Tag Archives: Blended

Midleton Very Rare 2016

Late last year, I reviewed the 2015 vintage of Midleton Very Rare from a friend’s bottle. This is a premium blended Irish whiskey, produced by Irish Distillers at the New Midleton Distillery in East Cork.

The LCBO wants a pretty steep $216 CAD for it at the moment, which is more than I am willing to pay. But when I came across the 2016 edition on sale at a Shanghai duty free for ~$140 CAD, I thought I’d take the plunge. I recently brought it over to my friend’s house for a dinner party, and we were able to directly compare the two vintages side-by-side.

First a bit of background on this whisky. Midleton Very Rare is produced in a vintage year manner, with reportedly only 50 hand-picked casks going into each batch. It is a blend of single pot still whisky and grain whisky, all triple-distilled. Although this is a no-age-statement (NAS) whisky, the casks are reported to be between 12 and 25 years of age, matured in either ex-bourbon or ex-Sherry casks. Consistently bottled at 40% ABV, each bottle has a unique identifier number, and is presented in a nice wooden case with a registration card.

Since each batch is a new defined vintage, each year is expected to differ somewhat from the others – although all within an overall profile range. Having the two vintages side-by-side gave us a good opportunity to directly test this.

As this is my second review of a Midleton Very Rare, I’ve tried to break down the various vintages in my MetaCritic database, where possible. Given its limited availability, there aren’t many reviews of each vintage, so you will have to go by the composite score in most cases (i.e., only the 2015 vintage meets my reporting cut-off level of a minimum of 3 reviews).  Here is how they compare to some higher-end Irish whiskeys:

Bushmills 16yo Single Malt: 8.48 ± 0.48 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Bushmills 21yo Single Malt: 8.93 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Green Spot: 8.49 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Green Spot Château Léoville Barton: 8.82 ± 0.35 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Jameson 12yo Special Reserve: 8.35 ± 0.25 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Jameson Gold Reserve: 8.46 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.24 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Midleton Dair Ghaelach: 9.09 ± 0.30 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Midleton Very Rare (all vintages): 8.83 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Midleton Very Rare 2015: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Powers 12yo John’s Lane: 8.82 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.75 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 15yo: 8.74 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 21yo: 9.16 ± 0.32 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Tullamore Dew Blended 12yo: 7.97 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still: 8.49 ± 0.34 on 16 reviews ($$)
Yellow Spot: 8.78 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

Middleton Very Rare gets a very good score for an Irish whiskey – although the 2015 vintage seems to score a bit lower than most.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for the 2016 vintage:

Colour: The whisky is presumably not artificially coloured, as the 2016 was noticeably darker than the 2015. I would describe it as medium amber.

Nose: Honey and vanilla lead off, with a similar whipped cream note as I found on the 2015 (but fainter here). Apple and pear as before, but I am getting slightly tart red berries now (including some red currants). Much stronger baking spices than before, with a good amount of cinnamon in particular – definitely spicier overall. There is absolutely no hint of any organic solvent notes, which is impressive for an Irish whisky. The only thing missing here is the caramel – that was much more pronounced on the 2015 vintage. Personally, I’d give the 2016 a slight edge for the spicier and cleaner nose, but I could see that some may prefer the sweeter 2015 vintage.

Palate: Initial arrival is dominated by sweet vanilla, andit is still relatively fruit-forward, but with less caramel than the 2015 edition. Not as creamy either (although I’m still getting a faint touch of chocolate). Definitely spicier here, with noticeable cinnamon and a good amount of black pepper. A bit grassy, but lacking the cereal notes of the 2015. Mouthfeel is lighter and more watery now – much less silky than the 2016 (I’m guessing less grain whisky in the mix?). Some bitterness creeps in at the end of the palate, which wasn’t there before. Still no alcohol burn.

Finish: Medium. Similar Juicy Fruit gum sensation as before, but both the spicy and bitter notes from the oak wood are accentuated over the 2015 edition. Still not very long. A touch of astringency comes in at the end.

While the 2016 got off to a good start on the nose, the mouthfeel is definitely “thin” in comparison to the 2015, which is disappointing. I like the extra oaky spice in the 2016, but this is matched by a greater bitterness and astringency on the finish, which is not appealing. I personally scored the 2015 vintage at around the overall Metacritic average for all vintages of this whisky, but I would have to give the 2016 just a decimal point or so lower. It is still a very good whisky, but the value-for-money proposition is even less favourable in my mind (at least at standard list prices).

FYI, from among the dinner guests who also sampled both vintages, I can say that the 2015 was the unanimous favourite. This seemed to be due to the more overtly caramel sweetness in that vintage, along with a “smoother” palate (their descriptor, I believe they meant oilier). It should be mentioned that none of them were particularly big whisky drinkers.

The only reviewer in my database who has reviewed both is Jonny of Whisky Advocate. And although he notes many of the same differences that I found, he gives the 2016 a higher score. Among the other reviewers (for various vintages), you can check out Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer, Thomas of Whisky Saga, and Josh the Whiskey Jug for very positive scores. More moderate praise comes from Serge of Whisky Fun, with the lowest scores from the guys at Quebec Whisky. Jim Murray is historically very variable on this whisky, but hasn’t reviewed the recent batches.

Bushmills Black Bush

Bushmills Black Bush is another example of an inexpensive blended Irish whisky – but it is in a different league from its entry-level little brother, Bushmills Original Blended.

As I explained in my Bushmills Original review, Bushmills blends single malt whisky with column-distilled grain whisky (just like blended scotch).  In the case of Black Bush though, the malt component makes up a greater relative proportion of the blend compared to regular Bushmills, or to other blends at this price point (i.e., I’ve seen up to 80% malt reported online for Black Bush).

The malt component of Black Bush is a mix of Oloroso sherry casks and ex-bourbon casks. This should add some sherried sweetness into the mix – another unusual feature at this price point.  The whisky has no official age statement, but I’ve seen differing reports online that the base malt has being been aged for “up to 7 years” or for “8-10 years” before blending with the grain. None of that is mentioned on the label though, so all such claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

Bottled at the standard 40% ABV, it is currently $37 CAD at the LCBO (compared to $32 for Bushmills original).

Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic whisky database compared to other Bushmills, and some other just-above entry-level Irish whiskies:

Bushmills 10yo Single Malt: 8.17 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Bushmills 16yo Single Malt: 8.48 ± 0.48 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Bushmills 21yo Single Malt: 8.93 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.35 ± 0.40 on 20 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Original Blended: 7.63 ± 0.49 on 15 reviews ($$)

Glendalough Double Barrel: 8.29 ± 0.40 on 5 reviews ($$)
Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition: 8.27 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.37 ± 0.38 on 17 reviews ($$)
Teeling Small Batch (Rum Cask Finish): 8.31 ± 0.41 1on 9 reviews ($$)
The Irishman Original Clan Irish Whiskey: 8.15 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$)
The Irishman Founder’s Reserve: 8.32 ± 0.38 on 6 reviews ($$)

Bushmills Black Bush is getting a very reasonable score for the price.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Light, with a touch of sherry (red fruits, raisins) along with some light fruits (apple, pear). A bit of apple cider. Sweet, but not artificially so (as I found on the original blended) – more your classic vanilla here. Certainly a lot more malty, which is nice. No real alcohol burn or off notes.

Palate: Mild, with even less fruit showing up now – but more of the vanilla and caramel. Touch of baking spices, and baked goods in general (i.e., a bit cakey, maybe stewed apples). Thin body, with no real burn – somewhat watery mouthfeel. Certainly nothing offensive about it, but not much to really recommend it either. Would be better at higher proof.

Bushmills.Black.BushFinish: Short. Same notes as nose and palate, fading out without any real off notes.

This is definitely better than Bushmills Original blended, you could actually drink this one neat (although you are likely to find it a bit boring). For the extra $5 CAD, I would say this one is a no-brainer – Black Bush is a much nicer experience than the Original blended.

That said, I still think the average Meta-Critic score is a bit overly generous here. I would score it lower than the Meta-Critic – but then, I was also harder on the basic Bushmills Original too.

A number of reviewers really like this one, including Ralfy, jim Murray, Nathan the Scotch Noob, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and and Jan of Best Shot Whisky. Personally, I’m more in keeping with Oliver of Dramming and Thomas of Whisky Saga. One of the lowest scores I’ve seen is from Serge of Whisky Fun.

Bushmills Original Blended Irish Whiskey

Having reviewed a few mid-range and higher-end Irish whiskies lately, I thought it was time to get back down to basics.

Bushmills Original blended whisky (aka white label) is the flagship for the Bushmills distillery – one of the oldest distilleries in Ireland, having survived the massive consolidation of the 1980s. Although the bottle labels like to point out Bushmills was founded in 1608, the actual licensed distilling company has only existed since 1784. It has certainly moved through a lot hands since then – and was sold a couple of years ago by the large whisky drinks conglomerate Diageo to Casa Cuervo (of tequila fame).

This is a blended Irish whisky – specifically a blend of single malt and cheaper column-distilled grain whisky. This differs from a number of Irish whiskies, like the Midleton brands I’ve reviewed previously, who combine traditional single pot still whisky with grain whisky in their blends. While Bushmills may be thought of as more scotch-like in that sense (i.e., a blend of malt and grain whiskies), it is still triple-distilled like other Irish whiskies (thus producing a typically lighter spirit).

This basic Bushmills expression is bottled at 40% ABV. It is currently $32 CAD at the LCBO, making it one of the cheapest Irish whiskeys you can buy here.

Here is how Bushmills compares to similar entry-level Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database:

2 Gingers Irish Whiskey: 8.05 ± 0.35 on 3 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Original Blended: 7.64 ± 0.49 on 15 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.35 ± 0.40 on 20 reviews ($$)
Bushmills 10yo Single Malt: 8.18 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Glendalough Double Barrel: 8.29 ± 0.40 on 5 reviews ($$)
Jameson Irish Whiskey: 7.82 ± 0.51 on 19 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.37 ± 0.38 on 17 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan Irish Reserve Malt: 7.98 ± 0.52 on 6 reviews ($$)
Powers Gold Label: 7.99 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$)
Teeling Small Batch: 8.31 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$)
The Irishman Founder’s Reserve: 8.32 ± 0.38 on 6 reviews ($$)
Tullamore Dew Blended: 7.81 ± 0.38 on 17 reviews ($$)
Tyrconnell Single Malt: 8.15 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$)
West Cork Original: 8.01 ± 0.48 on 3 reviews ($$)

As you can see, this is the lowest scoring Irish whiskey in the dataset – although none of the true entry-level expressions do very well.  Typically, it is worthwhile considering spending a little more to go up to the next bottling (e.g., Black Bush for Bushmills, Select Reserve for Jameson, etc.).

I sampled this basic Bushmills recently in a bar.  While these sorts of entry-level blends are not intended to be drunk neat, here is what I find in the glass when doing so:

Nose: Sweet caramel and light honey. Green apple. Very grainy, with some hay. Surprisingly, some mild ethanol singe, and a slightly funky tar note. Better than it sounds (and better than I expected).

Palate: Way too honeysuckle-sweet for my tastes. Maybe agave syrup? A bit of artificial strawberry flavour (fruit roll-ups come to mind). Incredibly watery, absolutely no burn – and no mouthfeel, while we are at it. Seems very grain-dominated, with almost no sign of the malt. Some light rye spices come up at the end.

Finish: Sickeningly sweet continues, with a touch of eventual woody bitterness. Reminds me of some cheap American whiskies that don’t qualify as bourbon, or maybe regular Crown Royal here. Some astringent dryness too. At least it’s short.

BushmillsAgain, it should go without saying – if you want to sip on something neat, start with a higher-end blend or a decent single malt/single pot still whisky.  As a stand-alone pour, I find Bushmills original blended less complex (and less interesting) than even regular Jameson – and like the Meta-Critic, I would rate it lower. But many may find it more acceptable than Jameson’s in mixed drinks due to the sweetness factor.  At a minimum, I would recommend this one on the rocks, to help cut the sweetness.

The only reviewer I’ve ever seen who actually seems like this whisky is Martin of Quebec Whisky, followed by Patrick (although most reviewers are more aligned with Andre’s score). Ralfy, Jim Murray, and Josh the Whiskey Jug all fall into a similar camp of low scores (as an aside, Josh’s tasting notes are remarkably similar to mine on this one). But personally, my own quality assessment is more in line with Nathan the Scotch Noob, Thomas of Whisky Saga or S.D. of Whiskey Reviewer. I strongly recommend spending a couple of dollars more for a better Irish whisky.

Nikka From The Barrel

Another omission on my part – I recently realized that I had not reviewed this staple of the Nikka no-age-statment (NAS) line, Nikka Whisky From The Barrel. The occasion of opening my second bottle seemed like a good opportunity to plug this obvious hole in my review catalog.

First thing to clear up is the rather odd name – this is not a select barrel single malt expression.  Instead, it is a blend of Japanese malt whisky from Yoichi distillery and grain whisky from Miyagikyo distillery, which has been married in oak casks (as opposed to the more common method of giant stainless-steel vatting tanks). Hence the name – it is coming from the blending barrel, not the maturing barrel.

Unusually, it is bottled at near-cask strength (51.4% ABV), which is rather high for a Japanese whisky). The source of casks used is not reported, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some refill sherry ones found their way into the mix.

This expression is a staple of the travel retail duty-free circuit. You won’t typically find it in the U.S. because it comes in the non-standard 500mL bottle size (although I’ve also seen the humongous 3L size in my travels as well). The bottle is distinctive, with its squat and stubby appearance – it looks like something you would have found in a pre-1950s apothecary. Not available at the LCBO, it is readily available in BC  ($64 CAD, plus taxes).

Let’s see how it compares to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.38 ± 0.59 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Kakubin (Suntory Whisky): 8.15 ± 0.85 on 4 reviews ($$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.45 ± 0.16 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.59 ± 0.49 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.80 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.79 ± 0.22 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.65 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super: 8.00 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.24 ± 0.38 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory Old Whisky: 8.31 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.21 ± 0.46 on 6 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.98 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$$)

As you can see above, Nikka FTB is a top-scorer for this category, scoring higher than even more expensive premium NAS expressions like Nikka Coffey Grain and Hibiki Harmony.  My bottle comes from travel duty free.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Brown sugar sweetness, with a bit of honey. Fruity, with apricots, plums (light and dark colored), red grapes and a good amount of banana. Caramel and vanilla. Cinnamon and a little all-spice. Some ethanol heat, but not bad for the ABV. No real off notes. Adding water brings up the vanilla and caramel (but oddly not the fruit).

Palate: Very creamy, with sweet caramel and toffee notes. Brown sugar again. Fruits are there, but seem a bit tart (and joined by some lemon citrus). Oakier than the nose suggested. Great mouthfeel, creamy and granular at the same time (i.e., creamed sugar). Packs a punch though – ethanol fumes come back at the end, so you will want to try this with a bit of water. Gets drier near the end of the palate.  With water, you get some taming of the ethanol heat – but go lightly here, or you will also diminish the mouthfeel. If anything, it brings up the tartness more than the sweetness (which is unusual).

Finish:  Medium. The sweet caramel note is there, with some lighter spices now (nutmeg). Some oaky bitterness shows up over time, persisting longer than the sweet notes. With water, I get a very faint hint of smoke.

Nikka From The BarrelFrankly, I would not have immediately pegged this as a blend – it seems malt-heavy (although the higher strength may be contributing to that perception). This one really needs a little water (and I emphasize, little) to open up all the flavours and tame the ethanol burn.

It’s a great expression for the price, having garnered plenty of fans. Very positive are Dave of Whisky Advocate,  Nathan the Scotch Noob, Thomas of Whisky Saga, and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review (depending on the batch). Indeed, almost all reviewers in my database give this expression an above-average score, except for a few like Jason of In Search of Elegance and Ruben of Whisky Notes. Certainly my top pick for NAS Japanese whiskies in retail travel duty free.

Storas 21 Year Old Blended Scotch – William Grant & Sons Rare Cask Reserves

William Grant and Sons is an independent, family-owned Scottish spirits company that controls a number of scotch whisky distilleries. The company was established in 1887, and is currently run by descendants of the founder, William Grant.  Indeed, it is the largest of the independent Scottish whisky businesses still owned and operated by a  founding family (i.e., most of the other distillers are owned by large, international spirit conglomerates).

Their core scotch malt whisky brands are Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. They also own the grain distiller Girvan, used for a number of popular scotch blends (presumably including the eponymous “Grant’s” blended whisky line). They also own a number of international brands, including Tullamore Dew in Ireland, and Gibson’s in Canada.

W. Grant & Sons has a lot of experience in scotch whisky distilling and blending.  As part of their Rare Cask Reserves series, they have released a number of specific blends (e.g., Ghosted Reserve, Cruinnich).  The LCBO here in Canada received one of these, the 21 year old Stòras (Gaelic for resource – or more simply, store). Only 4,600 bottles of this blended whisky were produced (exclusively for LCBO, as far as I know). It is labelled as batch 15/0408, selected on 13.03.2015, and bottled at 46% ABV.

The LCBO is currently out of inventory, but I managed to pick up a bottle when they were heavily discounted. I thought it would be worthwhile reviewing anyway, as it may give you an idea of what to expect from other Rare Cask Reserves whiskies in the future. A tasting sample also comes from Redditor WDMC-905.

Here’s how some of the core William Grant & Sons scotches fare in my database:

Balvenie 17yo Doublewood: 8.72 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.73 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 18yo: 8.55 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 19yo Age of Discovery (Bourbon Cask): 8.74 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 19yo Age of Discovery (Madeira Cask): 8.33 ± 0.43 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 21yo Gran Reserva: 8.66 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Grant’s Blended Sherry Cask: 8.00 ± 0.21 on 5 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve Blended: 7.61 ± 0.63 on 13 reviews ($)
Kininvie 17yo: 8.82 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kininvie 23yo: 8.62 ± 0.29 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Monkey Shoulder 8.29: ± 0.41 on 16 reviews ($$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass for the Storas 21 yo blended scotch:

Nose: Sweet, with lighter fruits (green apple, pear, and plum) and some golden raisins and sultanas. Grape nuts. A good amount of vanilla. Something a bit dusty, like dried barley. Some classic grain notes come through as well, along with a bit of smoke. No solvent smells or off-notes. Definitely seems somewhat Glenfiddich-like overall, but with a touch of a sherry cask finishing.

Palate: Sweet, but tends more toward the dried fruits than fresh ones. More spicy kick than I was expecting, with cinnamon and cloves leading the way. Caramel joins the vanilla, plus some milk chocolate. A bit more oaky now, reminiscent of some common Balvenie editions. Smooth mouthfeel, great balance with the grain. Easy drinking, and perfectly sippable – a good blend, tangy and tasty.

Finish: Medium length. The oaky bitterness builds a little, but its well balanced to the dominant sweet caramel/vanilla.  No new notes here – just a slow fade of the light fruitiness.  Actually pretty decent.

storas-21Not an overly complex whisky, but easily sippable.  The nose doesn’t really do justice to the caramel/vanilla backbone that dominates the palate and finish. I suppose you could say it blends some of the best characteristics of Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Overall, it also reminds me of some of the similarly aged vintage Glenrothes. Perhaps a bit overpriced at the original $190 CAD, but a good deal at the current $90 CAD clearance price, if you ask me.

Personally, I’d give it a 8.7 on my calibrated Meta-Critic rating scale. The only review I’ve seen online from among my Meta-Critic database of reviewers is Devoz on Reddit.  Properly normalized, his score comes to basically the same as mine (8.69).  It is difficult to draw conclusions from just two reviewers, but that average 8.7 score from the two of us puts it very well in-line with the the single malt offerings of comparable age from Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie described above. May be worth keeping your eye out for other Rare Cask Reserves in the future!

 

 

Suntory Toki

Suntory Toki is an unusual release. With the overwhelming demand for Japanese whisky in recent years, all the major Japanese distillers have moved the bulk of their core lines to new no-age-statement (NAS) expressions. As a result, it is rare to see classic age-statement expressions outside of Asia. See for example my review of Hibiki Harmony from late last year.

But Toki is something a bit different. Rather than a NAS of an established line, this is a brand new entry-level blended whisky – and one that is specific for the North American market.

As usual, this blend contains whiskies from Suntory’s two malt distilleries – Hakushu and Yamazaki – and its “heavy grain” Chita distillery. While most blends have historically been weighed toward Yamazaki malt, Suntory confirms that Hakushu malt (aged in American white oak) is the first “pillar” supporting this whisky. The second is grain whisky from Chita.  Yamazaki malt is only a minor component, and is coming from both American white oak and Spanish oak. So, no classic Japanese Mizunara oak is in here.

As expected from that sort of mix, this is a light-tasting whisky, suitable for drinking neat and for those who enjoy highballs or scotch-and-sodas. It is interesting to me that they have chosen to release a highball-style light whisky exclusively to North America – although all is welcomed, given how Japanese whisky has gotten exceedingly scarce here.

Here is how it compares to some other entry-level Japanese blends and grain whiskies:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.40 ± 0.61 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Kakubin (Suntory Whisky): 8.14 ± 0.86 on 4 reviews ($$)
Kirin 50% Blend (Fuji Gotemba): 8.35 ± 0.49 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.57 ± 0.50 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Gold & Gold: 8.16 ± 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super: 7.98 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Old Whisky: 8.29 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.24 ± 0.63 on 5 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 8.01 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$)

Given its restricted geography, there are not a lot of reviews for this whisky yet. But as you can see from above, the current 8.24 on 5 reviews puts it about typical for this class of blended Japanese whisky. But it shows higher than usual variance, suggesting a wide range of reviewer opinions on Toki.

Now available at the LCBO for $60 CAD, Suntory Toki is lightly coloured, and bottled at 43% ABV. It comes in an unusual brick-shaped glass bottle (with screw cap).

Nose: Honey is the predominant characteristic, followed by green grapes, green apples and a touch of coconut. Gummy bears. Slightly floral, with fresh hay and a bit of oaky vanilla. A slight hint of old sweat socks detracts, but it is very mild. No alcohol burn.

Palate: Similar fruits to the above, but some added pear and lychee fruit. Definite ginger now. A bit perfumy, but with a good oaky core. Has a classic blended whisky mouthfeel, with the grain whisky spreading over the tongue. Also a bit of tongue tingle, which is unusual. Feels like a predominantly grain blend (but a quality one).

suntory-tokiFinish: Short to medium. Some lingering sweetness, like slightly flat ginger ale. A bit citrusy. No bitterness or off-putting after-tastes, crisp and clean.

As usual, I only checked the official notes and production history for this whisky after compiling my own tasting notes above. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a close concordance (and this is the first time I’ve ever detected green grapes :). I would also have predicted largely Hakushu malt and Chita grain as the principle components of this whisky, consistent with what Suntory reports.

While not as complex as other Suntory offerings, it has some interesting notes and is pretty flawless for this type of blended scotch-style whisky. I would consider it a mid-range blend, similar to some of the Compass Box offerings (and higher quality than the current Meta-Critic score indicates). Certainly an easy recommendation for a “light” whisky at this price point at the LCBO. But do try the Hibiki Harmony if you are interested in a more typical Japanese blended profile, with more flavour.

Nathan the ScotchNoob has a positive review of Suntory Toki.  André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky are both negative on this whisky.  While waiting for further reviews, you could check out some of the ones on the Reddit whisky review network – I recommend the ones posted by Tarquin_Underspoon and Lasidar.  Again, early reviews are very variable on this whisky.  I’m sure there will be more to come.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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