Tag Archives: Blended

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Overview: 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 Editions

In addition to my stand-alone reviews, I thought I would provide an overview for this NHL Alumni series, as multiple editions (each featuring multiple whiskies) are now available – with more soon to be released (see below). This will help you better understand the context for these whiskies, and the individual “score cards” below will allow you to quickly focus in on ones that may be interested to try.

As context, when the first batch of J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series whiskies were released in late 2018, many Canadian whisky enthusiasts seemed to dismiss these as some sort of marketing gimmick. The relatively low ABV (and low price) of the first edition of this series may have suggested to some that they were just re-branded existing Wiser’s blends.

But the integral role of Dr Don Livermore in creating of each individual whisky caused a few of us to take notice. As Master Blender of Corby, Dr Don is responsible for all the recent premium J.P. Wiser’s releases, including the Rare Casks series and the highly sought-after annual Northern Border Collection releases. Dr Don offers blending classes at Wiser’s distillery in Windsor, Ontario – and took each of the star players these whiskies are named after through the process, so that they could really contribute to the composition of their namesake blends.

Somewhat like playing cards, each edition of this NHL Alumni series features three whiskies named after star hockey players. The profits from the sales of these whiskies are shared evenly with the NHL Alumni Association, to help support former players in need (i.e., those who didn’t receive star contracts). Each bottle retails for a very reasonable ~$45 CAD in most jurisdictions.

The first 2018-2019 edition (Guy Lafleur, Wendel Clark and Lanny McDonald) was initially released with a limited Provincial distribution – reflecting the home team of the individual players in their heydays. But these are now all available in Ontario. Well, all except for the popular Guy Lafleur edition, which seems to be sold-out everywhere (as November 2019).

For whisky geeks, these bottlings are a lot of fun. Each whisky has an age statement, and detailed distilling and barreling details specific for that release. For hockey fans, there are many “easter eggs”, or nods to the individual player’s career highlights for each bottle. Many of these are not immediately obvious, so I thought I would detail them all here for the first three sets of releases. Even the labels are pretty neat, with artsy illustrations of the players, with their names in their dominant team colours. And I can’t help but notice that while they use the Gooderham & Worts bottle shape, the cork cap has a black round disc top – like a hockey puck, perhaps?

I’m frankly still at a bit of loss as to why these Alumni series whiskies continue to fly under the radar of most Canadian reviewers. But it looks like Wiser’s is starting to circulate the third release to some online reviewers ahead of time, so that’s probably a positive sign they will start promote these more extensively. All my reviews come from bottles I’ve personally bought.

At this time (November 2019), most of the original 2018-2019 edition and the first batch of the 2019-2020 edition whiskies are available in Ontario at the LCBO. These can also be ordered directly from J.P. Wiser’s website (for delivery in Ontario only). A second batch of 2019-2020 edition whiskies, reflecting a series of team Captains, is due out shortly.

Again, there are relatively few reviews of these to date. In addition to checking out my detailed reviews (links below), I recommend you check out the ones from the Toronto Whisky Society, and Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Chip the RumHowler. Mark Bylok has also recently recorded a series overview on his whisky.buzz podcast.

But to help you compare, here are my Meta-Critic results for the Alumni series so far, compared to other inexpensive Wiser’s products:

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Darryl Sitter 10yo: 8.31 ± 0.11 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Guy Lafleur 10yo: 8.49 ± 0.09 on 5 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Lanny MacDonald 9yo: 8.46 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Larry Robinson 6yo: 8.52 ± 0.49 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Paul Coffey 7yo: 8.11 ± 0.11 on 2 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Wendel Clark 11yo: 9.01 ± 0.09 on 5 reviews ($$)

J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.39 ± 0.20 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Deluxe: 7.98 ± 0.53 on 11 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Rye: 7.93 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.28 on 11 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Special Blend: 7.34 ± 0.85 on 6 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye: 8.53 ± 0.25 on 9 reviews ($)

2018-2019 Edition – Wendel Clark, Guy Lafleur, and Lanny McDonald

Wendel Clark

Grain: 100% unmalted rye
Age: 11 years old
ABV: 41.6%
Distillation: mainly column-distilled, but some column-then-pot distilled as well
Oak: mainly ex-Bourbon, but some Virgin Oak casks as well

The defining feature of this whisky is the 100% rye, meant to reflect Clark’s bold, aggressive playing style for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This release certainly has some similarity to the classic Lot 40. Indeed, a portion of it seems to be exactly that – that is, 100% unmalted rye, first column-distilled then distilled a second time in a copper pot still, and aged in virgin oak barrels. But the extra age is appreciated (Lot 40 has no age statement, assumed to be a few years younger). According to the whisky.buzz podcast with Dr Don, most of this Wendel Clark release is from column-distilled, 100% unmalted rye aged in ex-bourbon barrels. The unusual ABV of 41.6% is a reference to the classic Toronto telephone area code.

While it lacks some of the floral elements of Lot 40, it is pretty close in quality overall, in my opinion. Personally, I find Lot 40 has a slightly more intense rye finish, but this Wendel Clark is definitely fruitier and sweeter overall (especially in the mouth). The extra age helps with the complexity too, making this one an outstanding value in the Canadian whisky class. My top draft pick from among the first two editions of the Alumni series so far.

Please see my full review for detailed tasting notes.

Guy Lafleur

Grain: 100% corn
Age: 10 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: double-column distilled
Oak: mix of ex-Speyside, ex-rum, and ex-Bourbon casks

Guy Lafleur was the star right-wing forward for the Montreal Canadians during my youth, renown for his “Flower Power.” The defining feature of this whisky is “smooth” – a reference to Lafleur’s gracefulness on ice. The 10-year old age statement is a nod to his retired Canadiens jersey number. And the roughly 1/3 proportion of cask types is an homage to his many hat-tricks.

This is a very easy-drinking and sweet whisky. Indeed, you could potentially mistake it for a lighter rum instead of a whisky – the rum influence is just that great. Slightly less spicy than the current Pike Creek 10yo, but with a lot of similarities due to the rum barrels. A crowd pleaser for sure, this one was a particularly big hit with my Dad when I gave it to him for Father’s Day. It is a little too much on the sweet side for me personally though.

Please see my full review for detailed tasting notes.

Lanny McDonald

Grain: mainly corn, followed by wheat (a significant amount), and a touch of rye
Age: 9 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: corn is unknown (likely column distilled), wheat is pot distilled, and rye is column distilled
Oak: used Canadian whisky barrels for the corn and rye distillates, Virgin Oak casks for the wheat

The relatively heavy use of wheat in this whisky is a nod to Lanny McDonald’s youth, having grown up on a farm in Alberta. Apparently, it was also his personal preference among the whiskies he sampled for consideration in this blend. The 9-year old age statement refers to Lanny’s jersey number, when he played right wing for the Calgary Flames.

A sweet whisky overall – but also with character, in a dry and dusty style. Very easy to drink, but with a different flavour profile than typical – with  strong nutty, tobacco and anise flavours (presumably from the wheat).

Wheat whiskies can be hard to do well. I haven’t been a fan of most Canadian wheat-heavy whiskeys, but I rather like this one. It is “softer” than a wheated bourbon, but brings in some of the same elements (likely thanks to the virgin oak casks). If you are in the mood for black licorice, this would fit the bill.

Please see my full review for detailed tasting notes.

2019-2020 Edition – Larry Robinson, Darryl Sittler, Paul Cofey

Larry Robinson

Grain: mainly corn, with a significant amount of rye (19%)
Age: 6 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: column distilled
Oak: six barrel types – used Canadian whisky barrels, double charred, ex-Bourbon, rum, Port and French Oak casks

Larry Robinson, aka “Big Bird”, was my favourite defenceman as a kid, during the heyday of the 1970s/80-era Montreal Canadiens. The hockey link here is in reference to Larry’s 6 Stanley Cup wins – the whisky is 6 years old, and 6 different barrel types went into the blend. The French Oak was apparently included because he played in Quebec (although that one seems a bit tenuous). The relatively high amount of rye (19%) reflects his jersey number. The relative complexity of the blend supposedly reflects Larry’s “intellectual” and serious attention to detail, both in the game and in the blending process.

This is a very distinctive Canadian whisky – it has a lot more going on than you would normally come across. It is also the most complex of the Alumni series to date. I find the diverse cask influence works really well on the nose, with a great balance of aromas across classic winey, bourbony and oaky styles. Tasty enough in the mouth as well, but with a real jolt of spice that I wasn’t expecting from the nose. Unfortunately, the finish is where this one fizzles out for me. A bitter oak influence asserts itself on the finish, along with a lack of character that is consistent with the younger spirits that went into this blend. I think it would have benefited from longer aging, and a bit less overt oakiness.

Please see my full review for detailed tasting notes.

Darryl Sittler

Grain: mainly corn, followed by rye (6%), wheat (4%) and malted barley (4%)
Age: 10 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: all column distilled
Oak: mainly used Canadian whisky barrels, some ex-Bourbon casks

Judging from my Toronto friends, it seems like Darryl Sittler was one of the most popular centres to ever play for the Maple Leafs. The main hockey link here is the age and grain proportions of this whisky, both referring to a record-setting 10-point night for Darryl: the rye/wheat-barley mix reflects his number of goals (6) and assists (4) in that 1976 game. The overall style is said to be a “well-rounded” whisky, much like his famed playing style.

Probably the most traditional “Canadian Rye” whisky of the lineup so far, with its column-distilled grainy character and somewhat standard blend of grains. It has a strong corn-forward presence on the nose, but with a surprising amount of dry rye spices in the mouth (and dusty/earthy notes as well). It has been a while since I’ve had Wiser’s Deluxe, but this seems a like an amped-up version of it to me (and so, may also be best suited as mixer). It’s not bad by any stretch, but also not very distinctive either.

Please see my full review for detailed tasting notes.

Paul Coffey

Grain: mainly corn, with some rye (7%)
Age: 7 years old
ABV: 48%
Distillation: all column distilled
Oak: used Canadian whisky barrels, ex-Speyside, ex-Bourbon, and Virgin Oak casks

A star defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers, the obvious connection to Paul Coffey is his jersey number (7), which relates both the age of this whisky and the proportion of rye in the blend. The noticeably higher proof at 48% ABV also refers to his historic 48 goal season (a record for the most goals scored by a defenseman in a single season). The higher proof is probably also a nod to his high-energy form of play.

I haven’t picked this one up, but will update this review if I get a chance to try it. From the reviews online, it seems like this is sweet and light, with a fairly typical Canadian whisky profile – except for the higher strength. But the higher strength (and young age) may be an issue, as I’ve seen complaints that it is also very “spirity.” It gets the lowest scores to date for the Alumni series.

2019-2020 Edition – Mark Messier, Yvan Courneyor, Dave Keon

A second batch of 2019-2020 edition is coming out this winter, featuring a series of team Captains (as a nice touch, the jersey “C” are all clearly visible in the player illustrations).  Advanced information is provided below, with more details to follow once known. One editorial comment: I’m glad to see the age statements have gone back up to >10 years!

Mark Messier

Grain: a blend of corn, rye, and malt barley
Age: 11 years old
ABV: 47%
Distillation: single column distilled rye and malt, double distilled corn
Oak: ex-Bourbon and ex-Speyside casks

Mark Messier was a star centre for the Edmonton Oilers, and as Captain, led both the Oilers and New York Rangers to Stanley Cup victories. This whisky is aged 11 years in honour of Messier’s jersey number, and is bottled at 94 proof in honour of Messier winning the cup in 1994 in New York.

Yvan Courneyor

Grain: a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley
Age: 12  years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: single column distilled rye, column and then pot-distilled rye (i.e., Lot 40), double distilled corn, and column distilled malt.
Oak: a mix of used Canadian barrels, ex-Bourbon and Virgin Oak casks

Yvan “The Roadrunner” Cournoyer was a right-winger and Captain of the Montreal Canadiens from 1975-78. But his peak years were 1971-73, and he was famous for his role in the 1972 Summit Series – scoring three goals, and providing the crucial assist for Paul Henderson’s series-ending winning goal. And that is one of the nods here – apparently the mix for this whisky was “inspired” by the 1972 recipe for Carleton Tower, an old Hiram Walker blend. It is aged for 12 years in honour of Cournoyer’s retired jersey number. This is the whisky that I am most curious to try when this new edition is released, with its base of Lot 40 rye.

Dave Keon

Grain: a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley
Age: 14 years old
ABV: 45%
Distilling: single column distilled rye, column and pot-distilled rye, single column distilled malt, and double distilled corn.
Oak: a mix of used Canadian barrels, ex-Bourbon, Virgin Oak, and ex-Speyside casks

Dave Keon was a centre forward for the Maple Leafs – from an earlier generation in the early-to-mid 1960s when they won several Stanley Cups (prior to his being named Captain). Aged 14 years in honour of his jersey number 14. The ABV is also a nod to Keon’s 45-point first season. And the 4 types of oak casks are a nod to his 4 Stanley Cup wins. Another one to watch out for!

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Larry Robinson 6 Year Old

This is my second review of the 2019-2020 Edition of J.P. Wiser’s NHL Alumni series of whiskies. Following up on the inaugural release of the 2018-2019 Edition, a second offering was released in the spring of 2019. This 2019-2020 Edition features whiskies named after Larry Robinson, Darryl Sittler, and Paul Coffey. As before, each of these players was involved in helping select component whiskies for their namesake blends. The profits from the series are shared evenly with NHL Alumni Association, to help support former players in need. As before, these all retail for ~$45 CAD in most jurisdictions.

I was generally impressed with the 2018-2019 Edition, which all featured age statements and more distilling and barreling details than typically found in Canadian whiskies (especially at this price point). All whiskies are designed by Dr Don Livermore, Master Blender of Corby (who owns J.P. Wiser’s). He is the person most directly responsible for all the popular limited/special releases coming out of Corby (i.e., the Rare Cask series and the Northern Border Collection).

At this time (November 2019), all of the original 2019-2020 Edition whiskies are widely available in Ontario at the LCBO. These can even be ordered directly from J.P. Wiser’s website (for delivery in Ontario only).

Let’s check out the composition of this Larry Robinson whisky:

Grain: Mainly corn, with a significant amount of rye (19%)
Age: 6 years old
ABV: 40%
Distillation: column distilled
Oak: six barrel types; standard used Canadian whisky, double charred, ex-Bourbon, rum, Port and French Oak

Larry Robinson, aka “Big Bird”, was my favourite defenceman as a kid (Bobby Orr was a bit ahead of my time ;). Larry played with the Montreal Canadiens during their second heyday in the late 1970s, early 1980s. The hockey nod here is in reference to Larry’s 6 Stanley Cup wins – the whisky is 6 years old, and 6 different barrel types went into the blend. The relatively high amount of rye (19%) reflects his jersey number. The French Oak was apparently included because he played in Quebec (although that one seems a bit tenuous). The relative complexity of the blend supposedly reflects Larry’s “intellectual” and serious attention to detail, both in the game and in the blending process.

This is definitely the most diverse whisky in the series so far. Indeed, I suspect it is also the most expensive to produce, given the costs associated with all those special casks. Certainly a first to see a Canadian whisky at this price point feature French Oak and Port casks.

Here are how this whisky compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, relative to the other Alumni series releases, and some whiskies with similar profiles.

J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Darryl Sitter 10yo: 8.31 ± 0.11 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Guy Lafleur 10yo: 8.49 ± 0.09 on 5 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Lanny MacDonald 9yo: 8.46 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Larry Robinson 6yo: 8.52 ± 0.49 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Paul Coffey 7yo: 8.11 ± 0.11 on 2 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series Wendel Clark 11yo: 9.01 ± 0.09 on 5 reviews ($$)

Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.57 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($)
Bearface Triple Oak 7yo: 8.39 ± 0.19 on 7 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.53 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend: 8.30 ± 0.71 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine French Oak Cask Finished: 8.25 ± 0.81 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.65 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Unity: 8.95 ± 0.29 on 4 reviews ($$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: A lot going on here, reflecting all the casks that went into it. Winey notes strike me immediately, with grapes and dried fruits. Next up are the sweet rum and bourbon notes, heavy with molasses and brown sugar. Candy floss. The drier oak spices come next, musty and leathery, and then the baking spices. No real off notes. A lot to dissect here, but very sweet and fruity overall. Nice!

Palate: Sweet bourbon notes to start, with caramel, vanilla and cola. Then the winey grape flavours, maybe a bit nutty. But a real hit of rye spice – cinnamon and cloves especially – dominate mid-palate. Dill and a touch of cayenne pepper. Finally, the woody oak notes drift in on the swallow, with dry paper/cardboard. Hotter than I expect for 40% ABV, I think the youthful spirit is asserting itself here.

Finish: The sweet caramel and vanilla notes make a resurgence, as do the drier rye spices. But the bitter oaky notes – and the dry paper taste – dominate. I’m afraid this one loses some points on the finish for me.

This is a very distinctive Canadian whisky – there is a lot more going on than you would normally come across. I find the diverse cask influence works really well on the nose, with a great balance of aromas across classic winey, bourbony and oaky styles. You pick up more and more aromas as you spend your time with it. Tasty enough in the mouth as well, but with a real jolt of spice that I wasn’t expecting from the nose.

Unfortunately, the finish is where this one fizzles out for me. The heavier oak influence asserts itself on the finish, along with a general lack of character that is consistent with the younger spirits that went into this blend. I think it would have benefited from longer aging, and a bit less overt oakiness. But it is still a nice whisky overall, with a very complex nose.

There are relatively few reviews to date. I recommend you check out the ones from the Toronto Whisky Society and Jason of In Search of Elegance. Mark Bylok also covered this whisky in his recent series overview whisky.buzz podcast. I find the Meta-Critic average score to be appropriate. Still widely available in Ontario.

Super Nikka (aka Nikka Super Rare Old)

This blended Japanese whisky has been around since 1962, in a distinctive glass bottle clearly meant to represent a whisky still. Created to commemorate the death of Masataka Taketsuru’s beloved wife Rita, I understand that the early batches were sold in hand-blown bottles.

In Japan, Super Nikka is generally perceived as being a higher-end NAS Nikka blended product – or, if you prefer, it is an entry-level premium blend. According to Nikka, Super Nikka is meant to represent a classic style of easy-to-drink blended whisky (i.e., “smooth and mellow”) with only slight touches of peatiness and sherry. The exact mix is unknown, but Nikka reports that this blend contains a “high proportion” of malt from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. I have also seen it stated that Nikka Coffey Malt and Coffey Grain whiskies (from their Coffey column still at Miyagikyo) are also present in the blend.

By the way, the nomenclature for this whisky gets a little confused online. In Japan, most people tend to call it Super Nikka (although Nikka Super is also fairly common). But because the label says (on different lines, in different orders on different batches): Nikka Whisky / Rare Old / Super, many list this whisky as Nikka Super Rare Old, or some similar variant

In Japan, you will commonly find 700 mL bottles of Super Nikka for ~3500-4000 Yen, or $40-45 CAD. This is double or even triple the cost of true entry-level Nikka blends (only found in Japan). But this is still a discount compared to other well-known Nikka offerings like Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt or any of the Nikka single malt NAS bottlings. Again consistent with its premium blend status, Nikka sells miniature 50 mL bottles of Super Nikka – but for the entry-level price of ~350 Yen each, or $4 CAD. I picked up a miniature bottle for that price on a trip to Tokyo last year.

When I first start noticing full-sized bottles it in Canada a couple years ago (only in Alberta and BC), it typically retailed for a reasonable ~$70 CAD, about the same price as the 500 mL bottles of the well-respected Nikka From The Barrel. For some reason though, Super Nikka shot up to more than twice that price at most liquor stores in Calgary last year (with no change in the price of other Japanese whiskies). It has since come back down to its more typical lower Canadian price.

Super Nikka is bottled at 43% ABV. It is clearly coloured, to a classic medium amber whisky colour.

Here is how it compares to other Nikka whiskies in Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.53 ± 0.17 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.44 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.75 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.36 on 25 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Gold & Gold: 8.18 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.56 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.75 ± 0.24 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super Nikka: 8.13 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS 8.59 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly basic, with honey and caramel. The fruit tends toward over-ripe banana and stewed apples. Touch of nuts. Vaguely herbaceous and mildly earthy (dry earth). Unfortunately, there is also a spirity aspect that I typically associate with grain whisky blends, along with some light acetone. Nothing offensive, but nothing very interesting either – mild and pleasant enough.

Palate: Similar to the nose, starts with light honey and caramel, with maybe a touch of chocolate. Apple, pear, and various tropical fruits. Some lemon citrus shows up. Peanuts. Rye spices (cinnamon and cloves). A good mix of malt and grain, aspects of both are clearly present. Mild, but with a bit of heat on the swallow.

Finish: Medium short. Oak asserts itself a bit. Some mouth-puckering astringency creeps in. An artificial aspartame note shows up at the end (and very little else).

As an aside, I purposefully didn’t look up the composition of this blend before sampling – and am thus (pleasantly) surprised that I accurately picked up on the faint peat and sherry notes on the nose and palate.

This is a good example of an easy-drinking, simple blend. Not offensive but not much character beyond the faint hints of peat and nuts. It also fizzles out quickly on the way out. While you could easily drink it neat, I think it is probably more suited for mixers. Not surprisingly, I find the similar-style but more expensive Nikka Premium 12yo, Nikka Pure Malt Black and Nikka Coffey Malt all better quality. Nikka Gold & Gold is probably the best comparable.

I think the Meta-Critic average for this one is very reasonable, and matches my own assessment. Among reviewers, the only truly “super” positive scores I’ve seen come from Jim Murray and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Most reviewers give it scores comparable to mine, including Oliver of Dramming.com, Serge of Whisky Fun, Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews, and Andre of Quebec Whisky. The lowest score I’ve seen come from Thomas of Whisky Saga and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review.

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky

This is an example of something I expect we will see more of: blended world whiskies.

Actually, this has been going on for a long time – but rarely disclosed previously. There are often significant loopholes in various country labeling laws that allow makers to import whiskies from other countries and either bottle it as a local brand without modification, further age it and bottle it, or even blend it with their own distillate and then sell it as if it were their own product.

For example, American producers have long been known to acquire quality Canadian rye whisky on contract, and then brand under their own name (e.g. Masterson’s and Whistlepig both use Alberta rye, etc.). And a lot of cheap Canadian corn whisky finds its way into low cost blends in a number of countries. This might help to explain how Canada is ranked as the world’s third largest whisky producer after Scotland and the USA, despite its much smaller global bottle brand footprint.

With the increasing global conglomeration of drinks producers, we are seeing more and more cases where multiple distillers are now actually owned by the same parent company. This is facilitating the overt blending of expertise, materials, and actual whisky across the world. I’ve begun to notice a definite trend with how often Canadian whisky is now increasingly coming up acknowledged in world blends.

Getting back to the actual whisky at hand, Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky is not actually a new release – and it has always been a “world blended” whisky (although that aspect has become more explicitly pronounced on the label in recent years). For those of you who are interested, I will cover the labeling history of this whisky in an addendum at the end of this review.

This whisky is from one of the leading independent Japanese distillers, Ichiro Akuto, founder and master distiller of Chichibu (and heir to the Hanyu family of distillers). He has been making malt whiskies at his Chichibu distillery for a number of years now, sometimes blended with older Hanyu stock. This Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky has been around for the better part of a decade, and has always included malt whisky from Chichibu (and potentially Hanyu originally, but not any longer), blended with whiskies from unidentified distilleries in the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland.

Note that that there are other variants of this whisky out there – including various Limited Editions, single cask-strength bottlings, and premium Japanese-only blends. But it is the standard “white label” Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky that is being reviewed here. Again, see my addendum below for how the label and title has changed over time. Online, Ichiro describes this blend rather poetically as consisting of the “heart of Japanese whisky complimented by the major whiskies of the world.”

According to my searches, the foreign whiskies are reportedly aged in casks in their home countries for 3-5 years, and then the whisky is shipped to Japan and aged for another 1-3 years at Chichibu distillery. The proportion of malt to grain in the final blend is unknown, as are the relative country contributions. The final blend is commonly bottled in 700mL bottles at 46% ABV – although some bottles have reported 46.5% ABV, especially the 750mL ones (again, see the addendum below). It is never been chill-filtered, nor coloured.

The current average world-wide price is ~$105-$110 USD per bottle, according to several online sites (which seems rather high for a blended NAS whisky of unidentified distilleries). I was fortunate enough to find this bottle in a little whisky shop in Kyoto for ~$50 CAD earlier this year. It has recently showed up at the LCBO for $115 CAD – which seems very reasonable, by global price standards.

Here is how it compares to other whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Compass Box Delilah’s: 8.45 ± 0.30 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Hedonism: 8.50 ± 0.60 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.54 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.47 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kirin 50% Blend (Fuji Gotemba): 8.42 ± 0.42 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.75 ± 0.87 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.53 ± 0.17 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.07 ± 0.37 on 13 reviews ($$$)

Now for what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity, with peaches, bananas, apples and pears. Also a bit of lemon. Vanilla and a light caramel note. Cereal grain. Also has a spirity mineral quality that I sometime find on grain blends. Touch of acetone at the end. Pleasant enough. Water brings up the fruit and adds rye spices, so I recommend a touch.

Palate: Vanilla and tropical fruits similar to the nose. Light rye spices (cinammon and nutmeg) and caramel come up quickly. Hazelnut and chocolate. Candied ginger (gingerbread?) with some chili powder and black pepper. Tobacco leaf. An aromatic spirity note comes up again, but hard to place. Quite nice, except it is a bit hotter in the mouth than I expected. The graininess shows up in the swallow, as it spreads thinly across the tongue. Water enhances the caramel considerably, without affecting the burn.

Finish: Medium long. Honeyed sweetness at first, but with cinnamon and cayenne pepper building over time. Banana, hazelnut and ginger linger the longest. Puckering astringency on the finish, with lemon pith returning.

More interesting on the palate than the nose suggested, with some hidden depth (I really dig those nutty chocolate and candied ginger notes). It’s a bit like a Nutella-banana sandwich! Spicier than I expected as well, with definite heat.

While the sweetness will appeal to standard blend drinkers, the spiciness here is more in keeping with certain distinctive malt blends. A touch of water enhances the sweetness, but it really doesn’t need much – and water won’t help for the spiciness/heat. I expect the Canadian contribution to this blend was a flavouring rye, as opposed to a weak corn whisky!

This is not exactly an easy-drinking, relaxed blend. While it does have some typical sweetness to it, you have to like your whiskies spicy to really appreciate it.

I would give this an overall average score, which is maybe a point higher than the current Meta-Critic average shown above. That is quite good for a blend, even one in this price range (as you can tell from the other scores above). It has a surprising array of flavour notes on the palate, although it is still a bit spirity. Definitely a good buy for what I paid for it in Japan.

Among reviewers, the highest scores I’ve seen come from Thomas of Whisky Saga and Aaron of Whiskey Wash, who both rated it quite highly. My own average score is about comparable to Susannah of Whisky Advocate. Similar but slightly less positive are TOModera and zSolaris of Reddit. Devoz of Reddit and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review give this white label version lower scores.

Addendum for whisky geeks:

How the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain “white label” has changed over time

I am not sure when this whisky was first released, but I have found images of an early 750mL bottle that had the following label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Whisky
This whisky is matured by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his product
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
750mL                                                                      46.5% ALC by VOL

I don’t have copies of the back label, but later versions certainly indicated Canada, America, Scotland, Ireland and Japan as the source of the “worldwide” whisky.

By 2012, I have several examples of a new revised label for 700mL bottles that show a few differences, highlighted in bold below (my highlights):

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

You can see the words “blend” and “blended” now feature prominently throughout, replacing less clear terms. This is largely semantic however, since any whisky including both malt and grain whiskies is by definition a blend. Note the lower ABV of 46%.

Within a few years (I don’t know the exact date), a subtle change is added to the title:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

This is quickly followed by a more substantial change:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu
World Blended Whisky

This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

As you can see, the “Blended Whisky” title is moved to the a new line, and “World” is added before it. The label also drops any reference to Hanyu single malt, and now refers only to Chichibu single malt. This is hardly surprising, as I can’t imagine much (if any) of the highly-prized Hanyu barrels ever being used for this blend. Finally, the phase “worldwide blended whisky” has now become “World Blended Whisky”

I don’t have an exact date for the changes above, but I know by October 2017 you start seeing the current label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

The only different here is that the “Chichibu” line in the title has been dropped, and this is now simply “World Blended Whisky.” The label is otherwise unchanged. Note that the label above is still exactly what is presented on my February 2019 bottle from Kyoto, and on the recent October 2019 release at the LCBO.

Before I close, I have noticed one unusual variant out there, on the version launched in Norway in November 2018:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46.5%vol

The “46.5%vol” was actually a sticker with red text placed over the original “46%vol”. Whether this was done by Chichibu or by Vinmonopolet (the Norway state liquor board) I don’t know. The LCBO here in Ontario does extensive testing of all products before it releases them (including measuring actual alcoholic strength), and I have seen signs of ad hoc label changes here for this reason. So it is possible Vinmonopolet assessed the strength as higher than what Chichibu reported, and forced the add-on sticker change.

Does that mean all versions of this whisky are actually 46.5%, but simply rounded-down and labelled as “46%” ever since the early label change in 2012?  Or was the Norway release atypical in some way, similar to earlier batches?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Bearface Triple Oak 7 Year Old

Bearface is a rather unique new Canadian whisky. I first noticed in a local LCBO early this year, due to its rather rakish bottle design (a little risque for Canadian whisky). But my interest was piqued by the fact that it won a Gold medal at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards in January 2019 – a competition where the medals are based on blind tasting by experienced Canadian reviewers (including several in my database).

My curiosity was further aroused by Mark Bylok’s interview with Andres Faustinelli, the creator of this whisky and master blender for Mark Anthony Wine and Spirits’ new Bearface brand.  Simply put, the approach to creating this whisky places the emphasis at the opposite end of where most whisky producers do.

To break that down, most new whiskies come from new or established spirit distillers, who focus first on the quality of their distillate (i.e., choice of grains, distillation methods, etc). Type of wood aging comes next (through acquired casks), followed by blending and potential use of special “finishes,” to impart additional flavours and complexity to the final whisky. Typically this involves some period of additional aging in casks that previously held other spirits, often fortified wines like Sherry or Port. See my Source of Whisky Flavour for more information on the general process.

The point is that whisky making is generally driven the whisky producers’ interests and needs, and they source the casks they want to age their whisky in accordance with those needs. As explained in the above interview, the process for this new whisky was reversed, by looking at it from a wine-makers point of view (who typically focus on quality oak, for limited exposure periods with the wine). Here, they chose a fairly neutral corn-based spirit from a distiller on contract (already aged 7 years), and experimented with extensive exposure of the same whisky to multiple types of barrels, as they would do for wine aging.

This intensive finishing approach arose, as Mr. Faustinelli put it, when they chose to “ask the wrong people the right questions” – in other words, looking to see how those involved in making wine would seek to solve problems whisky makers face when try to produce the final flavour profile.

To try and summarize succinctly, high proof whisky produced by a Collingwood distiller (i.e, presumed Canadian Mist) entered into a mix of French Oak and American Oak casks that previously held classic fresh Bordeaux red wines (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), at a BC winery. Both the different varietals and the different oaks imparted different characteristics to the spirit. After finishing for 3 months, the whisky was transferred to fresh Hungarian Oak casks, where the wood was previously “seasoned” outdoors. The virgin Hungarian Oak barrels were then “toasted” to one of three char levels, and used no more than 3 times for this project (for 2 weeks exposure to the whisky each time). Despite the limited time, this added a lot more overtly oaky notes. The outcome of all these multiple finishing experiments are then separated into flavour “families”, and blended in a specific proportion for this inaugural Triple Oak Canadian whisky. I recommend you listen to the interview for the the full picture, or check out Jason Hambrey’s detailed post on In Search of Elegance for details of the wood.

Let’s see how it currently performs in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other relevant Canadian whiskies:

Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.58 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($)
Bearface Triple Oak 7yo: 8.37 ± 0.13 on 6 reviews ($$)
Canadian Club Sherry Cask: 8.15 ± 0.66 on 8 reviews ($$)
Canadian Mist: 7.57 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist Black Diamond: 8.02 ± 0.54 on 6 reviews ($)
Collingwood: 8.02 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.54 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.19 ± 0.48 on 17 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.66 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Unit:y 8.97 ± 0.28 on on 4 reviews ($$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.34 ± 0.35 13 reviews ($$)
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask: 7.91 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$)

Bottled at 42.5% ABV. I picked it up for $40 CAD at the LCBO earlier this year. Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Very sweet corn syrup. Buttered popcorn, slightly scorched. Condensed milk. Sweet tarts. Toasted marshmellows. Lots of fruit, but different than you would expect – black and red currants, cranberries. Dried apricot. Perfumy floral, with violets. Light rye spice, cinnamon especially, but also with hint of chilies. The toasted oak really comes through, there is no hiding the complexity here. No real off notes from the distillate, the extra age (longer than most Canadian whiskies) presumably helps with that. Off to a good start.

Palate: Initial corn sweetness hit, gets creamier on the swallow. Definitely a sweet one, not really getting the tartness from the nose any more. Indeed, not really getting any of the subtle notes here – the toasted oak comes on really strong mid-palate, and dominates everything else. More like burnt marshmellows and popcorn now, and scorched wood. Has a silky texture, with good mouthfeel. Rye spices comes up at the later palate, but soft and not at all “hot” or sharp. Fairly mild, consistent with the alcohol level.

Finish: Again, the woody notes definitely dominate initially on the finish, but with the lighter rye spices holding their own. Some of the dried fruit notes return eventually. Coffee grinds. Some astringency, but not the initial tartness from the nose. More going on here than a typical Canadian corn whisky, that’s for sure. Some sticky sweet corn syrup lingers until the end.

I’m at a bit of loss of how to rank this whisky.  On first sampling, I really liked some of the additional flavours that have been introduced by the fresh wine cask aging – despite the heavy corn-syrup base sweetness. But the toasted Hungarian oak is just proving too overwhelming on the palate for me, and I find it falls too flat and over-oaked for my tastes. Probably more of an after-dinner whisky, especially for those of you who like heavy wood influence (I typically don’t). While I appreciate the innovation, I expect this whisky would appeal to a limited audience.

There aren’t many reviews of this whisky out there yet, but the most positive are Davin of Whisky Advocate and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, with above average scores.  This is followed by more average ratings by Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre and Martin of Quebec Whisky. No reviews on Reddit yet, but kinohead did provide a fairly positive set of impressions here. My own assessment would be at the low end, closer to Andre and Martin. Definitely a unique experience in the Canadian whisky scene, but a bit of a niche product. I am however curious as to what they will come up with next.

 

Johnnie Walker White Walker

An interesting gimmick for a Game of Thrones-marketed version of Johnnie Walker – enter the White Walkers!

Fans of the series will be well familiar with the role these feared undead soldiers play in the series, with their characteristic blazing blue eyes. This effect is mirrored when placing this bottle of whisky in the freezer – a bright blue is revealed across the craggy design of the bottle, including the (now presumably) dead and glowing gentleman Johnnie, as well as the series ominous “Winter is Coming” motto. Conveniently, Johnnie Walker recommends you drink this whisky cold.

Diageo went all out with its GoT tie-ins, releasing limited-edition single malts from across their stable of distilleries. Most of these cost a premium over standard official bottlings, so the JW White Walker is a chance for the masses to get in on the fun with this blended whisky. Of course, that’s if you think merchandising ties-in go well with whisky (as one prominent reviewer on Reddit eloquently put it – when first asked if he planned to try this new blend – “I’d rather join the White Walkers”).

From what I can find online, it seems ~20% of the blend comes from malt whisky (with Clynelish and Cardu having been identified), and rest is grain whisky. Bottled at 41.7% ABV (a touch higher than industry standard). It sells for a comparable price to Johnnie Black around here (i.e., just under $60 CAD).

There is no doubt the bottle design and marketing is clever – but what of the whisky itself? As an aside, the recommendation to serve it from a frozen bottle is never an encouraging endorsement. But I’ve long found Johnnie Walker Black to be a quite decent (and consistent) choice in this price range, and even prefer it over a few entry-level malts. So let’s see how all the GoT-inspired Diageo offerings do in my database, starting with the Johnnie Walker line-up:

Johnnie Walker White Walker (GoT): 7.57 ± 0.81 on 11 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.41 ± 0.62 on 23 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Platinum Label: 8.44 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve: 8.28 ± 0.31 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: 8.61 ± 0.45 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Johnnie Walker 15yo Green Label: 8.55 ± 0.36 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker 12yo Black Label: 8.25 ± 0.47 on 24 reviews ($$)

As you can see, although the response is more variable than most, the consensus view of this whisky is much closer to JW Red than it is to JW Black (despite the comparable price). How do the more expensive GoT-branded single malts do?

GoT House Baratheon Royal Lochnagar 12yo: 8.39 ± 0.27 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GoT Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve: 8.78 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9yo: 8.81 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Stark Dalwhinnie Winter’s Frost: 8.47 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Targaryen Cardhu Gold Reserve: 8.02 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
GoT House Tully Singleton Glendullan Select: 7.92 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$)
GoT House Tyrell Clynelish Reserve: 8.83 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GoT The Night’s Watch Oban Bay Reserve: 8.58 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)

If you check my database for comparable official bottlings for those distilleries, you’ll see these consensus scores are not great for the price range. The Lagavulin, Talisker and Clynelish offerings seem to be the best quality and value (although again, you can find higher-ranked bottles for less).

And now what I find in the glass for JW White Walker, comparing both a standard room temperature pour and one from a frozen bottle:

Nose: At room temp, the main note is light, sweet apple juice. Light caramel. Slightly floral (but no discernible specific flower), with a touch of hay. Maybe a little nutty. Pleasant, with happily no real off notes. As expected, the pour from the frozen bottle has very little aroma – it is thin and pale in comparison.

Palate: Orange citrus comes in now, adding to the apple juice. Light caramel and butterscotch build. A bit of toasted char, coming across like toasted marshmellows. Cinnamon and a touch of cloves. Thin palate, with typical light, grainy mouthfeel. Some bitterness rises on the swallow. Served cold, I get even more butterscotch (oddly enough), and the mouthfeel thankfully gets thicker and oilier. Sweetness picks up too, with more candied marshmellow fluff. Actually prefer it cold, to be honest.

Finish: The bitterness from the swallow builds quickly, and grows with time (especially prominent on the back of tongue). It has an artificial taste, somewhat plasticky. This is starting to remind me of JW Red now. Some of the spices remain, not that that helps much. Fortunately, when served cold, the bitterness is greatly attenuated. And cinnamon spice seems enhanced (although that may just be be from selectively dampening the other off-notes).

It’s been a long time since I’ve tried Johnnie Walker Red, but the finish is really reminding me of it here. Frankly, that unpalatable bitterness is the main problem – and so, chilling definitely helps. Of course, you will lose the light floral and fruity notes when its chilled, but that is probably worth the trade-off (and caramel sweetness is enhanced). Definitely relegated to the mixing rack for me.

I find the consensus Meta-Critic score a little harsh – especially served cold, where it is more palatable. Among reviewers, the most positive reviews come from Jonny of Whisky Advocate and unclimbabilty of Reddit, both of whom give it an overall average score (and put it on par with JW Black). The Whiskey Jug gives it a fairly positive review (although with a rating that puts it in the bottom 10th percentile of all whiskies he’s reviewed). Indeed, that’s a common theme, with many other reviewers (myself included) putting it in the same bottom 10% category, along with the guys at Quebec Whisky and Jan of Best Shot Whisky Reviews. The worse scores (i.e., the bottom 1st percentile) come from Serge of Whisky Fun and washeewashee and HawkI84 of Reddit.

On the plus side, almost everyone who has tried both agrees it is better than JW Red. But few consider it on par with JW Black, where it is comparably priced.

 

Hibiki Blender’s Choice

The discontinuation of the classic Hibiki 17 year old last year was a blow to fans of this classic Japanese blended whisky. But it was softened somewhat in Japan with the release of a new Japan-only “premium no-age-statement” Hibiki Blender’s Choice last September.

For newcomers to Japanese whisky, all the recent hype can seem a bit mystifying. It is not like most expressions from heavy-weights Suntory or Nikka (or the smaller players) have some unique flavour profile. They are mainly well done examples of lighter scotch-style whiskies (both malts and blends), with a focus on the integration of delicate flavours. While certain fruit and wood notes can be distinctive, it is less a question of kind than it is of consistent quality. As discussed in my recent 5-year retrospective, I’ve watched Hibiki 17yo rise from common availability (at 7,500 Yen), to near impossibility to find (at >40,000 Yen) – due to demand, and a relative lack of aged stocks.

While this new release lacks an age statement, word spread quickly that it consists of whiskies aged 12-30+ years of age, with an average age of around 15 years. As such, people naturally hoped this would be a replacement of sorts for the discontinued 17yo. But this was clearly not the intent, as a few wine cask-aged whiskies were also included in the blend, to produce a new and distinctive profile.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice was initially intended for interior bar sale only, through Suntory’s wholesale/industry distribution channels in Japan. Of course, it didn’t take long for bottles to find their way onto some store shelves – albeit at much higher prices than the rumoured internal bottle price of 10,000 Yen.  In my recent travels in Japan, I came across only 3 stores that carried it (one without a box for 17,800 Yen, and two stores with a box for 19,800 Yen and 29,800 Yen each). The boxes suggest they were intended for retail sale. I picked one up at the lower 19,800 Yen price.

There are not many reviews of this one yet, so I’m not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But here is how some other Hibiki expressions compare in my database.

Hibiki 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.24 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.76 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki 21yo: 9.14 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.37 ± 0.52 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.29 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Personally, I’d give both the 17yo and Harmony slightly higher scores than the average ratings above. The 12yo and Master’s Select average scores sound about right to me, and I find the 21yo score is a bit inflated.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for my bottle of Hibiki Blender’s Choice:

Nose: Reasonably sweet, with rich toffee notes and some vanilla. I get a distinctive rice pudding sensation, which is novel. Green apple, pineapple, and peaches. Also those same fruit flavours in Meiji Japanese gummies (the ones made with 100% fruit juice). Canberries and red currants. A dry bark note (woody), which is distinctive. A little rubber and a touch of glue. Something else I can’t quite place, likely from fresh wine casks.

Palate: The toffee, creamy rice pudding and green apples from the nose dominate. The cranberries come across more as dried now. Apple and pineapple juice. Wood spice picks up, mainly lighter all spice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Glue note turns slightly ashy (which I like). Very distinctive for an unpeated whisky. A touch astringent on the swallow.

Finish: The woodiness returns immediately on the swallow – not a perfumy Mizunara oak, but a softer and gentler tree bark type (if that makes sense). Caramel from the wood picks up too. Dry and astringent overall, keeps you sipping repeatedly. The fresh wine casks come through again, but subtly – reminds me of those Sweet Tarts candies from my childhood.

This is distinctive for a Japanese whisky. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it – it is very different from the old Hibiki 17yo. But it grows on you. Of note, my wife (who liked the old 17yo and is typically not a fan of wine cask finishes) quite enjoyed this one as well.

Probably the closest thing to Blender’s Choice in my experience is Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton. Both have a relatively gentle base spirit, with clear influence of fresh red wine casks. The Irish offering is a bit sweeter though, and not as drying on the finish as this Hibiki release.

Again, there are not too many reviews of this one, but you can check out Nomunication for a detailed review, and Forbes for a brief one. Personally, I’d score it one point less than the 17yo – so, say a 8.8 on my personal version of the Meta-Critic scale. A very nice whisky, I found it growing on me on successive tastings.

Cutty Sark Prohibition

Cutty Sark is an entry-level blended scotch whisky (and one that I find is more popular with an older generation of drinkers). Not a fan myself, but I have been curious about this quite different small-batch version of Cutty Sark known as Prohibition.

The name is apparently a nod to the fact that the brand was popularly smuggled into America in the 1920s. The whisky is presented in a very retro black glass bottle with a cork top, typical of bottles during that era. Surpisingly, it is bottled at 50% ABV, which is impressive for an entry-level blend (regular Cutty Sark is standard 40% ABV).

It is not always available, but sells ~$36 CAD in Ontario/Quebec when it does show up, compared to ~$27 for regular Cutty Sark (which is pretty much the floor price for whisky in this country). It also get significantly higher reviews, as shown in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other entry-level scotch blends:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.61 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($)
Bell’s Original: 7.56 ± 0.69 on 8 reviews ($)
Black Bottle (after 2013): 8.02 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$)
Catto’s Rare Old: 8.00 ± 0.69 on 5 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark: 7.53 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($)
Cutty Sark Prohibition: 8.48 ± 0.45 on 15 reviews ($$)
Cutty Sark Storm: 8.04 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($)
Dewar’s 12yo: 7.95 ± 0.36 on 14 reviews ($$)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.60 ± 0.70 on 16 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse: 7.67 ± 0.57 on 21 reviews ($)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12yo: 8.46 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Grand Macnish: 7.86 ± 0.45 on 8 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve Blended: 7.70 ± 0.64 on 14 reviews ($)
Grant’s 12yo: 8.46 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$)
J&B Rare: 6.95 ± 1.11 on 13 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.42 ± 0.61 on 23 reviews ($)
Teacher’s Highland Cream: 7.87 ± 0.73 on 12 reviews ($)

Let’s see what I find in the glass.

Nose: Wow, that’s a lot of butterscotch. Toffee too. Butter caramels. Condensed milk and fudge. Yowza, that’s the full caramel gamut. Creamed corn. Stewed apples. Some citrus. A touch of cinnamon. No real off notes.

Palate: Very buttery, with the caramel notes continuing. Maybe a faint hint of dark chocolate. Baking spices and black pepper. Not very malty, but great mouthfeel thanks to the high ABV. Also a bit of zing on the swallow.

Finish: Medium long. Stewed apples again. Some ginger spice – but really lots of pepper, both black and white. Faint hint of bitterness. Sweetness lasts the longest.

A bit of water adds more fruit, peaches and pears in particular. It tames the alcohol zing a little but not the pepper – and it keeps the great buttery mouthfeel. Peppery tingle continues to the end. Recommend a little splash of water to help with the burn.

While nothing exciting, it is definitely worth an overall average score in my books – and represents great value for money.

Highest score comes from Patrick of Quebec Whisky, followed by Andre and Martin, and Dominic of Whisky Advocate. More moderately positive are Jim Murray and Serge of Whisky Fun. Less enthusiastic (but not negative) are Josh the Whiskey Jug, Mark of whisky.buzz, and Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Rather low scores come from Ruben of Whisky Notes and cjotto9 and Texacer of Reddit.

J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

Seasoned Oak is the latest member of the Rare Cask series from J.P. Wiser’s, following up on Dissertation and Union 52. Only 6,000 bottles of this 19 year old whisky have been released, exclusive for Ontario.

According to Wiser’s, this Canadian whisky was partially aged in “seasoned” oak barrels, whose staves were air-dried and exposed to the natural elements for over 48 months.

To explain this process, freshly cut oak is fairly “wet”, with loads of sap and tannins that contribute many of the “green” notes to whisky. Wet wood is also prone to shrinking and warping, which is not ideal for coopering.  You can dry the wood out in in large kilns, but some degree of natural aging in open air is typically preferred. Just like a fence or deck, exposure to the natural elements (sun and rain, in particular) will grey the wood – and wash out some of the more bitter “woody” elements.

Barrels made of well-seasoned oak would be expected to have less woody influence over the short-term of aging. In the case of this release, Wiser’s naturally aged the wood for longer than usual (4 years). But it’s important to note that the whiskies that went into these barrels spent the first 18 years of their lives in standard, well used barrels. It was only for the final year did the previously separately-aged corn and rye whiskies marry together in these new, heavily-seasoned oak barrels.

Bottled at 48% ABV, it sells for $100 CAD at the LCBO. My sample came from Jason of In Search of Elegance.

Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other Wiser’s special releases:

J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.41 ± 0.21 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.56 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 9.00 ± 0.48 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation: 9.02 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.84 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s One Fifty: 8.50 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.78 ± 0.36 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Union 52: 8.87 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: A strong nose, this is a classic Canadian whisky amped-up – both the sweetness and the spiciness are heightened. Fresh raisins, prunes and blueberries, along with dried cranberries and orange peel. Caramel and vanilla. Cherrywood. Leather. Wood spice (cloves in particular). Barrel char. A lot going on here, it’s tough to pull everything out. Unfortunately, it also has a strong acetone smell, plus a number of other organic solvents, which detract for me.

Palate: Very sweet and creamy arrival, tons of caramel and corn syrup –  which hit like an overwhelming wave. Condensed milk. Oak spices builds up only after the first couple of sips – cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a touch of black pepper. Unfortunately, the bitterness also builds – must notably on the swallow. I’m frankly surprised that seasoned wood would leave this much bitterness behind. But mainly, I’m disappointed at how simple it seems on the palate – compared to the more subtle notes from the nose. I love the silky and creamy mouthfeel though – that 48% ABV is really helping here.

Finish: Medium, with wood spice dominating. Unfortunately, the bitterness lingers too. I’m not really getting much of a resurgence here of the core notes from the nose (maybe leather). Frankly, it just seems to fade-out fairly quickly.

Water dampens the mouthfeel quickly, and doesn’t help with the solvent off-notes on the nose or the bitterness on the finish. I recommend you try it full-strength before adding any water, for the full experience.

Well, this is a tough one to score. While it has some great characteristics on the nose, there is also a lot that counts against it. Beginning with the organic solvent smell, the fairly basic palate and finish (plus bitterness) drag it down for me. At the end of the day, I’d have to give this whisky a fairly average score overall – not because it is mediocre per se, but because it is discordant for the more positive and negative characteristics.

Among reviewers, Jason of In Search of Elegance, Mark Bylok of Whisky Buzz and Davin of Canadian Whisky are all big fans, giving it a high score. Reddit reviewers are typically fairly negative on it, with below-average scores – including from Devoz, TOModera and xile_. I’m more in the Reddit reviewer camp here.

An interesting experience, but in my view, there are better Canadian whiskies available for less – including last year’s Rare Cask release of Dissertation. Personally, I’d recommend you pick that one up, before it disappears (Dissertation has been de-listed by the LCBO online portal, but can still be found on the shelves near where I live).

 

J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018

Following up on their first Commemorative Series release last year (for Canada’s 150th anniversary), J.P. Wiser’s recently released this Canada 2018 edition in time for July 1st celebrations. Ostensibly, this release is in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 49th parallel (which marks the demarcation line for most of the border to our southern neighbour).

While Wiser’s doesn’t disclose the exact composition of this blend, it has been reported online that this is the same combination of corn and rye whisky as last year – just aged for an extra year. There also seems to be a few more bottles of this special release, as last year’s popular version had largely sold out by Canada Day around here. Bottled at 43.4%, it is available for $50 CAD at the LCBO.

There aren’t many reviews out there yet for this whisky, but here is how it compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to other Wiser’s releases – including the Canada One Fifty release:

J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.41 ± 0.21 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo: 9.00 ± 0.48 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Canada 2018: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Deluxe: 7.93 ± 0.67 on 11 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation: 9.02 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s One Fifty: 8.50 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak: 8.55 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye: 8.49 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Lots of corn – creamed corn in particular. Caramel. Candied fruits. Orange peel. Baked bread. Fairly soft overall, although a few rye notes come through. No real off notes, accept perhaps for very faint acetone – better than most inexpensive Canadian blends in this regard. Seems like a very standard Canadian whisky profile.

Palate: The corn notes dominate, more corn syrup now. Caramel still. Not as much fruit initially, but this builds over time – with candied red fruits. Red delicious apples. Not much spice, but a bit of oak char. Dill and something slightly nutty. Some rye spice builds with time. The palate matches the nose, no surprises here. OK mouthfeel, not as watery as most Canadian ryes (that extra couple of percentage points on the ABV helps). Nothing spectacular, but nothing amiss either.

Finish: Medium. Light corn syrup. Candied fruit lingers, with some hints of coconut now. Slight bitterness, but not offensive. Again, very typically Canadian.

This is a very representative example of the Canadian whisky style. While it doesn’t have great depth or complexity, there are hints of something earthy underlying its sweet corn whisky core. And it lacks the organic off-notes that mar many Canadian whiskies for me. I would give this Canada 2018 edition an overall average score for the Canadian whisky class (~8.5).

The most positive review of this whisky is from Davin of Canadian Whisky. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a below-average score (but a decent review). I must say I’m closer to Jason on this one – a fairly generic and average Canadian whisky profile, but well done.

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