Tag Archives: Japanese

Nikka From The Barrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999/2000

Ah, the fabled Karuizawa distillery.  Established in 1955, Karuizawa was one of the early pioneers of Japanese whisky production. Unusually for a Japanese whisky maker, they focused mainly on sherry cask aging. It was always a relatively small operation however, and production was eventually mothballed in 2000 (with the distillery permanently closing in 2011).

Karuizawa was located in a small town on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Asama. Coming from the end of production, this Karuizawa Asama expression is a multi-vintage bottling of 77 casks from the final 1999 and 2000 vintages. It was bottled in 2012 by the company that bought out all the remaining casks when the distillery closed, Number One Drinks in the UK. Sadly, this is the likely the last Karuizawa release we are ever going to see. Note that this edition is different from an earlier Spirit of Asama release, through The Whisky Exchange.

I believe Karuizawa Asama was mainly released in Europe. It is bottled at 46% ABV, and the casks used were predominantly sherry butts (although some bourbon casks may have been included). As opposed to the expensive final age-statement Karuizawas produced under their own name, this Asama expression was initially sold at a budget price (for Karuizawa stock, that is). Since then, prices for the few remaining Asama bottles have skyrocketed (which is why it currently earns a $$$$$+ in my database).

But somehow, the Dr Jekyll’s pub in Oslo, Norway, recently managed to get some in at the original low price. Rather than gouge their customers, they offered it at 137 NOK (just over $21 CAD) for a standard 4 cl (1.35 oz) pour.  That puts it at the same price point as an entry-level Scottish malt in the bar (note that liquor in Norway is among the most heavily taxed in Europe). I must say, even the bartenders were pretty surprised when they rang it up for me – all the other Karuizawas they have (including several OBs and a custom cask just for Dr Jekyll’s) are in the 400-800 NOK range (i.e., $65-$130 CAD a shot)!

I don’t track many Karuizawa vintages in my database, given their rarity and cost.  But here’s how Asama compares to some other Japanese whiskies (especially those with some sherry finishing).

Hakushu Sherry Cask: 8.96 ± 0.43 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.24 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Karuizawa 1990 Sherry Butt: 9.00 ± 0.30 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999-2000: 8.63 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve: 8.63 ± 0.32 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Puncheon: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Yamazaki Sherry Cask (all vintages): 9.07 ± 0.30 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki 18yo: 9.14 ± 0.21 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)

There is clearly higher than usual variation in reviews of this particular Asama whisky (as there are with a couple of the other sherry cask finished Japanese whiskies).  That’s always an interesting feature to explore further, and I’ll come back to this point at the end of the review.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Now that’s a bit different! You get the obvious hit of sherry (with figs, raisins, and nuts), but with attenuated smokey notes (spent matchsticks, extinguished campfire) and just a slight touch of peat. Very much a rancio profile – how odd for a Japanese whisky. Layered, but in a really unusual way that is hard to describe (“atypical” was the first comment in my shorthand tasting notes). A touch of lemon. Some salt. Slightly floral (hint of apple blossoms). Really distinctive – the closest thing in my experience would be some independent bottlings of Highland Park.

Palate: Like the nose, complex and layered. Definitely a drier type of sherry here, with dried fruits dominating. I do get some sweet syrupy notes however (brown sugar mainly, touch of maple). Spent matchsticks again (I think some people describe this dry smokey note as “gunpowder”). Chewy texture, great mouthfeel.‎ No real burn to speak of.  Certainly leaves a very favourable initial impression in the mouth – you don’t want to swallow! Doesn’t need any water, but a small amount brings up the sweetness slightly without affecting the other characteristics.

Finish: Nice and long, with slow lingering smoke. No real bitterness to my taste buds (YMMV, see comments below). Citrusy, but not a lot of variety on the fruit front, just a lingering sweetness (i.e., more juicy fruit gum than actual fruits). A bit of tobacco and leather. A touch more complexity here would have made it outstanding, but it is still excellent for the Japanese class.

AsamaA quality‎ dram through and through. Its atypical-ness is something you are either likely to love (as I do), or feel frustrated by (i.e., it could seem “unbalanced” to some). I wish I could find a bottle for what the pub paid for it – but that’s highly wishful thinking. Instead, I made do with going back to Dr Jekyll’s the next night and having a second pour. 🙂

Never having expected to try it, I didn’t know much about this one ahead of time. As such, it is ironic that I had just finished the Mortlach 18 year old in the bar before trying Asama. Based on my earlier review of the Mortlach Rare Old, my description of the Asama here is similar to the profile that I would have expected from the Mortlach. But the Asama blew it out of the water on all fronts – nose, palate and finish. The Mortlach just seemed “closed” and toned down to me in direct comparison.

Those who are sensitive to sulphury notes may find the Asama a bit off-putting. As a discussed in the Mortlach Rare Old review, sensitivity to this “biological danger signal” is quite variable among different genetic populations. I suspect some of the sherry casks used here may have suffered from over-sulphuring. To me, that just introduced a distinctive character, but YMMV.

As you would expect give the above, variation among reviewers for this one is high. Like me, Serge of Whisky Fun loves it. Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews and My Annoying Opinions are conflicted on this one, and both give it lower than typical scores. The guys at Quebec Whisky are a good example the the range on this one: top marks from Patrick, above-average scores from Andre and Martin, and a low score from RV. If you get the chance to try it yourself, I highly recommend you give it shot.

Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Floor Malted

Ichiro’s Malt is the brainchild of Ichiro Akuto – grandson of the founder of the fabled (and long closed) Hanyu distillery in Japan. Ichiro founded the new Chichibu distillery nearby, and started vatting his new make with old Hanyu stock for his early releases (see my reviews of Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve and Double Distilleries).

Following on his inaugural Chichibu single malt release (the appropriately named Chichibu The First), Ichiro released this slightly revised version, known as The Floor Malted. This is in reference to the traditional method of malting barley in Scottish single malts (although it may not be so common elsewhere). Apparently, Ichiro learned this method while in Britain, and he personally hand-malted all the barley for this release while there.

Distilled in 2009 and released in 2012, this 3 year old whisky was bottled at 50.5% ABV. Only 8800 bottles were produced, so it is understandably hard to get a hold of now. I came across it recently at Dr Jekyll’s pub in Oslo, Norway – for the low price of 148 NOK (about $23 CAD) for a standard 4 cl pour. That’s about what they want for an entry-level Scottish speyside in the bar.  Note that alcohol in Norway is heavily taxed, and so it is not the best jurisdiction to go hunting for bargains. But Dr Jekyll’s has one of the best selections I’ve ever seen, and they pass along bargains to their customers (which tells me they must have picked this one up at something near its original 9,000 Yen – $90 CAD – price tag). Thanks to Thomas Øhrbom of Whisky Saga for introducing me to the place. The bottle number was 8229.

According to info online, it is believed to be aged in a combination of primarily ex-bourbon casks as well as Chichibu’s own original quarter casks called “Chibidaru” (or more simply, “Chibi”).  There are not a lot of reviews of it online, but here’s how it compares to other Ichiro’s Malts in my Meta-Critic Database:

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.24 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Floor Malted: 8.56 ± 0.27 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.47 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.21 ± 0.55 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.80 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)

A step up from the initial release, but not as popular as the third Ichiro’s Malt, the Peated.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for the Floor Malted:

Nose: Definitely a bourbon nose, sweet with honey, pears, peaches and red delicious apples. Vanilla and caramel. A touch of spice, with some honey mustard sauce and eucalyptus. A bit of lemon. Malt comes through very clearly, with cereal notes. The only sign of its young age is a touch of glue – surprisingly few off notes otherwise. Honestly, I’m impressed by the complexity of this three year old malt.

Palate: Very malty, with cereal and biscuit notes most prominent. Similar fruits as the nose. Woody. Initially comes across as somewhat light, but with noticeable alcohol burn (again, likely due to its youth). Texture improves on subsequent sips. Pepper picks up on the spice front, as does some some oaky bitterness. Water helps slightly with burn and improves the texture, but not the faint bitterness – I recommend you try a couple of drops.

Chichibu.Floor.MaltedFinish‎. Shortish. The malty aspects persist the longest, with some of the vanilla and caramel. Turns a bit cakey over time (i.e., dry lemon cake), which is actually a positive for me. Dulls a bit with water, so you will want to go easy here.

An approachable malt, I’m honestly surprised to see this is only 3 years old. Any Canadian whisky I’ve had at that age has been a lot a harsher.  Certainly more interesting than many of the light 10/12 year old Scottish lowlands and speysides. It will be hard for you to come across the Floor Malted “in the wild”, but it was definitely a very good choice for the price I paid in Oslo.

There are few reviews of this whisky among my reviewer base, so I will give you my own score: 8.5 (which puts it right about average for the single malt class).  The lack of much of a finish holds it back from a higher score from me.  But for even more positive reviews, you can check out Dramtastic’s review at the Japanese Whisky Review or Michio’s review at Japan Whisky Reviews. The Whiskey Exchange also has a positive write up for this one.

Holiday Whisky Gift Guide 2016 – Ontario, Canada

Welcome to my new recommendation list for 2016!

As with last year, I am breaking this up by price point, style and flavour cluster.  I will again focus on highly-ranked but relatively affordable bottles – and ones currently in stock at the LCBO. I am also going to focus on whiskies that are not necessarily available all year round – some of these only show up for a limited time around the holidays, so grab them while you can. Links to full reviews given, when available.

Hopefully this list is also relevant to those outside of Ontario, as it is based on high-ranking whiskies. As always, the Meta-Critic Whisky Database is here to help you sort through whatever possible options are open to you.

Budget Gifts < $50 CAD – American Bourbon and Canadian Rye Whiskies

You won’t find single malts in this price range (although there are some very nice Scotch-style and Irish blends, profiled below).  But let’s consider the economical American bourbon and Canadian whiskies options here first.

While Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons, we actually do have very decent prices on what we do get in. And we have at least a reasonable selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff.

Eagle.Rare.10It’s worth breaking bourbons down into different mashbill classes. The first is low-rye bourbons (i.e., a relatively low proportion of rye grain in the predominantly corn-based mashbill). Unfortunately, one of my favourites in this class – Eagle Rare 10 Year Old – is not currently available (although you might still find a few bottles at the some of the larger LCBO stores). So the closest thing is the more widely available Buffalo Trace at $43 CAD, getting a decent 8.56 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews. This is basically the same juice, though not quite the full 10 years of age.

Elijah.Craig.12A great choice that Ontario still carries is the Elijah Craig 12 Year Old at $48 (8.68 ± 0.29 on 20 reviews). This has been replaced by a younger no-age-statement “small batch” version in U.S. Note the 12yo version has a fairly pronounced “oaky” character.

Rated even higher is Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.79 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews) – a popular cask-strength (60%) option.

For high-rye bourbons (which typically are more “spicy” tasting), you can’t go wrong with Four Roses Single Barrel at $46 CAD (8.72 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews).  It’s worth the premium over the otherwise decent Four Roses Small Batch at $40 CAD (8.49 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews).  Unfortunately, most of the other high-ryes I would recommend are currently out of stock (and unlikely to come back this year).

But why not try a quality Canadian choice? These are typically widely available all year round.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleSure, you could go for Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” for 2015 – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – for $35 CAD. It gets a decent Meta-Critic score of 8.59 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews. But like many, I consider it to be only an “average” Canadian rye.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

As with last year, my top pick as the king of Canadian straight rye whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. Getting an excellent 8.90 ± 0.41 on 18 reviews, it is quite affordable at $40 CAD. One of the best aromas you will find in the rye selection at the LCBO.

Wiser’s Legacy is another solid choice, with an even higher 9.01 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews. Regularly-priced at $50 CAD, it has a spicy rye flavour (and is said to consist of Lot 40 in part).

As always, Alberta Premium Dark Horse at $32 CAD is a great buy – if you like a little sherry flavour in your rye. 8.62 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews.

 


 

Budget Gifts < $60 CAD – Scotch and Irish Blends

I don’t typically break down Scotch-style blends by flavour profile (as I do for for the more complex single malts below). But you can generally think of blends in two categories: those with some smokey/peaty flavours and those without.

Te.BheagFor those who like a bit of smoke, Johnnie Walker Black at $57 (8.27 ± 0.49 on 21 reviews) remains a staple – and for good reason.  It is higher ranked than most of the other smokey blends – but it is also priced higher.  So if you want try something a little different on a budget, the LCBO also carries the higher-ranked but lower-priced Té Bheag for only $39 (8.47 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews). Pronounced chey-vek, this whisky has a more fruity character than JW Black, and even more smoke (if you think the recipient would like that).  Another great choice is Great King St Glasgow Blend for $57 (8.57 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews) – one of the highest-ranked smokey blends I’ve seen.

writers-tearsFor non-smokey blends, these are often imbibed as mixed drinks, or the classic scotch-and-soda. There are a lot very good blends out that you may not have heard of – unfortunately, the LCBO is not carrying many at the moment. For example, they are currently out of stock of Great King St Artist’s Blend for $55 (8.58 ± 0.38 on 18 reviews), which would have been a top pick. So why not try a great Irish blend instead: Writer’s Tears for $50 (8.47 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews). Unusual for an Irish whiskey, this is a blend of single malt whisky and classic Irish pot still whisky (which is a mix of malted and unmalted barley in a single copper pot still).  Very flavourful, and a good value.suntory-toki

A personal favourite of mine in this group is Suntory Toki at $60 CAD (8.24 ± 0.63 on 5 reviews). I feel the quality here is higher than the Meta-Critic score indicates (which is based on only a limited number of reviews so far). It is delightfully fresh and clean, easy to sip neat, and is highly recommended in the classic Japanese “highball” (scotch-and-soda for the rest of us ;).  Here is a chance for you to experience an authentic Japanese whisky, without the usual high cost. It’s a great introduction to the lighter Japanese style.

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.

 


 

Premium Gifts up ~$100 CAD – Single Malt Scotch and Hibiki Harmony NASInternational Whiskies

Single malts come in a wide range of flavours – much more so than any other class of whisky. As usual, it is worth recommending single malt whiskies by flavour “super-cluster”, as described on my Flavour Map page. I’m going to start with the more delicate examples below, followed by the more “winey” and “smokey” examples.

BTW, If you are interested in checking out another Japaenese whisky, consider the Hibiki Harmony at $100 (8.40 ± 0.61 on 14 reviews). It comes in a fancy decanter-style bottle, and has a richer yet still delicate flavour profile. Again, I think the Meta-Critic Score is unfairly harsh here – this is a lovely blend, and is a more flavourful expression than the Suntory Toki described previously.

Now onto the single malts …

Super-cluster G-H : Light and sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smokey.
Classic examples: Glenmorangie 10yo, Glenfiddich 12yo, Arran Malt 10yo/14yo, Cardhu 12yo

Dalwhinnie 15yo bottleAt $95 CAD, the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old is my top pick in this category (8.68 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews). That is a phenomenal score for this flavour supercluster (i.e., delicate whiskies always score lower than winey/smokey ones). The Dalwhinnnie is a fairly delicate whisky, but there is a surprising amount of subtlety here. It has a lovely honey sweetness to it (but is not too sweet), and has just the slightest hint of smoke in the background. Well worth a try – a staple of my liquor cabinet.

Backup choices you may want to consider are The Arran Malt 10 Year Old at $70 CAD (8.55 ± 0.33 on 20 reviews), and the An Cnoc 12 Year Old at $80 CAD (8.62 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews). The Dalwhinnie is worth the slight extra though, in my opinion.

 


 

Super-cluster E-F : Medium-bodied, medium sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion
Classic examples: Old Pulteney 12yo, Auchentoshan 12yo, Glenlivet 12yo, Macallan 10yo Fine Oak

Amrut.FusionIt is actually on border of Super-cluster E-F and cluster I (due to the moderate smoke), but my top pick here is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $86 CAD, and scoring an amazing 8.90 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore some extra “tropical” fruit flavours in their whisky – check out my full review above for more info on this whisky. Note that this one is very popular, and so stock levels are already starting to drop across the LCBO.

OtMiddleton Redbreast 12yo bottleherwise, my top mid-range choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, the $80 CAD Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. As mentioned earlier, this is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in single copper pot still. The end result is thus closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. It gets a very good 8.75 ± 0.42 on 21 reviews.

If you are looking for a budget option in this class, check out the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old. At $65 CAD and scoring 8.27 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews, this is a step up from your typical ubiquitous Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 12yo.

 


 

Super-cluster A-B-C : Strong winey flavours, full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and sometimes smokey notes
Classic examples: Aberlour A’Bunadh, Highland Park 18, Glenfarclas 105, GlenDronach 12yo, Auchentoshan Three WoodAberlour.ABunadh.49

My top pick here remains the Aberlour A’Bunadh. I don’t understand how this has remained at $100 CAD, given the quality of the various batches.  It gets an impressive 8.95 ± 0.17 on 22 reviews overall. While there is some variability between batches, this is not usually significant. Note however that this is a cask-strength whisky, so it packs a higher concentration of alcohol than typical. And inventory tends to disappear fast around this time of year – it’s a popular one.

My budget choice, at $73 CAD, remains the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.57 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews. It packs a lot of flavour.

Now, let’s dial back down the winey flavours, and instead bring up the smokey complexity.

 


 

Cluster I : Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes
Classic examples: Talisker 10yo, Highland Park 12yo, Benromach 10yo, Springbank 10yo, Bowmore 10yo

Talisker 10yo bottleIn addition to the Amrut Fusion already mentioned above, you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class: the Talisker 10 Year Old. At $100, it gets an excellent 8.91 ± 0.17 on 21 reviews. I don’t think you can go wrong with this choice. Also very nice, but with low availability is Longrow Peated ($101, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews). It is right on the border with the smokier Cluster J, though.

Highland Park 12 year oldA reasonable budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 10 Year Old ($65, 8.47 ± 0.28 on 14 reviews) or 12 Year Old ($80, 8.38 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches of the 12yo, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick (i.e., it used to score higher).

 


 

Cluster J : Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible
Classic examples: Lagavulin 16yo, Laphroaig 10yo and Quarter Cask, Ardbeg 10y and Uigeadail

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleFor the smoke/peat fan, you really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73 CAD, yet garnering a very high meta-critic score of 9.02 ± 0.27 on 21 reviews. That’s a remarkable score for the price, if you are into these peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84 CAD, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100 CAD, 8.95 ± 0.34 on 21 reviews). If you like a wine-finish, for a very limited time you can order a bottle of this year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas for $100 (2016 Madeira edition, 8.82 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews) through LCBO online.

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit to $123 CAD, a very popular favourite is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.23 ± 0.23 on 25 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!

 


 

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 or style.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

Suntory Toki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nikka Coffey Malt

Following on my review of the popular Nikka Coffey Grain – a single-grain corn whisky from Japan – I recently picked up a bottle of their Coffey Malt to directly compare.

As with the Coffey Grain, this whisky is made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka. It is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. This is different from most malt whisky, which is produced in small batches in copper pot stills.

Typically, this NAS bottling of Coffey Malt doesn’t get as much attention as the Coffey Grain – but I think that may be because it hasn’t been around as long.  Here is how some similar whiskies compare in my Meta-Critic Database:

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.51 on 7 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony NAS: 8.36 ± 0.70 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.64 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.89 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt 12yo Single Cask: 9.10 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.23 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.17 ± 0.53 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still: 8.49 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews ($$)
Yellow Spot: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

Despite the lower number of scores, the Coffey Malt is clearly fairly popular overall with reviewers. Unfortunately, none of the Nikka whiskies are currently available in Ontario. But the Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Black and From the Barrel are available in BC. At the moment, it will cost you ~$110 CAD (tax in) for the 700mL bottles of either the Coffey Grain or Coffey Malt. Bottled at 45% ABV.

Let’s see what I found in the glass.

Colour: I don’t usually comment on this, but the Coffey Malt is a slightly darker color than the Coffey Grain – closer to the Nikka Black.

Nose: Very different from the Coffey Grain, with a greater initial impression. Not as corn syrupy sweet, there are a lot tropical fruits here – with peaches, papayas and bananas most prominent. There are also a lot more malt aroma now (duh!). Reminds me of a cross between warm banana bread and those dry Scottish oatmeal cakes. Still has the faint caramel/vanilla notes from its time in oak – although if anything, the overall woodiness is increased. Very rich nose, and very appealing. The only negative for me is the slight solvent smell (vaguely pulp and paper plant like).

Palate: Even sweeter upfront than expected, with honey on top of those lighter tropical fruits from the nose (plus some additional dark fruits, like berries and plums). Very fruity overall. Surprising amount of chocolate, adding to that caramel sweetness from the nose. Faint dusting of some of the lighter rye spices (like nutmeg). Silky texture, very chewy – this is definitely a whisky you will want to swirl around the gums. Makes you want to go right back and try another sip! Surprisingly rich and tasty. While not overly complex, there are still a lot of flavours to dissect here.

Finish: Medium-short. Some of the sweet and chocolate notes linger, along with a slight creamy bitterness (i.e., think of the after effects of a latte). Other than that, it just fades out, with maybe a touch of sweet fruit hanging on until the end. Pleasant enough, but somewhat light.

Nikka.Coffey.MaltWow, a lot more going on here than the Coffey Grain. It reminds me of some of the more flavourful Irish Pot Still whiskies, with its creamy sweetness. Easy to drink, but still reasonably complex.

I would definitely give this a higher score than the Coffey Grain – although I agree the Coffey Grain deserves decent marks for its very good presentation of the light-and-sweet grain style.  All told, the Meta-Critic averages are pretty much about where I would place them for these two whiskies.

The most positive reviews I’ve seen for this whisky come from André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky – they really rave about it. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate gives it a fairly positive score and review. Serge of Whisky Fun is fairly positive in his comments, but somewhat lower scoring. The lowest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Michio of Japanese Whisky Reviews.

 

 

Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries

Welcome to my second Ichiro’s Malt review, the Double Distilleries.

As mentioned in my Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) review, Ichiro’s malts are vatted malts from two distilleries: the closed Hanyu distillery, and the currently operating Chichibu distillery. Both distilleries were controlled by the Akuto family, currently led by Ichiro Akuto.

In this case, the “double distilleries” label refers specifically to old Hanyu stock matured in ex-Sherry casks, and new-make Chichibu matured in new Japanese Mizunara oak casks. I’ve seen suggestions online that old Hanyu Puncheon casks may also have been used in the vattings. The exact proportion is unknown, although I expect it is weighed more towards the new make (from both an economic perspective, and from my tasting notes below).

Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for the Double Distilleries:

Nose: I can definitely smell the sherry cask influence – despite the light colour, I get rich chocolate notes. Apple and pear are the main fruits, not really getting the typical sherry figs or raisins. There is also a lot of honey sweetness here, similar to the Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR). A bit of allspice comes in as well, like in a nice rye blend (not over-powering). And the perfumy/incense wood notes from the MWR are also present throughout. Nice.

Palate: Definite spicy kick up front, just like the MWR. The sweet fruity notes come in next, along with the honey and chocolate. Not as much sherry influence as I was expecting from the nose – getting more general oakiness now. Taste of Graham crackers. A bit malty. Also some bitterness, but greatly attenuated compared to the MWR (which was overwhelming). The baking spices – allspice, nutmeg – linger nicely. Nice mouth feel, not too watery.

Finish: The sweet honey and Graham cracker notes are the most prominent. That MWR bitterness is present, but greatly subdued. The baking spices really help here, and linger for a nice long while. I even get a touch of apple at times. Not overly complex, but pleasant and fairly long-lasting.

Ichiro-DoubleDistilleriesI suggested in my MWR review that blending with additional casks would help that whisky out – and that is exactly what you get here. You can still detect the fragrant incense characteristics of the MWR, balanced by a more general sweetness. A clever blending of different flavour components – and a better way to glimpse the effect of younger whiskies from Mizunara wood, in my view.

This is certainly a nice, easy-drinking dram, with no real flaws. In contrast to the MWR, it goes down easier the more you sip. That said, the Double Distilleries could probably have benefited from a bit more sherry cask influence.

For some additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Ruben of WhiskyNotes, Brian (Dramtastic) of JapaneseWhiskyReview, Michio of JapanWhiskyReviews, and Tone’s review on WhiskySaga.

Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR)

This is my first review of an Ichiro’s Malt Japanese whisky.

The eponymous brand name refers to Ichiro Akuto – grandson of the founder of the fabled Hanyu distillery (which shuttered production in 2000). Ichiro later founded the Chichibu distillery nearby, and managed to save a number of Hanyu casks. His “Ichiro’s Malt” series typically involve vattings of both old Hanyu stock and new Chichibu production.

The Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) is distinctive because it is a vatting of malts that have all been aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). There is an interesting article on Nonjatta that describes the influence of this type of oak on Japanese whisky.

My experience of Mizunara wood aging to date has been through blended whiskies, where only a proportion of the final product was aged in these casks (such as the Hibiki Harmony). Ichiro’s Malt MWR is thus an opportunity to try and dissect out the specific contribution of Mizunara wood more directly.

The exact composition of the Ichiro’s Malt MWR is unknown, but I’m going to guess it is mainly new production from Chichibu. Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for Ichiro’s MWR:

Nose: Very floral and fragrant, with both woody and incense notes (“sandalwood” is often cited, which fits). Some grassiness, but again tending to the more sweet and fragrant aromas (mint?). It has a strong honeyed sweetness that reminds me a bit of Dalwhinnie (although the spirit seems younger here). Strong citrus presence, especially lemon peel and grapefruit. Some sweet apple. Pleasant, with very sharp and clear scents.

Palate: Tangy and spicy upfront, with a peppery kick. The honey and fruity sweetness is there from the start – with caramelized apple and citrus. Woodiness comes up fast though, with some sour and bitter notes. This sharp bitterness is reminiscent of some lightly smokey whiskies – but it is definitely more heavily pronounced on the MWR. Think sucking on a grapefuit that had sugar sprinkled on it – fruity sweetness upfront, followed by persistent bitterness (especially if you chew on the rind!). Some ginger too. Surprisingly light body overall, given the relatively high ABV (46%).

Finish: Relatively short. Not much going on here, except some lingering sweetness and peppery spiciness trying to cover up the woody bitterness (and failing). A bit of a let-down, honestly.

Ichiro-MWRThe MWR has a lot of promise on the nose, but it quickly turns bitter in the mouth, with a disappointing finish. It seems very young overall. Frankly, despite the initial distinctiveness, it is a whisky that makes you want to drink less as time goes by in the glass.

It is certainly an interesting way to experience the effect of pure Mizunara cask, but I definitely think this would do better as a blend with other types of wood. I would probably recommend the Hibiki Harmony over this as an introduction to the effect of Japanese oak.

For a positive review of the MWR, please see Dave Broom of WhiskyAdvocate. Personally, my own tastes align better with Ruben of WhiskyNotes. There is also Brian’s (Dramtastic) review on Nonjatta.

UPDATE: Please see my Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries review for a good example of what some blending can bring to Mizunara wood casks.

 

The Nikka 12 Year Old Premium Blended

Nikka received a lot of attention last summer for their understandable decision to replace most of the entry-level malt expressions in their lineup with no-age-statement (NAS) versions. They simply cannot keep up with demand, and risk depleting their stores of aged casks too quickly. As I found in my Taketsuru NAS review, there is reason for concern that this is leading to a drop in quality and character at the low end.

But largely missed the year before was the interesting introduction of a new age-statement blended whisky, to celebrate their 80th anniversary. With its capitalized determiner, “The Nikka” 12 Year Old Premium Blended Whisky comes in a snazzy presentation decanter with higher-end packaging.

Unfortunately, this whisky is currently only available in Japan – which may explain the relative lack of buzz (and very limited reviews online). I note that the Japanese-language Nikka website currently has plenty of pages highlighting this whisky, but it is not to be found on the English-language version of their site.

From what little I can find online, the Nikka 12yo Blended contains a base of Coffey grain whisky, and malt whiskies from both Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. This bodes well for the final product, as long as care was taken in the cask selections.

I recently received a gift bottle of this whisky, and am happy to provide some detailed tasting notes here. It is bottled at 43% ABV.

Nose: I can detect the sweet corn syrup note of the Nikka Coffey Grain, but with even more caramel and vanilla now. Definitely a malty aroma as well, reflecting the malt whisky component. Some lighter fruits, like pear and green apple. I also detect a light smokey note, similar to the old Taketsuru 12. A very faint solvent smell, but less than I detected on the Coffey Grain. A nice nose, to be sure.

Palate: The Coffey Grain definitely takes a back seat here – I get a lot of woody and malt characteristics, with enhanced caramel/vanilla flavours up-front. These are balanced by a slight bitterness, and something slightly tannic, like black tea. Nice rich texture and mouth feel, very creamy. There is a definite spicy/peppery component that I wasn’t expecting. The smoke re-appears at the end, and literally wafts up the back of your throat as you swallow.

Finish: Moderately long, with lingering cinnamon and cloves. There is both a subtle sweetness and bitterness to the finish – like candied ginger. If I have any complaint here it is that the flavours are a bit muddled when the smoke clears from the palate – but at least it has a finish (unlike the entry-level Taketsurus, which rapidly disappear).

Well, that was a pleasant relief – this is a nicely constructed blend. In many ways, it seems like a combination of the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Nikka Coffey Grain – but with some new spicier notes thrown in, and a rounding off of some of the Taketsuru 12’s rough edges. I’m glad to find it retains the light smokey characteristics of the Yoichi malt (something the new Taketsuru NAS has completely lost). That said, it lacks some of the subtlety of the pure Nikka Coffey Grain (which gets a bit lost in the blend here), and the mild bitterness may not appeal to all.

There are very few reviews of this whisky online, so I don’t have enough to include it in the whisky database.  But here are how some other Nikka whiskies compare:

TheNikka12Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.51 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.14 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.26 ± 0.28 on 14 ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.82 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

On the basis of these meta-critic scores, I would personally rank the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended somewhere in-between the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Coffey grain – and closer to the Coffey grain. So, say around ~8.6 on the meta-critic scale.

On my recent visit to Japan, I noticed that the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended retails there for the same price as the Nikka Coffey Grain (~5,400 Yen, or ~$65 CAD). This is about twice the price of the old Taketsuru 12yo (and current NAS version), indicating the intended high quality cachet of the Nikka 12 blended.

For an English-language review of this whisky, you could try the Whisky Advocate. Also, Nonjatta has a very good write-up about it, including their preliminary assessment.  Hopefully it will find its way out of Japan soon, so that more will be able to give it a shot.

 

Whisky Prices World-Wide

A recent excellent series of price analyses by Michael of the Diving for Pearls whisky blog – entitled “Scotch Ain’t Dead Yet” – got me thinking about common perceptions of whisky pricing world-wide.  In particular, his second post about changes in US prices over time.

Like Michael, I too use wine-searcher.com to track typical current whisky prices (this is in fact the main resource for generating the “$” estimates in my whisky database). But this is supplemented by various Provincial liquor agency websites in Canada, as well as my own records during international travels (e.g., see my recent Whisky in Korea and Whisky in Japan articles). I have provided some very limited analyses of Canadian whisky volume and recent LCBO pricing here in Ontario – although if you really want to track LCBO prices over time, I suggest you try out the excellent LiQuery website.

My concern here is a bit different. One of the challenges to integrating reviewer scores is how each reviewer feels about prices, and whether or not they explicitly take prices into account with their scoring. As previously observed here, there is a weak correlation between scores and price (i.e., it isn’t as strong as you might expect). Cearly, we can all be influenced by price – after all, it is natural to associate more expensive with higher quality.

But another confound to this analysis is whether or not reviewers actually discount their scores on the basis of price (i.e., giving more expensive whiskies a lower rating due to a lower perceived value for money). I adjust for this in the analysis for the limited cases where it is explicitly made clear as part of the reviewer’s scoring method – but it’s hard to know how price affects everyone’s relative quality perceptions overall.

The other challenge is whether reviewers are using a very regional filter for price (i.e., their personal experience, locally). One thing I come across a lot in review commentaries are statements as to how relatively expensive certain classes of whisky are in the reviewer’s home country.  For example, it is a common complaint to note how much Japanese whisky has increased in price over the last couple of years (and how availability has dropped), due to excessive demand. It is also natural to assume that the whisky produced in one own’s country is relatively cheaper than imported whisky.

But are these assumptions valid, world-wide? It seems as if most reviewers imagine their target audience are those who experience similar pricing constraints as their own – which may not be the case, given the reach of the globalized internet. I’ll come back to this point again at the end.

It is of course difficult to accurately compare whisky prices world-wide, due to limited regional availability of certain classes and styles (and limited internet sales in some countries – especially Asia).  Currency fluctuations also wreak havoc in making general observations.  But I have followed a small basket of commonly available international whiskies world-wide in my travels (and online researches), and have found a few peculiarities over time.

First let’s start with the big picture: how much does a basket of widely available (i.e., largely entry-and mid-level) international whiskies cost from one country to the next? Ranked from lowest to highest price:

Japan << Canada = USA < UK < Taiwan << Korea

Note that ALL whisky in Japan right now is remarkably cheap, when currency-adjusted, due to the relative low value of the Yen (January 2016). Typically, Japanese, Canadian, American and UK whiskies currently sell in Japan for about half what they cost in the rest of the world (!).  For example, right now in Tokyo, I could pick up Jim Beam White for $12 CAD, JW Red or Crown Royal for $16 CAD, Glenfiddich 12yo for $29 CAD, and Hibiki Harmony for $48 CAD. Mind you, it wasn’t always like this – two years ago, most everything sold for only a slight discount compared to Canadian prices. And it may easily revert in a short while – again, that’s currency fluctuations for you.

But a key thing to note above is that Japanese whisky is actually as expensive to purchase in Japan as it is in other countries, in relative terms. Note that I am specifically referring to the commonly exported whiskies that I track world-wide. There are certainly cheaper domestic budget blends that are still affordable in Japan. But proportionately-speaking, quality Japanese whiskies available for export remain equally as expensive on their home territory as they do in Canada, the USA or the UK.

In contrast, Korea is one of the most expensive places I’ve found to buy whiskies – likely due to unusually high government taxes.

In any case, that’s the current big picture assessment.  But it gets even more interesting when you break it down by whisky type.

For this analysis, I will include a focus on the most populous Provinces in Canada (BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). I will leave out Taiwan and Korea, since I have less data (and the pattern doesn’t change much from above anaway). I will bold the host country in the listings below, for clarity. And as before, I am ranking countries/provinces from lowest price to highest price (from left to right).

UK whiskies:

Entry-level UK blends (e.g., JW Red, Ballantines Finest, etc):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level UK blends (e.g., JW Black, Chivas 12, etc):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = USA < BC = UK

Entry-level UK malts (e.g., Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie 12 DW, Laphroaig 10, etc):
Japan < UK < AB = USA < ON = QC < BC

Now that’s a surprise: on a currency-adjusted basis, the cheapest UK blended whiskies are actually relatively cheaper in Canada – compared to either the USA or UK.  But as you start to go up in quality (and price), the trend quickly reverses. By the time you get to entry-level malts, they are definitely cheaper in the UK, with Canada being noticeably more expensive. The exception is Alberta, which is typically the best place to pick up Scottish single malts in Canada (i.e., you can find typical USA prices).

I haven’t tracked medium and higher priced single malts in this basket, but my quick checks tell me this latter pattern persists (i.e., UK is cheaper, followed by USA, then Canada). So the presumption of UK reviewers that single malts are cheaper in their country seems to be true (except, of course, for Japan at the moment).

American whiskies:

Entry-level whiskies (e.g., Jim Beam White, Jack Daniels Black, Four Roses Yellow, WT, etc.):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level bourbons (e.g., Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig 12, Woodford Reserve, etc.)
Japan < USA = ON = QC <  AB = BC < UK

Again, Canada does surprisingly well price-wise for US bourbon, being equivalent (or cheaper!) on a currency-adjusted basis.  Unfortunately though, we don’t really get much of the top-shelf stuff here.  The few we do get are still quite attractive, especially in Ontario and Quebec (e.g., Bulleit 10yo is $50 CAD in Ontario, compared to an average USA price of ~$72 CAD). If the Canadian dollar continues on its current downward course, we soon may have American tourists visiting Canadian border towns for better deals!

Japanese whiskies:

Note that true entry-level Japanese whiskies don’t typically get exported – we are looking at a better class of whiskies here.

Mid-level whiskies (e.g., Nikka Coffey Malt/Grain, Taketsuru NAS/12, From the Barrel; Hibiki Harmony, etc.):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = UK <= USA = BC < Taiwan << Korea

Again, Alberta is the place to be in Canada to find reasonably-priced Japanese whisky. In some cases, the USA does as well as the rest of Canada or the UK, but it is somewhat variable.

I’ve added Taiwan and Korea back in the list above, as Japanese whisky is relatively easy to find in both places. You really pay a lot for it in Korea, though (I believe there is an additional surtax for Japanese goods).

Canadian Whiskies:

Entry-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal, Canadian Club, etc.):
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB = USA < UK

Mid-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal Black, CC Classic 12, etc.)
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB < USA << UK

Basically a similar pattern. Although there are some states in the USA where entry-level Canadian whisky is cheaper or comparable to here, for the most part the best deals on Canadian whisky are in Canada. Note that we actually export a lot of really cheap stuff to the USA that is not even sold in Canada. And we really don’t export much of the higher-shelf whiskies.

As you go up in quality (and price), Canadian whisky gets harder to find in the world – and proportionately more expensive when you can.  It’s an interesting finding that Alberta has worse prices on Canadian whisky, compared to the others (but the difference isn’t huge).

Korean whiskies:

No such thing, really.  Although there are a couple of domestic Korean brands (with a good number of expressions each), these are actually all sourced from imported Scottish whisky blends. The prices tend to be comparable to standard Scottish whiskies, and these domestic “brands” are not sold outside of Korea.

Given how popular whisky is in Korea, it’s actually a bit surprising to me how much it costs across the board there.

Taiwanese Whiskies:

Taiwan = Japan < AB < ON = UK < USA << Korea

I wasn’t able to find a lot of full bottles of Taiwanese whisky in Japan, so I’m really going more by miniatures above. You also don’t find a lot of Taiwanese whisky available in Canada. But the general trend is certainly that Taiwan is the best place to buy Taiwanese whisky (along with Japan). It was hard to find in Korea, and fairly expensive when I did.

Wrapping Up!

Ok, so what is the general take-home message from the above?

The general presumption that domestically-produced whisky is sold at lower prices than imports to that country is generally true – but only for the decent mid-level (and higher) expressions. At the entry-level, it can be surprising just how cheap foreign whisky can be – and domestic whisky can often be sold more cheaply in other countries.

Shop_LocalI know that’s not what advocates of “buy local” initiatives want to hear – but it can actually be cheaper for consumers to pick up higher quality products shipped from further away, compared to what is produced domestically. I’m personally struck by that every time I see the Ontario wines at the front LCBO – I can typically head to the Vintages section in the back of the store and get much better gold-medal winning French reds for the same price. Don’t get me wrong – we make a lot of decent wine here in Ontario – it is just typically  too expensive relative to the quality of imports that I can buy for the same price.

Getting back to whiskies, I suspect part of the reason is the differing tax regimes in different countries on different classes of goods. In all countries, the predominant determinant of final whisky price is government tax. So if governments decide to charge less tax for domestic products, the local consumer (and/or local industry) is better off. But surprisingly, this isn’t a given. Here’s a recent price mark-up sheet from the LCBO: note that the relative discount for Canadian whisky production is actually quite low (i.e., not that much better off than foreign imports).

Beyond taxes, there are other peculiarities at play. just look at how Alberta fares for Canadian whisky compared to Scottish single malts, or Ontario for American whiskies.  I am not sure what the reasons are for these apparent discrepancies – but it means that the savvy shopper can look out for what is the best deal where they live.

I also think it’s a good idea for whisky reviewers who factor price into their assessments to consider the relative price of whiskies world-wide. It’s certainly a fair approach to discount the rating of a given whisky based on its relative price – but that needs to be explicitly stated, and the price really should be considerate of the wider international reading audience, not just domestic. Of course, this is more work for all involved. Personally, I find it easier to ignore relative price (as best I can), and just focus on the taste and character when reviewing or ranking a whisky.

One final point to re-iterate, since it comes up a lot: surprisingly, decent Japanese whisky is expensive everywhere – both in its domestic market and abroad.  And it’s actually harder to find the higher-end stuff in Japan than it is elsewhere right now, as they seem to be bleeding their domestic market to meet international contracts. It will be interesting to see if this trend persists in the coming years. As I point out in my November 2015 Whisky in Japan article, a lot has changed there in less than two years!

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