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J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Yvan Cournoyer 12 Year Old

Following on in my reviews of the “Captains series” – the third release of the J.P. Wiser’s NHL Alumni series of whiskies – today I am looking at the whisky named after Yvan Cournoyer of the Montreal Canadiens. This series is actually the second batch of the 2019-2020 edition, which includes fellow Captains Dave Keon (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Mark Messier (Edmonton Oilers).

Collectively, the NHL Alumni whiskies are something of the sleeper hit of the Canadian whisky scene in the last couple of years. While they don’t garner a lot of reviewer attention, all the individual whiskies are limited editions that feature age statements and more distilling and barreling details than typically found in Canadian whisky. As before, the profits from the series are shared evenly with NHL Alumni Association, to help support former players in need. This batch all currently retail for ~$45 CAD in most jurisdictions.

At this time (July 2020), all of the second batch 2019-2020 edition whiskies are available from J.P. Wiser’s website (for delivery in Ontario only).

Let’s check out the composition of this Yvan Cournoyer whisky:

Grains: a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley
Age: 12 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: single column distilled rye, column and then pot-distilled rye (i.e., Lot 40), double distilled corn, and column distilled malt.
Oak: a mix of used Canadian barrels, ex-Bourbon and Virgin Oak casks

Yvan “The Roadrunner” Cournoyer was a right-winger and Captain of the Montreal Canadiens from 1975-78. But his peak years were 1971-73, and he was famous for his role in the 1972 Summit Series – scoring three goals, and providing the crucial assist for Paul Henderson’s series-ending winning goal. And that is one of the nods here – apparently the mix for this whisky was “inspired” by the 1972 recipe for Carleton Tower, an old Hiram Walker blend. It is aged for 12 years in honour of Cournoyer’s retired Canadiens jersey number. This was the whisky that I was most curious to try when the new edition was released, with its inclusion of Lot 40 rye.

Here is how it compares to other Wiser’s whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database:

Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.58 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.32 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Darryl Sitter 10yo: 8.08 ± 0.41 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Dave Keon 14yo: 8.86 ± 0.17 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Guy Lafleur 10yo: 8.48 ± 0.10 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Lanny MacDonald 9yo: 8.09 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Larry Robinson 6yo: 8.55 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Mark Messier 11yo: 8.76 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Paul Coffey 7yo: 8.20 ± 0.41 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Wendel Clark 11yo: 8.90 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Yvan Cournoyer 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye: 8.48 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.88 ± 0.36 on 26 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet corn, corn syrup, and candy corn (notice the theme?). Peaches and dried apricots. Dried barley. Quite floral – but again, in a dried flowers way. Not really getting a lot rye spice yet. Slightly organic note, but not offensive. Overall has a young and bright nose, with a lot gentle dried fruit and flowers.

Palate: Creamy corn. Vanilla. Dried apple and apricots. Orange zest. The grainy notes are coming through more stewed than dry now. Woodier than the nose suggested, with a nice mix of oaky notes. The rye spices show up on the swallow, with some classic cinnamon. Mouthfeel is fairly light, in keeping with the standard 40% ABV.

Finish: Relative quick finish. Remains pleasantly floral, with violets and touch of roses. Orange citrus still. Bit of lingering saccharine, balancing out the slight oaky bitterness (and a touch of spice).

The corn notes are fairly dominant here, as you might expect. The rye is coming through more in a floral way than in a spicy sense. And the fruits definitely tend toward the dried variety. A refined and contemplative whisky. I can’t help but feel that a higher proof would have helped amp it up a bit though.

This whisky received a gold medal at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards. Among reviewers, the highest score I’ve seen comes from Chip the Rum Howler. Jason of In Search of Elegance was fairly positive as well. This whisky received moderately positive reviews, but mediocre scores, from Andre, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. My own assessment is good match with the overall Meta-Critic average score. A good buy, but the Wendel Clark and Dave Keon whiskies remain my top picks.

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Dave Keon 14 Year Old

Corby came out late last year with a second batch of the “2019-2020 edition” of the J.P. Wiser’s NHL Alumni series of whiskies. The first batch of the 2019-2020 edition featured whiskies named after Larry Robinson, Darryl Sittler, and Paul Coffey. These followed on from the initial 2018-19 edition, which featured Guy Lafleur, Wendel Clark, and Lanny McDonald

This second batch is the “Captains series,” featuring whiskies named after Captains of well-known NHL franchises in Canada. The whiskies were all designed by Dr Don Livermore, Master Blender of Corby (who owns J.P. Wiser’s). All whiskies featured age statements and more distilling and barreling details than typically found in Canadian whiskies (especially at this price point). As before, the profits from the series are shared evenly with NHL Alumni Association, to help support former players in need.

At this time (July 2020), all of the second batch 2019-2020 edition whiskies are available from J.P. Wiser’s website (for delivery in Ontario only). All bottles in this batch currently retail for ~$45 CAD in most jurisdictions.

Let’s check out the specific composition of this Dave Keon whisky:

Grains: a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley
Age: 14 years old
ABV: 45%
Distilling: single column distilled rye, column and pot-distilled rye, single column distilled malt, and double-distilled corn.
Oak: a mix of used Canadian barrels, ex-Bourbon, Virgin Oak, and ex-Speyside casks

Dave Keon was a centre forward for the Maple Leafs – from an earlier generation in the early-to-mid 1960s when they won several Stanley Cups (prior to his being named Captain). Aged 14 years in honour of his jersey number 14. The ABV is also a nod to Keon’s 45-point first season. And the 4 types of oak casks are a nod to his 4 Stanley Cup wins.

Here is how it compares to other Wiser’s whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database:

Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.58 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.32 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Darryl Sitter 10yo: 8.08 ± 0.41 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Dave Keon 14yo: 8.86 ± 0.17 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Guy Lafleur 10yo: 8.48 ± 0.10 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Lanny MacDonald 9yo: 8.09 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Larry Robinson 6yo: 8.55 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Mark Messier 11yo: 8.76 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Paul Coffey 7yo: 8.20 ± 0.41 on 7 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Wendel Clark 11yo: 8.90 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Yvan Cournoyer 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye: 8.48 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.88 ± 0.36 on 26 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$)

As you can see, this is one of the highest-scoring Wiser’s whiskies at this price point.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Light, simple sugar to start (molasses) – with creamy corn notes followed by vanilla. Apple juice. Dried fruits, including apricots. Grassy. Range of woody notes, with some nice rye spice (cinnamon and cloves). Slight acetone note, but not bad. Hints at cask variety, but doesn’t come off strongly as anything specific. How very Canadian!

Palate: Even heavier dose of molasses, plus caramel corn. Vanilla. Only lightly fruity, and definitely more floral than grassy now. Cinnamon and cloves again, plus a touch of anise. Black (indian) tea. The oakiness is more obvious now, with dried paper on the swallow. This is nice in the mouth, lots of character with good balance. Really nice mouthfeel too, buttery texture. Nice.

Finish: Medium long. The dried fruits are back, with apple and apricot being the most prominent. Candy corn coating on lips and gum. Cinnamon and cloves still prominent. A bit of old wet tea bag (tannic tea notes) lasts the longest.

A quality whisky to be sure. The complexity kind of makes me think of an aged version of Larry Robinson (although without all the winey notes from that whisky). A nice sipper, probably the most well balanced member of the collection so far.  A good example of what Canadian whisky can be. I would say this is my second favourite so far, after Wendel Clark.

This whisky received a gold medal at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards. Among reviewers, the highest score I’ve seen comes from Andre of Quebec Whisky, followed by Jason of In Search of Elegance and Chip the Rum Howler. Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky are also very positive, but give it slightly lower scores (still well above average).  I’m probably closer to the middle of the pack on this one – if the nose were a bit fuller (and lacking that off note), my rating would probably match the top ones. A very good value.

Pike Creek 21 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish (2019)

I find Pike Creek to be one of the more under-appreciated (and under-valued) whiskies in the Corby/Hiram Walker stable of whiskies. In its standard 10 year old form, it is a pleasant, sweet, easy sipper – nothing too exciting, but popular with everyone I’ve ever shared it with (although some reviewers are fairly negative on it). See my earlier reviews of the original Port barrel-aged Pike’s Creek 10 year old, and newer rum barrel-finished version.

The initial 21 year old release as part of the Northern Border Collection in 2017 featured additional aging in Speyside scotch whisky barrels. I never picked up the 2018 release that was aged in Hungarian oak (as that kind of finishing isn’t something I typically enjoy). But last year, they released a version that used Oloroso sherry casks for aging – which is much more likely to be up my alley. I typically enjoy single malt scotch whiskies aged in sherry casks (Oloroso in particular – with their classic nutty, dried dark fruits, rancio and tannic oak notes). Sherry oak casks are not something you come across too often in Canadian whisky, so this was certainly worth a gamble.

Like most Pike Creek’s, this is made predominantly from the light base, column-distilled corn whisky that underpins most Canadian whisky, aged for 21 years. Added to this base is a touch of column-distilled rye whisky, for extra peppery spice. The blend was then finished (or re-gauged, in Canadian whisky parlance) in Oloroso sherry casks for an undisclosed period of time.

Bottled at 45% ABV. This edition retails for $90 CAD at the LCBO in Ontario. I picked up my bottled on sale in Alberta for a bit less late last Fall. Only 4481 bottles were produced, but it can still be found in some jurisdictions (including Ontario).

Of note, this whisky won Whisky of the Year at the Canadian Whisky Awards in early 2020. This competition involves blind taste testing by an experienced panel of Canadian whisky reviewers, and is always worth a close look every year. You can learn more about these awards in my Canadian Whisky Trends for 2020 article.

Here is how this Pike Creek 21yo compares to other Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky database:

Gooderham & Worts 19yo 49 Wellington (2019): 8.77 ± 0.30 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Eleven Souls Four Grain (2018): 8.89 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 23yo Cask Strength Blend (2019): 9.08 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo (2018): 9.15 ± 0.20 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 11yo (2018): 9.17 ± 0.20 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength Third Edition (2019): 8.74 ± 0.38 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.25 ± 0.53 on 17 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 21yo Double Barrel European Oak Cask (2018): 8.58 ± 0.38 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Double Barrel Speyside Cask Finish (2017): 8.66 ± 0.32 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (2019): 8.84 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

This is certainly the highest-scoring Pike Creek expression, and second highest scoring of the 2019 Northern Border Collection.

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet and buttery, almost rum-like in a way. Creamy, with vanilla, chocolate and toffee notes. Orange rind and apple juice. Some dark fruits, but fairly restrained. Wine gums. Slightly nutty. No off notes. It is a good nose to linger on, seems mature for a Canadian whisky. And the sherry is quite mild and not at all over-powering, like they struck a good balance.

Palate: Sweet, with a lot more caramel than I expected from the nose. Milk chocolate too (Rolo candies come to mind). Orange zest. Sour wine gums now. Cinnamon. The nuttiness comes across more like earthiness in the mouth. The caramel sweetness and cinnamon heat (plus some black pepper) makes it seem like there was some active wood in the mix (i.e., virgin oak). I suspect this “woodiness” must be coming from the French oak Sherry casks, as I don’t see any published reports of virgin oak aging here. Definitely more woody than typical for a Pike Creek, or Canadian whisky in general – you would be excused for thinking this was actually a light bourbon.

Finish: Longish. Mainly caramel and red wine dregs initially (somewhat tannic). Oakiness remains throughout, with a nice light cinnamon note and touch of pepper. It never gets too bitter, and some lingering sherry sweetness persists to the end.

I can see why this won the CWA’s Whisky of the Year – it is very distinctive for the Canadian class (and one that is indeed very much in my wheelhouse). Sherry barrels are relatively rare in Canadian whisky, and the drier Oloroso seems to have paired really well with the sweet light corn and rye whiskies used here. Indeed, the overall sweetness made me think of PX or Moscatel sherry initially – but the faint earthy/nutty notes are consistent with Oloroso.

It is a shame we don’t see more sherry-finished Canadian whisky, as this is one of the best examples that I have had of a fortified wine-matured Canadian whisky. With its woody and sweet nature, it seems less like a Canadian whisky and more like a sherry-finished light bourbon – or a sherry-finished scotch that had some virgin oak aging.

It never occurred to me to trying adding water to this – it drinks beautifully just as it is. This is one of better Northern Border Collection whiskies I’ve had, outside of the cask-strength Lot 40s – and my new favourite for the 2019 collection so far.

In addition to winning whisky of the year at the Canadian Whisky Awards, Jason of In Search of Elegance and Mark of Whisky Buzz gave this expression top scores (which match my own assessment). Moderately positive scores came from Davin of Whisky Advocate, Martin of Quebec Whisky and the Toronto Whisky Society. The lowest scores I’ve seen come from Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, and Tomodera.

Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey

Yellow Spot is a member of a family of “bonded” Irish Whiskies produced by Irish Distillers for an independent wine merchant in Ireland, Mitchell & Son, of Dublin.  As with Green Spot and the recently re-released Red Spot, the whisky name derives from Mitchell’s historic practice of marking casks of different ages with spot of coloured paint.

Green Spot – the youngest in age and the lightest in flavour – became their most popular seller, and is the only one to remain in continuous production over the years (albeit with no age statement in recent years). The others were discontinued in the late 1960s, with Yellow Spot (12 years old) relaunched in 2012, and Red Spot (15 years old) recently relaunched in 2019.

All are examples of single pot still Irish whisky (aka pure pot still). This is when a  combination of malted and unmalted barley are distilled together in a single, large copper pot still. This is the traditional method for whisky production in Ireland.

Yellow Spot has a 12 year old age statement, and is a combination of pot still whiskies matured in three types of casks: American bourbon casks, Spanish Sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks. The latter two are is in keeping with Mitchell’s tradition of importing fortified wines. The Malaga casks are an unusual choice, very rare in the whisky world. Malaga is a sweet fortified wine originating in the Spanish city of Málaga, and is made from a mix of Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes. Full-term maturation is used for this component, which should impart a richer and sweeter flavour than more typical sherry cask finishing.

The whisky is non-chill-filtered, and bottled at a respectable 46% ABV. I picked up my bottle a couple of years ago at the LCBO here in Ontario for $100 CAD.

Let’s see how it compares to other higher-end Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Green Spot: 8.51 ± 0.35 on 24 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton: 8.82 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Montelena: 8.44 ± 0.29 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Red Spot 15yo: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Yellow Spot 12yo: 8.79 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$)

Jameson 12yo Special Reserve: 8.37 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Jameson 18yo Limited Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Jameson Gold Reserve: 8.44 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy: 9.10 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Midleton Very Rare (all vintages): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Powers 12yo John’s Lane: 8.84 ± 0.36 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength: 9.02 ± 0.30 on 26 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 15yo: 8.73 ± 0.26 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 21yo: 9.11 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Redbreast Lustau Edition: 8.66 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Definitely woody, with light caramel, vanilla and honeysuckle notes. Fresh and dried apricots and peaches, and a touch of fresh cherries. Wood spice, especially nutmeg and cloves. Wet green tea leaves. Hay and fresh-cut green grass. It is unusual to find both the fresh and dry notes at the same time, which must be due to the diverse wood aging. Faint hint of sweat socks, but not objectionable. With a bit of water it gets sweeter, as brown sugar joins the mix – plus a creamy custard.

Palate: Spicier than I expected, with the wood spice up front (especially the cloves), as well as black pepper. Caramel, vanilla and honey sweetness. Ground cherries. Consistent with the nose, it is very earthy, with moist and dry notes both present. Oily mouthfeel, likely thanks to the higher ABV (which also brings with it a fair amount of alcohol heat, unusual for an Irish whisky). Dry paper note returns on swallow. A bit of water sweetens and helps with the ethanol sting, without affecting the pleasant oiliness. Definitely recommend you add a few drops.

Finish: Medium long. Cinnamon and nutmeg are prominent now. Dried apricots again. Astringency shows up, in a tannic tea way. A faint lingering sweetness for sure, but I find the oaky notes dominate, with a mild woody bitterness. The classic Irish pot still “greasiness” shows up at the end, with a sticky coating on the lips and gums. With water, I find a bit of anise joins the woody/earthy character, which I like.

A bit of water really helps here, restoring a more typical Irish whisky sweetness, and taming the mouth burn and bitterness on the finish. Highly recommended you add a few drops.

My only (minor) complaint here is that the classic Irish pot still character is a bit submerged under the fortified wine finish. It is still there if you hunt for it though. A very nice example overall of what good sherry finishing can do with a delicate base spirit.

Yellow Spot receives very high scores from Nathan the Scotch Noob, Josh the Whiskey Jug, Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer and Jan of Best Shot Whisky (honestly, I’m in this camp as well).  Moderately positive are Jonny of Whisky Advocate, Serge of Whisky Fun, and The Muskok and Tomodera of Reddit. The lowest scores (although with still fairly positive comments) come from Ruben of Whisky Notes and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Canadian Whisky Trends 2020

As a Canadian whisky enthusiast, I have been heartened by the strong trend toward new quality Canadian whiskies in recent years. There continues to be many quality bottlings coming out on a regular basis, from both the main producers, and from an increasing number of smaller “craft” distillers on the scene.

To be clear, the vast majority of mass-produced, bulk-released, low-cost Canadian whisky remains – to borrow a phrase from the wine world – plonk. This is especially true for what we export. I am constantly embarrassed when I browse whisky shops around the world and see Canadian whisky products (often with a prominent maple leaf) that wouldn’t even qualify as bottom-shelf whisky here (e.g. Ensign Red, Ellington, McAdams, etc.). If they do have established Canadian brands, it is often no more than Seagram’s VO, Canadian Club Premium and perhaps entry-level Crown Royal.

But as all local Canadian enthusiasts know, we are getting spoiled by an increasingly diverse range of specialty bottlings of Canadian whisky (e.g. J.P. Wiser’s Northern Border Collection, the Rare Cask series), and new producers trying innovative things, including often a focus on malt whiskies (e.g., Two Brewers, Shelter Point, Lohin McKinnon). Many of these of are still geographically limited in distribution, but a lot is available here in our most populous province of Ontario – and I personally get to travel around Canada a lot as well.

While my Meta-Critic Database provides a lot of great information in helping you choose a whisky, I thought I would spend some time in this article describing what I’m gleaned from the results of the annual Canadian Whisky Awards, organized by Davin De Kergommeaux.

Looking over the recent list of winners at the Canadian Whisky Awards for 2020, I couldn’t help but notice how many more whiskies are being reviewed each year. But a few interesting patterns reveal themselves, if you compare to past years.  For a full list of past year results, please check out the News and Views page of Davin’s

First, a quick word about why these awards are interesting. In addition to being exclusively focused on Canadian whisky (and whisky-based spirits), Davin assembles a panel of very experienced Canadian whisky reviewers (a number of whom – like Davin – are tracked individually for scores in my Meta-Critic Database). But for the annual awards, all reviewers score the whiskies “blind” to the identity of the samples they receive.  The independently tabulated scores are then used to assign medals each year.

This gives us the opportunity to see what happens when reviewers don’t know what they are drinking. I always find it interesting to see when new specialty bottles medal lower in blind tasting than they do by scoring in open reviews (and conversely, when standard entry-level bottlings medal higher than expect from the scores).

But it also gives us an opportunity to see how the performance of different standard bottlings have changed over time, as most of the main offerings of the major producers are re-entered into each competition each year. So, let’s how what trends we can identify through this helpful resource.

Comparing the Award Medals to the my Meta-Critic Database

I don’t know what cut-off scores Davin uses for the specialty awards or the Gold/Silver/Bronze medals, but there is generally a fairly equal distribution across the three medal classes each year. There is also enough data over the last decade to allow me to compare and correlate to the Meta-Critic. As of my current build (May 28, 2020), here are how the major medals for the last decade correspond to the individual average scores for those same whiskies in my database:

Bronze medals: 8.04 ± 0.32
Silver medals: 8.50 ± 0.28
Gold medals: 8.81 ± 0.25

Note that the overall average Canadian whisky in my database currently sits at 8.43 ± 0.46.

This gives you a pretty good idea that Silver medals are typically at or slightly above average for this class as a whole.  The Gold medals are particular interesting, as they often represent the top Canadian whiskies in my database. Personally, I wouldn’t consider Bronze medal winners as anything I would want to seek out.

There are two classes of observations that I would like to share, as I think they are instructive: how do recent specialty bottlings compare to past ones, and how have standard bottlings changed over time?  Let’s take these questions one at a time.

Specialty Releases

The Northern Border Collection by Corby has been the darling of the Canadian specialty release scene since the first batch came out in 2017.  At that time, three of the four bottlings won Gold medals. In 2018, all four bottlings won Gold. But for 2019, only one bottling won Gold (and was also named Whisky of the Year – Pike’s Creek 21yo Oloroso-finished), with the other three only receiving Silver awards.

I’m a bit surprised that the J.P. Wiser’s 23yo Cask-Strength from last year didn’t score a Gold, given the extremely high Meta-Critic average for this whisky. It was also quite the darling of the collection in online discussion forums.  In any case, the lower medal rankings this year are consistent with the lower sales of this collection in 2019, with many of the bottlings still available in a lot of markets. Of note, there will apparently not be a 2020 release, due to production delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The half-dozen or so Rare Cask Series releases by Corby (under the J.P. Wiser’s brand) have mainly received Gold medals, with just a couple of Silvers. The two Commemorative Series (i.e., Canada Day) releases have both received Gold medals. I don’t know if they plan a Canada Day release for this year (they didn’t in 2019), but the previous bottlings were a great deal at $40 CAD.

The one series from Corby that I would like to highlight is the J.P. Wiser’s Alumni series, with bottles named after famous former hockey players. The latest release from last Fall (the Captains series) received two Golds (Dave Keon and Yvan Cournoyer) and a Silver (Mark Messier). All three scored quite well in my database (~8.7-8.8), along with the Gold medal-winning Wendel Clark (~8.9) from the first release. These are all age-stated whiskies, with detailed information on the component whiskies going into each blend, and with many bottled above standard proof – yet all sold for $45 CAD. That makes many of them excellent value among the specialty releases.

The annual Canadian Club >40yo releases (now called Chronicles) have consistently won Gold medals for all three years in a row.

Alberta Premium’s Cask Strength release in 2019 won a Gold medal, but the 20yo edition won a Silver.

Taken together, these results suggest that you can largely rely on on specialty releases from the major producers to be good quality (although value will depend on the individual bottlings). The pause for the Northern Border Collection in 2020 may be a good thing, as it gives them a chance to refine the selection for 2021.

New Producers

One of my favourite new producers is the Yukon-based Two Brewers. Up to 18 releases are now tracked in my database. Although initial bottlings received Bronze and Silver medals, the last half-dozen or so releases have consistently received Silver or Gold – and many are getting quite high scores in my Meta-Critic Database (e.g., ~8.6-9.0).

Shelter Point and Lohin McKinnon typically receive Bronze and Silver medals for their various releases.

Wayne Gretzky whiskies get fairly consistent Silver medals, except for the 99 Proof release, which has won Gold twice in a row.

But are these specialty bottlings or new producers’ products worth the price premium you will typically pay (with some exceptions)?  It is worth taking a look to see what is going on with standard bottlings from the main producers over time.

Changes Over Time in Standard Bottlings

Overall, the news is fairly good here: most of the standard bottlings have remained stable over time, with many inexpensive bottlings getting high medals. But some trends are worth noting, as you go through the medals for the last decade. Some common whiskies are shown below, with approximate relative price in brackets.

Consistent Bronze:
Alberta Premium ($) – but received Silver for first time this year
Canadian Club Premium ($)
Gibson’s Finest Sterling ($)

Variable Bronze/Silver:
Canadian Club Classic 12yo ($)
Crown Royal ($)
Forty Creek Barrel Select ($)
Forty Creek Copper Pot ($)
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 12yo ($) – but received Gold for first time this year
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo ($$$)
Royal Canadian Small Batch ($$)

Consistent Silver:
Crown Royal Reserve ($$$)

Variable Silver/Gold:
Crown Royal Black ($$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo ($$$$) – but received Bronze for the first time this year

Consistent Gold:
Crown Royal Northern Harvest ($$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain ($$) – but received Silver for the first time this year
Lot 40 ($$) – but received Silver for the first time this year

Highly Variable Bronze/Silver/Gold:
Canadian Club 100% Rye ($)
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel ($$$$)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo ($$$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished ($$) – but received Gold for the last two years in a row.

I wouldn’t read too much into one bad result last year – especially as the number of new specialty bottlings go up every year (i.e., only about a third of whiskies tested can earn Gold, it seems). However, I have heard complaints on the whisky forums about recent batches of Lot 40 and Masterson’s, which is consistent with their Silver downgrades this year. If that trend continues in future years, it would be worrisome for these two stalwart straight rye whiskies.

Some key general observations here:

  • Price doesn’t necessarily correlate with consistent quality (e.g. Forty Creek Double Barrel and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo are expensive for the medals/Meta-Critic scores received)
  • Some bottlings do remarkably well on blind tasting despite lower price and Meta-Critic scores (e.g. Crown Royal Black and Northern Harvest, Pike’s Creek 10yo)
  • Some well-regarded bottlings have actually been quite variable for years (e.g. Caribou Crossing, Gibson’s 18yo)
  • Some well-regarded bottlings may have dipped recently in quality (e.g. Lot 40, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Masterson’s Rye 10yo) – but we would need more data before drawing any conclusions

The consistently high performance of Crown Royal Black and Northern Harvest are worth noting. Crown Royal Black reminds me of Bushmills Black Bush – for a barely nominal extra cost, you get a much better whisky than the standard bearer (and in both cases, I believe this comes from additional sherry-cask finishing in the mix). Even better is Northern Harvest Rye – I’ve done taste tests with groups comparing Northern Harvest to standard Crown Royal, and there is simply no comparison: everyone is blown away by the quality of Northern Harvest (and for just a couple of bucks more). Pike’s Creek 10yo is also a real crowd pleaser.

Take-Away Lessons

The first point I would like to make is that you don’t have to spend a lot to get good quality, and consistent, Canadian whisky – as determined by the medals assigned through blind taste-testing, as well as through my Meta-Critic integrator. These are largely restricted to the domestic market, but some may make an appearance internationally on occasion.

At the bottom shelf (i.e., ~$30), Canadian Club 100% Rye is an outstanding value (if a bit variable, from batch to batch).

For a few dollars more (~$35-$40), Crown Royal Black, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Lot 40 and Pike’s Creek 10yo are all great values. I also recommend you keep an eye out for the J.P. Wiser’s Commemorative Series at this price point, typically released around Canada Day in the past.

I would also like to shout out the J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series at $45, especially the most recent third series Captains release (each 11-14 years old). These all score quite well in my database, with two out of three getting Gold medals this year. Along with the earlier Wendel Clark release, these can be well worth picking up. I am still amazed these get so little attention by reviewers and enthusiasts, given all the details provided on each bottling – and all age-stated to boot.

If you are looking for something a bit more prestigious, many of the Northern Border Collection, Canadian Club Chronicles, and Alberta Premium releases can be good quality. Two Brewers is also a relatively new distiller to watch. The prices for many of these can be relatively high for what you are getting, compared to the quality standard bottlings. That said, they are still a bargain compared to specialty releases in most other whisky jurisdictions. Availability may be an issue, but note that many of the Corby releases are available in Ontario at the J.P. Wiser’s shop (local Ontario shipping only).

There are a few points of concern on the horizon, with potential drops in quality this year for some of the popular standard mid-range releases – but it is too early to say if these are significant or not. Overall, I’m heartened to see that the quality of entry-to-mid level whiskies remain consistently quite stable in Canada, or even increasing (like Gibson’s 12yo and Pike Creek’s 10yo this past year). When you factor in all the new specialty releases and new producers, there is a lot to sample and enjoy here at a reasonable price.

And finally, a shout-out to Davin and his team of reviewers – thanks for providing this valuable and uniquely Canadian source of information on whisky quality every year, through the Annual Canadian Whisky Awards.




Pacto Navio and Other Cuban Rums

On a trip to Cuba earlier this year, I had the opportunity to do some local rum tastings. While I am not typically a big rum guy, I do appreciate rums that have had extended barrel aging, or interesting finishing.

Cuba has had a tumultuous history (for more than just rum!), and this has lead to a complicated history of rum production and distribution. Simply put, all rum production was nationalized after the revolución, but in recent years it has had a global resurgence from partnerships and investments by international drinks conglomerates. I won’t pretend to know the full history, so I am happy to refer folks to these recent articles in Esquire and Forbes for further background.

Cuban rum is typically made from locally-produced molasses. Local sugarcane is harvested and mashed to extract the guarapo (juice), which is then boiled to create local molasses. This molasses is combined with water and yeast to ferment in tanks before it is distilled in copper-lined columns stills. It is typically aged in extensively well-used American oak casks (as with Canadian whisky).

First up in the recommended tasting order was one I had heard a lot about:

Havana Club Selección de Maestros

This “Masters Selection” amber rum was a popular member of the Havana Club line when it was available at the LCBO and SAQ. Missing for the last couple of years, it used to retail for ~$60 CAD, and can still be found in Cuba today for the equivalent ~$40 CUC ($40 USD).

Masters Selection features an unusual finishing step (for a rum). As mentioned above, pretty much all Cuban rum is aged in well-used, American white oak barrels. Once the barrels are selected for this release, they are blended and then finished for a period of time in young, fresh oak casks for some active wood aging. This should impart some extra woody notes.

The bottle has a quality presentation (nicer than other Havana Clubs), and comes in a protective tube sleeve. It also is bottled at higher proof, 45% ABV.

Nose: Caramel, with a light, sweet bourbony character. I am definitely getting some oaky notes (more than typical for a Cuban rum). Orange rind. Ginger. A touch of tobacco and nuts. It’s a nice mix, with no off notes.

Palate: The oaky notes are more prominent now, definitely woody, with tobacco leaves and some leather. Helps offset the sweet caramel. Cinnamon and nutmeg show up. It is very light in the mouth, lighter than I expected for 45% ABV. Honestly, the texture is a bit of a let down.

Finish: Medium. Some spicy tingle, with cinnamon notable. Some dried fruits. Sweet, but also a bit of an artificial note, which is surprising.

This is nice, but not quite what I was looking for – bourbony, and a bit woodier than I would like. To be honest, it lacks the rum character I was expecting from the rich amber colour – it does indeed seem like a younger rum that has had some extra fresh oak finishing. The higher proof is appreciated, but that also seems like it was necessary here, given the lighter mouthfeel.

A good bourbon-drinker’s rum. I would give it ~8.3 on the Meta-Critic scale.

Ron Santero Añejo 11 Años

I must admit, I knew nothing about this rum (aside from recognizing the name of the producer), when my host suggested it for the line-up.

This 11 year old is bottled under proof at 38% ABV. It sells for ~$40 CUC in Cuba ($40 USD). It is apparently known for the distinctive character of the soil where it is produced, with a high mineral content (or so I was told).

Nose: Getting a lot more classic rum notes,  with heavy molasses. Very earthy, with lots of tobacco and old leather. Something different here, with a slightly funky off-note (but it is not off-putting)

Palate: Rich rum molasses to start. Some oaky bitterness is also present. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Minearality and a meaty character, making me think of sulphur. Mouthfeel is impaired by the below-proof 38%, but still seems richer somehow than the HC Maestros.

Finish: Medium. Getting candied fruits now, which I didn’t notice earlier. Nice sweet finish, with that “meatiness” lingering in the background.

There is certainly different about this one – I would be more likely to peg it as sulphur, but “minearality” would also do. This is a hard one to score. On one hand, I like the distinctiveness of the earthy notes, as it adds some character. But it also makes it not your typical rum.

Despite the low proof, I would give this a slight leg up on the Maestros – say ~8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. I was tempted to pick up a bottle.

Havana Club Añejo 15 Años

A classic of the class, all spirits in this Havana Club bottling have been aged for at least 15 years. I am not entirely clear about how barrels are selected for this rum, but I gather repeated blending and re-gauging of casks is involved, using standard old American oak casks.

Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for 150 CUC ($150 USD), which seems rather steep to me.

Nose: Liquid caramel, honey, and brown sugar. Fruit blossoms. Very nice, classic rum notes.

Palate: Moves into heavier molasses notes, plus some vanilla. Dark fruits, dried (figs in particular). Relatively light mouthfeel, but no bitterness.

Finish: Medium long. Brown sugar comes back, and some light cinnamon spice. Nice lingering sweetness, no bitterness.

This is what I was expecting from a Cuban rum – a sweet, uncomplicated experience. No heavy wood influence, but the extended aging does comes through as a general enrichment of the sugarcane sweetness. I like the caramel and fruity notes. Not particularly complex, but a satisfying dram none-the-less.

I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. A bit too steep in cost for me though.

Finally, I went back another night to try one that I hadn’t gotten around to the first evening – and I’m glad I did.

Pacto Navio

The name of this rum literally means shipping treaty, and is a cute nod to the history of trade between France and Cuba. After the Napoleonic wars ended, a treaty signed in Europe allowed the freer flow of trans-Atlantic goods. Casks holding Sauternes (a sweet white wine from Bordeau) were shipped to the New World, where they were emptied and refilled with local spirits (including rum) for the return voyage.

So this serves as a convenient backstory for what is simply a young Cuban rum that has been finished for a period of time in French Sauternes casks. The rum come from the newest distillery in Cuba, in San José de Las Lajas, near Havana.

Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for $45 CUC ($45 USD).

Nose: Light and sweet, with simple spun sugar (think cotton candy). Caramelized plantains. Peaches, plums, and apricots. Candied rum raisins. Light wood notes, like nutmeg. No real off-notes, very nice.

Palate: Caramel comes up clearly now. Banana bread (with nuts). A touch of citrus. Relatively light mouthfeel, but not bad. Some faint rye-like spices, giving it a bit of zing.

Finish: Fruit returns, but definitely candied – like wine gums. Artificial sweetener note shows up now. Turns a bit astringent on the way out, but not bad.

While still fairly simple, it has a nice mix of sweet fruity notes (more so than the other rums I tried), with banana and a nutty character being fairly novel here. This one would best suit a scotch drinker with a sweet tooth (which I suppose would best describe me).

Of all the ones I tried, this was my favourite – I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. Indeed, I liked it enough to pick up a bottle as a souvenir of my visit.

Elmer T. Lee Bourbon

Elmer T. Lee was one of the most well-known Master Distillers of Buffalo Trace, retiring in 1985 after 36 years. One of his main claims-to-fame was the introduction of mass-produced single barrel bourbons, most especially the Blanton’s brand in 1984. Eventually, Buffalo Trace decide to honour his legacy by producing a single barrel bourbon in his name (just as he had chosen to name the distillery’s first single barrel product after one of their early leaders, Albert B. Blanton).

Just like Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace uses their mashbill #2 for this single barrel bourbon, which is a high rye bourbon (~12-15% rye, at least 51% corn, and some malted barley). This sour mash bourbon is aged in charred virgin American oak barrels. No age statement on the bottle any more, but this used to have 12-year statement in older days. Bottled at 45% ABV. In comparison, regular Blanton’s single barrel is 46.5% ABV, Blanton’s Special Reserve (green label) is 40% ABV, Blanton’s Gold is 51.5% ABV, and Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel is true cask-strength.

While this was always a popular bourbon for Buffalo Trace, it has become relatively unobtainable (at least at MSRP prices). The LCBO here in Ontario, Canada puts it into its allocation process any time it is available (typically once a year). A relative of mine was lucky enough to pick one up in their lottery last year, for $60 CAD (which is equivalent to the $40 USD list price). On secondary markets, this goes for >$100 USD (sometimes considerably more). The issue seems to be mainly relative scarcity of release, as it isn’t that different from regular Blanton’s single barrel (although presumably, they try to keep a certain consistency in the barrels they pull for the Elmer T Lee brand).

Here is how it compares to other Buffalo Trace bourbon products in my Meta-Critic Database:

Blanton’s Gold Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.72 ± 0.37 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Blanton’s Original Bourbon Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.29 on 27 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Special Reserve Single Barrel (Green label): 8.31 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel Bourbon: 8.97 ± 0.22 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.55 ± 0.38 on 28 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.64 ± 0.28 on 29 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 17yo: 8.86 ± 0.29 on 17 reviews ($$$$$+)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon: 8.75 ± 0.35 on 20 reviews ($$$)
George T Stagg: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 30 reviews ($$$$$+)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.69 ± 0.41 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 1-2): 8.38 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 3+): 8.99 ± 0.22 on 17 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Honey and light caramel. Simple sweetness. Vanilla. Graham crackers (definitely somewhat “biscuity”). Dry spice. Dark fruits, plums. Light pepper. A nice nose, not overly oaky. No off notes. Smells like a dessert bourbon.

Palate: Very sweet initially, with all that honey. Corn syrup. Plums and peaches. Nutmeg, but not cinnamon or cloves. A bit of pepper. Paper, pencil shavings. No burn, very light and syrupy mouthfeel. Surprisingly light tasting – again, consistent with the nose. Seems like something you would pour over ice cream.

Finish: Some oaky bitterness shows up now, with dry paper notes. Touch of tobacco. Dry, and earthy.

Lighter than I expected, very easy to drink. Sweet overall, with wood influence only showing up at the end. This is not an in-your-face bourbon – it is a very balanced product, certainly an easy sipper. A pity it is so unobtainable now.

Among reviewers, the highest score I’ve seen comes from Ralfy. Jordan of Breaking Bourbon, MajorHop of Reddit (indeed, most reviewers there), and Jason of In Search of Elegance and are all very positive. Moderately positive are Jim Murray and John of Whisky Advocate (on average, across various bottlings). More middle-of-the-road reviews comes from Matt of Diving for Pearls, Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer, washeewashee of reddit and Josh the Whiskey Jug. Lower scores (but still positive comments) come My Annoying Opinions and TOModera of reddit.


High West Campfire

The Utah-based distillery High West has rapidly made a name for themselves among American whisky enthusiasts. They offer a range of innovative products, many of which are largely based on blends of sourced products, while they wait for their own distilled whisky to mature.  I’ve tried a couple of different bottlings over the years, and have generally been impressed with the quality for the price.

The latest (first?) High West product to reach the LCBO here in Ontario is Campfire – a blend of peated Scotch malt, straight bourbon and straight rye whiskies. That’s certainly an unusual mix – I don’t think I’ve seen American bourbon or rye blended with peated malt whisky before (e.g., Westland Peated is an actual peated malt whisky made in the USA).

The main source for most of High West’s American whiskies is MGP – specifically, the Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana plant, which was formerly Seagrams. In this Campfire blend, the mash bill for the MGP bourbon is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. The rye was originally all from MGP, 95% rye and 5% malted barley. But High West recently adjusted the recipe to include some of their own-make rye, which is reported as 80% rye and 20% malted rye (relative proportion of the different component whiskies is unknown). And the blended malt Scotch whisky is 100% peated malted barley (undisclosed origin, but High West claims it is not Islay malt). All whiskeys were reported as at least 5 years old originally, but High West now claims “ranging in age from 4-8 years old” (the reduced minimum age likely reflects addition of their own juice). It is all aged in a mix of charred virgin white American oak barrels, as well as refill bourbon barrels

I picked up a bottle recently for $70 CAD. Bottled at 45.95% ABV. My batch is 19H16 (so, bottled August 16, 2019), and is thus presumed to have some of the actual High West rye juice in the bottle.

As an aside, although the LCBO doesn’t have the widest selection of American whiskies, what they do get is available at very good prices typically. Indeed, the LCBO is one of the cheapest places in Canada to buy American whisky. This is as low as I’ve seen Campfire in my travels, adjusting for currency fluctuations.

Here is how the various High West products stack up in my Meta-Critic Database:

High West American Prairie: 8.35 ± 0.59 on 11 reviews ($$$)
High West Bourye: 8.72 ± 0.35 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
High West Campfire: 8.73 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
High West Double Rye (all bottlings): 8.70 ± 0.32 on 21 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye (new recipe, post-2018): 8.85 ± 0.33 on 4 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye (pre-2018): 8.69 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye Campfire Barrel: 8.47 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews ($$$)
High West Double Rye Manhattan Barrel: 8.75 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$)
High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Rye: 9.06 ± 0.17 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Rendezvous Rye (all bottlings): 8.91 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
High West Rendezvous Rye (pre-2018): 8.91 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
High West Rocky Mountain Rye 16yo: 9.09 ± 0.35 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21yo: 9.13 ± 0.26 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
High West Son of Bourye: 8.42 ± 0.43 on 12 reviews ($$$)
High West Yippee Ki-Yay: 8.61 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Yep, that’s peated alright. Nice medium level of smoke (campfire indeed) and some earthy peat upfront. Honey and caramel sweetness right behind. Smoked ham. Barrel char (but could be from the peated malt). Not really getting a lot of rye spices, they seem to be subdued by the peat and bourbon. Not much fruit either, maybe caramel apple and peaches. Reminds me of a young peated malt aged in ex-bourbon barrels, like Paul John Bold. It’s nice, but I was hoping for a little more spice, or aged bourbon “oomph”.

Palate: Honey and apple juice. Vanilla and light caramel. Golden raisins. Citrus. Cinnamon shows up now, fairly prominent. Light mouthfeel, almost watery, despite the extra ABV. Dusty rye on the swallow, with dry, wafting smoke. Kind of the reverse of the nose – the bourbon influence seems very light here, with more rye and lightly peated malted barley.

Finish: Medium. Classic light lingering smoke, somewhat Bruichladdich-like. Honeycomb cereal. Slight artificial sweetener note at the end, slightly saccharine. Pretty basic.

I see a lot of comments in online reviews about how well integrated or “balanced” this whisky is. Personally, I find it a bit disjointed and inconsistent, with different flavours competing with one another at different times. Decent enough nose, but less satisfying in the mouth, being lighter than I expected. The flavours dissipate fairly rapidly too. That said, it is nice and easy to drink overall, and extinguished campfire is a good way to describe the smoke level. Think Bruichladdich Classic Laddie with extra honey and cinnamon.

The highest score I’ve seen comes from Josh the Whiskey Jug, followed by Jim Murray, Margarett of Whiskey Wash, Adam/Susannah of Whisky Advocate and John of the Whiskey Reviewer. More moderately positive is Jason of In Search of Elegance. Slightly below average scores come from John of Whisky Advocate, Andre/Patrick of Quebec Whisky and Ralfy (and I find myself in this company). On Reddit, MajorHop and xile_ are fans, whereas TOModera and Ethanized both give it lower scores (most reviewers there tend to be mildly positive overall). An interesting blend to be sure, but I think the consensus score is a little on the high side.

Matsui Mizunara Cask

This is a new Japanese whisky that I debated purchasing. Not because of the likely intrinsic quality of the whisky itself, but because of the history of the producer.

As I’ve discussed in some of my travelogues (most recently my Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective), the rising popularity of Japanese whisky has led to a proliferation of “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. They can certainly look a lot like the bottles from established whisky-makers Yamazaki and Nikka – and the brand names may indeed be recognizable as established spirit producers in Japan – but the bottles don’t actually contain any Japanese whisky.

The problem is loose labeling laws that allow Japanese distilleries to import whisky from other countries and re-package it for sale in Japan. 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

As an aside, there is an understandable historical basis for these labeling laws, as the raw materials for whisky production (e.g. barley, oak casks) are often imported from Scotland. In some cases, established whisky makers also import distillate from Scottish distilleries to blend into their own production (e.g., Nikka owns Ben Nevis distillery, in part for this reason). But the bottling of pure out-sourced whisky for domestic sale in Japan – in highly misleading age-stated packaging, and at steep prices – seems designed to purposefully gouge ill-informed consumers (and tourists on local shopping sprees).

High on the list of worst offenders is Matsui Shuzo, owner of the Kurayoshi “whisky” brand. Kurayoshi is a well-established schochu distiller in Tottori, Japan (in operation since 1910). The problem is that for many years now, they have been selling aged-stated single malts in Japan, despite only starting to distill whisky in 2017. This has given “Kurayoshi single malts” a well-deserved black-eye among Japanese whisky enthusiasts.

Of course, we have now reached the point where many of the relatively new entrants to whisky-making in Japan have barrel-aged their own distilled spirit sufficiently long enough to sell it (domestically and internationally) as true Japanese whisky. In this case, Matsui Shuzo has begun selling blended Japanese and Scottish malt whiskies under the Tottori label, and pure Japanese malt whisky under the Matsui label. Given the negative association with Kurayoshi “malt whisky”, I can understand this labeling change. Of note, the malt is apparently still largely sourced from Scotland – but that is true for many Japanese whiskies.

And thus my personal dilemma; I am loathe to support someone who has engaged in such misleading business practices. Personally, I find the whole Kurayoshi age-stated single malt whisky scam an affront to both the Japanese character and the quality of their whisky. But is also true that many of the world’s established whisky makers started out with less than squeaky-clean reputations (i.e., the history of bootleggers, moonshiners and tax-dodgers in North America and Europe, and the early producers in Japan). At the end the of the day, I thought I would give this bottling a chance, to see how Matsui’s true distilled-in-Japan product fares.

One feature common among new whisky-makers the world over is experimentation with different casks types, to try and introduce additional character into their youthful spirits. Matsui is following a standard path with this bottling by the use of Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). I previously reviewed Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve, which attempted a similar approach to distinctive aging/finishing.

I recently bought my bottle of Matsui Single Malt Mizunara Cask through the LCBO in Ontario for $130 CAD. It is bottled at 48% ABV, and the label states no artificial coloring is added, and it is un-chillfiltered. It also states distilled in Japan (finally!).

As an aside, I note the bottle design is very similar to the higher-end Suntory bottles, something of a hybrid between the simple-but-elegant Yamazaki/Hakushu bottles and the fancy decanter-style Hibiki bottles (although with a screw cap here – see the pic below). The labels and box are very distinctive, with classic Japanese iconography throughout. They certainly have a classy look to them.

Here is how the whisky compares to some other entry-level Japanese single malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – and other Mizunara cask finished whiskies:

Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish: 8.84 ± 0.45 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Chivas Regal Mizunara: 8.09 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.48 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.25 ± 0.67 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve: 8.33 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Kanosuke New Born 2018 8mo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Mizunara Cask: 8.86 ± 0.20 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Sakura Cask: 8.55 ± 0.46 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.40 ± 0.47 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS: 8.57 ± 0.30 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Mizunara: 8.95 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki NAS: 8.45 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Pale straw. Remarkably light, reminds me of Timorous Beastie. The promotional picture above is more accurate in colour balance than my cell phone pic below.

Nose: Very candied fruit nose, with pear, kiwi, green apple, honeydew melons and banana – also lychee. Reminds me of the Meiji gummy versions of most of the above flavours. Honey and a bit of vanilla. Almonds. Faintly fusil (gunpowder). The Mizunara is also coming through as a light wood spice and a very faint funky, sour smell (like old sweatsocks or baby vomit). Believe it or not, it works well with the candied spice, seems elegant. I am quite pleasantly surprised.

Palate: A quick hit of caramelized apples and banana candies to start, followed by starfruit and grapefruit bitterness. Tons of pepper (wow, it is a hot one!). It is very sharp in the mouth, definitely feeling the burn from the extra ABV. Sandalwood and oriental incense notes. Dry paper on the swallow. Not particularly woody, but you can feel the subtle Mizunara wood spice notes – and the overwhelming pepper.

Finish: Fairly quick on the way out, with a simple lingering sweetness. Not cloying, reminiscent of caramelized apple and pear mixed with just a touch of grapefruit citrus (but definitely more sweet than bitter). Not overly woody, which helps keep the bitterness in check. While not complex, most people should find it quite pleasant.

On the nose, there is something here reminiscent of the older-style, lightly-peated Highland malt whiskies, like Ben Nevis 10yo or the older peated Glen Gariochs (e.g., 1995 vintage). It really is a lovely nose, but it then starts to show its youthful age by the burn on the palate and relatively quick finish. It reminds me a bit of Hakushu NAS in the mouth, although there is a lot more pepper here. Finish is fairly simple, but elegant and pleasant enough.

The Mizunara effect is also rather understated (which I personally like), except for the strong peppery spice. I’ve never been a big fan of strong Mizunara wood notes (e.g., Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve), so this level is just about right for me. It feels like a good balance. They are definitely on the right track, it just needs more maturity and character in the mouth. In comparison, the Kanosuke New Born had remarkable character at a younger age, although with some similar heat issues.

I would give this Matsui Mizunara Cask a slightly above average score, ~8.5-8.6. It has less character in the mouth than I would like, but it does have a refined elegance (and a great nose). Good balance of Mizunara spice.

Among reviewers, Jim Murray was extremely positive, followed by Jonny of Whisky Advocate. Richard of was more moderately positive (and more consistent with my own scoring and views).

Helios Whisky Reki Pure Malt

Helios is not exactly a familiar name in Japanese whisky making. Indeed, they were originally known as a rum distiller (yes, you read that correctly). Based in Okinawa, this region remained under the administrative control of the US into the 1960s, when Helios was founded. I guess rum production for US pacific regions was all the rage in the early days of this distillery.

Beyond the initial rum staple, Helios eventually branched out into various liqueurs, awamori (a distinctive Okinawa beverage made from distilled rice), and the standard Japanese distilled spirits shochu and umeshu. The distillery prides itself on using local materials for its production.

Helios started making whisky during the early phase of rising Japanese domestic whisky popularity in the 1980s. Apparently that popularity didn’t last for Helios, as they seemed to have gotten out of the whisky making game by early 2000s. Indeed, the last age-stated whisky I’ve seen from Helios (under the Reki label) was a 15 year old expression released in 2016.

In recent years, Helios has been cashing in on the modern whisky boom by sourcing Scottish whisky to sell under their Kura whisky brand. See my recent Japan travelogue for an introduction into so-called “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. I believe they have also attempted to brand some of their barrel-aged, rice-distilled awamori and schochu products as whisky (see another example in my Ohishi Sherry Cask review).

All that said, the Reki brand name has been retained by Helios for actual Japanese whisky, as far as I know. See for example this helpful infographic and searchable table at But the fact that this is described as a “Pure Malt” (i.e., a vatted malt or blended malt) indicates that this whisky comes from more than one distillery.

This particular Reki Pure Malt whisky was released by Helios in 2017 for a whisky exhibition, in distinctive 180 mL bottles made of Cobalt blue glass (a classy touch). My bottle was given to me as a gift by colleagues on a trip to Japan in early 2019. Bottled at 40% ABV. The label simply says “Produced by Helios Distillery Co. Ltd, Okinawa, Japan”.

There are too few reviews of this whisky to make it into my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to date, but please see some preliminary comments at the end of the review (and continue to check the database for updates).

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Very pale yellow gold, straw.

Nose: Very briny, with lots of minerality (flint, gunpowder). Rubber. Very earthy and herbaceous (dry herbs). Apples and pear. Lemon curd. Reminds me a lot of Ledaig 10yo, but not as overtly smokey. Me likes!

Palate: Light caramel sweetness, but with a malty core. Orange/tangerine show up now. Reminds me of an orange-infused sponge cake with lemon frosting – a real “light” dessert whisky. Relatively thin mouthfeel, even for 40% ABV. Ashy taste on the swallow, but still not exactly smokey. I’ve had some very youthful Bowmores that similarly seem both peated and non-peated at the same time.

Finish: Medium. Honey shows up now, adding to that lingering frosting sweetness. The ashyness persists as well, but it is faint. No off notes, very pleasant on the way out.

It is a very pleasant sipper, but it has a definite “smoke but no fire” character – the nose promises a peated experience, but the palate and finish remain surprisingly gentle (and very “cakey”). My main impression is that the core spirit of this blended malt is quite youthful – but without the harshness that mars many young spirits. I would guess whomever made this knows how to run a still! I would be very keen to try aged spirits from this distillery.

There is something very Japanese about this whisky – it is well constructed, and gives no offense at any point in its development. That being said, I was hoping for more character in the mouth, given the promise of that mineral/rubbery nose. Bottling at a higher ABV would also certainly have helped.

In terms of a score, I would give it a slightly below average rating, maybe ~8.3-8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. Serge of Whisky Fun gave it a slightly more positive score, by his personal rating system. While I enjoyed it, the thin mouthfeel and soft character on the palate contribute to my giving this a lower overall rating. A pleasant surprise, but still a ways to go.

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