Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

Highland Park 18 Year Old

Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is distinctive for being the most northerly whisky distillery in Scotland. But what truly makes it stand out is the taste – all Highland Park expressions show an unusual combination of native peat and sherry cask aging.

Referring back to my modern Flavour Map page, you will see that the highly complex whiskies (“rich” tasting” bifurcate into either heavily “winey” or heavily “smokey” flavours.  Highland Park is distinctive as it is actually somewhat in the middle of the winey-smokey scale, but still with a rich range of flavours (i.e., top of cluster C on the chart).

Support for this distillery among Scotch single malt drinkers is very high. When asked what would you choose if you could only have one bottle of Scotch, I have heard a couple of people answer immediately: Highland Park 18. One enthusiast even told me she married her husband because this was the one scotch he stocked in his liquor cabinet (presumably this wasn’t the only reason). 😉

It is not exactly cheap, mind you – the standard 750mL, 43% ABV bottle goes for $200 CAD at the LCBO.  Here is how it compares to some similarly aged expressions in my Meta-Critic whisky database:

Bowmore 18yo: 8.51 ± 0.54 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain 18yo: 9.01 ± 0.17 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.67 ± 0.51 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.19 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Lagavulin 16yo: 9.25 ± 0.23 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.23 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Oban 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.21 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Springbank 18yo: 8.96 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.20 ± 0.20 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

A very respectable ranking, coming in just below the smokier Longrow 18, Talisker 18 and Lagavulin 16.

Here is how it compares to some of the other common HP expressions:

Highland Park 10yo: 8.49 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.22 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 17yo Ice: 8.87 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.86 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.02 ± 0.40 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park Dark Origins 8.49: ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($$$$)

The HP 18 gets the second highest score I’ve seen for this distillery – despite being a lot less expensive than the higher-end line of Highland Parks.

I have had this scotch on a number of occasions. For this review, I sampled it from my brother’s bottle. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Moist earthy peat. A fair amount of fruit, with lighter summer fruits like peaches and plums plus the typical sherry raisins and figs. Citrusy, with definite lemon. A touch of brine. Doughy bread being baked on a campfire. Very nice.

Palate: The smoke asserts itself now, but the sherried sweetness still takes you home. Same lighter fruits as the nose, but also sweet sultanas now. Some darker berries too, like raspberry and blackberry. Salted caramel, with brown sugar and a touch of nutmeg. Sweet black licorice. Has a decent mouthfeel for a 43% ABV scotch (I would normally find this strength to be watery). Great experience – none of the bitterness I noticed on the 12yo.

Finish: Very long, and smokey to the end. Pleasant light sweetness initially, but not very fruity. Has a clarity about it, with great balance. Leaves you with some mouth puckering astringency.

Highland.Park.18

I can understand why some would see this as the quintessential scotch for your liquor cabinet – there is something for everyone here.  There’s really no negative that I can find, it all just works well together. That said, I can see why some would prefer more of the extremes (i.e., a sherry bomb or a smoke monster). But for those wanting to walk the line in-between, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Among the highest ratings I’ve seen for this whisky are Gavin of Whisky Advocate, Jason of Whisky Won, Oliver of Dramming, and Ralfy. Also quite positive (but more typical of the average score) are Serge of Whisky Fun, My Annoying Opinions, and Nathan the Scotchnoob. What can I say, it is very highly recommend by all.

 

 

Aberlour 12 Year Old – Double Cask Matured

While not necessarily a house-hold name, Aberlour is widely perceived among scotch enthusiasts as a consistently good choice – and one of the best value plays among highland/speyside single malts. Indeed, I have sometimes seen Aberlour referred to as the poor man’s Macallan, due to the similar composition and flavour profile for many of their expressions.

The double cask matured version of the Aberlour 12 year old is made from a mix of traditional oak and sherry casks, and is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. It retails for $65 CAD at LCBO, making it one of the most affordable single malts available here.  Note that there is a separate non-chillfiltered (NCF) version of the 12yo, but that is not available in Ontario.

The Aberlour 12yo Double Cask has recently garnered a fair bit of publicity in Canada, as it was recently selected by the Speaker of the House of Commons as his “selection scotch” for use at official functions. Many in the Canadian whisky community complained that a scotch whisky was selected over a Canadian whisky for this official role.

Here is what the Meta-Critic database has to say for this whisky, relative to others of similar style.

Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured: 8.38 ± 0.15 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Aberlour 12yo Non-Chill-Filtered: 8.80 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan Three Wood: 8.26 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.34 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.57 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.45 ± 0.27 on 16 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.58 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Glenfarclas 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition: 8.38 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Glenmorangie Lasanta: 8.40 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 12yo Fine Oak: 8.47 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

Although towards the lower end of the range of average Meta-Critic scores, it is also the cheapest of all the above whiskies – and so does seem to represent good value for money.

I was given a bottle of this malt for Father’s Day recently, so I thought I would share my tasting experiences here.

Nose: Sweet pear apple (red delicious) and lighter sherry fruits, like plums and maybe a touch of raisins. Has a mouthwatering “juicy fruit” aroma. Light body otherwise, and not as malty as I expected (more cake-like, if anything). Very slight nose hair burning sensation if you inhale too deeply.

Palate: Same fruits as the nose, but they seem a bit diluted here. A faint touch of spice coming in now (mainly cloves). Still getting the cake and fruit sensation throughout. Light body overall, with a somewhat watery mouthfeel. Would probably have benefited by a higher ABV, as there isn’t all that much going on at this low proof. A touch of bitterness creeps in at the very end. Certainly on the delicate side for sherry matured.

Finish: Medium length. Not overly sweet – reminds me of exhausted juicy fruit gum once the sweetness has given out (and you are left with just the subtle, spent fruitiness). A touch of cloves persists to the end.

Aberlour.12.DoubleThe Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured reminds me a bit of Auchentoshan Three Wood or the BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood – in all these cases, there is a fairly gentle underlying base spirit. If anything, I suspect the Aberlour 12 spent less time in sherry casks than the others, but it is still a good introduction to the Aberlour house style.  A good place to start, and something of the opposite extreme from the “sherry bomb” A’bunadh.

Reviews of this whisky are very consistent, as indicated by the low standard deviation above.  Probably the most positive review I’ve seen is from Serge of Whisky Fun, and the least positive from Michael of Diving for Pearls. Otherwise, you can check out Whisky Advocate, the guys at Quebec Whisky, or Richard at the Whiskey Reviewer for typical rankings.

Redbreast 12 Year Old

Redbreast gets a lot of attention from whisky enthusiasts – especially those who typically specialize in single malts.  It is an example of the Irish pure pot still style (aka single pot still), which is the traditional method for Irish whisky production.

This process involves a mix of malted and unmalted barley that has been combined and triple-distilled in a large, single copper pot stills. This method introduces a distinctive “greasiness” in the mouthfeel of the whisky, while still maintaining a lot of classic malt whisky flavours.

You may not have noticed this before in Irish whiskies, since most are actually blends of single pot still whisky and lighter grain whisky (e.g. Jameson’s, Powers, etc.). In this sense, a single pot still whisky (like Redbreast 12 Year Old) is closer to a classic single malt, while the more common entry-level Irish whiskies are closer to scotch blends.

Indeed, many enthusiasts are comfortable describing the flavour of pure pot still whiskies in the same terms as single malts (in this case, cluster E on my flavour map). That would place it in the same category as a number of the traditional vatted speyside/highland single malts that have some proportion of wine cask-aged whiskies in their mix.

Produced by Middleton, Redbreast 12 year old is a very affordable whisky – by comparable quality single malt standards. It currently sells for $75 CAD for a 750mL bottle at the LCBO. While bottled at the standard 40% ABV, there is a cask-strength version of the 12yo (57.4%) that you can pick up here for $110.

Here is how it compares to a number of whiskies of similar flavour and price in my Meta-Critic Database:

Aberfeldy 12yo: 8.16 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.29 ± 0.25 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.34 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Balvenie 12yo Single Barrel: 8.61 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.45 ± 0.26 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.04 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfiddich 14yo Rich Oak: 8.59 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Monkey Shoulder: 8.27 ± 0.38 on 15 reviews ($$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.78 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength: 9.05 ± 0.32 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 15yo: 8.71 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
The Irishman Founder’s Reserve: 8.38 ± 0.30 on 6 reviews ($$)
Tullamore Dew 10yo Single Malt: 8.00 ± 0.79 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still: 8.48 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$)

Again, for the price and flavour cluster, you can see the Redbreast 12yo does very well. Indeed, it is the Meta-Critic score leader for this cluster in the <$75 group ($$$).

Here is what I find in the glass for the standard 12 yo Redbreast:

Nose: Nutty and slightly malty (the latter fades with a bit of time in the glass). Spicy, with pepper and a bit of black licorice (anise). While not overly sherried, I suspect some proportion of this whisky spent time in a sherry cask – I get hints of light berries and milk chocolate raisonettes. A touch of solvent smell, but I can’t place it.

Palate: Rich up-front hit of brown sugar, vanilla and honey. Slightly flat cola too. Light fruits again, with tart citrus kicking in now. Very oily and juicy, giving it a chewy mouthfeel that is quite distinctive. Much more substantial than most Irish whiskies I’ve tried. Just a touch of bitterness comes in at the end, which some may find harsh if used to the lighter Irish whiskies.

Finish: Moderately long, with persistent spice – and that cola effect is back.  Not a lot of variety, just a consistent fade out. The bitterness persists as well, encouraging you to take another sip. Not particularly complex, but longer lasting than most Irish whiskies.

Redbreast.12The Redbreast 12 yo is a solid performer, with more substantial character than most commonly available Irish whiskies.  But it still carries through the typical Irish sweetness, just mixed with a single malt-like balance of flavours. This makes Redbreast 12 yo somewhat unique in my experience – sort of a hybrid of a typical Irish whisky and a sherry cask-matured speyside single malt.

Ideally, I think it best suited for those wanting to take their Irish whisky experience up to the next level. Or those who find some of the stronger sherry-finished highland/speysides to be a bit much (i.e., think of it as a sweeter Glendronach 12 yo). Indeed, I would personally rate it much closer to the Glendronach 12 yo (which gets a Meta-Critic score of 8.58 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews). But that still makes Redbreast 12yo a great value.

For a range of opinions on this whisky, the lowest scores I’ve seen come from André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky and Ralfy. Most seem to be of comparable opinion to Serge of Whisky Fun or Jim Murray. The highest scores I’ve seen come from John Hansel of Whisky Advocate and Michael of Diving for Pearls.

Nikka Coffey Malt

Following on my review of the popular Nikka Coffey Grain – a single-grain corn whisky from Japan – I recently picked up a bottle of their Coffey Malt to directly compare.

As with the Coffey Grain, this whisky is made at the Miyagikyo distillery operated by Nikka. It is produced in a continuous Coffey still – one of two in operation by Nikka for over 50 years now. This is different from most malt whisky, which is produced in small batches in copper pot stills.

Typically, this NAS bottling of Coffey Malt doesn’t get as much attention as the Coffey Grain – but I think that may be because it hasn’t been around as long.  Here is how some similar whiskies compare in my Meta-Critic Database:

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.51 on 7 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony NAS: 8.36 ± 0.70 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.64 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.89 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt 12yo Single Cask: 9.10 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.23 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.17 ± 0.53 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still: 8.49 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews ($$)
Yellow Spot: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

Despite the lower number of scores, the Coffey Malt is clearly fairly popular overall with reviewers. Unfortunately, none of the Nikka whiskies are currently available in Ontario. But the Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Black and From the Barrel are available in BC. At the moment, it will cost you ~$110 CAD (tax in) for the 700mL bottles of either the Coffey Grain or Coffey Malt. Bottled at 45% ABV.

Let’s see what I found in the glass.

Colour: I don’t usually comment on this, but the Coffey Malt is a slightly darker color than the Coffey Grain – closer to the Nikka Black.

Nose: Very different from the Coffey Grain, with a greater initial impression. Not as corn syrupy sweet, there are a lot tropical fruits here – with peaches, papayas and bananas most prominent. There are also a lot more malt aroma now (duh!). Reminds me of a cross between warm banana bread and those dry Scottish oatmeal cakes. Still has the faint caramel/vanilla notes from its time in oak – although if anything, the overall woodiness is increased. Very rich nose, and very appealing. The only negative for me is the slight solvent smell (vaguely pulp and paper plant like).

Palate: Even sweeter upfront than expected, with honey on top of those lighter tropical fruits from the nose (plus some additional dark fruits, like berries and plums). Very fruity overall. Surprising amount of chocolate, adding to that caramel sweetness from the nose. Faint dusting of some of the lighter rye spices (like nutmeg). Silky texture, very chewy – this is definitely a whisky you will want to swirl around the gums. Makes you want to go right back and try another sip! Surprisingly rich and tasty. While not overly complex, there are still a lot of flavours to dissect here.

Finish: Medium-short. Some of the sweet and chocolate notes linger, along with a slight creamy bitterness (i.e., think of the after effects of a latte). Other than that, it just fades out, with maybe a touch of sweet fruit hanging on until the end. Pleasant enough, but somewhat light.

Nikka.Coffey.MaltWow, a lot more going on here than the Coffey Grain. It reminds me of some of the more flavourful Irish Pot Still whiskies, with its creamy sweetness. Easy to drink, but still reasonably complex.

I would definitely give this a higher score than the Coffey Grain – although I agree the Coffey Grain deserves decent marks for its very good presentation of the light-and-sweet grain style.  All told, the Meta-Critic averages are pretty much about where I would place them for these two whiskies.

The most positive reviews I’ve seen for this whisky come from André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky – they really rave about it. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate gives it a fairly positive score and review. Serge of Whisky Fun is fairly positive in his comments, but somewhat lower scoring. The lowest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Michio of Japanese Whisky Reviews.

 

 

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old

As mentioned in my recent Bunnahabhain 12 year old review, this Islay distillery is distinctive for not using peat in its core line of whiskies. The age-statement expressions of Bunnahabhain are thus more easily comparable to many of the whiskies from the classic mainland regions of Scotland.

Impressively, all these single malt expressions lack artificial caramel colouring, are non-chill-filtered, and are bottled at a relatively high 46.3% ABV. These choices speak well to the quality focus of the distillery.  As with the 12 yo, this expression is matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks (although the exact proportions are again unknown).

Here is how the Bunna 18 yo compares to similarly-aged expressions in my Meta-Critic database:

Aberlour 18yo: 8.74 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.57 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 18yo: 9.01 ± 0.17 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Bunnahabhain 25yo: ± 8.85 0.38 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.67 ± 0.51 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Allardice: 8.71 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.19 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Glengoyne 18yo: 8.56 ± 0.41 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.25 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Oban 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan 18yo Fine Oak: 8.80 ± 0.32 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Springbank 18yo: 8.96 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin 18yo: 8.64 ± 0.21 on 8 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see above, it receives the highest score for an unpeated single malt of this age. The 18 yo even scores higher than the 25 yo “bunny”.

I was so impressed on sampling this expression that I quickly went out and bought a full bottle for myself (despite the rather steep $180 CAD price tag at the LCBO).  Here is what I notice in the glass:

Colour: while I don’t normally comment on this (since it can be manipulated), I note that the 18yo is a much richer reddish/brown colour than the 12 yo expression. It clearly shows some extend time in sherry casks (or a higher proportion of sherry casks in the mix).

Nose: Classic sherry notes, with chocolate, raisins, figs and grapes. Has a honeyed sweetness, with some additional plum and apple. Salted caramel, a bit nutty, and with a faint hint of glue (which is oddly not objectionable). All in all, this whisky produces a mouth-watering effect that I typically associate with lightly smokey whiskies that were well-aged in sherry casks. This one is particularly nice, as it seems very rich and creamy (if that is possible to tell by smell).

Palate: All the aromas from the nose are found again on the palate. While not a sherry-bomb, there are a clearly lot of quality casks blended in here – I get rich, creamy cocoa, and a surprising amount of dark fruit. More caramel now too. Malted nuts. Something intriguing, in the way of a light coastal whisky, but with no real smoke or peat (more spicy?). Certainly, a touch of sweet baking spices, like nutmeg and allspice.  Happily, it has none of the bitterness that marred the 12 yo for me somewhat.  An oily and slightly syrupy mouthfeel, very pleasant to swish around the gums. Doesn’t really need any water – very drinkable at its native 46.3% ABV.

Finish: Fairly long, with dried fruits leading the way. A faint, warming allspice contributes as well. There is a slightly salty/briny residue in the end (which pairs well).

Bunnahabhain.18No trouble draining a glass here – a very pleasant whisky, with nothing significant to criticize. Certainly better than most unpreated malts of comparable age that I’ve tried. This one is very close to my favourite “relaxing for the evening” profile, with a hint of salty spice below a bed of fruit and chocolate.

Personally, the 18 yo is well worth the upgrade from the 12 yo expression for me. While many of the core flavours are similar, the quality proposition is high enough here to justify the price bump (again, for me). There is likely more than just extended aging going on – I’m fairly confident they are using a higher quality cask mix here (especially for the sherried component). I’m looking forward to serving this to fans of comparably-aged Glenlivet and Glenfiddich – I’m sure it it will surprise them.

As you can tell from the high average Meta-Critic score – and low standard deviation – reviewers are consistently positive for this expression. For representative reviews, I recommend you check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, Ruben of Whisky Notes, Ralfy, and My Annoying Opinions.

 

Old Pulteney 21 Year Old

The Pulteney (PULT-nay) distillery is the most northerly mainland distillery in Scotland, and they certainly make great use of sea imagery on all their products. Indeed, a general “maritime air” is believe to infuse their whisky, with subtle notes of sea salt/brine.

The 21 yo expression of Old Pulteney is a mix of whisky from Fino sherry and refill bourbon casks. It sits at the top of their core expression range, above the 12 yo and 17 yo expressions (which I have yet to review).

Of note, Jim Murray is a big fan of this whisky – he once rated it whisky of the year in his annual Whisky Bible (2012).  But let’s see how it fares among all critics in my Meta-Critic database, relative to other similarly aged expressions.

Aberfeldy 21yo: 8.77 ± 0.22 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.75 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 21yo Gran Reserva: 8.68 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.19 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 21yo Archive: 8.83 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenmorangie 18yo Extremely Rare: 8.69 ± 0.23 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.25 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.86 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Pulteney 17yo: 8.85 ± 0.28 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.77 ± 0.50 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

The overall average score is in keeping with many in this age class, but there is an unusually high degree of variance for this whisky. This indicates significant discordance among reviewers.

Let’s see what I find in the glass. This was sampled recently at Bar le Grincheux in Strasbourg, for 21€. It is bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Sherry influence is unmistakable, with definite chocolate notes. The fruit is secondary, and pretty much all apple, pear and a bit of banana – I am not getting any of the typical dark sherry fruits. Their is a sweet and salty maritime air, like salted caramel. No real alcohol burn or any off notes. This is a nice nose, with a fair amount of complexity under the surface. A pleasure to return to.

Palate: Sweet and lightly smokey is the initial impression.  The salted caramel and chocolate notes continue (especially creamy milk chocolate), joined by some oak vanilla. A hint of pralines and nougat. Effect reminds me of some of those higher-end Belgian chocolatiers (but not too sweet). Not very fruity, but the light fruits from the nose persist (especially apple), with again no dark fruits. There is some alcohol burn now, definitely feels like 46% ABV. Mouthfeel is a bit syrupy, and some soft spices enter the picture eventually. A touch of bitterness comes in at the very end.

Old.Pulteney.21Finish: Not particularly sweet, more slightly savoury – like the lingering finish of some south asian dishes. Astringent mouthfeel (with that “maritime air” again). Moderate finish, could be longer.

Certainly a very drinkable expression. Overall impression is that that of hidden spice and salt, having been muted by the more extensive barrel aging.  While I enjoyed the initial presentation, this one looses some marks from me on the way out – it just sort of fizzles, when you would expect a more substantial exit. As such, I think the overall Meta-Critic score is fair here.

For additional reviews of this whisky, generally positive ones can be found from Thomas of Whisky Saga and most of the members of Quebec Whisky (although André is quite negative). Another relatively negative review comes for John Hansell of Whisky Advocate (although that is an older bottling). For a more middle-of-the-pack review, you could see Ruben of Whisky Notes. And of course, there is Jim Murray for the most positive review of this whisky I’ve ever seen.

J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels

Here is something you don’t see every day: a limited small-batch release from a major Canadian producer, with a defined age statement, higher proof ABV, and a completely different production method than what is typically done in Canada. Thank you J.P. Wiser.

Last Barrels is the result of an experiment performed by former Wiser’s distiller Jim Stanski in early 2001 – and one that Wiser’s has now decided to bottle on its own as a limited run (instead of blending into a larger mainstream product).

The first novelty here is the use of a custom mashbill. Typically, most Canadian whisky is a blend where the individual grains are distilled separately and then later combined. Here, Wiser’s has used the traditional American method for bourbon production of blending the grains before mashing them. They are also using a very traditional bourbon-like mashbill of 80% corn, 11% rye and 9% barley (although this recipe supposedly relates to one J.P. Wiser experimented with himself).

The other innovation is the introduction of a sour mash process here. Sour mash is used in the production of nearly all bourbon, but is typically not used in Canada. Normally, it involves using left-over spent material from an older batch of mash to start controlled fermentation in the new batch (somewhat akin to what you do in making classic sourdough bread). Acids introduced by using the sour mash control the growth of bacteria, and create a proper pH balance for fermentation by the active live yeast.

Since Canada doesn’t use this method (and typically relies on a more sterilized process), Stanski’s innovated with a common sense solution – he let milk out in the lab to go sour, and then harvested the resulting Lactobacillus species. Although not usually done for whisky, it is common to use Lactobacillus as a “starter culture” for controlled fermentation in yogurt, cheese, beer, and sourdough bread, among other things.

The end result is a very boubon-like whisky (albeit one aged in ex-bourbon barrels, rather than new oak). Aged for 14 years and bottled at 45% ABV, this is certainly the most bourbon-like Canadian whisky I’ve tried so far.

Note that only 132 barrels were produced in the end, making this a very limited release. The LCBO bought out all 2000 cases, and has been releasing them across their network over the last couple of weeks.  While initially focusing exclusively on the Greater Toronto Area, I’m starting to see some bottles showing up in inventory further afield (with a little under 800 bottles currently showing through their app).

I picked up a bottle for $65 CAD at a nearby LBCO. I expect these will go fast, so you will want to hunt one down soon if you are intent on trying it. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel upfront, with vanilla. Sweetened Granny Smith apple juice, with maybe a touch of cherry – there is definitely something tart in there. Oak char. Very slight solvent smell (rubbing alcohol?), but it doesn’t really have an alcohol burn. A bit light overall, but definitely bourbon-like (reminds me a bit of Basil Hayden’s, but with less rye).

Palate: Not as sweet as the nose, but you definitely have the vanilla and caramel notes coming through strongly. Fairly intense dry oakiness develops quickly, with significant woody bitterness. Sour patch candies. And tons of pepper – if you take too big of a sip, expect to experience that classic “pepper-up-the-nose” sensation. Feels a bit hot (likely due to the 45% ABV). But it is the peppery after-burn that really stands out for me. Unlike the soft nose, the palate reminds me of some of the classic mid-level bourbons with relatively flavourful bodies (e.g., Elijah Craig 12yo or Eagle Rare 10yo).

Finish: Lingers a fairly long while, with a mix of the slightly sweet fruit and bitter wood initially (more the latter). Fades while keeping some of the spicy pepper and vanilla right to the end. Thankfully, there are absolutely none of those artificially-sweet notes found on typical budget Canadian blends.

Wiser’s has definitely succeeded here in making a “Canadian bourbon”, if you ask me. In a blind tasting, I seriously doubt you would be able to identify this as a Canadian whisky – it tastes like a bourbon, with a fair amount of oaky flavours. It is lighter on the nose than most bourbons, though.

There are very few reviews online so far, but you can check out Davin at Canadian Whisky and Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Redditor Devoz. Here’s a preliminary Meta-Critic comparison to some other similarly-priced Canadian whiskies.

Collingwood 21yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.28 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.53 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.80 ± 0.39 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.92 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.05 ± 0.36 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.92 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)

Wisers.Last.BarrelsAgain, you can’t really say much from only 4 reviews. But it does seem like Last Barrels is trending around the level of the standard-bearer Lot 40. Here is how it compares to typical American bourbon whiskies in this price range.

Baker’s 7yo: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.40 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.92 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.41 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.56 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 19 reviews ($$)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel: 8.51 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.84 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Certainly a good performer for the price so far, consistent with other bourbons available at the LCBO.

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

Bunnahabhain is a Scottish distillery that lies on the north-eastern tip of Islay, just north of Caol Ila. And like its nearest neighbor, most of its expressions are a lot milder than what you would typically associate with Islay (i.e., not smokey or peaty).

The reason for this is that Bunnahabhain apparently doesn’t use peated malt for its core line. At least, that is what is commonly reported online. The distillery website actually drops phrases like “lightly peated” or “minimal peating” occasionally, which is a definitely ambiguous. But most would agree that there is no real peated malt in the core age-statement line. That said, in more recent years, they have started making some heavily peated “Bunnys”, like Ceòbanach and Toiteach.

Here is how Bunna 12 yo fares relative to other unpeated 12 yo single malts:

Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured: 8.37 ± 0.17 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.38 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.72 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.55 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.49 on 17 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.60 ± 0.24 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenfarclas 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.07 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 12yo: 8.52 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.80 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$$)

The Bunna 12 yo is sort of middle-of-the-pack here, if you don’t count the ubiquitous entry-level Glenfiddich/Glenlivet malts (which are lighter tasting and rank lower).  Thanks to redditor xile_ for the sample tasted here.

I don’t normally discuss colour (since this can be manipulated), but the Bunnahabhain 12 yo has no colour added and is not chill-filtered (hurrah!). It has a rich pancake syrup colour, indicating a certain amount of sherry cask influence in the mix. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with definite sherry overtones – milk chocolate, raisins and prunes most especially. Overall, very light-bodied though (i.e., this is no sherry bomb). Honey and apple are also prominent. Something vaguely coastal or woody, but no real peat or smoke. Also no nose tingle, or any false notes. Bodes well for what is to come.

Palate: Highland Park-like initially, with sherry sweetness upfront followed by an underlying bitterness underneath (tree bark? coffee?). I normally associate this sort of bitter note with smokey whiskies, but I am not really getting any smoke here. A bit of honey and vanilla. Slightly nutty. Has a relatively light taste and mouthfeel overall, despite the 46.3% ABV. However, a touch of water might help with the underlying bitter note. Decent enough, but not very complex, and nothing to really distinguish it from the competition.

Finish: Some bitter chocolate on the way out, like an unsweetened cafe mocha. The balance is more toward bitter over the sweet (i.e., wood and some dry sherry). Slightly astringent, making you want to sip again.

Bunnahabhain.12Certainly a reasonable and tasty enough dram, but nothing that really stands out for me. It does have more of the dry sherry influence than you get in a typical Highland/Speyside whisky of this age, but none of the smoke/peat of the typical Islays. As such, I find it odd that there is so much bitterness throughout here.

I find the overall Meta-Critic score for the Bunna 12 yo to be reasonable. I would recommend something like the GlenDronach 12 yo for a more full-flavour whisky, or the Redbreast 12yo for higher quality in the same E flavour cluster. The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood would be a better choice if you want a more sherried (but still delicate) whisky.

Reviewers are reasonably consistent in their view of this whisky. Probably the most favourable one I’ve seen is from Ralfy. One of the lest favourable would be Nathan the Scotch Noob. Oliver of Dramming, Serge of Whisky Fun and Thomas of Whisky Saga all give it fairly typical reviews.

Century Reserve 21 Year Old

Century Reserve is another Canadian whisky brand produced by Highwood Distillers in Alberta.

While the label calls this is a “Canadian Rye Whisky”, there is in fact no rye in here. Unusually for a Canadian whisky, this is actually a single grain whisky made from 100% corn. While it may shock some in other jurisdictions, the long use of high-proof rye for flavouring in Canadian whisky blends has allowed the term “rye whisky” to become synonymous with “Canadian whisky”. In essence, this is now a historic term to describe our whisky, and one protected in Canadian law for all whiskies that meet general Canadian whisky production standards (whether or not rye is present).

The source of this particular whisky is a bit mysterious. While Highwood distills their own whisky, they acknowledge that the corn whisky base of Century Reserve 21 yo is sourced from elsewhere (but don’t say from where). There is some speculation online that the distillate might be from Potters Distilleries in BC (who were acquired by Highwood in 2005), although this has been disputed. Whatever the source, I suppose it is possible that some of the Highwood-own make has now entered into the mix – but I don’t have any specific information one way or the other.

Whatever the source of the distillate, this whisky was barrelled, aged, and bottled by Highwood. They consider it to be an example of a premium, single grain, small batch whisky. This puts Century Reserve 21 yo in the same category as Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky from South Africa and Nikka Coffey Grain from Japan – although aged much longer here.

Century.Reserve.21.375No longer available in Ontario, I picked up a 375mL bottle of this 40% ABV whisky during recent travels in BC (for only ~$25 CAD, taxes-in). I was surprised to see a row of these half-sized bottles of Century Reserve 21 yo on the shelf at the BC Liquors store in Westbrook Village, as this item is not currently listed on their website (in any size). An image of the actual 375mL bottle is shown on the right (see the stock photo at the bottom of this page for what the 750mL bottle looks like).

The design of this half bottle is interesting. While the body of the bottle looks similar to full-size 750mL standard bottle, thee half-size bottles have a fancy decanter-style glass stopper with a thin ridge of cork around the internal rim. This makes it much more of a presentation item (i.e., looks like a fancy perfume bottle).

Century.Research.21.375.corkI was even more surprised when I turned the bottle over, looking for potential batch codes. I didn’t find any, but here is what is embossed onto the base of the glass bottle:

Century.Reserve.21.375.bottom

In case that isn’t coming through clearly, it says:

LIQUOR BOTTLE / JAPAN / THE NIKKA WHISKY / DIST. CO. LTD

I have never seen bottles of any Nikka product that look like this one (most are very plain, in comparison). And I can find no record online of a relationship between Nikka and Highwood. So I have no idea how Highwood managed to acquire Nikka bottles for this 375mL bottling of Century Reserve.  Frankly, this one is a mystery to me – if anyone knows more, please leave a comment below.

In terms of the what is actually inside the bottle, I will provide my tasting notes below. 😉 Note that I have previously reviewed two of their rye whisky blends, the Highwood Ninety 5 yo and 20 yo.

But first, here is what the Meta-Critic database reports for this whisky, relative to other aged Canadian whiskies, and some single-grain corn whiskies:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 9.11 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.76 ± 0.21 on 10 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.36 ± 0.91 on 5 reviews ($)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.70 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan 8yo Single Grain: 8.13 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.65 ± 0.50 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.53 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

And now, what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet light corn syrup, with a touch of maple. Notes of apple, cherries and citrus. a fair amount of vanilla, likely from the oak aging. As expected, no rye notes. Detectable solvent smell (mainly glue), with some dry rubbing alcohol thrown in. Not as bad as it sounds, and much better than typical entry level Canadian whiskies. Gives the overall impression of being rich while still being light (i.e., maybe more buttery than creamy).

Palate: Rich sweetness. Somewhat cereal as well – makes me think of creamed wheat. I can detect something similar in the best Canadian blends, like Crown Royal Monarch and Gibson’s 18 yo – I guess that was coming from the corn. In fact, buttered corn also comes to mind here. Otherwise, I get mixed berries, some citrus, and more definite vanilla now.  Silky mouthfeel, very rich and satisfying. I also get what tastes like mild rye spices (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg), which must be coming from the oak aging. This is followed by a slight woody bitterness. Not as complex as most Canadian whiskies of this age, but with some interesting subtle notes.

Finish: The simple sweetness lingers the longest – and for medium length. Not particularly flavourful on the way out, but certainly not offensive. Slight traces of some rye-like spice, but faint and hard to pin down. All in all, it just sort of slowly fades away.

Century.Reserve.21The official tasting notes mention honey a lot, but I really don’t find that here – it’s a much lighter sweetness, combined with buttery and creamy overtones. Comparing it to the Highwood Ninety 20 yo, the Century Reserve 21 yo is less complex on the palate – but it also less objectionable on the nose.

The Century Reserve 21 reminds me of some other single grain corn whiskies, but with more rich and creamy flavours.  Like the consolidated Meta-Critic scores, I too would rate it as far superior to Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, and a slight notch up from Nikka Coffey Grain (which is more delicate and less creamy).

Two of the most positive reviews of this whisky come from Jason of In Search of Elegance and Chip the RumHowler. Davin of Whisky Advocate/Canadian Whisky is also quite positive, as are the guys from Quebec Whisky.

Glenlivet 12 Year Old vs Founder’s Reserve

Like for many, the Glenlivet 12 yo was the first single malt Scotch that I would routinely order in a bar, neat. It was a considerable step up from the basic whisky blends I had tried (both domestic and international), and had a relatively gentle and inoffensive flavour profile.

I don’t mean that to sound belittling. When first exploring the world of whiskies, it is easy to get overwhelmed by strong flavours. Indeed, my first experience of malt whisky put me off it for years – a heavily peated malt, I recall remarking that it tasted like peat moss in vodka (as that was all I could discern at the time). The Glenlivet 12 yo was a revelation in comparison, and gave me an opportunity to appreciate the subtler flavours in malt whisky.

Of course, most of us eventually move on from this relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous single malt, searching for wider flavour experience.  But it remains a staple for its class, and one worth considering here – especially in comparison to the new Founder’s Reserve, a slightly cheaper new no-age-statement (NAS) from Glenlivet.

Founder’s Reserve immediately replaced the 12 yo as the sole entry-level Glenlivet expression in some smaller and emerging markets.  In more established markets (including North America), the two expressions are available side-by-side. That seems to be changing however, and the expectation is that the Founder’s Reserve will replace the 12 yo in most markets eventually.

As an aside, that name has received a fair amount of ridicule online – it is hard to imagine how the most entry-level whisky in a producer’s inventory could be described as a “Founder’s Reserve”. 😉

Fortunately, both the Founder’s Reserve and the original 12 yo are still available in Canada (for the time being). So I was able to try them both in short succession one recent evening.

Glenlivet.12Let’s see how they compare on in the Meta-Critic database, relative to other popular entry-level malt whiskies (age and non-age expressions).

Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.49 ± 0.94 on 6 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.31 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu Amber Rock: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Deanston 12yo: 8.05 ± 0.48 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.21 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.30 ± 0.43 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.08 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.95 ± 0.50 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 12yo: 7.82 ± 0.66 on 14 reviews ($$)

As you can see from the Meta-Critic average, they get roughly equivalent scores overall (and about middle of the pack for this entry-level group). But what you can’t tell from above is the repeated measure of individual reviewers who have tried both. There are only six reviewers that I track that have scored both whiskies, and the difference is interesting: three rank the Founder’s Reserve considerably higher than the 12 yo, two find it equivalent, and one finds it worse. Not quite what I expected for a lower price NAS.

Here is what I find in the glass for each:

Glenlivet 12 yo

Nose: Slightly sweet, with a touch of honey, and light fruits like apple and pineapple (a distinctive Glenlivet trait). Definite vanilla. Slightly floral, but I can’t identify anything specific. Slight solvent note, but not offensive.

Palate: Sweet up front, with the vanilla turning more to caramel now. The apple remains prominent, but also getting some citrus – with a touch of bitterness. Remains light and relatively sweet overall, and not very complex. Somewhat watery mouthfeel.

Finish:  Moderate finish – a bit longer than I would have expected from its light taste, but still relatively short overall.  That sweet apple remains the key note, although a bit of bitterness also lingers. As I remember it – a light and inoffensive whisky.

Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve

Glenlivet.Founders.ReserveNose: My core notes read the same – slightly sweet, light fruits like apple, slightly floral. But there is more going on here, with a malty characteristic now. There is an almost maritime air, with hints of salty chocolate (i.e., seems like it could be just a tiny touch sherried). Definitely a more complex nose than the 12 yo. Unfortunately, the solvent characteristic is also more noticeable (a touch of glue in particular).

Palate: Still sweet and fruity, and I find some maltiness is coming up now as well. Classic apple and honey are still there, but with faint chocolate notes, and something slightly spicy (pepper?). Still light and watery overall. Improves on multiple sips.

Finish:  As before, medium length for its class (short overall for a Scotch). The various new notes (like chocolate) linger, as does a bit of caramel sweetness. Less fruity than the old 12 yo.

The Verdict: The Founder’s Reserve is both more and less than the 12 yo. It lacks the simple charm and elegance of light fruit-driven 12 yo, and brings in more complexity (likely from wider barrel blending). With that wider mix comes some additional off notes though, so it really is a mixed bag.

For its extra complexity, I would give Founder’s Reserve a marginally higher score. But I can really understand why individual reviewers vary so much in their relative opinions of these two. It thus makes sense how the overall average scores came out pretty much the same, but with a larger standard deviation for the Founder’s Reserve.

For direct comparison reviews of both the 12yo and Founder’s Reserve, I recommend the boys at QuebecWhisky (12 yo, FR), Oliver of Dramming (12 yo, FR), and Richard of WhiskeyReviewer (12 yo, FR).

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