As I was venturing into the world of Japanese whisky, I purposefully avoided two bottles produced by Nikka, despite the fact that I very much liked some of their other offerings. I decided that I would not like their “Coffey” whiskies because, with little-to-no exceptions to this rule, I’m not a fan of flavored whiskies. I figured that since they misspelled “whisky” (I prefer the American/Irish “whiskey”), that they must have misspelled “coffee” as well. I assumed that coffee-flavored whiskey must have its fans, but that I would not be one of them.
It was in explaining this flavor preference to a friend of mine that I was educated in a much more polite way than I might have expected that I was, indeed, mistaken. Coffey was spelled correctly and it was the name of the still used to make the whiskey. In the early 19th century, Aeneas Coffey improved the already existing ‘column’ still that was being used at the time and the new, improved apparatus still bears his name.
A Coffey still is essentially a series of pot stills connected together in two columns. The fact that the liquid cycles through the columns until the spirit is strong enough to be distilled out of the still means that new spirit can continuously be added to the system (hence the other name that is sometimes given to this system of distilling: a “continuous still”). Combining the ability to continuously produce alcohol with the fact that the distillate produced was much stronger than the pot still, made the Coffey still quickly become the method of choice for distillers of whiskey (including bourbon and scotch), rum, vodka, and gin the world over. The notable exception to this trend is Ireland. Irish whiskey producers - through a combination of tradition and legislation - maintain the use of the pot still, which can only produce whiskey in batches.
The Nikka distillery out of Japan currently makes use of the Coffey still distillation process in four of their products. In addition to a gin and a vodka, they produce one whisky that uses a malted barley mash bill and another that uses a mash bill comprised mainly of corn. I was recently able to purchase a bottle of each and was surprised with just how smooth both were. If you are a fan of Irish whiskey, the mouthfeel will seem familiar to you and the analogy of a Coffey still being a series of pot stills will make sense. They were certainly not without their differences, though, as you can see in my notes on each. If you have your own thoughts on either of these two whiskies, I’d love to hear them. Enjoy and remember to always #drinkcurious!
Nikka Coffey Malt
NOSE: Complex. Butterscotch – LOTS of butterscotch, grapefruit, pecans, oak, honey. This nose, both at a distance and up close, makes you want to keep coming back for more. If possible, I would buy this as an incense and have it permanently burning in my house.
TASTE: Molasses, fig newtons, bittersweet chocolate, malt, mild spice. Mouth-coating and very smooth.
FINISH: Anise, spices, a bit of iodine that lingers longer than I’d like – given the rest of the flavor profile.
SHARE WITH: Japanese whisky and/or Irish whiskey fans. The malted expression from Nikka shares several features with a traditional Irish whiskey and several with a classically Japanese whisky without being a textbook example of either. This combination makes it interesting to explore at a tasting.
WORTH THE PRICE: I got mine a few cents below $70 which is right in the middle of the range at which I’ve seen this sold. At this price I think you could do a lot worse, but I also think there are enough stronger options for me to suggest you trying this one out first.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: I feel confident calling this one a “Bar” all day. It has a lot of interesting qualities and I know there is a segment of whiskey-drinkers out there that will try this once and be hooked for life. For me, though, it’s too inconsistent from beginning to end to justify the price tag.
OVERALL: From nose to finish, each element writes a check that the next one just can’t quite cash. The palate doesn’t quite live up to the nose and the finish loses most of the best parts of the initial taste. A little water makes the finish almost catch up to the palate but thins out the nose, which is a trade-off I’m not willing to make so I mostly drink it neat. As a malt distilled through a continuous, Coffey still traditionally used for grain whiskies, Nikka has produced a unique dram that has a lot going for it. However, at its price point, I think you could do better in the malted whiskey world.
Nikka Coffey Grain
NOSE: Grass, spearmint, honey, clove
TASTE: Skor bar, caramel and the corn certainly comes through. This doesn’t taste young, though. Instead it’s mild, sweet, and smooth.
FINISH: Good chocolate pudding, oak. Mellow and short.
SHARE WITH: Bourbon fans looking to branch out and try something new. The fact that the mash bill is mostly corn makes this a foray into Japanese whisky that is new and interesting without being a shock to the system of a bourbon-lover. This light, smooth sipper would also be at home when shared with seafood.
WORTH THE PRICE: This is a solid Japanese whisky, but I’m not willing to say that it’s worth a price tag in the mid-60 range.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: Try this one at a sushi bar prior to buying a bottle for your own shelves.
OVERALL: There is nothing wrong with this whisky. The problem with it is that there aren’t enough high-points in it for me to get really excited about it. For an especially smooth, mostly corn whisky, I think you could get something better at the price point, or at least get something equally good for a smaller investment.