Author Archives: selfbuilt

Nikka Taketsuru NAS

As part of their restructuring earlier this year, Nikka has discontinued many of the entry-level age expressions of their major lines. These have been replaced with no-age-statement (NAS) offerings, including for the flagship Taketsuru line.  Fear not, the 17yo and 21yo age expressions are continuing, but you can no longer get the 12yo – it has been replaced by the NAS in retail channels.

As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to see how it compares to the 12yo I still have on hand. 🙂

As I explained in my earlier Taketsuru 12yo and 21yo review, this line is named after Masataka Taketsuru – one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. These whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts”, as they blend together malt whisky from multiple distilleries under Nikka control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).

So, how does the new NAS version compare to the 12yo it is replacing? Here are the stats from my Whisky Database:

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews
Taketsuru NAS: 8.15 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews

Keep in mind the relatively low number of reviews on the new NAS.  While suggestive of reduced quality on the NAS version, it is hard to know until more reviews come in.

Having personally done a head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparison of the two, here are my general observations:

Nose: The NAS is a whole different experience from the 12yo.  I had previously observed that the 12 yo had a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas (although it was a little boring).  The NAS, in contrast, has a pleasant sweetness to it, with both a sweet oaky aroma and the definite smell of berries.  I was pleasantly surprised by this development, and was looking forward to the (relatively rare) possibility that this new NAS could actually exceed the original age statement.

Taketsuru.NASPalate: And this is where that optimistic hope was quickly dashed. 😉 The NAS is very light tasting, almost watery in fact (despite the higher 43% ABV).  It definitely lacks the complexity of the 12yo, and feels like much younger spirits are being used. Particularly disappointing to me is the subtle smokey note of the 12yo is completely gone now – this is a very basic malt on the palate, with less going on.

Finish: I previously found that the 12yo had a disappointingly quick finish, turning slightly bitter on the way out. The same is true for the NAS – it turns into a completely forgettable experience fairly quickly after sipping.

To wrap things up, while the nose of the NAS is nice (and beats out the 12yo in direct comparison), the taste of the whisky is less interesting. While I always felt the 12yo deserved a slightly higher score than the consolidated Meta-Critic average, I definitely agree with the slightly lower relative ranking of the NAS version in comparison.

Price-wise, I was able to find the standard NAS 700mL bottle for about 2500 Yen in Tokyo last month (~$30 CAD). Currently not carried at the LCBO, but the SAQ has it for $83 CAD (which seems a bit steep). I bought the old 12yo at the LCBO in mid-2014, when it was $70 CAD. Note that in Japan you can also easily find the smaller 50mL, 200mL and 500mL NAS sizes as well. Prices are described on my Whisky in Japan article.

Given its wide availability, hopefully there will be more reviews on this NAS soon. In the meantime, I recommend you do not rely on reviews of the 12yo as a proxy for this new NAS – it really is a completely different whisky.

 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

It is very rare to have a relatively entry-level rye whisky fly off the shelves – but that is what you get for being named “world whisky of the year” by Jim Murray. 🙂

A new product from Crown Royal, Northern Harvest Rye is a blended Canadian whisky composed of 90% rye. Priced attractively at ~$30 CAD, it is now virtually impossible to find it here in Ontario. Indeed, despite having secured the largest allocation of this product in Canada, the LCBO has just taken the extraordinary step of removing the direct inventory link for this item from its website.

Having personally tracked inventory patterns for several weeks now, it appears the LCBO is consolidating shipments. That is, only a single store in any given geographical region gets a delivery – but with a sizable allotment of bottles when it comes. These focused deliveries have been revolving through the local stores in my area, with no advance warning (according to those outlets). Yet despite this, any store that receives a shipment sells out within hours – due to word quickly spreading by social media (which is how I finally managed to find a bottle).

So, does the whisky live up its hype? Given the interest, I thought I’d do a full review with detailed tastings notes before exploring the whisky database results in more detail. On that front, I will also present a statistical analysis and discussion of Mr Murray’s scoring patterns later in this review. 😉

Nose: This is a fragrant whisky  – I could smell it while pouring the glass, at counter height. The overwhelming aroma is one of sweet apple – red apples, green apples, pear apples, etc. There is a creamy sweetness overall, with some notes of caramel and vanilla. You also get some of the classic rye “baking spices”, especially nutmeg, but these aren’t overly strong. Taken together, this is a veritable baked apple pie in a glass! There are additional fruit notes present (e.g., berries, cherries, etc.), but I find they take a back seat. If you search for it, you might be able to detect a slight acetone smell – but its well buried below the fruit.  Initial impression is quite favourable, but the candied sweetness may be off-putting for some (i.e. it smells like it is part apple liqueur).

Palate: Bold and fruit-forward, with all the initial hallmarks of a good Canadian rye whisky. I find the apple (while still present) is mercifully subdued now, and the other fruits quickly come to the surface (especially red fruits and berries). Butterscotch/caramel and vanilla are also more prominent, and the rest of the classic rye baking spices show up – including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all-spice. Maybe even cardamon – there’s something that reminds me of chai masala here (i.e., black tea with Indian spices and milk). There is also definite oak now, which I found was missing on the nose. The only problem for me is the bitterness which comes in at the end (think strong grapefruit) – it’s quite prominent, and ruins what would otherwise be a consistently top-tasting Canadian rye blend.

Finish: Unfortunately, the bitterness that develops at the end of the palate is slow to clear – and when it does, so has everything else!  I suppose this encourages you to take another sip, but then you just start the whole cycle over again. Putting this lingering bitterness aside, there is not really that much else going here – the same flavours as the palate, only more subdued and fading. I find the finish to be rather weak, and out of character with the impressively strong nose and palate.

So, how does this whisky compare to other inexpensive (and predominantly rye) Canadian whiskies in my database?

Alberta Premium: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews

This relative reviewer ranking shows pretty clearly where Northern Harvest Rye fits in – which is also pretty in keeping with relative prices (at least at the LCBO). Personally, I would rank Alberta Premium Dark Horse and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye both a bit higher in that list, but the overall ranking seems reasonable.

Let’s see how it does relative to the other well-known Crown Royals:

Crown Royal: 7.72 ± 0.52 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Black: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Special Reserve: 8.79 ± 0.62 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.91 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews

Corwn.Royal.HarvestInterestingly, Northern Harvest Rye effectively ties with Special Reserve, and rests below Monarch 75th Anniversary (although the number of reviews there is limited). I know there’s a bottle of Monarch waiting for me under the tree this year, so stay tuned for a follow-up review. 😉

Overall, I find this to be a decent Canadian rye whisky, with a lot going for it. I suppose it could be a good choice as a “sipping whisky” – although the overt sweetness on the nose and the bitterness on the finish detract for me personally.

If you want to read more opinions of this whisky, the three highest-scoring reviews in my database come from Jim Murray, Chip the Rum Howler, and Jason of Whisky Won. Personally, my relative ranking would fall closer in line with André, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. See also Josh of the Whiskey Jug for a slightly lower score and review.

Understanding Jim Murray’s Score

Jim Murray’s annual “whisky of the year” tends to garner a lot attention and controversy – and this year’s top pick has elicited more than the usual hand-wringing online and in the media. Much of the online commentary has been quite negative, with many accusing Mr. Murray of pulling an attention-seeking publicity stunt (see for example the Whisky Sponge).

While all would likely agree that Northern Harvest Rye is an above-average Canadian rye whisky blend for the price, it is a bit hard to understand how anyone could consider this one of the highest ranking whiskies ever – especially such an experienced reviewer like Mr Murray. His 97.5 score and “world whisky of the year” designation thus seem rather over the top!

A thoughtful concern, as expressed on Whisky Won, is that superlative scores by Mr Murray for entry-level Canadian ryes – like Alberta Premium and Northern Harvest – may actually be harmful for the reputation of Canadian whisky world-wide. Many will rush out, keen to try whiskies that routinely exceed 95 points on Mr Murray’s scale – only to walk walk away disappointed by the relative quality in the end.

But are these selections really as surprising as they seem?  What is lacking in many of these discussions is an understanding of how Mr Murray (or any reviewer) actually scores their whiskies.

One the advantages of running a meta-critic analysis site is that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how individual reviewers score whiskies. As explained here, scoring is simply a way of providing a relative rank to all the samples you have tried. It turns out most reviewers are actually quite consistent to each other in terms of their relative ranking. This is evidenced by the very good typical correlation of each reviewer to the properly normalized meta-critic scores (r=~0.75 across all reviewers). It is also the reason why you are better off just going by the meta-critic score – and not any one reviewer – when assessing overall quality. It’s good to keep in mind the biases and limitations inherent in quality ranking.

Mr Murray is actually something of an extreme case in my database. He has one of the lowest overall correlations to the combined meta-critic score (r<0.50). Indeed, he correlates quite poorly to all other reviewers in my database (paired correlations range from  r~0.10 to r=~0.45 to each reviewer, which are lower than typical). But that doesn’t mean he is entirely inconsistent in his scoring – there can be patterns in how he differs from the other reviewers.

For this simple analysis, I’ve looked at all the whiskies where Mr Murray’s normalized score deviates from the meta-critic score by a considerable margin. Using a cut-off of 1.5 standard deviation units, there are ~75 whiskies (out of >400 tracked) where Mr Murray’s score is that divergent from the combined meta-critic score. In particular, there are ~25 whiskies where he scores well above the norm, ~50 well below.

The larger number of cases where Mr. Murray scores below the norm are almost exclusively all single malt whiskies. These include many popular mid-range and high-end single malts (i.e., the mean and median costs are of these whiskies are higher than typical for my overall database).

In contrast, the smaller number of cases where Mr Murray scores above the norm are predominantly blends – including many Canadian rye whiskies. As you can imagine, the mean/median cost of these whiskies are below typical for the database.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the top scoring blends in this divergent high-ranking group. To limit the list, I am including only those that make it into the 65th percentile of Mr Murray’s scores (i.e., ones that score 92 and higher). I am also putting them in rank order, from lowest to highest Murray score.

Pendleton Let’er Buck (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic 8.12 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews
Canadian Club (Canada): – $ – Meta-critic: 7.25 ± 0.97 on 11 reviews
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.19 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews
Black Grouse (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.04 ± 0.56 on 15 reviews
Green Spot (Ireland) – $$$ – Meta-critic: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews
Jameson’s Whiskey (Ireland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 7.73 ± 0.62 on 13 reviews
Alberta Premium (Canada) – $ – Meta-critic: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Chivas Regal 25yo (Scotland) – $$$$$+ – Meta-critic: 8.73 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews
Ballantine’s (Scotland) – $ – Meta-critic: 7.66 ± 0.77 on 8 reviews
Johnnie Walker Black Label (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.37 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews

Notice something interesting about relative cost?  With a couple of exceptions, these are mainly entry-level budget blends.  There is thus a very consistent pattern in how Mr Murray deviates from the rest of the review community: whew he differs, he preferentially favours inexpensive blends, and is less impressed with more expensive single malts.

It is clear (from the Meta-critic scores above) that Northern Harvest is a better quality whisky than the other Canadian blends on that list. So Mr Murray may indeed still be providing a personal relative ranking among blends with his scores – it is just that the absolute value of his scores are inconsistent across blends and single malts.

For experienced whisky drinkers, it is hard to reconcile this scoring pattern with a consistent overall ranking across classes. One possible interpretation of the data is that Mr Murray is explicitly factoring price into his scores. There are several reviewers who do this when providing categorical labels (i.e, “must have”, “recommended”, “avoid”, etc). But Mr Murray’s self-reported method for assembling his scores leaves no room for this.

Further, there seems to a preference for budget blends over budget malts in his scoring, so it is not strictly limited to just price. Thus, an alternative interpretation – and one that seems to fit the data the best – is that Mr Murray is applying a different relative scale for his scoring of budget blends than he does to other whiskies (single malts in particular).

To sum up, the apparent inconsistency is not that Mr Murray gives Harvest Rye such an incredibly high score. Rather, it is that he gives so many entry-level blends such high scores to start with. He is thus fairly unique in the whisky reviewing universe, giving a good number of mass-produced budget blends equivalent (or higher) scores than selective smaller batch whiskies – even when made by the same producers.

 

 

Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).

 

Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.

 

Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.

 

Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.

 

 

 

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 

Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.

 

American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.

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Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

 

 

Aberlour A’Bunadh – batch 49

Welcome to one of the best known “sherry bombs” – the Aberlour A’bunadh.

From Gaelic, a’bunadh means ‘(of) the origin”, or “the original”, and is meant to honour an earlier style of whisky making at the speyside distillery Aberlour. Pronounciations are always tricky, but the full name of the distillery and whisky would best be pronounced a-ber-LAU-er ah-BOON-ar.

A’bunadh is a cask-strength single malt, produced in limited run batches. For this reason, each batch has a batch number instead of an age statement, with a variable absolute alcohol by volume (typically, ~59-61% ABV). They make several batches a year.

One of the distinctive features of A’bunadh is the exclusive aging in first-fill Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts. I’ve seen various estimates online, but it appears that each batch is blended from barrels in the 5-25 year old range. Note that while it is widely believed that there is significant batch-to-batch variability (see below), all would qualify as “sherry bombs”, given the exclusive sherry cask aging.

Given the heavy focus on statistics on this blog site, an interesting question is how best to incorporate the batch-based A’bunadh into the meta-critic whisky database?

Given the large number of batches each year – and the corresponding limited number of reviews for each batch – I initially considered simply collecting scores on a per reviewer basis. So, if a reviewer had sampled multiple batches, I would average their scores across those batches (thus producing a single score per reviewer). As always, I would limit batches to those produced in the last ~5 years or (i.e., from batch ~30 and on up), to be consistent with other whiskies in the database.

Now, you could argue that this method would obscure any underlying pattern in natural batch variation. So I decided to first look at reviewers who had scored multiple batches. Surprisingly, I found very low variation across batches from each of these reviewers. Indeed, for reviewers who had scored a good number of A’bunadh batches (n>6), the standard deviations of their scores varied from ~0.10 up to ~0.25, per reviewer. Thus, despite the commonly held view that individual batches of A’bunadh are highly variable, you don’t see much variance in scores among at experienced reviewers. As such, I think it is worthwhile considering what an average across batches looks like, for all reviewers:

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviewers

Clearly, this is a popular whisky, with a well above-average meta-critic score for its class (cluster A, of the ABC super-cluster).  It also has a below-average standard deviation across reviewers, compared to other whiskies in my database.

But that isn’t the end of the story – you need to consider all patterns in the data. Specifically, while reviewers generally look favourably on all batches of A’bunadh, they do have their relative preferences. And more importantly, there seems to be some consistency in the relative rankings across reviewers.

To explore what I mean by that, let’s take a look at all A’bunadh batches scored individually, across all reviewers. For this, I am only reporting below modern batches for which I have at least 4 individual reviews.

Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 30): 9.00 ± 0.17 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 32): 8.89 ± 0.72 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 33): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 34): 8.93 ± 0.32 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 35): 9.06 ± 0.24 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 36): 9.05 ± 0.52 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 39): 9.12 ± 0.24 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 47): 8.88 ± 0.41 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 48): 8.84 ± 0.57 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 49): 9.24 ± 0.08 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 50): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 4 reviewers

Keeping in mind the relatively low number of reviews, you can see that almost all of these fit quite well within the overall mean and SD of the all-batch data presented earlier (which is, by definition, based on the largest number of reviewers). But one batch really stands out for me, as it is a full SD unit from the overall mean – batch 49.

As you can see above, batch 49 gets the highest score (9.24) and lowest standard deviation (0.08) of any specific batch in my database. More than that, when looking over percentile rankings for the five reviewers who have tried multiple batches including this one, batch 49 is consistently their highest ranked A’bunadh version.

Below is what I find in the glass for this batch. Again, expect some variability from batch to batch, but all should fall within a general flavour range:

Nose: Big and bold sherry flavours, with raisins, figs and chocolate most prominent. Some other dark fruits are below the surface (e.g. cherry), but you will need some water to bring them out. Neat, there is a fair amount of alcohol burn here (i.e. it singes the nose hairs if you inhale too deeply). Water helps on this front as well.

Palate: Sweet and delicious, with more of the fruits showing up now – especially cherry and raspberry. Also orange marmalade and dark chocolate. Mouthfeel is thick and oily, with a syrupy nature. Just a touch nutty as well. With water, it opens up further, with rich notes of Christmas cake, fig pudding, and creamy milk chocolate. Becomes like Christmas in glass, including those chocolate orange candies.

Finish: Long. While there is an initial alcohol burn (subdued with water), a fruity sweetness persists for awhile. Unfortunately, a bit of bitterness creeps in over time (almonds? coffee?) – which is the one thing holding this expression back a bit for me.

General consensus on the subject of water is hard to come by here, as it seems that many prefer drinking it neat, at cask strength. Personally, this is one where I think water greatly improves the experience. And not just a few drops – a significant amount of water is actually better. Taking it down to ~50% ABV was my personal sweet spot, taming the burn and bringing out more of the fruit flavours. There were rapidly diminishing returns beyond that though – by ~45% the whisky definitely felt flooded. You will want to experiment to see what works best for you.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49I am glad I was able to pick up a bottle of batch 49 while it was available, and am now on the hunt for samples of other batches to compare. Batch 49 is certainly very flavourful, with no hints of the sulphur that sometimes mars some sherry cask batches. It is an outstanding value for $95 CAD at the LCBO.

To get the experience of those who have sampled many batches, I suggest you check out André, Patrick and RV at QuebecWhisky.com, Serge and WhiskyFun.com, or Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be. Given the generally high scores, it is hard to find a truly negative review of any A’bunadh batch. When it does happen, it is usually due to the detection of sulphur compounds (see for example Oliver’s experience of batch 45 at Dramming.com).

If you can find it, the Aberlour A’bunadh is a strong candidate to consider for the “sherry-bomb” corner of your whisky cabinet.

 

Nikka Coffey Grain

Japanese whisky follows very closely the model laid down by Scottish whisky production. Specifically, you get malt whisky (made from malted barley using traditional copper pot stills) and grain whisky (which can incorporate various grains – most typically corn – made in a continuous column still). If you mix some portion of these together, you get a blended whisky (or a simply, a blend). See my single malt vs blend discussion here for more info on these categories. Also see my recent Nikka Coffey Malt review for a comparison.

In Scotland, there are plenty of single malts available to occupy the higher-end whisky niche – and so, most blends are relegated to the low end. There are exceptions of course (see Compass Box, for example), but this does serve as a good general rule. The result is that grain whisky production is largely a commodity-driven, high-volume industrial enterprise in Scotland.

One of the key differences to whisky production in Japan is a focus on making high-quality blends (see my Hibiki 17yo and Harmony commentaries, for example). Of course, you can only do that if you take some care in your grain whisky production.

For this commentary, I’m highlighting the standard NAS bottling of the Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. Fairly commonly available (for a Japanese whisky), and reasonably priced (again, for Japanese whisky), this is an unusual beast in the whisky world –  a pure grain whisky. Made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka, this corn whisky is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. Bottled at 45% ABV.

The absence of any malt whisky in the bottle means that the Nikka Coffey Grain is in some ways more like a Bourbon than a traditional Scotch. Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Very much of the corn whisky style. Slightly sweet, like watered-down corn-syrup, with definite traces of its time in oak (i.e., caramel/vanilla aromas, and an overall woodiness). Maybe a bit floral as well. Unfortunately, I also get a noticeable solvent aroma, which I don’t care for personally. All told, the nose reminds me of some of the younger Canadian blended whiskies (e.g. Gibson’s 12yo, Century Distillers Ninety 5yo, etc.).

Palate: Initial impression is all soft, gentle creaminess. It’s pleasantly sweet, in a delicate way – not the heavy corn syrup I sometimes find in bourbons. This is definitely still a Japanese creation, with a pleasant range of flavours – including some spice and some floral notes – all enveloped in a persistent, lightly sweet creaminess. Vanilla and caramel are noticeable, and there is a touch of apple. The faintest hint of that solvent note persists at the end, but it is very subdued (thankfully). All in all, pretty decent.

Finish: Fairly short and thin (as I find common to grain whisky), but carries through many of the same notes from the palate.

It is often said that grain whisky provides that classic “smoothness” to blended whiskies – the way it spreads out over the tongue, evening-out the various flavour components, binding them all together. This is in contrast to the “sharpness” that high-quality malt whisky provides – especially in terms of cascading waves of intense flavour through the palate and finish. The Nikka Coffey Malt definitely shows this “smoothness” well – frankly, I would describe the overall mouth-feel as luscious. 🙂

Truthfully, I don’t really see this whisky as a competitor to most bourbons, given its relatively light character. Instead, I think this whisky would be a hit with fans of the lighter Irish, Scottish or Canadian style of blends – especially if you enjoy a little sweetness.

Here’s how it compares to some other Nikka malt and/or blended whiskies in my meta-critic Whisky Database:

Nikka.Coffey.GrainNikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.76 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.2 on 8 reviews
Nikka Super: 8.04 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews

A good above-average composite score at 8.7, with an above-average standard deviation (suggesting a wide range of opinions on this whisky). And I can understand that, given its distinctiveness for the class. While some may enjoy its delicate and smooth characteristics, others may find it relatively bland and uninteresting (or potentially over-sweet). Definitely a cut above most entry level single malts I’ve tried.

Price-wise, I just picked this bottle up in a Tokyo duty-free for 5400 Yen (~$65 CAD). Not available at the LCBO or SAQ, but you can pick this expression up in BC or Alberta for ~$85-90 CAD (which seems like a remarkably good deal for Canada).

For detailed reviews from those who quite like it, check out André and Martin at QuebecWhisky.com, or Jason at WhiskyWon. For some contrasting opinions, check out Serge at WhiskyFun.com or Michio at Japan Whisky Reviews.

 

 

 

 

Whisky in Japan

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

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

Keio Plaza Hotel Konbini:Japan-1

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

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

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

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

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

Bic Camera (East Gate of Shinjuku station):

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

Bic1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bic4Next two shelves down were the more budget entries:

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

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

And the bottom shelf:

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

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

Isetan Department Store

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

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

Isetan1

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

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

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

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

Don Quijote (Roppongi):

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

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

Don1

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

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

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

Next shelves down:

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Haneda (HND) International Terminal:

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

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

Haneda1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Word:

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

Zeotrope

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

————–

Post-Script:

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

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

But the star of the show was the Taiwanese whisky:

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

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

 

 

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

Kavalan Concertmaster

Kavalan Concertmaster bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my tasting notes for the Concertmaster:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Hibiki Harmony

Harmony is the name of the new NAS (no age statement) offering from Suntory for their premiere Hibiki line of blended whiskies. It is meant to replace the entry-level 12 yo expression, which is no longer available.

Due to the widespread shortage of mature casks world-wide (thanks to whisky’s surging popularity), many distillers have had to discontinue their classic entry-level age expressions – or at least, greatly reduce their distribution. While this is certainly the case for many Scottish single malts, it seems to be even more of an issue for Japanese whisky – given its relatively recent expansion into international markets. Demand is far outstripping supply at this point time, it seems.

There is much hang-wringing about this trend online, since it portends a general reduction in quality overall. However, there is no a priori reason to assume that every NAS will be demonstrably worse than its age statement predecessor. Indeed, there are some limited examples where the opposite seems to be the case (Cardhu Amber Rock comes to mind). In the case of the Harmony, I understand they adding a small proportion of new whisky aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks.

Being a big fan of the Hibiki 17 yo, it was with some trepidation that I opened the bottle of Hibiki Harmony that I manage to snag at the LCBO this week. Since there are not a lot of reviews online yet for this particular expression, I thought I’d provide more detailed review-style tasting notes here:

Nose: What a pleasant surprise – rich with sweet fruit and floral aromas (most especially apples, bananas and orange blossoms). I get a definite whiff of pear, which is less common (although some might consider that to be over-ripe apple). Classic vanilla of course (consistent with oak aging). A sweet incense smell as well. You’ll laugh at me, but I also detect a hint of that cheap bubble gum that used to come with sport trading cards when I was a kid. The label mentions rosewater, which I can also imagine. All told, a much nicer nose than I was expecting, and one that is a pleasure to return to in-between sips.

Palate: Given the distinctive nose, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. Initial impression was relief – I could immediately detect the classic Hibiki “oaky” structure in the opening waves of flavour (i.e., toffee and honey). But what came next was a surprise to me – a quick shift into what I normally associate with a high-quality Canadian blended whisky (i.e., something akin to the Crown Royal Monarch). There is still some rough grain whisky showing on the Harmony, belying its young age (although it is not offensive in the way cheap young Canadian whiskies often are). But what I am detecting here is the classic integration of oaked grain sweetness with the “softer” baking spices of age ryes (which you find in quality aged Canadian blends). I doubt there is any rye in here, but I am quite happy to detect something similar to it in the Harmony, as I think it balances well with the classic Hibiki structure. I suppose some people might even compare this to a lighter/younger bourbon, given the sweetness – but the Harmony is definitely more delicate. The slight sweet perfume/incense aroma also continues into the palate, although I’m hard pressed to name it exactly.

Finish: Medium, in terms of that oaky grain whisky sweetness which continues for awhile. But the main fruity/spicy flavours trail off fairly quicky, as you might expect in a younger blend.

Having sampled more than a dozen Japanese whiskies to date, I must say that the Harmony is not what I expected – but I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As I noted in my Canadian Club 100% Rye commentary, Suntory has been integrating its recently-acquired expertise in Canadian rye making and Jim Beam bourbon blending. Given the surprising flavour profile here, I can’t help but wonder if some of that expertise hasn’t made its way back to the Japanese mainland.

As an aside, this is the first Hibiki whisky that the LCBO has stocked, to my knowledge. If the switch to NAS expressions means wider availability of this style of Japanese whisky in Canada, then I expect the local market will be glad to receive it.

Let’s see how the various Hibiki expressions compare in the Whisky Database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.43 ± 0.94 on 7 reviews
Hibiki 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews
Hibiki 17yo: 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews
Hibiki 21yo: 9.19 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews

Hibiki Harmony NASThe trend in mean scores is in the direction you would expect – but there are definitely some pretty great differences of opinion on the Harmony, as illustrated in the much higher standard deviation than typical. I suspect this reflects the distinctive flavour profile described above – while I like it, it obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone.

For positive reviews of this expression, check out Jason of In Search of Elegance and Dave of Whisky Advocate.  For more moderate reviews, check out Martin and André of Quebec Whisky, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Price-wise, you can easily find this expression in Tokyo for about 3900 Yen (or ~$45 CAD). It’s currently available at the LCBO and SAQ for $100 CAD.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo and 21 yo

Nikka is one of the best-known makers of Japanese whisky – although its availability is quite limited in North America and Europe.

When you can find it, you are typically limited to a couple of the pure malt “colour” series, or the excellent Nikka From the Barrel. I plan to post commentaries on a number of those whiskies eventually, but would like to start with a couple of examples from the popular Taketsuru line – the 12 yo and 21 yo.

Named after Masataka Taketsuru – the founding father of Japanese whisky – these whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (often called “vatted malts” or “blended malts” elsewhere).

As I explained on my Single Malts vs Blends page, virtually all “single malts” are blends of different barrels of malt whisky – from the same distillery – vatted together. The only exception are limited specific cask releases (although even there, most of these are combinations of individual casks). The “blended malt” term (or its equivalent “vatted malt”) was developed to describe whiskies where the malt came from different distilleries – thus differentiating from “single” distillery malt blends. Technically speaking, these blended malts could consist of malt whisky produced by competing makers.

In Japan, the major makers typically have multiple distilleries under their own control – with each distillery specializing in different styles. Vatted Japanese whiskies from one producer’s set of distilleries are generally called “pure malts” there, to differentiate from the less specific “blended malt” moniker. Simply put, “pure malts” are just like “single malts”, except they come from a single producer instead of a single distillery.

As it turns out, the Taketsuru 21 yo is one of the whiskies that helped put Nikka (and Japanese whisky more generally) on the world map. Since it was first introduced into international whisky competitions, it has racked up an impressive number of gold medals and best-in-class awards and trophies. Most notably, it has won World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards four times since 2007.

There has been a bit of a craze these last few years to obtain almost any Japanese whisky at reasonable prices. I actually managed to snag the Taketsuru 12yo a year-and-a-half ago at the LCBO for ~$70.  Unfortunately, I had to pay a lot more for the 21yo on a recent trip to Asia.

Part of the reason for this is that Nikka announced earlier this year a massive restructuring of their whisky brands – and the discontinuation of a lot of distillery-specific expressions. While the Taketsuru line will persist, there were immediate price increases (up to 50%, in the case of the 21 yo). And of course, given the relative scarcity, panicked demand buying drove up prices even further across the board. For the foreseeable future, I think you will find it hard to pick of either of these Taketsuru expressions at reasonable prices.

Which is a shame, because they are both quite nice for their respective age levels. Here’s how the Taketsuru line compares in my whisky database (recalling the overall average of ~8.5)

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.32 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews
Taketsuru 17yo: 8.82 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews
Taketsuru 21yo: 9.00 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews

These relative scores track very well with my experience.

Nikka Taketsuru pure malt 12yo bottleThe 12 yo has a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas. The palate reminds me of a classic, floral-style Highland/Speyside Scottish single malt – although with the faintest touch of smoke here. I find it a little more complex than the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yo, for example. The main problem is the finish – it disappears too quickly, and turns slightly bitter on the way out (so maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all). If it weren’t for this unsatisfying end, I would have expected it to score higher for its respective age and flavour class.

The 21 yo in contrast is fairly sublime across the board. It has a much richer and fruity nose, with definite plum/prune notes (I’d swear there was sherry wood in there). Nicely caramelized body with excellent mouthfeel – a good mix of spicier notes on the palate, well balanced with the oak. The finish is long and lingering, with definite sweetness that is not cloying (and again, well balanced to the spiciness). This is a very easy to drink whisky!

For detailed reviews of these two whiskies, I suggest you check out the Nikka blended malt pages of the Quebec Whisky boys and Dramtastic. Jason of In Search of Elegance has recently reviewed both the 12 yo and 21 yo expressions (from samples of my bottles).

 

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