It’s always nice to deviate from ‘the norm’, so I was really looking forward to the recent Arkwrights’ Nikka Whisky tasting evening. This would be the second Japanese whisky tasting I’d attended, and I remembered being pleasantly surprised by the quality and complexity of the spirits we tried on that first occasion. When you begin to understand the stories & background behind the Japanese whisky journey though, you soon realise that this is a country whose passion for whisky is reflected in their commitment to produce world class products.
Our host for the evening was Phil Nickson of Speciality Brands. He started by giving us a potted history of how whisky came to Japan. One of the earliest recorded references to whisky within the country was in 1854 when Commodore Matthew Perry, on an expedition from the US, brought with him a number of gifts for the Emperor including “one barrel of American Whiskey”. Move on a number of decades to 1918 and during the 1st World War, the American soldiers based in Japan were particularly fond of a “scotch” called “Queen George”. Major Samuel Johnson told his fellow officers that this whisky “must be eighty-six per cent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko fifteen minutes after they got ashore. I never saw so many get so drunk so fast.”
One man however can almost be considered to be the Father of the Japanese whisky industry. This man is Masataka Taketsuru, born in 1894 in Hiroshima to a family who had owned a sake brewery since the 1700’s. He started his career working for one of the premier Japanese drinks firms, eventually visiting Scotland in 1918 and touring numerous distilleries including Longmorn and Springbank. He kept a famous notebook full of his learnings, including elaborate drawings of pot stills and other distillery paraphernalia. Whilst on this tour, he met his soon to be wife Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan. They married in 1920, initially living in Campbeltown where Taketsuru worked at the Hazelburn distillery before they returned to Japan later that year. Taketsuru had the sole aim upon returning of putting into practice all that he had learnt and producing good whisky!
Upon his return, Taketsuru worked at the company that would eventually become Suntory where, in 1923, he helped establish a whisky distillery. Their first whisky, “Suntory Whisky White Label”, was produced around 1928. Taketsuru left Suntory in 1934 to found Nikka. The Yoichi distillery was established later that year and whilst producing and laying down their early stocks of whisky, they also produced a well renowned apple juice and apple brandy. They had to make an income from somewhere!
The 1st Nikka release was in 1940 named “Nikka Rare & Old”. Two (reputedly) original bottles were recently discovered in a basement of an old store in Hiroshima. Nikka purchased these bottles and they are now on display in the head office. It’s amazing to think that these bottles survived the devastation from World War 2.
In 1969, Nikka opened a second distillery in Miyagikyo. Whereas Yoichi is based in Hokkaido, the northern most island, Miyagikyo is based in Honshu, further to the south. The climates and locations of both distilleries differ, as does the shape of the stills used, and therefore the spirits produced by each differ. Yoichi is cooler, coastal and can be compared to an Islay distillery, producing heavy, oily, peaty spirits. Whereas Miyagikyo is more comparable to a Speyside distillery, producing a lighter, floral, more delicate spirit. Careful blending of the spirits produced by both distilleries ensures the different Nikka blends vary in flavour and complexity.
On to the whiskies themselves! We were lucky enough to try six different whiskies on the night, and my quick fire tasting notes are below:
Nose: Sweet, uncomplicated with wafts of wood shavings. You can detect the bourbon cask. Very slight touch of smoke which becomes more evident over time (especially when nosing the empty glass).
Palate: Toffee, creamy & buttery, digestive biscuits with a few of red berries thrown in at the end.
Nose: Floral & fruity, with a slightly minty quality all wrapped up in pear drops.
Nose: Ripe yellow fruits (especially apricot) but quite oily too and a slight touch of brine.
Palate: Initially some peat but it sweetens in the mouth (candied citrus peel?) whilst retaining a spicy quality (pink peppercorns). Has quite a long, oily finish where the saltiness of the brine becomes more evident.
Nose: Marzipan, slightly malty & almost vegetal quality but also with a hint of peaty smoke.
Palate: Without water you get the toffee sweetness from the Nikka Coffey Grain, baked bananas and a touch of smoke & spice. Add a few drops of water and warming spices (cinnamon & cloves) are more evident with some vanilla too.
Nose: Heavier, smoky scent with brine & citrus evident. It’s not overpowering though, and a touch of sweet pineapple also comes through.
Palate: Not as smokey as the nose suggests, it’s actually quite sweet, fruity and rich. You get a touch of coffee on the finish. It’s a well-balanced, robust dram!
Nose: Delicate hints of smoke, a touch of sawdust and coconut
Palate: Quite a clean, uncomplicated dram with a touch of smoke, dried fruits and creamy coconut milk. It has a good, sweet finish.
It’s hard to pick out a clear favourite from the evening. Each dram had their own subtleties, and the differences in the spirits produced by the two distilleries is evident depending on their combination within the blends. However I plumped for a bottle of the Nikka From The Barrel. It’s a blend of the first three whiskies we sample. Despite the strength, I found it to perfectly drinkable without water, although by adding water you are really changing the dynamic of the whisky and offering up something different. For the prices though, I wouldn’t put you off any of the whiskies on offer, I think they are good value for money and an excellent introduction into the world of Japanese whisky.
As they would say in Japan… Kanpai!