While not necessarily a house-hold name, Aberlour is widely perceived among scotch enthusiasts as a consistently good choice – and one of the best value plays among highland/speyside single malts. Indeed, I have sometimes seen Aberlour referred to as the poor man’s Macallan, due to the similar composition and flavour profile for many of their expressions.
The double cask matured version of the Aberlour 12 year old is made from a mix of traditional oak and sherry casks, and is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. It retails for $65 CAD at LCBO, making it one of the most affordable single malts available here. Note that there is a separate non-chillfiltered (NCF) version of the 12yo, but that is not available in Ontario.
The Aberlour 12yo Double Cask has recently garnered a fair bit of publicity in Canada, as it was recently selected by the Speaker of the House of Commons as his “selection scotch” for use at official functions. Many in the Canadian whisky community complained that a scotch whisky was selected over a Canadian whisky for this official role.
Here is what the Meta-Critic database has to say for this whisky, relative to others of similar style.
Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured: 8.38 ± 0.15 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Aberlour 12yo Non-Chill-Filtered: 8.80 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan Three Wood: 8.26 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.34 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.57 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.45 ± 0.27 on 16 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.58 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Glenfarclas 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition: 8.38 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Glenmorangie Lasanta: 8.40 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 12yo Fine Oak: 8.47 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Although towards the lower end of the range of average Meta-Critic scores, it is also the cheapest of all the above whiskies – and so does seem to represent good value for money.
I was given a bottle of this malt for Father’s Day recently, so I thought I would share my tasting experiences here.
Nose: Sweet pear apple (red delicious) and lighter sherry fruits, like plums and maybe a touch of raisins. Has a mouthwatering “juicy fruit” aroma. Light body otherwise, and not as malty as I expected (more cake-like, if anything). Very slight nose hair burning sensation if you inhale too deeply.
Palate: Same fruits as the nose, but they seem a bit diluted here. A faint touch of spice coming in now (mainly cloves). Still getting the cake and fruit sensation throughout. Light body overall, with a somewhat watery mouthfeel. Would probably have benefited by a higher ABV, as there isn’t all that much going on at this low proof. A touch of bitterness creeps in at the very end. Certainly on the delicate side for sherry matured.
Finish: Medium length. Not overly sweet – reminds me of exhausted juicy fruit gum once the sweetness has given out (and you are left with just the subtle, spent fruitiness). A touch of cloves persists to the end.
The Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured reminds me a bit of Auchentoshan Three Wood or the BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood – in all these cases, there is a fairly gentle underlying base spirit. If anything, I suspect the Aberlour 12 spent less time in sherry casks than the others, but it is still a good introduction to the Aberlour house style. A good place to start, and something of the opposite extreme from the “sherry bomb” A’bunadh.
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.
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.
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).
Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion
One 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.
Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.
A 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 WhiskyAdvocate.com.
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.
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!
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.
Canadian 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.
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).
Knob 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.
Welcome to one of the best known “sherry bombs” – the Aberlour A’bunadh.
From Gaelic, a’bunadh means ‘(of) the origin”, or “the original”, and is meant to honour an earlier style of whisky making at the speyside distillery Aberlour. Pronounciations are always tricky, but the full name of the distillery and whisky would best be pronounced a-ber-LAU-er ah-BOON-ar.
A’bunadh is a cask-strength single malt, produced in limited run batches. For this reason, each batch has a batch number instead of an age statement, with a variable absolute alcohol by volume (typically, ~59-61% ABV). They make several batches a year.
One of the distinctive features of A’bunadh is the exclusive aging in first-fill Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts. I’ve seen various estimates online, but it appears that each batch is blended from barrels in the 5-25 year old range. Note that while it is widely believed that there is significant batch-to-batch variability (see below), all would qualify as “sherry bombs”, given the exclusive sherry cask aging.
Given the heavy focus on statistics on this blog site, an interesting question is how best to incorporate the batch-based A’bunadh into the meta-critic whisky database?
Given the large number of batches each year – and the corresponding limited number of reviews for each batch – I initially considered simply collecting scores on a per reviewer basis. So, if a reviewer had sampled multiple batches, I would average their scores across those batches (thus producing a single score per reviewer). As always, I would limit batches to those produced in the last ~5 years or (i.e., from batch ~30 and on up), to be consistent with other whiskies in the database.
Now, you could argue that this method would obscure any underlying pattern in natural batch variation. So I decided to first look at reviewers who had scored multiple batches. Surprisingly, I found very low variation across batches from each of these reviewers. Indeed, for reviewers who had scored a good number of A’bunadh batches (n>6), the standard deviations of their scores varied from ~0.10 up to ~0.25, per reviewer. Thus, despite the commonly held view that individual batches of A’bunadh are highly variable, you don’t see much variance in scores among at experienced reviewers. As such, I think it is worthwhile considering what an average across batches looks like, for all reviewers:
Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviewers
Clearly, this is a popular whisky, with a well above-average meta-critic score for its class (cluster A, of the ABC super-cluster). It also has a below-average standard deviation across reviewers, compared to other whiskies in my database.
But that isn’t the end of the story – you need to consider all patterns in the data. Specifically, while reviewers generally look favourably on all batches of A’bunadh, they do have their relative preferences. And more importantly, there seems to be some consistency in the relative rankings across reviewers.
To explore what I mean by that, let’s take a look at all A’bunadh batches scored individually, across all reviewers. For this, I am only reporting below modern batches for which I have at least 4 individual reviews.
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 30): 9.00 ± 0.17 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 32): 8.89 ± 0.72 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 33): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 34): 8.93 ± 0.32 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 35): 9.06 ± 0.24 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 36): 9.05 ± 0.52 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 39): 9.12 ± 0.24 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 47): 8.88 ± 0.41 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 48): 8.84 ± 0.57 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 49): 9.24 ± 0.08 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 50): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 4 reviewers
Keeping in mind the relatively low number of reviews, you can see that almost all of these fit quite well within the overall mean and SD of the all-batch data presented earlier (which is, by definition, based on the largest number of reviewers). But one batch really stands out for me, as it is a full SD unit from the overall mean – batch 49.
As you can see above, batch 49 gets the highest score (9.24) and lowest standard deviation (0.08) of any specific batch in my database. More than that, when looking over percentile rankings for the five reviewers who have tried multiple batches including this one, batch 49 is consistently their highest ranked A’bunadh version.
Below is what I find in the glass for this batch. Again, expect some variability from batch to batch, but all should fall within a general flavour range:
Nose: Big and bold sherry flavours, with raisins, figs and chocolate most prominent. Some other dark fruits are below the surface (e.g. cherry), but you will need some water to bring them out. Neat, there is a fair amount of alcohol burn here (i.e. it singes the nose hairs if you inhale too deeply). Water helps on this front as well.
Palate: Sweet and delicious, with more of the fruits showing up now – especially cherry and raspberry. Also orange marmalade and dark chocolate. Mouthfeel is thick and oily, with a syrupy nature. Just a touch nutty as well. With water, it opens up further, with rich notes of Christmas cake, fig pudding, and creamy milk chocolate. Becomes like Christmas in glass, including those chocolate orange candies.
Finish: Long. While there is an initial alcohol burn (subdued with water), a fruity sweetness persists for awhile. Unfortunately, a bit of bitterness creeps in over time (almonds? coffee?) – which is the one thing holding this expression back a bit for me.
General consensus on the subject of water is hard to come by here, as it seems that many prefer drinking it neat, at cask strength. Personally, this is one where I think water greatly improves the experience. And not just a few drops – a significant amount of water is actually better. Taking it down to ~50% ABV was my personal sweet spot, taming the burn and bringing out more of the fruit flavours. There were rapidly diminishing returns beyond that though – by ~45% the whisky definitely felt flooded. You will want to experiment to see what works best for you.
I am glad I was able to pick up a bottle of batch 49 while it was available, and am now on the hunt for samples of other batches to compare. Batch 49 is certainly very flavourful, with no hints of the sulphur that sometimes mars some sherry cask batches. It is an outstanding value for $95 CAD at the LCBO.
To get the experience of those who have sampled many batches, I suggest you check out André, Patrick and RV at QuebecWhisky.com, Serge and WhiskyFun.com, or Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be. Given the generally high scores, it is hard to find a truly negative review of any A’bunadh batch. When it does happen, it is usually due to the detection of sulphur compounds (see for example Oliver’s experience of batch 45 at Dramming.com).
If you can find it, the Aberlour A’bunadh is a strong candidate to consider for the “sherry-bomb” corner of your whisky cabinet.
After the drought of new single malt releases through the spring and summer, the LCBO is finally starting to stock new expressions for the ramp-up to the holiday season.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed ~40 new single malt expressions on the LCBO website (well, new for this calendar year at least). I’ve just completed an update of my database, and most of these are now included in there. Many of these are higher-end aged expressions, but there are some good (and not-so-good) bargain choices to consider as well. More on that in moment …
Sadly, things aren’t so great on the bourbon front. Here, we continue to lose the mid- and high-end range of popular brands, as US producers adjust their allocations (and cut some international destinations – like Canada – out of their distributions altogether). This de-listing of good quality (and reasonably well-priced) bourbons is a very disturbing trend. See this post on Whisky Buzz for some examples.
But back to happier news – there are lots of new single malts for the Scotch lover to consider. The one sour note here is price – exchange rates do not currently favour the Canadian dollar. And the LCBO has always had some peculiar pricing habits, where certain “popular” brands and/or expressions get walloped with higher-than-typical prices (I’m thinking about you, Balvenie).
When it comes to the higher-end stuff, I will let you browse the database for your own recommendations. But at the lower-end, there are some interesting new releases to consider, especially in the NAS segment (no age statement).
If you are very budget-conscious, the LCBO is now carrying the Tomatin Legacy for $43.25. That makes it one of the cheapest single malts out there, with a respectable (for the price) metacritic score of 8.25 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews. That is better than the previous entry-level Tomatin 12 yo at $52.25 (7.8 ± 0.63 on 12 reviews). Keep in mind though that the overall average score for my current whisky database is ~8.5. But again, at $43, that is a simple single malt for less than some blends.
Going up in price, the Jura Brooklyn caught my eye – although my interest soured a little at $79.95. Isle of Jura expressions don’t typically get a lot of love from aficionados, but the flavour descriptions of this one sound interesting. I am only currently tracking one review so far across my metacritic group, although it was fairly positive and above average for that reviewer (60th percentile). One to watch, perhaps, if you have a high risk tolerance.
As always, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask remains a screaming good deal at the LCBO at $72.95 (9.19 ± 0.18 on 14 reviews). But if you want to try something a little different, the new 2015 edition of the Laphroaig Cairdeas is now out ($99.90). Again, it is early for the reviews, but the same reviewer above really liked it (85th percentile score). From the description, it sounds like a slightly fruitier and sweeter version of a typical Laphroaig ~10-12yo (apparently a nod to an earlier style of production). Could be a nice gift under the tree for a classic Laphroaig lover.
Finally, the (new for the LCBO) Kilchoman Loch Gorn gets impressive scores in this heavy-peat class, at 9.12 ± 0.14 on 10 reviews. But is sadly rather highly-priced at $175.95.
For those who don’t like peat (but not so frugal as to go for the Tomatin Legacy), I suppose you could try the new NAS Glenlivet, the laughably-named “Founder’s Reserve” at $52.95. The metacritic score of 8.32 ± 0.19 is based on just 3 reviews, so proceed with caution here. Most scuttle-butt I’ve seen online is that it is inferior to the entry-level 12yo at $56.95 (8.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews), when tested head-to-head. So I would easily expect that early Founder’s Reserve score to drop as more detailed reviews come in.
On that note, I’m sorry to say to are likely going to want to skip the new NAS Auchentoshan American Oak at $54.50 (7.75 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews). That is quite a bit lower scoring that the entry-level 12yo at $59.95 (8.33 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews). Indeed, personally I’d recommend you skip all the entry-level NAS in this flavour class and go right to the Auchentoshan 12yo, if you are looking for an inexpensive and unoffensive dram.
As a step-up from there, the newly-released Glenfiddich 14yo Rich Oak sounds interesting, at $65.95 (8.68 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews). That’s quite a score step-up from the entry-level 12yo (8.1 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews), and for only $11 more. Indeed, there are a good number of new Glenfiddichs to consider this year, although most are not as attractive in price.
Aberlour is another one that is typically well-priced at the LCBO, and the new 16yo at $89.95 seems reasonable (8.75 ± 0.19 on 9 reviews). But for $5 more, the A’Bunadh remains your best best in this family, with an overall average across all batches of 9.01 ± 0.22 on 15 reviews. And keep your eyes peeled to see if you can find any old stock of the very well-ranked batch 49 (9.22 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews).