Japanese spirits unleashed from the east
Perhaps those most caught off guard by the surge in popularity of Japan’s whiskies were Japanese whisky makers. When the 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask was named World Whisky of the Year in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, Japanese whisky went from international curiosity to international sensation … to being almost completely un-gettable.
Stocks of aged single malts literally began to evaporate to the point where finding a few bottles of the stuff – even in Japan – became virtually impossible. Distilleries began releasing No Age Statement (NAS) single malts. Then blended malts. Then blends of grain and single malt whiskies. Then just grain whiskies. Anything to keep a presence in global markets. Not to say that some of these latter offerings weren’t superb, but those hankering for an aged single malt produced in Japan have been out of luck for quite a few years now.
If you manage a whisky distillery that’s running low on (or is out of) spirits that have reached the legal minimum age to actually be called “whisky”, you have a couple choices: release un-aged “whisky” (aka “white dog”), or distill new spirts that require no aging and can be brought to market quickly (eg. vodka, gin).
Japan’s most respected whisky producers – Nikka and Suntory – have both released gin and vodka brands. Both distillers will claim that doing so was not in any way a financial decision. I have no reason to doubt them. Okay, I do. Yet given the quality of these Japanese spirits, debating the rationale behind creating them is pretty pointless. Like much of what the Japanese do, you either go all in or stay out when creating stuff. I’ve had the good fortune of tasting both Suntory’s Haku Vodka and Roku Gin, and the Nikka Coffey Vodka and Coffey Gin.
A rice-based vodka filtered through bamboo charcoal, it boasts a clean, pure aromatic profile, with just a bare touch of earthiness. Smooth and silky, with a slightly viscous mouthfeel and a touch of white pepper on the finish. Try chilled neat, in a vodka martini, on in any other cocktail that won’t detract from its character.
Nikka Coffey Vodka
Don’t confuse “Coffey” with “coffee.” The former is a type of patented (in 1831) Scottish still. The latter is, well, coffee. By definition vodka is supposed to be “neutral,” but what I like about Nikka’s is that it sports a subtle yet engaging aroma of cherry blossom and citrus peel. In the mouth, it has a creamy, viscous texture, with no rough edges, crystal clean flavour, and an exceptionally long, mildly peppery finish.
Nikka Coffey Gin
Like the Roku, Nikka’s offering uses both traditional and more exotic Japanese herbs and botanicals. The result is a gin that features intense, bright, zesty aromatics. You’ll find classic gin top notes of juniper and coriander enhanced by fragrant floral/citrus undertones. Crisp and balanced on the palate, there is a touch of apple, and pleasantly tangy hints of green Japanese Sansho pepper on the finish.
Using a selection of botanicals – including six specifically from Japan (sancho pepper, yazu peel, etc.) – as well as some of the more traditional (juniper, coriander and the like), the result is a uniquely aromatic gin (fragrant citrus/yazu, rosewater, cherry blossom) with a distinctive fruity, earthy, peppery palate.
Neither of these gins will likely turn the cranks of staunchly traditional London Dry (Sipsmith, Hayden’s, No.3, etc.) purists, but they certainly do offer a pair of very well-crafted Japanese spirits for those looking for something a bit different. My impromptu (though completely professional) gin-tasting panel concluded that the bright citrus top notes of the Roku would lend it well to a refreshing G&T, while the more viscous, peppery character of the Nikka makes it ideally suited to a classic martini.