Tag Archives: Grain

Century Reserve 21 Year Old

Century Reserve is another Canadian whisky brand produced by Highwood Distillers in Alberta.

While the label calls this is a “Canadian Rye Whisky”, there is in fact no rye in here. Unusually for a Canadian whisky, this is actually a single grain whisky made from 100% corn. While it may shock some in other jurisdictions, the long use of high-proof rye for flavouring in Canadian whisky blends has allowed the term “rye whisky” to become synonymous with “Canadian whisky”. In essence, this is now a historic term to describe our whisky, and one protected in Canadian law for all whiskies that meet general Canadian whisky production standards (whether or not rye is present).

The source of this particular whisky is a bit mysterious. While Highwood distills their own whisky, they acknowledge that the corn whisky base of Century Reserve 21 yo is sourced from elsewhere (but don’t say from where). There is some speculation online that the distillate might be from Potters Distilleries in BC (who were acquired by Highwood in 2005), although this has been disputed. Whatever the source, I suppose it is possible that some of the Highwood-own make has now entered into the mix – but I don’t have any specific information one way or the other.

Whatever the source of the distillate, this whisky was barrelled, aged, and bottled by Highwood. They consider it to be an example of a premium, single grain, small batch whisky. This puts Century Reserve 21 yo in the same category as Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky from South Africa and Nikka Coffey Grain from Japan – although aged much longer here.

Century.Reserve.21.375No longer available in Ontario, I picked up a 375mL bottle of this 40% ABV whisky during recent travels in BC (for only ~$25 CAD, taxes-in). I was surprised to see a row of these half-sized bottles of Century Reserve 21 yo on the shelf at the BC Liquors store in Westbrook Village, as this item is not currently listed on their website (in any size). An image of the actual 375mL bottle is shown on the right (see the stock photo at the bottom of this page for what the 750mL bottle looks like).

The design of this half bottle is interesting. While the body of the bottle looks similar to full-size 750mL standard bottle, thee half-size bottles have a fancy decanter-style glass stopper with a thin ridge of cork around the internal rim. This makes it much more of a presentation item (i.e., looks like a fancy perfume bottle).

Century.Research.21.375.corkI was even more surprised when I turned the bottle over, looking for potential batch codes. I didn’t find any, but here is what is embossed onto the base of the glass bottle:

Century.Reserve.21.375.bottom

In case that isn’t coming through clearly, it says:

LIQUOR BOTTLE / JAPAN / THE NIKKA WHISKY / DIST. CO. LTD

I have never seen bottles of any Nikka product that look like this one (most are very plain, in comparison). And I can find no record online of a relationship between Nikka and Highwood. So I have no idea how Highwood managed to acquire Nikka bottles for this 375mL bottling of Century Reserve.  Frankly, this one is a mystery to me – if anyone knows more, please leave a comment below.

In terms of the what is actually inside the bottle, I will provide my tasting notes below. 😉 Note that I have previously reviewed two of their rye whisky blends, the Highwood Ninety 5 yo and 20 yo.

But first, here is what the Meta-Critic database reports for this whisky, relative to other aged Canadian whiskies, and some single-grain corn whiskies:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 9.11 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.76 ± 0.21 on 10 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.36 ± 0.91 on 5 reviews ($)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.70 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan 8yo Single Grain: 8.13 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.65 ± 0.50 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.53 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

And now, what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet light corn syrup, with a touch of maple. Notes of apple, cherries and citrus. a fair amount of vanilla, likely from the oak aging. As expected, no rye notes. Detectable solvent smell (mainly glue), with some dry rubbing alcohol thrown in. Not as bad as it sounds, and much better than typical entry level Canadian whiskies. Gives the overall impression of being rich while still being light (i.e., maybe more buttery than creamy).

Palate: Rich sweetness. Somewhat cereal as well – makes me think of creamed wheat. I can detect something similar in the best Canadian blends, like Crown Royal Monarch and Gibson’s 18 yo – I guess that was coming from the corn. In fact, buttered corn also comes to mind here. Otherwise, I get mixed berries, some citrus, and more definite vanilla now.  Silky mouthfeel, very rich and satisfying. I also get what tastes like mild rye spices (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg), which must be coming from the oak aging. This is followed by a slight woody bitterness. Not as complex as most Canadian whiskies of this age, but with some interesting subtle notes.

Finish: The simple sweetness lingers the longest – and for medium length. Not particularly flavourful on the way out, but certainly not offensive. Slight traces of some rye-like spice, but faint and hard to pin down. All in all, it just sort of slowly fades away.

Century.Reserve.21The official tasting notes mention honey a lot, but I really don’t find that here – it’s a much lighter sweetness, combined with buttery and creamy overtones. Comparing it to the Highwood Ninety 20 yo, the Century Reserve 21 yo is less complex on the palate – but it also less objectionable on the nose.

The Century Reserve 21 reminds me of some other single grain corn whiskies, but with more rich and creamy flavours.  Like the consolidated Meta-Critic scores, I too would rate it as far superior to Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, and a slight notch up from Nikka Coffey Grain (which is more delicate and less creamy).

Two of the most positive reviews of this whisky come from Jason of In Search of Elegance and Chip the RumHowler. Davin of Whisky Advocate/Canadian Whisky is also quite positive, as are the guys from Quebec Whisky.

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nikka Coffey Grain

Japanese whisky follows very closely the model laid down by Scottish whisky production. Specifically, you get malt whisky (made from malted barley using traditional copper pot stills) and grain whisky (which can incorporate various grains – most typically corn – made in a continuous column still). If you mix some portion of these together, you get a blended whisky (or a simply, a blend). See my single malt vs blend discussion here for more info on these categories. Also see my recent Nikka Coffey Malt review for a comparison.

In Scotland, there are plenty of single malts available to occupy the higher-end whisky niche – and so, most blends are relegated to the low end. There are exceptions of course (see Compass Box, for example), but this does serve as a good general rule. The result is that grain whisky production is largely a commodity-driven, high-volume industrial enterprise in Scotland.

One of the key differences to whisky production in Japan is a focus on making high-quality blends (see my Hibiki 17yo and Harmony commentaries, for example). Of course, you can only do that if you take some care in your grain whisky production.

For this commentary, I’m highlighting the standard NAS bottling of the Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. Fairly commonly available (for a Japanese whisky), and reasonably priced (again, for Japanese whisky), this is an unusual beast in the whisky world –  a pure grain whisky. Made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka, this corn whisky is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. Bottled at 45% ABV.

The absence of any malt whisky in the bottle means that the Nikka Coffey Grain is in some ways more like a Bourbon than a traditional Scotch. Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Very much of the corn whisky style. Slightly sweet, like watered-down corn-syrup, with definite traces of its time in oak (i.e., caramel/vanilla aromas, and an overall woodiness). Maybe a bit floral as well. Unfortunately, I also get a noticeable solvent aroma, which I don’t care for personally. All told, the nose reminds me of some of the younger Canadian blended whiskies (e.g. Gibson’s 12yo, Century Distillers Ninety 5yo, etc.).

Palate: Initial impression is all soft, gentle creaminess. It’s pleasantly sweet, in a delicate way – not the heavy corn syrup I sometimes find in bourbons. This is definitely still a Japanese creation, with a pleasant range of flavours – including some spice and some floral notes – all enveloped in a persistent, lightly sweet creaminess. Vanilla and caramel are noticeable, and there is a touch of apple. The faintest hint of that solvent note persists at the end, but it is very subdued (thankfully). All in all, pretty decent.

Finish: Fairly short and thin (as I find common to grain whisky), but carries through many of the same notes from the palate.

It is often said that grain whisky provides that classic “smoothness” to blended whiskies – the way it spreads out over the tongue, evening-out the various flavour components, binding them all together. This is in contrast to the “sharpness” that high-quality malt whisky provides – especially in terms of cascading waves of intense flavour through the palate and finish. The Nikka Coffey Malt definitely shows this “smoothness” well – frankly, I would describe the overall mouth-feel as luscious. 🙂

Truthfully, I don’t really see this whisky as a competitor to most bourbons, given its relatively light character. Instead, I think this whisky would be a hit with fans of the lighter Irish, Scottish or Canadian style of blends – especially if you enjoy a little sweetness.

Here’s how it compares to some other Nikka malt and/or blended whiskies in my meta-critic Whisky Database:

Nikka.Coffey.GrainNikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.76 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.2 on 8 reviews
Nikka Super: 8.04 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews

A good above-average composite score at 8.7, with an above-average standard deviation (suggesting a wide range of opinions on this whisky). And I can understand that, given its distinctiveness for the class. While some may enjoy its delicate and smooth characteristics, others may find it relatively bland and uninteresting (or potentially over-sweet). Definitely a cut above most entry level single malts I’ve tried.

Price-wise, I just picked this bottle up in a Tokyo duty-free for 5400 Yen (~$65 CAD). Not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but you can pick this expression up in BC or Alberta for ~$85-90 CAD (which seems like a remarkably good deal for Canada).

For detailed reviews from those who quite like it, check out André and Martin at QuebecWhisky.com, or Jason at WhiskyWon. For some contrasting opinions, check out Serge at WhiskyFun.com or Michio at Japan Whisky Reviews.