Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

tasting whiskeyLew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.

As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.

Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.

I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer

claiborne and churchill Dry_Gewurztraminer_no_vintage_lTwo aromatic whites from this San Luis Obispo-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22

claibornechurchill.com

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2015 Releases

rodney strong merlotRodney Strong’s mainstream releases for 2015 are hitting right about now.  We tasted a trio of its entry-level Sonoma County wines. Thoughts follow.

2013 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Buttery, but not overdone, this rich-and-creamy Chardonnay offers marshmallows atop notes of tropical fruit — pineapples, plus peaches. Some meaty character gives this some oomph, but none of the proceedings are entirely out of the ordinary. B / $17

2012 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – Slightly peppery on the nose, with notes of candied violets. The body is simple and easy, a pleasantly fruity wine that offers notes of raspberry and strawberry atop a very mild core. Nothing disagreeable whatsoever here, but the wine hardly challenges the senses. B+ / $20

2012 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A well-oiled Cab, studded with milk chocolate, raisins, and juicy blueberry notes. A gentle wine with a silky body and a short finish, you’d bow down to the restaurant that chose this for their “house cabernet,” but would probably kick yourself if you ordered it off the wine list. B / $20

rodneystrong.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Castello Banfi 2011 Belnero and 2013 San Angelo Pinot Grigio

Belnero_US_2012Two new bottlings from Banfi recently arrived, including an older vintage of the blended Belnero, the 2012 vintage of which we reviewed a few months back. 2010 vintage notes can be found here.

2011 Castello Banfi Belnero IGT - A sangiovese-heavy blend, this wine is immediately overpowered by chocolate notes, making for a stark contrast to the 2012 vintage of this wine. Against a moderately acidic backdrop, the wine doesn’t quite find its footing, ending up a bit muddy, its notes of coffee and tobacco never quite melding with the rest of the wine. B / $23

2013 Castello Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio Toscana IGT – Strikingly boring, this vintage of Banfi’s Pinot Grigio is feather-light, as easy to forget as it is to drink. Some tropical and floral notes stud the nose, but the sweet almond paste and nougat notes on the body wash the fruit away quickly. Surprisingly plain. B- / $16

castellobanfi.com

Review: Lockhouse Vodka

lockhouse vodkaBuffalo, New York’s first distillery since Prohibition is Lockhouse, and its eponymous Lockhouse Vodka is its first product. (A gin is now also available.) Column-distilled from local grapes, it’s an unusual spirit in the increasingly familiar vodka space.

A pungent nose offers the immediate connotation of a white whiskey, with hospital notes mingled with toasted grains. The body however is a study in cacophony. At first, aromatic notes reminiscent of Muscat or Riesling grapes roll across the tongue, offering a spicy and floral character. This doesn’t linger, however. Those grainy, almost hoary, notes make a rapid return here to the palate, giving the bulk of the body an intense astringency. The finish is earthy and funky when it should be fresh and bracing. An acquired taste, I think.

80 proof.

C+ / $38 / lockhousedistillery.com

Book Review: The Spirit of Gin

The Spirit of GinJesus, Matt Teacher really likes gin. His new hardcover, The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of of the New Gin Revival, crams nothing but juniper-scented spirits into its 350-plus pages.

Rest assured, there’s not really 350 pages of material to be revealed in the giniverse. The Spirit of Gin is breezy and light, with lots of white space and plenty of pictures.

The book begins with the dutiful history of gin and some discussion of various gin distillation methods. Cocktail recipes old and new are interspersed with profiles of gin-focused bars around the world (but priumarily in the U.S.) — good old-fashioned “gin joints,” all of ‘em. A full third of the book is devoted to an “incomplete” catalog of modern gins, a simple, alphabetical guide to some of the noteworthy craft gin brands out there. If your tastes run more to Caorunn than Tanqueray, it’s a section you’ll enjoy perusing to pick up a few new suggested bottles.

The “Miscellany” in the subtitle is right. The Spirit of Gin is built like an encyclopedia but reads more like a coffee table book. Incredibly scattered but interesting, it’s the kind of book that is more fun when you simply open it to a random page than when you try to read it from front to back. Hey, who wants a Tom Collins?

B / $20 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Spirit Works Gin, Barrel Gin, and Sloe Gin

spirit works aged gin

Sebastapol, California is in the heart of Northern California’s winemaking operations, and it’s here where Spirit Works can be found, cranking out a variety of gin, vodka, and white whiskey products. They even make an authentic sloe gin here — and we were lucky enough to try it, along with the company’s standard gin and a barrel-aged variety. All are made with California botanicals and hand-labeled with batch information. Thoughts on the gin, barrel-aged gin, and sloe gin all follow.

Spirit Works Gin – Distilled from red winter wheat grown in California, infused with juniper berries, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, orange and lemon zest, and hibiscus. The nose is hefty with grain, initially coming across almost like a white whiskey. Heavy on earth tones, the body is surprisingly un-gin-like. Juniper is present, but just barely. Instead you’ll find it dense with notes of mushroom, Eastern spices, and eucalyptus. The finish is touched just a bit with some citrus peel, but all told it could really use more of a punch to push it more squarely into gin territory rather than this curious middle ground it currently occupies. 86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #010. B / $35

Spirit Works Barrel Gin – The above gin, aged for several months in new American oak barrels. This is a far different animal, the nose coming across like — you guessed it — a young whiskey. Racy lumberyard notes meld with aromas of incense, roasted meats, and aftershave. The body sticks along these lines, folding in vanilla notes to a palate that features light evergreen, bitter lemon, and ground cardamom. The finish is a blessed release of sweet butterscotch pudding, ultimately making for one of the most decidedly weird gins ever. 90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch #001. B / $38

Spirit Works Sloe Gin – A traditionally-made spirit infused with whole sloe berries, giving this crimson-hued sloe gin the sweet-and-sour flavor of liquefied cranberry sauce. Good sloe gin is hard to come by — and rarely used these days in cocktails — but the hints of mint, orange peel, rhubarb, and eucalyptus oil make this a standout in a truly niche industry. 54 proof. Reviewed: Batch #008. A / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

spiritworksdistillery.com

Review: Starr Hill Shakedown Imperial Chocolate Cherry Stout

Starr Hill Shakedown Chocolate Cherry StoutStarr Hill flies a bit too close to cute with this Imperial Stout that has cherries and dark chocolate mixed in during the fermentation. The chocolate is far more noteworthy — there’s just a hint of sourness driven by the cherry component, and mostly that comes through on the finish. In the meantime, it’s a rich, coffee-laced stout that dusts cocoa powder and some bitter root notes atop a creamy body that balances malt and hops reasonably well. I’d simplify things next time out, though, and let the more traditional ingredients do more of the talking.

8% abv.

B / $NA (22oz. bottle) / starrhill.com

Review: 2012 Markham Cellar 1879 Blend Napa Valley

markhamGod bless the lunatic who dreamed up this insane blend of six grapes that shouldn’t go together. Markham’s Cellar 1879 blend is composed of Napa grapes in this proportion: 36% Merlot, 21% Petite Sirah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 9% Zinfandel, and 8% Petit Verdot. Named in honor of Markham’s founding, it’s an insanely drinkable bottling that won’t break the bank.

There’s lots going on here: Intense violets, chocolate sauce, and a core of blackberry jam. Big currant notes build up, but it’s vanilla and chocolate — almost confectionery in quality — that dominate the juicy finish. Fortunately this is all just short of hitting that rampant jamminess that mars so many wines, and the floral elements are present throughout — though fleeting. A fantastic food wine, it’s a bit sweet (and a bit dangerous) on its own.

A- / $25 / markhamvineyards.com