Nikka’s Grain Whisky Is Giving Main Character Energy: An Inside Peek Into Nikka’s Secret Grain Project
Editorial Note: This Nikka Whisky Masterclass took place at Whisky Live Singapore 2023. Whisky Live Singapore would be returning in 2024 and will be happening on the 23rd and 24th November, once again at the Singapore Flyer!
In the world of whiskies, grain whisky often finds itself in the shadows. Drinkers overlook it in favour of the glamorously marketed single malt. But this understated category deserves a spotlight of its own. Much like the Best Supporting Actors at the Oscars, grain whisky has a pivotal role to play in the whisky industry.
During Whisky Live Singapore 2023, I attended the Nikka Whisky Discovery Collection masterclass – this year’s class delving into the often-underestimated world of Japanese grain whisky, and deepening my appreciation for this vital component.
For over a century, grain whisky has been the unsung backbone of many well-known Scotch whisky brands. It's a common misconception that grain whisky is inferior due to its less expensive production methods and simpler flavour profile. In reality, grain whisky plays a very crucial role in several ways.
The first point of note is the taste. While whisky aficionados may chase complex flavours, the vast majority of consumers – who actually contribute more to whisky sales than aficionados – tend to seek something smoother and more approachable. Grain whisky, with its lighter and sweeter profile, complements the robustness of malt whisky, helping blenders craft a more balanced and enjoyable blend that appeals to a broad audience.
Another key aspect is the precise production process. Unlike malt whisky, which is produced using traditional pot stills, grain whisky is almost always made with more advanced column stills. These column stills offer greater control and consistency, which helps to ensure that each batch of blended whisky maintains a uniform flavour – crucial for nurturing a brand identity and consumer trust.
Finally, the cost and scalability of grain whisky production can't be overlooked. Grain whisky can be made from a variety of grains such as corn or wheat, which are generally more affordable than barley malt. The efficiency of column stills also allows it to be produced quicky and on a larger scale. Yes, grain whisky is cheaper to produce. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always inferior.
In 1963, the aging Masataka Taketsuru redoubled his efforts into expanding his company with quality grain whisky, installing two iconic Coffey continuous stills in the (now closed) Nishinomiya Distillery. This made it Japan's first dedicated grain whisky distillery. Fast forward to 2023 and we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of Nikka's foray into grain whiskies—a journey marked by relentless Japanese innovation. To commemorate this milestone, Nikka introduced a limited edition grain whisky expression, fittingly unveiled at both Whisky Live Paris and Whisky Live Singapore.
This special release, Nikka ‘The Grain’ Whisky, forms part of Nikka’s Discovery Collection, an initiative that delves into different facets of Nikka’s whisky-making process. The Collection has previously shed light on the influence of peat in Nikka’s single malts (2021) and the intriguing flavours born from experimental yeast strains (2022) . This year, the focus shifts to the diverse portfolio of grain whiskies from Nikka, and gives us a new perspective on this often-overlooked category.
During the masterclass, we received a comprehensive overview of Nikka's four grain distilleries spread across Japan.
The Nishinomiya Distillery, though no longer operational since 1998 (it’s now a bottling plant), remains a significant part of Nikka's history. The Miyagikyo Distillery, primarily known for its single malts, also houses Coffey stills for producing grain whisky. Adding to the portfolio more recently, Asahi Group (Nikka’s parent), has acquired two more distilleries: Moji Distillery in Southern Japan and Satsuma Tsukasa Distillery in Kyushu. Both specialise in shochu and liqueurs but now have the capability to produce distinct grain spirit that enrich Nikka’s diverse stock of grain whisky.
Nikka’s ‘The Grain’ Whisky is a blend of 7 different types of grain whiskies:
- Miyagikyo Coffey Grain (essentially Nikka’s flagship Coffey Grain expression)
- Miyagikyo Coffey Malt (essentially Nikka’s flagship Coffey Malt expression)
- Nishinomiya Coffey Grain
- Nishinomiya Coffey Malt
- Moji Barley Grain
- Satsuma Tsukasa Barley Grain
- Satsuma Tsukasa Corn & Rye
Each of these 7 components were selected by Masashi Watanuki, Nikka Yoichi Distillery’s master blender, to contribute a slightly different character to the final product. The selection includes the Miyagikyo Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt, which are essentially the flagship expressions of Nikka's grain whisky range. Adding to the complexity are the Nishinomiya Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt that were both distilled back in 1988 at the now-closed Nishinomiya Distillery. These components are likely to be well over 30 years old, adding a layer of maturity to the blend.
The blend also features groundbreaking additions from the new Moji and Satsuma Tsukasa. The Moji Barley Grain, along with the Satsuma Tsukasa Barley Grain and Corn & Rye, represent a new era in Nikka’s whisky-making which looks to incorporate some expertise in shochu making into their grain whiskies. These three components, never previously released, were carefully selected by Masashi Watanuki, the master blender at Nikka's Yoichi Distillery. Watanuki-san’s vision was to integrate these new grain whiskies into the blend in a way that highlights their unique qualities while maintaining a balanced and harmonious overall profile.
As part of the masterclass, we were allowed to taste five key components of the blend. The intention is to give us a peek into the blending process and the art of creating a harmonious whisky profile.
We began first with the Miyagikyo Coffey Grain (Nikka Coffey Grain) and Miyagikyo Coffey Malt (Nikka Coffey Malt). Both expressions are straightforward sippers – the Coffey Grain is sweet, biscuity with a caramel profile complemented by notes of banana and a unique sweetcorn tone. The Coffey Malt is just as sweet but has a different dimension with its butterscotch and vanilla notes.
Then I moved on to the Moji Barley Grain, which was intriguing. Reminiscent of a barley or moji shochu, its profile was the most delicate among the lot. It had soft red fruits and floral aromas with a palate that was light, featuring grassy notes, light florals, mint, and a notable spiciness, although not overwhelmingly flavourful.
The Satsuma Tsukasa Barley Grain got even more interesting. It has a layered aroma of sweet potato, cereal and a hint of chlorine, a rather unusual but fascinating profile. On the palate, it was light-bodied but carried interesting notes of toasted grains, banana, honey and cinnamon.
The last component we got to taste is the Satsuma Tsukasa Corn & Rye , which according to the brand reps, represents Nikka’s first foray into rye whisky. Interestingly, immediately pictured Maker’s Mark the moment I nosed it. It really resembles an American Bourbon with sweet notes of corn, heavy caramel and an edge of mild herbaceousness that so many bourbons carry. The best part of it is that it’s full-bodied, round and smooth. Flavours are pretty straightforward – much like a clean-tasting Bourbon with heavy notes of caramel, mild oakiness and a touch of sarsaparilla.
Finally, we tasted Nikka ‘The Grain’, the culmination of these diverse components. It is by far one of the finest grain whiskies we’ve tasted.
It was rich and honeyed on the nose, with a medium-bodied palate featuring vanilla, gingerbread, toasted cereal, black tea, liquorice, and baking spices. This blend seemed to encapsulate the best of its components – the sweetness of the standard Nikka Coffey Grain, the nuanced cereal notes of the Satsuma Tsukasa Barley Grain, and the heavier body of the Satsuma Tsukasa Corn & Rye. All these disparate dimensions also come together in a very well-integrated way when tasting The Grain.
Someone once said that the mark of a talented whisky blender is the ability to create a blend that tastes far better than the individual components. We were able to witness this for ourselves after tasting these individual components with the final product that is surprisingly flavourful, harmonious and complex. This edition of Nikka’s Discovery Collection also challenges our perceptions of the “less flavourful” grain whisky. The quality of The Grain expression shows us how grain whisky could rise beyond being a mere supporting act to become a star in its own right.
Now that we’ve tasted the penultimate edition, the question is what’s next for the final instalment of the Discovery Collection in 2024? Considering that the past 3 editions have explored aspects of whisky-making like the influence of peat, yeast and grain whisky, perhaps 2024 might see a wrap-up series that focuses on the influence of various cask styles and oak species on whisky.