Kamiki Blended Malt Whisky

Kamiki Blended Malt Whisky

Producer: Kamiki
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 48%

Spirits are aged in oak. Whether it’s brandy, rum, bourbon or even wine, oak casks are the vessel of choice. And while that probably has more to do with the physical properties of oak than the flavours it imparts on the liquid, the fact is that the use of oak has become so ingrained that hardly anyone questions it anymore. Of course many regulations forbid the use of anything other than oak, leaving no room for alternatives. But in Japan, the rules around liquor production are not so strict. And this is where Kamiki comes in.

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The Nikka 12 year old

Nikka 12 year old

Producer: Nikka
Country: Japan
Age: 12 years old
abv: 43%

Let’s face it, Japanese whisky with an age statement is a rare sight these days. And while Nikka has bottled many excellent NAS bottlings over the past decade, it’s great to see this 12 year old stalwart still forms part of the range. With Nikka axing the entire Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Taketsuru line-ups and replacing them with NAS expressions, The Nikka 12 year old now remains the company’s sole bottling with an age statement. I expect the fact that this is a blend rather than a single malt may have helped Nikka to keep it on the shelves, but it’s also a testament to the quality of this whisky. Nikka has a fine reputation when it comes to blending, and this 12 year old fits right in. This bottling comes in some very stylish packaging (although the velvet is a bit too much for my taste), with the design meant to mimic the neckline of a kimono.

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Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Producer: Nikka
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

Masataka Taketsuru was a legend in the whisky world, so naturally any bottle bearing his name comes with some high expectations. Nikka Taketsuru 17 and 21 year old were at the forefront of launching Japanese whisky to international acclaim. Given these high hopes, Taketsuru Pure Malt was perhaps not quite what I’d wished for. Then again, that’s not very fair. Like someone with famous parents struggling to make their own way in the world, Pure Malt should not constantly be compared to its illustrious forebears. So let’s set history aside for a moment and judge this whisky on its own merits. What does Taketsuru Pure Malt have to offer?

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Ichiro’s Malt & Grain

Ichiro's Malt and GrainProducer: Ichiro’s Malt (Venture Whisky)
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 46%

The latest bottling from the excellent Ichiro’s Malt stable, Malt & Grain is – as the name would suggest – a blended whisky. But it’s got a few tricks up its sleeve. Because it’s not just any blended whisky. It’s a World Blended Whisky. What this means is that whisky from other origins was shipped to Japan, where it was married with whisky from Ichiro’s Chichibu distillery. And let’s be honest, usually that’s bad news. There are countless examples of Japanese whisky on the market that don’t contain a single drop of spirit distilled in Japan.

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Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve

Ichiro's Wine Wood ReserveProducer: Ichiro’s Malt (Venture Whisky)
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 45%

When Akuto Ichiro set up Chichibu distillery in 2008, most people thought he was crazy. Japanese whisky sales were at their lowest level in decades, causing distillers such as Nikka and Suntory to cut production massively. In hindsight though, Ichiro’s timing could not have been better. Although few saw it coming, the popularity of Japanese whisky skyrocketed around half a decade later. While his competitors were struggling to meet demand, Ichiro’s warehouses were full – and he was ready to capitalise on this new whisky boom. What of course helped immensely was the quality of his product.

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Nikka Coffey Malt

Nikka Coffey MaltProducer: Nikka
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 45%

When Aeneas Coffey took his first steps in the distilling world as an exciseman in 1800, he could not have guessed that his name would one day be linked to a range of Japanese spirits. Yet such was the impact of Coffey’s inventions that he is now considered one of the most influential figures in whisky history. Traditionally, distilling took place in pot stills, which have to be cleaned out after each run. To increase efficiency, Coffey designed a column still, which could operate continuously. His patented Coffey still would go on to become the standard for distilling grain whisky, at a time when blending became increasingly popular. Although his patent has since expired, modern column stills are very similar to Coffey’s invention back then, and continue to be named Coffey stills.

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Super Nikka – Rare Old

Super Nikka ReviewProducer: Nikka
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

Super Nikka was launched as far back as 1962, during a decade of great optimism in the Japanese whisky industry. Nevertheless, these were sad times for Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru, whose Scottish wife Rita had passed away the previous year. As a way of dealing with his grief, he poured all his energy into creating a new blend, which he would title Super Nikka. To honour his late wife, he meant for it to be something special. Super Nikka was the company’s most expensive product to date, retailing at ¥3000 per bottle, at a time when a college graduate could expect to earn around ¥18000 a month. The glass bottles were hand blown, each fitted with a glass stopper to add an extra touch of class. The bottle alone reportedly cost ¥500 to make, an extravagance given that many whiskies were retailing for less. As mentioned though, this was a time when whisky was booming in Japan and consumers sure were interested. Around 1000 bottles of Super Nikka were produced each year. All of them sold.

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Kura The Whisky

Kura The Whisky ReviewDistillery: Helios
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 40%

First things first: Kura The Whisky wasn’t actually distilled in Japan. So why does this bottle bear the label Japanese Whisky I hear you ask? Well, while many countries have strict regulations that govern the distilling and labelling of whisky, Japan is notoriously lax when it comes to such matters. To take just one example, Japanese whisky makers can get away with including up to 70% generic blending alcohol in their “whiskies”. But back to Kura The Whisky. Suffice it to say, the raw spirit in this dram was produced in Scotland. Okinawa-based rum distillery Helios then shipped it to Japan, stored it in their rum casks for a while, and proudly proclaimed it “Japanese whisky”. If this feels like Helios is jumping on the bandwagon of Japanese whisky’s success story, well… that’s because it is. Not that Helios hasn’t been in business for some time, having produced quality rum and awamori (a rice-based liquor) since 1961. While Helios did distil some of their own whisky in the past, they seem to have stopped production since 2001, half a decade before Japanese whisky started becoming liquid gold. Anyway, let’s not judge a bottle by its cover, it’s time to give Kura The Whisky a try!

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Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve

Yamazaki Distiller's ReserveDistillery: Yamazaki
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

Popularity always comes at a price. This is certainly true for Japanese whisky, where overwhelming demand and sluggish supply have put immense pressure on stocks of aged spirit. The result has been predictable: a move towards no age statement (NAS) bottlings, with whole ranges of age statement whiskies getting the axe. Sure enough, it’s always sad to see beloved whiskies disappear, but when done right, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NAS bottlings. For some proof in the proverbial pudding, look no further than Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve. Launched in 2014 as Yazazaki’s entry-level whisky, the Distiller’s Reserve fills the gap left by the now hard-to-come-by 12 year old.  And for a first foray into NAS whiskies, owners Suntory have certainly not been stingy on the composition of this dram. Featuring whisky finished in ex-Bordeaux casks, older sherry matured spirit and even some of that precious mizunara oak, this Distiller’s Reserve is a captivating concoction. Perhaps all this justifies the hefty price tag – although having said that, this whisky sells for as little as €30 in Japan. And while this bottling is unlikely to make Yamazaki fans forget about the 18 or even 25 year old, the Distiller’s Reserve bears all the hallmarks of a worthy addition to the range.

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Miyagikyo Single Malt

Miyagikyo Single MaltDistillery: Miyagikyo
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 45%

Freshly rebranded, Miyagikyo Single Malt replaces the previous Miyagikyo NAS bottling, as well as the distillery’s 10, 12 and 15 year old expressions. The reasons why are obvious, as skyrocketing demand continues to put pressure on aged stocks of Japanese malt. In fact, Nikka’s other stalwart Yoichi has received identical treatment, with the entire range being replaced by a similar NAS bottling.

Having said that, all signs point to the fact that Nikka has included some older whisky into Miyagikyo Single Malt. This is very much a good thing, and reverses a trend whereby Japanese NAS whiskies were becoming ever younger. A large portion of this dram was aged in ex-sherry casks, complementing the delicate distillery character with sweet, nutty undertones. This whisky was my travel companion during a recent camping trip in Japan, and sure kept me warm and cheerful on some cold Hokkaido nights. So while for me this Miyagikyo scores points for sheer nostalgia, it’s also objectively a very pleasant, rewarding dram that I can confidently recommend to anyone taking their first steps in Japanese whisky.

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