Search
Close this search box.
Canadian

Whisk(e)y Review: Trader Joe's Whiskeys

OVERALL
RATING

Whisk(e)y Review: Trader Joe’s Whiskeys

Tasting Notes:

About:
Appearance:
too, as well as a gassy coal
Nose:
with notes of green apple and milk duds, vaporous yet rich. It’s innocuous, and suspiciously glossy. The is fruity with a slight medicinal note. This smells a bit like a shrub – woody, green, a little earthy. In the . The flavor is richer and fuller than expected. There’s a straightforward sweet, full maltiness, with lots of toffee and sweet fruit – pink apple and ripe pear – as well as grassy honey notes. The flavor is nicely structured, not jumbled as many budget-priced Scotches can be. The finish is abrupt with a slightly sour, heavy cooked grain aftertaste. At $10 a liter, this is a total a steal for summer highballs. Single Malt Irish Whiskey – $25 Woah, what’s this? Piercing, juicy, natural green apple and hard toffee in the nose mingles with hops, honeysuckle, and pear Jelly Bellies. Soft and lush, this is a delicious, tantalizing aroma. The entry has more caramel than expected, with notes of overripe sauvignon blanc and artificial peach flavor. Things get a little thin and cereal-forward in the finish, with an unexpected – but mild – pepper note. A little water brings out a subtle hint of phenolic smoke. This doesn’t taste like a budget product. It’s unusual and interesting and quite delicious. If I had to nitpick, overall, it might be a little sweeter than it needs to be. Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 8 Years – $20 A nose with tons of buttery toffee hints at an easy sipper here, accentuated by notes of cherry preserves, popcorn, and a strange suggestion of grappa. There’s also some oxidized sherry-like nuttiness as well as a vague suggestion of industry, like a long-closed wood-sided warehouse. The . Not a ton of complexity in the nose. The s of grapefruit, salt, and black pepper in the nose, with a suggestion of honey drizzled over boiled grain. There’s a light smoke character, for a nose that’s hotter and rougher than the Speyside. The
Palate:
is simple and pretty satisfying: very sweet and caramel-forward, with a hint of nuttiness and a little bit of bitter metallic flavor in the finish. It’s really easy to imagine this as a mixer with ginger ale, and it would be fine to cook with. If you’re looking for something to flavor your pumpkin pie or whipped cream, this is a great bet. Easy and accessible, and at $12, a great value, this is a Canadian whisky that’s half the price of Pendleton and twice as good. Kentucky Bourbon Straight Whiskey – $15 A sweet and floral nose is fruity with a slight medicinal note. This smells a bit like a shrub – woody, green, a little earthy. In the palate, there’s notes of green apple and coconut, waxy yet kind of lean. There’s also a slate-like, mineral aspect that reminds me, oddly, of blotting paper. An odd twist in the finish goes a little bitter, with more peppery wood in the conclusion than the entry. Blended Scotch Whisky – $10 per liter This is exactly like what I remember Scotch smelling like when I was 12: like a horse’s feedbag filled with rubbery Band-Aids and struck matches. It’s sweet, malty, sulphury, and funky, with a robust grain-forward aroma. The flavor is richer and fuller than expected. There’s a straightforward sweet, full maltiness, with lots of toffee and sweet fruit – pink apple and ripe pear – as well as grassy honey notes. The flavor is nicely structured, not jumbled as many budget-priced Scotches can be. The finish is abrupt with a slightly sour, heavy cooked grain aftertaste. At $10 a liter, this is a total a steal for summer highballs. Single Malt Irish Whiskey – $25 Woah, what’s this? Piercing, juicy, natural green apple and hard toffee in the nose mingles with hops, honeysuckle, and pear Jelly Bellies. Soft and lush, this is a delicious, tantalizing aroma. The entry has more caramel than expected, with notes of overripe sauvignon blanc and artificial peach flavor. Things get a little thin and cereal-forward in the finish, with an unexpected – but mild – pepper note. A little water brings out a subtle hint of phenolic smoke. This doesn’t taste like a budget product. It’s unusual and interesting and quite delicious. If I had to nitpick, overall, it might be a little sweeter than it needs to be. Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 8 Years – $20 A nose with tons of buttery toffee hints at an easy sipper here, accentuated by notes of cherry preserves, popcorn, and a strange suggestion of grappa. There’s also some oxidized sherry-like nuttiness as well as a vague suggestion of industry, like a long-closed wood-sided warehouse. The palate has more salinity than expected – crisp, salty, evocative of like nori. Sashimi? There are some other grapey, grappa notes in here too, leading to a short, hot finish that skews bitter. This all makes it sound a lot more unusual than it is. It’s pretty innocuous. $20 seems like the right price, but not a screaming deal the way some of the other Trader Joe’s whiskeys are. Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 13 Years – $30 The smell of this reminds me of nothing more than that unisex green shampoo you used at summer camp: sweet, apple-y, with a hint of men’s cologne. Sherry makes an appearance too, as well as a gassy coal aroma. Not a ton of complexity in the nose. The palate, on the other hand, is quite full: milk chocolate, malt balls, toasty grain, grassy hay, melon, a touch of vine, pronounced sherry, and less green fruit than expected. Strong oak structure segues into a nice robust finish, the longest of the bunch. Very well integrated and pretty defect-free. This would be an ideal house whiskey for what I think of as the “new adult,” that 20-something with a decent job for the very first time. If you’re not cleaning your bathroom on a totally regular basis, but you are paying your electricity bill and you know the full names of everybody who lives in your house, this is your stuff. Highlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 12 Years – $30 Nice aromas of grapefruit, salt, and black pepper in the nose, with a suggestion of honey drizzled over boiled grain. There’s a light smoke character, for a nose that’s hotter and rougher than the Speyside. The palate is soft and fruity at first, but a bit of phenol builds through the finish, leaving you with a satisfying note of lingering iodine and raisins. It’s a little rough-and-tumble, not particularly refined or sophisticated, but very satisfying for what it is: the kind of Scotch that doesn’t reward connoisseurship, but fills a tumbler mighty well. This would probably taste just right at the end of a long day. Final Thoughts Despite their bottom-shelf prices, none of the Trader Joe’s whiskey was bad – and in fact, several were quite good. But most importantly, and perhaps remarkably, all were spot-on in terms of stylistic accuracy. The only release that deviated even slightly from exactly what a casual consumer would expect to find in the bottle was the Irish Single Malt, and that may be simply because the Irish Single Malt category in general is quite small. There should be no shame in including any of these bottles on your shelf, particularly for casual drinking or cocktails. But in my experience, where these whiskies really shine is at parties. At a recent barbecue, I left a bottle of the Trader Joe’s Speyside 13 and Highland 12 out on the bar. Sitting around the fire, I watched one of my guests bring a drink to his neighbor and say, in hushed and meaningful tones, “This is 13 year old Scotch.” Why ruin the appearance of being a generous host by crudely advertising that it only cost you $30? It’s enough to make Kingsley Amis, one of the world’s great drinkers and great cheapskates, smile in his grave.
Finish:
Comments:

We love whiskey. But we also know that loving whiskey can get expensive, fast – and it’s getting more expensive each day. By the Distilled Spirit’s Council’s definition, “super-premium” spirits are those that sell for more than $22 a bottle. These days, that sounds like a serious bargain.

Fortunately for the beleaguered whiskey lover out to save a few bucks, there’s an option that doesn’t involve stooping to the lowest level shelf at your local liquor store. In fact, you can’t find these bottles at the liquor store at all. We’re talking about Trader Joe’s whiskey.

Trader Joe’s whiskeys are a curious mix of bottlings across different whisk(e)y categories, including Scotch, Canadian, Irish and American. Trader Joe’s does not disclose the distilleries that produce their hooch, but that’s standard procedure for everything from frozen tamales to hummus there, so I’m not surprised.

I live in Oregon, a control state, which means my local Trader Joe’s can’t sell liquor. But our neighbors to the north and south have made the leap to privatization, which means interstate road trips often include some liquor shopping for releases that don’t make it through our state-run filter. The bottles in this review were picked up on a recent trip to California.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Trader Joe’s whiskey is cheap – really cheap. Seven bottles came in well under $200. They’re so inexpensive that it almost seems like a red flag. Can this stuff really be any good? Or is it the Two Buck Chuck of the whiskey world, designed for college students and cheapskates totally uninterested in quality.

Here’s the good news: Just like coffee, chocolate, and domestically produced cheese, Trader Joe’s has managed to create a totally acceptable version of a luxury product that sells for far less than it would elsewhere. Are any of these releases going to blow your mind with deliciousness? Probably not. Will they serve you well as an entry-level example of their category, or as a mixer? Absolutely. Let’s get tasting. 

Trader Joe's Whiskeys
Looking for inexpensive cocktail whiskey? Trader Joe’s has you covered. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Trader Joe’s Premium Blended Canadian Whisky – $12

I’m immediately greeted by a creamy caramel nose with notes of green apple and milk duds, vaporous yet rich. It’s innocuous, and suspiciously glossy. The palate is simple and pretty satisfying: very sweet and caramel-forward, with a hint of nuttiness and a little bit of bitter metallic flavor in the finish.

It’s really easy to imagine this as a mixer with ginger ale, and it would be fine to cook with. If you’re looking for something to flavor your pumpkin pie or whipped cream, this is a great bet. Easy and accessible, and at $12, a great value, this is a Canadian whisky that’s half the price of Pendleton and twice as good.

Kentucky Bourbon Straight Whiskey – $15

A sweet and floral nose is fruity with a slight medicinal note. This smells a bit like a shrub – woody, green, a little earthy.

In the palate, there’s notes of green apple and coconut, waxy yet kind of lean. There’s also a slate-like, mineral aspect that reminds me, oddly, of blotting paper. An odd twist in the finish goes a little bitter, with more peppery wood in the conclusion than the entry.

Blended Scotch Whisky – $10 per liter

This is exactly like what I remember Scotch smelling like when I was 12: like a horse’s feedbag filled with rubbery Band-Aids and struck matches. It’s sweet, malty, sulphury, and funky, with a robust grain-forward aroma.

The flavor is richer and fuller than expected. There’s a straightforward sweet, full maltiness, with lots of toffee and sweet fruit – pink apple and ripe pear – as well as grassy honey notes. The flavor is nicely structured, not jumbled as many budget-priced Scotches can be. The finish is abrupt with a slightly sour, heavy cooked grain aftertaste. At $10 a liter, this is a total a steal for summer highballs.

Single Malt Irish Whiskey – $25

Woah, what’s this? Piercing, juicy, natural green apple and hard toffee in the nose mingles with hops, honeysuckle, and pear Jelly Bellies. Soft and lush, this is a delicious, tantalizing aroma.

The entry has more caramel than expected, with notes of overripe sauvignon blanc and artificial peach flavor. Things get a little thin and cereal-forward in the finish, with an unexpected – but mild – pepper note. A little water brings out a subtle hint of phenolic smoke.

This doesn’t taste like a budget product. It’s unusual and interesting and quite delicious. If I had to nitpick, overall, it might be a little sweeter than it needs to be.

Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 8 Years – $20

A nose with tons of buttery toffee hints at an easy sipper here, accentuated by notes of cherry preserves, popcorn, and a strange suggestion of grappa. There’s also some oxidized sherry-like nuttiness as well as a vague suggestion of industry, like a long-closed wood-sided warehouse.

The palate has more salinity than expected – crisp, salty, evocative of like nori. Sashimi? There are some other grapey, grappa notes in here too, leading to a short, hot finish that skews bitter. This all makes it sound a lot more unusual than it is. It’s pretty innocuous. $20 seems like the right price, but not a screaming deal the way some of the other Trader Joe’s whiskeys are.

Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 13 Years – $30

The smell of this reminds me of nothing more than that unisex green shampoo you used at summer camp: sweet, apple-y, with a hint of men’s cologne. Sherry makes an appearance too, as well as a gassy coal aroma. Not a ton of complexity in the nose.

The palate, on the other hand, is quite full: milk chocolate, malt balls, toasty grain, grassy hay, melon, a touch of vine, pronounced sherry, and less green fruit than expected. Strong oak structure segues into a nice robust finish, the longest of the bunch. Very well integrated and pretty defect-free.

This would be an ideal house whiskey for what I think of as the “new adult,” that 20-something with a decent job for the very first time. If you’re not cleaning your bathroom on a totally regular basis, but you are paying your electricity bill and you know the full names of everybody who lives in your house, this is your stuff.

Highlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 12 Years – $30

Nice aromas of grapefruit, salt, and black pepper in the nose, with a suggestion of honey drizzled over boiled grain. There’s a light smoke character, for a nose that’s hotter and rougher than the Speyside.

The palate is soft and fruity at first, but a bit of phenol builds through the finish, leaving you with a satisfying note of lingering iodine and raisins. It’s a little rough-and-tumble, not particularly refined or sophisticated, but very satisfying for what it is: the kind of Scotch that doesn’t reward connoisseurship, but fills a tumbler mighty well. This would probably taste just right at the end of a long day.

Final Thoughts

Despite their bottom-shelf prices, none of the Trader Joe’s whiskey was bad – and in fact, several were quite good. But most importantly, and perhaps remarkably, all were spot-on in terms of stylistic accuracy. The only release that deviated even slightly from exactly what a casual consumer would expect to find in the bottle was the Irish Single Malt, and that may be simply because the Irish Single Malt category in general is quite small.

There should be no shame in including any of these bottles on your shelf, particularly for casual drinking or cocktails. But in my experience, where these whiskies really shine is at parties. At a recent barbecue, I left a bottle of the Trader Joe’s Speyside 13 and Highland 12 out on the bar. Sitting around the fire, I watched one of my guests bring a drink to his neighbor and say, in hushed and meaningful tones, “This is 13 year old Scotch.” Why ruin the appearance of being a generous host by crudely advertising that it only cost you $30? It’s enough to make Kingsley Amis, one of the world’s great drinkers and great cheapskates, smile in his grave.

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

All Posts
Search
  • Latest News
  • Latest Reviews