The cocktail matchmakers

Nikka brings Coffey, chemistry, and collaboration to Vancouver Cocktail Week

Nikka’s Coffey range demonstrates the versatility of the column still. Photo courtesy of The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

When B.C.-based importers Enoteca Bacco first approached the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. to participate in Vancouver Cocktail Week, it was an immediate and enthusiastic “yes.”   

“We wanted to create a unique experience … and add excitement for the people of Vancouver,” says Naomi Kamiyama, the global marketing and sales department representative for Nikka Whisky. “The first thing that came to mind was to bring one of our favourite bars, Bar Trench, to Vancouver. We also knew that The Keefer Bar is one of the most amazing bars in the world, and if these two fantastic bars could collaborate, their chemistry would deliver something memorable.”

Over the course of just a few days during Vancouver Cocktail Week, the Nikka Whisky and Bar Trench teams were able to create enormous buzz, hosting a sold-out industry-only Coffey masterclass and bar takeover at Keefer Bar, happy hour pop-up at PiDGiN, and a busy cocktail station at the Golden Era Cocktail Revival Gala.

During the bar takeover at The Keefer Bar, Bar Trench co-owners Rogerio Igarashi Vaz and Takuya Itoh skilfully crafted a custom-designed menu of five cocktails featuring whisky, gin and vodka from Nikka’s Coffey Series. In particular, the Broke & Famous with Nikka Coffey Grain, Aperol, roast paprika honey cordial and lemon juice was an undeniable crowd pleaser; so much so that it has been featured on The Keefer Bar’s reserve cocktails menu ever since.

The Coffey still at the Nikka Distillery in Japan. Photo courtesy of The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

Coffey, hold the cream

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the Nikka Coffey Series, we need to get something straight: these spirits are not coffee flavoured. Rather, Coffey refers to the type of still that is used to distill this particular range of spirits.

Named after Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey, this traditional two-column still was invented in 1830 and was quickly adopted by distilleries to produce grain whiskies initially intended to be used in blends. Since then, continuous stills have become much more modern and effective in producing a cleaner distillate. However, more efficiency means less flavour. As Kamiyama explains, “Thanks to its old-fashioned structure and inefficiency, our Coffey still retains more flavours originating from the grain itself and helps create a distinctively silky texture. Operating these old stills requires special expertise, which Nikka has continued to cultivate over the years since we first acquired the Coffey still in 1963.”

Today, Nikka offers four products in their Coffey Series, including two whiskies (Nikka Coffey Grain and Nikka Coffey Malt), a gin and a vodka. When asked what the difference between the two whiskies is, Kamiyama remarks, “We developed both products to showcase the beauty of the Coffey stills, and the difference in ingredients is apparent in taste. Coffey Grain is predominantly made from corn and delivers the retained sweetness of this ingredient. It tastes mellow and soothing. Whereas Coffey malt, made from 100 per cent malted barley, you feel the rich maltiness with complexity.”

The Bar Trench team takes over The Keefer Bar during Vancouver Cocktail Week. Photo courtesy of The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

Apples to apples

Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru, widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Japanese whisky, first started his company Dai Nippon Kaju or The Great Japanese Juice Company in 1934, selling apple juice, jam and other orchard products while waiting for his whiskies to age. Today the company, which was eventually rebranded as Nikka (a portmanteau of Nippon, the Japanese name for Japan, and kaju) still pays homage to their heritage by including apples as one of the botanicals in the Nikka Coffey Gin.

In addition to apple juice, 10 other botanicals are used to create a modern, terroir-driven representation of a dry style gin. “Nikka Coffey Gin possesses a stunning aromatic complexity that relies on the refreshing burst of Japanese citrus including yuzu, kabosu, amanatsu and shequasar [flat lemon], the delicate fruitiness of apples and pleasantly tangy hints of Japanese sansho pepper on the finish,” says Kamiyama.

To accentuate the East Asian citrus and pepper notes in the gin, Bar Trench created the Trench 75, which was also featured during their bar takeover, as well as at the industry masterclass during Vancouver Cocktail Week. As a Japanese-reinterpretation of the classic French 75, it featured Nikka Coffey Gin, lemon, honey cordial and a local sparkling sake. 

Perhaps Nikka’s cocktail bar matchmaking was a premonition or an intelligent case of comparing apples to apples as on April 24 the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation announced the regional top 10 honorees for the 17th Annual Spirited Awards of which Bar Trench was selected as a finalist for Best International Cocktail Bar – Asia Pacific and The Keefer Bar was selected as a finalist for Best International Bar – Canada.

The Broke & Famous cocktail by Bar Trench, made with Nikka Coffey Grain whisky, was featured at the Bar Trench pop-up at The Keefer Bar during Vancouver Cocktail Week, and is now on their reserve list. Reece Sims photo

The chemistry continues

To continue the cross-bar collaboration, Keefer Bar’s general manager Keenan Hood and bar manager Amber Bruce have been invited by Nikka to host a bar takeover at Bar Trench in Tokyo, Japan, on May 20. Bruce plans to bring back the most popular cocktail from their pop-up menu to replace Broke & Famous upon their return.

Kamiyama is looking forward to Keefer Bar’s upcoming bar takeover and was extremely impressed with the Vancouver bar community as a whole. Upon her time in Vancouver, she reflects, “We found the community was very warm and welcoming. It seems like everybody is friends with each other, and the amount of respect they have towards each other is very inspiring. It makes sense to us now why Vancouver is known internationally for its food, drinks and hospitality.” 

—by Reece Sims

The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

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