Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

Hiram Walker Special Old Rye

Hiram Walker & Sons is the largest distillery operating in Canada today, as well as the longest continuously operating distillery in North America. Indeed, according to one source, it may now actually be the largest single distiller in North America.

Located in Windsor, Ontario, Hiram Walker & Sons is currently owned by Pernod, and operated by Corby. This massive distillery produces many of the well-known Corby brands, such as Canadian Club, Gibson’s, Lot 40, and Wiser’s. According to Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky Portable Expert, a significant proportion of their operation is sold as bulk whisky to US producers.

There is very little information about their namesake Special Old whisky available online. The only real info on the Corby website is a repeat of what is already shown on the bottle label – namely, that this is a Canadian rye whisky, and that Hiram Walker & Sons was established in 1858. Not exactly a lot to go on. According to Davin’s review at the Whisky Advocate, this whisky is only available in Canada.

Hiram Walker’s Special Old is an example of an ultra-low cost, entry-level Canadian whisky. You will consistently find this whisky sold at the lowest spirit “floor” price at the various Provincial liquor outlets. At the LCBO, that means you can pick up a standard 750mL bottle for ~$25 CAD. And like many of these entry-level whiskies, it is also available in a number of sizes (i.e., 200mL, 375mL, 750mL, 1140mL, 1750mL).  As you can tell from the image, packaging is very plain (and reminiscent of Alberta Premium, another entry-level whisky).

Here is how it compares to the other ultra-cheap, entry-level Canadian whiskies in my database:

Alberta Premium: 8.24 ± 0.60 on 10 reviews ($)
Alberta Springs 10yo: 8.33 ± 0.50 on 8 reviews ($)
Canadian Club: 7.28 ± 0.87 on 13 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist: 7.61 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Hiram Walker Special Old: 8.23 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s VO: 7.73 ± 0.79 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s Canadian 83: 7.28 ± 0.90 on 7 reviews ($)
Schenley Golden Wedding: 8.02 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($)
Wiser’s DeLuxe: 8.14 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($)

As you can see, the average Meta-Critic score puts it at the top of the pack, along with Alberta Premium and Alberta Springs.

Note that it is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. My review sample came from a 200mL bottle. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose:  Rye spices are the first thing you notice, especially cinnamon and cloves. It has a pleasant fruitiness, with red apples, currants, and a bit of citrus. Some oaky vanilla, with a little caramel. Actually reminds me a bit of flat cola – but it’s not as sweet overall. There is a slight peppery spiciness, tingling the nose. Impressively, there are no obvious solvent notes – a rare find in a budget Canadian whisky. A pleasant surprise so far.

Palate: Very rye forward initially (led by cinnamon), but the kick fades quickly, leaving soft, lingering flavours. There is an almost immediate sweet creaminess that coats the tongue with vanilla/toffee, and some light fruitiness in the background. Overall rich, it leaves a nice buttery sensation on the lips and gums (though still a bit watery). It is not uniformly sweet though, as citrus and sour apple eventually take more prominence.  I would consider this fairly well balanced – it maintains distinctive individual flavours, and doesn’t blend them all together.

Finish:  Medium length for a Canadian rye, with some bitterness creeping in – but more like bitter chocolate than the typical bitter grapefruit of some Canadian blends.  I get the flat cola note again, with just a hint of the softer rye spices (maybe nutmeg) persisting to the end. Somewhat tannic, leading to a drying effect over time. Leads to a very cleansing finish, which gently encourages you to take another sip.

Hiram.Walker.Special.OldUPDATE JANUARY 2016: Like many bargain Canadian ryes, lot variation can be considerable on these.  I recently picked up a second bottle, and find the nose is muted in comparison, especially for the rye spices – and there is a distinct glue-like solvent smell now. The palate is generally similar, but feels “hotter” (i.e., more raw ethanol taste). Finish is comparable, although perhaps a touch less bitter (which would actually be an improvement).

I didn’t have high hopes for this whisky – I initially bought it as an impulse buy in the LCBO checkout line, as one more budget Canadian blend to try. But this is my favourite entry-level Canadian rye so far – easily exceeding all the entry versions of Alberta Premium, Canadian Club, Seagram’s and Wiser’s at this basement price point.

I even prefer the first batch of Hiram Walker over most of the second tier ~$30 CAD whiskies, like Crown Royal and Gibson’s 12. Indeed, I would almost place that batch on par with Canadian Club 100% Rye and Forty Creek’s Copper Pot – that is, among the best of the second tier whiskies.  The second batch is less interesting on the nose, but still matches anything else at the LCBO floor price.

For more reviews of this whisky, I recommend you check out Davin at the Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Chip the RumHowler.  The highest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Jim Murray (who seems to have a fondness for entry-level Canadian rye whiskies more generally). For less positive reviews, you can check out the guys at Quebec Whisky.  But for my money, Hiram Walker’s Special Old tops the list of entry-level budget Canadian whiskies.

 

Te Bheag Blended Whisky

Té Bheag Nan Eiliean Gaelic Whisky is a distinctive blended whisky – and not just for its hard to pronounce name (“CHEY-vek”). Té Bheag uses a relatively high proportion of malt whisky (40%) – with some peated malt at that.

Produced by the Pràban na Linne company on the Isle of Skye, it is not going too much out on a limb to suspect that some Talisker peated malt may have found its way into this blend. 😉 In addition to explicit Island malt, there is supposedly malt from the classic Islay, Highland and Speyside regions. Also distinctive is the use of ex-sherry casks for some of these malts, thus imparting both winey and smokey flavours to the final blend. The age of the malt component is reportedly in the 8–11 year range.

Also impressive for a blend, Té Bheag is not chill-filtered – although it is bottled at the common 40% ABV. Combined with the above malt sources, you can expect an above-average range of flavours in this inexpensive blend.

Here is how Te Bheag compares to other scotch whisky blends in the Meta-Critic Database, for the same lower mid-range price category (in alphabetical order):

Bushmills Black Bush: 8.36 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.60 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.36 ± 0.51 on 19 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Double Black: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)

Te Bheag is actually one of the cheapest whiskies in the “$$” category, making it one of the best value buys. It is significantly cheaper than Johnnie Walker Black or Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend – two of the other top scoring mid-range blends. Famous Grouse Gold Reserve is the only blend that scores higher, for about the same price.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sharp aromas, with definite peaty/smokey notes and some sherry influence. A medicinal iodine effect is present, as well as a distinctive glue aroma (the latter is not particularly appealing, personally). The sherry influence is unmistakable, although relatively light with just a bit of raisin and chocolate. There is also a dusty and dry aspect – which, when combined with the glue, gives the impression of old book bindings.  Smells sort of like Johnny Walker Black finished in a sherry cask for a period of time. Distinctive aroma for a blend, you could easily mistake this for a Scottish Island malt whisky.

Palate: Very Highland Park-like in its initial approach, with a peaty/smokey note tamed by sherried sweetness (plus some salty caramel here). A little tongue tingle, with a bit of leather (in a good way) and some mixed nuts. This initial profile could almost be described as succulent, promising something juicy to come (which never really arrives, though). A bit of bitterness soon creeps in (similar to HP 12yo), and there is a dry astringency effect that builds over time.

Finish: Medium length. Fortunately, the bitterness disappears quickly, and there is a lingering sweetness that carries you through to the end. There is no real resurgence of any of the original flavours though, and the peat/smoke disappears fairly quickly (unlike most peated single malts, where they linger longer). There’s nothing offensive here, but ultimately, like most blends, this one does fizzle out a little bit for me.

Te.BheagTé Bheag is a great value for what it is – a decent Scotch blend at an excellent price. It has noticeable traces of peated barley and sherry cask finishing – an uncommon combination in an inexpensive blend. Despite the Isle of Skye origin, I could see this as the poor man’s Highland Park. 🙂  Indeed, while it is challenging to equate blend scores with single malts, I am also struck by how well Te Bheag matches the more-expensive entry level HPs, as shown below:

Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.49 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (2014 onward): 8.39 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)

Something to consider if you are a fan of the lightly peated and sherried style, but are on more of a budget.

At the end of the day, I think the overall Meta-Critic score here is reasonable. There is definitely more going on in this blended whisky than in the more expensive Johnnie Walker Black label. But there are also a few rougher edges here that some drinkers of simpler blends may not be used to.  I do think it is fair to say that Te Bheag is closer to an entry level single malt than a typical blend.

Nathan the Scotch Noob and Jason of In Search of Elegance both rank this whisky similarly (and match my own view). Dominic of the Whisky Advocate is even more positive, and Ralfy gives it probably the most enthusiastic review I’ve seen.

Collingwood 21 Year Old Rye

It is a little odd to be reviewing a limited-run whisky that came out over 2 years ago, as you are unlikely to be able to find this whisky anymore.  But I recently had the opportunity to taste and review this whisky blind, which led to some interesting observations (to me, at any rate).

It seems that few reviewers want to publicly reveal the results of blind taste testing (possibly because the results are likely not to put them in a good light). 😉  The experience of the Scotch Noob on this front is revealing. I personally have a lot respect for reviewers who are willing to put themselves out there with blind tasting notes.

The Collingwood 21yo was a bit of an unusual experiment for this Canadian distiller. Some 50 oak barrels of malted rye were set aside to age at the distillery. In 2013, these were married in a vat with toasted maplewood (just like regular Collingwood whisky), and released in time for Christmas 2013 (where it was ~$60 at the LCBO, I believe).

I received a blind sample of this whisky from Redditor Devoz. All I knew was that it was a Canadian whisky, bottled at 40% ABV. Here is what I found in the glass, as posted in my blind review on Reddit:

Blind Tasting Notes:

Nose:  Very sweet, with some corn syrup-like characteristics. Lighter fruits, like pear and green apple, and darker fruits like red plums and raisins.  There is a rich creaminess as well, with a slight chocolate note. Not getting much in terms of classic rye notes. No apparent solvent smells, which is a definite bonus. A nice nose, distinctive for a Canadian rye.

Palate:  Brown sugar sweetness up front, with the traditional rye baking spices following immediately after (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular). Not too spicy, but more than I expected from the nose. Very sweet and creamy – I can imagine people calling this “smooth”. Darker fruits show up more now (especially figs and raisins).  Slightly oaky. Sweet syrup returns at the end.

Finish:  Medium length. No bitterness, but not much going on here. Basically, somewhat bland and gentle, but in a good way (if that is possible).  Light sweetness and a touch of cinnamon persist to the end.

Interestingly, I mistakenly believed that this blind sample was a traditional Canadian rye blend, given that the rye spices weren’t very strong (i.e., I felt it didn’t have enough kick to be a straight rye). There was also a definite sweetness here that I found reminiscent of corn whisky, reinforcing the idea that this was a blended Canadian whisky. Quality-wise, I gave it a slightly below average score, as I didn’t find it particularly complex or interesting for its flavour characteristics.

Given the reveal, I suspect the extended barrel aging (and marrying in toasted Maplewood) introduced greater barrel sweetness, and softened the rye expression. This would be consistent with my “smooth” observation above, as well as the lack of any off notes (which can commonly occur on younger Canadian whiskies). I note that Davin of Canadian Whisky particularly emphasized the “smoothness” of this whisky in his review.

Here is how the Collingwood 21yo compares to other aged Canadian whiskies in the Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Rockies 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.66 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)

The Collingwood 21yo is clearly at the lower end of the score range for aged Canadian whiskies.

Having re-sampled it after the reveal, I’m not inclined to change my score or overall flavour assessment. I believe this particular expression may be a bit over-aged, as it is soft in flavour overall, and rather gentle on the way out. The relatively low 40% ABV doesn’t help either – this is one Canadian whisky that likely would have benefited from being bottled at higher strength. All that said, it does have a very nice nose.

Personally, I still think its flavour characteristics and overall quality place it more in-line with the following budget-minded ($) whiskies:

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($)
Forty Creek Barrel Select: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($)
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye: 8.23 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews ($)
Wiser’s Small Batch: 8.57 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.54 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($)

Collingwood.21For additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Jason of In Search of Elegance, and André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. I certainly concur with them on how soft this rye is – although I don’t personally find it as strongly floral.  I am surprised to note that some reviewers find a lot of rye here, like Davin of Canadian Whisky and Michael of Diving for Pearls. But Beppi of the Globe and Mail experiences it as more Cognac-like, which I think is a better relative fit for this whisky.

While it was certainly an interesting experience to taste and review blind, I don’t think this whisky is necessarily worth seeking out, except for its uniqueness. There are higher quality aged expressions currently available at comparable or lower prices.

 

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky is a South African whisky, from the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington. It is a pure “single grain” whisky (in this case, made exclusively from corn). It is produced in column stills, and matured in first-fill bourbon casks for a period of five years.

Until recently, it was relatively uncommon to find pure single grain whiskies bottled and sold to consumers. While column distillation is commonly used for both American bourbon and Canadian whisky, this tends to involve a mix of multiple grains (either at the time of distillation, during barreling, or at final blending). For scotch drinkers, most grain whiskies are used in “blends” – to provide a consistent sweetness and mouthfeel, and to help stretch out the smaller amount of the more distinctive (and expensive) malt whisky. See my single malt vs blend discussion here for more info on the typical processes.

Of course, one advantage to column-still whiskies is that they are a lot easier to produce (and can therefore can be sold a lot more cheaply). And as Japanese whisky makers have shown, careful barreling and aging practices can introduce some distinctive characteristics into these whiskies. That said, I find most single grain whiskies are fairly light. They thus compare most closely to some Irish whiskeys (which are traditionally pot distilled from both malted and unmalted barley), and some Canadian blended whiskies.

My recent positive experience with the Nikka Coffey Grain and Crown Royal Monarch (which uses a high proportion of Coffey still rye) encouraged me to seek out other column-still whiskies. Bain’s Cape is available locally at the LCBO for ~$48 CAD.  My review sample was provided by Reddit user Jolarbear.

Here is how Bain’s Cape compares to some similar grain and Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.54 on 7 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Original Blended: 7.73 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Three Grain Harmony: 8.29 ± 0.72 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.70 ± 0.36 on 7 reviews ($$)
Jameson Irish Whiskey: 7.82 ± 0.58 on 17 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve: 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.66 ± 0.50 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.53 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Teeling Whiskey Small Batch (Rum Cask Finish): 8.30 ± 0.37 on 16 reviews ($$)
Three Ships 5yo: 7.97 ± 0.50 on 8 reviews ($)
Tullamore Dew Blended: 7.76 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews ($$)
Writers Tears: 8.50 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$)

As you can see from the high standard deviation above for Bain’s, there are a wide range of views on this whisky. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet, you can definitely smell the corn. In fact, it is hard to notice much else at first. A bit of light fruit, mainly apple and pear. Just a touch floral (i.e. perfumy). There are no real spices to speak of, but I do get a faint impression of cereal/baked pastries, with maybe some custard. Frankly, the overall impression is pleasant, but somewhat thin. There is a slight solvent aroma (acetone), but it is mild – which is impressive for a young grain whisky (i.e., some really suffer heavily with this).

Palate: Buttered-corn sweetness is the main initial characteristic, followed by some vanilla and caramel. The same apple and pear notes from the nose are here, albeit faintly. Slightly warming, but not really spicy. A bit more alcohol burn than I would have expected, even for a 43% ABV whisky. The creamy butteriness, when combined with that baked pastry note, brings to mind the strong image of shortbread cookies. A touch of bitterness creeps in at the end.

Finish: The finish is fairly short and thin – a common feature I find to most grain whiskies. The slight grapefruitty bitterness continues for some time, very reminiscent of some Canadian whiskies (i.e., standard Crown Royal). A gentle, simple sweetness is the main characteristic.

Bains.CapeNote that a few drops of water completely destroys the nose, and dulls the taste without helping tame the alcohol burn at all. And if anything, it makes the finish even more bitter (and introduces a somewhat artificial sweetener note to boot).  Simply put, don’t do it!

Overall, I find Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky to be a lightly flavoured grain whisky, with no major flaws beyond being a bit hot in its approach. The most interesting characteristic to me is the creamy shortbread taste. But frankly, I find it a little one-dimensional overall – even for a single grain whisky. Given these characteristics, Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky might appeal to drinkers of the lighter Canadian or Irish whiskeys, or as a basis for cocktails.

Note that the Meta-Critic assessment of this whisky is fairly variable (i.e., a high standard deviation) on a low number of reviews. As such, you may want to consider the average score to be provisional until more reviews come in. Personally though, I think the current average Meta-Critic score is reasonable for this whisky.

Bain’s Cape has received moderately positive reviews from Jim Murray and Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and one extremely positive review from Ralfy. André of Quebec Whisky and Serge of Whisky Fun both rank it considerably lower (for the lack of interest/complexity, more than anything else).

 

 

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Caol Ila is a high-capacity malt distillery, from the Islay island of Scotland. As you would expect for the region, most of its production features the use of peated barley (although it does make some unpeated whisky as well).

Caol Ila (typically pronounced “Cool-EEL-ah” or “Coo-LEE-la”) has a long history, and is currently owned and operated by whisky conglomerate Diageo. Most of the distillery’s production is therefore directed toward the high-volume Diageo blends, where it serves as the “smokey” backbone of the flagship Johnnie Walker Black and various Bell’s blends. Fortunately for us, Diageo now also allows direct bottlings of Caol Ila single malts.

Interestingly, most enthusiasts seem to consider Caol Ila’s malts to be “lightly” peated.  Indeed, most of the Caol Ila single malts can be found in flavour cluster I – which are less intensely smokey/peaty than cluster J (where you will find most of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions).  This is interesting, as Caol Ila actually uses a comparable level of peat to Lagavulin (i.e., typically 35ppm). Presumably, there are other aspects to whisky production at Caol Ila that attenuate the effect of peat on final whisky flavour. See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour for more background information.

Long story short, it may be more accurate to say that Caol Ila single malts are typically less extremely peaty/smokey flavoured than those of other distilleries on the island.

Here are the Meta-Critic scores for similar single malt expressions (i.e., mainly from flavour cluster I), at comparable price points:

Bowmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.45 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Caol Ila 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.43 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.30 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Old Pulteney Navigator: 8.42 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Talisker 10yo: 8.92 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Dark Storm: 8.78 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$)

Caol Ila is definitely well received by reviewers for this class. My review sample of the Caol Ila 12yo comes from Reddit user wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very peaty nose, in a moistened earth way (i.e., a peat bog). There is some smoke as well, but it seems restrained relative to the peat (although I can definitely detect the subtle smokey note of JW Black here). There is a Lagavulin-like quality to the peat that I quite like (i.e., it is “sweeter” and less iodine-rich than the typical Laphroaig/Ardbegs to me). That sweetness is hard to place (maybe baking bread?). There is definitely something salty here too, which helps produce a mouth-watering effect. Also slightly bitter (lemon zest?) with some grassiness rounding out the overall bouquet nicely. Quite complex and fragrant for flavour cluster I.

Palate: An oily texture, with a nicely balanced mix of peat, ash and smoke. Definitely not as overwhelming as the flavour cluster J malts (i.e., I can see where the “lightly smokey” moniker comes from).  Still sweet, but with the baking bread from the nose turning into moist vanilla cake in the mouth. There’s a bit of nuttiness now as well.  Not overly complex, but pleasant and easy going (even if you are not a big peat/smoke-fan). I am surprised to see that it is actually bottled 43% ABV, as it tastes as smooth to me as most 40% whiskies.

Caol.Ila.12Finish: Moderately long. Like many peated whiskies, the smoke is the longest-lasting characteristic, but it is balanced by a persistent sweetness. I wasn’t getting much in the way of fruits on the nose or palate, but there does seem to be a light fruit vibe on the way out (maybe pear?).

I am not typically a fan of heavily peat-flavoured whiskies – but I quite like the Caol Ila 12yo. The nose in particular is very pleasant, with a lot going on. It is nice on the palate and in the finish as well, but somewhat less interesting here. That said, there are no false notes.

I don’t know if I would recommend this as an introduction for newcomers to whisky, but it is certainly a good choice for those who like a little smoke, or want to dip a toe into the peaty/smokey realm.

Despite being an entry-level single malt, most reviewers rank this whisky as slightly above average overall (which I would agree with).  Representative reviews are the most recent sample by Serge of Whisky Fun, Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and the guys at Quebec Whisky.  Even the reviewers who score this whisky a little lower tend to be very positive in their comments – see for example Ruben of Whisky Notes or Ralfy. Ralfy also recommends this as a single malt for beginners to try.

Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old

The Highwood Ninety 20yo is one of the higher-end expressions from the Alberta distiller Highwood – better known for the Centennial and Century Reserve lines of Canadian whiskies. And note that while this is marketed as a “rye whisky” (like all Canadian whisky), I believe the Ninety 20yo is actually a pure corn whisky.

I previously reviewed the more entry-level 5yo expression of the “Ninety” series (so named for the proof – both whiskies are bottled at 45% ABV). As you saw in that earlier review, while the 5yo had potential, I felt it really needed extra aging to tame its youthful characteristics.  Let’s see if the 20yo lives up to the promise.

Here is how the Highwood Ninety whiskies compare to other higher-end and/or aged Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.39 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.95 ± 0.4 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, for the price (~$50 CAD at the LCBO), the Highwood Ninety 20yo scores very well for a Canadian whisky.  I received two samples of this whisky from  Canadian Reddit users Devoz and wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Slightly sweet, but my main impression is that of a dry dustiness. There is grassiness and definite floral suggestion – very “earthy” overall.  Little fruit to speak of.  Unapologetic organic solvent smell, mainly acetone (with a touch of glue). You can sense the higher ABV. A classic grain-forward Alberta nose.

Palate:  Definite sweetness up front, with a strong toffee/butterscotch flavour. Gives me a creamy Caramilk bar sensation.  Dusty rye-like spices pop up quickly (cloves and nutmeg), and there is a spicy, peppery kick to it – with distinctive peppermint. The earthy notes from the nose continue (leather? tobacco?).  Maybe even a touch of anise now. This is a complex body, and the flavours come in waves. Definitely one you want to keep exploring. Very nice.

Finish:  Fairly long finish, well balanced overall (although the solvent aroma may linger). The light sweetness persists, along with a somewhat earthy/grassy feel.  Makes you want to go back and explore the palate further, though. A bit of dry heat builds up over repeated sips, due the higher ABV.

Highwood.Ninety.20I would think this one is fine as is (i.e., neat). A splash of water helps dampen the acetone on the nose slightly, and further accentuates the creamy butterscotch/caramel in the mouth. Also seems to soften the “earthiness” in the finish, without affecting the grassiness.

Looking over my tasting notes, I can see how this 20yo expression fits in well with the Ninety line. The evolution of the flavours from the 5yo makes sense, with the extended barrel aging. I particularly like the rich caramel/toffee notes now.

I’m not a fan of solventy smells myself, so I would rate this whisky just a touch lower than the Meta-Critic average.  I’m actually a bit surprised that the extended aging hasn’t attenuated this characteristic further. It was of course more pronounced on the Highwood Ninety 5yo.

For additional reviews, David de Kergommeaux of Canadian Whisky and Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance provide comparable ratings of this 20yo expression. The four lead reviewers at Quebec Whisky provide a nicely balanced set of views and commentaries.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Bourbon

Following up on my inaugural bourbon review (Elijah Craig 12yo), I thought I’d take a look at another low rye mashbill American whisky – the Eagle Rare 10yo Single Barrel.

This whisky is basically just the standard Buffalo Trace juice – but hand-selected from individual barrels at one of the Buffalo Trace rick houses. It is also aged for a minimum of 10 years, which is a couple of years longer than the standard Buffalo Trace. The end result is a slightly more flavour-intense version of the popular Buffalo Trace – and one that will be more variable from batch to batch. Not necessarily a bad deal for only an extra ~$5-7 USD more a bottle, typically. Note that both are bottled at a standard 45% ABV.

As an aside, there is some variation in bottle labeling over time. Specifically, the “Single Barrel” designation was recently dropped, and the location of the 10 year old age statement was moved to the back. It has been suggested that while Eagle Rare 10yo is still bottled one barrel at a time, they can no longer guarantee that it contains juice from only a single barrel. Note that my sample comes from 89justin on Reddit, from a bottle that looks just like the one currently featured on the LCBO website (and shown here).

I personally am a fan of rye-forward Canadian whiskies, but when it comes to bourbon, I tend to gravitate to some of the lower rye offerings (like Eagle Rare). For some reason, I find the Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace low rye mashbills still produce a spicy rye kick that nicely complements the traditional corn sweetness and oaky woodiness of bourbon.  In comparison, some high rye bourbons can strike me as a bit unbalanced.

Let’s see how Eagle Rare 10yo does relative to other mid-range, low rye mashbill bourbons:

Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.58 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Black Label: 8.23 ± 0.46 on 11 reviews ($)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Black Label: 8.22 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.64 ± 0.44 on 18 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.88 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$)

The average Meta-Critic score for Eagle Rare 10yo is not statistically significantly different from the standard Buffalo Trace. However, the comparably priced Heaven Hill offerings (Elijah Craig 12yo and Evan Williams Single Barrel) seem to be favoured slightly by reviewers.

Here’s what I find in the glass for my sample:

Nose: Rich nose, with lots going on here. I get vanilla and caramel from the oak (of course), along with dark red fruits (berries, cherries, raisins, red plums). Sweet and creamy, with a strong corn syrup aroma. Spicy too, but not in an overtly rye way. A bit minty. Touch of tobacco. A nice nose, even more potent than my Elijah Craig 12yo.

Palate:  Sweet and juicy fruits up front, packed full of flavours. I get honey, brown sugar and cinnamon mixed together. Peppery and spicy, but still with a silky mouth feel. Strong alcohol kick, which builds as you sip – and will make your eyes water if you hold it in your mouth long enough! Woodiness comes in more toward the end. A touch of anise. A bold and flavourful expression, but not overly complex.

Eagle.Rare.10Finish: Medium long. This is what I imagine the lingering effects of caramel-coated cinnamon red-hots would feel like (if such a thing existed). The corn sweetness is there, and it persists through the finish, along with the cinnamon rye notes.

This is a nice example of a low rye mashbill bourbon, in my view. I warrant that I am not a big bourbon guy, but I would personally pick this batch of the Eagle Rare 10yo over my bottle of the Elijah Craigh 12yo. Of course, batch variation is expected to be greater on the Eagle Rare. Either way, I think these are both examples of good mid-range bourbons.

A splash of water or a little ice (if that is your preference) may help tame the burn from the 45% ABV. I tend to find most bourbons fairly potent, so a few drops can be helpful. But it should also make an excellent base for Manhattans or Old Fashioneds.

For some reviews of this whisky, Nathan the Scotch Noob is quite a fan. Nathan of Whisky Won was less impressed with his particular sample. And here is an interesting head-to-head comparison of two batches from Michael of Diving for Pearls. My own middle-of-the-road assessment is pretty close to that of Oliver from Dramming.

 

 

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey

The Teeling family has a long history of Irish whiskey making, having founded the well-known Cooley distillery.  Around the time of Cooley’s eventual acquisition into Beam-Suntory, Jack Teeling (son of Cooley founder John Teeling), struck out on his own – and under his family name.

While setting up a new distillery in Ireland, Teeling Whiskey got busy buying sourced Irish whiskies for relabeling under their own label. The first of the whiskies released –  Small Batch – is a malt/grain whisky blend with a relatively high proportion of malt (I’ve seen a 35:65 malt:grain mix reported online). A high proportion of first-fill bourbon casks has also been reported.

Unusually, Small Batch has spent a number of months being finished in rum casks. While it is common for new operations to source outside whisky initially, rum cask finishing is certainly not exactly a typical approach.

Let’s see how it compares to some other Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database (in alphabetical order)

Bushmills Original Blended: 7.74 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.38 ± 0.44 on 18 reviews ($$)
Jameson: 7.82 ± 0.58 on 17 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.34 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan Irish Reserve Malt Whiskey: 7.97 ± 0.54 on 6 reviews ($$)
Powers (Gold Label): 8.04 ± 0.64 on 9 reviews ($$)
Teeling Whiskey Small Batch (Rum Cask Finish): 8.30 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.56 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews ($$$)

That is certainly a very respectable score for the price class. Below are my nosing and tasting notes for this whisky. Note that my sample come from a batch that was bottled on 02/2015.

Nose: Sweet. Very sweet. Sugar cane sweet. Lightly floral, with orange blossoms. Light-bodied fruits, like green grapes, pears, plums, apricots, and green apples. Main impression is diluted sweetened apple juice. No solvent notes. A touch malty, with very light aromas overall (like most entry-level Irish whiskies). But could easily be mistaken for a light golden rum, given that sweetness.

Palate: That sweetness is still present – a pure, refined white-sugar sweetness (with none of the complexity of honey, brown sugar, or even corn syrup). Not getting a lot of the fruits, except for the citrus (more tart lemon now). Some caramel. Light dusting of baking spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg. Definite grassiness coming through. Relatively light body and mouthfeel, but with a lot of alcohol burn (likely due to the higher 46% ABV).

Finish: Medium length, but not much going on here. A slight bitterness creeps in, but its subtle. Mainly just sweetened apple juice on the way out, with a touch of the spices. Pretty mild.

Teeling.Small.BatchThe nose is misleading on this one, with its pure white sugar sweetness.  Once you actually take a sip, this seems more like a decent light Irish whiskey – but with some significant alcohol kick.

I strongly recommend adding a splash of water to the Small Batch, to help tame the burn. It really improves the mouthfeel, and also slightly enhances the floral elements (although not the fruit). The slight bitterness of the finish also seems to disappear. I think the overall Meta-Critic score is pretty much right on the money here.

Like the AnCnoc 12yo, this would make a good summer sipping whisky – or a great base for cocktails. It should appeal to the typical Jameson’s drinker looking to add some uncomplicated extra sweetness. Of course, you could also go for Jameson Black Barrel (known as Select Reserve now) or Bushmills Black Bush for similar quality scores.

One of the most positive reviews I’ve seen of Teeling Small Batch is of Dominic Roskrow of Whisky Advocate. Josh the WhiskeyJug and Ruben of WhiskyNotes both give it a fairly typical ranking from among the Meta-Critic panel. Nathan the Scotchnoob is probably the least impressed.

 

 

 

Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries

Welcome to my second Ichiro’s Malt review, the Double Distilleries.

As mentioned in my Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) review, Ichiro’s malts are vatted malts from two distilleries: the closed Hanyu distillery, and the currently operating Chichibu distillery. Both distilleries were controlled by the Akuto family, currently led by Ichiro Akuto.

In this case, the “double distilleries” label refers specifically to old Hanyu stock matured in ex-Sherry casks, and new-make Chichibu matured in new Japanese Mizunara oak casks. I’ve seen suggestions online that old Hanyu Puncheon casks may also have been used in the vattings. The exact proportion is unknown, although I expect it is weighed more towards the new make (from both an economic perspective, and from my tasting notes below).

Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for the Double Distilleries:

Nose: I can definitely smell the sherry cask influence – despite the light colour, I get rich chocolate notes. Apple and pear are the main fruits, not really getting the typical sherry figs or raisins. There is also a lot of honey sweetness here, similar to the Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR). A bit of allspice comes in as well, like in a nice rye blend (not over-powering). And the perfumy/incense wood notes from the MWR are also present throughout. Nice.

Palate: Definite spicy kick up front, just like the MWR. The sweet fruity notes come in next, along with the honey and chocolate. Not as much sherry influence as I was expecting from the nose – getting more general oakiness now. Taste of Graham crackers. A bit malty. Also some bitterness, but greatly attenuated compared to the MWR (which was overwhelming). The baking spices – allspice, nutmeg – linger nicely. Nice mouth feel, not too watery.

Finish: The sweet honey and Graham cracker notes are the most prominent. That MWR bitterness is present, but greatly subdued. The baking spices really help here, and linger for a nice long while. I even get a touch of apple at times. Not overly complex, but pleasant and fairly long-lasting.

Ichiro-DoubleDistilleriesI suggested in my MWR review that blending with additional casks would help that whisky out – and that is exactly what you get here. You can still detect the fragrant incense characteristics of the MWR, balanced by a more general sweetness. A clever blending of different flavour components – and a better way to glimpse the effect of younger whiskies from Mizunara wood, in my view.

This is certainly a nice, easy-drinking dram, with no real flaws. In contrast to the MWR, it goes down easier the more you sip. That said, the Double Distilleries could probably have benefited from a bit more sherry cask influence.

For some additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Ruben of WhiskyNotes, Brian (Dramtastic) of JapaneseWhiskyReview, Michio of JapanWhiskyReviews, and Tone’s review on WhiskySaga.

Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR)

This is my first review of an Ichiro’s Malt Japanese whisky.

The eponymous brand name refers to Ichiro Akuto – grandson of the founder of the fabled Hanyu distillery (which shuttered production in 2000). Ichiro later founded the Chichibu distillery nearby, and managed to save a number of Hanyu casks. His “Ichiro’s Malt” series typically involve vattings of both old Hanyu stock and new Chichibu production.

The Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) is distinctive because it is a vatting of malts that have all been aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). There is an interesting article on Nonjatta that describes the influence of this type of oak on Japanese whisky.

My experience of Mizunara wood aging to date has been through blended whiskies, where only a proportion of the final product was aged in these casks (such as the Hibiki Harmony). Ichiro’s Malt MWR is thus an opportunity to try and dissect out the specific contribution of Mizunara wood more directly.

The exact composition of the Ichiro’s Malt MWR is unknown, but I’m going to guess it is mainly new production from Chichibu. Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for Ichiro’s MWR:

Nose: Very floral and fragrant, with both woody and incense notes (“sandalwood” is often cited, which fits). Some grassiness, but again tending to the more sweet and fragrant aromas (mint?). It has a strong honeyed sweetness that reminds me a bit of Dalwhinnie (although the spirit seems younger here). Strong citrus presence, especially lemon peel and grapefruit. Some sweet apple. Pleasant, with very sharp and clear scents.

Palate: Tangy and spicy upfront, with a peppery kick. The honey and fruity sweetness is there from the start – with caramelized apple and citrus. Woodiness comes up fast though, with some sour and bitter notes. This sharp bitterness is reminiscent of some lightly smokey whiskies – but it is definitely more heavily pronounced on the MWR. Think sucking on a grapefuit that had sugar sprinkled on it – fruity sweetness upfront, followed by persistent bitterness (especially if you chew on the rind!). Some ginger too. Surprisingly light body overall, given the relatively high ABV (46%).

Finish: Relatively short. Not much going on here, except some lingering sweetness and peppery spiciness trying to cover up the woody bitterness (and failing). A bit of a let-down, honestly.

Ichiro-MWRThe MWR has a lot of promise on the nose, but it quickly turns bitter in the mouth, with a disappointing finish. It seems very young overall. Frankly, despite the initial distinctiveness, it is a whisky that makes you want to drink less as time goes by in the glass.

It is certainly an interesting way to experience the effect of pure Mizunara cask, but I definitely think this would do better as a blend with other types of wood. I would probably recommend the Hibiki Harmony over this as an introduction to the effect of Japanese oak.

For a positive review of the MWR, please see Dave Broom of WhiskyAdvocate. Personally, my own tastes align better with Ruben of WhiskyNotes. There is also Brian’s (Dramtastic) review on Nonjatta.

UPDATE: Please see my Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries review for a good example of what some blending can bring to Mizunara wood casks.

 

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