Nikka Blender’s Bar: Is whiskey an art or science?

Nikka Blender’s Bar: Is whiskey an art or science?

Japanese whiskey maker Nikka is famous for its low price blend but also a few high-end marvels. Learn the brand's secrets at its Blender's Bar in Aoyama
The colorful Super Nikka sign burns like a beacon in the night to all whiskey fanatics. (Photo by Flickr user dh)

The key to creating good blended whiskey lies in finding the proper proportions. If you're looking for the best place to train, the Nikka Blender's Bar in Minami-Aoyama offers patrons a chance to blend their own. 

Located in the basement of the Nikka Whiskey Building, the bar serves a unique six-whiskey tasting flight for ¥3,000 (plus 10% service charge) that features five single malt varieties, plus one grain alcohol, which can be mixed and matched in different combinations. The whiskey comes in neat 15ml pours, lined up on a cute wooden tray displaying both the name and a buzz-word descriptor for each: Number Two from Yoichi is "peaty and salty," while Number Five from Miyagikyo is "soft and dry." 

Manager Kazuya Hirano recommends first trying each whiskey individually.

"They all taste completely different," he says. "Once you get an understanding of the flavors, you can play around with blending them on your own."

Nikka Blender's BarThe six-whiskey sampler laid out on the bar.Picking out the differences in flavor is relatively easy. The first whiskey on the sampler, a single malt matured in sherry casks and available only at Nikka Blender's Bar, tastes sweet, oaky and slightly nutty. Number Six, a corn-based grain liquor, is thick and honeyed. The whiskeys from Nikka's Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido are deep and full-bodied in character, while those from the Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai are mellow and rounded.

As with wine, geography plays a key role in shaping the character of whiskey. The salty sea air in Hokkaido lends a savory richness to the peat used to make the whiskey in Yoichi. Distillation methods also influence the flavor profile. The Yoichi whiskeys are made the same way they were when founder Masataka Taketsuru opened the first Nikka distillery in 1934, in specially shaped pot stills heated over a fire, rather than with steam. This allows a higher concentration of volatile components to remain in the final product and results in a stronger, heavier flavor.

Blending the whiskeys feels a bit like being back in chemistry class but way more fun. Although the menu lists formulas for seven of Nikka's standard blends, you're unlikely to eyeball the ratios correctly. After what amounts to six shots of hard liquor, three percent looks awfully close to seven percent. Maybe even 10. 

"Maybe these blends are one of a kind," Hirano chuckles.

Nikka Blender's Bar stocks over 80 kinds of whiskey, including some hard-to-find single casks and special 70th anniversary blends, as well as Nikka's award-winning Taketsuru 21 year Pure Malt.

Nikka Blender's Bar
: Nikka Whiskey Building B1, Minami-Aoyama 5-4-31, Minato-ku, 03 3498 3338.

Hi, I'm Melinda Joe. Originally from Louisiana, I'd only planned to stay in Japan for a year when I fell in love with Japanese food and sake. The rest, as they say, is history.
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