Today, we review a Nikka series very often seen in Japanese convenience or grocery stores.
Pour a Nikka Black, and white people in Tudor-era outfits would give you a moustache.
The Nikka Black series - nicknamed “Bearded Black” - is a line of affordable mass market whiskies developed in 1965 to appeal to the Japanese palate. Outside of Asia-Pacific, it isn’t terribly well-known, so there isn’t much data to be found on it in English. Suffice to say, the average Japanese consumer was not a huge fan of robust, muscular Scotch, and typically prefers something lighter and more floral. Brands like Suntory focused on developing lighter-tasting blended whisky suitable for making whisky highballs. The Nikka Black is a little bit like Nikka’s answer to Suntory’s affordable blended whisky lines.
Suntory’s move towards blends was much more well received as they catered to local palates with their smoothness, light and more citrusy profile that suited the popular Highball cocktail. Source: NTUC (Yes, you can literally get them at NTUC)
The general consensus is that Nikka Blacks are lightly sweet and incredibly easy to drink. This is not styled as a highbrow single malt. And because bottles are so affordable, in Japan, this is enjoyed at casual dates, parties, concerts, or when you’re getting smashed while singing karaoke with Bill Murray and young Scarlett Johansson in midnight Tokyo.
(Film: Lost in Translation (2003) (Focus Features))
There are a couple of editions within the Nikka Black series. The most commonly seen one is a jet-black bottle with the label “Nikka Black Special”.
We recently found a local store still selling a limited edition expression from the series - the Nikka Black 60th Anniversary Blender’s Spirit. This particular edition was specially bottled in 2016 to commemorate Nikka’s 60th Anniversary. The bottle has a much more premium feel with beautiful matte frosted blue glass. Someone did ask if just took out the bottle from the refrigerator.
Great opportunity for another side-by-side review.
Nikka Black Special, 42% ABV
FRAGRANT AND FLORAL
The Nikka Black Special is a blend of malt and grain whisky distilled using Coffey column stills. The blend reportedly consists of at least some spirit from Yoichi Distillery and some from Ben Nevis. If you’re raising your eyebrows at the inclusion of Ben Nevis, do note that this was formulated before the new Japanese whisky labelling standards were introduced.
Colour: Sunflower oil.
Nose: A little shy in opening up. Overall, it is friendly, fresh, floral and lightly grassy.
Initial notes of Martinelli’s apple juice, and a lightly sour note - similar to nosing white cream soda or Prosecco.
Develops into mild vanilla, cream and lightly toasted barley cereal.
This is really smooth on the nose - probably as gentle and friendly as a Jameson. There is not so much as a prickle whatsoever. Behind the smooth texture there is but a hint of a mildly solvent note often seen in grain whiskies.
As you pull away there is a gentle brush of peppermint and basil leaves; a slight herbal mentholated note.
Palate: The palate is light-bodied, gentle with straightforward notes of cream and soft fruits.
Like the nose, this takes a while to open up. Opens up on the first sip with light cream, vanilla and honeyed granola. Develops to a slightly musky barley and oatmeal porridge.
This is sweet but not particularly fruity. I do not get the apples seen earlier on the nose. Nevertheless, there is a well-integrated background of very slight soft citrus fruits; white pomelo, yuzu, topped off with a coat of white pepper spiciness on the back palate.
Finish: The finish is long with fading dry vanilla oak notes and a sweet and subtly bitter Manuka honey note. Ends on a lightly vegetal, mentholated note.
Nikka Black Blender’s Spirit 60th Anniversary, 43% ABV
FRAGRANT AND FLORAL
The Nikka Black Blender’s Spirit has a more unique composition and provenance. This is once again a blended whisky, but it specifically contains a component of incredibly vintage Yoichi single malt distilled in 1956, some 25 year old Coffey grain whisky and Miyagikyo single malt that had been matured in a sherry cask.
It is unclear how big the outturn is, but I hear that this bottle - bottled a while back in 2016 - sold out pretty quickly in many stores in Japan. Thankfully it still is available in several countries in the region.
Should we expect the vintage-ness of the 1956 Yoichi to make a difference to the taste?
Actually, yes. It isn’t just marketing puff. Whisk bartenders and well-respected producers have a clear consensus that vintage whiskies deliver much better flavour, character and texture. It is hypothesised that this character has been lost in modern times due to the shift away from natural ingredients, and the use of high yield yeast strains and high yield barley which apparently result in a much less flavourful spirit.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding.
Colour: Clear apple juice - a slightly redder hue than the Nikka Black Special.
Nose: Just as friendly as the Nikka Black Special. However, this is significantly more forthcoming in aroma with big notes of malt and cream. This is also more layered and complex in flavour.
Opens with notes of rich vanilla gelato, oak, almond nougat and light milk chocolates. To be sure, this is not as bright as the Nikka Black Special, but there are more depths here that give me a very Scotch-like vibe of the whisky.
There are subtly sweet notes raw honey, orange cake, before it develops into a mildly herbal Japanese hōjicha latte (roasted green tea).
As tea-like notes dissipate, I get just a hint of mint and rosemary.
Once again, this is really friendly on the nose - no prickle whatsoever.
Palate: Really luscious and fragrant. The texture is medium-bodied and slightly oily, while the flavours here are pretty forthcoming.
A pleasantly surprising whiff - just a gentle one - of incense smoke is felt immediately on the first sip. There is clearly peated malt from the Yoichi here!
This is very creamy with lots of vanilla, honey and maltiness from baked goods: raspberry Danish and baked apple pie.
There is a minor component of solvent notes from grain whisky. This is mostly masked by a distinctive Oolong tea note rarely found in modern whiskies - it actually reminds me of the last time I tried a vintage Johnnie Walker Red.
Finish: The finish is very long with fading notes of Oolong tea and honey-ginger tea.
The spirit is really gentle on the mouth with very little spice or harshness.
Both expressions are friendly and very drinkable. The Nikka Black Special is a little brighter and fruitier with a more discernible component of grain whisky. The Nikka Black Blender’s Spirit is quite similar on the surface, but has a deeper rabbit hole of flavour and a rather pleasant complexity I wasn’t quite expecting.
They actually taste quite similar on the rocks, or when you make a whisky highball out of them. New drinkers are also likely to think they are identical. So if you are going for a casual drink with a large group of people, just go for the original Nikka Black Special.
Drunk neat with the opportunity for comparison, the Blender’s Spirit edition is a very pleasant surprise. We know it contains some vintage Yoichi malt, and I’m delighted to be able to pick out the mild Yoichi smoke and experience some complexity of the vintage malt.
The Blender's Spirit edition reminds me of the Japanese winter stew I had sometime ago. It is unassuming but remarkably complex.
Nikka Black Special
I have always known this to be light, friendly and approachable to all drinkers. Man’s dependable best friend since 1965.
Nikka Black Blender’s Spirit
This reminds me of a pot of oden no moto - a classic Japanese winter stew with soy-sauce broth and an assortment of fish cakes, radish and tofu. The ingredients are simple and ordinary, but the broth is surprisingly complex and comforting. A remarkably complex expression from a very modest line from Nikka!