Perhaps the most heavily-anticipated set of 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 the spice of life is variety? Or so I've heard.
The Discovery Series was the most hotly anticipated release from Nikka in 2021, centered on exploration of the whiskymaking process that happens at its two mainstay distilleries, leading up to Nikka's 90th anniversary. (Image Source: Boss Hunting)
Despite a total of 20,000 bottles released for each label, both NAS, they were both priced quite steeply at 22,000 Yen (roughly 193.50 USD as of the day of their release, 28 September 2021) each.
Now intuitively I'm inclined to think that at such steep prices, a bottle like this would be a flipper's dream. Yet, recently, a friend of mine, @mister_dusty_ gave a very interesting alternative take on that. His view is actually the inverse; he thinks that because prices are so steep, it would limit the upside flippers could eke out, denying them a sufficient profit to warrant flipping such a bottle. I suppose the logic would also go that therefore the only reasonable way to get a taste of this would be via a bar (where I suppose you could say it is fractionalised), which would also see more bottles opened.
It was just a couple of years ago that Nikka was forced to cull some of their most popular aged labels in their core range due to shortages in the face of massive demand. (Image Source: Japan Times)
Yet, at 20,000 bottles each, it would seem like the sheer supply alone would outweigh demand and sufficiently make the bottles accessible enough to drown out the flippers. But I suppose it would be bold of me to assume that flippers could rationally be stopped.
Maybe I'm just overthinking and Nikka simply felt that there was good enough demand that they could get away with a steeper price and why leave money on the table? It's an interesting thought exercise nonetheless.
There is of course something to the release in the case of the Discovery Series, it would be an ol' switcheroo. Yoichi, the big, bold, intense, more muscular label - typically peated, would this time be non-peated. The Miyagikyo on the other hand, which is usually much more gentle, floral and balanced, would this time be peated.
Yoichi is one of the few remaining distilleries (might even be the only left) that still uses direct coal firing to heat its pot stills, which contributes to the defining character of its whiskies. (Image Source: Nikka)
That said, I am not sure how the purist father of Nikka, Taketsuru-san, would feel about the non-peated Yoichi, given his preference for a smoky, oilier Scotch-styled whisky, having apprenticed at the Speyside Longmorn Distillery. After all, he did abdicate his coveted role in Suntory for a matter of disagreement in terms of what character of whisky should be made.
On a philosophical level, the pair of bottles almost seems to directly fly in the face of the very purpose for the existence of the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. But as they say, "out of sight, out of mind". It's 2021, distilleries need special one-offs, get with the program. This certainly brought a quote to mind.
"I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS" "NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT MEANS, BUT IT'S PROVOCATIVE... GETS THE PEOPLE GOING" - WILL FERRELL IN BLADES OF GLORY (2007)
Given that this review exists, I obviously had to give it a fair shake. I had to see what all the fuss was about, that would underpin Nikka's confidence to charge such an eye-watering RRP. Drinkers have been awfully quiet about the releases, which does not inspire the same confidence in me as Nikka possesses.
Yoichi Non-Peated, 47% ABV
MALTY AND DRY
Color: Light Straw, Chrysanthemum.
Nose: Have I gotten so accustomed to Yoichi that even in the non-peated version, I'm somehow subconsciously detecting peat? The alcohol immediately fills the nose - still very big and bellowing, but it fades pretty quickly. Malty cereals provide a very rich, oat flakes base; reminds me of Cocoa Crunch breakfast cereal. Milk chocolates, Milo and Ovaltine biscuits as well.
Koko Crunch is where it's at. (Image Source: Nestle)
After some time, this lets up into a fruit mix, tropical fruits particularly, with lots of bananas, pineapples, and oranges. Some guavas and pears even. 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.
A candy sort of artificial fruitiness on the nose. (Image Source: Wonka)
Then there's a layer of herbaceousness, good handful of coriander, some dill and chervil. This gives the nose a sharp grassiness that you find in freshly cut herbs. I think these are called green leaf volatiles.
Green leaf volatiles end off the nose. (Image Source: AZCentral)
My Take: Very intense and hits you front and center, leaving you nowhere to hide. One could conceivably consider it overpowering. It's sharpness and hotness leads me to believe this is pretty young whisky. A very strange mix as well, the transition from lots of heat to a brighter fruitiness and then a more bitter herbaceous twang felt jarring and discontiguous.
Palate: Very creamy and rich. The white pepper on the nose carries through to the palate, giving it a spicy tingle, which quite quickly fades away into a very sweet, rich malty flavor, reminding me of oatmeal. The sweetness resembles manuka honey - bittersweet, but almost syrupy. The sweetness continues to grow and develops into granulated demerara sugar. There's some saltiness to this sugar that is similar to sweet and salty popcorn.
Honey oatmeal kicks start the palate. (Image Source)
The fruitiness on the nose is also found on the palate but fairly restrained. This time less tropical and more orchard fruits, in the form of Hokkaido apples, peaches and apricots.
Basket of peaches (not pictured) and apricots. (Image Source: Artisan Farmers Markets)
The herbaceous bitterness of 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. Gone are any hints of the initial sweetness.
Somehow the smoky peat is still very real to me. Are they really sure this isn't peated? To be fair it's a sweet, fragrant incense smoke that is more commonly associated with the kara flavor from Mizunara aged whiskies.
A light kara note that floats around the palate. (Image Source: Taiwan News)
My Take: On the palate, the quintessential parts are all there, but I simply find that it lacks harmony and pace. While the body had great texture, I found the various dimensions out of place and without a clear peat dimension (I suppose what I found was a semblance of some peat), it simply lacked oomph. It felt like the palate was building up to a crescendo, but all I got was an anticlimatic snuff.
Finish: Incredibly 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.
My Take: The finish was really great, with good length, and a beautiful evolution from one note to the next, almost seamlessly.
Miyagikyo Peated, 48% ABV
FRUITY AND SPICY
Color: Deeper shade than the Yoichi, Sunflower Oil Gold
Nose: The smoke jumps out immediately, ashy, sooty smoke. Unlike the Yoichi, the smoke here is not as fragrant or as sweet. It is straight and simple wood smoke, the sort you'd get from a barbeque.
Grilled pineapples on the nose. (Image Source: Archana's Kitchen)
Then there's the fruits, which comes in the form of grilled fruits, pineapples and peaches. There's cream here as well as vanilla, sometimes getting abit buttery. Overall still fairly sweet, but not as much as the Yoichi.
There's a slight minerality too, with chalks and flint that gives a slightly sharper edge to the nose.
A light flinty minerality, something you'd get a whiff of at a quarry. (Image Source: AECOM)
My Take: I found the smoke to be very generic and lacked much flavor or aromatics, which seem to be an almost separate entity from the fruitiness, and simply did not meld well together. The lingering minerality was also fairly sharp and prickly on the nose.
Palate: It starts off hot and ashy, but that quickly fades away into something of salted butter. There's an astringency here that also reminds me of almond skins or peanut shells.
A bitterness that reminds me of almond skins. (Image Source: India Times)
This develops into something sweeter, with the fruits kicking in, still very much the same grilled fruits on the nose, pineapples, peaches, and a touch of raisins and fruitcake.
A familiar sherry note of raisins and fruitcakes linger on the palate. (Image Source: Simply Recipes)
There's a slight herbaceous quality towards the end, but this time just sprigs of chervil and coriander.
My Take: Again I found the notes to be incohesive and awkward, often skewing towards too much of a bitter, drying profile. The smoke did nothing to enhance the flavor in my opinion and came across fairly underwhelming and too mild.
An exceptionally delightful ending of peaches and cream that made up for it somewhat. (Image Source: Happy Days 365)
Finish: The finish is fairly quick, continuing with the nutty astringency and fresh cut herbs, but develops into this wonderful creamy sweetness, almost like that of peaches and cream.
My Take: The finish was the redeeming factor here, once again, with a great evolution along its progression which gave the palate much in the way of contrast and the creamy orchard fruit sweetness was very delightful.
My Full Take
Yoichi Distillery. (Image Source: Nikka)
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.
Miyagikyo Distillery. (Image Source: Nikka)
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 frankly 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 about 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.
The universe is already perfectly balanced. To my mind, Thanos would not appreciate the addition of the Discovery 2021.
I give the Yoichi a missed goal rating cos I could see what they were going for, but it still fell short for me. That said, I am left wondering what it could've been like with more aged stock.
The Miyagikyo gets a blank face from me and a "what are you guys doing?" rating from me, alongside a fish and a tree, which don't go together, just as how the smoke and fruits here didn't really meld very well and came off pretty incohesive.