Coffey Malt & Bubbles
| Credit: © Carey Jones

When it comes to top-of-the-line whisky, Scotland has long been the dominant player. But increasingly, aficionados are making room on their top shelf for Japanese whisky as well. For one, it’s a direct descendant of Scotch. Masataka Taketsuru, the father of the Japanese whisky industry, apprenticed at several Scotch distilleries in the 1920s before moving back to Japan, helping to establish the distillery at what would become Suntory, and then founding his own — Nikka. (Today, Suntory and Nikka are still the two major players in the Japanese whisky world.)

Taken as a whole, Japanese whiskies tend to demonstrate incredible balance and finesse, subtlety and sophistication; you’re not likely to see a bottle that’s knock-you-over-the-head peaty. Case in point: Nikka Coffey Malt, which just launched in the US. It’s pronounced like coffee, but there’s no caffeine involved. The whisky is distilled in what’s known as a “Coffey still” (invented, naturally, by a guy named Aeneas Coffey), which allows for a continuous distillation that gives you more flavor and depth than a traditional column still. It’s very unusual to see a 100% malt whisky made in a column still.

But technical details aside, suffice it to say: It’s an elegant spirit that will delight any casual Scotch fan, and fascinate those better-versed in malt whisky. While some purists would never turn top-shelf whisky into a cocktail, we’re of the opinion that any spirit can be cocktail-ified, as long as you’re smart about it. Here are three cocktails that do not tamper with the whisky too much.

Easy: Coffey Malt “Sonic”

Nowhere rocks a highball quite like Japan, where the two-ingredient drinks are taken quite seriously. You can order a precisely poured whisky and soda anywhere; 7-11s and similar shops even sell canned highballs. But the smartest highball we’ve ever come across was at Nikka Whisky’s “Blender’s Bar” in Toyko: a Nikka “Sonic.” That’d be soda and tonic — a brilliant idea for when you want a little of the sweetness and flavor of tonic water, but a little more tempered. In Tokyo, we tried it with their entry-level Black Nikka; unsurprisingly, a Coffey Malt version is better still.

Instructions: In a highball glass with ice, combine one and a half ounces of Nikka Coffey Malt with two ounces of tonic water and two ounces of club soda. Give a quick stir and garnish with an expressed lemon wedge.

Intermediate: Coffey Malt & Bubbles

One of our favorite classic drinks, the Seelbach, pairs bourbon with sparkling wine, orange liqueur, and a heavy hand of bitters. Here, we’re keeping the same idea, but pulling back on some of the flavors — nixing the orange liqueur, lightening the bitters — so the whisky’s character emerges more clearly. We find that a little bit of honey syrup enhances Coffey Malt’s oaky, slightly honeyed character. Don’t use a bottom-shelf Prosecco here; spring for French sparkling, ideally Champagne.

Instructions: In a flute or a coupe, pour one ounce of Nikka Coffey Malt, a quarter-ounce of honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water, stirred until honey dissolves), one dash of Peychaud’s bitters, and one dash of Angostura. Give a quick stir and top with three ounces of sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Advanced: Japanese-Style Old Fashioned

When we see a veritable fruit salad of oranges and cherries on top of an Old Fashioned, we tend to get suspicious; just a twist is generally all we’re after. But that’s before we saw the beautiful sculptures atop the Old Fashioneds we ordered in Japan. Rather than smash up fruit with the whisky, Japanese bartenders arrange it on top, and serve with a slender rod with a rounded tip — one part cocktail stirrer, one part teeny muddler — so you can muddle the garnish if you see fit.

Instructions: In a mixing glass with ice, combine two ounces Nikka Coffey Malt, a quarter-ounce of honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water, stirred until honey dissolves), and two dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir until well-chilled and strain over a large ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with a sculpture of lime and orange half-moons, a lemon wheel, thin strips of orange, lemon, and lime peel, and three brandied cherries, plus one maraschino cherry for good measure. (Serve with a teeny Japanese-style muddling cocktail rod… should you happen to have one.)