When Nikka whisky landed on U.S. shores for the first time in late 2012, on the eve of the brand’s 80th anniversary, the available number of Japanese whisky options in the country effectively doubled. For several years, excellent options from the Suntory distilleries—brands like Suntory, Yamizake and Hibiki—had dominated the market. But thanks to the concerted efforts of importer Anchor Distilling, there was a new (old) player in town.
Like Suntory, Nikka has a long and storied history in Japanese whisky making. In fact, it’s an intertwined one. Nikka founder Makataka Taketsuru is considered to be the founder of Japanse whiskymaking. His family brewed sake going back generations. He was sent to Scotland to stucy organic chemistry, then apprenticed at a number of distilleries, including Longmorn in Speyside and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. On his return to Japan, the founder of Kotobukiya whisky (now Suntory) recruited Taketsuru to produce the first Japanese whisky in 1923, employing both his extensive knowledge of Scotch whisky techniques and unique understanding of Japanese resources and production opportunities. After his 10-year contract ended, Taketsuru left to begin constructing the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido, and launched Nikka in 1934. The legacy continued with Makataka’s adoptive son, Takeshi Taketsuru, who eventually became master blender at Nikka and was instrumental in expanding Nikka’s global reach. He passed away, at age 90, in Januarly of this year.
80 years after the founding of the Yoichi distillery, we are fortunate enough to enjoy the spoils of Taketsuru’s legacy, and each year brings new expressions to American markets. The Spirits Examiner has had the great fortune to sample several of these over the past two years, including the following:
Nikka Coffey Grain: Named for the kind of still used, not a misspelling of caffeinated java, this is a non-malted grain, not a malted barley whisky, produced from two sets of Coffey stills at the Miyagikyo distillery. Generally blended into a malted whisky (the way it’s done in blended Scotch), this is a fantastic stand-alone product. It is smooth, lush and easy drinking, with notes of vanilla, coconut, pineapple, honey and yes, coffee. 45% ABV, $70 4/5 stars
Miyagikyo Single Malt 12-Year: Produced at Nikka’s second distillery, the aforementioned Miyagikyo, this is probably my least favorite of the Nikka whiskies I’ve tasted, but that in no way means it’s an inferior product. The distillery is located in the mountains of Sendai on northern Honshu, nestled between two rivers, providing both elegant fresh water and delicate humidity. On the nose, bread notes, fruit, chrysanthemum and, though it is unpeated, a hint of smoky sweetness. On the palate, it opens quite sweet with hints of honey and marziapan. With beautiful weight on the midpalate, and a long spice-and-smoke finish on the back palate. 45% ABV, $119 3/5 stars
Yoichi Single Malt 15-Year: Produced at the original Nikka Yoichi distillery, which opened in 1934 on the island of Hokkaido, it is Japan’s most northern distillery. The whisky is rich, bold and smoky. It’s peated, but smoke notes trend toward more cigar than some of the more medicinal notes of, say, many Islay whisky. The Highland-style smoke and spice notes are attributed to direct heat distillation using a finely powdered natural coal. On the nose, saffron, vanilla, cigar, and rich caramel. On the palate, It is bold, big and smooth, offering a satisfying, full-bodied whisky experience. 45% ABV, $130 4/5 stars
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-Year: A “pure” malt is essentially the blending of single malts from two or more distilleries (in this case Yoichi and Miyagikyo) without the addition of any grain whisky (which make it a blended whisky). Combining the soft floral and honey notes from Miyagikyo’s altitude, humidity and barreling process, with the bigger, bolder whiskies hailing from Yoichi produces this intriguing, complex and more affordable interpretation. On the nose, fruit notes, like apple, banana and pear dominate, with hints of toffee, oak, and cedar. On the palate, it’s simultaneously bright and smoky with hints of citrus on the mid and side palate. This is an excellent entry into the world of Japanese whiskies (this 12-year and the Yoichi 15-year were the first two Nikka expressions widely available on the American market). 40% ABV, $70 4/5 stars
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17-Year: Designed to appeal to the seasoned whisky drinker and containing a higher percentage of malts aged in ex-sherry casks, the 17-year is a truly wonderful expression. On the nose it’s rife with hints of dried plum and cherry, moist tobacco, suede and oak. On the palate, the earthier, milder tobacco, caramel and baking spice notes dominate in a full-bodied, elegant sip that opens nicely with the addition of a few drops of water. 43%, $150 5/5 stars
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21-Year: A destination whisky to rival any found in Scotland, this is a truly excellent and sublime sipper. Balanced, mellow, and yet full-bodied, it has a clean, almost antiseptic nose (like the Islay whiskies), with complex aromatics of papaya, cocoa and hazelnut. On the mouth is bears a lovely weight, with candied nuts up front, hints of chocolate and rich tobacco following through to a long, mellow, earth-and-spice finish. Worth trying if a bar is pouring. 43% ABV, $180 4/5 stars
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
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FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author’s own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author received small samples of each of the Nikka whiskies mentioned, and has attended events promoting Nikka whisky. He has received no other compensation, but really likes Hayao Miyazaki films.