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A drink with… Sakuma Tadashi, Nikka

Nikka’s master blender Sakuma Tadashi talks about his approach to innovation, quality control and his belief that “Japanese whisky needs to evolve more to survive”.

Nikka’s master distiller Sakuma Tadashi believes Japanese whisky “needs to evolve more to survive”

What led you to create Nikka Coffey Malt?

In the late 1980s Nikka developed various new concept products such as the Pure Malt and From the Barrel. During this development process, we looked into a product that would make the most of the feature of the Coffey still – a still that retains more characteristics of the raw material than other modern continuous stills. This is how we started to develop a grain whisky using only malted barley regardless of the cost. At first we launched “All Malt”, a blend of whiskies made from 100% barley distilled both in a pot still and a Coffey still. Then we decided to launch Coffey Malt to deliver its unique texture and flavour more directly to connoisseurs.

Will we see other expressions under the “Nikka Coffey” banner in the future?

Not just the Coffey series, but we constantly experiment with many possibilities and have a number of ideas in stock that we hope will surprise the world.

Earlier this year Nikka Coffey Malt was named The Spirits Business’ Most Innovative Spirit of the Year. What does the accolade mean to you?

It is a great honour. Nikka has always been true to tradition but innovative at the same time. We are about the quality principle and the pioneering spirit. One of the best parts of being a producer is to surprise the world with products that no one has ever seen.

There are many different ways of innovating with whisky. What does innovation mean to you?

We constantly think of the countless possibilities in each procedure from raw material, fermentation, distillation, storage, maturing and blending. There are a number of trials and errors behind each new product. To me, innovation means the long succession of all our efforts to accumulate know-how through these small experiments.

In what way has Japanese whisky evolved the most over the years?

It’s been more than 90 years since whisky production in Japan began, and the movement of globalisation has just started in this decade. Before that the industry developed mainly within the domestic market. As a result, the Japanese whisky industry is now exposed to competition in the world whisky market. We need to evolve more to survive.

Nikka is known for its exceptional quality and interesting products. What exciting new products are you working on?

There are two types of new products. One is a completely new product like the Coffey Malt. The other is re-developing the existing product line and this is what I am working on at this moment. I am in the process of finalising new NAS expressions. Although NAS might be controversial, it frees me from the restrictions of ageing and allows me to utilise any of our unique whiskies, the results of all the experiments, that we have in stock.

Would you say Japanese whisky has developed its own style now, or is Scottish heritage still overbearingly present in the category?

The process of making whisky itself is not different from the Scotch way. In fact at Nikka we value the Scottish heritage so much that we still use direct coal fire for distillation in Yoichi. What makes Japanese whisky unique is not just the terroir but is the diverseness behind the process. Unlike Scotland, where various types of whiskies are accessible, the Japanese distilleries were forced into consciously making different types of whisky in-house. I believe this situation eventually led to the know-how and capability of making various types of whiskies. So in short, the process is the same as Scotch but the diversity in each process is what I think is unique to most Japanese distilleries.

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