Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kirkland 12 year Blended Scotch vs. Chivas Regal 12 year

I first tasted Costco’s Kirkland brand 12 year old blended Scotch about three years ago when a relative shared a bottle of it at a Christmas party. My first impression was quite good, but by the time I got around to looking for a bottle to buy for review it had become temporarily unavailable. I took the opportunity to write about Costco’s Kirkland Bourbon and Kirkland Canadian Whisky in the meantime though.

Fast forward a few years and I finally have my hands on a proper sample of the 12 year blend. I’m sure this is a whisky that a lot of people are curious about, so I wanted to do a side-by-side tasting with an equivalent (80 proof and a 12 year age statement) blended Scotch that many people would be familiar with. My first thought was Johnnie Walker Black Label. Then I started to consider the fact that I’m not particularly fond of Walker Black and I realized that it wouldn’t be a particularly fair comparison from the outset. Having a much more favorable opinion of Chivas Regal 12 year (I don’t often drink blends, but when I do Chivas is my go-to), it became the logical choice.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of making tasting notes, I’d like to explore the ins and outs of buying spirits at Costco. The membership-only, wholesale warehouse club began in 1983 and has grown to more thane 700 stores world-wide. Close to 500 of those stores are in the United States, covering 45 states and the District of Columbia. A map showing all of the U.S. and Canadian locations can be found here.

Of course, there is the issue of membership. You can’t shop at Costco unless you’re willing to pony up the $50 annual membership fee. While there are great savings to be had at Costco, for some people, especially those who live alone or don’t live anywhere near one of the stores, paying for a membership isn’t really cost effective.

However, there are a few ways to work around that. Non-members are allowed to patronize the stores if they are using a Costco gift card. Those gift cards can only be purchased by members though, so it might just be easier to have your friend with a membership purchase the whisky for you. Unless that friend lives far away, then it would make sense to have them buy the gift cards for you and mail them to you.

In certain states there is another exception. A dozen states have laws that don’t allow the retail sale of alcohol by members-only clubs. Any such stores that want to do so have to make the alcohol they sell available to the general public. According to a few different online sources, those states are:

New York

A similar federal law applies to pharmacies, so non-members can get prescription drugs from Costco in any U.S. store that has a pharmacy. The people who check for valid memberships at the entrance may not be aware of these laws, so you might have to ask for a manager before they’ll let you in, and possibly again at the register. And if you’re not member you won’t have a Costco credit card, so be prepared to pay cash if you’re not using gift cards.

Not all Costco stores are created equally, though. The liquor laws of the various states may preclude the stores from selling spirits, or even any alcohol at all. First, there are the liquor control states. There are currently 18 such states, where the distribution of liquor is a monopoly controlled by the state government. Washington State deregulated away from this type of system in 2012 after Costco spent millions of dollars lobbying for the change.

All of these states control spirits; a few also control beer and/or wine. You won’t find spirits in a Costco in any of these state (though you may find beer or wine) because the state’s monopoly on distribution defeats Costco’s business model of using its buying power to negotiate for lower prices on the wholesale level. Maryland is actually a mixed state, where there are certain “control counties” and the liquor business is privatized in the rest of the state. The other seventeen control states are:

New Hampshire
North Carolina
West Virginia

All of the Provinces and Territories of Canada operate similarly to U.S. liquor control states. As far as I can tell, only Alberta has reformed their regulations to the point that will allow Costco to sell liquor.

 There may be other exceptions as well. One example is Massachusetts. Until 2012 the state government there only allowed any individual business owner to have three licenses to sell alcohol. That limit changed to five, rose again to seven in 2016 and will top out at nine in 2020. Each town or city in the state still has a limit on the total number of licenses they can dispense based on their population. Costco has six stores in the state, but was originally limited to selling alcohol in just three of them. I’m not sure if they’ve added liquor sales to any of the other stores there since the limit on licenses increased though.

While Costco carries a pretty huge variety of products, they are usually limited to a small number of brands and few choices for a given brand. That’s the tradeoff for the great pricing they can offer with their bulk buying power. When I recently visited one of the stores in Massachusetts, they only had about half a dozen different single malt Scotches (not counting a few bottled under the Kirkland brand). But they were selling Macallan 12 year for $47; significantly less than the $60 to $66 range that I’ve been seeing it in lately.

I’m guessing that Costco tries to keep pricing consistent from store to store, but there’s likely to be some variation in spirits pricing as you move from state to state since the tax rates for alcohol vary widely among them. The price of the Kirkland 12 year blend in the store I visited was $38 for a 1.75 liter bottle. That store didn’t have Chivas Regal but I also visited a nearby BJ’s (another wholesale club store) that did have it, and it was going for $55 for 1.75 liters. Both stores had Macallan 12 year for the same price, so I think the Chivas price was comparable to what it would have been at Costco. The more typical price for a big bottle of Chivas 12 year is around $67.

Chivas Regal 12 year
Nose – Malty but dry, with floral undertones that lean toward the grassy end of the spectrum
Palate – It’s somewhat light bodied and starts off mild up front, but picks up steam quickly. There’s a nice balance of malt and oak, with gentle smokiness. Subtle floral notes add complexity.
Finish – It maintains good depth on the backend, with dry spice notes coming to the fore and carrying it to the end.
Overall – To my mind, this is the epitome of what a blended Scotch should be; approachable and balanced, but able to maintain good complexity and just enough depth of character.

Kirkland Blended 12 year
Nose – The aromas are malty here too, but with a more masculine edge. Notes of caramel, soft leather and a touch of vanilla round things out.
Palate – It’s more full bodied than the Chivas, with notable sweetness up front. The sweetness morphs after the entry, gaining a dark sherry fruit note. At the same time, there’s a bit of dry oak working to balance to the caramel-driven, malty core. If there’s any peat smoke here it’s all but undetectable.
Finish – The leathery, masculine theme carries through the finish as it gains some dry, spicy notes.
Overall – The Kirkland blend is a solid performer and a great value, but it doesn’t quite stand up to the grace and elegance of the Chivas Regal. That being said, they do have notably different flavor profiles, so personal preferences will certainly come into play here.

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