Tag Archives: Taiwan

Whisky Prices World-Wide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK whiskies:

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

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

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

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

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

American whiskies:

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

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

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

Japanese whiskies:

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

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

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

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

Canadian Whiskies:

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

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

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

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

Korean whiskies:

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

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

Taiwanese Whiskies:

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

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

Wrapping Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kavalan Single Malt

A few months ago, I reviewed the Kavalan Concertmaster – a port-finished single malt whisky from Taiwanese distiller Kavalan. In this commentary, I thought I would look at their base model malt whisky – known simply as Kavalan Single Malt.

As previously mentioned, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate. This means that their whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel compared to more temperate northerly climes like Scotland and Ireland. As such, don’t expect to see age statements here – they are all quite young whiskies, and tend to be heavily influenced by the types of casks they were matured in.

Both the Single Malt and the Concertmaster are classified as single malts, which means that are solely malt whisky, from a single distillery, made using traditional copper pot stills. And despite their entry-level status, both have won a number of medals at international wine & spirit competitions.

In the interest of full disclosure, my source for the Single Malt was a 50mL sample bottle (glass bottle, in the classic Kavalan art deco shape), picked up on one of my travels through Europe. When it was available at the LCBO, the full 700mL bottle retailed for $140 CAD. As an aside, I’ve noticed that the Single Malt tends to be sold for more than the Concertmaster just about everywhere (i.e., Concertmaster was $125 at the LCBO). One exception in Canada is Nova Scotia, where you can pick the Single Malt up for the relative bargain of $100 CAD (and Concertmaster for $104 CAD).

Here are some current stats for the various entry-level Kavalans from my meta-critic whisky database:

Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews

What I notice in the glass for the Single Malt:

Nose: Starts with classic oaky vanilla, with a touch of sherry dark fruits as well. Nothing very specific jumps out at me – a light mixed berry blend mainly. There’s also a perfumy floral smell, but no specific scents that I can identify. I definitely get a malty aroma, as if a bit of yeast were left behind. There is also a solventy smell lurking underneath it all (which is something I don’t personally care for).

Palate: Toasted caramel and vanilla are probably the most prominent flavours, consistent with ex-bourbon casks. A touch of the dark fruits, like dates and raisins, but not as much as I would like. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits here at all (unlike, say Amrut, where they come through in spades). It really isn’t sweet – somewhat bitter, in fact. Also very malty, even more than the nose suggests (although this is not a problem for me). Taste of wood pulp. A bit boring perhaps, but not unpleasant. Note that this whisky is oddly astringent, and really dries out the tongue quickly after every sip.

Kavalan Single Malt bottleFinish: Much the same flavours as the palate, medium finish. Leaves you with a vaguely woody and malty aftertaste, and very dry gums and tongue.

I would consider this to be an entry-level single malt. The astringent effect is significant (i.e., very drying in the mouth). This may explain why some reviews complain that it is “hot” or has a “kick” to it, despite its relatively low 40% ABV – I suspect they are really referring to this astringency (i.e., a high alcohol content is also drying).  It comes across as rather young otherwise.

This is one case where I personally differ from the meta-critic scores – I would rank the Concertmaster higher than the Single Malt expression, as I find the port-finishing adds a lot of distinctive flavours to the base spirit. Please see my earlier Concertmaster review for additional comments, and a further discussion of the astringency characteristics.

For more reviews, you could check out Ralfy for a detailed discussion of this whisky. Some favourable reviews can be found by the guys at Quebec Whisky. Oliver at Dramming has a short review, with a somewhat different take on the flavour profile.

I have samples on hand of a couple of the higher-end Kavalan expressions, and will post commentaries of those when I get around to sampling them.

Whisky in Japan

Following up on my Whisky in Korea article, here is my recent experience of scouting out Japanese whisky in Tokyo.

My experience wasn’t all that different from Dramtastic’s back in May of this year – although the specific selections at different stores have changed. I too was staying in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo this time – and so made a point of visiting some of the same locations he tried. Sorry I couldn’t try them all, but I had limited time on a business trip.

Keio Plaza Hotel Konbini:Japan-1

First, a general comment – you can actually do okay for base expressions at a number of the larger Konbini (convenience stores) across Tokyo. Here is a pic from the whisky aisle of the Konbini located in the basement of the Keio Plaza Hotel where I was staying.

Top shelf was the Nikka Taketsuru NAS (500mL for 2,200 Yen) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (500mL for 3,080 Yen).

Next shelf was mini-bottles of the Nikka Taketsuru NAS, Yoichi NAS and Miyagikyo NAS, as well as the Suntory Yamazaki NAS and Hakushu NAS (all 200ml for 1,140 Yen).

Going down a shelf, you get the more budget whiskies: Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 905 Yen, 200mL for 285 Yen), Hi Nikka (700mL for 1,200 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,415 Yen, 500mL for 934 Yen, and 200mL for 468 Yen), and Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,680 Yen).

In terms of selection, sizes and prices, these are fairly typical of what you can find at most 7-eleven and Family Mart Konbinis as well. Of course, you will get more options (and better prices) at the larger dedicated liquor stores.

Bic Camera (East Gate of Shinjuku station):

Let’s start with the stand-alone Bic Camera, near the East Gate of Shinjuku station. Dramtastic found almost nothing there, but I did much better now. Let’s start with the miniatures. For Japanese whisky, I found:

Bic1

Suntory Hibiki 17yo (50mL for 830 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (50mL for 720 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki 12yo (50mL for 780 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (50mL for 310 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (50mL for 390 Yen).

Note there was also a fairly good collection of Taiwanese whisky miniatures:

Kavalan Single Malt (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Podium (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask Strength (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask Strength (50mL for ~1,300 Yen)

Bic3And now for the full-size bottles, starting with the two top shelves:

Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,680 Yen), Suntory Hakushi NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony NAS (700mL for 3,880 Yen).

Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,780 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru 21yo (700mL for 14,500 Yen), The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,580 Yen).

Well, nice to see the Taketsuru 21yo there – one of my favourites! 🙂

Bic4Next two shelves down were the more budget entries:

Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 686 Yen), Suntory Royal (700mL for 2,640 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,330 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,020 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,080), Suntory Whisky 43 The Premium (700mL for 1,790 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 934 Yen).

Bic5Kirin Whisky 50 (600mL for 934 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend 45 (700mL for 1,450 Yen), Hi Nikka (720mL for 1,080 Yen), HiHi Nikka (720mL for 1,280 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (700mL for 3,380 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,680 Yen), Suntory Whisky White (640mL for 1,010 Yen), Suntory Royal Blended Whisky (660mL, for 2,660 Yen), Suntory Special Reserve (700mL for 1,980 Yen)

And the bottom shelf:

Bic6Kirin Boston Club 37 (640mL for 724 Yen), Kirin Boston Club 40 (640mL for 810 Yen), Robert Brown Special Blended Whisky (700mL for 1,310 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,120 Yen), Akashi Eigashima “red label” (500mL for 780 Yen), Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 934 Yen), Cherry Ex (500mL for 1,020 Yen), Whisky Koh-Kun “for highball” (600mL for 600 Yen), Mars Whisky 3&7 (720mL for 1,181 Yen), Mars Twin Alps (720mL for 1,550 Yen).

Not a bad haul overall for the current era of reduced availability – but I would have liked to have seen full size bottles of all the expressions. And of courses, a lot more aged expressions!

Isetan Department Store

Next, I headed over to the nearby up-scale Isetan department store in Shinjuku. Here you will find their whisky store in the basement food court (with tastings available). Like in Korea, large department store food courts in Japan are the places to go to get outstanding meals.

I was in a rush, but here’s what I found scattered around the whisky selection, in-between all the classic Scottish single malts and blends:

Isetan1

Suntory Yamazaki 12yo + Hibiki 17yo “gift pack” (50mL each, ~2,300 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony (700mL for ~4,100 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 4,104 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (700mL for 9,180 Yen).

Isetan2Mars blended “TSUNAGU” whisky (200mL for 3,780 Yen, 700mL for 7,560 Yen), Mars “Maltage” Cosmo (700mL for 4,537 Yen). Note that the “Tsunagu” is a special release bottled just for Isetan stores. Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL).

Again, I may have missed some in my mad dash through the store – but the selection here was definitely limited.

Also saw a few Taiwanese whiskies: Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique (50mL and 700mL), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL), and Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL). Sorry, didn’t get the prices on these.

Don Quijote (Roppongi):

One place that I have always done fairly well at are the larger Don Quijote discount stores (affectionately known as “Donky-ote” in Japan). The small store near the East Gate in Shinjuku had slim pickings, and not worth recording. Apparently there is a larger store a bit further out, but I didn’t have the chance to visit.

Instead, I headed over to my preferred Don Quijote in Roppongi. This store has an extensive selection of international and domestic whiskies (they even carry the standard Crown Royal from Canada, ugh). Let’s see what I found here, starting with the Japanese stuff on the top shelves:

Don1

The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,350 Yen), Yamazakura Fine Blended Whisky (700mL for 2,080 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 2,850 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,100 Yen).

Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,500 Yen, 500mL for 1,980 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,800 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen).

Don2Ok, not the highest-end stuff here – and you typically can do a bit better on prices at Bic Camera.

Next shelves down:

Nikka Black Clear Rich Blend (180mL for 380 Yen), Nikka Black Clear (180mL for 285 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kaukubin” (180mL for 458 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (180mL for 980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (180mL for 980 Yen)

Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 638 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend (700mL for 1,180 Yen), Kirin Whisky 50 (700mL for 1,050 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,315 Yen), Hibiki Harmony (700mL for 3,990 Yen).

Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 1,050 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 999 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 “The Premium” (700mL for 1,700 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Whisky white-label (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 950 Yen).

And for those who are really thirsty, there’s a couple of 4L options:

Suntory Torys Black (4000mL for 2,560 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kakubin” (4000mL for 5,410 Yen)

Tokyo Haneda (HND) International Terminal:

I was flying through Haneda on this trip, and checked out the 3 liquor-selling duty-free stores available past security.

The one directly across the security checkpoint had only a few mid-range options:

Haneda1

The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen). Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Gold & Gold “Samurai head” bottle (700mL for ~5,200 Yen).

Haneda2If you head down toward gate ~108, you find a smaller store with a different selection:

Suntory Yamazaki 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), SunShine 20yo (700mL), Kirin 18yo (700mL for 14,000 Yen), Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen).

Suntory Royal (700mL for 6,000 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky (700mL for 2,800 Yen), Suntory Torys “gift pack” of 3 bottles (3x200mL for 2,500 Yen).

Don’t be fooled by these “limited edition” 18yo Yamazaki/Hakushu – they are just the regular 18yo expressions marked up 3-fold as “travel exclusives” (i.e., you should be able to find them for ~18,000 Yen in native form). Nice way to fleece people at the airport, I guess!

The third duty free down by gate ~130 has the widest selection of international single malts, but nothing of significant note for Japanese whisky.

Final Word:

Ok, that was a pretty disappointed foray for the discerning single malt whisky drinker. Last time I was in Tokyo (January, 2014), I was seeing a lot more age-statement whiskies everywhere. I guess this just reflects the current international demand for Japanese whisky – there is little high-end stuff to be found on local store shelves, for the time being.

Zeotrope

But don’t despair – at least you can get to try most things while you are there by checking out the Zeotrope bar in Shinjuku. This is a cool little whisky bar, running old silent movies against the back wall. It is a tiny hole-in-the-wall sort of place, but it stocks ~300 Japanese whiskies. I had a fun time there with colleagues. I particularly recommend the half-pour “tasting flights” as a great way to introduce newcomers to Japanese whisky. Check out the travelog review of Zeotrope on the Whisky Saga site.

————–

Post-Script:

I was also in Taiwan on this visit, but didn’t get a chance to try out any local liquor stores or bars. But here’s what I found at the duty-free at Taiwan Songshan airport (TSA). Note that this is not the big international Taipei airport, but the smaller one located near Taipei city centre.

There were plenty of Scottish single malts and blends, although only one Japanese whiksy – Hibiki Harmony “Master Select” (700mL for 2,650 NT$). Another example of a “travel exclusive” rip-off – although at least it’s only twice the normal Harmony price, not three times like the Yamazaki/Hakushus in Haneda.

But the star of the show was the Taiwanese whisky:

Taiwan-1Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,975 NT$), Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,550 NT$), Kavalan Single Malt (1000mL for 2,380 NT$), Kavalan Concertmaster (1000mL for 1,700 NT$).

Those are great prices for the Solists – especially the Sherry Cask gift set, at ~$90 USD!  Needless to say, I picked one up. 🙂  Keep an eye out for my upcoming review.

 

 

 

Kavalan Concertmaster

Kavalan Concertmaster bottle

One of my goals with these commentaries is to explore whiskies that seem divergent in some way  – be it across reviewers, across a flavour class, or across a distillery’s offerings and price range.  The Kavalan Concertmaster – from Taiwanese distillery King Car – is an interesting single malt to examine for several of these reasons.

As a bit of background, Taiwan has generally a marine tropical climate (although mean temperatures will vary across its rather mountainous terrain). This means that relative to more temperate northerly climes (like Scotland and Ireland), whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel in Taiwan, thus requiring less aging time. A similar (and even more dramatic effect) can be observed with Amrut in India. As a result, you don’t typically see age statements on these tropical whiskies – it would be misleading, in relation to what we have come to expect from Scottish single malts of equivalent age.

Kavalan has adopted a distinctly musical theme for its labeling. The higher-end Soloist family will be the subject of a future commentary, but for right now I would like to discuss how the Concertmaster fits it with the rest of their more entry-level line-up of single malts. From the current Metacritic scores:

Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews

With the standard caveat that you should treat whiskies with a low number of reviews as provisional until more results come in (i.e. Podium and King Car), the Concertmaster does seem to be getting the lowest overall rating. And note that despite the plain labeling of the third example above, all of these are actually single malts (i.e., all malt whisky, from a single distillery, using traditional copper pot stills).

There is definitely a wider-than-typical range of reviewer opinions on these whiskies. While most reviewers seem to consider the Single Malt and Concertmaster expressions to be about average (note that the mean whisky score is currently ~8.55 in my database), there are a couple of quite negative responses out there for both whiskies – and more so for the Concertmaster. This is interesting, as the Concertmaster has won Best in Class twice at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), along with a slew of Silver medals at other international competitions (and even a couple of Golds).

I am curious as to why there is a seeming discrepancy here, as I personally find the Concertmaster to be a quite decent whisky. I would rate it as a slightly above-average single malt, with the Kavalan Single Malt as slightly below. This is the reverse of most reviewers who have tried both (although the difference in absolute scores isn’t great).

There are several factors potentially at play here. For one, Port cask finishes generally seem to be less popular among reviewers than Sherry cask ones. Kavalan has quite a few Sherry-finished expressions among their higher-end lines, so the Concertmaster may be suffering in direct comparison.

Concertmaster is also unusual in that it uses a combination of three varieties of Port casks – Ruby Port, Tawny Port and Vintage Port – after its initial period of time spent in American Oak casks (hence the “concertmaster” title). When you consider the unusually high number of different casks – combined with the relatively short time needed in cask – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more batch-to-batch variability than typical for a single malt. While speculative, this could account for some of the variability seen between reviewers.

Of course, it’s also possible that not everyone likes the distinctive characteristics of this particular whisky. 😉 There is something quite distinctive about all of these Kavalan whiskies, compared to Scottish single malts. Indeed, this gets back to my other reason for choosing to profile this whisky – there seems to be a different meaning behind some of the words used by reviewers to describe it.

Here are my tasting notes for the Concertmaster:

Nose: Classic port-infused aromas spring up, like berries and dark fruits, plus rich dark chocolate. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits at all. Definitely plenty of honey here, and some vanilla (although it’s a bit lost beneath the sweet fruits). Great nose, Concertmaster is one of those whiskies that I can happily smell all night. 🙂

Palate: A direct repeat of the nose, in the same order. I get a lot of the “earthy” sweet grape flavours up front, like figs, dates, raisins, black currants – even stewed prunes. It’s like an alcohol-infused Ribena! A dry maltiness quickly appears, along with a heavy astringent effect – just as it does on the standard Single Malt edition. Personally, I find this works here, and makes a good contrast to the initial port-infused flavours. Mouth feel is pleasantly thick and slightly chewy (thanks more to the malt). Despite the port influence, It is definitely not overly sweet – indeed, if I have any complaint here it is that the winey fruit-forward flavours don’t linger longer on balance.

Finish: Moderate. Like with the Single Malt, the astringent effect remains prominent, and you are left with rather dry gums and tongue in the end – but with a well-balanced touch of stewed fruits left behind this time.

The astringency characteristic I describe above likely explains the apparent discrepancy you will note in some reviews: namely that Concertmaster is too “sweet” (especially on the palate and finish) and exceedingly “dry” (again on the palate and finish). Same goes for the complaint by some reviewers that it has an unusually high alcohol “burn” or “kick” (again, especially on the palate) – despite only being bottled at a low 40% ABV.

I think the explanation for both these apparent discrepancies is the same – the significant astringency in Kavalan whiskies, especially noticeable on the palate. This makes your tongue feel “dried out” very quickly after tasting. A similar effect occurs when you drink sodium-infused water, such as club soda (aka soda water). See my Chivas Regal 12 yo commentary for a discussion of when this can enhance a whisky’s flavour.

And so, “dry” – in the likely meaning of these reviewers – is not the opposite of “sweet”, but rather a commentary on how “drying” it is on the tongue. And what else is “drying” of the tongue? A high alcohol content. Basically, the Kavalans are producing a higher astringent effect than normal, but the issue is confused by our usual terminology for this effect (i.e., dry, burn, etc.).  As an analogy, it is very hard to describe the subjective difference between physically “hot” food and spicy “hot” foods. Indeed, many of the same receptors on the tongue respond to these two signals, which is probably how we got the “hot” term to describe the effect of spicy food.

One thing most reviewers seem to agree on is the nose – most like it, detecting those classic rich Port-infused flavours I describe above. I don’t get as much of the so-called “tropical” notes (i.e., banana, pineapple, coconut, melon, etc.) that some reviewers report, although I do detect those on the tropical Amrut (especially tons of banana in that case).

Kavalan Concertmaster bottleI also agree with many that the palate doesn’t necessarily match up to the promise of the nose (as nothing new really presents itself). But I still find it quite acceptable and enjoyable for a Port finished whisky (although again, batches could vary). You do need to get used to the astringency effect, though, which may detract for some.

The finish is also quite acceptable in my view. I find it a bit longer than some reviewers. And while slightly sweet on the way out, I find it pleasantly so (i.e., not cloying).

Anyway, I suggest you make your own mind up about this whisky. Given the relative cost in North America and Europe, you are probably not likely to opt for this over a well established single malt (even if you can find it). But if you get the chance to sample it somewhere, I think its well worth the effort to seek it out for its distinctive properties.

I picked this Concermaster bottle up for $125 CAD at the LCBO, although I know it is no longer in stock. FYI, the standard Single Malt edition was $140 CAD at the LCBO, and I previously picked up a 50mL sample in Europe for about 10 Euros (~$15 CAD).

For different perspectives and reviews, you can can start by searching the Reddit Scotchit collective – most reviewers there seem to really like the Concertmaster. Alternatively, the Rumhowler has one of the most negative reviews I’ve seen of this whisky. The guys at QuebecWhisky.com all seem to take a more middle-of-the-road view.