Friday, November 25, 2016

Nikka In November

The evening's line-up (we started on the right).
Stef Holt from Speciality Brands rejoined us this month to lead us through a range of whiskies from the Nikka distillery in Japan. Having treated us to India's Amrut back in August, the upstairs room at the Briton's Protection was once again full as club members settled in for the evening.

Stef kicks the evening off.
The history of Japanese whisky is certainly an interesting and remarkable one. And, thanks to Stef's hugely enjoyable presentation to start the night off, we all now know a lot more about it!

The founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, is known as the father of Japanese whisky, and with good reason. Not only was he the first master distiller with Suntory, but he later struck out on his own to establish its great rival Nikka in 1934.

He had a vision of making whisky in Japan the way the Scots did, having himself studied chemistry in Glasgow and gained experience working at a trio of distilleries alongside his studies.

Dram number 1.
Not only that, but he also acquired a Scottish wife, Rita, who accompanied him back to Japan once he had learned his trade. There's been a lot of interest in them of late, because of a drama series loosely based on their lives broadcast on NHK.

If you want to get a flavour of it, I managed to find a clip on YouTube:

Dram number 2
Apparently it's been quite the ratings sensation, and has helped spur a renewed interest in domestic whisky in Japan. So if you struggle to get hold of a bottle of any of the Nikka drams we tried, that'll be why.

Anyway, on to the whiskies themselves and we began with two drinks distilled in Coffey stills. That's Coffey with a y, named for the Irishman who patented the design, Aeneas Coffey. Whether he may have, ahem, borrowed some of it is a source of some debate, but he got his patent in first which is after all the important thing.

The Coffey is a form of column still and Nikka uses it to create both a grain and a malt whisky. We had the grain first and some of the notes on the nose were immediately reminiscent of American oak, including vanilla and butterscotch.

Dram number 3.
It was also buttery, and Stef billed it to us as being toast, butter and marmalade - a breakfast whisky! It was an easy-to-drink 45% and decent value at £55, despite being pricier than most grains.

Its malt brother, clocking in at the same ABV and price, won more praise though. A bit sweeter, with a nose of hot chocolate or even milky coffee ("a disappointing latte" as someone put it). The butter was replaced by a treacly toffee, like the best parkin. Possibly one to invest in for next Bonfire Night.

Having tried two grains we now got into two single malts, hailing from the two Japanese distilleries operated by Nikka. Miyagikyo was the second of those to be established, in a hilly, central area of the country reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands or Speyside.

Dram number 4.
With stocks dwindling a little, Nikka's previous range of Miyagikyo has been consolidated into a single product, which Stef reckons is reminiscent of the previous 10yo and 12yo expressions. And with a definite sherry influence, it certainly does taste like a Speyside!

The contrast in the locations of Nikka's distilleries was emphasised when we got stuck into the Yoichi next. This was the first distillery established by Taketsuru, and he chose a site by a rivermouth and the sea in Japan's chilly north.

Once again there's just one Yoichi single malt now on the market, which Stef advised tasted similar to the previous 10yo. And this one had the coastal, salty, oily taste you'd expect from a Scottish whisky created in a similar landscape, although the peatiness is less upfront, more on the tongue and further back in the mouth.

Dram 5: Super Nikka Revival.
Perhaps it's the Japanese influence playing tricks on us, but this one seemed to have a bit of soy sauce about it. The club consensus was that this may have just shaded the Miyagikyo. Both are 45% and expect to pay around £70.

After our mid-tasting break we were back to try three blended whiskies. And we were also back to the story of the Taketsurus. On Rita's death, Masataka created a whisky in her memory, and the company has recently brought it back with the Super Nikka Revival: slightly citrussy, a bit peaty, and very drinkable.

Only 600 bottles came to the UK, so there aren't loads kicking about. It's £50 and 43%, and offers a window into what Japanese whisky tasted like in the early 1960s. The backstory helped win it a bit of popularity among the club's more romantic members, too.

Dram number 6.
We finished off with two of the three from Nikka's Pure Malt range, the Pure Malt Red and the Pure Malt Black. The Red features a blend of medium-peated Miyagikyo and unpeated Yoichi, and is billed as "fruity and soft".

This attracted a fair bit of comment around the room, with one common statement being that it "doesn't taste like it smells". This could have been because we'd had it straight after number 5, so that softness got a little lost. As someone noted, it almost tasted "like juice".

Dram 7: Pure Malt Black.
Perhaps unfortunately for the Pure Malt Red, its Black cousin rounded the evening off in storming style. Dubbed "smoky and mellow", this flipped the components round, giving us a medium-peated Yoichi and an unpeated Miyagikyo.

This really was an instant favourite. Not just smoky but also peaty, although as with the earlier Yoichi single malt, the peat wasn't a punch-in-the-face job. The Japanese seem to prefer to tame their peaty notes a little, and it works a treat on this dram. At just £42, phones were out and orders were being made while some of us were still finishing our glasses.

Despite some strong competition, it was indeed the Pure Malt Black which took the Dram of the Night vote. Another successful evening then, and thanks to both Stef for her excellent guidance, and the Briton's Protection for being gracious hosts, as ever.

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