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Macallan Edition No. 2

Macallan Edition is an annual limited series. Each year, Macallan releases a new Edition that is based on a unique selection of oak cask styles for that year’s release. As an extra wrinkle, each year is to be a co-creation with different partners.

Edition No. 2 was released in 2017, and the new no. 3 is just coming out now (so I figured I better get this review out while you can still grab a bottle if you want). Edition No. 2 is a collaboration between Macallan Master Whisky Maker Bob Dalgarno and the three Roca brothers, co-founders of El Celler de Can Roca, apparently one of the top named restaurants in the world.

Edition No. 2 is based on seven oak cask types (both European and American oak) from four different bodegas.

Bottled at 48.2% ABV, it is currently still available at the LCBO for $175 CAD.

Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Macallan 12yo Double Cask: 8.48 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Macallan 12yo Fine Oak: 8.46 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Macallan 15yo Fine Oak: 8.44 ± 0.51 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 17yo Fine Oak: 8.78 ± 0.50 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 18yo Fine Oak: 8.72 ± 0.26 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 21yo Fine Oak: 8.51 ± 0.40 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 1824 Amber: 8.30 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 1824 Gold: 8.24 ± 0.28 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 1824 Rare Cask: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 1824 Ruby: 8.76 ± 0.21 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 1824 Sienna: 8.71 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.93 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan Edition No. 1: 8.83 ± 0.52 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Edition No. 2: 8.87 ± 0.20 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Select Oak: 8.28 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Macallan Whisky Maker’s Edition: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

While not exactly cheap at $175 CAD, this is one the few releases of Macallan in recent years where I have not heard too many grumblings of the price relative to quality.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Delicious rich dark chocolate and creamy caramel, a great start. Fresh raisins and figs, with dried apple and pear. Brown sugar. Nutty and earthy, maybe some ginger. Definitely an unusual cask influence at work – there is something spicy here, more than typical barrel spice (chilies?). Vaguely solventy, almost sour, but that seems to go with the earthy component. Not your typical Macallan, this is a distinctive and complex nose.

Palate: The sweetness simplifies initially (i.e., white sugar), and the fruits turn more candied, with more prominent apple and pear. Citrus picks up now too (orange peel). Cinnamon. The earthiness seems to have lightened, leaving a very clean palate – with just a hint of something vegetal lurking in the background. Also very drinkable at the 48.2% ABV. It is almost watery in fact. Definitely not quite as complex as the nose, but pleasant. Some brown sugar comes back on the swallow.

Finish: Medium long. The spice comes back, a particularly oaky spice. Still very clean, with the simple candied fruitiness from the palate lasting a fairly long time.

With water, you get a simpler nose – raisin fruitiness is increased, earthiness decreased. Sweeter in mouth as well. Doesn’t need it in my view.

Simpler than I expected, especially on the way out. But it has none of that typical youthful harshness of most NAS expressions. This is probably a good choice for those who like unusual casks expressions (e.g., fans of independent bottlers).  It is also not at all your typical Macallan profile, thanks to the wider wood influence.

At the end of the day, I can’t help but think that this would have been spectacular had it been aged for longer. I think the Meta-Critic average score is reasonable.

The guys at Quebec Whisky are big fans of this edition, as are Serge of Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes, and Emma of Whiskey Reviewer. On Reddit, Devoz, Ethanized, throwboats, xile_ and MajorHop all love this edition. muaddi99 is a little less enthusiastic. cjotto9 and Sinjun86, as well as Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail, give it an average score. I’ve not actually seen a negative review of this whisky, among my reviewer set.

Tullamore Dew Irish Blended

This is a review of the entry-level Tullamore Dew Original, a no-age-statement (NAS) blended Irish whisky – and one of the best selling Irish whiskies in the world.

Originally produced in Tullamore, County Offaly, Ireland, the Tullamore distillery was established in the early 19th century. The name of this brand eventually changed to  Tullamore D.E.W. – the latter part derived from the initials of Daniel E. Williams, a general manager and later owner of the distillery. The distillery was closed down in the mid-20th century, and remaining stocks were transferred to Powers & Son – which was eventually merged with Midleton in the great Irish whisky consolidation of the 1970s.

In 2010, the brand was purchased from Midleton by William Grant & Sons, the largest independent distiller of whisky in Scotland (who own a number of global whisky brands). They constructed a new distillery on the outskirts of Tullamore, bringing production back to this region after a hiatus of more than half a century.

According to Wikipedia, it is currently the second largest selling brand of Irish whisky in the world, with nearly a million cases per annum in 2015.

I’m generally a fan of Irish whisky, especially the higher end Midleton offerings such as Redbreast 21yo and Powers John’s Lane 12yo. I’m less impressed with most entry level bottlings, like standard Bushmills and Jameson. So when I came across this in an airport business lounge, I thought I’d give it a try.

This entry-level Irish whisky is bottled at 40% ABV. It is reported to be blend of triple-distilled pot still, malt, and grain whiskies, matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and sherry casks.

Let’s see how it fares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Bushmills Original Blended: 7.67 ± 0.45 on 17 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.38 ± 0.38 on 22 reviews ($$)
Jameson Irish Whiskey: 7.82 ± 0.47 on 21 reviews ($$)
Powers Gold Label: 8.00 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
The Irishman Original Clan Irish Whiskey: 8.14 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$)
The Quiet Man Traditional Irish Whiskey: 7.56 ± 1.05 on 7 reviews ($$)
Tullamore Dew Blended: 7.84 ± 0.36 on 19 reviews ($$)
Tullamore Dew 10yo Single Malt: 8.03 ± 0.78 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Tullamore Dew Blended 12yo: 7.98 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$)
West Cork Original Irish Whiskey: 8.01 ± 0.49 on 3 reviews ($$)
Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey: 8.49 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$)

Now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with tons of honeysuckle. Also lots of green apple and pear, green banana plus a bit of honeydew melon. Orange peels. Caramel, but you have search for it. Slightly floral. A bit of an artificial sweetener note – plus acetone – which detracts. But overall a decent nose for an entry-level Irish blend.

Palate: Honey, with a bit of caramel to start. Light vanilla. Nutmeg and some cinnamon show up next. Not as fruity as the nose suggested. Some malt, adding character. Very light, with little mouthfeel (maybe a touch oily). Some minor tongue tingle. Disappears fast after swallowing.

Finish:‎ Short. A slight bitterness picks up quickly, but fortunately doesn’t get too bad. Green apple returns. Spiciness lingers, maybe with a bit of black pepper now. A bit of mouth puckering astringency.

While nothing to write home about, I would rank this at the higher end of the entry-level Irish blends I’ve tried (on par with the higher-ranked Powers Gold). A definite notch above standard Jameson, as the notes are better defined (especially the pot still-derived “green” notes). Good choice for an entry-level Irish whisky.

No one ranks this whisky particularly highly, but the most favourable reviews are from Jim Murray, Michael of Diving for Pearls, Josh the Whiskey Jug and the guys at Quebec Whisky. I’m more in-line with Jason of In Search of Elegance, Ralfy and Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Some of the lowest scores come from Serge of Whisky Fun, Chip the Rum Howler and Jan of Best Shot Whisky.

Tamdhu 30 Year Old – The MacPhail’s Collection (2009)

This is an independent bottling of Tamdhu, a speyside distillery in Scotland. Like many Scottish distilleries, Tamdhu has gone through multiple periods of production and shuttering over the years. Most recently, it was re-opened after a brief hiatus by Ian MacLeod Distillers, who are responsible for the new branding and official bottlings out there. But this independent bottling is based on stocks laid down in the late 1970s, while they were controlled by the Edrington Group.

Historically, Tamdhu production has been used mainly for blended scotch whiskies, like Famous Grouse, J&B and Cutty Sark. Aside from a limited range of current single malt official bottlings, there have been some independent bottlings over the years. This review is of one by Gordon & MacPhail, who have released a number of aged Tamdhu’s under their higher-end “The MacPhail’s Collection” label over the years. This bottling is from a 2009 release, featuring a heavily-sherried 30 year old Tamdhu (I believe it was fully aged in first-fill sherry casks).

Bottled at 43% ABV. Not sure of the original list price, but I believe it was quite reasonable for the age (going by what I recently paid for a glass at Brevings whisky bar in Riga, Latvia). I don’t do a lot of reviews of independent bottlings, but I couldn’t resist the chance to try this one. I don’t expect it would be too easy to track down a bottle of this one now, however.

I don’t have a lot to compare it to in this age range, but let’s see how it does against similarly aged malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Brora 30yo: 9.30 ± 0.21 on 18 reviews ($$$$$+)
Caol Ila 30yo: 9.31 ± 0.20 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Glencadam 30yo: 8.80 ± 0.20 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Glenfiddich 30yo: 9.05 ± 0.13 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.14 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 30yo Fine Oak: 8.56 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Talisker 30yo: 9.19 ± 0.32 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tamdhu 30yo (MacPhail Collection 2009): 9.11 ± 0.10 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Tamdhu Batch Strength (both batches): 8.54 ± 0.72 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Tamdhu 10yo: 8.30 ± 0.58 on 18 reviews ($$$$)

There are very few reviews out there, but all seem to rank this whisky quite highly.  And now what I find in the glass:

Colour: Rich mahogany, red gold

Nose: Sweet tarts to start, followed by rich figs, raisins, and sultanas. Cherries and grapes. Some lighter berries, plus pear. Get the feeling there’s a lot of fruit? Tons of brown sugar, honey and caramel as well. Slightly herbal. No off notes. A powerful dram.

Palate: Cherry cough syrup on overdrive – the herbal note turns definitely medicinal (think Buckleys). Thick and syrupy mouthfeel adds to the effect, as does some eucalyptus. Cherry cola. Orange syrup. Honey nectar and dark brown sugar (demarara sugar). Vanilla. Earthy, with dark chocolate and coffee notes. Wood spice. Something slightly musty, but it works.

Finish: Long and lingering. Herbal liqueur. Oak spice picks up, with cinnamon. Dried fruits comes back at the end, along with a slight bitterness – but not bad at all. Cherry cola lasts the longest.

This is a powerful dram. A true sherry-bomb, nectar-of-the-gods type of offering. Interestingly enough, I had just tried the standard bottling of Macallan 18yo Fine Oak before this one, and couldn’t help thinking this is what a fully sherry-matured Macallan of comparable age and vintage would likely taste like. Like Aberlour, Tamdhu might be considered a good source for relatively inexpensive classic Macallan-like heavy sherry oak malts.

This independent bottling gets a very good review from Serge of Whisky Fun, and from a couple of the other Malt Maniacs. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any other reviews of this vintage.  A nice dram, to be sure – and worth keeping an eye out for any new releases.

Macallan 18 Year Old Fine Oak

It just occurred to me that I’ve yet to post any of my Macallan single malt reviews – so in honour of Robbie Burns day (January 25), let me rectify that with the Macallan Fine Oak 18 Year Old.

After Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, Macallan is probably the next best-known Scottish single malt whisky distillery. Located in Craigellachie, this Highland whisky maker is currently owned by Edrington Group. It is a high-volume producer, turning out over 700,000 cases a year, according to sources on Wikipedia. But many of its expressions are very highly regarded by whisky enthusiasts, and it thus occupies something of a prestige niche. But with that cachet also comes higher prices, forcing many enthusiasts to look at lower-priced equivalent products elsewhere. In more recent years, this includes newer entry-level products from Macallan themselves (including various no-age-statement bottlings).

In style, Macallan has long been associated heavy European oak sherry cask aging (originally brought to the distillery from Jerez, Spain). But starting early this millenium, Macallan introduced this Fine Oak series, where the whisky has been aged in both ex-bourbon casks as well as sherry ones (both American oak, I believe). Macallan points to the American casks as introducing dryer and more oaky elements into the finished product.

Bottled at a range of ages, this 18 year old edition would typically sell for ~$300 CAD (if you could find it – not currently available locally in Ontario).  I sampled it last year at the Brevings whisky bar and restaurant in Riga, Latvia. Bottled at 43% ABV.

Here is how it compares to other Macallan whiskies of similar style or price in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Macallan 1824 Amber: 8.30 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 1824 Gold: 8.24 ± 0.28 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 1824 Rare Cask: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 1824 Ruby: 8.76 ± 0.21 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 1824 Sienna: 8.70 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 10yo Fine Oak: 8.26 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 12yo Fine Oak: 8.45 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Macallan 15yo Fine Oak: 8.45 ± 0.51 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 17yo Fine Oak: 8.78 ± 0.50 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 18yo Fine Oak: 8.72 ± 0.26 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 18yo Sherry Oak: 8.89 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 21yo Fine Oak: 8.51 ± 0.40 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 25yo Fine Oak: 8.63 ± 0.25 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan 30yo Fine Oak: 8.56 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan Edition No. 1: 8.82 ± 0.51 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Edition No. 2: 8.87 ± 0.20 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Select Oak: 8.28 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Macallan Whisky Maker’s Edition: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet and honeyed, with moderately complex sugars. Dark-skinned and red fruits – plums and raspberry come to mind especially. Very bright tasting – not heavy on the sherry notes (i.e., no figs or jammy notes). Coconut. Lemon citrus. A bit earthy, with some anise and cocoa. No real off notes, besides a bit of raw ethanol. Wasn’t sure what to expect exactly, but this is quite nice.

Palate: Very balanced fruit with caramel and golden sugar joining the honey. More orange rind now, rather than lemon. Vanilla and nutmeg. Milk chocolate. Ginger and some pepper. A bit of raw ethanol sting, but otherwise a somewhat buttery texture. Some tartness comes in after the swallow.

Finish:‎ Medium length. Golden brown sugar lasts the longest, along with a toffee stickiness. A fair amount of astringency too, likely from the oak. A bit bitter. To be honest, I kind of hoped for more here.

This is definitely a quality dram. The ex-bourbon and sherry oak characteristics seem well integrated, giving this malt a refined presentation. The nose in particular is lovely and complex. Unfortunately, I find the finish somewhat lacklustre for the age (and price), holding it back from a truly top score. As such, I would say the Meta-Critic average score is fair.

Among reviewers, Jim Murray is a fan of this series (and this bottling in particular). On Reddit, Unclimbability is very positive, and shane_il and cake_my_day both score it consistent with the Meta-Critic average. Serge of Whisky Fun gives it one of the lowest scores out there.

Tomatin 1999 Single Cask 18 Year Old – Kensington Wine Market

This is a single cask bottling of Tomatin, a Highland whisky producer in Scotland. I’ve seen a few of their single cask bottlings go by in recent years, typically through various state-controlled liquor boards. This bottling was released by Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, Alberta (their first Tomatin special release, I understand).

Released last last year, this single malt was distilled in 1999. It was matured in ex-Bourbon casks, and finished for five years in a Pedro Ximenez Sherry Butt. That makes it 18 years and 9 months of age.

621 bottles were released, bottled 52% ABV. It currently sells for $150 CAD at KWM. I was able to sample this from a colleague’s bottle.

There are not enough reviews to be included in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, but here are how the various Tomatin bottlings compare.

Tomatin 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.45 on 19 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.59 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 15yo: 8.32 ± 0.54 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.22 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 40yo: 8.95 ± 0.39 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tomatin Cask Strength: 8.35 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.03 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Limited Edition: 8.94 ± 0.26 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Sherry Edition: 8.35 0± .30 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Virgin Oak Edition: 8.51 ± ± 0.47 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Decades: 8.92 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.15 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Oloroso Sherry 1995: 8.58 ± 0.56 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)

While most of these bottlings are nothing special, I was personally a big fan of the peated limited release Cu Bocan 1989.  But I typically also like unpeated gentle base malts that are well-aged with an extensive period of sherry of port finishing.

Let’s see what I find in the glass on this one:

Nose: Brown sugar and caramel. Very jammy nose, with dark fruit preserves. Golden raisins, plus a lighter candied fruit note. Almost port-like in its level of sweet fruit. Nutty, with an earthy quality (moist earth and ginger root). Light cinnamon. This is a good pairing of bourbon maturation and PX finishing. No off notes, except perhaps for the faintest hint of old sweatsock (so, sulphur – if you are particularly sensitive to it).

Palate: Rich and thick brown sugar notes dominate, along with honey and creamy caramel – a good pairing. Fruits take a back seat now, and the earthy notes take over. Hazelnut. Dark chocolate. Tobacco. Cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a little black pepper. Great mouthfeel, oily and sticky. Quite drinkable at 52% ABV, doesn’t need water to tame the burn. Touch of bitterness creeps in on the swallow.

Finish: Long and creamy. The dark fruit preserves return, along with the lighter candied fruit note (gummi bears). Cinnamon lingers the longest, which I like. What little bitterness there is is very mild, and doesn’t detract for me.

With water, the classic bourbon sweetness notes rise on the nose (i.e. light caramel and vanilla). Water turns the oily mouthfeel into something more syrupy – with added corn syrup sweetness to boot. Doesn’t affect the burn, so I consider water to be optional on this one.

A good quality cask pairing, to be sure.  I’d give it ~8.8 on the Meta-Critic scale. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for other Tomatin special releases.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old

To complete my series of Taketsuru “pure malt” bottlings from Nikka, I am happy to present the Taketsuru 17 year old.

Like the 12 yo and 21 yo bottlings that I previously reviewed, the 17 yo is a long-standing member of the age-stated Taketsuru line.  As discussed in my more recent no-age-statement (NAS) review, the 12 yo was discontinued in favour of the new NAS bottling a couple of years ago. This was in response to the Japanese whisky boom, and Nikka’s need to preserve limited (and dwindling) stocks of aged whisky.  While the 17 and 21 year olds are technically still available, they are understandably quite hard to find “in the wild,” given the high demand and low availability.

I sampled this one recently at the Low Profile whisky bar and cafe in Athens, Greece. Incidentally, you might be interested to see the logo used by the bar on all promotional materials (i.e., signage, menus, coasters, etc), as shown on the right. That is the classic photo of Mastaka Taketsuru himself, just as shown on all the Taketsuru bottlings.

Masataka Taketsuru is one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. The Taketsuru line is named after him, and is an example of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (aka vatted malts or blended malts). These are malt whiskies blended together from multiple distilleries under Nikka’s control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).

Bottled at 43% ABV.  Here is how the Taketsuru 17yo compares to other Nikka whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.26 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.26 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.49 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity nose – fruitier than the others in this family. Fresh fruit cocktail, with plenty of pear and apple, plus berries. Also citrus (lemon in particular). Honey. No real smoke (I detected more in the other age-statement versions). But there is a slightly funky sourness that I can’t quite place (and could be coming from the peat). A bit of minerality. Also seems a bit oakier than the others in this family.

Palate: Vanilla joins the light honey notes from the nose, and banana adds to the fruit. Sweet tart candies. Some caramel starts to build over time. Light wood spices, with a touch of pepper. Somewhat watery mouthfeel. That odd sourness returns on the swallow, suggesting to me that it is indeed from the peated element.

Finish:‎ Medium short. Again, the oaky wood spices increase in prominence. There is a lingering light sweetness, balanced by a touch of bitterness from the wood.

This is certainly another decent expression in the Taketsuru line – roughly in-between the old 12 yo and 21 yo expressions in terms of quality, in my view. I like the heightened fruitiness, but the that funky sour note and bitterness is a bit off-putting. As such, I would rate it slightly lower than the Meta-Critic average. But it is still well worth the pour if you can find it anywhere.

Jan of Best Shot Whisky is a big fan, with well above average reviews from  Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews, Uncle Tobys on Reddit, and Andre, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. Jim Murray gives it an average score, while Serge of Whisky Fun and TOModera and Texacer on Reddit give it below average scores.

Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select

Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select is a duty-free (aka “global travel retail”) special release of Hibiki Harmony blended whisky. Unlike some Japanese special-edition “travel exclusives” – which are simply re-labelled and marked-up versions of standard bottlings – Master’s Select is actually a different blend than the regular Harmony.

Master’s Select is reported to be a blend of 10 different Japanese malt and grain whiskies from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries, aged in 5 different types of casks, including American white oak casks, sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks. The stronger woody character – and use of Yamazaki sherry casks in particular – are emphasized in Suntory promotional materials, in an apparent effort to increase the cachet of Hibiki Master’s Select. As with regular Harmony, there is no age statement, and it is bottled at 43% ABV.

I bought a bottle in early 2016, but only opened it recently. I paid a little over $100 CAD at the time (on sale), which was about the same price as regular Harmony here in Canada. I have always been a big fan of the older Hibiki age-statement expressions (especially the Hibiki 17yo), and am relatively positive on the no-age-statement Harmony expression – although it doesn’t fare as well among most reviewers. So I was curious to see how this Master’s Select version of Harmony would compare.

Here are how the Hibiki whiskies compare to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Metacritic Databae:

Hibiki 12yo: 8.61 ± 0.25 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.32 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.54 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.19 ± 0.74 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.20 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.69 ± 1.03 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Maltage Cosmo: 8.56 ± 0.27 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.44 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.36 ± 0.39 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.24 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.60 ± 0.67 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Single Malt (NAS): 7.94 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Similar to regular Harmony, but with more dry oakiness up front. Not particularly fruity, but I do get light pears, plums, bananas and orange rind (plus some lemon curd). Floral, with some sort of fruit blossom. Lots of vanilla, as before – perhaps even more so. Toasted coconut, which is new. Wood spice. A slightly funky note, vaguely vegetal, which I don’t recall on standard Harmony. Definitely a bit more character here, but not all of it good. Also more acetone, which detracts for me.

Palate: Similar opening waves of vanilla and honey, with the arrival of prominent caramel now. Stronger orange citrus taste now than before. Dark chocolate (with that classic bitterness). Cinnamon and nutmeg. Something vaguely earthy, but I can’t quite place it (ginger? not quite). Simply put, it seems like a more heavily-oaked version of Harmony, especially with that lingering bitterness – which builds on each sip, unfortunately. Less of the delicate perfumy/incense notes than the regular Harmony (but they may be drowned out by the earthy wood tones). Decent mouthfeel, slightly silky in texture.

Finish: Short, but longer than regular Harmony. Nutmeg. Bitter apple. That ginger-like note from the palate is prominent, with a vague wet cardboard note. The oaky bitterness lingers the longest – rather unpleasant, frankly. Again, the complexity is up a bit, but this is the most disappointing part of the experience.

This “master’s select” version of the NAS Hibiki is no match for the age statement versions of old. It lacks the traditional subtlety of Hibiki, and seems to have gone for a flavour-shortcut, by exposing a younger blend to heavier wood influence.

If you like an earthy, oaky structure in your whisky (i.e. virgin wood), then this might be a blend for you.  But for most casual whisky drinkers, I expect standard Harmony would be preferred. For me, some of the more delicate characteristics of Harmony are lost here, and too much oaky bitterness has been added.

There are few reviews of this whisky, but Dramtastic gave it a positive review with an average score (compared to a very low score for standard Harmony). On Reddit, _xile also gave it an average score (and greatly preferred it over standard Harmony).  Josh the Whiskey Jug get it a slightly lower assessment than Harmony, and muaddib99 of Reddit gave it a much lower score than standard Harmony.

I’m in this latter camp, and give this a lower score than Harmony. That said, I think the Meta-Critic average scores are a little low for both NAS Hibiki expressions. In choosing between them, it really comes done to how much you like a woody presence in your whisky. But I recommend you start with standard Harmony – or the age-statement versions of course, if you can find them.

The Infamous 22 Year Old Blended Malt

Following on my review of an entry-level blended malt (Monkey Shoulder), here is a higher-end offering: the Infamous 22 Year Old.  This is an example of a “mystery malt” – that is, a blended malt where the source distilleries are not identified. I don’t typically do many reviews of mystery malts, but this one has a funny story behind it that piqued my interest. I couldn’t resist picking up a bottle in my travels, given its ridiculously low price and presumed heritage.

This bottling of Scottish malt whiskies comes from Fountana Beverage – an international liquor import/exporter based in Vancouver, Canada. The bottle label explains it is a blend of whiskies from “two of the most notorious single malt distilleries in Scotland,” representing “where the mountain meets the sea” (with a custom logo to that effect). Specifically, the whiskies come from a lightly-peated island malt and a heavily-sherried Highland malt, aged independently and blended in Scotland. I’ve seen some commentary online that the island malt was exclusively from ex-bourbon barrels.

You often get these sorts of tantalizing clues with mystery malts, which are designed to lead those with a bit of knowledge to make an educated guess as to the distilleries involved (whether correctly or not). Privately, the local agent did reveal to vendors in Alberta that those two distilleries are Highland Park and Macallan, respectively. While both are quality big-name malt producers, it would be very unusual to pair their styles together. I’ve seen speculation online that the casks were from batches originally earmarked for either The Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark blends.

Another funny story the local agent revealed: the whisky casks had all passed 23 years of age before bottling. But the bottle labels had already been printed, so they stuck with the Infamous 22 yo name.

Bottled at 50% ABV. This 22 (23?) year old blended malt was only $103 CAD at World of Whisky in Calgary, Alberta. As the label certifies, no artificial colour has been added, and it is not chill-filtered.  While there are no reviews in Meta-Critic Whisky Database, I thought I would pick it up as a Christmas gift to myself this year.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Prominent caramel and brown sugar to start (which surprised me), followed by fruit gummies and some drier sherry fruits. Fruitcake, with red berries and raisins. Mixed nuts. Some lighter floral notes, which are nice. Light spices. There is an underlying sourness, likely from the light peat, but no real smoke per se. No solvent notes, but a bit of ethanol heat consistent with the 50% ABV.

Palate: Caramel, honey and vanilla show up first, presumably from the ex-bourbon casks. Then juicy red grapes and raisins, plus Christmas cake – very nice delayed sherry presentation. Not a lot overt smoke – more of a savoury, charred meat flavour that builds with time. Hint of rosemary. Fresh leather. Very distinctive pairing. It’s almost like drinking the caramelized drippings left in the pan of a pork roast with veggies. Rich mouthfeel, definitely oily. Some slight ethanol sting, consistent with high ABV – but it surprisingly doesn’t need any water.

Finish: Long (although not quite as long as some I’ve had in this age range). A great mix of sweet fruity notes and savoury earth notes, complex. No real bitterness, and a slight hint of smoke appears now. The ex-bourbon sweetness continues the longest, leaving a nice sugary coating on the lips and gums. Probably the closest thing in my experience is one of the aged Macallan Fine Oaks (but with a touch of smoke), or the Highland Park 25 year old (but either extra sherry).

I am surprised at how strongly the ex-bourbon character comes through here, at all levels of the tasting experience. I expected the (Macallan) sherry character to dominate more. The lightly peated malt also plays very much a supporting role – but one that comes across more as meaty instead of smokey/peaty.  Despite not being quite what I expected, I find I really enjoy this one – it’s full of surprises. Personally, I’d score this around ~8.9 on the Meta-Critic average scale.

There are not a lot of reviews of this one out there, but you can also check out criollo_and_barley on Reddit, or the reviewers at Distiller.com. Andrew at Kensington Wine Market also has tasting notes.

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

Monkey Shoulder is a great example of one of the (not so) best kept secrets in the whisky world. As I explain on my single malts vs blends page, a single malt simply means a blend (or vatting) of different malts whiskies from a single distillery. Unless it is specifically identified as a “single cask”, you are definitely getting multiple barrels mixed together for your single malt.  A blended scotch is defined as a blend of malt whisky and cheaper-to-produce grain whisky. But there is the intermediate category called a blended malt (or previously “pure malt”) where malt whisky from multiple distilleries are brought together.

In principle, there’s no reason why a blended malt would not be every bit as good as a single malt, since it is only the number of distilleries that differ. But just as blended scotches have long occupied the entry-level price point, most blended malts are similarly inexpensive and without age statements – although there are of course always exceptions (i.e., see the Taketsuru line of Japanese malt whiskies).

Monkey Shoulder is a commonly available, reasonably priced, no-age-statement blended malt from three classic Speyside distilleries controlled by William Grant & Sons: Kininvie, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich. You may not have heard of the first one (since most of its malt production goes into blended scotches), but the other two should be familiar to single malt drinkers – and will give you an idea as to what flavour profile to expect here. In this case, I believe the blend is exclusively from first-fill ex-bourbon casks, but there are of course no guarantees if that isn’t indicated on the label.

In case you are wondering about the unusual name, it comes from a historic occupational strain injury that floor malters suffered from in the early years of whisky production. In the traditional method, malting of barley would be done across a large floor (for the extended surface area). This required constant turning of the barley, so that it didn’t over-germinate into a solid mass – a task traditionally done by hand. “Monkey Shoulder” is the crude name for the condition that some malt workers developed after long shifts, where one of their arms would hang down – similar to some monkeys. Obviously, this would no longer be permitted today.

Monkey Shoulder is very reasonably priced in most jurisdictions, typically around the level of higher-end blends or entry-level single malts. It is currently $65 CAD at the LCBO, which is steeper than most places. It is bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other blended malt or entry-level single malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database.

Aberlour 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns Single Malt 8.22: ± 0.56 on 8 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.78 ± 0.85 on 8 reviews ($$)
Benromach Traditional: 8.43 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.46 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve: 7.96 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.22 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.97 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland: 7.02 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Speyside: 6.70 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$)
Monkey Shoulder: 8.31 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$)
Pig’s Nose 5yo Blended Malt: 7.93 ± 0.40 on 3 reviews ($$)
Sheep Dip Blended Malt: 8.45 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$)
Singleton of Dufftown 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
Speyburn 10yo: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 19 reviews ($$)
Speyside 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.63 on 10 reviews ($$)

Monkey Shoulder gets a decent score for this price point, consistent with the best entry-level single malts.

My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly light, with dominant notes of caramelized baked apples. Green banana and a touch of citrus (orange). Golden raisins. Vanilla, nutmeg and a slight brown sugar note – all combining to give an evocative impression of baked apple pie. ‎Bit of acetone, suggestive of its youthful age. Pretty decent on the nose.

Palate: Some honey adds to the caramel notes from the nose. Not as fruity anymore, maybe a bit of light pear. Very lightly spiced. Malty. Unfortunately, I get a dusty, dry cardboard note (likely also from its youth). A slight bit of ethanol sting, but at least it adds some substance to the somewhat watery mouth feel.

Finish: Short, and relatively light.  A bit of the spice comes back, but it remains fairly dry and not a fruity as I had hoped. No real off notes though, except for a slight bitterness.

Definitely an entry level malt. Better than most scotch blends, but it seems to me like it would have benefited from a few more years in the casks. Given its first-fill ex-bourbon heritage, I expected a little more sweetness on the palate and finish. But I think the average Meta-Critic score above is fair.

Among reviewers, Nathan the Scotch Noob is a big fan, as are most of the guys at Quebec Whisky. Josh the Whiskey Jug gives it an average score. Most reviewers give it below average for the malt class, as you might expect – including Jason of In Search of Elegance, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Thomas of Whisky Saga, among others. Serge of Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Jim Murray all give it very low scores.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Following up on my Wild Turkey 101 review, here is the true barrel-proof (cask-strength) member of this family – Wild Turkey Rare Breed.

First thing you will notice is that the proof of each batch varies a little bit, consistent with a true barrel proof product. It is also not that much higher than WT 101 – most Rare Breeds are in the 108-117 proof range (or ~54-58% ABV). The reason for this relatively low final strength is that WT enters the barrel at a lower proof than most of its competitors (in order to keep more of the base distillate character).

Wild Turkey uses a common mashbill for all its bourbons, which I would classify as a “standard rye bourbon” (R2), based on 13% rye in the mashbill. Rare Breed is reported to be a barrel-proof blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old stocks (in contrast, regular WT 101 is believed to be the younger 6/8 year olds).

Rare Breed sells for $60 CAD at the LCBO, when they have it in stock. My sample was provided by TOModera of Reddit, and was batch WT-03RB from 2011, which was 54.1% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially other cask-strength bourbons:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength: 8.84 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon 7yo: 8.78 ± 0.29 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Barton 1792 Full Proof: 8.69 ± 0.52 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel: 8.93 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.84 ± 0.24 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof: 8.89 ± 0.20 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.90 ± 0.22 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 114: 8.63 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.71 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.53 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades: 9.01 ± 0.19 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

WT Rare Breed gets a good score for the price, among this class of cask-strength bourbons.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: I get a fairly standard level of rye, as expected for WT. Lots of caramel. Cherries and some dark fruit (dried, not fresh). Cinnamon and all-spice. Lots of nose hair pickle from the high alcohol level, as expected. Acetone and some off-note that I can’t quite identify (both detract for me personally). Not really getting a lot of subtlety here, it’s a full-force bourbon nose.

Palate: A fair amount of rye zing, joining the standard corn notes. Caramel. Some citrus (orange). Has a higher rye taste than I expected from the mashbill, cinnamon and all-spice in particular. Oaky and spicy, with black pepper and a little anise. The higher ABV is noticeable here, and a bit overwhelming. Some bitterness on the swallow.

Finish: Long. Lighter sweetness slips in now, with some honey and light vanilla. Pear. Finish of lighter rye notes, nutmeg included. Fairly astringent though (i.e., drying). Touch of spearmint comes in at very end, which is nice.

With water, ethanol burn on the nose is lightened. More caramel in the mouth now, but still plenty of rye spice. Definitely better with a bit of water, becomes even more syrupy. Fair amount of astringency remains on finish though, which water doesn’t seem to affect.

Overall, I like the finish of this bourbon the best – I find it too strong and wood-focused on nose and palate, especially neat. Only on the finish does it open up and more subtle flavours emerge. This is a rare example where I actually prefer a standard bottling of this whisky over the cask-strength (i.e. the relatively high proof Wild Turkey 101).

Among reviewers, it is again very popular with Jim Murray, Serge of Whisky Fun and the guys at Quebec Whisky – all scoring it higher than WT 101. Josh the Whiskey Jug likes it (gives it the same score as WT 101). Similarly, Nick of Breaking Bourbon gives it the same score as Eric gave WT 101. Still with a relatively lower score – but higher than WT 101 – is Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a fairly low score – and prefers WT 101, as I do.

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