Tag Archives: Bourbon

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Following up on my Wild Turkey 101 review, here is the true barrel-proof (cask-strength) member of this family – Wild Turkey Rare Breed.

First thing you will notice is that the proof of each batch varies a little bit, consistent with a true barrel proof product. It is also not that much higher than WT 101 – most Rare Breeds are in the 108-117 proof range (or ~54-58% ABV). The reason for this relatively low final strength is that WT enters the barrel at a lower proof than most of its competitors (in order to keep more of the base distillate character).

Wild Turkey uses a common mashbill for all its bourbons, which I would classify as a “standard rye bourbon” (R2), based on 13% rye in the mashbill. Rare Breed is reported to be a barrel-proof blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old stocks (in contrast, regular WT 101 is believed to be the younger 6/8 year olds).

Rare Breed sells for $60 CAD at the LCBO, when they have it in stock. My sample was provided by TOModera of Reddit, and was batch WT-03RB from 2011, which was 54.1% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially other cask-strength bourbons:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength: 8.84 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon 7yo: 8.78 ± 0.29 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Barton 1792 Full Proof: 8.69 ± 0.52 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel: 8.93 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.84 ± 0.24 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof: 8.89 ± 0.20 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.90 ± 0.22 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 114: 8.63 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.71 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.53 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades: 9.01 ± 0.19 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

WT Rare Breed gets a good score for the price, among this class of cask-strength bourbons.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: I get a fairly standard level of rye, as expected for WT. Lots of caramel. Cherries and some dark fruit (dried, not fresh). Cinnamon and all-spice. Lots of nose hair pickle from the high alcohol level, as expected. Acetone and some off-note that I can’t quite identify (both detract for me personally). Not really getting a lot of subtlety here, it’s a full-force bourbon nose.

Palate: A fair amount of rye zing, joining the standard corn notes. Caramel. Some citrus (orange). Has a higher rye taste than I expected from the mashbill, cinnamon and all-spice in particular. Oaky and spicy, with black pepper and a little anise. The higher ABV is noticeable here, and a bit overwhelming. Some bitterness on the swallow.

Finish: Long. Lighter sweetness slips in now, with some honey and light vanilla. Pear. Finish of lighter rye notes, nutmeg included. Fairly astringent though (i.e., drying). Touch of spearmint comes in at very end, which is nice.

With water, ethanol burn on the nose is lightened. More caramel in the mouth now, but still plenty of rye spice. Definitely better with a bit of water, becomes even more syrupy. Fair amount of astringency remains on finish though, which water doesn’t seem to affect.

Overall, I like the finish of this bourbon the best – I find it too strong and wood-focused on nose and palate, especially neat. Only on the finish does it open up and more subtle flavours emerge. This is a rare example where I actually prefer a standard bottling of this whisky over the cask-strength (i.e. the relatively high proof Wild Turkey 101).

Among reviewers, it is again very popular with Jim Murray, Serge of Whisky Fun and the guys at Quebec Whisky – all scoring it higher than WT 101. Josh the Whiskey Jug likes it (gives it the same score as WT 101). Similarly, Nick of Breaking Bourbon gives it the same score as Eric gave WT 101. Still with a relatively lower score – but higher than WT 101 – is Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a fairly low score – and prefers WT 101, as I do.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

Wild Turkey is a popular Kentucky-based bourbon, currently owned by Campari group. Distilling has been under the dynastic control of the Russell family for many years now. It has the image of a no-nonsense, uncompromising style of bourbon, lacking in pretentiousness. The name apparently stems from the early days of production, when a wholesaler took a bunch of warehouse samples on a turkey hunt. The whisky proved so popular with his compatriots, that they kept asking him for that “wild turkey bourbon” – and thus a marketing angle was born.

Wild Turkey occupies an interesting position in the range of bourbon styles. On paper, it has a fairly standard bourbon profile, with a historically “typical” level of rye in the mashbill – 13%. This qualifies it as a “standard” rye in my bourbon classification scheme (i.e.,  R2 in the database). However, this is one of the few bourbons out there that doesn’t easily fit into that mashbill-based classification – many drinkers find a more substantial rye-like presence to the whisky, and would consider as a “high rye” bourbon. Indeed, for those who forgo the low/standard/high rye bourbon classification for a simpler low/high one, there is no doubt that you would consider Wild Turkey as high rye (e.g., see the Reddit bourbon guide). This bold flavour in WT may be due to the relatively high char levels of the barrels, as well as the relatively low proof coming off the stills.

There are several variants of this bird out there. Wild Turkey 101 is so-named because it is bottled at 101 proof (50.5% ABV). This is higher proof than their standard entry-level bottling (WT 81).

In late 2016, I picked up a 1L travel retail bottle (i.e., duty-free) of WT 101 for $22 USD, on sale at a US airport. The LCBO started stocking it in early 2017, but at higher cost (currently $38 CAD for 750mL).  But it still seems the best value among the various Wild Turkey bottlings available at the LCBO (i.e., it is $33 CAD for the WT 81, and $60 CAD for the Rare Breed barrel-proof).

Here is how WT compares to other similarly-priced bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially Bottled in Bond (BiB) expressions, given the similar strength (100 proof):

Barton 1792 Small Batch: 8.53 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews ($$)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.38 on 23 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.37 ± 0.35 on 24 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig Small Batch: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams BiB: 8.32 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Four Roses (Yellow Label): 8.19 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($)
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$)
Heaven Hill 6yo BiB: 8.36 ± 0.24 on 8 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Bonded: 8.47 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.60 ± 0.39 on 23 reviews ($$)
Old Forester: 8.12 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.93 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon: 8.09 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select: 8.38 ± 0.32 on 22 reviews ($$)

I know there are a lot of numbers up there, but WT101 gets a good score for this strength bourbon, at this price range.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Light and sweet initially, with strong caramel notes. Apple. Slightly burnt toffee (may be from barrel char). Caramel apples really come to mind. Light rye spice. Mint, and a touch of dill. No real off notes, it’s nice.

Palate: Caramel apple again. Honey. Vanilla. Cinnamon and touch of cloves. Dill again. Seems like a very well balanced and integrated bourbon. Bit of ethanol heat on back end. Burn on swallowing persists, even after multiple sips. Spicy overall.

Finish: Medium. Light, sweet cane sugar, with just a touch of artificial sweetener. Apple and pear. Vanilla. Very gentle fade out. Nutmeg. A bit drying (astringent), but not bad.

With water, I get some added Juicy Fruit gum flavour on the nose and finish. Mouthfeel lightens very quickly though, without affecting the burn. I recommend you drink it with only a small splash of water.

Pretty decent bourbon, easy to drink, but with some noticeable kick and persistent burn on the finish. Would work very well in cocktails, thanks to the high rye flavour and extra proof. Overall, it seems well balanced for flavour, age, and cost – a good value bourbon.

Among reviewers, Josh the Whiskey Jug is a big fan. The guys at Quebec Whisky are generally quite positive as well, as is Jim Murray. More moderately positive reviews (with below average scores) come from Serge of Whisky Fun, Nathan the Scotch Noob and Eric of Breaking Bourbon. A relatively lower score is given by Richard of Whiskey Reviewer although he still considers it quite under-rated for the class. Jason of In Search of Elegance shares my assessment that this is superior to Rare Breed.

 

Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak

As I’ve previously reported, Kavalan offers two of their most popular Solist expressions – Bourbon Cask and Sherry Cask – in a vatted format, known as the Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak and Sherry Oak, respectively.  In Asia, these batch versions of the Solists are available at both cask-strength (typically ~54-59%, just like the single casks Solists) and at a reduced 46% ABV. Here in the Western hemisphere, I’ve only seen the 46% ABV versions.

Supposedly, these two “Oak” series are vatted from the exact same type of casks used for the named Solist series. But it stands to reason that they probably cherry-pick the best casks for the single cask offerings, and vat the rest. Still, it is a good chance to sample what the distillery character is like (in a more consistent fashion), without having shell out for the more expensive (and rare) Solist single cask versions.

These Oak-series whiskies are typically available as both full 700 mL bottles and 50 mL miniature glass bottles. As with my Sherry Oak review, my sample here is of the 46% ABV, 50 mL ex-Bourbon Oak version. Bottling code is 2015.05.08 16:15. The bottle came in a cardboard box, and so was protected from light.

Here is how the various Kavalan bottlings compare in my Whisky Database.

Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.29 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak: 8.93 ± 0.25 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.63 ± 0.33 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.77 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt: 8.40 ± 0.50 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Bourbon: 8.85 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.78 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist PX Cask: 9.01 ± 0.72 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.08 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.94 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)

There aren’t a lot of reviews to go by, but the 46% ABV vatted version of the ex-Bourbon Oak seems to be doing quite well.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Light apple juice – frankly, one of the palest Kavalans I’ve seen yet.

Nose: Fruity, with lush tropical fruits like papaya, mango, pineapple, and banana (including green banana). Touch of citrus. Light honey and vanilla. Not creamy per se, more of a buttery note. Grassy, with some hay (fresh cut for both, not dry). Sweet. No off notes, which is impressive. Water dampens all of the above, and may bring up a touch of solvent (oddly), so I would skip water for nosing.

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose, but there’s no mistaking that time in bourbon casks. Tons of vanilla and caramel. Rich oak without the typical spice or bitterness, doesn’t seem to have been aged too long. Noticeable coconut, and a bit nutty in general. But again, not very spicy, with maybe just a touch of nutmeg. Buttery texture. Fair amount of tongue tingle, but not offensive. Sweeter with water, which also helps with tingle (but doesn’t fully extinguish it).

Finish: Caramel continues, with some of the light spices coming up now (nutmeg).  A touch astringent, but not really bitter. Some of tropical and green fruit also show a resurgence. Very nice and even. With water, some bitterness does enter in.

I recommend you go sparingly with water on the 46% ABV version – it certainly needs no more than few drops at most.

All in all, a very pleasant ex-bourbon expression, very good for the presumed young age. Much better than the standard Kavalan single malt expression. As an aside, my wife – who is not a big scotch drinker – really liked this one.

Among reviewers, Dominic of Whisky Advocate is very positive, followed by washeewashee of Reddit (for the cask-strength version), Jim Murray, and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Worth picking up if you come across a sample bottle in your travels.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is just that – a higher-strength version of this classic Kentucky “wheated” bourbon. Check out my review of standard Maker’s Mark for more info on this bourbon producer (or my review of Maker’s Mark 46 for a competing higher-end product).

Each batch is bottled somewhere in the range of 108-114 proof (i.e., 54-57% ABV). My sample came from a batch that was toward the high end, at 56.7% ABV. You don’t tend to see a lot cask-strength wheaters, but this should really amp up the flavour profile.

Here is how it compares to various competing wheaters in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.40 on 25 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.49 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.69 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.35 ± 0.24 on 101 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.34 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.78 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.17 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.23 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)

My sample came from Redditor Jolarbear. Here is what I find in the glass:

Colour: Dark amber. Can definitely see some darker and richer tones here.

Nose: Some similarity to standard Maker’s Mark, but amped up with more spice (cinnamon and cloves especially), and with added mint now. Ripe dark fruits take over from the more candied experience of standard Maker’s. Citrus, as always. Caramel and vanilla, of course. Nuts. There is still that acetone undertone, unfortunately. More mature than regular Maker’s, but not quite as interesting as the Maker’s 46.

Palate: Not as sweet as regular Maker’s Mark on the initial palate, with new notes of chocolate added to the caramel. More molasses than honey now. Sour cherry added to the fruit cocktail. Mixed nuts (getting some Brazil nuts in particular). Malty. You can taste the higher ABV, it packs more of punch now (although oddly not as creamy as Maker’s Mark 46 – I would describe the texture as buttery here). Those enhanced wood spices from the nose show up here as well.

Finish: Medium long. The sweetness lingers, with additional oaky elements. Not as bitter as standard Maker’s Mark. Cloves and cinnamon red hots – definitely lingers on those spicy notes as well.

With a few drops of water, the fruits pick up on the nose, and I get an almost floral note. In the mouth, the cinnamon spice picks up, and the texture become more fudge-like. A couple more drops brings up even more fruit on the palate, but can also start to accentuate the off-notes. If you bring it down all the way to standard Makers Mark’s 45% ABV, the sweetness increases and an astringent dryness develops – but its still better than regular Maker’s Mark. This is one you are going to want to experiment with the right level of water for your personal taste.

Certainly a much better choice than regular Maker’s Mark – but I still prefer the Maker’s Mark 46 with its heavy cinnamon spiciness and extra mature woodiness. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is probably best suited to those looking to find more fruit and earth tones. But you will need to experiment with the water level here, as it quickly brings up some of the less pleasant notes as you dilute.

Personally, I would give this a slightly lower score than the Meta-Critic average. Among reviewers, John of Whisky Advocate is a huge fan, followed by Josh the Whiskey Jug,  Eric of Breaking Bourbon, Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. But it gets an average score from My Annoying Opinions, and a below-average one from Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Maker’s Mark 46

Following on my review of regular Maker’s Mark – a standard-bearer in the “wheated” bourbon class – allow me to introduce one of their premium products: Maker’s Mark 46.

Maker’s Mark 46 is distinctive in that they age it longer than standard Maker’s (10 weeks longer, reported) and inside barrels containing pieces of seared French oak staves. The use of these staves creates more complex flavors, by helping to “season” the whisky further. Maker’s Mark claims this also helps eliminate the bitterness that usually comes with whiskies that are aged longer in virgin oak casks. The name apparently relates to the stave profile use for the inserted chips (“number 46”).

Maker’s Mark 46 is bottled at 47% ABV, which is just a touch higher than standard Maker’s. Note there is a cask strength version of 46 as well, but I haven’t tried it.

Here is how it compares to competing wheaters, in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.40 on 25 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.49 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.69 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.35 ± 0.24 on 101 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.34 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.78 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.17 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.23 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)

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

Colour: Medium amber, maybe a touch darker than regular Maker’s Mark – but you could only tell if you closely scrutinized them side-by-side.

Nose: While still sweet, less sharp than the regular Maker’s, with a lot more wood notes (including sawdust). Toasted oak. Seems older, more mature. Caramel and vanilla, with less honey now. Slightly spicier nose too, with a touch of pepper joining the cinnamon. Not as fruity as regular Maker’s, but similar fruit cocktail and orange peels dominate. Less off notes, but the main one now is glue (i.e., it’s not as overwhelming sweet as regular Maker’s).

Palate: More balanced presentation. An almost earthy mix of caramel, vanilla and toasted wood spice. Anise and allspice join the cinnamon and cloves. Warming, with a thicker mouthfeel that regular Maker’s Mark – very creamy now (vanilla frosting comes to mind). The wheat is definitely more prominent, but with greater complexity than the simple sweetness of regular Maker’s. I like the more substantial (and spicier) taste – and lack of off notes.

Finish:  Medium-long. I’m not getting the bitterness or the astringency that I noticed on regular Maker’s. Just like how the sweetness is tamed and rendered more complex, you are getting a much more balanced presentation here across the board. A bit malty. Cinnamon red hots and creamy corn linger to the end.

With water, the creaminess of the mouth turns more syrupy (which some many actually prefer). The cinnamon is again enhanced. As always, adjust to your taste – but I think a few drops enhance this whisky.

I’ve always been a fan of hot cinnamon candies (i.e., cinnamon red hots, cinnamon hearts, Swedish fish, etc). So it is no surprise that I greatly prefer this version of Maker’s Mark over the standard version. But beyond the spice, there’s also a more elegant wood presentation – subdued, layered, and mature. An above average bourbon for me, the Meta-Critic average score seems reasonable. A bourbon I’d recommend for scotch drinkers.

Among reviewers, Jim Murray is a big fan, as is Josh the Whiskey Jug and John of Whisky Advocate. Similarly positive are the whole gang at Quebec Whisky, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Jason of In Search of Elegance. More moderate is Jordan of Breaking Boubon. Nathan the Scotch Noob is not a fan at all.

 

Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Maker’s Mark is an iconic Kentucky “wheated” bourbon whisky, produced by Beam Suntory.

Maker’s Mark is unusual in that no rye is used in the mash. Instead, “soft red winter wheat” is used for flavouring, along with corn (the predominant grain) and malted barley. According to this fun Maker’s Mark infographic, the mashbill is 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% barley. There is no age statement, but standard Maker’s is reportedly aged for around six years.

Wheated bourbons are relatively uncommon, as most makers focus on rye flavouring (with Weller/Van Winkle, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell being the notable wheated competition to Maker’s). Wheated bourbons are considered sweeter, fruitier and “softer” in style, with more syrupy/creamy notes and less spicy cinnamon/cloves rye flavours (although they can still contain considerable wood spice, of course).

Maker’s Mark is bottled at 45% ABV and sold in distinctive squarish bottles sealed with red wax. Apparently, it was the wife of Maker’s founder Bill Samuels Sr. – Margie Samuels – who gave the whiskey its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look.

Production began in 1954, and ownership has changed hands many times over the years (it was even owned by Hiram Walker here in Canada at one point). It has been part of the Beam family since 2011.

Here is how Maker’s compares to competing wheaters, in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.43 on 22 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.75 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.72 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.39 ± 0.50 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.95 ± 0.19 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.67 ± 0.39 on 10 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.36 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.35 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.74 ± 0.54 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Rebel Yell: 7.60 ± 0.57 on 11 reviews ($)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.69 ± 0.18 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.15 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 11 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

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

Colour: Medium amber.

Nose: Heavy sweetness, honestly a bit overwhelming if you aren’t used to it. Honey and caramel mainly, plus vanilla. Candied fruit cocktail. Red (strawberry) licorice. Orange peel. Moderately spicy, with classic oak spices. Vaguely nutty. Wheaters are often described as “creamy”, and that word certainly fits here. Acetone off-notes, mingled with artificial sweetener. Yes, this really is that sweet.

Palate: Heavy caramel/honey sweetness up-front – and that acetone note really comes across too, unfortunately. Fair amount of wood spice. Fruits are mainly cherry and apple – plus that citrus (more lemon than orange now). Getting some barley malt now too, which I didn’t notice on the nose. Still a bit nutty. Not as ethanol hot as I expected for 45% – decent mouthfeel, and quite sippable neat (but try it with some water, see below). Settles down to a drier finish after a few sips.

Finish: Medium. Vanilla, caramel and oaky wood spices persist the longest. Despite the sweetness, there is a lingering woody bitterness and dryness underneath it all that I don’t enjoy. Bitterness builds with time.

With water, a simple syrup sweetness increases on the nose (although the off-notes are unaffected). Water lightens the mouthfeel, and brings up more cinnamon. I actually think it is better with a bit of water – or dare I say it, an ice cube.

I first had this years ago in a bar and wasn’t impressed. I’m afraid the controlled environment at home hasn’t helped it much. Although it doesn’t strike me quite as artificially sweet this time around, that characteristic is still there. Personally a bottom-shelf wheater for me, I would score it a few steps lower than the Meta-Critic average. I would also recommend the Weller range over this, if you can find them.

The most positive review I’ve ever seen is Fred of Whisky Advocate. But Jim Murray, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Josh the Whiskey Jug are similarly fairly positive. Jan of Best Shot Whisky gives it about the Meta-Critic average. Oliver of Dramming, Nathan the Scotch Noob, Richard of Whiskey Reviewer, My Annoying Opinions and Michael of Diving for Pearls all give it lower scores (which are more consistent with my own rating).

Bulleit Bourbon

Bulleit (pronounced like the projectile) is a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, owned by the international drinks conglomerate Diageo.

Self-identified as a “high-rye” whiskey, it has a relatively higher rye content in the mash bill compared to most bourbons (about twice the typical level). This gives it a spicier and earthier flavour profile. I don’t see an official age statement, but there are reports online of it being aged for at least six years. Note there is also an older age-statement version available, the Bulleit 10 year old bourbon.

The standard no-age-statement Bulleit seems to be something of a staple in bars for the high-rye class of bourbons (just like Buffalo Trace for a low-rye bourbon, Rittenhouse for a straight rye, and Maker’s Mark for a wheater). Its low cost and high rye content – both particularly well-suited to cocktails – are likely a good part of the reason.

Note that despite the “Frontier Whiskey” moniker, Bulleit is a rather new operation. Until just recently, they didn’t even have their own distillery – this bourbon is made under contract by Four Roses Distillery (edit: that may no longer be the case, see discussion here). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Four Roses has a good reputation. Bulleit also publishes the full mash bill specs for this bourbon (68% corn, 28% rye, 4% malted barley). It is bottled at a decent 45% ABV.

Here is how it compares to other bourbons of similar price in my Meta-Critic Database (and the other Bulleit products):

1792 Small Batch Bourbon: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.58 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Rye: 8.29 ± 0.63 on 16 reviews ($$)
Bulleit 10yo Bourbon: 8.56 ± 0.39 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.38 ± 0.37 on 21 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.71 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Bourbon (Yellow Label): 8.21 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews ($)
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon: 8.48 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$)
George Dickel No.12: 8.26 ± 0.45 on 15 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo Bourbon: 8.61 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$)
Old Forester: 8.11 ± 0.43 on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Forester Signature (100 Proof): 8.36 ± 0.40 on 8 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon (80/86 Proof): 8.04 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.37 ± 0.54 on 9 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo Bourbon: 8.54 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.46 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews ($$)
Woodford Reserve bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews ($$)

As you can see, standard Bulleit bourbon does reasonably well for this class and price point. As an aside, the bourbon drinkers on Reddit have put up a good beginners and intermediate guide to understanding bourbon styles – I recommend you check it out, to see how the various bourbon options above compare.

I recently picked up a sample bottle of standard Bulleit during my travels in the U.S (shown on the right). As a nice touch, the glass bottle actually has the same type of raised lettering as the full-size bottles, with a lot code printed on the back. A nice touch!

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, and no mistaking this is a high rye bourbon, with all the baking spices. Lots of caramel, brown sugar and vanilla up front. Relatively fruity for a bourbon, with orange (citrus) but also banana, apple, and plums (different mix than usual). This fruitiness reminds me a bit of a Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel I once tried, reinforcing that rye whisky connection. Oak barrel char. Some acetone mars the finish (acetone often goes hand-in-hand with excessive fruitiness, I find). Better than I expected overall.

Palate: Caramel and vanilla again. Woodier than the nose would have suggested. Same general fruitiness as the nose. The spices pick up a little bit – but more in terms of pepper and light spices (e.g. nutmeg), not the typical heavy rye spices. Ok mouthfeel, not too watery. A bit of mouth pucker once you swallow (i.e., astringent). Some oaky bitterness creeps in at the end – or is that citrus again?

Finish: Shortish. Dry bitterness is the main characteristic that holds the longest, along with the light spices and some initial light sweetness.  This is its weakest feature, honestly.

Bulleit.BourbonThis is a decent high rye bourbon. It was doing particularly well on the nose and initial palate, but couldn’t really hold it together very well on the way out. As such, I would personally give it a score very much in keeping with the Meta-Critic average presented above (i.e., slightly below average for the class). But that still represents good value for money at this price point. I can see why it is a popular pour.

For reviews of this standard expression, there are some fairly positive reviews by Josh the Whiskey Jug, Serge of Whisky Fun and John of Whisky Advocate. Rather luke-warm or negative are Nathan the Scotch Noob, Oliver of Dramming, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Richard of Whiskey Reviewer.  Not really a lot of scores in-between (except for my own).

 

Knob Creek 9 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon

Knob Creek is one of the premium bourbon brands put out by American whisky maker Jim Beam.  It is aged longer than most bourbons (currently stated as 9 years on the label), and is bottled at a higher proof (50% ABV).

Supposedly, the spirit for Knob Creek comes off the stills at a lower proof than standard Jim Beam, thus retaining a little bit more spirit character (i.e., the esters and congeners that give whisky its core characteristics). See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour page for a detailed discussion of how wood barrel aging turns this into finished whisky.

It is also an example of a typical “low rye” bourbon – although there is no universally-agreed level for what proportion of rye in a mashbill qualifies as such (and most makers don’t publish exact levels anyway). Nevertheless, most enthusiasts would place Knob Creek in same relatively low-rye category as the other Jim Beam brands, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and the main mashbill used by Buffalo Trace/Eagle Rare/Stagg, etc. This is in contrast to bourbons which have a higher amount of rye flavouring, like Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Bulleit, Woodford, 1792, etc.

Let’s see how Knob Creek compares to other low-rye mashbill bourbons in my Meta-Critic database:

Baker’s: 7yo 8.79 ± 0.29 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.38 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.88 ± 0.29 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.86 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.69 ± 0.28 on 20 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.71 ± 0.23 on 15 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams BiB (White label): 8.32 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews ($)
Evan Williams (Black Label): 8.18 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna: 8.07 ± 0.07 on 3 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.89 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Black Label: 8.21 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($)
Jim Beam Devil’s Cut: 8.05 ± 0.51 on 16 reviews ($)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.61 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.57 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$)

Knob.Creek.MiniatureStandard Knob Creek gets a good score for the price in this class of bourbons.

I recently sampled this from a 50mL sample bottle while on my travels in the US (glass bottle, shown on the right). A nice miniature scale reproduction of the larger bottle, right down to the engraved lot code on the back (which are rare to see on miniatures).

Colour: Red delicious apple juice

Nose: Classic bourbon nose, though not too strong. Woody (oaky), with caramel and vanilla notes, plus pancake syrup. Earthy. A bit of cherry (which I often get on bourbons). Light rye spices (nutmeg mainly). Melted butter. Touch of acetone at the end, but subtle. A sweeter and fuller-body version of Basil Hayden’s comes to mind.

Palate: Classic bourbon presentation again, with caramel and vanilla to the fore. No real fruits to speak of. Nutty (peanuts in particular, which I gather is a Jim Beam hallmark). Tobacco leaf and a touch of dark chocolate. Pepper joins the nutmeg (plus some cinnamon too now). Chewy texture, with a bit more kick than typical (thanks to 50% ABV). Pretty decent bourbon, with a good range of straightforward flavours.

Finish: Medium. Toasty, with wood spice and some vanilla. There’s a slight sourness here – its also dry, with a mild mouth-puckering astringency at the end.

Knob.CreekSurprisingly easy to drink neat, despite the slightly sour/dry aspect.  Quite a respectable bourbon, especially for the price. I would put it on par with Elijah Craig in terms of quality, although it is perhaps a touch less flavourful. Personally, I still prefer the Buffalo Trace/Eagle Rare/Stagg juice (the latter two  are under-rated in the Meta-Critic database, in my view).

Given its quality – and bonafides described earlier – Knob Creek is a good choice for both sipping neat and in mixed drinks.

For further reviews of this bourbon, Lew of Whisky Advocate is very keen on it, as is Jim Murray. More moderately positive are Nathan the Scotchnoob, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Richard of the Whiskey Reviewer. Ralfy is less of a fan of this one.

Holiday Whisky Gift Guide 2016 – Ontario, Canada

Welcome to my new recommendation list for 2016!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

Budget Gifts < $60 CAD – Scotch and Irish Blends

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

Now onto the single malts …

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

Slainte, and happy holidays!

W.L. Weller 12 Year Old Bourbon

Among enthusiasts, W.L. Weller 12 Years has long been considered the “poor man’s Pappy”.  That is, until the general public also started seeing it that way.  Here’s a recent depressing chart from Diving for Pearls, showing how the U.S. after-market price of W.L. Weller 12 has increased almost 10-fold in the last two years.

It’s pretty wild to see a $26 USD bourbon climb into the stratosphere so quickly.  But keep in mind, the after-market price of Van Winkle 12 Year Lot B is more than 3 times higher than W.L. Weller 12 yo, at current levels.

As discussed in my Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old review, the Weller and Van Winkle brands share the same basic DNA. They are produced by the same distiller, share the exact same “wheated” mashbill, are aged in the same manner in the same warehouses, and are diluted to the same final proof.  And in this particular case, they are also aged the same amount of time – to a minimum of 12 years.

So the difference here comes down to just barrel selection – the premium barrels from the best parts of the warehouse get blended into Van Winkle 12 Year Lot B each year, and the rest becomes Weller 12.  You would therefore naturally assume that these are not very different (and hence, the incredible run-up in Weller 12 prices in recent years  given the current Pappy craze).

But keep in mind barrel selection can make quite a difference – just look at how single cask offerings compare to standard vatted products. Removing all those premium barrels could in theory impoverish the remaining “failed Pappy” vatting of Weller 12 significantly.  Does it?  Let’s take a look at the current Meta-Critic average scores for these whiskies in my Whisky Database:

Old Weller Antique 107: 8.66 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.86 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
William Larue Weller: 9.19 ± 0.26 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)

Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 9.05 ± 0.20 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.76 ± 0.18 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15yo: 9.28 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20yo: 9.20 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Unlike the Old Rip 10 and OWA comparison (where the Van Winkle expression gets a higher average score), there doesn’t seem to be much of a score difference between W.L. Weller 12 yo and Van Winkle 12 yo. Indeed, the Weller 12 is actually scoring higher on average. But keep in mind there are still relatively few reviews of the hard-to-find Van Winkle 12 (and so, these numbers could change as more reviews come in).

Having recently reviewed the Old Weller Antique 107 Proof (OWA), I thought it would be useful to frame my Weller 12 tasting notes in that context.  Again, while all these products share a common mashbill, OWA is much younger (estimated to be 6-7 years old), and bottled at 53.5% ABV – compared to Weller 12 yo at 45% ABV. As Weller 12 has spent about twice as long in oak barrels, it should pack a different flavour profile.

My sample was supplied Reddit member Lasidar. Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Not as sweet as Old Weller Antique 107 (OWA), with more caramel and less vanilla. More dark fruits, like cherry but also blackberry. Not quite as creamy, but it does have more wood spice and some definite leather now (which I like). These presumably reflect its extended time in contact with the oak.  I’m not getting any solvent notes – that extra time in the barrel must also have helped those blow off.

Palate: Caramel of course, but more refined than the OWA (with less ethanol burn, naturally). Strong fruit presence coming through, along with wood spices and baking spices, plus a bit of pepper. Seems less like a dessert whisky now, with a richer range of woody flavours.  A bit drying as well. Weller 12 definitely tastes its age – a sipper to ponder over.

Finish: Medium-Long. First up are the wood spices, then returning to the caramel, and finally the different fruit flavours (like above, but I’m also getting some pear now). These seem to come and go with time, often returning to the caramel backbone. Dryer than I would have expected (i.e., more astringent).

weller-12Definitely a more complex whisky than the Old Weller Antique 107. The Weller 12 is more drying than I expected, and with less sweetness than typical for a wheater.  It is also a lot more oaky (as expected).

W.L. Weller 12 seems like a whisky for slow contemplation, compared to the instant gratification of the higher proof and younger OWA. I recommend you try the Weller 12 neat, and take your time to let it open up in the glass. Assuming you can still find it at a reasonable price somewhere, that is.

Interestingly, due to the differing profiles, some people like to blend Weller 12 and Old Weller Antique for the ultimate “poor man’s Pappy”.  Specifically, a 60:40 blend of OWA:Weller 12 has been proposed online.  Here’s what I find when I blended a portion of my samples at this ratio (left to marry in the bottle for several weeks before trying):

Nose: Closer to the OWA profile, but with only the faintest hint of the solvent.  Seems like a good balance in-between the two, but I wish more of the Weller 12’s spicey notes would show through. Some extra brown sugar.

Palate: Sweet, with lots of honey and caramel. A bit hot, it seems more like the OWA initially. The Weller 12 helps bring up the spiciness at the mid-point (but without the astringency). If you are not a fan of the dry, oaky palate of the Weller 12, this may be your best choice of the three.

Finish: Not to sound like a broken record, but again this fits in-between. Doesn’t seem to have quite as much variety or complexity as the straight-up Weller 12, but it lacks its drying finish.

So, is the sum of the parts really greater than the individual components?  The answer depends on how you feel about OWA compared to Weller 12.

For OWA fans who find Weller 12 too dry and oaky, this blend does indeed outperform each member individually.  You get to keep a lot of the brasher in-your-face characteristics of OWA, but complimented with additional spicy flavour elements from the Weller 12 (especially mid-palate). I can see those who rate OWA higher than Weller 12 could well prefer this blend above either alone.

But for those who prefer the more complex Weller 12 over the youthful exuberance of OWA, the blend is likely to be seen as diluting the best aspects of Weller 12.  As my tasting notes above show, the blend really is intermediate between the two.  If (like me), you would rank Weller 12 above OWA, then the blend falls somewhere in-between.

I recommend you check out my OWA review for additional commentary.  For the Weller 12, the highest-ranked review I’ve seen comes from Josh the Whiskey Jug.  More typical reviews come from Nathan the Scotch Noob, Jason of In Search of Elegance/Whisky Won, and Jim Murray. The lowest score I’ve seen is probably from Michael of Diving for Pearls.

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