I love Japanese whiskey and Nikka in particular, but I fully admit that I haven’t made my way through their product line. I intend to change that, and today I start with the Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey.
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.
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 specific bottling, the claim is that the majority of the 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.
The mash bill that goes into this is similarly a mystery in its specifics, but in general we know that it’s primarily grain based. Hence the “Grain Whisky”.
Since there’s not much information about the production of the spirit, we don’t have much to go on. All we really know is that the company has a solid track record for producing amazing spirits and the blend is primarily from the Miyagikyo distillery.
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. That bottle is made of a slightly smoked glass, tinted a little bit but not as heavily as a Lagavulin bottle for example.
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 red label with black lettering, the simple format and clean design is appealingly modern and stands apart from other spirits with crowded labels and branding. It fits in well with the whole modern aesthetic and I really like it.
In the glass, the whisky has a distinctly light smell to it — absolutely closer to the sweet and subtle Scotch whisky that this spirit derives from instead of the American deep and bold approach. The dominant smell is vanilla with a hint of caramel behind it, and I think I can detect some lemon citrus as well.
The whisky tastes crisp and light. There’s a smoothness and a weight to it that feels appropriate for a 45% ABV spirit — rich and creamy, but the flavor profile keeps the overall impression light.
Upon tasting, the flavors are the same as the smell for the most part; there’s the vanilla and caramel with some citrus behind it. But there’s also a spice that creeps in towards the end, something that builds in the background and suddenly appears when you thought you’ve tasted it all. Some reviewers liken it to smokey BBQ and I think they’re on the right track, but there’s something different going on here as well.
The whiskey finishes smooth with no bitterness, but a distinct lingering flavor that stays with you long after the spirit is gone. I’m not complaining, it’s downright enjoyable.
The ice has a chilling effect (pardon the pun) on the flavors. Instead of the complex litany of flavors that were in the neat version, the whiskey has been distilled down to just the most powerful ones.
At first there’s no flavor really, but as the liquid warms up the vanilla and caramel flavors start to creep back in. Those flavors linger on after the spirit is gone again but in less intensity and variety than before.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
There’s an interesting thing going on here. In all of the other preparations we’ve tried so far, the flavor tends to build as the spirit warms up and with the old fashioned this trend continues to its detriment.
Like with the ice, the flavors aren’t present at first and slowly make themselves known. In this case, though, the bitters are there throughout the entire taste — which means that at first that’s all you taste. Eventually the caramel and vanilla creep in to try and balance out the harsh bitters with a bit of sweetness, but by then the damage has been done.
Probably best not to mix this one.
Honestly all I get is the ginger beer. There’s no depth to the drink and no additional flavors beyond that until possibly the very end, and even that is debatable.
I love this spirit. I love Japanese whiskey in general, but this is a really delicious blend of my favorite versions of Nikka’s products. For those times when their Nikka From The Barrel isn’t available, this is an acceptable close second. Especially given the price, it’s a damn good spirit that now has a permanent slot on my shelf.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
Owner: Nikka Whiskey Distilling Co.
Grain bill: ??
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $55.99 / 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Especially given the price, this is an amazing product.