Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Caol Ila is a high-capacity malt distillery, from the Islay island of Scotland. As you would expect for the region, most of its production features the use of peated barley (although it does make some unpeated whisky as well).

Caol Ila (typically pronounced “Cool-EEL-ah” or “Coo-LEE-la”) has a long history, and is currently owned and operated by whisky conglomerate Diageo. Most of the distillery’s production is therefore directed toward the high-volume Diageo blends, where it serves as the “smokey” backbone of the flagship Johnnie Walker Black and various Bell’s blends. Fortunately for us, Diageo now also allows direct bottlings of Caol Ila single malts.

Interestingly, most enthusiasts seem to consider Caol Ila’s malts to be “lightly” peated.  Indeed, most of the Caol Ila single malts can be found in flavour cluster I – which are less intensely smokey/peaty than cluster J (where you will find most of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions).  This is interesting, as Caol Ila actually uses a comparable level of peat to Lagavulin (i.e., typically 35ppm). Presumably, there are other aspects to whisky production at Caol Ila that attenuate the effect of peat on final whisky flavour. See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour for more background information.

Long story short, it may be more accurate to say that Caol Ila single malts are typically less extremely peaty/smokey flavoured than those of other distilleries on the island.

Here are the Meta-Critic scores for similar single malt expressions (i.e., mainly from flavour cluster I), at comparable price points:

Bowmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.45 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Caol Ila 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.43 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.30 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Old Pulteney Navigator: 8.42 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Talisker 10yo: 8.92 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Dark Storm: 8.78 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$)

Caol Ila is definitely well received by reviewers for this class. My review sample of the Caol Ila 12yo comes from Reddit user wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very peaty nose, in a moistened earth way (i.e., a peat bog). There is some smoke as well, but it seems restrained relative to the peat (although I can definitely detect the subtle smokey note of JW Black here). There is a Lagavulin-like quality to the peat that I quite like (i.e., it is “sweeter” and less iodine-rich than the typical Laphroaig/Ardbegs to me). That sweetness is hard to place (maybe baking bread?). There is definitely something salty here too, which helps produce a mouth-watering effect. Also slightly bitter (lemon zest?) with some grassiness rounding out the overall bouquet nicely. Quite complex and fragrant for flavour cluster I.

Palate: An oily texture, with a nicely balanced mix of peat, ash and smoke. Definitely not as overwhelming as the flavour cluster J malts (i.e., I can see where the “lightly smokey” moniker comes from).  Still sweet, but with the baking bread from the nose turning into moist vanilla cake in the mouth. There’s a bit of nuttiness now as well.  Not overly complex, but pleasant and easy going (even if you are not a big peat/smoke-fan). I am surprised to see that it is actually bottled 43% ABV, as it tastes as smooth to me as most 40% whiskies.

Caol.Ila.12Finish: Moderately long. Like many peated whiskies, the smoke is the longest-lasting characteristic, but it is balanced by a persistent sweetness. I wasn’t getting much in the way of fruits on the nose or palate, but there does seem to be a light fruit vibe on the way out (maybe pear?).

I am not typically a fan of heavily peat-flavoured whiskies – but I quite like the Caol Ila 12yo. The nose in particular is very pleasant, with a lot going on. It is nice on the palate and in the finish as well, but somewhat less interesting here. That said, there are no false notes.

I don’t know if I would recommend this as an introduction for newcomers to whisky, but it is certainly a good choice for those who like a little smoke, or want to dip a toe into the peaty/smokey realm.

Despite being an entry-level single malt, most reviewers rank this whisky as slightly above average overall (which I would agree with).  Representative reviews are the most recent sample by Serge of Whisky Fun, Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and the guys at Quebec Whisky.  Even the reviewers who score this whisky a little lower tend to be very positive in their comments – see for example Ruben of Whisky Notes or Ralfy. Ralfy also recommends this as a single malt for beginners to try.

Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old

The Highwood Ninety 20yo is one of the higher-end expressions from the Alberta distiller Highwood – better known for the Centennial and Century Reserve lines of Canadian whiskies. And note that while this is marketed as a “rye whisky” (like all Canadian whisky), I believe the Ninety 20yo is actually a pure corn whisky.

I previously reviewed the more entry-level 5yo expression of the “Ninety” series (so named for the proof – both whiskies are bottled at 45% ABV). As you saw in that earlier review, while the 5yo had potential, I felt it really needed extra aging to tame its youthful characteristics.  Let’s see if the 20yo lives up to the promise.

Here is how the Highwood Ninety whiskies compare to other higher-end and/or aged Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.39 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.95 ± 0.4 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, for the price (~$50 CAD at the LCBO), the Highwood Ninety 20yo scores very well for a Canadian whisky.  I received two samples of this whisky from  Canadian Reddit users Devoz and wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Slightly sweet, but my main impression is that of a dry dustiness. There is grassiness and definite floral suggestion – very “earthy” overall.  Little fruit to speak of.  Unapologetic organic solvent smell, mainly acetone (with a touch of glue). You can sense the higher ABV. A classic grain-forward Alberta nose.

Palate:  Definite sweetness up front, with a strong toffee/butterscotch flavour. Gives me a creamy Caramilk bar sensation.  Dusty rye-like spices pop up quickly (cloves and nutmeg), and there is a spicy, peppery kick to it – with distinctive peppermint. The earthy notes from the nose continue (leather? tobacco?).  Maybe even a touch of anise now. This is a complex body, and the flavours come in waves. Definitely one you want to keep exploring. Very nice.

Finish:  Fairly long finish, well balanced overall (although the solvent aroma may linger). The light sweetness persists, along with a somewhat earthy/grassy feel.  Makes you want to go back and explore the palate further, though. A bit of dry heat builds up over repeated sips, due the higher ABV.

Highwood.Ninety.20I would think this one is fine as is (i.e., neat). A splash of water helps dampen the acetone on the nose slightly, and further accentuates the creamy butterscotch/caramel in the mouth. Also seems to soften the “earthiness” in the finish, without affecting the grassiness.

Looking over my tasting notes, I can see how this 20yo expression fits in well with the Ninety line. The evolution of the flavours from the 5yo makes sense, with the extended barrel aging. I particularly like the rich caramel/toffee notes now.

I’m not a fan of solventy smells myself, so I would rate this whisky just a touch lower than the Meta-Critic average.  I’m actually a bit surprised that the extended aging hasn’t attenuated this characteristic further. It was of course more pronounced on the Highwood Ninety 5yo.

For additional reviews, David de Kergommeaux of Canadian Whisky and Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance provide comparable ratings of this 20yo expression. The four lead reviewers at Quebec Whisky provide a nicely balanced set of views and commentaries.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Bourbon

Following up on my inaugural bourbon review (Elijah Craig 12yo), I thought I’d take a look at another low rye mashbill American whisky – the Eagle Rare 10yo Single Barrel.

This whisky is basically just the standard Buffalo Trace juice – but hand-selected from individual barrels at one of the Buffalo Trace rick houses. It is also aged for a minimum of 10 years, which is a couple of years longer than the standard Buffalo Trace. The end result is a slightly more flavour-intense version of the popular Buffalo Trace – and one that will be more variable from batch to batch. Not necessarily a bad deal for only an extra ~$5-7 USD more a bottle, typically. Note that both are bottled at a standard 45% ABV.

As an aside, there is some variation in bottle labeling over time. Specifically, the “Single Barrel” designation was recently dropped, and the location of the 10 year old age statement was moved to the back. It has been suggested that while Eagle Rare 10yo is still bottled one barrel at a time, they can no longer guarantee that it contains juice from only a single barrel. Note that my sample comes from 89justin on Reddit, from a bottle that looks just like the one currently featured on the LCBO website (and shown here).

I personally am a fan of rye-forward Canadian whiskies, but when it comes to bourbon, I tend to gravitate to some of the lower rye offerings (like Eagle Rare). For some reason, I find the Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace low rye mashbills still produce a spicy rye kick that nicely complements the traditional corn sweetness and oaky woodiness of bourbon.  In comparison, some high rye bourbons can strike me as a bit unbalanced.

Let’s see how Eagle Rare 10yo does relative to other mid-range, low rye mashbill bourbons:

Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.58 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Black Label: 8.23 ± 0.46 on 11 reviews ($)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Black Label: 8.22 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.64 ± 0.44 on 18 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.88 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$)

The average Meta-Critic score for Eagle Rare 10yo is not statistically significantly different from the standard Buffalo Trace. However, the comparably priced Heaven Hill offerings (Elijah Craig 12yo and Evan Williams Single Barrel) seem to be favoured slightly by reviewers.

Here’s what I find in the glass for my sample:

Nose: Rich nose, with lots going on here. I get vanilla and caramel from the oak (of course), along with dark red fruits (berries, cherries, raisins, red plums). Sweet and creamy, with a strong corn syrup aroma. Spicy too, but not in an overtly rye way. A bit minty. Touch of tobacco. A nice nose, even more potent than my Elijah Craig 12yo.

Palate:  Sweet and juicy fruits up front, packed full of flavours. I get honey, brown sugar and cinnamon mixed together. Peppery and spicy, but still with a silky mouth feel. Strong alcohol kick, which builds as you sip – and will make your eyes water if you hold it in your mouth long enough! Woodiness comes in more toward the end. A touch of anise. A bold and flavourful expression, but not overly complex.

Eagle.Rare.10Finish: Medium long. This is what I imagine the lingering effects of caramel-coated cinnamon red-hots would feel like (if such a thing existed). The corn sweetness is there, and it persists through the finish, along with the cinnamon rye notes.

This is a nice example of a low rye mashbill bourbon, in my view. I warrant that I am not a big bourbon guy, but I would personally pick this batch of the Eagle Rare 10yo over my bottle of the Elijah Craigh 12yo. Of course, batch variation is expected to be greater on the Eagle Rare. Either way, I think these are both examples of good mid-range bourbons.

A splash of water or a little ice (if that is your preference) may help tame the burn from the 45% ABV. I tend to find most bourbons fairly potent, so a few drops can be helpful. But it should also make an excellent base for Manhattans or Old Fashioneds.

For some reviews of this whisky, Nathan the Scotch Noob is quite a fan. Nathan of Whisky Won was less impressed with his particular sample. And here is an interesting head-to-head comparison of two batches from Michael of Diving for Pearls. My own middle-of-the-road assessment is pretty close to that of Oliver from Dramming.

 

 

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey

The Teeling family has a long history of Irish whiskey making, having founded the well-known Cooley distillery.  Around the time of Cooley’s eventual acquisition into Beam-Suntory, Jack Teeling (son of Cooley founder John Teeling), struck out on his own – and under his family name.

While setting up a new distillery in Ireland, Teeling Whiskey got busy buying sourced Irish whiskies for relabeling under their own label. The first of the whiskies released –  Small Batch – is a malt/grain whisky blend with a relatively high proportion of malt (I’ve seen a 35:65 malt:grain mix reported online). A high proportion of first-fill bourbon casks has also been reported.

Unusually, Small Batch has spent a number of months being finished in rum casks. While it is common for new operations to source outside whisky initially, rum cask finishing is certainly not exactly a typical approach.

Let’s see how it compares to some other Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database (in alphabetical order)

Bushmills Original Blended: 7.74 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.38 ± 0.44 on 18 reviews ($$)
Jameson: 7.82 ± 0.58 on 17 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.34 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan Irish Reserve Malt Whiskey: 7.97 ± 0.54 on 6 reviews ($$)
Powers (Gold Label): 8.04 ± 0.64 on 9 reviews ($$)
Teeling Whiskey Small Batch (Rum Cask Finish): 8.30 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.56 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews ($$$)

That is certainly a very respectable score for the price class. Below are my nosing and tasting notes for this whisky. Note that my sample come from a batch that was bottled on 02/2015.

Nose: Sweet. Very sweet. Sugar cane sweet. Lightly floral, with orange blossoms. Light-bodied fruits, like green grapes, pears, plums, apricots, and green apples. Main impression is diluted sweetened apple juice. No solvent notes. A touch malty, with very light aromas overall (like most entry-level Irish whiskies). But could easily be mistaken for a light golden rum, given that sweetness.

Palate: That sweetness is still present – a pure, refined white-sugar sweetness (with none of the complexity of honey, brown sugar, or even corn syrup). Not getting a lot of the fruits, except for the citrus (more tart lemon now). Some caramel. Light dusting of baking spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg. Definite grassiness coming through. Relatively light body and mouthfeel, but with a lot of alcohol burn (likely due to the higher 46% ABV).

Finish: Medium length, but not much going on here. A slight bitterness creeps in, but its subtle. Mainly just sweetened apple juice on the way out, with a touch of the spices. Pretty mild.

Teeling.Small.BatchThe nose is misleading on this one, with its pure white sugar sweetness.  Once you actually take a sip, this seems more like a decent light Irish whiskey – but with some significant alcohol kick.

I strongly recommend adding a splash of water to the Small Batch, to help tame the burn. It really improves the mouthfeel, and also slightly enhances the floral elements (although not the fruit). The slight bitterness of the finish also seems to disappear. I think the overall Meta-Critic score is pretty much right on the money here.

Like the AnCnoc 12yo, this would make a good summer sipping whisky – or a great base for cocktails. It should appeal to the typical Jameson’s drinker looking to add some uncomplicated extra sweetness. Of course, you could also go for Jameson Black Barrel (known as Select Reserve now) or Bushmills Black Bush for similar quality scores.

One of the most positive reviews I’ve seen of Teeling Small Batch is of Dominic Roskrow of Whisky Advocate. Josh the WhiskeyJug and Ruben of WhiskyNotes both give it a fairly typical ranking from among the Meta-Critic panel. Nathan the Scotchnoob is probably the least impressed.

 

 

 

Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries

Welcome to my second Ichiro’s Malt review, the Double Distilleries.

As mentioned in my Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) review, Ichiro’s malts are vatted malts from two distilleries: the closed Hanyu distillery, and the currently operating Chichibu distillery. Both distilleries were controlled by the Akuto family, currently led by Ichiro Akuto.

In this case, the “double distilleries” label refers specifically to old Hanyu stock matured in ex-Sherry casks, and new-make Chichibu matured in new Japanese Mizunara oak casks. I’ve seen suggestions online that old Hanyu Puncheon casks may also have been used in the vattings. The exact proportion is unknown, although I expect it is weighed more towards the new make (from both an economic perspective, and from my tasting notes below).

Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for the Double Distilleries:

Nose: I can definitely smell the sherry cask influence – despite the light colour, I get rich chocolate notes. Apple and pear are the main fruits, not really getting the typical sherry figs or raisins. There is also a lot of honey sweetness here, similar to the Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR). A bit of allspice comes in as well, like in a nice rye blend (not over-powering). And the perfumy/incense wood notes from the MWR are also present throughout. Nice.

Palate: Definite spicy kick up front, just like the MWR. The sweet fruity notes come in next, along with the honey and chocolate. Not as much sherry influence as I was expecting from the nose – getting more general oakiness now. Taste of Graham crackers. A bit malty. Also some bitterness, but greatly attenuated compared to the MWR (which was overwhelming). The baking spices – allspice, nutmeg – linger nicely. Nice mouth feel, not too watery.

Finish: The sweet honey and Graham cracker notes are the most prominent. That MWR bitterness is present, but greatly subdued. The baking spices really help here, and linger for a nice long while. I even get a touch of apple at times. Not overly complex, but pleasant and fairly long-lasting.

Ichiro-DoubleDistilleriesI suggested in my MWR review that blending with additional casks would help that whisky out – and that is exactly what you get here. You can still detect the fragrant incense characteristics of the MWR, balanced by a more general sweetness. A clever blending of different flavour components – and a better way to glimpse the effect of younger whiskies from Mizunara wood, in my view.

This is certainly a nice, easy-drinking dram, with no real flaws. In contrast to the MWR, it goes down easier the more you sip. That said, the Double Distilleries could probably have benefited from a bit more sherry cask influence.

For some additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Ruben of WhiskyNotes, Brian (Dramtastic) of JapaneseWhiskyReview, Michio of JapanWhiskyReviews, and Tone’s review on WhiskySaga.

Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR)

This is my first review of an Ichiro’s Malt Japanese whisky.

The eponymous brand name refers to Ichiro Akuto – grandson of the founder of the fabled Hanyu distillery (which shuttered production in 2000). Ichiro later founded the Chichibu distillery nearby, and managed to save a number of Hanyu casks. His “Ichiro’s Malt” series typically involve vattings of both old Hanyu stock and new Chichibu production.

The Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) is distinctive because it is a vatting of malts that have all been aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). There is an interesting article on Nonjatta that describes the influence of this type of oak on Japanese whisky.

My experience of Mizunara wood aging to date has been through blended whiskies, where only a proportion of the final product was aged in these casks (such as the Hibiki Harmony). Ichiro’s Malt MWR is thus an opportunity to try and dissect out the specific contribution of Mizunara wood more directly.

The exact composition of the Ichiro’s Malt MWR is unknown, but I’m going to guess it is mainly new production from Chichibu. Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for Ichiro’s MWR:

Nose: Very floral and fragrant, with both woody and incense notes (“sandalwood” is often cited, which fits). Some grassiness, but again tending to the more sweet and fragrant aromas (mint?). It has a strong honeyed sweetness that reminds me a bit of Dalwhinnie (although the spirit seems younger here). Strong citrus presence, especially lemon peel and grapefruit. Some sweet apple. Pleasant, with very sharp and clear scents.

Palate: Tangy and spicy upfront, with a peppery kick. The honey and fruity sweetness is there from the start – with caramelized apple and citrus. Woodiness comes up fast though, with some sour and bitter notes. This sharp bitterness is reminiscent of some lightly smokey whiskies – but it is definitely more heavily pronounced on the MWR. Think sucking on a grapefuit that had sugar sprinkled on it – fruity sweetness upfront, followed by persistent bitterness (especially if you chew on the rind!). Some ginger too. Surprisingly light body overall, given the relatively high ABV (46%).

Finish: Relatively short. Not much going on here, except some lingering sweetness and peppery spiciness trying to cover up the woody bitterness (and failing). A bit of a let-down, honestly.

Ichiro-MWRThe MWR has a lot of promise on the nose, but it quickly turns bitter in the mouth, with a disappointing finish. It seems very young overall. Frankly, despite the initial distinctiveness, it is a whisky that makes you want to drink less as time goes by in the glass.

It is certainly an interesting way to experience the effect of pure Mizunara cask, but I definitely think this would do better as a blend with other types of wood. I would probably recommend the Hibiki Harmony over this as an introduction to the effect of Japanese oak.

For a positive review of the MWR, please see Dave Broom of WhiskyAdvocate. Personally, my own tastes align better with Ruben of WhiskyNotes. There is also Brian’s (Dramtastic) review on Nonjatta.

UPDATE: Please see my Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries review for a good example of what some blending can bring to Mizunara wood casks.

 

Glenrothes Vintage 1995 (2014)

The Glenrothes Vintage 1995 was the first attempt by Glenrothes to produce a specific flavour Vintage, by laying down a defined mix of casks at a single point in time. The chosen casks were about 30% first-fill Sherry cask, using a mixture of American and Spanish Sherry oak. The balance were “refill casks” of unspecified origin – but apparently typical of the characteristic Glenrothes flavour profile.

My friends from the UK tell me that the basic Glenrothes was considered something of a “supermarket malt” when they were growing up, given its near ubiquity and relatively mild flavour. The Vintage series was clearly an attempt to introduce some additional quality and complexity into the classic Glenrothes house style.

The history of this particular Vintage 1995 bottling is a little unclear to me. The first Vintage 1995 batch was bottled in 2011, with official tasting notes dating from 2010 printed right on the bottle. A second batch was made in 2012, and a third in 2014 (which my bottle is from). However, all that has been updated on the label is the bottling date – the rest of the information remains unchanged.

The official Glenrothes website makes no mention of the various bottlings, but it is generally believed that a selection of the best casks from any given Vintage year are used when deciding on a particular bottling run. Presumably, they have tried to keep a relatively consistent flavour profile across the various Vintage 1995 bottlings. This would also explain why they don’t give an exact percentage of Sherry casks, as it presumably varies somewhat across bottlings.

I picked up the 2014 bottling a little over a year ago, after sampling it at the LCBO and enjoying the range of flavours. At the time, it was $95 CAD – which seemed like a pretty good deal for a 19 year old whisky!

Let’s see how some of the Glenrothes fares in my Meta-Critic database. Note that reviewers do not always specify which bottling of the Vintage 1995 they sampled, so I have combined them all together. Ranked from high to low score:

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve (NAS): 8.69 ± 0.28 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Glenrothes Vintage 1995 (2011/2012/2014): 8.63 ± 0.28 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Vintage 1998 (2014): 8.32 ± 0.64 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve: 8.08 ± 0.87 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Select Reserve: 7.92 ± 0.33 on 11 reviews ($$$)

Note as well that the “Vintage Reserve” above is a new No-Age-Statement (NAS) bottling, meant to replace the Select Reserve. There are very few reviews of that whisky so far, so please treat the numbers above as very provisional.

Here is what I found in the glass for my Vintage 1995 (2014 bottling):

Nose: Definite sherry casks in the mix, despite the golden colour.  I get rich milk chocolate, honey, and tons of creamy toffee and butterscotch. Less fruit-forward than some whiskies, but I still get juicy raisins, prunes, and figs, plus cherries and a bit of apple. A light floral scent as well, with something a bit earthy. Very nice.

Palate: Lots of vanilla, with the honey from the nose turning into maple syrup – the latter helping contribute a thick and syrupy mouth feel. Rye baking spices quickly show up, especially sweet cinnamon and dusty nutmeg. A bit nutty as well (peanuts? walnuts?). Not getting much fruit here, as the sweetness seems to be coming mainly from the wood. Rich and pleasant, but not overly complex.

Finish: Fairly long, thanks to all that woody sweetness – although the rich maple syrup turns into generic no-name pancake syrup by the end. Some mixed nuts as well. But  what happened to the spice and fruit?

Glenrothes.1995This has always been one of my favourite flavour profiles – a fairly gentle base spirit, bridging standard ex-Bourbon barrels with just the right amount of  ex-Sherry barrels. The Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition is another example of this style (although typically younger, with a little more sherry fruitiness in that case).

I can only hope Glenrothes has gotten the mix right on their new NAS version of the Vintage series. Note that the philosophy seems to have changed, as the Vintage Reserve NAS is apparently a vatting of nine different vintage years (and not including the 1995). Time will tell.

For generally positive reviews of the Glenrothes Vintage 1995, please see Nathan the ScotchNoob, Serge of WhiskyFun, Oliver of Dramming, and Jan of BestShotWhisky.

Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Crown Royal is one of the most popular budget whiskies in Canada. I have recently posted reviews of a couple of the more highly-ranked expressions (Monarch and Northern Harvest Rye). Thanks to a swap with the user Devoz on Reddit, I have been able to sample a bottle of Hand Selected Barrel – a cask-specific release, currently only available in the United States.

That may sound odd, but Crown Royal is also very popular in parts of the U.S. – particularly Texas. As a result, Hand Selected Barrel and Northern Harvest Rye were originally launched as limited releases there in late 2014. They only gradually expanded across the U.S., with NHR showing up in Canada late last Fall. We are still waiting to see if Hand Selected Barrel will make its way up here. 😉

The initial Texas-only release of these whiskies makes sense, when you consider their composition. Northern Harvest Rye is close to being a straight rye (actually 90% rye in this case), and rye is enjoying a surging popularity in the U.S. Hand Selected Barrel is made with a very boubon-like high-rye mashbill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley – and aged exclusively in new oak barrels (i.e., just like bourbon). It is bottled at a common “cask strength” of 51.5%, which will definitely appeal to bourbon enthusiasts.

Both Northern Harvest Rye and Hand Selected Barrel are examples of what are known in Canada as “flavouring whiskies.” Hand Selected Barrel in particular is drawn exclusively from whisky produced on Crown Royal’s massive “Coffee Rye” still – distilled to low ABV, and aged in virgin oak barrels (for seven years in this case). In Canada, this sort of low ABV high-rye whisky is often used to “flavour” blended whiskies that are composed predominantly of high ABV corn whisky.

In essence, Crown Royal really is hand-selecting individual barrels of this potent flavouring whisky for direct bottling. I understand that it is only available at U.S. stores that agree to purchase a whole barrel (i.e., each bottle is thus unique to that particular store and cask). As a result, you can expect a considerable amount of variability from one store to the next – but all are likely to give a fairly intense flavour profile. My sample came from a bottle purchased at a retail Texas store.

Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average Meta-Critic score (highest first):

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.72 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.75 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 15 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.60 ± 0.52 on 13 reviews ($)

And now, my detailed tasting notes on this sample of Hand Selected Barrel:

Nose: Very reminiscent of Northern Harvest Rye. I get a very sweet candied nose, with overwhelming apple and vanilla initially – and the same solvent undercurrent as the NHR (more, if anything). On repeated nosing, novel aromas open up like banana and strawberry, leading to a bubble-gum sensation. It also singes my nose hairs if I inhale too deeply or too long – which is a sign of that higher ABV. Pretty comparable overall to NHR, but with a bit more character and “oomph.”

Palate: Big, bold bourbon-es character, with tons of vanilla and butterscotch mixed with various fruits – mainly apple (again), strawberry and cherries. Definite citrus, but more candied orange than the typical Crown Royal grapefruit. The woody character comes through – certainly oak, but also a sweet, resinous conifer sap (Spruce?) that quickly turns to eucalyptus in my mouth. Has a thick and syrupy mouth feel overall, which is another sign of the high ABV – but still with a slightly tannic dryness that I like. I don’t get the classic Crown Royal bitterness here, which is a bonus in my view (although some may find this too sweet). The rye spices come up only toward the end, with a mild dry dusty bread taste. Certainly less overt rye than the NHR – more like a full-flavoured high-rye bourbon (which is basically what this is).

Finish: Oddly not very flavourful or long-lasting. This is where it falls a little flat for me – quite literally in fact, as it reminds me of slightly flat Tab (i.e., saccharin-sweetened diet cola). Some of the classic Crown Royal bitterness seems to be trying to poke through now, but is being suppressed by this artificial sweetness. Definitely much better than regular Crown Royal, but some may prefer the sharper bitterness of the NHR. Certainly doesn’t match the consistently smooth finish of the Monarch 75th Anniversary blend. By the end of the tasting, I could detect the dry heat of alcohol fumes rising from the back of my throat (i.e., another sign of the higher ABV ).

Crown.Royal.Hand.BarrelOverall, I would rate this sample of the Hand Selected Barrel as very close to the Northern Harvest Rye in overall quality. There are certainly differences though – NHR is more of a traditional Canadian Rye, without the thick and rich woodiness of the bourbon-like Hand Selected Barrel. This HSB has a more robust palate, but the NHR has a sharper and cleaner nose and finish. And I still consider my batch of Monarch to be a whole other league – an example of how Crown Royal can make a high quality and elegant blended whisky.

At the end of the day, if you can’t get your hands on a Hand Selected Barrel, the Northern Harvest Rye is probably the closest substitute in the Crown Royal family.

Keeping in mind the standard caveat that each bottle is going to be different, you can find some very positive reviews of this whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky, Jason at Whisky Won, Josh of the The Whiskey Jug, and Chip the Rum Howler.

 

Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon

I figured it was high time I posted a proper bourbon review. And what better bourbon to start with than the Elijah Craig 12yo – a popular favourite, and one that has received a lot of press lately. As you might expect, the recent decision by distiller Heaven Hill to discontinue the 12yo in favour of a new NAS (no-age-statement) version has generally not been well received.

Leaving the transition issue aside, bourbons as a class can be challenging to review. If only it was as simple as those immortal words of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens of Justified: “Bourbon is easy to understand. Tastes like a warm summer day.”  I’ve always found it a bit more complicated than that. 😉

By law, American bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, distilled to no more that 160 proof (80% ABV), and aged in new charred oak barrels – among other requirements. As a result, the distillation method (and composition of the mashbill) has a great effect on what the final flavour tastes like. Indeed, one characteristic that is commonly used to differentiate bourbons is the proportion of rye grain in the mashbill (i.e., high rye vs. low rye bourbons).

As a class, I find bourbons tend to have a sweeter corn-syrup flavour than you will find in most whiskies. This sweetness can be further enhanced by the new oak aging – at least for relatively young bourbons. Most bourbons are indeed fairly young, with 6-8 years being considered the typical length for mid-range products (the lower-end stuff is younger, of course). Longer aged expressions can pick up some bitterness and other “woody” characteristics from the oak barrels, and this is often seen as less desirable. There are of course exceptions – such as Elijah Craig, which offers very popular 12yo, 18yo and 21yo expressions.

If you are curious to learn more, I find the /r/bourbon guide on Reddit provides a very clear overview of the main categories of bourbon – with helpful examples of the standard brands in each group.

Let’s see how the more popular mid-range bourbon offerings available here at the LCBO (i.e, $40-50 CAD) compare in the Meta-critic database:

1792 Ridgemont Reserve: 8.75 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews
Buffalo Trace: 8.59 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews
Bulleit 10yo: 8.76 ± 0.19 on 6 reviews
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.54 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.32 on 15 reviews
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews
Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack: 7.86 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Maker’s Mark: 8.25 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Woodford Reserve bourbon: 8.38 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews

As you can see, Elijah Craig 12yo is one of the highest ranking bourbons in this price group.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Smells like a banana split with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and a cherry on top! There is also a strong presence of caramel and toffee notes from the oak wood. Something slightly charred but sweet, like toasted marshmallows. Beyond some additional sweet fruits, I get a bit of zesty citrus (mainly orange).  It’s a great nose, and I am happy to come back and enjoy it between sips.

Palate: The creaminess continues here, with a slightly oily mouthfeel. Up front I get sweet and juicy stewed fruits and toffee/caramels – but it has a lot more spicy kick than I expected from the nose. This prickle is there throughout, and doesn’t attenuate on further sipping. Think of it as cherry cough syrup that actually makes you feel more like coughing as you drink. It is a full body, with definite baking spices coming in towards the end.

Finish: A bit of bitterness shows up here, and lingers through the finish – but it remains very well-balanced by the sweetness. This is one of my favourite things about the EC 12, as I find most bourbons overwhelm on the sweetness, which can turn cloying on the way out. The EC 12 is also not as woody as I expected, given the extended barrel aging.

Elijah.Craig.12I can see the Elijah Craig 12yo making a great “house bourbon.” It is a nice flavourful sipper, and would do very well in Manhattans and other mixed drinks.

The Elijah Craig 12yo tends to get reviewed fairly favourably by the panel of international reviewers – see for example Jason at WhiskyWon, Ruben at WhiskyNotes, and Serge at WhiskyFun. I find most American reviewers tend to be a bit tougher on it – but I expect that’s because they have access to better top-shelf bourbons than we do. See Nathan at the ScotchNoob and John and Richard at the WhiskeyReviewer for some balanced examples.

Note that before doing away with the age statement all-together, Heaven Hill moved it from the front label to the back of the bottle last year (with no apparent change in the formulation at that time). Oddly though, the original Elijah Craig 12yo bottles (pictured on the right) are still commonly available at the LCBO.  Pick it up while you can!

P.S.: As an aside, if you haven’t seen it, Justified was a great TV show. Bourbon featured in it quite prominently, as the personalities of the various characters were illustrated by their bourbon preferences. I’ve heard it said that bourbon was the sour-mash heart of the show. 🙂

Nikka Pure Malt Black

Nikka Black is one of the more popular offerings in the reasonably-affordable, no-age-statement “colour” series of Nikka Pure Malts.

As discussed in some of my other Nikka reviews, “pure malt” is the term used in Japan to denote a combination of all-malt whisky from several distilleries under one producer’s control. This is thus a refinement of the “vatted malt” (or simply “malt whisky”) terminology used elsewhere – with the added restriction of a single producer.  In that sense, it is largely a semantic distinction to the classic Scottish “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery in Scotland. If that last bit is a surprise to you, please see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info.

The various Pure Malt colours – Red, White and Black – all denote different combinations of the core characteristics of the Nikka Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries (from which they all hale). The Red is reported to be relatively light and fruity, the White is heavily peated and spicy, and Black is somewhere in-between.

Although not common by any means, you can sometimes still find the Nikka Black at a reasonable price in European duty-frees (and the odd Canadian province). 😉

Here is how it compares to other Nikka NAS malt whisky offerings in my meta-critic database (ranked in score order, top-down):

Nikka From the Barrel: 8.84 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.82 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.81 ± 0.5 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.54 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.46 ± 0.17 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: ± 8.43 0.4 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS: 8.28 ± 0.12 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.13 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, along with From the Barrel, Black is one of the top-scoring NAS malt whiskies that Nikka offers. It is interesting to see how the single distillery NAS offerings are scoring quite a bit lower overall (despite being more expensive).

Here’s what I find in the glass for Nikka Black:

Nose: Sweet, with definite smoke and peat. Fruit-wise, I get mainly the typical “earthy” dark fruits (e.g. prune and raisin), as well as a bit of mixed berry.  Oakiness is definitely present, and there is something reminiscent of a sherry cask finish (e.g. chocolate). The sweetness has a creamy characteristic, like whipped cream. Not very floral, although a do get a touch of cherry blossom – and some slight grassiness. Definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate:  The smokey and peaty nature is unmistakable, and is consistently present throughout. Same fruits as the nose, but also getting some extra citrus (orange in particular). I get caramel/butterscotch now, and the chocolate turns to dark chocolate (i.e., slightly bitter). The grassiness is more pronounced, with some definite hay/straw notes. A bit watery in the mouth, which is the only drawback for me after that creamy nose.

Finish: Moderately long, with smoke all the way though. The bitterness persists as well, but is not as strong as some other whiskies in this class (e.g., recent Highland Park 12 yo expressions).  Has a slight waxiness, and an aroma of seasoned leather (which is actually pretty good!). For me, this smokey/bitter/leatheriness is well balanced to the sweetness, leading to a nice, long experience.

Nikka.BlackNikka has done a great job integrating everything in the Pure Malt Black (i.e., a truly balanced blend of the peaty Yoichi and fruity Miyagikyo).  Indeed, if I didn’t know this was Japanese, I would have thought it was a Highland Park.  There is something to the smokey nature of this whisky that reminds me of Orkney peat (i.e., prominent smoke, with subtle phenolitic peat notes in the background). Even the fruitiness here – dark fruits, orange, chocolate, etc. – is reminiscent of the classic sherry cask HPs.

Personally, I think Nikka has done a better job with the Pure Malt Black than HP has been doing on recent batches of the classic 12yo – especially in terms of the finish (i.e., there is an expanded bitterness on recent HP 12 batches). My only complaint is that I find Black a bit thin in terms of mouth feel – but I certainly agree with its relative rank among Nikka NAS expressions. The Black is an impressive offering for a NAS blend of multiple distilleries.

Brian (Dramtastic) of Japanese Whisky Review, Oliver of Dramming.com and the guys at Quebec Whisky all provide a comparable relative rank to my own. Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews and Ruben of Whisky Notes score it slightly lower, but are still generally positive.

 

 

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