Category Archives: Whisky Resources

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whisky in Japan, a lot of what you find reported online (and repeated on discussion forums) is often woefully out of date.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! 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 – 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!


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:


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 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, 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!


Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).


Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.


Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at


Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.




Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 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!


Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

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.


Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.


American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.


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.

Slainte, and happy holidays!



Whisky in Japan (November 2015)

February 2019: For a more up-to-date article, please see my Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective

Following up on my Whisky in Korea article, here is my recent experience of scouting out Japanese whisky in Tokyo.

My experience wasn’t all that different from Dramtastic’s back in May of this year – although the specific selections at different stores have changed. I too was staying in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo this time – and so made a point of visiting some of the same locations he tried. Sorry I couldn’t try them all, but I had limited time on a business trip.

Keio Plaza Hotel Konbini:Japan-1

First, a general comment – you can actually do okay for base expressions at a number of the larger Konbini (convenience stores) across Tokyo. Here is a pic from the whisky aisle of the Konbini located in the basement of the Keio Plaza Hotel where I was staying.

Top shelf was the Nikka Taketsuru NAS (500mL for 2,200 Yen) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (500mL for 3,080 Yen).

Next shelf was mini-bottles of the Nikka Taketsuru NAS, Yoichi NAS and Miyagikyo NAS, as well as the Suntory Yamazaki NAS and Hakushu NAS (all 200ml for 1,140 Yen).

Going down a shelf, you get the more budget whiskies: Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 905 Yen, 200mL for 285 Yen), Hi Nikka (700mL for 1,200 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,415 Yen, 500mL for 934 Yen, and 200mL for 468 Yen), and Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,680 Yen).

In terms of selection, sizes and prices, these are fairly typical of what you can find at most 7-eleven and Family Mart Konbinis as well. Of course, you will get more options (and better prices) at the larger dedicated liquor stores.

Bic Camera (East Gate of Shinjuku station):

Let’s start with the stand-alone Bic Camera, near the East Gate of Shinjuku station. Dramtastic found almost nothing there, but I did much better now. Let’s start with the miniatures. For Japanese whisky, I found:


Suntory Hibiki 17yo (50mL for 830 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (50mL for 720 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki 12yo (50mL for 780 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (50mL for 310 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (50mL for 390 Yen).

Note there was also a fairly good collection of Taiwanese whisky miniatures:

Kavalan Single Malt (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Podium (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask Strength (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask Strength (50mL for ~1,300 Yen)

Bic3And now for the full-size bottles, starting with the two top shelves:

Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,680 Yen), Suntory Hakushi NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony NAS (700mL for 3,880 Yen).

Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,780 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru 21yo (700mL for 14,500 Yen), The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,580 Yen).

Well, nice to see the Taketsuru 21yo there – one of my favourites! 🙂

Bic4Next two shelves down were the more budget entries:

Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 686 Yen), Suntory Royal (700mL for 2,640 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,330 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,020 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,080), Suntory Whisky 43 The Premium (700mL for 1,790 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 934 Yen).

Bic5Kirin Whisky 50 (600mL for 934 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend 45 (700mL for 1,450 Yen), Hi Nikka (720mL for 1,080 Yen), HiHi Nikka (720mL for 1,280 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (700mL for 3,380 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,680 Yen), Suntory Whisky White (640mL for 1,010 Yen), Suntory Royal Blended Whisky (660mL, for 2,660 Yen), Suntory Special Reserve (700mL for 1,980 Yen)

And the bottom shelf:

Bic6Kirin Boston Club 37 (640mL for 724 Yen), Kirin Boston Club 40 (640mL for 810 Yen), Robert Brown Special Blended Whisky (700mL for 1,310 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,120 Yen), Akashi Eigashima “red label” (500mL for 780 Yen), Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 934 Yen), Cherry Ex (500mL for 1,020 Yen), Whisky Koh-Kun “for highball” (600mL for 600 Yen), Mars Whisky 3&7 (720mL for 1,181 Yen), Mars Twin Alps (720mL for 1,550 Yen).

Not a bad haul overall for the current era of reduced availability – but I would have liked to have seen full size bottles of all the expressions. And of courses, a lot more aged expressions!

Isetan Department Store

Next, I headed over to the nearby up-scale Isetan department store in Shinjuku. Here you will find their whisky store in the basement food court (with tastings available). Like in Korea, large department store food courts in Japan are the places to go to get outstanding meals.

I was in a rush, but here’s what I found scattered around the whisky selection, in-between all the classic Scottish single malts and blends:


Suntory Yamazaki 12yo + Hibiki 17yo “gift pack” (50mL each, ~2,300 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony (700mL for ~4,100 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 4,104 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (700mL for 9,180 Yen).

Isetan2Mars blended “TSUNAGU” whisky (200mL for 3,780 Yen, 700mL for 7,560 Yen), Mars “Maltage” Cosmo (700mL for 4,537 Yen). Note that the “Tsunagu” is a special release bottled just for Isetan stores. Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL).

Again, I may have missed some in my mad dash through the store – but the selection here was definitely limited.

Also saw a few Taiwanese whiskies: Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique (50mL and 700mL), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL), and Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL). Sorry, didn’t get the prices on these.

Don Quijote (Roppongi):

One place that I have always done fairly well at are the larger Don Quijote discount stores (affectionately known as “Donky-ote” in Japan). The small store near the East Gate in Shinjuku had slim pickings, and not worth recording. Apparently there is a larger store a bit further out, but I didn’t have the chance to visit.

Instead, I headed over to my preferred Don Quijote in Roppongi. This store has an extensive selection of international and domestic whiskies (they even carry the standard Crown Royal from Canada, ugh). Let’s see what I found here, starting with the Japanese stuff on the top shelves:


The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,350 Yen), Yamazakura Fine Blended Whisky (700mL for 2,080 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 2,850 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,100 Yen).

Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,500 Yen, 500mL for 1,980 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,800 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen).

Don2Ok, not the highest-end stuff here – and you typically can do a bit better on prices at Bic Camera.

Next shelves down:

Nikka Black Clear Rich Blend (180mL for 380 Yen), Nikka Black Clear (180mL for 285 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kaukubin” (180mL for 458 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (180mL for 980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (180mL for 980 Yen)

Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 638 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend (700mL for 1,180 Yen), Kirin Whisky 50 (700mL for 1,050 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,315 Yen), Hibiki Harmony (700mL for 3,990 Yen).

Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 1,050 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 999 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 “The Premium” (700mL for 1,700 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Whisky white-label (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 950 Yen).

And for those who are really thirsty, there’s a couple of 4L options:

Suntory Torys Black (4000mL for 2,560 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kakubin” (4000mL for 5,410 Yen)

Tokyo Haneda (HND) International Terminal:

I was flying through Haneda on this trip, and checked out the 3 liquor-selling duty-free stores available past security.

The one directly across the security checkpoint had only a few mid-range options:


The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen). Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Gold & Gold “Samurai head” bottle (700mL for ~5,200 Yen).

Haneda2If you head down toward gate ~108, you find a smaller store with a different selection:

Suntory Yamazaki 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), SunShine 20yo (700mL), Kirin 18yo (700mL for 14,000 Yen), Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen).

Suntory Royal (700mL for 6,000 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky (700mL for 2,800 Yen), Suntory Torys “gift pack” of 3 bottles (3x200mL for 2,500 Yen).

Don’t be fooled by these “limited edition” 18yo Yamazaki/Hakushu – they are just the regular 18yo expressions marked up 3-fold as “travel exclusives” (i.e., you should be able to find them for ~18,000 Yen in native form). Nice way to fleece people at the airport, I guess!

The third duty free down by gate ~130 has the widest selection of international single malts, but nothing of significant note for Japanese whisky.

Final Word:

Ok, that was a pretty disappointed foray for the discerning single malt whisky drinker. Last time I was in Tokyo (January, 2014), I was seeing a lot more age-statement whiskies everywhere. I guess this just reflects the current international demand for Japanese whisky – there is little high-end stuff to be found on local store shelves, for the time being.


But don’t despair – at least you can get to try most things while you are there by checking out the Zeotrope bar in Shinjuku. This is a cool little whisky bar, running old silent movies against the back wall. It is a tiny hole-in-the-wall sort of place, but it stocks ~300 Japanese whiskies. I had a fun time there with colleagues. I particularly recommend the half-pour “tasting flights” as a great way to introduce newcomers to Japanese whisky. Check out the travelog review of Zeotrope on the Whisky Saga site.



I was also in Taiwan on this visit, but didn’t get a chance to try out any local liquor stores or bars. But here’s what I found at the duty-free at Taiwan Songshan airport (TSA). Note that this is not the big international Taipei airport, but the smaller one located near Taipei city centre.

There were plenty of Scottish single malts and blends, although only one Japanese whiksy – Hibiki Harmony “Master Select” (700mL for 2,650 NT$). Another example of a “travel exclusive” rip-off – although at least it’s only twice the normal Harmony price, not three times like the Yamazaki/Hakushus in Haneda.

But the star of the show was the Taiwanese whisky:

Taiwan-1Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,975 NT$), Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,550 NT$), Kavalan Single Malt (1000mL for 2,380 NT$), Kavalan Concertmaster (1000mL for 1,700 NT$).

Those are great prices for the Solists – especially the Sherry Cask gift set, at ~$90 USD!  Needless to say, I picked one up. 🙂  Keep an eye out for my upcoming review.




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