Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Exciting times for fans of Japanese whisky in Europe. In two weeks, at Whisky Live Paris, La Maison du Whisky will be unveiling a quartet of exclusive Nikka single cask releases. These four releases also offer a cross section of the different types of distillate made at Nikka’s distilleries: there’s a Yoichi malt whisky, a Miyagikyo malt whisky, a Coffey grain whisky and a Coffey malt whisky (the former distilled at Miyagikyo, the latter at the now defunct Nishinomiya distillery).
In 1963, Masataka Taketsuru imported a set of Coffey stills from Scotland. These were installed at Nikka’s Nishinomiya plant (in Kansai) and used to produce grain whisky until 1999 when they were moved to Miyagikyo (Sendai). For this bottling, the people at LMdW selected an ex-bourbon barrel filled the year the stills were transferred. On the nose, it’s quite light with vanilla (but not too much, which is nice), subtle grassy notes, custard, Jonagold apples and hints of pencil shavings, cinnamon muffins and tinned peaches. On the palate, totally out of the blue, this whisky pulls out all the stops. It’s really intense and full of character: baked spiced fruit, assorted pastries, mango chutney, tinned apricots, nuts, … You can tame it with a bit of water, but why would you want to see this beast in the zoo when you can experience it in the jungle?
Nikka also use their column stills to distill malted barley and, in theory, the resulting product would be something between malt and grain whisky. In reality, however, it’s closer to a grain than to a malt. This particular release was matured in a re-charred hogshead. On the nose, there’s more spice (compared with the above grain whisky), also apricot Danish, slightly burnt toast, toasted marshmallows, meringue and roasted chestnuts. Strangely enough, it reminds me of some bourbons with a high rye content (Four Roses Single Barrel, Bulleit). Water kind of kills the nose, but really helps on the palate. It’s very creamy in terms of mouthfeel and wonderfully lush: crème brûlée, apricot jam, assorted nuts, banana fritters drizzled with honey, toasted coconut, a touch of nutmeg and a hint of citrus. The finish is medium-long on toasted walnuts and macarons (lemon and raspberry).
On to the potstill malts: this lightly peated Miyagikyo was also matured in a re-charred hogshead. On the nose, the initial impressions are green orchard fruits (apple hi-chu, pear drops), eucalyptus and shaving cream (well, the kind that I use anyway). There are also hints of foie gras with apricot jam, lemon tart and – after a while – faint traces of smoke – very delicate, a bit like lightly smoked ham – as well as a very subtle earthy element in the background (something like spring potatoes with tarragon and chives). The nose reminds me quite a bit of a 2002 Miyagikyo single cask released in Japan at the end of last year except that this is a bit more complex. I’m becoming quite fond of these relatively young Miyagikyo single casks. On the palate, it traces a beautiful progression from sour (lemon tea, grapefruit sorbet) via bitter (apple kale juice, goya) to sweet flavours (mango pudding, caramel popcorn). Then, on the finish, you get a bit of soft smoke… what a lovely send-off. Water flattens the whole experience – it’s quite a delicate balance of flavours – so I wouldn't play with it.
This – brace yourself – is a heavily peated Yoichi that has spent a quarter of a century in virgin oak (a butt, to be precise). The thing is: this exercise in extremes produced a whisky that works and how! On the nose, you get pencil shavings, new plank, annin dofu and furniture polish – that’s the virgin oak speaking – as well as ‘farm smells’ (reminiscent of some Port Charlotte single casks), heavily smoked nuts (beech nuts, peanuts, almonds) and a bit of fruit (apple butter barbecue sauce). The combination of new oak, heavy peat and that typically ‘dirty’ (in a good sense of the word) Yoichi character works a treat. On the palate, you’ve got sour cherries, smoked duck, marzipan, rhubarb jam, milk chocolate, smoked nuts again and the last of a summer campfire. Time has integrated the peat beautifully – it’s not as frontal as you’d expect from a ‘heavily peated’ malt. The finish is long and lingering with the peat smoke more pronounced and a slight hint of orange peel. It works well with water, too – delivers a bit more fruit. What can I say? On paper, it sounds like a whisky on steroids; in reality, it’s a little miracle of nature – ‘extremes that were made to meet’, Aldous Huxley would say.
Read more about Miyagikyo Distillery here.
Read more about Yoichi Distillery here.