Tag Archives: Scottish

Tomatin 1999 Single Cask 18 Year Old – Kensington Wine Market

This is a single cask bottling of Tomatin, a Highland whisky producer in Scotland. I’ve seen a few of their single cask bottlings go by in recent years, typically through various state-controlled liquor boards. This bottling was released by Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, Alberta (their first Tomatin special release, I understand).

Released last last year, this single malt was distilled in 1999. It was matured in ex-Bourbon casks, and finished for five years in a Pedro Ximenez Sherry Butt. That makes it 18 years and 9 months of age.

621 bottles were released, bottled 52% ABV. It currently sells for $150 CAD at KWM. I was able to sample this from a colleague’s bottle.

There are not enough reviews to be included in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, but here are how the various Tomatin bottlings compare.

Tomatin 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.45 on 19 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.59 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 15yo: 8.32 ± 0.54 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.22 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 40yo: 8.95 ± 0.39 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tomatin Cask Strength: 8.35 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.03 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Limited Edition: 8.94 ± 0.26 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Sherry Edition: 8.35 0± .30 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Virgin Oak Edition: 8.51 ± ± 0.47 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Decades: 8.92 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.15 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Oloroso Sherry 1995: 8.58 ± 0.56 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)

While most of these bottlings are nothing special, I was personally a big fan of the peated limited release Cu Bocan 1989.  But I typically also like unpeated gentle base malts that are well-aged with an extensive period of sherry of port finishing.

Let’s see what I find in the glass on this one:

Nose: Brown sugar and caramel. Very jammy nose, with dark fruit preserves. Golden raisins, plus a lighter candied fruit note. Almost port-like in its level of sweet fruit. Nutty, with an earthy quality (moist earth and ginger root). Light cinnamon. This is a good pairing of bourbon maturation and PX finishing. No off notes, except perhaps for the faintest hint of old sweatsock (so, sulphur – if you are particularly sensitive to it).

Palate: Rich and thick brown sugar notes dominate, along with honey and creamy caramel – a good pairing. Fruits take a back seat now, and the earthy notes take over. Hazelnut. Dark chocolate. Tobacco. Cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a little black pepper. Great mouthfeel, oily and sticky. Quite drinkable at 52% ABV, doesn’t need water to tame the burn. Touch of bitterness creeps in on the swallow.

Finish: Long and creamy. The dark fruit preserves return, along with the lighter candied fruit note (gummi bears). Cinnamon lingers the longest, which I like. What little bitterness there is is very mild, and doesn’t detract for me.

With water, the classic bourbon sweetness notes rise on the nose (i.e. light caramel and vanilla). Water turns the oily mouthfeel into something more syrupy – with added corn syrup sweetness to boot. Doesn’t affect the burn, so I consider water to be optional on this one.

A good quality cask pairing, to be sure.  I’d give it ~8.8 on the Meta-Critic scale. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for other Tomatin special releases.

 

The Infamous 22 Year Old Blended Malt

Following on my review of an entry-level blended malt (Monkey Shoulder), here is a higher-end offering: the Infamous 22 Year Old.  This is an example of a “mystery malt” – that is, a blended malt where the source distilleries are not identified. I don’t typically do many reviews of mystery malts, but this one has a funny story behind it that piqued my interest. I couldn’t resist picking up a bottle in my travels, given its ridiculously low price and presumed heritage.

This bottling of Scottish malt whiskies comes from Fountana Beverage – an international liquor import/exporter based in Vancouver, Canada. The bottle label explains it is a blend of whiskies from “two of the most notorious single malt distilleries in Scotland,” representing “where the mountain meets the sea” (with a custom logo to that effect). Specifically, the whiskies come from a lightly-peated island malt and a heavily-sherried Highland malt, aged independently and blended in Scotland. I’ve seen some commentary online that the island malt was exclusively from ex-bourbon barrels.

You often get these sorts of tantalizing clues with mystery malts, which are designed to lead those with a bit of knowledge to make an educated guess as to the distilleries involved (whether correctly or not). Privately, the local agent did reveal to vendors in Alberta that those two distilleries are Highland Park and Macallan, respectively. While both are quality big-name malt producers, it would be very unusual to pair their styles together. I’ve seen speculation online that the casks were from batches originally earmarked for either The Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark blends.

Another funny story the local agent revealed: the whisky casks had all passed 23 years of age before bottling. But the bottle labels had already been printed, so they stuck with the Infamous 22 yo name.

Bottled at 50% ABV. This 22 (23?) year old blended malt was only $103 CAD at World of Whisky in Calgary, Alberta. As the label certifies, no artificial colour has been added, and it is not chill-filtered.  While there are no reviews in Meta-Critic Whisky Database, I thought I would pick it up as a Christmas gift to myself this year.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Prominent caramel and brown sugar to start (which surprised me), followed by fruit gummies and some drier sherry fruits. Fruitcake, with red berries and raisins. Mixed nuts. Some lighter floral notes, which are nice. Light spices. There is an underlying sourness, likely from the light peat, but no real smoke per se. No solvent notes, but a bit of ethanol heat consistent with the 50% ABV.

Palate: Caramel, honey and vanilla show up first, presumably from the ex-bourbon casks. Then juicy red grapes and raisins, plus Christmas cake – very nice delayed sherry presentation. Not a lot overt smoke – more of a savoury, charred meat flavour that builds with time. Hint of rosemary. Fresh leather. Very distinctive pairing. It’s almost like drinking the caramelized drippings left in the pan of a pork roast with veggies. Rich mouthfeel, definitely oily. Some slight ethanol sting, consistent with high ABV – but it surprisingly doesn’t need any water.

Finish: Long (although not quite as long as some I’ve had in this age range). A great mix of sweet fruity notes and savoury earth notes, complex. No real bitterness, and a slight hint of smoke appears now. The ex-bourbon sweetness continues the longest, leaving a nice sugary coating on the lips and gums. Probably the closest thing in my experience is one of the aged Macallan Fine Oaks (but with a touch of smoke), or the Highland Park 25 year old (but with extra sherry).

I am surprised at how strongly the ex-bourbon character comes through here, at all levels of the tasting experience. I expected the (Macallan) sherry character to dominate more. The lightly peated malt also plays very much a supporting role – but one that comes across more as meaty instead of smokey/peaty.  Despite not being quite what I expected, I find I really enjoy this one – it’s full of surprises. Personally, I’d score this around ~9.0 on the Meta-Critic average scale.

There are not a lot of reviews of this one out there, but you can also check out criollo_and_barley on Reddit, or the reviewers at Distiller.com. Andrew at Kensington Wine Market also has tasting notes.

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

Monkey Shoulder is a great example of one of the (not so) best kept secrets in the whisky world. As I explain on my single malts vs blends page, a single malt simply means a blend (or vatting) of different malts whiskies from a single distillery. Unless it is specifically identified as a “single cask”, you are definitely getting multiple barrels mixed together for your single malt.  A blended scotch is defined as a blend of malt whisky and cheaper-to-produce grain whisky. But there is the intermediate category called a blended malt (or previously “pure malt”) where malt whisky from multiple distilleries are brought together.

In principle, there’s no reason why a blended malt would not be every bit as good as a single malt, since it is only the number of distilleries that differ. But just as blended scotches have long occupied the entry-level price point, most blended malts are similarly inexpensive and without age statements – although there are of course always exceptions (i.e., see the Taketsuru line of Japanese malt whiskies).

Monkey Shoulder is a commonly available, reasonably priced, no-age-statement blended malt from three classic Speyside distilleries controlled by William Grant & Sons: Kininvie, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich. You may not have heard of the first one (since most of its malt production goes into blended scotches), but the other two should be familiar to single malt drinkers – and will give you an idea as to what flavour profile to expect here. In this case, I believe the blend is exclusively from first-fill ex-bourbon casks, but there are of course no guarantees if that isn’t indicated on the label.

In case you are wondering about the unusual name, it comes from a historic occupational strain injury that floor malters suffered from in the early years of whisky production. In the traditional method, malting of barley would be done across a large floor (for the extended surface area). This required constant turning of the barley, so that it didn’t over-germinate into a solid mass – a task traditionally done by hand. “Monkey Shoulder” is the crude name for the condition that some malt workers developed after long shifts, where one of their arms would hang down – similar to some monkeys. Obviously, this would no longer be permitted today.

Monkey Shoulder is very reasonably priced in most jurisdictions, typically around the level of higher-end blends or entry-level single malts. It is currently $65 CAD at the LCBO, which is steeper than most places. It is bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other blended malt or entry-level single malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database.

Aberlour 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns Single Malt 8.22: ± 0.56 on 8 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.78 ± 0.85 on 8 reviews ($$)
Benromach Traditional: 8.43 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.46 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve: 7.96 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.22 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.97 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland: 7.02 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Speyside: 6.70 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$)
Monkey Shoulder: 8.31 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$)
Pig’s Nose 5yo Blended Malt: 7.93 ± 0.40 on 3 reviews ($$)
Sheep Dip Blended Malt: 8.45 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$)
Singleton of Dufftown 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
Speyburn 10yo: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 19 reviews ($$)
Speyside 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.63 on 10 reviews ($$)

Monkey Shoulder gets a decent score for this price point, consistent with the best entry-level single malts.

My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly light, with dominant notes of caramelized baked apples. Green banana and a touch of citrus (orange). Golden raisins. Vanilla, nutmeg and a slight brown sugar note – all combining to give an evocative impression of baked apple pie. ‎Bit of acetone, suggestive of its youthful age. Pretty decent on the nose.

Palate: Some honey adds to the caramel notes from the nose. Not as fruity anymore, maybe a bit of light pear. Very lightly spiced. Malty. Unfortunately, I get a dusty, dry cardboard note (likely also from its youth). A slight bit of ethanol sting, but at least it adds some substance to the somewhat watery mouth feel.

Finish: Short, and relatively light.  A bit of the spice comes back, but it remains fairly dry and not a fruity as I had hoped. No real off notes though, except for a slight bitterness.

Definitely an entry level malt. Better than most scotch blends, but it seems to me like it would have benefited from a few more years in the casks. Given its first-fill ex-bourbon heritage, I expected a little more sweetness on the palate and finish. But I think the average Meta-Critic score above is fair.

Among reviewers, Nathan the Scotch Noob is a big fan, as are most of the guys at Quebec Whisky. Josh the Whiskey Jug gives it an average score. Most reviewers give it below average for the malt class, as you might expect – including Jason of In Search of Elegance, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Thomas of Whisky Saga, among others. Serge of Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Jim Murray all give it very low scores.

Highland Queen Majesty 8 Year Old Single Malt

As I mentioned in my inaugural Highland Queen whisky review, there are a number of blended scotches and single malt expressions in this extended line. Produced by Tullibardine distillery in the Scottish highlands, you can expect a pretty gentle base spirit across the various Highland Queens.

The single malt versions of Highland Queen are all identified by the “Majesty” subtitle. Like the standard blended scotch versions, these come in both a number of NAS and age-stated forms. The Majesty 8 Year Old single malt expression caught my eye, for the maturation in new oak barrels. It is not common to see standard Scottish single malt bottlings aged exclusively in virgin oak, so I was curious to see what effect it would have on the base Tullibardine malt.

Bottled at 40% ABV, this Majesty 8 yo single malt was on sale for $38 CAD in Calgary, Alberta. There are no reviews in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, so I thought I would buy a bottle and add my own to the blogosphere.

Nose: Honey, with standard apple. Some dry grass (picking up on that herbaceous note I noticed on the base blend). Pleasant enough, but also has a faint dried cardboard note, and some raw ethanol which you don’t find on the entry-level Highland Queen.

Palate: Honey and some light caramel. Definite citrus now – orange peel in particular, with maybe a touch of lemon. Woody, with lots of oak notes. Black pepper. Light cinnamon and all-spice. Dried glue again. Watery mouthfeel, but with a bit of ethanol sting. Has a bit more character than I was expecting, for the young age.

Finish: Short. Light honey and apple juice return. Caramel and a dry woodiness persist the longest. Some light bitterness lingers, but it works with the woody elements.

This is actually pretty decent for a young malt. My initial impression was pretty “meh”, but some woody character emerges on successive sips. While nothing spectacular, the virgin oak treatment is effective in elevating the base gentle spirit. Of course, that assumes one likes oaky wood notes. I would personally rate this a 8.3 on the standard Meta-Critic rating scale for a single malt.

Highland Queen Blended Scotch

I had never heard of this particular brand – and so was surprised to see several different bottlings of blended Scotch whiskies and single malt expressions on the shelf on a recent trip out West.

The origin of the brand name dates back to 1893, with the Highland Queen blend of Macdonald & Muir Ltd. Named in honour of Mary Queen of Scots, the original Highland Queen was supplied by Glenmorangie distillery. The brand was purchased in 2008, and the Highland Queen Scotch Whisky Company was established at the Tullibardine distillery, in the Scottish Highlands.

I’ve had a few Tullibardine malts, which are generally quite mild and inoffensive. It’s definitely a “gentle dram” maker, and should work well for basic blends.

This entry-level scotch blend is the base expression of the Highland Queen line, aged for 3 years and bottled at 40% ABV. I saw this this bottling on sale for $26 CAD in a COOP in Calgary, Alberta.

Let’s see how it compares to other entry level blends in my Meta-Critic Database:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.62 ± 0.61 on 12 reviews ($)
Bank Note 5yo Blended Scotch: 8.09 ± 0.67 on 5 reviews ($)
Bell’s Original: 7.57 ± 0.77 on 7 reviews ($)
Black Bottle (after 2013 re-launch): 7.99 ± 0.47 on 12 reviews ($$)
Catto’s Rare Old: 8.02 ± 0.68 on 5 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark: 7.53 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($)
Famous Grouse: 7.64 ± 0.56 on 20 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve: 7.69 ± 0.67 on 14 reviews ($)
Hankey Bannister Original: 7.87 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($)
Highland Queen: 7.92 ± 0.45 on 3 reviews ($)
Islay Mist 8yo: 7.91 ± 0.47 on 9 reviews ($)
J&B Rare: 6.98 ± 1.03 on 11 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.36 ± 0.59 on 21 reviews ($)
Teacher’s Highland Cream: 7.95 ± 0.72 on 11 reviews ($)
Whyte & Mackay Special Reserve: 7.47 ± 0.46 on 7 reviews ($)

There are only a limited number of reviews, but so far Highland Queen is scoring on par with the higher-end of the base scotch blends in my database.

I was given a sample to try, let’s see what I found in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with honey and caramel initially. Standard apples and pears (apple juice), but not a lot of fruit otherwise. A touch of nutmeg. Very simple, but pretty decent for an entry-level blend, with a surprising lack of solvent notes.

Palate: Apples remain the most prominent here, caramel-dipped. Honey, with a bit of vanilla. Something faintly herbaceous, but nothing specifically identifiable. Maybe a touch of anise. Light and watery mouthfeel, with no real burn.

Finish: Short. Quick and clean, just faint apple juice and honey. Disappears with no off notes, but a slight touch of bitterness does creep in.

A very basic blend, with a limited ex-bourbon barrel flavour palate. But surprisingly lacking the off-notes that mar most entry-level blends for me.

This base blend gets a decent score from Jim Murray (though still below average), and a positive review (but a low score) from Jonny at Whisky Advocate. Personally, I’m in-between on this one, but closer to Jonny in score. Nothing to specifically seek out, but as the Meta-Critic shows, you could do a lot worse.

Highland Park 25 Year Old

The Highland Park 25 Year Old has long been one of the highest-end official expressions available from this Orkney island distiller.

As I noted in my earlier review of the Highland Park 18 Year Old, this distillery has an unusual profile of rich sherry-cask notes and distinctive island peat. The additional aging here should further enhance the wood-derived characteristics, and attenuate the peat presence.

I recently had the chance to sample a 2005 edition bottling. This one was bottled at 50.7% ABV cask strength. The current bottling (48.1% ABV) sells for a rather steep for $900 CAD at the LCBO.

Here is how the 25 yo expression compares to other Highland Parks in my Meta-Critic database:

Highland Park 10yo: 8.52 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.66 ± 0.22 on 25 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.22 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 15yo Fire: 8.74 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 17yo Ice: 8.72 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.22 on 25 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.90 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.14 ± 0.23 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.14 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 40yo: 9.17 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.47 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park Valkyrie: 8.74 ± 0.22 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, it gets one of the highest scores for this family. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, and very fruity – including berries, banana, cantaloupe and grapes. Seems almost port-like in its characteristics. I’ve never gotten this much fruit from a Highland Park before. Honey. Strong wood spice, plus some eucalyptus – kind of reminds me of Old Spice after-shave. Anise. Something vaguely Springbank-like with its sweet peat notes. Only lightly smokey, but very complex, with lots going on here. No real off notes.

Palate: ‎ Initial smoke, but it fades quickly. Caramel, and sort of a burnt toffee sensation joining the honey. Berries and mixed fruit salad. Oranges. Wood spice as expected, slightly bitter. Coffee and a touch of chocolate join the anise. Good mouth feel – though not as strong as I expected for 50.7% ABV (i.e., not as thick, but still coats well). You can really taste the extended wood aging. In the end, this really isn’t very smokey.

Finish: Long. Nice mix of fruit and wood spice. No real bitterness or other impairments.   Again, not much smoke though.

Adding water makes it a touch sweeter (bringing up the honey in particular). It also seems to accentuate the wood spice. Your call of course, but I think it benefits from a few drops.

I can see why this scores so well – it is really a pretty flawless presentation, with no off notes at any point. It’s also very complex – especially on the nose, which I like (I’m a big fan of sniffing my whisky). It is heavily oaked without being bitter, which is impressive. If I were to have any criticism it would be the lower levels of smoke than I’m used to from Highland Park. For the price, I’d personally prefer the Caol Ila 30 Year Old over this, mainly for its extinguished campfire notes. And where I am, I can get the fruity and woody Redbreast 21 Year Old for almost a quarter the price (although of course, it is completely unpeated).

There aren’t many reviewers who have compared multiple editions, but Serge of Whisky Fun gives this edition a very similar score to the earlier and later editions. Ruben of Whisky Notes gave this expression is a very good score, slightly higher than newer expressions. For the various versions, most reviewers are very positive – including Jim Murray, Oliver of Dramming, My Annoying Opinions, and Thomas of Whisky Saga. The guys at Quebec Whisky are the typically moderately positive.

Hankey Bannister 12 Year Old Regency

I first came across this blended scotch at a beer lounge and restaurant called Easy Beer in Riga, Latvia. Although I had heard of Hankey Bannister scotch blends, I had never actually encountered one in my travels. And to my surprise, it was priced similarly to Bulleit bourbon as the lowest-priced whisky on hand for sampling. After this tasting, I subsequently went out and bought a 700 mL bottle at a nearby Spirits & Wine depot for 27 € (or just under $40 CAD).

In case you were wondering about the brand name, it is actually the combination of two proper surnames – Beaumont Hankey and Hugh Bannister – who came together to form the Hankey Bannister & Co. in 1757. While not as well known as some other blenders, their range of blended scotch whiskies have found favour with many over the years (e.g. Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have been a big fan).

Today, the brand is owned by Inver House, which also owns the malt distilleries Balblair, Pulteney, Speyburn, Balmenach and Knockdhu (AnCnoc) – whose malts, presumably, are used to create this 12 year old blend. Note that this 12 yo “Regency” bottling is different from their no-age-statement offering (also known as “Original”), which typically sells at around the floor price for blended scotch in jurisdictions that carry it (e.g., it is about half-priced in Latvia, at 14 € for a 1 L bottle – or $21 CAD). As an aside, Latvia has generally good prices on spirits – except for premium bottles, which have an even greater mark-up than here in Canada.

Packaging for Hankey Bannister 12 yo is pretty basic, and reminds me a lot of the current entry-level Johnnie Walker bottles (i.e., screw caps, and thin rectangular bottles and boxes to allow easy shelf stocking). Bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV.

Here’s how Hankey Bannister compares to the competition in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.62 ± 0.61 on 12 reviews ($)
Ballantine’s 17yo: 8.79 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.59 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Compass Box Great King St Glasgow Blend: 8.56 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Chivas Regal 12yo: 7.77 ± 0.42 on 22 reviews ($$)
Chivas Regal 18yo: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Chivas Royal Salute 21yo: 8.53 ± 0.62 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.52 ± 0.70 on 14 reviews ($$)
Dewar’s 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister 12yo Regency: 8.57 ± 0.20 on 6 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister 21yo Partner’s Reserve: 8.56 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Hankey Bannister Heritage: 8.50 ± 0.10 on 4 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister Original: 7.87 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 24 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Johnnie Walker Green Label: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Platinum Label: 8.42 ± 0.45 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.37 ± 0.59 on 21 reviews ($)
Té Bheag: 8.47 ± 0.29 on 15 reviews ($$)

That’s a decent Meta-Critic score for what is basically still an entry-level price scotch blend.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Colour: Standard whisky colouring – pretty sure E150 spirit caramel has been added to this one.

Nose: I get classic honey and caramel on the nose, plus vanilla. Light berries, green grapes. Lemony citrus. Graham crackers. Creamy wheat and a grain sensation. Something spirity, almost mineralized (flint?). Furniture wax (lemon-scented Pledge, in fact). Faint touch of glue. Quite a decent nose for a blend.

Palate: Sweet honey and caramel dominate, with butterscotch and nougat. Very buttery – in both taste and texture. Lemon biscuits. Frosting. No real fruit, beyond typical apple/pear. Light spice. Some minor tongue tingle.  A bit light overall, consistent with low ABV.

Finish: Short. Caramel is the main note that remains. That spirity note from the nose returns – there is a definite minerality here. Has a club soda-like cleansing feel at the end.

This was a great find – one of the better blended Scotch whiskies that I’ve tried. I would put it on par with Johnnie Walker Blue Label (which is nearly 10 times as expensive), with which it shares a similar honeyed style. It rivals the quality of some comparably-aged Japanese blends out there (which are now sadly unavailable, or much more expensive). And it matches or exceeds most entry-level single malts in this age range (e.g., I find it more complex than the similarly honeyed – but more expensive – Singleton of Dufftown 12 year old). If you like this style of whisky, Hankey Bannister 12 yo Regency is pretty hard to beat for the price.

As an aside, my wife (who is not a big scotch drinker) really enjoyed this one – and encouraged me to bring back a bottle. I think it is very well suited to the casual whisky drinker who doesn’t like obvious smoke in their whisky. Among reviewers, the most positive is Ralfy, followed by Serge of Whisky Fun. It gets slightly below average scores from Jim Murray and Jan of Best Shot Whisky.

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.

Te Bheag Blended Whisky

Té Bheag Nan Eiliean Gaelic Whisky is a distinctive blended whisky – and not just for its hard to pronounce name (“CHEY-vek”). Té Bheag uses a relatively high proportion of malt whisky (40%) – with some peated malt at that.

Produced by the Pràban na Linne company on the Isle of Skye, it is not going too much out on a limb to suspect that some Talisker peated malt may have found its way into this blend. 😉 In addition to explicit Island malt, there is supposedly malt from the classic Islay, Highland and Speyside regions. Also distinctive is the use of ex-sherry casks for some of these malts, thus imparting both winey and smokey flavours to the final blend. The age of the malt component is reportedly in the 8–11 year range.

Also impressive for a blend, Té Bheag is not chill-filtered – although it is bottled at the common 40% ABV. Combined with the above malt sources, you can expect an above-average range of flavours in this inexpensive blend.

Here is how Te Bheag compares to other scotch whisky blends in the Meta-Critic Database, for the same lower mid-range price category (in alphabetical order):

Bushmills Black Bush: 8.36 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.60 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.36 ± 0.51 on 19 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Double Black: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)

Te Bheag is actually one of the cheapest whiskies in the “$$” category, making it one of the best value buys. It is significantly cheaper than Johnnie Walker Black or Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend – two of the other top scoring mid-range blends. Famous Grouse Gold Reserve is the only blend that scores higher, for about the same price.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sharp aromas, with definite peaty/smokey notes and some sherry influence. A medicinal iodine effect is present, as well as a distinctive glue aroma (the latter is not particularly appealing, personally). The sherry influence is unmistakable, although relatively light with just a bit of raisin and chocolate. There is also a dusty and dry aspect – which, when combined with the glue, gives the impression of old book bindings.  Smells sort of like Johnny Walker Black finished in a sherry cask for a period of time. Distinctive aroma for a blend, you could easily mistake this for a Scottish Island malt whisky.

Palate: Very Highland Park-like in its initial approach, with a peaty/smokey note tamed by sherried sweetness (plus some salty caramel here). A little tongue tingle, with a bit of leather (in a good way) and some mixed nuts. This initial profile could almost be described as succulent, promising something juicy to come (which never really arrives, though). A bit of bitterness soon creeps in (similar to HP 12yo), and there is a dry astringency effect that builds over time.

Finish: Medium length. Fortunately, the bitterness disappears quickly, and there is a lingering sweetness that carries you through to the end. There is no real resurgence of any of the original flavours though, and the peat/smoke disappears fairly quickly (unlike most peated single malts, where they linger longer). There’s nothing offensive here, but ultimately, like most blends, this one does fizzle out a little bit for me.

Te.BheagTé Bheag is a great value for what it is – a decent Scotch blend at an excellent price. It has noticeable traces of peated barley and sherry cask finishing – an uncommon combination in an inexpensive blend. Despite the Isle of Skye origin, I could see this as the poor man’s Highland Park. 🙂  Indeed, while it is challenging to equate blend scores with single malts, I am also struck by how well Te Bheag matches the more-expensive entry level HPs, as shown below:

Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.49 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (2014 onward): 8.39 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)

Something to consider if you are a fan of the lightly peated and sherried style, but are on more of a budget.

At the end of the day, I think the overall Meta-Critic score here is reasonable. There is definitely more going on in this blended whisky than in the more expensive Johnnie Walker Black label. But there are also a few rougher edges here that some drinkers of simpler blends may not be used to.  I do think it is fair to say that Te Bheag is closer to an entry level single malt than a typical blend.

Nathan the Scotch Noob and Jason of In Search of Elegance both rank this whisky similarly (and match my own view). Dominic of the Whisky Advocate is even more positive, and Ralfy gives it probably the most enthusiastic review I’ve seen.

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Caol Ila is a high-capacity malt distillery, from the Islay island of Scotland. As you would expect for the region, most of its production features the use of peated barley (although it does make some unpeated whisky as well).

Caol Ila (typically pronounced “Cool-EEL-ah” or “Coo-LEE-la”) has a long history, and is currently owned and operated by whisky conglomerate Diageo. Most of the distillery’s production is therefore directed toward the high-volume Diageo blends, where it serves as the “smokey” backbone of the flagship Johnnie Walker Black and various Bell’s blends. Fortunately for us, Diageo now also allows direct bottlings of Caol Ila single malts.

Interestingly, most enthusiasts seem to consider Caol Ila’s malts to be “lightly” peated.  Indeed, most of the Caol Ila single malts can be found in flavour cluster I – which are less intensely smokey/peaty than cluster J (where you will find most of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions).  This is interesting, as Caol Ila actually uses a comparable level of peat to Lagavulin (i.e., typically 35ppm). Presumably, there are other aspects to whisky production at Caol Ila that attenuate the effect of peat on final whisky flavour. See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour for more background information.

Long story short, it may be more accurate to say that Caol Ila single malts are typically less extremely peaty/smokey flavoured than those of other distilleries on the island.

Here are the Meta-Critic scores for similar single malt expressions (i.e., mainly from flavour cluster I), at comparable price points:

Bowmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.45 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Caol Ila 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.43 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.30 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Old Pulteney Navigator: 8.42 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Talisker 10yo: 8.92 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Dark Storm: 8.78 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$)

Caol Ila is definitely well received by reviewers for this class. My review sample of the Caol Ila 12yo comes from Reddit user wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very peaty nose, in a moistened earth way (i.e., a peat bog). There is some smoke as well, but it seems restrained relative to the peat (although I can definitely detect the subtle smokey note of JW Black here). There is a Lagavulin-like quality to the peat that I quite like (i.e., it is “sweeter” and less iodine-rich than the typical Laphroaig/Ardbegs to me). That sweetness is hard to place (maybe baking bread?). There is definitely something salty here too, which helps produce a mouth-watering effect. Also slightly bitter (lemon zest?) with some grassiness rounding out the overall bouquet nicely. Quite complex and fragrant for flavour cluster I.

Palate: An oily texture, with a nicely balanced mix of peat, ash and smoke. Definitely not as overwhelming as the flavour cluster J malts (i.e., I can see where the “lightly smokey” moniker comes from).  Still sweet, but with the baking bread from the nose turning into moist vanilla cake in the mouth. There’s a bit of nuttiness now as well.  Not overly complex, but pleasant and easy going (even if you are not a big peat/smoke-fan). I am surprised to see that it is actually bottled 43% ABV, as it tastes as smooth to me as most 40% whiskies.

Caol.Ila.12Finish: Moderately long. Like many peated whiskies, the smoke is the longest-lasting characteristic, but it is balanced by a persistent sweetness. I wasn’t getting much in the way of fruits on the nose or palate, but there does seem to be a light fruit vibe on the way out (maybe pear?).

I am not typically a fan of heavily peat-flavoured whiskies – but I quite like the Caol Ila 12yo. The nose in particular is very pleasant, with a lot going on. It is nice on the palate and in the finish as well, but somewhat less interesting here. That said, there are no false notes.

I don’t know if I would recommend this as an introduction for newcomers to whisky, but it is certainly a good choice for those who like a little smoke, or want to dip a toe into the peaty/smokey realm.

Despite being an entry-level single malt, most reviewers rank this whisky as slightly above average overall (which I would agree with).  Representative reviews are the most recent sample by Serge of Whisky Fun, Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and the guys at Quebec Whisky.  Even the reviewers who score this whisky a little lower tend to be very positive in their comments – see for example Ruben of Whisky Notes or Ralfy. Ralfy also recommends this as a single malt for beginners to try.

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