Sunday, January 6, 2013

Nikka Single Casks (1994 Yoichi & 2002 Miyagikyo)

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

A few days before Christmas, we spent a bit of quality time with Nikka master blender Hidetoshi Yamashita, learning about wood management at Nikka – we’ll share some of these insights in a forthcoming post – as well as finally getting round to tasting two single casks that we signaled the release of a few months ago: a 1994 Yoichi and a 2002 Miyagikyo.

Both were drawn from refill butts. Let’s pause here for a few seconds. To most people “butt” equals “ex-sherry”, but Nikka’s “refill butts” have nothing to do with sherry whatsoever. There’s been a great deal of confusion about this – most recently, when SMWS releases 124.3 and 116.18 were mislabeled as being drawn from “ex-sherry butts”. To be clear, a “refill butt” (and they’re used quite extensively at Nikka’s two distilleries) is a butt that has been filled for the 2nd time, i.e. a virgin oak butt that has been filled with whisky once, then emptied and subsequently refilled.

Moving on to the liquid at hand: the 1994 Yoichi (a lightly-peated one, bottled at 62% abv) packs a massive punch on the nose – mainly wood and milk chocolate notes buried underneath the alcohol – but meets the palate very tenderly (papayas, crème brûlée, …) without any alcohol burn whatsoever. It has an incredibly creamy mouthfeel. That being said, it really does benefit from a splash of water. On the nose, you get milky, Yakult-like notes, then a bit of furniture polish, cut flower stems, and after a while a soft vanilla note (as in good-quality vanilla ice cream) and an equally soft, fragrant smoky note (wood smoke, incense) that grows stronger with time in the glass. The palate now offers a mild citrus note - orange peel, bergamot and iced yuzu tea – accompanied by lush notes of rose water, Turkish delights, chai and liquorice allsorts. The finish is long and intense, on candied ginger and mild spices (cloves, nutmeg, …)
The 2002 Miyagikyo (non-peated, also bottled at 62% abv) is a completely different affair: a beautifully elegant nose with grassy notes (early-morning meadows in spring), white grapes, gooseberries and green apples. The palate elaborates on the “green” theme with orchard fruits (pears and apples), white grape skins and adds a subtle tannic tingle along the edges. Water really unleashes the esters on the nose and pushes the green apples to the fore. After a while, you get a maraschino cherry note, and if you really give it time to develop, it offers something akin to chicken-cucumber salad with sesame-soy dressing (popular in summer here in Japan). The palate is more candy-like now, with lime candy and apple Hi-Chew, on a bed of young woody notes. The finish is medium-short, very light and elegant.

I was asked which one I liked better. Well… when the whiskies are at this level, it’s a bit like being asked – and being asked mid-winter! – which is more to your liking: early-morning spring in an orchard, or late-night summer in a mountain forest (which, if one had to reduce the two whiskies discussed here (the Miyagikyo and Yoichi, resp.) to a single image – and I rarely go there –, wouldn’t betray their multiplicities too much). You get the point. Anyway, the good news is you don’t have to choose and they’re both still available but only in Japan, and only through Asahi’s online shop.

The selection of single casks by big distilleries is something that’s a bit shrouded in mystery and sometimes intentionally so by the distilleries themselves (gives the marketing department a good story to wrap around a new release). At Nikka, this is how they find these beauties: casks are organized into lots (i.e. casks of the same type with the same type of spirit filled at the same time and stored in the same place in the same warehouse) and during routine stock-taking one sample from each lot is sent to the blenders for evaluation. When a particular sample is found to be of high quality, samples of all casks in the lot are requested. These are then, again, evaluated by the blenders. When one of these samples is considered to be of exceptional quality and a bit off-the-shelf, so to speak, it is set aside and considered for bottling as a single cask. This meticulous process, in part, explains why, with Nikka single cask bottlings, you really get the crème-de-la-crème. I’ve never had one that was less than superb.


Niels Viveen said...

I have. Unfortunately.
A 2000 coffey grain (first miyagikyo batch) that tasted like an infirior Rye whisky :(

But that's my only one up to now.

Anonymous said...

Any easy way for non-Japanese speakers to order through the Asahi site?