Author Archives: selfbuilt

Bearface Triple Oak 7 Year Old

Bearface is a rather unique new Canadian whisky. I first noticed in a local LCBO early this year, due to its rather rakish bottle design (a little risque for Canadian whisky). But my interest was piqued by the fact that it won a Gold medal at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards in January 2019 – a competition where the medals are based on blind tasting by experienced Canadian reviewers (including several in my database).

My curiosity was further aroused by Mark Bylok’s interview with Andres Faustinelli, the creator of this whisky and master blender for Mark Anthony Wine and Spirits’ new Bearface brand.  Simply put, the approach to creating this whisky places the emphasis at the opposite end of where most whisky producers do.

To break that down, most new whiskies come from new or established spirit distillers, who focus first on the quality of their distillate (i.e., choice of grains, distillation methods, etc). Type of wood aging comes next (through acquired casks), followed by blending and potential use of special “finishes,” to impart additional flavours and complexity to the final whisky. Typically this involves some period of additional aging in casks that previously held other spirits, often fortified wines like Sherry or Port. See my Source of Whisky Flavour for more information on the general process.

The point is that whisky making is generally driven the whisky producers’ interests and needs, and they source the casks they want to age their whisky in accordance with those needs. As explained in the above interview, the process for this new whisky was reversed, by looking at it from a wine-makers point of view (who typically focus on quality oak, for limited exposure periods with the wine). Here, they chose a fairly neutral corn-based spirit from a distiller on contract (already aged 7 years), and experimented with extensive exposure of the same whisky to multiple types of barrels, as they would do for wine aging.

This intensive finishing approach arose, as Mr. Faustinelli put it, when they chose to “ask the wrong people the right questions” – in other words, looking to see how those involved in making wine would seek to solve problems whisky makers face when try to produce the final flavour profile.

To try and summarize succinctly, high proof whisky produced by a Collingwood distiller (i.e, presumed Canadian Mist) entered into a mix of French Oak and American Oak casks that previously held classic fresh Bordeaux red wines (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), at a BC winery. Both the different varietals and the different oaks imparted different characteristics to the spirit. After finishing for 3 months, the whisky was transferred to fresh Hungarian Oak casks, where the wood was previously “seasoned” outdoors. The virgin Hungarian Oak barrels were then “toasted” to one of three char levels, and used no more than 3 times for this project (for 2 weeks exposure to the whisky each time). Despite the limited time, this added a lot more overtly oaky notes. The outcome of all these multiple finishing experiments are then separated into flavour “families”, and blended in a specific proportion for this inaugural Triple Oak Canadian whisky. I recommend you listen to the interview for the the full picture, or check out Jason Hambrey’s detailed post on In Search of Elegance for details of the wood.

Let’s see how it currently performs in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other relevant Canadian whiskies:

Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.58 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($)
Bearface Triple Oak 7yo: 8.37 ± 0.13 on 6 reviews ($$)
Canadian Club Sherry Cask: 8.15 ± 0.66 on 8 reviews ($$)
Canadian Mist: 7.57 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist Black Diamond: 8.02 ± 0.54 on 6 reviews ($)
Collingwood: 8.02 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.54 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.19 ± 0.48 on 17 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.66 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Unit:y 8.97 ± 0.28 on on 4 reviews ($$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.34 ± 0.35 13 reviews ($$)
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask: 7.91 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$)

Bottled at 42.5% ABV. I picked it up for $40 CAD at the LCBO earlier this year. Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Very sweet corn syrup. Buttered popcorn, slightly scorched. Condensed milk. Sweet tarts. Toasted marshmellows. Lots of fruit, but different than you would expect – black and red currants, cranberries. Dried apricot. Perfumy floral, with violets. Light rye spice, cinnamon especially, but also with hint of chilies. The toasted oak really comes through, there is no hiding the complexity here. No real off notes from the distillate, the extra age (longer than most Canadian whiskies) presumably helps with that. Off to a good start.

Palate: Initial corn sweetness hit, gets creamier on the swallow. Definitely a sweet one, not really getting the tartness from the nose any more. Indeed, not really getting any of the subtle notes here – the toasted oak comes on really strong mid-palate, and dominates everything else. More like burnt marshmellows and popcorn now, and scorched wood. Has a silky texture, with good mouthfeel. Rye spices comes up at the later palate, but soft and not at all “hot” or sharp. Fairly mild, consistent with the alcohol level.

Finish: Again, the woody notes definitely dominate initially on the finish, but with the lighter rye spices holding their own. Some of the dried fruit notes return eventually. Coffee grinds. Some astringency, but not the initial tartness from the nose. More going on here than a typical Canadian corn whisky, that’s for sure. Some sticky sweet corn syrup lingers until the end.

I’m at a bit of loss of how to rank this whisky.  On first sampling, I really liked some of the additional flavours that have been introduced by the fresh wine cask aging – despite the heavy corn-syrup base sweetness. But the toasted Hungarian oak is just proving too overwhelming on the palate for me, and I find it falls too flat and over-oaked for my tastes. Probably more of an after-dinner whisky, especially for those of you who like heavy wood influence (I typically don’t). While I appreciate the innovation, I expect this whisky would appeal to a limited audience.

There aren’t many reviews of this whisky out there yet, but the most positive are Davin of Whisky Advocate and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, with above average scores.  This is followed by more average ratings by Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre and Martin of Quebec Whisky. No reviews on Reddit yet, but kinohead did provide a fairly positive set of impressions here. My own assessment would be at the low end, closer to Andre and Martin. Definitely a unique experience in the Canadian whisky scene, but a bit of a niche product. I am however curious as to what they will come up with next.

 

Timorous Beastie Blended Malt

Timorous Beastie is another member of the Remarkable Regional Malts series produced by Douglas Laing, an independent bottler of Scottish malt whisky. I previously reviewed the Speyside-derived Scallywag (and was not much of a fan). But when I recently saw a bottle of Timorous Beastie on sale, I picked it up thinking it might be worth a try, based on the reported flavour profile and reviews.

As previously described, Douglas Laing has been around since 1948, and has an extensive range of single malt bottlings. But the company is perhaps best known for this series of blended malts (aka, vatted malts), based on defined regions of Scotland. Produced in small batches, these no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies have creative labels and quirky names, including Scallywag, Timorous Beastie, Rock Oyster, The Epicurean, and Big Peat.

Many have also been released in limited age-stated versions as well. Interestingly, the 10 year old version of Timorous Beastie is typically cheaper than this NAS version in many markets (i.e., at the LCBO, it is $60 CAD for the 10yo vs $70 CAD for the NAS). I’ve seen the standard NAS version run quite a bit higher in other parts of Canada, so when I found it for $56 CAD on clearout at a local store, it seemed worth the gamble.

Timorous Beastie blended malt is sourced from several Highland distilleries, including Blair Athol, Dalmore, Glen Garioch, and Glengoyne. The title is in reference to the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse,” which describes his thoughts after accidentally upending its nest when plowing a field (which also gave us his famous musings about how “the best laid schemes of Mice and Men” often go awry).

Bottled at 46.8% ABV (for some reason), this whisky is non-chill-filtered, with natural colour – all well appreciated by this reviewer. My bottle is dated from November 2017, with a batch 13 code.

Here is how Timorous Beastie compares to the rest of the Douglas Laing line, and some similar entry-level Highland malts from which it is apparently derived.

Big Peat: 8.72 ± 0.26 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Scallywag: 8.22 ± 0.55 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Timorous Beastie: 8.39 ± 0.36 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Timorous Beastie 18yo: 8.62 ± 0.31 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Timorous Beastie 21yo Sherry Edition: 9.05 ± 0.21 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Timorous Beastie 40yo Cask Strength: 8.98 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)

Blair Athol 12yo (F&F): 8.43 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.28 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.05 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.30 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.38 ± 0.35 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 10yo: 8.26 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 12yo: 8.54 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Colour: One of the lightest whiskies I’ve come across, very pale apple juice colour

Nose: Very sweet, and candied. Gummy bears and pear drops. Strong fruit notes of pear, apricot, and tangerine. Honey and a little maple syrup. Nutty, with a slightly rancid salty peanut aroma. Hint of smoke, but comes across more as funky, sour and somewhat rancio. Definite sherry influence, despite the light colour. This is very nice, and exactly what I was hoping for.

Palate: Honey and gummy candy sweet initially, followed by an immediate zing of cinnamon redhot candies (plus allspice, cloves and black pepper). Yowza. But the shock of spices doesn’t continue to burn, it just slowly fades. Whatever fruits were present on the nose are lost by the quick spice arrival, but it does have a citrusy cleansing vibe. Also a bit woody, and a touch of anise. The funky smoke note wafts back up at the end, after the swallow.

Finish: Lovely lingering burn. Honey and apple juice come up at the end. Also getting those powdered gelatinous gummy candies you find in Asia – not as sweet as the usual gummies in North America, and with a touch of sourness. Astringent (drying) finish.

A very nice, powerful hit of spice, wrapped in a sweet confectionery coating. Seems like a real misnomer of a name, as this is in no way shy or retiring. I would say Blair Athol and old-style Glen Garioch dominate here. Not overly complex, but a fun sipping experience. I’m curious to try the age-stated versions now.

Among reviewers, the highest score comes from Serge of Whisky Fun, who gives it an above-average score and review (and one I concur with). This would be followed by the generally positive reviews of Thomas of Whisky Saga, Jonny of Whisky Advocate, Shane_IL of Reddit, and Jan of Best Shot Whisky. Lower scores come from Aaron of Whiskey Wash, Strasse007 of Reddit, and Josh the Whiskey Jug.

Ben Nevis 10 Year Old (2019)

Ben Nevis is probably not a particularly well-known single malt among younger whisky drinkers (certainly here in North America). The distillery is currently owned by Japanese whisky-maker Nikka, and a lot of Ben Nevis’ production presumably finds its way into blended Nikka whiskies. There have been a number of independent bottlings of Ben Nevis, but official bottlings (OB) are relatively uncommon – beyond the standard 10 year old version reviewed here. And even this bottle can be hard to find, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

The Nikka connection is interesting. As an unusual quirk of Japanese labeling laws, international spirits can be included in blended Japanese whisky without being identified as such. I don’t know for sure which Nikka bottlings include Ben Nevis distillate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the Pure Malt range (like White and Black) do, and perhaps even the Premium Blended 12yo.

The standard 10yo OB of Ben Nevis has a bit of a checkered past. It is known to suffer considerable batch variability (perhaps due to the limited availability of stock). In April 2017, the label was redesigned, and I noticed reviews improved considerably from this point on. As such, I now separate reviews pre/post the 2017 packaging redesign.

There’s actually been a bit of buzz in the whisky world lately on Ben Nevis, due to Koloman’s post earlier this year on Whiskybase.com for the limited-release 10yo cask-strength version of this whisky. If he does accurately convey the experience of Ben Nevis’ managing director, it seems like a pretty grim situation for the distillery’s stocks.

Whatever the current situation, I can only assume things have stabilized a bit, given the recent return of the modern 46% ABV 10yo OB to the shelves (in the UK, at any rate). I was happy to come across a bottle from the latest batch in my travels, at Royal Mile Whiskies in London last month. This standard 10yo bottling remains priced at a very affordable £36 (ex-VAT), which is about $60 CAD. That’s quite reasonable for a 10yo single malt nowadays, especially one bottled at 46% ABV. It is not chill-filtered, and I detect no signs of artificial colouring.

Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic database, separated out by the packaging redesign in 2017:

Ben Nevis 10yo (all editions): 8.46 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$)
Ben Nevis 10yo (old label, pre-2017): 8.18 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews ($$)
Ben Nevis 10yo (post-2017): 8.86 ± 0.44 on 7 reviews ($$)

As you can see, the standard deviation of all editions of this whisky is higher than usual. But that reflects version/batch variation much more than it does reviewer variation. When I separate out by the 2017 redesign, you can see a huge difference with the new version being a lot more popular. And all reviewers in my database who have tried multiple batches prefer the post-2017 editions (some hugely so).

And now for a comparison to some similar whiskies. Just for completeness, I’ve added some lightly smokey Nikka whiskies (that may or may not contain Ben Nevis distillate):

Ben Nevis The Maltman 18yo: 8.85 ± 0.18 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Benromach 10yo: 8.66 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Benromach 10yo Cask Strength (100 proof): 9.03 ± 0.19 on 14 review ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.50 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-2014): 8.76 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (reviews 2014-2017): 8.41 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo Viking Honour (post-2017): 8.52 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.54 ± 0.16 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.75 ± 0.24 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Royal Lochnagar 12yo: 8.00 ± 0.29 on 15 reviews ($$)
Springbank 10yo: 8.71 ± 0.25 on 22 reviews ($$$$)

Again, I’ll come back to the Ben Nevis 10yo ranking at the end of the review. But first, my tasting notes for this recent 2019 batch:

Nose: Sweet apple juice and light honey initially. Fruity, with pear, red delicious apple and Honeydew melon, plus a touch of apricot. Slightly winey, but not much evidence of sherry (beyond some nuttiness). A lot of buttery caramel notes, like Cracker Jacks. It almost seems a touch medicinal, with a definite flinty note – not exactly smokey, more like a mixture of metal and gunpowder. Nice funkiness, a bit like a sweaty armpit (but in a good way). Reminds me of Benromach, but less smokey. Nice character, the funky bits integrate well.

Palate: Light caramel and apple initially, with some toffee notes. Lemon and orange zest pick up now. Sweetened anise. Some mild smoke and a musty paper note. Bit of tongue tingle, and has a slightly oily mouthfeel (maybe resinous is a better word?). A drop of water helps it open up a bit, with some malted chocolate notes emerging. I recommend you add a little (doesn’t need much).

Finish: Apple juice and light caramel continue. Some bitterness creeps in and builds with time, but it’s not offensive (more like coffee, or dark chocolate). Ultimately sweet enough on the way out, with a light corn syrupiness. The minerality persists throughout, which I like.

I’m glad I picked this bottle up. It’s an old-style Highland malt, and nicer than I was anticipating from the mixed review history. The spirit in this 2019 bottling definitely seems older to me than 10 years, especially given how attenuated the smoke is. If I had to guess, I would say this batch is older stock masquerading in their standard 10yo offering. My bottle is certainly an outstanding value for the class.

Interesting fit with Nikka, as I can some similarity to Yoichi production (which has some similar characteristics, rather complementary). But there are also definite similarities to Benromach, Springbank, and some of the older Glen Garioch (back when they used peated malt, pre-1995). I will definitely be keeping my eye out for other Ben Nevis bottlings now.

Among reviewers, the 2018 bottling did very well, with high marks from My Annoying Opinions and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Ralfy gave it a positive review too, although with a lower score than typical. The 2017 bottling got very high marks from Ruben of Whisky Notes and both Serge and Angus of Whisky Fun. Old editions typically got more moderate scores, like from Jim Murray, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Jan of Best Shot Whisky – or really low ones, like from the boys at Quebec Whisky. But the more recent bottlings definitely seem to have much greater favour among reviewers, so I would recommend you consider only the post-2017 Meta-Critic scores.

Johnnie Walker White Walker

An interesting gimmick for a Game of Thrones-marketed version of Johnnie Walker – enter the White Walkers!

Fans of the series will be well familiar with the role these feared undead soldiers play in the series, with their characteristic blazing blue eyes. This effect is mirrored when placing this bottle of whisky in the freezer – a bright blue is revealed across the craggy design of the bottle, including the (now presumably) dead and glowing gentleman Johnnie, as well as the series ominous “Winter is Coming” motto. Conveniently, Johnnie Walker recommends you drink this whisky cold.

Diageo went all out with its GoT tie-ins, releasing limited-edition single malts from across their stable of distilleries. Most of these cost a premium over standard official bottlings, so the JW White Walker is a chance for the masses to get in on the fun with this blended whisky. Of course, that’s if you think merchandising ties-in go well with whisky (as one prominent reviewer on Reddit eloquently put it – when first asked if he planned to try this new blend – “I’d rather join the White Walkers”).

From what I can find online, it seems ~20% of the blend comes from malt whisky (with Clynelish and Cardu having been identified), and rest is grain whisky. Bottled at 41.7% ABV (a touch higher than industry standard). It sells for a comparable price to Johnnie Black around here (i.e., just under $60 CAD).

There is no doubt the bottle design and marketing is clever – but what of the whisky itself? As an aside, the recommendation to serve it from a frozen bottle is never an encouraging endorsement. But I’ve long found Johnnie Walker Black to be a quite decent (and consistent) choice in this price range, and even prefer it over a few entry-level malts. So let’s see how all the GoT-inspired Diageo offerings do in my database, starting with the Johnnie Walker line-up:

Johnnie Walker White Walker (GoT): 7.57 ± 0.81 on 11 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.41 ± 0.62 on 23 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Platinum Label: 8.44 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve: 8.28 ± 0.31 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: 8.61 ± 0.45 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Johnnie Walker 15yo Green Label: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker 12yo Black Label: 8.25 ± 0.47 on 24 reviews ($$)

As you can see, although the response is more variable than most, the consensus view of this whisky is much closer to JW Red than it is to JW Black (despite the comparable price). How do the more expensive GoT-branded single malts do?

GoT House Baratheon Royal Lochnagar 12yo: 8.39 ± 0.27 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GoT Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve: 8.78 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9yo: 8.81 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Stark Dalwhinnie Winter’s Frost: 8.47 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Targaryen Cardhu Gold Reserve: 8.02 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Tully Singleton Glendullan Select: 7.92 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$)
GoT House Tyrell Clynelish Reserve: 8.83 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GoT The Night’s Watch Oban Bay Reserve: 8.58 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)

If you check my database for comparable official bottlings for those distilleries, you’ll see these consensus scores are not great for the price range. The Lagavulin, Talisker and Clynelish offerings seem to be the best quality and value (although again, you can find higher-ranked bottles for less).

And now what I find in the glass for JW White Walker, comparing both a standard room temperature pour and one from a frozen bottle:

Nose: At room temp, the main note is light, sweet apple juice. Light caramel. Slightly floral (but no discernible specific flower), with a touch of hay. Maybe a little nutty. Pleasant, with happily no real off notes. As expected, the pour from the frozen bottle has very little aroma – it is thin and pale in comparison.

Palate: Orange citrus comes in now, adding to the apple juice. Light caramel and butterscotch build. A bit of toasted char, coming across like toasted marshmellows. Cinnamon and a touch of cloves. Thin palate, with typical light, grainy mouthfeel. Some bitterness rises on the swallow. Served cold, I get even more butterscotch (oddly enough), and the mouthfeel thankfully gets thicker and oilier. Sweetness picks up too, with more candied marshmellow fluff. Actually prefer it cold, to be honest.

Finish: The bitterness from the swallow builds quickly, and grows with time (especially prominent on the back of tongue). It has an artificial taste, somewhat plasticky. This is starting to remind me of JW Red now. Some of the spices remain, not that that helps much. Fortunately, when served cold, the bitterness is greatly attenuated. And cinnamon spice seems enhanced (although that may just be be from selectively dampening the other off-notes).

It’s been a long time since I’ve tried Johnnie Walker Red, but the finish is really reminding me of it here. Frankly, that unpalatable bitterness is the main problem – and so, chilling definitely helps. Of course, you will lose the light floral and fruity notes when its chilled, but that is probably worth the trade-off (and caramel sweetness is enhanced). Definitely relegated to the mixing rack for me.

I find the consensus Meta-Critic score a little harsh – especially served cold, where it is more palatable. Among reviewers, the most positive reviews come from Jonny of Whisky Advocate and unclimbabilty of Reddit, both of whom give it an overall average score (and put it on par with JW Black). The Whiskey Jug gives it a fairly positive review (although with a rating that puts it in the bottom 10th percentile of all whiskies he’s reviewed). Indeed, that’s a common theme, with many other reviewers (myself included) putting it in the same bottom 10% category, along with the guys at Quebec Whisky and Jan of Best Shot Whisky Reviews. The worse scores (i.e., the bottom 1st percentile) come from Serge of Whisky Fun and washeewashee and HawkI84 of Reddit.

On the plus side, almost everyone who has tried both agrees it is better than JW Red. But few consider it on par with JW Black, where it is comparably priced.

 

Kanosuke New Born 8 Month Old

Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima, Japan, has a long tradition of making shochu – a Japanese beverage distilled from rice (or other starchy materials like sweet potatoes or buckwheat), broken down by Koji mold (a type of Aspergillus fungus). In recent years, a number of traditional Japanese shochu distillers have ventured into making whisky (with variable success).

Kanosuke previously released a limited bottling of their new make whisky spirit, and followed up late last year with “Kanosuke New Born” – a limited release of their whisky aged for eight months in American white oak casks that previously held shochu. This is an interesting reversal of the process. Shochu can aged in a number of ways – including in large ceramic pots, stainless vats, or oak barrels that previously held other spirits (just like whisky). Most shochu is not aged very long, but Kanosuke decided to use casks that previously contained Komasa Syuzo’s Mellow Kozuru brand of aged rice shochu for maturing their whisky.

Kanosuke New Born was sold directly from the distillery in 200 mL bottles for ~$45 CAD. I was given a bottle as a gift on my recent visit to Japan. It has been sold out for a little while now. Bottled at a whopping 58% ABV, it is not chill-filtered, and no colouring has been added.

There are few reviews of this new whisky, so I am not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Surprisingly rich light gold colour for such a young whisky.

Nose: Sweet, with honey and light caramel notes – but also dry, with a salty brine note. Apple juice. Very tropical, with green banana, papaya and pineapple. Golden raisins. Very floral, but in an unidentifiable perfumey sense. Slight touch of fresh glue. There is something very Japanese about it, reminds me of the old age-stated Nikka Taketsuru pure malts (but younger, of course). Surprisingly complex for the 8mo age – off to a good start.

Palate: Very sweet arrival, with lots of honey and caramel. Honeycomb. Candied fruit. Sweetened apple juice. Pear. The tropical fruits are less obvious now. Toasted marshmallows (that’s a new one for me). Light cinnamon. Some bitterness, with tree bark and ginseng (I’m getting a definite herbal energy drink vibe). Salty black licorice on the swallow. Definitely hot, with some mouth zing, but surprisingly drinkable for the high ABV.

Finish: A bit tame, but more than I expected for the age. Some of the tropical fruit notes return, which is nice. It ends with the tree bark, ginseng and apple juice notes lasting the longest.

With water, it gets sweeter on nose, with simple sugar added. I am also getting some sourness now (sour cherry in particular). In the mouth, the alcohol zing is reduced, with extra caramel and red licorice (candied strawberry). Oddly, the bitter tree bark and ginsent notes on swallow are enhanced too. Doesn’t need much water, frankly.

This is shockingly good for the age. I’ve had plenty if 3-4 year old malts that were far less complex and interesting – but I suspect the high ABV here is likely a key factor.

There aren’t many reviews of this one. Dramtastic gave it a very positive review and score, as did Richard of nomunication. Dave Broom of Scotchwhisky.com described it as very good, and showing “real promise.”

Personally, I think this is bloody impressive. On its own merits, I would rate it a ~8.7 on the Meta-Critic scale (which is simply outstanding for the age). Give it a few more years, and I am confident Kanosuke will be making a 9+ whisky for sure.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice

The discontinuation of the classic Hibiki 17 year old last year was a blow to fans of this classic Japanese blended whisky. But it was softened somewhat in Japan with the release of a new Japan-only “premium no-age-statement” Hibiki Blender’s Choice last September.

For newcomers to Japanese whisky, all the recent hype can seem a bit mystifying. It is not like most expressions from heavy-weights Suntory or Nikka (or the smaller players) have some unique flavour profile. They are mainly well done examples of lighter scotch-style whiskies (both malts and blends), with a focus on the integration of delicate flavours. While certain fruit and wood notes can be distinctive, it is less a question of kind than it is of consistent quality. As discussed in my recent 5-year retrospective, I’ve watched Hibiki 17yo rise from common availability (at 7,500 Yen), to near impossibility to find (at >40,000 Yen) – due to demand, and a relative lack of aged stocks.

While this new release lacks an age statement, word spread quickly that it consists of whiskies aged 12-30+ years of age, with an average age of around 15 years. As such, people naturally hoped this would be a replacement of sorts for the discontinued 17yo. But this was clearly not the intent, as a few wine cask-aged whiskies were also included in the blend, to produce a new and distinctive profile.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice was initially intended for interior bar sale only, through Suntory’s wholesale/industry distribution channels in Japan. Of course, it didn’t take long for bottles to find their way onto some store shelves – albeit at much higher prices than the rumoured internal bottle price of 10,000 Yen.  In my recent travels in Japan, I came across only 3 stores that carried it (one without a box for 17,800 Yen, and two stores with a box for 19,800 Yen and 29,800 Yen each). The boxes suggest they were intended for retail sale. I picked one up at the lower 19,800 Yen price.

There are not many reviews of this one yet, so I’m not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But here is how some other Hibiki expressions compare in my database.

Hibiki 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.24 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.76 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki 21yo: 9.14 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.37 ± 0.52 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.29 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Personally, I’d give both the 17yo and Harmony slightly higher scores than the average ratings above. The 12yo and Master’s Select average scores sound about right to me, and I find the 21yo score is a bit inflated.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for my bottle of Hibiki Blender’s Choice:

Nose: Reasonably sweet, with rich toffee notes and some vanilla. I get a distinctive rice pudding sensation, which is novel. Green apple, pineapple, and peaches. Also those same fruit flavours in Meiji Japanese gummies (the ones made with 100% fruit juice). Canberries and red currants. A dry bark note (woody), which is distinctive. A little rubber and a touch of glue. Something else I can’t quite place, likely from fresh wine casks.

Palate: The toffee, creamy rice pudding and green apples from the nose dominate. The cranberries come across more as dried now. Apple and pineapple juice. Wood spice picks up, mainly lighter all spice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Glue note turns slightly ashy (which I like). Very distinctive for an unpeated whisky. A touch astringent on the swallow.

Finish: The woodiness returns immediately on the swallow – not a perfumy Mizunara oak, but a softer and gentler tree bark type (if that makes sense). Caramel from the wood picks up too. Dry and astringent overall, keeps you sipping repeatedly. The fresh wine casks come through again, but subtly – reminds me of those Sweet Tarts candies from my childhood.

This is distinctive for a Japanese whisky. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it – it is very different from the old Hibiki 17yo. But it grows on you. Of note, my wife (who liked the old 17yo and is typically not a fan of wine cask finishes) quite enjoyed this one as well.

Probably the closest thing to Blender’s Choice in my experience is Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton. Both have a relatively gentle base spirit, with clear influence of fresh red wine casks. The Irish offering is a bit sweeter though, and not as drying on the finish as this Hibiki release.

Again, there are not too many reviews of this one, but you can check out Nomunication for a detailed review, and Forbes for a brief one. Personally, I’d score it one point less than the 17yo – so, say a 8.8 on my personal version of the Meta-Critic scale. A very nice whisky, I found it growing on me on successive tastings.

How Best to Store Your Whisky

The question of how best to store your whisky comes up a lot in the whisky world. While the casual drinker may only have a bottle or two of different whiskies around at any given time, enthusiasts tend to collect quite a variety. Given the cost associated with some of these bottles, what is the best way to store them to ensure minimal change in the flavour over time?  There are a lot opinions available online – some of which actually run counter to evidence. So let me walk you through the best evidence-supported recommendations.

1. Sealed bottles (i.e., new and unopened)

For sealed bottles, the answer is fairly easy – store your whisky upright, in a dark (and preferably cool) place, minimizing light and temperature fluctuations. I’ll explain each of the reasons below.

1.1. Keep Them Upright

Upright is most important, as the high proof ethanol in whisky will degrade the cork over time if stored on the side – dissolving the cork, and tainting the flavour of the whisky. This comes as a surprise to most wine drinkers, who are always advised to keep wine bottles on their side. But that is because wine is much lower proof (lower alcohol content relative to water), and so the water in wine keeps the cork from drying out. This is important, as a dried-out cork will let air in, spoiling the wine. Unopened whisky bottles are fully sealed, and the contents do not change in the bottle so long as they stay sealed and well stored.

I’ve seen comments online about “moistening” the cork periodically in whisky bottles (by temporarily tilting the bottle on the side). This does nothing of the sort, as the higher ethanol content is actually drying out the cork. But periodic contact of the whisky with the cork is not likely to harm it much – after all, this happens all the time when a bottle is handled or shipped.

On that point, I routinely pick up bottles in my travels, and pack them in my checked suitcase for return travel. I have never had an issue with cork leakage in new, sealed bottles. Where you will get into trouble is with open bottles that are only partially-filled (as the extra air contracts and expands with pressure changes at altitude, causing the cork to pop out – more on this later). Note that minor leakage can occur with some screw caps enclosures, even if the seal is unbroken. Air pressure changes can cause small leaks as there is “wiggle room” for the cap to loosen slightly. You will want to give screw-caps an extra hand-tighten to make sure they aren’t loose to start, and encase the bottles in sealed containers. I use extra-large Ziploc freezer bags, and they do well to capture any minor leakage. One exception to placing whisky in checked luggage is for smaller planes (used for short hops), where the cargo hold may not be within the pressurized cabin area. For any jetliner, you won’t have this concern, as the cargo holds are all pressurized.

Your bigger risk traveling with checked bottles is breaking at the neck point, due to rough handling of your bag. So always make sure they are well-wrapped in clothes or bubble wrap (I find laser toner cartridge shipping bags great for this, with a pair of socks wrapped around the bottle neck). Also try to pack in the middle of the suitcase, not near an edge.

1.2. Avoid Natural Light

Many studies have shown that sunlight is one of the biggest threats to whisky (some links provided below in my discussion of open bottles). Even indirect natural light will induce changes over time, so you are best storing your whisky in the dark – like in a cupboard with doors kept closed. Keeping them in their cardboard boxes/tubes will also help in protecting against light pollution. But I’ve also seen suggestions to ditch the cardboard boxes if you are planning for very long-term storage (i.e., decades), as the cardboard/glue can become a substrate for microbial/fungal contamination. But that only matters for the serious collector (who likely has a proper climate controlled dark environment for their whisky anyway).

1.3. Avoid High Heat and/or Temperature Fluctuations

Cool storage is better than warm, but fluctuations in temperature are potentially even more of a concern (again, see some of the links below for studies on open bottles). A fascinating story is the discovery of century-old crates of Scotch whisky in the Antarctic permafrost – as recounted here. The whisky was apparently still in excellent shape. Actual storage temperature probably doesn’t matter much, as long as it is not higher than room temperature – and so long as it reasonably stable (i.e., not in your attic, or next to your furnace!)

2. Open Bottles

Once open, whisky will start to degrade in the bottle. This is a different sort of “aging” than what happens in the barrel during whisky production, which is necessary to make whisky (see my Sources of Whisky Flavour page for more info). Whisky does not “improve” with this sort of breakdown aging due to air exposure – although it can become more palatable to some, in certain circumstances (e.g., some of the chemical changes over time can make the whisky taste sweeter).

In properly stored open bottles, the reason for the change in flavour over time is due to the presence of air. Specifically, the repeated air exchange as you pour a dram, and the expanding volume of air in the bottle over time. Interestingly, it is actually a bit of an open question as to how much of the change is due to the simple presence of air, versus its frequent exchange. Unfortunately, the academic literature (which I have reviewed) is not too concerned on this point. The few studies done typically explore these questions from a theoretical perspective, under acute laboratory conditions with specialized preparations that don’t reflect long-term concerns.

As an aside, it is a pet peeve of mine to see this process of degradation in open bottles being referred to as “oxidation.” Oxidation refers to a specific chemical reaction that involves a transfer of electrons between chemical species (specifically, the stripping of electrons from the chemical that gets “oxidized”). Given the high proof of whisky, classic oxidative reactions at the gas-liquid interface are unlikely to be contributing in a major way to changing characteristics over time. Instead, it is a variety of other chemical interactions involving surface tension issues at the air-liquid interface that can alter whisky flavour over time.

Again, the academic literature is largely focused on exploring specific types of chemical interactions individually, tested under laboratory conditions. At the end of the day, empirical observations using sensory analysis (i.e., tasting with blind tasters) is the best way to compare potential storage condition outcomes. A couple of recent attempts at actual whisky comparisons over time are helpful in this regard. Cited below are a recent small study by Mattias Klasson of scotchwhisky.com, and a more rigorous and detailed study by Marcus Fan.

Before I get into their testing results, a brief explanation of popular storage options for open bottles of whisky is presented below.

2.1. Leave Them Alone

The first option is to simply leave the whisky in the well-capped bottle until it is gone. But a popular belief online is that the air-induced changes in whisky intensify once the bottle has dropped to less than half volume – and becomes extreme once only a small volume is left (i.e., only a “heel” of whisky left in the bottle).

My personal experience of keeping numerous open bottles for several years is consistent with the results of both studies referenced above: namely, a half-full bottle shows (at worse) only minimal effects over 1-2 years, but a largely empty bottle quickly begins to show noticeable changes. So practically, you probably don’t really need to worry until you pass the point where there is more air in the bottle than whisky.

A related question comes up about storing whisky in crystal glass decanters (for display purposes). Here again, the indirect light issue comes into play, as you will degrade the whisky over time (even faster than you will from the air). Even worse, those clear crystal decanters are actually lead crystal. The high proof alcohol in whisky will gradually extract lead from the glass, dosing you with something you will definitely want to avoid.

So what can you do to minimize air effects once the whisky volume drops substantially?  Here are the most popular options:

2.2. Use Smaller Glass Bottles

This is probably the most popular option in the whisky enthusiast community. To minimize air “headspace”, simply pour the whisky into smaller glass bottles. Commonly available are Boston round bottles in 0.5, 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 oz sizes. These are available in clear glass or, better yet to minimize light effects, amber or cobalt blue glass. The results of both the Fan study and the Klasson study support this method as one of the best ways to minimize air effects.

Bottles caps matter here though. The best bottle enclosures are phenolic screw caps (made from black polypropylene). But do not use the cheaper ones with paper liners. Instead, use only polycone liners (see attached photo comparison).

The cheaper caps use pulp paper with a thin polyethylene coating, and are intended for aqueous solutions only (i.e., pure water-based). These will degrade rapidly in direct contact with high-proof alcohol fumes. You will soon find the liner contents dissolving into your whisky, making a disgusting mess. I’ve seen this happen to a few sample bottles I’ve received in swaps with other reviewers, when I didn’t check the caps (for samples I didn’t get to right away). Polycone liners are conical-shaped liners made of an oil-resistant plastic – and are designed to resist chemicals, solvents, oils, etc.

This decanting approach into smaller glass bottles is the consistent first choice across all studies for long-term storage. My personal experience also supports this conclusion. Ideally, you should aliquot (pour into smaller bottles) as soon as you open your whisky, to minimize any effects of air-induced aging over time.

As an aside, a cheaper alternative is to use clear plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. While it is true that some bottom-shelf whiskies come in PET containers (along with many other food and liquid stuffs), the long-term effect of storage of high-proof alcohol in these containers is unknown. It is reasonable to worry about the potential extraction of plasticizers over time (i.e., the additives used during production to keep the plastic from becoming too brittle).

At a minimum, it would be important to ensure you are getting food-grade PET bottles, with proper polycone caps. In the Klasson study, they use “cheap PET bottles” (source not identified), and found a significant change in flavour over time. I’ve kept whisky in food-grade PET bottles for up to 6 months, and have not noticed any off flavours. But I would consider this a riskier proposition, and recommend you stick with glass bottles if at all possible.

2.3. Fill Up the Original Bottle with Glass Marbles

A seemingly ingenious solution to the air volume issue is to pour glass marbles into the original bottle as the whisky volume drops, thus minimizing air headspace. Sounds reasonable, right?  Except this approach means that you are greatly increasing the whisky-to-glass ratio over time, especially as the volume drops. All that increased glass surface area is an opportunity for interactions to occur (i.e., there is more surface for the congeners and other flavour molecules in the whisky to “stick” to).

At a minimum, you would need to ensure the marbles were scrupulously cleaned and sterilized before use. And I have no idea where you would get food-grade glass marbles to start with – children’s toy marbles are not likely to be made of high quality glass, and are likely to contain various contaminants that could leach out in the presence of high proof alcohol (e.g., lead). Conducted properly though, this approach is likely to work – as demonstrated in the Fan study. But I think you are best to decant into smaller glass bottles.

2.4. Neutral Gas Spray (e.g. Wine Preserve)

This is a popular option for those coming from the wine world. The principle is that an inert, neutral gas like argon (Ar) can be sprayed over the surface of the liquid, thus preventing the lighter-weight oxygen (O2) from reaching the wine (or whisky) once re-corked. There are various “wine preserve” brands out there, each with their particular (and often undisclosed) blend of argon, nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Keep in mind, these sprays were all developed and tested on wine – it is unknown how the much higher proof whisky would react. One obvious concern is that wine “preserved” this way was only meant to be kept for up to a week or two. Long-term storage effects (typically months to years for whisky) are thus largely unknown.

A potentially greater problem is that the spray canisters need a food-grade aerosol propellant in order to eject the “inert” gas down the long extended tube into the whisky. In the old days, this was Freon – but that has since been replaced by butane and propane. It is not at all clear what the long-term effects of adding butane/propane, as well as Ar/N2/CO2, inside a whisky bottle would be. The chemistry that occurs at the air interface of high-proof whisky is complex and not fully understood – adding these extra variables would be a concern.

Indeed, in the study by by Fan, the most popular neutral gas spray – Private Preserve Wine Preserver (shown above) – consistently induced greater flavour change than any other condition beyond indirect sunlight. While exposure to regular air had noticeable effects when the whisky volume was very low (e.g. 150 mL in a 750 mL bottle), these were almost twice as noticeable when wine preserve spray was used. Simply put, wine preserve was considerably worse than just regular air exposure in a bottle.

On the basis of these findings, I strongly recommend you do NOT use neutral gas sprays in your whisky bottles.

2.5 Vacuum Seals

Another popular option from the wine world. Typically, a specialized rubber cork is placed at the opening of the wine bottle, and a hand pump is used to extract most of the air from the bottle (creating a partial vacuum). I’ve used this myself, and it does help keep wine flavourful for a few days (compared to simply re-corking).

The main issue for whisky is that the seal is not likely to last over the long term – and again, the high-proof ethanol is likely to degrade the rubber gaskets over time. I’ve not seen a whisky study done using wine bottle vacuum seals, but the Fan study did look at placing the small whisky bottles in standard food vacuum sealer bags. Their results showed no net benefit (or impairment) to this whisky using this method. As a result, I recommend you stick without the vacuum seal complexity.

2.6 Parafilm

A standard in any chemistry or biology lab, Parafilm is a thin plastic film of paraffin wax. Paraffin is a soft, colourless wax used for making candles and crayons, among other things. Parafilm is used in labs to temporarily seal an open container (like an Erlenmeyer flask), or for longer-term storage of lidded containers (where are you are trying to prevent moisture or air contamination).

While Parafilm can certainly be degraded by various chemical solvents, it is relatively resistant to ethanol. Unfortunately, Parafilm is still relatively gas permeable, so it is best suited to serve as physical barrier for liquid penetration.

I personally use it when transporting whisky – especially when carrying sample bottles on airplanes. The pressure changes are likely to cause leaks, and Parafilm is very helpful in minimizing these. But as a way to preserve whisky in the bottle, it likely only of minimal effectiveness – and therefore probably not worth the effort.

3. Interim Conclusions

Based on the evidence to date,you will want to keep your whisky upright and in the dark (preferably in a consistently cool place). If you want to maintain the flavour profile of open bottles for as long as possible, you are best to decant into small glass bottles (with proper polycone caps), minimizing any air headspace. Just about anything else brings with it potential risks, and either lacks evidence of effectiveness (e.g., vacuum seals), or has clear evidence of negative effects (e.g., neutral gas sprays).

I hope you found the above useful. I’ll update this post if any new studies come out that I think are of particular relevance.

Lot 40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old (2018)

The late Fall 2018 release of the Northern Border Collection from Corby (also known as the Northern Borders Rare Collection this year) featured some returning expressions, and a few new players. I’ll be comparing the whole series in upcoming reviews, but thought I’d start with the perennial fan favourite, the Lot 40 Cask Strength release.

Lot 40 has long been the darling of the Canadian rye whisky scene. A 100% straight rye whisky, it is often the first choice recommended by Canadian rye whisky enthusiasts. In 2017, the first commercial release of a cask-strength version garnered a lot of interest.

The 2018 release carries an 11 year old age statement (it was 12yo last year). This 2018 version is bottled at 58.4% ABV, which is a little higher than last year’s release (at 55%). According to Dr Don Livermore, the Master Blender of Corby, this year’s release comes from a different bond, so has slightly different characteristics.

There is inconsistent information online about the composition of the various Lot 40 releases. But as Dr Don mentioned in his recent whisky.buzz podcast, regular lot 40 is made from column-distilled 100% rye whisky, that is then run through a pot still to remove the undesirable characteristics (i.e., the heads and tails are discarded). At least some proportion is aged in brand new virgin oak barrels. The cask-strength version is amped up in flavour compared to the regular 43% ABV release. According to Dr Don, the slightly higher strength this year release leads to a greater perception of “woodier” notes.

This is always an incredibly difficult release to find in Ontario, where it sells out within a couple of hours once it shows up online. In stores, it typically disappears off the shelves before you can find it. I had to pick up my couple of bottles from Alberta and Quebec this year (where it typically hangs around in stores or online longer). It sells for ~$100 CAD, if you can find it (which is a significant increase from last year’s ~$70 CAD).

Let’s see how it compares to other Lot 40 variants in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Lot 40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old (2018): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old (2017): 9.08 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength (Single Cask): 9.17 ± 0.10 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40: 8.86 ± 0.33 on 22 reviews ($$)

Those are outstanding scores across the board. I’ll come back to the differences in the relative scores of the cask-strength releases at the end of the review. For now, let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: A noticeably different profile now – not quite as spicy as the 2017 12yo version, but a lot more fruity and floral in my view. A veritable fresh fruit cocktail, with cherries, strawberries, pears, peaches, and plums. Like before, still get plenty of caramel, anise, dill and the baking spaces – very cloves heavy (although I would say a few less cloves than last year). It is the candied sweetness that really stands out this year, with cola and bubble gum notes (what some might call cotton candy). Also more perfumy than the 2017 version – a nice bouquet of fresh flowers here, including lilacs. There was a sharpness to the original cask-strength version that I attributed to the higher proof – but it seems subdued here, despite the even higher proof of this release. A faint hint of acetone. Water helps open it up – I suggest you add a few drops. A very good start, I’m preferring it over the previous year so far.

Palate: Thick and syrupy, as before – but more like raspberry jam syrupiness now. Also more caramel on the initial arrival, with caramelized nuts. Dill is heavier too, compared to the previous version. Oaky, with the classic baking spices – but not as oaky as last year (although it seems a bit spicier in the mouth than the nose suggested). I had gotten some dry, bitter, dustiness on the swallow of the 2017 version – but that doesn’t seem to be present on this one. Definitely sweeter all across the board. Water lightens the mouthfeel, and increases the sweetness, so go easy on it – it really doesn’t need more than a few drops. Surprisingly drinkable at this very high ABV.

Finish: A good length, like the previous version (certainly longer than regular Lot 40). Baking spices reappear (focused more on the softer cinnamon and nutmeg, with less of the heavy cloves of the previous version). The candied sweetness lingers, but it is also  somewhat drying on the finish. Very nice.

While I miss the extra spiciness on the nose of the 2017 edition, this one seems more balanced and well integrated. It is also sweeter, with fruitier and floral elements enhanced. Personally, I found last year’s version had a stronger oaky character, and was more tannic. I expect this year’s version would find greater favour with most rye drinkers – although last year’s version would likely appeal more to reviewers, for the extra woodiness and complexity.

In terms of the overall experience, I would personally score this version slightly higher than last year’s release. Indeed, I was one of the rare reviewers that didn’t greatly prefer the first cask-strength release to regular Lot 40, giving the 2017 release only a single point higher score (i.e. 9.2, compared to 9.1 for regular Lot 40). I found that cask-strength was very good, but different – gaining in some regards, but also losing some of the more delicate aspects of regular Lot 40. This edition strikes me as closer to what I initially expected a cask-strength Lot 40 to be like, accentuating the core characteristics. So I would give it an additional point over last year’s release – a 9.3 score for the 2018 edition.

Among reviewers, it is a bit of a mixed bag how the two releases compare. Like me, Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky both prefer the new edition. But Jason of In Search of Elegance, Mark of Whisky Buzz and most of the Reddit reviewers prefer the 2017 release (i.e., Devoz, TOModera and xile_, and others). But the average score for the 2018 release is running higher in the database right now, given the limited number of reviews so far. As more reviews come in, I expect the overall average will drop somewhat (as that is the usual pattern for the database, as more reviews come in). In the end, I expect both versions will settle down to about the same average score. Either one is a great buy, if you can find them – but the regular Lot 40 is still an outstanding value.

 

 

 

Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective

The Internet can be a fabulous source of information of almost any topic. But when it comes to purchasing whisky in Japan, a lot of what you find reported online (and repeated on discussion forums) is often woefully out of date. So I thought I’d provide an update to my earlier Japan whisky travelogues, and add some perspective from a determined whisky hunter.

I have had the good fortune to travel to Japan annually for the last 5 years. My work has routinely taken me across Chiyoda and Minato regions (especially Ginza, Akasaka and Rippongi). I have also stayed in Shinjuku – and make regular pilgrimages to Shibuya on most visits. I tend to travel around a lot, on foot and public transit, and make a point of stopping in to as many big-box discount department stores, dedicated liquor stores and mom-and-pop shops as I can in my travels. And of course, I prepare for these trips by scanning recent blogs and threads, looking for success stories of spotting sought-after whiskies in the wild. At a minimum, I hit at least a dozen stores per trip (plus corner konbinis) – and sometimes considerably more, if I have the time.

I find most of what is reported online by whisky hunters falls into the standard confirmation bias cognitive trap. You rarely see people report their failure to find desired whisky. And for those few brave souls who buck the trend and admit to a lack of success, they are often ridiculed in discussion forums by self-styled experts for “not having done their research.” Often repeated are claims that what they were looking for is  “commonly available everywhere”, etc. A tell-tale sign of these respondents is that they neglect to mention how much it actually costs “everywhere.”

As an aside, I find it amusing when some of these supposedly “available” bottlings are whiskies never released in Japan in the first place, or were discontinued several years ago (more on this later). But even truly available popular bottlings – like Nikka’s From the Barrel – will not be found in most venues. I have almost never seen it in a big box department store, or small corner stores. When I do see it, it is usually in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores. But even then, it shows up (at best) only half the time. So on any given trip, where I hit a mix of stores, I will likely find anywhere from 0-2 stores who actually have it in stock. So much for “commonly available.” My point is that you need to consider the class of store that actually carries what you are looking for.

That said, there are indeed things you will find nearly everywhere – entry-level blends, designed for mixing. Suntory’s Chita was available in at least half the outlets on this last trip, including a number of Family Marts and 7-Elevens. But age-stated whisky, truly made in Japan? Ah, that’s where I come to the first take-away message:

Age-stated, true Japanese whisky is extremely hard to find. And expect to pay typical secondary-market prices if you do.

My latest trip to Tokyo last month included a side trip to Kyoto. I mainly found age-state Japanese whiskies at the larger big box stores (i.e., the mega-sized Don Quijotes and larger BIC Cameras with dedicated whisky sections). In total, I came across a handful of places selling Yamazaki 12yo for 20,000-30,000 Yen ($250-$350 CAD) for a full bottle, or 2,000-2,900 Yen ($25-$35 CAD) for 50mL sample bottles. I found one place selling Yamazaki 18yo for 85,000 Yen ($1020 CAD). I found one place selling the discontinued Hakushu 12yo for 40,000 Yen ($480 CAD), one other place selling Hakushu 18yo for 78,000 Yen ($935 CAD). I found one place selling a single bottle of the discontinued Hibiki 17yo for 43,000 Yen ($515 CAD), and one place selling Hibiki 21yo for 75,000 Yen ($900 CAD).

For context, I remember picking up Hibiki 17yo for ~7,500 Yen this time in 2014 (when it was truly commonly available). And I picked up the Hakushu 12yo in the US last year year for ~$120 CAD. Needless to say, I passed on all of the above age-stated releases this time around.

My point is that if you were looking for any specific bottling (and were willing to pay these prices), you would still likely have to scour more than a dozen stores before you stumbled on it. Funny how that advice is rarely given online.

As an aside, duty-free at the airport is also pretty limited now. You used to be able to find “airport exclusives” that were just jacked-up price versions of the popular age-stated releases. But even those are gone now – I saw no real Japanese whisky with an age-statement at Haneda’s international terminal this trip. Narita is usually a bit better for selection – but the price will still be high. I wouldn’t leave it to your outbound flight if you have hopes of finding something specific.

Ok you might say, but what about all those fancy age-stated bottles from newer distilleries like Yamazakura, Kurayoshi, and the like? They certainly look like the bottles from established makers like Yamazaki and Nikka. And are probably tasty enough – but they aren’t actually Japanese whisky. A great problem in Japan is loose labeling laws that allow distilleries to import whisky from other countries (Scotland and Canada are popular sources) and re-package it for sale as a product of Japan. Many of these distilleries are long-running producers of shochu, and have indeed starting laying down whisky – but it will be many years before they are selling fully Japanese-made whisky at those age statements.

I did notice some younger expressions (e.g. New Born and 6 year olds) coming out of Yamazakura, which are likely their own juice. But all those 18-28 year olds being sold for 15,000-50,000 Yen? Heaven only knows what exactly is inside the bottles. I understand that Japan is looking to tighten up its labeling laws, as all these “faux whisky” brands are giving the industry a bad name. FYI, if you are looking for a way to separate out true Japanese whisky from the fakes, here’s a useful infographic chart and table courtesy of Nomunication. Sad to say there seems to be at least as many fake age-stated whiskies as real ones at the moment. Which brings me to my second point:

Beware of age-stated whiskies coming from distillers without a long history of making whisky.

So, what about bourbons? Japan has long been a mecca of sorts for bourbon fans, given the history of unusually old age-stated bourbons specific to the Japanese market. Note the word “history.” Classic examples include Wild Turkey 12 year old, Old Ezra 15 year old, Evan Williams 12 year old, Very Olde St Nick 18 year old, etc.

I still commonly see threads asking for recommendations as to which of the above would be best to bring back (given typical duty-free limits for most countries). The short answer is none of them, since they don’t exist anymore. The bourbon boom in the US means there simply aren’t aged stocks to preferentially sell to Japan.

I didn’t come across a single bottle of Evan Williams 12yo this year (I used to find it fairly regularly in liquor stores, and for ~$35 CAD or less – a good buy). It is true you can still find Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel and Four Roses Super Premium, but the former has become quite hard to find (typically only in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores now). I didn’t see a single bottle of Blanton’s SFTB on my last trip, although I did come across a couple of bottles of Blanton’s Gold (albeit for more than what it costs regularly here at the LCBO).

It’s true that Wild Turkey 8yo is commonly available almost everywhere, including corner stores – but this is just a slightly longer-aged version of standard WT 101 back home (which is believed to be ~6 years old). The sought-after 101-proof WT 12yo version is long gone, and the new 13yo “Distiller’s Reserve” (at lower 91 proof) seems like a cash grab in fancy packaging (saw it for >$100 CAD in a couple of stores). Which brings me to the third main point:

Age-stated American bourbons are largely a thing of the past in Japan.

Wrapping it all up, the whisky situation in Japan is not looking good – and has gone from reasonable to abysmal in five short years. It is even pretty steep to try most of the above in bars, given their scarcity. Simply put, if you really want to buy these, you are going to have to do your homework as to where to look, and pay secondary prices.

One bright light, if you happen to be in the Kyoto area, is to visit Yamazaki distillery. Just a short train ride away, it will only take about half an hour from Kyoto station. Note that you need to register for a distillery tour 3 months in advance (I’m not kidding). But for the museum, gift shop and tasting bar, you only need to register a couple of weeks in advance to get a spot (and its free admission).

You are limited to just 3 pours from the tasting bar, but the prices are remarkably cheap. The Yamazaki 18yo, Hakushu 18yo and Hibiki 21yo were all only 600 Yen for 15mL pours (the 25-30 yo samples will set you back 2,900 Yen). But the best part is you can also taste the component whiskies for some of the above, at ~200-900 Yen a pour. A highlight for me was the cask-strength Yamazaki new make for only 100 Yen (remarkably clean and fresh, with no off-notes – clearly, they only take the best cuts coming off the still). Thanks to controlled time entry, it’s never particularly crowded. Highly recommended if you are in the area.

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Wendel Clark 100% Rye 11 Year Old

J.P. Wiser’s has been releasing a lot of really interesting stuff in recent years – thanks in large part to Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore. Anyone who has tried Wiser’s Dissertation, Lot 40 Cask Strength, Wiser’s 35yo, or any of the revived Gooderham & Worts releases will appreciate what I mean.

Something that fell below my radar until recently was the new Alumni Series, in partnership with the NHL almumni association (NHLAA). With a share of proceeds going directly to NHLAA, they plan to release six regionally-specific whiskies – named after well-known hockey stars from those provinces. Each has different characteristics (fancifully compared to that player’s perceived style of play). The first set of releases came out at the end of October, in honour of Guy Lafleur (only in Quebec at the SAQ), Lanny McDonald (only in Alberta), and Wendel Clark (only in Ontario, at the LCBO). They typically sell for ~$45 CAD in each jurisdiction.

I’ve picked up bottles of all three in my travels. Guy Lafleur’s namesake whisky is a 10yo 100% corn whisky, Lanny McDonald’s whisky is a 9yo wheat-forward blend, and Wendel Clark’s whisky (reviewed here) is an 11yo 100% rye whisky. Given the success of Lot 40 and its cask-strength special releases, I’m most interested to try the 100% rye Clark release (although hockey-wise I am personally partial to “flower power,” having grown up in Quebec in the 70s and 80s).

According to the whisky.buzz podcast with Dr Livermore, this 11 year old Wendel Clark release is a column-distilled, 100% rye whisky, matured in ex-bourbon casks. In Search of Elegance reports there is also some column- and then pot-distilled 100% rye aged in charred virgin oak casks blended in as well (i.e., some of the Lot 40-style whisky).

Note that most of these Alumni Series releases are bottled at the industry-standard 40% ABV – not surprisingly, given the non-enthusiast audience they are aimed at. But the Clark release is bottled at a slight bump to 41.6% ABV, as a nod to the 416 telephone area code for Toronto. If only the Lafleur whisky were similarly bottled in honour of the 514 area code!

There aren’t enough reviews of these whiskies to reach threshold for inclusion in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet, so let’s jump directly to my tasting notes:

Nose: Sweet and creamy rye, with some faint corn notes (likely from the ex-bourbon barrels). Red berries, cherries. Caramel apples. Fresh fruit cocktail. Dried apricots. A bit of dill, plus some sort of fragrant flower I can’t quite place. Barrel char. A faint milk chocolate note. Cinnamon and nutmeg. No real off notes. Fruitier than lot 40 (and less floral).

Palate: Very creamy in the mouth, with tons of butterscotch and caramel (again, seems to be that ex-bourbon). You just want to hold it before swallowing. More dried fruits now, instead of fresh. Sour green apple. Still a floral note, but can’t place it. Lots of soft cinnamon now. But also has some zing to it, with chilies, black pepper and cloves. A touch of bitterness on the swallow, but mild. The column-distilled rye grain comes across differently than the pot-distilled Lot 40, especially in the mouthfeel (i.e., the way it spreads across the tongue).

Finish: Medium. Candy coating on the tongue, cola. Cinnamon is back, as cloves settle down. Corn whisky notes come back again as well. Sticky residue on lips and gums. The finish is decent, but not really a stand-out for me.

Definitely one for those with a sweet tooth. I could see putting this almost on par with Lot 40 – except it lacks some of the complexity. Specifically, I get fewer floral notes and a less intense rye finish here (i.e., Lot 40 lasts longer). I would personally score this whisky a point or two less – maybe an 8.8 on my Meta-Critic scale.

The only review I’ve seen of this whisky so far is from Jason of In Search of Elegance, who gave it a slightly higher score with a very favourable review.

Not sure how long this one-time release will last here in Ontario, which is why I wanted to get this review out now. Rest assured, you don’t need to be a hockey fan to appreciate this quality straight rye whisky – but it could make a good gift for a Maple Leafs fan.

1 2 3 23