Author Archives: selfbuilt

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whisky in Japan, a lot of what you find reported online (and repeated on discussion forums) is often woefully out of date.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. 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.

Mackmyra Svensk Rök

Rök means smoke in Swedish, and this Svensk Rök edition (“Swedish Smoke”) is the first smokey single malt whisky released by Mackmyra, first launched in 2013. The traditional Swedish way of smoking food is over burning juniper, so they added juniper wood while kilning the barley for this edition.

As is typical for Mackmyra, they have used a range of cask types and sizes, including ones made of American oak and Swedish oak, in the form of ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso seasoned casks. Also as typical for them, they have used smallish cask sizes ranging from 30-128 litre capacity.

Like most Mackmyra whiskies, Svensk Rok does not have an age statement, but it is not chill filtered and doesn’t use any artificial coloring. Mackmyra reports that Svensk Rök is made of only “natural Swedish ingredients.” It is bottled at 46.1% ABV. I managed to pick up a 50 mL sample bottle in my travels through Germany last year.

Here’s how it compares to other Nordic whiskies:

Box (High Coast) Dalvve: 8.48 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) Early Days: 8.53 ± 0.24 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) PX – Pedro Ximénez Finish: 8.86 ± 0.17 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Box (High Coast) Quercus I Robur: 8.28 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) The 2nd Step Collection 02: 8.85 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Box (High Coast) The Festival 2014: 8.93 ± 0.12 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Ek: 8.36 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Rök: 8.63 ± 0.21 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Ten Years 10yo: 8.70 ± 0.11 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra The First Edition (Den Första Utgåvan): 8.66 ± 0.33 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Mackmyra The Swedish Whisky (Brukswhisky): 8.42 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews ($$)
Smogen Primör: 8.48 ± 0.25 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Smogen Single Cask (all editions): 8.88 ± 0.14 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Tycho’s Star: 8.71 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Faint peat, coming across as light smoke and dry ash. Light apple juice. Caramel. Light berries. A relatively faint juniper note, but much less than Mackmyra First Edition honestly. An unusual organic off-note – reminds me of mimeograph fluid (for those of you of a certain age). A bit of glue, but not offensive. All in all, an interesting start. Also reminds me a bit of Box Dalvve, for both the youth and light smoke.

Palate: Not as sweet as expected, but definite caramel and some vanilla. Much dryer than earlier Mackmyras (or Box Dalvve for that matter). No real fruits coming through, beyond standard apple/pear. Cigar ash. A bit of dry book-binding glue. White pepper. Bitterness after swallow, unfortunately, which detracts for me personally. A bit too simple in the mouth, honestly.

Finish: Medium. Apple juice with a squeeze of lemon. Caramel lingers, but so does the bitterness. Somewhat astringent on way out. The woodiness comes through here, but I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe it to juniper per se.

I’ve generally been a fan of most Swedish whiskies I’ve tried, including Mackmyra. But this one strikes me as a little lacking. Specifically, it seems too young, and not as interesting as similar lightly-peated youthful whiskies (i.e. I find even the entry-level Box Dalvve is better).

Among reviewers, Jim Murray was the most positive, with an above-average score. Serge of Whisky Fun, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Jonny of Whisky Advocate all give it an average score (but favourable reviews). I’m the lowest of the group on this one. An interesting experiment perhaps, but I find the smokey whiskies coming out of Box (High Coast) more interesting.

Laird of Fintry 2018 (Lot #5) Single Malt

I managed to snag a bottle of this year’s annual lottery release of Okanagan Spirits’ Laird of Fintry single malt whisky.

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery is located in British Columbia, Canada. They make a very wide range of distilled products, include aquavits, fruit brandies, liqueurs, gins, and vodkas – with a recent specialization in whiskies. They style themselves as an original harvest-to-flask operation, using 100% B.C. fruits and grains grown “a tractor ride away” from the distillery.

This is the 5th year that the distillery has offered a single malt release. The malted barley is locally grown, and distilled in copper pot stills. From the appearance, I would have assumed caramel colouring has been added – but their website states no artificial colours or flavours are used in any of their products (the bottle label makes no specific claims).

Bottled at 42% ABV. Age is unknown (but presumably only a few years old). Quantity produced varies by year, but 4,000 full-size bottle equivalents were produced for 2018 (they sell both full-size 750mL bottles and half-size “mickeys” of 375mL). Typically, they have more than twice that many people sign up for the lottery each year. Having won the lottery, I opted for a pair of the half-size bottles at $40 CAD each ($75 for the full-size bottle).

Here is how Laird of Fintry compares to other Canadian single malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Glen Breton 10yo Rare: 8.06 ± 0.47 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton Ice 10yo: 8.23 ± 0.59 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo: 8.07 ± 0.58 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Lohin McKinnon: 8.03 ± 0.30 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Lohin McKinnon Wine Barrel Finished (Black Sage): 7.76 ± 0.69 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Okanagan Spirits Laird of Fintry (all editions): 8.41 ± 0.72 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt (all Casks): 8.26 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$$)

As you can see, it does better than most (but there are a number of other craft brands out there that aren’t in my database yet, due to the low number of reviews).

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: A powerful fruity nose, you can smell it as soon as you pour the glass. In keeping with the distillery’s origins, it has a strong eau de vie (fruit brandy) aroma. Very candy sugar coated, with additional caramel and rum sweetness. Sour red cherries and  apple juice. Tons of citrus (in keeping with the young age). Banana and coca cola. Anise and some light dried glue (actually pleasant). A bit perfumy, but in a herbal way. While young, it is not burdened with the off notes that mar many young Canadian blends. Off to a good start!

Palate: The cola notes pick up in a major way (with a bit of tongue tingle that is reminiscent of carbonation). Plum, pear and apple. Rum raisin ice cream. Sweet red licorice joins the anise. Cinnamon and nutmeg, a bit of black pepper. Surprisingly creamy mouth feel (for 42% ABV), evocative of creamed wheat. Despite the sweetness, an herbal bitterness rises up on the swallow, which increases on successive sips. Not as interesting as the nose suggested, but still pleasant enough (if a bit flat).

Finish: Medium length. Stale flat coca cola initially. Unsweetened anise and pepper. Some astringency joins the bitterness. If you wait long enough, some syrupy sweetness returns at the very end. A bit disappointing really, but not surprising for the age (and still longer than I expected).

I’m not getting as many woody notes as some reviewers report (for earlier batches). But the fruit essence is very dominant. The cola and cherry notes remind me of some older Canadian Clubs I’ve tried. To be honest, it doesn’t really seem like a malt whisky – I’m not getting very many grain notes. More like an oak barrel-aged fruit brandy in many ways. This would likely appeal to those with a sweet tooth!

I would give it an average score, given its distinctive elements and lack of off-notes – but again, it doesn’t seem like a malt whisky.

I haven’t seen any reviews of this lot 5 (2018) edition yet. But for the earlier versions, Sinjun86 on Reddit gave very positive reviews of lot 1, lot 2 and lot 3. Lot 3 also got very positive reviews from Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, as well as xile_ of reddit. Mark of whisky.buzz gave it a below average score, and lowest score I’ve seen was by Ethanized. Lot 4 had a very positive review by Neversaveforlife on Reddit, followed by a moderate score from TOModera.

 

 

 

 

Cutty Sark Prohibition

Cutty Sark is an entry-level blended scotch whisky (and one that I find is more popular with an older generation of drinkers). Not a fan myself, but I have been curious about this quite different small-batch version of Cutty Sark known as Prohibition.

The name is apparently a nod to the fact that the brand was popularly smuggled into America in the 1920s. The whisky is presented in a very retro black glass bottle with a cork top, typical of bottles during that era. Surpisingly, it is bottled at 50% ABV, which is impressive for an entry-level blend (regular Cutty Sark is standard 40% ABV).

It is not always available, but sells ~$36 CAD in Ontario/Quebec when it does show up, compared to ~$27 for regular Cutty Sark (which is pretty much the floor price for whisky in this country). It also get significantly higher reviews, as shown in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other entry-level scotch blends:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.61 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($)
Bell’s Original: 7.56 ± 0.69 on 8 reviews ($)
Black Bottle (after 2013): 8.02 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$)
Catto’s Rare Old: 8.00 ± 0.69 on 5 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark: 7.53 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark Prohibition: 8.48 ± 0.45 on 15 reviews ($$)
Cutty Sark Storm: 8.04 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($)
Dewar’s 12yo: 7.95 ± 0.36 on 14 reviews ($$)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.60 ± 0.70 on 16 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse: 7.67 ± 0.57 on 21 reviews ($)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12yo: 8.46 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Grand Macnish: 7.86 ± 0.45 on 8 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve Blended: 7.70 ± 0.64 on 14 reviews ($)
Grant’s 12yo: 8.46 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$)
J&B Rare: 6.95 ± 1.11 on 13 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.42 ± 0.61 on 23 reviews ($)
Teacher’s Highland Cream: 7.87 ± 0.73 on 12 reviews ($)

Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Wow, that’s a lot of butterscotch. Toffee too. Butter caramels. Condensed milk and fudge. Yowza, that’s the full caramel gamut. Creamed corn. Stewed apples. Some citrus. A touch of cinnamon. No real off notes.

Palate: Very buttery, with the caramel notes continuing. Maybe a faint hint of dark chocolate. Baking spices and black pepper. Not very malty, but great mouthfeel thanks to the high ABV. Also a bit of zing on the swallow.

Finish: Medium long. Stewed apples again. Some ginger spice – but really lots of pepper, both black and white. Faint hint of bitterness. Sweetness lasts the longest.

A bit of water adds more fruit, peaches and pears in particular. It tames the alcohol zing a little but not the pepper – and it keeps the great buttery mouthfeel. Peppery tingle continues to the end. Recommend a little splash of water to help with the burn.

While nothing exciting, it is definitely worth an overall average score in my books – and represents great value for money.

Highest score comes from Patrick of Quebec Whisky, followed by Andre and Martin, and Dominic of Whisky Advocate. More moderately positive are Jim Murray and Serge of Whisky Fun. Less enthusiastic (but not negative) are Josh the Whiskey Jug, Mark of whisky.buzz, and Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Rather low scores come from Ruben of Whisky Notes and cjotto9 and Texacer of Reddit.

J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

Seasoned Oak is the latest member of the Rare Cask series from J.P. Wiser’s, following up on Dissertation and Union 52. Only 6,000 bottles of this 19 year old whisky have been released, exclusive for Ontario.

According to Wiser’s, this Canadian whisky was partially aged in “seasoned” oak barrels, whose staves were air-dried and exposed to the natural elements for over 48 months.

To explain this process, freshly cut oak is fairly “wet”, with loads of sap and tannins that contribute many of the “green” notes to whisky. Wet wood is also prone to shrinking and warping, which is not ideal for coopering.  You can dry the wood out in in large kilns, but some degree of natural aging in open air is typically preferred. Just like a fence or deck, exposure to the natural elements (sun and rain, in particular) will grey the wood – and wash out some of the more bitter “woody” elements.

Barrels made of well-seasoned oak would be expected to have less woody influence over the short-term of aging. In the case of this release, Wiser’s naturally aged the wood for longer than usual (4 years). But it’s important to note that the whiskies that went into these barrels spent the first 18 years of their lives in standard, well used barrels. It was only for the final year did the previously separately-aged corn and rye whiskies marry together in these new, heavily-seasoned oak barrels.

Bottled at 48% ABV, it sells for $100 CAD at the LCBO. My sample came from Jason of In Search of Elegance.

Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other Wiser’s special releases:

J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.41 ± 0.21 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.56 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 9.00 ± 0.48 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation: 9.02 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.84 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s One Fifty: 8.50 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.78 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Union 52: 8.87 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: A strong nose, this is a classic Canadian whisky amped-up – both the sweetness and the spiciness are heightened. Fresh raisins, prunes and blueberries, along with dried cranberries and orange peel. Caramel and vanilla. Cherrywood. Leather. Wood spice (cloves in particular). Barrel char. A lot going on here, it’s tough to pull everything out. Unfortunately, it also has a strong acetone smell, plus a number of other organic solvents, which detract for me.

Palate: Very sweet and creamy arrival, tons of caramel and corn syrup –  which hit like an overwhelming wave. Condensed milk. Oak spices builds up only after the first couple of sips – cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a touch of black pepper. Unfortunately, the bitterness also builds – must notably on the swallow. I’m frankly surprised that seasoned wood would leave this much bitterness behind. But mainly, I’m disappointed at how simple it seems on the palate – compared to the more subtle notes from the nose. I love the silky and creamy mouthfeel though – that 48% ABV is really helping here.

Finish: Medium, with wood spice dominating. Unfortunately, the bitterness lingers too. I’m not really getting much of a resurgence here of the core notes from the nose (maybe leather). Frankly, it just seems to fade-out fairly quickly.

Water dampens the mouthfeel quickly, and doesn’t help with the solvent off-notes on the nose or the bitterness on the finish. I recommend you try it full-strength before adding any water, for the full experience.

Well, this is a tough one to score. While it has some great characteristics on the nose, there is also a lot that counts against it. Beginning with the organic solvent smell, the fairly basic palate and finish (plus bitterness) drag it down for me. At the end of the day, I’d have to give this whisky a fairly average score overall – not because it is mediocre per se, but because it is discordant for the more positive and negative characteristics.

Among reviewers, Jason of In Search of Elegance, Mark Bylok of Whisky Buzz and Davin of Canadian Whisky are all big fans, giving it a high score. Reddit reviewers are typically fairly negative on it, with below-average scores – including from Devoz, TOModera and xile_. I’m more in the Reddit reviewer camp here.

An interesting experience, but in my view, there are better Canadian whiskies available for less – including last year’s Rare Cask release of Dissertation. Personally, I’d recommend you pick that one up, before it disappears (Dissertation has been de-listed by the LCBO online portal, but can still be found on the shelves near where I live).

 

Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt

When I was in Switzerland last year, I managed to try a number of local single malt whiskies. Whisky production is a relatively new thing there (having only been legally allowed since 1999), and most of the early producers were already long-established brewers. I’ve seen this pattern before in a number of countries, as there are a lot of similarities in brewing beer and distilling malt whisky.

While most of the young whiskies I tried were fairly mediocre (and one was absolutely dreadful), the best of the bunch was Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt. Produced by the brewer Rugenbräu, this no-age-statement (NAS) malt whisky is aged in American oak ex-Sherry casks (presumably refill casks, given the relatively light colour). This is a step up from many of the other brewer/distillers, who tend re-use beer barrels (something I personally find rarely benefits a malt whisky).

I would have passed this unassuming whisky by, in favour of a few limited age-stated releases of other makers – until a knowledgeable bartender directed me to try it. He explained that Jim McEwan, previous Master Distiller and owner of Bruichladdich, was so impressed with the production of Rugenbräu that he immediately decided to become a patron and advisor to the distillery. Indeed, it is his personal tasting notes that adorn the backs of all their bottlings.

Bottled at 46% ABV. This Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt was awarded a Silver medal at the 2017 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London.  MSRP is 81 Swiss Francs (about ~$106 CAD) for a 700mL bottle.

Here is how it compares to other Swiss and central European malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Gouden Carolus Single Malt: 8.27 ± 0.36 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Millstone 12yo Sherry Cask: 8.74 ± 0.64 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Millstone 8yo French Oak: 7.96 ± 0.63 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Santis Alpstein (all editions): 8.58 ± 0.11 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Santis Edition Dreifaltigkeit / Cask Strength Peated: 7.14 ± 1.66 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Santis Edition Sigel: 7.94 ± 0.80 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Santis Edition Säntis: 7.55 ± 0.83 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt: 8.65 ± 0.40 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Hmmm, that’s different. There’s something very vegetal at play here. Mushrooms? The earthy funkiness reminds me of a lightly peated whisky (but I’m not getting any smoke). Leather. some Oloroso notes coming through, including some golden sultanas and raisins. I’m detecting a bit of acetone at the end, but it’s pretty well hidden under the funk. I like it.

Palate: A relatively light palate, almost watery. Bourbony wood notes come up first – vanilla, caramel. Not much fruit, mainly prunes and a light berry. A bit candied as well (candy canes). Oloroso notes come back at end, with some cocoa.‎ A bit of cinnamon, and some tobacco. Not overwhelming, but no real off notes either. A fairly subtle experience – but pleasant.

Finish: Short. Mildly sweet. The cocoa turns more to chocolate now, and includes some bitter dark chocolate notes.  Again, no real off notes.

Easy drinking‎, I could see this doing well as a standard, everyday sort of pour.

Jim Murray is a big fan of this whisky.  It gets an average score from Jonny of Whisky Advocate. The lowest score I’ve seen comes from cake_my_day on Reddit.  I would give it an average score overall, and so find the Meta-Critic composite score reasonable. I’d be curious to try more from this distillery.

Mackinlay’s Shackleton Blended Malt

Talk about a great story. The fascinating history behind this relatively entry-level Scottish blended malt whisky starts with the discovery of century-old crates of Scotch whisky in the Antarctic permafrost – as recounted here. To understand what this bottling is (and isn’t), I need to take you on an abridged tour of that story – and of the initial limited release Shackleton recreations.

In preparation for his 1907 expedition to Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton provisioned his ship with a blended whisky produced by Mackinlay (a brand now owned by Whyte & Mackay). Although he never reached the South Pole, he had stashed three crates of the whisky at his base camp at Cape Royds. These were discovered in 2007 by a team carrying out conservation work on Shackleton’s expedition hut, buried under the floor boards.

In 2011, three of the bottles were flown back to Scotland for chemical and sensory analysis – where it was discovered they were only lightly peated (using Orkney peat), bottled at 47.3% ABV, and had been matured in American oak sherry casks. The first recreation of this Shackleton whisky – by Whyte & Mackay master blended Richard Paterson – was a limited release of 50,000 bottles (known as the Discovery edition). This was followed up by a second limited release a year later, with a different composition (known as the Journey edition).

In 2017, they decided to produce a general release of a more basic blended malt under the Shackleton name. To be clear – and unlike the earlier limited releases – this is not intended to be a literal recreation of the actual Shackleton expedition whisky. Instead, think of it as a loose approximation of the style, for a modern audience (capturing “the essense” of Shackleton, as Paterson puts it).

Initially released in 1 L bottles through Global Travel Retail (aka Duty-Free), standard 750 mL bottles have been available more generally since early 2018. Bottled at 40% ABV, it sells for $58 CAD at the LCBO. As with the previous limited releases, a small contribution from each sale goes to the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Here is how the various Shackleton releases compare in Meta-Critic Whisky Database, in relation to other Whyte & Mackay whiskies.

Dalmore 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Cigar Malt: 8.42 ± 0.40 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.06 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Fettercairn Fior: 8.48 ± 0.26 on 6 reviews ($$$)
John Barr Reserve (Black Label): 7.90 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($)
Jura 10yo Origin: 8.06 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Jura 12yo Elixir: 8.32 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Jura Prophecy: 8.66 ± 0.30 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Jura Superstition: 8.28 ± 0.45 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Mackinlay’s Shackleton Blended Malt: 8.41 ± 0.39 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Mackinlay’s Shackleton Rare Old Highland Malt Discovery edition: 8.88 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackinlay’s Shackleton Rare Old Highland Malt Journey edition: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Whyte & Mackay 13yo: 8.05 ± 0.54 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Whyte & Mackay Blended Triple Matured: 7.31 ± 0.87 on 3 reviews ($)
Whyte & Mackay Special Blended: 7.65 ± 0.41 on 7 reviews ($)

As you can see, the average scores drop from the the first limited release to the second – and again, to this general release. Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet apple juice. Honey. Light caramel. Sour cherries. Gummy bears and bubblegum. Light touch of smoke. No real off notes, which is impressive for the price point. Fairly basic, but pleasant.

Palate: Honey again, with some light corn syrup. Apple juice. Sourness from nose continues as well, with some tart green apple. A touch of orange juice. A bit of bitterness on swallow. Smoke turns into a more persistent funkiness (as you sometimes find with lightly-peated whiskies). Reminds me of Scapa Skiren.

Finish: Simple and fairly short. Again, honey and apple juice persist the longest. Bitterness from the wood does build with time. Seems youngish.

Scapa Skiren is indeed the closest match I can think of, but with perhaps a bit more character here on the nose. Fans of the Johnnie Walker Black style may also like this recreation.

There aren’t too many reviews of this general-release Shackleton whisky yet. Jonny of Whisky Advocate gives it a very high rating – in contrast to Thomas of Whisky Saga and throwboats on Reddit, who both give it a low score. I think the Meta-Critic average score is fair. A decent blended malt whisky for the price, but nothing too complex or interesting. Still a great story though!

J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018

Following up on their first Commemorative Series release last year (for Canada’s 150th anniversary), J.P. Wiser’s recently released this Canada 2018 edition in time for July 1st celebrations. Ostensibly, this release is in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 49th parallel (which marks the demarcation line for most of the border to our southern neighbour).

While Wiser’s doesn’t disclose the exact composition of this blend, it has been reported online that this is the same combination of corn and rye whisky as last year – just aged for an extra year. There also seems to be a few more bottles of this special release, as last year’s popular version had largely sold out by Canada Day around here. Bottled at 43.4%, it is available for $50 CAD at the LCBO.

There aren’t many reviews out there yet for this whisky, but here is how it compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to other Wiser’s releases – including the Canada One Fifty release:

J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.41 ± 0.21 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 9.00 ± 0.48 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Deluxe: 7.93 ± 0.67 on 11 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation: 9.02 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s One Fifty: 8.50 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye: 8.49 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Lots of corn – creamed corn in particular. Caramel. Candied fruits. Orange peel. Baked bread. Fairly soft overall, although a few rye notes come through. No real off notes, accept perhaps for very faint acetone – better than most inexpensive Canadian blends in this regard. Seems like a very standard Canadian whisky profile.

Palate: The corn notes dominate, more corn syrup now. Caramel still. Not as much fruit initially, but this builds over time – with candied red fruits. Red delicious apples. Not much spice, but a bit of oak char. Dill and something slightly nutty. Some rye spice builds with time. The palate matches the nose, no surprises here. OK mouthfeel, not as watery as most Canadian ryes (that extra couple of percentage points on the ABV helps). Nothing spectacular, but nothing amiss either.

Finish: Medium. Light corn syrup. Candied fruit lingers, with some hints of coconut now. Slight bitterness, but not offensive. Again, very typically Canadian.

This is a very representative example of the Canadian whisky style. While it doesn’t have great depth or complexity, there are hints of something earthy underlying its sweet corn whisky core. And it lacks the organic off-notes that mar many Canadian whiskies for me. I would give this Canada 2018 edition an overall average score for the Canadian whisky class (~8.5).

The most positive review of this whisky is from Davin of Canadian Whisky. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a below-average score (but a decent review). I must say I’m closer to Jason on this one – a fairly generic and average Canadian whisky profile, but well done.

Crown Royal Blender’s Select

One of the pet peeves of Crown Royal whisky fans in Canada is that one of their best bottlings – Hand Selected Barrel – is only available in the U.S. This is a cask-strength, single barrel version of one of the core “flavouring” whiskies used in most Crown Royal blends – a high-rye mashbill, coffey still-distilled, virgin oak-aged whisky.

But now, Ontarians can get a taste of what this bourbon-style whisky is like – through Blender’s Select, a batched version sold exclusively at the LCBO. I’m surprised they had enough available to produce this 5000-case release, as this high-demand whisky is only made once a year, over a 5 week period, at their plant in Gimli, Manitoba.

To create this blended whisky, Crown Royal has added some 9 year old whisky to the standard 7 year old used in Hand Selected Barrel, to help compensate for the lower proof in this batched version (45% ABV). It sells for $55 CAD exclusively at the LCBO (although I’ve seen it on sale a couple of times now).

Let’s see how it compares to other Crown Royals in Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Crown Royal: 7.57 ± 0.49 on 19 reviews ($)
Crown Royal Black: 8.20 ± 0.50 on 16 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Blender’s Select: 8.61 ± 0.14 on 4 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Bourbon Mash (Blender’s Mash): 8.32 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Limited Edition: 8.29 ± 0.19 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.62 ± 0.47 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend: 8.37 ± 0.69 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.70 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.56 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.46 ± 0.65 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.56 ± 0.54 on 8 reviews ($$$)

While there are not too many reviews, that’s certainly a good score for a Crown Royal.

And now, what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet and fruity nose, very creamy too. Candy apple. Orange citrus. Butterscotch and caramel. Buttered popcorn. Something hard to describe, but reminiscent of powdered candy canes. Oil of cloves. Some acetone, but not bad – better than the one Hand Selected Barrel I tried. Very nice nose in the end, if you like your rye sweet.

Palate: Sweet and fruity again, dark fruits especially. Caramel and vanilla. Reminds me a bit of Canadian Club 100% Rye – but with even more fruitiness. Wood spice, with a touch of pepper. Seems a bit watery for ABV. Some sting on the swallow – plus some bitterness (common to Crown Royal).

Finish: Medium. I don’t find it has as much aspartame (artificial sweetener) as most Crown Royals, this one again seems more like crushed candy sugar. It’s also not as bitter on the way out as most Crown Royals.

My own real complaint here is that it lacks mouthfeel, and seems kind of watery for the ABV. I would have to rate this one as comparable in quality to Northern Harvest Rye, on par with Crown Royal Reserve and the one Hand Selected Barrel I’ve had (which seems to have been somewhat sub-par for the class, based on the other reviews I’ve seen). Nothing really compelling here over the rest of the line, but a solid expression for Crown Royal.

It gets the highest review from Davin of Whisky Advocate, followed by Jason of In Search of Elegance and Beppi of the Globe & Mail. I would come in at the lower end here personally.

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