Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish


The 11th installment in Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection release is here. For 2016, standard, “fully mature” Woodford is finished in American brandy casks for nearly two years. Which brandy isn’t stated (but since Woodford’s parent company Brown-Forman owns Korbel, I have a strong hunch where the casks came from).

Woodford notes, “Brandy, a spirit distilled from wine or fruit, is often aged in oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, brandy does not have the new, charred barrel requirement allowing their barrels to be used multiple times. Therefore, this release is technically not a bourbon but rather a finished whiskey.” That’s really splitting hairs, though. Finishing barrels have become quite popular in bourbon country in recent years (see also Angel’s Envy), and the use of one does not, in my mind, disqualify this from being called a bourbon.

And in fact, there is nothing at all not to like in the 2016 Master’s Collection bourbon. Fresh from the start, the nose is moderately woody, tempered by light chocolate, cinnamon (a Morris classic), and plenty of lightly scorched caramel. Some raisin and dried fig notes come forward with time. On the tongue, the whiskey quickly settles into a beautifully balanced groove. Notes of raisin, ripe banana, and gingerbread wash over a spicy, vanilla- and caramel-heavy core. As a reprise, some gentle wood notes bring up the rear, a nice callback to the way things started.

The two years in old brandy casks have worked nicely at mellowing out a bourbon that can sometimes be overblown with wood. The brandy cask adds something in the form of those gently sweet raisin notes, but more importantly is what it takes away, which is some of the heavier tannin and lumberyard notes that standard Woodford can express. As with the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir release, this expression is a whiskey that takes a solid spirit and elevates it even further.

Morris has stumbled upon a really magical combination here. It may be the best Master’s Collection release to date.

90.4 proof.

A / $100 /

Review: 3 Mezcals from Craft Distillers – Alipus Ensamble, Mezcalero #16, and Mezcalero Special #2


Craft Distillers has doubled down on mezcal, and it imports both the Alipus and Mezcalero lines of mezcal. Alipus is generally available, but the Mezcalero line is a series of limited production releases, numbered in sequence. 1 through 14 are now sold out; you can still get 15 and 16, the latter of which is reviewed below, along with a new “special bottling” of Mezcalero.

Let’s dig in to all three.

Mezcal Alipus San Andres Ensamble  – The first blended Alipus (all the others being single-village bottlings), Ensamble is a blend of 20% wild bicuishe agave harvested at 5300 feet plus 80% traditional espadin. It’s hard to miss the powerful sweetness here, coming across like honey for starters and almost maple syrupy at times. The smoke grows from there. What is palpable on the nose is well-integrated into the palate, where it takes on a fruitlike character not unlike sherried Islay Scotch. This, however, goes too far, pushing overripe fruit elements that culminate in a somewhat saccharine mishmosh of flavors that hit strong citrus notes before diving into a finish of salt spray and cigar smoke. A bit scattered on the whole. 94.4 proof. B / $65

Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel –  Angel takes semi-wild madrecuishe (agave karwinskii) from a 5200-foote high soil and turns it into this, an elegant and truly gorgeous mezcal. The nose is restrained and citrus-focused, with clear notes of lemon and grapefruit. The palate weaves gentle smoke into the picture, meandering from wood fires to clean citrus and back again. The body is modest but fulfilling, the finish clean and lightly sweet, with just a hint of that sour citrus juice squeezed on top. So easygoing, it’s hard to put down — and a perfect example of what quality mezcal should be. 94.2 proof. A / $96

Mezcalero Special Bottling Release #2 – A higher-end, even more limited production. This release comprises “552 liters distilled in October and November of 2012 by Don Valente Angel from semi-wild Dobadaan (agave rhodacantha). It was harvested from a south-facing slope of a hill known as Loma de la Mojonera comprised of sandy, ferriferous soil at 5350 feet of elevation. The agaves were wood-fire roasted in a stone horno, shredder-crushed, fermented with wild yeasts, double distilled using artisan methods on a 200-liter copper potstill, and bottled in March of 2016. 736 bottles produced.” To clarify, this is tank-rested (not barrel-aged) for over three years before bottling. The results are impressive. This is a soft, seductive mezcal that starts slow and builds to a crescendo, kicking off on the nose with gentle notes of black pepper, simple smoky notes, and a basic citrus character. The palate follows suit, dialed way back at first with just a short, simple sweetness, some orange peel, and pepper. From there, it builds up to quite a hefty, mouth-filling body, rolling in notes of mint, gunpowder, apple, and campfire smoke. The mezcal goes out not with a whimper but with a bang, finishing sharply and scorching the back of the throat. Exciting stuff, and fun to explore. 97.52 proof. A- / $135

Tasting Riesling Two Ways: 2014 Blue Fish vs. 2015 Relax


Riesling gets a bad rap, because many drinkers associate it only with sticky-sweet wines that are suitable only for the dessert course or the cheese plate. Remember: Riesling comes in all shapes and sizes, from tooth-strippingly sweet to nearly bone dry. The two German rieslings we review below are both closer to the center of the spectrum, but both do a good job of showcasing the two faces of riesling that you’re likely to encounter today.

2014 Blue Fish Riesling Pfalz – This is on the border between dry and medium dry, a crisp and refreshing riesling that offers just the lightest hint of tropical fruit, plus a touch of lemon curd, particularly evident on the rather acidic finish. Aside from some light touches of herbs and a squeeze of tangerine, it’s a straightforward but wholly approachable wine. B+ / $10

2015 Relax Riesling Mosel – Semi-sweet, but not unpalatably so, with notes of lemon, pineapple, and fresh honey syrup. The sweetness builds on the finish, but a modest acidity helps to temper the finale, at least to a degree. Overall, it manages to be quite fresh, though squarely focused on the sweet experience. B- / $10

Review: The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old


Macallan fans, as a rule, love its sherry-casked expressions but bemoan the existence of its bourbon-casked ones, namely the Fine Oak line (although the latter sees a bit of sherry finishing). At last Macallan has come up with a way to bridge the gap between the all-sherry Sherry Oak line and the sherry-minimal Fine Oak. The new line: Macallan Double Cask, a new style of whisky from the company. And it’s even got an age statement, folks.

Some notes on its production, per the distillery, “This is the first time The Macallan has used American Oak Sherry-seasoned casks as the most prominent flavor style in one of its expressions. To create Double Cask, The Macallan brings new oak from America thousands of miles to Spain, where the oak casks are crafted and Sherry-seasoned before traveling to the Macallan’s distillery on Speyside to mature for at least twelve years. These whiskies are then harmoniously united with those aged in the very best sherry seasoned European oak casks.”

So, to clarify, it’s a blend of whisky held in two types of casks: new American oak that’s been sherry seasoned, and standard European oak sherry casks. Note that there are no bourbon casks used in any of this; it is, in one sense, a 100% sherry-aged whisky, albeit an unconventional one.

As of now, there’s only one whisky in the Double Cask collection: this 12 year old bottling. Macallan hasn’t said anything about a line extension yet, but all signs seem to point to this as merely a starting point, presuming it does well in the market.

Let’s taste!

This is a well-rounded, even delightful expression of Macallan, showing off a nice balance between traditional American wood and sherry cask aging. On the nose, the sherry influence clearly dominates, though sharp orange peel and winey notes find balance in some caramel underpinnings. On the palate, a complex array of flavors await, beginning with fresh cereal before moving into more citrus, plus notes of coconut, caramelized banana, and even a curious touch of mint. The finish is lengthy but soothing and gentle, surfacing more of those new wood-fueled vanilla notes, a bit of leather, and some black pepper, which adds some grip to the otherwise lithe and supple body. Great balance from start to finish, and though it drinks a touch on the young side, it’s quite enchanting as a whole.

All told, it does “taste like Macallan,” the malt and sherry components combining for a surprisingly familiar (and somewhat simple) experience, double casking be damned. Die-hard Macallan fans won’t have any complaints here. The rest of you ought to give it a try, too.

86 proof.

A- / $65 /

Review: 2014 Owsley Single Block Pinot Noir


Sonoma-Cutrer has been quietly producing a “grand cru” inspired pinot noir from its own prized Owsley Vineyard for four years, bottling it of course under the name of Owsley. This isn’t a second label — it’s kind of a zeroth label, a step up from garden-variety S-C, made with a single block of grapes and with decidedly unique winemaking practices. For example, for this 2014 release, “fermentation involved a unique combination of three different methods: oak tank, stainless steel tank and new French oak barrels with the heads removed. Each was allowed to ferment separately for several weeks before being ‘mingled’ together and aging for 16 months in the French barrels.”

The wine presents itself with loads of old world character, kicking off with a meaty, lightly smoky nose, and laying in balsamic notes. On the palate, the wine exudes austerity, offering notes of dark cherry fruit, more balsamic, some dusky spices, and a bit of black pepper. On the finish there are notes of tea leaf and tobacco. All told it’s a well-rounded wine that does indeed echoes great Burgundy, but with a unique, Sonoma spin.

A- / $50 /

Book Review: Distilled Stories


There’s a certain segment of the population — Californians interested in craft distilling — that will find Distilled Stories particularly appealing. That isn’t to say the rest of you won’t dig the book, but there’s a certain down-the-rabbit-hole inquisitiveness that’s required of anyone wishing to drill down into this somewhat obscure world.

Distilled Stories takes the form of vignettes presented by some 20 different distillers (or groups of distillers), each telling the tale of how their company came to be. I know many of these people personally and some I consider friends, and yet I didn’t know all the ins and outs of how their operations came into being. In fact, there are companies in this book I’d never even heard of.

Some of these stories are more interesting than others, and the writing quality varies widely. (The book was written by a large number of contributors, and individual pieces are not bylined.) I don’t want to play favorites but definitely take a particularly close at the stories of Adam Spiegel and the Karakasevic clan.


Review: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and 105 Cask Strength (2016)


Recently I looked back at my early reviews of Glenfarclas 10 and 12 year old single malts and was a bit appalled at their naivete. An upgrade was required, and I got my hands on a trio of expressions: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and the coveted 105 Cask Strength expression.

For those unfamiliar with this Speyside classic, Glenfarclas is all single malt, 100% sherry cask matured (using both oloroso and fino sherry barrels). Consistently underrated, it’s a distillery that’s always worth a look no matter what age you see on the bottle.

Glenfarclas 12 Years Old – Classic Speyside. On the nose, there’s lots of honey and maple notes, with a biscuity character that offers lightly buttery, grainy notes. The sherry influence is slight, offering some punch on the nose but also just a hint of orange peel on the finish, following a body that offers tastes of chocolate malt balls, lightly roasted peanuts, and some dried ginger. This is a perfect “everyday” dram — not overwhelming, but with enough nuance to merit continued exploration — and affordable. 86 proof. A- / $47

Glenfarclas 17 Years Old – There’s an immediately stronger sherry influence on the nose with this older expression, ripe with aromas of orange peel and oil which complement the underlying grain character. On the palate, the bold body kicks off with classic Glenfarclas biscuits and honey, moving from there into notes of lemon peel, gingerbread, and walnuts. Stronger sherry notes build with time in glass; the finish finds this in relative balance with the barley character. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength – This is a 10 year old expression of Glenfarclas bottled at 120 proof (not 105, which refers to its original proof under the old British system). The bottle and label have changed in recent years, but what’s inside seems to have stayed the same. This is a richly sherried whisky, complex with notes of Christmas spices, marzipan, honeycomb, brown butter, and ample orange peel — both on the nose and the palate. Boldly malty at its core, the whisky finds intrigue in the way it builds upon that, folding in nuts, spice, fruit, and more. Cask strength gives the whisky the level of heat and the complexity that you’d expect, which you can either embrace with both arms or, perhaps more sensibly, temper it with a healthy splash of water. (It can handle plenty.) Either way — or perhaps both ways — it’s well worth exploring. 120 proof. A- / $92