Author Archives: selfbuilt

Hibiki Harmony

Harmony is the name of the new NAS (no age statement) offering from Suntory for their premiere Hibiki line of blended whiskies. It is meant to replace the entry-level 12 yo expression, which is no longer available.

Due to the widespread shortage of mature casks world-wide (thanks to whisky’s surging popularity), many distillers have had to discontinue their classic entry-level age expressions – or at least, greatly reduce their distribution. While this is certainly the case for many Scottish single malts, it seems to be even more of an issue for Japanese whisky – given its relatively recent expansion into international markets. Demand is far outstripping supply at this point time, it seems.

There is much hang-wringing about this trend online, since it portends a general reduction in quality overall. However, there is no a priori reason to assume that every NAS will be demonstrably worse than its age statement predecessor. Indeed, there are some limited examples where the opposite seems to be the case (Cardhu Amber Rock comes to mind). In the case of the Harmony, I understand they adding a small proportion of new whisky aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks.

Being a big fan of the Hibiki 17 yo, it was with some trepidation that I opened the bottle of Hibiki Harmony that I manage to snag at the LCBO this week. Since there are not a lot of reviews online yet for this particular expression, I thought I’d provide more detailed review-style tasting notes here:

Nose: What a pleasant surprise – rich with sweet fruit and floral aromas (most especially apples, bananas and orange blossoms). I get a definite whiff of pear, which is less common (although some might consider that to be over-ripe apple). Classic vanilla of course (consistent with oak aging). A sweet incense smell as well. You’ll laugh at me, but I also detect a hint of that cheap bubble gum that used to come with sport trading cards when I was a kid. The label mentions rosewater, which I can also imagine. All told, a much nicer nose than I was expecting, and one that is a pleasure to return to in-between sips.

Palate: Given the distinctive nose, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. Initial impression was relief – I could immediately detect the classic Hibiki “oaky” structure in the opening waves of flavour (i.e., toffee and honey). But what came next was a surprise to me – a quick shift into what I normally associate with a high-quality Canadian blended whisky (i.e., something akin to the Crown Royal Monarch). There is still some rough grain whisky showing on the Harmony, belying its young age (although it is not offensive in the way cheap young Canadian whiskies often are). But what I am detecting here is the classic integration of oaked grain sweetness with the “softer” baking spices of age ryes (which you find in quality aged Canadian blends). I doubt there is any rye in here, but I am quite happy to detect something similar to it in the Harmony, as I think it balances well with the classic Hibiki structure. I suppose some people might even compare this to a lighter/younger bourbon, given the sweetness – but the Harmony is definitely more delicate. The slight sweet perfume/incense aroma also continues into the palate, although I’m hard pressed to name it exactly.

Finish: Medium, in terms of that oaky grain whisky sweetness which continues for awhile. But the main fruity/spicy flavours trail off fairly quicky, as you might expect in a younger blend.

Having sampled more than a dozen Japanese whiskies to date, I must say that the Harmony is not what I expected – but I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As I noted in my Canadian Club 100% Rye commentary, Suntory has been integrating its recently-acquired expertise in Canadian rye making and Jim Beam bourbon blending. Given the surprising flavour profile here, I can’t help but wonder if some of that expertise hasn’t made its way back to the Japanese mainland.

As an aside, this is the first Hibiki whisky that the LCBO has stocked, to my knowledge. If the switch to NAS expressions means wider availability of this style of Japanese whisky in Canada, then I expect the local market will be glad to receive it.

Let’s see how the various Hibiki expressions compare in the Whisky Database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.43 ± 0.94 on 7 reviews
Hibiki 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews
Hibiki 17yo: 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews
Hibiki 21yo: 9.19 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews

Hibiki Harmony NASThe trend in mean scores is in the direction you would expect – but there are definitely some pretty great differences of opinion on the Harmony, as illustrated in the much higher standard deviation than typical. I suspect this reflects the distinctive flavour profile described above – while I like it, it obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone.

For positive reviews of this expression, check out Jason of In Search of Elegance and Dave of Whisky Advocate.  For more moderate reviews, check out Martin and André of Quebec Whisky, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Price-wise, you can easily find this expression in Tokyo for about 3900 Yen (or ~$45 CAD). It’s currently available at the LCBO and SAQ for $100 CAD.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo and 21 yo

Nikka is one of the best-known makers of Japanese whisky – although its availability is quite limited in North America and Europe.

When you can find it, you are typically limited to a couple of the pure malt “colour” series, or the excellent Nikka From the Barrel. I plan to post commentaries on a number of those whiskies eventually, but would like to start with a couple of examples from the popular Taketsuru line – the 12 yo and 21 yo.

Named after Masataka Taketsuru – the founding father of Japanese whisky – these whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (often called “vatted malts” or “blended malts” elsewhere).

As I explained on my Single Malts vs Blends page, virtually all “single malts” are blends of different barrels of malt whisky – from the same distillery – vatted together. The only exception are limited specific cask releases (although even there, most of these are combinations of individual casks). The “blended malt” term (or its equivalent “vatted malt”) was developed to describe whiskies where the malt came from different distilleries – thus differentiating from “single” distillery malt blends. Technically speaking, these blended malts could consist of malt whisky produced by competing makers.

In Japan, the major makers typically have multiple distilleries under their own control – with each distillery specializing in different styles. Vatted Japanese whiskies from one producer’s set of distilleries are generally called “pure malts” there, to differentiate from the less specific “blended malt” moniker. Simply put, “pure malts” are just like “single malts”, except they come from a single producer instead of a single distillery.

As it turns out, the Taketsuru 21 yo is one of the whiskies that helped put Nikka (and Japanese whisky more generally) on the world map. Since it was first introduced into international whisky competitions, it has racked up an impressive number of gold medals and best-in-class awards and trophies. Most notably, it has won World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards four times since 2007.

There has been a bit of a craze these last few years to obtain almost any Japanese whisky at reasonable prices. I actually managed to snag the Taketsuru 12yo a year-and-a-half ago at the LCBO for ~$70.  Unfortunately, I had to pay a lot more for the 21yo on a recent trip to Asia.

Part of the reason for this is that Nikka announced earlier this year a massive restructuring of their whisky brands – and the discontinuation of a lot of distillery-specific expressions. While the Taketsuru line will persist, there were immediate price increases (up to 50%, in the case of the 21 yo). And of course, given the relative scarcity, panicked demand buying drove up prices even further across the board. For the foreseeable future, I think you will find it hard to pick of either of these Taketsuru expressions at reasonable prices.

Which is a shame, because they are both quite nice for their respective age levels. Here’s how the Taketsuru line compares in my whisky database (recalling the overall average of ~8.5)

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.32 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews
Taketsuru 17yo: 8.82 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews
Taketsuru 21yo: 9.00 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews

These relative scores track very well with my experience.

Nikka Taketsuru pure malt 12yo bottleThe 12 yo has a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas. The palate reminds me of a classic, floral-style Highland/Speyside Scottish single malt – although with the faintest touch of smoke here. I find it a little more complex than the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yo, for example. The main problem is the finish – it disappears too quickly, and turns slightly bitter on the way out (so maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all). If it weren’t for this unsatisfying end, I would have expected it to score higher for its respective age and flavour class.

The 21 yo in contrast is fairly sublime across the board. It has a much richer and fruity nose, with definite plum/prune notes (I’d swear there was sherry wood in there). Nicely caramelized body with excellent mouthfeel – a good mix of spicier notes on the palate, well balanced with the oak. The finish is long and lingering, with definite sweetness that is not cloying (and again, well balanced to the spiciness). This is a very easy to drink whisky!

For detailed reviews of these two whiskies, I suggest you check out the Nikka blended malt pages of the Quebec Whisky boys and Dramtastic. Jason of In Search of Elegance has recently reviewed both the 12 yo and 21 yo expressions (from samples of my bottles).

 

Single Malts at the LCBO – October 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again!

After the drought of new single malt releases through the spring and summer, the LCBO is finally starting to stock new expressions for the ramp-up to the holiday season.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed ~40 new single malt expressions on the LCBO website (well, new for this calendar year at least). I’ve just completed an update of my database, and most of these are now included in there. Many of these are higher-end aged expressions, but there are some good (and not-so-good) bargain choices to consider as well. More on that in moment …

Sadly, things aren’t so great on the bourbon front. Here, we continue to lose the mid- and high-end range of popular brands, as US producers adjust their allocations (and cut some international destinations – like Canada – out of their distributions altogether). This de-listing of good quality (and reasonably well-priced) bourbons is a very disturbing trend. See this post on Whisky Buzz for some examples.

But back to happier news – there are lots of new single malts for the Scotch lover to consider. The one sour note here is price – exchange rates do not currently favour the Canadian dollar. And the LCBO has always had some peculiar pricing habits, where certain “popular” brands and/or expressions get walloped with higher-than-typical prices (I’m thinking about you, Balvenie).

When it comes to the higher-end stuff, I will let you browse the database for your own recommendations.  But at the lower-end, there are some interesting new releases to consider, especially in the NAS segment (no age statement).

If you are very budget-conscious, the LCBO is now carrying the Tomatin Legacy for $43.25. That makes it one of the cheapest single malts out there, with a respectable (for the price) metacritic score of 8.25 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews. That is better than the previous entry-level Tomatin 12 yo at $52.25 (7.8 ± 0.63 on 12 reviews).  Keep in mind though that the overall average score for my current whisky database is ~8.5. But again, at $43, that is a simple single malt for less than some blends.

Going up in price, the Jura Brooklyn caught my eye – although my interest soured a little at $79.95. Isle of Jura expressions don’t typically get a lot of love from aficionados, but the flavour descriptions of this one sound interesting. I am only currently tracking one review so far across my metacritic group, although it was fairly positive and above average for that reviewer (60th percentile). One to watch, perhaps, if you have a high risk tolerance.

As always, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask remains a screaming good deal at the LCBO at $72.95 (9.19 ± 0.18 on 14 reviews). But if you want to try something a little different, the new 2015 edition of the Laphroaig Cairdeas is now out ($99.90). Again, it is early for the reviews, but the same reviewer above really liked it (85th percentile score). From the description, it sounds like a slightly fruitier and sweeter version of a typical Laphroaig ~10-12yo (apparently a nod to an earlier style of production). Could be a nice gift under the tree for a classic Laphroaig lover.

Finally, the (new for the LCBO) Kilchoman Loch Gorn gets impressive scores in this heavy-peat class, at 9.12 ± 0.14 on 10 reviews. But is sadly rather highly-priced at $175.95.

For those who don’t like peat (but not so frugal as to go for the Tomatin Legacy), I suppose you could try the new NAS Glenlivet, the laughably-named “Founder’s Reserve” at $52.95. The metacritic score of 8.32 ± 0.19 is based on just 3 reviews, so proceed with caution here. Most scuttle-butt I’ve seen online is that it is inferior to the entry-level 12yo at $56.95 (8.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews), when tested head-to-head. So I would easily expect that early Founder’s Reserve score to drop as more detailed reviews come in.

On that note, I’m sorry to say to are likely going to want to skip the new NAS Auchentoshan American Oak at $54.50 (7.75 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews). That is quite a bit lower scoring that the entry-level 12yo at $59.95 (8.33 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews). Indeed, personally I’d recommend you skip all the entry-level NAS in this flavour class and go right to the Auchentoshan 12yo, if you are looking for an inexpensive and unoffensive dram.

As a step-up from there, the newly-released Glenfiddich 14yo Rich Oak sounds interesting, at $65.95 (8.68 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews). That’s quite a score step-up from the entry-level 12yo (8.1 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews), and for only $11 more. Indeed, there are a good number of new Glenfiddichs to consider this year, although most are not as attractive in price.

Aberlour is another one that is typically well-priced at the LCBO, and the new 16yo at $89.95 seems reasonable (8.75 ± 0.19 on 9 reviews). But for $5 more, the A’Bunadh remains your best best in this family, with an overall average across all batches of 9.01 ± 0.22 on 15 reviews. And keep your eyes peeled to see if you can find any old stock of the very well-ranked batch 49 (9.22 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews).

Happy hunting in your LCBO searches!

 

 

 

 

 

Lot 40

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottle

You can’t write a whisky blog in Canada and not mention Lot 40. 🙂

Lot 40 is made by Corby at the Hiram Walker facility (Corby is the same distiller responsible for the Wiser brand of whiskies). Lot 40 is actually a straight (i.e., 100%) rye whisky, and traces its ancestry back to the 18th century in Ontario, Canada. The name apparently refers to the lot where the distiller Joshua Booth’s farm was built. His whisky was resurrected by a descendent of the Booth family in the late 1990s as part of Hiram Walker’s short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series.

Lot 40 apparently developed a strong (if small) following, and was profoundly missed when production ceased in the early 2000s. Corby brought it back in 2012, with similar composition and packaging. AFAIK, it is all produced from a single 12,000 L copper pot still at the Hiram Walker & Sons plant in Windsor, Ontario. Originally a mix of rye grain and a small amount of malted rye, they switched in 2013 to using 100% unmalted rye whisky (meaning enzymes have to be added). Later batches (e.g., 2015 onward) may also have received more extensive barrel aging, but no age statement is given.

Since its re-release, it has remained a continual favourite with critics and rye whisky drinkers alike – racking up an impressive series of awards. It scores 8.99 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews in my database – which is impressive both for absolute value and consistency. It edges out the Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo (8.94 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews) and considerably out-competes the recent Canadian Club 100% Rye (8.64 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews). As previously discussed, I think the CC 100% Rye is a great whisky in its own right – but I have to agree that Lot 40 is better overall.

A truly stellar aspect of Lot 40 for me is its nose – a rich bouquet of baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular) and fragrant floral notes (including heather), with some dark fruits evident underneath. You can also smell the candied sweetness that is the characteristic of new charred oak barrels. Rich and complex, there are absolutely no false notes here­. Honestly I could smell it all night long (which, as my lovely wife has opined, would certainly make it last longer!). 😉

The palate is very pleasing as well, with much the same layered flavours as found on the nose. Not quite as fruit-forward as I was expecting, although still plenty of apple, pear and some prunes. A touch of anise. In addition to baking spices, it also reminds me a bit of the hot/sweet cinnamon candies I grew up on. However, I must admit that I find it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that wonderful nose. As mentioned in my CC 100% Rye review, I actually like the more fruit-forward profile of the CC offering (as least as far as initial palate goes). Again, there is nothing offensive in the palate here – it is just a touch more subdued than I would have hoped for. Simply put, if the nose is a home-run, I’d rate the palate as a triple.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleThe finish is relatively long for a Canadian rye whisky, with a soft rye glow that fades into more typical vanilla sweetness (there’s that new oak again). A definite improvement over the very short-lived finish of CC 100% Rye. Again, it’s not going to compete with an expressive single malt, but it is a nice (if fairly simple) finish for this class of whisky.

Lot 40 is the first whisky that really got me appreciating the Canadian rye style. Like many people, I previously tended to turn my nose up at our home and native hooch. If you haven’t tried it, Lot 40 is a real eye-opener. It’s also a great bargain at $40 at the LCBO.

For typical Canadian reviews, you can try the rumhowler’s blog, Whisky Won, or CanadianWhisky.org. For some international perspectives, you can check out the Scotchnoob or WhiskyNotes.be.

Whisky in Korea

Selection from the Malt Shop

I’m just back from my second trip to Seoul, South Korea, and had a chance to look into whisky options available there.

Whisky remains a fairly popular drink in Korea, and you will find it on a lot of bar menus. However, the most commonly available choices are generally limited to scotch-style blends, with only a small number of single malts (if any). Prices for the standard scotch fare are generally a little higher than you would pay in North America, but not hugely so. The various expressions of the two common “Korean whisky” brands you will find – Scotch Blue (by Lotte Chilsun) and Windsor (by Diageo) – are typically all blends, sourced from Scottish distilleries for the Korean market.

In terms of selection for purchase, you can be well served by checking out the liquor boutiques in the basement of the major conglomerate department stores (i.e., where the excellent food courts are kept). I perused a couple, but was generally disappointed by the whisky selection and prices (i.e., mainly blends, and rather expensive at that). You do a bit better for wine here, but this is again not exactly a cheap option. Of course, across Seoul there are plenty of small stand-alone liquor stores – but these can be hard to find (and may be difficult to deal with if you are not fluent in Korean).

Your best option for price remains the airport duty free. Unfortunately, the main terminal at Incheon was undergoing renovations when I was there (September 2015), and many of the larger duty free outlets were closed – including the one that has the largest selection of liquor. However, a new large duty free shop recently opened in the Concourse terminal. It had the common whisky items for international duty free, at the usual excellent prices. While again somewhat more heavily biased toward blends than typical, there were a good number of well-known single malt expressions (especially the travel editions). Sadly, there were no Japanese or Taiwanese whiskies present on my traipse through. Also, unlike most duty frees, the whiskies were intentionally scattered across the entire store. This requires you to carefully scan every display, aisle and shelf when looking for products – and interact with a large horde of sales associates at every turn.

Another option is the small but well-organized Malt Shop, in the Gangnam district of Seoul. This store has an excellent collection of international whiskies, as you will able to tell from their website. Be advised however that not everything you see on that site is available for sale (even if it is shown as in stock). For example, while I counted 5 miniature 180mL bottles of the Hibiki 21yo on the shelf, these were all marked “not for sale”. According to the sales clerk, they were part of the owner’s personal collection. And none of the other miniature Japanese bottles shown on the website could be found in the store. That said, most of the full-sized malt whisky bottles listed were available.

The website does not list prices, and I found these to be somewhat variable in-store. Some of the commonly available single malt expressions were quite reasonable – especially the mid-range ones, which were often comparable or even cheaper to what I would pay here at the LCBO (e.g. most of the Balvenies, Highland Parks, etc.). That said, most of the higher-end and entry-level malt whiskies were typically more expensive than you will find in North America. As an aside, the listed shelf prices assume a credit card purchase. If you are paying cash, you may be able to negotiate ~5-10% off these prices.

The inventory was certainly a lot better than what I can find domestically at the LCBO. There were about half-a-dozen expressions available for each of the common Scottish single malt brands (e.g. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Benromach, Dalmore, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Talisker, Tomatin). In some cases, there were even more expressions than I expected to find (e.g., I counted 9 different examples of Arran malts). Some brands only had a couple of expressions available (e.g., Auchentoshan, BenRiach, Bruichladdich, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, Highland Park, Jura, Springbank, etc.), although that is understandable in some of those cases.

Of course, what I was really looking for was the selection of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies. 🙂 While there were only two bottles of Kavalan (one Soloist, one ConcertMaster), there were about a dozen or so expressions for each of the Nikka and Suntory lines. Unfortunately, the Nikka ones were largely entry-level expressions (e.g., Super, Gold & Gold, etc.) – including many that I had never even heard of previously. I did however manage to snag the Taketsuru 21yo, which is one I was really looking to find.

Suntory was generally a better mix, with a range from standard Kakubin to the entry-level Yamazaki/Hakushu malts and mid-range Hibikis. Unfortunately, the prices for all the Japanese whiskies were very high, relative to most of the Scottish malts. For example, they wanted ~$300 CAD for the Yamazaki 12yo, ~$400 CAD for the Hibiki 17yo and ~$600 CAD for the 21yo! It’s true that Japanese whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately (and Korea has significant import taxes on Japanese whiskies), but I could typically find those bottles at a quarter of those prices a year ago in Japan. Even the new entry-level Yamazaki NAS “Distiller’s Reserve” was listed at ~$140 CAD. Simply put, Korea is not a place to look for reasonable prices on Asian whiskies – but you can do okay for the Scottish malts.

The Malt Shop, Gangnam, SeoulIn any case, the Malt Shop is definitely worth a visit if you are visiting Seoul and have to some free time. Some of the map links for this store on other blogs are incorrect. Here is a confirmed direct link to google maps, using the store’s address.

It is accessible by public transit, right near the Seonjeongneung subway station. You can access this station off either the yellow Bundang Line (station 214), or the light brown Line 9 (station 927). Once there, take the #4 street exit, and head due south along Seolleung-ro for about 100m – you won’t miss the shop.

Kamsahamnida!

 

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottle

If you are just starting to explore the world of whiskies, there are a few generalizations that can actually be helpful (unlike all the misleading ones that I describe here). Specifically, when it comes to blended Scotch whiskies, most of these were not intended to be drunk neat (aka, straight). While decent blends certainly exist, single malts are widely available to fill that higher-end market niche. And so, most Scottish blends are typically engineered to be best suited to mixed drinks or cocktails. Note that that this is not necessarily the case in other jurisdictions, but it is a good rule of thumb for the lower-priced Scotch blends.

But it is also important to keep this feature in mind when perusing reviews. Typically, most expert reviewers only discuss sampling their whiskies neat (with perhaps a bit of water). This is understandable, as it allows them to explore flavours in the greatest detail, in a consistent way. But you may be missing out on an important piece of the puzzle if that doesn’t match how the whisky is commonly consumed (or was intended to be consumed).

Which brings me around to the point behind this commentary – the common Scotch blend, Chivas Regal 12 year old. This is probably the second-best seller in this class after Johnny Walker Black Label, and is especially popular in the US. Yet while JW Black gets an above-average score for a blend (and is certainly quite drinkable neat, in my view), the Chivas Regal 12yo comes in fourth-to-last among all Scottish blends in my Metacritic database: 7.78 ± 0.43 on 15 reviews.

As an aside, don’t let the seemingly high standard deviation mislead you – pretty much none of the reviewers here likes it much. 😉 Only one reviewer gives it mid-range rank – the rest all place it in their bottom 20th percentile (indeed, five of them put it in their lowest 5th percentile). As described here, one of the features of scoring is that higher-ranked items invariably have a lower standard deviation (because they couldn’t be highly ranked otherwise!).

Now, back to the matter at hand: So why does this Scotch place so low in the database, when it seems to sell quite well (and is higher priced than most entry-level blends)? The secret to understanding this is to recognize that Chivas Regal 12 yr old was specifically re-engineered in the 1950s for the palate of “scotch-and-soda” drinking Americans and Englishmen.

Personally, I find it to be a generally boring whisky when served neat – except for a rather unpleasant and harsh grassiness that doesn’t balance well at all with its light sweetness. On the bright side, at least it doesn’t have much of a finish. But this is certainly not one that I want to sip neat – and neither does anyone else that I’ve served it to. This is consistent with the low expert score in the Metacritic database.

But what happens if you serve it the way it was apparently intended to be – that is, combined with soda water? For those of you not familiar, soda water is carbonated water that has some sodium in it – such as Club Soda here in Canada. The sodium component is important, as it tends provide a subjective “drying” effect, that encourages you take another sip.

Typically, scotch-and-soda drinkers mix scotch into soda water anywhere from 1 part in 2, to 1 part in 5 (i.e. 1:1, down to 1:4 scotch:soda). I have experimented on the Chivas Regal 12, and find something almost magical happens around 1:3. Suddenly, all the unpleasant characteristics disappear, and the floral and nutty notes are amplified in a refreshing mix. It’s really quite the startling transformation. When served this way, on the rocks, I’ve seen people happily finish the glass. These would be the same people who politely handed me back the Glencairn after a single sip, when served neat. 😉

My point here is that this is one low-ranked whisky where I believe the combined wisdom of the meta-critic score has it right. But that score really only applies to drinking it neat or with a bit of water. If you are scotch-and-soda drinker, I find this blend works better than most of the others I’ve experimented with.

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottleBy the way, pronouncing this brand is actually a bit tricky. Most Scots seem to go for something that sounds like SHIV-us or SHIV-is (whereas some in other parts of the UK may go more for CHIV-vers). Americans tend to go more for a SHEE-vus pronunciation, and I’ve even heard SHEE-vass. It seems like only thing everyone agrees on is that it is definitely not to be pronounced CHEE-vis (so, no Chivas and Butthead jokes please). 😉

If you are interested in trying an inexpensive Scottish blend for sipping neat, I’d suggest Johnny Walker Black or Té Bheag. But if (like me) you were gifted a bottle of Chivas Regal 12 yo and don’t know what to do with it, I’d recommend breaking out the club soda. You could also try mixing with other popular options, like coke, ginger ale or coconut water – but I’ve found club soda to do the best job.

For expert reviews of this whisky, you can check out any of the ones on my master review list.  They pretty much all say the same thing. 🙂

Beginner’s Guide to Selecting a Single Malt Whisky

Single Malt whisky guide

Following up on my how to host a whisky tasting article, I thought I’d provide some suggestions of popular, commonly-available, and highly-ranked single malt whiskies in each of the identified flavour Super Clusters.

First thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the individual flavour clusters and super clusters – which you will find described at the bottom of my Flavour Map page. I don’t recommend you get caught up on geographical regions in Scotland (although I will provide classical details below) – it’s far more important to characterize single malts by the flavour characteristics identified through the cluster analysis.

I am going to go through the Super Clusters in the order I recommend when hosting a whisky tasting. That is, starting with the most delicate whiskies and working up to the more complex ones. If you are new to whisky, I also recommend you work your way up the “winey” flavoured whiskies before trying the “smokey/peaty” ones. For those of you more visually-inclined, I’ve posted this commentary as a YouTube video:

 

Super Custer G-H

  • Dalwhinnie 15 year old is one of the gentler drams, highly ranked in my metacritic database for this super cluster. It’s a Highland whisky with dominant notes of honey and heather/floral aromas. Very easy to drink, and popular with newcomers to single malt whiskies in my house.
  • Glenmorangie 10 year old “original” is perhaps the quintessential delicate whisky that most would be familiar with. Also a Highlander, this is the base spirit that goes into all the more “winey” cask-finished expressions from Glenmorangie (which I personally prefer). But this basic expression does have fans in its own right.

Super Cluster E-F

  • Auchentoshan 12 year old gets a somewhat middling score in my database, but you can’t beat the price – a very good budget whisky. From the Lowland region, it has a delicate base spirit, but has picked up some caramel notes from its time in wood. Fairly dry, it also goes over very well with newcomers to single malts.
  • Redbreast 12 year old is not actually a single malt, but rather an Irish single pot still distillation of malted and unmalted barley. Regardless, it is a good single malt whisky-like dram. Somewhat bolder in flavours and mouthfeel, it is a very highly ranked (and inexpensive) example of this super cluster. Worth venturing across the Irish sea for.

Super Cluster A-B-C

  • BenRiach 12 year old matured in sherry wood is a good introduction to the effects of sherry wood aging on single malts. The base spirit of this Speysider is fairly delicate, so you can really taste the sherry without having overwhelming whisky complexity. A good budget place to start on your heavily “winey” single malt journey.
  • GlenDronach 12 year old “original” is a bolder example of this super cluster, with a stronger range of flavours present (sometimes described as more “meaty” or “savoury”). Technically a Highlander, this one is a lot older than it first appears (as you will see explained in my linked commentary above). Definitely greater complexity than the BenRiach.
  • Aberlour A’Bunadh is a cask strength Speyside whisky (~60% ABV), produced in specific batches (mine is lot 49, but lot 50 is more commonly available now). You will definitely want to add some water to this one, as the full strength effect can be overwhelming. Helps to show off not just the red fruit flavours from sherry wood aging, but the cholocate/mocha richness as well.

Super Cluster I

  • Highland Park 12 year old should probably be in everyone’s whisky cabinet. A good all-rounder from Scotland’s most northerly distillery, on the island of Orkney. A mix of light smokey flavours and sherry, Highland Park is distinctive for its unique lightly peaty characteristics. While the 12 year old won’t win many awards, it illustrates the base characteristics of this distillery well. A poor man’s version of the popular (and much more complex) 18 year old.
  • Talisker 10 year old is a great example of this cluster (especially if sherry is not your thing). Talisker is a peated whisky from the Isle of Skye, and again has some distinctive regional characteristics (described by some as a distinctive sea-air “minerality”). Highly ranked in my metacritic database.
  • Ardmore Traditional Cask gets a somewhat more middling rating in my database, but is great NAS budget choice in this class. Very smokey without being peaty (if that is possible), and more interesting than the similarly priced entry-level Bowmores, in my view.
  • Oban 14 year old is another Highlander like the Dalwhinnie, with similar honey and floral notes. But the Oban is probably more typical of the Highland style, with distinctive smokey notes as well. A bit pricey, which I suspect contributes to its more middling score in my metacritic database. But probably my favourite all-rounder of the four listed here.

Super Cluster J

  • Lagavulin 16 year old is currently my favourite Islay whisky in this class, but it isn’t cheap. A rich flavour explosion, I’ve heard it described as the “depth charge” of whiskies – very popular with experienced drinkers for its complexity and long finish. However, you are likely to smell like a walking ashtray for the rest of the evening (and maybe still the next morning) – so you should warn your significant other before opening a bottle.
  • Laphroaig Quarter Cask (and 10 year old) are two of your best budget Islay offerings in this class. Intensely smokey and peaty, I don’t find there is much else going on here – but some seem to really like these. The QC is better in my view (and the metacritics), and is oddly cheaper here in Ontario – go figure! Great value if you are a fan of smoke/peat.

Of course, those are just starting points for you. Please explore the full Whisky Database for additional options in each flavour cluster.

Alberta Premium

Some things mystify me in the whisky reviewing world (okay, many things!). When looking into entry-level expressions, sooner or later I come across a reviewer who just seems to love one of these cheap budget products. Now, in the case of the entry-priced Canadian Club 100% Rye, I could understand that – it is actually an impressive quality product, clearly priced low to gather attention. But outside of the fictional Don Draper, I can’t imagine anyone actually recommending standard entry-level Canadian Club (aka “CC Premium”) as a top-pick in the world of whisky.

The recently discussed Alberta Premium Dark Horse is another example of an excellent bargain, as it is typically priced just a few dollars more than the base Alberta Premium. But what to make of the entry-level Alberta Premium? Identified as a straight 100% rye grain whisky, Alberta Distillers explains on its website that it is a blending of two whiskies, one of which is a “flavouring whisky” that was aged in used bourbon casks. The final product has apparently been aged for 5 years.

For an entry-level expression, Alberta Premium has an impressive Meta-Critic Score – a just slightly below average 8.37 ± 0.51, based on 9 reviews. Could a mass-produced Canadian rye whisky really compete on that scale, across all whiskies in the database?

The tip-off that something unusual is going on here is the fairly large standard deviation above. Basically, two reviewers love it, putting it in the top ~15-20% of all their whisky reviews. One reviewer finds it about average. The rest didn’t care for it much – with four putting it in the bottom ~15-25% of all whiskies tasted. I describe a slightly more balanced example of this divergence phenomenon with the Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 18 year olds here. In the case of AP, I personally have to side with the majority opinion and consider this to be one of the least interesting rye whiskies I’ve tried.

That said, I don’t find anything seriously wrong with it. For me, many whiskies at this price point are marred by undesirable characteristics in either the nose or finish (and would most likely benefit from extended aging to help smooth out the base spirit further). Although Mrs Selfbuilt reports a distinctly chemical solvent smell and taste to AP, I find it to be relatively inoffensive (for this entry level class). I just don’t see what there is to recommend it. Given its somewhat bland nature, I can only presume AP is designed to appeal to those who plan to use it as a rye for mixed drinks (given its lack of a strong character, one way or the other).

But there is one thing that is distinctive about Alberta Premium – the distribution of bottle sizes. I recently did an analysis of Canadian whisky inventory at the LCBO. Like most entry-level Canadian whiskies, Alberta Premium is available in a wide range of bottle sizes. However, unlike the industry heavyweights, the distribution of sizes for AP is skewed to smaller-than-typical bottles. Here is a comparison to the entry-level expressions from Canadian Club (Premium/Classic) and Gibson’s (12yo/Sterling):

Canadian whisky bottle size distributionMost high-volume distillers offer their entry level products in patterns similar to Canadian Club (roughly equivalent numbers of different size bottles) or Gibson’s (weighed toward larger bottle sizes). AP differs in that it offers a proportionally large share of smaller sized bottles, at least in Ontario.

Alberta Premium bottleOne possible inference from this is that the other makers already have significant market share, and are thus able to more easily sell large bottles of their product. In this interpretation, AP may be trying to get people to taste their product by offering it predominantly in smaller bottles. After all, you are more likely to take a chance on new product if it is in a small bottle at a lower price. Of course, the opposite interpretation would be that they may figure their best option to sell the stuff is by keeping the price particularly low to move inventory. 😉

In any case, to get some contrasting views of Alberta Premium, please check out the Quebec Whisky site. Whisky Won is another review site that I think has the measure of this whisky.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Alberta Premium Dark Horse is a very distinctive offering in the Canadian landscape.

Known for their expertise in producing 100% rye whiskies, Alberta Distillers has produced an unusual beast with their Dark Horse (also known as Alberta Rye Dark Batch in the US, due to copyright issues with the dark horse name).

Alberta Distillers has been up-front about what is in here. Most of the bottle (~90%) is a mix of two types of Canadian rye whisky: High ABV rye aged for 12 years in used barrels, and low ABV pot still rye aged for 6 years in new barrels. Rounding out all that rye whisky is ~8% of US-made bourbon (believed to be Old Grand-Dad – we’ll get back to this in a moment). But the really distinctive element is ~0.5-1% sherry added directly to the mix. The final whisky is then aged in heavily-charred American oak barrels, bottled at 45% ABV, and sold at a very competitive price.

While the addition of actual sherry into the mix may seem like a cheat to single malt fans, it is the net effect of traditional aging of whiskies in ex-sherry casks. I’ve seen estimates online that 500L first-fill casks can contain up to 7L of the previous product (stored in the wood staves). Over time, this migrates and mixes with the new make product, producing a distinctive end result (i.e., a sherry bomb whisky). Rather than aging Dark Horse in (expensive) first-fill sherry barrels, they went right to the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and simply added in an equivalent amount of actual sherry before aging in traditional barrels. This makes Dark Horse a sherry-bomb version of a Canadian rye whisky.

But what about the main elements of the mix, specifically that corn whisky? Note that despite the “rye whisky” moniker, most Canadian whisky is actually a blend of a relatively small amount of low-proof rye “flavouring” whisky added to high-proof grain whisky. Sometimes that includes Canadian-made corn whisky in the mix.

While this composition may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you know about the 9.09% rule. A long time ago, it was decided that you could add 1/10 volume of non-Canadian whisky to a Canadian whisky and still allow it to be sold as such. Legend has it that this was to allow Canadian whisky to be sold in the US under generous tax break exemptions given to US products. Basically, Canadian distillers would import cheap US-made Bourbon, add it to Canadian whisky (up to 9.09% final volume, which is an additional 1/10) and then sell the concomitant blend back in the US as “Canadian whisky” and reap a tax break.

Here in Canada, there was no need to actually use US bourbon. Apparently, distillers just kept the original Canadian formulations intact for the products intended for domestic consumption. This was possible since the US versions were adjusted to match the standard Canadian flavour profile. But this practice seems to only have been applied to value blends destined for mixing – premium products are a different story.  While it was initially reported that Dark Horse would be using Canadian corn whisky (done bourbon-style), this was quickly corrected by Beam-Suntory, who were open about the use of US bourbon from the beginning.  At some point, they also confirmed that it was Old Grand-Dad bourbon specifically (although I can’t find an official published source for that).

FYI, there’s a good public article about the 9.09% rule – as it applies to the US-release of this whisky – by Davin de Kergommeaux on Whisky Advocate.

Personally, I find the Dark Horse to be an exceptionally good value in the Canadian whisky landscape. The Meta-Critic database seems a bit mixed on this one though, giving it an 8.67 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews. While that is above average for a Canadian whisky, it is still toward the mid-range of scores in this category. But you can’t beat the price – along with CC 100% Rye, this is a quality product masquerading at an entry-level budget price. It is different though, so I would recommend it to fans of Canadian rye who are looking to expand into new flavour profiles.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen of the Alberta Premium Dark Horse is by Davin de Kergommeaux. Jason Hambrey gives a more typical rating on his Whisky Won site.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Something else that stirs up mixed feelings about this whisky – its suitability for mixed drinks (sorry for the pun). 😉 Because of the strong sherry influence, I would have thought that this whisky is best served as a gentle sipper (preferably neat). Dave Broom seems to agree – in his mixed-drink book The Whisky Manual, he gave this whisky relatively low scores when mixed with five classic mixes (i.e., Soda, cola, ginger ale, coconut water and green tee). But he does point out that it could work well in a sazerac style cocktail. According to David de Kergommeaux in the earlier link above, Dark Horse has apparently become a popular mixing rye in bars, as well as a bartender’s favourite for their own concoctions. Hopefully you will enjoy experimenting with this versatile and distinctive Canadian whisky.

Expert vs User Reviews – Part II

Following up on my earlier discussion of the online whisky review community on Reddit (“Scotchit”), I have now added a properly-normalized set of Reddit user reviews to my Whisky Database.

Background

As mentioned on that earlier page, I found an unusually high degree of consistency of scoring between Reddit reviewers on some whiskies, and evidence of systematic biases that differed from the independent expert reviewers. Scoring methods were also a lot more variable among the user reviews, although this can be partially corrected for by a proper normalization (as long as scoring remains consistent and at least somewhat normally-distributed for each reviewer).

My goal was to find Reddit reviewers who could potentially meet the level of the expert reviewer selection used here. As such, I started by filtering only those reviewers who have performed a similar minimum number of reviews as the current experts in my Whisky Database (in order to ensure equivalent status for normalization). This meant excluding any Reddit reviewer with less than 55 reviews of the current ~400 whiskies in my database. As you imagine, this restricted the number of potential candidates to only the most prolific Reddit reviewers: 15 in this case.

Upon examining the scores of these generally top-ranked reviewers, I identified 6 as having potential inconsistency issues in scoring. One common issue was a non-Gaussian distribution (e.g., a much longer “tail” of low scoring whiskies than high). I was able to account for this in the final analysis by slightly adjusting the normalization method at the low-end.

Of potential concern was inconsistent reviewing, where two products of similar flavour profile, price and typical mean expert scores were given widely divergent scores. Only a small number of reviewers should issues here, but some examples include the Aberlour 12yo non-chill-filtered compared to the Balvenie DoubleWood 12yo, the Coal Ila 12yo compared to the Ardmore Traditional Cask, and the Glenfiddich 18yo compared to the Dalmore 12yo.  I found reviewers who placed those exact pairings at the extreme ends of their complete review catalogue (i.e., ranked among the best and worst of all whiskies reviewed by that individual).

To be clear, this is not really a problem when perusing the Reddit site. As long as you are looking at whiskies within a given flavour cluster, you are likely still getting a clear relative rank from these reviewers. It is just when trying to assemble a consistent ranking across all flavour classes of whiskies that inconsistent review scores for a given reviewer becomes a potential issue. As explained in my article discussing how the metacritic score is created, scoring is simply a way to establish a personal rank for each reviewer.

Fortunately, these instances were fairly rare, even for the reviewers in question. In most cases, it was the low-ranked whisky that was disproportionately un-favoured for some reason. If significantly discordant with the rest of the database, these could be accounted for in the normalization by excluding a small number of statistically-defined outliers (using the standards described below).

Correlation of Reddit Reviewers

Independence of review appears to be lower among the Reddit reviewers than among the expert reviewer panel used here. Reddit reviewers often reference the scores and comments of other users in their own reviews. This tends to lead to some harmonization of scoring, perpetuating dominant views on a number of whiskies. Indeed, the variance on many of the well-known (and heavily reviewed) expressions was lower for normalized Reddit reviewers than the expert reviewer panel. Also, the average of all significant correlation pairings across the 15 Reddit reviewers was higher than among the expert review panel (r=0.60 vs 0.40). Interestingly, the one Reddit reviewer who seemed the most independent from the others (r=0.37 on average to the others) correlated the closest with my exiting Meta-critic score before integration (r=0.72).

I also noticed a strong correlation in the selection of whiskies reviewed among Reddit reviewers – which was again much higher than among my independent expert reviewers. This was initially surprising, given the wide geographic distribution of Reddit users. But on further examination, I discovered that lead Reddit reviewers typically share samples with one another through trades and swaps. This can of course further reduce the independence of the individual reviews.

As a result of this analysis, I decided to combine these 15 Reddit reviewers into one properly normalized reviewer category for my Whisky Database (i.e., a single combined “Reddit Reviewer” category).  [Revised, See Update later in this review]

Normalization Method for Reddit Reviewers

For this analysis, each Reddit reviewer was individually normalized to the overall population mean and standard deviation (SD) of my current expert review panel. The normalized scores for these individual Reddit reviewers were then averaged across each individual whisky they had in common, to create the combined Reddit Reviewer category. On average, there were n=5 individual Reddit reviewers per whisky. As expected, the SD for the Reddit group of reviewers was lower on average than among my current expert panel.

To deal with any inconsistent scoring patterns, I used fairly stringent criteria to isolate and remove outlying scores. To be considered an outlier, the individual normalized Reddit reviewer score had to differ from the average Reddit reviewer score for that whisky by more than 2 SD units, AND had to exceed the existing Meta-critic score by more than 3 SD units. In cases where only one Reddit reviewer score was available, exclusion was based solely on the 3 SD unit criteria from the existing Meta-Critic mean score. This resulted, on average, in 0.8 outlier scores being removed from each Reddit reviewer (i.e., less than one outlier per reviewer).

The combined group of top Reddit Reviewers was then treated as a single reviewer category in my database. The combined Reddit score was then integrated with the other expert reviews for all whiskies in common (~200 whiskies in my database). The second pass normalization was performed in the same manner as for each individual expert reviewer described previously.

Comparison of the Reddit Reviewers to the overall Metacritic Score

Now that this category of top Reddit user reviews is properly integrated into my Whisky Database, it is interesting to compare how the Reddit scores compare to the other experts – to see if the general trends noted earlier in Part I persist.

For the comparisons below, I am comparing the combined Reddit Reviewer scores to the revised total Meta-critic scores (which now includes this Reddit group as a single reviewer category). I will be reporting any interesting Reddit reviewer differences in terms of Standard Deviation (SD) units of that group from the overall mean.

I am happy to report that the integrated Reddit scores do not show the pattern of unusually low ranking for international whiskies, as noted previously for the broader Reddit group (i.e., these top reviewers are commensurate with the other expert reviewers here).

For the Rye category, the overall distribution of scores was not that different. There was a trend for Reddit reviewers to rank Canadian ryes lower than American ryes, but the numbers are too low to draw any significant inferences.

The Bourbon category similarly shows no consistent difference between the Reddit reviewers and the other reviewers in my database. The Jack Daniels’ brand of whiskies seems somewhat less popular on Reddit, however, compared to the overall Meta-critic score (Gentleman Jack -2.2 SD, Jack Daniels No.7 -1.1 SD, Jack Daniels Single Barrel -0.5 SD).

The blended Scotch whisky category was scored lower overall by the Reddit reviewers compared to the expert reviewers – consistent with the earlier observation (i.e., almost all Scotch blends received a lower Reddit score than the overall Meta-critic score). Only a couple of blends stood out as being equivalently ranked by both the top Reddit reviewers and the other reviewers – the most notable being Té Bheag (pronounced CHEY-vek). Incidentally, this happens to be one of the highest ranking Scotch blends in my database. To be clear: Scotch blends get consistently lower ranks than single malts by virtually all reviewers – it’s just the absolute scoring of the normalized Reddit reviewers that is particularly lower than the others.

The single malt whiskies showed some noticeable examples of divergence between the Reddit reviewers and the overall Meta-critic scores. The clearest example of a brand that was consistently ranked lower by the Reddit group was the new Macallan “color” series (Gold -2.4 SD, Amber -1.4 SD, and Sienna -0.5 SD). To a lesser extent, a similar pattern was observed for some of the cask-finished Glenmorangie expressions (Nectar D’Or -1.1 SD, Lasanta -1.0 SD), and the entry-level Bowmore (12yo -1.4 SD, 15yo -1.3 SD), and Ardmore (Traditional Cask -2.1 SD) expressions.

Similarly, some brands got consistently higher scores from the top Reddit reviewers – most notably Aberlour (A’Bunadh +2.0 SD, 12yo NCF +1.8 SD, 12yo double-cask +1.6 SD, 10yo +0.4 SD). Again, to a lesser extent, other seemingly popular Reddit choices were Glenfarclas (105 NAS +1.1 SD, 17yo +0.9 SD, 12yo +0.7 SD, 10yo +0.6 SD) and Glen Garioch (Founder’s Reserve +1.3 SD, 12yo +0.8 SD, 1995 +0.4 SD).

Note that both Aberlour and Glenfarclas are generally in the heavily “winey” end of the flavour clusters, just like the relatively unpopular Macallans (and Glenmorangies). I suspect part of the issue may be the perceived value-for-money in this “winey” category. Macallan is considered especially expensive for the quality, and the new NAS “color” series are generally regarded as lower quality by most critics (and even more so by Reddit reviewers). In contrast, Aberlour remains relatively low cost for the (high) perceived quality.

In any case, those were among the most extreme examples. On most everything else, there is little obvious difference between the normalized top Reddit reviewers and the other expert panel members. Properly normalized in this fashion, they provide a useful addition to the Meta-critic database. I am happy to welcome their contribution!

UPDATE July 22, 2016:

In the year since this analysis was published, I have continued to expand my analysis of Reddit whisky reviews.  I now track over 30 Redditors, across my entire whisky database, properly normalized on a per-individual basis.

While many of the observations above remain, this larger dataset has allowed me to explore reddit reviewing in more detail.  Through correlation analyses, I have been able to refine subtypes of reviewers on the site.

Specifically, there is a core set of reviewers who show very high inter-reviewer correlations.  This group, as a whole, correlates reasonably well with the Meta-Critic score, but is really defined by how consistent they are to one another.  Many of the high-profile, prolific reviewers fall into this group. All the associations noted above apply to this group, and are strongly present (e.g., they score American whiskies consistently higher than the Meta-Critic, and Canadian whiskies consistently lower).

A second group of reviewers show relatively poor correlations to each other, the main reddit group above, and the Meta-Critic score. On closer examination however, the main reason for this discrepancy is greater individual extremes in scoring on specific whiskies or subtypes of whisky.  When properly normalized and integrated, this group demonstrates a similar whisky bias to the first group (although somewhat less pronounced, and with greater inter-reviewer variability). A number of high-profile reviewers fall into this second group.

The third group (which is the smallest of the three) is a subset of reviewers who correlate better with the Meta-Critic score than they do the two groups above.  This group appears to show similar biases to the larger catalog of expert reviewers, and not the specific cohort of reddit reviewers.

As a result of these analyses, I have expanded the contribution of reddit scores to my database by adding the average scores for each group above.  Thus, instead of having a single composite score for all of reddit on each whisky (properly normalized and fully integrated), I now track 3 separate reddit reviewer groups (each normalized and integrated for that specific group).

I believe this gives greater proportionality to the database, encompassing both the relative number of reddit reviews, and their enhanced internal consistency.

 

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