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Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky---a continuous delight

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
Hoke Harden

Okay, we get it. The confusion is understandable. But once more: Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky has nothing to do with coffee but everything to do with whisky.

Your ear hears “Coffey Grain” and your mind thinks “coffee grain”, and you can’t help but think about what a whisky would taste like if it were distilled from coffee. But spelling is crucial here: Nikka is a Japanese whisky made in a column still. A column still is sometimes referred to as a Coffey Still after Aeneas Coffey, one of the two guys who invented the continuous column still and revolutionized the spirit distillation---and not coincidentally, consumption---of ardent spirits.

Nikka whisky has nothing to do with coffee. Just Coffey. And, yes, we agree, the label should probably say “Nikka Coffey Still Grain Whisky” to help clear up the disconnect, but you can live with it.

Prior to the Coffey/Stein Continuous Distillation Column Still spirits were made in individual small batch pot stills at low temperatures, which generally took an entire day, and then had to be distilled twice to reach the desired level of alcohol. This meant whisky-making was a long, labor-intensive process and yielded small returns.

With the Coffey/Stein still it was possible to make very large amounts of whisky in one highly efficient run of a few hours, and to keep the still running continuously for as long as you wished by feeding it new mash. Since this made a lighter, more highly refined spirit in great volumes, it was then possible to “flavor” these lighter but higher alcohol spirits with stocks of the richer, more full tasting and robustly flavored small batch whisky. Voila, the ‘blended whisky’ was born and its popularity spread around the world.

Today single malt, small batch, 100% pot still Scotch is popular with connoisseurs, but ‘blended scotch’ remains over 90% of the entire Scotch whisky category, and blended scotch is a blend of 20-30% single malts with 70% of continuous still grain whisky. “Grain whisky” is what the industry refers to as whisky made from grains other than malt---corn, rye, wheat---in a lighter style. The Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky is a whopping 90% corn, in fact---which is actually more than the percentage in Bourbon and would require it to be labeled as "corn whiskey" in the U.S.

But the ancient and traditional ways of small batch distillation remained the Holy Grail of craft whisky making, and the Coffey still became the whipping boy of the artisanal set, based on the popular theory that “small is good; big is bad”, and the assumption that if a distiller is making column still whisky he’s doing so to make as much as he can as cheaply as he can.

Mind you, this is despite the facts that A) most of Scotch produced, by far, is grain whisky made in continuous column stills; B) Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, and other American whiskeys are almost exclusively produced in continuous column stills; indeed pot stills and American whiskeys are in the distinct and hard-to-find minority; and C) that column still grain whiskey/whisky makes up the greatest proportion of the category produced around the entire world.

So “big” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” when it comes to spirit distillation. Okay?

And finally we come back, somewhat circuitously to our spirit in discussion: Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky.

Grain whisky, with its undeserved bad rap, isn’t seen very often by itself. If you want to see just how good a Coffey Still Grain Whisky can be, try the Nikka. It is gentle and smooth and seamless, soft on the palate and warm in the throat, with subtle tickles of coconut and caramel, vanilla and spice, endlessly fascinating and constantly revealing new aromas and tastes as you lave it around in your mouth, and leaving reverberating echoes as it trickles down your throat.

It is not a big, bold, over-the-top, loud statement of whisky so don’t look for that It doesn’t scream wood barrel or peat smoke or sherry wine or heavy char, just good, solid obvious but restrained whisky aromas and flavors. It is ideal for sipping neat, but works beautifully on the rocks or as a simple highball in a tall glass with a splash of water or soda to taste.

And a curious thing might happen if you put the Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky on your spirit shelf. You might find yourself nudging aside the bruisers and brawlers and out-of-balance, loud-voiced, statement-making whisky icons in preference for the gentle expression of Nikka.

(Anchor Distilling Company is the U.S. importer/supplier for Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky.)

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