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"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."
"After distilling whisky for 90 years, we're taking on a new challenge," says Suntory CEO TJ Kumakura. "We wanted to work on a vodka, which is at the core of all spirits—it's simply produced by distilling one ingredient, without aging or flavoring."
Perhaps you're wondering: How is this any different than sake? The key lies in the process: Vodka is distilled, whereas sake is simply brewed. Really, the only similarity is the addition of koji (rice inoculated with mold spores) and yeast to jump-start the fermentation process.
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Barley, wheat, corn and potatoes have been tapped in the past to make vodka, but rarely rice. Suntory relies on purely Japanese ingredients—the rice and the water both come from Kyushu island—and distills it in copper pots in Osumi, near the southern section of island. The spirit is then run through a bamboo-based filtration process to smooth it out.
The result is an incredibly delicate, refreshing vodka that's as satisfying to sip in a simple martini with pickled rakkyo (Japanese scallion) as it is mixed in a more complex cocktail, says Shingo Gokan of Angel's Share bar in New York City.
"You can taste some subtle rice notes, which makes it easy to play with," Gokan says. At his bar, he shakes Ao with matcha for a frothy, sweet cocktail, or mixes it with earthy green tomato water and a spritz of lemon to balance the vodka's sweetness. But at the end of the day, Gokan prefers to keep it simple with this very finely tuned spirit.
"Sometimes I add a splash of sake or coconut water," he says. "In my opinion, simple cocktails allow you to enjoy the Ao's natural character best."
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