Well spotted – we’re exploring Japan this time around. The land of the rising sun has an almost century-long whisky tradition which was begun by the founder of the Nikka Whisky company, Masataka Taketsuru, in 1920. Many Japanese whiskies are world-class; this Nikka “Pure Malt” Taketsuru 21 has won several awards and as I write this, the 17-year-old version has just won “Best Blended Malt” at Whisky Magazine’s World Whiskies Awards. It’s not just Nikka either; Suntory has an excellent line of single malts, especially from their Yamazaki distillery (I highly recommend the 12-year-old or the 18-year-old, both superb).
The Taketsuru range are labeled as “pure malts” which sounds like a marketing term, but it does actually mean something. More commonly known as a blended malt whisky, a pure malt is a whisky made from the single malts of more than one distillery. Until recently this was known as a “vatted malt”, but the rules were changed last year to get rid of that term which was deemed confusing. Personally I find things more confusing now but never mind! A blended malt is distinct from a blended whisky in that there is no grain whisky added as part of the recipe.
Accordingly then, this Nikka pure malt includes single malt whiskies from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. Yoichi dates from 1934 and is located on the northern island of Hokkaido. Its whisky is normally considered heavier in style than that from the more southern Miyagikyo, built in 1969 on the main island of Honshu some 220 miles north-north-east of Tokyo.
I couldn’t find any information on the proportions of the different malts used in the 21-year-old, other than the whisky used is from those two distilleries and is matured in both ex-bourbon and sherry barrels. It doesn’t have a particularly smoky or heavy character to me, so maybe Miyagikyo spirit dominates? It doesn’t really matter of course, the quality is the only thing of real importance and thankfully it’s outstanding.
The nose has immediate strong citrus fruit – I get mandarin oranges specifically. Liquorice root, dark chocolate and even a touch of angostura bitters are in there too. On tasting, there’s a big initial presence… I find that with some very good quality single malts you get this impact that doesn’t come from alcohol (the Taketsuru is bottled at 43% ABV, so it’s not especially strong) and it speaks to me of a perfectly-aged and finished spirit. J Wheelock, the former Western Canadian brand ambassador for Macallan and Highland Park used to say, “This is a biiiig whisky!” when presenting the Macallan 18; without trying them back-to-back, the Nikka reminds me a lot of that famous Speysider. The sherry is right up front but it’s perfectly balanced, and you get flavours from the bourbon too… raspberry, vanilla, whipped cream, raisins and spice at the end.
It’s not cheap, this one, but it’s something special. It was the dram of choice at a friend’s leaving party the other week; everyone who as much as sniffed it ordered one from the bar. And if you believe the 2012 award, the 17-year-old is even better right now… OK, whose round is it this time?