The tasting set at The Nikka Blender's Bar
Sir Walter Raleigh famously produced the mysterious "Great Cordial" while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. I am not sure how Serge Valentin's current residence compares to the cruel Tower but his tasting of Nikka's "Key Malts" (which are most commonly encountered as a tasting set at The Nikka Blender's Bar in Tokyo, 3000 yen) inspired him to create his own vatting. What a great idea! And what fun! I have taken it upon myself to name the concoction "Serge Valentin's Great Cordial".
Anyway, without further ado, Serge's own assessment of his "Great Cordial":
Review by Serge ValentinInfact, the Blender's Bar serves 12 different blends of its own using only the six ingredients that Serge used. The precise proportions of each of these blends are listed on the menu so it is a great way to learn about whisky blending if you can afford 1,200 yen a shot. Unfortunately, none of Nikka's blends exactly match the beautiful simplicity of Valentin's Great Cordial (2 parts grain and one part each of all of the "key malts" listed below), so you will have to just vat the tasting set if you want to follow in the great man's footsteps (3000 yen). [Update: This is the only point in this whole silly write up that Serge baulked at: "... 'great man' ? I'm not Gandhi or Michael Jackson!!!" ] Alternatively, Nikka are keen on Takeshi Taketsuru's Special Blend (recipe: 50 per cent grain, 8 per cent "Sherry and Sweet", 19 per cent "Fruity and Rich", 3 per cent "Peaty and Salty", 9 per cent "Soft and Dry", 11 per cent "Woody and Vanillic"; 1200 yen).
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Serge Valentin's "Great Cordial" (recipe: 2 parts grain and one part each of all of the "key malts", see below for details of the individual components) (Alcohol: 55% (or so Serge hopes))
Nose: Hey, cool! Something a little ‘modern’, in the sense that there’s obviously much oak, vanilla, lactones, coconut, ginger and so on, but also a rather wide range of ‘secondary’ notes. Leather, bananas, apple peeling, tea, a little peat smoke… As expected, the rather raw yeasty and malty/grainy notes that were in some components have been absorbed by the oakiness – or so it seems – or maybe just covered.
Mouth: Wow, the peat is much bigger on the palate, and dominates the woody vanilla this time. So much so that this is still a very peaty whisky (say, thrice as peaty as a current Highland Park). Other than that, we have quite some ginger, green tea, mocha, a little blackberry jam, fudge, hints of chilli… All that is very good, very good.
Finish: Certainly longer than any of the components. I didn’t know that blending could stretch a whisky’s finish.
Comments: I'm so proud of myself! Imagine, a whisky that I created myself!… I’m feeling a bit like God now… Ok, agreed, let’s cut the crap, this isn’t funny. SGP:455 – 87 points (Honest! With heartfelt thanks to Bert V.)" (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
Let's get back to Serge for some more impressions of the individual constituents of the blend (these are also sometimes sold in small 180ml bottles, as well as in the Blender's bar tasting set.)
Reviews by Serge Valentin:
"Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky 12 yo 'Woody & Mellow' (55% alcohol, Official Bottling)
Nose: Typical grain whisky from a rather active casks. Loads of vanilla and coconuts, the whole being still quite soft and very rounded. Distinct whiffs of plain oak (sawdust, roasted nuts) and hints of yellow flowers. Mouth: Rich, smooth, extremely coconutty and vanillic, developing on ripe bananas. It’s probably quite simple but I can really see how this will be a perfect ‘rounding base’ for any blend.
Finish: Not very long but in keeping with the palate, with soft, silky tannins.
Comments: I'm not into grain whisky but this is faultless. SGP:520 – 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.) (This one was distilled at the Nishinomiya distillery)
"Nikka Key Malt Miyagikyo 12 yo 'Soft & Dry' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Very expressive but very malty and grainy, with big notes of bakers’ yeast, bread, soaked grains, yoghurt and vanilla crème. Hints of chicken bouillon as well – and, believe it or not, warm sake (a very particular yeastiness.)
Mouth: Well, it’s not that dry I must say, rather fruity at first sip (apple juice), but it does get yeastier and more porridgy after a few seconds. Big maltiness as well, notes of lager beer this time, sake again (yeah, sure!)… Finish: Rather long, on a 50/50 mixture of beer and cider.
Comments: I don’t think this is very pleasant as such but it may bring a good structure and a certain ‘assertiveness’ to a blend. In other words, an ‘anti-grain’ component. SGP:261 – 75 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Woody & Vanilla' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Much more like Bourbon-y but not just Bourbon. A lot of vanilla as promised but also black tea, apple juice, stout (Guinness), cocoa powder (bitter) and not too ripe bananas. Goes beyond a simple Bourbon bomb. Mouth: Rich indeed, vanillic indeed, and woody too. Very woody in fact, the spirit having extracted loads of spicy components from the wood. Lactones, ginger, tannins (very tea-ish), white pepper, over-infused tea… Was that new oak?
Finish: Not long but pretty tannic.
Comments: Another one that really tastes like a ‘component’ and not like a ‘complete’ whisky. But it’s good! SGP:461 – 78 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
"Nikka Key Malt Miyagikyo 12 yo 'Fruity & Rich' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Nose: This one is much fruitier, starting on cider apples and gooseberries but developing more on melons (big aromas) and butter pears. Hints of rum in the background (molasses, candy sugar). We’re rather close to Speyside here.
Mouth: Very smooth, fruity and rich indeed. The melons are back – and big time. Actually, this tastes like new-wood-matured melon eau-de-vie. That is a guess because I am not sure anybody has ever tried to produce such an oddity (I may try one day, when melons are on sale).
Finish: Medium long and now really liqueur-like.
Comments: The epitome of fruity and rich whisky, but don’t expect anything else. SGP:740 – 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Sherry & Sweet' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Full amber.
Nose: Classic sherry, totally flawless. Chocolate, raisins, ham, toffee, coffee, prunes and strawberry jam. After a few minutes, the chocolatey notes start to dominate.
Mouth: Big and much to my liking, even if this isn’t a complex whisky. Same flavours as on the nose, minus the meaty notes (no ham and suchlike here). Very slight rubber.
Finish: Longer than its colleagues. Strawberry liqueur and Armagnac. Comments: Once again, one is acutely aware that this is going to make a perfect component for a blend. Nevertheless, it is a very good malt whisky as it stands. SGP:631 – 84 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Peaty & Salty' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Typical ‘Japanese’ peatiness, a combination of straight peat smoke, bitter oranges and polished leather. Very rich and very engaging. Develops more towards smoked fish and seashells, with a fair amount of spice (nutmeg and grated ginger). Gets pleasantly earthy at the end. Compact and flawless.
Mouth: Explosively ‘Islay’. Big peat (even if it is not a ‘peat monster’), salt, orange marmalade, orange drops (and even icing sugar), Virginia tobacco, candy sugar. Once again, this is balanced and flawless.
Finish: Medium-long and rather citrusy and salty. A little rooty/earthy. Comments: Another one that would certainly stand on its own feet. SGP:356 – 85 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
Photo of the bottled "Key Malts" courtesy of Bert Vuik