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Whisky Reviews

Tasting Two Japanese Whisky Classics From Nikka Whisky: Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky & Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky


These two very recognisable expressions - the Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky and the Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky - are probably something you'd find in many homes and bars, given how accessible they are price and availability wise.

But really they are a piece of history that is core to not just Nikka Whisky, a giant in the Japanese whisky scene, but to Japanese whiskies in broad. Nikka Whisky had been started by one Masataka Taketsuru, who was the first Japanese person to voyage to Scotland to study and bring back the craft of whisky distilling, and would eventually help establish Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery, and later depart to start Nikka Whisky - thus is often considered as the father of Japanese whisky. 


The key with these two whiskies pictured here is the term "Coffey". This is in reference to a traditional type of distilling equipment known as the Coffey continuous still, named after Aeneas Coffey who invented it and introduced it in 1830. While Taketsuru had been studying in Scotland the craft of whiskymaking, he had gotten to learn firsthand how the Coffey still was used to distill grain whisky. He saw that this type of distillation still (as opposed to the standard pot still) was able to more quickly and also more cost efficiently produce grain whiskies whilst still retaining a good amount of flavour and even offered a more creamy texture.

Nonetheless when Taketsuru had returned to Japan in 1920, the first order of business was to establish from ground zero Japan's first whisky distillery - alot of the initial focus was on the use of pot stills for distilling malted barley into whisky, which is by far and large the traditional and most commonly used method. However, by the 1960's, with both Yamazaki Distillery (now his competitor) and his own Yoichi Distillery up and running, he sought to raise the bar by producing great blended whiskies - that's where the Coffey still comes in.

To make a quality blend, most blenders would use a mix of malt whisky (from malted barley) and grain whisky (typically corn, but also rye and wheat). As mentioned, up to that point, only traditional malt whisky was being made, and thus Taketsuru had decided to import from Scotland the country's first column still - which had the added feature of being notoriously difficult to operate and only Taketsuru would possess the know how. With that, he begun producing grain whiskies at the Nishinomiya plant belonging to Asahi Breweries. 


Not very pretty, but this is what the Coffey still looks like. (Image Source: Master of Malt, Spirit Animal)


The capability to produce grain whiskies would help propel Nikka Whisky which could now create a number of blends that became quite popular for its taste, price and availability, thanks to the Coffey still.

Later on a second set of Coffey stills would be imported into Japan for Nikka's use, both of which were subsequently moved to the Miyagikyo Distillery in the late 1990s.

And thus what we have here are the Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky (made using malted barley) and the Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky (made using a high amount of corn), both distilled using the Coffey continuous still.

Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky, 45% ABV - Review

Tasting Notes 

Color: Gold

Aroma: Punchy, slightly hot and heady but layered with thick aromas of vanilla, hay, beeswax, manuka honey and lacquered wood. Over time more on red apples, a Nikka signature. Also custard apple, cream custard and then baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Taste: Heavy notes of apple pie filling and baking spice, with a particularly heavy expression on the cinnamon and nutmeg. It has a really underrated waxy texture - think beeswax. More on lacquer and old wood, almost conveys a sense of old temples. Very nice!

Finish: Super aromatic, super waxy. More on old wood, lacquer with lasting notes of cinnamon, apple and honey.


My Thoughts 

Folks are always raving about the new limited editions from Nikka, but really talk far too little about how amazing the Nikka Coffey Malt is! When you consider that this is a fraction of the price of other newer Nikka releases, and that this is a year round core expression that you can very easily find - you really need to be giving this its due. It has an intensely aromatic bouquet on the nose, with a waxy and delicious taste on the palate and even follows through on the finish.

What I love here is just how much oomph it has in terms of flavors and unlike many core whiskies around this has so much waxiness on the body which gives it a good weight and texture that's incredibly satisfying.

It's so incredible that despite having drank hundreds of whiskies, everytime I come back to this I still love it and it never fails to impress. Definitely a great gift/starter whisky/homebar essential.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, 45% ABV - Review

Tasting Notes

Color: Amber

Aroma: It’s a sweet and creamy scent of creamed corn, leading into denser notes of vanilla cream, caramel, and black tea cakes. There’s also a little bit of hay and field flowers, with a very light sourness of sour mash.

Taste: Medium-bodied, this starts off sweet with toffee and vanilla cream, and also confectionary of candy corn and fondant. There’s some butteriness of butter cookies, as well as a light apple flavour. Backed up by more honey, there’s also a delicate spice of some clove. There’s abit of mustiness of old lacquered wood too.

Finish: Clean finish, quite aromatic nonetheless, with some apple tea, wooden cabinets, and then more on corn syrup. A rather short finish.


My Thoughts

This was a slightly different take on your usual Scotch grain whiskies and even corn-heavy Bourbons. It still packs those strong corn flavours and confectionary sweetness as corn heavy grain whiskies generally do, but this touched upon a more earthy flavour profile with some bits of black tea, apples, and clove. It’s also noticeably cleaner too.

In that sense, I’d say this was less high pitched and bright, in its place is alittle more of a warmer, autumnal profile, more nuanced as well, with a wider breadth, but it could of course pack more depth and a longer finish - but for the price and availability, you’d be bordering on asking for too much.

Overall, decent stuff! 

My Rating: 6/10


Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.


Remember that here the focus is on the use of Nikka's unique Coffey stills and that the two expressions serve to highlight how the Coffey still expresses its influence for both malt and grain whisky - thus compared to Nikka's Yoichi Single Malt, Miyagikyo Single Malt, or the various Nikka blends, this is really more of a breakdown of on Nikka's key components. 

That's important because what you'll notice here is that while you don't get a distinct profile associated with a particular distillery, what you'll find instead is a very unique expression of the Coffey still that's created very rounded and cohesive flavours, with honestly alot more body and flavour than you'd expect!

The flavours here are quite forward, you definitely still get some apples, which is Nikka's signature, but you get lots of secondary surrounding flavours coming through for both expressions, the Coffey Malt being more waxy, spiced and heavy, whereas the Coffey Grain was more corn forward, but still keeping with aged black tea and lots of cream.

Honestly, incredibly impressive work here, and such a steal for what they are - their legacy - and what they deliver to drinkers. Between the two, the Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky is a definite gem, super underrated, I just love the antique wood and beeswax combo that gives it this really elegant and refined muscularity - it's really big and at the same time classy. It's an expression that I absolutely love and has been a staple in my homebar for years now!