A couple of weeks ago, Nikka Whisky From The Barrel – one of the world’s best selling Japanese whiskies – lost its ability to actually call itself a “Japanese Whisky”.
Yep, you read that right: the world-renowned whisky from Japan will no longer be called Japanese Whisky.
Why is that?
Well, in February 2021, a new set of rules were issued by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. The new regulations set out to put tighter restrictions around which spirits can call themselves Japanese whisky. The premise is similar to the rules that protect what can be labelled as “scotch whisky” under European legislation and practices by the Scotch Whisky Association. The rules look at the provenance of the spirits, how they are distilled, how they are matured and how they are bottled.
The regulations will apply to those entities that have signed up to the association and that includes Japanese Whisky’s biggest names in Suntory and Nikka. Whilst the new regs don’t come into effect for another 3 years, Nikka have already made a statement and have updated their website setting out which of their spirits will no longer be classed as “Japanese Whisky” and that includes their flagship blend Nikka Whisky From The Barrel – though the exact reasons why have not been officially communicated.
With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit the little cuboid bottle in the back of my whisky cabinet and generously sample this naughty little number.
On paper Nikka Whisky From The Barrel is a blend containing 40% single malt whiskies from the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries and 60% Coffey grain spirit from their various stills. Nikka states that the whiskies are aged for 10 or so years, then blended and married in a variety of different cask types (including ex-bourbon barrels, ex-sherry butts, and refilled, recharred and remade hogsheads) for 3-6 months and are then bottled at the “From The Barrel” strength of 51.4% ABV.
Oooh it’s coming in hot with lots of alcohol vapours from the 51.4% shooting straight up the nostrils – very boozy and a little acetone note [note to self: maybe give it a sec next pour]. But, when you go in after a chance to breathe, there’s a nice wave of oaky smells: both the wood flavours and the spices. There’s light fruity sweetness in there with strawberries, peaches, pineapples, cherries and oranges and a sweet floral note that reminds me of honeysuckle. I guess a combination of those flavours and the power of suggestion would make for a Japanese cherry blossom scent. There’s a whole host of mellow and warming spices here too.
The sweetness hits the lips first and that list of fruits from the nose start to appear again joined by a vanilla pod sweetness and creaminess. Whilst it is not overly malty there is a decent barley sugar flavour to it too but these flavours are then all quickly burned out by the alcohol heat which just picks up and up. It starts with the same set of spices from the nose but they just get dialled up to a fiery white pepper and hot cinnamon spice.
The peppery spices continue to ramp up until they just fizzle away, but they manage to leave a strawberry, vanilla and cherry sweetness and almost ice cream-like texture that just invites another sip.
A really enjoyable sipping whisky. I’m a sucker for a repeat pour of this one. The sweetness left behind makes you just want to go back to it and even makes you forget about the boozy burn. At the very accurate 51.4% ABV, it’s one that could allow a bit of water, and may have even been designed to be enjoyed with an ice cube, knowing that reduction would bring out extra flavours and unlock the dram a bit, BUT it is great on its own, neat too.
As mentioned above, the recent headlines about this whisky have stated that this can no longer be classed as a Japanese Whisky, but I’m ok with that. I’m not able to read the Japanese writing on the back of the box, but I don’t believe that it purports to be 100% Japanese. Insider info suggests that some of the base spirit comes from the Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland, which therefore makes this fall foul of the new guidelines on what can carry the name Japanese whisky. For me, the fact that Nikka quickly updated their site to say that this did fall outside the rules was commendable, and I am one for total transparency, so I’d love to know the extent of if it.
Does this impact what I think about this whisky?
This is a lovely dram. Whenever I have seen that squat rectangular bottle behind a bar in the past, I have thought to myself that this bar is bringing some strong whisky game. Apparently Nikka state that the square bottle is to distinguish the whisky as a small lump of solid whisky. Love that.
I will admit that I’ve often pushed it as a go-to “Japanese whisky” – I guess, moving forward, I will simply have to rephrase that to a delicious whisky from Japan. It still doesn’t make a difference to me. As long as they don’t change the recipe, then Nikka can keep up the good work.
What I’d like to see now though is that Nikka – and other whiskymakers – go one step further now and explain all the components, their origins and how each was matured. I guess with so many casks and influences at play, then at some point that may be giving away trade secrets, however the movement by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association to tighten its regulations and this response from Nikka are both steps in the right direction, and what a whisky to explore that with. Nikka Whisky From The Barrel into my glass please.
Sample disclosure: This is my own bottle of whisky that I bought as bit of an impulse buy when discovering how the other half live when shopping at Waitrose, and I haven’t looked back. No promotions. No agenda. Just a whisky that I had heard so much about and wanted to try. All notes are intended as an honest, fair and independent review of the whisky itself, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely.