Nikka From The Barrel
Another omission on my part – I recently realized that I had not reviewed this staple of the Nikka no-age-statment (NAS) line, Nikka Whisky From The Barrel. The occasion of opening my second bottle seemed like a good opportunity to plug this obvious hole in my review catalog.
First thing to clear up is the rather odd name – this is not a select barrel single malt expression. Instead, it is a blend of Japanese malt whisky from Yoichi distillery and grain whisky from Miyagikyo distillery, which has been married in oak casks (as opposed to the more common method of giant stainless-steel vatting tanks). Hence the name – it is coming from the blending barrel, not the maturing barrel. I’ve seen speculation online that some Scottish whisky may also find its way into the blend, but I haven’t seen anything substantiating this.
Unusually, it is bottled at near-cask strength (51.4% ABV), which is rather high for a Japanese whisky. The source of casks used is not reported, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some refill sherry ones found their way into the mix.
This expression is a staple of the travel retail duty-free circuit. It wasn’t available in the U.S. until recently, because it comes in the non-standard 500mL bottle size (although I’ve also seen the humongous 3L size in my travels as well). The bottle is distinctive, with its squat and stubby appearance – it looks like something you would have found in a pre-1950s apothecary. Occasionally available at the LCBO and SAQ, it is readily available in BC ($64 CAD, plus taxes) and sporadically available in Alberta.
Let’s see how it compares to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:
Hibiki Harmony: 8.38 ± 0.59 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Kakubin (Suntory Whisky): 8.15 ± 0.85 on 4 reviews ($$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.45 ± 0.16 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.59 ± 0.49 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.80 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.79 ± 0.22 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.65 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super: 8.00 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.24 ± 0.38 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory Old Whisky: 8.31 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.21 ± 0.46 on 6 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.98 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$$)
As you can see above, Nikka FTB is a top-scorer for this category, scoring higher than even more expensive premium NAS expressions like Nikka Coffey Grain and Hibiki Harmony. My initial bottles came from travel duty free.
Here is what I find in the glass:
Nose: Brown sugar sweetness, with a bit of honey. Fruity, with apricots, plums (light and dark colored), red grapes and a good amount of banana. Caramel and vanilla. Cinnamon and a little all-spice. Some ethanol heat, but not bad for the ABV. No real off notes. Adding water brings up the vanilla and caramel (but oddly not the fruit).
Palate: Very creamy, with sweet caramel and toffee notes. Brown sugar again. Fruits are there, but seem a bit tart (and joined by some lemon citrus). Oakier than the nose suggested. Great mouthfeel, creamy and granular at the same time (i.e., creamed sugar). Packs a punch though – ethanol fumes come back at the end, so you will want to try this with a bit of water. Gets drier near the end of the palate. With water, you get some taming of the ethanol heat – but go lightly here, or you will also diminish the mouthfeel. If anything, it brings up the tartness more than the sweetness (which is unusual).
Finish: Medium. The sweet caramel note is there, with some lighter spices now (nutmeg). Some oaky bitterness shows up over time, persisting longer than the sweet notes. With water, I get a very faint hint of smoke.
Frankly, I would not have immediately pegged this as a blend – it seems malt-heavy (although the higher strength may be contributing to that perception). This one really needs a little water (and I emphasize, little) to open up all the flavours and tame the ethanol burn.
It’s a great expression for the price, having garnered plenty of fans. Very positive are Dave of Whisky Advocate, Nathan the Scotch Noob, Thomas of Whisky Saga, and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review (depending on the batch). Indeed, almost all reviewers in my database give this expression an above-average score, except for a few like Jason of In Search of Elegance and Ruben of Whisky Notes. Certainly my top pick for NAS Japanese whiskies in retail travel duty free.