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This week I’m taking a short break from Scotch in order to cover one of the most celebrated whisky categories on the market today. Japanese whisky is very much in vogue and justifiably so. Without a doubt, there is a degree of hype at play, but that is not to demean the quality of the spirit, which can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best any country can offer, Scotland included.
Any discussion about Japanese whisky will inevitably come round to the story of one man… Masataka Taketsuru was born in 1894 near Hiroshima in Japan. His family were well-established producers of Sake and while Masataka intended to go into the family business at first, he soon found himself drawn to the bolder flavour profile of Scotch whisky.
In 1918, Masataka travelled to Scotland and enrolled at Glasgow University, majoring in Chemistry. He backed up his studies with apprenticeships at Longmorn and Hazelburn where he learnt all he could about whisky production, all the while planning to take this knowledge back to Japan. This he did, but not before he met and married Kirkintilloch woman Jessie Roberta (Rita) Cowan who would remain by his side until her death in 1961.
The happy couple returned to Japan in 1920 where Masataka found work with Kotobukiya Limited (now Suntory). There he was charged with creating Japan’s first whisky distillery. Yamasaki was completed in 1923 and Japan’s first homemade whisky brand was born.
Despite his success, it seems that Taketsuru found it restricting to work under another company’s vision and in 1934 he departed to create his own firm, Nikka. He set about designing a distillery that would utilise all that he had learned in Scotland. Masataka had long noted the Yoichi region on the northern island of Hokkaido as geographically similar to Scotland and therefore ideal for his purpose.
Over the years, Nikka has added to the Yoichi distillery with a second at Miyagikyo and the acquisition in 1989 of Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland. Masataka Taketsuru passed away in 1979 but continues to be held in high regard. Even today, everything at Nikka must be true to the vision of its creator.
Nikka’s entry-level blend is very much about keeping it simple. Its petite design, unfussy labelling and complete lack of marketing allow the contents of the bottle to do all the talking.
Smell: The nose is Fruity with strong Orange, also Apple, Lemon and even Cherry. It’s also lightly Floral and has notes of Golden Syrup, Honey and Caramel. Very well balanced.
Taste: Subtle and classy on the palate with notes of rich Caramel, Chocolate, Vanilla, Cream and Honeycomb with more Orange and a touch of Almond.
Thoughts: I picked this bottle up whilst I was on holiday in Malta. It cost the equivalent of around £30, so pretty standard supermarket pricing. I don’t recall ever encountering it in the UK, however. It’s a little lightweight and delicate for my personal tastes but there’s a precision to the way it delivers flavour that’s rather typical of Japanese whisky. It’s well put together and well balanced but don’t expect a mind-blowing experience. As an introduction to Japanese whisky, however, it’s a decent place to start.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.