Review: Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Japanese whisky has not been spared from the trend among distilleries of coping with high demand by transitioning to No Age Statement (NAS) offerings. Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt now joins the likes of Miyagikyo, also in the Nikka portfolio, as well as Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu (from rival Suntory) to transition formerly 12-year-old offerings to NAS for those buying at the entry level.

Taketsuru Pure Malt is named in honor of Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky, and like the former age-stated version, it is made from a combination of whisky from both of Nikka’s distilleries: Yoichi and Miyagikyo. The whisky is matured in a combination of sherry butts, bourbon barrels, and new American oak. It is considered a blended malt, but unlike classic Scottish blends which mix different types of whisky, Taketsuru Pure Malt is technically a vatting of exclusively malted whisky. But enough about all of that.

The color on the Taketsuru Pure Malt is very light amber, bordering on gold. On the nose, initially bland cereal notes quickly give way to stronger aromas of green grape, freshly cut grass, and lemon peel. Although it’s not wholly apparent on the nose, the palate immediately shows evidence of the sherry cask maturation with a gentle spice and subtle, ripe plum, followed by layers of toffee and butterscotch imparted by the used bourbon and new American oak casks. Overall, the palate is light but the mouthfeel is surprisingly syrupy, with a medium-to-long finish that fades into notes of pear and orange blossom honey.

The NAS version of Taketsuru Pure Malt lacks some of the balance and complexity of the 12-year-old Pure Malt; particularly its subtle smokiness. Still, if this is the price the drinking public must pay to see more of this Japanese whisky on the shelves, we’re not giving up much.

86 proof.

B+ / $60 / nikka.com 

Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!

Review: Ohishi Brandy Cask and Sherry Single Cask Whisky

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The southern Japanese island of Kyushu is home to the Kuma River, and it’s here that the Ohishi distillery, founded in 1872, turns rice into whiskey. Much like Kikori, Ohishi eschews the traditional barley for something that Japan knows well: rice, which is partially malted before fermentation. This ain’t Uncle Ben’s, mind you: Says GRC Imports, which is now bringing Ohishi into the country, “In addition to mochi rice from Kumamoto, they also use gohyakumanishi which is grown with an organic farming method that involves koi carp to control weeds in paddy fields.”

Sounds fancy!

Today we look at two of the company’s newly imported expressions, both NAS offerings.

Ohishi Brandy Cask Regular Whisky – This is a vatting of a small number of casks that were formerly used for brandy (unknown which or from where) for an indeterminate amount of time — though based on the pale color, not for long at all. This is a light and fragrant spirit, with a nose reminscent of very dry sherry, filtered through a bit of sugar and anise. The palate features marzipan notes, the lightest touch of sweet caramel, and another wispy hint of licorice on the back end. This expression has a much lighter touch than Kikori, with a milder body, less sweetness, and less of a distinct fruit character. While some of the aromatics invite a comparison to sake, it isn’t nearly as direct a connection as it is with Kikori. 83.2 proof. B / $75

Ohishi Sherry Single Cask Whisky Cask #1257 (pictured) – This is a single cask release from a first-fill sherry butt, a brilliant copper in color and a dramatic departure from the light gold of the Brandy Cask release. Nutty and a bit chocolatey on the nose, it offers a big oloroso sherry aroma — lighter on the citrus and heavier on the baking spice. The body pushes forward with the motif, striking the palate immediately with notes of spiced and roasted nuts, coffee, and dates. After a time, it moves on as the finish develops, showing a somewhat more exotic, eastern characters of incense and spice bazaars. All told, it’s really engaging stuff that takes what we’ve come to expect from a heavily sherried profile and totally makes it its own. 86.6 proof. 506 bottles made. A- / $75

grcimports.com

Review: Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt and Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

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Japanese single malt whisky fans, the end is here. Age statements are vanishing faster than polar ice, and in their stead are arriving a series of NAS releases to replace them. Nikka is the latest distillery to do the deed, replacing a variety of the age-stated whiskies from its Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries, which are long since sold out, with these no-age versions, the new reality for Japanese whisky for the foreseeable future.

Both are 90 proof and aged in a variety of cask types, including bourbon and sherry barrels.

Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt – Miyagikyo is based in Sendai, fairly north on the main island of Japan. This lightly peated malt is simple but pleasant and easygoing. The nose offers some wispy smoke plus gentle grain, along with hints of fruity apricot (plus some more pungent dried apricot). The palate largely follows suit, adding on more citrus, torched banana, and nougat, all laced throughout with salty, smoky seaweed notes. There is a great balance here between sweet and savory, but the whisky lacks much in the way of depth to back that up, giving way to a relatively short, though perfectly pleasant, finish. B+ / $80

yoichi_750ml_exportNikka Yoichi Single Malt – From Hokkaido, a distillery on an island to the north of the Japanese mainland. This is a somewhat more heavily peated whisky, its smoky character rather more blatant and hamfisted from start to finish. Wood smoke dominates the nose, some black pepper character hidden in there somewhere. On the palate, again the muddy smoke notes tend to dominate, dominating some light bubblegum character, hints of citrus and green apple, plus less fleshed-out granary notes. A little Madeira on the finish. Overall, this is a straightforward, peated whisky that just doesn’t seem to have had enough time to develop, both to temper its more raw smoke elements and to build up the fruit to create a more nuanced core. Fair enough, but it’s just too immature to command this kind of price. B / $80

nikka.com

Review: Suntory Whisky Toki

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Japan’s Suntory is well known for its single malts, but it also blends whisky from time to time. With Toki (“time” in Japanese), it’s trying something a little different. Specifically, Toki is a blend of a number of Suntory’s other whiskies, including spirits from Hakushu Distillery, Yamazaki Distillery, and Chita Distillery.

Some addition information from the distillery:

While Suntory Whisky Toki respects tradition, it also challenges whisky convention by rethinking the hierarchy of its components. Suntory blends often use Yamazaki malts as their key component. Inspired by the spirits of innovation, the House of Suntory’s fourth Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo took a fresh approach with Suntory Whisky Toki, selecting the singular Hakushu American white oak cask malt whisky — with its unique freshness, mellowness and spectacular green apple notes — as one of the blend’s two pillars. To complement that selection, Fukuyo chose Chita heavy-type grain whisky as the blend’s second pillar, adding a clean taste with notes of sweetness and vanilla. By pairing these seemingly dissimilar but deeply accordant whiskies, Fukuyo’s insight overturned the old relationship between malt and grain and created a blend that is both groundbreaking and timeless.

Traditionally in Suntory blends, grain whiskies have played merely a supporting role, acting as a broth or dashi to accentuate key malts. But the unrivalled sophistication and wide range of grain whiskies produced at Suntory’s Chita distillery led Shinji Fukuyo to rethink that role. He saw these whiskies, with their exquisite balance of complexity, subtlety and refinement, not as a scaffold for the heroic malt to ascend but as true heroes in their own right.

This unique encounter between Hakushu malt and Chita grain whiskies gives Suntory Whisky Toki its silky taste and vivid character. To give the blend greater depth and complexity, Fukuyo carefully selected two Yamazaki malts. Yamazaki American white oak cask malt whisky harmonizes the Hakushu and Chita components, while bringing roundness and reinforcing the sweetness of Chita heavy-type grain whisky with peach and custard aromas. Finally, Yamazaki Spanish oak cask malt whisky adds woody and bittersweet notes to the blend.

Well, color me curious. Let’s give Toki a try. Here’s how it comes across.

Toki is surprisingly light in hue, reflecting what must be significant youth at its core. The nose is also quite light and spry, fragrant with mixed grains, a whiff of smoke, bouquets of fresh flowers, and notes of incense and jasmine. It’s all very clean, a gentle counterpoint to some of the world’s more intense single malts.

The palate is equally light and fresh, offering sweetened cereal notes, green apple, brown sugar, and a touch of spearmint. On the finish, it’s more of the same, though the sweeter notes tend to dominate along with touches of ginger and cinnamon.

There’s nothing fancy about Toki, but Suntory has put a lot of care into blending a very light and gentle spirit that surprises with its level of success. This lightness reminds me quite a bit of the recently-reviewed Kikori, again proving that intricate and complex flavors need not come from heavy-handed production methods.

86 proof.

A- / $40 / suntory.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Kikori Whiskey

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Everyone knows that Japan loves rice so much that they even make their booze out of it. Sake, shochu… and now, whiskey.

Rice whiskey? You read that right. Kikori is distilled from 100% rice grown in the Kumamoto region, which goes through a “two-mash fermentation process, before distilling the mash in a single batch and casking it in [lightly charred] American Oak, repurposed Limousin French Oak and sherry barrels from Spain. For 3 to 10 years, the subtle notes of the barrels are imparted into the whiskey,” per the producer.

Whether or not this is proper “whiskey” is an academic discussion; let’s see what it actually tastes like.

The nose at first comes across like a cross between very young scotch and an immature brandy. A distinct melon aroma, reminiscent of sake, emerges from the fog given some time, combining with a touch of vanilla that pops up to offer a somewhat appealing and very unique entry.

The body follows along these lines, starting off with a light vanilla and caramel character, then kicks out more of that fresh honeydew melon as the finish starts to build. There’s no sense of grain or earth here — making your whiskey from rice instead of barley sure does make a difference — just a very light base of floral notes that, when combined with melon and oak, evokes dry sherry at times. The finish is clean and fresh, but offers a stronger caramel character than the lead-up would telegraph.

If you’re a fan of sake, Kikori in many ways presents that classic beverage in a more refined and higher-proof form. (Just as you can think of whiskey as a distillate of beer, consider Kikori as a distillate of sake — in simplified terms, of course.)

I was skeptical that Kikori would be very good — I mean, whiskey made from rice? Come on… — but after spending many hours poring over several glasses of the stuff, I’m a convert. I can’t wait to see what Team Kikori does with this idea next.

82 proof.

A- / $47 / kikoriwhiskey.com

Review: Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky

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Nikka’s Coffey Grain Whisky — named because of the Coffey still (a column still, not a pot still) that is used to produce it — has gained almost cult status since its 2013 arrival in the U.S. Now its big brother — a single malt made using the same still — is arriving on our shores. Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky is 100% single malt; as with Coffey Grain, there is no age statement provided.

On the nose, sweetness pervades. Butterscotch and sugary Bit-O-Honey, chocolate and malted milk balls — all told it gives the aromatic impression of walking into a boozy sweet shop. The palate continues the theme. More butterscotch starts things off, infused with notes of coconut, candied flowers, and some orange marmalade. That may make Nikka Coffey Malt sound more complex than it really is. In truth, it’s a rather one-note experience, the overwhelming sweetness tending to dull these more exotic elements. A touch of petrol, perhaps indicative of youth, is the only real departure from a well-traveled course.

The finish is a touch more complex, layering in some chocolate raisin notes and a heavier coconut component. While it doesn’t break from the sweet stuff, it does take things out on a more interesting note than the relatively straightforward flavors of the palate.

90 proof.

B+ / $75 / nikka.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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