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.
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.
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.
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.
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.