Nikka Coffey Grain
Japanese whisky follows very closely the model laid down by Scottish whisky production. Specifically, you get malt whisky (made from malted barley using traditional copper pot stills) and grain whisky (which can incorporate various grains – most typically corn – made in a continuous column still). If you mix some portion of these together, you get a blended whisky (or a simply, a blend). See my single malt vs blend discussion here for more info on these categories. Also see my recent Nikka Coffey Malt review for a comparison.
In Scotland, there are plenty of single malts available to occupy the higher-end whisky niche – and so, most blends are relegated to the low end. There are exceptions of course (see Compass Box, for example), but this does serve as a good general rule. The result is that grain whisky production is largely a commodity-driven, high-volume industrial enterprise in Scotland.
One of the key differences to whisky production in Japan is a focus on making high-quality blends (see my Hibiki 17yo and Harmony commentaries, for example). Of course, you can only do that if you take some care in your grain whisky production.
For this commentary, I’m highlighting the standard NAS bottling of the Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. Fairly commonly available (for a Japanese whisky), and reasonably priced (again, for Japanese whisky), this is an unusual beast in the whisky world – a pure grain whisky. Made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka, this corn whisky is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. Bottled at 45% ABV.
The absence of any malt whisky in the bottle means that the Nikka Coffey Grain is in some ways more like a Bourbon than a traditional Scotch. Let’s see what I find in the glass.
Nose: Very much of the corn whisky style. Slightly sweet, like watered-down corn-syrup, with definite traces of its time in oak (i.e., caramel/vanilla aromas, and an overall woodiness). Maybe a bit floral as well. Unfortunately, I also get a noticeable solvent aroma, which I don’t care for personally. All told, the nose reminds me of some of the younger Canadian blended whiskies (e.g. Gibson’s 12yo, Century Distillers Ninety 5yo, etc.).
Palate: Initial impression is all soft, gentle creaminess. It’s pleasantly sweet, in a delicate way – not the heavy corn syrup I sometimes find in bourbons. This is definitely still a Japanese creation, with a pleasant range of flavours – including some spice and some floral notes – all enveloped in a persistent, lightly sweet creaminess. Vanilla and caramel are noticeable, and there is a touch of apple. The faintest hint of that solvent note persists at the end, but it is very subdued (thankfully). All in all, pretty decent.
Finish: Fairly short and thin (as I find common to grain whisky), but carries through many of the same notes from the palate.
It is often said that grain whisky provides that classic “smoothness” to blended whiskies – the way it spreads out over the tongue, evening-out the various flavour components, binding them all together. This is in contrast to the “sharpness” that high-quality malt whisky provides – especially in terms of cascading waves of intense flavour through the palate and finish. The Nikka Coffey Malt definitely shows this “smoothness” well – frankly, I would describe the overall mouth-feel as luscious. 🙂
Truthfully, I don’t really see this whisky as a competitor to most bourbons, given its relatively light character. Instead, I think this whisky would be a hit with fans of the lighter Irish, Scottish or Canadian style of blends – especially if you enjoy a little sweetness.
Here’s how it compares to some other Nikka malt and/or blended whiskies in my meta-critic Whisky Database:
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.76 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.2 on 8 reviews
Nikka Super: 8.04 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews
A good above-average composite score at 8.7, with an above-average standard deviation (suggesting a wide range of opinions on this whisky). And I can understand that, given its distinctiveness for the class. While some may enjoy its delicate and smooth characteristics, others may find it relatively bland and uninteresting (or potentially over-sweet). Definitely a cut above most entry level single malts I’ve tried.
Price-wise, I just picked this bottle up in a Tokyo duty-free for 5400 Yen (~$65 CAD). Not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but you can pick this expression up in BC or Alberta for ~$85-90 CAD (which seems like a remarkably good deal for Canada).
For detailed reviews from those who quite like it, check out André and Martin at QuebecWhisky.com, or Jason at WhiskyWon. For some contrasting opinions, check out Serge at WhiskyFun.com or Michio at Japan Whisky Reviews.