I’m having a sort of love/hate relationship with the Japanese whiskies lately. Some of it may be coloured by the fact that many distilleries hid the source of their ingredients and, prior to the most recently announced regulation, have even repackaged Scotch whisky under the Japanese label. This shouldn’t stop me from enjoying the dram, though, right? Well, by 2024, all products labelled as “Japanese whisky” must be fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in Japan. Even the water must come from Japan, but the rule still allows for “some portion of malted grain” in its mash, so we may still have to guess as to its true make-up. Up for a tasting today, before the meal, but with an accompaniment of salted edamame, are two of the Nikka‘s expressions from a Coffey still. Let’s get right into it, but first, we need music! Now playing: bvdub – Resistance Is Beautiful.
First, let us cover the term. A “Coffey still” has nothing to do with the drink “coffee”. It’s merely a process patented by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, which employs a variation of a column still for a continuous distillation rather than a batch one. This allows for a quicker, cheaper, and more varied grain distillation process, as liquids are poured over a series of cascading plates, alcohol will vaporize and then go through a rectifier, while the remaining water will be funnelled out and again poured over the heated plates. This is an ongoing cycle, separating the low boiling point liquids (alcohol) from the high boiling point liquids (water). The other side effect is that these column stills remove most of the fatty oils and, thus, flavours from the grain. This is why many other rectified alcohols, such as vodka, can taste so ‘clean’ and ‘pure’. You can look at it as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for in your spirit.
The two Coffey stills used in the production have been imported by Masataka Takestsuru from Scotland (in 1963 and then in 1966). In this tasting, the process of distillation is identical, but the ingredient is changed. This makes it an exciting pairing. This Nikka release uses mainly corn as the grain of choice. It is then matured in refill, re-made, and re-charred American oak casks before being bottled at 45% ABV and sold for somewhere around £58. The distillery says that this product meets all of the criteria of “Japanese whisky”, as outlined above, so there is nothing in here from outside of Japan. There are hints of bourbon on the nose, but it’s slightly darker and a little hard. It’s pretty fierce on the first sip, with a razor cut slice of the spirit, torn by rough edges of grain. It has a rather short finish with a dreary afternoon. It’s more bitter than sweet, with a high ramp-up of alcohol, even after I eat some salty edamame to see if it would change the palette. After it scraped at my tongue, it becomes easier, and softer to drink, but it’s hard to forget the initial clench of a handshake in our first introduction.
I move on to the malt. In this batch, the Nikka distillery essentially replaced the corn with 100% malted barley. It is then similarly aged in old casks, bottled at the very same 45% ABV and sold a bit higher, at £62. There are two more points I want to discuss before covering tasting notes. Since this whisky is not distilled in a pot still, it cannot be officially called “malt whisky” and is, thus, still referred to as “grain whisky”. This definition also applies to some Scotch “grain whisky” that has gone through a different distillation process. So do read your ingredients because it could still be 100% malted barley but be called “grain”. A good example of this is the Experimental Grain Whisky released by Compass Box. And one last point – the Nikka site admits that this whisky does not meet all of the criteria as defined to be “Japanese whisky”, as “a part of the old batches in the formula was made from distillates imported from Ben Nevis.” The malt is smoother, rounder, and sweeter, but it still has that hint of rough alcohol on the edges. It has a candied release, but it is slightly thin as if someone cut out the middle of the story from the book and handed you only the dangling strips of a few chopped up words.
Throughout my tasting, as usual, I go back and forth. But I always return to the malt, which is gentler and mellow. Out of the two, without a doubt, the malt takes the prize, but frankly, I’m a bit disappointed in both. I would have expected the grain to be harsh, but it’s nearly brutal in its statement. The malt follows through and in some way delivers, but it’s still slightly edgy as if someone poured more of that grain into the batch. I doubt there is other than barley in there, but who really knows? With this, I’ll proclaim that the malt wins this round, and I may compare it against other Nikkas.