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.
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
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.
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.
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.