Review: Wines of Frei Brothers, 2015 Releases

Frei Brothers Reserve 2013 R. River Valley-Sonoma County Pinot Noir 750mlThree new wines from Sonoma’s Frei Brothers, which seemingly only has a “Reserve” label. Thoughts follow…

2013 Frei Brothers Chardonnay Russian River Valley Sonoma County – A big, slap-your-mama California Chardonnay, but one that’s not without some charm. The big vanilla is kept in check by some lemon and orange notes, with a pervasive apple cider character. There’s enough acidity on the back end to give this wine a fair amount of life, but given the lingering sweetness, I’d still reserve it for the dessert course. B- / $20

2012 Frei Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County - Initially very fruity, to the point of being jammy, this wine eventually settles down to reveal lots of black fruit, dark chocolate, and coffee bean notes. I get hints of cinnamon and allspice, but by and large it’s a chewy, Napa-style cabernet with gentle tannins, modest sweetness, and a lengthy, dense finish. B+ / $27

2012 Frei Brothers Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County – A workmanlike Pinot, drinkable but too thin, simply lacking in enough body. The fruit is there, but it’s restrained — cherries and some raspberry notes — dialed back and held in check for a short, but innocuous, finish. B / $27

freibrothers.com

Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2014

Clynelish Select Reserve Bottle & Box

Our final whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this no-age-statement offering from Clynelish, an active distillery in the far northern Highlands. The first Clynelish released by Diageo in this series, this whisky has been aged in “ex-bourbon, rejuvenated and refill American Oak, and ex-bodega and refill European oak.” All casks in the vatting have been aged for at least 15 years, “often far more.”

Lots of classic malt notes on the nose — barley, heather, and light sherried notes. A rich, sugar syrup character comes along in due time. On the palate, there’s plenty more where that came from. Bright orange fruit dominates at the start, then the whisky becomes quite drying and almost dusty on the finish. Water coaxes out more of the sweeter side of the spirit, with nougat, golden syrup, and maple notes all criss-crossing over the palate. That water helps temper that tannic, dry finish as well, lending it some lingering notes of honey-coated biscuits.

109.8 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $800 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Port Ellen 35YO Bottle & Box

Our 10th review in the Diageo Special Releases series is this old Port Ellen, a classic, beloved, and regular part of this series. The Islay-based Port Ellen was closed in 1983, which makes this 1978-distilled product (now carefully allocated) unbearably rare. Aged in refill American and European oak, it’s bottled at 35 epic years of age… and priced accordingly.

From the start, this whisky’s a scorcher. The nose is racy with heat and light, tempered smoke, a hallmark of well-aged Islay malts. On the palate, fire and brimstone with hints of fruit beyond the essence of burning oil wells. Water is essential with this dram, so give it a healthy shot to open things up. With tempering, the spirit reveals its charms in full, notes of tangerines, marzipan, butterscotch candies, and light petrol. Nicely honeyed on the finish, it recalls its cereal origins alongside a lightly peaty, lightly meaty finale.

Compare to last year’s 34 year old.

113 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $3,500 / malts.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Sipp Sparkling Organics

sipp organics

What’s a Sipp? These new “eco beverages” are organic, sweetened with agave nectar, and designed to compete with those bad-for-you artificial sodas. Each 12 oz. bottle has about 100 calories. Four flavors are available. We tasted them all and present our notes for your consideration.

Sipp Summer Pear – Flavorings include pear, green tea, and honey. Starts off crisp and refreshing, but the pear character eventually becomes a bit overwhelming as that unmistakable “pearness” starts to dominate the back end. Otherwise the honey and green tea elements are fun and make the soda worth exploring. B

Sipp Lemon Flower – Lemon, elderflower, and tarragon. Not nearly enough lemon here, and the elderflower is indistinct. Vaguely sweet and touched with citrus — plus just a hint of that curious herbal character on the finish — it’s harmless but on the whole quite pleasant. B

Sipp Ginger Blossom – Ginger, vanilla, and lime. Emphasis on the vanilla. This sounds great but it comes across more like a cream soda than a ginger beer, so heavily vanilla-scented it gets to the point where it’s got a kind of candy-melted-in-your-pocket character to it. My kids would probably like this a lot more than I do. B-

Sipp Mojo Berry – Blackberry, mint, and lime. This one also sounds great just from the description, and it’s easily the best of the Sipp lineup. Intensely fruity up front — though more strawberry than blackberry — the mint notes rise on the finish to evoke a kind of wacky mojito alternative. Surprisingly easy to, well, sip. A-

each about $3.50 / haveasipp.com [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Lagavulin 12 Bottle & Box

A 12-year-old expression of Lagavulin is a perennial part of the Diageo Special Editions, and sure enough, this is the 13th Lagavulin 12 to be released in the series, again vatted from refill American Oak casks.

As usual, it’s a classic expression of Lagavulin, light on its feet (and a gentle yellow in color), radiant with coal fire smoke on the nose, some vegetal undertones, and a squeeze of bright lemon. The body is pushy with peat, hot and fiery, but tempered with a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar and gingerbread notes. The finish is as salty as the sea, just classic Islay through and through.

It’s easy to enjoy Lagavulin 12 every year if you’re a peat fan, but at this point the experience is becoming a little old hat for the whiskies in this line. I’m just having a hard time sustaining the excitement about younger Lagavulin (with a very consistent experience) at a higher price year after year. And with that said, if something’s released annually like clockwork, shouldn’t it really get a permanent home on the release calendar instead of being a “Special Edition?” Just askin’.

108.8 proof.

B+ / $130 / malts.com

Review: The Singleton of Glendullan 38 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Singleton of Glendullan 38YO Bottle & Box

The Singleton of Glendullan (#8 in this year’s Diageo Special Edition releases) should be familiar to most American drinkers (other Singleton bottlings are targeted at other countries)… but never do we see this whisky at a whopping 38 years of age.

This Speyside whisky was distilled in 1975 and was aged fully in European refill casks.

Hot and racy on the nose (unusual for a whisky of this advanced age), this is one you can tell from the outset will benefit from a little water. Aromas of orange peel and a little sea salt muddle through, however. With lots of acidity, the body is equally punchy and quite sharp, citrus peel backed by modest granary notes. The finish is quite drying. Give it water and plenty of it and things start to open up nicely. The nose takes on an almost pretty floral character, and the sweetness on the palate really starts to develop, offering coconut and banana notes amid the spice-dusted grains. That finish remains on the dry side, though it’s less intense more accessible with a little water to smooth things out.

119.6 proof. 3,756 bottles produced.

A- / $1250 / malts.com

Review: American Juice Company Mixers

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With their goofy names, one wouldn’t expect the fruit juice mixes from the American Juice Company to be upscale products designed for the back bar. These are all-natural products but, they’re designed to last for the long haul. Shelf-stable, they’re good for six months (before opening) without refrigeration.

AJC produces offerings on a rotating, seasonal basis, and you can get a (pricy) sampler of four of them through the company’s website. The company sent us its current offerings to tinker with. Here’s what we thought about them all.

Winter Blend (Louis Applestrong) – Golden delicious apples, citrus zests, and winter spices – Chunky, almost like a watery applesauce. Zesty with baking spices, and quite exotic in a beverage. The citrus peel on the back end adds some nice acidity, but ultimately this is more breakfasty than wintry. In a good way. B+

Chuck Blueberry – Blueberry and apple puree. A little overwhelming. The combo of blueberry and apple makes this come across a bit like cough syrup — which is surprising, because blueberry is never a flavor that medicine manufacturers are going for. It grows on you, but ultimately comes across as a bit artificial-tasting (though I know it’s not!), with a bit of a cloying finish. B

Lady Lychee – Lychee, rose infusion, and strawberries. Moderately thick, but not to the level of the Louis Applestrong. Don’t let the “rose infusion” scare you. Here, a light floral note is a lovely foil to the lychee and strawberry character that dominates, giving this a sweet yet lightly aromatic character. Probably my favorite of the bunch and something I’d definitely mix with. A

Ginger Gershwin – Spicy ginger, orange, and lemon. Spicy ginger, to be sure. This is extremely racy stuff, highlighting ginger, ginger, and more ginger. The citrus shines through for just a brief moment somewhere in the middle of the spice. Throw a little rum in this and you’re golden. A-

$55 for the sample box (four 4 oz samplers) / americanjuicecompany.com

Review: McMenamins Devils Bit Whiskey

devils bit

The microdistillers at McMenamins specialize and young and unaged spirits, but once in a while they make more seriously aged stuff, too. Once a year, actually, in the case of Devils Bit, a five-year-old whiskey that is available for one day and one day only each year from a dozen McMenamins properties. That day happens next Tuesday: St. Patrick’s Day.

Devils Bit is a malt whisky made from the famous Maris Otter barley, then aged in ex-Syrah port barrels from the McMenamins winery. Five years later, it’s ready for bottling — only in 200ml flask-size decanters.

What’s the name mean? In the company’s own words: “Irish lore has it that the devil took a bite from a mountain in North Tipperary, Ireland, and spit it out. The small gap became the mountain’s defining characteristic and so the mountain is named Devil’s Bit. In honor of this landmass and its legend, McMenamins created Devils Bit.”

It’s an apt name for a gentle whiskey that drinks a lot like an Irish. Gently sweet and fruity on the nose, the port barrel influence is strong from the start, offering aromas that comprise a racy combination of plum, figs, and baking spice. The body is loaded with more dense fruit and spice notes, with touches of chocolate, butterscotch, toffee, and ample port-driven raisin character. It goes on and on, and like a chameleon, tends to shift in tone and color over the course of an evening with it. I started out with Devils Bit enjoying its powerful fruitiness, but ended the evening savoring sips alongside bites of caramel chocolate. Super versatile, delicious from start to finish, and an unbearably great bargain… presuming you can nab one of these precious bottles. Best get in line now.

92 proof. 312 bottles produced.

A / $17 (200ml) / mcmenamins.com

Review: Rosebank 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Rosebank 21YO Bottle & Box

It’s time for whisky #7 out of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, this one a 21 year old from Rosebank, a now-defunct distillery in the Lowlands. This whisky was distilled in 1992. Rosebank promptly shuttered in 1993 — which means there’s not much left to go around.

One of the more exotic and full-bodied expressions in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases, this malt offers an initial nose of fresh-baked brioche, touched with cinnamon. Huge on the palate, it kicks off with fresh malt, caramel, and light chocolate notes, then takes a deep dive into toasted marshmallow, light citrus, and a maritime character that builds as the finish takes hold. One of the most purely pleasurable malts in the 2014 releases, the through-line from cereal to fruit to seaside character in this whisky makes it a pure delight and one worth taking a deep dive into as you explore its charms.

One of my top picks — if not the top pick — among these 2014 releases.

110.6 proof. 4,530 bottles produced.

A / $500 / malts.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery The Abyss Aged Stout 2014 Edition

The Abyss 2014The 9th annual installment of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss is here.

The recipe for The Abyss doesn’t vary much from year to year. If you aren’t familiar with the formula, here’s what goes into it. (That’s three different types of barrels, into which 28% of the brew is aged… a bit going into each barrel type.)

Malt: Pale, Black, Chocolate, Black Barley, Roasted Barley, Wheat
Hops: Millennium, Nugget, Styrian, German Northern Brewer
Other: Blackstrap Molasses, Brewer’s Licorice, Vanilla Beans, Cherry Bark
Barrel-Aging: (28%) 6 Months in Bourbon, Oregon Oak, Pinot Noir

As always, it’s hard to complain about the beer. The nose is seductive with alternating notes of cherries, cocoa powder, coffee bean, and brown sugar. There’s lots of licorice on the body; initially the beer starts off quite bitter (it’s got a bit higher IBU rating than last year) before settling into a bittersweet groove, where cocoa bean, molasses, and a sizable hop character keep things lively.

On the whole, The Abyss 2014 is an outstanding example of this unique brew, still at the top of its game. If you can still find a bottle, snap a few up… some for drinking now, some for cellaring to drink later.

11% abv. 86 IBUs.

2014 Edition: A / $12 per 22-oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com