I thought that I had found the best Nikka had to offer in their Red Label blend. Oh boy, how I was wrong. I was sitting at a bar in Innsbruck, Austria and couldn’t find any of my usual preferences on their menu. So when I saw this Nikka Whisky From The Barrel on their shelf, I figured I would give it a try. One sip and it instantly jumped to the top of my favorites list.
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 that make for the flavor profile they desire and bottle it when ready.
For this specific bottling they pulled out all the stops. The source mash for these batches includes both grain and malt based formulas. They use different distillation methods. The spirits are aged in a variety of barrels, according to the company over 100 different batches that are blended to perfection and then further aged in a barrel to ensure that the spirits blend properly before being bottled.
What we have here is a masterpiece of blending.
I love Nikka’s packaging style, understated and clean. In this case, they seem to have gone a little bit further and made something absolutely beautiful, but with a minor problem.
The bottle itself is square with rounded edges, which is different and distinct enough to make it stand out on the shelf much like Johnnie Walker’s whiskey products. In this case they went with a shorter and wider bottle that has an extreme shoulder taper and almost zero neck. That’s cool from a visual perspective, but it makes it extremely difficult to pour for the first couple drinks. Once the liquid in the bottle gets a little lower, it’s slightly easier — but if you’ve lowered that level in one sitting, your own inebriation might still pose a problem (more on the ABV in a bit!)
The label itself is relatively tiny, almost as small as possible while still displaying the relevant information. Which is good, since it allows the absolutely beautiful spirit to show through the glass. And, let’s be real, that’s the actual star of this show.
The bottle almost seems to scream “no marketing gimmicks needed here, we know we have something awesome.”
There’s a buttery rich aroma that comes off the glass almost immediately, something that reminds me the most of cinnamon buns baked early in the morning. There’s a sugary sweetness and a bit of vanilla, but I also think I get some nutmeg and just a touch of cinnamon spice.
Taking a sip, my tongue goes numb almost immediately. Which makes sense, since this is a 51.4% ABV spirit and probably the highest alcohol content I’ve had. The downside of such a high ABV is that it takes a second for me to taste the spirit, but the alcohol content does make it extra smooth and rich in weight.
Once the taste buds recover, the flavors are predominantly the same ones I would expect from an American bourbon. There’s a bit of caramel front and center with some vanilla backing, almost a brown sugar taste as well.
The Scots believe that adding a bit of water to their spirit releases some of the flavors and allows them to be better expressed. In this case, I think what’s happening is the alcohol is being diluted enough that you can actually enjoy the spirit.
With a couple rocks of ice, I can finally taste some of the flavors I thought I smelled. The caramel and vanilla are there, but the nutmeg and cinnamon spice flavors make a reappearance with a vengeance. It’s smooth, has no burn or bite, and is absolutely delicious to drink. Plus, thanks to the abnormally high alcohol content, it retains some of its weight even with the added ice.
And it’s so good, I’m going against my own reviewing policies — I’m not even going to try this in an Old Fashioned or Fizz (Mule), because adding anything else to this Nikka is an insult to it.
Branded as the #1 top whiskey of 2018 by Whiskey Advocate, Nikka Whisky From The Barrel is considered by many to be the flagship product of Nikka. And they aren’t wrong. This stuff is delicious.
Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
Owner: Nikka Whiskey Distilling Co.
Grain bill: ??
Proof: 51.4% ABV
Price: $64.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 5/5
The current reigning champion for “best whiskey I’ve ever had”.