I typically abstain from writing about blended whisky, but it is necessary to change that stance given the resurgence the category is experiencing. Blended whisky, when crafted with care, can offer a delightful drinking experience, deserving far more recognition than it currently receives. Gone are the days of dismissive notions about inexpensive, characterless bottles; instead, we must shift our focus to the profusion of new premium releases that have emerged.
Beam Suntory have clearly looked at what constitutes a good blend, and come up with a wonderfully flavourful and balanced creation with their new release - Ardray. As we know, visuals play a huge part in our perceptions of any product, first impressions count and Ardray have nailed it. The bottle is tactile with ridges that remind me of waves, the label is triangular and inset into the bottle. It has a large stopper further adding to the contemporary look. On the base, formed into the bottle, are the words Scotland Japan Exquisite Harmony - something that was at the forefront of the team's minds whilst creating this whisky.
Ardray brings Scotland and Japan together. This of course is nothing new, the two countries have a long history, ever since the legendary Shinjiro Torii, the father of Japanese whisky and founder of House of Suntory, envisioned a refined, subtly complex whisky that would appeal to the delicate palate of the Japanese.
Ardray is today’s interpretation of this but with a slant to more Western tastes with a fuller flavour profile. In order to introduce a new premium blended whisky for the modern consumer that would be different, the idea was put forward to blend whisky from multiple distilleries in the Beam Suntory portfolio. This was over 3 years ago and has been in development over this period. Opting to create a whisky equal to more than the sum of its parts (as opposed to a full-on commercial bottling) to me, this was created for whisky enthusiasts and mixologists to enjoy. A driver of this project was Calum Fraser, Chief Blender for Scotch, who joined forces with his counterparts in Japan to bring this to life and find a place within the group's already impressive portfolio.
Chatting with Calum in late June, I got a feeling that on a personal and professional level, he was enriched by working with the team in Japan. A Master Blender himself, he spoke with a tone of passion and humility, of how he had developed his own abilities through this collaboration and drawn from his colleague’s blending philosophy and processes. We never do stop learning.
Inspiration was garnered from past blending styles, where fewer, yet excellent malts were expertly combined to create whiskies with complexity and depth. They sought to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Over 200 blends were tried with notes passed back and forth until the optimum composition was found. Cask selection was paramount, as they looked for those that displayed, in Calum’s words, “mature distillery characters”. If you take a moment to consider how many hundreds of thousands of barrels the group have, it must have needed a very clear vision of what the taste profile should be from the outset.
The whisky is comprised from a maximum of 11 distilleries, which include Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardmore, Glen Garioch, The Macallan, The Glenrothes and Highland Park. The other distilleries have not been disclosed, but I imagine they include at least one grain focussed, potentially where more mature stocks of whisky have been drawn from. It fascinates me how Calum would have set about this daunting task. In the end, he chose American oak bourbon barrels, European oak malt sherry barrels, barrels that had held peated malt and grain barrels to add a little sweetness and open up the flavours and mouthfeel.
As mentioned previously, combining these unique flavours was not a solo task and would have defeated the object of Ardray. With the expertise of Suntory’s whisky blending team in Japan, Ardray (meaning ‘towards the light)’ they set out to reflect the vision of Shinjiro Torii and his philosophy of craftsmanship: a relentless pursuit of perfection, meticulous attention to detail, and a commitment to quality. This is no easy feat as you can imagine, but one that has gone on for centuries in the world of wine and Cognac, think of Champagne as a prime example, or refined Cognac like Courvoisier XO.
I am personally a fan of blended whisky when done well, a category that Seizo Saji, the Great Grandson of Suntory founder Shinjiro Toriidoes (who was at the launch event) believes does not receive the recognition that it always deserves. I could not agree more.
To give you a better understanding of Ardray, the press release provides some useful information:-
“To make Ardray, grain and malt whiskies were blended at precise ratio increments to find the exact point at which the perfect harmony was achieved. For each batch, casks of each type of whisky are blended first to create ‘building blocks’ then minute adjustments (0.1%) to the recipe are made for each batch based on the exact character of each building block, to achieve the same harmony between malt and grain whiskies each time. We retain a proportion of each batch – of both the building blocks and the blend as it marries to blend with the next batch and harmonise the flavour of the whisky across the batches.”
Ultimately, once you understand the process and philosophy of Ardray it has to taste good. Otherwise, it just ends up being a marketing exercise. Would Ardray be as good as it promises on paper? It does and with ease.
It had a level of complexity I wasn't expecting, with layers of flavour building on the palate. I appreciated the fact it was non-chill filtered and made in a solera system, so part of each batch will form part of the next.
I asked Calum what the abv was as I loved the mouthfeel. I was more than pleased to hear it was 48% and joked that to be able to bottle at that level must have meant many discussions between the blenders, accountants and marketing departments. Fortunately for us, this is just about the perfect level, bringing a lot more to the party than had they chosen 40%. The additional 8% brings depth to the drink, helping it work as a sipper. They suggest pouring it slowly over an ice ball to chill it down, with minimal dilution. What results is a combination of citrus, spice and smoke flavours interwoven with hints of vanilla.
I previously mentioned that this would be great in cocktails and it is. During the launch, I enjoyed an “Artist” comprising of Ardray, lemongrass sake, matcha and coconut and a Muse. This included rose vermouth, jasmine liquor and sherry bitters. I can see how a skilled mixologist would be attracted to this bottle. It looks good on the bar and has a genuine story, whilst delivering on flavour.
Ardray is available now at retailers such as The Whisky Shop, Master of Malt, and The Whisky Exchange, with a suggested retail price of £60