Tag Archives: Bourbon

Stagg Jr Bourbon

Stagg Jr is the name given to a younger version of the infamous George T. Stagg, a high-end offering of the Buffalo Trace distillery. George T. Stagg is part of the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) release, and very hard to come by in the wild. Stagg Jr was apparently developed to increase the availability of this amped-up style of cask-strength bourbon.

Sharing a common mashbill with its big brother, Stagg Jr does not have an official age statement – although it believed to be aged for ~8-9 years (instead of the >15 years of George T. Stagg). Unfiltered and bottled at cask strength, Stagg Jr is released in small batches with some variability in final proof (so far, all within ~128-135 proof, or ~64-67.5% ABV). Typically, there have been two releases a year since its launch in the Fall of 2013.

My sample is from batch 3, released in the Fall of 2014, and is bottled at 66.05% ABV. This batch is often pointed to as the start of the better batches – the initial two releases were widely panned by reviewers, and dismissed as being too “alcohol forward.” See the the recent community review on Reddit for a range of opinions on how the various batches measure up (now up to batch 6).

While I track all batches on my Meta-Critic Database, I don’t report on them individually due to insufficient data on most releases. But since reviewer scores turned decidedly more positive on batch 3 (and have remained so), I have grouped them into batches 1-2 and batches 3-6 for the database. Here’s how Stagg Jr compares to some of the other Buffalo Trace offerings:

Buffalo Trace: 8.56 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 17yo: 8.81 ± 0.38 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
George T Stagg: 9.21 ± 0.27 on 18 reviews ($$$$$+)
Stagg Jr (batches 1-2): 8.44 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 3-6): 8.85 ± 0.20 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

An interesting finding here is that the original batches of Stagg Jr actually got lower scores than the standard Eagle Rare 10 or entry-level Buffalo Trace. Ouch!  The later batches are more in line with Eagle Rare 17 yo (which is a premium BTAC release, like George T. Stagg), although keep in mind there are relatively few reviews.  Unfortunately, it seems like the early batches so turned off reviewers that few of them have come back to sample newer batches produced in the last two years.

Here is how the Stagg Jr batches compare to other similarly priced bourbons, including other cask-strength offerings:

Baker’s 7yo: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.92 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof: 8.80 ± 0.24 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig 12yo Barrel Proof: 8.86 ± 0.26 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Four Roses Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.71 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.47 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 1-2): 8.44 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 3-6): 8.85 ± 0.20 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

The average scores for recent batches of Stagg Jr are certainly well in keeping with other cask-strength bourbons of comparable price.

My batch 3 sample of Stagg Jr was obtained from the Redditor Jolarbear.  When these bottles show up at the LCBO (a rarity), they currently go for ~$85 CAN.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet with dark fruits, like raisins and prunes. Woodsy and earthy, think rich and moist black earth. Herbal quality (pine? cedar?), that turns into black licorice over time. Chocolatey. Reminds me of amped-up Eagle Rare/Buffalo Trace juice (which of course, it is). Singes the nose hairs a bit, consistent with the high ABV. Water just dampens everything though – I prefer to sniff it neat (best to let it sit in the glass for awhile first, though).

Palate: The dark earth and fruit odyssey leads off, with leather, tobacco, prunes, raisins, cherries and chocolate. Also vanilla and a bit of caramel. The cinnamon and allspice soon kick in, along with a bit of pepper and some woody bitterness – but it is not that spicy overall. Somewhat syrupy in texture, I recommend you hold it awhile in you mouth (to let it mix with your saliva before swallowing). You really feel the burn of the ~66% ABV here. Frankly, a bit too hot to drink neat, even with small sips, as there is a lingering ethanol burn.  A bit of water really helps tame the burn, and brings up a touch more fruitiness. But don’t go crazy with the water – very quickly, it can start to feel dulled.

Stagg.JrFinish: Very long, with lots of oaky bitterness and vanilla carrying you through. Hints of the dark fruits persist, along with that cinnamon. Small amounts of water have no effect here that I can discern. This a powerful finish – much more so than the regular Buffalo Trace/Eagle Rare.

Although I am not a big bourbon guy, I do like the relative composition of the Buffalo Trace Juice. If I were to have a “table bourbon”, it would be Eagle Rare 10 yo.  So I quite enjoyed my batch 3 of Stagg Jr, with its amped set of familiar flavours.  I don’t have a lot of experience of cask-strength bourbons, but I’m looking forward to trying more out after this one.

For generally unfavourable (or at least, lukewarm) reviews of batch 1, check out John of Whisky Advocate, Serge of Whisky Fun, and Ruben of Whisky Notes. For examples of the more positive reviews of batch 3, please see Josh of the Whiskey Jug and Jason of In Search of Elegance. And of course, there is the community review on Reddit for a wide range of batches.

J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels

Here is something you don’t see every day: a limited small-batch release from a major Canadian producer, with a defined age statement, higher proof ABV, and a completely different production method than what is typically done in Canada. Thank you J.P. Wiser.

Last Barrels is the result of an experiment performed by former Wiser’s distiller Jim Stanski in early 2001 – and one that Wiser’s has now decided to bottle on its own as a limited run (instead of blending into a larger mainstream product).

The first novelty here is the use of a custom mashbill. Typically, most Canadian whisky is a blend where the individual grains are distilled separately and then later combined. Here, Wiser’s has used the traditional American method for bourbon production of blending the grains before mashing them. They are also using a very traditional bourbon-like mashbill of 80% corn, 11% rye and 9% barley (although this recipe supposedly relates to one J.P. Wiser experimented with himself).

The other innovation is the introduction of a sour mash process here. Sour mash is used in the production of nearly all bourbon, but is typically not used in Canada. Normally, it involves using left-over spent material from an older batch of mash to start controlled fermentation in the new batch (somewhat akin to what you do in making classic sourdough bread). Acids introduced by using the sour mash control the growth of bacteria, and create a proper pH balance for fermentation by the active live yeast.

Since Canada doesn’t use this method (and typically relies on a more sterilized process), Stanski’s innovated with a common sense solution – he let milk out in the lab to go sour, and then harvested the resulting Lactobacillus species. Although not usually done for whisky, it is common to use Lactobacillus as a “starter culture” for controlled fermentation in yogurt, cheese, beer, and sourdough bread, among other things.

The end result is a very boubon-like whisky (albeit one aged in ex-bourbon barrels, rather than new oak). Aged for 14 years and bottled at 45% ABV, this is certainly the most bourbon-like Canadian whisky I’ve tried so far.

Note that only 132 barrels were produced in the end, making this a very limited release. The LCBO bought out all 2000 cases, and has been releasing them across their network over the last couple of weeks.  While initially focusing exclusively on the Greater Toronto Area, I’m starting to see some bottles showing up in inventory further afield (with a little under 800 bottles currently showing through their app).

I picked up a bottle for $65 CAD at a nearby LBCO. I expect these will go fast, so you will want to hunt one down soon if you are intent on trying it. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel upfront, with vanilla. Sweetened Granny Smith apple juice, with maybe a touch of cherry – there is definitely something tart in there. Oak char. Very slight solvent smell (rubbing alcohol?), but it doesn’t really have an alcohol burn. A bit light overall, but definitely bourbon-like (reminds me a bit of Basil Hayden’s, but with less rye).

Palate: Not as sweet as the nose, but you definitely have the vanilla and caramel notes coming through strongly. Fairly intense dry oakiness develops quickly, with significant woody bitterness. Sour patch candies. And tons of pepper – if you take too big of a sip, expect to experience that classic “pepper-up-the-nose” sensation. Feels a bit hot (likely due to the 45% ABV). But it is the peppery after-burn that really stands out for me. Unlike the soft nose, the palate reminds me of some of the classic mid-level bourbons with relatively flavourful bodies (e.g., Elijah Craig 12yo or Eagle Rare 10yo).

Finish: Lingers a fairly long while, with a mix of the slightly sweet fruit and bitter wood initially (more the latter). Fades while keeping some of the spicy pepper and vanilla right to the end. Thankfully, there are absolutely none of those artificially-sweet notes found on typical budget Canadian blends.

Wiser’s has definitely succeeded here in making a “Canadian bourbon”, if you ask me. In a blind tasting, I seriously doubt you would be able to identify this as a Canadian whisky – it tastes like a bourbon, with a fair amount of oaky flavours. It is lighter on the nose than most bourbons, though.

There are very few reviews online so far, but you can check out Davin at Canadian Whisky and Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Redditor Devoz. Here’s a preliminary Meta-Critic comparison to some other similarly-priced Canadian whiskies.

Collingwood 21yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.28 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.53 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.80 ± 0.39 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.92 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.05 ± 0.36 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.92 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)

Wisers.Last.BarrelsAgain, you can’t really say much from only 4 reviews. But it does seem like Last Barrels is trending around the level of the standard-bearer Lot 40. Here is how it compares to typical American bourbon whiskies in this price range.

Baker’s 7yo: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.40 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.92 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.41 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.56 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 19 reviews ($$)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel: 8.51 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.84 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Certainly a good performer for the price so far, consistent with other bourbons available at the LCBO.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Bourbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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. 🙂

Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).

 

Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.

 

Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.

 

Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.

 

 

 

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 

Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.

 

American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.

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Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

 

 

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