On Robbie Burns Day: four Scotches, two Asians
When I last gave a whisky nod to Robbie Burns Day, a couple of readers wondered how I could possibly exclude their favourites. I'm sure Laphroaig and Lagavulin were on their lists, and top drams they are. But there are also several thousand other Scotches out there, and only about 800 words in a column. Something's got to give, and that includes some of my own favourites, which I've reviewed before, like Ardbeg 10, Highland Park 18, Balvenie 15 Single Barrel, Talisker, Old Pulteney and – when I fancy something on the rocks – Johnnie Walker Red.
So, to be clear, what follows are tasting highlights based on recently released (or re-released) products available in Canada. But, so as not to deflect legitimate complaints altogether, in a sacrilegious move I'm including two Asian offerings. Perhaps they won't be your top choices for a toast on January 25, but, hey, at least I didn't include wine or rum, which Burns drank from time to time.
Robert Burns Arran Single Malt (Scotland)
Score: 90; Price: $39.95
Independent distiller Isle of Arran, patron of the World Burns Federation, is the only whisky-maker to use the poet's image. Though he spent no time on Arran and had no connection with this producer, founded in the 1990s, he was born not far away, in Ayrshire on the west coast. There's a pronounced note of pear here, followed by vanilla, honey-lemon tea and soda bread. A delicate dram for early evening. $56.99 in British Columbia, $54.98 in Saskatchewan, $39.55 in Newfoundland.
Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength 10 Years Old (Scotland)
Score: 95; Price: $81.95
Another rare independent, owned and run by the fifth and sixth generation of Grants, Glenfarclas is known for Speyside whiskies strongly influenced by time casks that once contained Sherry. At 60-per-cent alcohol, this is powerful stuff, yet its complexity is never obscured by heat. Expect sweet candied orange up front, with added nuances of toffee, vanilla, spice fruit and chocolate all carried on an oily-rich texture. Sublime. $73.50 in Quebec, $69.99 in New Brunswick, $62.48 in Nova Scotia.
Té Bheag Nan Eilan Gaelic Whisky (Scotland)
Score: 92; Price: $37.35
The late Sir Iain Noble, who founded and later sold his holdings in British merchant bank Noble Grossart, bought land on the Isle of Skye with his fortune. He also funnelled money into causes to advance Gaelic language and culture, which explains the unusual-looking name of this dram made by his distillery called Praban na Linne. Té Bheag (pronounced "chey vek") can either mean "the little lady" or "wee dram." It's unusual for a blended whisky in that it's not chill-filtered, a cosmetic practice that removes fatty-acid esters that turn a spirit cloudy when mixed with ice. The technique also is believed to strip subtle flavours and oily texture. This is one of the finest blended Scotches anywhere, based in part on sherry casks and containing a good amount of single malt from Talisker, the only single malt distillery on Skye. It's richly textured, with luscious toffee and cereal in perfect proportion, supported by a whiff of smoky peat. $35.25 in Quebec, $36.99 in Nova Scotia, $37.06 in Newfoundland, $36.90 in Prince Edward Island.
The Famous Jubilee (Scotland)
Score: 91; Price: $39.95
The Famous Grouse, a bestselling blended brand in Scotland, created this premium edition to commemorate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee last year. It's a splendid effort, containing barley malts from esteemed Highland Park and The Macallan in addition to grain whiskies. Full-bodied for a blend, with rounded sweetness evolving into fruit, cereal and mellow oak, it finishes with a peaty sea breeze. Available in limited quantities in Ontario.
Nikka Whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo 15 Years Old (Japan)
Score: 93; Price: $189.20
Masataka Taketsuru, born to a sake-brewing family 100 kilometres south of Hiroshima, journeyed to Scotland almost 100 years ago to study at the University of Glasgow. He returned with a degree in applied chemistry, a wife named Jessie Roberta and a passion for whisky. After a stint as the first master distiller for the company that would become Suntory, he founded Nikka in 1934. Now owned by brewer Asahi, Nikka was instrumental in cultivating Japanese whisky's up-market status. This is superb, as the Price would indicate. Mouthwatering at first, with a rounded barley-malt richness and fruity middle, it turns pleasantly dry, with a hint of smoke. I'm glad Taketsuru applied himself to whisky rather than, say, haggis sushi.
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish Single Malt (Taiwan)
Score: 89; Price: $113
Where many whisky brands prefer to have you believe they're run by old farmers in overalls rather than by conglomerates, Kavalan is proud to let the more than one-million tourists a year who tour its visitor centre know it's part of King Car Group, a 2,000-employee company that also produces soft drinks, coffee, instant noodles and chewing gum, among other goodies. That's confidence. Aged initially in former bourbon barrels, this was finished for a short period in port casks for a touch of fruit. It's silky and honeyed, with dried apricot and barley notes as well as a pleasant earthy note that, for me, brings to mind camembert rind. Three years ago, a Kavalan whisky beat three Scottish blends in a Burns Night faceoff judged by experts in Scotland. Not bad for an Asian conglomerate.