Helios is not exactly a familiar name in Japanese whisky making. Indeed, they were originally known as a rum distiller (yes, you read that correctly). Based in Okinawa, this region remained under the administrative control of the US into the 1960s, when Helios was founded. I guess rum production for US pacific regions was all the rage in the early days of this distillery.
Beyond the initial rum staple, Helios eventually branched out into various liqueurs, awamori (a distinctive Okinawa beverage made from distilled rice), and the standard Japanese distilled spirits shochu and umeshu. The distillery prides itself on using local materials for its production.
Helios started making whisky during the early phase of rising Japanese domestic whisky popularity in the 1980s. Apparently that popularity didn’t last for Helios, as they seemed to have gotten out of the whisky making game by early 2000s. Indeed, the last age-stated whisky I’ve seen from Helios (under the Reki label) was a 15 year old expression released in 2016.
In recent years, Helios has been cashing in on the modern whisky boom by sourcing Scottish whisky to sell under their Kura whisky brand. See my recent Japan travelogue for an introduction into so-called “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. I believe they have also attempted to brand some of their barrel-aged, rice-distilled awamori and schochu products as whisky (see another example in my Ohishi Sherry Cask review).
All that said, the Reki brand name has been retained by Helios for actual Japanese whisky, as far as I know. See for example this helpful infographic and searchable table at nomunication.jp. But the fact that this is described as a “Pure Malt” (i.e., a vatted malt or blended malt) indicates that this whisky comes from more than one distillery.
This particular Reki Pure Malt whisky was released by Helios in 2017 for a whisky exhibition, in distinctive 180 mL bottles made of Cobalt blue glass (a classy touch). My bottle was given to me as a gift by colleagues on a trip to Japan in early 2019. Bottled at 40% ABV. The label simply says “Produced by Helios Distillery Co. Ltd, Okinawa, Japan”.
There are too few reviews of this whisky to make it into my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to date, but please see some preliminary comments at the end of the review (and continue to check the database for updates).
Let’s see what I find in the glass:
Colour: Very pale yellow gold, straw.
Nose: Very briny, with lots of minerality (flint, gunpowder). Rubber. Very earthy and herbaceous (dry herbs). Apples and pear. Lemon curd. Reminds me a lot of Ledaig 10yo, but not as overtly smokey. Me likes!
Palate: Light caramel sweetness, but with a malty core. Orange/tangerine show up now. Reminds me of an orange-infused sponge cake with lemon frosting – a real “light” dessert whisky. Relatively thin mouthfeel, even for 40% ABV. Ashy taste on the swallow, but still not exactly smokey. I’ve had some very youthful Bowmores that similarly seem both peated and non-peated at the same time.
Finish: Medium. Honey shows up now, adding to that lingering frosting sweetness. The ashyness persists as well, but it is faint. No off notes, very pleasant on the way out.
It is a very pleasant sipper, but it has a definite “smoke but no fire” character – the nose promises a peated experience, but the palate and finish remain surprisingly gentle (and very “cakey”). My main impression is that the core spirit of this blended malt is quite youthful – but without the harshness that mars many young spirits. I would guess whomever made this knows how to run a still! I would be very keen to try aged spirits from this distillery.
There is something very Japanese about this whisky – it is well constructed, and gives no offense at any point in its development. That being said, I was hoping for more character in the mouth, given the promise of that mineral/rubbery nose. Bottling at a higher ABV would also certainly have helped.
In terms of a score, I would give it a slightly below average rating, maybe ~8.3-8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. Serge of Whisky Fun gave it a slightly more positive score, by his personal rating system. While I enjoyed it, the thin mouthfeel and soft character on the palate contribute to my giving this a lower overall rating. A pleasant surprise, but still a ways to go.
To complete my series of Taketsuru “pure malt” bottlings from Nikka, I am happy to present the Taketsuru 17 year old.
Like the 12 yo and 21 yo bottlings that I previously reviewed, the 17 yo is a long-standing member of the age-stated Taketsuru line. As discussed in my more recent no-age-statement (NAS) review, the 12 yo was discontinued in favour of the new NAS bottling a couple of years ago. This was in response to the Japanese whisky boom, and Nikka’s need to preserve limited (and dwindling) stocks of aged whisky. While the 17 and 21 year olds are technically still available, they are understandably quite hard to find “in the wild,” given the high demand and low availability.
I sampled this one recently at the Low Profile whisky bar and cafe in Athens, Greece. Incidentally, you might be interested to see the logo used by the bar on all promotional materials (i.e., signage, menus, coasters, etc), as shown on the right. That is the classic photo of Mastaka Taketsuru himself, just as shown on all the Taketsuru bottlings.
Masataka Taketsuru is one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. The Taketsuru line is named after him, and is an example of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (aka vatted malts or blended malts). These are malt whiskies blended together from multiple distilleries under Nikka’s control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).
Bottled at 43% ABV. Here is how the Taketsuru 17yo compares to other Nikka whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$$$) Nikka Taketsuru 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.26 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.26 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.49 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
And now what I find in the glass:
Nose: Very fruity nose – fruitier than the others in this family. Fresh fruit cocktail, with plenty of pear and apple, plus berries. Also citrus (lemon in particular). Honey. No real smoke (I detected more in the other age-statement versions). But there is a slightly funky sourness that I can’t quite place (and could be coming from the peat). A bit of minerality. Also seems a bit oakier than the others in this family.
Palate: Vanilla joins the light honey notes from the nose, and banana adds to the fruit. Sweet tart candies. Some caramel starts to build over time. Light wood spices, with a touch of pepper. Somewhat watery mouthfeel. That odd sourness returns on the swallow, suggesting to me that it is indeed from the peated element.
Finish: Medium short. Again, the oaky wood spices increase in prominence. There is a lingering light sweetness, balanced by a touch of bitterness from the wood.
This is certainly another decent expression in the Taketsuru line – roughly in-between the old 12 yo and 21 yo expressions in terms of quality, in my view. I like the heightened fruitiness, but the that funky sour note and bitterness is a bit off-putting. As such, I would rate it slightly lower than the Meta-Critic average. But it is still well worth the pour if you can find it anywhere.
Monkey Shoulder is a great example of one of the (not so) best kept secrets in the whisky world. As I explain on my single malts vs blends page, a single malt simply means a blend (or vatting) of different malts whiskies from a single distillery. Unless it is specifically identified as a “single cask”, you are definitely getting multiple barrels mixed together for your single malt. A blended scotch is defined as a blend of malt whisky and cheaper-to-produce grain whisky. But there is the intermediate category called a blended malt (aka vatted malt or “pure malt”) where malt whisky from multiple distilleries are brought together.
In principle, there’s no reason why a blended malt would not be every bit as good as a single malt, since it is only the number of distilleries that differ. But just as blended scotches have long occupied the entry-level price point, most blended malts are similarly inexpensive and without age statements – although there are of course always exceptions (e.g., see the Taketsuru line of Japanese malt whiskies).
Monkey Shoulder is a commonly available, reasonably priced, no-age-statement blended malt from three classic Speyside distilleries controlled by William Grant & Sons: Kininvie, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich. You may not have heard of the first one (since most of its malt production goes into blended scotches), but the other two should be familiar to single malt drinkers – and will give you an idea as to what flavour profile to expect here. In this case, I believe the blend is exclusively from first-fill ex-bourbon casks, but there are of course no guarantees if that isn’t indicated on the label.
In case you are wondering about the unusual name, it comes from a historic occupational strain injury that floor malters suffered from in the early years of whisky production. In the traditional method, malting of barley would be done across a large floor (for the extended surface area). This required constant turning of the barley, so that it didn’t over-germinate into a solid mass – a task traditionally done by hand. “Monkey Shoulder” is the crude name for the condition that some malt workers developed after long shifts, where one of their arms would hang down – similar to some monkeys. Obviously, this would no longer be permitted today.
Monkey Shoulder is very reasonably priced in most jurisdictions, typically around the level of higher-end blends or entry-level single malts. It is currently $65 CAD at the LCBO, which is steeper than most places. It is bottled slightly above the industry standard, at 43% ABV.
Let’s see how it compares to other blended malt or entry-level single malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database.
Aberlour 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns Single Malt 8.22: ± 0.56 on 8 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.78 ± 0.85 on 8 reviews ($$)
Benromach Traditional: 8.43 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.46 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve: 7.96 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.22 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.97 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland: 7.02 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Speyside: 6.70 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$) Monkey Shoulder: 8.31 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$)
Pig’s Nose 5yo: 7.93 ± 0.40 on 3 reviews ($$)
Sheep Dip Blended Malt: 8.45 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$)
Singleton of Dufftown 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
Speyburn 10yo: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 19 reviews ($$)
Speyside 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.63 on 10 reviews ($$)
Monkey Shoulder gets a decent score for this price point, consistent with the best entry-level single malts.
My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here’s what I find in the glass:
Nose: Fairly light, with dominant notes of caramelized baked apples. Green banana and a touch of citrus (orange). Golden raisins. Vanilla, nutmeg and a slight brown sugar note – all combining to give an evocative impression of baked apple pie. Bit of acetone, suggestive of its youthful age. Pretty decent on the nose.
Palate: Some honey adds to the caramel notes from the nose. Not as fruity anymore, maybe a bit of light pear. Very lightly spiced. Malty. Unfortunately, I get a dusty, dry cardboard note (likely also from its youth). A slight bit of ethanol sting, but at least it adds some substance to the somewhat watery mouth feel.
Finish: Short, and relatively light. A bit of the spice comes back, but it remains fairly dry and not a fruity as I had hoped. No real off notes though, except for a slight bitterness.
Definitely an entry level malt. Better than most scotch blends, but it seems to me like it would have benefited from a few more years in the casks. Given its first-fill ex-bourbon heritage, I expected a little more sweetness on the palate and finish. But I think the average Meta-Critic score above is fair.
Following on my review of the popular Nikka Coffey Grain – a single-grain corn whisky from Japan – I recently picked up a bottle of their Coffey Malt to directly compare.
As with the Coffey Grain, this whisky is made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka. It is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. This is different from most malt whisky, which is produced in small batches in copper pot stills.
Typically, this NAS bottling of Coffey Malt doesn’t get as much attention as the Coffey Grain – but I think that may be because it hasn’t been around as long. Here is how some similar whiskies compare in my Meta-Critic Database:
Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.51 on 7 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony NAS: 8.36 ± 0.70 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.64 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($$$$) Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.89 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt 12yo Single Cask: 9.10 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.23 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.17 ± 0.53 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still: 8.49 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews ($$)
Yellow Spot: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Despite the lower number of scores, the Coffey Malt is clearly fairly popular overall with reviewers. Unfortunately, none of the Nikka whiskies are currently available in Ontario. But the Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Black and From the Barrel are available in BC. At the moment, it will cost you ~$110 CAD (tax in) for the 700mL bottles of either the Coffey Grain or Coffey Malt. Bottled at 45% ABV.
Let’s see what I found in the glass.
Colour: I don’t usually comment on this, but the Coffey Malt is a slightly darker color than the Coffey Grain – closer to the Nikka Black.
Nose: Very different from the Coffey Grain, with a greater initial impression. Not as corn syrupy sweet, there are a lot tropical fruits here – with peaches, papayas and bananas most prominent. There are also a lot more malt aroma now (duh!). Reminds me of a cross between warm banana bread and those dry Scottish oatmeal cakes. Still has the faint caramel/vanilla notes from its time in oak – although if anything, the overall woodiness is increased. Very rich nose, and very appealing. The only negative for me is the slight solvent smell (vaguely pulp and paper plant like).
Palate: Even sweeter upfront than expected, with honey on top of those lighter tropical fruits from the nose (plus some additional dark fruits, like berries and plums). Very fruity overall. Surprising amount of chocolate, adding to that caramel sweetness from the nose. Faint dusting of some of the lighter rye spices (like nutmeg). Silky texture, very chewy – this is definitely a whisky you will want to swirl around the gums. Makes you want to go right back and try another sip! Surprisingly rich and tasty. While not overly complex, there are still a lot of flavours to dissect here.
Finish: Medium-short. Some of the sweet and chocolate notes linger, along with a slight creamy bitterness (i.e., think of the after effects of a latte). Other than that, it just fades out, with maybe a touch of sweet fruit hanging on until the end. Pleasant enough, but somewhat light.
Wow, a lot more going on here than the Coffey Grain. It reminds me of some of the more flavourful Irish Pot Still whiskies, with its creamy sweetness. Easy to drink, but still reasonably complex.
I would definitely give this a higher score than the Coffey Grain – although I agree the Coffey Grain deserves decent marks for its very good presentation of the light-and-sweet grain style. All told, the Meta-Critic averages are pretty much about where I would place them for these two whiskies.
The most positive reviews I’ve seen for this whisky come from André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky – they really rave about it. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate gives it a fairly positive score and review. Serge of Whisky Fun is fairly positive in his comments, but somewhat lower scoring. The lowest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Michio of Japanese Whisky Reviews.
This is my first review of an Ichiro’s Malt Japanese whisky.
The eponymous brand name refers to Ichiro Akuto – grandson of the founder of the fabled Hanyu distillery (which shuttered production in 2000). Ichiro later founded the Chichibu distillery nearby, and managed to save a number of Hanyu casks. His “Ichiro’s Malt” series typically involve vattings of both old Hanyu stock and new Chichibu production.
The Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) is distinctive because it is a vatting of malts that have all been aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). There is an interesting article on Nonjatta that describes the influence of this type of oak on Japanese whisky.
My experience of Mizunara wood aging to date has been through blended whiskies, where only a proportion of the final product was aged in these casks (such as the Hibiki Harmony). Ichiro’s Malt MWR is thus an opportunity to try and dissect out the specific contribution of Mizunara wood more directly.
The exact composition of the Ichiro’s Malt MWR is unknown, but I’m going to guess it is mainly new production from Chichibu. Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$) Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Here is what I find in the glass for Ichiro’s MWR:
Nose: Very floral and fragrant, with both woody and incense notes (“sandalwood” is often cited, which fits). Some grassiness, but again tending to the more sweet and fragrant aromas (mint?). It has a strong honeyed sweetness that reminds me a bit of Dalwhinnie (although the spirit seems younger here). Strong citrus presence, especially lemon peel and grapefruit. Some sweet apple. Pleasant, with very sharp and clear scents.
Palate: Tangy and spicy upfront, with a peppery kick. The honey and fruity sweetness is there from the start – with caramelized apple and citrus. Woodiness comes up fast though, with some sour and bitter notes. This sharp bitterness is reminiscent of some lightly smokey whiskies – but it is definitely more heavily pronounced on the MWR. Think sucking on a grapefuit that had sugar sprinkled on it – fruity sweetness upfront, followed by persistent bitterness (especially if you chew on the rind!). Some ginger too. Surprisingly light body overall, given the relatively high ABV (46%).
Finish: Relatively short. Not much going on here, except some lingering sweetness and peppery spiciness trying to cover up the woody bitterness (and failing). A bit of a let-down, honestly.
The MWR has a lot of promise on the nose, but it quickly turns bitter in the mouth, with a disappointing finish. It seems very young overall. Frankly, despite the initial distinctiveness, it is a whisky that makes you want to drink less as time goes by in the glass.
It is certainly an interesting way to experience the effect of pure Mizunara cask, but I definitely think this would do better as a blend with other types of wood. I would probably recommend the Hibiki Harmony over this as an introduction to the effect of Japanese oak.
For a positive review of the MWR, please see Dave Broom of WhiskyAdvocate. Personally, my own tastes align better with Ruben of WhiskyNotes. There is also Brian’s (Dramtastic) review on Nonjatta.
Nikka Black is one of the more popular offerings in the reasonably-affordable, no-age-statement “colour” series of Nikka Pure Malts.
As discussed in some of my other Nikka reviews, “pure malt” is the term used in Japan to denote a combination of all-malt whisky from several distilleries under one producer’s control. This is thus a refinement of the “vatted malt” (or simply “malt whisky”) terminology used elsewhere – with the added restriction of a single producer. In that sense, it is largely a semantic distinction to the classic Scottish “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery in Scotland. If that last bit is a surprise to you, please see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info.
The various Pure Malt colours – Red, White and Black – all denote different combinations of the core characteristics of the Nikka Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries (from which they all hale). The Red is reported to be relatively light and fruity, the White is heavily peated and spicy, and Black is somewhere in-between.
Although not common by any means, you can sometimes still find the Nikka Black at a reasonable price in European duty-frees (and the odd Canadian province). 😉
Here is how it compares to other Nikka NAS malt whisky offerings in my meta-critic database (ranked in score order, top-down):
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.84 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$$) Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.82 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.81 ± 0.5 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.54 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.17 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: ± 8.43 0.4 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS: 8.28 ± 0.12 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.13 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
As you can see, along with From the Barrel, Black is one of the top-scoring NAS malt whiskies that Nikka offers. It is interesting to see how the single distillery NAS offerings are scoring quite a bit lower overall (despite being more expensive).
Here’s what I find in the glass for Nikka Black:
Nose: Sweet, with definite smoke and peat. Fruit-wise, I get mainly the typical “earthy” dark fruits (e.g. prune and raisin), as well as a bit of mixed berry. Oakiness is definitely present, and there is something reminiscent of a sherry cask finish (e.g. chocolate). The sweetness has a creamy characteristic, like whipped cream. Not very floral, although a do get a touch of cherry blossom – and some slight grassiness. Definitely a pleasing nose.
Palate: The smokey and peaty nature is unmistakable, and is consistently present throughout. Same fruits as the nose, but also getting some extra citrus (orange in particular). I get caramel/butterscotch now, and the chocolate turns to dark chocolate (i.e., slightly bitter). The grassiness is more pronounced, with some definite hay/straw notes. A bit watery in the mouth, which is the only drawback for me after that creamy nose.
Finish: Moderately long, with smoke all the way though. The bitterness persists as well, but is not as strong as some other whiskies in this class (e.g., recent Highland Park 12 yo expressions). Has a slight waxiness, and an aroma of seasoned leather (which is actually pretty good!). For me, this smokey/bitter/leatheriness is well balanced to the sweetness, leading to a nice, long experience.
Nikka has done a great job integrating everything in the Pure Malt Black (i.e., a truly balanced blend of the peaty Yoichi and fruity Miyagikyo). Indeed, if I didn’t know this was Japanese, I would have thought it was a Highland Park. There is something to the smokey nature of this whisky that reminds me of Orkney peat (i.e., prominent smoke, with subtle phenolitic peat notes in the background). Even the fruitiness here – dark fruits, orange, chocolate, etc. – is reminiscent of the classic sherry cask HPs.
Personally, I think Nikka has done a better job with the Pure Malt Black than HP has been doing on recent batches of the classic 12yo – especially in terms of the finish (i.e., there is an expanded bitterness on recent HP 12 batches). My only complaint is that I find Black a bit thin in terms of mouth feel – but I certainly agree with its relative rank among Nikka NAS expressions. The Black is an impressive offering for a NAS blend of multiple distilleries.
As part of their restructuring earlier this year, Nikka has discontinued many of the entry-level age expressions of their major lines. These have been replaced with no-age-statement (NAS) offerings, including for the flagship Taketsuru line. Fear not, the 17yo and 21yo age expressions are continuing, but you can no longer get the 12yo – it has been replaced by the NAS in retail channels.
As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to see how it compares to the 12yo I still have on hand. 🙂
As I explained in my earlier Taketsuru 12yo and 21yo review, this line is named after Masataka Taketsuru – one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. These whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts”, as they blend together malt whisky from multiple distilleries under Nikka control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).
So, how does the new NAS version compare to the 12yo it is replacing? Here are the stats from my Whisky Database:
Taketsuru 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews Taketsuru NAS: 8.15 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews
Keep in mind the relatively low number of reviews on the new NAS. While suggestive of reduced quality on the NAS version, it is hard to know until more reviews come in.
Having personally done a head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparison of the two, here are my general observations:
Nose: The NAS is a whole different experience from the 12yo. I had previously observed that the 12 yo had a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas (although it was a little boring). The NAS, in contrast, has a pleasant sweetness to it, with both a sweet oaky aroma and the definite smell of berries. I was pleasantly surprised by this development, and was looking forward to the (relatively rare) possibility that this new NAS could actually exceed the original age statement.
Palate: And this is where that optimistic hope was quickly dashed. 😉 The NAS is very light tasting, almost watery in fact (despite the higher 43% ABV). It definitely lacks the complexity of the 12yo, and feels like much younger spirits are being used. Particularly disappointing to me is the subtle smokey note of the 12yo is completely gone now – this is a very basic malt on the palate, with less going on.
Finish: I previously found that the 12yo had a disappointingly quick finish, turning slightly bitter on the way out. The same is true for the NAS – it turns into a completely forgettable experience fairly quickly after sipping.
To wrap things up, while the nose of the NAS is nice (and beats out the 12yo in direct comparison), the taste of the whisky is less interesting. While I always felt the 12yo deserved a slightly higher score than the consolidated Meta-Critic average, I definitely agree with the slightly lower relative ranking of the NAS version in comparison.
Price-wise, I was able to find the standard NAS 700mL bottle for about 2500 Yen in Tokyo last month (~$30 CAD). Currently not carried at the LCBO, but the SAQ has it for $83 CAD (which seems a bit steep). I bought the old 12yo at the LCBO in mid-2014, when it was $70 CAD. Note that in Japan you can also easily find the smaller 50mL, 200mL and 500mL NAS sizes as well. Prices are described on my Whisky in Japan article.
Given its wide availability, hopefully there will be more reviews on this NAS soon. In the meantime, I recommend you do not rely on reviews of the 12yo as a proxy for this new NAS – it really is a completely different whisky.
Following up on my Whisky in Korea article, here is my recent experience of scouting out Japanese whisky in Tokyo.
My experience wasn’t all that different from Dramtastic’s back in May of this year – although the specific selections at different stores have changed. I too was staying in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo this time – and so made a point of visiting some of the same locations he tried. Sorry I couldn’t try them all, but I had limited time on a business trip.
Keio Plaza Hotel Konbini:
First, a general comment – you can actually do okay for base expressions at a number of the larger Konbini (convenience stores) across Tokyo. Here is a pic from the whisky aisle of the Konbini located in the basement of the Keio Plaza Hotel where I was staying.
Top shelf was the Nikka Taketsuru NAS (500mL for 2,200 Yen) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (500mL for 3,080 Yen).
Next shelf was mini-bottles of the Nikka Taketsuru NAS, Yoichi NAS and Miyagikyo NAS, as well as the Suntory Yamazaki NAS and Hakushu NAS (all 200ml for 1,140 Yen).
Going down a shelf, you get the more budget whiskies: Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 905 Yen, 200mL for 285 Yen), Hi Nikka (700mL for 1,200 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,415 Yen, 500mL for 934 Yen, and 200mL for 468 Yen), and Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,680 Yen).
In terms of selection, sizes and prices, these are fairly typical of what you can find at most 7-eleven and Family Mart Konbinis as well. Of course, you will get more options (and better prices) at the larger dedicated liquor stores.
Bic Camera (East Gate of Shinjuku station):
Let’s start with the stand-alone Bic Camera, near the East Gate of Shinjuku station. Dramtastic found almost nothing there, but I did much better now. Let’s start with the miniatures. For Japanese whisky, I found:
Suntory Hibiki 17yo (50mL for 830 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (50mL for 720 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki 12yo (50mL for 780 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (50mL for 310 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (50mL for 390 Yen).
Note there was also a fairly good collection of Taiwanese whisky miniatures:
Kavalan Single Malt (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Podium (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask Strength (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask Strength (50mL for ~1,300 Yen)
And now for the full-size bottles, starting with the two top shelves:
Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,680 Yen), Suntory Hakushi NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony NAS (700mL for 3,880 Yen).
Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,780 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru 21yo (700mL for 14,500 Yen), The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,580 Yen).
Next two shelves down were the more budget entries:
Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 686 Yen), Suntory Royal (700mL for 2,640 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,330 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,020 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,080), Suntory Whisky 43 The Premium (700mL for 1,790 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 934 Yen).
Kirin Whisky 50 (600mL for 934 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend 45 (700mL for 1,450 Yen), Hi Nikka (720mL for 1,080 Yen), HiHi Nikka (720mL for 1,280 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (700mL for 3,380 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,680 Yen), Suntory Whisky White (640mL for 1,010 Yen), Suntory Royal Blended Whisky (660mL, for 2,660 Yen), Suntory Special Reserve (700mL for 1,980 Yen)
And the bottom shelf:
Kirin Boston Club 37 (640mL for 724 Yen), Kirin Boston Club 40 (640mL for 810 Yen), Robert Brown Special Blended Whisky (700mL for 1,310 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,120 Yen), Akashi Eigashima “red label” (500mL for 780 Yen), Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 934 Yen), Cherry Ex (500mL for 1,020 Yen), Whisky Koh-Kun “for highball” (600mL for 600 Yen), Mars Whisky 3&7 (720mL for 1,181 Yen), Mars Twin Alps (720mL for 1,550 Yen).
Not a bad haul overall for the current era of reduced availability – but I would have liked to have seen full size bottles of all the expressions. And of courses, a lot more aged expressions!
Isetan Department Store
Next, I headed over to the nearby up-scale Isetan department store in Shinjuku. Here you will find their whisky store in the basement food court (with tastings available). Like in Korea, large department store food courts in Japan are the places to go to get outstanding meals.
I was in a rush, but here’s what I found scattered around the whisky selection, in-between all the classic Scottish single malts and blends:
Suntory Yamazaki 12yo + Hibiki 17yo “gift pack” (50mL each, ~2,300 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony (700mL for ~4,100 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 4,104 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (700mL for 9,180 Yen).
Mars blended “TSUNAGU” whisky (200mL for 3,780 Yen, 700mL for 7,560 Yen), Mars “Maltage” Cosmo (700mL for 4,537 Yen). Note that the “Tsunagu” is a special release bottled just for Isetan stores. Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL).
Again, I may have missed some in my mad dash through the store – but the selection here was definitely limited.
Also saw a few Taiwanese whiskies: Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique (50mL and 700mL), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL), and Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL). Sorry, didn’t get the prices on these.
Don Quijote (Roppongi):
One place that I have always done fairly well at are the larger Don Quijote discount stores (affectionately known as “Donky-ote” in Japan). The small store near the East Gate in Shinjuku had slim pickings, and not worth recording. Apparently there is a larger store a bit further out, but I didn’t have the chance to visit.
Instead, I headed over to my preferred Don Quijote in Roppongi. This store has an extensive selection of international and domestic whiskies (they even carry the standard Crown Royal from Canada, ugh). Let’s see what I found here, starting with the Japanese stuff on the top shelves:
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,350 Yen), Yamazakura Fine Blended Whisky (700mL for 2,080 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 2,850 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,100 Yen).
Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,500 Yen, 500mL for 1,980 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,800 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen).
Ok, not the highest-end stuff here – and you typically can do a bit better on prices at Bic Camera.
Next shelves down:
Nikka Black Clear Rich Blend (180mL for 380 Yen), Nikka Black Clear (180mL for 285 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kaukubin” (180mL for 458 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (180mL for 980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (180mL for 980 Yen)
Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 638 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend (700mL for 1,180 Yen), Kirin Whisky 50 (700mL for 1,050 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,315 Yen), Hibiki Harmony (700mL for 3,990 Yen).
Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 1,050 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 999 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 “The Premium” (700mL for 1,700 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Whisky white-label (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 950 Yen).
And for those who are really thirsty, there’s a couple of 4L options:
Suntory Torys Black (4000mL for 2,560 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kakubin” (4000mL for 5,410 Yen)
Tokyo Haneda (HND) International Terminal:
I was flying through Haneda on this trip, and checked out the 3 liquor-selling duty-free stores available past security.
The one directly across the security checkpoint had only a few mid-range options:
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen). Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Gold & Gold “Samurai head” bottle (700mL for ~5,200 Yen).
If you head down toward gate ~108, you find a smaller store with a different selection:
Suntory Yamazaki 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), SunShine 20yo (700mL), Kirin 18yo (700mL for 14,000 Yen), Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen).
Suntory Royal (700mL for 6,000 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky (700mL for 2,800 Yen), Suntory Torys “gift pack” of 3 bottles (3x200mL for 2,500 Yen).
Don’t be fooled by these “limited edition” 18yo Yamazaki/Hakushu – they are just the regular 18yo expressions marked up 3-fold as “travel exclusives” (i.e., you should be able to find them for ~18,000 Yen in native form). Nice way to fleece people at the airport, I guess!
The third duty free down by gate ~130 has the widest selection of international single malts, but nothing of significant note for Japanese whisky.
Ok, that was a pretty disappointed foray for the discerning single malt whisky drinker. Last time I was in Tokyo (January, 2014), I was seeing a lot more age-statement whiskies everywhere. I guess this just reflects the current international demand for Japanese whisky – there is little high-end stuff to be found on local store shelves, for the time being.
But don’t despair – at least you can get to try most things while you are there by checking out the Zeotrope bar in Shinjuku. This is a cool little whisky bar, running old silent movies against the back wall. It is a tiny hole-in-the-wall sort of place, but it stocks ~300 Japanese whiskies. I had a fun time there with colleagues. I particularly recommend the half-pour “tasting flights” as a great way to introduce newcomers to Japanese whisky. Check out the travelog review of Zeotrope on the Whisky Saga site.
I was also in Taiwan on this visit, but didn’t get a chance to try out any local liquor stores or bars. But here’s what I found at the duty-free at Taiwan Songshan airport (TSA). Note that this is not the big international Taipei airport, but the smaller one located near Taipei city centre.
There were plenty of Scottish single malts and blends, although only one Japanese whiksy – Hibiki Harmony “Master Select” (700mL for 2,650 NT$). Another example of a “travel exclusive” rip-off – although at least it’s only twice the normal Harmony price, not three times like the Yamazaki/Hakushus in Haneda.
But the star of the show was the Taiwanese whisky:
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,975 NT$), Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,550 NT$), Kavalan Single Malt (1000mL for 2,380 NT$), Kavalan Concertmaster (1000mL for 1,700 NT$).
Those are great prices for the Solists – especially the Sherry Cask gift set, at ~$90 USD! Needless to say, I picked one up. 🙂 Keep an eye out for my upcoming review.
Nikka is one of the best-known makers of Japanese whisky – although its availability is quite limited in North America and Europe.
When you can find it, you are typically limited to a couple of the pure malt “colour” series, or the excellent Nikka From the Barrel. I plan to post commentaries on a number of those whiskies eventually, but would like to start with a couple of examples from the popular Taketsuru line – the 12 yo and 21 yo.
Named after Masataka Taketsuru – the founding father of Japanese whisky – these whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (often called “vatted malts” or “blended malts” elsewhere).
As I explained on my Single Malts vs Blends page, virtually all “single malts” are blends of different barrels of malt whisky – from the same distillery – vatted together. The only exception are limited specific cask releases (although even there, most of these are combinations of individual casks). The “blended malt” term (or its equivalent “vatted malt”) was developed to describe whiskies where the malt came from different distilleries – thus differentiating from “single” distillery malt blends. Technically speaking, these blended malts could consist of malt whisky produced by competing makers.
In Japan, the major makers typically have multiple distilleries under their own control – with each distillery specializing in different styles. Vatted Japanese whiskies from one producer’s set of distilleries are generally called “pure malts” there, to differentiate from the less specific “blended malt” moniker. Simply put, “pure malts” are just like “single malts”, except they come from a single producer instead of a single distillery.
As it turns out, the Taketsuru 21 yo is one of the whiskies that helped put Nikka (and Japanese whisky more generally) on the world map. Since it was first introduced into international whisky competitions, it has racked up an impressive number of gold medals and best-in-class awards and trophies. Most notably, it has won World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards four times since 2007.
There has been a bit of a craze these last few years to obtain almost any Japanese whisky at reasonable prices. I actually managed to snag the Taketsuru 12yo a year-and-a-half ago at the LCBO for ~$70. Unfortunately, I had to pay a lot more for the 21yo on a recent trip to Asia.
Part of the reason for this is that Nikka announced earlier this year a massive restructuring of their whisky brands – and the discontinuation of a lot of distillery-specific expressions. While the Taketsuru line will persist, there were immediate price increases (up to 50%, in the case of the 21 yo). And of course, given the relative scarcity, panicked demand buying drove up prices even further across the board. For the foreseeable future, I think you will find it hard to pick of either of these Taketsuru expressions at reasonable prices.
Which is a shame, because they are both quite nice for their respective age levels. Here’s how the Taketsuru line compares in my whisky database (recalling the overall average of ~8.5)
Taketsuru 12yo: 8.32 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews
Taketsuru 17yo: 8.82 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews
Taketsuru 21yo: 9.00 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews
These relative scores track very well with my experience.
The 12 yo has a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas. The palate reminds me of a classic, floral-style Highland/Speyside Scottish single malt – although with the faintest touch of smoke here. I find it a little more complex than the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yo, for example. The main problem is the finish – it disappears too quickly, and turns slightly bitter on the way out (so maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all). If it weren’t for this unsatisfying end, I would have expected it to score higher for its respective age and flavour class.
The 21 yo in contrast is fairly sublime across the board. It has a much richer and fruity nose, with definite plum/prune notes (I’d swear there was sherry wood in there). Nicely caramelized body with excellent mouthfeel – a good mix of spicier notes on the palate, well balanced with the oak. The finish is long and lingering, with definite sweetness that is not cloying (and again, well balanced to the spiciness). This is a very easy to drink whisky!
For detailed reviews of these two whiskies, I suggest you check out the Nikka blended malt pages of the Quebec Whisky boys and Dramtastic. Jason of In Search of Elegance has recently reviewed both the 12 yo and 21 yo expressions (from samples of my bottles).