Nikka Coffey Grain

Nikka’s Coffey range comes to Australia

In years gone by, Australian shelves were graced with aged-stated whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. Those days disappeared a few years back and for a while the only expression you could get your hands on was the incredibly tasty Nikka From The Barrel. That is until now. Asahi Premium Beverages are gradually launching the full Nikka Coffey series into Australia, starting with the Nikka Coffey Grain.

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Thanks to that good news, I recently found myself sitting down with Naoki Tomoyoshi and Emiko Kaji from Nikka Distilleries to learn all about the Coffey series, and how they do things at Nikka.

The Coffey Series and grain whisky

Not trying to re-write whisky literature here, but it probably helps to know two quick things, to help put this new release into perspective:

  • Where the Coffey term comes from, and
  • What grain whisky is.

No, the ‘Coffey’ reference has absolutely nothing to do with the delicious brown caffeinated beverage! It comes from Mr Coffey (known to his mates as Aeneas), who is credited with inventing and patenting a continuous column-still design in 1830. That design would go on to become the most sought-after piece of equipment for grain whisky producers around the world. As for grain whisky itself? Whereas single malt whisky is made solely from malted barley, generally in a pot still, grain whisky can theoretically be made from any grain, and it’s distilled in a column still (sometimes also referred to as a continuous, or Coffey still).

Emiko tells me that Nikka’s first Coffey Still (they now have two) was imported from Scotland in 1963 and was installed in their Nishinomiya facility. That facility was later closed and in 1999 both stills were re-located to their Miyagikyo Distillery, where they now produce the grain distillate for their entire Coffey series (Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Gin and Vodka). In the case of their Nikka Coffey Grain expression, it’s distilled from American corn (with a small component – less than 5% – of malted barley), before being filled into casks at 63% ABV.

Tasting notes

On the nose it’s immediately sweet, creamy and buttery. I get notes of cinnamon finger buns with runny icing, a touch of orange peel, toffee, coconut and sweet tropical fruit.

The first thing that strikes me about the palate is the texture. It’s milky (or creamy), with a fantastic oily texture. That texture brings with it an immense depth of flavour. Creamy tropical fruit, whipped vanilla cake icing, candied popcorn and biscuity notes. The finish stays sweet, with a touch of oak.

This is so well-constructed, refined and classy – completely moreish and delicious.

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So what makes Nikka Coffey Grain so different?

In my personal experience, I’ve found that grain whisky tends to be very one dimensional and often needs to have been quite well-aged to even begin exhibiting any kind of depth. Nikka Coffey Grain is completely different though. I mention my experiences to Naoki and Emiko, and ask why they think Nikka has been able to create such a tasty grain whisky, compared to their Scottish counterparts?

Naoki offers up an interesting perspective when reminding me that traditionally, Scottish grain whisky was produced for one reason: blending. When it comes to blended whisky (a blend of single malt and grain whisky), the grain whisky component generally serves as a filler. The traditional school of thought is that the complexity in blended whisky comes from the malt whisky, therefore the grain component is literally used to bulk-up the blend. And to make enough grain whisky, distilleries have generally focused on volume – pumping out as much volume as they could, to fill as many casks as they could (often very tired casks, filled one-too-many times, in my opinion).

Naoki goes on to explain that Nikka once treated their grain distillate as a filler as well. But they quickly learned that they could bring added complexity to their blended whiskies (such as Nikka From The Barrel) by paying close attention to the spirit quality and style coming off their Coffey still. They also fill into a variety of casks (ex-bourbon barrels, a range of refill casks and re-charred casks) to give them a broader flavour range of matured whisky down the track. It’s that ethos that has allowed them to produce such an incredibly tasty whisky.

There’s so much more to the Nikka story

This post is all about the Nikka Coffey Grain, but spending some time with Naoki and Emiko reinforces just how much more there is to the Nikka story. Between their two distilleries they have 14 stills (six at Yoichi and eight at Miyagikyo). A combination of steam heated and direct coal-fired stills, they’re all different shapes and sizes, and all have been designed and forged in Japan. Over the years, they’ve also cultivated their own yeast library, boasting in-excess of 700 different strains, six of which are currently in use across their distilleries at the moment. They don’t stick to one style of malt either, distilling a number of different barley varietals, along with malt that has been peated and/ or roasted to different specifications. Add to that all of the different casks they’re filling into, and you literally have thousands of different possibilities.

And the most amazing part in my mind? These random statistics aren’t just marketing fluff. Nikka use all of these aspects, every single day, when creating their whiskies. They actively seek to create a vast range of different spirit types so that once matured, they can create complex, delicious whisky.

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Naoki tells me that’s another reason why it’s so hard for them to increase production. Whenever someone asks ‘why don’t you just make more whisky?’ – aside from the fact whisky needs time to mature – for Nikka it’s not just a case of making more of one whisky. Rather, it means increasing the volume of each and every one of these whisky styles, so they have the right components for whisky creation and blending in future.

Nikka Coffey Grain – Available now

Even just this week I saw a post on Facebook from a whisky-fan who had just tasted the Coffey Grain for the first time, while skiing in Japan. A photo of three newly-purchased bottles was attached, along with a caption about how he was blown away by the flavour, and that it’s now his new favourite.

It’s winning fans the world over, and when it tastes this good, it’s really not hard to see why. The new (to Australia) Nikka Coffey Grain will be hitting select retailers shortly, with an RRP of $129.99. The rest of the range should be making its way to our shores throughout 2018 and into early next year.

 

Gordon & MacPhail Dream Drams

In the whisky world we have original bottlers (the distilleries, or brands themselves – bottling their own whisky as official product lines) and independent bottlers (often bottling single casks or small batches, and sometimes, not even being able to name where the whisky is from). And then there’s Gordon & MacPhail (G&M).

I’m not just saying that as some tongue in cheek comment, but if you really break it down, you could argue that they’re almost in a category of their own. The reason I say that is because throughout their 120-year history, they’ve certainly fulfilled the independent bottler role, but they’ve also been an official bottler (of sorts) as well.

In the first half of the 20th century, very few distilleries bottled their own whisky as a single malt, with the vast majority being used for blending. Instead, independent bottlers (like Gordon & MacPhail) released it for them and were very much pioneers of the single malt category we take for granted today. G&M’s relationship with various distilleries was valued so much that distilleries would effectively use G&M as their ‘official bottler’. They allowed G&M to create ‘distillery labels’ for their malts, a number of which are still around today (including the likes of Glenlivet and Mortlach). Fast forward to now and G&M’s relationship is still so strong that they’re able to continuing not only sourcing stock, but releasing whisky under these vintage distillery labels. So when I say that they’re in a category of their own, in some ways they really are.

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Given the historic relationship they have with many distilleries, when you see some of these incredibly rare releases from G&M, you can be assured that this is not some new kid on the block trying to flog you a third-rate cask that no-one else wanted. Rather, it’s highly likely that it’s been a cask that has been nurtured by G&M themselves from day one, either in one of their many warehouses, or at the distillery itself.

So with that in mind, get read for a long post, for I have in front of me five whiskies that I’m fairly confident I’ll never try again. They’re not just some new flashy, artificially limited, single cask things either. What we have here are three whiskies from closed distilleries, plus two that have each clocked up more than 50 years in a cask. It’s only early in the year, but it’s going to be very hard to top this tasting in 2018.

Glenury Royal 1984 – Rare Old Collection

Founded in 1825, Glenury Royal was one of only three distilleries King William IV granted permission to use the ‘Royal’ prefix (the others being Royal Brackla and Royal Lochnagar). For much of its life it had its own floor maltings, but these were canned in the late 1960s in favour of more storage space. A few years after, a second pair of stills were added, but this optimistic increase in production would be relatively short-lived with the distillery falling victim to the slump of the 1980s, closing its doors for good on 31 May 1985. This 1984 28-year-old expression is a distillery first for me.

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Nose – Quite closed at first, but once it opens up it’s quit tart with fresh cut pineapple, pine needles, oily citrus pith, cloves and old dusty polishing cloths. There’s some beeswax and a floral hint in there, in an earthy sweetness kind of wax.

Palate – Citrus rind, earthy coal dust (imagine sticking your head out the window of a moving steam train). Some pancake batter, waxy fruit skins, citrus, polished furniture and a hint of a floral lavender note (along the lines of an 80s Bowmore, but far more subtle). It’s a very savoury and dry palate, especially on the finish.

The cask hasn’t been overly active with this one and it definitely tastes like an old world distillate, the kind you don’t really come across in new expressions these days.

Glenesk 1980 – Rare Old Collection

This next one comes from a distillery with a rather interesting history. Highland Esk was born in 1897 when an old flax mill was converted into a distillery during the whisky boom at the turn of the 20th century. After closing during WWI, it was re-opened in the late 1930s, but this time as a grain distillery, operating under the name of ‘Montrose’ distillery. Grain distillation was relatively short-lived though, with the site switching back to malt distillation in 1964, under the name ‘Hillside’ distillery. For some unknown reason it was renamed to Glenesk in 1980, where it enjoyed five final years of production before it was eventually closed for good in 1985.

As a component of the VAT 69 blend, single malts from Glenesk – especially in the five years it was known as Glenesk – are seldom seen, so I’m rather excited to be trying this ~34-year-old example from 1980.

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Nose – Granny Smith apples, custard cream, home-made spiced apple loaf and a hint of furniture polish. After some time in the glass it turns quite grassy and herbal in a way, almost like dried bush leaves.

Palate – Firm stone fruit, tart apples and waxy green apple skins hit me first. There’s some citrus pith in there too and it finishes with an interesting menthol-ish note; a cross between fisherman’s friend mints, liquorice and Mukhwas (those colourful Indian mouth freshener seeds). A rather austere whisky that’s not overly giving; one to take your time with.

Convalmore 1975 – Rare Old Collection

Convalmore, the Speyside neighbour of Glenfiddich and Craigellachie, was founded around 1894, but terrible luck struck just 15 years into production when it was pretty much destroyed by fire. Re-opening in 1916, the owners decided to trial continuous malt distillation (ie using a column still) along side their pair of traditional pot stills. This quirky (innovative?) idea only lasted for six years though before the column still was eventually scrapped. Convalmore enjoyed success as a blenders malt for decades, with production capacity doubling in the 1960s when an additional pair of stills were added. As with the two malts tasted before this, the optimism of the 60s was short-lived, as Convalmore found itself on the 1980s chopping block, closing in 1985 (it’s a bit of a recurring theme, isn’t it?)

The buildings still exist today (and are used by William Grant & Sons for warehousing), but none of the equipment remains. Intended purely as a blenders malt, no official bottles from Convalmore were ever released whilst the distillery was in operation and even independent bottles were seldom seen, making examples of this spirit – like this ~ 40-year-old 1975 vintage – increasingly rare.

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Nose – Right off the bat this is juicy, with an amalgam of integrated tropical fruit notes. Tinned pineapple, lychees and orange flesh. There’s some coconut husk in there too, alongside beeswax sweetness and something green, like fresh palm fronds.

Palate – A nice medium weight to the palate on this, loaded with tropical notes. It tastes older than the nose suggests with papaya, pawpaw and some fuzzy kiwi fruit and pineapple chunks. There’s something slightly sherbety or fizzy going on and it finishes with a bitter orange pith and hop note (like a citrus IPA).

Really engaging, fresh and active on the nose, with more of that old-world tropical funk happening on the palate. There’s a lot to like about this one.

Strathisla 1960 – Rare Vintage Collection

We now move on to what I firmly believe is the most beautiful distillery in Scotland. Don’t believe me? Here’s a photo I personally took of Strathisla on a completely gloomy day in June last year.

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Established more than 100 years earlier than the three distilleries coved thus far, the picturesque Strathisla has been creating whisky since 1786. In more recent times, 1965 saw the installation of two additional steam-heated stills, to work alongside the direct coal fire units they were using at the time. If we pause there for a moment, that in itself makes this 1960 vintage Strathisla quite interesting as it would have been produced at a time when all of their spirit came from direct coal-fired stills.

These days Strathisla is the backbone of the various Chivas blends, with only a handful of ‘official bottlings’ from Strathisla ever released on the market. I’m led to believe that Gordon & MacPhail are the main source of single malt releases from Strathisla and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some incredible casks from their warehouses including a 1953 and 1954 vintage, as well as a couple from the 1970s.

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Nose – Dark, dark and dark. Cherry compote, cherry liqueur chocolates, black forest cake and a hint of orange. It’s so rich and the depth of the nose is immense. A touch of lacquer, juicy raisins, quince paste, raspberry jam and leather. Utterly enjoyable.

Palate – Thinner than I was expecting, but the depth of flavour is incredible. Sweet yet sour (think sour cherries), a hint of tobacco, leather, juicy prunes, orange marmalade, black currants and those red candy liquorice straps. More dense black forest cake, raspberry jam, sour plums and drying oak on the finish.

I’m a sucker for sherried whisky and this was a delight, especially the nose. So characterful and multi-dimensional, with so much fruit and a dialed-down sweetness.

Glen Grant 1957 – Rare Vintage Collection

Glen Grant was founded in 1840 and just like Strathisla they also used to direct coal fire their stills. Interestingly, at this time this whisky was made they were also using ‘water-wheel driven rummagers’ in their coal-fired stills. If you’re scratching your head, a rummager is basically a slow moving device (sometimes a bunch of chains) that sit in the bottom of the still, moving around in a circular motion to prevent solids sticking during distillation. They’re still used today in some distilleries, but they’re not driven by a water-wheel. That quirky fact won’t make a scrap of difference to the way this tastes, but it’s cool to think that was part of the production process back in 1957.

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Nose – Beeswax, honeyed oil and the remnants of a burnt-out fireplace in an old dusty heritage house. It’s sooty, mellow and has undertones of tropical fruit like papaya, overripe mango and pears. Turns savoury with notes of sir-dried meat, earthy soy and black tea and super-ripe plums. I guess ‘rancio’ is a good descriptor here.

Palate – Just as engaging as the nose, if not more. It’s oily, fat , slightly effervescent and deep, with lots of tinned fruits (peach segments, pear and nectarine), soot, honey and a floral, vegetal sweetness. There’s some of that savoury cured-meat note, along with fresh fig and peach skins.

Incredibly balanced and integrated. The oak doesn’t dominate at all and there’s so much going on. You could pour a single glass of this and study it for hours.

All five of these releases are currently available globally through specialty retailers. A very, very special thank you to Gordon & MacPhail for supplying the samples tasted here and for transporting me on an incredible liquid history lesson.

 

 

Glenmorangie Spios

It’s that time of year again! Christmas is over, we’re back into the daily grind and then Dr Bill Lumsden and his team come along a drop the latest quirky experiment in their annual Private Edition collection.

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The ninth edition in this annual collection is known as Glenmorangie Spios (Scots Gaelic for spice) and has spent its whole life maturing in American Oak casks. What’s so unusual about that? Well, these aren’t the typical American Oak ex-Bourbon casks, instead, this has been fully matured in ex-rye casks. For the non-Bourbon and rye whiskey drinkers in the room, that might sound like a trivial point, but it’s really not. Here’s why.

Unlike scotch whisky (made from 100% malted barely), bourbon and rye use a mashbill of different grains to create the base spirit. To be called Bourbon, the mashbill must comprise at least 51% corn, with the remainder often being made up of rye, malted barley or wheat. You’ve probably guessed it, but to be called a rye whiskey, the mashbill needs to be at least 51% rye.

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I drink/ own a fair bit of rye whiskey and it can be quite an interesting beast. It still has that backbone of sweet syrupy caramel and char (that you find in Bourbons), but you often get forward notes ranging from baking spice and pastry, to pickle brine, mint and dill. Above all, the one characteristic I always get is ‘spiciness’ and I’m yet to meet a rye whisky I would describe as delicate. So given the forward character that rye whiskey often exhibits, I was very intrigued to see what kind of influence an ex-rye cask would have on the lighter, citrus, highland malt characteristics that Glenmorangie is so famously known for.

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Launch night in Sydney

From the basement theatre of Sydney’s QT Hotel we joined a live global cross to Dr Bill and his henchman, Brendan McCarron, in a secret whisky lair somewhere in Edinburgh. In introducing Spios, Dr Bill and Brendan explained that this was a project that came to life around 10 years ago when they sourced a parcel of casks through Speyside Cooperage that had previously held rye whiskey for six years. The rye whiskey they held was made from a mashbill of 95% rye (the remaining 5% was more than likely malted barley) and the aim was pretty much to see what kind of influence these casks would have on the ‘house style’ of Glenmorangie (ie the Glenmorangie Original).

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With that in mind, in was time to taste and after re-familiarising ourselves with the Glenmorangie Original and the (completely moreish) Nectar d’Or, it was time for the main event.

Tasting Glenmorangie Spios

On the nose I got notes of melon, citrus, stone-fruit and chewy caramels – make that caramel topping, the kind you’d put on ice cream. Going back for round two; shortbread biscuits, a bit of ginger heat, cinnamon and clove. One other aspect I loved is that after being bottled at 46% ABV, you also get this great fatty creaminess on the nose that I don’t personally get in the Glenmorangie Original.

On the palate, there was something slightly herbal and savoury, a faint touch of citrus and grassiness, but give it a very brief moment and it launches into a wave of soft spice. I don’t mean alcohol heat, but fragrant spice; clove, big red chewing gum, dark cherries, toffee and cereal grains. The finish was long, remained sweet, quite lush and flavourful, with nicely integrated oak.

Some final thoughts

Is it a huge departure from Glenmorangie Original? I wouldn’t say so, no. But then again, I don’t get the impression that was the point in the first place. After listening to Dr Bill and Brendan explain their thought process, you begin to understand that aim of the Private Edition series is to release experiments – one-off projects – that showcase what can be done with the Glenmorangie spirit by tweaking an element of the whisky-making process.

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We’ve seen them play with peated malt (in Finealta), use an old barley strain (in Tusail) and finish what’s essentially Glenmorangie Original in a variety of casks (in the likes of Bacalta, Companta and Milsean). And now, we’ve seen what happens when you ‘simply’ swap ex-Bourbon casks for ex-rye casks.

Fans of Private Editions that have been finished in wine casks (eg Artein, Milsean, Companta, Bacalta etc) might be a tad underwhelmed by the more subtle nature of Spios, but I really appreciate what’s been done here. It’s a hugely educational release, a tasty, enjoyable whisky and I think they’ve nailed the brief. I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with for the tenth release.

Cheers to Dr Bill Lumsden, Brendan McCarron and Moet-Hennessey Australia for hosting another great evening.

Drambuie: The Original Whisky Liqueur

Drambuie – the whisky liqueur with 270 years of history under its belt – is back on shelves in Australia and around the globe, but this time in a stunning new bottle design.

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After being acquired by William Grant & Sons (of Glenfiddich and Balvenie fame) back in 2014, it was time for a refresh, but they’ve got enough experience in the trade to know that you don’t mess with 270 years of history, so fear not Drambuie fans, the recipe is still the same, it’s just the packaging that’s been given a well-deserved facelift! The amber glass, crimson cap and bold label work are a nice contemporary twist on the iconic Drambuie bottle design of the 50s, 60s and 70s and it really does look rather bonnie.

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Speaking of which, the story of this whisky liqueur actually harks back to the 1740s and goes a little something like this. ‘One of history’s most charismatic royals, Bonnie Prince Charlie, gave the secret recipe to one of his clansmen as a gift for unswerving loyalty after defeat in his remarkable 1745 uprising. For more than a century after, Drambuie was enjoyed among the islanders of Skye in Scotland, whose gently hospitable nature was personified by this warm and elegant liquid. Such was its quiet success that it steadily gained in popularity until it was patented in 1893, and eventually bottled for sale in 1914.’

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Tasted neat, the nose jumps out at you with notes of sweet honey, butterscotch, citrus and soft aromatic spices. The palate continues the theme with soft, creamy thick mouthfeel. There’s lots of sweet honey, buttery biscuity tea cake, a slight citrus tang, cinnamon quills and some background aromatic herbs and spices.

Sip it straight, over a large rock of ice, or mixed in a classic cocktail (such as the famed Rusty Nail). There’s really no wrong way to go about it, as long as you’re enjoying yourself!

Whisky & Alement open their cellar

Melbourne’s Whisky & Alement – arguably Australia’s best whisky bar – is doing something a bit special this festive season. Whilst they’ve had their little ‘bottle shop’ going for a while – a cabinet where you can purchase a selection of bottles that you may have tasted behind the bar – they’re upping their game, just in time for Christmas.

For the first time in eight years they’re opening their cellar to the public and you’ll have the chance to pick up some seriously cool bottles. From 1 December through to 22 December, owner Julian White will be on hand to talk you through some of the rarities and hidden gems they’ve collected over the years.

A small sample of some of the bottles available to purchase are pictured here (courtesy of Whisky & Alement). Whether you’re after a gift for someone else, or a special bottle for yourself on Christmas night, I have no doubt they’ll be able to sort you out with an absolute beauty.

So if you’re in the area and looking for something a little bit special, get in touch and pick up something memorable this festive season!

Whisky & Alement
270 Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 1284