Author Archives: Christopher Null

Visiting Harpoon Brewery – Boston, Mass.

Headed to Boston? Take a little trip to Harpoon Brewery, which is now the 14th largest brewery in the U.S. but which still feels like a happy, family operation. Harpoon built a massive beer hall here in South Boston last year, which you can take in after spending 30 minutes or so strolling through the production facility and hearing a little bit about how Harpoon makes its various brews.

If you’ve been on one brewery tour you probably know what to expect, though being able to taste the barley that Harpoon uses to make its beers is a fun little touch. Of course, everyone’s favorite time is the tasting room, where you get about 20 minutes to essentially drink all the Harpoon beer you can from little 2 oz. glasses. I managed to sample a very broad selection of what was on tap that day, from the perfectly credible (and well-stocked) Harpoon IPA to the limited edition Citra Victorious Barrel Series, made exclusively with orangey Citra hops. The Leviathan Double IPA (at 10% abv) is a true monster — though maltier than you’d expect — but my ultimate favorite, by far, was Harpoon Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, a spicy/piney beer with nice bite and good balance of fruit and hops.

Definitely recommended — and don’t miss the pretzels, which are house-made with grains used to make the company’s beers.

harpoonbrewery.com

Review: Ventisquero Grey 2012 Pinot Noir and 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon

Ventisquero NV GreyPinotNoir Bottleshot 104x300 Review: Ventisquero Grey 2012 Pinot Noir and 2011 Cabernet SauvignonWe covered the “Grey” line from Chilean producer Ventisquero late last year, and now the winery is back with two more releases, both from international varietals. Thoughts follow.

2012 Ventisquero Grey [Glacier] Pinot Noir Leyda Valley Las Terrazas Vineyard – This single block Pinot spends 12 months in French oak barrels, after which time it comes out as an earthy, intense expression of the grape. Massive mushroom and wet leather notes interplay with blackberry and cassis. It’s spicy, but with more the bite of a green pepper than anything in the herb family. Interesting structure but the balance is pushed to far into the vegetal. B / $20

2011 Ventisquero Grey [Glacier] Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Trinidad Vineyard – Grey Cabernet pops out after 18 months in oak barrels, revealing a surprisingly balanced and restrained wine. The nose is vibrant with fruit and lightly peppery, with just hints of licorice. On the palate it shows only a light dusting of tannins, with deep blackberry, tree bark, and light balsamic notes. Quite fruit-friendly, and a very good value to boot. B+ / $18

ventisquero.com

Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Facundo11356 Facundo33A51F115 525x366 Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Bacardi is a name synonymous with rum, but it is not a name that is synonymous with high-end rum. Best known for its unavoidable white rum and a plethora of flavored expressions, Bacardi dominates the market by keeping prices low and consumers inundated with clever advertising.

Now Bacardi is taking its first real steps upmarket. While expressions like 1873 Solera, 8 Anos, and Oakheart are nods in this direction, the Facundo collection is something entirely different: Real, “sipping rums” that you’ll shell out up to $250 a bottle for.

Not a typo.

Facundo is named for Facundo Bacardi, the Spanish-Cuban founder of the Bacardi empire back in 1862. In celebration of 150(ish) years in business, this collection celebrates Bacardi’s legacy with some rums that Facundo would certainly have been proud to have his name on.

All rums are aged expressions sourced from the Bahamas and are bottled at 80 proof. Thoughts on the four-expression lineup follow.

Bacardi Facundo Neo – Made from rums 1-8 years old, then filtered back to white (almost, anyway). Lots of raw alcohol notes on the nose here; it cuts a surprisingly young profile. Hints of orange peel, lemon, roasted nuts, and black pepper emerge after a time. On the palate, quite a different animal, with distinct and strong banana, coconut, and creme brulee notes. Not at all heavy on the alco-burn scale, but rather a delightfully tropical rum that mixes fruit with just the lightest tough of red pepper flake. An incredible mixer, even at this price. A- / $45

Bacardi Facundo Eximo - 10-12 years old, unfiltered. This is the only rum in the collection that is blended before it goes into barrels for aging. Again the nose starts off hot, tempering some of the more delicate notes in the rum. Wait a bit, and what emerges is a woodier experience with the essence of nuts, Madeira, and baking spices. The body again amps up the fruit, particularly the tropical notes of pineapple and mango, swirled with caramel notes. Nutty notes evolve as the finish pushes along, with leather, raisins, and more of those Madeira notes. Unique and fun. A- / $60

Bacardi Facundo Exquisito - A blend of runs 7-23 years old (some filtered) but quite dark in color. The finished blend is aged a further month in sherry casks for a minimum of one month for finishing. This is a remarkably balanced and fun rum, offering an immediate nose of coffee, toffee, cigar box, and mincemeat pie. The body is dense and layered, with notes of plums, raisins, chocolate pie, more toffee, and spiced (lightly smoked) almonds. Lots going on here, and it fires on all cylinders. A real knockout. A / $90

Bacardi Facundo Paraiso - The big guy, made of rums up to 23 years old (with an emphasis on the oldest rums), each individually filtered, then blended and married in French oak casks for at least one month. Deep, down-the-rabbit-hole nose. Brooding and woody, with notes of roasted coffee beans, burnt sugar, coconut husks, and leatherbound books on demonology. The body is a real departure from the sugar-forward rums that precede it. Here we find more of the bittersweet — chocolate, very dark caramel, torched walnuts, and curious notes of olive pits and indistinct savory spices. It’s a much different rum and one that requires more reflection than the pure joy that’s bottled up in the Exquisito, but it’s also a rum with purpose and with a soul. A- / $250

facundorum.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Thirteen

Round 13 of Buffalo Trace’s “Single Oak Project” experiment is here, putting us into the final few stretches of whiskey flights in this bold, 192-bottle Bourbon experiment.

Previous rounds can be found here:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve

This slightly oddball release features Bourbons which were all aged in barrels made from the top half of the tree, while keeping the other variables such as entry proof (at 125 proof), and stave seasoning (12 months) the same. The remaining variables, recipe (wheat or rye), grain size, warehouse type, and char level vary. As always, all are bottled at 90 proof.

Overall, this round shows lots of variability with a number of standouts — barrel #109 being one of the best whiskeys in the entire series to date. Lots of good wheat whiskeys here (though there are a few bums in the batch, too), but overall there’s plenty of variety in this round to keep things interesting. If nothing else, I think this round alone shows that barrels from the top of the tree have pretty much no impact on the finished spirit.

Complete thoughts on round 13 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #11 – Muted nose, with straightforward wood elements the clearest component of this whiskey. The body is wood all the way, very drying on the finish, and with only some dried herbal elements to give it much life or interest. Not a “bad” whiskey, but it’s one of the most boring of the entire Project to date. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #13 – Very heavy on the wood, this is big oak in a glass, tempered a touch by some winey notes on the mid-palate. The finish is as woody as the attack, with hints of licorice. A bit plain, but if you’re a fan of heavily wooded whiskeys, you may find more to like. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #43 – Clear orange character on the nose, with woody, smoky overtones. On the body, it’s not 100% harmonious, the fruit and wood elements doing a bit of battle on the palate. But with a little time in the glass, things settle down and it develops some spicy, dark chocolate notes that give it a curious uniqueness. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 21 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #45 – Indistinct nose, but a little salty and sweaty. Some chocolate note emerges after a time, giving the overall spirit a salted caramel/candy bar character to it. Overall the body is modest to restrained, and the finish is short and fleeting. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #75 – The nose brings out notes of tobacco, lumberyard, and slight hospital notes. The body is much softer and sweeter, with silky caramel, some citrus peel, and fresh cinnamon character. Hot on the tongue and fiery on the finish, which tends to dull any nuance here. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #77 – Heavy on cherry notes, this is a fruitier Bourbon with plenty of charm. The fresh fruit character is pretty and almost intense, finishing sweet so that it almost comes across like a strawberry ice cream or sorbet. Quite pleasant, if not wholly nuanced. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #107 – Ample wood, but just on this side of being too hoary for easy drinkin’. This whiskey develops some curious notes — licorice, dark cherries, chocolate — but wood remains the most dominant component. Very good, but not the wild curiosity of #109… A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #109 – A solid, well-balanced, yet unexpected spirit. The nose is both spicy and woody, with some really unusual overtones of racy incense. The body is silky sweet and lush, balanced with notes of raisins, mincemeat, sugar, wood, and some intriguing savory notes. This is a unique bourbon not just for the Single Oak Project, but for bourbons altogether. You may not like it as much as me, but it’s so much fun to explore you’d be a fool to pass it up. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 12 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #139 – Classic but hot on the nose, with big notes of vanilla and hefty lumberyard character. Similar on the palate, but it’s those wood elements that begin to overwhelmingly dominate as the whiskey aerates. Finishes very dry, almost dusty. C+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 10 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #141 – Notes of petrol and gas fires and burnt wood up front, particularly on the nose, leading this whiskey into a more savory funnel than the others in the Project. More sweetness develops on the body — a brown sugar and caramel character — which creates balance with the more savory, and somewhat jarring, early encounter. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 8 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #171 – The indistinct nose offers vague cherry syrup notes alongside lots of raw alcohol character. The body is a bit gentler, but its charms are fleeting. Lots of tobacco smoke and leather here, with touches of motor oil creeping up on you on the astringent finish. C (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #173 – Initially racy, this spicebox of a whiskey settles into a nice little groove, offering well-rounded tones of applesauce, citrus oil, cinnamon, and mellow wood notes, particularly on the finish. This is a whiskey that invites exploration and revisiting, a lush spirit that balances sweet and savory with aplomb. A striking difference to #171. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15

racer 15 96x300 Review: Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15Bear Republic’s Racer 5 is one of the west coast’s most iconic IPAs. Cafe Racer 15 is its bigger, burlier, limited-edition brother, a monstrous Double IPA that fans of Racer 5 will definitely want to check out.

Named after a type of motorcycle (and not speedy coffee), Cafe Racer 15 uses Citra, Amarillo, Cascade, and Chinook hops to create a bruising hop regimen that hits over 100 IBUs. Up front watch for lots of ultraripe fruit and those trademark piney notes. This fades into a rather malty, mouth-coating character, ripe with notes of orange sherbet and applesauce. The finish is fruity and brings out more of the base barley’s cereal character. While the attack is brisk, the finish is less mouth cleansing than your typical IPA. That malty character positively demands the next sip be taken to clear things out and get you ready for the next pull… and the next… and the next…

9.75% abv.

A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / bearrepublic.com

Review: 2013 Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

Merryvale 2013 Sauv Blanc NV 105x300 Review: 2013 Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc Napa ValleyThis is the way sauvignon blanc should be done. With this 2013 release Merryvale has perfectly balanced this simple but tricky grape. The nose and attack are floral and lightly sweet, hinting at white flowers and honeysuckle. As the body builds, there is more honey, tropical fruit, and a rich, creme brulee finish. Could use a touch more acid, but overall this is a hands-down winner that is exemplary on its own or with a light meal.

A / $28 / merryvale.com

Review: BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 2 and Hop Czar Topaz Copper IPA

bridgeport Topaz Czar Bottle 225x300 Review: BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 2 and Hop Czar Topaz Copper IPA“Oregon’s Oldest Craft Brewery” is back with two new installments in its Trilogy and Hop Czar series of beers. (Find reviews of the first edition of each one here.) Trilogy is a series of three beers celebrating BridgePort’s 30 years in business. Hop Czar is a series of single-hop IPAs.

Thoughts on both beers follow.

BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 2 Aussie Salute IPA – An American IPA made with Cenetennial and Chinook hops, which is then dry-hopped with Australian Galaxy and Ella hops. If you like your beer like you like your ex-wives — extremely bitter — you’ll thrill to BridgePort’s 2nd installment of its Trilogy series. What it lacks in fruit it makes up for with notes of cedar wood and fresh mushrooms. This IPA is nearly overpowering thanks to its bitter edginess; it’s a brooding and almost chewy brew that is at first daunting but which slides toward enjoyability as you finish the bottle. I’m a fan, I think. 5.8% abv. A-

BridgePort Brewing Hop Czar Topaz Copper IPA – IPA made with Topaz hops exclusively. This is a “copper IPA,”  offering a muddier experience than you might expect, but laced with notes of sherry, mulled wine, and darker fruits. The finish meanders toward the earth, with touches of muddy grass and cedar wood. Plenty bitter, but it’s easily manageable even by IPA standards. Lots of unusual character here for an IPA, but that does make it an intriguing, quaffable brew. 6.5% abv. B+

about $8 per six-pack / bridgeportbrew.com

Review: 2013 Hahn Winery Pinot Gris and 2012 Hahn Chardonnay

hahn pinot gris 13 bottle 98x300 Review: 2013 Hahn Winery Pinot Gris and 2012 Hahn ChardonnayHahn’s Pinot Noir has a good reputation, but it also produces some very affordable whites, both sourced from the Monterey area. Thoughts follow.

2013 Hahn Winery Pinot Gris Monterey – Quite tropical on the nose, but the body is restrained, coming off with buttery notes up front and reserving its mango-pineapple character for the finish. Hints of bacon fat and pine needles on the nose. Simple, but on the mark. B+ / $14

2012 Hahn Winery Chardonnay Monterey – Buttery and unctuous, a rather typical Californiafied version of this grape. Restrained pear and gentle lemon notes round out the palate, but otherwise it is a simple wine with a monstrous body and a somewhat short, slightly herbal finish. B / $14

hahnestates.com

Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery – Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

lost distillery gerston 525x721 Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery   Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

This is one of the niftiest ideas to come out of the whisky world in years. As the Lost Distillery Company reminds us, some 100 Scottish distilleries were shut down or destroyed in the last century, which means most of us will never know what their spirits tasted like. Until now, as they say.

What Lost Distillery does is concoct recreations of these “silent stills,” some of which have been nothing but ash for 100 years. By doing a lot of research about the stills used, the type of barley, the water, the wood, and more, the company sources malts and mixes up a spirit which — in their mind — is a faithful recreation of the original. (All are vattings of various single malt whiskies, technically “blended malts.”)

No, they don’t have stashes of whisky made in the 1800s to compare their version to (you can check out the Shackleton bottlings if you’re interested in a taste-alike approach to recreating old whisky), but are rather using history as a guide.

Lost Distillery launched with three recreations, and the company has copious historical information about all three of the whiskies on its well-researched website. What I can offer, however, is notes on how the spirits they’ve created taste.

Note: All three of these bottlings are available in “Deluxe” and “Vintage” editions, the Vintage versions being limited edition, one-off bottlings. We’re only looking at the Deluxe versions today — which, to make things even more confusing for you, don’t say “Deluxe” anywhere on the bottle.

Lost Distillery Auchnagie – Auchnagie was around from 1812-1911 in the southern Highlands. Here we have a whisky with a fairly typical Highlands construction: Lots of heather and grain, ample citrus, and a healthy backing of dense wood and smoky notes on the nose. The body plays up the orange and lemon notes, almost hinting at grapefruit on the finish. Sweet to start, the cereal character becomes stronger as the whisky develops on the palate, leading to a finish that is a bit on the hot side but which offers a bold afterimage rather than a gentle fade-away. Reviewed: Batch i. 92 proof. A-

Lost Distillery Stratheden – Stratheden existed from 1829-1926 in the Lowlands. This recreation offers a gentle experience, with nicely mellowed cereal notes, light chocolate and caramel, and a light squirt of orange oil. A mild peatiness emerges with time, lending a smoldering note to the spirit that is reminiscent of  toasted bread. It’s a straightforward and somewhat simple dram, but not nearly as rustic as I’d expected. Warming but a bit short, the finish vanishes just in time for you to reach for another sip. Reviewed: Batch ii. 92 proof. B+

Lost Distillery Gerston - Gerston existed in two incarnations, from 1796-1882 and 1886-1914, based in the far north of the Scottish mainland (part of the Highlands). Elusive nose, with more of a raw alcohol character than the Stratheden, but with much of its cereal character to offer. This is a bolder, pushier, and more forward whisky, punctuated with notes of bitter orange, roasted grains, licorice, and diesel fire. As the finish fades, watch for sea salt and seaweed notes to develop. This is a less refined and less purely enjoyable spirit on its own merits, but my hunch is its a more authentic recreation of the spirits of the era. Reviewed: Batch 1.1X. 92 proof. B

each $65 / lost-distillery.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth Release

Islay-based Kilchoman may be one of the youngest distilleries in Scotland, but somehow it cranks out more different spirits than just about everyone else in the business. (Mainly because it’s presenting itself as a bit of a “work in progress,” so Kilchoman’s releases tend to be annual updates.)

Today we consider two of the main Kilchoman expressions, Loch Gorm and 100% Islay, in their 2014 editions.

Loch Gorm 2014 BC 249x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release – Distilled in 2008-09, bottled in March 2014. Fully matured in oloroso sherry butts (and five years old), this is the only all-sherry-matured release from Kilchoman. On the whole it’s a much more compelling whisky than the Loch Gorm First Release, which had a finishing round in a different type of sherry cask and which couldn’t find a balance between the peat and the sweet. With this second release, things have settled down nicely, with the overall impact being one of smoked, grilled citrus fruit. The nose is well-peated without being overpowering, while the body is packed with notes of tangerine and pears, singed with smoke. Miraculously it’s all exquisitely balanced, so harmonious that it’s hard to believe this is just another iteration of last year’s Loch Gorm, which boasted none of these qualities. I take back what I said about sherry being better as a finish for Kilchoman. Can’t wait for 2015′s expression. 92 proof. 17,100 bottles produced. A / $95  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Kilchoman 100 Islay 4th Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Fourth Release – Distilled in 2009-10, bottled in May 2014. It’s round #4 for this all-Islay release (where everything from growing the barley to bottling is done on the distillery property). Lightly peated, this release is vatted from 32 five-year-old barrels and 8 four-year-old barrels, all of them first-fill Bourbon barrels. The combination of five-year and four-year whiskies is about on par with last year’s Third Release. Up front this whisky offers lots of smoke — creosote and coal fires and a bit of burnt paper. The fruit doesn’t arise until you’re will into your third sip, where some banana and pear notes start to emerge on the finish. Over time in the glass, it develops the character of orange marmalade, tinged through and through with those wisps of smoke. Mild fruitiness aside, it’s a slow burner. Not a palate-buster, but redolent with the character of a just-extinguished birthday candle. The lightly fruity finish adds complexity, but it never brings the whole package together in quite the way the prior installments of the 100% Islay expression have managed to do. 100 proof. B+ / $110

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Innis & Gunn Original, Rum Aged, and Toasted Oak IPA

Rum Aged US 330ml lo 86x300 Review: Innis & Gunn Original, Rum Aged, and Toasted Oak IPAFounded in Scotland in 2002, Innis & Gunn has built a reputation around its Scottish Ale and a host of other beer expressions, all of which are aged in oak barrels. (It’s now the most popular British beer in Canada.)

As the story goes, the company’s barrel-aged beers came about almost as an accident, when the beers were aged simply to flavor casks that would then be used by William Grant to make an ale cask-aged whiskey. Turns out the beer itself tasted pretty good, so they decided to sell it too rather than dump it out.

Innis & Gunn recently added a third beer to its core range of U.S. products, all of which we consider today.

Innis & Gunn Original – Ex-bourbon barrel aged for 77 days. This light amber Scottish Ale starts off be showing its chewy maltiness before quickly leaping into a rabbit hole full of fruit. Pears, applesauce, and vanilla ice cream all come together as the long, malty finish develops. An unusual and lively beer that lacks the heaviness that so many barrel-aged beers have. 6.6% abv. B

Innis & Gunn Rum Aged – Aged with oak rum barrel chips for 57 days. A much darker, redder beer, technically a Wee Heavy, it nonetheless offers a similar character on the whole. Malty and sweet, with tons of fruit — including all of the characteristics of the Original plus some cherry and strawberry character, almost as an aftertaste. 6.8% abv. B

Innis & Gun Toasted Oak India Pale Ale – This newest addition to the lineup is a barrel-aged IPA, which spends 41 days in bourbon casks. Despite being an IPA, it’s got the lowest alcohol level of the bunch. Not as hoppy as you’d expect, it hangs on to that trademark fruitiness with all its life, eventually letting in a little something extra by way of a modest slug of hops. That gives this beer a little more balance and a slight herbal edge that works well with all the fruit. 5.6% abv. B+

$NA per 11.2 oz bottle / innisandgunn.com

Review: Wines of Pina Napa Valley, 2014 Releases

pina napa valley 142x300 Review: Wines of Pina Napa Valley, 2014 ReleasesEvery year we anticipate a shipment of wines from Pina Napa Valley for review, and every year that shipment seems to get larger. For 2014 the winery has offered a whopping six wines for review — five from different regions of Napa — upon which we’re happily ready to offer our commentary.

2012 Pina Napa Valley Chardonnay Low Vineyard Oak Knoll District – My first encounter with Pina’s Chardonnay. In fact, I didn’t even know they made a Chardonnay. This is a rather textbook Chardonnay, imbued with a big, meaty character, dense fig and pear notes, vanilla, and a touch of salted caramel. The body is missing the certain creaminess that you need with bold Chardonnays like this, and it fares better as it warms up a bit. B- / $34

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon D’Adamo Vineyard Napa Valley – Bold, classic Napa Cab. The nose is full of currants, dark chocolate, and violets. On the body, sweeter than expected, with more of a blackberry jam character touched with black tea, gooseberries, and a bit of coffee bean, which adds just a hint of bitterness on the back end. A- / $80

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Wolff Vineyard Yountville – A milder, fatter-bodied Cab, this wine offers a juicy nose of blackberry jam, currants, and light black pepper notes. The body is ripe and lush — it’s as close to a summer-worthy Cabernet as you can get without putting an animal on the label — with a long, almost fruit-juice finish. One of Pina’s simpler wines, but highly enjoyable on its own merits. A- / $85

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Ames Vineyard Oakville – A simpler expression of Pina. Relatively tannic and on the green side, this wine dials down the jam in favor of notes from the earthier side of things, including mushroom, celery, cracked pepper, and saddle leather. Very dry and restrained, it offers only minimal fruit but packs in ample elegance. Drink now. B+ / $90

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Buckeye Vineyard Howell Mountain – Racy and dense, this is a classic mountain Cab, loaded with intense blackberry, currant, and plum notes, alongside touches of blueberry, black tea, licorice, and leather. Lots going on, but this is a wine firing on all cylinders, dark as could be but masking a brooding and authentic soul. A / $90

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard Rutherford – The greenest and most vegetal of this vintage, the Firehouse Vineyard bottling comes off as almost astringent at first, offering plenty of tannin and oak notes but only a dusting of fruit. There’s just not much life in this wine, and without food it comes off as already past its prime. B- / $90

pinanapavalley.com

Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

laphroaig 10 year cask strength 525x969 Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

The only member of the Laphroaig core lineup that we haven’t reviewed — but stay tuned for two new expressions dropping in the next couple of weeks — Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength is exactly what it says on the label: A cask strength version of the classic Laphroaig 10 Years Old expression.

Now anything from the Islay-based Laphroaig is always hot stuff, but Laphroaig Cask Strength is a true blazer. Packed with peat smoke and the essence of red pepper, it takes some doing to get it to settle down in the glass. Lots of air works if you’re patient, or you can start adding drops of water to speed up the process. Actually, I recommend the latter no matter what. While you can catch the whiffs of citrus and grapefruit uncut, these are far stronger when you add a splash of water. Try adding more and more as you drain the glass (which will have the side effect of making the glass appear to never empty) and out come more tropical notes of banana, lychee, and pineapple, even a touch of coconut.

Think of it as a more complicated, layered, and — yeah — expensive version of the standard bearer, one that doesn’t let go of its secrets without a fight.

114.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #005, bottled February 2013.

A- / $67 / laphroaig.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

 Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

Founded in 1758 in Haselünne, Germany, Berentzen is known for its eponymous apple liqueur, as well as some other fruit liqueurs. The company is expanding — hey, 250 years is long enough to wait — recently adding two new products to its lineup. We got ‘em both, and put them to the Drinkhacker test.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel is “straight bourbon whiskey, neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors.” Made with the apple juice-based Berentzen liqueur, this is a credible apple-pie-in-a-glass beverage, featuring silky-sweet apple juice notes balanced by a healthy slug of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and with just hints of those “neutral spirits” that provide a bit of a chemical character by way of aftertaste. Perfectly serviceable for those in love with apple cocktails, but you can approximate the same thing by splashing some standard bourbon into a glass of Berentzen if you don’t need a short cut. 60 proof. B / $22

Berentzen Icemint Schnapps is a “supermint” schnapps according to the company, and I’d say that’s fairly on point. I’m hardly an aficionado of peppermint schnapps, but Berentzen’s offering is surprisingly intriguing. The nose offers a light eucalyptus menthol note, and it’s surprisingly gentle. I couldn’t detect any real alcohol burn in it at all. On the palate it’s equally easygoing. The body is icy cool and appropriately minty, with wispy hints of chocolate, altogether coming across much like an after-dinner mint. It doesn’t drink at all like it’s overproof, which makes it a bit dangerous. Try sipping on a half-shot as a digestif. No more. No shooters. 100 proof. A / $25

berentzenusa.com

Review: Eel River Brewing Emerald Triangle IPA

emerald ipa 104x300 Review: Eel River Brewing Emerald Triangle IPAEel River Brewing Company recently released this new American IPA, which will become a seasonal release. “Emerald Triangle” is sub-brand to Eel River (which you can find listed if you read the smaller text on the side of the label), but really it’s just the world Emerald that you’ll spot on the shelf. The Triangle portion of the brand name is implied in the form of a dark green triangle in center of the bottle. The name is a big ignominious, but makes sense considering Eel River’s Humboldt County-based location.

As for the beer, it’s a hop-forward brew without a lot of nuance. It’s quite earthy, with pungent bitterness and pine tree bark overtones, but it lacks the crisp, citrus finish of so many high-end West Coast IPAs. With the attack is brisk and bracing, the body soon develops the brooding character of the forest floor rather than the needles on the trees. The finish remains on the muddy side, almost mouth-coating rather than cleansing, the hallmark of great IPA.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable beer, but considering the flood of top-shelf IPAs that have hit the market of late, it’s not the best I’ve encountered.

6.7% abv.

B / $NA / eelriverbrewing.com

Review: Green Flash Road Warrior Imperial Rye IPA

green flash road warrior 74x300 Review: Green Flash Road Warrior Imperial Rye IPALet’s not mince words: This brewery may have a cult following, but Green Flash Brewing Company’s logo and labels are decidedly uninviting to the point where they look like they could be marketing a cleaning product. And this is the new label.

Pay no attention to what’s on the label. San Diego-based Green Flash’s just-released Rye IPA is an amazing little brew.

A summer beer designed intentionally not to be sessionable, Road Warrior uses crystal and rye malt along with a huge amount of Columbus and Mosiac hops to make a chewy, delicious red ale — and one that tips the alco-scales at 9% abv.

This beer is dense and bready from the start, like munching on a thick hunk of dark brown German rye. Notes of caraway seeds, sesame oil, tree bark, and dark chocolate complement the intense rye notes, giving Road Warrior ample complexity and intrigue. It’s not as piney or as fruity as many other IPAs, and I think this beer finds strength in that, drawing on more exotic flavors to complement its significant bitterness. I enjoyed drinking this beer from start to finish… which did not take long, I hasten to add.

Available through August.

A / $8 per four-pack / greenflashbrew.com

Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend Hi Res Bottle Shot e1404796063243 525x491 Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary BlendCrown Royal is one of the most popular whiskeys on the planet, and for deserved reason. It’s a straightforward, balanced, and dare-I-say-smooth spirit. It mixes well, and it’s an easy straight sipper. Who doesn’t like Crown?

Crown Royal’s history dates back to 1939, when a Canadian entrepreneur crafted a local whisky for the then-royal couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were the first British monarchs to visit North America. Crown Royal was born (and named) and the world has followed its lead. Now, the brand is celebrating its 75th anniversary, with Crown Royal Monarch making its limited-edition debut.

Crown enthusiasts will likely enjoy this spirit the most, but for the rest of us it’s hit and miss. It’s delicate and straightforward, and it does offer just enough uniqueness to spark at least some level of interest, but it doesn’t raise the bar completely. The nose isn’t the highlight here: Basic, grain-forward, and a little bit plasticky. The body is a bit of a different animal, where you’ll find the classic silky body of Crown Royal imbued with notes that start with liquid caramel and head to mild blackberry, a touch of cigar, and a bit of green pepper. It’s not at all bad, simplistic and for the most part well-balanced, at least until the finish, which has a touch of astringency to it and a return to that bit-o-plastic character. (Air helps to burn this unfortunate character off.)

Crown Royal’s various special editions are well regarded, but Monarch’s presentation is a bit more interesting than once it’s the bottle.

80 proof.

B / $75 / crownroyal.com

Review: Tattle Tea Tea & Wine Infusion Kit

tea wine infusion kit wide 1 300x131 Review: Tattle Tea Tea & Wine Infusion Kit Tea drinkers and wine drinkers can finally come together, thanks to Tattle Tea’s straightforwardly named Tea & Wine Infusion Kit. In case there’s any mystery: You’re infusing the wine with tea. Tattle Tea provides the bags of tea (premeasured to work with a single bottle of wine), you provide the wine. You can get the three-bags-of-Rooibos-tea kit along with a nice pitcher that has a built-in strainer to get the tea leaves out ($30) or with just three bags of tea and no pitcher ($8).

Directions are easy: Dump the tea and a bottle of white wine into the pitcher and refrigerate overnight.

How’s it taste? Awful! OK, I’m being harsh, but this mix of tea and wine is just not for me. The nose is interesting — very tea forward and alluring — but the body messes with your senses in an off-putting way. Maybe it’s the wine I chose (a sauvignon blanc), but I just did not like the mix of earthy tea and tart fruit flavors. Compounding the issue, in the course of a day in the fridge, the wine had clearly oxidized quite a bit, giving the concoction some vinegary notes. Maybe if this is done with very high end wine and only for a short time (or in a sealed container), results will be better.

But why risk it?

no rating / $8 to $30 / tattletea.coffeebeandirect.com

Review: Angry Orchard “The Muse” Cider

angry orchard The Muse Hi Res 89x300 Review: Angry Orchard The Muse CiderSummertime is cider time, at least that’s what I hear.

The latest addition to Angry Orchard’s apple-based specialty cider lineup — called the Cider House Collection — is The Muse, a semi-sweet concoction that’s been aged “on French oak staves” and is sold, Champange style, in a 750ml corked bottle.

This cider pours with gentle effervescence and its bright apple nose offers a collection of experiences that include tart apple, rich forest floor, and hints of vanilla. The body’s almost like a fresh apple tart in a glass. Notes of complex baking spices and more of that vanilla character add a festive element that you don’t often see in ciders, but the mix of tart and sweet apples is what keeps going strong, well into the finish.

From start to finish the cider is quite sugary, and that sweetness only gets stronger and stronger as the finish arrives. One glass is almost too easy to knock back, but after that my palate starts searching for something a little more savory. Share with friends.

7.7% abv.

A- / $15 (750ml) / angryorchard.com

 

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

jim beam harvest 525x308 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

Discontent to let Buffalo Trace have all the fun with experimental whiskeys, Jim Beam has been hard at work with its annual Signature Craft releases to show how little changes can have a big impact on a finished spirit.

Now it’s pushing boundaries even further, with a series of six Bourbons called the Harvest Bourbon Collection (technically a sub-group of Signature Craft). The spin on this project is that these six whiskeys each incorporate one unusual grain into the mashbill. They’re all still Bourbon — made with at least 51% corn and some amount of malted barley — but in each whiskey that extra grain is used in a significant amount in the mash (though in undisclosed and variable proportions). All six expressions were aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

The six expressions include: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye, and Six Row Barley. The first two on that list arrive in September 2014. The other four will ship through 2015.

Some of these are more unusual than others on that list, of course. Wheat, rye, and barley are all common whiskey components, though here Beam is using different strains or proportions. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, which leaves two big oddities on the list: Rolled Oat and, especially, Brown Rice. Both are common supermarket grains that are nonetheless bizarre to find in a whiskey. Color me curious on how these things turn out.

For now, we’ve got our hands on two of the six: Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat. Without further ado, here’s how they turned out.

JB SC Harvest Wheat 134x300 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled OatJim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat – Made with Kentucky and Indiana wheat, a common ingredient in Bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This initially struck me with a slightly funky, sweaty nose, but I let it settle down and things started to clarify, revealing a more straightforward wood character, with hints of earthiness. This is well-aged whiskey and it shows from the start. On the palate, hints of cherry (not unusual for Beam products) and ample, almost overpowering oak character. Even with a healthy amount of water you can’t push that wood character down, a fact which I chalk up more to the aging regimen than to wheat being in the mashbill. Surprisingly tough to muddle through. B-

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Rolled Oat - I’ve had a few whiskeys that incorporate oats and I always find them fascinating, at least for a diversion. Here Beam has produced a whiskey with a distinct sweetness on the nose, almost like baking spices with cinnamon and cloves, with rich wood notes underneath. On the palate, again it is quite hot on the tongue, and water helps to bring out the unique charms of the spirit. This is a far different whiskey than the Red Wheat expression, a much softer, gentler, and more engaging spirit on the whole. Cinnamon sugar notes play well with a caramel/dulce de leche base, with that woody nose melting into a pulpier, piney character on the palate. All of this plays well together, giving the Rolled Oat expression a balance that the Red Wheat doesn’t have. Perhaps it was simply better able to stand up to the aging regimen? Either way, it’s a winner. A-

This is a fun start to an interesting lineup. Hopefully we’ll have reviews of the other four expressions for you in the Harvest Collection soon!

each $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com