Perhaps the most heavily anticipated Nikkas that came out of 2021 was Volume 1 of Nikka’s Discovery Series. The series intends to give fans a peek at Nikka’s behind-the-scenes experiments and give their distilleries the flexibility to play around with different styles than the usual. Additional Volumes from the Discovery Series are slated for annual release up until 2024, Nikka’s 90th anniversary. In the spirit of “Discovery,” each edition will explore a different aspect of Nikka’s whiskymaking. After all, variety is the spice of life, is it not?
The thing is, Japanese whiskies reached piping hot popularity in the mid-2010s, culminating in a huge mismatch of demand and supply that saw major distilleries cull best-selling labels one after another. So, right at the height of Japanese whisky mania, Nikka was forced to discontinue pretty much their entire age-statement line-up. This was similarly experienced at Suntory. That’s not something particularly easy to do: killing your goose just as her golden eggs were coming out in the dozens. So, the party was quietly snuffed out.
Now, if you were running Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. and you needed to buy a couple more years before your age statement stock (the stuff with the best margins) can be replenished, you’d think about how to keep the party going, even if the music is tellingly different. You’d throw out one-off special editions, NAS obviously, and keep the outturns large. That’ll surely keep the drinkers talking and, with some luck, word-of-mouth would translate to whisky-in-mouth. It’ll also come with a healthy bump in revenue.
Nikka appears to have adopted this game plan. When they released the Nikka Discovery Series Volume 1 in 2021, a pair of bottles consisting of a non-peated Yoichi Single Malt and a peated Miyagikyo Single Malt – both NAS, unsurprisingly – they also slapped on an astonishing ¥22,000 price tag per bottle (roughly US$200 per bottle before tax). I should mention there are reportedly 20,000 bottles for each label.
The theme of Discovery 2021 is “peat switcheroo.” The bold, intense, muscular Yoichi that is typically peated was released as an un-peated malt. The gentle, floral and balanced Miyagikyo that is typically unpeated was released as a peated malt.
I had to give this set a fair shake and see what all the fuss was about. But, I’ll be upfront: I struggle to think of a good reason for this peat switcheroo apart from “’cause we can.” It seems to fly in the face of the very purpose and character of the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries… but let’s reserve judgment until we have tasted them.
Yoichi Discovery Non-Peated Single Malt – Review
Colour: Light straw, chrysanthemum.
On the nose: Big and bellowing alcohol vapours immediately fill the nose, but fades within half a second. Malty cereals provide a very rich, oat flakes base; reminds me of Coco Pops cereal. Milk chocolates, Milo and Ovaltine biscuits as well.
After some time, this lets up into a fruit mix with tropical fruits in particular- lots of bananas, pineapples, oranges, with minor notes of guavas and pears. These fruity notes are far brighter than the initial deep, richer notes, but somehow they possess an almost candy-like sweetness to them – fruit jelly cups or Wonka fruit runts. There’s a herbaceous layer – handful of coriander, some dill and chervil. This gives the nose a keen grassiness that you find in freshly cut herbs. I think my nose is detecting what’s known as green leaf volatiles.
I find this very intense. It hits you front and centre and is arguably a tad too overpowering. Its youth is apparent from its sharpness and hotness. The transition from lots of heat to a brighter fruitiness and then a more bitter herbaceous twang isn’t properly integrated, and instead feels quite jarring and discontiguous.
In the mouth: Very creamy and rich. The spice on the nose carries through to the palate, quickly fading away into a very sweet, rich malty flavour, reminding me of oatmeal. Mild notes of bittersweet manuka honey grows and develops into granulated demerara sugar. There’s some savouriness to this sugar that is similar to sweet and salty popcorn.
The fruitiness is found on the palate but fairly restrained, with mainly orchard fruits in the form of Hokkaido apples, peaches and apricots. Freshly chopped herbs make a guest appearance as well, alongside an oaky woody note. The bitterness takes charge and leads into a more drying, astringent profile. Somehow, there still seems to be a hint of smoke to me – a sweet, fragrant oriental incense note. Are they really sure this is completely unpeated?
The finish is long, still very malty and sweet. Caramel sweetness lingers and eventually fades into the woody and herb bitterness that ends with a drying quality to the finish.
Apart from the peat, the quintessential parts are all here, but the palate seems to lack harmony. While the body had great texture, various dimensions still feel out of place. Without a clear peat dimension (I suppose what I found was a hint of some peat), this just lacks oomph. The best part of this expression is probably the finish which has a decent length and a graceful evolution from sweet maltiness to dry oakiness and herbs.
Miyagikyo Discovery Peated Single Malt – Review
Colour: Golden sunflower oil, a slightly darker shade than the Yoichi.
On the nose: Smoke leaps out immediately with all its ashiness and soot. Unlike the typical Yoichi, the smoke here is not as fragrant or as sweet. It is straight and simple charcoal smoke, the sort you’d get from a barbeque. There is a background of grilled pineapples and peaches. Some vanilla cream here as well with a touch of buttered toast. Overall, still fairly sweet, but less so than the Yoichi. There’s a slight minerality, with chalk and flint that give a slightly sharper edge to the nose.
I find the smoke to be very generic, lacking character or aromatics. The smokiness also feels like a separate story from the fruitiness and butteriness, and the contrasting notes simply do not properly integrate.
In the mouth: It starts off hot and ashy, but that quickly fades into something like salted butter popcorn. There’s an astringency here that also reminds me of raw almonds or peanut shells. This develops into something sweeter, with the fruits kicking in. Very much the same grilled pineapples, peaches, before turning to a handful of raisins and some fruitcake. There’s a slight herbaceous quality towards the end, but this time just sprigs of chervil and coriander.
The finish is fairly quick, continuing with the nutty astringency and fresh cut herbs, but develops into this nice creamy sweetness, almost like that of peaches and cream.
I found the taste to be incohesive and awkward, and it probably skews too much towards a bitter, drying profile. The smoke did nothing to enhance the flavour, and on the contrary, juts out like a sore thumb. The finish is the redeeming factor here. Great evolution to creamy orchard fruits as it progresses, giving the palate much in the way of contrast.
Between the two, I’d prefer the Non-Peated Yoichi. Yes, it is supposed to be bolder, more muscular and peaty. But despite losing its smokiness and edge, it holds up fairly well with its rich body, malty notes and fruity flavours that now emerge in lieu of peat. The finish is also quite enjoyable.
Some drinkers may find the Peated Miyagikyo better because it has more complexity and has that “something extra” over the Unpeated Yoichi that had its peat neutered. That is a completely valid verdict. I respectfully differ, because its un-aromatic smokiness is too out of place and does not cohere with the existing flavours.
Had Nikka used more mature stock, the results of this experiment might have been much better. A more mature Non-Peated Yoichi could bring out more substantial fruit flavours that are typically obscured by the smoke. A more mature Peated Miyagikyo could also have a weightier spirit that would integrate more cohesively with the smoke.
I could call this peat switcheroo exercise “interesting or “bold.” But, the Discovery 2021 is quite underwhelming considering that bottles go for more than double the price of the ordinary Yoichi or Miyagikyo NAS, both of which are great-tasting and reasonably priced. The saving grace is that it underscores precisely how well Yoichi and Miyagikyo have gotten their mainstay recipes to a tee. For the fee of US$400, we are offered a glimpse into an alternate universe or upside-down dimension where things aren’t how they are supposed to be. Let’s all join hands and agree to keep things as they are; the universe is in balance; all is right in the world of Nikka whiskies.
Lead image courtesy of Nikka.