Tag Archives: Sherry

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Alberta Premium Dark Horse is a very distinctive offering in the Canadian landscape.

Known for their expertise in producing 100% rye whiskies, Alberta Distillers has produced an unusual beast with their Dark Horse (also known as Alberta Rye Dark Batch in the US, due to copyright issues with the dark horse name).

Alberta Distillers has been up-front about what is in here. Most of the bottle (~90%) is a mix of two types of Canadian rye whisky: High ABV rye aged for 12 years in used barrels, and low ABV pot still rye aged for 6 years in new barrels. Rounding out all that rye whisky is ~8% of US-made bourbon (believed to be Old Grand-Dad – we’ll get back to this in a moment). But the really distinctive element is ~0.5-1% sherry added directly to the mix. The final whisky is then aged in heavily-charred American oak barrels, bottled at 45% ABV, and sold at a very competitive price.

While the addition of actual sherry into the mix may seem like a cheat to single malt fans, it is the net effect of traditional aging of whiskies in ex-sherry casks. I’ve seen estimates online that 500L first-fill casks can contain up to 7L of the previous product (stored in the wood staves). Over time, this migrates and mixes with the new make product, producing a distinctive end result (i.e., a sherry bomb whisky). Rather than aging Dark Horse in (expensive) first-fill sherry barrels, they went right to the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and simply added in an equivalent amount of actual sherry before aging in traditional barrels. This makes Dark Horse a sherry-bomb version of a Canadian rye whisky.

But what about the main elements of the mix, specifically that corn whisky? Note that despite the “rye whisky” moniker, most Canadian whisky is actually a blend of a relatively small amount of low-proof rye “flavouring” whisky added to high-proof grain whisky. Sometimes that includes Canadian-made corn whisky in the mix.

While this composition may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you know about the 9.09% rule. A long time ago, it was decided that you could add 1/10 volume of non-Canadian whisky to a Canadian whisky and still allow it to be sold as such. Legend has it that this was to allow Canadian whisky to be sold in the US under generous tax break exemptions given to US products. Basically, Canadian distillers would import cheap US-made Bourbon, add it to Canadian whisky (up to 9.09% final volume, which is an additional 1/10) and then sell the concomitant blend back in the US as “Canadian whisky” and reap a tax break.

Here in Canada, there was no need to actually use US bourbon. Apparently, distillers just kept the original Canadian formulations intact for the products intended for domestic consumption. This was possible since the US versions were adjusted to match the standard Canadian flavour profile. But this practice seems to only have been applied to value blends destined for mixing – premium products are a different story.  While it was initially reported that Dark Horse would be using Canadian corn whisky (done bourbon-style), this was quickly corrected by Beam-Suntory, who were open about the use of US bourbon from the beginning.  At some point, they also confirmed that it was Old Grand-Dad bourbon specifically (although I can’t find an official published source for that).

FYI, there’s a good public article about the 9.09% rule – as it applies to the US-release of this whisky – by Davin de Kergommeaux on Whisky Advocate.

Personally, I find the Dark Horse to be an exceptionally good value in the Canadian whisky landscape. The Meta-Critic database seems a bit mixed on this one though, giving it an 8.67 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews. While that is above average for a Canadian whisky, it is still toward the mid-range of scores in this category. But you can’t beat the price – along with CC 100% Rye, this is a quality product masquerading at an entry-level budget price. It is different though, so I would recommend it to fans of Canadian rye who are looking to expand into new flavour profiles.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen of the Alberta Premium Dark Horse is by Davin de Kergommeaux. Jason Hambrey gives a more typical rating on his Whisky Won site.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Something else that stirs up mixed feelings about this whisky – its suitability for mixed drinks (sorry for the pun). 😉 Because of the strong sherry influence, I would have thought that this whisky is best served as a gentle sipper (preferably neat). Dave Broom seems to agree – in his mixed-drink book The Whisky Manual, he gave this whisky relatively low scores when mixed with five classic mixes (i.e., Soda, cola, ginger ale, coconut water and green tee). But he does point out that it could work well in a sazerac style cocktail. According to David de Kergommeaux in the earlier link above, Dark Horse has apparently become a popular mixing rye in bars, as well as a bartender’s favourite for their own concoctions. Hopefully you will enjoy experimenting with this versatile and distinctive Canadian whisky.

BenRiach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Wood

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottle

Following up on my recent commentary of the GlenDronach 12 yr, I thought I would put in a word for the 12 year old, similarly sherried expression released under the BenRiach name (who also owns GlenDronach).

There is not a lot of information on this expression online, which is surprising given its price – like the GlenDronach, this is a remarkably affordable young “sherry-bomb” at the LCBO (currently ~$67 CAD). The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood gets a very good composite score in my Whisky Database, at 8.80 ± 0.26 on 9 reviews.

I recently received a bottle of this BenRiach expression for Father’s Day, and was surprised to find how different it is from the GlenDronach. As discussed in that commentary, the GlenDronach 12 yr is actually from much older stock than the label indicates (i.e., my early 2014 bottle contains whisky that is a minimum of >17-18 yrs old). But the base spirit from GlenDronach is clearly quite different from BenRiach – I find the BenRiach to be a much gentler dram, with a more more delicate underlying base.

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottleTo my mind, this would make the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood a much better choice for newcomers to single malts (especially newcomers to sherried malts). Despite the classic sherry sweetness up front, this expression is definitely on the drier side going out – compared to most sherried malts I’ve tried. And this is something I find inexperienced whisky drinkers typically prefer, as many are put off by excessive or sustained sweetness (and overwhelming flavour and complexity).

If I were to sum up the difference, I think the GlenDronach is a great choice for experienced sherried malt drinkers who are looking for distinctiveness. That said, the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood is still something that I think everyone may enjoy, given its good balance of flavours and easy drinking nature.

For a good concise review of this expression, please check out Dramming.com. The boys at QuebecWhisky have reviewed what they call a “Sherry Cask” version of the BenRiach 12 yr, but it sounds from the description that the flavour profile is much the same (as is the photo).

 

 

GlenDronach 12 Year Old “Original”

GelnDronach 12yo bottle

The GlenDronach 12 year old is a popular entry-level example of the “sherry bomb” style of single malt whisky. It earns an above-average rating in my Whisky Database for the ABC super cluster: it currently receives an 8.68 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews (the overall average for this ABC group is ~8.55).

I have picked it to highlight in this commentary for a number of reasons. For one, although it receives a fairly consistent average-to-slightly-above score from most reviewers, there is at least one reviewer who rates this as a top pick. It is also an exceptional value in the ABC group, especially in Ontario (only $66 CAD at the LCBO). And it has a surprising amount of flavour for a supposedly young “12-year old” expression.

This last point is the most interesting to me. The GlenDronach 12 yr was first released in 2009, after the distillery had been sold to BenRiach. But the GlenDronach distillery had been shut down between 1996 and early 2002. So under the rules of single malt labeling, they had to rely exclusively on the pre-1996 stock to make these bottlings. At time of launch (in 2009), that meant the minimum age of the whisky in those bottles was at least 12-13 years old, depending on the exact end date of production in 1996 (but most was likely much older, for reasons I’ll explain below).

By 2010, the source barrels for that year’s “12 yo” bottlings would have to have been at least 13-14 years old. This trend continues up to the 2013 bottlings, where the minimum age going into those “12 yo” bottles could not have been younger than 16-17 years old. It is only at some point in 2014 that they would have been able to start using some of the new make 12-year old whisky in the vattings (and I’m going to guess not much – again scroll down for an explanation).

Given how production actually works (see my understanding single malts page for more info), it is highly unlikely that they would have blown-out all their late 1995/1996 stock in the first production runs of the GlenDronach 12yr. It is more likely that the blend of whiskies used in the vattings for those early bottles was heavily biased toward older barrels even at the start, in order to maintain some consistency in vatting over subsequent production runs. I say this because at the time of launch of this expression in 2009, they already knew that they wouldn’t be able to use any new make before some time in 2014. And given that the new make was not likely to be same as the old (due to differences in production methods), they presumably are still using a lot of that aging old stock in the current bottlings (to maintain consistency).GelnDronach 12yo bottle

For more info, this back-story is described in an excellent blog post on Words of Whisky. But do scroll down through the comments, as the included chart in the article is off by one year in its calculations (i.e., whisky made in 2002 would only be 1-year old in 2003, etc.).

Anyway, this helps explains why the GlenDronach 12 yr tastes remarkably robust for its apparent low age statement. So if you like that sort of thing, then you might find this to be an exceptional value. Note that some people online have complained about a “bitterness” in the palate/finish (which likely relates to differing abilities to detect sulfur compounds, as discussed here).

I plan to post a commentary soon on how the BenRiach 12 yr old Matured in Sherry Wood compares (hint: that is a gentler dram, better suited to beginners interested in trying something in the sherried class). UPDATE: commentary posted.

But for those of you who are already fans of the well-aged style of single malt, I recommend you check out these two very positive reviews for more info on this particular whisky: The Scotch Noob and Ralfy.

 

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