Ao gets its name from the Japanese word for blue, a term also used to describe shades of green found in nature. Landscapes of rice paddies are poetically called ao for their mingling of blue and green. The vodka is made from 100% Japanese rice and water sourced from the island of Kyushu. The rice mash is distilled in small pot stills and clarified through a bamboo filtration process.
Sipping Ao neat is a revelation. The scent is clean and crisp with the slightest hint of roasted rice and vanilla. The flavor maintains that clarity—slightly green, rice-y, and juicy with a subtle almost custardy sweetness. Finishing like a fresh breeze off the rice fields, it leaves just ghosts of the spirit to chase and watch disappear. The experience reminded me of tasting a delicious sake, carefully distilled.
Way too delicate for a vodka tonic or other strongly flavored cocktail, I tried Ao in a very dry martini with a paper thin slice of cucumber for garnish. The result is almost impossibly subtle drink, ethereal and gorgeous. This could be the perfect cocktail to pair with sushi or sashimi.
Listing at $50 for a 750 mL bottle, it's priced quite a bit higher than many of its competitors. Is Ao worth it? At the end of the day, I think I'm still not enough of a vodka guy to justify shelling out that much cash for any vodka, period. But if I were, this would be the very first bottle I'd pick up.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films as an independent producer in Brooklyn.
Tasting sample provided for review consideration.