When Jim McEwan took over for the Bruichladdich distillery, one of the biggest risks he took was setting up an ancient still known as “Ugly Betty” to produce a gin rather than a scotch. It was a gamble that paid off in spades.
Consider this: if you're starting a scotch distillery from scratch, even the youngest whisky you could legally produce would have to be aged for three years. That's a long time to produce a backlog of inventory, pay your dudes, and maintain the facilities without any money coming through the door. Jim McEwan may have saved Bruichladdich not just through his nose and palate, but also through his economic pragmatism: gin gave the distillery a way to immediately start making and selling product.
The Japanese whisky distilleries have an interesting dilemma on their hands that isn't too different from the plight McEwan inherited when he turned the lights back on at Bruichladdich—namely, the difficulty of maximizing profit and reaching customers of all price points while you’re simultaneously hamstrung by limited inventory.
When outfits like Nikka and Suntory were initially caught flat-footed by consumer demand for their aged whisky, the immediate result was a surge in price. Yamazaki 12, once easily sourced around 2008 for about $60, eventually crept up to twice that amount. Hibiki 12, once gettable at about $50 a bottle, also became unobtainable unless you had a C-note to spend. And keep in mind shortages aren't ever ideal for any company: many consumers who see these huge prices get sticker shock and part ways with the brand, while those who do pony up the money for an inflated item are inevitably left disappointed when it fails to rise to near-mythic expectations.
Seeing that consumers were clamoring for Japanese spirits, the second wave was for distillers to introduce non-age stated (that is, younger) versions of their core products to ensure that everyone got a piece of what they had to offer. And yet, even that wasn't enough to keep prices down for all things Japanese. Over at Nikka, bottles like the Miyagikyo 12 and the Yoichi 10 suddenly dropped the age statements, and to my taste buds became shadows of what they used to be almost overnight. Yet the price remained the same, because consumers were still itching for a taste.
Enter Japanese gin. It makes too much sense: it's a brand extension that allows people to jump in on the ground floor of the Japanese spirits craze, can be offered at a fair price, and can instantly stabilize some of the worst effects of product shortage. You might not want to throw down $65 to taste Nikka's stellar Coffey Grain Whisky, but $40 to taste something from Nikka seems like a comparative bargain.
Is it good? Yes. Considering that nobody really had much of an idea of what a “Japanese” gin is or should be, this is a very well-considered and well-executed take. Like one of my favorite gins, the Tanqueray Ten, the Nikka Coffey Gin is huge with lime. But where the Tanqueray offers lots of juicy oranges, the Coffey Gin is far more in the realm of tartness by way of yuzu and kumquat. Yuzu especially.
Running hand-in-hand with the tartness is a secondary wave of bitter. The juniper comes across as very condensed pine after a gentle development along with crisp bell pepper. Later, black pepper and and lemon rind round out the finish. There's also some challenging bits of earthiness and minerality to suss out in the last half of the whole tasting experience that lends a touch of sophistication and exoticness to the whole affair, lest it seem too dominated by the citrus show in the front half.
Also, no, it doesn't taste in any way like COFFEE. The Coffey still is an altogether different thing.
But, as for the question of the day: is it worth the money? I did mention that $40 is cheap for Nikka, but it's still remarkably expensive for gin, a spirit that doesn't require any degree of aging. It's also stupid pricey considering the distillery has a pedigree in whiskymaking and nothing else. Beyond that, if we compare Nikka’s gin to the always-stellar and already-expensive Nolet's, the Nolet's is cheaper and better. Tanquery Ten is also better and much, much cheaper for a flavor profile that cuts a lot closer to the Nikka Coffey Gin.
Again, this is an interesting bottle that's laudable in its effort to carve out a new gin category. But much as I can be appreciative of Nikka's attempt, the $40 asking price is just too much for me to enjoy taking the ride. At the end of the day, it does little to shake off the stigma of Japanese spirits being overpriced, which to my mind was the reason for its existence in the first place.