Review: Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye, 2 Year Old Blended, and 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskeys

LG_100ProofThe mad microdistillers at Craft Distillers keep rolling with the Low Gap line. These whiskeys began as white dog releases in 2011, and the company has been putting out progressively older and more interesting expressions in the years since. Today we got to sample a trio of two year old whiskeys, including a rye, a blend, and an overproof (wheat) rarity. As with all of the Low Gap line (six bottlings are currently on the market), all of these spirits are made in Craft’s 16 hectoliter cognac still, fermented on site from scratch, and brought to proof using filtered rainwater(!).

Thoughts follow.

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye Whiskey – Malted rye with some corn and barley, aged in new and used bourbon and cognac barrels. The nose is quite grainy, but mellowing out as it settles down, with some smoky notes along with some interesting almond and graham cracker characteristics. The body is initially sweet with just a touch of cognac-driven raisin character that adds a lot more nuance than you might expect. The finish gets a bit hoary though, a clear showcase of this whiskey’s youth, with dried herbs and some baking spice finishing things off. 88.2 proof. B / $65

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Blended Whiskey – Malted corn and barley, aged in used Van Winkle bourbon barrels and new Missouri oak bourbon barrels. The nose exudes some notes of classic — but very young — bourbon. Corny and woody, but also racy with spices and sharp vanilla extract. The body is somewhat brash and still showing itself as a young gun, but one with lots of charm. Think caramel corn, vanilla cream soda, and some maple syrup. Still plenty of lumberyard notes here, but there’s enough character to get me excited, not just for today, but to see where this goes in the next couple of years. 92 proof. A- / $65  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey – This is Low Gap’s Bavarian wheat whiskey, aged two-plus years, bottled from a selection of just three barrels (comprising new and used oak) at 100 proof, of course. This whiskey starts off demure and restrained, but give it a little time and a wealth of fruit notes emerge on the nose: Apples and orange flowers, some banana, backed up with a bit of cereal. On the palate some coconut notes mingle with cinnamon, cloves, nougat, and milk chocolate. Wood makes a belated appearance on the back end, but in a gentle and approving way. The evolution on the palate is both fun and intriguing as an exploration. Arguably the best Low Gap expression Craft Distillers has put out to date. A / $75

craftdistillers.com

Review: NV Fizz56 Brachetto Spumante

fizfizz56-bottlev1300dpiMost of us (myself included) can probably count on one hand the number of sparkling red wines we’ve consumed. If you’ve never given one a try, the oddly-named Fizz56 is a good place to start.

This is a sparkling Brachetto, a grape grown predominantly in the Piedmont region of Italy, and which is usually used in the production of (still) table wines there. It’s also used to make this frizzante wine, a light-bodied but quite sweet sparkler that will undoubtedly generate plenty of conversation.

Fizz56 is definitely a pre-dinner drink, sweet with fresh berry notes (particularly strawberry) plus perfumy floral elements, including rose petals and a bit of violets. The finish is candylike, with notes of maraschino cherry, sweet and unforgiving as it has its way with your palate. Thankfully, the light fizziness lifts away that sugar-coating, though, giving Fizz56 more of a refreshing quality than you otherwise might expect.

Definitely worth a taste.

B- / $21 / terlatowines.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Review: 2008 Kaiken Mai Malbec Mendoza

KaikenMai10This 2008 wine from Argentina’s Kaiken is 100% malbec and is definitely starting to show its age. The fruit is extracted and dense, loaded with black pepper, cedar, and tar notes on the nose. The body is rich with currants and fresh herbs, but it also has some Madeira characteristics starting to emerge. This is offset by some incredibly thick tannins plus a smoky, almost meaty element. Based on the tannins it needs more time in the bottle, but the fruit won’t last long enough for them to catch up. (2010 bottling pictured.)

B / $60 / kaikenwines.com

Review: Painted Stave Distilling Candy Manor Gin and South River (Red) Gin

candy manor ginBased in Smyrna, Delaware and founded only four years ago, Painted Stave Distilling is an artisan craft distiller that is dipping its toe into all manner of spirits. For now Painted Stave has a collection of white spirits in production, with aged offerings en route. Today we’re looking at two products, Candy Manor Gin — the company’s year-round release — and South River (Red) Gin — part of its experimental, avant garde spirit collection.

Available only in Delaware. Thoughts follow.

Painted Stave Distilling Candy Manor Gin – Described by Painted Stave as a “Western style dry gin with strong noted of lavender, sweet goldenrod and lemon-balm to compliment traditional flavors from juniper, coriander, angelica, and orris root.” The nose is a blend of something old and something new — fresh juniper and some earthier coriander, but also floral notes that approximate honeysuckle, iris, and jasmine. I’m not altogether familiar with goldenrod, but I would have expected more of a lavender note than I could sniff out here. The body plays up those florals quite a bit, coming off as almost perfumed with all the delicate botanical elements. Up front it’s a candied, mixed bouquet of flowers, then behind that builds more sweetness — almost chalky in texture. The finish hints at citrus, pine needles, mushroom, and a touch of baking spice. Initially a little scattered, I came to quite enjoy its bracing complexity in the end. 80 proof. B+ / $30

south river red ginPainted Stave South River (Red) Gin – This is a limited-edition “juniper-forward” gin that is aged for 5 months in former red wine barrels. (There’s also a South River (White).) It’s closer to pink than red, but who’s fact-checking? The nose is quite sharp, loaded with notes of pine tar, vanilla, and Vicks VapoRub. The body is initially fiery, with more of that menthol note, but it slowly settles into a more seductive groove. Intriguing notes of chocolate and caramel, licorice, and some slight rhubarb notes all bubble up as it develops. Really quite unexpected and enchanting, and the reddish hue makes it quite a conversation piece. 80 proof. Bottled 5/16/14. A- / $22 (375ml)

paintedstave.com

Review: 2010 Montes Alpha M

MontesAlphaM11Here’s a gorgeous release from Montes, the (almost) top of the line of the well-regarded Alpha line, Montes Alpha M. This 2010 bottling is a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc, 5% merlot, and 5% petit verdot. A “Chilean first growth,” this wine has all the hallmarks of a Bordeaux blend, offering dense currants up front, then spicy black pepper, a touch of sour cherry, and a bit of mushroomy earth at the back end. Deep and complex, it’s got notes of black tea, rhubarb, dark chocolate, gooseberry… it goes on and on. Enjoyable at first pour, it only gets better and opens up as it evolves with exposure to air.

A / $85 / monteswines.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Tasting Report: In Pursuit of Balance, 2015

If you like good pinot noir, there’s one wine tasting experience you don’t want to miss: In Pursuit of Balance, a consortium of producers who eschew overblown, extracted wines in favor of more delicate, nuanced wines that show off what pinot (and its Burgundian cousin, chardonnay) can really taste like. Only pinot and chardonnay are allowed to be poured at the IPOB event, so cabernet lovers need not apply.

I recently attended IPOB’s 2015 stopover in San Francisco and had the luxury of sampling wines from some of the brightest names in wine today. Special shout-outs to Coapin, Ojai, and Peay (always on fire), all of which were pouring some amazingly expressive bottlings at the event.  Thoughts on everything sampled follow. If you have a chance to attend an IPOB event, do so!

Tasting Report: In Pursuit of Balance, San Francisco, 2015

2009 Au Bon Climat Clendenen Family “Le Bon Climat” Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley / A- / bright, slight mustard note; clear with acidity and fruit
2011 Au Bon Climat “Nuits-Blanches au Bouge” Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley / A- / bright, melon and tropical notes
2013 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast / B / very fruity, quite sweet
2013 Calera Chardonnay Mt. Harlan / B+ / a little thin, steely
2013 Ceritas Peter Martin Ray Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains / A- / lots of acid; a bit buttery
2013 Ceritas Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A / a beauty – fruity, with especially fresh apples
2013 Copain DuPratt Vineyard Chardonnay Anderson Valley / B+ / edging too far into butter and oak
2013 Copain Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay Anderson Valley / A / racy, lots of minerals and baking spices
2012 Drew Family Cellars Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir Yorkville Highlands / A- / big and hush, deep with blackberry notes
2013 Drew Family Cellars Fog Eater Pinot Noir Anderson Valley / B+ / a sugar bomb, cocoa notes
2013 Drew Family Cellars Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir Anderson Valley / A- / lush with fruit and tea leaf
2012 Drew Family Cellars Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir Mendocino Ridge / B+ / lovely fruit up front, pushes into sweetness
2005 Drew Family Cellars Ashley’s Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills / B / oxidizing; some vinegar notes developing amid stewed fruit
2013 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / some butter, lots of vanilla, good minerality
2013 Failla Estate Vineyard Chardonnay Fort Ross-Seaview / B+ / more oak, vanilla, good balance
2013 Failla Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay Coombsville / A- / nice balance, very rich, tropical and coconut notes
2012 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / quite tropical, butterscotch notes, nice acidity on the back
2012 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / vanilla touches, then baking spices; lush and fruit forward
2011 Flowers Sea View Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / lighter body, fresh fruit and herb notes
2013 Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay Sonoma Valley / B+ / some coconut; lemony, nougat notes
2012 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma Valley / B+ / richer, bigger body; more vanilla
2012 Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B- / considerable barnyard here; big earth for days
2012 Hirsch East Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / very bright, some balsamic and savory spice notes
2012 Hirsch Reserve Fault Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / touch of barnyard, lots of barrel influence
2013 Liquid Farm La Hermana Chardonnay Santa Maria / A- / very pretty, lovely citrus and lime notes
2013 Liquid Farm White Hill Chardonnay Santa Maria Hills / A- / some candied flowers, more citrus
2013 Liquid Farm Golden Slope Chardonnay Santa Maria Hills / A- / bigger vanilla character, some tropical notes
2013 Liquid Farm FOUR Chardonnay Santa Maria Hills / B+ / even more vanilla, woodier
2013 Liquid Farm Bien Nacido Bien Bien Chardonnay Santa Maria Hills / B / pushing heavy into wood, some bitter elements emerging
2013 Littorai Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / some bigger wood notes here; vanilla and coconut
2013 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B / balance is a bit off
2011 Native9 Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley / B / some barnyard on the nose; lots of frest fruit on the body; canned veg on the finish
2012 Native9 Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley / A- / fresher, some baking spice with fresh herbs
2013 Ojai Solomon Hills Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley / A / elegant structure, tropical and mineral notes together
2013 Ojai Bien Nacido Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley / A- / bolder with some coconut elements
2012 Ojai Solomon Hills Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley / A- / fleshy, quite bright raspberry
2013 Ojai Bien Nacido Clone 22 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley / B- / slightly flabby, huge jammy notes
2012 Peay Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A / very delicate, flowers and gentle citrus
2013 Peay Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A- / creamier, bolder
2012 Peay Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / raspberry tea notes, well balanced
2012 Peay Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / lots of depth, dense fruit with a long finish
2013 Peay Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / very big, dense jammy fruit with a long finish
2013 Peay Savoy Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / more sweetness here, lots of fresh red berries; not as well balanced
2013 Peay “Cep” Pinot Noir / A- / chocolate and violets, cherry notes; great value wine
2013 Twomey Pinot Noir Russian River Valley / A- / quite lush, dense fruit with a gentle finish
2013 Twomey Pinot Noir Anderson Valley / A- / slightly bolder, bit of chocolate influence
2013 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A- / woody, with fruit notes; bright and ripe finish
2013 Wind Gap Woodruff Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains / B / strawberry, tea leaf, too sweet
2013 Wind Gap Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / brighter structure, touch of licorice
2012 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / simple nose, nice blackberry and some herbs

Tasting the Wines of Round Pond, 2015 Releases

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The brother-sister team of Miles and Ryan MacDonnell have grown grapes at their Rutherford property in Napa as part of their family’s business since 1983 and began running the Round Pond Estate together in 2003. In 2002, Round Pond branched out from growing grapes into making its own wine, and today the family continues to expand its winemaking operation as well as selling grapes to some of the region’s blue chip wineries.

Round Pond grows primarily Cabernet Sauvignon but also cultivates a smattering of other wines, a number of which we tried at a recent lunch at the Gotham Clubhouse, a private club located in the outfield of San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Round Pond also offers a lunch called Il Pranzo at its winery, where you can experience its wines paired with a meal as well as its estate-made olive oils and vinegars.

Miles led us through the afternoon, with Gotham’s chef pairing each of these wines with a small plate. The food was uniformly excellent. More detailed thoughts on the wines tasted follow.

2014 Round Pond Rosato di Nebbiolo – One doesn’t find a lot of Nebbiolo in Napa, much less Nebbiolo rose. This wine is so pretty and lush, with fresh berries, peaches, and floral notes, that I wish you could get it somewhere besides Round Pond’s winery. A-

2014 Round Pond Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc – A crisp and herbal Sauvignon Blanc, nice acidity and a bracing finish; great pairing with a smoked salmon dish. A-

2012 Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon – Round Pond’s entry level Cabernet (priced at $30), powerful and dense with notes of chocolate and tons of jam. A straightforward wine, but quite a delight. A-

2012 Round Pond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon – This mid-level wine offers more nuance, with some pepper notes amidst the currants. Silky and lush. A-

2012 Round Pond Proprietary Red – A red blend, and surprisingly light on its feet, with its silky tannins pairing nicely with a small filet of beef. Raspberry on the finish. A-

2010 Round Pond Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – The top of the line, but this was the only wine in the lineup that wasn’t quite on fire for me. Dense with lots of tannin and menthol notes, it offers opulence but needs several more years in the bottle before it hits prime time. B+

roundpond.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM WINE.COM]

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Review: Freaker Bottle Koozies

freakerThat foam canister is boring. Next time you need to keep a beer (or other beverage) cold on a hot day, check out a Freaker.

Freaker Koozies are knit like socks and are emblazoned with everything from sports logos to drinking-centric memes. “Forget Me Not” makes your beer look like a prescription pill bottle. My personal favorite, “Shark Tube,” has a shark emerging from a Super Mario style green pipe. The koozies are designed to work on bottles but also work with cans if you tuck the neck in.

Freakers work well enough, but probably not as well as a traditional foam koozie — though note I didn’t do any scientific testing — and also do double duty at making it easy to figure out which bottle on the table belongs to whom. Great for grown-ups and kids alike!

$10 to $15 each / freakerusa.com  [BUY ONE NOW]

Review: The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail from Jefferson’s and Esquire

ESQ-BAM-Front

I don’t necessarily think bottled, fully-made cocktails are lazy. I use them a lot when entertaining or when I’m short on fresh ingredients. Some of them are really well made, too.

The jury is out on whether The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail is taking things a bit too far afield. This collaboration between Jefferson’s Bourbon and Esquire magazine — complete with silkscreened signatures from Trey Zoeller and David Granger on the back along with a ton of other, hard-to-read, typographically messy text — couldn’t be more pandering in its upscale aspirations. From the dark glass bottle to the wood stopper to the metal band around the neck, this is a drink that’s designed to look really, really expensive. Which it is.

So what’s inside? Jefferson’s Bourbon, of course, plus dry and sweet vermouth (making it a Perfect Manhattan) and barrel-aged bitters. The resulting concoction is barrel aged for 90 days before bottling. (This reportedly took two years of experimentation to get right.) There’s also the not-so-small matter of this, which is printed in all caps at the bottom of the back label copy: COLORED WITH CARROT EXTRACT.

Now that statement gives me some pause. This is a 68 proof cocktail made with basically just bourbon and vermouth, so why would extra coloring be needed? (And why the carrot, by God?) A typical Manhattan recipe would hit around 65 proof or lower, so this isn’t a case where the drink is watered down and Jefferson’s/Esquire is trying to pull one over on us. This is a fairly high-proof cocktail that’s mostly bourbon… so why with the carrots, guys?

I’ll leave that question for the commenters to wrestle over and simply get on to the tasting, which I sampled both straight and on the rocks. (It’s better shaken with ice and strained, served very cold.) The nose is heavy on winey notes, almost a madeirized character that overpowers the whiskey surprisingly handily. On the palate the dry vermouth is surprisingly clear, with bitter herbs muscling past the bourbon’s gentler vanilla notes. That classic whiskey sweetness is quite fleeting here, replaced with pungent notes of licorice, overripe citrus, and a touch of lumberyard character. I liked this well enough at first, but over time the vermouth became so dominant that I found myself left with a vegetal, slightly medicinal aftertaste that got considerably less appealing over time.

And yeah, it is pretty orange.

68 proof.

B- / $40 / esquire.com

Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco

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Here’s a cute idea: A bar that specializes in custom cocktails… and bespoke jerky.

Third Rail, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch region, is a cozy little joint where you can get a small beer, shot, and a bit of jerky all for 10 bucks during happy hour. This seemed like the most popular choice among the post-work regulars during my recent visit, but I focused on the cocktails during my encounter.

It’s rare, but in sampling four different libations, I didn’t have a single bad drink. Arguably my favorite was the Crossbow (tequila, blood orange, lime, Punt e Mes, and bitters, on the rocks), but the Evil Twin (mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, Aperol, chili bitters, served up) gave it a run for its money. Whiskey-based cocktails including the eponymous Third Rail (bourbon, Lillet, honey, lemon, orange bitters) and the Bone Machine (bourbon, oloroso sherry, amaro, bitters) were both quite good.

Then there’s the jerky — we tried the Sonoma Smoke and it vanished into our gullets all too quickly. It’s closer to chunks of smoked meat rather than anything you typically think of as jerky, sweet, salty, and succulent as all get-out. Artisan chicharrones (pictured) are also on the menu, but these aren’t house made and include quite a bit of sugar used to dust the puffy bits of pork. In an understated bar filled with excellent options, it’s the only item that’s even close to a miss.