By Ritsuko Ando and Martinne Geller
TOKYO/LONDON (Reuters) - Japan's Suntory Holdings, faced with a whisky crunch, is selling a rare mix sourced from around the world as premium whisky, aiming to elevate the status of young blends among discerning drinkers who often swear by aged single malts.
Whisky makers globally, and in Japan in particular, have been forced to suspend some aged bottles in recent years as a surge in demand for mature whisky depleted stocks.
Last year, Suntory suspended the popular 17-year Hibiki - a glass of which Bill Murray's character in the film 'Lost in Translation' famously promoted, saying "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time". Now it sells online for 40,000 yen (£272) versus 10,000 yen some years ago.
In a bid to expand its options, Suntory, on Tuesday, started selling an unusual alternative, "Ao", a no-age statement (NAS) blend made with whisky from Scotland, the United States, Ireland, Japan and Canada.
Priced at 5,000 yen per bottle, it is a five-country blend rarely ever tried by whisky makers, but possible for Suntory given the global assets at its disposal following its $13.6 billion purchase of U.S. spirits maker Beam in 2014.
While Ao will be sold exclusively in Japan, with 30,000 dozen-bottle cases being shipped this year, it will be closely watched by rivals across the $6 billion global industry as they too grapple with dwindling supplies of premium stocks.
Unlike other hard liquor such as vodka or gin, whisky needs to be aged in barrels over anywhere between three and 50 years, meaning producers must predict demand decades in advance. As a result, many have introduced NAS whiskies to manage supply.
Global distilleries including The Macallan, owned by Edrington, The Glenlivet, owned by Pernod Ricard, and Diageo's Talisker have launched NAS variants in recent years.
Pernod says its NAS Founder's Reserve has been a great success with a new generation of drinkers, becoming the sixth-biggest single malt Scotch globally in 2017 two years after it was launched, when there was a temporary shortage of The Glenlivet 12 Year Old.
"Since then we have been working hard to future-proof this expression and ensure that supply is secured for the long term," said Miriam Eceolaza, marketing director for malts at Pernod's Chivas Brothers whisky unit, adding that Glenlivet 12 is back in some markets, such as Britain, with more to come.
Most NAS whiskies are priced modestly versus longer-aged whiskies, due in part to the industry's success at persuading drinkers that older whiskies are better.
"It's no mystery you can charge a lot for something with a very old age statement on it, but how can you add value to younger, NAS whisky, thus making it more profitable?" asked Chuck Cowdery, publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader.
"If you can make a valuable product from a larger inventory pool and be successful with it, that becomes more than just a prestige project. That's something you can take to the bank."
However, whisky experts say it is hard to say whether a "world whisky" will catch on in the premium category.
Ao's price is more than Chita, a no-age Japanese single grain, or a 10-year old Laphroaig, both owned by Suntory and available for around 3,400 yen online.
It also costs double rival Nikka's From the Barrel, a malt and grain blend with no-age statement.
But some observers say Ao's price does not look outrageous versus say the 63,000 yen Ichiro's Malt & Grain Maduro blend - one of the few other bottles sourced from five countries but using older whiskies matured in French oak wine barrels.
Suntory, which started in 1899 by making and selling wine, denies "Ao" is a result of the shortage, although its executives said they wanted to expand the range of what is available. The company is private, but its food and non-alcoholic drinks arm, Suntory Beverage & Food is listed.
In addition to the Hibiki 17, Suntory last year halted sales of its 12-year Hakushu too, while rival Nikka, owned by Asahi Group Holdings, has also suspended aged single malts.
"It pains us that there are still limitations in supply, even though we have established increased production," Kengo Torii, head of the Suntory's whisky division, has said.
Ao's launch comes amid growing questions around provenance, as loose Japanese regulations have meant imported whisky, when bottled or blended in the country, can be passed off as local.
With Ao, Suntory is aiming at transparency, while showing off its global assets and blending skills.
Suntory's chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo, says he was initially wary of the assignment.
"I couldn't at all imagine what it would taste like," he told Reuters ahead of the launch, adding it took multiple trials to make the "Ao" blend.
Whisky from Alberta Distillers in Canada is Ao's biggest constituent, followed by liquid from Jim Beam's Clermont and Booker Noe distilleries. Scotland's Ardmore and Glen Garioch, Ireland's Cooley and Japan's Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries contribute to a lesser extent.
Some whisky aficionados will always seek an age statement for sign of quality, Bernstein's European beverages analyst Trevor Stirling said, adding that some high-quality blends, like the Johnnie Walker Blue, Green and Gold, deserve recognition.
"So there are some whisky snobs who say if it isn't single malt I'm not drinking it ... I think blended whiskies are unfairly looked down upon."
(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando in TOKYO and Martinne Geller in LONDON; Editing by Himani Sarkar)