Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

Kavalan Concertmaster

Kavalan Concertmaster bottle

One of my goals with these commentaries is to explore whiskies that seem divergent in some way  – be it across reviewers, across a flavour class, or across a distillery’s offerings and price range.  The Kavalan Concertmaster – from Taiwanese distillery King Car – is an interesting single malt to examine for several of these reasons.

As a bit of background, Taiwan has generally a marine tropical climate (although mean temperatures will vary across its rather mountainous terrain). This means that relative to more temperate northerly climes (like Scotland and Ireland), whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel in Taiwan, thus requiring less aging time. A similar (and even more dramatic effect) can be observed with Amrut in India. As a result, you don’t typically see age statements on these tropical whiskies – it would be misleading, in relation to what we have come to expect from Scottish single malts of equivalent age.

Kavalan has adopted a distinctly musical theme for its labeling. The higher-end Soloist family will be the subject of a future commentary, but for right now I would like to discuss how the Concertmaster fits it with the rest of their more entry-level line-up of single malts. From the current Metacritic scores:

Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews

With the standard caveat that you should treat whiskies with a low number of reviews as provisional until more results come in (i.e. Podium and King Car), the Concertmaster does seem to be getting the lowest overall rating. And note that despite the plain labeling of the third example above, all of these are actually single malts (i.e., all malt whisky, from a single distillery, using traditional copper pot stills).

There is definitely a wider-than-typical range of reviewer opinions on these whiskies. While most reviewers seem to consider the Single Malt and Concertmaster expressions to be about average (note that the mean whisky score is currently ~8.55 in my database), there are a couple of quite negative responses out there for both whiskies – and more so for the Concertmaster. This is interesting, as the Concertmaster has won Best in Class twice at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), along with a slew of Silver medals at other international competitions (and even a couple of Golds).

I am curious as to why there is a seeming discrepancy here, as I personally find the Concertmaster to be a quite decent whisky. I would rate it as a slightly above-average single malt, with the Kavalan Single Malt as slightly below. This is the reverse of most reviewers who have tried both (although the difference in absolute scores isn’t great).

There are several factors potentially at play here. For one, Port cask finishes generally seem to be less popular among reviewers than Sherry cask ones. Kavalan has quite a few Sherry-finished expressions among their higher-end lines, so the Concertmaster may be suffering in direct comparison.

Concertmaster is also unusual in that it uses a combination of three varieties of Port casks – Ruby Port, Tawny Port and Vintage Port – after its initial period of time spent in American Oak casks (hence the “concertmaster” title). When you consider the unusually high number of different casks – combined with the relatively short time needed in cask – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more batch-to-batch variability than typical for a single malt. While speculative, this could account for some of the variability seen between reviewers.

Of course, it’s also possible that not everyone likes the distinctive characteristics of this particular whisky. 😉 There is something quite distinctive about all of these Kavalan whiskies, compared to Scottish single malts. Indeed, this gets back to my other reason for choosing to profile this whisky – there seems to be a different meaning behind some of the words used by reviewers to describe it.

Here are my tasting notes for the Concertmaster:

Nose: Classic port-infused aromas spring up, like berries and dark fruits, plus rich dark chocolate. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits at all. Definitely plenty of honey here, and some vanilla (although it’s a bit lost beneath the sweet fruits). Great nose, Concertmaster is one of those whiskies that I can happily smell all night. 🙂

Palate: A direct repeat of the nose, in the same order. I get a lot of the “earthy” sweet grape flavours up front, like figs, dates, raisins, black currants – even stewed prunes. It’s like an alcohol-infused Ribena! A dry maltiness quickly appears, along with a heavy astringent effect – just as it does on the standard Single Malt edition. Personally, I find this works here, and makes a good contrast to the initial port-infused flavours. Mouth feel is pleasantly thick and slightly chewy (thanks more to the malt). Despite the port influence, It is definitely not overly sweet – indeed, if I have any complaint here it is that the winey fruit-forward flavours don’t linger longer on balance.

Finish: Moderate. Like with the Single Malt, the astringent effect remains prominent, and you are left with rather dry gums and tongue in the end – but with a well-balanced touch of stewed fruits left behind this time.

The astringency characteristic I describe above likely explains the apparent discrepancy you will note in some reviews: namely that Concertmaster is too “sweet” (especially on the palate and finish) and exceedingly “dry” (again on the palate and finish). Same goes for the complaint by some reviewers that it has an unusually high alcohol “burn” or “kick” (again, especially on the palate) – despite only being bottled at a low 40% ABV.

I think the explanation for both these apparent discrepancies is the same – the significant astringency in Kavalan whiskies, especially noticeable on the palate. This makes your tongue feel “dried out” very quickly after tasting. A similar effect occurs when you drink sodium-infused water, such as club soda (aka soda water). See my Chivas Regal 12 yo commentary for a discussion of when this can enhance a whisky’s flavour.

And so, “dry” – in the likely meaning of these reviewers – is not the opposite of “sweet”, but rather a commentary on how “drying” it is on the tongue. And what else is “drying” of the tongue? A high alcohol content. Basically, the Kavalans are producing a higher astringent effect than normal, but the issue is confused by our usual terminology for this effect (i.e., dry, burn, etc.).  As an analogy, it is very hard to describe the subjective difference between physically “hot” food and spicy “hot” foods. Indeed, many of the same receptors on the tongue respond to these two signals, which is probably how we got the “hot” term to describe the effect of spicy food.

One thing most reviewers seem to agree on is the nose – most like it, detecting those classic rich Port-infused flavours I describe above. I don’t get as much of the so-called “tropical” notes (i.e., banana, pineapple, coconut, melon, etc.) that some reviewers report, although I do detect those on the tropical Amrut (especially tons of banana in that case).

Kavalan Concertmaster bottleI also agree with many that the palate doesn’t necessarily match up to the promise of the nose (as nothing new really presents itself). But I still find it quite acceptable and enjoyable for a Port finished whisky (although again, batches could vary). You do need to get used to the astringency effect, though, which may detract for some.

The finish is also quite acceptable in my view. I find it a bit longer than some reviewers. And while slightly sweet on the way out, I find it pleasantly so (i.e., not cloying).

Anyway, I suggest you make your own mind up about this whisky. Given the relative cost in North America and Europe, you are probably not likely to opt for this over a well established single malt (even if you can find it). But if you get the chance to sample it somewhere, I think its well worth the effort to seek it out for its distinctive properties.

I picked this Concermaster bottle up for $125 CAD at the LCBO, although I know it is no longer in stock. FYI, the standard Single Malt edition was $140 CAD at the LCBO, and I previously picked up a 50mL sample in Europe for about 10 Euros (~$15 CAD).

For different perspectives and reviews, you can can start by searching the Reddit Scotchit collective – most reviewers there seem to really like the Concertmaster. Alternatively, the Rumhowler has one of the most negative reviews I’ve seen of this whisky. The guys at QuebecWhisky.com all seem to take a more middle-of-the-road view.

 

 

 

 

 

Hibiki Harmony

Harmony is the name of the new NAS (no age statement) offering from Suntory for their premiere Hibiki line of blended whiskies. It is meant to replace the entry-level 12 yo expression, which is no longer available.

Due to the widespread shortage of mature casks world-wide (thanks to whisky’s surging popularity), many distillers have had to discontinue their classic entry-level age expressions – or at least, greatly reduce their distribution. While this is certainly the case for many Scottish single malts, it seems to be even more of an issue for Japanese whisky – given its relatively recent expansion into international markets. Demand is far outstripping supply at this point time, it seems.

There is much hang-wringing about this trend online, since it portends a general reduction in quality overall. However, there is no a priori reason to assume that every NAS will be demonstrably worse than its age statement predecessor. Indeed, there are some limited examples where the opposite seems to be the case (Cardhu Amber Rock comes to mind). In the case of the Harmony, I understand they adding a small proportion of new whisky aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks.

Being a big fan of the Hibiki 17 yo, it was with some trepidation that I opened the bottle of Hibiki Harmony that I manage to snag at the LCBO this week. Since there are not a lot of reviews online yet for this particular expression, I thought I’d provide more detailed review-style tasting notes here:

Nose: What a pleasant surprise – rich with sweet fruit and floral aromas (most especially apples, bananas and orange blossoms). I get a definite whiff of pear, which is less common (although some might consider that to be over-ripe apple). Classic vanilla of course (consistent with oak aging). A sweet incense smell as well. You’ll laugh at me, but I also detect a hint of that cheap bubble gum that used to come with sport trading cards when I was a kid. The label mentions rosewater, which I can also imagine. All told, a much nicer nose than I was expecting, and one that is a pleasure to return to in-between sips.

Palate: Given the distinctive nose, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. Initial impression was relief – I could immediately detect the classic Hibiki “oaky” structure in the opening waves of flavour (i.e., toffee and honey). But what came next was a surprise to me – a quick shift into what I normally associate with a high-quality Canadian blended whisky (i.e., something akin to the Crown Royal Monarch). There is still some rough grain whisky showing on the Harmony, belying its young age (although it is not offensive in the way cheap young Canadian whiskies often are). But what I am detecting here is the classic integration of oaked grain sweetness with the “softer” baking spices of age ryes (which you find in quality aged Canadian blends). I doubt there is any rye in here, but I am quite happy to detect something similar to it in the Harmony, as I think it balances well with the classic Hibiki structure. I suppose some people might even compare this to a lighter/younger bourbon, given the sweetness – but the Harmony is definitely more delicate. The slight sweet perfume/incense aroma also continues into the palate, although I’m hard pressed to name it exactly.

Finish: Medium, in terms of that oaky grain whisky sweetness which continues for awhile. But the main fruity/spicy flavours trail off fairly quicky, as you might expect in a younger blend.

Having sampled more than a dozen Japanese whiskies to date, I must say that the Harmony is not what I expected – but I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As I noted in my Canadian Club 100% Rye commentary, Suntory has been integrating its recently-acquired expertise in Canadian rye making and Jim Beam bourbon blending. Given the surprising flavour profile here, I can’t help but wonder if some of that expertise hasn’t made its way back to the Japanese mainland.

As an aside, this is the first Hibiki whisky that the LCBO has stocked, to my knowledge. If the switch to NAS expressions means wider availability of this style of Japanese whisky in Canada, then I expect the local market will be glad to receive it.

Let’s see how the various Hibiki expressions compare in the Whisky Database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.43 ± 0.94 on 7 reviews
Hibiki 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews
Hibiki 17yo: 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews
Hibiki 21yo: 9.19 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews

Hibiki Harmony NASThe trend in mean scores is in the direction you would expect – but there are definitely some pretty great differences of opinion on the Harmony, as illustrated in the much higher standard deviation than typical. I suspect this reflects the distinctive flavour profile described above – while I like it, it obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone.

For positive reviews of this expression, check out Jason of In Search of Elegance and Dave of Whisky Advocate.  For more moderate reviews, check out Martin and André of Quebec Whisky, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Price-wise, you can easily find this expression in Tokyo for about 3900 Yen (or ~$45 CAD). It’s currently available at the LCBO and SAQ for $100 CAD.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo and 21 yo

Nikka is one of the best-known makers of Japanese whisky – although its availability is quite limited in North America and Europe.

When you can find it, you are typically limited to a couple of the pure malt “colour” series, or the excellent Nikka From the Barrel. I plan to post commentaries on a number of those whiskies eventually, but would like to start with a couple of examples from the popular Taketsuru line – the 12 yo and 21 yo.

Named after Masataka Taketsuru – the founding father of Japanese whisky – these whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (often called “vatted malts” or “blended malts” elsewhere).

As I explained on my Single Malts vs Blends page, virtually all “single malts” are blends of different barrels of malt whisky – from the same distillery – vatted together. The only exception are limited specific cask releases (although even there, most of these are combinations of individual casks). The “blended malt” term (or its equivalent “vatted malt”) was developed to describe whiskies where the malt came from different distilleries – thus differentiating from “single” distillery malt blends. Technically speaking, these blended malts could consist of malt whisky produced by competing makers.

In Japan, the major makers typically have multiple distilleries under their own control – with each distillery specializing in different styles. Vatted Japanese whiskies from one producer’s set of distilleries are generally called “pure malts” there, to differentiate from the less specific “blended malt” moniker. Simply put, “pure malts” are just like “single malts”, except they come from a single producer instead of a single distillery.

As it turns out, the Taketsuru 21 yo is one of the whiskies that helped put Nikka (and Japanese whisky more generally) on the world map. Since it was first introduced into international whisky competitions, it has racked up an impressive number of gold medals and best-in-class awards and trophies. Most notably, it has won World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards four times since 2007.

There has been a bit of a craze these last few years to obtain almost any Japanese whisky at reasonable prices. I actually managed to snag the Taketsuru 12yo a year-and-a-half ago at the LCBO for ~$70.  Unfortunately, I had to pay a lot more for the 21yo on a recent trip to Asia.

Part of the reason for this is that Nikka announced earlier this year a massive restructuring of their whisky brands – and the discontinuation of a lot of distillery-specific expressions. While the Taketsuru line will persist, there were immediate price increases (up to 50%, in the case of the 21 yo). And of course, given the relative scarcity, panicked demand buying drove up prices even further across the board. For the foreseeable future, I think you will find it hard to pick of either of these Taketsuru expressions at reasonable prices.

Which is a shame, because they are both quite nice for their respective age levels. Here’s how the Taketsuru line compares in my whisky database (recalling the overall average of ~8.5)

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.32 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews
Taketsuru 17yo: 8.82 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews
Taketsuru 21yo: 9.00 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews

These relative scores track very well with my experience.

Nikka Taketsuru pure malt 12yo bottleThe 12 yo has a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas. The palate reminds me of a classic, floral-style Highland/Speyside Scottish single malt – although with the faintest touch of smoke here. I find it a little more complex than the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yo, for example. The main problem is the finish – it disappears too quickly, and turns slightly bitter on the way out (so maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all). If it weren’t for this unsatisfying end, I would have expected it to score higher for its respective age and flavour class.

The 21 yo in contrast is fairly sublime across the board. It has a much richer and fruity nose, with definite plum/prune notes (I’d swear there was sherry wood in there). Nicely caramelized body with excellent mouthfeel – a good mix of spicier notes on the palate, well balanced with the oak. The finish is long and lingering, with definite sweetness that is not cloying (and again, well balanced to the spiciness). This is a very easy to drink whisky!

For detailed reviews of these two whiskies, I suggest you check out the Nikka blended malt pages of the Quebec Whisky boys and Dramtastic. Jason of In Search of Elegance has recently reviewed both the 12 yo and 21 yo expressions (from samples of my bottles).

 

Lot 40

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottle

You can’t write a whisky blog in Canada and not mention Lot 40. 🙂

Lot 40 is made by Corby at the Hiram Walker facility (Corby is the same distiller responsible for the Wiser brand of whiskies). Lot 40 is actually a straight (i.e., 100%) rye whisky, and traces its ancestry back to the 18th century in Ontario, Canada. The name apparently refers to the lot where the distiller Joshua Booth’s farm was built. His whisky was resurrected by a descendent of the Booth family in the late 1990s as part of Hiram Walker’s short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series.

Lot 40 apparently developed a strong (if small) following, and was profoundly missed when production ceased in the early 2000s. Corby brought it back in 2012, with similar composition and packaging. AFAIK, it is all produced from a single 12,000 L copper pot still at the Hiram Walker & Sons plant in Windsor, Ontario. Originally a mix of rye grain and a small amount of malted rye, they switched in 2013 to using 100% unmalted rye whisky (meaning enzymes have to be added). Later batches (e.g., 2015 onward) may also have received more extensive barrel aging, but no age statement is given.

Since its re-release, it has remained a continual favourite with critics and rye whisky drinkers alike – racking up an impressive series of awards. It scores 8.99 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews in my database – which is impressive both for absolute value and consistency. It edges out the Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo (8.94 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews) and considerably out-competes the recent Canadian Club 100% Rye (8.64 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews). As previously discussed, I think the CC 100% Rye is a great whisky in its own right – but I have to agree that Lot 40 is better overall.

A truly stellar aspect of Lot 40 for me is its nose – a rich bouquet of baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular) and fragrant floral notes (including heather), with some dark fruits evident underneath. You can also smell the candied sweetness that is the characteristic of new charred oak barrels. Rich and complex, there are absolutely no false notes here­. Honestly I could smell it all night long (which, as my lovely wife has opined, would certainly make it last longer!). 😉

The palate is very pleasing as well, with much the same layered flavours as found on the nose. Not quite as fruit-forward as I was expecting, although still plenty of apple, pear and some prunes. A touch of anise. In addition to baking spices, it also reminds me a bit of the hot/sweet cinnamon candies I grew up on. However, I must admit that I find it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that wonderful nose. As mentioned in my CC 100% Rye review, I actually like the more fruit-forward profile of the CC offering (as least as far as initial palate goes). Again, there is nothing offensive in the palate here – it is just a touch more subdued than I would have hoped for. Simply put, if the nose is a home-run, I’d rate the palate as a triple.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleThe finish is relatively long for a Canadian rye whisky, with a soft rye glow that fades into more typical vanilla sweetness (there’s that new oak again). A definite improvement over the very short-lived finish of CC 100% Rye. Again, it’s not going to compete with an expressive single malt, but it is a nice (if fairly simple) finish for this class of whisky.

Lot 40 is the first whisky that really got me appreciating the Canadian rye style. Like many people, I previously tended to turn my nose up at our home and native hooch. If you haven’t tried it, Lot 40 is a real eye-opener. It’s also a great bargain at $40 at the LCBO.

For typical Canadian reviews, you can try the rumhowler’s blog, Whisky Won, or CanadianWhisky.org. For some international perspectives, you can check out the Scotchnoob or WhiskyNotes.be.

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottle

If you are just starting to explore the world of whiskies, there are a few generalizations that can actually be helpful (unlike all the misleading ones that I describe here). Specifically, when it comes to blended Scotch whiskies, most of these were not intended to be drunk neat (aka, straight). While decent blends certainly exist, single malts are widely available to fill that higher-end market niche. And so, most Scottish blends are typically engineered to be best suited to mixed drinks or cocktails. Note that that this is not necessarily the case in other jurisdictions, but it is a good rule of thumb for the lower-priced Scotch blends.

But it is also important to keep this feature in mind when perusing reviews. Typically, most expert reviewers only discuss sampling their whiskies neat (with perhaps a bit of water). This is understandable, as it allows them to explore flavours in the greatest detail, in a consistent way. But you may be missing out on an important piece of the puzzle if that doesn’t match how the whisky is commonly consumed (or was intended to be consumed).

Which brings me around to the point behind this commentary – the common Scotch blend, Chivas Regal 12 year old. This is probably the second-best seller in this class after Johnny Walker Black Label, and is especially popular in the US. Yet while JW Black gets an above-average score for a blend (and is certainly quite drinkable neat, in my view), the Chivas Regal 12yo comes in fourth-to-last among all Scottish blends in my Metacritic database: 7.78 ± 0.43 on 15 reviews.

As an aside, don’t let the seemingly high standard deviation mislead you – pretty much none of the reviewers here likes it much. 😉 Only one reviewer gives it mid-range rank – the rest all place it in their bottom 20th percentile (indeed, five of them put it in their lowest 5th percentile). As described here, one of the features of scoring is that higher-ranked items invariably have a lower standard deviation (because they couldn’t be highly ranked otherwise!).

Now, back to the matter at hand: So why does this Scotch place so low in the database, when it seems to sell quite well (and is higher priced than most entry-level blends)? The secret to understanding this is to recognize that Chivas Regal 12 yr old was specifically re-engineered in the 1950s for the palate of “scotch-and-soda” drinking Americans and Englishmen.

Personally, I find it to be a generally boring whisky when served neat – except for a rather unpleasant and harsh grassiness that doesn’t balance well at all with its light sweetness. On the bright side, at least it doesn’t have much of a finish. But this is certainly not one that I want to sip neat – and neither does anyone else that I’ve served it to. This is consistent with the low expert score in the Metacritic database.

But what happens if you serve it the way it was apparently intended to be – that is, combined with soda water? For those of you not familiar, soda water is carbonated water that has some sodium in it – such as Club Soda here in Canada. The sodium component is important, as it tends provide a subjective “drying” effect, that encourages you take another sip.

Typically, scotch-and-soda drinkers mix scotch into soda water anywhere from 1 part in 2, to 1 part in 5 (i.e. 1:1, down to 1:4 scotch:soda). I have experimented on the Chivas Regal 12, and find something almost magical happens around 1:3. Suddenly, all the unpleasant characteristics disappear, and the floral and nutty notes are amplified in a refreshing mix. It’s really quite the startling transformation. When served this way, on the rocks, I’ve seen people happily finish the glass. These would be the same people who politely handed me back the Glencairn after a single sip, when served neat. 😉

My point here is that this is one low-ranked whisky where I believe the combined wisdom of the meta-critic score has it right. But that score really only applies to drinking it neat or with a bit of water. If you are scotch-and-soda drinker, I find this blend works better than most of the others I’ve experimented with.

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottleBy the way, pronouncing this brand is actually a bit tricky. Most Scots seem to go for something that sounds like SHIV-us or SHIV-is (whereas some in other parts of the UK may go more for CHIV-vers). Americans tend to go more for a SHEE-vus pronunciation, and I’ve even heard SHEE-vass. It seems like only thing everyone agrees on is that it is definitely not to be pronounced CHEE-vis (so, no Chivas and Butthead jokes please). 😉

If you are interested in trying an inexpensive Scottish blend for sipping neat, I’d suggest Johnny Walker Black or Té Bheag. But if (like me) you were gifted a bottle of Chivas Regal 12 yo and don’t know what to do with it, I’d recommend breaking out the club soda. You could also try mixing with other popular options, like coke, ginger ale or coconut water – but I’ve found club soda to do the best job.

For expert reviews of this whisky, you can check out any of the ones on my master review list.  They pretty much all say the same thing. 🙂

Alberta Premium

Some things mystify me in the whisky reviewing world (okay, many things!). When looking into entry-level expressions, sooner or later I come across a reviewer who just seems to love one of these cheap budget products. Now, in the case of the entry-priced Canadian Club 100% Rye, I could understand that – it is actually an impressive quality product, clearly priced low to gather attention. But outside of the fictional Don Draper, I can’t imagine anyone actually recommending standard entry-level Canadian Club (aka “CC Premium”) as a top-pick in the world of whisky.

The recently discussed Alberta Premium Dark Horse is another example of an excellent bargain, as it is typically priced just a few dollars more than the base Alberta Premium. But what to make of the entry-level Alberta Premium? Identified as a straight 100% rye grain whisky, Alberta Distillers explains on its website that it is a blending of two whiskies, one of which is a “flavouring whisky” that was aged in used bourbon casks. The final product has apparently been aged for 5 years.

For an entry-level expression, Alberta Premium has an impressive Meta-Critic Score – a just slightly below average 8.37 ± 0.51, based on 9 reviews. Could a mass-produced Canadian rye whisky really compete on that scale, across all whiskies in the database?

The tip-off that something unusual is going on here is the fairly large standard deviation above. Basically, two reviewers love it, putting it in the top ~15-20% of all their whisky reviews. One reviewer finds it about average. The rest didn’t care for it much – with four putting it in the bottom ~15-25% of all whiskies tasted. I describe a slightly more balanced example of this divergence phenomenon with the Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 18 year olds here. In the case of AP, I personally have to side with the majority opinion and consider this to be one of the least interesting rye whiskies I’ve tried.

That said, I don’t find anything seriously wrong with it. For me, many whiskies at this price point are marred by undesirable characteristics in either the nose or finish (and would most likely benefit from extended aging to help smooth out the base spirit further). Although Mrs Selfbuilt reports a distinctly chemical solvent smell and taste to AP, I find it to be relatively inoffensive (for this entry level class). I just don’t see what there is to recommend it. Given its somewhat bland nature, I can only presume AP is designed to appeal to those who plan to use it as a rye for mixed drinks (given its lack of a strong character, one way or the other).

But there is one thing that is distinctive about Alberta Premium – the distribution of bottle sizes. I recently did an analysis of Canadian whisky inventory at the LCBO. Like most entry-level Canadian whiskies, Alberta Premium is available in a wide range of bottle sizes. However, unlike the industry heavyweights, the distribution of sizes for AP is skewed to smaller-than-typical bottles. Here is a comparison to the entry-level expressions from Canadian Club (Premium/Classic) and Gibson’s (12yo/Sterling):

Canadian whisky bottle size distributionMost high-volume distillers offer their entry level products in patterns similar to Canadian Club (roughly equivalent numbers of different size bottles) or Gibson’s (weighed toward larger bottle sizes). AP differs in that it offers a proportionally large share of smaller sized bottles, at least in Ontario.

Alberta Premium bottleOne possible inference from this is that the other makers already have significant market share, and are thus able to more easily sell large bottles of their product. In this interpretation, AP may be trying to get people to taste their product by offering it predominantly in smaller bottles. After all, you are more likely to take a chance on new product if it is in a small bottle at a lower price. Of course, the opposite interpretation would be that they may figure their best option to sell the stuff is by keeping the price particularly low to move inventory. 😉

In any case, to get some contrasting views of Alberta Premium, please check out the Quebec Whisky site. Whisky Won is another review site that I think has the measure of this whisky.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Alberta Premium Dark Horse is a very distinctive offering in the Canadian landscape.

Known for their expertise in producing 100% rye whiskies, Alberta Distillers has produced an unusual beast with their Dark Horse (also known as Alberta Rye Dark Batch in the US, due to copyright issues with the dark horse name).

Alberta Distillers has been up-front about what is in here. Most of the bottle (~90%) is a mix of two types of Canadian rye whisky: High ABV rye aged for 12 years in used barrels, and low ABV pot still rye aged for 6 years in new barrels. Rounding out all that rye whisky is ~8% of US-made bourbon (believed to be Old Grand-Dad – we’ll get back to this in a moment). But the really distinctive element is ~0.5-1% sherry added directly to the mix. The final whisky is then aged in heavily-charred American oak barrels, bottled at 45% ABV, and sold at a very competitive price.

While the addition of actual sherry into the mix may seem like a cheat to single malt fans, it is the net effect of traditional aging of whiskies in ex-sherry casks. I’ve seen estimates online that 500L first-fill casks can contain up to 7L of the previous product (stored in the wood staves). Over time, this migrates and mixes with the new make product, producing a distinctive end result (i.e., a sherry bomb whisky). Rather than aging Dark Horse in (expensive) first-fill sherry barrels, they went right to the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and simply added in an equivalent amount of actual sherry before aging in traditional barrels. This makes Dark Horse a sherry-bomb version of a Canadian rye whisky.

But what about the main elements of the mix, specifically that corn whisky? Note that despite the “rye whisky” moniker, most Canadian whisky is actually a blend of a relatively small amount of low-proof rye “flavouring” whisky added to high-proof grain whisky. Sometimes that includes Canadian-made corn whisky in the mix.

While this composition may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you know about the 9.09% rule. A long time ago, it was decided that you could add 1/10 volume of non-Canadian whisky to a Canadian whisky and still allow it to be sold as such. Legend has it that this was to allow Canadian whisky to be sold in the US under generous tax break exemptions given to US products. Basically, Canadian distillers would import cheap US-made Bourbon, add it to Canadian whisky (up to 9.09% final volume, which is an additional 1/10) and then sell the concomitant blend back in the US as “Canadian whisky” and reap a tax break.

Here in Canada, there was no need to actually use US bourbon. Apparently, distillers just kept the original Canadian formulations intact for the products intended for domestic consumption. This was possible since the US versions were adjusted to match the standard Canadian flavour profile. But this practice seems to only have been applied to value blends destined for mixing – premium products are a different story.  While it was initially reported that Dark Horse would be using Canadian corn whisky (done bourbon-style), this was quickly corrected by Beam-Suntory, who were open about the use of US bourbon from the beginning.  At some point, they also confirmed that it was Old Grand-Dad bourbon specifically (although I can’t find an official published source for that).

FYI, there’s a good public article about the 9.09% rule – as it applies to the US-release of this whisky – by Davin de Kergommeaux on Whisky Advocate.

Personally, I find the Dark Horse to be an exceptionally good value in the Canadian whisky landscape. The Meta-Critic database seems a bit mixed on this one though, giving it an 8.67 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews. While that is above average for a Canadian whisky, it is still toward the mid-range of scores in this category. But you can’t beat the price – along with CC 100% Rye, this is a quality product masquerading at an entry-level budget price. It is different though, so I would recommend it to fans of Canadian rye who are looking to expand into new flavour profiles.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen of the Alberta Premium Dark Horse is by Davin de Kergommeaux. Jason Hambrey gives a more typical rating on his Whisky Won site.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Something else that stirs up mixed feelings about this whisky – its suitability for mixed drinks (sorry for the pun). 😉 Because of the strong sherry influence, I would have thought that this whisky is best served as a gentle sipper (preferably neat). Dave Broom seems to agree – in his mixed-drink book The Whisky Manual, he gave this whisky relatively low scores when mixed with five classic mixes (i.e., Soda, cola, ginger ale, coconut water and green tee). But he does point out that it could work well in a sazerac style cocktail. According to David de Kergommeaux in the earlier link above, Dark Horse has apparently become a popular mixing rye in bars, as well as a bartender’s favourite for their own concoctions. Hopefully you will enjoy experimenting with this versatile and distinctive Canadian whisky.

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old

Auchentoshan 12yo bottle

Another relatively unloved single malt in my Whisky Database, I thought I’d put in a good word for the Auchentoshan 12 year old (pronounced OCKen-TOSHan).

Auchentoshan is one of the few Lowland distilleries still operating in Scotland. This style of whisky is typically characterized as “lighter” than most other single malts. Although you shouldn’t rely on geographical location for flavour, as previously observed, this is one case where the traditional triple-distilling method of lowland malts does produce a gentler base spirit. That said, there is more flavour to this malt than you might expect, earning it a spot in the E flavour cluster in this analysis.

As previously presented here, delicate whiskies get lower overall metacritic scores compared to more complex ones. As such, the 8.33 ± 0.30 (based on 16 reviews) for the Auchentoshan 12 yo is a very middle-of-the-road score for its flavour class. Note that this is significantly improved over the earlier Auchentoshan 10 year old and Classic expressions, which were more poorly received (and by all accounts, even lighter in flavour). The current Duty-Free expressions – typically identified by a certain type of wood for finishing – are similarly not well regarded by the critics (although I don’t currently track them in my database).

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having a soft spot for this whisky – it was the first bottle that I actually purchased (although I still kick myself for letting a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling of a 21 yr old Glenlivet pass me by a few months earlier). Up until this Auchentoshan, the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yr olds or Johnny Walker Black were my entry-level introductions to the world of Scotch whiskey (as they are for many). The Auchentoshan 12 yo was suggested to me at a tasting bar as one to try next, and I was very impressed by its sweet maltiness and dry oakiness (and light touch of caramel throughout).

Not being a fan of cloying fruity/floral sweetness, this was a refreshing change for me – and I bought a bottle on the spot. Like many, my tastes have expanded over the last couple of years, and I can now appreciate most anything (although I am not a fan of the young, medicinal members of cluster J). Personally, I now tend to gravitate toward the well-aged members of the cluster A-C whiskies. But I still enjoy returning to this old favourite on occasion, when looking for something uncomplicated.

Auchentoshan 12yo bottleAnother reason for the soft spot – this is also one of my wife’s favourites. 🙂 She is not a fan of the heavily “winey” or “smokey” single malts in my collection, and prefers this expression over most others. The Hibiki 17 year old and the Dalwhinnie 15 year old are also high on her list – as they are with most novice whisky drinkers.

And that’s the secret to the Auchentoshan 12 year old – it goes over well with almost everyone who tries it. If there were such thing as a “universal donor” among whiskies (i.e., something that all could accept), this is the closest I’ve found to date. For literally only a few dollars more than the ubiquitous (and innocuous) Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr olds, you get a much nicer experience here. Highly recommended if you are just starting out.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen for this whisky is on the RumHowler blog. Jim Murray also seems to be a relative fan. For a balanced perspective, you may want to check out Ralfy’s video blog.

Incidentally, this bottling  made it onto Esquire’s Seven Best Scotch Brands Under the Radar You Need to Know.

 

 

 

Hibiki 17 Year Old

Hibiki 17yo bottle

Note: This commentary has been updated with the expanded scores from the Oct 2015 build of my Whisky Database.

The Hibiki 17 year old is an interesting whisky to profile. It is exceedingly rare outside of Japan, so there were initially very few reviews of it in my Whisky Database. I initially hesitated in including it in the list at all, given how oddly low three of those reviews were – although the overall average is now a more reasonable 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews. The more budget Hibiki 12 year old (which until recently was more widely available) gets a reasonable 8.65 ± 0.27 score on 13 reviews.

Personally, I was so impressed with the 17 yo on my first trip to Japan that it became the one bottle that I chose to bring back through duty free (Canada has strict import limits). There were a number of other whiskies that I had thought I might return with – but the Hibiki 17 yo was a surprise hit for me. Since then, everyone who has sampled from my bottle has been very impressed – from newbies to experienced scotch drinkers alike. In fact, I’ve had to ration tastings from that first bottle, to ensure as many as possible could try it at least once. 😉

The Hibiki line is actually blended whisky, not pure malt. This surprises almost every experienced whisky drinker who tries it, as you do not taste any of the typical “graininess” or rounding-off of flavour common to traditional Scottish blends (even higher-end ones). Again, the age statement is only a minimum – everything in there (including the grain whisky) is at least 17 years old. Suntory certainly seems to know how to age grain whisky well. Everyone who has tried mine just assumes this is a single malt, given its flavour and quality.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet and rich aromas of raisins, sultanas and plums. Lots of toffee and butterscotch. Definite honey. A great nose, it’s a pleasure to come back to it between sips

Palate:  Same flavours as the nose, initial sweetness with the raisins/sultanas and some softer tropical fruits, like honeydew melon (although that could be the honey poking through again). Caramel/butterscotch again as well. It has a somewhat oaky backbone, with the sweet vanillins yielding to dryer woody/paper notes over time. A pleasant tingle as it goes down, with the hint of something spicy/peppery at the end. A very well balanced palate.

Finish: Remarkably long-lasting, with a good mix of after-glowing sweetness from the caramel/butterscotch, balanced with a slightly bitter oakyness, and a touch of cinnamon to round it all off.

Although heavily over-used in the whisky world, the best word I can use to describe this whisky is “smooth”. The main flavours are consistent across the nose, palate and finish (which is actually rare in the whisky world). Sweet but never cloying, well balanced with a slightly bitter hint of wood and spice at the end. There is also nothing “sharp” here either – the flavours are well balanced, leading to a very enjoyable experience (with a very prolonged finish).

This gets back to why I think it gets mediocre scores from some reviewers – it doesn’t have strong characteristics that come out and attack the senses at any point. Those craving unique experiences typically want something distinctive and unusual (i.e., sharp, not smooth). But almost everyone who has tried it in my house wants a second glass – and that is pretty rare in the structured tastings I’ve done. It definitely grows on you.

Note that the Hibiki 17 yo comes in the same decanter-style, glass 24-sided presentation bottle as the 12 yo (with a parchment paper label and heavy glass stopper). This is unusual as well, given the rather minimalist presentation of most Japansese whiskies (lucky owners of any of the Nikka pure malts – or Nikka from the Barrel – will know what I mean).Hibiki 17yo bottle

The Hibiki 17 is famous for another reason – it is the actual whisky that Bill Murray’s fictional character is seen promoting in the 2003 film, “Lost in Translation“. I can only assume the filmmakers chose the whisky given the cachet it has in Japan.

Regardless of the metacritic score here, I think anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a glass of the 17 yo (or failing that, the quite decent 12 yo) will definitely be inclined to “make it Suntory time”! 😉

For a fair review of the Hibiki 17 yo, I recommend you check out one of the best english-language Japanese whisky sites: Dramtastic’s The Japanese Whisky Review. Thomas of Whisky Saga also has a good balanced overview of this expression. Josh the Whiskey Jug has recently reviewed it as well.

 

 

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