Tag Archives: 12yo

Glenlivet 12 Year Old vs Founder’s Reserve

Like for many, the Glenlivet 12 yo was the first single malt Scotch that I would routinely order in a bar, neat. It was a considerable step up from the basic whisky blends I had tried (both domestic and international), and had a relatively gentle and inoffensive flavour profile.

I don’t mean that to sound belittling. When first exploring the world of whiskies, it is easy to get overwhelmed by strong flavours. Indeed, my first experience of malt whisky put me off it for years – a heavily peated malt, I recall remarking that it tasted like peat moss in vodka (as that was all I could discern at the time). The Glenlivet 12 yo was a revelation in comparison, and gave me an opportunity to appreciate the subtler flavours in malt whisky.

Of course, most of us eventually move on from this relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous single malt, searching for wider flavour experience.  But it remains a staple for its class, and one worth considering here – especially in comparison to the new Founder’s Reserve, a slightly cheaper new no-age-statement (NAS) from Glenlivet.

Founder’s Reserve immediately replaced the 12 yo as the sole entry-level Glenlivet expression in some smaller and emerging markets.  In more established markets (including North America), the two expressions are available side-by-side. That seems to be changing however, and the expectation is that the Founder’s Reserve will replace the 12 yo in most markets eventually.

As an aside, that name has received a fair amount of ridicule online – it is hard to imagine how the most entry-level whisky in a producer’s inventory could be described as a “Founder’s Reserve”. 😉

Fortunately, both the Founder’s Reserve and the original 12 yo are still available in Canada (for the time being). So I was able to try them both in short succession one recent evening.

Glenlivet.12Let’s see how they compare on in the Meta-Critic database, relative to other popular entry-level malt whiskies (age and non-age expressions).

Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.49 ± 0.94 on 6 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.31 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu Amber Rock: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Deanston 12yo: 8.05 ± 0.48 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.21 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.30 ± 0.43 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.08 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.95 ± 0.50 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 12yo: 7.82 ± 0.66 on 14 reviews ($$)

As you can see from the Meta-Critic average, they get roughly equivalent scores overall (and about middle of the pack for this entry-level group). But what you can’t tell from above is the repeated measure of individual reviewers who have tried both. There are only six reviewers that I track that have scored both whiskies, and the difference is interesting: three rank the Founder’s Reserve considerably higher than the 12 yo, two find it equivalent, and one finds it worse. Not quite what I expected for a lower price NAS.

Here is what I find in the glass for each:

Glenlivet 12 yo

Nose: Slightly sweet, with a touch of honey, and light fruits like apple and pineapple (a distinctive Glenlivet trait). Definite vanilla. Slightly floral, but I can’t identify anything specific. Slight solvent note, but not offensive.

Palate: Sweet up front, with the vanilla turning more to caramel now. The apple remains prominent, but also getting some citrus – with a touch of bitterness. Remains light and relatively sweet overall, and not very complex. Somewhat watery mouthfeel.

Finish:  Moderate finish – a bit longer than I would have expected from its light taste, but still relatively short overall.  That sweet apple remains the key note, although a bit of bitterness also lingers. As I remember it – a light and inoffensive whisky.

Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve

Glenlivet.Founders.ReserveNose: My core notes read the same – slightly sweet, light fruits like apple, slightly floral. But there is more going on here, with a malty characteristic now. There is an almost maritime air, with hints of salty chocolate (i.e., seems like it could be just a tiny touch sherried). Definitely a more complex nose than the 12 yo. Unfortunately, the solvent characteristic is also more noticeable (a touch of glue in particular).

Palate: Still sweet and fruity, and I find some maltiness is coming up now as well. Classic apple and honey are still there, but with faint chocolate notes, and something slightly spicy (pepper?). Still light and watery overall. Improves on multiple sips.

Finish:  As before, medium length for its class (short overall for a Scotch). The various new notes (like chocolate) linger, as does a bit of caramel sweetness. Less fruity than the old 12 yo.

The Verdict: The Founder’s Reserve is both more and less than the 12 yo. It lacks the simple charm and elegance of light fruit-driven 12 yo, and brings in more complexity (likely from wider barrel blending). With that wider mix comes some additional off notes though, so it really is a mixed bag.

For its extra complexity, I would give Founder’s Reserve a marginally higher score. But I can really understand why individual reviewers vary so much in their relative opinions of these two. It thus makes sense how the overall average scores came out pretty much the same, but with a larger standard deviation for the Founder’s Reserve.

For direct comparison reviews of both the 12yo and Founder’s Reserve, I recommend the boys at QuebecWhisky (12 yo, FR), Oliver of Dramming (12 yo, FR), and Richard of WhiskeyReviewer (12 yo, FR).

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.

Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon

I figured it was high time I posted a proper bourbon review. And what better bourbon to start with than the Elijah Craig 12yo – a popular favourite, and one that has received a lot of press lately. As you might expect, the recent decision by distiller Heaven Hill to discontinue the 12yo in favour of a new NAS (no-age-statement) version has generally not been well received.

Leaving the transition issue aside, bourbons as a class can be challenging to review. If only it was as simple as those immortal words of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens of Justified: “Bourbon is easy to understand. Tastes like a warm summer day.”  I’ve always found it a bit more complicated than that. 😉

By law, American bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, distilled to no more that 160 proof (80% ABV), and aged in new charred oak barrels – among other requirements. As a result, the distillation method (and composition of the mashbill) has a great effect on what the final flavour tastes like. Indeed, one characteristic that is commonly used to differentiate bourbons is the proportion of rye grain in the mashbill (i.e., high rye vs. low rye bourbons).

As a class, I find bourbons tend to have a sweeter corn-syrup flavour than you will find in most whiskies. This sweetness can be further enhanced by the new oak aging – at least for relatively young bourbons. Most bourbons are indeed fairly young, with 6-8 years being considered the typical length for mid-range products (the lower-end stuff is younger, of course). Longer aged expressions can pick up some bitterness and other “woody” characteristics from the oak barrels, and this is often seen as less desirable. There are of course exceptions – such as Elijah Craig, which offers very popular 12yo, 18yo and 21yo expressions.

If you are curious to learn more, I find the /r/bourbon guide on Reddit provides a very clear overview of the main categories of bourbon – with helpful examples of the standard brands in each group.

Let’s see how the more popular mid-range bourbon offerings available here at the LCBO (i.e, $40-50 CAD) compare in the Meta-critic database:

1792 Ridgemont Reserve: 8.75 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews
Buffalo Trace: 8.59 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews
Bulleit 10yo: 8.76 ± 0.19 on 6 reviews
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.54 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.32 on 15 reviews
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews
Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack: 7.86 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Maker’s Mark: 8.25 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Woodford Reserve bourbon: 8.38 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews

As you can see, Elijah Craig 12yo is one of the highest ranking bourbons in this price group.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Smells like a banana split with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and a cherry on top! There is also a strong presence of caramel and toffee notes from the oak wood. Something slightly charred but sweet, like toasted marshmallows. Beyond some additional sweet fruits, I get a bit of zesty citrus (mainly orange).  It’s a great nose, and I am happy to come back and enjoy it between sips.

Palate: The creaminess continues here, with a slightly oily mouthfeel. Up front I get sweet and juicy stewed fruits and toffee/caramels – but it has a lot more spicy kick than I expected from the nose. This prickle is there throughout, and doesn’t attenuate on further sipping. Think of it as cherry cough syrup that actually makes you feel more like coughing as you drink. It is a full body, with definite baking spices coming in towards the end.

Finish: A bit of bitterness shows up here, and lingers through the finish – but it remains very well-balanced by the sweetness. This is one of my favourite things about the EC 12, as I find most bourbons overwhelm on the sweetness, which can turn cloying on the way out. The EC 12 is also not as woody as I expected, given the extended barrel aging.

Elijah.Craig.12I can see the Elijah Craig 12yo making a great “house bourbon.” It is a nice flavourful sipper, and would do very well in Manhattans and other mixed drinks.

The Elijah Craig 12yo tends to get reviewed fairly favourably by the panel of international reviewers – see for example Jason at WhiskyWon, Ruben at WhiskyNotes, and Serge at WhiskyFun. I find most American reviewers tend to be a bit tougher on it – but I expect that’s because they have access to better top-shelf bourbons than we do. See Nathan at the ScotchNoob and John and Richard at the WhiskeyReviewer for some balanced examples.

Note that before doing away with the age statement all-together, Heaven Hill moved it from the front label to the back of the bottle last year (with no apparent change in the formulation at that time). Oddly though, the original Elijah Craig 12yo bottles (pictured on the right) are still commonly available at the LCBO.  Pick it up while you can!

P.S.: As an aside, if you haven’t seen it, Justified was a great TV show. Bourbon featured in it quite prominently, as the personalities of the various characters were illustrated by their bourbon preferences. I’ve heard it said that bourbon was the sour-mash heart of the show. 🙂

AnCnoc 12 Year Old

The AnCnoc 12 yo is the entry-level release from Knockdhu distillery. It is a popular and relatively available example of the “apperitif-style” single malt from flavour cluster H (i.e., relatively light and sweet).

It is also a very good value, at least here in Ontario ($69 CAD at the LCBO, when in stock). Here is how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts, in this same flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.38 on 15 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 ($$$$)

I recently reviewed the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which I consider to be one of the standard bearers for this “apperitif” class. The AnCnoc 12 yo has a nearly identical average score and standard deviation, on a comparable number of reviews. Given that it is typically priced a bit lower, I was curious to try it out.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Overwhelming apple juice – sweetened apple juice in particular, although some sour green apple does come through as well. Honey is the next major element, followed by some floral and grassy notes (heather in particular). A bit of graininess (i.e., cereals). No smoke per se, but a faint ashy characteristic is present.

AnCnoc.12.Palate: Apple and honey similarly dominate the initial palate. There is also a definite citrus taste (more lime/lemon than orange). Not much else in the way of fruit – I am certainly not getting any of the darker fruits. A bit of vanilla. The grassiness is unmistakable, with hay and heather most prominent. Dried bread, with some mild baking spice. The ash is also there – relatively subtle in the background.

Finish: Surprisingly quick. There are no real lingering flavours – just a bit of light honey sweetness continuing for a brief time, with some of the cereal notes. There is a also a slight waxy bitterness that comes in at this stage (like cereal packaging?), but it is relatively mild. Frankly disappointing, to be honest – I was hoping for a more prolonged finish.

The AnCnoc 12 yo is a nice example of the GH flavour super-cluster, with a fair amount going on for such a light whisky. I expect it would make a good summer sipper – either neat or as a highball.

For me though, it does pale in direct comparison to the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which has more clearly pronounced flavours at every stage of tasting (including some smoke). The finish is certainly relatively anemic on the AnCnoc 12, in comparison. As such, I would personally give the Dalwhinnie a definite edge in scoring (and frankly, a higher absolute score than the meta-critic average). That said, the AnCnoc is still a great bargain for the class, and I think the meta-critic average is pretty bang-on.

For very positive reviews of this whisky, Chip the RumHowler, André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky and Ralfy all consider it quite highly. I would probably fit in closer to the moderately positive score of Ruben from Whisky Notes. Josh of the WhiskeyJug and Nathan the Scotchnoob are both somewhat less enamored by this expression.

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.

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo and 21 yo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These relative scores track very well with my experience.

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

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

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

 

Single Malts at the LCBO – October 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy hunting in your LCBO searches!

 

 

 

 

 

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old

Auchentoshan 12yo bottle

Another relatively unloved single malt in my Whisky Database, I thought I’d put in a good word for the Auchentoshan 12 year old (pronounced OCKen-TOSHan).

Auchentoshan is one of the few Lowland distilleries still operating in Scotland. This style of whisky is typically characterized as “lighter” than most other single malts. Although you shouldn’t rely on geographical location for flavour, as previously observed, this is one case where the traditional triple-distilling method of lowland malts does produce a gentler base spirit. That said, there is more flavour to this malt than you might expect, earning it a spot in the E flavour cluster in this analysis.

As previously presented here, delicate whiskies get lower overall metacritic scores compared to more complex ones. As such, the 8.33 ± 0.30 (based on 16 reviews) for the Auchentoshan 12 yo is a very middle-of-the-road score for its flavour class. Note that this is significantly improved over the earlier Auchentoshan 10 year old and Classic expressions, which were more poorly received (and by all accounts, even lighter in flavour). The current Duty-Free expressions – typically identified by a certain type of wood for finishing – are similarly not well regarded by the critics (although I don’t currently track them in my database).

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having a soft spot for this whisky – it was the first bottle that I actually purchased (although I still kick myself for letting a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling of a 21 yr old Glenlivet pass me by a few months earlier). Up until this Auchentoshan, the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yr olds or Johnny Walker Black were my entry-level introductions to the world of Scotch whiskey (as they are for many). The Auchentoshan 12 yo was suggested to me at a tasting bar as one to try next, and I was very impressed by its sweet maltiness and dry oakiness (and light touch of caramel throughout).

Not being a fan of cloying fruity/floral sweetness, this was a refreshing change for me – and I bought a bottle on the spot. Like many, my tastes have expanded over the last couple of years, and I can now appreciate most anything (although I am not a fan of the young, medicinal members of cluster J). Personally, I now tend to gravitate toward the well-aged members of the cluster A-C whiskies. But I still enjoy returning to this old favourite on occasion, when looking for something uncomplicated.

Auchentoshan 12yo bottleAnother reason for the soft spot – this is also one of my wife’s favourites. 🙂 She is not a fan of the heavily “winey” or “smokey” single malts in my collection, and prefers this expression over most others. The Hibiki 17 year old and the Dalwhinnie 15 year old are also high on her list – as they are with most novice whisky drinkers.

And that’s the secret to the Auchentoshan 12 year old – it goes over well with almost everyone who tries it. If there were such thing as a “universal donor” among whiskies (i.e., something that all could accept), this is the closest I’ve found to date. For literally only a few dollars more than the ubiquitous (and innocuous) Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr olds, you get a much nicer experience here. Highly recommended if you are just starting out.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen for this whisky is on the RumHowler blog. Jim Murray also seems to be a relative fan. For a balanced perspective, you may want to check out Ralfy’s video blog.

Incidentally, this bottling  made it onto Esquire’s Seven Best Scotch Brands Under the Radar You Need to Know.

 

 

 

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