Category Archives: Whisky Reviews

The Infamous 22 Year Old Blended Malt

Following on my review of an entry-level blended malt (Monkey Shoulder), here is a higher-end offering: the Infamous 22 Year Old.  This is an example of a “mystery malt” – that is, a blended malt where the source distilleries are not identified. I don’t typically do many reviews of mystery malts, but this one has a funny story behind it that piqued my interest. I couldn’t resist picking up a bottle in my travels, given its ridiculously low price and presumed heritage.

This bottling of Scottish malt whiskies comes from Fountana Beverage – an international liquor import/exporter based in Vancouver, Canada. The bottle label explains it is a blend of whiskies from “two of the most notorious single malt distilleries in Scotland,” representing “where the mountain meets the sea” (with a custom logo to that effect). Specifically, the whiskies come from a lightly-peated island malt and a heavily-sherried Highland malt, aged independently and blended in Scotland. I’ve seen some commentary online that the island malt was exclusively from ex-bourbon barrels.

You often get these sorts of tantalizing clues with mystery malts, which are designed to lead those with a bit of knowledge to make an educated guess as to the distilleries involved (whether correctly or not). Privately, the local agent did reveal to vendors in Alberta that those two distilleries are Highland Park and Macallan, respectively. While both are quality big-name malt producers, it would be very unusual to pair their styles together. I’ve seen speculation online that the casks were from batches originally earmarked for either The Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark blends.

Another funny story the local agent revealed: the whisky casks had all passed 23 years of age before bottling. But the bottle labels had already been printed, so they stuck with the Infamous 22 yo name.

Bottled at 50% ABV. This 22 (23?) year old blended malt was only $103 CAD at World of Whisky in Calgary, Alberta. As the label certifies, no artificial colour has been added, and it is not chill-filtered.  While there are no reviews in Meta-Critic Whisky Database, I thought I would pick it up as a Christmas gift to myself this year.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Prominent caramel and brown sugar to start (which surprised me), followed by fruit gummies and some drier sherry fruits. Fruitcake, with red berries and raisins. Mixed nuts. Some lighter floral notes, which are nice. Light spices. There is an underlying sourness, likely from the light peat, but no real smoke per se. No solvent notes, but a bit of ethanol heat consistent with the 50% ABV.

Palate: Caramel, honey and vanilla show up first, presumably from the ex-bourbon casks. Then juicy red grapes and raisins, plus Christmas cake – very nice delayed sherry presentation. Not a lot overt smoke – more of a savoury, charred meat flavour that builds with time. Hint of rosemary. Fresh leather. Very distinctive pairing. It’s almost like drinking the caramelized drippings left in the pan of a pork roast with veggies. Rich mouthfeel, definitely oily. Some slight ethanol sting, consistent with high ABV – but it surprisingly doesn’t need any water.

Finish: Long (although not quite as long as some I’ve had in this age range). A great mix of sweet fruity notes and savoury earth notes, complex. No real bitterness, and a slight hint of smoke appears now. The ex-bourbon sweetness continues the longest, leaving a nice sugary coating on the lips and gums. Probably the closest thing in my experience is one of the aged Macallan Fine Oaks (but with a touch of smoke), or the Highland Park 25 year old (but with extra sherry).

I am surprised at how strongly the ex-bourbon character comes through here, at all levels of the tasting experience. I expected the (Macallan) sherry character to dominate more. The lightly peated malt also plays very much a supporting role – but one that comes across more as meaty instead of smokey/peaty.  Despite not being quite what I expected, I find I really enjoy this one – it’s full of surprises. Personally, I’d score this around ~9.0 on the Meta-Critic average scale.

There are not a lot of reviews of this one out there, but you can also check out criollo_and_barley on Reddit, or the reviewers at Distiller.com. Andrew at Kensington Wine Market also has tasting notes.

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

Monkey Shoulder is a great example of one of the (not so) best kept secrets in the whisky world. As I explain on my single malts vs blends page, a single malt simply means a blend (or vatting) of different malts whiskies from a single distillery. Unless it is specifically identified as a “single cask”, you are definitely getting multiple barrels mixed together for your single malt.  A blended scotch is defined as a blend of malt whisky and cheaper-to-produce grain whisky. But there is the intermediate category called a blended malt (or previously “pure malt”) where malt whisky from multiple distilleries are brought together.

In principle, there’s no reason why a blended malt would not be every bit as good as a single malt, since it is only the number of distilleries that differ. But just as blended scotches have long occupied the entry-level price point, most blended malts are similarly inexpensive and without age statements – although there are of course always exceptions (i.e., see the Taketsuru line of Japanese malt whiskies).

Monkey Shoulder is a commonly available, reasonably priced, no-age-statement blended malt from three classic Speyside distilleries controlled by William Grant & Sons: Kininvie, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich. You may not have heard of the first one (since most of its malt production goes into blended scotches), but the other two should be familiar to single malt drinkers – and will give you an idea as to what flavour profile to expect here. In this case, I believe the blend is exclusively from first-fill ex-bourbon casks, but there are of course no guarantees if that isn’t indicated on the label.

In case you are wondering about the unusual name, it comes from a historic occupational strain injury that floor malters suffered from in the early years of whisky production. In the traditional method, malting of barley would be done across a large floor (for the extended surface area). This required constant turning of the barley, so that it didn’t over-germinate into a solid mass – a task traditionally done by hand. “Monkey Shoulder” is the crude name for the condition that some malt workers developed after long shifts, where one of their arms would hang down – similar to some monkeys. Obviously, this would no longer be permitted today.

Monkey Shoulder is very reasonably priced in most jurisdictions, typically around the level of higher-end blends or entry-level single malts. It is currently $65 CAD at the LCBO, which is steeper than most places. It is bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other blended malt or entry-level single malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database.

Aberlour 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns Single Malt 8.22: ± 0.56 on 8 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.78 ± 0.85 on 8 reviews ($$)
Benromach Traditional: 8.43 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.46 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve: 7.96 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.22 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.97 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland: 7.02 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Speyside: 6.70 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$)
Monkey Shoulder: 8.31 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$)
Pig’s Nose 5yo Blended Malt: 7.93 ± 0.40 on 3 reviews ($$)
Sheep Dip Blended Malt: 8.45 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$)
Singleton of Dufftown 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.47 on 10 reviews ($$)
Speyburn 10yo: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 19 reviews ($$)
Speyside 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.63 on 10 reviews ($$)

Monkey Shoulder gets a decent score for this price point, consistent with the best entry-level single malts.

My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly light, with dominant notes of caramelized baked apples. Green banana and a touch of citrus (orange). Golden raisins. Vanilla, nutmeg and a slight brown sugar note – all combining to give an evocative impression of baked apple pie. ‎Bit of acetone, suggestive of its youthful age. Pretty decent on the nose.

Palate: Some honey adds to the caramel notes from the nose. Not as fruity anymore, maybe a bit of light pear. Very lightly spiced. Malty. Unfortunately, I get a dusty, dry cardboard note (likely also from its youth). A slight bit of ethanol sting, but at least it adds some substance to the somewhat watery mouth feel.

Finish: Short, and relatively light.  A bit of the spice comes back, but it remains fairly dry and not a fruity as I had hoped. No real off notes though, except for a slight bitterness.

Definitely an entry level malt. Better than most scotch blends, but it seems to me like it would have benefited from a few more years in the casks. Given its first-fill ex-bourbon heritage, I expected a little more sweetness on the palate and finish. But I think the average Meta-Critic score above is fair.

Among reviewers, Nathan the Scotch Noob is a big fan, as are most of the guys at Quebec Whisky. Josh the Whiskey Jug gives it an average score. Most reviewers give it below average for the malt class, as you might expect – including Jason of In Search of Elegance, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Thomas of Whisky Saga, among others. Serge of Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Jim Murray all give it very low scores.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Following up on my Wild Turkey 101 review, here is the true barrel-proof (cask-strength) member of this family – Wild Turkey Rare Breed.

First thing you will notice is that the proof of each batch varies a little bit, consistent with a true barrel proof product. It is also not that much higher than WT 101 – most Rare Breeds are in the 108-117 proof range (or ~54-58% ABV). The reason for this relatively low final strength is that WT enters the barrel at a lower proof than most of its competitors (in order to keep more of the base distillate character).

Wild Turkey uses a common mashbill for all its bourbons, which I would classify as a “standard rye bourbon” (R2), based on 13% rye in the mashbill. Rare Breed is reported to be a barrel-proof blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old stocks (in contrast, regular WT 101 is believed to be the younger 6/8 year olds).

Rare Breed sells for $60 CAD at the LCBO, when they have it in stock. My sample was provided by TOModera of Reddit, and was batch WT-03RB from 2011, which was 54.1% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially other cask-strength bourbons:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength: 8.84 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon 7yo: 8.78 ± 0.29 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Barton 1792 Full Proof: 8.69 ± 0.52 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel: 8.93 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.84 ± 0.24 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof: 8.89 ± 0.20 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.90 ± 0.22 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 114: 8.63 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.71 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.53 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades: 9.01 ± 0.19 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

WT Rare Breed gets a good score for the price, among this class of cask-strength bourbons.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: I get a fairly standard level of rye, as expected for WT. Lots of caramel. Cherries and some dark fruit (dried, not fresh). Cinnamon and all-spice. Lots of nose hair pickle from the high alcohol level, as expected. Acetone and some off-note that I can’t quite identify (both detract for me personally). Not really getting a lot of subtlety here, it’s a full-force bourbon nose.

Palate: A fair amount of rye zing, joining the standard corn notes. Caramel. Some citrus (orange). Has a higher rye taste than I expected from the mashbill, cinnamon and all-spice in particular. Oaky and spicy, with black pepper and a little anise. The higher ABV is noticeable here, and a bit overwhelming. Some bitterness on the swallow.

Finish: Long. Lighter sweetness slips in now, with some honey and light vanilla. Pear. Finish of lighter rye notes, nutmeg included. Fairly astringent though (i.e., drying). Touch of spearmint comes in at very end, which is nice.

With water, ethanol burn on the nose is lightened. More caramel in the mouth now, but still plenty of rye spice. Definitely better with a bit of water, becomes even more syrupy. Fair amount of astringency remains on finish though, which water doesn’t seem to affect.

Overall, I like the finish of this bourbon the best – I find it too strong and wood-focused on nose and palate, especially neat. Only on the finish does it open up and more subtle flavours emerge. This is a rare example where I actually prefer a standard bottling of this whisky over the cask-strength (i.e. the relatively high proof Wild Turkey 101).

Among reviewers, it is again very popular with Jim Murray, Serge of Whisky Fun and the guys at Quebec Whisky – all scoring it higher than WT 101. Josh the Whiskey Jug likes it (gives it the same score as WT 101). Similarly, Nick of Breaking Bourbon gives it the same score as Eric gave WT 101. Still with a relatively lower score – but higher than WT 101 – is Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a fairly low score – and prefers WT 101, as I do.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

Wild Turkey is a popular Kentucky-based bourbon, currently owned by Campari group. Distilling has been under the dynastic control of the Russell family for many years now. It has the image of a no-nonsense, uncompromising style of bourbon, lacking in pretentiousness. The name apparently stems from the early days of production, when a wholesaler took a bunch of warehouse samples on a turkey hunt. The whisky proved so popular with his compatriots, that they kept asking him for that “wild turkey bourbon” – and thus a marketing angle was born.

Wild Turkey occupies an interesting position in the range of bourbon styles. On paper, it has a fairly standard bourbon profile, with a historically “typical” level of rye in the mashbill – 13%. This qualifies it as a “standard” rye in my bourbon classification scheme (i.e.,  R2 in the database). However, this is one of the few bourbons out there that doesn’t easily fit into that mashbill-based classification – many drinkers find a more substantial rye-like presence to the whisky, and would consider as a “high rye” bourbon. Indeed, for those who forgo the low/standard/high rye bourbon classification for a simpler low/high one, there is no doubt that you would consider Wild Turkey as high rye (e.g., see the Reddit bourbon guide). This bold flavour in WT may be due to the relatively high char levels of the barrels, as well as the relatively low proof coming off the stills.

There are several variants of this bird out there. Wild Turkey 101 is so-named because it is bottled at 101 proof (50.5% ABV). This is higher proof than their standard entry-level bottling (WT 81).

In late 2016, I picked up a 1L travel retail bottle (i.e., duty-free) of WT 101 for $22 USD, on sale at a US airport. The LCBO started stocking it in early 2017, but at higher cost (currently $38 CAD for 750mL).  But it still seems the best value among the various Wild Turkey bottlings available at the LCBO (i.e., it is $33 CAD for the WT 81, and $60 CAD for the Rare Breed barrel-proof).

Here is how WT compares to other similarly-priced bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially Bottled in Bond (BiB) expressions, given the similar strength (100 proof):

Barton 1792 Small Batch: 8.53 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews ($$)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.38 on 23 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.37 ± 0.35 on 24 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig Small Batch: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams BiB: 8.32 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Four Roses (Yellow Label): 8.19 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($)
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$)
Heaven Hill 6yo BiB: 8.36 ± 0.24 on 8 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Bonded: 8.47 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.60 ± 0.39 on 23 reviews ($$)
Old Forester: 8.12 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.93 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon: 8.09 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select: 8.38 ± 0.32 on 22 reviews ($$)

I know there are a lot of numbers up there, but WT101 gets a good score for this strength bourbon, at this price range.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Light and sweet initially, with strong caramel notes. Apple. Slightly burnt toffee (may be from barrel char). Caramel apples really come to mind. Light rye spice. Mint, and a touch of dill. No real off notes, it’s nice.

Palate: Caramel apple again. Honey. Vanilla. Cinnamon and touch of cloves. Dill again. Seems like a very well balanced and integrated bourbon. Bit of ethanol heat on back end. Burn on swallowing persists, even after multiple sips. Spicy overall.

Finish: Medium. Light, sweet cane sugar, with just a touch of artificial sweetener. Apple and pear. Vanilla. Very gentle fade out. Nutmeg. A bit drying (astringent), but not bad.

With water, I get some added Juicy Fruit gum flavour on the nose and finish. Mouthfeel lightens very quickly though, without affecting the burn. I recommend you drink it with only a small splash of water.

Pretty decent bourbon, easy to drink, but with some noticeable kick and persistent burn on the finish. Would work very well in cocktails, thanks to the high rye flavour and extra proof. Overall, it seems well balanced for flavour, age, and cost – a good value bourbon.

Among reviewers, Josh the Whiskey Jug is a big fan. The guys at Quebec Whisky are generally quite positive as well, as is Jim Murray. More moderately positive reviews (with below average scores) come from Serge of Whisky Fun, Nathan the Scotch Noob and Eric of Breaking Bourbon. A relatively lower score is given by Richard of Whiskey Reviewer although he still considers it quite under-rated for the class. Jason of In Search of Elegance shares my assessment that this is superior to Rare Breed.

 

Highland Queen Majesty 8 Year Old Single Malt

As I mentioned in my inaugural Highland Queen whisky review, there are a number of blended scotches and single malt expressions in this extended line. Produced by Tullibardine distillery in the Scottish highlands, you can expect a pretty gentle base spirit across the various Highland Queens.

The single malt versions of Highland Queen are all identified by the “Majesty” subtitle. Like the standard blended scotch versions, these come in both a number of NAS and age-stated forms. The Majesty 8 Year Old single malt expression caught my eye, for the maturation in new oak barrels. It is not common to see standard Scottish single malt bottlings aged exclusively in virgin oak, so I was curious to see what effect it would have on the base Tullibardine malt.

Bottled at 40% ABV, this Majesty 8 yo single malt was on sale for $38 CAD in Calgary, Alberta. There are no reviews in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, so I thought I would buy a bottle and add my own to the blogosphere.

Nose: Honey, with standard apple. Some dry grass (picking up on that herbaceous note I noticed on the base blend). Pleasant enough, but also has a faint dried cardboard note, and some raw ethanol which you don’t find on the entry-level Highland Queen.

Palate: Honey and some light caramel. Definite citrus now – orange peel in particular, with maybe a touch of lemon. Woody, with lots of oak notes. Black pepper. Light cinnamon and all-spice. Dried glue again. Watery mouthfeel, but with a bit of ethanol sting. Has a bit more character than I was expecting, for the young age.

Finish: Short. Light honey and apple juice return. Caramel and a dry woodiness persist the longest. Some light bitterness lingers, but it works with the woody elements.

This is actually pretty decent for a young malt. My initial impression was pretty “meh”, but some woody character emerges on successive sips. While nothing spectacular, the virgin oak treatment is effective in elevating the base gentle spirit. Of course, that assumes one likes oaky wood notes. I would personally rate this a 8.3 on the standard Meta-Critic rating scale for a single malt.

Highland Queen Blended Scotch

I had never heard of this particular brand – and so was surprised to see several different bottlings of blended Scotch whiskies and single malt expressions on the shelf on a recent trip out West.

The origin of the brand name dates back to 1893, with the Highland Queen blend of Macdonald & Muir Ltd. Named in honour of Mary Queen of Scots, the original Highland Queen was supplied by Glenmorangie distillery. The brand was purchased in 2008, and the Highland Queen Scotch Whisky Company was established at the Tullibardine distillery, in the Scottish Highlands.

I’ve had a few Tullibardine malts, which are generally quite mild and inoffensive. It’s definitely a “gentle dram” maker, and should work well for basic blends.

This entry-level scotch blend is the base expression of the Highland Queen line, aged for 3 years and bottled at 40% ABV. I saw this this bottling on sale for $26 CAD in a COOP in Calgary, Alberta.

Let’s see how it compares to other entry level blends in my Meta-Critic Database:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.62 ± 0.61 on 12 reviews ($)
Bank Note 5yo Blended Scotch: 8.09 ± 0.67 on 5 reviews ($)
Bell’s Original: 7.57 ± 0.77 on 7 reviews ($)
Black Bottle (after 2013 re-launch): 7.99 ± 0.47 on 12 reviews ($$)
Catto’s Rare Old: 8.02 ± 0.68 on 5 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark: 7.53 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($)
Famous Grouse: 7.64 ± 0.56 on 20 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve: 7.69 ± 0.67 on 14 reviews ($)
Hankey Bannister Original: 7.87 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($)
Highland Queen: 7.92 ± 0.45 on 3 reviews ($)
Islay Mist 8yo: 7.91 ± 0.47 on 9 reviews ($)
J&B Rare: 6.98 ± 1.03 on 11 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.36 ± 0.59 on 21 reviews ($)
Teacher’s Highland Cream: 7.95 ± 0.72 on 11 reviews ($)
Whyte & Mackay Special Reserve: 7.47 ± 0.46 on 7 reviews ($)

There are only a limited number of reviews, but so far Highland Queen is scoring on par with the higher-end of the base scotch blends in my database.

I was given a sample to try, let’s see what I found in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with honey and caramel initially. Standard apples and pears (apple juice), but not a lot of fruit otherwise. A touch of nutmeg. Very simple, but pretty decent for an entry-level blend, with a surprising lack of solvent notes.

Palate: Apples remain the most prominent here, caramel-dipped. Honey, with a bit of vanilla. Something faintly herbaceous, but nothing specifically identifiable. Maybe a touch of anise. Light and watery mouthfeel, with no real burn.

Finish: Short. Quick and clean, just faint apple juice and honey. Disappears with no off notes, but a slight touch of bitterness does creep in.

A very basic blend, with a limited ex-bourbon barrel flavour palate. But surprisingly lacking the off-notes that mar most entry-level blends for me.

This base blend gets a decent score from Jim Murray (though still below average), and a positive review (but a low score) from Jonny at Whisky Advocate. Personally, I’m in-between on this one, but closer to Jonny in score. Nothing to specifically seek out, but as the Meta-Critic shows, you could do a lot worse.

Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak

As I’ve previously reported, Kavalan offers two of their most popular Solist expressions – Bourbon Cask and Sherry Cask – in a vatted format, known as the Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak and Sherry Oak, respectively.  In Asia, these batch versions of the Solists are available at both cask-strength (typically ~54-59%, just like the single casks Solists) and at a reduced 46% ABV. Here in the Western hemisphere, I’ve only seen the 46% ABV versions.

Supposedly, these two “Oak” series are vatted from the exact same type of casks used for the named Solist series. But it stands to reason that they probably cherry-pick the best casks for the single cask offerings, and vat the rest. Still, it is a good chance to sample what the distillery character is like (in a more consistent fashion), without having shell out for the more expensive (and rare) Solist single cask versions.

These Oak-series whiskies are typically available as both full 700 mL bottles and 50 mL miniature glass bottles. As with my Sherry Oak review, my sample here is of the 46% ABV, 50 mL ex-Bourbon Oak version. Bottling code is 2015.05.08 16:15. The bottle came in a cardboard box, and so was protected from light.

Here is how the various Kavalan bottlings compare in my Whisky Database.

Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.29 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak: 8.93 ± 0.25 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.63 ± 0.33 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.77 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt: 8.40 ± 0.50 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Bourbon: 8.85 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.78 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist PX Cask: 9.01 ± 0.72 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.08 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.94 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)

There aren’t a lot of reviews to go by, but the 46% ABV vatted version of the ex-Bourbon Oak seems to be doing quite well.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Light apple juice – frankly, one of the palest Kavalans I’ve seen yet.

Nose: Fruity, with lush tropical fruits like papaya, mango, pineapple, and banana (including green banana). Touch of citrus. Light honey and vanilla. Not creamy per se, more of a buttery note. Grassy, with some hay (fresh cut for both, not dry). Sweet. No off notes, which is impressive. Water dampens all of the above, and may bring up a touch of solvent (oddly), so I would skip water for nosing.

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose, but there’s no mistaking that time in bourbon casks. Tons of vanilla and caramel. Rich oak without the typical spice or bitterness, doesn’t seem to have been aged too long. Noticeable coconut, and a bit nutty in general. But again, not very spicy, with maybe just a touch of nutmeg. Buttery texture. Fair amount of tongue tingle, but not offensive. Sweeter with water, which also helps with tingle (but doesn’t fully extinguish it).

Finish: Caramel continues, with some of the light spices coming up now (nutmeg).  A touch astringent, but not really bitter. Some of tropical and green fruit also show a resurgence. Very nice and even. With water, some bitterness does enter in.

I recommend you go sparingly with water on the 46% ABV version – it certainly needs no more than few drops at most.

All in all, a very pleasant ex-bourbon expression, very good for the presumed young age. Much better than the standard Kavalan single malt expression. As an aside, my wife – who is not a big scotch drinker – really liked this one.

Among reviewers, Dominic of Whisky Advocate is very positive, followed by washeewashee of Reddit (for the cask-strength version), Jim Murray, and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Worth picking up if you come across a sample bottle in your travels.

Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Cask

Welcome to my first Tasmanian single malt review.  Tasmania is an isolated island state off Australia’s south coast, and has been seeing a boom in whisky production lately. Sullivans Cove is arguably their most well-known distillery. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they have won numerous international whisky awards in recent years.

Indeed, this particular French Oak single cask single malt, which is finished in port wine casks, won “Best Australian Whisky” at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards and then “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky” at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. This latter one is a little odd in my view for a single cask whisky – it doesn’t really help you know what to except from all the other casks out there. And you could never track down the same winning cask – we can only hope that there is not a lot of variability from cask to cask (and I expect there is).

In any case, these expressions are bottled at a reduced ABV (47.5% for the sample I tried), and the age varies from between 11 to 12 years old. I don’t have the specific bottle code for the one I tried earlier this year, but I know it was barreled on 8/8/2000 and bottled on 1/25/2012 (so, 11 years old, in other words).

Here is how Sullivans Cove compares to other port-finished malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Amrut Portonova: 9.00 ± 0.30 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask (all casks): 8.77 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.59 ± 0.37 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.80 ± 0.36 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
BenRiach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.44 ± 0.28 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Solstice Peated Port (both editions): 8.98 ± 0.28 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.35 ± 0.42 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.74 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.29 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.78 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Sullivans Cove American Oak: 8.63 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Sullivans Cove Bourbon Cask Strength: 8.54 ± 0.73 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Sullivans Cove Double Cask: 8.29 ± 0.49 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Sullivans Cove French Oak: 8.67 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Sullivans Cove Port Cask Strength: 8.55 ± 0.62 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.60 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

Despite the early awards, most Sullivan Cove expressions get fairly typical average scores in my Meta-Critic Database.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel, vanilla, and milk chocolate are the most prominent notes. Baked goods – but more like a Blondie bar than a brownie (although there is a bit of dark chocolate too). Citrus, and some apple. There’s a general fruity sweetness, but nothing else very specific (i.e., seems more like fruit-flavoured candy, think Haribo gummy bears or fruit roll-ups). A little nutty. No real off notes.

Palate: Wow, tons of butterscotch and toffee notes now – very buttery, in fact. White chocolate is also prominent (that’s a first for me), along with hazelnut. The dark chocolate has become subdued, more like just a touch of bitterness now. Creamy mouthfeel. Really, this tastes is like a some sort of specialty chocolate bar that has been liquefied! Same candied fruit as the nose. Some mild baking spices (nutmeg), a touch of pepper. A bit grassy.

Finish: Fairly short, unfortunately. Or perhaps not, given the overwhelming sweetness of the nose and palate. The bitterness of the dark chocolate comes back at the end, along with that slight candy fruitiness.

Sullivans.Cove.French.OakVery unique experience. Closest thing in my mind is probably Glenmorangie Signet – but amped-up, with white chocolate and butterscotch.  Definitely not an everyday dram, but this could easily serve as a decadent dessert replacement at the end of a meal.

Not really getting much of the port finish here (beyond that sweet candied fruitiness). It does reminds me a bit of the old Pike’s Creek 10 Year Old Port Finish here in Canada (before they switched to finishing in rum casks). But this is really overwhelming in its sweetness.

This whisky was a hit for Serge of Whisky Fun and TOModera of Reddit. It also garnered fairly positive reviews from Jim Murray and Ruben of Whisky Notes (although only an average score from Ruben). Dominic of Whisky Advocate is moderately positive (but giving it a below average score). The only actually negative review I’ve seen is Craig of Malt Maniacs. While I appreciate that it is a quality product, it is not something I could see myself going for very often. I think the overall Meta-Critic average is reasonable.

Canadian Club 40 Year Old

Not one to be out done by Corby and the Northern Border Collection, or the various Canada 150 special releases, Beam Suntory has just released the oldest age-stated Canadian whisky in history: Canadian Club 40 year old.

There is not a lot information available on this release, beyond that it was distilled in 1977, and aged in used American oak barrels. Classically, Canadian Club was made from a blend of corn and rye, but I have seen commentary from several sources online that this is a pure corn whisky.

As explained my recent review of J.P. Wiser’s 35 year old, it is a common practice in Canada to add a small amount of low-ABV rye “flavouring” whiskies to such a “base” of high-ABV corn whisky, to add extra character. I will come back to this point later, but my experience certainly supports the idea that a light corn whisky is the source spirit used here.

This first release has sold out in most jurisdictions (although is still available in some Alberta outlets), as only around 7000 bottles were produced. I was fortunate enough to manage to snag a bottle when it hit Ontario shelves early last month ($250 CAD at the LCBO). Bottled at 45% ABV, the whisky comes in a stylish presentation-style square bottle (which is actually a bit of a pain to pour from, truth be told).

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

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.63 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Club 30yo; 9.00 ± 0.18 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Canadian Club 40yo: 9.01 ± 0.48 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 8.96 ± 0.26 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Gooderham & Worts 17yo Little Trinity Three Grain: 8.63 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.43 on 17 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 8.78 ± 0.67 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Union 52: 8.82 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Lot 40: 8.90 ± 0.34 on 22 reviews ($$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old: 9.25 ± 0.09 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo: 8.87 ± 0.40 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Speyside Cask Finish: 8.68 ± 0.27 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Subtle, but detectable from a distance. Light honey and corn syrup. Gummi bears. Candied orange citrus. Vanilla. Tree bark (likely from the extended oak aging). Definite acetone, contributing to an artificial sweetener/candy note. But not offensive, seems to work with the other light sweet notes. Reminds me in some ways of Crown Royal Monarch for the oaky notes (but with less overt rye here).

Palate: Corn, corn and more corn. Corn syrup. Hot-buttered corn-on-the-cob. Definite caramel now, adding to the vanilla – a salted caramel. Light dried fruits. Buttery and creamy texture, quite decadent – yet it still feels relatively light and bright for the age. Aromatic wood note that I can quite place (juniper?). Slight nutmeg on way out. Touch of tannic tea. Very easy drinking – dare I say “smooth”?

Finish: Medium length. Light corn on the tongue, with butter. Nutmeg and a touch of cloves. Plums and citrus. Caramel lingers to the end.

Caramel seems to build over time with successive sips. A rich, liquid caramel – by the end of the glass, you feel like you drank insides of a Caramilk bar.‎ Slippery, buttery residue on lips also builds with time. Very distinctive, I would call this a dessert whisky.

While there are some light rye notes here (which I suspect are coming exclusively from the wood), it is really the base corn spirit that shines through. I’ve never had such a well-aged, mellow corn whisky before – it seems younger and brighter. Certainly interesting as a concept, but I can’t help feel that a splash of Lot 40 Cask Strength in here would really help wake this whisky up.

Personally, I prefer the Wiser’s 35 year old over this bottle, as it has a little more spice and character. But CC 40 really is a distinctive experience, so I urge you to try a sample if you ever get the chance.

Among reviewers, it gets outstanding scores from Jason of In Search of Elegance and Davin of Canadian Whisky and Whisky Advocate. Beppi of the Globe and Mail gives it a very good score. Among Reddit reviewers, TOModera and Strasse007 both give it an above average score, with muaddib99 giving it a more average one.

 

 

Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve Single Malt

Not having had a lot of luck with the main Bushmills’ expression (although Black Bush is certainly decent and drinkable), I was intrigued when I came across a higher-end sherry cask travel retail exclusive single malt at an international airport duty free. It wasn’t cheap though, working out to over $100 USD in currency conversion for a bottle.

This was of course the first of the new “Steamship” series from Bushmills, a collection  of three permanent special cask-matured expressions, beginning with the Sherry Cask Reserve. The name of the collection is inspired by the historical SS Bushmills, built in 1890. Apparently, this steamship traveled the world, and transported refilled spirit casks from all over, and back to Ireland during her active service.

Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve is pure single malt whisky, not a blend like the cheaper Bushmills.  While it is a no-age-statement (NAS) whisky, it is matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts.  That certainly sounds at least minimally promising – although it is disappointingly bottled at the minimum strength of 40% ABV.

Fortunately, it was on promotion in the store, so I was able to sample a generous pour while waiting for my flight. This also gave me a chance to compare it directly to Black Bush side-by-side (which I have had before, and was also available for tasting).

I will reserve my usual discussion of the Meta-Critic scores for Bushmills to the end, as I was not tracking this whisky in my database at the time of sampling (and so, had no pre-existing bias going in).

Here is what I found in the glass (well, plastic cup):

Nose: Definite sherry presence, more so than Black Bush. Classic raisins and figs, along with brown sugar. But still not quite as sherry-rich as I was expecting, suggesting to me that  they are probably using second (or later) refill casks. Classic Bushmills apple cider. Vanilla and cinnamon. Malty, with some lighter grassy notes (no grain, of course). No burn either, consistent with the low ABV. No real off notes. Certainly off to a decent enough start.

Palate: More on the apple and pear notes now, with somewhat lighter sherry fruits (i.e., more golden raisins as opposed to figs or prunes). A bit of spice (baking spices), which is nice, and that rich brown sugar note persists.  Complex for a Bushmills, but it still seems a bit simple overall – and with the typical watery mouthfeel of this brand. This really should have been bottled at a minimum 46% ABV to give it some character.  Still, it is pleasant enough to sip on, and has more depth than Black Bush.

Finish: Short. Longer than other Bushmills (notice the repeating refrain?), but still not very long by the standards of other all-sherry cask-aged whiskies. A simple persistent sweetness lasts the longest.

All in the all, this is probably the first truly decent Bushmills that I’ve had.  It would make a good introduction for someone interested in experiencing sherry finishing, without jumping right into a sherry-bomb. But I really think the casks used here have seen too many previous refills – they just seem a bit tired. And I can’t fathom why they bottled this at such a low 40% ABV.

Overall, the flavours kind of remind me of the entry-level Dalmores. That analogy is pretty apt in another sense as well – like most Dalmores, I find this expression is over-priced for what it is.

The only reviews for Sherry Cask Reserve I’ve seen among my Meta-Critic reviewers are Jonny of Whisky Advocate (who gives it medium-low score), and Jim Murray (who gives it a veryy low score).  Personally, I’d rate it higher, closer to the overall average for an Irish whisky in the database (~8.4-8.5).  To put that in perspective, here’s how the Meta-Critic scores play out across Irish whiskies, and the Dalmores already mentioned:

Bushmills 10yo Single Malt: 8.18 ± 0.29 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Bushmills 16yo Single Malt: 8.49 ± 0.48 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Bushmills Black Bush: 8.37 ± 0.39 on 22 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Original Blended: 7.67 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews ($$)
Bushmills Sherry Cask Reserve: 8.16 ± 0.43 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.06 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot: 8.48 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton: 8.80 ± 0.38 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Knappogue Castle 14yo Twin Wood: 8.30 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.41 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast Lustau Edition: 8.72 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast Mano a Lámh: 8.65 ± 0.37 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.51 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Writers Tears Red Head Single Malt: 8.4 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$$)

There are too few scores right now to give this a meaningful interpretation. At the end of the day, I would expect this to do at least as well as Black Bush (i.e., I found it noticeably better, side-by-side). And again, I think the scores for the entry-level Dalmores are probably a pretty good indicator as to what to expect for this expression in the end.

I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a bottle at the current travel retail price, but if someone gifted it to me, I’d happy to sip on it periodically.  Best suited for when you want a little flavour, but nothing too complex or challenging. Black Bush is much better value for money, though.

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