Tag Archives: Cask-strength

Arran Malt 12 Year Old Cask Strength

The Arran Malt distillery makes a number of very popular single malts in the light flavour class (i.e., supercluster G-H), as well as a large number of wine cask-finished malts.  As discussed in my recent review of their 10 year old expression, while the distillery itself is relatively young, there is a long history and tradition of whisky making on the isle of Arran.

While I found their standard 10 yo expression decent enough, there wasn’t really much for me to recommend it over other entry-level examples of this class.  I almost picked up the 12 year old cask-strength edition last year (on a recommendation from a LCBO employee), but let it pass in favour of a wine-cask finished expression (review to come soon). Fortunately, I had the chance to try this 12 yo malt recently in a restaurant in Norway.

Note that there have been a number of different batches of the Arran 12 Year Old Cask Strength over the last few years. I know the LCBO version was 54.0% ABV, but I’ve seen other strengths reported online for the earlier batches.  The bottle I sampled from appears to have been from the same stock as the LCBO (i.e., 54%).

Let’s see how the relevant Arran Malts do in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to the competition for similar price, flavour and strength camps:

Arran Malt Lochranza Reserve: 7.93 ± 0.67 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns: 8.29 ± 0.61 on 7 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt 10yo: 8.50 ± 0.30 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt 12yo Cask Strength: 8.65 ± 0.39 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt 14yo: 8.67 ± 0.28 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
AnCnoc 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach Cask Strength: 8.86 ± 0.10 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Benromach 10yo Cask Strength (100 proof): 9.05 ± 0.13 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Craigellachie 13yo: 8.39 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.67 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Glenkinchie 12yo: 8.25 ± 0.17 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Tomatin Cask Strength: 8.35 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$$$)

And now let’s see what I find in the glass for this 12 yo cask strength sample:

Nose: Very sweet up front, with honey, simple sugar, and maybe even a little light brown sugar. Apple juice, with a wide range of lighter fruits peaking though – including apple, pear, peaches and plums. A bit of anise. Spicy, in the direction of cloves and all spice. Grassy character. Vanilla.  No off notes. Very nice, and a great improvement over the 10 yo.

Palate: Pears and green apple are the dominant fruit notes (and apple juice again). Butterscotch comes on strong now, and adds to the vanilla. Marshmallows. Texture is thick and creamy, giving it a great mouthfeel. Surprisingly easy to drink, and not very hot, despite the 54% ABV. With a little water, there isn’t much change in flavour, but it gains a slightly grainier texture (i.e., less malty, more raw barley). There’s is also a eucalyptus note now and graham crackers. With even more water, pepper and the spices pick up – but the other flavours dull.

Arran12Finish‎: Medium. Longer than the 10 yo, but it would be nice if it were even longer here. Some slight astringent bitterness, but mild. Water may increase this bitterness though, and bring in some artificial sweetener notes, so go easy on it. Frankly the finish (while decent) is the weakest part of this expression.

Wow, this was a pleasant surprise. Personally, I would put this on par with Dalwhinnie 15 as among the best of the light G-H flavour supercluster. Certainly far surpasses the Arran Malt 10 yo, or AnCnoc 12 yo. I regret not picking a bottle up when it was available at the LCBO.

Among reviewers, Josh the Whiskey Jug is a fan, as are Andre, Martin and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Ralfy and and Gavin of Whisky Advocate gives it a more moderate score. The only truly negative score I’ve seen comes from Jim Murray.

Amrut Portonova Single Malt

Amrut is the biggest name in Indian whiskies. And like Japan and Taiwan before it, they are now garnering all sorts of awards and enthusiast interest. For this review, I am looking at their cask-strength, port-finished single malt – Portonova.

I’m long been a fan of port-finished whiskies. I find it adds a distinctive grape-like fruitiness to most whiskies, that differs from the more common sherry fortified wine-finished ones.

I previously reviewed the Amrut Intermediate Sherry – which is a bit of a misnomer (check out that review for my comments). Let’s see how Portonova compares to it and other recent Amrut whiskies, as well as other port-finished malts, in my Meta-Critic whisky database:

Amrut Bourbon Single Cask: 8.73 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Fusion: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Intermediate Sherry: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Kadhambam: 8.97 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Naarangi: 8.63 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Amrut Peated Single Malt Cask Strength: 9.13 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portonova: 8.97 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask: 8.82 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut PX Sherry Single Cask: 8.79 ± 0.47 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Spectrum: 9.15 ± 0.22 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)

Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.58 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
BenRiach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.50 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Solstice Peated Port: 8.92 ± 0.28 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.27 ± 0.55 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013 Port Wood: 8.82 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow Red 11yo Port Cask: 8.70 ± 0.37 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Penderyn Portwood: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Talisker Port Ruighe: 8.49 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.56 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tyrconnell 10yo Port Cask Finish: 8.55 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, Portonova is one of the more popular Amrut whiskies – and one that out-scores the other port-finished malts in my database. A very impressive start.

My sample came from Redditor Devoz. It is bottled at a very high 62.1% ABV, cask-strength. Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity, with grape, raisins and berries. Dark chocolate. Pancake syrup. Toasted coconut. Dry malt. Definite nose-hair burn from the high ABV. Water dulls the nose, best to smell this one neat (carefully).

Palate: Intense flavour rush. Same dark chocolate and dark fruits from the nose, with new flavours like red currants, papaya, kiwi. Very luscious mouthfeel, like a melted Mackintosh toffee bar. Spicy kick, mainly allspice and cinnamon. Alcohol burn from the high ABV.  Unless you want to take ridiculous small sips, water is a definite must here. A tiny bit of water seems to bring up the spicy notes the most, without affecting the other flavours. Further dilution kills the mouthfeel though, and quickly starts to sap the flavours, so go sparingly here.Amrut.Portonova

Finish: Long finish, with creamy toffee throughout. Slow fade-out of the fruity notes, leaving just a touch of bitter coffee at the very end. Too much water oddly enhances the bitterness of the finish, so I again suggest you go easy on the H2O.

Not exactly your every day dram, given its incredibly rich flavour profile and mouthfeel.  It is also a lot spicier than most port-finished whiskies I’ve tried (e.g., the Kavalan Concertmaster is a tame affair, in comparison). And with its high ABV, this one demands a little water – but I find getting the dilution just right is pretty finicky.  Definitely a whisky for slow contemplation, and very careful dilution.

Among the highest reviews I’ve seen for this whisky come from the guys on Reddit (check out their Community Review). My Annoying Opinions and Serge of Whisky Fun are also really big fans. Nathan the ScotchNoob is moderately positive. The guys at Quebec Whisky are mixed on this one though, with high, moderate and low scores.

Old Weller Antique Original 107 Bourbon

The Weller line of wheated bourbons are extremely popular these days, thanks in part to their close relation to the infamous Van Winkle family of bourbons.

Bourbon is mandated by law to be at least 51% corn in the mashbill. Rye grain is the most common secondary ingredient in most bourbons, for flavouring. But Weller and the Van Winkles are examples of “wheaters”, where wheat is used as the main flavouring component. This tends to bring in a softer, more creamy sweetness and fruitness, compared to the “spicier” rye flavours.

Both the Weller and Van Winkle brands were originally owned by Stitzel-Weller, and both are currently owned Sazerac (produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery). There are four varieties of Weller: Special Reserve, Antique 107, 12 Year Old, and William Larue Weller. I’ll talk more about the Van Winkles in an upcoming review, but I thought I would start off this series with a review of Old Weller Antique Original 107 Proof.

Old Weller Antique (OWA) is essentially the same thing as their entry-level Special Reserve – except that it is bottled at a higher proof (107, or 53.5% ABV). Both of these bourbons used to carry an age statement – they no longer do, but they are still believed to be ~6-7 years old. OWA is not quite as widely available as Special Reserve, but it is not as hard to find as the rest of the line (a discussion for another review).

While on the topic, OWA should be pretty comparable in style to the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yo. The only difference is the age and barrel selection – otherwise, it is the same mashbill, distilled and aged in the same manner (and location), and cut to the same 107 proof. I’ll be reviewing that Van Winkle in an upcoming review.

Let’s see how OWA compares to other Wellers (and younger Van Winkles) in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.49 0.36 10 reviews ($)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.67 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.87 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
William Larue Weller: 9.18 ± 0.26 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 9.04 ± 0.21 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.77 ± 0.16 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)

It gets a respectable score for this family, intermediate to the Weller Special Reserve and 12 yo, as you might expect.

Now, let’s see how OWA compares to other entry-level bourbons:

Ancient Age: 7.64 ± 0.64 on 6 reviews ($)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.37 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams (Black Label): 8.15 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews ($)
Four Roses (Yellow Label): 8.21 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($)
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Black Label: 8.22 ± 0.43 on 15 reviews ($)
Jim Beam White Label: 7.62 ± 0.51 on 17 reviews ($)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.60 ± 0.41 on 20 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.43 on 22 reviews ($$)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.67 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$)
Rebel Yell: 7.44 ± 0.47 on 9 reviews ($)
Very Old Barton: 8.44 ± 0.40 on 6 reviews ($)
Wild Turkey 81: 8.12 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($)
Wild Turkey 101: 8.48 ± 0.39 on 16 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.74 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)

OWA gets one of the best scores for its price class. If you can find it at the standard price, it would seem to be an excellent choice.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, like vanilla icing on a caramel cake.  Light honey with hints of marzipan and whipped cream. Cherry. A bit of nutmeg. Unfortunately, it also has a general solvent smell which detracts for me. This likely reflects its young age.

Palate: Caramel comes first, followed by an extreme honey sweetness, which then fades back to that caramel after a few seconds. Fruits come next, mainly dark berries and some prunes and plums. Oak is in the background here. Has a silky texture (I’d say almost velvety). This is a hot one (ethanol heat), consistent with its 53.5% ABV – although it can still be drunk neat easily enough.

Finish: Medium. Oak comes through now, as well as some slow, lingering fruit. Brown sugar sweetness shows up now too.

owa-107Consistent with its reported 6-7 years, this is not a particularly complex bourbon. You are not getting a lot of oak here (beyond the usual caramel/vanilla), nor are you getting much in the way of the typical rye baking spices (as expected).

But for a fairly standard profile, it is done well. I often find wheaters a bit too sweet for me, with an almost artificial tinge. But there is at least none of that here – the sweetness is like all-natural honey, sprinkled with brown sugar.

It seems like an excellent value for the price. And given the higher proof, would likely be great in mixed drinks. For me personally, the solvent aromas bring it down a peg, and so I would score it just a bit lower than the Meta-Critic average.

For reviews of this bourbon, Josh of the Whiskey Jug is a big fan, as is Jim Murray. Most of the bourbon reviewers on the Reddit Whisky Network are similarly very positive (see for example Texacer and LetThereBeR0ck). There is also Eric of Breaking Bourbon. You don’t come across many negative reviews of this bourbon, but guys at Quebec Whisky are bit more moderate than those above.

Glengoyne Cask Strength – Batch 4

Glengoyne is a Scottish distillery that straddles the traditional border between Highland and Lowland regions. Technically, I believe their stills are located north of the imaginary line, and their maturing facilities are to the south. They don’t use any peat for drying their barley, and are thus probably closer stylistically to the typical lowland producers.

They are also known for their reliance on sherry casks for maturation.  That is not to say all their expressions are “sherry bombs”, but you can typically detect a consistent sherry flavour motif running across their lines.

They used to produce a 12 year old cask strength single malt, but this was replaced a few years ago with a no-age-statement version, prepared in defined batches. As with the GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 4/5 recently reviewed, you can expect some variability from batch to batch. For this review, I have a sample from a recently acquired batch 4 bottle – brought back from the distillery by a colleague of mine.

Glengoyne reports that the composition of this whisky is 20% first-fill European oak sherry casks, 10% first-fill American oak sherry casks, and 70% oak refill casks. It is not chill-filtered, no colouring is added, and is bottled at cask strength (58.8% ABV in the case of batch 4).

Here is how it compares to other Glengoynes, and similar cask-strength whiskies in the Meta-Critic Database:

Glengoyne Cask Strength (batch 1): 8.75 ± 0.46 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne Cask Strength (batch 2): 8.67 ± 0.38 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne Cask Strength (batch 3): 8.48 ± 0.82 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne Cask Strength (all batches): 8.59 ± 0.55 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne 10yo: 8.22 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 12yo Cask Strength: 8.57 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne 12yo: 8.50 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 15yo: 8.47 ± 0.54 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne 17yo: 8.44 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)

Amrut Intermediate Sherry: 8.99 ± 0.31 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach Cask Strength: 8.85 ± 0.11 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Benromach 10yo Cask Strength (100 proof): 9.09 ± 0.12 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 1): 9.06 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 2): 9.05 ± 0.09 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 3): 9.02 ± 0.36 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 4): 8.91 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 5): 8.87 ± 0.10 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.14 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.89 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength: 9.02 ± 0.32 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

I don’t have enough reviews of batch 4 to include above, but note the unusually high variance in scores across several batches of the Glengoyne Cask Strength. The number of reviews are low across batches, but it seems like there are consistently higher differences of opinion here than usual. There also seems to be a trend toward lower scores over subsequent batches, but that is hard to tell for certain – the numbers are low, and I have few examples of repeated batch testing by individual reviewers.

Here is what I find in the glass, for batch 4:

Nose: Intense dark brown sugar, almost Demerara level.  Maple sugar too – so sweet, I can imagine the crunchy sugar crystals. A bit of cream thrown in. Mixed berry compote, with a pastry note (berry crumble). Figs and raisins, but not very pronounced. Oat cakes. A bit of alcohol singe (which water oddly doesn’t help). A nose for baked fruit lovers!

Palate: More fruit shows up now – apple, pear, and peaches – none of which I detected on the nose. And even more raisins and sultanas, very ripe and juicy. Cinnamon toast. Peppery kick. Rich mouthfeel, somewhat buttery. You can feel the higher ABV, but it doesn’t need much water to tame it – I recommend just a few drops.

glengoyne-caskstrengthFinish:  Medium long. The buttery oak flavours linger a good while, along with cinnamon and a stronger white pepper presence. Pancake syrup sweetness initially, but bitterness comes in over time, and builds over sips, which detracts for me personally.

A real dessert dram, with all its sweet fruit, brown sugar, and baked-goods notes. As an aside, I checked the producer’s tasting notes after finishing my own above, and was pleasantly surprised to find such a close concurrence. Didn’t notice any banana initially, but I can kind of see that too.

I initially thought I would rank this one higher than some of the equivalent age-statement Glengoynes, as the Cask Strength benefits from the higher ABV. But I don’t like the lingering bitterness, which increasingly detracts for me as I sip it. In the end, I think the Meta-Critic average score of ~8.6 (for all batches) is fair for batch 4.

But I can see why reviews of this whisky would be so variable – while some might like the punch it packs, it is likely going to be too sweet for others. Although of the previous batch 3, André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky neatly encapsulate the widely differing opinions of this whisky. Otherwise, Serge of Whisky Fun was very enthusiastic for batch 1, and only slightly less so for batch 2. Thomas of Whisky Saga gives a typical score for batch 2. Redditor xile_ gives a low-normal score for batch 4.

 

Kavalan Sherry Oak

I’ve covered a few Kavalan single malts now, including one of their higher-end single cask offerings, the Solist Sherry Cask.

Kavalan also offers both the Solist Bourbon Cask and Solist Sherry Cask in a vatted format, known as the Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Oak and Sherry Oak, respectively.  Interestingly, these batch versions are available at both cask-strength (typically ~54-59%, like the single casks Solists) and at a reduced 46% ABV.

Supposedly, these two “oak” brands are vatted from the exact same type of casks used for the Solist series. But it stands to reason that they probably cherry-pick the best casks for the single cask offerings, and vat the rest. Note that all the “oak” series variants are hard to come by outside of Asia.

Here is how the various Kavalan bottlings compare in my Whisky Database.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.14 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 9.08 ± 0.27 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.94 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.72 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.32 ± 0.59 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Bourbon: 8.87 ± 0.25 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt: 8.42 ± 0.54 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.39 ± 0.37 on 8 reviews ($$$$)

The single cask offerings consistently outperform the vatted malts. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough reviews of the ex-Bourbon Oak to compare here. But to give you an idea for the sherried malts, here are how some of the GlenDronach single casks compare to vatted bottlings:

GlenDronach vintage 20yo Single Cask: 9.05 ± 0.44 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 19yo Single Cask: 8.97 ± 0.39 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Allardice: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 21yo Parliament: 8.68 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 4): 8.92 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 5): 8.88 ± 0.11 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

You can see a similar pattern, whereby the single cask offerings typically out-perform the vatted age expressions, or NAS cask-strength batches.

For this review, I have a 50mL sample bottle of the 46% Kavalan Sherry Oak that I picked up during my travels. Bottling code is 2015.01.31 15:50. The bottle came in a cardboard box, and so was protected from light.

In terms of appearance, the Sherry Oak is not as dark as my Solist Sherry Cask (as you might expect due the additional water). But it still has a rich reddish gold colour.

Nose: Typical sweet sherry bomb opening, with classic figs, raisins, prunes, and a few red fruits (including strawberry). Also shows more pronounced tropical fruit notes than I usually get from Kavalan (like kiwis and papayas). Cocoa powder and black licorice. The vegetal notes – present on many Kavalan whiskies – are pronounced here. There is a distinct solvent smell that detracts for me personally. A touch of alcohol singe as well (oddly, more than I detected on my cask-strength Sherry Solist).

Palate: Oily, but not as thick as the almost resinous Solist. Definitely fruity, with the tropical notes being most prominent (which I like). A fair amount of vanilla now, as well as the classic pancake syrup noted in my previous review. The vegetal notes run more toward autumn leaves on the ground than the moist earth I detected on the Solist. Sweet cinnamon. A bit of bitterness comes in at the end.

Finish: Medium length. The sweetness continues the longest, but there is a slight artificial tinge to it. Some cinnamon still. The bitterness from the end of the palate also continues as well (not uncommon on many sherry bombs).  Decent, but disappointing compared to my Solist cask.

Kavalan.Sherry.OakThis whisky tastes like I would expect – a slightly watered-down version of the Solist Sherry Cask (and likely from an inferior selection of casks).  That is not to say it is bad. Indeed, this strikes me as a fairly “typical” sherry bomb in many ways. If I had a sample at cask-strength, I would probably put it on par with the Glendronach Cask Strength Batch 4/5 that I reviewed recently. If you have the option between the two, I recommend picking up the Sherry Oak at cask-strength (typically only available in Asia, though).

While this is a good introduction to the Kavalan sherry character, you may want to jump right to the Solist if you can find it at a reasonable price.  When you have sampled outstanding single cask expressions from Glendronach or Kavalan, the vatted whiskies don’t quite compare.

Reviews of this whisky are hard to come by, but do check out Dominic at Whisky Advocate, and Serge of Whisky Fun. Serge in particular seems to have lucked out with a particularly excellent batch.

 

GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 4 and Batch 5

GlenDronach traditionally used sherry casks to mature its malts, and has thus long been known as “sherry bomb” maker.  As discussed in my commentary of their 12 year old expression, the distillery was shut down between 1996 and early 2002. When production re-started with new owners, the focus was on aging in more typical ex-bourbon casks.

Over time though, GlenDronach re-discovered its sherry mojo, and now emphasizes this aspect in most of their new releases.  As an aside, I find some of their vintage single casks expressions to be among the best heavily-sherried single malts that I have tried.

For those on more of a budget, a good option to consider are the batch releases of the GlenDronach Cask Strength.  Lacking an age statement, these releases (now up to five) combine whiskies aged in different sherry barrels, bottled at cask-strength. They are also reasonably well priced (although this has been going up on recent batches).

I haven’t had the pleasure of trying the early ones, but I do have on hand a sample of Batch 4 from Redditor xile_, and a recent bottle of Batch 5 that I purchased at the SAQ in Quebec (regularly $150 CAD, got it on sale for $128).

Here is how they compare in the Meta-Critic Whisky Database, relative to other Glendronachs, and to other cask-strength sherry-bombs.

GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 1): 9.06 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 2): 9.05 ± 0.09 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 3): 9.05 ± 0.33 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 4): 8.92 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 5): 8.92 ± 0.08 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.57 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 15yo Revival: 8.91 ± 0.29 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Allardice: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 21yo Parliament: 8.68 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.44 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.96 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 8.97 ± 0.20 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.78 ± 0.37 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.14 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.89 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)

And now my tasting notes:


Batch 4

Batch 4 consists of 17,806 bottles released in early-mid 2014, bottled at 54.7% ABV. The whisky was drawn from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks.  While you would normally expect a dark sherry appearance, I note the colour is more of a light golden brown (suggesting a sweeter and fruitier ride is in store). Note that GlenDronach does not artificially alter the colour of these whiskies.

Nose: Syrupy, like stewed fruits. Main fruit notes are pear, peaches, plums and some raisins. Baking spices, like cinnamon. Very sweet overall, makes me think of rum-raisin ice cream on top of a moist dessert cake. Some nose hair singe due to the high ABV. Water brings up the cereal/cakey notes more.

Palate: Thick, luxurious mouthfeel – like a good cask-strength sherried whisky should be. Very fruity, getting more of the classic prunes, raisins and plums now from the sherry. Cereal again. The rum-like flavours only intensify on the palate. A touch of bitterness creeps in too over time. Water really brings up the baking spices, cinnamon and nutmeg especially.  Doesn’t need much to tame the burn.

Finish: Sweetness dies down a little, reminding me more of dried fruits now (still raisins and prunes mainly). Pretty good balance of sweet and bitter (although perhaps a bit too much of both, if that is possible?).

I don’t know the exact mix of sherry casks that went into this, but I’m going to guess it is biased toward the sweeter PX.  Indeed, it is so sweet that it actually reminds of some rum-finished malts, like the Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva.  Certainly a decent malt, but the sticky sweetness seems a bit out of character for GlenDronach.


Batch 5

Batch 5 is again from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, bottled at 55.3%. Released at the end of 2015, this batch has just shown up here in Canada. Colour is quite a bit darker now, more of the expected medium red gold.

Nose: Less fragrant than Batch 4. Definitely dryer, not as overtly sweet (think dried fruits instead of stewed ones). Lighter fruits dominate again, mainly pear, apple and apricot this time, and a bit of orange. Also getting some cocoa now, and a slightly nutty aroma (almonds?). No real nose hair singe, but a touch of glue is present unfortunately. Time in the glass helps with the solvent note (as does water, which also brings up the sweetness). I recommend adding a few drops of water, for the improved effect.

Palate: Rich, with dark berries join the other fruits now. Citrus picks up further, with some lemon. Silky and syrupy in texture, without being overly sweet – very nice. Milder baking spices, like nutmeg, mixed with some brown sugar. Not bitter, and the glue note from the nose turns into a dry cardboard sensation in the mouth. Malty.  Surprisingly drinkable at this ABV. Water lightens the mouthfeel slightly, and raises the sweet fruit factor.  Enjoyable either way, frankly.

Finish: Medium long finish. The lingering fruit notes are mainly raisins and sultanas (but not too sweet). Some oak comes in at the end – but this is again more drying than bitter.

Personally, I find this to be closer to the Glendronach core style than Batch 4 (although perhaps somewhat fruitier here).  It seems like a good selection of the drier Oloroso sherry casks went into this.  If it weren’t for the glue note, this would get an unreservedly high score in my books.


Glendronach.Cask.5Ranking these two whiskies is difficult. On initial tasting, I was inclined to give Batch 5 a higher score – but that was mainly because the sweeter Batch 4 wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  On re-tasting the next day, I’ve revised my opinion, and would give Batch 4 a very slight edge. It is interesting that the current Meta-Critic has the same average score for the two of them.

In the end, it really comes down to how much sweetness you like.  If you are a fan of Pedro Ximenez, I suggest you try to hunt down an old bottle of the Batch 4. Drier Oloroso fans should stick with the new Batch 5.

For reviews of Batch 4, I recommend you check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, Serge of Whisky Fun, and Ruben of Whisky Notes. For Batch 5, I suggest you check out Thomas of Whisky Saga, along again with Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes.

 

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.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask

Kavalan is an internationally-renowned whisky distillery operating in Taiwan.  It makes a number of relatively entry-level single malts (like Kavalan Single Malt and the Concertmaster reviewed previously). But they also produce higher-end single cask whiskies under the Solist label. For this review, I have a bottle of the popular Solist Sherry Cask, which I brought back from my travels there last year.

Identifying Kavalan expressions can be tricky. In addition to the Solist Sherry Cask, there is the separate Solist Fino Sherry Cask available, plus the Solist Vihno Barrique and Solist Ex-Bourbon.  Note that if you are in the United States, Kavalan doesn’t use the “Solist” brand name (likely for a trademark issue). The whiskies there simply drop that word from the labels, which otherwise looks identical to Solist labels every where else (the front label on my bottle shown above). As you can see, these labels provide a lot of information on the specific cask and bottling: my bottle is from cask S090123071 (58.6% ABV), and is bottle 434 of 514 (I will come back to this point in a minute).

FYI, If you have traveled in Asia, you may also have noticed the Kavalan “Sherry Oak” expression, sold at 46% ABV with a plan label not identifying a specific cask or bottle. While generally believed to be diluted versions of the Solist Sherry Cask, I have also seen at least miniature bottles of “Sherry Oak Cask Strength” (58% ABV) that again do not identify a specific cask. So, it thus seems like Kavalan produces distinct single cask sherry-aged expressions under the “Solist” brand (word dropped in the US), and a more general “Sherry Oak” expression sold at both regular and cask strength in Asia. I have a sample on hand of the regular-strength Sherry Oak that I plan to review shortly.

As previously mentioned in my other reviews, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate – which means that their whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel compared to more temperate northerly climes like Scotland and Ireland. As such, don’t expect to see age statements here – they are all quite young whiskies, and tend to be heavily influenced by the types of casks they were matured in. Since production only began in 2006, all of their whiskies are currently younger than 10 years old.

Actually, you can pin it down a lot more specifically with these single cask expressions: the specific cask numbers define the type of whisky and its distillation date. For the S090123071 cask here, S for Sherry, 09 is distilling year (2009), 01 is January, 23 is the 23rd of the month, and 071 is the 71st barrel of that day.  On the back is a sticker with the specific bottling date and hour (in this case, 2015.08.17 13:34). That means this cask was bottled at about six and a half years of age.

It’s great that they provide this much info, but don’t get hung up on trying to compare this to a standard Scottish single malt – the effect of accelerated aging in the tropics is immense.

Here are how some of the major Kavalan expressions compare in my database, to some other well known cask-strength “sherry bombs”.

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.00 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.97 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (all batches): 9.04 ± 0.17 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.77 ± 0.38 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.22 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.98 ± 0.39 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak (46% ABV): 9.09 ± 0.47 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.39 ± 0.48 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.80 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

Interestingly, the Solist Sherry Cask is currently the highest-ranked Kavalan expression in my database (although many who have tried both typically prefer the Fino Sherry Cask).

While the LCBO used to carry the regular Kavalan Single Malt and Concertmaster, there are no whiskies from this distiller currently listed on the online site. However, I have recently seen bottles of the Solist Sherry Cask at one of the downtown Toronto flagship locations (Queens Quay) for ~$350 CAN.

I don’t normally comment on whisky colour (since it can be artificially manipulated), but I have to note that my Solist Sherry Cask has the darkest colour I’ve even seen in a whisky – it looks like dark mahogany wood!

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet rich flavours, showing the sherry cask selection. I get raisins and cocoa powder mainly, with additional marzipan, nuts and black licorice (i.e., anice spice). Not as overtly fruity as some sherry bombs, you do get a variety of dark fruits below the surface. There are some vegetal notes here too, evoking the tropical environment (i.e, a humid jungle, for those who have been in one). Very complex. Surprisingly for a cask-strength whisky, there is not much alcohol burn here (i.e., little nose tingle). Water lightens the nose, and doesn’t seem to bring out anything new – I recommend nosing it neat.

Palate: Thick and creamy, with an almost resinous quality. The fruits show up now, with cherry, raisins, plums and papaya. The cocoa on the nose turns to rich dark chocolate, and the spices turn to sweet cinnamon. Some pancake syrup. There is a moist earthy quality that adds character. I also get something that brings to mind tree bark, in a good way (not that I can ever recall actually trying it!). A bit of tongue tingle, but still surprisingly easy to drink neat (more so than other sherry bombs I’ve tried). Very complex, even by sherry bomb standards. With a bit of water, it becomes even sweeter up front, with more cherry/raspberry – and a new milk chocolate pudding texture and taste. If you keep adding more water though, it eventually loses complexity.

Kavalan.Sherry.CaskFinish: Long. The sweetness continues for a good long while, and there is no hint of the bitterness that often accompanies sherry bombs on the way out. Water doesn’t change much here, for good or ill.  You’ll be enjoying the after-glow of this whisky long after you’ve finished the glass. 😉

I typically prefer some water in my cask-strength sherry bombs, but this is one where I don’t think it is necessary.  If you do choose to water it down, I recommend no more than a few drops.  But since there is bound to be variability between individual casks, you will want to experiment to see what works best for you and your bottle.

I think I’ve lucked out here – this particular cask is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tried. It is certainly my new favourite sherry bomb.

While every cask is different, here are some reviews that I think capture the gamut well.  The boys at Quebec Whisky all give their single cask among their highest personal scores. Oliver of Dramming really liked his sample, as did Ruben of Whisky Notes for his two samples (here and here). My Annoying Opinions has had some variable experiences (i.e., very positive here and here, less-so more recently here). Thomas of Whisky Saga gave his one sample a middle-of-the-road score. Serge of Whisky Fun has reported on six separate bottlings of Solist Sherry Cask to date, with diverse scores ranging from his 7th percentile right up to his 98th (!), with most doing fairly well.

 

Caol Ila 30 Year Old

This is a review of the official bottling of a vintage 1983 Caol Ila, released by Diageo in 2014. Only 7,638 bottles of this 30yo bottling were produced.

Normally, I only review whiskies where I have a significant sample on hand for tasting (typically sampled at home, in a controlled environment). In this case, I got to enjoy a generous pour from a bottle at a flagship LCBO store, and had a chance to record my notes in a quiet corner.

At $750 CAD, this is the most expensive whisky I’ve reviewed yet.  It is also the oldest, at 30 years of barrel aging. This is thus an interesting opportunity to see what effect extended aging has on the so-called “lightly peated” flavour profile of Caol Ila (see my recent 12yo review for a discussion of the house style).

First, here are the Meta-critic scores for some other popular aged smokey/peaty single malt original bottlings:

Ardbeg 17yo: 9.05 ± 0.29 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.66 ± 0.54 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Caol Ila 30yo: 9.38 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo :8.89 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.06 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 40yo: 9.07 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Lagavulin 16yo: 9.30 ± 0.25 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Laphroaig 18yo: 9.09 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Laphroaig 25yo: 9.21 ± 0.31 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.25 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 25yo: 8.95 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)

The 30yo Caol Ila certainly tops the Meta-Critic scores for this class. Note that it is rare to see original bottlings of this age, given the limited availability of stock (i.e., more commonly found as small batches with independent bottlers).

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fragrant nose, with a lot going on. I don’t get the wet peat of the younger Caol Ilas, but lots of extinguished smoke and ash (more the latter). Some distinctive medicinal/briny notes, plus well-worn leather. A faint nutty aroma, with a creamy overall feel. There is a fair amount of sweet fruit as well, like honeydew melon, along with a touch of citrus. Complex, yet elegant – you will want to spend a lot of time exploring this nose.

Palate: The salty and medicinal iodine notes come through up front, but they aren’t overwhelming. Same for the smoke/ash notes – present, but not as intense as the younger Coal Ilas. Some moist, earthy peat showing up now. Still getting the melon and some sort of pulpy fruit (papaya?). There is a spiciness as well, like anise – balanced with just the right level of sweetness (i.e., low- to mid-sweet black licorice, as I’ve only found in specialty shops in the UK). Definite oaky elements coming through, with clear vanilla. It is nowhere near as hot as you would expect for a 55.1% ABV whisky – shockingly easy to drink at this level. It has an incredibly luxurious mouthfeel.

Caol.Ila30Finish: Very long, with lingering smoke and ash. That balance of spicy and sweet (e.g., black licorice) persists as well.

This is a stunner!  It’s hard to express in words just how well this whisky works. Note that despite the descriptions above, a lot of the classic peaty notes have been attenuated by the extended barrel aging. Think of this one as a nice meal over an extinguished campfire.

I made the mistake of sampling the Highland Park 21yo after this whisky, and it just couldn’t compare on any level (and that’s coming from a big HP 18yo fan). Certainly not fair to the HP – I will need to try it again before I can fairly review it.

The Meta-Critic score for the Caol Ila 30yo seems reasonable to me – it is certainly one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had. While I would not pay the going rate for a bottle, I do recommend you try it if given the chance. For detailed reviews by reviewers who share my enthusiasm, you can try Serge at Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Tone of Whisky Saga. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate is also fairly positive.

Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Crown Royal is one of the most popular budget whiskies in Canada. I have recently posted reviews of a couple of the more highly-ranked expressions (Monarch and Northern Harvest Rye). Thanks to a swap with the user Devoz on Reddit, I have been able to sample a bottle of Hand Selected Barrel – a cask-specific release, currently only available in the United States.

That may sound odd, but Crown Royal is also very popular in parts of the U.S. – particularly Texas. As a result, Hand Selected Barrel and Northern Harvest Rye were originally launched as limited releases there in late 2014. They only gradually expanded across the U.S., with NHR showing up in Canada late last Fall. We are still waiting to see if Hand Selected Barrel will make its way up here. 😉

The initial Texas-only release of these whiskies makes sense, when you consider their composition. Northern Harvest Rye is close to being a straight rye (actually 90% rye in this case), and rye is enjoying a surging popularity in the U.S. Hand Selected Barrel is made with a very boubon-like high-rye mashbill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley – and aged exclusively in new oak barrels (i.e., just like bourbon). It is bottled at a common “cask strength” of 51.5%, which will definitely appeal to bourbon enthusiasts.

Both Northern Harvest Rye and Hand Selected Barrel are examples of what are known in Canada as “flavouring whiskies.” Hand Selected Barrel in particular is drawn exclusively from whisky produced on Crown Royal’s massive “Coffee Rye” still – distilled to low ABV, and aged in virgin oak barrels (for seven years in this case). In Canada, this sort of low ABV high-rye whisky is often used to “flavour” blended whiskies that are composed predominantly of high ABV corn whisky.

In essence, Crown Royal really is hand-selecting individual barrels of this potent flavouring whisky for direct bottling. I understand that it is only available at U.S. stores that agree to purchase a whole barrel (i.e., each bottle is thus unique to that particular store and cask). As a result, you can expect a considerable amount of variability from one store to the next – but all are likely to give a fairly intense flavour profile. My sample came from a bottle purchased at a retail Texas store.

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

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.72 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.75 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 15 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.60 ± 0.52 on 13 reviews ($)

And now, my detailed tasting notes on this sample of Hand Selected Barrel:

Nose: Very reminiscent of Northern Harvest Rye. I get a very sweet candied nose, with overwhelming apple and vanilla initially – and the same solvent undercurrent as the NHR (more, if anything). On repeated nosing, novel aromas open up like banana and strawberry, leading to a bubble-gum sensation. It also singes my nose hairs if I inhale too deeply or too long – which is a sign of that higher ABV. Pretty comparable overall to NHR, but with a bit more character and “oomph.”

Palate: Big, bold bourbon-es character, with tons of vanilla and butterscotch mixed with various fruits – mainly apple (again), strawberry and cherries. Definite citrus, but more candied orange than the typical Crown Royal grapefruit. The woody character comes through – certainly oak, but also a sweet, resinous conifer sap (Spruce?) that quickly turns to eucalyptus in my mouth. Has a thick and syrupy mouth feel overall, which is another sign of the high ABV – but still with a slightly tannic dryness that I like. I don’t get the classic Crown Royal bitterness here, which is a bonus in my view (although some may find this too sweet). The rye spices come up only toward the end, with a mild dry dusty bread taste. Certainly less overt rye than the NHR – more like a full-flavoured high-rye bourbon (which is basically what this is).

Finish: Oddly not very flavourful or long-lasting. This is where it falls a little flat for me – quite literally in fact, as it reminds me of slightly flat Tab (i.e., saccharin-sweetened diet cola). Some of the classic Crown Royal bitterness seems to be trying to poke through now, but is being suppressed by this artificial sweetness. Definitely much better than regular Crown Royal, but some may prefer the sharper bitterness of the NHR. Certainly doesn’t match the consistently smooth finish of the Monarch 75th Anniversary blend. By the end of the tasting, I could detect the dry heat of alcohol fumes rising from the back of my throat (i.e., another sign of the higher ABV ).

Crown.Royal.Hand.BarrelOverall, I would rate this sample of the Hand Selected Barrel as very close to the Northern Harvest Rye in overall quality. There are certainly differences though – NHR is more of a traditional Canadian Rye, without the thick and rich woodiness of the bourbon-like Hand Selected Barrel. This HSB has a more robust palate, but the NHR has a sharper and cleaner nose and finish. And I still consider my batch of Monarch to be a whole other league – an example of how Crown Royal can make a high quality and elegant blended whisky.

At the end of the day, if you can’t get your hands on a Hand Selected Barrel, the Northern Harvest Rye is probably the closest substitute in the Crown Royal family.

Keeping in mind the standard caveat that each bottle is going to be different, you can find some very positive reviews of this whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky, Jason at Whisky Won, Josh of the The Whiskey Jug, and Chip the Rum Howler.

 

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