Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

The Nikka 12 Year Old Premium Blended

Nikka received a lot of attention last summer for their understandable decision to replace most of the entry-level malt expressions in their lineup with no-age-statement (NAS) versions. They simply cannot keep up with demand, and risk depleting their stores of aged casks too quickly. As I found in my Taketsuru NAS review, there is reason for concern that this is leading to a drop in quality and character at the low end.

But largely missed the year before was the interesting introduction of a new age-statement blended whisky, to celebrate their 80th anniversary. With its capitalized determiner, “The Nikka” 12 Year Old Premium Blended Whisky comes in a snazzy presentation decanter with higher-end packaging.

Unfortunately, this whisky is currently only available in Japan – which may explain the relative lack of buzz (and very limited reviews online). I note that the Japanese-language Nikka website currently has plenty of pages highlighting this whisky, but it is not to be found on the English-language version of their site.

From what little I can find online, the Nikka 12yo Blended contains a base of Coffey grain whisky, and malt whiskies from both Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. This bodes well for the final product, as long as care was taken in the cask selections.

I recently received a gift bottle of this whisky, and am happy to provide some detailed tasting notes here. It is bottled at 43% ABV.

Nose: I can detect the sweet corn syrup note of the Nikka Coffey Grain, but with even more caramel and vanilla now. Definitely a malty aroma as well, reflecting the malt whisky component. Some lighter fruits, like pear and green apple. I also detect a light smokey note, similar to the old Taketsuru 12. A very faint solvent smell, but less than I detected on the Coffey Grain. A nice nose, to be sure.

Palate: The Coffey Grain definitely takes a back seat here – I get a lot of woody and malt characteristics, with enhanced caramel/vanilla flavours up-front. These are balanced by a slight bitterness, and something slightly tannic, like black tea. Nice rich texture and mouth feel, very creamy. There is a definite spicy/peppery component that I wasn’t expecting. The smoke re-appears at the end, and literally wafts up the back of your throat as you swallow.

Finish: Moderately long, with lingering cinnamon and cloves. There is both a subtle sweetness and bitterness to the finish – like candied ginger. If I have any complaint here it is that the flavours are a bit muddled when the smoke clears from the palate – but at least it has a finish (unlike the entry-level Taketsurus, which rapidly disappear).

Well, that was a pleasant relief – this is a nicely constructed blend. In many ways, it seems like a combination of the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Nikka Coffey Grain – but with some new spicier notes thrown in, and a rounding off of some of the Taketsuru 12’s rough edges. I’m glad to find it retains the light smokey characteristics of the Yoichi malt (something the new Taketsuru NAS has completely lost). That said, it lacks some of the subtlety of the pure Nikka Coffey Grain (which gets a bit lost in the blend here), and the mild bitterness may not appeal to all.

There are very few reviews of this whisky online, so I don’t have enough to include it in the whisky database.  But here are how some other Nikka whiskies compare:

TheNikka12Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.51 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.14 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.26 ± 0.28 on 14 ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.82 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

On the basis of these meta-critic scores, I would personally rank the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended somewhere in-between the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Coffey grain – and closer to the Coffey grain. So, say around ~8.6 on the meta-critic scale.

On my recent visit to Japan, I noticed that the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended retails there for the same price as the Nikka Coffey Grain (~5,400 Yen, or ~$65 CAD). This is about twice the price of the old Taketsuru 12yo (and current NAS version), indicating the intended high quality cachet of the Nikka 12 blended.

For an English-language review of this whisky, you could try the Whisky Advocate. Also, Nonjatta has a very good write-up about it, including their preliminary assessment.  Hopefully it will find its way out of Japan soon, so that more will be able to give it a shot.

 

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old

The Dalwhinnie 15yo is something of a standard bearer for me. It gets one of the best meta-critic scores for its flavour cluster (H) – and it is surprisingly complex for such a light dram. It is also widely available, and reasonably priced for the quality. It is currently $95 at the LCBO.

A final point to commend it – it is one of Mrs Selfbuilt’s current favourites among my collection. 🙂

Let’s see how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts in this flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.50 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews ($$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.23 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, the Dalwhinnie and AnCnoc offerings lead the pack here. You can expect to pay a bit more for the Dalwhinnie 15, though.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet floral quality, with apple blossoms and honeysuckle. Light fruits like apricots, pears, peaches, and apple.  Honey is definitely the dominant sweet note, although there is a touch of vanilla as well. There is also definite whiff of smoke. Very nice.

Palate: Tons of honey now, along with vanilla and toffee flavours. Same fruits as the nose. Malty overall, with a strong cereal component. Not as drying as some malty whiskies, nor as cloying as some fruity/floral ones. Individual flavours are sharp and clear, as opposed to smooth and mellow. A surprising amount of smoke comes in at the end, and lingers as you swallow.

Dalwhinnie 15yo bottleFinish: Moderate. The sweetness lingers after the smoke clears, so there is no real bitterness to speak of. Persistent malty notes, and a touch nutty and fruity until the end.

The GH flavour super-cluster is considered to comprise the “aperitif” class of single malts, owing to their typically lighter flavours. But make no mistake about it, there is a lot going on under the surface here.  The individual flavour components are crisp and clear, not muddled into a “smooth” jumble (as you sometimes find on lighter whiskies).

The smokey aspect to the finish suggests to me that this may be better suited as a disgestif rather than an aperitif (i.e., an after-dinner drink). I expect it would also do very well as a refreshing highball in the summertime – which should nicely bring up its sweet aromatic characteristics.

For more reviews of this whisky, Jason at Whisky Won and Ralfy both have quite positive reviews. Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes both give it more middle-of-the-pack scores.

 

Kavalan Single Malt

A few months ago, I reviewed the Kavalan Concertmaster – a port-finished single malt whisky from Taiwanese distiller Kavalan. In this commentary, I thought I would look at their base model malt whisky – known simply as Kavalan Single Malt.

As previously mentioned, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate. This means that their whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel compared to more temperate northerly climes like Scotland and Ireland. As such, don’t expect to see age statements here – they are all quite young whiskies, and tend to be heavily influenced by the types of casks they were matured in.

Both the Single Malt and the Concertmaster are classified as single malts, which means that are solely malt whisky, from a single distillery, made using traditional copper pot stills. And despite their entry-level status, both have won a number of medals at international wine & spirit competitions.

In the interest of full disclosure, my source for the Single Malt was a 50mL sample bottle (glass bottle, in the classic Kavalan art deco shape), picked up on one of my travels through Europe. When it was available at the LCBO, the full 700mL bottle retailed for $140 CAD. As an aside, I’ve noticed that the Single Malt tends to be sold for more than the Concertmaster just about everywhere (i.e., Concertmaster was $125 at the LCBO). One exception in Canada is Nova Scotia, where you can pick the Single Malt up for the relative bargain of $100 CAD (and Concertmaster for $104 CAD).

Here are some current stats for the various entry-level Kavalans from my meta-critic whisky database:

Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews

What I notice in the glass for the Single Malt:

Nose: Starts with classic oaky vanilla, with a touch of sherry dark fruits as well. Nothing very specific jumps out at me – a light mixed berry blend mainly. There’s also a perfumy floral smell, but no specific scents that I can identify. I definitely get a malty aroma, as if a bit of yeast were left behind. There is also a solventy smell lurking underneath it all (which is something I don’t personally care for).

Palate: Toasted caramel and vanilla are probably the most prominent flavours, consistent with ex-bourbon casks. A touch of the dark fruits, like dates and raisins, but not as much as I would like. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits here at all (unlike, say Amrut, where they come through in spades). It really isn’t sweet – somewhat bitter, in fact. Also very malty, even more than the nose suggests (although this is not a problem for me). Taste of wood pulp. A bit boring perhaps, but not unpleasant. Note that this whisky is oddly astringent, and really dries out the tongue quickly after every sip.

Kavalan Single Malt bottleFinish: Much the same flavours as the palate, medium finish. Leaves you with a vaguely woody and malty aftertaste, and very dry gums and tongue.

I would consider this to be an entry-level single malt. The astringent effect is significant (i.e., very drying in the mouth). This may explain why some reviews complain that it is “hot” or has a “kick” to it, despite its relatively low 40% ABV – I suspect they are really referring to this astringency (i.e., a high alcohol content is also drying).  It comes across as rather young otherwise.

This is one case where I personally differ from the meta-critic scores – I would rank the Concertmaster higher than the Single Malt expression, as I find the port-finishing adds a lot of distinctive flavours to the base spirit. Please see my earlier Concertmaster review for additional comments, and a further discussion of the astringency characteristics.

For more reviews, you could check out Ralfy for a detailed discussion of this whisky. Some favourable reviews can be found by the guys at Quebec Whisky. Oliver at Dramming has a short review, with a somewhat different take on the flavour profile.

I have samples on hand of a couple of the higher-end Kavalan expressions, and will post commentaries of those when I get around to sampling them.

Gooderham & Worts Four Grain Whisky

For those from the Toronto area, the name Gooderham & Worts name should sound familiar – it is still prominently displayed in the city’s trendy and historic distillery district.  Of course, the distillery itself – once the larger distiller of alcoholic spirits in Canada – has long since closed.

Canadian whisky connoisseurs will know of Gooderham & Worts from Corby’s limited release “Canadian Whisky Guild” series of the late 1990s. These were meant to showcase earlier styles of whisky making, apparently using older recipes and approaches. While short-lived at the time, two of the other members of this series – Lot 40 and Pike Creek – have both returned in recent years, apparently as modern staples of Corby’s craft whisky line.

Completing the triumvirate is the return of Gooderham & Worts – a “four grain” whisky blend of corn, rye, wheat and barley, now bottled at 44.4% ABV.

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

Gooderham & Worts: 8.61 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews

That is an above-average score for my database, with below-average variance – despite the limited number of reviews. Currently, my database Meta-critic average is ~8.55 ± 0.56, for all whiskies, world-wide.

To put that in perspective, let’s see how some of the other popular blended Canadian whiskies in the same ~$40-50 CAD price range compare. The Gooderham and Worts is currently $45 at the LCBO.

Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Pike Creek 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews
Stalk & Barrel 11+1: 8.28 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.06 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews

The Gooderham & Worts seems well within the typical score range for Canadian whisky at this price point.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet up front, somewhat floral, and surprisingly fruity for the relatively high ABV.  Notes of pear, cherries, oranges, peaches and apricots. Bubble-gum too. There’s a sweet creamy texture to the aromas, like condensed milk or creamed wheat, which is quite distinctive. There is a noticeable solvent smell initially, with acetone particularly prominent (i.e., nail polish remover). Fortunately, this fades once you let it sit in the glass for awhile – so I recommend you pour yourself a dram, and leave it alone for at least 5 mins before sampling.

Palate:  A real Canadian rye blend, through and through. The sweet floral and fruity notes show up first (and that bubble-gum again), then waves of the classic rye “baking spices” of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and all-spice. These notes really dominate and persist for a good while, drowning out almost everything else in the blend. A bit of the wheat persists throughout, but it’s subtle below the rye (and the corn is nowhere to be found). Odd that I wasn’t really getting all that much rye on the nose – too much else going on, I guess. You get some of the classic vanilla and caramel flavours as well – along with a slightly woody character.

Gooderham.WortsFinish: Medium long, with cinnamon hearts and cloves all the way to the end – a very nice spicy finish. Somewhat drying on the tongue, there is a bit of the wheat sweetness persisting for a good while as well. This makes a nice change from the bitter finishes of some of the cheaper Canadian blends (with their up-front corn sweetness).

As you can tell from the above, I quite liked this whisky. I do think the overall meta-critic score is fair, given the unfortunate initial solvent note (that mercifully dissipates over time). This is a likely a sign the young age of the grain whiskies in the blend. I would also have expected a bit more of the wheat and barley to shine through – although this does make a very decent Canadian rye blend as is.

Although Lot 40 has been a success for Corby, I don’t know if the resurrected Gooderham & Worts will catch on and persist as long. So if you are curious to try G&W, you may not want to wait too long.

For some additional reviews of this expression, I recommend you check out the reviews by Jason at Whisky Won, Ryan at ScotchBlog.ca, Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail, and Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky.

Mackmyra The First Edition

The First Edition (or Första Utgåvan) was the first major release by Mackmyra, an independent distillery in Sweden. Although a number of additional expressions have been released in recent years, the First Edition is still widely available around the world (including here at the LCBO in Canada).

It is distinguished by the use of Swedish oak for a proportion of the casks used for aging, resulting in 5.4% of the final make. Indeed, I note on the Mackmyra website that this expression has recently been re-labeled as Mackmyra “Swedish Oak” (Svensk Ek). But the specs seem otherwise the same as the original First Edition, so I suspect this is mainly a re-branding exercise. As an aside, I can see that highlighting the use of Swedish oak may be more impressive to the typical whisky consumer – but since the relatively low percentage of Swedish oak casks hasn’t changed, it may also be a little misleading.

Mackmyra uses a range of cask sizes for this whisky, and my bottle specifies that 46% of the make comes from quarter casks (100L). The use of smaller casks is a way to “accelerate” the aging of a young spirit, as explained on my source of whisky flavour page. You commonly see this practice with new distilleries, while they wait for the standard size casks to mature at the typical rate. It is bottled at an impressive 46.1% ABV.

I note that it is labeled as being non chill-filtered, with no additives (i.e., no artificial colouring or flavouring). Both statements are believable, as it has a light and bright yellow colour, and I can see small dark particulates floating in my bottle (which I suspect are just barrel char).

I must say, I like this level of label specificity on both the bottle and the outside packaging box.  It is great to know what you are getting ahead of time. I also personally like the funky modern design aesthetic to the packaging – but as always, it is what’s inside the bottle that counts.

Let’s see what the Whisky Database meta-critic scores have to say for some of the recent Mackmyra expressions available locally:

Mackmyra The First Edition: 8.78 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews
Mackmyra Special 04: 8.80 ± 0.37 on 8 reviews
Mackmyra Special 08: 8.38 ± 0.34 on 3 reviews

The average meta-critic score of 8.78 for the First Edition is very impressive for a young whisky with a relatively light flavour profile (i.e., not peated or wine cask-aged). Coupled with a very low typical price world-wide, this makes the Mackmyra First Edition one of the best deals in the GH flavour super-cluster.

I bought this bottle at the LCBO for $67 CAD – which seems like an excellent deal. Availability is limited, however.

Here’s what I notice in the glass:

Nose: Some vanilla sweetness, and lighter-color fruits (i.e., pears, plums, crisp apples). A bright herbal quality, with fresh pine or juniper – definitely something coniferous. Citrus. A faint touch of something smokey, but it’s hard to place. I get black licorice as well (i.e., a sweet anise aroma).

Palate: Now this is interesting – I get a very prominent tip-of-tongue tingle within seconds of the first sip. This characteristic is sometimes referred to as “peppery” by other reviewers, and I find it to be relatively rare outside of smokey whiskies. I don’t get much smoke here – but like on the nose, there is something lurking in the background. Definitely herbaceous, with the conifers turning more toward eucalyptus and menthol. Otherwise, the main characteristics are light sweetness – with a touch of honey, caramel and marshmallow. I get the same fruits as the nose, maybe a touch of berry as well.  And the black licorice is unmistakable now. Mouthfeel is very smooth, I would almost say creamy.

Finish: A clean finish, with no untoward notes emerging. Given the complexity of the palate, you always risk unpleasant surprises as the different characteristics fade out at various rates – but no problem here. The fruity notes do tend to disappear before the herbal ones, though.

I can see why this whisky is so highly ranked in this flavour cluster. Although it has many of the typical light and sweet “aperitif-style” flavours you’d expect (e.g., honey), it also has a surprising depth of complexity. The peppery and herbaceous/coniferous notes in particular are interesting. They make it somewhat “woody” without being “earthy”, if you get my meaning.

Mackmyra.FirstIn any case, if these later notes are not your cup of tea, you can try adding a bit of water to the whisky. I find this tends to subdue some of the spicier notes, and brings up the sweet fruity aspects. I like it fine neat, but at 46.1% ABV, you definitely have room to play with water.

As an aside, I am beginning to wonder if the presumed younger age may have something to do with the peppery “tongue-tingle.” This is something that I have also found quite prominent on the original Stalk & Barrel Canadian whisky (11+1), by Still Waters. That was a very young whisky (indeed, 1/11th of it was new make that couldn’t legally be called whisky on its own at the time of release). While not as complex as the Mackmyra First Edition, it did share a common youthful vibrancy.

For more opinions on the Mackmyra First Edition, I recommend you check out Ralfy’s informative video review, as well as the full team at Quebec Whisky. Thomas at Whisky Saga has a good review of the new “Svensk Ek” edition of this whisky.

 

 

 

Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary)

Crown Royal is a well established Canadian blended whisky maker, with a fairly wide range of products available. I have been exploring some of the higher-end offerings lately, and thoughtfully received a bottle of Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary Blend) this year for Christmas.

Apparently, Crown Royal had some trouble with using the “Monarch” label, so they had to switch to calling this the “75th Anniversary” blend. It is designed to simulate the original style of Crown Royal produced in honour of the Royal Family visit in 1939. As such, it apparently contains a high proportion of coffey-still rye, including some old stock made at the original Waterloo, Ontario plant.

Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average meta-critic score (highest first):

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.94 ± 0.55 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.25 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.27 ± 0.53 on 13 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.75 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)

There are certainly more expressions available out there, but these get among the greatest attention. See my Whisky Database for more examples.

This bottle was picked up at the LCBO for $60 CAD, although availability is currently limited.

Here are my detailed tasting notes on Monarch 75th Anniversary (batch 6):

Nose: Rye spices are present (cinnamon and cloves in particular), along with the classic oaky aromas. The main “sweet and fruity” aroma that I get is pleasant, but somewhat candied. Frankly, it reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum (although slightly flat Coke also comes to mind).  I get a bit of green apple (which is common to Crown Royal) – but nothing like the overwhelming apple I detected on the Northern Harvest Rye. Maybe a bit of banana – but not in an offensive way (and I am personally sensitive to rotting banana aromas). A well done nose, with no false notes. It especially lacks that solvent smell which is common to cheaper Canadian blends.

Palate: A relatively sweet entry for a rye whisky – but not cloying in the way that most Crown Royals are (IMO). There is a good integration of the rye spices with classic grain whisky “smoothness” throughout the palate. I get a lot of the well-aged charred oak barrel vanillins (caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, etc). I also get the some of the concentrated darker fruits that I like in a whisky (i.e., figs, raisins, etc). Personally, I find no trace of the typical grapefruity bitterness that quickly creeps in on most Crown Royals. Well done!

Finish: Pleasantly long, creamy, and with no unexpected after-tastes. The same notes as the palate just gently mellow away over time.

Although the term is overused, this is a “smooth” and easily drinkable whisky. The Northern Harvest Rye is interesting, and a great way to experience a lot of rye “kick” within the confines of the classic Crown Royal characteristics (i.e., cloyingly sweet on the entry, very bitter on the exit). But the best thing I can say for Monarch is that it doesn’t taste like a typical Crown Royal. 😉

Crown.Royal.MonarchI think Monarch makes for a great sipper, and is likely to be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced whisky drinkers alike. Basically, it reminds me of a lighter (and younger) version of Gibson’s 18yo. Alternatively, you could think of it as akin to a longer-aged Hibiki Harmony. Either way, an easy-drinking dram.

For more opinions on this whisky, I note that Davin de Kergommeaux at Whisky Advocate named this whisky  Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2015.  Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail is also a big fan, giving this the highest whisky score I’ve seen from him to date. For a dissenting voice, check out André at Quebec Whisky. Jason at Whisky Won also has a more balanced overall score.

Update (January 19, 2016): Judging from the comments on my corresponding review of this whisky on Reddit, it seems like there may be significant batch variability (with most recent batches being less impressive). Also, note that the LCBO has removed this whisky from their online website, although some stores may still have inventory. Here is the last recorded inventory list for this whisky on Liquery.com.

Nikka Taketsuru NAS

As part of their restructuring earlier this year, Nikka has discontinued many of the entry-level age expressions of their major lines. These have been replaced with no-age-statement (NAS) offerings, including for the flagship Taketsuru line.  Fear not, the 17yo and 21yo age expressions are continuing, but you can no longer get the 12yo – it has been replaced by the NAS in retail channels.

As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to see how it compares to the 12yo I still have on hand. 🙂

As I explained in my earlier Taketsuru 12yo and 21yo review, this line is named after Masataka Taketsuru – one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. These whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts”, as they blend together malt whisky from multiple distilleries under Nikka 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).

So, how does the new NAS version compare to the 12yo it is replacing? Here are the stats from my Whisky Database:

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews
Taketsuru NAS: 8.15 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews

Keep in mind the relatively low number of reviews on the new NAS.  While suggestive of reduced quality on the NAS version, it is hard to know until more reviews come in.

Having personally done a head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparison of the two, here are my general observations:

Nose: The NAS is a whole different experience from the 12yo.  I had previously observed that the 12 yo had a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas (although it was a little boring).  The NAS, in contrast, has a pleasant sweetness to it, with both a sweet oaky aroma and the definite smell of berries.  I was pleasantly surprised by this development, and was looking forward to the (relatively rare) possibility that this new NAS could actually exceed the original age statement.

Taketsuru.NASPalate: And this is where that optimistic hope was quickly dashed. 😉 The NAS is very light tasting, almost watery in fact (despite the higher 43% ABV).  It definitely lacks the complexity of the 12yo, and feels like much younger spirits are being used. Particularly disappointing to me is the subtle smokey note of the 12yo is completely gone now – this is a very basic malt on the palate, with less going on.

Finish: I previously found that the 12yo had a disappointingly quick finish, turning slightly bitter on the way out. The same is true for the NAS – it turns into a completely forgettable experience fairly quickly after sipping.

To wrap things up, while the nose of the NAS is nice (and beats out the 12yo in direct comparison), the taste of the whisky is less interesting. While I always felt the 12yo deserved a slightly higher score than the consolidated Meta-Critic average, I definitely agree with the slightly lower relative ranking of the NAS version in comparison.

Price-wise, I was able to find the standard NAS 700mL bottle for about 2500 Yen in Tokyo last month (~$30 CAD). Currently not carried at the LCBO, but the SAQ has it for $83 CAD (which seems a bit steep). I bought the old 12yo at the LCBO in mid-2014, when it was $70 CAD. Note that in Japan you can also easily find the smaller 50mL, 200mL and 500mL NAS sizes as well. Prices are described on my Whisky in Japan article.

Given its wide availability, hopefully there will be more reviews on this NAS soon. In the meantime, I recommend you do not rely on reviews of the 12yo as a proxy for this new NAS – it really is a completely different whisky.

 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

It is very rare to have a relatively entry-level rye whisky fly off the shelves – but that is what you get for being named “world whisky of the year” by Jim Murray. 🙂

A new product from Crown Royal, Northern Harvest Rye is a blended Canadian whisky composed of 90% rye. Priced attractively at ~$30 CAD, it is now virtually impossible to find it here in Ontario. Indeed, despite having secured the largest allocation of this product in Canada, the LCBO has just taken the extraordinary step of removing the direct inventory link for this item from its website.

Having personally tracked inventory patterns for several weeks now, it appears the LCBO is consolidating shipments. That is, only a single store in any given geographical region gets a delivery – but with a sizable allotment of bottles when it comes. These focused deliveries have been revolving through the local stores in my area, with no advance warning (according to those outlets). Yet despite this, any store that receives a shipment sells out within hours – due to word quickly spreading by social media (which is how I finally managed to find a bottle).

So, does the whisky live up its hype? Given the interest, I thought I’d do a full review with detailed tastings notes before exploring the whisky database results in more detail. On that front, I will also present a statistical analysis and discussion of Mr Murray’s scoring patterns later in this review. 😉

Nose: This is a fragrant whisky  – I could smell it while pouring the glass, at counter height. The overwhelming aroma is one of sweet apple – red apples, green apples, pear apples, etc. There is a creamy sweetness overall, with some notes of caramel and vanilla. You also get some of the classic rye “baking spices”, especially nutmeg, but these aren’t overly strong. Taken together, this is a veritable baked apple pie in a glass! There are additional fruit notes present (e.g., berries, cherries, etc.), but I find they take a back seat. If you search for it, you might be able to detect a slight acetone smell – but its well buried below the fruit.  Initial impression is quite favourable, but the candied sweetness may be off-putting for some (i.e. it smells like it is part apple liqueur).

Palate: Bold and fruit-forward, with all the initial hallmarks of a good Canadian rye whisky. I find the apple (while still present) is mercifully subdued now, and the other fruits quickly come to the surface (especially red fruits and berries). Butterscotch/caramel and vanilla are also more prominent, and the rest of the classic rye baking spices show up – including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all-spice. Maybe even cardamon – there’s something that reminds me of chai masala here (i.e., black tea with Indian spices and milk). There is also definite oak now, which I found was missing on the nose. The only problem for me is the bitterness which comes in at the end (think strong grapefruit) – it’s quite prominent, and ruins what would otherwise be a consistently top-tasting Canadian rye blend.

Finish: Unfortunately, the bitterness that develops at the end of the palate is slow to clear – and when it does, so has everything else!  I suppose this encourages you to take another sip, but then you just start the whole cycle over again. Putting this lingering bitterness aside, there is not really that much else going here – the same flavours as the palate, only more subdued and fading. I find the finish to be rather weak, and out of character with the impressively strong nose and palate.

So, how does this whisky compare to other inexpensive (and predominantly rye) Canadian whiskies in my database?

Alberta Premium: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews

This relative reviewer ranking shows pretty clearly where Northern Harvest Rye fits in – which is also pretty in keeping with relative prices (at least at the LCBO). Personally, I would rank Alberta Premium Dark Horse and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye both a bit higher in that list, but the overall ranking seems reasonable.

Let’s see how it does relative to the other well-known Crown Royals:

Crown Royal: 7.72 ± 0.52 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Black: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Special Reserve: 8.79 ± 0.62 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.91 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews

Corwn.Royal.HarvestInterestingly, Northern Harvest Rye effectively ties with Special Reserve, and rests below Monarch 75th Anniversary (although the number of reviews there is limited). I know there’s a bottle of Monarch waiting for me under the tree this year, so stay tuned for a follow-up review. 😉

Overall, I find this to be a decent Canadian rye whisky, with a lot going for it. I suppose it could be a good choice as a “sipping whisky” – although the overt sweetness on the nose and the bitterness on the finish detract for me personally.

If you want to read more opinions of this whisky, the three highest-scoring reviews in my database come from Jim Murray, Chip the Rum Howler, and Jason of Whisky Won. Personally, my relative ranking would fall closer in line with André, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. See also Josh of the Whiskey Jug for a slightly lower score and review.

Understanding Jim Murray’s Score

Jim Murray’s annual “whisky of the year” tends to garner a lot attention and controversy – and this year’s top pick has elicited more than the usual hand-wringing online and in the media. Much of the online commentary has been quite negative, with many accusing Mr. Murray of pulling an attention-seeking publicity stunt (see for example the Whisky Sponge).

While all would likely agree that Northern Harvest Rye is an above-average Canadian rye whisky blend for the price, it is a bit hard to understand how anyone could consider this one of the highest ranking whiskies ever – especially such an experienced reviewer like Mr Murray. His 97.5 score and “world whisky of the year” designation thus seem rather over the top!

A thoughtful concern, as expressed on Whisky Won, is that superlative scores by Mr Murray for entry-level Canadian ryes – like Alberta Premium and Northern Harvest – may actually be harmful for the reputation of Canadian whisky world-wide. Many will rush out, keen to try whiskies that routinely exceed 95 points on Mr Murray’s scale – only to walk walk away disappointed by the relative quality in the end.

But are these selections really as surprising as they seem?  What is lacking in many of these discussions is an understanding of how Mr Murray (or any reviewer) actually scores their whiskies.

One the advantages of running a meta-critic analysis site is that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how individual reviewers score whiskies. As explained here, scoring is simply a way of providing a relative rank to all the samples you have tried. It turns out most reviewers are actually quite consistent to each other in terms of their relative ranking. This is evidenced by the very good typical correlation of each reviewer to the properly normalized meta-critic scores (r=~0.75 across all reviewers). It is also the reason why you are better off just going by the meta-critic score – and not any one reviewer – when assessing overall quality. It’s good to keep in mind the biases and limitations inherent in quality ranking.

Mr Murray is actually something of an extreme case in my database. He has one of the lowest overall correlations to the combined meta-critic score (r<0.50). Indeed, he correlates quite poorly to all other reviewers in my database (paired correlations range from  r~0.10 to r=~0.45 to each reviewer, which are lower than typical). But that doesn’t mean he is entirely inconsistent in his scoring – there can be patterns in how he differs from the other reviewers.

For this simple analysis, I’ve looked at all the whiskies where Mr Murray’s normalized score deviates from the meta-critic score by a considerable margin. Using a cut-off of 1.5 standard deviation units, there are ~75 whiskies (out of >400 tracked) where Mr Murray’s score is that divergent from the combined meta-critic score. In particular, there are ~25 whiskies where he scores well above the norm, ~50 well below.

The larger number of cases where Mr. Murray scores below the norm are almost exclusively all single malt whiskies. These include many popular mid-range and high-end single malts (i.e., the mean and median costs are of these whiskies are higher than typical for my overall database).

In contrast, the smaller number of cases where Mr Murray scores above the norm are predominantly blends – including many Canadian rye whiskies. As you can imagine, the mean/median cost of these whiskies are below typical for the database.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the top scoring blends in this divergent high-ranking group. To limit the list, I am including only those that make it into the 65th percentile of Mr Murray’s scores (i.e., ones that score 92 and higher). I am also putting them in rank order, from lowest to highest Murray score.

Pendleton Let’er Buck (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic 8.12 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews
Canadian Club (Canada): – $ – Meta-critic: 7.25 ± 0.97 on 11 reviews
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.19 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews
Black Grouse (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.04 ± 0.56 on 15 reviews
Green Spot (Ireland) – $$$ – Meta-critic: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews
Jameson’s Whiskey (Ireland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 7.73 ± 0.62 on 13 reviews
Alberta Premium (Canada) – $ – Meta-critic: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Chivas Regal 25yo (Scotland) – $$$$$+ – Meta-critic: 8.73 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews
Ballantine’s (Scotland) – $ – Meta-critic: 7.66 ± 0.77 on 8 reviews
Johnnie Walker Black Label (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.37 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews

Notice something interesting about relative cost?  With a couple of exceptions, these are mainly entry-level budget blends.  There is thus a very consistent pattern in how Mr Murray deviates from the rest of the review community: whew he differs, he preferentially favours inexpensive blends, and is less impressed with more expensive single malts.

It is clear (from the Meta-critic scores above) that Northern Harvest is a better quality whisky than the other Canadian blends on that list. So Mr Murray may indeed still be providing a personal relative ranking among blends with his scores – it is just that the absolute value of his scores are inconsistent across blends and single malts.

For experienced whisky drinkers, it is hard to reconcile this scoring pattern with a consistent overall ranking across classes. One possible interpretation of the data is that Mr Murray is explicitly factoring price into his scores. There are several reviewers who do this when providing categorical labels (i.e, “must have”, “recommended”, “avoid”, etc). But Mr Murray’s self-reported method for assembling his scores leaves no room for this.

Further, there seems to a preference for budget blends over budget malts in his scoring, so it is not strictly limited to just price. Thus, an alternative interpretation – and one that seems to fit the data the best – is that Mr Murray is applying a different relative scale for his scoring of budget blends than he does to other whiskies (single malts in particular).

To sum up, the apparent inconsistency is not that Mr Murray gives Harvest Rye such an incredibly high score. Rather, it is that he gives so many entry-level blends such high scores to start with. He is thus fairly unique in the whisky reviewing universe, giving a good number of mass-produced budget blends equivalent (or higher) scores than selective smaller batch whiskies – even when made by the same producers.

 

 

Aberlour A’Bunadh – batch 49

Welcome to one of the best known “sherry bombs” – the Aberlour A’bunadh.

From Gaelic, a’bunadh means ‘(of) the origin”, or “the original”, and is meant to honour an earlier style of whisky making at the speyside distillery Aberlour. Pronounciations are always tricky, but the full name of the distillery and whisky would best be pronounced a-ber-LAU-er ah-BOON-ar.

A’bunadh is a cask-strength single malt, produced in limited run batches. For this reason, each batch has a batch number instead of an age statement, with a variable absolute alcohol by volume (typically, ~59-61% ABV). They make several batches a year.

One of the distinctive features of A’bunadh is the exclusive aging in first-fill Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts. I’ve seen various estimates online, but it appears that each batch is blended from barrels in the 5-25 year old range. Note that while it is widely believed that there is significant batch-to-batch variability (see below), all would qualify as “sherry bombs”, given the exclusive sherry cask aging.

Given the heavy focus on statistics on this blog site, an interesting question is how best to incorporate the batch-based A’bunadh into the meta-critic whisky database?

Given the large number of batches each year – and the corresponding limited number of reviews for each batch – I initially considered simply collecting scores on a per reviewer basis. So, if a reviewer had sampled multiple batches, I would average their scores across those batches (thus producing a single score per reviewer). As always, I would limit batches to those produced in the last ~5 years or (i.e., from batch ~30 and on up), to be consistent with other whiskies in the database.

Now, you could argue that this method would obscure any underlying pattern in natural batch variation. So I decided to first look at reviewers who had scored multiple batches. Surprisingly, I found very low variation across batches from each of these reviewers. Indeed, for reviewers who had scored a good number of A’bunadh batches (n>6), the standard deviations of their scores varied from ~0.10 up to ~0.25, per reviewer. Thus, despite the commonly held view that individual batches of A’bunadh are highly variable, you don’t see much variance in scores among at experienced reviewers. As such, I think it is worthwhile considering what an average across batches looks like, for all reviewers:

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviewers

Clearly, this is a popular whisky, with a well above-average meta-critic score for its class (cluster A, of the ABC super-cluster).  It also has a below-average standard deviation across reviewers, compared to other whiskies in my database.

But that isn’t the end of the story – you need to consider all patterns in the data. Specifically, while reviewers generally look favourably on all batches of A’bunadh, they do have their relative preferences. And more importantly, there seems to be some consistency in the relative rankings across reviewers.

To explore what I mean by that, let’s take a look at all A’bunadh batches scored individually, across all reviewers. For this, I am only reporting below modern batches for which I have at least 4 individual reviews.

Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 30): 9.00 ± 0.17 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 32): 8.89 ± 0.72 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 33): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 34): 8.93 ± 0.32 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 35): 9.06 ± 0.24 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 36): 9.05 ± 0.52 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 39): 9.12 ± 0.24 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 47): 8.88 ± 0.41 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 48): 8.84 ± 0.57 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 49): 9.24 ± 0.08 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 50): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 4 reviewers

Keeping in mind the relatively low number of reviews, you can see that almost all of these fit quite well within the overall mean and SD of the all-batch data presented earlier (which is, by definition, based on the largest number of reviewers). But one batch really stands out for me, as it is a full SD unit from the overall mean – batch 49.

As you can see above, batch 49 gets the highest score (9.24) and lowest standard deviation (0.08) of any specific batch in my database. More than that, when looking over percentile rankings for the five reviewers who have tried multiple batches including this one, batch 49 is consistently their highest ranked A’bunadh version.

Below is what I find in the glass for this batch. Again, expect some variability from batch to batch, but all should fall within a general flavour range:

Nose: Big and bold sherry flavours, with raisins, figs and chocolate most prominent. Some other dark fruits are below the surface (e.g. cherry), but you will need some water to bring them out. Neat, there is a fair amount of alcohol burn here (i.e. it singes the nose hairs if you inhale too deeply). Water helps on this front as well.

Palate: Sweet and delicious, with more of the fruits showing up now – especially cherry and raspberry. Also orange marmalade and dark chocolate. Mouthfeel is thick and oily, with a syrupy nature. Just a touch nutty as well. With water, it opens up further, with rich notes of Christmas cake, fig pudding, and creamy milk chocolate. Becomes like Christmas in glass, including those chocolate orange candies.

Finish: Long. While there is an initial alcohol burn (subdued with water), a fruity sweetness persists for awhile. Unfortunately, a bit of bitterness creeps in over time (almonds? coffee?) – which is the one thing holding this expression back a bit for me.

General consensus on the subject of water is hard to come by here, as it seems that many prefer drinking it neat, at cask strength. Personally, this is one where I think water greatly improves the experience. And not just a few drops – a significant amount of water is actually better. Taking it down to ~50% ABV was my personal sweet spot, taming the burn and bringing out more of the fruit flavours. There were rapidly diminishing returns beyond that though – by ~45% the whisky definitely felt flooded. You will want to experiment to see what works best for you.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49I am glad I was able to pick up a bottle of batch 49 while it was available, and am now on the hunt for samples of other batches to compare. Batch 49 is certainly very flavourful, with no hints of the sulphur that sometimes mars some sherry cask batches. It is an outstanding value for $95 CAD at the LCBO.

To get the experience of those who have sampled many batches, I suggest you check out André, Patrick and RV at QuebecWhisky.com, Serge and WhiskyFun.com, or Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be. Given the generally high scores, it is hard to find a truly negative review of any A’bunadh batch. When it does happen, it is usually due to the detection of sulphur compounds (see for example Oliver’s experience of batch 45 at Dramming.com).

If you can find it, the Aberlour A’bunadh is a strong candidate to consider for the “sherry-bomb” corner of your whisky cabinet.

 

Nikka Coffey Grain

Japanese whisky follows very closely the model laid down by Scottish whisky production. Specifically, you get malt whisky (made from malted barley using traditional copper pot stills) and grain whisky (which can incorporate various grains – most typically corn – made in a continuous column still). If you mix some portion of these together, you get a blended whisky (or a simply, a blend). See my single malt vs blend discussion here for more info on these categories. Also see my recent Nikka Coffey Malt review for a comparison.

In Scotland, there are plenty of single malts available to occupy the higher-end whisky niche – and so, most blends are relegated to the low end. There are exceptions of course (see Compass Box, for example), but this does serve as a good general rule. The result is that grain whisky production is largely a commodity-driven, high-volume industrial enterprise in Scotland.

One of the key differences to whisky production in Japan is a focus on making high-quality blends (see my Hibiki 17yo and Harmony commentaries, for example). Of course, you can only do that if you take some care in your grain whisky production.

For this commentary, I’m highlighting the standard NAS bottling of the Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. Fairly commonly available (for a Japanese whisky), and reasonably priced (again, for Japanese whisky), this is an unusual beast in the whisky world –  a pure grain whisky. Made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka, this corn whisky is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. Bottled at 45% ABV.

The absence of any malt whisky in the bottle means that the Nikka Coffey Grain is in some ways more like a Bourbon than a traditional Scotch. Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Very much of the corn whisky style. Slightly sweet, like watered-down corn-syrup, with definite traces of its time in oak (i.e., caramel/vanilla aromas, and an overall woodiness). Maybe a bit floral as well. Unfortunately, I also get a noticeable solvent aroma, which I don’t care for personally. All told, the nose reminds me of some of the younger Canadian blended whiskies (e.g. Gibson’s 12yo, Century Distillers Ninety 5yo, etc.).

Palate: Initial impression is all soft, gentle creaminess. It’s pleasantly sweet, in a delicate way – not the heavy corn syrup I sometimes find in bourbons. This is definitely still a Japanese creation, with a pleasant range of flavours – including some spice and some floral notes – all enveloped in a persistent, lightly sweet creaminess. Vanilla and caramel are noticeable, and there is a touch of apple. The faintest hint of that solvent note persists at the end, but it is very subdued (thankfully). All in all, pretty decent.

Finish: Fairly short and thin (as I find common to grain whisky), but carries through many of the same notes from the palate.

It is often said that grain whisky provides that classic “smoothness” to blended whiskies – the way it spreads out over the tongue, evening-out the various flavour components, binding them all together. This is in contrast to the “sharpness” that high-quality malt whisky provides – especially in terms of cascading waves of intense flavour through the palate and finish. The Nikka Coffey Malt definitely shows this “smoothness” well – frankly, I would describe the overall mouth-feel as luscious. 🙂

Truthfully, I don’t really see this whisky as a competitor to most bourbons, given its relatively light character. Instead, I think this whisky would be a hit with fans of the lighter Irish, Scottish or Canadian style of blends – especially if you enjoy a little sweetness.

Here’s how it compares to some other Nikka malt and/or blended whiskies in my meta-critic Whisky Database:

Nikka.Coffey.GrainNikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.76 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.2 on 8 reviews
Nikka Super: 8.04 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews

A good above-average composite score at 8.7, with an above-average standard deviation (suggesting a wide range of opinions on this whisky). And I can understand that, given its distinctiveness for the class. While some may enjoy its delicate and smooth characteristics, others may find it relatively bland and uninteresting (or potentially over-sweet). Definitely a cut above most entry level single malts I’ve tried.

Price-wise, I just picked this bottle up in a Tokyo duty-free for 5400 Yen (~$65 CAD). Not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but you can pick this expression up in BC or Alberta for ~$85-90 CAD (which seems like a remarkably good deal for Canada).

For detailed reviews from those who quite like it, check out André and Martin at QuebecWhisky.com, or Jason at WhiskyWon. For some contrasting opinions, check out Serge at WhiskyFun.com or Michio at Japan Whisky Reviews.

 

 

 

 

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