Review: Kirkland Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky 20 Years Old Sherry Cask Finish

kirkland speyside 20 years oldOne of the questions I get asked the most is, You don’t buy much booze, do you?

Well, no, I don’t. I give away and pour out more wine and spirits than I could possibly keep on hand, a natural by-product of having reviewed close to 2000 products over the last several years. (Heresy, some say, but how big is your house?)

That said, I actually do buy stuff from time to time — products that I really like, products that aren’t available for review, and products that are just too interesting to pass up. This product fulfills two of those criteria: Whenever I’m at Costco, I check the whisky aisle for private label Scotch. These are invariably pretty good and, more to the point, very cheap. They are rarely on the market, though — the last one I saw was a private-label Macallan 18 in 2008 (though others have been produced) — so when I saw this year’s offering, a 20-year-old for $45, I snapped it up.

The hitch: The distillery is not revealed. It’s just noted as “Speyside,” which is a pretty big place. (There is a Speyside Distillery, but the common assumption is that the reference is to the region, not the building.) The whisky is produced, as other Kirkland whiskys are, by Alexander Murray.

First, let’s discuss the whisky. The whisky is good. Lovely amber color, lively nose with coconut and banana notes, and moderate sherry notes. The body is complex, with an initial breakfast cereal rush (lots of sugar) that evolves into tropical notes — pineapple and mango — before bringing along a rather traditional finish of honey and wood. I think this all works together pretty well, though it’s a little sweeter than I would like, with a good balance between the components and a mild body on the whole.

It’s a good whisky, but the world (and by that I mean the world of whisky nerds) has been wondering: What is it? Did Costco get a deal because they agreed not to put the name on the label? Could this possibly be 20-year-old Macallan (price: $170 at least) for 45 bucks?

The most telling clue: Almost every private-label Kirkland Scotch to date has been Macallan. In fact, I’ve never seen any other Scotch from Kirkland that is not Macallan.

So I compared the whisky to the 2008 Kirkland Macallan 18 ($80, by the way), which I still have on hand. They aren’t altogether similar. The Macallan is considerably richer, with a stronger nougat character up front and distinct heather and herbal notes on the finish that the Speyside 20 doesn’t have. It’s subtly smokier and woodier, with more of a big marshmallow ending that you don’t get with the Speyside version.

The distillery bottling of Macallan 12 Year Old (Sherry Finish) is actually a closer match, but has far more sherry and orange on the finish than this Kirkland bottling.

So, what is it? Well, with at least 70 distilleries in Speyside, it’s anyone’s guess. I don’t think it’s Macallan — it’s just too inexpensive and just doesn’t taste enough like Macallan — but who knows? My hunch is it’s something with a less recognizable name — maybe Glen Grant, Glenlossie, or even Longmorn, but those are just wild guesses.

If anyone figures it out, please let us all know.

80 proof.

A- / $45 / costco.com

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20 Responses to Review: Kirkland Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky 20 Years Old Sherry Cask Finish

  1. I found it smooth, but not very tasty…not a Macallan product.

  2. It’s definitely not Glenfiddich or Balvenie. William Grant have only rarely sold casks to the independents and these days they are keeping all their stock for their use.

    Trader Joe’s also has an unnamed Speyside single malt but it’s 18 years old. I had a feeling it’s Glenlivet from the taste. Wonder if this is also Glenlivet?

  3. Could this be Mortlach? I live in Dallas, so these grocery store private labels aren’t available, but around Christmas one of the major liquor chains around here got in some Alexander Murray bottlings, a couple Mortlachs (16 & 22) and a Glenrothes. Picked up both Mortlach bottlings and the cereal and tropical notes you mention are primary players both. Since we don’t have these private labels here, I had no idea who AM were- took some Google research to finally figure out they were behind Costco and Trader Joe’s private labels. I didn’t try the AM bottling of Glenrothes, but these sweet and tropical notes are pretty uncharacteristic of the standard Glenrothes I’ve had. Have the 1995 on hand and it definitely doesn’t fit the profile.

    All this to say, Alexander Murray definitely has some Mortlach on hand (and a good bit of it judging from the cases I saw of the stuff), so they could be throwing it into these Kirkland bottles as well. It’s also not a household name, so that could be another reason for not putting the distillery on the bottle.

    It really could be anything, but thought I’d toss some clues into the pool to help narrow the mystery. Love the blog!

  4. Ryan – definitely a good possibility! Thanks for the theorizing!

  5. BTW one of the complicating factors is I figured that this would have to be a distillery that would object to its name being on a cheap bottle of old, single malt whisky. Macallan totally fits that bill… Mortlach not so much.

  6. Good point, Christopher. Macallan have a lofty image to protect. Seeing as even their youngest standard bottlings can pull about the same price as this bottle in some markets, it makes complete sense for them to not want their name on the label.

  7. Pingback: Review: Master of Malt 30 Year Old Speyside (5th Edition) | Drinkhacker.com

  8. This is a very good scotch, deal of the decade at $45 in my opinion. I did do a side by side with the Macallan 18 and the Macallan was clearly richer and richer and more complex. That said, this is delightfully smooth, better that Glenlivet 18 in my view and much better than Macallan 12, which has more sherry, but also more bite. This is my current day to day scotch (along with JW Green) for as long as Costco has it. Try it!

  9. J.R. Terrell

    I wonder how Macallan’s Fine Oak expression would compare with this AM bottling? The Alexander Murray Facebook page also cites/likes Glenrothes, Mortlach, Benromach and Tomintoul, just to add to the speculation list. Still, I guess even if we could narrow it down to a distillery that ever ages using American white oak… that could be quite a lot.

  10. I just tasted the bottle that I got at Costco today and it tastes like Speyburn to me. Nose and taste are similar to the normal 10yo Speyburn that I have for camping trips…this tastes like a 20yo version of that, good value.

  11. Walter White

    I just had couple of drinks of this 20 yo speyside and it is nothing like Mcallan
    . The taste is not even close to 10 yo Mcallan.It is more like watered down version of
    Glenlivet. Very disappointing. I’d rather have 12 yo glenfiddich.

  12. Walter – Don’t forget that finishes can have a huge impact…

  13. Craig Johnston

    I definitely think its a Macallan but I doubt it’s the 18 year old as its not nearly as smooth or complex. Perfectly drinkable stuff and a good deal for the price but unremarkable.

  14. Good review. I too purchased a bottle of this back around Christmastime. My only regret is that I didn’t have the cash to grab a second one. :)

  15. I just did a tasting of this for my blog, and my personal opinion (although I’ve never tried Mortlach to compare…) is that this is actually Macallan, but because the practice of finishing whisky is decidedly un-Macallan, they asked Alexander Murray & Co. not to put the name on the label, so as not to confuse customers who might expect it to taste like a fully-sherry-matured Macallan. As many people have noted, it tastes nothing like The Macallan 18, nor should it, considering it’s a 20 year-old ex-bourbon-matured malt with a (likely short) sherry finish on it.

    I wonder if these barrels were destined for the Fine Oak series and didn’t make the cut, and Alexander Murray performed the finishing?

    All that said, I think this is a fantastic value at $45. If Macallan had slapped their name on it, it’d be $100.

  16. Well I drink a lot of single malts and it struck me immediately as a Glenmorangie product. Not sure why they would do the deal with Kirkland, but it sure tastes like their sherry wood finish variant

  17. As a regular scotch person, all I can say is that this is Mcallan. The reason is I have the actual Mcallan 18 also and have Kirkland 18. They are the same. Taste, color and flavor. I never tried the 20 year old so cannot speak to that.

  18. Definitely not a Macallan! Unlike the MC it is only finished in a sherry. I have no idea who the distiller is but can only say this: The finish is medicinal with a lingering antiseptic aftertaste. Buy it but only serve it to your guests who don’t know any better. Save your good stuff for those who do.

  19. Just found this at the Costco in Tokyo, selling for 35 bucks equivalent. Certainly sweet, smooth, and orange peel coming through in the nose and front end. Not bad at all, certainly a great price! It has be a year since the previous posts, did anyone ever figure out where this is from?

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