Tag Archives: Nikka Whisky

Grain versus Malt

A family affair.   PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

There are two brothers in the Whisky Family.   Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order.  It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else.  He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious.  His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside.  He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success.  Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt.  He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.

This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion.  And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story.  Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention.   I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers.  Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.

The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats.  Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain.  The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize.  American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance).  This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit.  In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.

Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation.  The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour).  Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths.  It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush.  Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.

Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation.  Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending.  As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt.  These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous.  They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.

I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential.  Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation.  Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable.  The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue.   Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background.  It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.

There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first.  This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed.  The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force.  It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent.  There’s room I think for lot more of it.  May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

A salute to single malts

Pedigree in whisky…PATRICK LECLEZIO seeks out the proudest and the purest.

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The sport of kings… To some it’s horseracing but to those of us who are better informed, it’s something altogether different. Yes, you know it, don’t pretend otherwise the love and enjoyment of whisky is as regal a pleasure as for which one might hope. That said, regardless of whether it’s the equine or ethanol variety, success on the field is most assured (albeit, I must add, neither guaranteed nor exclusive) with some pedigreed participation. A bit of breeding goes a long way and when it comes to whisky, there’s nothing more thoroughbred than the single malt. I recently had the rare opportunity to taste the flagship whisky, the purest of the purebloods, of the world’s leading single malt (and a few of its new releases to boot).

Single malts inspire awe – I’ve often heard the term uttered in almost hallowed tones – and rightly so, but I sometimes wonder whether many of these self-same utterers, and indeed the average whisky drinker, really understands what it is that makes them so special. A single malt is the product of a single distillery – and can be made from only one type of grain: malted barley. Typically they are produced using pot-stills, as is legislated in Scotland but elsewhere, interestingly, this appears to be more custom than law; Japanese distillers Nikka, for instance, produce an excellent ‘single coffey malt’ which, as the name suggests, is made in a column still. Single malts are distinct from the other styles of whisky –blends, blended malts and grain whiskies in the Scotch universe – but less so than one might imagine. The malted barley base and the potstill character are found also in blends (partially) and blended malts (entirely), and although it’s lesser-known to the whisky-drinking everyman, most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, ‘vatted’) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used. The only element seemingly setting it apart is its single source provenance. Is this enough to warrant the aura? Is it of sufficient distinction?

No prizes for guessing, especially in light of my laudatory preamble, that the answer is yes. It turns out that the one point of origin is most definitely important: their unique stills, their local water, their people (focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part double-digit generations in the making), their heritage and indeed their very air (witness the Bunnahabhain dunnage) set single malts apart from other whiskies. A single malt is representative of a singular terroir and style; it is pure, it is distinctive, it is rare and limited – and bound to its birthplace (Cardhu Pure Malt be gone!) –- and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.

In this revered tradition, in this procession of greatness, there is one that stands above the rest – as a herald and a leader, and as an influencer and definer of events: the world’s best-selling single malt, and the first (and only) malt whisky to conquer the million case frontier – Glenfiddich. Not so long ago, single malt, the progenitor of whisky, was mired in obscurity, and denied the acclaim that it enjoys today. Most were used as fodder for blends; the few that were bottled in their own right were available only on home soil and primarily in independent bottlings. Glenfiddich led the charge, becoming, in 1963, the first single malt to be commercially exported outside of the UK, “effectively introducing the world to the single malt category”, to borrow a phrase, unreservedly, from their publicity machine.

I am a fan. The 15-year-old Solera is one of my favourite whiskies, and has been for a very long time; it’s an enduring classic, and I can recommend it without restraint: it’s rich, flavoursome, well-balanced, and reasonably priced – a great combination of attributes. I’m also particularly appreciative of the fact that these guys don’t pompously insist, like many of their compatriots – a losing battle if ever I saw one – on a preceding article (‘The’ Glenfiddich). The flames of my fandom were fanned (haha, sorry) recently when I had the rare – very rare! – opportunity to sample a dram of the legendary Glenfiddich 50-year-old. And what a treat it was. The nose displayed the type of marvellous, immediate complexity – an all-out, highly co-ordinated, flavour assault – that is only possible with highly cultivated, extended maturation. The whisky was rich, rounded, polished, with faint wisps of peat smoke, a lovely mellow warmth and silky mouth-feel, all of which were delightful but expected, and then, quite surprisingly, some litchi on the palate, before it stretched itself out into a long, lingering finish. It’s a whisky that I consider myself extremely fortunate to have tasted – one that I’m sure I’ll remember well into my dotage.

Glenfiddich is also about to launch two new variants onto the local market: the 14-year-old Rich Oak, and the 15-year-old Distillery Edition, contrasting but worthy whiskies. I’m heartened that in Glenfiddich we have a brand that’s not sending the bulk of its stock to the No Age Statement circus. They’re fortunate to be in this position, but well done to them anyhow for holding the line. The Rich Oak is a sweet and spicy, tender whisky, somewhat reminiscent of its Solera sibling, whilst the Distillery Edition is a robust, dry, peppery whisky bottled at cask strength – a satisfying 51% ABV. Each for its occasion.

One could make the claim, with some justification, that there’s no better breeding, no finer pedigree than a single malt; and if you pick your whiskies like you (should) pick your horses, then those from Glenfiddich, the valley of the deer, supreme amongst single malts in many respects, would be as good a bet as it gets. May the dram be with you!

 

Tribute to Japan part 2

When it comes to whisky Japan is a study in contrasts.  The industry is largely controlled by 2 players – Suntory and Nikka – and it is often described as “closed”.   In a sort of entrenched prisoner’s dilemma, the various distilleries, already limited in number, do not trade outside of their parent companies, hence restricting the variety of product available for blending, and forcing blenders to look abroad, primarily to Scotland, for alternative sources of malt whisky.  This is a deeply traditional convention, rooted in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty, which has to a large extent inhibited the industry to the point where, until fairly recently, Japanese whiskies were largely unknown, and undrunk outside of Japan.

Two series of events changed this course.

Firstly, Bill Murray, sworn enemy of gophers and ghosts alike, proved himself a great friend to and an unprecedented ambassador for Japanese whisky by dramatically elevating its global awareness in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”.   You can’t buy that type of publicity.

Who you gonna call?

Secondly, in 2008 two Japanese whiskies, Yoichi 20yo and Suntory Hibiki, were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blend respectively by Whisky Magazine, which is one of the whisky industry’s most credible authorities.  Since then they have been garnering awards left right and centre.  On Friday night I was able to worship at the altar with a tasting of Nikka from the Barrel, a cask-strength, non-chill filtered, jack-in-the-box of a whisky.  It’s a multiple award winner with flavour that really lets you know it’s there.  Think fruits, candy-floss, and sweet bread.  Highly recommended.

Delish!

Paradoxically the same issues which have held the industry back have also driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, and different stills to produce a variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a coffey still (unheard of elsewhere!).  Japanese oak (mizunara) has been added to the ageing mix (the American and European varieties being the usual).   And so on, and so on.  Within the conservative outer shell there is a hive of innovation producing spectacular results.

With product innovation clearly not an issue, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the industry is marketing and distribution.    Japanese whisky, having been modelled on Scotch, is not intrinsically well differentiated, and it’s the relative newcomer.  Subtleties and exceptions aside, the flavours are similar.  It also doesn’t help that many Japanese brands still contain Scotch malts.  It’s both difficult to sell something that’s not its own, and difficult to buy something that you can’t find.  They can’t just rely on old Bill forever, so let’s hope they kick on and get this right.

I mentioned yesterday that I was waiting for an ice-ball mould.  Predictably – having tempted fate – it did not arrive.  So I wasn’t able to enjoy my mizuwari as planned…cubes just won’t do it since ice-balls revealed themselves to me.  Instead I had an oyuwari: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).  Having no Japanese whisky at the ready I had to improvise with an Abelour 10yo, my table malt.  It was interesting, definitely releasing the volatiles, but it’s an oddity rather like gluhwein, something that you might have and even enjoy, but only every now and then.

My missing ice-ball mould

I’ll wait patiently then for the mould to arrive, mix up that mizuwari, and make a fitting toast to the both the Japanese whisky industry, and, with current events in mind, to Japan in general.

Tribute to Japan part 1

The earthquakes and resulting tsunamis in the area have focused the world’s attention on Japan, and on a crisis unprecedented in scale in that country since WWII. Thousands are dead, hundreds of thousands are surviving in life-threatening conditions, and the damage to property and infrastructure has been devastating in the extreme. Luckily, if indeed luck has any meaning in the greater context, the whisky industry can be grateful for small mercies. The facility most affected, Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery, is reported to be relatively unscathed, having escaped with some minor damage to stock. However it is located adjacent to some of the most heavily affected communities, so there is a high likelihood that staff, suppliers, and/or their families may be suffering. I’m sure that all of our thoughts are with them. In this time of tragedy for the Japanese people, I thought a tribute to their whisky industry and culture might be appropriate. I tasted a great Japanese whisky over the weekend, and today I’m expecting a Japanese ice-ball mould in the post. If it arrives as scheduled I intend to prepare an ice-ball mizuwari (see my previous post: https://wordsonwhisky.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/shaken-not-stirred/) tonight, to serve as further  inspiration for the tribute, which I’ll post tomorrow. Join me then in honouring this great nation and offering them solidarity during these difficult hours.