Author Archives: Christopher Null

Review: Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin

uncle val's restorative ginDoes this bottle look familiar? Does the name sound familiar, too? Ah, you’re probably thinking about Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, which we reviewed upon release in 2012.

Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin offers a somewhat different formulation. In lieu of juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage, and lavender — the key ingredients in Botanical — Restorative offers juniper, coriander, cucumber, and rose petals.

If that sounds a lot like Hendrick’s, that’s because it is a lot like Hendrick’s. And once again, my tasting notes run to some unexpected places that are not wholly in keeping with the botanical bill. The nose presents juniper and lemony citrus (surprising, as there’s no citrus in the gin), a brisk and powerful introduction that should keep fans of more traditional, juniper-forward gins happy.

The body folds in the florals — lots of rose petal character (considerably more than Hendrick’s) that fortunately manages to stay on this side of the perfume counter. The coriander adds an earthy element that is present mainly on the finish. Cucumbers are the only element that don’t really make a major showing. Intended to be “cooling,” the gin does have a gentler (and sweeter) let-down on the back end than you might expect, which takes things out on a refreshing and, well, restorative finish.

I like this gin a bit better than the Uncle Val’s Botanical bottling, although with only four botanicals to rely on, Restorative has to work harder for your love. For the most part, it succeeds in earning it. Hendrick’s fans should definitely give this a shot to compare and contrast.

90 proof.

A- / $40 / 35maplestreet.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP Cognac

LOUIS ROYER_FORCE 53 VSOP silo

Most Cognac is bottled at the usual 80 proof, but Louis Royer’s Force 53 says screw that, let’s take a cue from the fellas in the whiskey world and go megaproof.

The choice of 53% abv (106 proof) isn’t accidental. The House of Royer got its start in 1853. Lucky for them, I guess, that the business didn’t launch in 1799. Or 1801.

From a spec standpoint, the higher alcohol level is the major distinguishing feature of Louis Royer Force 53. Otherwise it’s a standard VSOP Cognac in composition, which means that technically the spirit’s been aged a minimum of just four years in cask.

Turns out the extra alcohol (and some smart knowhow) makes quite a difference. Many VSOPs are perfectly drinkable and full of life, but few have the punch and power of Force 53. What could have come across as almost watery in an 80 proof Cognac is instead, well, forceful and lively in this bottling. Here, notes of caramel apple take on more apple pie-like overtones on the nose. The body is delightfully rich, dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder, offering fig and raisin notes on the back end. That classic Cognac sweetness is unmistakable throughout, all those fresh citrus, apple pie, banana cream, and molten caramel notes building to an expressive and delightful — yet still youthful — whole.

For barely 40 bucks, you will be hard pressed to find a brandy of any ilk that is as well-balanced and downright enjoyable as Force 53, and Royer may very well find it has launched a big trend with this “high strength” idea in a world where 80 proof has long ruled the roost.

A / $43 / louis-royer.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Lost Prophet Bourbon 22 Years Old

Orphan Barrel_Lost Prophet_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

These orphans are working harder than Oliver Twist for Diageo, and a fourth expression of the Orphan Barrel Project is now hitting the market: Lost Prophet.

The Lost Prophet stock was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Kentucky at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and, per the company, was found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville. The whiskey is bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The mashbill for Lost Prophet Whiskey is 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye.

This is a fun and intriguing spirit that’s hard not to like. The nose is immediately unique, almost startling, with notes of intense menthol, tanned leather, cloves, and citrus oils. The body punches hard — hotter at first than its proof level would indicate — with notes of molasses, dark cherry, big vanilla, some gingerbread lat in the game, and a moderate amount of wood.

Not at all hoary or tough the way many very old whiskeys can be, Lost Prophet Bourbon still manages to feel fresh and exciting, offering a rich and engaging experience that is both plenty complex while also being easy-drinking and refreshingly enjoyable. So many old whiskeys leave you with a bitter, astringent aftertaste, but Lost Prophet’s denouement is lightly sweet, lasting, and memorable.

For a bourbon over 20 years old, Lost Prophet is actually quite cheap. Doubt it will stay that way, of course…

90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch Tul-Tr-1.

A / $120 / orphanbarrel.com

Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

Dec12-BruichladdichCuvee-382-1

When people ask me what my favorite whiskey is — and they do that a lot — after I hem and haw about it for a while, I usually tell them it’s one they’ve never heard of: Bruichladdich 16 Years Old First Growth Series: Cuvee E Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes Finish, a limited edition that Laddie put out in 2010 and which is down to its last drops in my bar. (My “A” rating at the time is too low.)

Cuvee E is long gone from the market, but Bruichladdich recently put out a spiritual successor of sorts, Cuvee 382 La Berenice. It’s a different animal — five years older and finished in both Barsac and Sauternes casks, but with my beloved Cuvee E nearly spent, I sprang for a bottle of 382 to keep the party going.

Cuvee 382 is a study of contrasts, starting out much, much darker in color than Cuvee E, offering the appearance of what looks like a well-sherried whiskey. The nose is serious, more intense than Cuvee E, and less sweet from the start. Biscuits, gingerbread, and leather oil pervade the racy, punchy nose. The body brings lots of dried fruits into the equation, folding these into notes of roasted grains, more leather, and some citrus peel. It doesn’t offer the bright and sweet honey character of Cuvee E, however, rather it takes things in a more austere direction. Watch for a surprising rush of sea salt on the finish to polish it all off.

Altogether, this is a surprisingly different whisky than the distillery’s prior Sauternes-oriented bottling, though it has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While it sticks closer to a more traditional malt whisky formula than Laddie’s previous experiment with a sweet white wine finish, it remains a remarkable and remarkably drinkable dram.

92 proof.

A / $170 / bruichladdich.com

Rueda Wines Reviewed: Shaya and Jose Pariente

Shaya HabisFret not if you’re unfamiliar with Rueda. This region, directly to the west of Spain’s Ribera del Duero, is the home to a white wine that is beginning to find favor overseas. Long a favorite in its homeland, Rueda wines are made primarily from the verdejo grape (viura and sauvignon blanc are also grown here, as are some red wine grapes). Best of all, the wines are quite affordable and designed for everyday drinking (much like Ribera reds).

Think of verdejo as somewhere between sauvignon blanc and viognier. For a more detailed look at what this wine is like, we examined two recent vintages straight outta Rueda.

2010 Bodegas Shaya Habis Verdejo Old Vines Rueda – Somewhat buttery and nutty on the nose at first, the wine’s aromatics eventually take hold on the tongue, offering light perfume mingled with notes of apricot, lime zest, and a touch of tropical character. Hazelnuts make an appearance as the wine’s finish fades, bringing things full circle. A- / $25

2013 Jose Pariente Verdejo Rueda – A touch musty, this wine offers peaches and apricots on the nose. A touch of caramel and cotton candy get the palate started, and then more of a citrus and tropical character takes hold. Pleasant, simple, and fruit-forward. B+ / $10

Review: 2011 Matchbook Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills

matchbook tempranilloHere’s a surprisingly lovely little wine from JL Giguiere’s Matchbook brand, made from Tempranillo in Yolo County, grown in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The restrained nose features notes of tanned leather, stonework, touches of smoke, and dried fruits. On the palate, things are more fruit-forward: dark cherries, plums, tobacco, and cranberry notes lead to a well-rounded, moderately big finish. This wine offers balance as well as lasting fruit notes that polish off a food-friendly, imminently drinkable wine that drinks like a considerably more expensive bottling.

A- / $15 / crewwines.com

Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

The-Balvenie-Tun-1509 batch 1

Lucky day: Not one, but two new bottlings from a perennial favorite: The Balvenie. Actually, the distillery has recently released three different whiskies, the third being The Balvenie Fifty, Cask 4567, a 50 year old expression that runs $38,000 a bottle.

We did not manage to nab a bottle of this lattermost one, but no matter: We did sample the other two, a new 25 year old single barrel release and a new sibling in the Balvenie Tun series, Tun 1509, Batch 1.

Let’s discuss each in turn.

First, The Balvenie is adding a new single barrel edition to its regular release range, a 25 year old single barrel expression that joins the 12 year and 15 year single barrel expressions that have launched in recent years. This new 25 year old expression spends its life entirely in traditional American ex-bourbon casks, a departure from the sherry cask barrels used for the 15 year single barrel bottling. Again, this is an ongoing release, and while stocks will be limited, it will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Second, The Balvenie Tun 1509 is the sequel and successor to the impressive Tun 1401 series, which composed a set of nine different batches of whiskies that were blended up in small quantities, about 2000 liters per batch, and released in very limited amounts over the last few years. We reviewed several of the Tun 1401 series (see Batches 3, 6, and 9) — only a few of the nine ever made it to the U.S. — but all were gone much too soon. Now, Tun 1401 has been retired, and Tun 1509 is in. This mixing vessel can hold 8000 liters, which means the whisky blended up in it may be less “rare,” but it will at least be easier to find.

Thoughts on both of these whiskies follow.

The Balvenie 25 Years Old Traditional Oak Single Barrel – Shockingly light in color, this hardly looks like it’s been in barrel for a year, much less 25. The actual presentation on the tongue and nostrils, however, is quite the opposite. Seductive notes of caramel and some citrus notes are well-integrated on the nose, making it candylike without being cloying. The body takes this and runs with it, firing on all cylinders. The caramel notes turn toward dark chocolate sauce, the fruitiness toward essence of orange flowers, caramel apples, honey, and some spice — cinnamon, allspice, and a bit of brown sugar. Throughout, Balvenie 25 keeps things light and lively, a whisky that’s lithe and light on its feet, a treat that combines the pleasures of a well-aged senior statesman with the gentler body of a fresher, younger spirit. If it weren’t so gorgeous I’d call it a simple pleasure. 95.6 proof. A / $599

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt – Batch #1 of Tun 1509 is made from whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels (35 casks) and sherry butts (7 casks), for a total of 42 casks worth of single malt commingling in Tun 1509. The results are powerful compared to the quieter 25 year old single barrel, evident from the start by looking at the deep amber color of the whisky. The nose is exotic and rich, offering punchy notes of well-burnt sugar, coffee, dried figs and raisins, and a touch of coal fire smoke. The body then takes all of these components and promptly kicks them right in the ass. Dried fruit takes a spicy, Christmas-like turn toward the baking pantry, with notes of cloves and cinnamon dominating. There’s more red fruit on the palate — think plums — along with notes of blood orange and tangerine. Some malt is here, but the cereal character is warm and inviting, like a well-doctored bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. This whisky drinks embarrassingly easy despite topping 94 proof, taking its burly, rounded body and just having its way with your palate from start to finish. Speaking of the finish — it’s long, warming, and, as it vanishes, it leaves you begging for more. One of Balvenie’s best whiskies ever. 94.2 proof. A+ / $350

thebalvenie.com

Review: Privateer Silver Reserve Rum

privateer rumAs I’ve noted before here, rum has a long history of being distilled in America, and now it’s on the upswing again thanks to craft distillers and the easy availability of high-quality sugar products. Privateer is made by Andrew Cabot, a distant descendant of the Revolutionary-era Andrew Cabot, who was a rum-maker in his own time.

Based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Privateer is made from Grade A molasses, crystallized sugar, and boiled brown sugar. Double column distilled, it is then rested in stainless steel before bottling. (An amber rum, not reviewed here, spends time in a variety of casks before bottling.)

Most white rums are aged in barrels for a time to mellow them out, then filtered back to white. Privateer Silver doesn’t have that luxury, and it’s surprising to see how the distillery has produced such a well-rounded and flavorful rum without taking this step.

The nose of Privateer rum offers classic notes of coconut husk, Brazil nuts, and a maltiness that mellows out some of the rougher alcohol character of the spirit. Nothing fancy, but on the palate, the rum starts to shine, offering notes of rich caramel, brown sugar, hazelnuts, and a dusting of cocoa powder. The finish is short but fresh, providing a pleasant rush of sweetness to finish things off. Fans of hogo will find just a touch of it here, but on the whole the body is gentle enough for easy sipping for most anyone, and it’s got plenty of utility in cocktailing applications, too.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #23.

B+ / $27 / privateerrum.com

Review: 2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

avignonesi nobile2011This 100% Sangiovese wine from the Montepulciano region is a beautiful introduction to both the grape and the region. Bright cherry notes mingle with a touch of raspberry, plus touches of vanilla, flinty stone, coffee bean, and some cinnamon on the finish. Over time, hints of chocolate emerge — give it some air. Lush without being overpowering, the wine is a perfect solo fireside companion but also works perfectly with food.

A- / $29 / avignonesi.it

Review: 2013 Complicated Pinot Noir Sonoma County

complicated pinotA dustier expression of Pinot, this Sonoma County bottling offers notes of black cherry, orange peel, and currants, but is undercut by some rougher, lumberyard notes that leave a distinctly drying character on the palate. This is distinctly at odds with some of the sweeter elements in the wine — these become quite thick on the finish — which creates either a curious juxtaposition or a contradiction. You make the call.

B- / $20 / takenwine.com

Review: Jardesca Blanco California Aperitiva

jardesca

Drinkhacker pal Duggan McDonnell — of Encanto Pisco fame — is up to some new tricks. His latest project: Jardesca, a lightly fortified, aromatic wine. Esseentially part of the vermouth/Lillet category, Jardesca is a blend of sweet and dry wines plus a double-distilled eau de vie that is infused with 10 different botanicals. The big idea: Find a balance between the cloyingly sweet stuff and the grimace-inducing bitter apertifs.

Jardesca’s bittersweet character is at first surprising because it’s so different from other aperitif wines. A bit off-putting, I found myself struck first by notes of dill, eucalyptus, and dried apricot. That’s a weird combination of flavors, and it takes some processing — and some time exploring the product to really figure out what’s happening here. The wine develops in the glass and on the palate, offering rich honey notes, grapefruit, and a nose that’s increasingly heavy with floral aromatics — lavender and honeysuckle, plus rosemary notes.

Like I said, lots going on here, and sometimes it comes together beautifully, and sometimes it comes across as a bit much. Actually I found myself enjoying the more herbal components of Jardesca over its sweetness, which helps it to shine quite brightly in a vodka martini. It works well on its own, but I think its true destiny is a spot on progressive bar menus as a more intriguing vermouth.

18% abv.

A- / $29 / jardesca.com

Review: Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2014

Herradura Reposado Scotch Cask Image 3

It’s another round with Herradura’s Coleccion de la Casa limited edition line of reposado tequilas — each one aged first in a standard Bourbon barrel, then finished in another type of specialty cask. (See also the first two releases in this annual series: Port and Cognac finished tequila.)

This year, Herradura turns to former Scotch barrels, casks which really aren’t used for much other than, well, more Scotch. According to the company, “This limited edition tequila is aged to perfection in charred American oak casks for eleven months. Prior to bottling, the tequila is then transferred to carefully select [sic] single malt scotch casks from the renowned Highland and Islay regions of Scotland for three additional months of aging.”

There’s only a little that raises an eyebrow in the first nosing of this tequila. While the nose is lightly smoky, it’s balanced by the essence of chili pepper, caramel, and a bit of salty brine. The smokiness is unusual for tequila, but could easily be chalked up (along with the brine) to the impact of agave if you weren’t aware of the finishing element here.

The body starts off by showcasing agave, tempering that with notes of austere wood, sweet honey cake, Madeira, and a reprise of those seaside smoky elements. This lattermost element melds surprisingly well with the sweet agave punch that comes back around on the finish — if you’ve ever had a mezcal-meets-whiskey cocktail, you know how interesting the combination can be. Here the duo combine to create a whole that is bigger and burlier than the sum of its parts — and stands as a mighty fine, if wholly unexpected, achievement from Herradura.

80 proof.

A / $90 / herradura.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach_25YO

Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944

mortlach.com

Review: 2014 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau

2014 Georges Dubouef Beaujolais Nouveau BottleshotAnother year, another Bojo-Nouveau, the “first wine of the harvest,” as Georges Duboeuf’s less-garish-than-usual label reminds us.

This year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is the usual shade of grape juice-purple, with a jammy nose redolent of grape jelly, strawberry, some violet notes, and mud. The body runs through all of the above paces, introducing some shades of tea leaf, cocoa bean, and cranberry, before settling into a brambly, slightly dusty finish. The finish is less sweet than expected, but what fruit notes are there rapidly run from pulp to pits.

As always, this wine is perfectly palatable but for only one night, primarily as a celebratory novelty. Here’s to another harvest in the books!

B- / $12 / duboeuf.com

Review: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res

Hey, remember when Maker’s Mark said it was going to lower its proof from 90 to 84? That didn’t work out, so the company figured why not go the other way, with a limited-availability cask strength expression of the classic Maker’s Mark.

Cask strength bourbon is a bit at odds with the company’s avowed mission to market a “soft” whiskey, but there’s no denying that customers are going to eat this stuff up. The demand for overproof, barrel strength whiskey is seemingly insatiable, so, mission or not, I expect Maker’s knew exactly what it was getting into here.

Let’s engage in a tasting, shall we?

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is classic Maker’s on the nose — vanilla, lightly almond-like notes, modest wood, and hints of ripe banana. Modest and sweet-smelling, the spirit at first indicates little to the nose about its overproof nature. The body starts off with only a few minor surprises. Cinnamon and red hot candies start things off, but then it’s on to an intense, alcohol-laden punch as that 113-plus proof core takes hold. Bigger, tannic oak notes arise here, along with more of that sweet vanilla core, some cocoa powder, and hints of grain. The finish is drying and a little bittersweet — another Maker’s Mark hallmark — with notes of butterscotch and a little menthol and black pepper as the finish fades. All told, it’s not unlike classic Maker’s Mark, just punched up a bit in both the flavor and the body departments to appeal to the overproof whiskey lover in the family. There’s definitely more intensity and fire here, but it’s easily drinkable at bottle strength. A touch of water brings out more nuances in all of the above.

On the whole, I like it just fine, though not necessarily better than the classic Maker’s Mark. Frankly I’m not sure I need to have Maker’s at this proof level, but I like the idea that if I decide I do, I know it’s there for me.

Reviewed at 113.3 proof (abv will vary). Reviewed: Batch 14-02.

A- / $35 (375ml) / makersmark.com

Review: Jim Beam Kentucky Fire

Kentucky Fire Bottle ShotJim Beam’s spin on the cinnamon-flavored whiskey fad — the Fireball phenomenon — crept up so quietly earlier this August that no one seems to have taken much notice. I guess being, like, eighth to market doesn’t get you much press. No matter, though. Let’s have a look at Beam’s Kentucky Fire — cinnamon whiskey’s gotta have “fire” in the name, that’s the law! — and see how it stacks up.

Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey infused with cinnamon liqueur,” so at least no one’s claiming there are imported cinnamon sticks delicately flavoring Kentucky’s finest. Beam says its focus here is on the bourbon first, with the cinnamon a secondary concern.

I’d say Beam’s description is pretty spot on. While the nose offers clear cinnamon spice, but the vanilla sweetness of bourbon does manage to muscle through even that powerful baking cabinet standby. The body offers the flipside of this. It actually starts sweet, not spicy, a slippery vanilla-caramel that takes a few seconds before the cinnamon kicks in. It’s warming on the finish without being at all racy, and the cinnamon heat fades after just a few seconds.

Perhaps more than any other cinnamon whiskey on the market, Kentucky Fire is understated on the cinnamon side. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of Red Hots character here, it’s just not designed to scorch your palate. That’s fine by me, actually. There are cinnamon whiskey blazers out there, but a spirit that lets the whiskey shine as brightly as the cinnamon at least gives you something to savor rather than merely grimace at. Kentucky Fire may not exactly be nuanced, but it’s easy-drinking and more than serviceable as a shot or a cocktailing ingredient.

70 proof.

B+ / $16 / jimbeam.com

Review: Austerity 2013 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

austerity winesTwo new bottlings from Austerity, a Monterey County-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Austerity Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – Classic SoCal Point structure, rich with cherry jam and strawberry preserves. But the flabby body and overly sweetened finish mar an initially appealing character. Notes of tea leaf and coffee bean add a touch of mystery, at least. B / $17

2013 Austerity Chardonnay Arroyo Seco – An unfortunate misfire. The nose smells just fine, typical of California Chardonnay with buttery, woody, fruit. The body starts off with brisk apple and vanilla notes, but this quickly takes a turn into less delightful character, with notes of canned fruit, sugar syrup, and aluminum foil. Meh. C / $17

cecchettiwineco.com

Review: Bee d’Vine Honey Wine

BeeDvine_Brut_750_HIGHYou can make wine from just about anything, but honey wine has a long and rich history, dating back some 2000 years to Africa, where the honey seems to flow freely.

If you’ve ever had mead at a Renaissance festival (or your crazy uncle’s house), you basically know what you’re in for. Honey wine is essentially the same thing. Depending on who you ask, the addition of water to dilute the alcohol level is what separates mead from the lighter, gentler “honey wine.”

Bee d’Vine is a product made by The Honey Wine Company, based in San Francisco, California. The company’s fermented honey drink is blended in two varieties — a dry Brut and a sweeter Demi-Sec version. (Those terms are typically used with sparkling wines, but Dee d’Vine is still, not fizzy.) They were produced in 2013, but regulations prevent the inclusion of vintage dates on non-grape wines.

How you enjoy them will depend on your tolerance level for exotic oddities in your gullet. Thoughts follow.

Also of note: The company supports farming and environmental initiatives in California and in Ethiopia, the birthplace of honey wine.

(Updated 11/23 with factual corrections to The Honey Wine Co.’s location and its charitable initiatives.)

Bee d’Vine Brut Honey Wine – A dusty, earthy nose offers a dusting of familiar honey character but the overwhelming character is one of low-grade white wine, a muddy mix of old apples, earth, simple florals, and industrial elements. It’s pleasant enough at first — particularly when ice cold — but you have to be utterly nuts about honey to polish off a full glass once the more raw components take hold. D+ / $43

Bee d’Vine Demi-Sec Honey Wine – A semi-sweet expression of this wine, and probably more in keeping with what you’d be expecting of a product made out of honey. The nose is similar to the Brut — earthy and a bit musty, with honey overtones. The body blends its honey character with something akin to orangey Muscat wine, leading to a finish that is at first sweet but which quickly fades to an unwieldy combination of syrup and mud. C- / $43

beedvine.com

Review: XXIV Karat Grand Cuvee and Rose — Sparkling Wine with Gold Flake

karat bottles

What, sipping Cristal ain’t baller enough for you? Kick back some XXIV Karat (that’s 24 Karat if you ain’t down with Roman numerals), a sparkling wine that is infused with “indugent 24-karat gold leaf.”

Yeah, Goldschlager wrote this playbook, and El Cartel Tequila tore it up. Gold flake in spirits is becoming common these days. Gold flake in wine is something I’ve yet to see before.

But here we are.

XXIV Karat takes Mendocino-sourced grapes (varietals are not disclosed) and adds real gold flake to the bottles. (For extra fun, the sample bottles we received actually light up thanks to a battery-powered bulb in the base.) The wines are also bottled without vintages, but let’s be frank: If you’re buying one of these, you’re getting it exclusively for the gold flake concept.

It seems almost silly to consider how such a novelty might taste, but we’re gonna do it anyway. Here goes.

XXIV Karat Grand Cuvee Sparkling Wine – Surprisingly pleasant at first, this wine starts off with apple notes but devolves into extreme sweetness in short order. What emerges is akin to a combination of applesauce and Splenda, with a palate-busting finish — but did we mention there’s gold in here? C- / $30

XXIV Karat Rose Sparkling Wine – Pink stuff! (And gold.) The gold leaf effect is not nearly as interesting in the pinkish slurry, but the wine is at least more palatable. Fresh strawberries mingle with plenty of vanilla-focused sweetness, but here that sugary rush is dialed back enough to let the fruit shine through, at least somewhat. B- / $30

xxivkarat.com