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Robb Report Vices

Grains of Discovery

Tony Sachs

When Nikka Whisky debuted in the United States in 2012, the brand was largely unknown outside of Japan, but it was hardly new. For eight decades, Nikka has crafted distinctive whiskeys that stand apart from most others in the world—it’s a story that continues to evolve, and it’s a spirit that continues to lure more and more whiskey aficionados away from their familiar Scottish tipples.

It could be said that Nikka began in 1894, when its founder, Masataka Taketsura, was born into a family with more than 160 years of sake-distilling heritage. Taketsura earned a degree in chemistry with the goal of joining the family business, but he was first hired by a company looking to develop a scotch-style whiskey in Japan. The company sent him to Glasgow University to learn blending and distilling. Once there, Taketsura quickly fell in love with whisky—and with a Scottish woman, who married him and returned with him to Japan.

Once he arrived back home, Taketsura helped to found what would later be known as Suntory—the very first Japanese whiskey—in 1924. But after 10 years with Suntory, Taketsura decided to strike out on his own and founded Nikka. His first bottles were offered for sale in 1940, and despite Japan’s being at war, the whiskey proved to be popular.

The first Nikka distillery was opened in 1934 in Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, because the climate and geography mirrored those of the Scottish Highlands where Taketsura first studied the craft. It remains Japan’s northernmost distillery and boasts an underground water source that is naturally filtered through peat. The pot stills there are heated by naked flame using fine powdered coal, an old-fashioned method that is almost extinct throughout Scotland. But it’s through that process that Taketsura distills Nikka’s rich, bold, and peaty 15 Year Old Yoichi Single Malt.

Nikka’s more modern distillery, built in Miyagikyo on the island of Honshu, uses both traditional pot stills for malt whiskey and Coffey (column) stills for grain whiskey. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and situated between two freshwater rivers, Miyagikyo produces softer, milder whiskeys— most notably the Miyagikyo Single Malt 12 Year Old, which delivers an abundance of fruit and floral notes.

In other parts of the world, grain whiskey—a high-alcohol distillation made from corn and wheat—is used only in blends and is what gives those spirits their characteristically smooth, light flavor. Very few grain whiskeys are ever bottled on their own. Nikka’s Coffey Grain Whisky, distilled at Miyagikyo and unveiled in 2013, is one of them. It’s defined by a surprisingly rich and complex flavor profile, one that offers notes of lemon, menthol, and spice.

So if you’re ready for a little variety, open a bottle of Nikka. You’ll find many of the familiar scotch features that you’ve come to love, but enough character to know that you’re drinking something new. And who knows, you may just uncork a new favorite single malt.

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