Last year on St. Pat’s, I obligatorily took a look at some Irish whiskey. My favorite at the time was Trader Joe’s brand – and in subsequent encounters I’ve still found a lot to like.
If you’ve been browsing the various discussion forums or are a redditor, you’ll have doubtless seen mention of the new Trader Joe’s offerings, a 10 year Highland and an 18 year Speyside. Could Trader Joe’s repeat their Irish coup? Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats and I decided to split the pair of bottles to see. We’ve got a joint review going!
These bottles, it’s worth mentioning, are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. 10 year old Highlander for $20? Yes, please. 18 year old Speyside for 26 bucks!? Since these were Speyside & Highland, we ran a pretty solid chance of not encountering remnant stock of the old FWP-infested Bowmore.
It’s kind of amazing how these can be offered at this price when all we read about from producers and bloggers (myself included) is the ever-increasing price train thanks to those hobgoblins of increased demand, tightening stocks and rising price of materials. However, if that distillery name is off the label, suddenly the price is screamingly reasonable… curious. I won’t call bullshit on anyone yet, but I definitely am more curious about the emperor’s clothes now…
Age before beauty: Let’s shake thing up and start with what might be the deal of the (young) decade – the 18y Speyside.
The nose is fruity and rich, with a light waxy quality. It’s got apples, light pears, a slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper. It’s really vibrant and rich. The palate starts out unexpectedly woody; there’s a light earthiness and some fruity sweetness opening up. It’s slightly dry on balance with a light apple skin, but it’s dominated in large part by the lightly bitter wood.
The finish is malt-forward, followed by some dry wood, but with plenty of fruit – it’s long on apples and pears. It’s an enjoyable enough malt – a gorgeous nose to be sure – but the bitterness really mars it. It’s got a very rich flavor and is surprisingly robust for 40%, but the dry bitterness just doesn’t work for me.
OK, not bad for a whiskey that costs about 70 cents per year it was aged. What about the 10y Highland?
The 10y Highland starts with a bit of doughiness upfront, and is slightly thin and sweet. Some acetone notes flutter in and out on the nose; light maltiness fills it out. It’s slightly young, but not offensively so. The palate is watery, but sweet with some gently insistent malt. There’s a slight pleasing spicy tingle on the tip of the tongue and a light touch of wood.
The Highlander finishes malty, with cookie dough and heavy brown sugar. Apple skin and faint earthiness with a touch of pear round it out. It’s not bad for a 20 buck single malt, but it doesn’t do it for me – it lacks a certain focus on the palate and the nose is a bit young.
This may not seem like a ringing endorsement, but let’s step back and have a brief sanity check. These are both less than 30 bucks. They’re totally drinkable. No distillery is going to let its best product get out super cheaply under a store brand, so we should temper our expectations. I like the richness and clarity of the 18 and if I personally was restricted to a $30-and-less bottle, I personally would choose the 18y Speyside. I can see a very good argument for the 10y Highlander, but it reminds me a little too much of some underdeveloped, underaged whiskies I haven’t enjoyed. I’d imagine it’s a product of a third-fill or so cask; it’s got no clear off notes but it’s just a not my personal style.
However, if you’re in the TJ’s whisky selection, I think the clear winner is the Irish to this day. But after you’ve picked it up, go to the freezer section and buy some of their mini-pot-pies… enjoyable!
At a glance:
Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch 10y 40% ABV
Nose: A little doughy upfront, slightly thin and sweet. A bit of nail polish remover, a hint of acetone. Lightly malty.
Palate: Watery but sweet, with gently insistent malt and a slight pleasing tingle of spiciness on the tip of the tongue. Slight wood touch.
Finish: Malty to finish with a bit of cookie dough and brown sugar. Some apple skin and a faint touch of earthiness; some pear.
Comment: Given a 10y single malt for $20, it’s not bad. In absolute terms though it doesn’t do much for me.
Trader Joe’s Speyside Single Malt Scotch 18y 40% ABV
Nose: Fruity and rich; a little light waxy quality; apples, light pears, slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper.
Palate: Woody upfront initially, slightly earthy, with some fruit-based sweetness opening up after a minute. Leaning towards a slight dryness. Slight apple skin.
Finish: Malt comes forward a bit more on the finish, still some slightly dry wood, and plenty of fruit – long again on apples and pears.
Comment: The nose is enjoyable enough but the bitterness mars this. I think the flavor is richer than the 10y and it’s robust, but that dry bitterness doesn’t work.