NIKKA WHISKY SINGLE MALT YOICHI
MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 90
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Nikka
PRICE – $80 (discounted from the more common $100)
WORTH BUYING? – Sure…
Japan is a region of the world and a culture that’s always intrigued me. I relocated there for a short time after graduating from college, working as an English teacher in a small town called Ota, about ninety minutes by train northwest of Tokyo. I was living entirely on my own for the first time—no friends, family, or other familiarities to fall back on. Communicating, shopping for groceries, doing laundry, taking a bath, everything was new and different for me. I was often the only White person in the room, the store, or on the street. The experience remains among the most impactful of my life. So there’s a connection there for me that goes beyond mere travel memories.
(Me with new friends and students in Japan, 1994/5)
When I drink Japanese whisky I often find myself reflecting on that time. All my senses were heightened while in Japan, every day. It was a very authentic experience on many levels. After my recent experiences with Kaiyō whisky (here and here), which brought up questions around authenticity, I’ve been intent on exploring Japanese whisky that is actually Japanese—made entirely in Japan by Japanese people.
It was only in February 2021 that the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced a set of agreements outlining new standards to reflect greater transparency and authenticity. These are not laws, in the sense that American bourbon is defined by government enforced law. These are agreements to which Japanese distilleries might or might not agree to adhere. Nikka has agreed.
I’ve not yet fully explored Japanese whisky, given the combination of expense and uncertainty as to whether or not it’s actually scotch that’s been aged a bit, if at all, in Japan prior to blending and bottling. So it was with enthusiasm that I recently uncorked this 100% Japanese whisky from Nikka, their standard Yoichi Single Malt release.
At uncorking it showed vanilla, caramel, salt, sand, dry herbs, a wisp of peat and smoke, and faint orchard and tropical fruits. Perfectly enjoyable without much ado. Now it’s a bit over a week since uncorking, and I’m a handful of pours into the bottle. Tasted in a traditional Glencairn, here are some brief notes.
COLOR – clear yellows like a buttery California chardonnay, which go orange at certain angles in the light
NOSE – gentle salt and sand like in a sea breeze, subtle vanilla and caramel, white chocolate, something faintly meaty like bacon, pineapple, mango
TASTE – a nice creamy texture, with custard and cream notes, smoke and soft peat, the seaside and fruit notes wafting in the background, also a wisp of a plastic note I sometimes get from mainstream whiskies
FINISH – very like the taste, lingering gently and long with a soft warmth
OVERALL – It’s okay for the price, considering the general price range of Japanese whiskies.
This is fine. It’s neither exciting nor boring. And there’s that hint of plastic, which I always suspect to be the added caramel coloring, though there is much debate over whether or not that stuff impacts taste. I think I’d prefer this alongside a meal of some kind. As a main event, it doesn’t hold its own. But as accompaniment to fresh shellfish or sushi or some grilled seafood I can imagine it being perfectly satisfying. There is an earthiness to it that, on its own, gives the whisky an edge I don’t find entirely pleasing in combination with the tropical fruits. They seem somehow unintegrated with one another.
To be frank, I don’t see myself getting too deep into Japanese whiskies. It’s the expense. I’ve certainly paid more for scotch, bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, you name it. With those, however, a high price often also means an age statement or cask strength or the like.
But it’s not just the cost. In terms of flavor, the tendency of Japanese whisky to offer the pleasure of subtlety doesn’t squarely match my spending parameters for higher-end stuff. If I’m going to pay a goodly sum, I want an outpouring of flavor, like what Old Carter Bourbon Batch 9 offers, or a Westward single malt, which is similar in proof and price to this Yoichi.
At the same time, I am also someone who enjoys sitting at length with sunsets and oceans and forests. If one slows down to their speed, there is bountiful beauty to appreciate and to enjoy, and a strong sense of connection to something larger than oneself. Sometimes a Japanese whisky offers a refined experience not unlike these durational events of nature.
Considering that, and now that the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association agreements are in place, taking the deterrent of paying $$$ for Japanese whisky that isn’t Japanese out of the equation, I may eventually come around. I very much value authentic experiences.
Among my strong memories of living in Japan is a moment alone on a misty mountain trail in Nikkō National Park, with just the sound of the mist condensing into droplets and falling among the leaves. Another vivid memory is of sitting on a stone bench at a graveyard outside the Buddhist temple in Ota, watching bees move among the lavender flowers growing weed-like among the graves. The bees were busy at the daily work of basic survival, unconcerned with philosophical or spiritual notions of death.
In both these experiences, their various elements add up to a single whole, a distinct moment in time. In that regard, perhaps this Yoichi is too roughly sandy a beach for me. Those gritty sand notes in relation to the fruit create just enough of a disjoint that I can’t fully relax into it. Rather than balancing one another in their contrasting flavors, they don’t quite connect to make a whole.
Despite my overall response to this whisky, it’s nevertheless given me a lot to consider by way of association. I appreciate that. And if I ever manage to pair this with some food that brings me more fully around to it, I’ll add an addendum below. But for the meantime, cheers!
So a few days after this tasting I brought home a sushi burrito, with tuna as its main ingredient. Sure enough, with the sushi burrito’s various flavors vying for my tastebuds’ attention, the Yoichi came across more rounded out. The cream and custard notes seemed to come forward. The sand and fruit took a significant step back. And the smoke took on a more dense, still soft quality.
Looks like I’ll be buying more seafood in the coming weeks!