First off, know that Honeyvine — which blends honey with unstated, nonvintage white wine — is not nearly as bad as you expect it to be. In fact, it’s quite refreshing, a summery white with a touch of sweetness, not unlike a milder orange muscat or even some riesling.
The honey is present both on the body and the nose, with citrus overtones and some lemon/lime character, too. To be sure, it’s a sweet operator and not something you want to serve at dinner, but it works as a cocktail base — think sangria or spritzers — or on its own, served very cold (or even on the rocks).
Given the problems common with most modern honey-based wines or meads, it’s nice to finally see something that uses honey but gives it some much needed balance.
B / $13 / thewinebar.com
Sons of Liberty distillery is doing some exciting work in the tiny state of Rhode Island. Today we look at two new offerings — an innovative gin and an update to its pumpkin-flavored whiskey. Thoughts follow.
Sons of Liberty True Born Genever Style Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” – How’s this for obsessive. With this genever-style gin, Sons of Liberty started by taking the botanicals that are traditional in gin — coriander, lemongrass, orange peel, and vanilla (well, some of those are traditional in gin, but anyway) — and using them to brew their own beer. SoL then distilled the Belgian Wheat beer (hence the name) and turned it into gin. Instead of taking neutral spirit and flavoring it, they’re flavoring the liquid that goes into the distillate to begin with.
Now, that’s been done before, but the end product has always been whiskey, not gin. SoL actually sent us the beer they started with — it’s not being sold, so it’s just for reference — and it’s really intriguing to put this side by side with the gin that was made out of it. While it’s got a malty backbone — enough to make you think much more of white whiskey than of gin — the spices that are so readily apparent in the beer are definitively present in the gin. Orange peel is the strongest, with vanilla a close second. The gin also has a nutty/almond character which adds some creaminess, plus a racy finish that brings out cinnamon and black pepper notes. The hops on the beer are just about the only element that doesn’t shine through clearly — though they likely contribute to what is a sort of muddy character on the finish. That said, all in all, it’s a really fun experiment. 90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B / $33
Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015) – I first encountered this whiskey last year with its inaugural release. Now Sons of Liberty is back with its second annual pumpkin-flavored whiskey, single malt flavored with 32,000 pounds of roasted pumpkin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sweet orange peel, and vanilla. Unlike last year’s version, the 2015 rendition is markedly sweeter, with good reason — pumpkin for pumpkin’s sake is never a winning game. Pumpkin with sugar and spice? Well, there’s an idea. In this whiskey — still young and heavy with malty notes — those spices are really punched up to the right level. Beautiful allspice notes make for a welcome entree to lightly-sweetened pumpkin, definitively roasted and slightly smoky on the back end. Unlike my experience with last year’s version, the 2014 SoL Pumpkin Spice Whiskey is not just a novelty but a smooth operator in its own regard, smoothing out the harshly bitter notes that stuck with me in last year’s release. Give it a go. 80 proof. B+ / $48
Three classic seasonal releases from Deschutes — all highly anticipated fall/winter offerings — are here. Let’s dive in!
Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip Pale Ale (2015) – Juicy and quaffable, a nicely hoppy nuber with ample citrus backing it up. Piney notes here are more evocative of the forest rather than dense and resinous, with a light lemon/orange character growing stronger as the finish develops. Ends clean and crisp. One of the best Hop Trips in recent years — though watch that alcohol now creeping up over 6 percent. 6.1% abv. A- / $8 per six-pack
Deschutes Brewery Chasin’ Freshies (2015) – Each year this beer features a different hop variety, and for 2015 its lemondrop hops from Washington, a strain I’m not really familiar with. While the beer doesn’t offer a distinctly lemon character, it does pack lots of citrus into an IPA adding some candied notes — think fruity Chuckles? — to the mix. The bitterness is dialed back at first while the sugary stuff has its way with your palate. Only then, after you’re just about sick of it, do the bitter hops finally take over. Sweet relief. No pun intended. 7.4% abv. B / $6 per 22 oz. bottle
Deschutes Brewery Black Butte XXVII 27th Birthday Reserve – This always-experimental celebration beer, honoring 27 years in business, includes some real oddball ingredients: rosewater, apricot puree, pomegranate molasses, Chinese five spice, and cocoa nibs from Theo Chocolate. 50% is aged in barrels. Lots of this you can taste — the cinnamon/nutmeg-heavy spices, sweet molasses, and the cocoa nibs, but it’s all blended into this typically dark and unctuous core of a porter. Massive in its mouthfeel and loaded with tangy, syrupy malt overtones, it’s a powderkeg of figs and coffee. Super fun for a half a glass, then too much to keep pushing on. The finish lasts essentially forever, give or take. 11.6% abv. B / $17 per 22 oz. bottle
New Orleans’ Atelier Vie is the company behind this gin (there’s also a barrel-aged version), a classic juniper-heavy style that won’t offend any gin lover.
The gin is crafted from grain neutral spirits, and aside from juniper, bay leaf is the only other listed botanical here — the rest are not disclosed.
What Euphrosine — surely the greatest name ever to come to the world of gin — offers is a fairly traditional spirit considering its unusual place of distillation. On the nose, juniper is backed by some sweeter notes, plus lemon peel, vanilla, and fresh herbs — surely that bay leaf in action.
On the palate, it’s got sweetness up front, then distinct lavender notes. More of that oily lemon character present on the nose builds as the floral notes fade, with an herbal, mainly rosemary-like, character coming along on the finish. The overall impression is somewhat muted, a bit dusty, and quick to depart the palate as it drops off rapidly. I like the gin just fine on the whole, but ultimately it doesn’t offer much in the way of major tricks to separate it from an increasingly vast pack of well-crafted but not dissimilar artisan gins.
B / $30 / ateliervie.com
Fred Minnick is the bon vivantiest of the bourbon-focused bon vivants, an ascot-wearing gentleman who knows his whiskey and dutifully reports all the news that’s fit to print from Kentucky and beyond.
Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker is exactly that, a guide to everything a novice drinker would want to know about bourbon (and only bourbon). What’s the difference between bourbon and other whiskeys? What’s with the new barrels? Why whiskey vs. whisky? Minnick runs you through all the basics that readers of this site probably already know — but which their friends probably ask them about all the damn time.
After zipping through all of that, Minnick spends a solid slug of time discussing the nose and flavor of bourbon in general, with an eye toward the many strange notes that can bubble up in the course of tasting bourbon. The main event is saved for last — over 50 bourbon brands digested with detailed tasting notes, even more detailed production information, and questions for the reader to ponder. Whether you’re putting together a tasting of Stagg or Pappy, Minnick is there to guide you along the way.
Fantastically approachable, it’s a whisky book that’s as easy to digest as a glass of Baker’s after dinner.
A- / $16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Glasgow Distillery Co. is the producer of Makar Gin, but it also put together this one-off single malt, essentially an independent bottling of a 26 year old whisky sourced from a mystery distillery in Speyside. Oddly, it’s a peated Speyside (and one source on GDC’s website says it’s 27 years old, not 26), so it’s already a bit eyebrow-raising.
I had the tiniest of samples of this rarity, which offers a classic honey/citrus Speyside nose, tempered with a lacing of peat smoke. The peat is extremely light-handed, and peat freaks need not apply. It’s more akin to a fire burning in the chimney next door — just enough to whet your appetite for a winter warmer.
The palate is well balanced and firing just right, with fresh apples, flamed orange peel, spicy chutney, and a touch of white pepper. Just the lightest touch of smoke comes along on the back end — think cedar branches or other evergreen needles aflame — before whisking away with a torched brown sugar note.
A- / $930 / glasgowdistillery.com
Laura Diaz Munoz creates these two California cabernets — wildly different, yet next door neighbors — at Galerie, where the wines are constructed to evoke France’s Loire Valley. (Three white wines, not reviewed here, are also produced.) Today we take a dive into the 2012 reds. Thoughts follow.
2012 Galerie “pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Bright fruit starts things off on this flavor-packed wine, which offers lush berries — rasp- and blue- varieties — mixed up with a brambly, woodsy essence. A seductive introduction leads to a rather intense, bittersweet finish that is almost punchy with amaro notes, vanilla, and a touch of balsamic. Nicely balanced, but with tons of complexity to explore. A / $50
2012 Galerie “latro” Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Sonoma County – A vastly different wine, with restrained sweetness and fruit, showcasing more bitter, even sour, notes of herbs, roots, and leather. Lots of tannin here, with a duskiness that dried figs, tobacco, and tar. Considerably less developed than the above, but a food friendly wine. B+ / $50
High-end vodka has been making a move to the even higher end of late, and one of the forerunners is this intriguing option from perennial top shelfer Grey Groose.
The idea with Grey Goose VX is to take Grey Goose and spike it with “a hint of precious Cognac.” (Remember, after all, this is a French product.) What’s a hint? 5%, according to the bottle, leaving 95% remaining for good old vodka.
Grey Goose VX is clear, which indicates that it’s filtered the way white rum and some tequila is to strip out any color.
What’s inside, though, is clearly not just vodka, as that touch of Cognac makes a significant difference to the body — much like adding a dash of bitters to a cocktail takes the flavor in a whole new direction.
On the nose, it doesn’t let on much (particularly if you let it rest in the glass). There’s just a slight nougat and plum character atop what is already a somewhat sweet vodka to begin with. Novices may not notice the difference at first.
On the palate is where Grey Goose VX begins to shine and break away from its lineage. Here you see significantly stronger notes of white flowers, sultanas, cotton candy, and that distinct, raisiny, sugar-cookie sweetness that comes from good Cognac. It’s a surprising effect given the tiny amount of Cognac in the blend, and it just goes to show again how impactful tiny changes in a spirit’s recipe can be. The finish is satisfying and slightly astringent — the vodka coming back to the fore — but significantly shortened by the addition of the sweeter brandy.
With all of that said, while VX makes for a fine little spirit, one has to marvel at the price. This is 5% Cognac, and 95% vodka! $80 can get you some very good stuff that is 100% Cognac and 0% vodka — not the top shelf but damn close to it. It would not be out of line to suggest that you could recreate this mix at home with a regular bottle of Grey Goose and a nice bottle of XO that you add to your Martini by the drop. See where that takes you.
A- / $80 / greygoose.com
Homebrew beer cookbooks are legion, but this title from Michael Agnew is special — it’s stuffed with recipes for (real) craft beers, many of which from brand names you’ve probably actually tried. Lagunitas, Allagash, Rogue, Shmaltz — all of them are well represented among the roughly three dozen recipes in the paperback.
Each recipe spends two pages describing the beer then walking you through its construction, step by step, with precise measurements in both English and metric units. The book is sorted into chapters by style, though some beer types — pale ales and Belgians, namely — are over-represented next to less included lagers, rye, and wheat beers.
No matter. Take a flip through the book and see if there’s something you like in the table of contents. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission alone for the specifics on how to make Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ at home!
A- / $18 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Elijah Craig 18 Years Old was originally released in 1994 — but you probably haven’t noticed it on the shelves for the last three years, as the expression has been on “hiatus” due to a lack of available 18 year old bourbon barrels.
Now EC18 is finally back, and for my money, this is Elijah Craig drinking at just about the height of its charms. Get much older (see our 20, 21, and 23 year old EC reviews), and the wood begins to get in the way of what can be a delicate and effusive spirit.
Here we find Elijah sporting a lightly floral nose, honeysuckle mixed in with butterscotch and ample vanilla notes plus hints of barrel char. On the palate, things are firing on all cylinders. First a rush of sweetness, but there’s no sugar bomb here. Rather, that sugar takes a darker turn into molasses, dark cocoa powder, and a touch of bitter roots where that dark barrel char makes itself known. The finish is slight sweet relief, a torched, creamy creme brulee that offers a touch more of that floral note alongside an echo of chimney smoke — a balanced whiskey that melds fire and flowers into a cohesive whole.
90 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #4090, barreled on 6/16/97.
A- / $120 / heavenhill.com