Posts

Nikka Whisky and Gin Tasting and Cocktail Judging at Lab22 Cardiff

The Nikka brand and distillery is responsible for my recent obsession with Japanese spirits and alcohol. It was the first Japanese whisky I tried and subsequently the only whisky that isn’t Welsh in my home bar with the entry but delicious level Nikka from the Barrel.

I’m not sure whether it’s the resemblance of the brand name to my actual name or the story of the founder Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru, born in Hiroshima to a family of sake producers. He rebelled against already written future as a sake producer, upped sticks and traveled to Scotland, not knowing a word of English, to learn the art of distilling.

With his new found skill in distilling Scotland’s most famous export after deep fried Mars bars, he returned to Japan. With a Scottish wife in tow, he went to work for the Japanese distillery Suntory, which is still one of the most famous to this day.

After creative differences, he decided to go it alone and setup his own distillery Nikka. You probably wouldn’t have guessed, but certain areas of Japan closely resemble the climate, humidity and altitude famed by the Scottish distilleries. These sorts of variables can have a huge impact to the final product and it’s taste.

Nikka Distillery has now been producing highly awarded as sought after Japanese Whisky from their distilleries all around Japan, using a variety of different techniques from pot stills, multi column Coffey Stills and they even still use coal fired stills on some of the batches.

Not only whisky, but Nikka have also more recently added white spirits to their arsenal in the form of gin and vodka. Using the Coffey still (not coffee) to produce the neutral grain spirit of vodka. They then use this base spirit, which is distilled with Japanese botanicals to create a spicy, citrus forward gin with the help of yuzu, amanatsu, kabosu, shikuwasa and the sansho pepper, which is a member of the sizchuan pepper.

They call this Nikka Coffey Gin. I’ve got a bottle of this in the house too, and it’s bloody lush!

Nikka Whisky, Gin and Vodka Tasting at Lab22

Luckily for me, Lab 22, one of my favourite Cardiff bars and the one where i’ve tried most of the Japanese whiskys I’ve sampled in my time, were having an industry tasting day with Nikka brand ambassador one afternoon recently. That was more than enough reason to book the afternoon off work for in my eyes.

We got to learn about the history of Nikka, the story of Masataka Taketsuru and how he grew his company over 50 years ago to be one of the most recognised Japanese Whisky brands on the planet.

Nikka Japanese whisky tasting in Cardiff

Then onto the most important part, tasting our way around the collection of Nikka spirits from blended, single cask, aged whisky to the recent coffey additions such as Nikka Coffey grain whisky, Malt whisky, Gin and Vodka.

I’d sampled a few drinks form the Nikka range lately, but there’s bloody loads of them, so I was more than happy to work my way through more of the back catalogue.

My favourite from the 8 varities we tried was between the Nikka Single malt Miyagikyo and the Taketsuru pure malt.

There weren’t any of the aged expresions, but I’m not suprised as the Japanese whisky drought that’s going on has sent them skyrocketing in price. I did manage to try the Nikka Taketsuru 17 year old recently at Pennyroyal mind. This is probably the last time as that is currently at £200 a bottle, so god knows how much the 21 year old is, and that’s bottle price so for a shot you’re looking £20+ no doubt.

Judging the Nikka cocktail competition

Nikka whisky and gin cocktail judging

Lab knows my love for Japanese Whisky and Gin, so asked me to judge for the Nikka cocktail comp after the tasting event. How could i refuse?

There were two heats to the comp with Japanese bar tendering skills in the form of hand carved ice to a stopwatch where they had a minute to carve a block of ice into a sphere to fit into a whisky tumbler.

Second heat was all about the drinks. Each bartender had to create a cocktail with at least 50ml of any of the Nikka products we sampled during the day, whether that was Nikka Whisky, Gin or Vodka. Scoring was based on taste, appearance and story.

Nikka whisky cocktail entry at lab22 Cardiff

I’ll be honest, I wish this was my full time paid job as I was in my oils. Luckily there was no need for any bandages in the first heat from rogue stabs of the ice with the ice pick but we had a right good laugh at the effort the guys put in on the first round.

For the cocktails, nearly every entrant used Nikka Whisky from Nikka from the barrel to Yoichi and Taketsuru Pure Malt. With only Alex, mixologist and owner of Penny Royal opting for a mix of Nikka Whisky and Gin in his cocktail.

There were some mesmerising back stories and props thrown into the performances from some and some damn fine cocktails to match, but there could only be one winner. That happened to be Alex who went for a mix of the Nikka gin and whisky, with a short and punchy number with added Japanese ice ball to add a little bit more flair to the drink.

Nikka gin cocktail winner

Alex walked away with an enviable bottle of something a bit special from Nikka and sadly wasn’t open to requests to share it with me. Oh well.

A big thanks to Lab22 for letting me join in the tasting and cocktail judging and a big thanks to Nathan from Nikka for giving me the low down on the history of the distillery, which I always find fascinating.

The Mulberry Cocktail Bar review at The Celtic Manor, Newport

I’ve always been a fan of The Celtic Manor down in Newport and like the fact they are always evolving, changing and enhancing what they have to offer under the roof and in the mass of acres surrounding the Luxury Hotel Complex.

Not content with trying the afternoon tea once i’ve been back 3 times for the ever changing specials they run such as the Willy Wonka Chocolate and the Easter themed one i’ve taken my younger sister to. I love the afternoon tea that much I’ve booked in for a 4th time in March for their afternoon tea with a twist and exploration of world cuisine with the Ribs Slider Afternoon tea that is there for the month of March. I’m equally keen to try out the Asian themed afternoon tea there in June.

Then there’s the inaugural Polo at the Celtic where everyone gets glammed up I’d like to say to watch the Polo but it’s an excuse to put some smart summer wear on, shades high heels / loafers and quaff measurable amounts of Pimms and Champagne in sun kissed Newport Countryside. I attended the event last, 2 years ago but contemplating adding it to this summers list of events.

I was saddened to hear about the fine dinning restaurant closing at the Celtic Manor back last year but when an invite landed in my inbox to the vacant spaces latest incarnation the Mulberry Cocktail Bar I was more than happy to check out what they had mustered up in it’s place.

Mulberry Cocktail Bar Celtic Manor Resort

The Bar

I’ve stayed and ate plus attended a couple of years at the Digital Wales events at the Celtic Manor but I was unfortunate not to eat at the Epicure restaurant when it was open so can’t compare what the decor was like before the Mulberry opened but I thought it did make a lasting impression walking through the glass doors with the bar in front, swooping chandeliers, large high backed chairs, mood lighting and classy fittings.

Mulberry Bar cocktail lounge Celtic Manor

There were scutterings of tables in all shapes and sizes to fulfil groups of varying sizes from small tea seaters, large canvas backed lounge seating to hold small groups that was occupied by a friendly gaggle of locals and regulars at the restaurant who were enjoying their first round of Mulberry fizz’s. There were offshoots with rooms and couches curtailed by thin threads giving a sense of privacy that can be booked out for groups and parties I was informed and then weather permitting (which it wasn’t on Thursday sadly) outside parasol entombed tables centered around a modern fire pit, which i’m sure would be well exploited come early spring and into the late evenings in summer after feasting on one of the many current restaurants across the resort.

Not being one who prefers the element of surprise, I had – had a sneak peek of the menu before the evening to see how they compared to recent visits to some of London’s favourite cocktail haunts such as Duck and Waffle, The Shard and the legendary Savoy. Sticking to my mantra of doing a smaller menu very well rather than an excessive menu very badly there were 11 cocktails to choose from. If you would of asked me what the ingredients to most of them were 12 months ago I wouldn’t of had a clue but to anyone whose graced the pages of my Instagram recently they’d know I’m partial to a cocktail or two these days.

There were a few familiar faces in attendance and not just fellow foodies and bloggers but Welsh Rugby hero Gareth Edwards, who i’m guessing is a keen golfer down at the Celtic Manor and none other than TV favourite Bradley Walsh who was staying at the hotel during filming of an upcoming show.

The Drinks

Price wise the cocktails were around the £15 mark, which for a Cardiff City Centre before 10pm might sound excessive to some but most of the venues in town who offer two for one generally in my eyes based on taste just use the same amount of alcohol but spread over two glasses so you’re just getting more juice or ice for your money. Having visited one venue well known for their two for one pricing the night after my visit I was quite appalled to see they were charging £9.70 for an Aperol Spritz outside of the happy hour window.

Here though at The Mulberry Bar they aren’t just using your standard house spirits such as red labeled vodka or sub £20 London Dry Gin they are using some of the best spirits available to make up the cocktails, which I think does warrant the slightly higher prices one would be more accustomed to in nearing Welsh cities. I’ve never actually been to a hotel for their amazing cocktail deals anyway as you come to expect to pay a little bit extra as it’s not just about the drink it’s about the experience, the service and having everything under one roof.

mulberry Fizz cocktail and canapés Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor

First up we were served a Mulberry Spritz containing vodka infused mulberries, Blackberry Pimms and Ice Cuvee. This wasn’t just some berries thrown in some vodka and shaken to within an inch of it’s life with ice with a straw. some thought and preparation and been involved from the steeping of the mulberries, the ice shaped carriages to hold the berries and the overall presentation of the drink. The first sip was quite potent but a little stir and muddle of the ice and it was a lot smoother.

We were treated to a decadent selection of canapés to go with the drinks with fois gras and truffle, lobster with scallops and a mushroom with mozzarella. These were later joined with a panko crumbed raspberry with poppet of boozy liquer along with a rich chocolate and rose pot.

candyfloss cocktail at Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor

Next up was the Candy Floss Royal. Not a drink I would normally opt for myself as I don’t go for anything that sounds overly sweet but it was a lot better than i thought it would be and not too sweet at all. A chunk of candy floss drizzled with black muscat and finally drenched in Champagne. What’s not to like with anything topped with Champagne?

Negroni and Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor review

I got to choose my next drink so obviously went for a classic gin cocktail and what’s more classic than a Negroni, but not just any Negroni… a Posh Negroni with Martini Rosso, Roby Italian Roby Marton gin and bitter Campari. This was the biggest glass of Negroni I’ve ever set eyes on. They’re an acquired taste if you’ve not tried Campari before but i’ve had my fare share over the past 12 months and got a taste for it now. It was good as is but the bar manager offered a splash of Prosecco, which just lifted it perfectly.

Japanese Whisky Cabinet at Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor

The Whisky Cabinet didn’t escape my radar right by the entrance to The Mulberry Bar and on further inspection they’ve added a few Japanese Whisky’s that I’ve had a soft spot for since my visit and Whisky flight at A Bull in a China shop in Shoreditch, London just before Christmas. I’d also treated myself to a sexy bottle of Nikka From The Barrel for Christmas. I’d not seen the Nikka Coffey in a bar yet though and been dying to try it. It didn’t disappoint either so if you like your Whisky, next time you’re at a bar or take a trip to The Mulberry Bar at the Celtic Manor make sure you sample one or two in their ever growing list of Japanese Whisky’s.

Cheese trolley at Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor

Did we mention the cheese trolley they have too? Just our luck they plonked it next to us with it calling out “EAT ME!” for the duration of the visit. Sadly it was just to entice us back as it was just for show but we were informed it was around £14 for a choice of 4 cheeses. To make up for it though the friendly and attentive bartender rustled up a the showpiece of the cocktail menu the Cheese Delice featuring Monkey Shoulder Whisky blended with Kahulua and hazelnut liquer in the centre of a plate adorned with nuggets of cheese and drops of chocolate.

Cheese Delice cocktail at Mulberry Bar Celtic Manor

The idea is to dip the cheese in the chocolate, take a bite and then have a sip of the drink. This was definitely a dessert to share much like a cheeseboard. I loved the different flavour combos going on with the dish / drink but it would of been a struggle to finish on my own and was a great sharing drink after some food.

The Verdict

We both loved our first visit to The Mulberry Bar at The Celtic Manor and will no doubt be back to finish off where we left off. I loved the surroundings, the vibes and of course the cocktail and whisky list. We had a good chat to the bar manager who talked us through some of the drinks on the menu, techniques they’ve employed to deliver the epic cocktails and plans for the future with drink and menu development, which sounded more than promising.

The waiters and bar staff were very knowledgable and more than happy to explain some of the more unusual ingredients and offer recommendations based on our tastes.

If you are staying at the Celtic Manor and booked in for food at one of the restaurants then the Mulberry Bar is a must to end a perfect evening in Wales most prestigious Hotel. Even though it’s in the afternoon, we’re off for the afternoon tea in a few weeks and I’m definitely going to see if they can sneak us in if it’s close to opening time.

The Bar is open Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm but closed Monday and Tuesday and to find out more visit The Mulberry Bar website.