Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

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.

 

 

AnCnoc 12 Year Old

The AnCnoc 12 yo is the entry-level release from Knockdhu distillery. It is a popular and relatively available example of the “apperitif-style” single malt from flavour cluster H (i.e., relatively light and sweet).

It is also a very good value, at least here in Ontario ($69 CAD at the LCBO, when in stock). Here is how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts, in this same flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.38 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.50 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews ($$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.23 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

I recently reviewed the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which I consider to be one of the standard bearers for this “apperitif” class. The AnCnoc 12 yo has a nearly identical average score and standard deviation, on a comparable number of reviews. Given that it is typically priced a bit lower, I was curious to try it out.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Overwhelming apple juice – sweetened apple juice in particular, although some sour green apple does come through as well. Honey is the next major element, followed by some floral and grassy notes (heather in particular). A bit of graininess (i.e., cereals). No smoke per se, but a faint ashy characteristic is present.

AnCnoc.12.Palate: Apple and honey similarly dominate the initial palate. There is also a definite citrus taste (more lime/lemon than orange). Not much else in the way of fruit – I am certainly not getting any of the darker fruits. A bit of vanilla. The grassiness is unmistakable, with hay and heather most prominent. Dried bread, with some mild baking spice. The ash is also there – relatively subtle in the background.

Finish: Surprisingly quick. There are no real lingering flavours – just a bit of light honey sweetness continuing for a brief time, with some of the cereal notes. There is a also a slight waxy bitterness that comes in at this stage (like cereal packaging?), but it is relatively mild. Frankly disappointing, to be honest – I was hoping for a more prolonged finish.

The AnCnoc 12 yo is a nice example of the GH flavour super-cluster, with a fair amount going on for such a light whisky. I expect it would make a good summer sipper – either neat or as a highball.

For me though, it does pale in direct comparison to the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which has more clearly pronounced flavours at every stage of tasting (including some smoke). The finish is certainly relatively anemic on the AnCnoc 12, in comparison. As such, I would personally give the Dalwhinnie a definite edge in scoring (and frankly, a higher absolute score than the meta-critic average). That said, the AnCnoc is still a great bargain for the class, and I think the meta-critic average is pretty bang-on.

For very positive reviews of this whisky, Chip the RumHowler, André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky and Ralfy all consider it quite highly. I would probably fit in closer to the moderately positive score of Ruben from Whisky Notes. Josh of the WhiskeyJug and Nathan the Scotchnoob are both somewhat less enamored by this expression.

Highwood Ninety 5 Year Old

It can be quite challenging to find good quality whisky reviews of entry-level expressions – given the natural tendency of expert reviewers to focus on premium and mid-range products. In my own case, my familiarity with assembling the meta-critic scores can dissuade me from picking up or trying perceived lower quality expressions.

Which brings me around to the Highwood Ninety 5 yo. 😉 This is a relatively entry-level expression from the Alberta distiller Highwood (better known for their Centennial and Century Reserve lines). This is one of two whiskies released under their own name in the “Ninety” series (for 90 proof), along with a 20 yo expression.

Here are how some of the Highwood whiskies perform in the meta-critic database, alongside a couple of other entry-level rye whiskies from Alberta:

Alberta Premium: 8.32 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.54 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($)
Highwood Centennial 10yo: 8.42 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.37 ± 0.89 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.40 ± 0.55 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews ($$)

As you can see, the Ninety 5yo falls in well with the pack of entry-level ($) Canadian whiskies.  Not available outside of Western Canada, I had the opportunity to pick up the Ninety 5yo last summer on a trip to BC, when it was on sale for ~$24 CAD, taxes in.  Given the price, I thought it was worthwhile picking up a bottle to try.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet and creamy, but with a strong solvent smell (both acetone and turpentine). The solvent note dissipates a bit with some time in the glass, but never goes away completely. Fruity notes are mainly tropical, with banana and pear, and some mixed berries. Vanilla enters the mix as well. Somewhat grassy, with dry baking spices (i.e., dusty rye). If it weren’t for the solvent aromas, this would be pretty decent.

Palate: Sweet and fruit forward, with the same elements as the nose. Also picking up definite citrus now, especially orange. Some vanilla and butterscotch, and a strong spicy mint (like peppermint) that is very distinctive. The solvent notes from the nose morph into a varnish sensation in the mouth, with some bitterness (ginger?). There is a light dusting of the classic rye baking spices toward the end (more prominent than on the nose, though less than most Canadian ryes). A bit watery in composition, despite the creamy nose.

Finish: Bitterness is probably the longest-lasting characteristic, which seems to co-exist with the creamy sweetness initially. Definitely getting more of the baking spices lingering as well (especially spicy cinnamon), which helps on the way out.

This has all the makings of a good Canadian rye – if only the solvent/varnish notes weren’t so prominent. In some ways, the rye component reminds me of the classic Alberta Premium, but with some interesting new elements – like the candied mint. There is actually a lot going on here, for such a young whisky.

That said, my initial assessment of this whisky was rather poor, due to the strong solvent smell (which I presume is coming from young grain whisky in the mix). Coming back to the bottle a few weeks later didn’t result in an improvement.  But now that it has been sitting on my shelf for last six months, I find the worse of the solvent smell has dissipated slightly.

Highwood.Ninety.5As such, and in keeping with the meta-critic ranking, I would probably give it a slight edge over standard Alberta Premium. But I would still score both whiskies lower in absolute terms than the average meta-critic scores above – i.e., in the high 70s, not the low/mid-80s. And I personally like the Canadian Club 100% Rye, which I would score closer to the premium Canadian whiskies above.

In my view, the Ninety 5yo definitely needs some additional aging to tame the solvent/varnish components. But the overall complexity makes me very curious to try the Ninety 20yo.

UPDATE April 4, 2016: my review of the 20yo is now available.

For some additional reviews of the Ninety 5yo, Davin de Kergommeaux and Chip the RumHowler both give it mid-range marks. But also check out the more variable scoring of André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky.

 

 

 

The Nikka 12 Year Old Premium Blended

Nikka received a lot of attention last summer for their understandable decision to replace most of the entry-level malt expressions in their lineup with no-age-statement (NAS) versions. They simply cannot keep up with demand, and risk depleting their stores of aged casks too quickly. As I found in my Taketsuru NAS review, there is reason for concern that this is leading to a drop in quality and character at the low end.

But largely missed the year before was the interesting introduction of a new age-statement blended whisky, to celebrate their 80th anniversary. With its capitalized determiner, “The Nikka” 12 Year Old Premium Blended Whisky comes in a snazzy presentation decanter with higher-end packaging.

Unfortunately, this whisky is currently only available in Japan – which may explain the relative lack of buzz (and very limited reviews online). I note that the Japanese-language Nikka website currently has plenty of pages highlighting this whisky, but it is not to be found on the English-language version of their site.

From what little I can find online, the Nikka 12yo Blended contains a base of Coffey grain whisky, and malt whiskies from both Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. This bodes well for the final product, as long as care was taken in the cask selections.

I recently received a gift bottle of this whisky, and am happy to provide some detailed tasting notes here. It is bottled at 43% ABV.

Nose: I can detect the sweet corn syrup note of the Nikka Coffey Grain, but with even more caramel and vanilla now. Definitely a malty aroma as well, reflecting the malt whisky component. Some lighter fruits, like pear and green apple. I also detect a light smokey note, similar to the old Taketsuru 12. A very faint solvent smell, but less than I detected on the Coffey Grain. A nice nose, to be sure.

Palate: The Coffey Grain definitely takes a back seat here – I get a lot of woody and malt characteristics, with enhanced caramel/vanilla flavours up-front. These are balanced by a slight bitterness, and something slightly tannic, like black tea. Nice rich texture and mouth feel, very creamy. There is a definite spicy/peppery component that I wasn’t expecting. The smoke re-appears at the end, and literally wafts up the back of your throat as you swallow.

Finish: Moderately long, with lingering cinnamon and cloves. There is both a subtle sweetness and bitterness to the finish – like candied ginger. If I have any complaint here it is that the flavours are a bit muddled when the smoke clears from the palate – but at least it has a finish (unlike the entry-level Taketsurus, which rapidly disappear).

Well, that was a pleasant relief – this is a nicely constructed blend. In many ways, it seems like a combination of the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Nikka Coffey Grain – but with some new spicier notes thrown in, and a rounding off of some of the Taketsuru 12’s rough edges. I’m glad to find it retains the light smokey characteristics of the Yoichi malt (something the new Taketsuru NAS has completely lost). That said, it lacks some of the subtlety of the pure Nikka Coffey Grain (which gets a bit lost in the blend here), and the mild bitterness may not appeal to all.

There are very few reviews of this whisky online, so I don’t have enough to include it in the whisky database.  But here are how some other Nikka whiskies compare:

TheNikka12Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.70 ± 0.51 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.14 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.26 ± 0.28 on 14 ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.82 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

On the basis of these meta-critic scores, I would personally rank the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended somewhere in-between the old Taketsuru 12yo and the Coffey grain – and closer to the Coffey grain. So, say around ~8.6 on the meta-critic scale.

On my recent visit to Japan, I noticed that the Nikka 12yo Premium Blended retails there for the same price as the Nikka Coffey Grain (~5,400 Yen, or ~$65 CAD). This is about twice the price of the old Taketsuru 12yo (and current NAS version), indicating the intended high quality cachet of the Nikka 12 blended.

For an English-language review of this whisky, you could try the Whisky Advocate. Also, Nonjatta has a very good write-up about it, including their preliminary assessment.  Hopefully it will find its way out of Japan soon, so that more will be able to give it a shot.

 

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old

The Dalwhinnie 15yo is something of a standard bearer for me. It gets one of the best meta-critic scores for its flavour cluster (H) – and it is surprisingly complex for such a light dram. It is also widely available, and reasonably priced for the quality. It is currently $95 at the LCBO.

A final point to commend it – it is one of Mrs Selfbuilt’s current favourites among my collection. 🙂

Let’s see how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts in this flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.50 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews ($$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.23 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, the Dalwhinnie and AnCnoc offerings lead the pack here. You can expect to pay a bit more for the Dalwhinnie 15, though.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet floral quality, with apple blossoms and honeysuckle. Light fruits like apricots, pears, peaches, and apple.  Honey is definitely the dominant sweet note, although there is a touch of vanilla as well. There is also definite whiff of smoke. Very nice.

Palate: Tons of honey now, along with vanilla and toffee flavours. Same fruits as the nose. Malty overall, with a strong cereal component. Not as drying as some malty whiskies, nor as cloying as some fruity/floral ones. Individual flavours are sharp and clear, as opposed to smooth and mellow. A surprising amount of smoke comes in at the end, and lingers as you swallow.

Dalwhinnie 15yo bottleFinish: Moderate. The sweetness lingers after the smoke clears, so there is no real bitterness to speak of. Persistent malty notes, and a touch nutty and fruity until the end.

The GH flavour super-cluster is considered to comprise the “aperitif” class of single malts, owing to their typically lighter flavours. But make no mistake about it, there is a lot going on under the surface here.  The individual flavour components are crisp and clear, not muddled into a “smooth” jumble (as you sometimes find on lighter whiskies).

The smokey aspect to the finish suggests to me that this may be better suited as a disgestif rather than an aperitif (i.e., an after-dinner drink). I expect it would also do very well as a refreshing highball in the summertime – which should nicely bring up its sweet aromatic characteristics.

For more reviews of this whisky, Jason at Whisky Won and Ralfy both have quite positive reviews. Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes both give it more middle-of-the-pack scores.

 

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