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Whiskey Has Passport, Will Travel

October 12, 2020

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Why drink whiskey from one place when you can drink it from five—in one bottle? A look behind the “world blend” trend.

David Perkins and his wife, Jane, decided to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in Scotland, on the island of Islay. One evening, at a bed-and-breakfast owned by the Bruichladdich Distillery, they were served a dessert of honeydew melon drizzled with a peat-smoked syrup. Perkins loved the interplay between sweet and smoky. When he returned home to his Park City, Utah, distillery, he tried to mimic that flavor sensation by blending American bourbon with Scotch from an undisclosed Highland distillery. Released in 2012, High West Campfire was one of the first whiskeys to proudly state that it was a blend from multiple countries. “It was a way to competitively differentiate ourselves,” Perkins told me in 2017.

If “world blends,” or “multinational whisky,” have existed for a while, brands have begun leaning into them of late, perhaps, like Perkins, seeing them as a marketing opportunity. If one country’s whiskey is good, spirit from more countries would surely be great—or, at least, worth way more at retail. To understand how this category came to be, we must first head to Japan.

In a sense, Japan has always produced world whiskey. With the recent decade’s hype for anything with kanji lettering and Japanese calligraphy on the label, most Japanese producers began to run low on well-aged single-malt stock. Lucky for them, Japanese whisky doesn’t have to be made in Japan to be called “Japanese whisky.”

As whiskey writer Brad Japhe explained in Bloomberg last year, when you see new Japanese distilleries, such as Kurayoshi Distillery, selling decades-old bottlings, you can assume they have sourced some—if not most—of their liquid, likely from overseas. (A problem no different than, say, Vermont’s WhistlePig bottling Canadian rye or the MGP conundrum among American craft distilleries.)

What’s changed over the years is that Japanese distillers, and many more outside of the country, are now releasing whiskies that proudly claim to be “world blends.”

For instance, bottles of Ichiro’s Malt & Grain, from the cult-coveted Chichibu Distillery in Japan, were labeled “whisky” in the early aughts; by 2012, it was a “blended whisky,” though smaller letters denoted that Chichibu Distillery’s founder Ichiro Akuto searches the world for the perfect casks to blend with his Hanyu and Chichibu single-malts. By 2017, bottles were labeled “Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky,” proclaiming its multinational provenance.

In 2018, Japan’s smallest whisky distillery, Nagahama, began releasing Amahagan World Malt, their own youthful malt blended with undisclosed whiskey from overseas. While in 2019, Suntory released Ao, what they officially call their first “world whisky,” noting it is a blend of “five major whiskies” on the label.

In a way, Ao is the result of a multinational flexing its portfolio muscle. Beam Suntory owns major distilleries in the world’s five greatest whiskey-producing countries: Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark (United States), Laphroaig and Bowmore (Scotland), Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell (Ireland), Alberta Distillers (Canada) and, of course, Suntory (Japan). It’s not hard to envision other international conglomerates, like Diageo or Pernod Ricard, likewise combining their assets to create new SKUs. (Recently, LVMH-owned Woodinville Whiskey aged some of its American whiskey in smoky single-malt barrels from fellow LVMH brand Ardbeg. If the “world blends” category continues to grow, an actual blend of the two wouldn’t be such a leap.)

For now, Beam Suntory remains the leader in the category. Though not labeled a “world blend,” my favorite release of the genre would be Little Book. Each year, Jim Beam scion Freddie Noe finds a variety of oddball barrels throughout the company’s worldwide warehouses, then blends them into a barrel-proof small batch sold in handsome packaging.

“Having access to barrels from rackhouses around the world means I don’t have to limit myself or the possibilities I can create with each blend,” says Noe. “By blending these whiskeys from around the world together, you can unlock some truly complex and unique flavors.”

The inaugural release, called Chapter 1, included bourbon, rye, corn whiskey and a straight malt whiskey, possibly from Scotland. It was released in 2017. The next year, Chapter 2 included Jim Beam rye and both a 13-year Canadian rye and 40-year blended Canadian whisky, presumably from Beam Suntory’s Hiram Walker Distillery and Alberta Distillers.

The cynic in me acknowledges that it may simply be a savvy way to get rid of barrels that couldn’t be used for anything legitimate. (What the hell else do you do with a possibly over-oaked 40-year-old Canadian whisky?) But Noe’s Little Book is undeniably intriguing for the same reason the other whiskies in the category are: It’s impossible to categorize.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the contents of Suntory's Toki. A Suntory representative confirmed that it is comprised of 100 percent Japanese-distilled whisky.

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