Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Out of this world: “The Nikka 40”

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few months ago, we reviewed the new “Nikka 12”, their premium blended whisky. Today, we’re looking at a release that is part of the same family, but is so special it really is in a league of its own: “The Nikka 40”. It’s 100 times more expensive than the 12yo – 500,000 yen as opposed to 5,000 yen – and it’s also much more limited (700 bottles only, and most of these seem to be spoken for, seeing as many specialist whisky shops here in Japan couldn’t even get their hands on a single bottle!).
“The Nikka 40” is a blended whisky containing some of the oldest stock available at Nikka’s distilleries – including Yoichi malt distilled in 1945 (!) and Miyagikyo malt laid down in 1969 – and it is very malt-heavy (containing only about a third grain whisky). It really is liquid Nikka history – but it’s more than that: it’s a blending tour-de-force that very few whisky companies in the world would be able to pull off this beautifully…

The nose is out of this world. I sat down with it on two consecutive days and in both cases, it took me hours to get to the first sip – that’s how enthralling it is. There are so many aromatic elements in play, but everything is so elegantly harmonized in a sublimely serene way, it’s like “that standstill and then that faint settling which occurs when planes all at once assume order and crystal forms” (to quote Musil). It’s a hermetic mystery – if I had to name some elements, I would say: an antique shop (with wood polish, and old leather – just a bit, not much); an autumn forest after rain; Turkish delights and marzipankartoffeln; mint-and-balsamic-marinated strawberries; caramelized apples and hints of very old calvados; pine nut cookies with rosemary; chinsuko cookies, too; pot pourri (featuring lavender – but very subtly); rum-infused grilled figs; apricot-thyme jam; cinnamon French toast; kurogoma spread… Then, after a while, crema catalana; dried apple-mango; a subtle floral dimension (sorry, flowers are not my forte … as my wife often tells me); Yubari melon hi-chew and faint whiffs of tea (Darjeeling, rooibos). And that’s just scratching the surface – but it’s a bit like hearing people talk about their travels: there comes a point – very early on, usually – where one has heard more than enough.

The first thing one notices when taking a sip is the mouthfeel. Silky unlike anything we’ve experienced before (in whisky, that is), this is a dram that redefines ‘smooth’, that most worn-out of words in the whisky drinker’s dictionary. On the palate, as on the nose, there’s a plethora of references: bergamot tea; candied yuzu peel; kabosu crème brûlée; blood orange jam; lovely woody notes, again; communion wafers; chocolate truffles… After a while, you may detect tiny hints of maraschino cherries, roasted almonds, kinako-dusted tofu, pink pepper and lots more.

The finish develops a lovely bitterness – with grapefruit albedo and apple-kale juice – like a ‘green ray’. White chocolate rusk and menthol segue into an afterglow too beautiful for words.

It’s easy to be biased when tasting these sort of high-end releases and to expect them to be stellar – given the hype and the numbers (old vintages and high price-tags). I was secretly hoping the whisky wouldn't be all that great and that it would just be a trophy whisky for well-heeled collectors. Sadly enough (for my bank account), it isn’t. It’s one of those whiskies you’ll never forget – an undisputed masterpiece of blending (and of Mother Nature!). I can only think of three other Japanese whiskies that deserve a place up on the same shelf as this one…


Sven Hardenack said...

Very nice review! You have my envy. Unfortunately I won't ever be able to taste such an expensive whisky...

What other Japanese whiskies are at your personal top?

Stefan Van Eycken said...

Somebody on whiskybase is organizing a bottle share of this Nikka 40yo, so it is possible to get a taste of it!

As to the other three whiskies in my top 3 (in random order): Karuizawa 1964 for Poland, Karuizawa 1980 Noh for Taiwan, Yamazaki 1986/2007 Mizunara single cask 6B0018.

What are your top Japanese drams?