Tag Archives: NAS

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.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackmyra Svensk Rök

Rök means smoke in Swedish, and this Svensk Rök edition (“Swedish Smoke”) is the first smokey single malt whisky released by Mackmyra, first launched in 2013. The traditional Swedish way of smoking food is over burning juniper, so they added juniper wood while kilning the barley for this edition.

As is typical for Mackmyra, they have used a range of cask types and sizes, including ones made of American oak and Swedish oak, in the form of ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso seasoned casks. Also as typical for them, they have used smallish cask sizes ranging from 30-128 litre capacity.

Like most Mackmyra whiskies, Svensk Rok does not have an age statement, but it is not chill filtered and doesn’t use any artificial coloring. Mackmyra reports that Svensk Rök is made of only “natural Swedish ingredients.” It is bottled at 46.1% ABV. I managed to pick up a 50 mL sample bottle in my travels through Germany last year.

Here’s how it compares to other Nordic whiskies:

Box (High Coast) Dalvve: 8.48 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) Early Days: 8.53 ± 0.24 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) PX – Pedro Ximénez Finish: 8.86 ± 0.17 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Box (High Coast) Quercus I Robur: 8.28 ± 0.41 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Box (High Coast) The 2nd Step Collection 02: 8.85 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Box (High Coast) The Festival 2014: 8.93 ± 0.12 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Ek: 8.36 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Svensk Rök: 8.63 ± 0.21 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Mackmyra Ten Years 10yo: 8.70 ± 0.11 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Mackmyra The First Edition (Den Första Utgåvan): 8.66 ± 0.33 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Mackmyra The Swedish Whisky (Brukswhisky): 8.42 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews ($$)
Smogen Primör: 8.48 ± 0.25 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Smogen Single Cask (all editions): 8.88 ± 0.14 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Spirit of Hven Tycho’s Star: 8.71 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Faint peat, coming across as light smoke and dry ash. Light apple juice. Caramel. Light berries. A relatively faint juniper note, but much less than Mackmyra First Edition honestly. An unusual organic off-note – reminds me of mimeograph fluid (for those of you of a certain age). A bit of glue, but not offensive. All in all, an interesting start. Also reminds me a bit of Box Dalvve, for both the youth and light smoke.

Palate: Not as sweet as expected, but definite caramel and some vanilla. Much dryer than earlier Mackmyras (or Box Dalvve for that matter). No real fruits coming through, beyond standard apple/pear. Cigar ash. A bit of dry book-binding glue. White pepper. Bitterness after swallow, unfortunately, which detracts for me personally. A bit too simple in the mouth, honestly.

Finish: Medium. Apple juice with a squeeze of lemon. Caramel lingers, but so does the bitterness. Somewhat astringent on way out. The woodiness comes through here, but I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe it to juniper per se.

I’ve generally been a fan of most Swedish whiskies I’ve tried, including Mackmyra. But this one strikes me as a little lacking. Specifically, it seems too young, and not as interesting as similar lightly-peated youthful whiskies (i.e. I find even the entry-level Box Dalvve is better).

Among reviewers, Jim Murray was the most positive, with an above-average score. Serge of Whisky Fun, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Jonny of Whisky Advocate all give it an average score (but favourable reviews). I’m the lowest of the group on this one. An interesting experiment perhaps, but I find the smokey whiskies coming out of Box (High Coast) more interesting.

Laird of Fintry 2018 (Lot #5) Single Malt

I managed to snag a bottle of this year’s annual lottery release of Okanagan Spirits’ Laird of Fintry single malt whisky.

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery is located in British Columbia, Canada. They make a very wide range of distilled products, include aquavits, fruit brandies, liqueurs, gins, and vodkas – with a recent specialization in whiskies. They style themselves as an original harvest-to-flask operation, using 100% B.C. fruits and grains grown “a tractor ride away” from the distillery.

This is the 5th year that the distillery has offered a single malt release. The malted barley is locally grown, and distilled in copper pot stills. From the appearance, I would have assumed caramel colouring has been added – but their website states no artificial colours or flavours are used in any of their products (the bottle label makes no specific claims).

Bottled at 42% ABV. Age is unknown (but presumably only a few years old). Quantity produced varies by year, but 4,000 full-size bottle equivalents were produced for 2018 (they sell both full-size 750mL bottles and half-size “mickeys” of 375mL). Typically, they have more than twice that many people sign up for the lottery each year. Having won the lottery, I opted for a pair of the half-size bottles at $40 CAD each ($75 for the full-size bottle).

Here is how Laird of Fintry compares to other Canadian single malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Glen Breton 10yo Rare: 8.06 ± 0.47 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton Ice 10yo: 8.23 ± 0.59 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo: 8.07 ± 0.58 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Lohin McKinnon: 8.03 ± 0.30 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Lohin McKinnon Wine Barrel Finished (Black Sage): 7.76 ± 0.69 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Okanagan Spirits Laird of Fintry (all editions): 8.41 ± 0.72 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt (all Casks): 8.26 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$$)

As you can see, it does better than most (but there are a number of other craft brands out there that aren’t in my database yet, due to the low number of reviews).

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: A powerful fruity nose, you can smell it as soon as you pour the glass. In keeping with the distillery’s origins, it has a strong eau de vie (fruit brandy) aroma. Very candy sugar coated, with additional caramel and rum sweetness. Sour red cherries and  apple juice. Tons of citrus (in keeping with the young age). Banana and coca cola. Anise and some light dried glue (actually pleasant). A bit perfumy, but in a herbal way. While young, it is not burdened with the off notes that mar many young Canadian blends. Off to a good start!

Palate: The cola notes pick up in a major way (with a bit of tongue tingle that is reminiscent of carbonation). Plum, pear and apple. Rum raisin ice cream. Sweet red licorice joins the anise. Cinnamon and nutmeg, a bit of black pepper. Surprisingly creamy mouth feel (for 42% ABV), evocative of creamed wheat. Despite the sweetness, an herbal bitterness rises up on the swallow, which increases on successive sips. Not as interesting as the nose suggested, but still pleasant enough (if a bit flat).

Finish: Medium length. Stale flat coca cola initially. Unsweetened anise and pepper. Some astringency joins the bitterness. If you wait long enough, some syrupy sweetness returns at the very end. A bit disappointing really, but not surprising for the age (and still longer than I expected).

I’m not getting as many woody notes as some reviewers report (for earlier batches). But the fruit essence is very dominant. The cola and cherry notes remind me of some older Canadian Clubs I’ve tried. To be honest, it doesn’t really seem like a malt whisky – I’m not getting very many grain notes. More like an oak barrel-aged fruit brandy in many ways. This would likely appeal to those with a sweet tooth!

I would give it an average score, given its distinctive elements and lack of off-notes – but again, it doesn’t seem like a malt whisky.

I haven’t seen any reviews of this lot 5 (2018) edition yet. But for the earlier versions, Sinjun86 on Reddit gave very positive reviews of lot 1, lot 2 and lot 3. Lot 3 also got very positive reviews from Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, as well as xile_ of reddit. Mark of whisky.buzz gave it a below average score, and lowest score I’ve seen was by Ethanized. Lot 4 had a very positive review by Neversaveforlife on Reddit, followed by a moderate score from TOModera.

 

 

 

 

Cutty Sark Prohibition

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what I find in the glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt

When I was in Switzerland last year, I managed to try a number of local single malt whiskies. Whisky production is a relatively new thing there (having only been legally allowed since 1999), and most of the early producers were already long-established brewers. I’ve seen this pattern before in a number of countries, as there are a lot of similarities in brewing beer and distilling malt whisky.

While most of the young whiskies I tried were fairly mediocre (and one was absolutely dreadful), the best of the bunch was Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt. Produced by the brewer Rugenbräu, this no-age-statement (NAS) malt whisky is aged in American oak ex-Sherry casks (presumably refill casks, given the relatively light colour). This is a step up from many of the other brewer/distillers, who tend re-use beer barrels (something I personally find rarely benefits a malt whisky).

I would have passed this unassuming whisky by, in favour of a few limited age-stated releases of other makers – until a knowledgeable bartender directed me to try it. He explained that Jim McEwan, previous Master Distiller and owner of Bruichladdich, was so impressed with the production of Rugenbräu that he immediately decided to become a patron and advisor to the distillery. Indeed, it is his personal tasting notes that adorn the backs of all their bottlings.

Bottled at 46% ABV. This Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt was awarded a Silver medal at the 2017 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London.  MSRP is 81 Swiss Francs (about ~$106 CAD) for a 700mL bottle.

Here is how it compares to other Swiss and central European malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Gouden Carolus Single Malt: 8.27 ± 0.36 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Millstone 12yo Sherry Cask: 8.74 ± 0.64 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Millstone 8yo French Oak: 7.96 ± 0.63 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Santis Alpstein (all editions): 8.58 ± 0.11 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Santis Edition Dreifaltigkeit / Cask Strength Peated: 7.14 ± 1.66 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Santis Edition Sigel: 7.94 ± 0.80 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Santis Edition Säntis: 7.55 ± 0.83 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Swiss Highland Classic Single Malt: 8.65 ± 0.40 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Hmmm, that’s different. There’s something very vegetal at play here. Mushrooms? The earthy funkiness reminds me of a lightly peated whisky (but I’m not getting any smoke). Leather. some Oloroso notes coming through, including some golden sultanas and raisins. I’m detecting a bit of acetone at the end, but it’s pretty well hidden under the funk. I like it.

Palate: A relatively light palate, almost watery. Bourbony wood notes come up first – vanilla, caramel. Not much fruit, mainly prunes and a light berry. A bit candied as well (candy canes). Oloroso notes come back at end, with some cocoa.‎ A bit of cinnamon, and some tobacco. Not overwhelming, but no real off notes either. A fairly subtle experience – but pleasant.

Finish: Short. Mildly sweet. The cocoa turns more to chocolate now, and includes some bitter dark chocolate notes.  Again, no real off notes.

Easy drinking‎, I could see this doing well as a standard, everyday sort of pour.

Jim Murray is a big fan of this whisky.  It gets an average score from Jonny of Whisky Advocate. The lowest score I’ve seen comes from cake_my_day on Reddit.  I would give it an average score overall, and so find the Meta-Critic composite score reasonable. I’d be curious to try more from this distillery.

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