Japan's Nikka Whisky distillery goes back to its Scottish roots

The story of Japanese whisky begins 100 years ago, in the most obvious of places, Scotland. But to tell the story of Japanese whisky is also to tell the story of one of the country's oldest distillers, Nikka Whisky.

You've likely heard the name before. Only last year Nikka scored the award for Best Japanese Blended Malt for its Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old whisky at the World Whiskies Awards.

In the same year, Chief Blender, Tadashi Sakuma, earned Nikka a trophy for the company's Coffey Malt Whisky, at the International Spirits Challenge, in London.

For Nikka, the Australian release of a new Coffey still range of spirits is a look back to the future.

Distilling a dream

In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru – the 22-year-old son of a sake-brewing father and future founder of Nikka Whisky – travelled from Japan to Scotland to study organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow. Shortly after arriving, Taketsuru-san learned the art of Scotch whisky through apprenticeships in the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, meeting his future wife, Rita, along the way.

Although it would take some years to realise his dream, Taketsuru-san knew then that Scottish-style whisky production was the future of Japanese whisky.

Creating the Nikka Whisky company in 1934, in Hokkaido, Taketsuru-san began making whisky at a time when spirit consumption in Japan was dominated by sake and shōchū: the former made from fermenting and brewing rice; the latter made from distilling rice and other grains.

Now, almost 85 years after the company was born, Nikka has turned to a unique method of distillation to produce its newest and most highly-regarded whiskies; the Coffey still.

It's Coffey, not coffee

Designed by Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, in 1830, the Coffey still is different to the common copper pot stills found in many distilleries around the world; the key variation being the still operates with greater efficiency and produces a lighter spirit that is still high in alcohol by volume.


The Coffey still also offers a number of other advantages. "The reason why we're using a Coffey still is to create different flavours that eventually we will be blending with – you want good ingredients to start with," said Naoki Tomoyoshi, Nikka international sales chief.

"When most brands in the market were going from age-statement single malts to non-age-statement single malts, we've carved out a position in the market by saying, 'OK, we're very focussed on creating new flavours, but these are not random ideas – it comes from our tradition.' Coffey Grain Whisky is one of the first grain whiskies to be bottled on its own."

The new hero

Distilled from a mash composed mostly of corn, Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky quickly earned itself hero status. The spirit has been available in other parts of the world since 2012, but has only come to Australia shores today.

Aged in remade and re-charred American oak casks, drinkers can expect a slightly floral nose with hints of vanilla, followed by sweet, syrupy flavours of melon and grapefruit on the palate. It's delightfully light and bright. The sweet corn finish of this whisky is also likely to satisfy bourbon lovers.

You can enjoy this whisky straight, or on ice, although Tomoyoshi-san has more avant-garde ways of enjoying it. "I put a shot of Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky in the freezer, then pour it over vanilla ice cream to enjoy after dinner."

Show your flair

The unique character of Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky has also been popular with cocktail bartenders.

"The cocktail world today has meant there are new ways for whisky to be consumed," said Tomoyoshi-san. "This means you take the same spirit that you would normally drink and highlight different aspects and uniqueness of that in the cocktail process. When we see Nikka whisky used in a very creative way, we're very happy."

If you're new to the world of whisky and not brave enough to dive straight into a glass of straight spirit, try starting with a whisky cocktail.

An ideal start is to make a 'Sonic': fill a highball glass with ice, add 45 millilitres of Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky and top with equal parts soda and tonic waters.

From there, you can try experimenting with a Japanese-style Old Fashioned – use honey syrup, not sugar – and then become as adventurous as you like. Just remember to follow Tomoyoshi-san's simple advice: "Explore, and keep exploring."