Whiskey Review: Nikka Blended Whisky

I’m always on the lookout for new products from my favorite distilleries, and in this case it might not be so much of a “new” product as it is one that’s just new to me. I’m used to the higher end spirits from the Nikka production facilities, but had never heard of the Nikka Blended Whisky before I spotted a bottle in Brussels a few weeks back. Intrigued, I snagged a sample and brought it back to the States for further investigation.

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 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, the daughter of a local doctor in Glasgow, 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

The Nikka Blended Whisky is a product that is (reportedly) only marketed and sold within Europe, imported into France by the Maison du Whisky.

There isn’t really any documentation about this product beyond what’s on the bottle. Their website doesn’t seem to acknowledge this product’s existence, and there are precious few articles discussing it that I could find.

From the back of the bottle, this is how the product is described:

A selection of slightly peated malts and Coffey still grain whiskies from Nikka’s various stocks; this well-balanced blended whisky has a smooth taste for the casual whisky enthusiast.

With that rather cryptic description, we can infer that this is a blend of different production runs from Nikka’s two production facilities in Japan that have been combined to produce a very specific flavor profile.

The lack of an age statement, combined with the relatively low price point for the bottle, seem to make this an attractive option for novice drinkers or those on a budget.

Packaging

Much like with the other Nikka products, the packaging here is simple and understated, letting the contents do more of the talking than the branding.

The bottle is more heavily styled than their Coffey Grain Whisky offering, designed with a shorter and fatter bottle that sports a squared body. There are two indentations on their side of the bottle that seem to be designed to help you grip the bottle as you pour. The glass body is capped with a plastic screw-on cap identical to the one on that Coffey Grain Whisky bottle.

As for the labeling, the minimalist and subdued trend continues here. The main label on the front of the package has a yellow background and black lettering that blends nicely with the amber color of the spirit. Again, just like the other products, the label isn’t ostentatious and bears the dead minimum information required. It’s also small enough that it doesn’t obstruct the view of the spirit within.

It’s like a brighter, cheerier version of the Nikka From The Barrel packaging.

Neat

The spirit looks like liquid gold, a beautiful light amber that’s visually very appealing. In the glassm, I get a lot of fruity aromas — specifically orange and maybe some apple, along with a hint of peat smoke. In that sense, it has a lot of the same characteristics as the Pure Malt Red but without the floral aspects.

The liquid has a good weight to it, a little bit more viscous than the Coffey Grain Whisky but not quite as thick as the Nikka From The Barrel. It’s surprisingly full bodied for a 40% alcohol content spirit — I’d expect this from something closer to a 45% ABV product.

The flavor has a pleasant and remarkably Scottish taste. The majority of what I get when taken neat is that peat smoke coming through, accompanied by just the lightest touch of caramel. There isn’t much complexity here, unfortunately, putting it squarely on par with The Glenlivet scotch whisky in my opinion and with roughly the same flavor profile.

On Ice

I was seriously hoping that the added ice would tone down the peat and allow the more delicate flavors to shine through, but I don’t think it quite worked. I still get a majority of peat flavor with some rays of sunshine peaking out from behind the clouds.

As the ice continues to melt, the peat flavor eventually succumbs and starts to fade into the background, leaving behind only the impression of a scotch and not the full-throated expression.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

Scotch in an old fashioned is always an interesting combination, especially when a bourbon or even a rye whisky is usually the spirit of choice here. But there’s something undeniably delicious about the smoky peat flavor mixing with the bright and cheerful orange bitters and providing some balance between the two.

It’s an old fashioned that seems to more at home in London than New York (if that makes any sense whatsoever), more smokey and old world. I almost feel like it needs a bowler hat and a cane.

Fizz (Mule)

This is actually quite interesting. Not because of something this spirit brings to the table specifically, but just because the peat in the spirit makes this Mule taste more like a fizzy penicillin cocktail.

The same problem persists here that persisted with the old fashioned — specifically, that there’s really nothing differentiating this from a low end scotch whisky beyond the “made in Japan” labeling. It just doesn’t add anything novel to the flavor profile.

Overall Rating

Nikka was founded by a man who idealized Scottish whisky production and wanted to emulate that in every way possible in the Japanese islands. If that was the goal with this spirit, then they have succeeded with flying colors — it tastes and performs exactly like The Glenlivet, which is my benchmark for the standard scotch whisky.

It’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But my issue here is that, beyond the peat, this doesn’t really bring anything to the table that a mid-priced scotch whisky wouldn’t bring just as well. I’m not going to knock it for that… but I’ll just say that I’m disappointed that there wasn’t anything uniquely Japanese that it brought to the table.

Nikka Blended Whisky
Owner: Nikka Whiskey Distilling Co.
Production: Japan
Classification: Blended whisky
Grain bill: Unknown
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: ~ $35/ 750ml

Overall Rating: 3/5
It’s a delicious spirit, available at a solid price, from my favorite Japanese distillery. But it fails to distinguish itself from any other Scottish spirit — both in the bottle and on my wallet.

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