[Premium] Interview: The Secrets of Non-Peated Yoichi and Peaty Miyagikyo

In preparation for the 90th anniversary of the founding of Nikka Whisky in three years, the "Nikka Discovery Series" was born in September 2021. We interviewed the two blenders tasked with developing the initial releases, "Single Malt Yoichi Non-Peated" and "Single Malt Miyagikyo Peated." Whisky Galore Editor Mamoru Tsuchiya asks about the behind-the-scenes development of these new products that surprised the industry.

Text: Whisky Galore Editing Department
Images: Ayumi Fujita

Translation: Whiskey Richard

This article originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.29 / December 2021.

MT: The first entries in the "Nikka Discovery Series," "Single Malt Yoichi Non-Peated" and "Single Malt Miyagikyo Peated" were released in limited quantities. Will this series be ongoing?

Ozaki: Nikka Whisky's 90th anniversary is coming up in 2024, and we are planning to release limited editions under the name of Nikka Discovery in 2022 and 2023 as well. Single Malt Yoichi and Single Malt Miyagikyo are our flagship products, but because of the low distillate inventory, we've had to put shipment controls in place for our regular products.

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With that, beginning in 2017, we started doing some limited releases, such as the Wood Finish editions, but this time around, we launched the Discovery Series to celebrate our 90th anniversary. The concept of these particular releases is that since people already have pre-existing perceptions of Yoichi and Miyagikyo, we hope that they can make discoveries when they see that in actuality, we make a variety of expressions that don't necessarily fit that perception.

MT: Thus, the name "discovery." When we talk about various expressions, that can come from things like different distillation methods or casks. Still, this release is about the raw materials -- the malt, in other words. As you say, we do tend to think of Yoichi as being quite peaty and Miyagikyo as more a bright and fruity non-peated whisky. I was surprised to see those reversed, but you're saying that was your aim. I want to begin by asking Mr. Watanuki about developing "Yoichi Non-Peated." What was your goal in creating this expression?

Watanuki: Most people think of peat when they think of Yoichi, but we began doing non-peated batches in the late 1980s. We take cask samples of the distillate stored at all our factories every year to plan our whisky recipes, so as blenders, we have known all along that there was this stock of non-peated Yoichi across different vintages. But we had never actually turned that into a product, and more specifically, we hadn't been proactive in communicating that we are also using non-peated malt. Yoichi's non-peated distillate retains the original malt aromas, and it has an unadulterated estery-ness about it hidden by peat. I've always thought that I wanted to reveal that. When it came to commercializing it, I struggled with expressing the maltiness and body of Yoichi without peat. For the casks, too, these aren't from standard casks but our old casks and rejuvenated casks.

MT: The casks re-charred at Yoichi?

Watanuki: Yes. Yoichi is generally thought of as using virgin casks, but in some cases, virgin casks can give too much cask influence, or the vanilla can prevent the maltiness from coming out. We were careful about our cask selection. We were also careful to assure that we could express the quality of our malt and its pure sweetness that results from Yoichi's signature coal direct-firing distillation.

Hiromi Ozaki
The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd Chief Blender
Joined 1988. After working in technical development for a variety of liquors, he joined the blenders' room and was tasked with shochu formulation. Later, after working in quality control and materials departments, he became head of the blenders' room in 2019. In March 2021, he took on his current role.

MT: I also think Yoichi's uniqueness comes from that coal direct-fire distillation. When you use peated malt, it can be tough to find that richness you get with the coal direct-fire distillation. That's why I always thought I wanted to see Yoichi's non-peated distillate, and I was surprised. When I tasted it, I found it to be well-rounded, sweet, and also with depth.

Watanuki: Another thing is that Yoichi has some estery-ness and fruitiness about it, which is ordinarily covered up by peat, so drinkers can pick that up as well.

MT: Right, when drinking it, I noticed that there wasn't that Yoichi virgin cask odor.

Watanuki: That's correct. At the same time, it does need to have a certain degree of cask influence and maturity, so to ensure it has those multiple layers, it uses mainly 10-year distillate and some of our oldest non-peated distillate from 1989.

MT: Wow. That's around the time when you stopped in-house malting and began importing malt from Scotland, correct?

Watanuki: We stopped in-house malting before that, but that's around the time when we decided to go ahead and make non-peated batches of distillate as well.

MT: I think these do an excellent job of capturing the maltiness of the barley itself. On the nose, there's also a bright and juicy aspect initially and apple honey that I've not found in previous Yoichi releases.

Watanuki: Adding water opens it up more, sweet and silky, with a bittersweet fruitiness. There's also a slight coconut milk-like creaminess.

MT: Showing us a Yoichi we've never seen before -- that's a "discovery."

Watanuki: Some people may think that it's missing something without the peat, but we wanted to betray people's conception of Yoichi... in a good way.

MT: I'd like to be betrayed more, haha. Is this best straight?

Watanuki: It's a reasonably pure spirit quality, so it can also be drunk like a blended whisky. Serving it as a mizuwari or a highball will bring out more sweetness.

Distinctive and Challenging: Tasting Peaty Miyagikyo

MT: Next, on to "Miyagikyo Peated." Mr. Ozaki was in charge of the blending. To be honest, this one surprised me even more than the Yoichi.

Ozaki: It wasn't easy to maintain the Miyagikyo characteristics while adding a heavily peated nuance. Unlike normal Miyagikyo, we use no non-peated distillate. The base is lightly peated.

MT: To be clear, standard Miyagikyo is mostly non-peated, right?

Ozaki: We do use a specific portion of lightly peated distillate.

Masashi Watanuki
The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd Head Blender
Joined in 2004. After working in quality control and product development for cider at the Hirosaki Factory, he moved to the blenders' room in 2009. He has helped develop products like the Black Nikka series, Coffey Malt, The Nikka, and Taketsuru.

MT: That's to say that this is fundamentally different from most people's image of non-peated Miyagikyo.

Ozaki: On top of that, while it's a minimal amount, we have been making heavily peated distillate for a long time. So for this release, we added a bit of the heavily peated distillate on that lightly peated base. Getting that balance right was difficult because if it's too peaty, you lose the Miyagikyo character. Miyagikyo initially has bright and fresh fruits, so to better blend the heavily peated distillate in, it also uses some long-matured distillate from 1988 to 1990. The ripe fruits, the sweetness of honey, and tannins that result from long cask aging help better integrate the peatiness.

MT: So, on top of the lightly peated distillate that highlights the sweetness and fruitiness, you've added heavily peated distillate. Opinions must be divided over this, correct?

Ozaki: Yes. But I think that peat matches well with Miyagikyo, so I hope you find some new surprises with this product.

MT: Let's try the Miyagikyo as well.

Ozaki: Just from the aroma when served straight, it doesn't come off as peaty.

MT: You're right. But slowly, some smoky elements come out. The light, estery, and sweet fruitiness of Miyagikyo is slightly masked at first, and there's a bit of acidity, or the nuance of Balsamic vinegar. It also feels a bit floral, and since I think Miyagikyo tends to be more estery, it caught me off guard. On the palate, it grows more peaty and smoky. But the body is medium to light. Because it uses peated malt, it has a different sharp sweetness that you don't find in standard Miyagikyo. This is kind of like a Miyagikyo for connoisseurs, haha. In terms of "discovery," it's potentially more challenging than the Yoichi.

Ozaki: There is some element of surprise.

MT: Take your time with it, and it becomes more distinct and exciting. How do you recommend drinking it?

Ozaki: Adding water brings out more peat, so I think twice-up would be a good way.

MT: Adding a bit of water and time brings out more smokiness, so perhaps on the rocks is also a good way.

Ozaki: The peat is softer than that of the Yoichi. The attack is almost feminine, and it shows that the peat hits are different between Miyagikyo and Yoichi.

MT: Even though you've reversed the way you usually use your peat distillate, it's mysterious how much of the character of Yoichi and the character of Miyagikyo remain. Indeed, the environments are different, but I think the water is quite different. They say 70% of whisky's aroma and flavor comes from the cask, but clearly, that's not the entire story. More attention is given to the terroir of malt, but beyond that, water decides if it's utilized or subdued.

Watanuki: Masataka Taketsuru said that the "flavor of wind" is what makes whisky, but the natural environment, including water, maturation environment, and stills, etc., also make a big difference.

MT: Mr. Taketsuru decided to build Miyagikyo on its current site after drinking mizuwari with water from the Nikkawa River, and perhaps it's just a coincidence, but, incredibly, he was able to pick up on that water's quality. Speaking of which, Miyagikyo will be building more aging warehouses, correct?

Watanuki: They were recently completed, and we plan to expand our maturation capacity at Miyagikyo by 60%.

MT: That much??

Watanuki: Our new warehouses at Yoichi will also begin operation in the first half of 2022, increasing our maturation capacity by 30%.

MT: Sounds like I need to go report on both, haha. Thank you for your time today.

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