Tag Archives: NAS

Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey

Yellow Spot is a member of a family of “bonded” Irish Whiskies produced by Irish Distillers for an independent wine merchant in Ireland, Mitchell & Son, of Dublin.  As with Green Spot and the recently re-released Red Spot, the whisky name derives from Mitchell’s historic practice of marking casks of different ages with spot of coloured paint.

Green Spot – the youngest in age and the lightest in flavour – became their most popular seller, and is the only one to remain in continuous production over the years (albeit with no age statement in recent years). The others were discontinued in the late 1960s, with Yellow Spot (12 years old) relaunched in 2012, and Red Spot (15 years old) recently relaunched in 2019.

All are examples of single pot still Irish whisky (aka pure pot still). This is when a  combination of malted and unmalted barley are distilled together in a single, large copper pot still. This is the traditional method for whisky production in Ireland.

Yellow Spot has a 12 year old age statement, and is a combination of pot still whiskies matured in three types of casks: American bourbon casks, Spanish Sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks. The latter two are is in keeping with Mitchell’s tradition of importing fortified wines. The Malaga casks are an unusual choice, very rare in the whisky world. Malaga is a sweet fortified wine originating in the Spanish city of Málaga, and is made from a mix of Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes. Full-term maturation is used for this component, which should impart a richer and sweeter flavour than more typical sherry cask finishing.

The whisky is non-chill-filtered, and bottled at a respectable 46% ABV. I picked up my bottle a couple of years ago at the LCBO here in Ontario for $100 CAD.

Let’s see how it compares to other higher-end Irish whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Green Spot: 8.51 ± 0.35 on 24 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton: 8.82 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Green Spot Chateau Montelena: 8.44 ± 0.29 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Red Spot 15yo: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Yellow Spot 12yo: 8.79 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$)

Jameson 12yo Special Reserve: 8.37 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Jameson 18yo Limited Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Jameson Gold Reserve: 8.44 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy: 9.10 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Midleton Very Rare (all vintages): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Powers 12yo John’s Lane: 8.84 ± 0.36 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength: 9.02 ± 0.30 on 26 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 15yo: 8.73 ± 0.26 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 21yo: 9.11 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Redbreast Lustau Edition: 8.66 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Definitely woody, with light caramel, vanilla and honeysuckle notes. Fresh and dried apricots and peaches, and a touch of fresh cherries. Wood spice, especially nutmeg and cloves. Wet green tea leaves. Hay and fresh-cut green grass. It is unusual to find both the fresh and dry notes at the same time, which must be due to the diverse wood aging. Faint hint of sweat socks, but not objectionable. With a bit of water it gets sweeter, as brown sugar joins the mix – plus a creamy custard.

Palate: Spicier than I expected, with the wood spice up front (especially the cloves), as well as black pepper. Caramel, vanilla and honey sweetness. Ground cherries. Consistent with the nose, it is very earthy, with moist and dry notes both present. Oily mouthfeel, likely thanks to the higher ABV (which also brings with it a fair amount of alcohol heat, unusual for an Irish whisky). Dry paper note returns on swallow. A bit of water sweetens and helps with the ethanol sting, without affecting the pleasant oiliness. Definitely recommend you add a few drops.

Finish: Medium long. Cinnamon and nutmeg are prominent now. Dried apricots again. Astringency shows up, in a tannic tea way. A faint lingering sweetness for sure, but I find the oaky notes dominate, with a mild woody bitterness. The classic Irish pot still “greasiness” shows up at the end, with a sticky coating on the lips and gums. With water, I find a bit of anise joins the woody/earthy character, which I like.

A bit of water really helps here, restoring a more typical Irish whisky sweetness, and taming the mouth burn and bitterness on the finish. Highly recommended you add a few drops.

My only (minor) complaint here is that the classic Irish pot still character is a bit submerged under the fortified wine finish. It is still there if you hunt for it though. A very nice example overall of what good sherry finishing can do with a delicate base spirit.

Yellow Spot receives very high scores from Nathan the Scotch Noob, Josh the Whiskey Jug, Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer and Jan of Best Shot Whisky (honestly, I’m in this camp as well).  Moderately positive are Jonny of Whisky Advocate, Serge of Whisky Fun, and The Muskok and Tomodera of Reddit. The lowest scores (although with still fairly positive comments) come from Ruben of Whisky Notes and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Pacto Navio and Other Cuban Rums

On a trip to Cuba earlier this year, I had the opportunity to do some local rum tastings. While I am not typically a big rum guy, I do appreciate rums that have had extended barrel aging, or interesting finishing.

Cuba has had a tumultuous history (for more than just rum!), and this has lead to a complicated history of rum production and distribution. Simply put, all rum production was nationalized after the revolución, but in recent years it has had a global resurgence from partnerships and investments by international drinks conglomerates. I won’t pretend to know the full history, so I am happy to refer folks to these recent articles in Esquire and Forbes for further background.

Cuban rum is typically made from locally-produced molasses. Local sugarcane is harvested and mashed to extract the guarapo (juice), which is then boiled to create local molasses. This molasses is combined with water and yeast to ferment in tanks before it is distilled in copper-lined columns stills. It is typically aged in extensively well-used American oak casks (as with Canadian whisky).

First up in the recommended tasting order was one I had heard a lot about:

Havana Club Selección de Maestros

This “Masters Selection” amber rum was a popular member of the Havana Club line when it was available at the LCBO and SAQ. Missing for the last couple of years, it used to retail for ~$60 CAD, and can still be found in Cuba today for the equivalent ~$40 CUC ($40 USD).

Masters Selection features an unusual finishing step (for a rum). As mentioned above, pretty much all Cuban rum is aged in well-used, American white oak barrels. Once the barrels are selected for this release, they are blended and then finished for a period of time in young, fresh oak casks for some active wood aging. This should impart some extra woody notes.

The bottle has a quality presentation (nicer than other Havana Clubs), and comes in a protective tube sleeve. It also is bottled at higher proof, 45% ABV.

Nose: Caramel, with a light, sweet bourbony character. I am definitely getting some oaky notes (more than typical for a Cuban rum). Orange rind. Ginger. A touch of tobacco and nuts. It’s a nice mix, with no off notes.

Palate: The oaky notes are more prominent now, definitely woody, with tobacco leaves and some leather. Helps offset the sweet caramel. Cinnamon and nutmeg show up. It is very light in the mouth, lighter than I expected for 45% ABV. Honestly, the texture is a bit of a let down.

Finish: Medium. Some spicy tingle, with cinnamon notable. Some dried fruits. Sweet, but also a bit of an artificial note, which is surprising.

This is nice, but not quite what I was looking for – bourbony, and a bit woodier than I would like. To be honest, it lacks the rum character I was expecting from the rich amber colour – it does indeed seem like a younger rum that has had some extra fresh oak finishing. The higher proof is appreciated, but that also seems like it was necessary here, given the lighter mouthfeel.

A good bourbon-drinker’s rum. I would give it ~8.3 on the Meta-Critic scale.

Ron Santero Añejo 11 Años

I must admit, I knew nothing about this rum (aside from recognizing the name of the producer), when my host suggested it for the line-up.

This 11 year old is bottled under proof at 38% ABV. It sells for ~$40 CUC in Cuba ($40 USD). It is apparently known for the distinctive character of the soil where it is produced, with a high mineral content (or so I was told).

Nose: Getting a lot more classic rum notes,  with heavy molasses. Very earthy, with lots of tobacco and old leather. Something different here, with a slightly funky off-note (but it is not off-putting)

Palate: Rich rum molasses to start. Some oaky bitterness is also present. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Minearality and a meaty character, making me think of sulphur. Mouthfeel is impaired by the below-proof 38%, but still seems richer somehow than the HC Maestros.

Finish: Medium. Getting candied fruits now, which I didn’t notice earlier. Nice sweet finish, with that “meatiness” lingering in the background.

There is certainly different about this one – I would be more likely to peg it as sulphur, but “minearality” would also do. This is a hard one to score. On one hand, I like the distinctiveness of the earthy notes, as it adds some character. But it also makes it not your typical rum.

Despite the low proof, I would give this a slight leg up on the Maestros – say ~8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. I was tempted to pick up a bottle.

Havana Club Añejo 15 Años

A classic of the class, all spirits in this Havana Club bottling have been aged for at least 15 years. I am not entirely clear about how barrels are selected for this rum, but I gather repeated blending and re-gauging of casks is involved, using standard old American oak casks.

Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for 150 CUC ($150 USD), which seems rather steep to me.

Nose: Liquid caramel, honey, and brown sugar. Fruit blossoms. Very nice, classic rum notes.

Palate: Moves into heavier molasses notes, plus some vanilla. Dark fruits, dried (figs in particular). Relatively light mouthfeel, but no bitterness.

Finish: Medium long. Brown sugar comes back, and some light cinnamon spice. Nice lingering sweetness, no bitterness.

This is what I was expecting from a Cuban rum – a sweet, uncomplicated experience. No heavy wood influence, but the extended aging does comes through as a general enrichment of the sugarcane sweetness. I like the caramel and fruity notes. Not particularly complex, but a satisfying dram none-the-less.

I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. A bit too steep in cost for me though.

Finally, I went back another night to try one that I hadn’t gotten around to the first evening – and I’m glad I did.

Pacto Navio

The name of this rum literally means shipping treaty, and is a cute nod to the history of trade between France and Cuba. After the Napoleonic wars ended, a treaty signed in Europe allowed the freer flow of trans-Atlantic goods. Casks holding Sauternes (a sweet white wine from Bordeau) were shipped to the New World, where they were emptied and refilled with local spirits (including rum) for the return voyage.

So this serves as a convenient backstory for what is simply a young Cuban rum that has been finished for a period of time in French Sauternes casks. The rum come from the newest distillery in Cuba, in San José de Las Lajas, near Havana.

Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for $45 CUC ($45 USD).

Nose: Light and sweet, with simple spun sugar (think cotton candy). Caramelized plantains. Peaches, plums, and apricots. Candied rum raisins. Light wood notes, like nutmeg. No real off-notes, very nice.

Palate: Caramel comes up clearly now. Banana bread (with nuts). A touch of citrus. Relatively light mouthfeel, but not bad. Some faint rye-like spices, giving it a bit of zing.

Finish: Fruit returns, but definitely candied – like wine gums. Artificial sweetener note shows up now. Turns a bit astringent on the way out, but not bad.

While still fairly simple, it has a nice mix of sweet fruity notes (more so than the other rums I tried), with banana and a nutty character being fairly novel here. This one would best suit a scotch drinker with a sweet tooth (which I suppose would best describe me).

Of all the ones I tried, this was my favourite – I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. Indeed, I liked it enough to pick up a bottle as a souvenir of my visit.

Elmer T. Lee Bourbon

Elmer T. Lee was one of the most well-known Master Distillers of Buffalo Trace, retiring in 1985 after 36 years. One of his main claims-to-fame was the introduction of mass-produced single barrel bourbons, most especially the Blanton’s brand in 1984. Eventually, Buffalo Trace decide to honour his legacy by producing a single barrel bourbon in his name (just as he had chosen to name the distillery’s first single barrel product after one of their early leaders, Albert B. Blanton).

Just like Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace uses their mashbill #2 for this single barrel bourbon, which is a high rye bourbon (~12-15% rye, at least 51% corn, and some malted barley). This sour mash bourbon is aged in charred virgin American oak barrels. No age statement on the bottle any more, but this used to have 12-year statement in older days. Bottled at 45% ABV. In comparison, regular Blanton’s single barrel is 46.5% ABV, Blanton’s Special Reserve (green label) is 40% ABV, Blanton’s Gold is 51.5% ABV, and Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel is true cask-strength.

While this was always a popular bourbon for Buffalo Trace, it has become relatively unobtainable (at least at MSRP prices). The LCBO here in Ontario, Canada puts it into its allocation process any time it is available (typically once a year). A relative of mine was lucky enough to pick one up in their lottery last year, for $60 CAD (which is equivalent to the $40 USD list price). On secondary markets, this goes for >$100 USD (sometimes considerably more). The issue seems to be mainly relative scarcity of release, as it isn’t that different from regular Blanton’s single barrel (although presumably, they try to keep a certain consistency in the barrels they pull for the Elmer T Lee brand).

Here is how it compares to other Buffalo Trace bourbon products in my Meta-Critic Database:

Blanton’s Gold Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.72 ± 0.37 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Blanton’s Original Bourbon Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.29 on 27 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Special Reserve Single Barrel (Green label): 8.31 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel Bourbon: 8.97 ± 0.22 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.55 ± 0.38 on 28 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.64 ± 0.28 on 29 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 17yo: 8.86 ± 0.29 on 17 reviews ($$$$$+)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon: 8.75 ± 0.35 on 20 reviews ($$$)
George T Stagg: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 30 reviews ($$$$$+)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.69 ± 0.41 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 1-2): 8.38 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (batches 3+): 8.99 ± 0.22 on 17 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Honey and light caramel. Simple sweetness. Vanilla. Graham crackers (definitely somewhat “biscuity”). Dry spice. Dark fruits, plums. Light pepper. A nice nose, not overly oaky. No off notes. Smells like a dessert bourbon.

Palate: Very sweet initially, with all that honey. Corn syrup. Plums and peaches. Nutmeg, but not cinnamon or cloves. A bit of pepper. Paper, pencil shavings. No burn, very light and syrupy mouthfeel. Surprisingly light tasting – again, consistent with the nose. Seems like something you would pour over ice cream.

Finish: Some oaky bitterness shows up now, with dry paper notes. Touch of tobacco. Dry, and earthy.

Lighter than I expected, very easy to drink. Sweet overall, with wood influence only showing up at the end. This is not an in-your-face bourbon – it is a very balanced product, certainly an easy sipper. A pity it is so unobtainable now.

Among reviewers, the highest score I’ve seen comes from Ralfy. Jordan of Breaking Bourbon, MajorHop of Reddit (indeed, most reviewers there), and Jason of In Search of Elegance and are all very positive. Moderately positive are Jim Murray and John of Whisky Advocate (on average, across various bottlings). More middle-of-the-road reviews comes from Matt of Diving for Pearls, Kurt of Whiskey Reviewer, washeewashee of reddit and Josh the Whiskey Jug. Lower scores (but still positive comments) come My Annoying Opinions and TOModera of reddit.

 

Matsui Mizunara Cask

This is a new Japanese whisky that I debated purchasing. Not because of the likely intrinsic quality of the whisky itself, but because of the history of the producer.

As I’ve discussed in some of my travelogues (most recently my Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective), the rising popularity of Japanese whisky has led to a proliferation of “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. They can certainly look a lot like the bottles from established whisky-makers Yamazaki and Nikka – and the brand names may indeed be recognizable as established spirit producers in Japan – but the bottles don’t actually contain any Japanese whisky.

The problem is loose labeling laws that allow Japanese distilleries to import whisky from other countries and re-package it for sale in Japan. If you are looking for a way to separate out true Japanese whisky from the fakes, here’s a useful infographic chart and table courtesy of nomunication.jp.

As an aside, there is an understandable historical basis for these labeling laws, as the raw materials for whisky production (e.g. barley, oak casks) are often imported from Scotland. In some cases, established whisky makers also import distillate from Scottish distilleries to blend into their own production (e.g., Nikka owns Ben Nevis distillery, in part for this reason). But the bottling of pure out-sourced whisky for domestic sale in Japan – in highly misleading age-stated packaging, and at steep prices – seems designed to purposefully gouge ill-informed consumers (and tourists on local shopping sprees).

High on the list of worst offenders is Matsui Shuzo, owner of the Kurayoshi “whisky” brand. Kurayoshi is a well-established schochu distiller in Tottori, Japan (in operation since 1910). The problem is that for many years now, they have been selling aged-stated single malts in Japan, despite only starting to distill whisky in 2017. This has given “Kurayoshi single malts” a well-deserved black-eye among Japanese whisky enthusiasts.

Of course, we have now reached the point where many of the relatively new entrants to whisky-making in Japan have barrel-aged their own distilled spirit sufficiently long enough to sell it (domestically and internationally) as true Japanese whisky. In this case, Matsui Shuzo has begun selling blended Japanese and Scottish malt whiskies under the Tottori label, and pure Japanese malt whisky under the Matsui label. Given the negative association with Kurayoshi “malt whisky”, I can understand this labeling change. Of note, the malt is apparently still largely sourced from Scotland – but that is true for many Japanese whiskies.

And thus my personal dilemma; I am loathe to support someone who has engaged in such misleading business practices. Personally, I find the whole Kurayoshi age-stated single malt whisky scam an affront to both the Japanese character and the quality of their whisky. But is also true that many of the world’s established whisky makers started out with less than squeaky-clean reputations (i.e., the history of bootleggers, moonshiners and tax-dodgers in North America and Europe, and the early producers in Japan). At the end the of the day, I thought I would give this bottling a chance, to see how Matsui’s true distilled-in-Japan product fares.

One feature common among new whisky-makers the world over is experimentation with different casks types, to try and introduce additional character into their youthful spirits. Matsui is following a standard path with this bottling by the use of Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). I previously reviewed Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve, which attempted a similar approach to distinctive aging/finishing.

I recently bought my bottle of Matsui Single Malt Mizunara Cask through the LCBO in Ontario for $130 CAD. It is bottled at 48% ABV, and the label states no artificial coloring is added, and it is un-chillfiltered. It also states distilled in Japan (finally!).

As an aside, I note the bottle design is very similar to the higher-end Suntory bottles, something of a hybrid between the simple-but-elegant Yamazaki/Hakushu bottles and the fancy decanter-style Hibiki bottles (although with a screw cap here – see the pic below). The labels and box are very distinctive, with classic Japanese iconography throughout. They certainly have a classy look to them.

Here is how the whisky compares to some other entry-level Japanese single malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – and other Mizunara cask finished whiskies:

Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish: 8.84 ± 0.45 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Chivas Regal Mizunara: 8.09 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.48 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.25 ± 0.67 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve: 8.33 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Kanosuke New Born 2018 8mo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Mizunara Cask: 8.86 ± 0.20 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Sakura Cask: 8.55 ± 0.46 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.40 ± 0.47 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS: 8.57 ± 0.30 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Mizunara: 8.95 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki NAS: 8.45 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Pale straw. Remarkably light, reminds me of Timorous Beastie. The promotional picture above is more accurate in colour balance than my cell phone pic below.

Nose: Very candied fruit nose, with pear, kiwi, green apple, honeydew melons and banana – also lychee. Reminds me of the Meiji gummy versions of most of the above flavours. Honey and a bit of vanilla. Almonds. Faintly fusil (gunpowder). The Mizunara is also coming through as a light wood spice and a very faint funky, sour smell (like old sweatsocks or baby vomit). Believe it or not, it works well with the candied spice, seems elegant. I am quite pleasantly surprised.

Palate: A quick hit of caramelized apples and banana candies to start, followed by starfruit and grapefruit bitterness. Tons of pepper (wow, it is a hot one!). It is very sharp in the mouth, definitely feeling the burn from the extra ABV. Sandalwood and oriental incense notes. Dry paper on the swallow. Not particularly woody, but you can feel the subtle Mizunara wood spice notes – and the overwhelming pepper.

Finish: Fairly quick on the way out, with a simple lingering sweetness. Not cloying, reminiscent of caramelized apple and pear mixed with just a touch of grapefruit citrus (but definitely more sweet than bitter). Not overly woody, which helps keep the bitterness in check. While not complex, most people should find it quite pleasant.

On the nose, there is something here reminiscent of the older-style, lightly-peated Highland malt whiskies, like Ben Nevis 10yo or the older peated Glen Gariochs (e.g., 1995 vintage). It really is a lovely nose, but it then starts to show its youthful age by the burn on the palate and relatively quick finish. It reminds me a bit of Hakushu NAS in the mouth, although there is a lot more pepper here. Finish is fairly simple, but elegant and pleasant enough.

The Mizunara effect is also rather understated (which I personally like), except for the strong peppery spice. I’ve never been a big fan of strong Mizunara wood notes (e.g., Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve), so this level is just about right for me. It feels like a good balance. They are definitely on the right track, it just needs more maturity and character in the mouth. In comparison, the Kanosuke New Born had remarkable character at a younger age, although with some similar heat issues.

I would give this Matsui Mizunara Cask a slightly above average score, ~8.5-8.6. It has less character in the mouth than I would like, but it does have a refined elegance (and a great nose). Good balance of Mizunara spice.

Among reviewers, Jim Murray was extremely positive, followed by Jonny of Whisky Advocate. Richard of nomunication.jp was more moderately positive (and more consistent with my own scoring and views).

Helios Whisky Reki Pure Malt

Helios is not exactly a familiar name in Japanese whisky making. Indeed, they were originally known as a rum distiller (yes, you read that correctly). Based in Okinawa, this region remained under the administrative control of the US into the 1960s, when Helios was founded. I guess rum production for US pacific regions was all the rage in the early days of this distillery.

Beyond the initial rum staple, Helios eventually branched out into various liqueurs, awamori (a distinctive Okinawa beverage made from distilled rice), and the standard Japanese distilled spirits shochu and umeshu. The distillery prides itself on using local materials for its production.

Helios started making whisky during the early phase of rising Japanese domestic whisky popularity in the 1980s. Apparently that popularity didn’t last for Helios, as they seemed to have gotten out of the whisky making game by early 2000s. Indeed, the last age-stated whisky I’ve seen from Helios (under the Reki label) was a 15 year old expression released in 2016.

In recent years, Helios has been cashing in on the modern whisky boom by sourcing Scottish whisky to sell under their Kura whisky brand. See my recent Japan travelogue for an introduction into so-called “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. I believe they have also attempted to brand some of their barrel-aged, rice-distilled awamori and schochu products as whisky (see another example in my Ohishi Sherry Cask review).

All that said, the Reki brand name has been retained by Helios for actual Japanese whisky, as far as I know. See for example this helpful infographic and searchable table at nomunication.jp. But the fact that this is described as a “Pure Malt” (i.e., a vatted malt or blended malt) indicates that this whisky comes from more than one distillery.

This particular Reki Pure Malt whisky was released by Helios in 2017 for a whisky exhibition, in distinctive 180 mL bottles made of Cobalt blue glass (a classy touch). My bottle was given to me as a gift by colleagues on a trip to Japan in early 2019. Bottled at 40% ABV. The label simply says “Produced by Helios Distillery Co. Ltd, Okinawa, Japan”.

There are too few reviews of this whisky to make it into my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to date, but please see some preliminary comments at the end of the review (and continue to check the database for updates).

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Very pale yellow gold, straw.

Nose: Very briny, with lots of minerality (flint, gunpowder). Rubber. Very earthy and herbaceous (dry herbs). Apples and pear. Lemon curd. Reminds me a lot of Ledaig 10yo, but not as overtly smokey. Me likes!

Palate: Light caramel sweetness, but with a malty core. Orange/tangerine show up now. Reminds me of an orange-infused sponge cake with lemon frosting – a real “light” dessert whisky. Relatively thin mouthfeel, even for 40% ABV. Ashy taste on the swallow, but still not exactly smokey. I’ve had some very youthful Bowmores that similarly seem both peated and non-peated at the same time.

Finish: Medium. Honey shows up now, adding to that lingering frosting sweetness. The ashyness persists as well, but it is faint. No off notes, very pleasant on the way out.

It is a very pleasant sipper, but it has a definite “smoke but no fire” character – the nose promises a peated experience, but the palate and finish remain surprisingly gentle (and very “cakey”). My main impression is that the core spirit of this blended malt is quite youthful – but without the harshness that mars many young spirits. I would guess whomever made this knows how to run a still! I would be very keen to try aged spirits from this distillery.

There is something very Japanese about this whisky – it is well constructed, and gives no offense at any point in its development. That being said, I was hoping for more character in the mouth, given the promise of that mineral/rubbery nose. Bottling at a higher ABV would also certainly have helped.

In terms of a score, I would give it a slightly below average rating, maybe ~8.3-8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. Serge of Whisky Fun gave it a slightly more positive score, by his personal rating system. While I enjoyed it, the thin mouthfeel and soft character on the palate contribute to my giving this a lower overall rating. A pleasant surprise, but still a ways to go.

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.

Ohishi Sherry Cask

I always appreciate the opportunity to try something different – and Ohishi is about as different as you can get in the whisky world and still be called “whisky.” Well, in some jurisdictions at least – I’ll get to that in a moment.

The recent boom in Japanese whisky has meant that a lot of Japanese sake and shochu producers have begun to start making Scotch-style whisky. Unfortunately, many of these at the moment are actually examples of “fake” Japanese whisky. While waiting for their whisky stocks to mature, these producers have begun by importing whisky from outside Japan, and then bottling and labeling it as Japanese whisky for resale in Japan. This highly deceptive practice is discussed on my recent Whisky in Japan perspective post.

Ohishi has taken a different approach. Rather than get into the malted barley game, they have stuck with what they know – distilling fermented rice grain, which is the basis of the sake and shochu they have been making for generations. But they have taken to aging this rice-distilled spirit in old world casks, predominantly Sherry, Brandy and whisky casks. In essence, they are making a single grain whisky – but with a very distinctive grain, rice.

However, it gets a little more complicated than that, since the rice starch needs to be broken down into sugar using a mold known as aspergillus oryzae, also called koji, before fermentation by yeast for sake or shochu production. This filamentous fungus has a long tradition of use in Asia (e.g., it is also used in the fermentation of soybeans for miso, etc.). For reasons I am not entirely clear on, Ohishi is not allowed to sell their barrel-aged, rice grain koji-saccharifying fermentation product as a “whisky” in Japan.

However, Japan does allow it to be exported as “Japanese whisky.” As country-level designations typically dominate for all named products of origin (due to reciprocity clauses in trade agreements), this means other countries will recognize it as “Japanese whisky” precisely because Japan allows it to be labelled as such for export. Ohishi is thus serving the export market exclusively with these products (i.e., you can’t buy these in Japan).

So, is it a whisky?  That really depends on your point of view. It certainly meets many of the classic requirements – except for the koji and rice grain. On that front, the Ohishi mash bill is is 30% estate-grown rice grain (various varieties), with the remaining 70% Mochi rice coming from the surrounding Kumamoto prefecture.

Another distinctive feature is that distillation occurs in a pot still made from stainless steel (instead of copper, used almost everywhere else).

I picked this bottle up on sale in Calgary, Alberta last year for $89 CAD. Bottled at 40.8% ABV. Note again that this is the generic “Sherry cask” version – not one of the more expensive single cask editions (that are often bottled at slightly higher strength).

I don’t have any other rice whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database, but here is how Ohishi compares to some other grain/blended Japanese Whiskies:

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Brandy Cask: 8.27 ± 0.19 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Cask: 8.42 ± 0.45 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Single Cask: 8.61 ± 0.46 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.58 ± 0.73 on 9 reviews ($$$)

Also for comparison, here are some Canadian grain whiskies that I find similar:

Canadian Rockies 17yo: 8.30 ± 0.53 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (40%): 8.70 ± 0.09 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (46%, old label): 9.12 ± 0.28 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (all editions): 8.98 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Centennial 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.44 on 6 reviews ($)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.05 ± 0.95 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 7.93 ± 0.80 on 8 reviews ($)

As always, the proof is in the pudding – let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour:  Very golden, with only the slightest hint of Sherry cask influence (see below). Based on colour alone, I would think this was a refill Sherry cask.

Nose: Very perfumy, with heather and honeysuckle notes. Slightly under-ripe earth cherries (gooseberries) and green bananas. Salty rice crackers and soy sauce. Anise (black licorice) and dried ginger. There is a very noticeably strong acetone smell, which detracts for me personally (and overwhelms the initial impression upon pouring a glass).

Palate: Very sweet and syrupy, with fresh fruit cocktail flavours. Reminds me of a generic cough syrup, with that acetone note from the nose turning into saccharine artificial sweetness. But there is also a delicate sake-like sweetness underneath that is more floral in nature (which I like). The classic Sherry nutty notes assert themselves on the swallow, along with some faint anise and a dry earthiness. Cinnamon builds over time with repeated sips, along with some earthy bitterness.

Finish: Artificial sweetener, but it reminds me more of bubble gum now. Rice Krispies. Dried fruits, but with just a hint of that fresh fruit cocktail again at the end (green grapes in particular).

This is a strange one for me – my initial impression on both the nose and the palate are not favourable (with acetone and saccharine leading off, respectively). But it grows on me over time, as the more subtle notes emerge on successive sips. Indeed, this is one you have to spend time with, to coax out the underlying distinctiveness – likely coming from the rice and/or the koji-saccharification (with those rice cracker/Rice Krispies notes). I also recommend some time in the glass to let it open up first.

The closest thing in my experience would be some of the single grain/corn whiskies coming out of the Canadian west (e.g., the various Highwood releases listed above, Canadian Rockies). Perhaps not coincidentally, I also get acetone notes from many of those. I wonder if the stainless steel pot stills may something to do with it, as I know these are in use in some distilleries in Canada (but I don’t know if Highwood is one of them). As an aside, I gave a sample of this to the_muskox of Reddit to review “blind”, and he thought it was a medium-aged Canadian corn whisky.

This is a hard one to score. The off-notes are significant enough for me that I would normally give something like this a below average score. But there are a lot of interesting subtleties under the surface, which make be happy to finish my glass over an extended period of time. As such, I think the current average Meta-Critic score of ~8.4 is reasonable. Definitely worth trying out for the distinctiveness, but you would want to sample it first before investing in a whole bottle.

For other reviews, the most positive I’ve seen for this generic Sherry cask version comes from Jason of In Search of Elegance (which is actually based on a sample from my bottle), and Josh the Whiskey Jug. More in keeping with my average score is Jonny of Whisky Advocate and the_muskox of Reddit (the latter also being a sample from my bottle, but as a blind “mystery” review). A very low score comes from Thomas of Whisky Saga. Note that the individual Single Sherry Cask editions tend to score higher, across all reviewers.

A Primer on Port

One of the great contributors to whisky flavour is the selective aging (or “finishing”) in oak casks that previously held other spirits or wine. One of my favourite types of finishing involves the fortified wine known as Port (or Porto, for the region in comes from).

You don’t need to understand Port varieties to enjoy whisky finished in this way. But I had to chance to visit Portugal recently, and had the privilege to sample some really excellent Port. In researching for my trip, I discovered that classifying Port is actually a fairly complex undertaking, and that a lot of online Port resources are either incomplete, inconsistent, or somewhat confusingly presented. So I thought I would provide a primer to help you understand how Port is made, what the different types of Port represent, and what characteristics this may impart in your whisky.

What is Port?

Port is a fortified wine, which means that additional spirit has been added to a wine, raising its alcohol content.

By European Union Protected Designation of Origin definition, Port is designated as originating only in Portugal. Port has been produced in the Douro Valley region of northern Portugal for centuries. A number of countries produce a similar style of fortified wine, and may use the “port” term more generically – but this primer is specific for Port from Portugal.

Like all wine, Port is naturally fermented – but the fermentation process is halted in Port before the residual fruit sugar is exhausted by adding a neutral grape spirit called aguardente (similar to brandy). As a result, this leaves a relatively sweet dessert wine (although it can come in dryer forms).

Port ranges between 19-21% ABV. It keeps well while sealed in the bottle, but will break down once opened and exposed to air – not as quickly as regular wine, but it is certainly nowhere near as stable as whisky. But it is a little more complicated depending on the type of Port we are talking about. I will give some guidance for storage for the different types of Port below (you may also want to check out my guidance on whisky storage here).

How is Port made?

Port can be made from both white and red grapes (though predominantly red grapes are used for most Ports). There are about a hundred grape varietals that can be found in different blends of Port, but the five key grapes used for the vast majority of Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão.

All Ports commercially available are blends of different grapes, from multiple vineyards under the control of a given producer (known in the biz as a Port “Shipper”). So the distinctiveness comes more in the processes used to prepare and age the Port at the various shippers.

After the grapes are picked, they are either stomped by foot in stone tanks (the traditional method – still sometimes offered to tourists willing to roll up their socks and jump in), or more commonly today, crushed mechanically in large stainless steel tanks. They are left in the tanks for 1-4 days, where the naturally occurring sugars are converted to alcohol through fermentation. When about half of the sugar is used up, neutral grape spirit is added to prematurely stop fermentation (by killing the yeast). It is then transferred to large stainless steel tanks or wooden casks to age for a minimum of two years. After that, the Ports are directed down different paths, depending on their quality, into various types of final Port products – which I will describe below.

How many types of Port are there?

This is where things start to get a little complicated.

If you wanted to classify Port types the same way we do for wine, you could separate Ports into white or red, based on the types of grapes used. Red grapes are dominant here, and used to produce Ruby Port (typically bottled and drunk fairly young) and Tawny Port (similar to Ruby, but aged in wooden casks to accelerate aging and oxidation, and drunk soon or after longer times in the bottle). There is also a rare style, Garrafeira Port, which has characteristics of both – which I got to sample on my recent trip and will explain later in this article.

But most Port enthusiasts differentiate Port a little differently, and segregate Port into two main types based on whether they are wood-aged or “bottle-aged.” Now, that latter category is going to take some explaining for a whisky drinker. Port is not a distilled product like whisky, but behaves more like wine – and so, a different type of reductive “aging” can happen in the closed bottle, and is influenced by how the Port has been prepared and stored, especially whether or not it has not been “fined” or filtered first (I’ll explain these terms in the discussion of Vintage Port, below).

Coming as a whisky drinker, you could also choose to break it down by no-age-statement (NAS), age-stated or single-year vintages. That last category is surprisingly complicated for Port, for the variable “bottled-aged” reasons mention above (e.g. all “Vintage Ports” are a single vintage, but not all single year vintages are Vintage Port). I know, it is confusing. So I’ll cover each of these NAS, age-stated and vintage types in turn, under the general categories of the two main types of red Port, Ruby and Tawny.

Again, it is important to note that Ruby and Tawny are not differentiated by the types of red grapes involved. Instead, it is the type of aging that matters, with the latter receiving a lot more time in wood (spoiler alert: that extra wood aging is what turns a “ruby” coloured red port into a more “tawny” coloured one).

Ruby Port

This is probably the best place to start, as Ruby is the most basic form of Port – and typically the youngest.

After fermentation, Ruby Port is typically stored in large tanks of concrete or stainless steel instead of wood, to minimize oxidative aging and preserve its colour and fruitiness. A standard Ruby Port is a blend of several years, typically averaging 3-5 years old. They are relatively simple and straightforward, very fruit-driven (with bright, fresh fruit notes), and meant to be drunk as soon as they are bottled. The name is derived from the bright red colour of the final Port (think cherry or cranberry juice). Indeed, I find the sharp flavours of fresh cherries, cranberries and raspberries come through most prominently on Ruby Port.

Standard Ruby Port is fined and filtered before bottling (see below for explanation of these terms). Once opened, they last a reasonably long time (i.e., weeks to months before obvious degradation sets in). And even then they are still quite drinkable – so there is no rush to finish the bottle. Indeed, open bottles of Ruby Port are often used for cooking, like inexpensive Sherries.

A “Reserve Ruby” Port is typically a bit older, 5-7 years on average. They are still very fruit-forward Ports, but have a bit more complexity due to the extra aging time. A 10 year old Ruby Port represents a blend of Rubies that are 10 years old on average. A good Reserve or 10 yo would be my preference among basic Ruby Ports.

Specific vintages are where things get a bit more complicated. The main types to differentiate are Late Bottled Vintages (LBVs) and “Vintage Port” (VP) – which are both protected definitions, and both involve some wood cask aging.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports

Something you see a lot more of now is “Late Bottled Vintage” Ports (LBVs). These are specific vintages of Port, with the grapes were all picked from a single harvest year. LBVs are bottled between 4-6 years after harvest, and typically spend those years in very large oak barrels, called Tonnels. LBVs may have started their lives intended to be Vintage Ports (see below), but due to reduced demand or over-supply were kept aging longer and directed down the LBV line. They come in two types and can be either filtered and fined (like your typical Ruby Port) or unfiltered (where residual material from the grapes remains in the bottle). Again, I’ll explain all that in the discussion on Vintage Port below.

For now, a simple way to tell the difference is that fined and filtered Ports typically come sealed with a standard T-shaped stopper cork (like whisky bottles), and can be poured and enjoyed straight from the resealable bottle (example pictured on the right). Unfiltered LBVs typically have a driven cork (like wine bottles) and possess considerable sediment – and so will need decanting prior to drinking.

Unfiltered LBVs should ideally be drunk within a few days after opening, but a week will likely be fine. Filtered LBVs are more like aged Rubies and can probably go a few weeks with no obvious change (especially if refrigerated after opening).

FYI, LBVs have largely replaced the so-called “Crusted Ports”, which were blends of at least two or more vintage years that were aged in wood for up to four years, bottled unfiltered, and then aged for a few years before release.

Vintage Port

Along with the aged Tawny Ports (covered below), “Vintage Port” is often seen as the pinnacle of quality Port among aficionados and enthusiasts.

Note that the phrase Vintage Port (VP) has a very specific meaning that is carefully controlled by EU law. VPs start down the path to this designation very early, when the Port shipper petitions for this status for a given harvest. On average, VPs are only produced ~3 times a decade – typically representing the very best harvest years.

Batches of a specific harvest destined for VP status are stored in stainless steel or heavily-used oak barrels – but only for 2-3 years. These two features help limit the impact of any wood aging. Indeed, by law, VPs must be bottled between 2-3 years after harvest.  But they are always bottled unfined and unfiltered, to ensure that the maximum possible amount of “bottle aging” can occur.

I know that concept is going to sound odd to whisky drinkers, as there is no real “aging” going on in a factory-sealed whisky bottle (see my overview of the whisky process here). But that reflects the high-proof and complete air-proof seal of a whisky bottle. Wine is still a living product that continues to evolve in the bottle.

I need to finally explain the role of fining and filtering in Port (or for that matter, any wine). There is a rough analogy to whisky chill-filtering here, but not exactly. Fining involves adding a substance to the wine during production to remove suspended particles that cause haziness or clouding, or form unwanted sediment. This fining agent isn’t bottled with the wine – instead, it is left to adhere to particles in suspension, and then settles as sediment in the bottom of the vat (where it will get filtered out before bottling).

Fining is used mainly to stabilize and clarify wood-aged Ports, to ensure they remain bright and visually attractive to consumers (i.e., like chill-filtering in whiskies). But it also limits reactivity over time, as you are removing a lot of the left-over grape material that can break down and change the flavour with time. Fining is also used to make wines “softer” and less harsh, by removing tannins.

In the case of Vintage Ports (and some LBVs), you are leaving that unfiltered grape material – and the eventual sediment – behind in the bottle. Over time, it will change the flavour of the so-called “bottled aged” Vintage Port. VPs are actually expected to be cellared for many years (e.g., 30+), to ensure maximum maturation. Indeed, much of the character of aged VP comes from the continued slow decomposition of those residual grape solids in the bottle. Given the increasing amount of sediment that will form over time, these VPs must be decanted prior to drinking.

The flavours of VPs are very diverse, and highly dependent on the source harvest, the Port shipper’s processes, and the amount of time spent in bottle – but largely independent of any significant wood influence. I’ve had some >30 yo VPs that still taste relatively “fresh”, with classic Ruby notes – whereas others can seem quite a bit more “seasoned” in comparison (and closer to some wood-aged Tawny Ports, as explained below). Two examples that I sampled on this visit were a Ferreira 1985 VP and a Borges Oporto 1980 VP (shown in the side pictures), which were very, very different beasts.

As mentioned, VPs are always bottled with a driven cork. So for an aged VP, you really should finish the bottle within 2-3 days after opening. Younger VPs (i.e., under 10 years old) should be able to last a couple of days longer before noticeable degradation occurs. But this style of Port is going to have a very short life once the bottle is opened.

There are a few more types of VPs out there, such as Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP), where the grapes all come from a single property (similar to a single vineyard wine). But these are actually less distinctive that typical VPs, as the SQVPs can come from any harvest, not just the premium ones declared for VPs.

It is important to note that LBVs, SQVPs and VPs are not the only kind of specific vintage/harvest Ports out there – but they are the main types coming from the Ruby Port pathway.  For other examples, it is time to turn our attention to Tawny Ports.

Tawny Port

This is the form of Port likely most familiar to whisky drinkers – indeed, it is the most popularly consumed type of Port.

Tawny Port actually starts out just like a Ruby Port, but then spends an extended period of time in oak casks. These are the classic, large oak casks known as “Port Pipes” (~550 liter volume). Like Sherry Butts, quality Port Pipes are heavily sought after for finishing whisky. The somewhat porous oak (and significant air headspace) allows for extended air exchange over time, helping to mature and oxidize the Port in the cask.

In keeping with this oxidative process, the colour of the Port wine slowly changes from the bright red of a “ruby” to the reddish-brown “tawny” colour. The more time Port spends in wood, the “tawny-er” it becomes (and the more complex its flavour profile). Indeed, here in Canada, the word “Tawny” is allowed to be used for any Port-style fortified wine aged in wood, not just those originating in Portugal.

I find the fruit notes in Tawny Port move more toward softer blueberry and grapey fruit flavours, while other “woody” notes come in – including commonly nuts, caramel and chocolate, among others.

A standard NAS Tawny Port is likely a couple of years older at the time of bottling than an entry-level NAS Ruby Port. It should last without obvious degradation for several weeks to months once it is opened (especially if refrigerated). A Reserve Tawny is typically aged for at least 7 years, and similarly has a good shelf life.

While there are some vintage-specific Tawny Ports (which I will explain in a moment), it is more common to see age-stated Tawny Ports available out there.

Tawny Port Age Statements

Unlike whisky, where age statements can be any given age, there are only 4 approved age statements in Tawny Port: 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old.

Like whisky, these are blends of many years/harvests, chosen to present a distinct “house style” for that particular Port shipper. The Master Blender of each Port shipper will take great care to produce a style that they can reliably recreate across batches – just as whisky makers try to do for their core age-stated ranges.

Unlike whisky however, the stated age on the Tawny Port bottle is not the minimum age for each Port that went into the blend, but rather the average age of Ports in the bottle. Or more accurately, the minimum average age (i.e., a good Master Blender is likely to aim for a slightly older average than the minimum 10, 20, 30 or 40 years listed on the bottle, to give themselves flexibility in keeping a consistent style over the years).

So that 30 yo Tawny Port could easily have a balance of 5 yo and 50 yo Ports in the bottle (plus all ages in-between). Aged Tawny Ports are really my jam – quite literally, given the more stewed flavours you often find in these Ports.

Younger age-stated Tawny Port should also last without obvious degradation for several weeks to months once opened (especially if refrigerated). As a general rule though, older Tawnies will not last as long as younger ones once opened, so you should try to drink them more quickly.

There is a view out there in some quarters that Tawnies will not last as long as Rubies once opened, given that they have already been extensively aged in the presence of air. But the more common competing view is that they are more resistant to major age degradation effects once opened, due to their already extensive aging. I don’t have enough experience to come down on one side of the issue or the other – and I am not likely to leave an open bottle lying around long enough to find out which breaks down faster anyway!

For Tawny Port fans, age-stated bottlings are probably the best trade-off for quality for price. Around here, 10 yo Tawnies are usually not much more expensive than standard NAS or Reserve Tawny. 20 yo Tawnies are probably the sweet spot in terms of price-performance, going for about twice the price of 10 year olds, but with a lot more character and flavour. In contrast, 30 yo and 40 yo Tawnies are heavily over-priced for the quality, and so likely not worth the extra cost to most. But that leads me to a special class of single harvest Tawnies that you may want to consider instead, known as Colheitas.

Colheita Ports

Colheita (pronounced Col-YATE-a) is basically a single vintage-dated Tawny Port, but one typically aged in small, well-used oak barrels instead of the large Port Pipes of most Tawnies. Colheita Ports must be aged in wood at least 7 years, but can spend quite a bit more time.

Just like Vintage Port (see above), Colheita single harvest years are “declared” after approval by the IVDP (Port and Douro Wine Institute). So, this means you should be getting a particularly good single harvest (although that will depend on the particular Port shipper). But as a result, production volumes are low. These aren’t widely produced, and so are not commonly available outside of Portugal at the moment.

But that is a shame, as they can represent extraordinary value. On my recent trip, I found that the >15 yo vintage Colheitas from the Port shippers who specialize in this style to be particularly nice, and no more expensive that a standard blended 20yo Tawny. In one particularly good deal, I brought back an outstanding 1974 vintage Colheita from the premium Port Shipper Barros, bottled in 2019 (so, ~45 years old) that cost $145 CAD. That is less than half what a typical blended 40yo Tawny costs around here. Not bad for a single harvest vintage!

Labeling can be a bit inconsistent on these, depending on the Port shipper. You will probably find “Colheita” on the front or back label (but not always), along with the harvest year (on the front) and bottling year (typically on the back). Look as well for “matured in wood” or “aged in cask” on the labels, to help differentiate from LBVs or other vintage Ruby Ports.

In terms of how long they last once opened, it is a similar story for other Tawnies of equivalent age – younger ones (i.e. <20 years) should last for several weeks to months without obvious degradation (especially if refrigerated). Heavily aged Colheitas should be drunk quicker, for best results.

And now for the last defined Port type I will consider, the ultra-rare (but very rewarding) Garrafeira Port.

Garrafeira Port

Garrafeira (gah-rah-FAY-ruh) is a very unique and rare style of Port. I have heard it opined that many Port lovers have never even heard of it, much less tasted it!

Garrafeira Port is most closely associated with the Port shipper Niepoort today, although others have made it over the years. It is made from the grapes of a single harvest, like a Colheita, and is therefore given a vintage date. But the aging pattern is unique, with initial aging of 3-6 years in oak casks before being transferred unfined and unfiltered into large glass bottles known as demi-johns (or “bon-bons”), and then aged further, often for many decades, before eventual traditional bottling.

These demi-johns were made from a special dark green German glass which is no longer produced (hence the rarity of this style today). They were typically 8 to 11 liters in volume, and sealed with a cork stopper. The glass is said by some to have introduced a unique character into the Port through reductive aging over extended periods of time (i.e., 30-50 years was not uncommon for this secondary aging period). The shape of the bottle and residual air pockets may also have played a role. Another theory I came across is that the glass of these bottles facilitated certain oils precipitating out of the Port, causing a change in taste with time.

Whatever the mechanism, Garrafeira Ports were said to produce unique flavours – with a distinctive balancing between young and aged Port characteristics, keeping both the fresh fruity notes of Rubies and the extended aging complexity of VPs. After the extended demi-john aging, the Port was transferred into regular bottles for subsequent cellaring (I’m not sure if they typically fined and filtered first, though).

I had the chance to sample a 1908 Ferraira Garrafeira Port in my journeys, at the high-end (and appropriatelty named) Garrafeira Nacional in the Time Out food market in Lisbon. Retailing for ~$1500 CAD a bottle, they had it out for tastings at only ~$60 CAD for a 2 oz pour, which I thought was very reasonable for something over a century old. I had a couple of VP samples on hand as well, so was able to compare them before and after the Garrafeira.

My first thought on the nose was that this was disappointing – it didn’t seem very different from a typical LBV or VP, and there was a slight solvent smell that was off-putting (vaguely ether-like). But in the mouth, it was a different experience – a bright initial palate, with classic Ruby fresh notes, followed by an aged VP mid-palate experience. I can really see what they say about Garrafeira – it did combine both experiences for me.

But the kicker was the finish, which went on for many minutes while continuing to evolve and change. Ports are not generally distinguished by a long finish in my experience, so this was a pleasant surprise. It also had the added benefit of raising up the experience of the two VPs I had on hand – both tasted considerably better after a sip of the Garrafeira, which left a nice tannic coating on my lips and gums.

Garrafeiras don’t show up very often on the market, and according to the Garrafeira Nacional, they don’t last long for tastings when they do open one. The bottle I tried would have been gone in a day or two. But definitely worth seeking out if you are in Lisbon and want the ultimate Port experience (the Time Out food market is also a great place to grab a quality meal on the cheap first).

And that wraps up this primer – I hope you found it helped your appreciation for the effects of Port finishing on whiskies. I always encourage everyone to pick up a Tawny Port bottle to try – if nothing else, to help ensure a steady supply of Port casks for whisky finishing.

Timorous Beastie Blended Malt

Timorous Beastie is another member of the Remarkable Regional Malts series produced by Douglas Laing, an independent bottler of Scottish malt whisky. I previously reviewed the Speyside-derived Scallywag (and was not much of a fan). But when I recently saw a bottle of Timorous Beastie on sale, I picked it up thinking it might be worth a try, based on the reported flavour profile and reviews.

As previously described, Douglas Laing has been around since 1948, and has an extensive range of single malt bottlings. But the company is perhaps best known for this series of blended malts (aka, vatted malts), based on defined regions of Scotland. Produced in small batches, these no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies have creative labels and quirky names, including Scallywag, Timorous Beastie, Rock Oyster, The Epicurean, and Big Peat.

Many have also been released in limited age-stated versions as well. Interestingly, the 10 year old version of Timorous Beastie is typically cheaper than this NAS version in many markets (i.e., at the LCBO, it is $60 CAD for the 10yo vs $70 CAD for the NAS). I’ve seen the standard NAS version run quite a bit higher in other parts of Canada, so when I found it for $56 CAD on clearout at a local store, it seemed worth the gamble.

Timorous Beastie blended malt is sourced from several Highland distilleries, including Blair Athol, Dalmore, Glen Garioch, and Glengoyne. The title is in reference to the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse,” which describes his thoughts after accidentally upending its nest when plowing a field (which also gave us his famous musings about how “the best laid schemes of Mice and Men” often go awry).

Bottled at 46.8% ABV (for some reason), this whisky is non-chill-filtered, with natural colour – all well appreciated by this reviewer. My bottle is dated from November 2017, with a batch 13 code.

Here is how Timorous Beastie compares to the rest of the Douglas Laing line, and some similar entry-level Highland malts from which it is apparently derived.

Big Peat: 8.72 ± 0.26 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Scallywag: 8.22 ± 0.55 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Timorous Beastie: 8.39 ± 0.36 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Timorous Beastie 18yo: 8.62 ± 0.31 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Timorous Beastie 21yo Sherry Edition: 9.05 ± 0.21 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Timorous Beastie 40yo Cask Strength: 8.98 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)

Blair Athol 12yo (F&F): 8.43 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.28 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore Valour: 8.05 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.30 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.38 ± 0.35 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 10yo: 8.26 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 12yo: 8.54 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Colour: One of the lightest whiskies I’ve come across, very pale apple juice colour

Nose: Very sweet, and candied. Gummy bears and pear drops. Strong fruit notes of pear, apricot, and tangerine. Honey and a little maple syrup. Nutty, with a slightly rancid salty peanut aroma. Hint of smoke, but comes across more as funky, sour and somewhat rancio. Definite sherry influence, despite the light colour. This is very nice, and exactly what I was hoping for.

Palate: Honey and gummy candy sweet initially, followed by an immediate zing of cinnamon redhot candies (plus allspice, cloves and black pepper). Yowza. But the shock of spices doesn’t continue to burn, it just slowly fades. Whatever fruits were present on the nose are lost by the quick spice arrival, but it does have a citrusy cleansing vibe. Also a bit woody, and a touch of anise. The funky smoke note wafts back up at the end, after the swallow.

Finish: Lovely lingering burn. Honey and apple juice come up at the end. Also getting those powdered gelatinous gummy candies you find in Asia – not as sweet as the usual gummies in North America, and with a touch of sourness. Astringent (drying) finish.

A very nice, powerful hit of spice, wrapped in a sweet confectionery coating. Seems like a real misnomer of a name, as this is in no way shy or retiring. I would say Blair Athol and old-style Glen Garioch dominate here. Not overly complex, but a fun sipping experience. I’m curious to try the age-stated versions now.

Among reviewers, the highest score comes from Serge of Whisky Fun, who gives it an above-average score and review (and one I concur with). This would be followed by the generally positive reviews of Thomas of Whisky Saga, Jonny of Whisky Advocate, Shane_IL of Reddit, and Jan of Best Shot Whisky. Lower scores come from Aaron of Whiskey Wash, Strasse007 of Reddit, and Josh the Whiskey Jug.

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