Author Archives: selfbuilt

BenRiach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Wood

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottle

Following up on my recent commentary of the GlenDronach 12 yr, I thought I would put in a word for the 12 year old, similarly sherried expression released under the BenRiach name (who also owns GlenDronach).

There is not a lot of information on this expression online, which is surprising given its price – like the GlenDronach, this is a remarkably affordable young “sherry-bomb” at the LCBO (currently ~$67 CAD). The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood gets a very good composite score in my Whisky Database, at 8.80 ± 0.26 on 9 reviews.

I recently received a bottle of this BenRiach expression for Father’s Day, and was surprised to find how different it is from the GlenDronach. As discussed in that commentary, the GlenDronach 12 yr is actually from much older stock than the label indicates (i.e., my early 2014 bottle contains whisky that is a minimum of >17-18 yrs old). But the base spirit from GlenDronach is clearly quite different from BenRiach – I find the BenRiach to be a much gentler dram, with a more more delicate underlying base.

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottleTo my mind, this would make the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood a much better choice for newcomers to single malts (especially newcomers to sherried malts). Despite the classic sherry sweetness up front, this expression is definitely on the drier side going out – compared to most sherried malts I’ve tried. And this is something I find inexperienced whisky drinkers typically prefer, as many are put off by excessive or sustained sweetness (and overwhelming flavour and complexity).

If I were to sum up the difference, I think the GlenDronach is a great choice for experienced sherried malt drinkers who are looking for distinctiveness. That said, the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood is still something that I think everyone may enjoy, given its good balance of flavours and easy drinking nature.

For a good concise review of this expression, please check out Dramming.com. The boys at QuebecWhisky have reviewed what they call a “Sherry Cask” version of the BenRiach 12 yr, but it sounds from the description that the flavour profile is much the same (as is the photo).

 

 

Expert vs User Reviews – Part I

Wine barrels

As discussed on my Biases and Limitations page, I have chosen to use only established reviewers – with an extensive range of individual whiskies reviewed – when building the Whisky Database here. Please see my Reviewer Selection page for the criteria used in selecting these reviewers.

But there are a number of active online whisky communities that have member reviews, and it is worth exploring how these may relate to the properly-normalized expert panel developed here. In this commentary, I am going to explore correlations of the Whisky Database to the Reddit Scotch Whisky subgroup (“Scotchit”).

My goal here is simply to see whether or not it is worthwhile to try to incorporate this user community into my expert panel. I am personally a big fan of discussion forums, where newcomers and experts can rub shoulders and shares experiences.

The Reddit Scotchit Review Archive

This Scotchit user group meets many of my established reviewer criteria, including being very active in the last few years with openly available reviews. While the main Scotchit site can be a bit daunting to navigate, you can find the full open-access review archive (with over 13,000 reviews as of July 2014, including “community reviews”) – as well as several attempts at quantitative analysis and summary of the results.

The main challenge is that individual Scotchit user reviews can vary widely in quality, experience and consistency. Scoring is also hugely variable (i.e., some members use the full range from 0-100, whereas others use the more common restricted higher range). Ideally, a proper normalization should be performed for each reviewer, but this poses considerable technical and logistical challenges for the massive review archive dataset. User Dworgi has created a user review normalizer program, but I couldn’t get it to work with the current review archive.

On that front, I should point out that while they have done an impressive job of maintaining the Scotchit review archive, it is still a community project using automated review-catching bots. As a result, there are a certain number of errors in the database. The most significant of these are erroneous scores (likely due to the reviewer mentioning several scores in his/her review, with the automated script having trouble finding the final score). There are also structural problems with the complete dataset – for example, several hundred entries currently have missing columns or transposed columns. There are also many more cases where the same expression is listed under different titles. So if you plan to work with this archive, you will still need to do your own manual quality control checks and data curation.

Given these issues (which are generally well appreciated on the site), it is recognized that some filtering restriction of the archive is required to meaningfully interpret any summary results. One approach is to restrict to only those reviewers that meet a certain minimum number of published individual reviews (e.g., those who have done 50 or more), and to ignore community reviews. Another is to set a minimum number of user reviews required for each whisky before considering it in an analysis (e.g., 10 reviewers, as done here for an analysis by Dworgi for data up to the end of 2013). Another option is to also restrict reviews to those that meet a minimum score cut-off (e.g., neglecting reviews that score <50 out of 100). Charles Vaughn has a good interactive graphing tool using the same dataset as Dworgi, where you can dynamically adjust these cut-off values yourself on the Overview tab and see how it affects the results. This is a good tool to help you calibrate you understanding of the dataset (although it is limited in time to an early summary set).

Again, all these restrictions are done in order to try and help compensate for the wide variations in scoring, given the lack of normalization. Given my experience, I’m not sanguine about the success of these methods – as demonstrated on this site, you really need to properly normalize each reviewer’s scoring if you are to meaningfully integrate. However, given the daunting size of the Reddit reviewer database, these simple filtering approaches are understandable – and are better than nothing. It is at least worthwhile to see if the filtering methods suggest any meaningful trends that could be followed up  with a more detailed analysis.

As an aside, one potential advantage to having a very large dataset of user ratings is the possibility of using a proper Bayesian estimator. Popular in estimation/decision theory, a Bayes estimator is used to compensate for when only a small number of ratings are available on any given item in a much larger dataset (i.e., what is known as posterior expected loss). It works nicely across extremely large datasets that have highly variable numbers of reviews (e.g., the Internet Movie Database apparently uses a Bayesian estimator). Items with a low number of reviews are given lower weighing in the analysis. Once the number of ratings reaches and surpasses a defined threshold, the confidence of the average rating surpasses the confidence of the prior knowledge, and the weighed Bayesian rating essentially becomes a regular average. Of course, any biases in the underlying dataset would still be confounding (see below), but this would definitely be something to consider if you want to mine the Scotchit database further.

Comparative Analysis

For this first pass analysis, I have pulled out of their current public review archive (as of July 2014) all reviews for whiskies in my dataset. This yielded >200 whiskies in common, with almost 6000 individual Scotchit reviews. A quick descriptive-statistic examination of the raw data illustrates that single malt-like and bourbon-like whiskies get generally equivalent average scores across Scotchit reviewers, but that scotch blend-like and rye-like whiskies get significantly lower scores on average. While this trend is apparent among my expert review panel as well, it is noticeably more pronounced in the Scotchit user archive. This feature is well noted on the site – i.e., many seem aware that blends (and other perceived lower quality whisky categories) are particularly devalued by the members.

At a more granular level, I note that the international malt whisky subset of my database are scored lowered by the Scotchit users on average, compared to the Scottish single malts. In contrast, the expert panel used here rates these international whiskies higher than the single-malt group average. Further, I note that Canadian rye whiskies get lower scores on average in the Scotchit review archive than the American rye whiskies – whereas those two sub-categories of rye get equivalent scores among my expert panel. While relative numbers are low in these last two cases, it does suggest that the underlying biases may be different between the expert panel and Scotchit users for international products.

To explore relationships between our datasets in more detail, I have applied the same filtering method used by Scotchit users themselves when depicting their own data. For this analysis, I have used moderately stringent criteria, excluding all whiskies with <10 reviews, and any individual review score <60. This reduces the dataset to ~5400 Scotchit reviews, across ~160 whiskies in common. Again, I would prefer to use proper normalization of each of their reviewers, but the automated tool does not currently seem to be functioning.

A few observations of this restricted dataset. For one, the variation across Scotchit user reviews is much higher than across my expert review panel, on a per-review basis (even before normalization was applied to my dataset). And even after consolidating to an average score for each whisky, the variation within each reviewer group is again much higher for the Scotchit dataset. These results are not surprising given the wide variation in how scoring is applied by Scotchit users (and despite the attempt at filtering the results).

Correlation to the Meta-Critic Scores

Let’s see how a correlation of the average Scotchit score for each whisky compares to my meta-critic dataset. For this depiction, I have broken out the whiskies by category (single malt-like, scotch blend-like, bourbon-like and rye-like). Further, I have identified the flavour cluster categories for the single malt style whiskies. See my How to Read the Database for an explanation of these terms.

Correlation of WhskyAnalysis.com to Reddit Scotchit

The overall correlation to my meta-critic score is reasonable (although lower than the average expert reviewer to the meta-critic score). You can also see that the variation increases as we move to whiskies with lower scores, as you might expect given the significant variation in how the Scotchit user base applies scores. Note that this variation is much higher than that seen in my expert reviewers (and discussed here).

Looking more closely, you can also see how the blended whiskies do indeed score relatively lower for the Scotchit users (i.e., virtually all these whiskies are below the best fit line, indicating relatively lower Scotchit scores). There are no obvious group differences among the other classes or clusters, suggesting the Scotchit users share a similar bias to my expert review panel of favouring complex whiskies over delicate ones, and heavily-smoky over lightly-smoky (in general terms).

That said, there are a number of individual whiskies results that are interesting (i.e., cases where the two reviewer bases obtain significantly different results). One example is for the less heavily-peated Highland and Islay whiskies (e.g., Bowmore and Ardmore). The entry level expressions of these brands tend to get average-to-slightly-above ratings in my expert panel, compared to consistently below average ratings from the Scotchit user base. I am not clear as to the reason for this difference, but it may reflect how user reviewers tend to apply a wider scoring scale within a given class of product (i.e., while they rate heavily-peated whiskies equivalently to the expert reviews, they disproportionately rank lighter-peat whiskies lower).

There are also individual whiskies where the Scotchit rankings seem unusual. One example is the Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or. The other Glenmorangie expressions rank in similar ways between the Scotchit and meta-critic reviewers (i.e., Lasanta < 10 yr Original < Quinta Ruban < Signet). The Nectar D’Or gets an overall average score among Scotchit users (placing it in the middle of the pack), but a consistently high score among the meta-critic reviewers (i.e., equivalent to the Signet). A possible explanation for this is that the Nectar D’Or is frequently cited in some of the popular Scotchit analyses as an example of an “average” scoring whisky (going back several years now). This may thus be influencing members to consistently rank it that way, based on earlier assessments (i.e., a trend towards consistency over time).

Wrapping Up

Taken together, this analysis suggests that may be some specific and general differences in the underlying scoring approach taken by Scotchit users and the experts used here in the meta-critic score. In particular, Scotchit users seem more critical and relatively negative toward perceived lower quality whiskies (e.g., blends) than the expert reviewers. Similarly, the users may have a relative bias in favour of UK single malts and American bourbons/ryes compared to other international jurisdictions of similar products, relative to the expert panel. Note that I am not saying the expert panel is better or worse in this regard – just that their relative systemic biases may be different (and thus difficult to integrate across users and reviewers).

There are also definite differences in how scoring is applied to whiskies, with a lot more variation among Scotchit users. However, it may be possible to correct for this with a proper normalization for each reviewer. And a proper Bayesian estimator could be used to adjust for cases where there is a low number of reviews. To date however, it seems that simpler filtering approaches have been used for most analyses of the Scotchit archive.

An underlying question to explore in more detail is the relative level of independence of reviewers. Even the expert reviewers used here are bound to be influenced to some degree (likely a variable degree) by the reviews of other experts. There are indications in the Scotchit analyses that this effect is more pronounced among the members of the user group, especially in regards to certain specific whiskies and defined clusters of whiskies. This may pose an insurmountable problem in equating expert reviews (where distinctiveness of review – within overall consistency – is highly prized) and community user reviews (where consensus may be highly prized by some, and extreme/inconsistent positions valued by others). Again, the relative value of the meta-critic analysis here is that it is drawn from samples that are as independent as possible, while striving for internal consistency (both important criteria for inferential statistics).

At the end of the day, it would not be appropriate to try and incorporate any simple summary of the Scotchit archive into the expert meta-critic score. However, there may be individual reviewers from Scotchit who have similar characteristics to the experts used here (i.e., similar relative biases and levels of independence). Indeed, there is one member that is common to both groups (the Whiskey Jug). I will continue to explore the individual reviewers in more detail, to see if there are any others that may be relevant for inclusion in the current meta-critic group.

And of course, none of this should get in your way of joining and participating in any user community you feel a connection with. They can be a great place to explore ideas with people of similar interest. 🙂

UPDATE: I proceeded further through the dataset, and done proper statistical normalizations on a number of Reddit reviewers. Discussed further here.

 

 

GlenDronach 12 Year Old “Original”

GelnDronach 12yo bottle

The GlenDronach 12 year old is a popular entry-level example of the “sherry bomb” style of single malt whisky. It earns an above-average rating in my Whisky Database for the ABC super cluster: it currently receives an 8.68 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews (the overall average for this ABC group is ~8.55).

I have picked it to highlight in this commentary for a number of reasons. For one, although it receives a fairly consistent average-to-slightly-above score from most reviewers, there is at least one reviewer who rates this as a top pick. It is also an exceptional value in the ABC group, especially in Ontario (only $66 CAD at the LCBO). And it has a surprising amount of flavour for a supposedly young “12-year old” expression.

This last point is the most interesting to me. The GlenDronach 12 yr was first released in 2009, after the distillery had been sold to BenRiach. But the GlenDronach distillery had been shut down between 1996 and early 2002. So under the rules of single malt labeling, they had to rely exclusively on the pre-1996 stock to make these bottlings. At time of launch (in 2009), that meant the minimum age of the whisky in those bottles was at least 12-13 years old, depending on the exact end date of production in 1996 (but most was likely much older, for reasons I’ll explain below).

By 2010, the source barrels for that year’s “12 yo” bottlings would have to have been at least 13-14 years old. This trend continues up to the 2013 bottlings, where the minimum age going into those “12 yo” bottles could not have been younger than 16-17 years old. It is only at some point in 2014 that they would have been able to start using some of the new make 12-year old whisky in the vattings (and I’m going to guess not much – again scroll down for an explanation).

Given how production actually works (see my understanding single malts page for more info), it is highly unlikely that they would have blown-out all their late 1995/1996 stock in the first production runs of the GlenDronach 12yr. It is more likely that the blend of whiskies used in the vattings for those early bottles was heavily biased toward older barrels even at the start, in order to maintain some consistency in vatting over subsequent production runs. I say this because at the time of launch of this expression in 2009, they already knew that they wouldn’t be able to use any new make before some time in 2014. And given that the new make was not likely to be same as the old (due to differences in production methods), they presumably are still using a lot of that aging old stock in the current bottlings (to maintain consistency).GelnDronach 12yo bottle

For more info, this back-story is described in an excellent blog post on Words of Whisky. But do scroll down through the comments, as the included chart in the article is off by one year in its calculations (i.e., whisky made in 2002 would only be 1-year old in 2003, etc.).

Anyway, this helps explains why the GlenDronach 12 yr tastes remarkably robust for its apparent low age statement. So if you like that sort of thing, then you might find this to be an exceptional value. Note that some people online have complained about a “bitterness” in the palate/finish (which likely relates to differing abilities to detect sulfur compounds, as discussed here).

I plan to post a commentary soon on how the BenRiach 12 yr old Matured in Sherry Wood compares (hint: that is a gentler dram, better suited to beginners interested in trying something in the sherried class). UPDATE: commentary posted.

But for those of you who are already fans of the well-aged style of single malt, I recommend you check out these two very positive reviews for more info on this particular whisky: The Scotch Noob and Ralfy.

 

Canadian Club 100% Rye

Canadan Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye bottle

The Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye is an interesting innovation to the somewhat staid CC line of whiskies.

The premier U.S. spirits-maker Beam was acquired by Japan’s Suntory early last year (and with it, the well-known CC brand, which was in Beam’s stable at the time). This set the stage for a shake-up of the Canadian whisky scene, as Suntory already owned Alberta Distillers – which is a premium source of Canadian rye whisky. After much careful experimentation with this Alberta source stock by the Beam-Suntory craft makers in Kentucky, a new straight rye whisky was born – under the popular CC label. You can read more about the fascinating story of its creation in Davin de Kergommeaux’s blog post on the Whisky Advocate site.

What’s surprising to me is the price – at $27.45 CAD (list price) at the LCBO, this CC 100% Rye whisky is priced the same as the somewhat entry-level CC Reserve. But it is frequently on sale for $25.95, which is even cheaper than even the regular base CC (aka CC Premium). And it clearly does a lot better than the entry-level CC whiskies in my Meta-Critic dataset:

  • Canadian Club Premium ($26.35): 7.28 (±1.22 on 11 reviews)
  • Canadian Club Reserve 9yo ($27.45): 8.07 (±0.54 on 4 reviews)
  • Canadian Club Classic ($28.45): 8.35 (±0.37 on 10 reviews)
  • Canadian Club 100% Rye ($27.45, on sale $25.95): 8.66 (±0.38 on 5 reviews)

To put those numbers in context, the average Meta-Critic score in my database for all Canadian whiskies is 8.44. That puts the CC 100% Rye at well above average, despite having one of the lower price points in the whole dataset.

Canadan Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye bottleWhat is interesting to me is the taste – this is a fabulous straight rye whisky in my view, far belying its budget price. I have brought this one out during structured whisky tastings at my house, and have surprised quite a number of my guests once I revealed the price.

In those sessions, I have always done direct head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparisons to the popular Lot 40 from Corby – also a 100% Canadian Rye, priced at $40 at the LCBO, with a Meta-Critic score of 8.97 (±0.26 on 10 reviews). Surprisingly, it tends to be an equal wash of who prefers the CC 100% Rye and who favours the Lot 40. Invariably, most agree that the Lot 40 has a better nose, but a number of people have commented that they like the more “fruity” body of the CC 100% Rye (i.e., it’s more fruit-forward on the palate).

Personally, I don’t think you can’t go wrong with either – although the Lot 40 does have more to offer the experienced Rye drinker. But at this bargain-basement price, I would definitely encourage every Canadian whisky drinker to give this one a shot.

Davin de Kergommeaux has a clear and concise review of the CC 100% Rye on the Whisky Advocate website. For a more detailed review with tasting notes, please check out Whisky Won.

As always, interested to hear your feedback below.

Gibson’s Finest 18 Year Old

Gibson's Venerable 18yo bottle

Gibson’s whisky has a long history in Canada, with production having passed through several producers and distilleries over the years. Through it all, the 18 year old expression has remained the top of their line. It currently holds the distinction as the highest ranked Canadian whisky in my Whisky Database (for the “Finest Rare” 18 yr): 9.12 ± 0.41, on 8 reviews.

The latest bottlings at the LCBO have a “Finest Venerable” subtitle. Although I think “rare” still applies – I received this bottle as a Father’s Day present, and I know it took some driving around by my family to find a LCBO that stocked it (it was on my list of wanted whiskies). 😉

That subjective impression is borne out in my recently posted analysis of LCBO inventories. Looking at the data table in that post (compiled from the LCBO iPad/iPhone app), you will see that there are only ~650 bottles of the 18yr available in all of Ontario right now. Compare that to >42,000 bottles of the base Gibson’s 12 yr and Sterling expressions. And most of those 12yo/Sterling bottles are the larger 1140 and 1750mL sizes. So if you do a comparison by volume, only 1.1% of Gibson’s whiskies available in Ontario right now are this top-shelf 18 yr.

In case you are wondering, I agree with the consensus wisdom in the Meta-Critic score – this is an outstanding Canadian whisky!

Nose: Very creamy sensation from the start, with oaky caramel, butterscotch and vanilla aromas that seem more like creme caramel in this case. “Yellow-flesh” fruits come to mind: plum, pear and pineapple especially (I admit that last one seems a bit weird). Something slightly nutty. like crushed peanuts. Nice nose.

Palate: Much the same flavours as found on the nose, with even more butterscotch up front. Luxurious creamy mouthfeel. Rye “baking spices” start to come out now (nutmeg, cinnamon, touch of cloves), but not as strongly as most quality Canadian blends. I’d swear there a bit of wheat sweetness in this blend – definite bread-making flavours come out, in addition to the rye. A bit of bourbon sweetness throughout. Finally, a touch of bitterness comes in at the end, but doesn’t seem out of place or glaring (like it does in cheap blends)

Finish: Still sweet up front – although more focused on those bread baking characteristics than any of the fruits. Still relatively creamy, it moves more toward a slight bitterness over time (although well balanced with the sweetness). Not hard to handle at all.

As I describe in recommendations for hosting a whisky tasting, I always suggest people ignore their taste impressions on the first sip (to allow your palate a chance to cleanse and recover from the initial alcohol burn). But this is an example of that rare whisky where I knew I was in for a treat from the first few seconds – a nice compilation of aromas and flavours.

Gibson's Venerable 18yo bottleI guess the only question now is who do I give that old bottle of Gibson’s 12 year old to – the one that has been sitting in my cabinet barely touched for awhile? As an aside, the 12yr is a decent budget whisky for the price, but it’s really best suited to mixed drinks.

One thing for Gibson’s – and this is a plus or minus, depending on your point of view – they have very plain packaging. The 18 year old doesn’t come with a box, just the bare bottle is sold off the shelf. And some of the “decoration” around the top is just part of the security packaging (i.e., comes right off when you open it). So while it may not make for the prettiest gift package – your recipient is likely to thank you once they sample it!

For a recent review of this whisky, you can see Jason Hambrey’s Whisky Won review here, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis.

Whisky Volume in Ontario

display rack of whisky bottles

Summer is apparently a slow time for whisky sales in Ontario – at least judging by all the marketing push at the LCBO for everything but whisky these days.

I look forward to the lead-up to Christmas, when the LCBO stocks a much wider array of mid-range and higher-end whiskies (especially single malts). Right now, it is the high volume, low-end whiskies that seem to dominate on the shelves. With Canada Day almost here, I thought I would do an analysis of the summer product distribution of Canada’s largest distillers (thanks to the helpful LCBO app).

What I’ve done is to search the LCBO app and website for all “budget” Canadian whiskies (i.e., in the $25-30 range). From this, I developed a list of all producers/distillers currently offering entry-level products (as a proxy for the largest distillers). I then tracked the LCBO inventory for the entire brand and expression range of the whiskies these distillers produce, in all bottle sizes. There were half a dozen distillers with less than 6000 liters of product on inventory at the LCBO, which I excluded from the further analysis (you’ll see why in a moment).

At the end of the day, this gives me a good dataset of the full pre-Canada Day LCBO inventory of all the products made by the largest Canadian whisky producers. The full searchable data table is available at the bottom of this post.

Before I get into the top-line observations from this whole dataset, there is one interesting feature to note in a subset of whiskies. Most of the entry-level expressions of these major distillers are available in a range of bottle sizes (i.e., from 200mL up to 3000mL). For all whisky brands where multiple bottles sizes were available, here is the distribution of the total current LCBO inventory (combined from all producers), as of June 28, 2015:

LCBO-bottlesAs you can see, the 750mL and 1140mL sizes are the clear “sweet spot” for the production and sale of budget whiskies (not surprisingly). What may be a little surprising is the absolute number of bottles in inventory. Again, the above chart is only for expressions that are released in multiple bottle sizes (which are typically just the base expression of each producer).

So what are the key observations from the whole set?  Let’s start with a ranking by production levels, for each identified distiller on the LCBO site. Note that these distillers may in fact be distributors (and some are owned by the same conglomerates). As such, I will also provide the names of the specific brands they produce, since that is what you are likely to recognize. Here they are, in order of total inventory of all whisky products (in liters) at the LCBO right now:

  1. Corby Distilleries Ltd (Wiser’s, Hiram Walker, Royal Reserve, Lot 40) – 148007 liters
  2. The Crown Royal Distilling Co. (Crown Royal) – 105383 liters
  3. Forty Creek Distillery (Forty Creek, Canada Gold) – 96603 liters
  4. Canadian Club Whisky Company (Canadian Club) – 79156 liters
  5. Schenley (Seagram’s, Black Velvet, Golden Wedding) – 52258 liters
  6. William Grant & Sons (Gibson’s) – 43819 liters
  7. Carrington Distillers (Alberta Premium, Alberta Springs) – 41460 liters

The relative rankings aren’t too surprising to me, especially with the Wiser’s juggernaut in Canada. I’ve noticed a lot people buying Crown Royal, so that makes sense as second place. But Forty Creek is certainly quite the success story, given that they have only been around for a short period of time. The Alberta distillers do remarkably well in Ontario as well, it seems.

The absolute volume of whisky in Ontario is a bit of an eye opener for me. Just focusing on these major distilleries, that’s over 566,000 liters of Canadian whisky currently sitting on LCBO shelves (at the time of year when whisky sales seem to be at their lowest).

What percentage of those whiskies are mid-range or higher? Very little. If you crunch the numbers, it turns out that (by volume) 96.1% of the output of these Canadian distilleries goes into <$30 whiskies. That means that less than 4% of their output (based on current LCBO inventories) could even have a shot at being called a “sipping whisky”. The vast majority is clearly designed for mixed drinks, as entry-level product.

To add insult to whisky-snob pride, want to guess how much of this total output is geared toward flavoured whisky products? According to the dataset, 8% of the above are flavoured whisky drinks. And that is likely an underestimate of the true market share, since there are other popular flavoured whisky drinks that are not being captured in this analysis. For example, if we add the popular cinnamon-flavoured shooter “Fireball” into the dataset, the overall proportion of flavoured whisky rises to 10% of the new total.

For the higher-end whisky enthusiast, these results can only be described as … sobering.

EDIT: As an aside, here is an interesting article from ScotchBlog.ca outlining their challenges with the LCBO.

Below is the full table, in number of bottles sitting in inventory for the LCBO on June 28, 2015.

Distributor
Brand
Standard Pice (750mL)
# 200mL
# 375mL
# 750mL
# 1140mL
# 1750mL
# 3000mL
Total Litres
Carrington DistillersAlberta Premium$25103901389088776426664532899
Carrington DistillersAlberta Premium Dark Horse$3133512513
Carrington DistillersAlberta Springs$251272416816048
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club (Premium)$2614118138371571513505717986150341
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Reserve$2730822312
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Clasic$2813461447183793161612423
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Maple$2743013226
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Rye$2775871642156510301
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Sherry$33738554
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal$2995731220132400714881117075344
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Apple$301772813296
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Maple$3052263920
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Black$33716525218248
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Limited Edition$4022751706
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Special Reserve$551200900
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Monarch 75th$6021461610
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Extra Rare Blue$180479359
Forty Creek DistilleryCanada Gold$2511320721637449
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Barrel Select$2718743141971922513292562748491
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Spiked Honey$2892346926
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Copper Pot$30106966891289720947
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Cream$298057404010648
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Double Barrel$6017211291
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Confederation Oak$701133850
William Grant & SonsGibson's Sterling$2766967144432020726
William Grant & SonsGibson's 12yo$30512981557202362922601
William Grant & SonsGibson's 18yo$75656492
SchenleySeagram's 83$2537273729273511833
SchenleySeagram's Five Star$2554
SchenleySeagram's VO$2555166696327117495
SchenleyBlack Velvet$2424121304002
SchenleyBlack Velvet Toasted Caramel$2726561992
SchenleyGolden Wedding$251443293552351213447
SchenleySchenley's OFC$259319313485
Corby Distilleries LtdRoyal Reserve$2555085754317316243
Corby Distilleries LtdHiram Walker's Special Old$256496740655004924407420944
Corby Distilleries LtdLot 40$4017131953
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Special Blend$25121611264010280641736989
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Deluxe$2716926164151647621014851155662416
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Torched Toffee$281162872
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Spiced Vanilla$28318436723948
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Small Batch$3037742831
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Legacy$50789592
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's 18yo$701007755
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Red Letter$100619464

Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottle

This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.

There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉

The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.

Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.

Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).

What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.

Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottleHere is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).

I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.

For a balanced perspective on this whisky, you can check out Andre and Patrick’s reviews at QuebecWhisky.com, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis for other ideas.

If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!

Further Reading

Canadan whisky on ice

It can be hard to find reliable information on whisky out there. In addition to the specialist websites that I have linked to throughout this site (and on my reviewers page), here are some worthwhile reads to consider (in no particular order)

Dave Broom’s The World Atlas of Whisky is a classic. Frequently reprinted (and updated), this is the best “coffee table” whisky book I know. Gorgeously illustrated, with tons of background information on distilleries and individual whiskies. Provides recommendations on whiskies to try next (but these seem very idiosyncratic and personal, and not based on any objective analysis). Same goes for the flavour mapping, as discussed here. Still, as long as you not expecting an explanation of why whiskies taste the way do, you should find this book to be a good general resource.

While I’m on the subject, Dave Broom’s Whisky: The Manual is also a good read. The title is misleading though – as one Amazon reviewer noted, it should be called “Mixed Drinks: The Manual”. Again, though highly personal and subjective, it details the author’s sequential experience with mixing a large number of malts and blends with 5 specific agents: soda water (club soda), coke, ginger ale, green tea, and coconut water. Some of his conclusions are directly at odds with received wisdom, but it is certainly thought provoking if you like to, uhm, mix it up a little. 😉

Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is a lot of fun. The author goes to some pains to explain that this is not a “best of” type of book. The selections are certainly not evenly distributed among whisky types, countries or price. Indeed, there are some ridiculously priced rare whiskies in the list, and some (really) common budget blends. I do like the range of international whiskies included. A highly personal look at what one author considers distinctive. Each whisky is well described, with some interesting perspectives. Take it with a grain of your favourite grain whisky. 😉

if you were to buy just one book on whiskies, I would recommend the latest printing of Dr David Wishart’s Whisky Classified. It is surprising to me that this book is not better known among whisky enthusiasts, but I imagine the statistical methodology is not something most people are familiar with. But as I show on this site, the approach taken by Dr Wishart is the most appropriate to clasifying whisky. The book also has plenty of interesting background on whisky making, and detailed discussions of over a hundred individual whiskies (one per distillery).

Lastly, Whisky Advocate magazine is a good read. Tons of articles in every issue, often with a strong travelog feel. As a result, I find they tend to go a bit over the top on the “terroir” aspect (see my discussion here of what to watch out for on this topic). And of course, you get the short blurbs and scores on recently whiskies (although those are also available for free on the whiskyadvocate.com website).

Hope you find those to be good starting off points!

Helping you choose your next whisky

Selfbuilt

The goal of this site is to help you make sense of whisky flavours and quality, to aid you in selecting ones you may be interested in trying – based on your personal preferences. Please refer to the menu bar at the top of the page for all the detailed background and analysis articles, as well as the link to the full Whisky Database.

This site aims to provide a comparative assessment of whiskies, based on a proper scientific meta-analysis of descriptions and scores given by whisky reviewers with extensive experience.

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