By Patricia Noonan
When most people think of whisky, they think perhaps of scotch, bourbon, Irish, or Canadian styles… or maybe, just maybe, Japanese?
I believe the very first one I ever tried was at Whisky Live many years ago… the Yoichi.
I had heard that the Japanese consumer obsession, particularly for scotch, was quite a thing, so it seemed logical that there would be production in Japan.
At the very centre of the Japanese whisky story is chemist and businessman Masataka Taketsuru.
Taketsuru travelled to Scotland to learn about whisky production in 1911, reading chemistry at the University of Glasgow, before apprenticing at three distilleries, learning firsthand about whisky production and, later, the art of blending.
The romance for all things Scottish included marriage, with Taketsuru marrying his Scottish wife, Rita, and returning to Japan in 1920. Due to a post WW1 recession, the Japanese company that had invested in Taketsuru’s education in whisky production had to abandon their plans, so the company that is now known as Suntory hired him to oversee their startup, including building a distillery and the initial spirit production. By 1934, Taketsuru relocated to Yoichi, Hokkaido in the north of Japan, in order to build his own distillery, due to the weather conditions being somewhat similar to those of Scotland.
As they say, the rest is history. A true legend in the industry, Masataka Taketsuru wrote two books containing his first-hand accounts of every detail he had learned from the craftsman he worked with. He was fortunate to have practical training in master blending, which his writing details, with these books later becoming Japan’s first guide to whisky production. (I would love to read these slim volumes in translation, by the way.)
The current demand for whisky has resulted in less product for age statement blends, but as with scotch, the minimum age before bottling is three years. The Nikka distillery uses a number of Coffey stills, originally created by Irishman Aeneus Coffey in the 1830’s; this type of still has certainly influenced Nikka’s products seeing as Taketsuru first learned to distill with them alongside traditional pot distillation for malt whisky production. This allows Nikka a great deal of flexibility within their portfolio, producing vodka and gin, as well as pure malts, blends, and grain whisky.
Nikka Whisky Tasting Notes
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt, LCBO $94.95 (750ml bottle)
Nose: Smokey peat, hints of apple, citrus peel.
Palate: Big spice, lots of ginger, smooth mouthfeel straight through.
Finish: Chocolate and spice in the finish with pleasing estery aromas after lingering in the glass.
Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt, LCBO $94.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Dark amber.
Nose: Delicate peat, honey, caramel notes.
Palate: Fruity, spicy, as in a fruitcake, full mouthfeel.
Finish: Long spicy finish with dried fruits/ cherries, peel, caramel.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt, LCBO $84.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Light amber.
Nose: Mild notes of honey and almond with orange peel.
Palate: Delicate maltiness, vanilla-almond and fruit- mouth filling smoothness from cask strength.
Finish: Aromas replay into the finish.
Nikka from the Barrel, LCBO $69.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Dark auburn.
Nose: Oxidative sherry aromas, including classic fruitcake aromas of dried fruit and baking spice.
Palate: Full flavoured and quite smooth on the palate, like a classic blended scotch whisky style.
Finish: Big finish due to the ABV of 51.4%.
Yoichi Non-Peated Single Malt Whisky, Limited Edition LCBO $279.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Intense gold.
Nose: Nice smoke notes and peat is not over the top with orange peel and dried fruits with spice.
Palate: Quite big in style, with lots of flavour replicating the nose.
Finish: Seaside replays in the finish mildly reminiscent of an Islay style. Mild chocolate carries through with the consistent balance of the brand.
Miyagikyo Single Malt Whisky, Limited Edition 2021, LCBO $279.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Burnished amber.
Nose: Iodine notes and that unmistakable aroma of Dubbin boot polish. Notes of caramel.
Palate: Big, bold, spice and velvety smooth mouthfeel.
Finish: Baking slices, especially ginger, carry into a lengthy finish.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, LCBO $89.95 (750ml bottle)
Appearance: Bright gold.
Nose: Distinct sweetness, vanilla, roast corn aromas, reminiscent of bourbon.
Palate: Full, smooth and balanced.
Finish: Again, really smooth finish, no heat.
(All of the above are rated out of a possible five apples)