A Trio of Nikka Pure Malts – Red, Black and White

This is an article that I’ve been half sitting on for a while – I’ve had the bottles on the side for the best part of a year and have been meaning to get round to writing some tasting notes (and even open one of them). So finally I’ve got round to cracking the seal on the final one while investigating a Japanese entry for a tasting that I might be running sometime soon. While I decided in the end that a different Nikka whisky would grace my tasting line-up (the excellent From the Barrel which I need to buy more of now after an extending sampling over the last week or so) this trio is definitely worth a look – Nikka Pure Malt Red, Black and White.

Nikka Pure Malt range

Nikka is one of the two big names in Japanese whisky and was started by Masataka Taketsuru, the original master distiller of Suntory and thus probably the first whisky distiller in Japan, in 1934. These days they are owned by Asahi and consist of not only the original Yoichi distillery, in the town of the same name on the northern island of Hokkaido, but also Miyagikyo in Sendai, north east of Tokyo, and the Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland. They produce a wide range of whiskies but as with much of the industry produce mainly blended whisky. These Pure Malts would be described as Blended Malts under SWA regulations and consist of a variety of single malt whiskies blended together. Each of the three whiskies takes a different flavour profile and builds it from whiskies from Yoichi and Miyagikyo, although I did hear rumours (that I’ve not been able to verify) that the white also contained some peaty Scottish malt.

As with many of Nikka’s whisky the presentation is very important, with the bottles being very pretty and coming in plain cardboard boxes that wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves of Muji. The bottles are smaller than the usual 70cl at 50cl, which makes them both affordable and a bit pricier than they at first seem. One thing is certain, when they are finished the bottles aren’t going in the recycling as I already have ideas of what tasty booze experiments they’ll be filled with next.

The red is the one I didn’t buy a full bottle of – I’d heard from friends that it was their least favourite and decided to grab a sample of it from Master of Malt before jumping in for a full bottle. After a taste I’m quite pleased I didn’t, as it’s my least favourite of the three. I did go into my first taste of it with a bit of bias as after my initial opening of the sample bottle it was rather…how to say this…pissy. However, that smell drifted off very quickly and I detected no further off smells. On the nose it had violets, bbq pork, sweet butter, spicy fruit and some apple and pear – almost a hint of unspiced apple pie. To taste it was very drying and tannic, with cardboard, hints of sour grap and a sugary woody finish. Water didn’t help that much, bringing out more bitter wood but softening that with vanilla, and the finish lost some of its sweetness but gained more woody cardboard. All in all too tannic and woody for me.

The black reminded me more of the From the Barrel, which is a grain/malt blend rather than a pure malt, and was the other whisky in contention to fill the Japanese spot on my tasting list. On the nose it had lemon Turkish Delight, red wine gums (although my notes say ‘more pink than red’), pine and petrol. The taste had sour fruit, salty butter, sherberty Refreshers, golden syrup, violets and prickly dry wood leading to a tannic woody finish with a hint of wood smoke. Water brought out more sourness on the nose, added more fruitiness to the middle, and vanilla and wet wood to the finish. It’s sweet and sour with some interesting complexity, and one that I suspect will make its way out of the cupboard when I run out of From the Barrel.

The final bottle in the range is the white – the smoky one. I suspect it’s just a rumour but I can see why people thought it might have a drop of Islay whisky in here, although it would have only been a drop. On the nose there was light wood smoke covering sweet alcohols, with some muddy sherry, sugared flowers and crunchy apples. To taste there was more smoke and astringent polished wood, celery salt (I think…that’s the closest I can get to the vegetal saltiness that I got on a couple of sips), the crunchy apples from the nose (Granny Smiths), unripe white grapes, a hint of minty menthol and a finish of peaty smoke intertwined with fragrant wood. It was quite prickly with alcohol, despite its 43%, and water combined the disparate flavours creating a tasty mess of smoke, sweetness, flowers and tannic fruitiness. It still had some of the alcoholic burn, but ended lightly smoky with the woody end remaining. Interesting, but with my current tastes leaning away from smoke it’s not one for me at the moment.

Three interesting and quite different whiskies – one I really liked, one that was nice and one that wasn’t for me. Nikka seems to currently be the more interesting of the two big distillers, although that could be a subconscious prejudice against the larger seeming Suntory, but in the main it just goes to show that Japan really is a place to keep an eye on.

Update: It seems my research was a bit on the rubbish side and a couple of googles this morning pointed me in the right direction – there is a chunk of Islay whisky in the white. After a quick look at the excellent Nonjatta it seems that the white is Islay/Yoichi, Black mainly Yoichi and Red mainly Miyagikyo.

Nikka Pure Malt Red
Japanese Blended Malt Whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Nika Pure Malt Black
Japanese Blended Malt Whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Nikka Pure Malt White
Japanese Blended Malt Whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

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