Review: Nikka Coffey Gin

I’m a huge fan of the Nikka distillery, and their many whiskeys that I’ve reviewed previously. But that’s the whiskey side of things. I don’t think I’ve ever tried a Japanese gin before, so if there was ever a reliable Japanese distillery to try first, I knew it would have to be Nikka.


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History

The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. can trace its roots back to 1918, when founder Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn the secrets of scotch whisky production. Born into a family of sake brewers, he was determined to bring the art of making a “genuine” whiskey to Japan and so he struck out alone travelling halfway across the globe to learn from the people who started it all. He spent the next two years studying at the University of Glasgow and the Hazelburn distillery, where he filled two notebooks with his notes on every aspect of the Scottish distilling process — notebooks that would form the guide for making Japan’s first locally produced whiskey.

While in Scotland, he fell in love with Rita Cowan and they married and returned to Japan together in 1920. Upon his return, Taketsuru learned that the company that had sponsored his research trip to Scotland had been forced to close due to the recession following World War I, so he joined a company that would later go on to become the Japanese distillery powerhouse Suntory and helped them produce Japan’s first whiskey.

When his ten year contract expired in 1934, he decided to strike out on his own, forming the “Great Japanese Juice Company” and setting up a distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido. The first distillation took place following the installation of a custom copper pot and still in 1936, and their first product launched in 1940 under a shortened English translation of the company name, “NIKKA WHISKY”.

Nikka expanded their production to a second facility in Miyagikyo in 1969 to expand on the varieties of spirits that the original distillery was producing. It remains a privately owned company in Japan to this day.

Product

Nikka is primarily known as a producer of blended whiskey. Using their multiple facilities in Japan, they select a combination of spirits for the flavor profile they desire and bottle it when ready.

For this gin, the claim is that the base spirits come from Nikka’s Cofffey stills (as designed by Aeneas Coffey). Also known as “continuous stills”, these produce a continuous flow of alcohol instead of the pot stills which are an older style more typically used for batch production. Nikka’s primary production facility that uses these kinds of stills is their newer plant in Miyagikyo, which opened in 1969.

Reportedly this spirit starts as a mixture of corn and barley that is mashed, fermented, and distilled in Nikka’s coffey stills to make a neutral distillate. To that spirit, they add a set of gin botanicals with a distinctive Japanese twist — four kinds of Japanese citruses, Yuzu, Kabosu, Amanatsu and Shequasar, as well as the usual juniper berries, angelica, coriander seeds, lemon and orange peels.

What I can’t figure out is whether this is pot distilled after the flavoring components are added. Usually, a gin would be pot distilled to maintain the delicate components, which would otherwise be stripped out in a column or “Coffey” still. Either way, that mix (pot distilled or not) is then re-distilled and bottled.

Packaging

The packaging on this spirit is understated and classy.

The bottle is a traditional design: long and round with a leisurely tapered shoulder coming to a short neck, made of crystal clear glass which really shows off the clarity and purity of the spirit inside.

One thing I really appreciate is that while there’s a screw top cap on this bottle, the cap is made of a heavier duty plastic and the threading on the bottle feels more hefty than normal. It’s the classy version of a screw top bottle.

The best part of this bottle (besides the contents) is the label. A plain rectangular green label with black lettering, the simple format and clean design is appealingly modern and stands apart from other spirits with crowded labels and branding. There’s even a bit of a print on the reverse of the back label that shows through when looking in from the front, adding a touch of green tint to the liquid. It fits in well with the whole modern aesthetic and I really like it.

Neat

The aroma here is subtle and delicate, but definitely present. This doesn’t knock your nose out with a bunch of juniper aroma like you’d expect from a London Dry gin, but there’s still some juniper in there along with some lime, lemon, and orange peel. I can see the yuzu as well, but to be candid, I’m not familiar enough with the aroma of the other Japanese fruits to be able to identify them here. That said, all of the components are nicely supported by a bit of the raw corn sweetness from the underlying spirit.

The flavor here is legitimately great. There’s enough juniper in this bottle to make itself known without overpowering your taste buds, and it’s paired with enough of the citrus to add a nice balance to the flavors without the citrus becoming bitter. It’s truly impressive how it rides that line so perfectly. As the flavor progresses, I get some more hints of the orange and the yuzu playing in the flavor profile before it finishes off with a nice lingering interplay between the juniper and the lemon citrus.

On Ice

With the nicely done balance in the flavors when taken neat, I was a bit concerned about adding some ice. Typically, what you get with the ice is removal of the lighter components in exchange for reduction in unpleasant characteristics (bitterness, etc), but there’s really no bitterness here to reduce. Just good things to lose.

Thankfully, the majority of what I really liked about the flavor profile remained behind. There’s still the juniper and lemon citrus interplay providing that excellent flavor I really enjoyed, but it’s the color characters that seem to have dropped off. The orange and the yuzu are significantly diminished, if not removed, from the playing field. An unfortunate development, but not a deal killer by any means.

Cocktail (Negroni)

I’m generally not a Negroni fan. I find it to be way too bitter and overpowering in most presentations. Which is why I use it as a test here: the bitterness and overpowering flavors of the mixers are a great way to test out the fidelity and saturation of the flavors in the spirit.

I think this version of the cocktail does an okay job, but that’s not really what this seems to have been designed to do. The flavors aren’t as loud and super saturated as a traditional London Dry gin, so as a result, they don’t come through as cleanly in this specific cocktail as other gins might. It isn’t a terrible cocktail, and there is a touch of juniper and lemon zest that attempts to balance things out, but it just isn’t strong enough to make much of a difference.

Fizz (Gin & Tonic)

This works really well, mostly because the tonic water adds a bit of a texture without washing out the flavors here.

Just as we saw on ice, the juniper and lemon citrus are pretty resilient flavors that keep coming back. That remains true here and, with the added tonic water, that little bit of carbonation makes this a really delicious and refreshing cocktail. I could see a touch of lime juice being a welcome addition, but honestly just garnish this with a twist of lemon peel and you’re good to go.


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Overall Rating

According to what I’ve heard, the goal of this gin isn’t to highlight the botanicals — the point is for the botanicals to highlight the delicious base spirit. Hence the lack of a “London Dry” notation on the label.

I feel like our testing and review support that assertion up pretty well. The flavors are great and balance really well when taken neat or with neutral mixers like tonic water, although it doesn’t do as well in a bitter cocktail like a Negroni. The base spirit and the botantical components share the stage equally, and I appreciate what they have been able to pull off.

Nikka Coffey Gin
Production Location: Japan
Classification: Gin
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $47.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4/5
A more subtle, delicious gin that is probably best suited for gin & tonic cocktails.


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