Category Archives: Whisky Resources

A Primer on Port

One of the great contributors to whisky flavour is the selective aging (or “finishing”) in oak casks that previously held other spirits or wine. One of my favourite types of finishing involves the fortified wine known as Port (or Porto, for the region in comes from).

You don’t need to understand Port varieties to enjoy whisky finished in this way. But I had to chance to visit Portugal recently, and had the privilege to sample some really excellent Port. In researching for my trip, I discovered that classifying Port is actually a fairly complex undertaking, and that a lot of online Port resources are either incomplete, inconsistent, or somewhat confusingly presented. So I thought I would provide a primer to help you understand how Port is made, what the different types of Port represent, and what characteristics this may impart in your whisky.

What is Port?

Port is a fortified wine, which means that additional spirit has been added to a wine, raising its alcohol content.

By European Union Protected Designation of Origin definition, Port is designated as originating only in Portugal. Port has been produced in the Douro Valley region of northern Portugal for centuries. A number of countries produce a similar style of fortified wine, and may use the “port” term more generically – but this primer is specific for Port from Portugal.

Like all wine, Port is naturally fermented – but the fermentation process is halted in Port before the residual fruit sugar is exhausted by adding a neutral grape spirit called aguardente (similar to brandy). As a result, this leaves a relatively sweet dessert wine (although it can come in dryer forms).

Port ranges between 19-21% ABV. It keeps well while sealed in the bottle, but will break down once opened and exposed to air – not as quickly as regular wine, but it is certainly nowhere near as stable as whisky. But it is a little more complicated depending on the type of Port we are talking about. I will give some guidance for storage for the different types of Port below (you may also want to check out my guidance on whisky storage here).

How is Port made?

Port can be made from both white and red grapes (though predominantly red grapes are used for most Ports). There are about a hundred grape varietals that can be found in different blends of Port, but the five key grapes used for the vast majority of Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão.

All Ports commercially available are blends of different grapes, from multiple vineyards under the control of a given producer (known in the biz as a Port “Shipper”). So the distinctiveness comes more in the processes used to prepare and age the Port at the various shippers.

After the grapes are picked, they are either stomped by foot in stone tanks (the traditional method – still sometimes offered to tourists willing to roll up their socks and jump in), or more commonly today, crushed mechanically in large stainless steel tanks. They are left in the tanks for 1-4 days, where the naturally occurring sugars are converted to alcohol through fermentation. When about half of the sugar is used up, neutral grape spirit is added to prematurely stop fermentation (by killing the yeast). It is then transferred to large stainless steel tanks or wooden casks to age for a minimum of two years. After that, the Ports are directed down different paths, depending on their quality, into various types of final Port products – which I will describe below.

How many types of Port are there?

This is where things start to get a little complicated.

If you wanted to classify Port types the same way we do for wine, you could separate Ports into white or red, based on the types of grapes used. Red grapes are dominant here, and used to produce Ruby Port (typically bottled and drunk fairly young) and Tawny Port (similar to Ruby, but aged in wooden casks to accelerate aging and oxidation, and drunk soon or after longer times in the bottle). There is also a rare style, Garrafeira Port, which has characteristics of both – which I got to sample on my recent trip and will explain later in this article.

But most Port enthusiasts differentiate Port a little differently, and segregate Port into two main types based on whether they are wood-aged or “bottle-aged.” Now, that latter category is going to take some explaining for a whisky drinker. Port is not a distilled product like whisky, but behaves more like wine – and so, a different type of reductive “aging” can happen in the closed bottle, and is influenced by how the Port has been prepared and stored, especially whether or not it has not been “fined” or filtered first (I’ll explain these terms in the discussion of Vintage Port, below).

Coming as a whisky drinker, you could also choose to break it down by no-age-statement (NAS), age-stated or single-year vintages. That last category is surprisingly complicated for Port, for the variable “bottled-aged” reasons mention above (e.g. all “Vintage Ports” are a single vintage, but not all single year vintages are Vintage Port). I know, it is confusing. So I’ll cover each of these NAS, age-stated and vintage types in turn, under the general categories of the two main types of red Port, Ruby and Tawny.

Again, it is important to note that Ruby and Tawny are not differentiated by the types of red grapes involved. Instead, it is the type of aging that matters, with the latter receiving a lot more time in wood (spoiler alert: that extra wood aging is what turns a “ruby” coloured red port into a more “tawny” coloured one).

Ruby Port

This is probably the best place to start, as Ruby is the most basic form of Port – and typically the youngest.

After fermentation, Ruby Port is typically stored in large tanks of concrete or stainless steel instead of wood, to minimize oxidative aging and preserve its colour and fruitiness. A standard Ruby Port is a blend of several years, typically averaging 3-5 years old. They are relatively simple and straightforward, very fruit-driven (with bright, fresh fruit notes), and meant to be drunk as soon as they are bottled. The name is derived from the bright red colour of the final Port (think cherry or cranberry juice). Indeed, I find the sharp flavours of fresh cherries, cranberries and raspberries come through most prominently on Ruby Port.

Standard Ruby Port is fined and filtered before bottling (see below for explanation of these terms). Once opened, they last a reasonably long time (i.e., weeks to months before obvious degradation sets in). And even then they are still quite drinkable – so there is no rush to finish the bottle. Indeed, open bottles of Ruby Port are often used for cooking, like inexpensive Sherries.

A “Reserve Ruby” Port is typically a bit older, 5-7 years on average. They are still very fruit-forward Ports, but have a bit more complexity due to the extra aging time. A 10 year old Ruby Port represents a blend of Rubies that are 10 years old on average. A good Reserve or 10 yo would be my preference among basic Ruby Ports.

Specific vintages are where things get a bit more complicated. The main types to differentiate are Late Bottle Vintages (LBVs) and “Vintage Port” (VP) – which are both protected definitions, and both involve some wood cask aging.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) Ports

Something you see a lot more of now is “Late Bottled Vintage” Ports (LBVs). These are specific vintages of Port, with the grapes were all picked from a single harvest year. LBVs are bottled between 4-6 years after harvest, and typically spend those years in very large oak barrels, called Tonnels. LBVs may have started their lives intended to be Vintage Ports (see below), but due to reduced demand or over-supply were kept aging longer and directed down the LBV line. They come in two types and can be either filtered and fined (like your typical Ruby Port) or unfiltered (where residual material from the grapes remains in the bottle). Again, I’ll explain all that in the discussion on Vintage Port below.

For now, a simple way to tell the difference is that fined and filtered Ports typically come sealed with a standard T-shaped stopper cork (like whisky bottles), and can be poured and enjoyed straight from the resealable bottle (example pictured on the right). Unfiltered LBVs typically have a driven cork (like wine bottles) and possess considerable sediment – and so will need decanting prior to drinking.

Unfiltered LBVs should ideally be drunk within a few days after opening, but a week will likely be fine. Filtered LBVs are more like aged Rubies and can probably go a few weeks with no obvious change (especially if refrigerated after opening).

FYI, LBVs have largely replaced the so-called “Crusted Ports”, which were blends of at least two or more vintage years that were aged in wood for up to four years, bottled unfiltered, and then aged for a few years before release.

Vintage Port

Along with the aged Tawny Ports (covered below), “Vintage Port” is often seen as the pinnacle of quality Port among aficionados and enthusiasts.

Note that the phrase Vintage Port (VP) has a very specific meaning that is carefully controlled by EU law. VPs start down the path to this designation very early, when the Port shipper petitions for this status for a given harvest. On average, VPs are only produced ~3 times a decade – typically representing the very best harvest years.

Batches of a specific harvest destined for VP status are stored in stainless steel or heavily-used oak barrels – but only for 2-3 years. These two features help limit the impact of any wood aging. Indeed, by law, VPs must be bottled between 2-3 years after harvest.  But they are always bottled unfined and unfiltered, to ensure that the maximum possible amount of “bottle aging” can occur.

I know that concept is going to sound odd to whisky drinkers, as there is no real “aging” going on in a factory-sealed whisky bottle (see my overview of the whisky process here). But that reflects the high-proof and lack of oxygen in a sealed whisky bottle. Wine is still a living product that continues to evolve in the bottle.

I need to finally explain the role of fining and filtering in Port (or for that matter, any wine). There is a rough analogy to whisky chill-filtering here, but not exactly. Fining involves adding a substance to the wine during production to remove suspended particles that cause haziness or clouding, or form unwanted sediment. This fining agent isn’t bottled with the wine – instead, it is left to adhere to particles in suspension, and then settles as sediment in the bottom of the vat (where it will get filtered out before bottling).

Fining is used mainly to stabilize and clarify wood-aged Ports, to ensure they remain bright and visually attractive to consumers (i.e., like chill-filtering in whiskies). But it also limits reactivity over time, as you are removing a lot of the left-over grape material than can break down and change the flavour with time. Fining is also used to make wines “softer” and less harsh, by removing tannins.

In the case of Vintage Ports (and some LBVs), you are leaving that unfiltered grape material – and the eventual sediment – behind in the bottle. Over time, it will change the flavour of the so-called “bottled aged” Vintage Port. VPs are actually expected to be cellared for many years (e.g., 30+), to ensure maximum maturation. Indeed, much of the character of aged VP comes from the continued slow decomposition of those residual grape solids in the bottle. Given the increasing amount of sediment that will form over time, these VPs must be decanted prior to drinking.

The flavours of VPs are very diverse, and highly dependent on the source harvest, the Port shipper’s processes, and the amount of time spent in bottle – but largely independent of any significant wood influence. I’ve had some >30 yo VPs that still taste relatively “fresh”, with classic Ruby notes – whereas others can seem quite a bit more “seasoned” in comparison (and closer to some wood-aged Tawny Ports, as explained below). Two examples that I sampled on this visit were a Ferreira 1985 VP and a Borges Oporto 1980 VP (shown in the side pictures), which were very, very different beasts.

As mentioned, VPs are always bottled with a driven cork. So for an aged VP, you really should finish the bottle within 2-3 days after opening. Younger VPs (i.e., under 10 years old) should be able to last a couple of days longer before noticeable degradation occurs. But this style of Port is going to have a very short life once the bottle is opened.

There are a few more types of VPs out there, such as Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP), where the grapes all come from a single property (similar to a single vineyard wine). But these are actually less distinctive that typical VPs, as the SQVPs can come from any harvest, not just the premium ones declared for VPs.

It is important to note that LBVs, SQVPs and VPs are not the only kind of specific vintage/harvest Ports out there – but they are the main types coming from the Ruby Port pathway.  For other examples, it is time to turn our attention to Tawny Ports.

Tawny Port

This is the form of Port likely most familiar to whisky drinkers – indeed, it is the most popularly consumed type of Port.

Tawny Port actually starts out just like a Ruby Port, but then spends an extended period of time in oak casks. These are the classic, large oak casks known as “Port Pipes” (~550 liter volume). Like Sherry Butts, quality Port Pipes are heavily sought after for finishing whisky. The somewhat porous oak (and significant air headspace) allows for extended air exchange over time, helping to mature and oxidize the Port in the cask.

In keeping with this oxidative process, the colour of the Port wine slowly changes from the bright red of a “ruby” to the reddish-brown “tawny” colour. The more time Port spends in wood, the “tawny-er” it becomes (and the more complex its flavour profile). Indeed, here in Canada, the word “Tawny” is allowed to be used for any Port-style fortified wine aged in wood, not just those originating in Portugal.

I find the fruit notes in Tawny Port move more toward softer blueberry and grapey fruit flavours, while other “woody” notes come in – including commonly nuts, caramel and chocolate, among others.

A standard NAS Tawny Port is likely a couple of years older at the time of bottling than an entry-level NAS Ruby Port. It should last without obvious degradation for several weeks to months once it is opened (especially if refrigerated). A Reserve Tawny is typically aged for at least 7 years, and similarly has a good shelf life.

While there are some vintage-specific Tawny Ports (which I will explain in a moment), it is more common to see age-stated Tawny Ports available out there.

Tawny Port Age Statements

Unlike whisky, where age statements can be any given age, there are only 4 approved age statements in Tawny Port: 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old.

Like whisky, these are blends of many years/harvests, chosen to present a distinct “house style” for that particular Port shipper. The Master Blender of each Port shipper will take great care to produce a style that they can reliably recreate across batches – just as whisky makers try to do for their core age-stated ranges.

Unlike whisky however, the stated age on the Tawny Port bottle is not the minimum age for each Port that went into the blend, but rather the average age of Ports in the bottle. Or more accurately, the minimum average age (i.e., a good Master Blender is likely to aim for a slightly older average than the minimum 10, 20, 30 or 40 years listed on the bottle, to give themselves flexibility in keeping a consistent style over the years).

So that 30 yo Tawny Port could easily have a balance of 5 yo and 50 yo Ports in the bottle (plus all ages in-between). Aged Tawny Ports are really my jam – quite literally, given the more stewed flavours you often find in these Ports.

Younger age-stated Tawny Port should also last without obvious degradation for several weeks to months once opened (especially if refrigerated). As a general rule though, older Tawnies will not last as long as younger ones once opened, so you should try to drink them more quickly.

There is a view out there in some quarters that Tawnies will not last as long as Rubies once opened, given that they have already been extensively aged in the presence of air. But the more common competing view is that they are more resistant to major age degradation effects once opened, due to their already extensive aging. I don’t have enough experience to come down on one side of the issue or the other – and I am not likely to leave an open bottle lying around long enough to find out which breaks down faster anyway!

For Tawny Port fans, age-stated bottlings are probably the best trade-off for quality for price. Around here, 10 yo Tawnies are usually not much more expensive than standard NAS or Reserve Tawny. 20 yo Tawnies are probably the sweet spot in terms of price-performance, going for about twice the price of 10 year olds, but with a lot more character and flavour. In contrast, 30 yo and 40 yo Tawnies are heavily over-priced for the quality, and so likely not worth the extra cost to most. But that leads me to a special class of single harvest Tawnies that you may want to consider instead, known as Colheitas.

Colheita Ports

Colheita (pronounced Col-YATE-a) is basically a single vintage-dated Tawny Port, but one typically aged in small, well-used oak barrels instead of the large Port Pipes of most Tawnies. Colheita Ports must be aged in wood at least 7 years, but can spend quite a bit more time.

Just like Vintage Port (see above), Colheita single harvest years are “declared” after approval by the IVDP (Port and Douro Wine Institute). So, this means you should be getting a particularly good single harvest (although that will depend on the particular Port shipper). But as a result, production volumes are low. These aren’t widely produced, and so are not commonly available outside of Portugal at the moment.

But that is a shame, as they can represent extraordinary value. On my recent trip, I found that the >15 yo vintage Colheitas from the Port shippers who specialize in this style to be particularly nice, and no more expensive that a standard blended 20yo Tawny. In one particularly good deal, I brought back an outstanding 1974 vintage Colheita from the premium Port Shipper Barros, bottled in 2019 (so, ~45 years old) that cost $145 CAD. That is less than half what a typical blended 40yo Tawny costs around here. Not bad for a single harvest vintage!

Labeling can be a bit inconsistent on these, depending on the Port shipper. You will probably find “Colheita” on the front or back label (but not always), along with the harvest year (on the front) and bottling year (typically on the back). Look as well for “matured in wood” or “aged in cask” on the labels, to help differentiate from LBVs or other vintage Ruby Ports.

In terms of how long they last once opened, it is a similar story for other Tawnies of equivalent age – younger ones (i.e. <20 years) should last for several weeks to months without obvious degradation (especially if refrigerated). Heavily aged Colheitas should be drunk quicker, for best results.

And now for the last defined Port type I will consider, the ultra-rare (but very rewarding) Garrafeira Port.

Garrafeira Port

Garrafeira (gah-rah-FAY-ruh) is a very unique and rare style of Port. I have heard it opined that many Port lovers have never even heard of it, much less tasted it!

Garrafeira Port is most closely associated with the Port shipper Niepoort today, although others have made it over the years. It is made from the grapes of a single harvest, like a Colheita, and is therefore given a vintage date. But the aging pattern is unique, with initial aging of 3-6 years in oak casks before being transferred unfined and unfiltered into large glass bottles known as demi-johns (or “bon-bons”), and then aged further, often for many decades, before eventual traditional bottling.

These demi-johns were made from a special dark green German glass which is no longer produced (hence the rarity of this style today). They were typically 8 to 11 liters in volume, and sealed with a cork stopper. The glass is said by some to have introduced a unique character into the Port through reductive aging over extended periods of time (i.e., 30-50 years was not uncommon for this secondary aging period). The shape of the bottle and residual air pockets may also have played a role. Another theory I came across is that the glass of these bottles facilitated certain oils precipitating out of the Port, causing a change in taste with time.

Whatever the mechanism, Garrafeira Ports were said to produce unique flavours – with a distinctive balancing between young and aged Port characteristics, keeping both the fresh fruity notes of Rubies and the extended aging complexity of VPs. After the extended demi-john aging, the Port was transferred into regular bottles for subsequent cellaring (I’m not sure if they typically fined and filtered first, though).

I had the chance to sample a 1908 Ferraira Garrafeira Port in my journeys, at the high-end (and appropriatelty named) Garrafeira Nacional in the Time Out food market in Lisbon. Retailing for ~$1500 CAD a bottle, they had it out for tastings at only ~$60 CAD for a 2 oz pour, which I thought was very reasonable for something over a century old. I had a couple of VP samples on hand as well, so was able to compare them before and after the Garrafeira.

My first thought on the nose was that this was disappointing – it didn’t seem very different from a typical LBV or VP, and there was a slight solvent smell that was off-putting (vaguely ether-like). But in the mouth, it was a different experience – a bright initial palate, with classic Ruby fresh notes, followed by an aged VP mid-palate experience. I can really see what they say about Garrafeira – it did combine both experiences for me.

But the kicker was the finish, which went on for many minutes while continuing to evolve and change. Ports are not generally distinguished by a long finish in my experience, so this was a pleasant surprise. It also had the added benefit of raising up the experience of the two VPs I had on hand – both tasted considerably better after a sip of the Garrafeira, which left a nice tannic coating on my lips and gums.

Garrafeiras don’t show up very often on the market, and according to the Garrafeira Nacional, they don’t last long for tastings when they do open one. The bottle I tried would have been gone in a day or two. But definitely worth seeking out if you are in Lisbon and want the ultimate Port experience (the Time Out food market is also a great place to grab a quality meal on the cheap first).

And that wraps up this primer – I hope you found it helped your appreciation for the effects of Port finishing on whiskies. I always encourage everyone to pick up a Tawny Port bottle to try – if nothing else, to help ensure a steady supply of Port casks for whisky finishing.

How Best to Store Your Whisky

The question of how best to store your whisky comes up a lot in the whisky world. While the casual drinker may only have a bottle or two of different whiskies around at any given time, enthusiasts tend to collect quite a variety. Given the cost associated with some of these bottles, what is the best way to store them to ensure minimal change in the flavour over time?  There are a lot opinions available online – some of which actually run counter to evidence. So let me walk you through the best evidence-supported recommendations.

1. Sealed bottles (i.e., new and unopened)

For sealed bottles, the answer is fairly easy – store your whisky upright, in a dark (and preferably cool) place, minimizing light and temperature fluctuations. I’ll explain each of the reasons below.

1.1. Keep Them Upright

Upright is most important, as the high proof ethanol in whisky will degrade the cork over time if stored on the side – dissolving the cork, and tainting the flavour of the whisky. This comes as a surprise to most wine drinkers, who are always advised to keep wine bottles on their side. But that is because wine is much lower proof (lower alcohol content relative to water), and so the water in wine keeps the cork from drying out. This is important, as a dried-out cork will let air in, spoiling the wine. Unopened whisky bottles are fully sealed, and the contents do not change in the bottle so long as they stay sealed and well stored.

I’ve seen comments online about “moistening” the cork periodically in whisky bottles (by temporarily tilting the bottle on the side). This does nothing of the sort, as the higher ethanol content is actually drying out the cork. But periodic contact of the whisky with the cork is not likely to harm it much – after all, this happens all the time when a bottle is handled or shipped.

On that point, I routinely pick up bottles in my travels, and pack them in my checked suitcase for return travel. I have never had an issue with cork leakage in new, sealed bottles. Where you will get into trouble is with open bottles that are only partially-filled (as the extra air contracts and expands with pressure changes at altitude, causing the cork to pop out – more on this later). Note that minor leakage can occur with some screw caps enclosures, even if the seal is unbroken. Air pressure changes can cause small leaks as there is “wiggle room” for the cap to loosen slightly. You will want to give screw-caps an extra hand-tighten to make sure they aren’t loose to start, and encase the bottles in sealed containers. I use extra-large Ziploc freezer bags, and they do well to capture any minor leakage. One exception to placing whisky in checked luggage is for smaller planes (used for short hops), where the cargo hold may not be within the pressurized cabin area. For any jetliner, you won’t have this concern, as the cargo holds are all pressurized.

Your bigger risk traveling with checked bottles is breaking at the neck point, due to rough handling of your bag. So always make sure they are well-wrapped in clothes or bubble wrap (I find laser toner cartridge shipping bags great for this, with a pair of socks wrapped around the bottle neck). Also try to pack in the middle of the suitcase, not near an edge.

1.2. Avoid Natural Light

Many studies have shown that sunlight is one of the biggest threats to whisky (some links provided below in my discussion of open bottles). Even indirect natural light will induce changes over time, so you are best storing your whisky in the dark – like in a cupboard with doors kept closed. Keeping them in their cardboard boxes/tubes will also help in protecting against light pollution. But I’ve also seen suggestions to ditch the cardboard boxes if you are planning for very long-term storage (i.e., decades), as the cardboard/glue can become a substrate for microbial/fungal contamination. But that only matters for the serious collector (who likely has a proper climate controlled dark environment for their whisky anyway).

1.3. Avoid High Heat and/or Temperature Fluctuations

Cool storage is better than warm, but fluctuations in temperature are potentially even more of a concern (again, see some of the links below for studies on open bottles). A fascinating story is the discovery of century-old crates of Scotch whisky in the Antarctic permafrost – as recounted here. The whisky was apparently still in excellent shape. Actual storage temperature probably doesn’t matter much, as long as it is not higher than room temperature – and so long as it reasonably stable (i.e., not in your attic, or next to your furnace!)

2. Open Bottles

Once open, whisky will start to degrade in the bottle. This is a different sort of “aging” than what happens in the barrel during whisky production, which is necessary to make whisky (see my Sources of Whisky Flavour page for more info). Whisky does not “improve” with this sort of breakdown aging due to air exposure – although it can become more palatable to some, in certain circumstances (e.g., some of the chemical changes over time can make the whisky taste sweeter).

In properly stored open bottles, the reason for the change in flavour over time is due to the presence of air. Specifically, the repeated air exchange as you pour a dram, and the expanding volume of air in the bottle over time. Interestingly, it is actually a bit of an open question as to how much of the change is due to the simple presence of air, versus its frequent exchange. Unfortunately, the academic literature (which I have reviewed) is not too concerned on this point. The few studies done typically explore these questions from a theoretical perspective, under acute laboratory conditions with specialized preparations that don’t reflect long-term concerns.

As an aside, it is a pet peeve of mine to see this process of degradation in open bottles being referred to as “oxidation.” Oxidation refers to a specific chemical reaction that involves a transfer of electrons between chemical species (specifically, the stripping of electrons from the chemical that gets “oxidized”). Given the high proof of whisky, classic oxidative reactions at the gas-liquid interface are unlikely to be contributing in a major way to changing characteristics over time. Instead, it is a variety of other chemical interactions involving surface tension issues at the air-liquid interface that can alter whisky flavour over time.

Again, the academic literature is largely focused on exploring specific types of chemical interactions individually, tested under laboratory conditions. At the end of the day, empirical observations using sensory analysis (i.e., tasting with blind tasters) is the best way to compare potential storage condition outcomes. A couple of recent attempts at actual whisky comparisons over time are helpful in this regard. Cited below are a recent small study by Mattias Klasson of scotchwhisky.com, and a more rigorous and detailed study by Marcus Fan.

Before I get into their testing results, a brief explanation of popular storage options for open bottles of whisky is presented below.

2.1. Leave Them Alone

The first option is to simply leave the whisky in the well-capped bottle until it is gone. But a popular belief online is that the air-induced changes in whisky intensify once the bottle has dropped to less than half volume – and becomes extreme once only a small volume is left (i.e., only a “heel” of whisky left in the bottle).

My personal experience of keeping numerous open bottles for several years is consistent with the results of both studies referenced above: namely, a half-full bottle shows (at worse) only minimal effects over 1-2 years, but a largely empty bottle quickly begins to show noticeable changes. So practically, you probably don’t really need to worry until you pass the point where there is more air in the bottle than whisky.

A related question comes up about storing whisky in crystal glass decanters (for display purposes). Here again, the indirect light issue comes into play, as you will degrade the whisky over time (even faster than you will from the air). Even worse, those clear crystal decanters are actually lead crystal. The high proof alcohol in whisky will gradually extract lead from the glass, dosing you with something you will definitely want to avoid.

So what can you do to minimize air effects once the whisky volume drops substantially?  Here are the most popular options:

2.2. Use Smaller Glass Bottles

This is probably the most popular option in the whisky enthusiast community. To minimize air “headspace”, simply pour the whisky into smaller glass bottles. Commonly available are Boston round bottles in 0.5, 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 oz sizes. These are available in clear glass or, better yet to minimize light effects, amber or cobalt blue glass. The results of both the Fan study and the Klasson study support this method as one of the best ways to minimize air effects.

Bottles caps matter here though. The best bottle enclosures are phenolic screw caps (made from black polypropylene). But do not use the cheaper ones with paper liners. Instead, use only polycone liners (see attached photo comparison).

The cheaper caps use pulp paper with a thin polyethylene coating, and are intended for aqueous solutions only (i.e., pure water-based). These will degrade rapidly in direct contact with high-proof alcohol fumes. You will soon find the liner contents dissolving into your whisky, making a disgusting mess. I’ve seen this happen to a few sample bottles I’ve received in swaps with other reviewers, when I didn’t check the caps (for samples I didn’t get to right away). Polycone liners are conical-shaped liners made of an oil-resistant plastic – and are designed to resist chemicals, solvents, oils, etc.

This decanting approach into smaller glass bottles is the consistent first choice across all studies for long-term storage. My personal experience also supports this conclusion. Ideally, you should aliquot (pour into smaller bottles) as soon as you open your whisky, to minimize any effects of air-induced aging over time.

As an aside, a cheaper alternative is to use clear plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. While it is true that some bottom-shelf whiskies come in PET containers (along with many other food and liquid stuffs), the long-term effect of storage of high-proof alcohol in these containers is unknown. It is reasonable to worry about the potential extraction of plasticizers over time (i.e., the additives used during production to keep the plastic from becoming too brittle).

At a minimum, it would be important to ensure you are getting food-grade PET bottles, with proper polycone caps. In the Klasson study, they use “cheap PET bottles” (source not identified), and found a significant change in flavour over time. I’ve kept whisky in food-grade PET bottles for up to 6 months, and have not noticed any off flavours. But I would consider this a riskier proposition, and recommend you stick with glass bottles if at all possible.

2.3. Fill Up the Original Bottle with Glass Marbles

A seemingly ingenious solution to the air volume issue is to pour glass marbles into the original bottle as the whisky volume drops, thus minimizing air headspace. Sounds reasonable, right?  Except this approach means that you are greatly increasing the whisky-to-glass ratio over time, especially as the volume drops. All that increased glass surface area is an opportunity for interactions to occur (i.e., there is more surface for the congeners and other flavour molecules in the whisky to “stick” to).

At a minimum, you would need to ensure the marbles were scrupulously cleaned and sterilized before use. And I have no idea where you would get food-grade glass marbles to start with – children’s toy marbles are not likely to be made of high quality glass, and are likely to contain various contaminants that could leach out in the presence of high proof alcohol (e.g., lead). Conducted properly though, this approach is likely to work – as demonstrated in the Fan study. But I think you are best to decant into smaller glass bottles.

2.4. Neutral Gas Spray (e.g. Wine Preserve)

This is a popular option for those coming from the wine world. The principle is that an inert, neutral gas like argon (Ar) can be sprayed over the surface of the liquid, thus preventing the lighter-weight oxygen (O2) from reaching the wine (or whisky) once re-corked. There are various “wine preserve” brands out there, each with their particular (and often undisclosed) blend of argon, nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Keep in mind, these sprays were all developed and tested on wine – it is unknown how the much higher proof whisky would react. One obvious concern is that wine “preserved” this way was only meant to be kept for up to a week or two. Long-term storage effects (typically months to years for whisky) are thus largely unknown.

A potentially greater problem is that the spray canisters need a food-grade aerosol propellant in order to eject the “inert” gas down the long extended tube into the whisky. In the old days, this was Freon – but that has since been replaced by butane and propane. It is not at all clear what the long-term effects of adding butane/propane, as well as Ar/N2/CO2, inside a whisky bottle would be. The chemistry that occurs at the air interface of high-proof whisky is complex and not fully understood – adding these extra variables would be a concern.

Indeed, in the study by by Fan, the most popular neutral gas spray – Private Preserve Wine Preserver (shown above) – consistently induced greater flavour change than any other condition beyond indirect sunlight. While exposure to regular air had noticeable effects when the whisky volume was very low (e.g. 150 mL in a 750 mL bottle), these were almost twice as noticeable when wine preserve spray was used. Simply put, wine preserve was considerably worse than just regular air exposure in a bottle.

On the basis of these findings, I strongly recommend you do NOT use neutral gas sprays in your whisky bottles.

2.5 Vacuum Seals

Another popular option from the wine world. Typically, a specialized rubber cork is placed at the opening of the wine bottle, and a hand pump is used to extract most of the air from the bottle (creating a partial vacuum). I’ve used this myself, and it does help keep wine flavourful for a few days (compared to simply re-corking).

The main issue for whisky is that the seal is not likely to last over the long term – and again, the high-proof ethanol is likely to degrade the rubber gaskets over time. I’ve not seen a whisky study done using wine bottle vacuum seals, but the Fan study did look at placing the small whisky bottles in standard food vacuum sealer bags. Their results showed no net benefit (or impairment) to this whisky using this method. As a result, I recommend you stick without the vacuum seal complexity.

2.6 Parafilm

A standard in any chemistry or biology lab, Parafilm is a thin plastic film of paraffin wax. Paraffin is a soft, colourless wax used for making candles and crayons, among other things. Parafilm is used in labs to temporarily seal an open container (like an Erlenmeyer flask), or for longer-term storage of lidded containers (where are you are trying to prevent moisture or air contamination).

While Parafilm can certainly be degraded by various chemical solvents, it is relatively resistant to ethanol. Unfortunately, Parafilm is still relatively gas permeable, so it is best suited to serve as physical barrier for liquid penetration.

I personally use it when transporting whisky – especially when carrying sample bottles on airplanes. The pressure changes are likely to cause leaks, and Parafilm is very helpful in minimizing these. But as a way to preserve whisky in the bottle, it likely only of minimal effectiveness – and therefore probably not worth the effort.

3. Interim Conclusions

Based on the evidence to date,you will want to keep your whisky upright and in the dark (preferably in a consistently cool place). If you want to maintain the flavour profile of open bottles for as long as possible, you are best to decant into small glass bottles (with proper polycone caps), minimizing any air headspace. Just about anything else brings with it potential risks, and either lacks evidence of effectiveness (e.g., vacuum seals), or has clear evidence of negative effects (e.g., neutral gas sprays).

I hope you found the above useful. I’ll update this post if any new studies come out that I think are of particular relevance.

Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective

The Internet can be a fabulous source of information of almost any topic. But when it comes to purchasing whisky in Japan, a lot of what you find reported online (and repeated on discussion forums) is often woefully out of date. So I thought I’d provide an update to my earlier Japan whisky travelogues, and add some perspective from a determined whisky hunter.

I have had the good fortune to travel to Japan annually for the last 5 years. My work has routinely taken me across Chiyoda and Minato regions (especially Ginza, Akasaka and Rippongi). I have also stayed in Shinjuku – and make regular pilgrimages to Shibuya on most visits. I tend to travel around a lot, on foot and public transit, and make a point of stopping in to as many big-box discount department stores, dedicated liquor stores and mom-and-pop shops as I can in my travels. And of course, I prepare for these trips by scanning recent blogs and threads, looking for success stories of spotting sought-after whiskies in the wild. At a minimum, I hit at least a dozen stores per trip (plus corner konbinis) – and sometimes considerably more, if I have the time.

I find most of what is reported online by whisky hunters falls into the standard confirmation bias cognitive trap. You rarely see people report their failure to find desired whisky. And for those few brave souls who buck the trend and admit to a lack of success, they are often ridiculed in discussion forums by self-styled experts for “not having done their research.” Often repeated are claims that what they were looking for is  “commonly available everywhere”, etc. A tell-tale sign of these respondents is that they neglect to mention how much it actually costs “everywhere.”

As an aside, I find it amusing when some of these supposedly “available” bottlings are whiskies never released in Japan in the first place, or were discontinued several years ago (more on this later). But even truly available popular bottlings – like Nikka’s From the Barrel – will not be found in most venues. I have almost never seen it in a big box department store, or small corner stores. When I do see it, it is usually in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores. But even then, it shows up (at best) only half the time. So on any given trip, where I hit a mix of stores, I will likely find anywhere from 0-2 stores who actually have it in stock. So much for “commonly available.” My point is that you need to consider the class of store that actually carries what you are looking for.

That said, there are indeed things you will find nearly everywhere – entry-level blends, designed for mixing. Suntory’s Chita was available in at least half the outlets on this last trip, including a number of Family Marts and 7-Elevens. But age-stated whisky, truly made in Japan? Ah, that’s where I come to the first take-away message:

Age-stated, true Japanese whisky is extremely hard to find. And expect to pay typical secondary-market prices if you do.

My latest trip to Tokyo last month included a side trip to Kyoto. I mainly found age-state Japanese whiskies at the larger big box stores (i.e., the mega-sized Don Quijotes and larger BIC Cameras with dedicated whisky sections). In total, I came across a handful of places selling Yamazaki 12yo for 20,000-30,000 Yen ($250-$350 CAD) for a full bottle, or 2,000-2,900 Yen ($25-$35 CAD) for 50mL sample bottles. I found one place selling Yamazaki 18yo for 85,000 Yen ($1020 CAD). I found one place selling the discontinued Hakushu 12yo for 40,000 Yen ($480 CAD), one other place selling Hakushu 18yo for 78,000 Yen ($935 CAD). I found one place selling a single bottle of the discontinued Hibiki 17yo for 43,000 Yen ($515 CAD), and one place selling Hibiki 21yo for 75,000 Yen ($900 CAD).

For context, I remember picking up Hibiki 17yo for ~7,500 Yen this time in 2014 (when it was truly commonly available). And I picked up the Hakushu 12yo in the US last year year for ~$120 CAD. Needless to say, I passed on all of the above age-stated releases this time around.

My point is that if you were looking for any specific bottling (and were willing to pay these prices), you would still likely have to scour more than a dozen stores before you stumbled on it. Funny how that advice is rarely given online.

As an aside, duty-free at the airport is also pretty limited now. You used to be able to find “airport exclusives” that were just jacked-up price versions of the popular age-stated releases. But even those are gone now – I saw no real Japanese whisky with an age-statement at Haneda’s international terminal this trip. Narita is usually a bit better for selection – but the price will still be high. I wouldn’t leave it to your outbound flight if you have hopes of finding something specific.

Ok you might say, but what about all those fancy age-stated bottles from newer distilleries like Yamazakura, Kurayoshi, and the like? They certainly look like the bottles from established makers like Yamazaki and Nikka. And are probably tasty enough – but they aren’t actually Japanese whisky. A great problem in Japan is loose labeling laws that allow distilleries to import whisky from other countries (Scotland and Canada are popular sources) and re-package it for sale as a product of Japan. Many of these distilleries are long-running producers of shochu, and have indeed starting laying down whisky – but it will be many years before they are selling fully Japanese-made whisky at those age statements.

I did notice some younger expressions (e.g. New Born and 6 year olds) coming out of Yamazakura, which are likely their own juice. But all those 18-28 year olds being sold for 15,000-50,000 Yen? Heaven only knows what exactly is inside the bottles. I understand that Japan is looking to tighten up its labeling laws, as all these “faux whisky” brands are giving the industry a bad name. FYI, if you are looking for a way to separate out true Japanese whisky from the fakes, here’s a useful infographic chart and table courtesy of Nomunication. Sad to say there seems to be at least as many fake age-stated whiskies as real ones at the moment. Which brings me to my second point:

Beware of age-stated whiskies coming from distillers without a long history of making whisky.

So, what about bourbons? Japan has long been a mecca of sorts for bourbon fans, given the history of unusually old age-stated bourbons specific to the Japanese market. Note the word “history.” Classic examples include Wild Turkey 12 year old, Old Ezra 15 year old, Evan Williams 12 year old, Very Olde St Nick 18 year old, etc.

I still commonly see threads asking for recommendations as to which of the above would be best to bring back (given typical duty-free limits for most countries). The short answer is none of them, since they don’t exist anymore. The bourbon boom in the US means there simply aren’t aged stocks to preferentially sell to Japan.

I didn’t come across a single bottle of Evan Williams 12yo this year (I used to find it fairly regularly in liquor stores, and for ~$35 CAD or less – a good buy). It is true you can still find Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel and Four Roses Super Premium, but the former has become quite hard to find (typically only in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores now). I didn’t see a single bottle of Blanton’s SFTB on my last trip, although I did come across a couple of bottles of Blanton’s Gold (albeit for more than what it costs regularly here at the LCBO).

It’s true that Wild Turkey 8yo is commonly available almost everywhere, including corner stores – but this is just a slightly longer-aged version of standard WT 101 back home (which is believed to be ~6 years old). The sought-after 101-proof WT 12yo version is long gone, and the new 13yo “Distiller’s Reserve” (at lower 91 proof) seems like a cash grab in fancy packaging (saw it for >$100 CAD in a couple of stores). Which brings me to the third main point:

Age-stated American bourbons are largely a thing of the past in Japan.

Wrapping it all up, the whisky situation in Japan is not looking good – and has gone from reasonable to abysmal in five short years. It is even pretty steep to try most of the above in bars, given their scarcity. Simply put, if you really want to buy these, you are going to have to do your homework as to where to look, and pay secondary prices.

One bright light, if you happen to be in the Kyoto area, is to visit Yamazaki distillery. Just a short train ride away, it will only take about half an hour from Kyoto station. Note that you need to register for a distillery tour 3 months in advance (I’m not kidding). But for the museum, gift shop and tasting bar, you only need to register a couple of weeks in advance to get a spot (and its free admission).

You are limited to just 3 pours from the tasting bar, but the prices are remarkably cheap. The Yamazaki 18yo, Hakushu 18yo and Hibiki 21yo were all only 600 Yen for 15mL pours (the 25-30 yo samples will set you back 2,900 Yen). But the best part is you can also taste the component whiskies for some of the above, at ~200-900 Yen a pour. A highlight for me was the cask-strength Yamazaki new make for only 100 Yen (remarkably clean and fresh, with no off-notes – clearly, they only take the best cuts coming off the still). Thanks to controlled time entry, it’s never particularly crowded. Highly recommended if you are in the area.

SWISS Senator Lounge, Terminal E, Zurich, Switzerland

I don’t normally write reviews of Business Class lounges – since the whisky collection is usually pretty minimal and inconsistent. But this is my first experience of finding a fully-stocked whisky selection that rivals dedicated whisky bars, so I thought I would share.

When traveling in Europe, I find Lufthansa Senator lounges pretty decent experiences, and better than most Business Class lounges (including Lufthansa’s own Business lounges). But a whole new experience for me was the SWISS Senator Lounge in the Terminal E building of the Zürich Flughafen (ZRH) airport.

While SWISS International Airlines is a member of Star Alliance, only some of their  lounges in Zurich are open to non-SWISS flight passengers. They recently built a suite of new super high-end lounges in the Terminal E building, including an exclusive First Lounge, the Senator Lounge (open to Star Alliance Gold), and a regular Business Lounge (which is appended to the Senator lounge). They are located on the 3rd floor (with elevator access), close to Gate E37, and are open from 06:00 – 22:30.

Access is a bit complicated – this Senator Lounge E is open to First Class passengers on SWISS, Lufthansa and Star Alliance, as well as frequent fliers who hold status as HON Circle, Miles & More Senator, and Star Alliance Gold. Regular Business Class passengers on any of the above airlines without such status don’t have access to the Senator Lounge E, only the smaller Business Lounge.

The Senator Lounge E has a lot going for it – great food (personal chef to make an egg breakfast however you would like), very spacious design and set up (including outdoor seating area), and all the usual amenities (showers, business workstations, etc.). But what really distinguishes the Senator Lounge is the “Whisky Club 28/10” – a whisky Bar with a choice of over 200 whiskies.

Surprisingly to me, this whisky bar is open the whole time the lounge is (I was there at 07:30 last week), with a server on duty.  The whisky bar is also complimentary – there is no charge for any of the whiskies on hand. Over 180 were on display, shown below, with more out of site behind the bar.  Depending on your browser, doube-click or right-click on any of the images below, and then view image (should take you to my photobucket account, where you can zoom in to see higher resolution pics of all the visible bottles).

As you would expect, the bar is well stocked with entry-level bottles from across the world of malt whiskies, blends and bourbons. Impressively, most of the single malts have age statements (typically in the 10-16 year old range). There are some older bottles interspersed, including some independent bottlings (i.e., several Signatory, in the ~19-21 year old range).  It’s also a great place to try out Swiss whiskies as well (16 bottles on hand).

Given the early hour, I only sampled two. 😉  Reviews coming soon.

If you are traveling through Zurich and have appropriate status (or are traveling First Class), it is well worth checking out. Note that if you are not departing from Terminal E, there is a passport control station and a subway connecting you to the main terminal. So you would need to give yourself plenty of time to make your connection back and forth to the main terminal A/D gates.

You can read a full review of this lounge – with detailed pics of all the amenities – from one of the well-known airport lounge bloggers, the Points Guy. I agree with his take on this lounge.

WhiskyAnalysis Exceeds 1000 Whiskies

Welcome to 2017!

Whiskyanalysis.com has been up and running for about 18 months now, and just like last year, I thought it would be a good time to take stock of where we are.

The top-line finding is that the Meta-Critic Database has grown to over 1000 whiskies! As always, that encompasses a wide range of Scottish, Irish, American, Canadian and other International malts and blends.

I’ve continued to add new reviewers, so those 1000 whiskies represent over 13,000 individual whisky reviews that I have tracked and manually curated. 😓

The mean Meta-Critic score for all whiskies in the database is currently 8.54, with a mean standard deviation of 0.39. But of course, the range for different classes can vary, depending on reviewer norms.  To help you in figuring out what is a “typical” average and standard deviation score, here is how it break downs for the four main classes that I use to group whiskies:

Bourbon-like: mean average 8.57, mean standard deviation 0.37
Rye-like: mean average 8.47, mean standard deviation 0.46
Scotch-like blends: mean average 8.21, mean standard deviation 0.40
Single Malt-like: mean average 8.54, mean standard deviation 0.39

So when comparing the scores for any given whisky in each of those categories, you can use the numbers above to help calibrate yourself.

I have been adding my own whisky reviews at the rate of about one per week. I expect to keep that up for the conceivable future, as I have a good stockpile of samples to work my way through. Hopefully you will find these individual reviews a good one-stop location for background, tasting notes, relevant Meta-Critic comparisons, and links to further reviews.

And finally, my server stats show we have hit another 1000 milestone – WhiskyAnalysis.com is now averaging over 1000 visitors a day.  That’s about a 3.5-fold increase in traffic since this time last year. Thanks for all the comments, keep ’em coming!

Slainte,
Eric

Holiday Whisky Gift Guide 2016 – Ontario, Canada

Welcome to my new recommendation list for 2016!

As with last year, I am breaking this up by price point, style and flavour cluster.  I will again focus on highly-ranked but relatively affordable bottles – and ones currently in stock at the LCBO. I am also going to focus on whiskies that are not necessarily available all year round – some of these only show up for a limited time around the holidays, so grab them while you can. Links to full reviews given, when available.

Hopefully this list is also relevant to those outside of Ontario, as it is based on high-ranking whiskies. As always, the Meta-Critic Whisky Database is here to help you sort through whatever possible options are open to you.

Budget Gifts < $50 CAD – American Bourbon and Canadian Rye Whiskies

You won’t find single malts in this price range (although there are some very nice Scotch-style and Irish blends, profiled below).  But let’s consider the economical American bourbon and Canadian whiskies options here first.

While Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons, we actually do have very decent prices on what we do get in. And we have at least a reasonable selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff.

Eagle.Rare.10It’s worth breaking bourbons down into different mashbill classes. The first is low-rye bourbons (i.e., a relatively low proportion of rye grain in the predominantly corn-based mashbill). Unfortunately, one of my favourites in this class – Eagle Rare 10 Year Old – is not currently available (although you might still find a few bottles at the some of the larger LCBO stores). So the closest thing is the more widely available Buffalo Trace at $43 CAD, getting a decent 8.56 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews. This is basically the same juice, though not quite the full 10 years of age.

Elijah.Craig.12A great choice that Ontario still carries is the Elijah Craig 12 Year Old at $48 (8.68 ± 0.29 on 20 reviews). This has been replaced by a younger no-age-statement “small batch” version in U.S. Note the 12yo version has a fairly pronounced “oaky” character.

Rated even higher is Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.79 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews) – a popular cask-strength (60%) option.

For high-rye bourbons (which typically are more “spicy” tasting), you can’t go wrong with Four Roses Single Barrel at $46 CAD (8.72 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews).  It’s worth the premium over the otherwise decent Four Roses Small Batch at $40 CAD (8.49 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews).  Unfortunately, most of the other high-ryes I would recommend are currently out of stock (and unlikely to come back this year).

But why not try a quality Canadian choice? These are typically widely available all year round.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleSure, you could go for Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” for 2015 – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – for $35 CAD. It gets a decent Meta-Critic score of 8.59 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews. But like many, I consider it to be only an “average” Canadian rye.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

As with last year, my top pick as the king of Canadian straight rye whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. Getting an excellent 8.90 ± 0.41 on 18 reviews, it is quite affordable at $40 CAD. One of the best aromas you will find in the rye selection at the LCBO.

Wiser’s Legacy is another solid choice, with an even higher 9.01 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews. Regularly-priced at $50 CAD, it has a spicy rye flavour (and is said to consist of Lot 40 in part).

As always, Alberta Premium Dark Horse at $32 CAD is a great buy – if you like a little sherry flavour in your rye. 8.62 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews.

 


 

Budget Gifts < $60 CAD – Scotch and Irish Blends

I don’t typically break down Scotch-style blends by flavour profile (as I do for for the more complex single malts below). But you can generally think of blends in two categories: those with some smokey/peaty flavours and those without.

Te.BheagFor those who like a bit of smoke, Johnnie Walker Black at $57 (8.27 ± 0.49 on 21 reviews) remains a staple – and for good reason.  It is higher ranked than most of the other smokey blends – but it is also priced higher.  So if you want try something a little different on a budget, the LCBO also carries the higher-ranked but lower-priced Té Bheag for only $39 (8.47 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews). Pronounced chey-vek, this whisky has a more fruity character than JW Black, and even more smoke (if you think the recipient would like that).  Another great choice is Great King St Glasgow Blend for $57 (8.57 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews) – one of the highest-ranked smokey blends I’ve seen.

writers-tearsFor non-smokey blends, these are often imbibed as mixed drinks, or the classic scotch-and-soda. There are a lot very good blends out that you may not have heard of – unfortunately, the LCBO is not carrying many at the moment. For example, they are currently out of stock of Great King St Artist’s Blend for $55 (8.58 ± 0.38 on 18 reviews), which would have been a top pick. So why not try a great Irish blend instead: Writer’s Tears for $50 (8.47 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews). Unusual for an Irish whiskey, this is a blend of single malt whisky and classic Irish pot still whisky (which is a mix of malted and unmalted barley in a single copper pot still).  Very flavourful, and a good value.suntory-toki

A personal favourite of mine in this group is Suntory Toki at $60 CAD (8.24 ± 0.63 on 5 reviews). I feel the quality here is higher than the Meta-Critic score indicates (which is based on only a limited number of reviews so far). It is delightfully fresh and clean, easy to sip neat, and is highly recommended in the classic Japanese “highball” (scotch-and-soda for the rest of us ;).  Here is a chance for you to experience an authentic Japanese whisky, without the usual high cost. It’s a great introduction to the lighter Japanese style.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 


 

Premium Gifts up ~$100 CAD – Single Malt Scotch and Hibiki Harmony NASInternational Whiskies

Single malts come in a wide range of flavours – much more so than any other class of whisky. As usual, it is worth recommending single malt whiskies by flavour “super-cluster”, as described on my Flavour Map page. I’m going to start with the more delicate examples below, followed by the more “winey” and “smokey” examples.

BTW, If you are interested in checking out another Japaenese whisky, consider the Hibiki Harmony at $100 (8.40 ± 0.61 on 14 reviews). It comes in a fancy decanter-style bottle, and has a richer yet still delicate flavour profile. Again, I think the Meta-Critic Score is unfairly harsh here – this is a lovely blend, and is a more flavourful expression than the Suntory Toki described previously.

Now onto the single malts …

Super-cluster G-H : Light and sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smokey.
Classic examples: Glenmorangie 10yo, Glenfiddich 12yo, Arran Malt 10yo/14yo, Cardhu 12yo

Dalwhinnie 15yo bottleAt $95 CAD, the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old is my top pick in this category (8.68 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews). That is a phenomenal score for this flavour supercluster (i.e., delicate whiskies always score lower than winey/smokey ones). The Dalwhinnnie is a fairly delicate whisky, but there is a surprising amount of subtlety here. It has a lovely honey sweetness to it (but is not too sweet), and has just the slightest hint of smoke in the background. Well worth a try – a staple of my liquor cabinet.

Backup choices you may want to consider are The Arran Malt 10 Year Old at $70 CAD (8.55 ± 0.33 on 20 reviews), and the An Cnoc 12 Year Old at $80 CAD (8.62 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews). The Dalwhinnie is worth the slight extra though, in my opinion.

 


 

Super-cluster E-F : Medium-bodied, medium sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion
Classic examples: Old Pulteney 12yo, Auchentoshan 12yo, Glenlivet 12yo, Macallan 10yo Fine Oak

Amrut.FusionIt is actually on border of Super-cluster E-F and cluster I (due to the moderate smoke), but my top pick here is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $86 CAD, and scoring an amazing 8.90 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore some extra “tropical” fruit flavours in their whisky – check out my full review above for more info on this whisky. Note that this one is very popular, and so stock levels are already starting to drop across the LCBO.

OtMiddleton Redbreast 12yo bottleherwise, my top mid-range choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, the $80 CAD Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. As mentioned earlier, this is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in single copper pot still. The end result is thus closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. It gets a very good 8.75 ± 0.42 on 21 reviews.

If you are looking for a budget option in this class, check out the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old. At $65 CAD and scoring 8.27 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews, this is a step up from your typical ubiquitous Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 12yo.

 


 

Super-cluster A-B-C : Strong winey flavours, full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and sometimes smokey notes
Classic examples: Aberlour A’Bunadh, Highland Park 18, Glenfarclas 105, GlenDronach 12yo, Auchentoshan Three WoodAberlour.ABunadh.49

My top pick here remains the Aberlour A’Bunadh. I don’t understand how this has remained at $100 CAD, given the quality of the various batches.  It gets an impressive 8.95 ± 0.17 on 22 reviews overall. While there is some variability between batches, this is not usually significant. Note however that this is a cask-strength whisky, so it packs a higher concentration of alcohol than typical. And inventory tends to disappear fast around this time of year – it’s a popular one.

My budget choice, at $73 CAD, remains the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.57 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews. It packs a lot of flavour.

Now, let’s dial back down the winey flavours, and instead bring up the smokey complexity.

 


 

Cluster I : Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes
Classic examples: Talisker 10yo, Highland Park 12yo, Benromach 10yo, Springbank 10yo, Bowmore 10yo

Talisker 10yo bottleIn addition to the Amrut Fusion already mentioned above, you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class: the Talisker 10 Year Old. At $100, it gets an excellent 8.91 ± 0.17 on 21 reviews. I don’t think you can go wrong with this choice. Also very nice, but with low availability is Longrow Peated ($101, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews). It is right on the border with the smokier Cluster J, though.

Highland Park 12 year oldA reasonable budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 10 Year Old ($65, 8.47 ± 0.28 on 14 reviews) or 12 Year Old ($80, 8.38 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches of the 12yo, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick (i.e., it used to score higher).

 


 

Cluster J : Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible
Classic examples: Lagavulin 16yo, Laphroaig 10yo and Quarter Cask, Ardbeg 10y and Uigeadail

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleFor the smoke/peat fan, you really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73 CAD, yet garnering a very high meta-critic score of 9.02 ± 0.27 on 21 reviews. That’s a remarkable score for the price, if you are into these peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84 CAD, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100 CAD, 8.95 ± 0.34 on 21 reviews). If you like a wine-finish, for a very limited time you can order a bottle of this year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas for $100 (2016 Madeira edition, 8.82 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews) through LCBO online.

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit to $123 CAD, a very popular favourite is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.23 ± 0.23 on 25 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 


 

Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class or style.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

Can You Tell the Difference Between Bourbon and Rye?

A recent article published the Journal of Food Science has generated considerable buzz online in the various whisky forums, due to how it has been characterized in the popular press.  Plenty of websites like Tech Times and e-Science News have picked up the story, often with inflammatory headlines (e.g., “Bourbon or rye? You can’t tell the difference”). Even mainstream media has picked up on the action, including Fox News in the US and the Daily Mail in the UK.

If you read the enthusiast commentary out there, you will find much indignation at those headline statements.  But is that really what the article shows?  Here is a link to the abstract of the article by Jake Lahne et al: Replication Improves Sorting-Task Results Analyzed by DISTATIS in a Consumer Study of American Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys (J Food Sci. 2016 Apr 18. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.13301)

As you can probably tell from the article title, this study is not going to be a detailed analysis of bourbon flavour.  If you peruse the abstract, you will see that this is really a scientific analysis to compare how a new statistical method for analysis of sorted study data performs against an older method. It also introduces a new variable of subject scoring replication, to see how that affects the results.

Unfortunately, some over-reaching comments have been made about this article, so I thought it would be a good idea to dissect out what conclusions you can actually draw about American bourbons and ryes from this analysis.

I have a copy of the full article, and have reviewed the methodology in some detail. I find it a generally well-described exploration of a new statistical method. But it allows you to draw almost no inferences about the ability to discriminate bourbons and ryes.  The main problems boil down to the reference set of whiskies chosen, who scored them, and how.

Personal Bias

Before getting started, I should point out that personal bias is hard to account for here. Many enthusiasts believe they have great power to detect and differentiate differences between whiskies. But the history of blind sensory sorting studies tells us that we commonly greatly inflate our own abilities in this regard.

On the one hand, whisky enthusiasts are likely to approach any such reported study with a pre-conceived bias, looking for flaws in the design or conclusions that support their existing world view. But equally of concern, designers of such studies could similarly choose to design or analyze their results in such a way as to support a pre-existing bias on their own part (namely, that people over-estimate their ability to differentiate). The bias knife cuts both ways.

My goal here is to fairly and objectively review the design and analysis of this particular study, to see if there are any obvious sources of concern, and whether the authors’ conclusions are evidence-based and limited to the analysis findings.

How to Classify Whisky (or Anything Else)

As explained on this site, the “gold standard” for sorting sensory input into discrete groups first starts with descriptive labels assigned by expert reviewers, based on an underlying physiochemical basis, scored for an exhaustive sample collection (see my Early Flavour Classifications page for more info). This is followed by a statistically-valid cluster analysis, to group the intensity of these distinct characteristics into an appropriate number of clusters. Finally, a principal component analysis allows you determine which dimensions of the cluster analysis are key to discriminating the core characteristics of the group, in a statistically meaningful way. For these last two points, see my Modern Whisky Map page for more info.

While the above has been done for single malt-style whiskies (described on those pages above), I am not aware of such a comprehensive analysis being done for American Bourbon/Rye whiskies. And that is certainly not what this article by Lahne and colleagues sets out to do.

The Lahne Study Design

Lahne_reprintThis paper uses a “short-cut” method – a very small sample of whiskies, sorted by a very small panel (not identified for expertise), asked to simply free-sort (i.e., apply whatever characterization they want, without any descriptive features). This does not compare to the first step described above.

The reason for this is that they are really only seeking to validate a novel cluster and dimensional analysis method, and NOT provide a definite answer to issue of bourbon/rye classification. In other words, they are validating a process for doing the last two steps above, not the first.

Here are the top-line reasons why you should not get too worked up about this article in terms of the ability to discriminate ryes from bourbons:

  • Participants were not asked to separate bourbons from ryes, but rather to free sort into whatever number and type of groupings they felt like
  • Participants did not necessarily have any experience with whisky (selected only for being “nonrejectors of whiskey by aroma”).
  • Participants were drawn from a University campus environment, with a mix of students, staff and faculty. Note the mean age was 42, but the median age was 31. When combined with the standard deviation of 19 yrs, this is a real tip-off as to the spread of age and likely experience with whisky.
  • Consistent with Scotch panel reviewing norms, participants only smelled the whiskies (no tasting was performed).
  • Similarly, whiskies were diluted 1:1 with distilled water, to limit and mask the effects of high alcohol content (i.e., presented only at 20-25% ABV for smelling)
  • A very limited number of whiskies were used – only 5 bourbons and 5 ryes – without explicit consideration of the rye content in their mashbills (I will come back to this point of whisky selection in more detail later)

Note that nothing that I have said above is intended as a criticism of the analysis itself. The above are simply statements as to the participant and task nature of the study. That said, many enthusiasts – with some justification – will reject the use of naive sorters, free sorting, and lack of tasting to separate whiskies in this study.

On the point of smell-only sorting, I should clarify that while it is common in many Scotch whisky panels to only nose the whisky, this is done simply to prevent reviewer fatigue and potential intoxication. While it has been argued that many (though not all) of the characteristics of Scotch whisky can be recognized by smell alone, this presumes an expert panel with extensive experience (which is not the case here). Further, there is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the effect of rye on American whisky flavour is not limited to scent (i.e., many find rye flavours more pronounced on tasting than nosing). As such, I find the authors stated claim in this article that it is unlikely that actual tasting would have changed the grouping results is unreasonable and not exactly evidence-based.

In terms of the free sorting, the authors attempt to justify this method by stating that results from such studies “are often equivalent to more exhaustive, traditional methods” (i.e. the ones I explained in the section above, for this site and Scotch whiskies). That may be true, but my experience of whisky analysis makes me seriously doubt it (I would really need to do an independent review of the literature to verify that claim). But it is most certainly NOT true if you draw a biased small sample that is not representational of the overall dataset.

This is the basis of all inferential statistics – if you are going to draw from a population, you must try to be as representational as possible and control for obvious confounds. I will discuss this issue of the specific whisky selection in detail below, as there is good recent to doubt their selection, based on earlier scientific studies and results presented in this analysis.

Consistent with the stated goals of this paper, I find the actual statistical analysis method used to be well described and justified, and is likely appropriate for further large scale studies (as they propose). However, you simply CANNOT make meaningful inferences about the ability to discriminate rye and boubons from a study with the sampling and sorting design used here (i.e., it is not designed to address that question). Any over-arching claims to contrary are not supported by the evidence in the study.

The Real Issue

Now, I could stop there, and draw this commentary to a close. Indeed you may want to stop reading at this point, unless you really care about scientific study design. 🙂

The issue of bias is an important consideration among both the general enthusiast community and in the scientific community. It is worth exploring in detail, given some red flags in this particular study. Let me start with the whiskey analysis results in this paper, and then show why their conclusions about bourbon vs rye are (at best) misleading based on the sample selection.

The authors note that US law only requires (among other things) that the mashbill for bourbons be 51% corn, and that of ryes be 51% rye. They also note that producers do not commonly reveal the exact mashbill composition. As such, it is possible that the bourbons and ryes in their samples could differ by only a couple of percentage points of rye content.  This would certainly be a confound.

But there is actually a lot of information available out there about the proportion of rye in many mashbills. Indeed, it is interesting that 4 of the 5 bourbons they used are considered as “low-rye” by enthusiasts. Here is the actual list of what they used (with distiller/owner identified):

  • Jim Beam Black Bourbon (Clermont/Beam)
  • Old Forester Straight Bourbon (Brown-Forman/Brown-Forman)
  • Old Crow Straight Bourbon (Clermont/Beam)
  • Elijah Craig 12yo Bourbon (Bernheim/Heaven Hill)
  • Buffalo Trace Bourbon (Buffalo Trace/Sazerac)
  • Rittenhouse Rye (Bernheim/Heaven Hill)
  • Sazerac Rye (Buffalo Trace/Sazerac)
  • Bulleit Rye (MGP/Diageo)
  • Knob Creek Rye (Clermont/Beam)
  • Jim Beam Rye (Clermont/Beam)

While there is no official designation of low-rye vs high-rye, I expect most of us would consider all the bourbons except for Old Forester to be particularly low-rye (i.e., all 4 are believed to be <15% rye content).

This brings up a critical point – despite a general lack or reporting by producers, you could still set out to choose whiskies that evenly span the continuum of known rye content fairly easily, from what is reported for available whiskies. In other words, you could assemble samples from known low-rye bourbons (<12% rye), high-rye bourbons (15%>x<35%), sub-maximal ryes (51%>x<100%), and 100% ryes. The authors have not done this – indeed, they do not even discuss this as a possibility.

Summary Results

To start, let’s see what their analysis method actually produced with this particular set of whiskies. The principal component analysis (PCA) in their study found that 47% of the total variance can be explained by 3 dimensions, as follows:

  • The first dimension (21% of the variance) separates 3 whiskies from the others – all 3 produced by Jim Beam (JB Black, JB Rye, and Old Crow Bourbon).
  • The second dimension (14% of the variance) does not separate by rye vs bourbon (the authors claim), but best correlates to age and ABV.
  • The third dimension (12% of the variance) separates Bulleit Rye from the other 7 whiskies that cluster together in the first dimension.

On the basis of these three key dimensions, the authors (seemingly) reasonably conclude that producer, age and ABV have a greater influence on self-selecting of whisky into groups than does mashbill (i.e., the traditional method of producers and enthusiasts).

So what is wrong here? The main problem is that we have potentially a huge selection bias in their choice of whiskies, based on the existing data available to these researchers.

Before I explain how they choose their whiskies, it is worth noting that Jim Beam made up 4 out of 10 whiskies sampled above (again, sorted by diluted scent alone). Is it really so surprising that naive sorters choose to group these together out of the whole set?  Can we really infer from this (and the Bulleit finding) that producer is the key discriminant?  Not in such a limited and biased small sample of whiskies we can’t. Again, I will come back to why this is so at the end, when I discuss their justification for the selection.

Another problem is their interpretation of the second dimension. The authors state that age and ABV correlate best for this dimension, but those correlations are actually very weak statistically. Note as well that there is not a big age or ABV difference between most of these whiskies to start with, and the study is hardly powered to look at these variables. Going through the results, I have to say these conclusions for the second dimension of the PCA seem very tenuous based on the actual analysis in the paper.

But here is the kicker – if you pull Buffalo Trace from the analysis, the second dimension correlates almost perfectly for bourbon vs rye (!).  Buffalo Trace is an outlier in the group, clustering strongly to the ryes. Without it there, you would have a nearly perfect correlation of rye to bourbon on the second dimension of the PCA.

What this means is if they had chosen to substitute another whisky for Buffalo Trace in the (incredibly tiny) bourbon sampling, they would likely have found a completely different result. Indeed, without Buffalo Trace in the mix (i.e., looking at only the other 9 whiskies), they most certainly would have concluded that rye vs bourbon is a main discriminator.

Why Did They Choose These Whiskies?

The authors main justification for their specific sampling of whiskies is that they were selected from ones used in a previous study to “span the space of nonvolatile constituents found in whiskies.” They cite as the sole reference a paper by the second author on this study: Collins et al, Profiling of nonvolatiles in whiskeys using ultra high pressure liquid chromatography quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (UHPLC-QTOF MS).

Now, first off, you might be thinking it is a bit odd to use a study of “nonvolatile constituents” as the characterization system to pick a subset of whiskies for a smelling-only sensory sorting study (!)

I will say that the earlier Collins et al HPLC/MS paper appears to be a well-designed and analyzed study looking at a larger number of American whiskies (63). Indeed, the analysis is even more thorough and robust that this paper. But the actual findings in that earlier paper seriously call into question the claim made here that 5 ryes and 5 bourbons are going to “span” that space.

Specifically, the Collins paper found that when removing craft whiskies, there is a difference between bourbons and ryes in terms of their nonvolatiles – but with significant overlap between the groups. So, depending on which specific whiskies you sampled for a subsequent smaller-scale study, you could produce any result you wanted (i.e., no difference, or a massive difference between bourbons and ryes – depending on which ones you picked).

Note that the Collins paper does not identify the individual whiskies, so there is no way for the reader to ascertain the selection bias this time around. But the authors had access to all this information.

Is there any reason to doubt their claim that they have chosen a reasonable “span”?  Unfortunately, there is. One particular interesting finding in the Collins paper is that while the whiskies of any given producer tend to cluster together (regardless of rye composition), there were very clear differences between producers in their PCA. In particular, there is one massive discriminator in the first dimension, where one producer was a huge outlier from all the others (who differentiate from each other to a varying extents in a second dimension).

Given this unequal pattern, how exactly did Lahne et al draw a representative span of producers?  If they included that one outlier producer from the earlier study, they would have heavily biased this study for the first dimension of their PCA. In particular, I wonder if that outlier was Jim Beam, since the pattern of an extreme outlier in the PCA is reproduced almost exactly here. If that outlier producer was Beam, then they have deliberately stacked the deck in this study by using a known outlier for 40% of the whiskies examined here.

But even if that is not the case, I don’t see how they could have chosen “evenly” among such divergent producers. Again, 4 of the 10 whiskies used in this study came from a single producer. That seems very surprising, given the strong variance between virtually all the producers reported in the earlier study.

There is a fundamental issue of lack of transparency here. The only way to verify their selection in this study is for the identity of the whiskies in the earlier Collins HPLC/MS study to be publicly revealed, at least for the current set of whiskies studies here. That way, we can all see exactly how they choose to assemble their smaller subset in this study, and verify its supposed representational basis.

Wrapping It Up

The key point that I made early in this commentary is that the participant and sampling design clearly prevents you from drawing any meaningful conclusions about the ability of people to discriminate rye from bourbon (i.e., that is NOT what this study was designed to test for).

But the bigger underlying problem here is the apparently non-representational basis of the whiskies they choose to study. Again, they had access to much more nonvolatile constituent information on these whiskies than they present publicly. And the reported levels of variance from their earlier work calls into question the very idea that a such a small set could possibly be representational here, as they claim.

Moreover, reviewing the results of this study, it is clear that the opposite finding (that is, a clear dimension of rye-to-bourbon differentiation) would have been obtained had 1-2 specific whiskies not been included. Given this, and the authors awareness of the distribution from earlier studies, it is critical that they provide a transparent explanation for their selection criteria, to show a clear absence of selection bias.

Moving forward for any further studies of ryes and bourbons, I would encourage these authors to move beyond their nonvolatile analysis, and consider known information on actual mashbill composition. While incomplete for all producers, there is enough information out there as to reasonably assign a range of American whiskies across a continuum of actual rye content. Further, they also need to test their assertion that actual tasting would not influence the results of any sorting paradigm, given the lack of evidence for this stance in the case of rye in bourbon.

 

So You Want to Be a Whisky Reviewer …

One of the first questions that comes up when someone is considering becoming a product reviewer is whether or not to provide a score – and if so, over what sort of range?

As discussed on my Flavour Commentaries page, providing a score or rating is hardly required in a product review. I personally avoid doing this in my flashlight reviewing (in part because technology is always advancing there). But if you are interested in scoring, you might find the personal observations (and data) from integrating whisky reviewer scores on this site interesting.

Scoring Systems

Most whisky reviewers tend to provide some sort of quality ranking. As explained on my Understanding Reviewer Scoring page, at its heart scoring is simply a way to rank the relative quality of all the products a given reviewer has sampled. As long as you are only looking within the catalog of reviews of that one reviewer, it doesn’t necessarily matter what category labels they are using for their rank.

A numerical score from 1-100? Fine. Star ratings from 1 to 5, with half-stars? No problem. Six gradations of recommended levels? Sure. Kumquats widths from 2.1cm to 3.3cm in 0.25cm increments? Okay, if that floats your boat. Personally, I’d love to see someone review to base hexadecimal (“Man, this limited edition is much better than the regular OB version – I’ll have give it an 0E”).

One problem with the diversity of scoring systems is that it may be hard to get a feel for how items compare to each other for a given reviewer – until you go through her whole catalog of reviews. Similarly, it would be hard to integrate the reviews of multiple reviewers on a given site (or across sites). This has led to some consolidated approaches for standardization. In the liquor industry, probably the most popular one is that developed by Robert Parker for scoring wines.

In this system, all wines receive a numerical whole number score between 50 and 100. The presumption is that anything below 50 is unfit for human consumption (i.e., swill). 50-59 is not recommended. 60-69 is below average. 70 to 79 is average. 80 to 89 is above average. 90 to 95 is outstanding. And 96-100 is extraordinary (and rare).

The benefit to this system is it is fairly easy to understand and relate to. Unfortunately, it still leads to a lot of variation in interpretation by different individuals – as shown graphically for whisky reviewers on my Understanding Reviewer Scoring page.

Still, if you were starting out as a reviewer, this isn’t a bad system to work from, as it provides a recognizable structure. But fundamentally, it is no better or worse than any other scoring system. From the perspective of someone running a meta-critic integration site, I can tell you it doesn’t really matter what you choose to use as scores/labels – what really matters is your consistency in using them.

Score distributions

Consistency of scoring actually encompasses a number of things. Is the reviewer applying scores in as fair a manner as possible across categories? Would the same product get the same score if sampled on another occasion?  In other words, is the reviewer showing good internal consistency in their scoring?

Few reviewers do repeated testing of the same sample (and almost none with blinding), so it is hard to know. Whiskies are also subject to considerable batch variations (for some of the reasons discussed here), which further complicates matters if the repeated sampling is done on different batches. I recommend you check out my Review Biases and Limitations page a discussion of some of the common pitfalls here.

But one way to address this consistency issue in the aggregate is to compare the distribution pattern of scores across reviewers. This is part of the larger correlational analyses that I did in building the Meta-Critic database.

The key points that I want to share here – as a guide for newcommers to reviewing – are:

  • whisky reviewers do not hand out scores in an evenly distributed manner
  • whisky reviewers are fairly consistent in how they deviate from a normal distribution

The above is true of all the whisky reviewers examined here, including those ostensibly using the Parker wine scoring scheme. As explained on my Understanding Reviewer Scoring page, all reviewers skew left in their distributions. This is shown graphically below in the frequency histogram of the Meta-Critic scores:

Distribution-MCAverage

In essence, you can interpret this distribution as pretty close to what the “average” or typical reviewer in my dataset looks like.  Again, see that earlier page for some examples of actual reviewers.

Note that I choose to present the Meta-Critic score using a standard scientific notation of one significant digit to the left of the decimal. Those who remember using slide rules will be able to relate. 🙂  Just multiply everything by 10 if you want to know what it would look like on the Parker scale.

Below are the current actual descriptive characteristics of the Meta-Critic score distribution.

Mean: 8.53
Median: 8.58
Standard Deviation: 0.41
Skewness: -0.63
Minimum: 6.93
Maximum: 9.52

While the Parker scoring system provides a nice idealized normal distribution in theory (i.e., min of 50, max of 100 and an average of 75) – in practice most reviewers deviate from it considerably.  I suspect grade inflation has a lot to do with this, along with a desire to please readers/suppliers.  But whatever the reasons, it is a common observation that all whisky reviewers seem to fit the above pattern.

So if you are starting out as a reviewer, you may want to consider trying to match your scores to a similar distribution – just so that your readers will have an easier time understanding your reviews in the context of others out there. Of course, nothing is stopping you from breaking the mold and going your own way.  😉

Range of Whiskies

The other thing I see a lot is reviewers “revising” their score range over time – which can be a problem if they have a lot of old scores to “correct”.

The source of the problem seems to be a sampling bias when they start out reviewing, and have limited experience of only budget to mid-range products. As they start reviewing higher-end products, they realize they are too “squished” in their scoring to be properly proportional.  For example, if you start out giving one of the most ubiquitous (and cheap) single malts like the Glenlivet 12 a 90+ score, that doesn’t leave you much room to maneuver as you start sampling higher quality single malts.

To help new reviewers calibrate themselves, here are how some of the more common expressions typically fall within the Meta-Critic Score, broken down by general category. Note that I’m not suggesting you bias your scores by what the consensus thinks below – but I just want to give you an idea of what the general range is out there for common whiskies that you are likely to have tried.

~7.5 whiskies
Bourbon-like: Jim Beam White, Rebel Yell, Ancient Age
Rye-like: Crown Royal, Canadian Club
Scotch-blend-like: Johnnie Walker Red, Cutty Sark, Ballantine’s Finest, Famous Grouse
Single-Malt-like: (there aren’t many that score this low)

~8.0 whiskies
Bourbon-like: Jack Daniels’s Old No. 7, Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Wild Turkey 81
Rye-like: Royal Canadian Small Batch, Gibson’s Finest 12yo, Templeton Rye
Scotch-blend-like: Chivas Regal 12yo, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Teacher’s Highland Cream, Black Grouse
Single-Malt-like: Glenfiddich 12yo, Glenlivet 12yo, Glenrothes Select Reserve, Tomatin 12yo

~8.5 whiskies
Bourbon-like: Wild Turkey 101, Basil Hayden’s, Bulleit Bourbon, Four Roses Small Batch
Rye-like: Knob Creek Small Batch Rye, Canadian Club 100% Rye, George Dickel Rye, Forty Creek Barrel Select
Scotch-blend-like: Johnnie Walker Blue, Johnnie Walker Black, Green Spot, Té Bheag
Single-Malt-like: Old Pulteney 12yo, Glenmorangie 10yo, Dalmore 12yo, Ardmore Traditional Cask

~9.0 whiskies
Bourbon-like: Russell’s Reserve, Maker’s Mark 46, Booker’s Small Batch, W.L. Weller 12yo
Rye-like: Lot 40, Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo, Whistlepig 10yo
Scotch-blend-like: (Not much makes it up to here, maybe Ballantine’s 17yo, Powers 12yo John’s Lane)
Single-Malt-like: Aberlour A’Bunadh, Amrut Fusion, Ardbeg 10yo, Talisker 10yo

Close to ~9.5 whiskies
Bourbon-like: Various Pappy van Winkles, some BTACs, George T. Stagg
Rye-like: High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Rye (closest Canadians: Wiser’s Legacy, Gibson’s 18yo)
Scotch-blend-like: nada
Single-Malt-like: Lagavulin 16yo, Brora 30yo, Caol Ila 30yo, Redbreast 21yo

As an aside, you may notice that some whisky categories get consistently higher or lower scores than others. As a result, I suggest you try to avoid directly comparing scores across categories (e.g. bourbons vs single malts), but focus instead on internal consistency within categories. This is why the Whisky Database is sorted by default by general category (and then flavour profile, if available), before sorting by score.

KumquatAgain, the above is just a way to help you calibrate yourself against the “typical” reviewer (as expressed by the Meta-Critic score).  Nothing is stopping you from going your own way.

But if anyone does decide to use kumquat widths as category labels, please drop me a line – I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

 

Whisky Prices World-Wide

A recent excellent series of price analyses by Michael of the Diving for Pearls whisky blog – entitled “Scotch Ain’t Dead Yet” – got me thinking about common perceptions of whisky pricing world-wide.  In particular, his second post about changes in US prices over time.

Like Michael, I too use wine-searcher.com to track typical current whisky prices (this is in fact the main resource for generating the “$” estimates in my whisky database). But this is supplemented by various Provincial liquor agency websites in Canada, as well as my own records during international travels (e.g., see my recent Whisky in Korea and Whisky in Japan articles). I have provided some very limited analyses of Canadian whisky volume and recent LCBO pricing here in Ontario – although if you really want to track LCBO prices over time, I suggest you try out the excellent LiQuery website.

My concern here is a bit different. One of the challenges to integrating reviewer scores is how each reviewer feels about prices, and whether or not they explicitly take prices into account with their scoring. As previously observed here, there is a weak correlation between scores and price (i.e., it isn’t as strong as you might expect). Cearly, we can all be influenced by price – after all, it is natural to associate more expensive with higher quality.

But another confound to this analysis is whether or not reviewers actually discount their scores on the basis of price (i.e., giving more expensive whiskies a lower rating due to a lower perceived value for money). I adjust for this in the analysis for the limited cases where it is explicitly made clear as part of the reviewer’s scoring method – but it’s hard to know how price affects everyone’s relative quality perceptions overall.

The other challenge is whether reviewers are using a very regional filter for price (i.e., their personal experience, locally). One thing I come across a lot in review commentaries are statements as to how relatively expensive certain classes of whisky are in the reviewer’s home country.  For example, it is a common complaint to note how much Japanese whisky has increased in price over the last couple of years (and how availability has dropped), due to excessive demand. It is also natural to assume that the whisky produced in one own’s country is relatively cheaper than imported whisky.

But are these assumptions valid, world-wide? It seems as if most reviewers imagine their target audience are those who experience similar pricing constraints as their own – which may not be the case, given the reach of the globalized internet. I’ll come back to this point again at the end.

It is of course difficult to accurately compare whisky prices world-wide, due to limited regional availability of certain classes and styles (and limited internet sales in some countries – especially Asia).  Currency fluctuations also wreak havoc in making general observations.  But I have followed a small basket of commonly available international whiskies world-wide in my travels (and online researches), and have found a few peculiarities over time.

First let’s start with the big picture: how much does a basket of widely available (i.e., largely entry-and mid-level) international whiskies cost from one country to the next? Ranked from lowest to highest price:

Japan << Canada = USA < UK < Taiwan << Korea

Note that ALL whisky in Japan right now is remarkably cheap, when currency-adjusted, due to the relative low value of the Yen (January 2016). Typically, Japanese, Canadian, American and UK whiskies currently sell in Japan for about half what they cost in the rest of the world (!).  For example, right now in Tokyo, I could pick up Jim Beam White for $12 CAD, JW Red or Crown Royal for $16 CAD, Glenfiddich 12yo for $29 CAD, and Hibiki Harmony for $48 CAD. Mind you, it wasn’t always like this – two years ago, most everything sold for only a slight discount compared to Canadian prices. And it may easily revert in a short while – again, that’s currency fluctuations for you.

But a key thing to note above is that Japanese whisky is actually as expensive to purchase in Japan as it is in other countries, in relative terms. Note that I am specifically referring to the commonly exported whiskies that I track world-wide. There are certainly cheaper domestic budget blends that are still affordable in Japan. But proportionately-speaking, quality Japanese whiskies available for export remain equally as expensive on their home territory as they do in Canada, the USA or the UK.

In contrast, Korea is one of the most expensive places I’ve found to buy whiskies – likely due to unusually high government taxes.

In any case, that’s the current big picture assessment.  But it gets even more interesting when you break it down by whisky type.

For this analysis, I will include a focus on the most populous Provinces in Canada (BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). I will leave out Taiwan and Korea, since I have less data (and the pattern doesn’t change much from above anaway). I will bold the host country in the listings below, for clarity. And as before, I am ranking countries/provinces from lowest price to highest price (from left to right).

UK whiskies:

Entry-level UK blends (e.g., JW Red, Ballantines Finest, etc):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level UK blends (e.g., JW Black, Chivas 12, etc):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = USA < BC = UK

Entry-level UK malts (e.g., Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie 12 DW, Laphroaig 10, etc):
Japan < UK < AB = USA < ON = QC < BC

Now that’s a surprise: on a currency-adjusted basis, the cheapest UK blended whiskies are actually relatively cheaper in Canada – compared to either the USA or UK.  But as you start to go up in quality (and price), the trend quickly reverses. By the time you get to entry-level malts, they are definitely cheaper in the UK, with Canada being noticeably more expensive. The exception is Alberta, which is typically the best place to pick up Scottish single malts in Canada (i.e., you can find typical USA prices).

I haven’t tracked medium and higher priced single malts in this basket, but my quick checks tell me this latter pattern persists (i.e., UK is cheaper, followed by USA, then Canada). So the presumption of UK reviewers that single malts are cheaper in their country seems to be true (except, of course, for Japan at the moment).

American whiskies:

Entry-level whiskies (e.g., Jim Beam White, Jack Daniels Black, Four Roses Yellow, WT, etc.):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level bourbons (e.g., Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig 12, Woodford Reserve, etc.)
Japan < USA = ON = QC <  AB = BC < UK

Again, Canada does surprisingly well price-wise for US bourbon, being equivalent (or cheaper!) on a currency-adjusted basis.  Unfortunately though, we don’t really get much of the top-shelf stuff here.  The few we do get are still quite attractive, especially in Ontario and Quebec (e.g., Bulleit 10yo is $50 CAD in Ontario, compared to an average USA price of ~$72 CAD). If the Canadian dollar continues on its current downward course, we soon may have American tourists visiting Canadian border towns for better deals!

Japanese whiskies:

Note that true entry-level Japanese whiskies don’t typically get exported – we are looking at a better class of whiskies here.

Mid-level whiskies (e.g., Nikka Coffey Malt/Grain, Taketsuru NAS/12, From the Barrel; Hibiki Harmony, etc.):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = UK <= USA = BC < Taiwan << Korea

Again, Alberta is the place to be in Canada to find reasonably-priced Japanese whisky. In some cases, the USA does as well as the rest of Canada or the UK, but it is somewhat variable.

I’ve added Taiwan and Korea back in the list above, as Japanese whisky is relatively easy to find in both places. You really pay a lot for it in Korea, though (I believe there is an additional surtax for Japanese goods).

Canadian Whiskies:

Entry-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal, Canadian Club, etc.):
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB = USA < UK

Mid-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal Black, CC Classic 12, etc.)
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB < USA << UK

Basically a similar pattern. Although there are some states in the USA where entry-level Canadian whisky is cheaper or comparable to here, for the most part the best deals on Canadian whisky are in Canada. Note that we actually export a lot of really cheap stuff to the USA that is not even sold in Canada. And we really don’t export much of the higher-shelf whiskies.

As you go up in quality (and price), Canadian whisky gets harder to find in the world – and proportionately more expensive when you can.  It’s an interesting finding that Alberta has worse prices on Canadian whisky, compared to the others (but the difference isn’t huge).

Korean whiskies:

No such thing, really.  Although there are a couple of domestic Korean brands (with a good number of expressions each), these are actually all sourced from imported Scottish whisky blends. The prices tend to be comparable to standard Scottish whiskies, and these domestic “brands” are not sold outside of Korea.

Given how popular whisky is in Korea, it’s actually a bit surprising to me how much it costs across the board there.

Taiwanese Whiskies:

Taiwan = Japan < AB < ON = UK < USA << Korea

I wasn’t able to find a lot of full bottles of Taiwanese whisky in Japan, so I’m really going more by miniatures above. You also don’t find a lot of Taiwanese whisky available in Canada. But the general trend is certainly that Taiwan is the best place to buy Taiwanese whisky (along with Japan). It was hard to find in Korea, and fairly expensive when I did.

Wrapping Up!

Ok, so what is the general take-home message from the above?

The general presumption that domestically-produced whisky is sold at lower prices than imports to that country is generally true – but only for the decent mid-level (and higher) expressions. At the entry-level, it can be surprising just how cheap foreign whisky can be – and domestic whisky can often be sold more cheaply in other countries.

Shop_LocalI know that’s not what advocates of “buy local” initiatives want to hear – but it can actually be cheaper for consumers to pick up higher quality products shipped from further away, compared to what is produced domestically. I’m personally struck by that every time I see the Ontario wines at the front LCBO – I can typically head to the Vintages section in the back of the store and get much better gold-medal winning French reds for the same price. Don’t get me wrong – we make a lot of decent wine here in Ontario – it is just typically  too expensive relative to the quality of imports that I can buy for the same price.

Getting back to whiskies, I suspect part of the reason is the differing tax regimes in different countries on different classes of goods. In all countries, the predominant determinant of final whisky price is government tax. So if governments decide to charge less tax for domestic products, the local consumer (and/or local industry) is better off. But surprisingly, this isn’t a given. Here’s a recent price mark-up sheet from the LCBO: note that the relative discount for Canadian whisky production is actually quite low (i.e., not that much better off than foreign imports).

Beyond taxes, there are other peculiarities at play. just look at how Alberta fares for Canadian whisky compared to Scottish single malts, or Ontario for American whiskies.  I am not sure what the reasons are for these apparent discrepancies – but it means that the savvy shopper can look out for what is the best deal where they live.

I also think it’s a good idea for whisky reviewers who factor price into their assessments to consider the relative price of whiskies world-wide. It’s certainly a fair approach to discount the rating of a given whisky based on its relative price – but that needs to be explicitly stated, and the price really should be considerate of the wider international reading audience, not just domestic. Of course, this is more work for all involved. Personally, I find it easier to ignore relative price (as best I can), and just focus on the taste and character when reviewing or ranking a whisky.

One final point to re-iterate, since it comes up a lot: surprisingly, decent Japanese whisky is expensive everywhere – both in its domestic market and abroad.  And it’s actually harder to find the higher-end stuff in Japan than it is elsewhere right now, as they seem to be bleeding their domestic market to meet international contracts. It will be interesting to see if this trend persists in the coming years. As I point out in my November 2015 Whisky in Japan article, a lot has changed there in less than two years!

WhiskyAnalysis Surpasses 600 Entries

Welcome to 2016!

It’s been a little over six months since I launched WhiskyAnalysis.com, and in that time the site has grown considerably.  I have nearly doubled the number of modern whiskies tracked in the Whisky Database – now exceeding 600 that meet the minimum threshold of at least 3 reviews.

The average meta-critic score for all whiskies that I track is currently 8.55 ± 0.56.

That includes almost 5,500 individual whisky review scores – all manually curated, to ensure the same whiskies are being tracked across all reviewers. And that number is an under-estimate of the work involved, as I also have to track the individual members of one of the two reviewer collectives that I include (which then gets combined into single composite score for that collective).

I also continue to add new reviewers to the database, where they meet the minimum requirements outlined here. There is a lot of great information on recent whiskies that continues to be developed and presented online.

I am also continuing to add my own whisky commentaries, with more detailed personal tasting notes now. Hopefully you find these reviews and the additional industry analysis articles useful!

Slainte,
Eric

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