Confession time: I’m a minor Nikka fanboy. A bottle of their Pure Malt Red was the only whiskey at my wedding, and I had even planned a trip to Japan with the intent to visit the distillery (which was cancelled thanks to Covid, sadly). My only complaint – if you could even call it that – was that it always felt like more of a celebration / special occasion whiskey for me. So naturally I was excited when I saw that Nikka had launched a new line of spirits designed specifically for just chillin’ on the back porch and making highballs.
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 go on to form the guide for making Japan’s first locally produced whiskey.
While in Scotland, he married the daughter of a local doctor in Glasgow and they 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.
Most people in the United States think of Japanese Whisky as something special and to be cherished — mostly because it’s not as frequently or prolifically stocked on local store shelves. With this expression, Nikka is trying to create an “everyday” spirit, instead of something that will just sit on your liquor shelf.
This spirit starts as a handful of different strains of whisky that are all blended together to create the right flavor profile. This includes column still produced grain whisky (like that used to create their Coffey Grain Whisky), as well as their malt whisky that they use for products such as the Pure Malt Red. The specifics of this blend aren’t really all that clear, though, and the fact that Nikka provides a disclaimer that this doesn’t meet the new definition of a “Japanese Whisky” indicates that there’s probably some other stuff going on in the background as well.
Some of these spirits are added straight from the tap. Some of them are matured for a period of time in barrels before being blended in. However it happens, those spirits are all blended together and bottled into the product we have today.
This spirit is intended to be a “daily driver” whisky, something brought out for parties and well used. And the bottle reflects that intent nicely.
Overall, there’s nothing truly special about the bottle design. It’s nice and squat which helps it avoid being knocked over and becoming a party foul, with a round body that flares slightly from the base to the shoulder and then rounds back in for a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a screw-on plastic cap that has some nice ridges to make it easy to open and close, even with wet or sunscreen covered hands.
The label is similarly bright and cheerful, a nice sunny yellow color that nicely matches the yellow hue of the spirit. It isn’t the stodgy or traditional style that you see in their other bottlings, instead striking a decidedly fun tone.
This whiskey is crystal clear with a beautiful golden color, almost like pale straw. There’s a light aroma coming off the glass — and I do mean light. Almost to the point where you almost need to shove your nose in the spirit to get a whiff. Which makes sense once you figure out what that aroma is, though: it’s all lighter, sweeter notes.
Honey, lemon, and warm baked rolls are the first things I get in that sweet aroma, which is consistent with a good barley-based spirit. There’s a little bit of vanilla in there probably from the charred oak as well.
Taking a sip, you get pretty much what’s on the tin from the aroma. The liquid is lighter in weight, but smooth nonetheless and without any bitterness. It’s got a flavor intensity just on the lighter side of medium, with the floral tinged honey and lemon notes taking the lead. Behind that is a touch of yeasty bread, followed by some light vanilla and brown sugar.
There’s not much of a finish here, the flavors mostly petering out and a single note of that honey sweetness remaining behind for a bit.
Usually, what I’d expect here is for the majority of the flavors to drop out of the running. Ice pretty much kills everything sweet and subtle, which is damn near everything in this glass. But, for a whiskey designed to be enjoyed in a highball cocktail, that’s thankfully not the case here.
What’s left behind is some nice sweet honey and very light vanilla notes, something that would absolutely be refreshing and delicious in a simple summer cocktail. There’s also more of a pronounced malty note here now that the other flavors have been stripped away, something closer to the raw malt whiskey that you’d expect to see fresh off the still and without any aging.
There’s a really good flavor profile here when taken neat. A lot of different flavors from all components of the whiskey making process — some stuff you get from the raw ingredients, others from the esters in the distillation process, still more from the barrel aging that seems to have been done. It’s a good sipping whiskey, but one that does seem to be significantly reduced in scope as soon as you add some ice or some soda water to turn this into a highball. The sweet honey and lemon flavors will still be there, but the supporting chorus will be missing.
I’d put this just below a good glass of Glenmorangie in terms of quality, and right in the same neighborhood in terms of flavor profile. Which is unfortunate, because the Glenmorangie actually costs less than this supposedly budget-priced whiskey.
Produced By: NikkaProduction Location: Japan
Owned By: Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd.
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $44.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
Smooth and delicate… but at this price, I think there are other options I would prefer to drink for days on end.