NIKKA SINGLE MALT MIYAGIKYO
MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 90
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Nikka
PRICE – $80 (discounted from the more common $100)
WORTH BUYING? – Sure…
I’ve always enjoyed Nikka Straight From The Barrel, so much that I turn a blind eye to the fact that it’s actually Ben Nevis whisky imported to Japan from Scotland. (Nikka owns the Ben Nevis distillery.) But ☟
Nikka is also among the Japanese distilleries that have signed on to the February 2021 Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association agreements, outlining new standards to reflect greater transparency and authenticity in Japanese whisky. 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.
My second experience with Nikka, fairly recent, was with their Yoichi single malt, made entirely in Japan from start to finish. It was fine, neither an eyebrow raiser nor eyebrow scruncher. Nevertheless, it was a natural choice to pick up Yoichi’s cousin, Miyagikyo, and compare them. Would it offer anything more unusual?
These two whiskeys come from Nikka’s two distilleries. The Yoichi Distillery opened in 1934. Located in the far north of Japan, Yoichi is surrounded by seaside mountains, a cold climate, clean crisp mountain water and fresh sea air—reminiscent in its way of Scotland’s Highland region. Thirty-five years later, in 1969, the Miyagikyo Distillery was opened to make whiskies from a different Japanese region that would provide a contrast to the Yoichi distillates. Miyagikyo is situated among mountain rivers south of Yoichi, where the Winter snows melt faster and the terroir offers its own more inland particularities. Also, the Miyagikyo stills are steam heated at lower temperatures than Yoichi’s coal-fired stills, the latter adding a particular smokiness to Yoichi’s distillates, whether peated or not.
Naturally I’ll compare these two whiskies. But first let’s give the Miyagikyo its due. These notes were taken between one and two weeks after uncorking and a handful of pours into the bottle, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – clear lemmony yellow, pale enough to go green beneath a blue sky, with orange highlights that really pop in the sunlight
NOSE – lemon zest as in an artisanal bar soap, fresh sea salt, mango and pineapple, sliced Asian pear, faint vanilla-caramel, and a bit of plastic
TASTE – soft but medium-dark tropical fruit notes, lighter salt than on the nose, a gentle smokiness that is not overtly peaty to the point I’m uncertain whether it’s peated or not, a mild prickly pepperiness adding definition
FINISH – the smoke, the soft tropical fruit notes, and that prickly pepperiness now cooling like the sensation of a mint, lingering for a surprisingly long time given the proof
OVERALL – Another perfectly fine if not entirely eventful outing from Nikka
Well… It’s fine. Maybe I’ve just been weened on too much bourbon. There is certainly flavor here, and a subtle complexity. That plastic note is something I often get from mainstream scotch and Irish whiskey as well. My suspicion is it’s to do with the added caramel coloring. But the jury is perpetually in debate on that one, never to be nailed down with certainty.
My overall response to Miyagikyo is the same as to the Yoichi, that it’s not a main event but an accompaniment—whether to food or as the alcohol base of a cocktail. Given the price, I’d rather go for cheaper options.
Nosing the Miyagikyo next to the Yoichi, I have to work very hard to distinguish them. The smoke and a certain bacon quality are rising more prominently from the Yoichi, whereas the Miyagikyo seems to lead more with its sweet caramel. Yoichi noses saltier than Miyagikyo as well. Yet each of these notes can be found in the other. It’s a matter of emphasis.
Tasting them, the Yoichi leans more beach BBQ and the Miyagikyo more orchard picnic—also with its BBQ. These distinctions follow through on the finishes as well.
So one cousin does seem to live more inland than the other. But they are definitely very close cousins. If Nikka’s founder, Masataka Taketsura, established the Miyagikyo distillery to provide a contrast to the whiskies made at Yoichi, these namesake examples don’t articulate that contrast with much emphasis.
Mmmmaybe if I had to choose I’d go with the Miyagikyo, given it leans more into the fruit and sweet candy notes. Between the two, it might make the tastier highball cocktail. But to be honest these feel like a bit of a coin toss, and whether heads or tails the outcome will be fine.
Five O’Clock Somewhere
Just for fun, I tried making a classic American Stone Fence with the Miyagikyo. A Stone Fence is one part whisky to two parts apple cider, often with a dash of maple syrup, a cinnamon stick, and/or an apple slice for garnish. Unless I’m entertaining, I usually just stick to the whiskey/cider ratio on ice. That’s what I tried today.
I usually use rye for a Stone Fence. But the Miyagikyo held its own pretty darn well. It blends effortlessly with the apple, adding red berry notes and softening the apple’s acidity with its round vanilla-caramel notes. And the touch of smoke comes through, adding a nice savory note. Not bad. And very refreshing! If I had some sparkling water on hand I’d try a Stone Fence Highball. I’m guessing it would be smashing.