Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

Mackinlay’s Shackleton Blended Malt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

Crown Royal Blender’s Select

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation

There aren’t many master blenders in the whisky world who have a PhD in distilling – but Dr Don Livermore of J.P. Wiser’s is one of them.

He earned his PhD degree in 2012 from Heriot-Watt University, for a thesis entitled “Quantification of oak wood extractives via gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and subsequent calibration of near infrared reflectance to predict the Canadian whisky aging process” (available here).

He used over a hundred barrels of Canadian whisky for his three-year study, involving virgin wood casks charred to various depths (2 mm and 4 mm), refill American Bourbon casks, and refurbished re-char casks. The casks were filled in 2005, and were left sitting in Wiser’s warehouses. In late 2016, he decided to blend and bottle about half of these casks, to make Dissertation – a member of Wiser’s Rare Cask series.

This blended rye whisky also features a mix of distillation styles – column-distilled rye, column- and then pot-distilled rye, and double-distilled corn. Rye composes the majority of the blend – 87%, distilled to relatively low-proof (70-80% range). The remaining 13% is corn whisky, distilled to neutral spirit levels (94%). Note that this is a much higher percentage of rye whisky than most Canadian blends.

Released in the summer of 2017 exclusively through the LCBO in Ontario, Canada, you can still find bottles of whisky on the shelves in major metropolitan areas of this province. It won’t last forever though, so I thought it was about time that I get a review out. Amusingly bottled at 46.1% (which is the molecular weight of ethanol, in g/mol – a nod to chemistry geeks out there), it sells for $65 CAD.

Let’s see how it compares to other premium Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.62 ± 0.26 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 8.96 ± 0.29 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel: 8.55 ± 0.37 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.75 ± 0.39 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest Rare: 18yo 8.97 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts 17yo Little Trinity Three Grain: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.75 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation: 9.02 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.84 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.79 ± 0.37 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak: 8.48 ± 0.54 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Union 52: 8.81 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 8.98 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Lot 40: 8.87 ± 0.34 on 22 reviews ($$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old (2017): 9.09 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo: 8.86 ± 0.39 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Speyside Cask Finish: 8.68 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)

Here’s an interesting finding – Dissertation is currently getting the second-highest average score for any Canadian whisky in my database, after Lot 40 Cask Strength. That said, there are number of whiskies who are pretty close around the ~9.0 score, including Wiser’s 35yo.

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity up-front, a veritable fresh fruit salad (with extra cherries). Maple, caramel and vanilla. Baking spices, cinnamon and nutmeg especially. Somewhat nutty. Also has a mild tannic (black tea) note. There is a faint hint of acetone and turpentine, but not at all offensive. It has high-rye bourbon character to it.

Palate: Wow, it has much stronger impression in the mouth – huge blast of fresh cherries, apple and pear, but also sour cherries. Orange peel. Lots of vanilla and caramel now (reminds me of those soft Kraft caramels from Halloween). Heavy cinnamon, with cloves adding to the mix. Very bourbon-like, with the virgin wood coming through – but not over-oaked. Basil and that tannic tea again. No real bitterness, which is impressive for all the oaky spice notes. Warm afterglow on the swallow, with just the right ABV. Fabulous silky texture in the mouth, no off notes here at all. Outstanding.

Finish: Nice lingering finish, medium long. Fruit notes come back, but are more dried and candied now (I get dried banana and plantain chips). Nuts (peanut in particular). Again, no bitterness. Vanilla lingers. My only complaint is that it isn’t longer (a common issue with almost all Canadian whiskies).

Wow, this is an impressive whisky It has quickly become one of my new favourite Canadian whiskies – right up there with Lot 40, Lot 40 Cask Strength and Masterson’s 10 yo (and more in keeping with the style of the latter two). A more robust whisky than typical Canadian ryes, I could see this whisky going down well with American rye and bourbon drinkers.

This whisky gets top scores from Chip the Rum Howler (ranking it #2 Canadian whisky for the year), followed by Jason of In Search of Elegance, Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, Mark Bylok of Whisky Buzz and Davin of Canadian Whisky. Among my stable of Reddit reviewers, TOModera, muaddib99 and Boyd86 are all extremely positive, followed by xile_, Devoz, MajorHop, and Lasidar. In contrast, Jim Murray gives it an average score. Personally, I’m closer to the top of this range. Well worth picking up a bottle while it is still around.

Bunnahabhain 14 Year Old 2003 Pedro Ximenez Finish

This is a limited edition bottling from Bunnahabhain – a Scottish distillery, located on the north-east coast of Islay. Their standard 18 year old bottling is one of my favourites for the style – which, surprisingly for Islay, is unpeated. But the coastal environment helps brings in some unique features, which combine well with Bunnahabhain signature oily, flavourful character.

Bunnahabhain releases limited editions somewhat irregularly – the last was an Oloroso cask finish in 2016, I believe. This release is a 14 year old single malt, distilled in 2003. It was initially aged in second-fill Oloroso sherry casks until 2011, at which point it was transferred into first-fill Pedro Ximénez casks. It was bottled in late 2017 at cask-strength, 54.3% ABV in this case.

Only 6768 bottles were produced, released in most jurisdictions in early 2018. I was lucky to come across the release of a single case at World of Whiskies in Calgary, Alberta in late March of this year – and promptly picked up two bottles for $180 CAD each, on discount ($200 list price, tax in). As you can imagine, these sold out fast! I’ve recently opened bottle #2389.

Here is how this limited release compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to other Bunnas:

Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.26 on 24 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 14yo 2003 Pedro Ximenez Finish: 8.91 ± 0.74 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Bunnahabhain 18yo: 8.98 ± 0.20 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Bunnahabhain 25yo: 8.88 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$$$+)
Bunnahabhain 40yo: 9.14 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Bunnahabhain Ceòbanach: 8.79 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona: 8.31 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain Darach Ur: 8.40 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain Eirigh Na Greine: 8.44 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain Moine (all bottlings): 8.64 ± 0.60 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain Stiuireadair: 8.44 ± 0.37 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain Toiteach: 8.58 ± 0.37 on 16 reviews ($$$$)

In terms of average score, it compares pretty well to the standard age-stated line of Bunnahabhain. But that’s a noticeably higher-than-usual standard deviation, indicating some pretty variable opinions on this one. Let’s see how it compares to some similar cask-strength sherry bombs:

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 8.95 ± 0.15 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain 14yo 2003 Pedro Ximenez Finish: 8.91 ± 0.74 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (all batches): 8.92 ± 0.15 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.72 ± 0.35 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Glengoyne Cask Strength (all batches): 8.64 ± 0.46 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.94 ± 0.36 on 16 reviews ($$$$$+)
Macallan Classic Cut: 8.78 ± 0.19 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)

This Bunnahabhain Limited Release scores comparably to the best cask-strength offerings of competitors.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Rich, dark gold with some light mahogany hues.

Nose: PX sherry dominates on the nose – this is a super sweet one. Molasses, caramel. Red fruits, dark berries, raisins and red grapes. Lemon cake. Candy cane. Faint hint of anise. Nutty. Classic Bunna funk (like an extinguished campfire). Sea salt. Fabulous nose if you like them sweet. No off notes.

Palate: Dark brown sugar, demerara sugar. Thick and syrupy. Caramel and red berries again. Cherry compote pie filling – complete with the buttery pastry shell as well. Chocolate shavings. Cinnamon. Oaky wood. Tobacco and coffee grinds. Goes down smooth. Slight astringency on the swallow.

Finish: Medium long. Candy-like notes are the most prominent, with brown sugar and caramel that linger (very chocolate bar-like). Light cinnamon. Sticky residue on lips and gums. Lemon returns, as does the nuttiness at the end.

With water, brown sugar now becomes very apparent on the nose. Fruits are enhanced in the mouth, which I appreciate – so I definitely recommend a few drops. But further water brings up the cinnamon and oaky notes (with some bitterness), and lightens the mouthfeel, so be careful here.

To call this a dessert dram is an understatement – it is a heavy assault of liquefied brown sugar! Personally, I prefer it over some of the batched sherry bombs that contain a mix of Oloroso/PX cask-aged whiskies, like the recent Glendronach Cask Strength batches.

Among reviewers, my stable of Reddit reviewers were generally extremely positive, giving it top scores – starting with theslicknick6, followed by MajorHop, HawkI84, Unclimbability, Strasse007 and WildOscar66. A below average score was given by throwboats (and a few others on the site). There aren’t many other reviews out there, but it gets a slightly above average score from Ruben of Whisky Notes and Gavin of Whisky Advocate. It gets an extremely low score from My Annoying Opinions (which frankly seems a bit bizarre).

Clearly, this is a whisky with some variable perspectives. Personally, I’m more in-line with Strasse007 and WildOscar66 above – I think this is a very nice whisky for this class. I think the Meta-Critic average is fair, especially relative to the Bunnahabhain 18 yo. I’m glad to have a bottle (and a spare) of this limited release.

Famous Grouse

Ah, Famous Grouse – probably one of the most ubiquitous blended scotch whiskies you can find in this world. A basic, standard-price blended Scotch, its main competitors in the UK are Bell’s, Dewar’s, Grant’s and Teacher’s. Its emblem is the Red Grouse, Scotland’s national game bird.

First produced by Matthew Gloag & Son in 1896, it is currently produced and owned by the Edrington Group. The single malt whiskies used in the Famous Grouse blend are believed to include Edrington-owned Highland Park and Macallan. The brand has expanded in recent years to include at least half a dozen variants (e.g. Black Grouse, Snow Grouse, etc).

The blend is matured in oak casks for up to six months at 46% ABV, and then bottled at the industry standard 40%.

Here is how it compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.61 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($)
Bell’s Original: 7.57 ± 0.69 on 8 reviews ($)
Chivas Regal 12yo: 7.79 ± 0.44 on 23 reviews ($$)
Cutty Sark: 7.54 ± 0.45 on 15 reviews ($)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.60 ± 0.70 on 16 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse: 7.62 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12yo: 8.47 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Smoky Black (Black Grouse): 7.94 ± 0.44 on 21 reviews ($$)
Famous Jubilee: 8.13 ± 0.16 on 3 reviews ($$)
Grant’s Family Reserve: 7.71 ± 0.64 on 14 reviews ($)
J&B Rare: 6.96 ± 1.11 on 13 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.43 ± 0.61 on 23 reviews ($)
Whyte & Mackay Special Reserve: 7.47 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($)
Teacher’s Highland Cream: 7.95 ± 0.73 on 11 reviews ($)

Teacher’s seems to be the stand-out in this entry level ($) scotch blend category, with Famous Grouse falling in with the pack mentioned above.

A standard 750 mL bottle sells for $31 CAD at the LCBO. I picked up a miniature bottle in my travels (Brussels, Belgium in this case). Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: The grain alcohol hits you first, followed by a vaguely creamy note (condensed milk?). Once you get passed that, you move on to light toffee notes and dried fruits, which are fairly pleasant. Dried, pressed flowers too. Lemon candies. Arrowroot baby cookies. Fair amount of solvent notes, unfortunately (especially glue).  About what you could expect for a standard blend, but decent – especially on the mid-nose.

Palate: More going on here than I expected, and not all of it good.  Initially very grain forward, reminding of some single grain whiskies (Bain’s Cape and Nikka Coffey Grain, for example). Simple sweetness, with light fruits – and that creaminess again (likely from the malt whisky). Mid palate turns sour however, which is distracting. Some light nutmeg and cinnamon notes come in next, and help rescue the flavour experience a bit. Lemon notes return at the end, along with the glue from the nose unfortunately. No real heat, about what you would expect for 40% ABV.

Finish: Medium. Grain alcohol initially dominates here again, with a fairly dull presentation – but the finish is longer than I expected, with some sweet maltiness increasing over time. Light touches of fruit and baking spices linger in the background.

There’s actually more going on here than I expected – this is more complicated (I wouldn’t say complex) than most blends at this price point. No overly strong flavours, but not bland either. So if you can get over the off-notes, it might be a decent choice as a budget mixer.

Among reviewers, the only ones to give it an overall average score are Jim Murray and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. After that, most scores are pretty low, starting with Serge of Whisky Fun. Everyone else typically gives it in the bottom 10% of their catalogue, including Jan of Best Shot Whisky, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Nathan the ScotchNoob. The lowest scores come from Thomas of Whisky Saga, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Michael of Diving for Pearls.

 

Amrut Port Pipe Peated Single Cask #2712 (2016)

This single cask Amrut was first matured in charred American virgin oak casks, followed by further maturation in a Port Pipe cask (which are very large casks, holding 650 litres). I have a bottle from the third batch of this whisky matured in Port Pipe cask #2712, exclusively bottled for Western Canada (where I picked this up).

To clarify a point of confusion – Amrut sometimes re-uses finishing casks (like these Port Pipes). The front label of my bottle indicates that the barrel was first filled in January of 2011, and the whisky was bottled in February of 2016. There’s a Batch No 3 imprint on the back label, indicating that this is the third time Port Pipe 2712 has been used.

I don’t know how long this batch was finished in this Port Pipe, but there are reviews out there for an earlier August 2013 release from this same #2712 finishing cask (so, this release has to be finished for less than 2.5 years, by definition). I have one of 660 bottles of this third batch. It is bottled at cask-strength of 59.0% ABV.

I am currently tracking four Amrut Port Pipe casks in database (#2713, 2714, 3881, and 4668). To date, it is only #2712 and 2713 where I can find multiple bottlings reported.

Let’s see how the various Amrut offerings compare in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Amrut 100 Peated: 8.90 ± 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Bourbon Single Cask: 8.74 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Fusion: 8.89 ± 0.25 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Greedy Angels: 9.12 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Amrut Intermediate Sherry: 8.91 ± 0.46 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Peated Single Malt: 8.70 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Peated Single Malt Cask Strength: 9.08 ± 0.28 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portonova: 8.97 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask #2712 (2013): 8.95 ± 0.09 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask #2712 (2016): 8.76 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask #2713 (2013): 8.68 ± 0.12 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask (all casks): 8.75 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut PX Sherry Single Cask (all casks): 8.82 ± 0.48 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Spectrum (all batches): 9.13 ± 0.18 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)

Interesting, the Amrut single cask expressions (on average) don’t seem to fare quite as well as some of the standard bottlings – although they still get above-average overall scores for the single malt class. Let’s see what I find in the glass for my bottle:

Nose: A pleasantly peated nose, with a strong salted-meat aroma – smoked bacon and salted pork in particular. Smoked BBQ ribs. This is a very “meaty” nose, unlike the medicinal or rubbery noses of most heavily-peated Islay malts (i.e. its more like some Highland Park or Ledaig expressions, or even Springbank). Anise and dark chocolate, very earthy. Blueberries and raisins. It’s a great combination of peat and sweetness – it works. Surprisingly little alcohol burn for 59% ABV. No real off notes.

Palate: Strong attack of peat and sea salt to begin, followed by classic bourbon notes – honey and brown sugar.  Honey glazed ham. Not as smokey in the mouth. Anise and dark chocolate again, plus caramel. Cinnamon and black pepper. Fruits lean more toward the tropical now (mango, papaya), not really finding the port so much. Bacon notes come back at the end. Thick mouthfeel, slightly oily. Surprisingly easy to drink for 59% ABV.

Finish: Long. Leaves a noticeable tingle on the lips and tongue that is oddly pleasurable – this is actually quite anesthetizing (as you would expect from the strength). Sea salt and BBQ-glazed ribs. Some dried fruit notes appear over time.  Smoke lingers to the end.

With a little water, the sweet fruity notes on the nose are accentuated. Mouthfeel is unaffected. Lingering sweetness is increased on the finish as well, which becomes more sticky on the lips and gums.

If you keep adding water, to bring it down to more typical whisky strength, you will find the wood spices pick up a lot in the mouth (especially the cinnamon and pepper) – so it still leaves a sting.  Finish becomes more astringent at this diluted level. This is one that can handle of wide range of water, with differing effects. I suggest you experiment to find your personal sweet spot.

A pleasant dram, but not overly complex. I find the average Meta-Critic scores for the peated Port Pipe singe casks to be a little on the low side. I would rate this particular bottling slightly higher than what it gets above (i.e., ~8.9).

A number of Reddit reviewers have sampled from this particular single cask #2712 (2016), such as xile_, Devoz, Ethanized, Saba007 and Pork_Bastard. Thomas of Whisky Saga was a big fan of another batch, as was Serge of Whisky Fun (for this batch) and Michael of Diving for Pearls. My Annoying Opions, Ralfy and Jim Murray all give their batches good scores. Jonny of Whisky Advocate and Serge of Whisky Fun (for this batch) were not impressed.

Scapa Skiren

Being a big fan of the other Orkney island distillery (Highland Park), I’ve been curious to try a Scapa release. Literally right down the road from HP, this second-most-Northerly distillery in Scotland produces a relatively gentle and honeyed based spirit, considered to be lightly-peated.

Originally founded in 1885, it was acquired in the 1950s by classic Canadian whisky producer Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. Now part of the Pernod Ricard spirits empire, Scapa was shuttered between 1994 and 2004. While a number of age-statement releases were released upon re-opening, for the last several years the no-age-statement Scapa Skiren  has been the distillery’s standard bottling.

Scapa’s website says they consider Skiren to be “the honeyed tropical one because of its smooth, creamy sweetness with a hint of tropical fruit, citrus and coastal heather.” It is exclusively matured in first-fill American oak (so, ex-bourbon barrels).

Bottled at 40% ABV. It currently retails for $80 CAD at the LCBO.

Let’s see how it compares to others in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database.

Arran Malt Machrie Moor Peated: 7.92 ± 0.55 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 10yo Curiositas: 8.61 ± 0.28 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Bruichladdich Islay Barley: 8.57 ± 0.20 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.65 ± 0.35 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.52 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.64 ± 0.23 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Jura 10yo Origin: 8.06 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Jura 12yo Elixir: 8.32 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Jura Superstition: 8.29 ± 0.45 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Magnus: 8.64 ± 0.17 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.49 ± 0.37 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.36 ± 0.39 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Scapa 16yo: 8.29 ± 0.29 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Scapa Skiren: 7.96 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews ($$$$)

I sampled this single malt from my brother’s bottle.

Nose: Sweet peat, with light smoke. Sickly-sweet honeysuckle (honeyed indeed!). Standard pear and apple. Maybe a touch of pineapple. Very basic, not a lot going on here. I’m detecting some youthful organic notes, but the light peat helps to obscure these somewhat.

Palate: Incredibly sweet arrival, with very simple sugar and light honey. Pear. Lemon peels. Buttered toast. Very light mouthfeel. Not getting a lot of wood spices, beyond standard nutmeg and a bit of cinnamon. Very little evidence of the peat now. Seems pretty tame (and dull, to be honest).

scapa-skirenFinish: Not much of one. Apple juice and some Juicy Fruit gum linger, with some very light oak spice. A touch of smoke returns at the end, but is subtle. Unfortunately some oak bitterness creeps in over time, detracting on the way out.

Sad to say, but I find this to be a very forgettable whisky – there is nothing that really stands out for me. There is just too little character. That said, it is not particularly offensive, and I don’t get a lot of off-notes. I suppose it could be a decent palate opener, before trying more sophisticated whiskies in an evening.

Among reviewers, the highest score I’ve seen comes from Richard of the Whiskey Reviewer, followed by Jim Murray. Generally positive (though with lower scores) are Serge of Whisky Fun and Jan of Best Shot Whisky. But I’m personally in the camp of Thomas of Whisky Saga, Oliver of Dramming, Gavin of Whisky Advocate and the boys at Quebec Whisky. Just not enough character for me to recommend, especially for the price. You are best sticking with an entry-level HP.

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