Tag Archives: Malt

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.

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.P. Wiser’s Legacy

A tremendous oversight on my part, but I realize that I never reviewed Wiser’s Legacy.  Allow me to correct that here.

“Legacy” is a tribute to one of the final recipes of Wiser’s founder, J.P. Wiser. Today, Wiser’s (owned by Corby, and produced at the Hiram Walker plant in Windsor, Ontario) is one of the largest producers of Canadian whisky.

A blended rye whisky, Legacy is made from a combination of unmalted rye grain, rye malt, and barley malt, all distilled in copper pot stills.  Indeed, the previously-reviewed Corby Lot 40 (a straight 100% rye whisky of malted and unmalted rye) is believed to be a key component of the mix.

Presumably, they are blending in some malted barley to increase the complexity of the resulting product. I’ve also read that the oak barrels used for aging are only toasted, not charred (helping to enhance the woody flavours that can resemble rye spices). The end result is a very rye-forward whisky, compared to many of the somewhat tepid Canadian “rye whiskies” out there.

Unusually, Legacy is bottled at 45% ABV. That is a welcomed change for a Canadian whisky (i.e., they rarely deviate from 40%), and a sign of Legacy’s premium stature. Indeed, it was one of the first examples of the new breed of premium Canadian products when it was first released over five years. The playing field is more crowded now, but Legacy still holds its own very well, as you can see by its very high score in my Meta-Critic database, for a Canadian whisky:

Canadian Rockies 21yo (Batch 1/2): 8.98 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel 8.59: ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.53 ± 0.38 on 15 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (Batch C, D): 8.98 ± 0.34 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.04 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo: 8.06 ± 0.63 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.67 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.90 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.64 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.02 ± 0.36 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.87 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 8.89: ± 0.40 on 19 reviews ($$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo: 8.84 ± 0.47 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Stalk & Barrel 100% Rye: 8.64 ± 0.23 on 5 reviews ($$$)

For the last several years, it has been available at the stable price of $50 CAD at the LCBO (a relatively premium price for Canadian whisky, but still reasonable).

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Big bold nose, with caramel, vanilla, honey and candied cinnamon (i.e., those red Sweddish fish candies from childhood). Not a lot of fruit, but some citrus and dried banana chips. There is a light corn syrupy undertone, but with oaky elements. A bit of barrel char (oddly enough). Slight floral quality. Bolder nose than Lot 40. Touch of acetone unfortunately, indicating the likely young age of that barley malt in the mix.

Palate: Strong hit of those vanilla/caramel notes to start, with a light fruitiness (apple, pear, lemon and that banana note again). Good mouthfeel and texture, creamy almost. Strong set of rye spices on the way out – cinnamon and cloves in particular – plus some ginger and black pepper. This has definitely got a nice hit of spice and heat, consistent with the 45% ABV.

Wisers.LegacyFinish: Medium-long (for a Canadian whisky). Surprisingly dry initially, with some oaky bitterness – but it is not offensive. It is also well-matched to the persistent fruity sweetness (which actually seems to increase with time). The initial dryness makes you want to grab another sip, and the lingering light sweetness is a pleasant surprise. Some soft rye spices on the way out.

There is a reason this scores so highly in the Meta-Critic database – it is a flavour-packed rye whisky.  While it lacks the elegance of Lot 40 (and has a few off-notes on the nose), it makes up for these with a whallop of character on the palate and finish. It makes for a great sipper, with above average complexity. Indeed, I think it really is a showcase for how Canadian whisky can actually have some flavour.

This gets very high scores from Jason of In Search of Elegance, Andre and Martin of Quebec Whisky, Chip the RumHowler, Davin of Canadian Whisky, Serge of Whisky Fun, and Jim Murray. More moderate scores are from the rest of the boys at Quebec Whisky, and a couple of the Reddit reviewers. But I’ve yet to see an actual negative review of this whisky.