Tag Archives: Single Malt

Mortlach 18 Year Old

Mortlach is a storied named in malt whisky production.  It is one of the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo – where it feeds their Scotch blend empire. It produces a very distinctive characteristic malt, with a high degree of “meatiness” (which as I describe here, is likely due to a relatively high presence of sulphur compounds in the whisky). This also makes the relatively rare independent bottlings of Mortlach highly popular and sought after.

So there was a lot of enthusiasm when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were going to release a number of official bottlings under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists, bottling strengths, and general lack of age statements. Mortlach 18 year old is one of the higher-end options.

Here is how they compare in my Meta-Critic Database, relative to a few independent bottlings:

Mortlach 15yo (Gordon & MacPhail): 8.67 ± 0.35 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Mortlach 16yo (F&F): 8.68 ± 0.29 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Mortlach 18yo: 8.70 ± 0.60 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Mortlach Rare Old: 8.42 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Mortlach Special Strength: 8.72 ± 0.61 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)

This review is the last one from a group of malts that I sampled over multiple nights at the Dr Jekyll’s bar in Oslo, Norway. As the bottle was nearly empty, the bar had it in their heavily discounted section – it was 128 NOK for a standard 4 cl pour (1.35 oz). That works out to about $20 CAD, which seems pretty reasonable given that a full bottle currently goes for ~$400 CAD (it was originally $300 when the LCBO carried it).

I had previously reviewed the Mortlach Rare Old, which is still available in Ontario for the original $100 CAD price. So I was naturally curious to see how this defined age statement bottling compares.

Mortlach 18 yo is bottled at 43.4% ABV. The whisky was matured in a combination of Sherry and refill American oak casks. It also comes in a very fancy bottle, with metal framework at the base of the glass bottle.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Surprisingly subdued. Crisp green apples, some citrus (lemon) and maybe a bit of cherry (which I oddly get from Mortlach). Nutty. Classic baking spices, cinnamon in particular. Touch of dry glue, like old book bindings. A relatively closed nose, and water was of no help in opening it up.

Palate‎: A bit better than expected from the nose, but still rather light in flavours. Slightly sweet, with a simple syrup quality. Not very fruity – seems more like unripened fruit. That cinnamon note is quite prominent, and adds some much needed warmth. Some vanilla. The nutty notes from nose are still there, and merge into a more earthy characteristic now, with some tobacco and ginger. No ethanol burn. Seems too light in flavour, and could really have used a higher ABV in my view. Water adds more sweetness and cinnamon – might as well go for it, since not much else is going on here.

Finish: Fairly short. Baking spice kick lasts to the end, along with that simple syrup. But that’s about it really.

Mortlach.18Frankly, this was a let-down – it seems far too “closed” for its age and style. It is not bad by any means, just not very interesting. No amount of time in the glass (or water) helped in opening it up. Personally, I find that it doesn’t have any more character than the Rare Old I previously reviewed – and given that it costs between 3-4 times as much, I’d recommend you stick with Rare Old. I haven’t had the Special Strength edition yet, but I’m thinking that might be your best bet for some flavour (thanks the higher ABV).

I personally feel that the Meta-Critic average score for Rare Old is fair, and the 18 yo is overly generous. Personally, I would score then equally, at a slightly below average score (i.e., 8.4). I doubt there was any age/storage issue with my sample, as Dr Jekyll’s move through inventory quickly (and so, this wouldn’t have sat on the shelf for long).

Most reviewers who have tried both expressions have typically preferred the 18yo. Check out for example Dave of Whisky Advocate, Patrick of Quebec Whisky and Serge of Whisky Fun for very positive reviews. Moderately positive reviews come from and Ruben of Whisky Notes and Andre of Quebec Whisky. My own assessment is more line with Oliver of Dramming – who, along with Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer – also ranked this expression lower than Rare Old. The most negative review I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Jim Murray (who is quite scathing of this whole series).

Box Whisky – Festival 2016

The latest Festival bottling from Box distillery – a relatively young “craft” malt whisky distillery from Northern Sweden that I recently introduced in my Box 2nd Step Collection 02 review.  Check out that review for more information about this distillery, including their interesting approach to cask management.

Box has organized an annual whisky festival for the last ten years, with a distinctive festival-only bottling since 2014. As I understand it from their website, these bottlings are true limited editions that can only be acquired by actually visiting the festival. The Festival editions are meant to showcase the character and quality of the distillery – but at the same time, provide a unique bottling that stands out in some way. My sample of the most recent Festival bottling comes from Thomas Øhrbom of Whisky Saga.

As usual, the Box website has a full breakdown of the cask and whisky mix that went into this 2016 Festival edition. Scroll down that page to see the 2016 specs (in Swedish only at the moment – it seems the English-language website version hasn’t caught up to this 2016 edition).  But to summarize, this is an unpeated 5 year old whisky. The total production run produced 1012 official 50 cL bottles, with an additional 385 “non-official” bottles used at the festival for tastings. Bottled at 53.9% ABV.

The most interesting thing to me is that it was initially matured in 200 L ex-bourbon barrels, then finished for 7 months in heavily charred 40 L virgin Swedish oak casks (having undergone medium toasting before charring). It’s not often one gets to sample something matured in Swedish oak around here (outside of a small proportion of Mackmyra’s malt whisky mix).

I don’t have enough reviews of this edition to include in my Meta-Critic Database, but here are how some other Swedish whiskies do:

Box The 2nd Step Collection 02: 8.92 ± 0.06 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box The Festival 2014: 8.95 ± 0.14 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Brukswhisky: 8.43 ± 0.62 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Mackmyra Midnattssol: 8.14 ± 0.71 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Moment Glöd: 9.03 ± 0.23 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Special 03: 8.69 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Special 04: 8.75 ± 0.36 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Special 05: 8.50 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Rök: 8.72 ± 0.14 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra The First Edition (Den Första Utgåvan): 8.64 ± 0.37 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Smögen Primör: 8.51 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus: 8.60 ± 0.58 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 3 Phecda: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Tycho’s Star: 8.58 ± 0.06 on 3 reviews ($$$$)

Obviously this Festival-specific bottling is not something you will be able to obtain now, but I thought you might find my tasting notes interesting – as an example of what to expect from this distinctive Swedish oak finishing.

Colour: Reddish golden hue

Nose: Sweet red fruits – plums, currants, and cherries. Chocolate, cinnamon, and chilli peppers. Leather and toasted oak. Quite a sweet and spicy nose – I’m getting a lot of virgin wood notes, almost bourbon-like in fact (i.e., a medium-aged wheater). A confectionery note I can’t quite place – something you would eat on a fairground. No off notes really, despite the young age.

Palate: Holy cow, what a liquid confection – a melted caramilk bar!  Sweet, oily and rich. Tons of butterscotch, caramel and chocolate. Turns more malty towards the end (liquefied Malted Milk bar?). Cinnamon, pepper and dried chilli notes return after the initial blast of sweet nougat. I would not have guessed this was 53.9% ABV – surprisingly easy to drink neat.

Finish: Medium short.  The sweet notes dominate initially, but then some oaky bitterness creeps in. Also a bit astringent (drying) in the mouth. Cinnamon and chilli spiciness lasts until the end.

Not as much going on as the 2nd Step Collection 02 (i.e., not as complex) – but still a fabulous dessert whisky. Water doesn’t change much on the nose, but oddly seems to increase the heat in the mouth (?).

It is a wild ride – I don’t know if all this spiciness is coming the small cask Swedish oak, but it is not like anything I’ve had before. Probably the closest thing in my experience would be a mix of W.L. Weller 12 yo and some of the 66 Gilead products in Canada (like Crimson Rye, although with a lot more chocolate and less cinnamon here).

A hard one to score, I would probably give it a slightly above average rating for its distinctiveness (and surprising maturity, despite the young stated age). So, I would say an 8.6 on my typical Database scale of 10.

You aren’t going to find many reviews of this one online, but you can check out Thomas of Whisky Saga. Whiskybase also has a few scores.

Box Whisky – The 2nd Step Collection 02

BOX is a malt whisky distillery that I suspect relatively few of you know – but one I think you will want to. Located in Northern Sweden, Box destilleri has been producing whisky for the better part of a decade. A relatively small producer so far, they make a little over a hundred thousand liters of whisky per annum (so, I suppose you could consider them still a “craft” operation).

They are located in a relatively remote location (their website happily points out that the 63rd parallel goes straight through their property). Given their non-temperature controlled warehouse, this location means that they experience colder overall temperatures – and wider temperature variations – than just about anywhere else in the whisky-making world. This is something they point to as a relative advantage, as they feel the temperature variations “enhances the exchange of flavours between the whisky and the oak vat.”

They are also distinguished by their use of cask management.  Like many European producers, the casks they use for whisky maturation are mainly ex-bourbon, made from charred American Virgin Oak (typically 200 L size) and sherry casks (up to 700 L size), in this case previously holding Oloroso sherry.  But what is unusual is what they do with some of the barrels – they take first-fill 200 L ex-bourbon barrels and rebuild them into a traditional Swedish size they call “Ankare” (39.25 L).

These small casks have a much greater surface-area-to-volume ratio, thus producing an ‘accelerated aging’ of their spirit.  This explains how they are able to get a relatively young product on the market so quickly, given the low temperatures in Northern Sweden. As they say on their website, they “find that this size is ideal as it gives a relatively quick maturation period but isn’t so small that there is a risk the product matures so early that it can’t be called whisky.”

This second release in their The 2nd Step Collection (02) is one of their most recent products, released in Sweden about six months ago.  I am not sure if it has started branching out to wider markets, but I know Master of Malt carries it (currently in stock, at the time of this posting). My sample came from Thomas Øhrbom of Whisky Saga.

As an aside, the Box distillery website has the most extensive information I’ve ever seen for each of their releases (right down to fermentation times, still cuts, proportion and age of the casks down to the week, etc, etc.).  I won’t repeat everything listed for this expression here, but some key points: This second release is a lightly peated mix of ex-bourbon (48.15%) and sherry casks (51.85%). The main barrels going into the mix include 4.72 year old first-fill sherry (115 L), followed by 4.91 year old sherry cask (250 L originally, later reduced to 55 L casks), 4.73 year old peated whisky (115 L) and 5.16 years old first-fill ex-bourbon (200 L casks). It is neither chill-filtered nor coloured, and bottled at a respectable 51.2% ABV.

There are few reviews of Box whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database at the moment, but here’s a how it compares to a few other Swedish whiskies:

Box The 2nd Step Collection 02: 8.92 ± 0.06 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box The Festival 2014: 8.95 ± 0.14 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)

Mackmyra Brukswhisky: 8.43 ± 0.62 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Mackmyra Midnattssol: 8.14 ± 0.71 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Moment Glöd: 9.03 ± 0.23 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Special 03: 8.69 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Special 04: 8.75 ± 0.36 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Special 05: 8.50 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Rök: 8.72 ± 0.14 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra The First Edition (Den Första Utgåvan): 8.64 ± 0.37 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Smögen Primör: 8.51 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus: 8.60 ± 0.58 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 3 Phecda: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Tycho’s Star: 8.58 ± 0.06 on 3 reviews ($$$$)

Keep in mind these are a relatively low number of reviews, so you should treat the averages as very provisional.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Colour: Golden, with a slightly brown hue, suggesting some sherry casks in the mix

Nose: Apple juice sweetened with brown sugar. Sultanas and raisins (from the sherry casks), with caramel and vanilla (from the bourbon casks). There’s honey too, but more like dried honeycomb than fresh. A bit of cereal. Has an earthy quality, with a bit of old-sweat-sock funk (likely coming from the small amount of peated whisky in the mix). This actually complements the sweetness nicely. A more complex nose than I was expecting for the age, without most of the usual tell-tale signs of youth (I think the peat is helping obscure many of these). Water brings up the sweetness, but doesn’t add anything new. I suggest nosing it neat.

Palate:  Fresh pear and apple and dried darker fruits – again, a good mix of sherry and bourbon casks. Vanilla comes through strongly, mixed with that honey note. Quite spicy, with cinnamon, cloves and black pepper. Some ethanol heat, as expected for the 51.2% ABV.  Slightly oily mouthfeel. A bit of smokiness appears at the end (which is nice). With water, the burn is tamed, and the brown sugar sweetness from the nose re-asserts itself.  If you like your whiskies sweet, definitely try adding a bit of water.

Finish: Longish and lingering, with that typical bourbon cask sweetness initially. The fruits turn to a lighter style (think Juicy Fruit gum). The earthiness turns more to peanuts now, with a pronounced nuttiness that persists throughout the finish – very distinctive (makes me wonder if they are using Jim Beam casks?). Some of the spices also linger a long time (surprisingly so, for such a youthful whisky).  This is much more of a finish that I would have expected for the age. Water adds a milk chocolate note.

Ok, I would never have guessed that the majority of casks going into this whisky were between 4.7 and 5.2 years old. The complexity on the nose and finish suggests a much longer aging. It seems their cask management and extreme temperature variation is having the desired effect. And I suspect the small amount of peated whisky in the mix is deliberate, to help balance out the flavours (and hide some of the signs of youth).

If I could get it locally or in my travels, I would happily pick up a bottle of this one.  My only recommendation to Box would be to increase the level of peated whisky in the mix further – I think it would benefit from a little more smoke. Apparently, the first release (01) was more heavily peated.

While there aren’t many reviews of this whisky online, I think the Meta-Critic average is reasonable (i.e., I personally give it an 8.8).   It is a very well done single malt. Check out Jonny of Whisky Advocate and Thomas at Whisky Saga for reviews included in the Meta-Critic.  For additional reviews or tasting notes, you can try Whisky Magazine, WhiskyBase and Master of Malt.

 

 

Bowmore Vault Edition First Release

Late last year, Bowmore announced a new Vault Edition limited series, which will explore what they consider to be the four classic characteristics of their distillery style.  To be released on an annual basis, the first of these is entitled Atlantic Sea Salt. The future yearly releases will examine peat smoke, vanilla, and citrus.

These all come from selected barrels in their infamous below-sea level No. 1 Vaults, hence the cute “Vault Edit1°n” labeling on the packaging. The Bowmore Vault Editions are all matured in ex-bourbon casks, and are bottled at high strength (ABV) – 51.4% in the case of the First Release, aka Atlantic Sea Salt.

This First Release is sometimes referred to as “Vault Edition No. 1” online, but I think they are intended to be labelled as First Release, Second Release, and so on. To further confuse matters, Bowmore has also announced a lower-strength 40% ABV “Bowmore No.1”, also coming from the No.1 Vaults. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this first higher-strength Vault Edition as First Release throughout this review.

Currently available at the LCBO for $200 CAD.

Here is how First Release compares in my Meta-Critic Database to other malts from Bowmore, including some of their special releases and travel retail bottles :

Bowmore 10yo Devil’s Cask (all batches): 8.82 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore 10yo Tempest: 8.79 ± 0.20 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore 12yo: 8.40 ± 0.28 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore 12yo Enigma: 8.52 ± 0.26 on 10 reviews ($$)
Bowmore 15yo Darkest: 8.58 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore 15yo Laimrig: 9.00 ± 0.16 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore 15yo Mariner: 8.65 ± 0.44 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore 17yo: 8.35 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore 17yo White Sands: 8.48 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore 18yo: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore Black Rock: 8.16 ± 0.27 on 5 reviews ($$)
Bowmore Gold Reef: 8.28 ± 0.37 on 5 reviews ($$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.27 ± 0.53 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Springtide: 9.07 ± 0.77 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore Vault Edition First Release: 8.62 ± 0.26 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)

There aren’t a lot of reviews so far, but initial reports place First Release in the general range of scores for its price point for Bowmore (which are typically lower than other peaty whiskies).

I managed to snag a generous pour at a LCBO tasting bar. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: An unusual peated tar note, along with that classic Bowmore wood smoke.  Has a meaty aroma, which I like. Sweet, with classic vanilla and honey notes – I could easily pick out the ex-bourbon barrel aging without being told. Green apple and citrus (oranges and a touch of lemon). Some salt, but less than I expected given the title. No real off notes, very nice presentation.

Palate: The bourbon barrel character is even more prominent, with sweet vanilla and some toasted oak. Not as smokey, although the salt element definitely picks up now.  Apple and pear, with orange citrus again. Cinnamon and ginger. A touch oily, giving it a chewy mouth feel.  The sweet and salty mix makes it somewhat lip-smacking, but I wish the smokiness was stronger.

Finish: Medium long. ‎The smoke is back. There’s a salty sweetness that lingers, like bacon coated in maple syrup. Some astringency comes in at the end (i.e., a bit drying).

I really enjoyed this dram. As someone who has only sampled the entry-level core range of Bowmore official bottlings so far (i.e., Small Batch, 12yo, and 15yo Darkest), I can safely say this is the best Bowmore I’ve tried to date. It’s a nice easy sipper (even undiluted at 51.5% ABV), with no off-notes – a pleasant experience through and through. That said, it is not as complex as I would have liked for this price point.

The highest score I’ve seen so far comes from Ruud1983 of Reddit (which closely matches my own assessment). Ruben of Whisky Notes gives it a middle-of-the-road score. Thomas of Whisky Saga gives it a slightly lower one.

Copperworks American Single Malt

While in Seattle recently, I took advantage of the opportunity to try a tasting at the new Copperworks distillery. Like Westland, this distillery is also focusing on an “American single malt”, although they are coming at it from a beer brewing perspective.

While its often said that whisky is just distilled beer, there are noticeable differences in production methods. While in both cases malted barley is the source of sugar for fermentation, brewers boil the wort to remove bacterial contaminants that can spoil the beer’s flavour. They also add hops – the bitter-tasting fruit of a vine plant – to balance out beer’s natural sweetness and to act as a natural preservative to stabilize the flavour. Neither step is necessary when distilling whisky, as you not drinking the base product – instead, for whisky you simply ferment the wort, take the resulting wash and distill it. This greatly increases the alcohol level in whisky (which naturally preserves it). Oak barrel aging is then done to balance the whisky’s flavour.

Typically, some brewers have gotten into whisky making by distilling their actual beer (which may require an extra round of distillation, to handle the extra contaminants). Indeed, the press release for the first batch of Copperworks whiskey stated that it was “made from a high-quality craft beer brewed from 100% pale malted barley” from Elysian Brewery.

I sampled Copperwork’s batch 003, which differs significantly from the first two batches. This new release uses a new “Five Malt” recipe consisting of 75% pale malt and 25% caramel malts. The distillery representative referred to this new recipe as their “scotch ale” malt. I note as well that the Elysian website currently says they produce a “sugary wash” (wort?) that Copperworks takes back for fermentation and distillation at their own facility, using Elysian’s house yeast. This suggests to me that Copperworks are now producing whisky directly using this custom five malt mashbill, without going through the full beer-making process (as they presumably were previously with the pale malt on the first two batches).

There aren’t many reviews online for Copperworks, and most of these would be for batch 001/002. But here is how it compares to other North American malt whiskies:

Balcones Texas Single Malt: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Copperworks American Single Malt: 8.59 ± 0.25 on 4 reviews ($$$)
FEW Single Malt: 8.45 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Westland American Single Malt: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Garryana: 8.64 ± 0.09 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Westland Peated: 8.63 ± 0.57 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Sherry Wood: 8.37 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Winter 2016: 8.5 ± 0.73 on 3 reviews ($$$$)

According to Copperworks, their American Single Malt is twice-distilled in their traditional-style copper pot stills. It is matured for 34 months in full-size, charred, new American Oak barrels, made from Virginia oak and coopered in Kentucky. It is bottled at a fairly high 52% ABV, and retails for $60 USD.  I sampled from bottle 195 of 1559 produced for batch 003. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: First impression is sweet fruit (with pear and plums especially), and a variety of tropical fruits (mango, papaya, and pineapple). Also citrus, and an herbal component that borders on eucalyptus. Spicy nose, with black pepper. Not much in the way of caramel or vanilla – apparently these were a lot more prominent on the earlier pale malt batches. Noticeable solvent off-notes, mainly acetone.

Palate:  Sweet, with similar plummy notes as the nose.  Unfortunately, that acetone from the nose turns into an artificial sweetener note here. Getting the caramel now, along with a charcoal note from the wood. Adding water brings up butterscotch, and enhances the caramely sweetness.

Copperworks.003Finish: Medium. The artificial sweetener turns into more natural molasses (which is actually a positive). A bit of sourness comes in at the end, but not offensive. Some mild baking spices show up now as well (touch of cinnamon).

It’s an interesting whisky – surprisingly fruity, with some bold flavours. Not really an everyday sort of dram, but a fun novelty when looking for something different. I would personally score it as on par with the standard Westland American Single Malt that I recently reviewed. It will be interesting to see how this product progresses.

For reviews of the earlier batch 001/002, check out Whisky Advocate, the Whiskey Wash and the Whiskey Reviewer.

McClelland’s Islay Single Malt

Most reviewer’s naturally migrate to higher quality, more complex – and more expensive – whiskies as time goes by. But it is always worthwhile to take a step back and explore entry-level malts and blends, so see if there are any good value buys out there.

McClelland’s is an unusual “brand”. It produces what is known in the biz as “mystery malts” (or more colloquially, “bastard malts”), where the source distillery for each single malt expression is not identified. McClelland’s was originally a Glasgow-based whisky blending and export firm, until it was purchased in 1970 by what was to eventually become known today as Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

Morrison Bowmore owns three malt distilleries – the Lowland Auchentoshan, the Highland Glen Garioch, and Isle of Islay’s Bowmore. They sell a wide range of official bottlings of single malts from these distilleries. But Morrison Bowmore has long used the McClelland’s brand for unspecified single malt bottlings of “Lowland”, “Highland”, and “Islay” regional whiskies.  Care to make any guesses as to where they are likely sourcing the barrels for those three regions? 😉  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine.  Since 1999, they have also been producing a “Speyside” expression (source of barrels unknown).

There are plenty of independent bottlings of these three distilleries as well – which raises the question of what sorts of barrels are finding their way into the budget McClelland’s offerings. As a point of reference, all the McClelland’s regional single malt whiskies sell for $45 CAD at the LCBO – whereas the entry-level NAS expressions for these three distilleries all start at $60 CAD.

I had skipped over these McClelland’s in my early scotch drinking exposure, and didn’t even bother incorporating them into my Meta-Critic database initially.  But I had the chance to sample the McClelland’s Islay Single Malt recently at a bar. Here is what I found in the glass:

Nose: Wow, that’s more potent than I expected – heavy medicinal peat, with lots of salty seaweed. Very strong coastal Islay presence, with greater complexity than your typical entry-level Bowmore (with its typically simple smoke). Has a decaying vegetative character, with a touch of iodine. Unfortunately, with that also comes some unusual funky notes, like old sweats socks. Beyond that (and it takes a while to get past that), some lemony spirit asserts itself, along with some sweet light caramel and vanilla. A bit of ethanol burn. While young, this is actually a surprisingly promising start.

Palate: Ok, where did it go?  After that heavy olfactory assault, it just seems to disappear in the mouth. Lightly sweet, with standard caramel and vanilla. Some kind of vague fruitiness, but artificial. Nutty (peanuts). Extremely watery mouthfeel, hard to believe this is even 40% ABV. All the smell of Islay and none of the flavour – I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a single malt evaporating so quickly in the mouth.

Finish: Fairly short (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing here). Touch of vegetal character comes back, with that funk in particular. Smoke lingers, but then so does the funk. Sweet vanilla lasts to the end.

I actually spent a fair amount of time nosing this one, as I was taken aback by its complexity. Perhaps I had unfairly misjudged these entry-level mystery malts, I thought.  But the first sip made it clear why this falls into the category it does – there is really not much here.

Here is how the McClelland’s compare in my Meta-Critic database, relative to their underlying base distilleries owned by Morrison Bowmore.

McClelland’s Speyside Single Malt: 6.71 ± 0.48 on 6 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Highland Single Malt: 7.08 ± 0.47 on 7 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland Single Malt: 7.04 ± 0.51 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Islay Single Malt: 7.94 ± 0.64 on 8 reviews ($$)

Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.55 ± 0.91 on 7 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.29 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore 12yo: 8.39 ± 0.29 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.35 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Glen Garioch Virgin Oak: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.32 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

McClellands.IslayAs you can see above, this Islay is actually the highest ranked member of the McClelland’s family – although all are ranked well below the official bottlings from the (presumed) source distilleries. I would personally score the McClelland’s Islay lower than the Meta-Critic average.

The most positive reviews for this Islay expression come for the guys at Quebec Whisky. My own assessment is more in line with Jan of Best Shot Whisky and Josh the Whiskey Jug. Josh’s review in particular closely matches my own tasting notes. I also share his assessment that Morrison Bowmore is likely using McClelland’s as a dumping ground for poor quality barrels they can’t otherwise offload.

In my view, I think you are best sticking with the entry level age-statement expressions from the underlying distilleries here. And if you are ok with a bit less smoke, for $5 CAD less than the McClelland’s Islay you can pick up the quite decent Te Bheag blended scotch whisky at the LCBO.

Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Limited Edition

I don’t have much experience with Tomatin. This distillery produces a wide range of single malts – including a large number of inexpensive expressions that I’ve been meaning to try (but haven’t gotten around to yet).

And then I spotted this 1989 limited edition of the Cu Bocan line on the cheap at Dr Jekyll’s bar in Oslo, Norway. This is one of the highest scoring Tomatin expressions in my Meta-Critic database (and one of the most expensive at >$350 a bottle, if you could find it). It was available in the bar for low price of 128 NOK for a standard 4 cl pour (1.35 oz), which works out to about $20 CAD. They have an interesting policy in the bar – when a bottle is nearly empty, they discount it up to half-off in order to clear it out (hence the low price above).

According to the distillery, the name “Cù Bòcan” comes a mythical hellhound that has supposedly stalked residents of the village of Tomatin for centuries. Only 1,080 bottles of this limited edition 1989 vintage were made. It was aged for 25 years in three ex-bourbon casks, and is apparently a “rare and unintentional production of peated whisky” for the distillery.  It is bottled at a cask strength (53.2% ABV), and is as you would expect non-chill filtered.

Note there are a number of limited release vintage Cu Bocans (i.e., 1988, 1989 and 2005), in addition to the lower-priced, NAS, lightly-peated standard Cu Bocan bottling (which comes from a mix of cask types). There are also a few special editions of the standard Cu Bocan that emphasize a particular aspect of the barreling (i.e., Cu Bocan Sherry cask, Bourbon cask, and Virgin Oak editions).

There are not a lot of reviews these Cu Bocans, but here is how various Tomatin expressions compare in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.58 ± 0.36 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.59 on 16 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 15yo: 8.33 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 18yo: 8.67 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cask Strength: 8.38 ± 0.47 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.08 ± 0.33 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Limited Edition: 8.95 ± 0.25 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Sherry Edition: 8.36 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan Virgin Oak Edition: 8.50 ± 0.50 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin Decades: 8.96 ± 0.52 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.12 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$)

And now to some other peated single malts:

BenRiach 21yo Authenticus Peated: 8.88 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore 10yo Devil’s Cask: 8.81 ± 0.32 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Bowmore 15yo Laimrig: 9.00 ± 0.16 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Bowmore 18yo: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Peated: 8.50 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.23 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Jura 16yo Diurach’s Own: 8.48 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.25 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Springbank 18yo: 8.96 ± 0.18 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.20 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Tobermory 15yo: 8.54 ± 0.34 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)

As you can see, this limited edition Tomatin is one of their highest scoring expressions, and in-line with other popular peated expressions from other makers.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Smokey sweetness hits you right off. Has a hickory-smoked barbecue quality to it (think glazed BBQ ribs). Fruity, with pear and apple as the main fruits, along with golden raisins and some citrus (orange). Touch of honey and vanilla. Seems like a mix of mainly aged bourbon casks. No real off notes.

Palate: Not as overtly smokey as the nose, moving more into earthy peat qualities now. Tart and astringent, with more of the citrus poking through. Still apple and pear, joined by plums. Honey and caramel. Some pepper. A bit grassy. Creamy mouthfeel, and surprisingly easy to sip neat. A fabulous sensory experience here.

Finish: Ashy with sweet peat and juicy fruits. Nice long lingering effect, in keeping with a good quality, aged, lightly peated single malt. A bit astringent on the way out.

Tomatin.Cu.Bocan.1989Water doesn’t really bring up anything new on this one. Despite the high ABV, I recommend you try it neat first, and then add any water as you feel is necessary.

Probably the closest match to the level of peatiness in my experience is Springbank 18 yo (but without the sherry influence here). You get a similar level of maturity and complexity (and perhaps not surprisingly, a very similar average Meta-Critic score). If it weren’t for the high cost, I would be happy to have a bottle of this around. I think the average Meta-Critic score is quite fair for this 1989 limited edition.

Thomas of Whisky Saga is a big fan of this one, as is Jim Murray. A more moderate score comes from Gavin of Whisky Advocate.

Westland American Single Malts

Westland is a relatively new American whiskey maker, based in Seattle, Washington state. Rather than try to compete with the established US bourbon makers, they have opted instead to focus on a distinctive style of single malt whisky.

For this review, I’m going to look at their core range of single malts, as well as their most recent special release.

I recently had a tour of the distillery, and discovered that Westland malts and distills their own custom mashbill blend of five distinct types of barley – Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt. They use a Belgian “brewer’s yeast”, which is a different strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae than the ubiquitous type M distiller’s yeast that Scottish distillers use. Check out Whisky Science if you want to know all about yeast strains and whisky making.

Here are the wash still, spirit still and spirit safe, from the tour:

Westland1

The Westland custom copper pot still design is also rather unusual, and looks a bit like a hybrid of a traditional pot still and a continuous column still (see close-up photos below). I gather they run it in different modes, on occasion.

Westland0

Another area of distinctiveness is barrelling. Unlike old world malts – and much like other American whiskeys – most of the Westland distillate goes into charred virgin American oak barrels.  Along with the other characteristics above, this makes for a distinctive product they like to call an “American single malt” (not that any such term has legal standing at present).

Of course, another reason for this virgin barrel selection is so that they can offer fairly young malt whiskies for sale. If they used ex-bourbon barrels for their core range (as is the case for most Scottish malts), they would presumably have to wait much longer before they produced a drinkable product. Check out my source of whisky flavour page for an explanation of what barreling adds to a whisky.

As an aside, I gather an increasing portion of their production is currently going into the ex-bourbon barrels, as they plan for the future. They also age some spirit in sherry casks, as I will describe below. And they have been experimenting with barrels of Garry oak (Quercus garryana), a species of white oak native to the Pacific Northwest.

Note that the French drinks group Rémy Cointreau (current owners of Bruichladdich) have recently acquired Westland. This suggests we will see a ramp up in production over the coming years, with greater brand awareness for Westland (and the American single malt category in general).

Let’s see how the core lines compare to other North American malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Balcones Texas Single Malt: 8.67 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Copperworks American Single Malt: 8.68 ± 0.25 on 3 reviews ($$$)
FEW Single Malt: 8.44 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 10yo Ice: 8.19 ± 0.61 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 10yo Rare: 8.01 ± 0.46 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo: 8.06 ± 0.63 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 15yo Battle of the Glen: 8.52 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Campfire: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt: 8.26 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Westland American Single Malt: 8.46 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Garryana: 8.66 ± 0.07 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Westland Peated: 8.53 ± 0.56 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Sherry Wood: 8.30 ± 0.56 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

Although the number of reviews are typically low for this class, the various Westland expressions seem to score toward the higher end of the group.

Now, on to a description of each of the various Westland whiskies, and my personal tasting notes:


Westland American Oak

This uses their standard 5-malt mashbill. It is aged for 2-3 years in mainly charred virgin American oak barrels, with some proportion of first-fill ex-bourbon. Bottled at 46% ABV. You could consider it their standard, base offering.

Nose:  Caramel and vanilla are prominent (as you might expect from the virgin oak). Cinnamon. Lightly fruity, but nothing specific initially stands out (on repeated sampling, I started to find banana and citrus). Creamy. Seems young (not surprisingly), with classic acetone notes – but as bad as I expected for the age. Water brings up the baking spice further, and the sweetness.

Palate: Butterscotch picks up now, joining the caramel. Hint of cherries, but still not a lot of specific fruit. Boston cream pie. Texture is a touch waxy, and a bit light overall. With a little water, whisky gets a bit more chewy (which is good). Of course, sweetness picks up too.

Finish: Medium length. Surprisingly, some new elements pick up now that I wasn’t really getting on the nose and palate – particularly citrus (lemon and orange zest) and menthol.

This is better than I expected, given the age. There are less off-notes than other young whiskies I’ve come across, and a bit of complexity comes across in the palate and finish that wasn’t initially present on the nose.  I think the Meta-Critic average score for this expression is fair.


Westland Sherry Wood

This uses the same distillate as the American Oak, based on the standard 5-malt mashbill. I originally expected that they used the same barrels from above and simply finished for a period of extra time in sherry casks (i.e., the label describes them as “matured in sherry casks”).  But according to the tour, this expression is actually a vatting of the base spirit that was aged 50% in sherry casks (a combination of PX and Oloroso), and 50% in virgin American oak (i.e, same as the standard American Oak series). Again, aged for 2-3 years, and similarly bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Sweet barley notes, moreso than the American Oak. Dried dark fruits. Indeed, nose is very dry, suggesting a larger Oloroso component. That said, I do get some pancake/maple syrup notes as well, which could be from the PX. No real off notes, as these are hidden under the syrup.

Palate: Very syrupy, and less fruity. It is much sweeter tasting than the nose suggested. Getting some chocolate now, and some Graham crackers. But it feels like much of the complexity of the American Oak is lost in the mix, with the overwhelming sweetness.

Finish: Medium-ish, but very simple. Very sweet coating left on the tongue (and not much else).

Upon making the comment about how the nose seems biased more toward Oloroso, my tour guide responded that the early batches were mainly Pedro Ximénez, but currently they are using predominantly Oloroso in the mix for Sherry Wood.

Overall, this reminds me a bit of the new Pike Creek rum finish in Canada – it lacks complexity, and the subtle notes of the base spirit are drowned out by an overwhelming sweetness.  Not particularly my cup of tea, so I would rate this one slightly lower than the base American Oak (as do most of the reviewers, it seems). But if you like a sweeter rum-like finishing, this could suit you.


Westland Peated

Although Westland has found a domestic source of Washington state peat, it has taken them some time to get the whole process up and running. So all the peated expressions currently for sale stem from the original peated Scottish malt they sourced directly from the highlands (didn’t jot down the name, but it was near Inverness, apparently). The heavily peated malt distillate is mixed with spirit from some of their standard American 5-malt, making a lightly peated final product. They age this mix in a combination of virgin American oak and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. Similarly aged 2-3 years, and bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Light smoke, with some sweet peat. Some lighter fruits, like pear and apple, and citrus. Vanilla and caramel. Pleasant enough, with no real off notes.

Palate: More peat shows up on palate, sweetened by the vanilla and caramel. Light smoke turns more to savory BBQ mesquite now. Actually makes you kind of hungry for BBQ ribs.  A bit nutty. Don’t add water, as it lightens and dulls it immediately.

Finish: Medium. Peat is earthier on the way out, with some iodine notes and tongue tingle. Some fruit returning at the end as well.

A blend with a bit of Springbank comes to mind, as it has that sweet peat characteristic that turns toward iodine over time.  I would personally put this at least on par with the American Oak for its overall character and quality. My only complaint is that it is very lightly peated – it may benefit when the domestic Westland peated malt comes online.


Westland Winter 2016 (Special Release)

I also had the option to try one of their special releases, and opted to go for this one (sadly, Garryana 2016 was already sold out). The Winter edition is a blend of nine casks – mainly ex-bourbon, one sherry ex-Oloroso hogshead (filled with peated malt), and an ex-Westland cask. The resulting grain bill is a bit different, coming out as 65% Washington Select Pale Malt, 14% standard 5-Malt, and 21% Baird’s Heavily Peated Malt. Aged just under 3 years, and bottled at a higher 50% ABV.

Nose: Similar light peatiness as the standard Westland Peated expression. Seems a bit less smokey – but that may be because the sherry notes are dominating.  I get apple and raisins.  Promising, but I’d like to see a bit more character here.

Palate: Sweeter on the palate again, with some syrupy notes (just as I found on the Sherry Wood). Smoke stays in the background, and never really crystallizes into a defined presence, unfortunately. A bit watery in texture for 50% ABV, with no real burn. Was hoping for a more chewy texture.

Finish: Medium short-ish.  It seems like both the peat and sherry are diluted here, and I’m still not getting much of the base spirit complexity.

This vatting doesn’t really seem to add anything to the standard Sherry Wood and Peated expressions – in essence, it tastes like a combination of them.  And like in the Sherry Wood, the sherry seems to be diminishing the base spirit rather than enhancing it.  So I would personally have to give this a slightly lower score than the standard Peated (but still better than the regular Sherry Wood).


WestlandI was impressed with these early offerings from Westland, and to look forward to what is coming next. The base American Single Malt has an interesting malted barley mashbill, with above-average character.

It will be particularly interesting to see how their domestic peat experiment turns out.  Aged in some of their native Garry oak barrels, this could indeed be a very distinctive American single malt.

For reviews of the Westland single malts in general, you could check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, or the reviewers of Whiskey Reviewer and Whiskey Wash. Typically lower scoring are the reviewers of Whisky Advocate.

Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve

Now here’s an interesting idea – engineer a whisky specifically formulated to appeal to those who like to smoke a cigar will sipping on one.

Dalmore is not particularly popular with malt enthusiasts, although I’ve known a few casual whisky drinkers who like them.  They historically have straddled a wide range, with ultra-high-end aged expressions, and relatively low-cost expressions (particularly the previous 12 year old and original Cigar Malt). I think their focus on relatively sherried vattings has helped their general market appeal.

In recent years, their star has fallen as the entry levels have lost age statements and risen in price (and dropped in perceived quality). Specifically, the Cigar Malt was discontinued in 2009, and replaced with a slightly more expensive (but lower ranked) “Gran Reserva” shortly thereafter.  They then subsequently discontinued the Gran Reserva and re-introduced a much more expensive “Cigar Malt Reserve” version in 2011. This time period coincides with their switch to a number of no-age-statement expressions (e.g. Valour), which have not been warmly received.

As an aside, I gather there was (and still is) some confusion with the Cigar Malt name, as it might make you think that tobacco was involved in the malting. Rest assured it wasn’t – these are as far removed from a smokey whisky as you can find. The point is that they are supposed to pair well with a cigar.

As I understand it, the original Cigar Malt sat between the original 12 and 15 year old expressions, in terms of both price and the age profiles of the whiskies that went into the blend. The current Reserve release is supposedly re-worked from older stocks, and is sold at a considerably inflated price (currently retails for $180 CAD at the LCBO, which is very premium for a NAS). It has also been upped to 44% ABV (from the original 40%).

This new Cigar Malt Reserve is believed to be a 70% vatting of Oloroso sherry casks, with the rest coming from American white oak ex-bourbon barrels, and finished to some degree in Cabernet Sauvingon barrels. Originally the Cigar Malt Reserve was intended as a limited release, but it seems to still be commonly available today. I sample this one at a bar in Oslo, Norway.

Let’s see how Dalmore does in my Meta-Critic database:

Dalmore 12yo: 8.43 ± 0.27 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 15yo: 8.36 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Dalmore Cigar Malt: 8.53 ± 0.44 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve: 8.32 ± 0.64 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Dalmore Gran Reserva: 8.06 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore King Alexander III: 8.32 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.07 ± 0.37 on 8 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, all the common Dalmore expressions get below-average scores in my database (note that the overall average for the single malt class is currently ~8.6). They also tend to be rather expensive now. Also, note that the Cigar Malt Reserve has a higher than typical variation as well – which is always an interesting point to explore.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for the Cigar Malt Reserve:

Nose: Creamy nose, very biscuity. Caramel and tons of brown sugar – among the most I’ve nosed. Some sherry dark fruits (figs especially, and cherries), but not very fruity overall (although it may be buried under the brown sugar). Cinnamon. Strong Christmas cake impression. Water heightens the fruitiness further – although its odd to come across such a big, sweet, flavour-packed nose with so little overt fruit.

Palate: Caramel again, moving more towards toffee now. Citrus (orange peel) and some lighter fruits (pear and apple) join the classic sherry fruit notes. I was hoping the baking spices would pick up further, but it is really only lightly spiced. Mouthfeel is ok, but palate is lighter than expected overall, and not very complex. Don’t add water – it dulls the palate even further (although it helps bring up the fruit slightly). Honestly, a bit of a let-down after such a strong come-on with the nose.

Finish: Shortish, and fairly simple. That citrusy bitterness builds, but the overall effect is still caramel/brown sugar sweetness. Water shortens the finish further – don’t do it.

Dalmore.Cigar.Malt.ReserveThis is actually a hard one to score. While it has a bold (and crowd-pleasing) opening on the nose and initial palate, it fizzles out quickly on the late palate and the finish. Not being a cigar smoker, I don’t know how well this would pair with a stoagie. But as a stand-alone malt, it is likely to leave you somewhat wanting – it over-promises and under-delivers.

As such, I can understand now why the Meta-Critic standard deviation is so high. But at the end of the day, I think the overall average score is reasonable. You may find this to be a step-up from many of the entry level expressions of similar style – but not by much (and certainly not worth the price differential). Personally, I would give it a middle-of-the-road score, slightly up from the current Meta-Critic average (i.e., something closer to the original Cigar Malt average score).

The Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve went over very well with Nathan the Scotch Noob and Gavin Smith of Whisky Advocate, with top scores from both. Serge of Whisky Fun, Jan of Best Shot Whisky and Andre of Quebec Whisky all give it mid-range scores. But Patrick of Quebec Whisky hated it, as did Jim Murray.

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.

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