Tag Archives: Blended malt

Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old

To complete my series of Taketsuru “pure malt” bottlings from Nikka, I am happy to present the Taketsuru 17 year old.

Like the 12 yo and 21 yo bottlings that I previously reviewed, the 17 yo is a long-standing member of the age-stated Taketsuru line.  As discussed in my more recent no-age-statement (NAS) review, the 12 yo was discontinued in favour of the new NAS bottling a couple of years ago. This was in response to the Japanese whisky boom, and Nikka’s need to preserve limited (and dwindling) stocks of aged whisky.  While the 17 and 21 year olds are technically still available, they are understandably quite hard to find “in the wild,” given the high demand and low availability.

I sampled this one recently at the Low Profile whisky bar and cafe in Athens, Greece. Incidentally, you might be interested to see the logo used by the bar on all promotional materials (i.e., signage, menus, coasters, etc), as shown on the right. That is the classic photo of Mastaka Taketsuru himself, just as shown on all the Taketsuru bottlings.

Masataka Taketsuru is one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. The Taketsuru line is named after him, and is an example of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (aka vatted malts or blended malts). These are malt whiskies blended together from multiple distilleries under Nikka’s control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).

Bottled at 43% ABV.  Here is how the Taketsuru 17yo compares to other Nikka whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.26 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.26 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.49 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity nose – fruitier than the others in this family. Fresh fruit cocktail, with plenty of pear and apple, plus berries. Also citrus (lemon in particular). Honey. No real smoke (I detected more in the other age-statement versions). But there is a slightly funky sourness that I can’t quite place (and could be coming from the peat). A bit of minerality. Also seems a bit oakier than the others in this family.

Palate: Vanilla joins the light honey notes from the nose, and banana adds to the fruit. Sweet tart candies. Some caramel starts to build over time. Light wood spices, with a touch of pepper. Somewhat watery mouthfeel. That odd sourness returns on the swallow, suggesting to me that it is indeed from the peated element.

Finish:‎ Medium short. Again, the oaky wood spices increase in prominence. There is a lingering light sweetness, balanced by a touch of bitterness from the wood.

This is certainly another decent expression in the Taketsuru line – roughly in-between the old 12 yo and 21 yo expressions in terms of quality, in my view. I like the heightened fruitiness, but the that funky sour note and bitterness is a bit off-putting. As such, I would rate it slightly lower than the Meta-Critic average. But it is still well worth the pour if you can find it anywhere.

Jan of Best Shot Whisky is a big fan, with well above average reviews from  Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews, Uncle Tobys on Reddit, and Andre, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. Jim Murray gives it an average score, while Serge of Whisky Fun and TOModera and Texacer on Reddit give it below average scores.

The Infamous 22 Year Old Blended Malt

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

I am surprised at how strongly the ex-bourbon character comes through here, at all levels of the tasting experience. I expected the (Macallan) sherry character to dominate more. The lightly peated malt also plays very much a supporting role – but one that comes across more as meaty instead of smokey/peaty.  Despite not being quite what I expected, I find I really enjoy this one – it’s full of surprises. Personally, I’d score this around ~8.9 on the Meta-Critic average scale.

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

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikka Taketsuru NAS

As part of their restructuring earlier this year, Nikka has discontinued many of the entry-level age expressions of their major lines. These have been replaced with no-age-statement (NAS) offerings, including for the flagship Taketsuru line.  Fear not, the 17yo and 21yo age expressions are continuing, but you can no longer get the 12yo – it has been replaced by the NAS in retail channels.

As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to see how it compares to the 12yo I still have on hand. 🙂

As I explained in my earlier Taketsuru 12yo and 21yo review, this line is named after Masataka Taketsuru – one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. These whiskies are examples of what is known in Japan as “pure malts”, as they blend together malt whisky from multiple distilleries under Nikka control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).

So, how does the new NAS version compare to the 12yo it is replacing? Here are the stats from my Whisky Database:

Taketsuru 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews
Taketsuru NAS: 8.15 ± 0.61 on 3 reviews

Keep in mind the relatively low number of reviews on the new NAS.  While suggestive of reduced quality on the NAS version, it is hard to know until more reviews come in.

Having personally done a head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparison of the two, here are my general observations:

Nose: The NAS is a whole different experience from the 12yo.  I had previously observed that the 12 yo had a nice and clean nose, with no off-putting aromas (although it was a little boring).  The NAS, in contrast, has a pleasant sweetness to it, with both a sweet oaky aroma and the definite smell of berries.  I was pleasantly surprised by this development, and was looking forward to the (relatively rare) possibility that this new NAS could actually exceed the original age statement.

Taketsuru.NASPalate: And this is where that optimistic hope was quickly dashed. 😉 The NAS is very light tasting, almost watery in fact (despite the higher 43% ABV).  It definitely lacks the complexity of the 12yo, and feels like much younger spirits are being used. Particularly disappointing to me is the subtle smokey note of the 12yo is completely gone now – this is a very basic malt on the palate, with less going on.

Finish: I previously found that the 12yo had a disappointingly quick finish, turning slightly bitter on the way out. The same is true for the NAS – it turns into a completely forgettable experience fairly quickly after sipping.

To wrap things up, while the nose of the NAS is nice (and beats out the 12yo in direct comparison), the taste of the whisky is less interesting. While I always felt the 12yo deserved a slightly higher score than the consolidated Meta-Critic average, I definitely agree with the slightly lower relative ranking of the NAS version in comparison.

Price-wise, I was able to find the standard NAS 700mL bottle for about 2500 Yen in Tokyo last month (~$30 CAD). Currently not carried at the LCBO, but the SAQ has it for $83 CAD (which seems a bit steep). I bought the old 12yo at the LCBO in mid-2014, when it was $70 CAD. Note that in Japan you can also easily find the smaller 50mL, 200mL and 500mL NAS sizes as well. Prices are described on my Whisky in Japan article.

Given its wide availability, hopefully there will be more reviews on this NAS soon. In the meantime, I recommend you do not rely on reviews of the 12yo as a proxy for this new NAS – it really is a completely different whisky.

 

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo and 21 yo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These relative scores track very well with my experience.

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

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

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