Author Archives: Christopher Null

Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

johnniewalker_goldlabel

Last year, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve arrived in the U.S. in limited release. We wrote about it at length at the time, but knew that, as just a visiting member of the family, our thoughts would be fleeting at best. Well, now Gold Label has its green card and is back in the family, a permanent resident in the JW lineup.

We got a fresh bottle of Gold Label Reserve (the non-gilded version of the bottle) and took it out for a fresh spin. While I didn’t like it quite as much as I did upon my first encounter, it’s still a standout blend and arguably the best part of JW’s lineup. My fresh thoughts on the latest release follow.

Racy on the nose, there’s an indistinct mix of citrus and grain character that combine with more base alcohol characteristics — all in all, the picture of a standard, sherried, blended whisky. The body starts off phenomenally sweet, spiking the cloves and citrus notes with big candy bar character. The sugar settles down as some more pungent Madeira notes emerge on the finish, but the overall spirit is balanced, on point, and lasting.

80 proof.

A- / $75 / johnniewalker.com

Tasting the Wines of Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent

An icon of the Beaujolais, Moulin-a-Vent’s estate began producing wines as early as the 1700s. Today the estate has 30 hectares of land under vine, separated into 91 different plots — many of which are used to make single-plot releases showcasing a specific terroir. Ownership changed with the 2009 vintage — and some of these wines are just now hitting the market.

Beaujolais is of course the home of Gamay (red wines) and Chardonnay (whites, which are comparatively rare). Moulin-a-Vent only grows Gamay. Its Pouilly-Fuisse is made with non-estate fruit.

We recently looked at eight different wines from this famed chateau, in three different categories:

First are the CMV wines, which feature a much different art deco-style label and are made from non-estate fruit.

CMV Couvent Des Thorins Brand2012 CMV Moulin-a-Vent Pouilly-Fuisse Vielle Vignes - A rather vegetal white wine, it shows lemony notes at first before delving into a rather intense green vegetable note that builds on the finish. This eases up a bit with some warmth, but the slightly bitter character is sustained for quite awhile. B / $15

2012 CMV Moulin-a-Vent Couvent des Thorins – Classically Old World on the nose, with lots of vinegary acid, rhubarb, and licorice root notes. The body is equally heavy on the acid, brash and mouth-searing with its simplistic cherry-like construction and fiery finish. C- / $15

Up next, these are blends from all many of Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent’s plots. They comprise the most common expressions from the chateau. Here’s a look at a vertical of three recent vintages of the wine.

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – Engaging nose, with gentle fruit, some smoke, some mint. The body is ripe without being overly fruity or lush, a gentler expression of gamay with a core of simple plums, touches of vanilla, and notes of pumpkin spice on the back end. Easy to enjoy. B+ / $20

2010 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – More earth here, particularly on the dusty, mushroomy nose. The body offers balance between the savory earth elements and fruit, presenting a significantly different profile than the fruitier 2011. Fans of bigger, more wintry, and more food-appropriate wines will probably prefer this style. B+ / $20

2009 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – Well past its prime. Again, showing lots of oxidation and acidity like the Thorins reviewed above, with a somewhat skunky, burnt nose and a body that attacks the tongue with vinegar notes. This was an exemplary vintage in Beaujolais, so it appears time has really had its way with this wine. C- / $20

Finally come the terroir-driven, plot-specific releases from Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent. Each is released with its specific plot noted on the label.

2009 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Clos de Londres - It fares better than the standard 2009 bottling above, but not by much. Again, it’s well past its prime, showing strong vinegar chateau du moulin-a-vent 11 Croix des Verillats Bottlenotes, but offering pleasant enough cranberry, raspberry, and blackberry character after the intense acid starts to fade. C+ / $NA

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Champ de Cour – Ample earth and licorice notes, backed by restrained, austere fruit — raspberries and blackberries. The finish features tobacco notes, blackberry jam, and a return to some of that woody, earthy funk. An interesting wine with shades of the 2010 standard bottling. B+ / $34

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Croix des Verillats – Notes of ripe cheese on the nose start things off in a weird way, but the highly fruity, almost jelly-like body, pairs with it in an unexpected way. This is an austere wine that drinks like an older expression of Moulin-a-Vent, but offers a worthwhile complexity and depth to it. B+ / $32

chateaudumoulinavent.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2014

JubelaleBTL2014’s winter brew from Deschutes is upon us, and this year’s Jubelale is a bit of a smoother operator. It’s got the standby nut and malt core, plus notes of licorice, coffee bean, mushroom, and mild hops. That isn’t a surprising lineup of flavors for Jubelale, but this year things feel restrained a bit, making this a more introspective beer, almost like a coffee stout, rather than the flavor bomb it can sometimes be. The finish isn’t so much creamy and mouth-filling as it is soothing and — almost — refreshingly wintry.

6.7% abv.

A- / $8 per six-pack / deschutesbrewery.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Blue Heron Vodka

blue heron vodka

As we reviewed earlier, Wilderness Trail Distillery produces Harvest Rum — “the Bourbon drinker’s rum” — in the heart of Kentucky. But did you know they also make a vodka? Naturally, “the Bourbon drinker’s vodka,” Blue Heron.

Made from a 50-50 corn/wheat mash and bottled unfiltered, this is a vodka with a clearly different focus. It’s far from “neutral,” but whether that’s a positive is open for discussion. Thoughts follow.

The nose is immediately woody, almost with a character of twine or hay. Over time, a corny character develops akin to a white whiskey (which, arguably, is what this is). But despite this pastoral setup, the palate initially throws you for a loop. A surprising contrast, it offers a sweet and slightly citrus-focused attack, before settling into a body that blends chewy nougat with a cornmeal mash. It’s interesting up until the end: The finish is a bit astringent, a funky fade-out that melds saccharine sweetness with those initial woody/earthy notes in a most unusual way. Sadly, this juxtaposition doesn’t grow on you over time, but rather becomes less and less engaging as you work your way through it.

100% heron free. 80 proof.

C+ / $28 / wildernesstracedistillery.com

Review: 2012 Pinot Noirs from Domaine Carneros

DC_LA_TERRE_PROMISE_PN_NVThree new Pinots from Domaine Carneros, all part of the 2012 vintage, including two single-clone varietals, a rare feat in the Pinotverse.

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir Clonal Series Swan – Each year Domaine Carneros spotlights one of the 12 different Pinot Noir clones grown here by bottling it separately. The 2012 vintage is the first year to feature the Swan clone. It’s textbook Pinot at first, but eventually reveals itself to be a bit on the sweet side, with notes that veer more toward chocolate sauce and raisin notes up front, with a tart, mouth-puckering finish that hints at tobacco leaf. As a big Pinot fan I could drink this any day, but the lushness of the body becomes a bit overwhelming by the end of the second glass. B+ / $55

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir Clonal Series Dijon 115 - Another wine from the Clonal Series, Dijon 115 is a better-known clone and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular, offering a dense cherry core that’s studded with notes of cola, tea leaf, and chocolate. The finish heads floral, recalling violets and a touch of spice. Pretty but also lush, this wine could easily be released as is, no blend required. A / $55

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir La Terre Promise – This is a single-vineyard estate wine from Domaine Carneros, created from a blend of Pinot clones. Here the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The wine is deep and rich, with chocolate notes, but it’s lacking the lively fruit that great Pinot has, replacing it with Port-like currant notes. There’s a touch of vegetal-driven bitterness here, too, particularly on the finish. My wife said she never would have guessed this was Pinot if she’d tasted it blind, and it’s easy to see why. The density and sweetness of the wine make it come across closer to a Zin-Cab hybrid, not the elegant type of wine I typically associate with Domaine Carneros. B+ / $55

domainecarneros.com

Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

refind Gin-Vodka

Distilled from grapes in Paso Robles, California, Re:Find is a boutique distillery that turns its “neutral brandies” into a variety of straight and flavored spirits. Distilled “from grapes” has certain connotations, but Re:Find is careful to note its vodka is not grappa, a specific type of brandy that is distilled from a by-product of winemaking. Re:Find is rather made from “free run” juice called saignee that is bled off during pressing, before red wine grapes are fermented — so it’s closer to an unaged brandy in composition. These are high-end grapes, which just so happen to be used to make wine at Villicana Winery — which is under the same ownership.

Mostly available only in California, we got a look at four of the spirits in Re:Find’s lineup. All four spirits reviewed below are 80 proof.

Re:Find Vodka – A bit grappa-like on the nose, with some of that funky, twig-‘n’-stem character you see on this spirit, but it’s undercut with the lightest aromas of honey and marshmallow. The body offers more in the way of hazelnuts, banana, and vanilla cookies, which makes for an interesting counterpart to the funkier nose (again, much like a good grappa). There’s a lot going on in this spirit and while it’s initially a bit much when sipping straight, it does show lots of nuance and character, and it merits exploration both on the rocks and in more complex cocktails. A- / $35

Re:Find Cucumber Vodka – Interesting choice for your first flavor, but damn if a nose full of Re:find Cucumber doesn’t smell like you’re headed to a day at the spa. Crisp and authentic, this vodka offers pure and refreshing cucumber flavor through and through, with just the lightest dusting of sweetness on the finish to offer some balance against the vegetal notes up front. You get none of the earthy grappa character in the unflavored vodka here, just fresh cukes from start to finish. Impressive considering this is legitimately flavored with fresh cucumbers. Seasonally available. A / $25 (375ml)

Re:Find Gin – Triple distilled and infused with (mostly local) juniper berry, coriander, orris root, lemon & orange peel, grains of paradise, and lavender. This is an engaging gin, juniper-forward on the nose, with hints of lavender underpinning it. On the palate, things get a bit switched up. Here the lavender picks up the ball and runs, with the citrus notes coming on strong. It’s quite a trick, as the nose sets you up for a big evergreen bomb, then the body lets you down easy with a more sedate character suitable for the tropics. Re:Find Gin could benefit from a bit more complexity — maybe grapefruit peel or black pepper, or both — but as it stands it’s an engaging and quite drinkable little spirit. A- / $43

Re:Find Limoncello – Pale in color in comparison to many commercial limoncellos and translucent, Re:Find’s Limoncello looks and smells more like pure, fresh lemon juice — much more so than the stuff you typically see from Italy. Heavy on sour juice and bitter zest, this is intense stuff. If you’re looking for a sweet and lightly sour limoncello that will pair well with your berries-and-whipped-cream dessert, this isn’t the liqueur for you. If intense, almost raw, lemon character is your bag, give it a go… though you’ll have to visit Re:Find’s distillery to get some. B+ / $NA (375ml)

refinddistillery.com

Review: Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky

Haig Club Bottle Image

If you’re a whiskey fan, by now you’ve heard of Haig Club, a new brand of Scottish single grain whisky that counts Simon Fuller and David Beckham among its originators. While it sounds like a vanity project, let’s put that to rest: Haig Club has a legit history and is quite an interesting spirit in its own right.

The Haig family dates its distilling heritage back to the 1600s and had one of the earliest licensed distilleries in Scotland. In 1824, John Haig built Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, and Haig’s cousin is credited as an inventor of continuous distillation (including the column still). Cameronbridge remains the oldest grain distillery in Scotland.

Today, Cameronbridge produces grain-based spirits for just about everyone in the Diageo portfolio, including Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and every blended whiskey Diageo markets (Johnnie Walker, J&B, and of course the Haig brand). Some 110 million liters of product flow from Cameronbridge every year, and now a small amount of that production is going to become Haig Club.

Grain whiskey is a lighter and more delicate style of whisky than malt whiskey, as well it should be. Made from 10% barley and 90% wheat, Haig Club is column distilled instead of pot distilled, and is aged in a mixture of ex-Bourbon barrels, refill whisky casks, and rejuvenated whisky casks. Haig Club is clearly on the young side — again, not unusual for grain whisky — but is bottled with no age statement in a soon-to-be iconic cobalt blue bottle. (The blue glass used is a nod to the opaque tasting glasses used during by distillers in order to avoid being influenced by the color of the spirit.)

Nosing Haig Club reveals a youthful exuberance: coconut husk, roasted grains, vanilla and faint touches of sawdust — some of the hallmarks of many younger whiskies, even something akin to a craft American whiskey or even some white rums. Th nose doesn’t immediately win you over, but the body is quite a surprise. Here you’ll encounter more of that coconut but less raw grain character. As it develops, you get butterscotch, some dried fruits, and curious evergreen notes — alongside some forest floor — on the back end. The finish is brisk and clean, unlike the brooding and lasting intensity of many malt whiskies. In theory that makes Haig Club a solid base for cocktails, but I find it sips rather beautifully and intriguingly on its own — an interesting diversion from the typical world of malt.

80 proof. Available in the U.S. in November 2014.

A- / $70 / haigclub.com

Review: BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 3

bridgeport Trilogy 3The final round of BridgePort Brewing Company’s 30th anniversary line of beers is finally here: Trilogy 3 Brewers’ Class. This is a truly interesting beer, made in collaboration with the Fermentation Science Program at Oregon State University. (Did you know? My book on film criticism is a textbook at OSU!) Given little direction, the students and profs dreamed up a brown ale that’s been dry hopped, a nifty spin on an old standard.

Trilogy 3 is easily my favorite beer in the lineup. Tasting all three beers side by side, Trilogy 1 is now drinking a little strangely — too nutty and too corny on the finish. Trilogy 2 is faring better, but still suffers from a dearth of fruit or evergreen notes, essential for a big IPA win. Trilogy 3 stays a little closer to established beer “rules,” but the dry hops work surprisingly well as an adjunct to that classic nutty, slightly chocolaty brown ale. Giving it some pop and a piney bite on the finish, rather than that typical, muddy-sweet character that brown ales so often lack.

BridgePort will bottle the beer that consumers pick as their favorite as a year-round release starting in 2015. Consider my vote cast!

5.0% abv.

A / about $8 per six-pack / bridgeportbrew.com

Review: 2013 Galerie Naissance and Equitem Sauvignon Blancs

galerie Naissance+Equitem Beauty ShotInspired by her upbringing in Spain (and particularly its cuisine), winemaker Laura Diaz Munoz brings the racy stylings of the Spanish table to the Northern California wine scene. Two new Sauvignon Blancs have just arrived from this Oakville-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Galerie Naissance Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley – No “re” in this “naissance,” I guess. What’s left is a a wine that’s somewhat chalky on the palate, with notes of green apple, honeysuckle, and sour lime zest. A crisp, summery wine, it’s got plenty of pucker with that telltale Sauvignon Blanc pepe du chat. B / $30

2013 Galerie Equitem Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley – A sweeter expression of Sauvignon Blanc, with notes approaching figs, lemon-lime soda, and sweetened grapefruit. More body, with a chewier, more substantial palate. A- / $30

galeriewines.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixer No. 4

bittermilk 4It was only a few months ago when the first three of Bittermilk‘s ready-to-go, artisan mixers hit our desk. Now a fourth is already ready: New Orleans Style Old Fashioned Rouge.

This is a short mixer (one part mixer to four parts rye; I used Rittenhouse 100), with wormwood and gentian root the primary flavoring components. (Cane sugar, lemon peel, and unnamed spices are also in the mix.) Gentian root is a primary ingredient in Angostura bitters. Wormwood is of course the famous flavoring (and allegedly hallucinatory) compound in absinthe. Together they create a mixer that is bittersweet, loaded up front with flavors of cloves, licorice, burnt sugar, and anise. This works well with rye, not unlike a quickie Sazerac.

That said, it doesn’t have quite the nuance that a real Sazzy has. To remedy, I’d suggest slightly less mixer and more whiskey, but at that point you’re turning a bit into the guy that orders his martini “very, very, very dry.” On the whole, it’s a fully capable mixer, though it’s not my favorite thing that Bittermilk does.

B+ / $15 (8.5 oz.) / bittermilk.com

Review: Big Bottom Barlow Trail Blended Whiskey

big bottom BarlowTrail2Edited

It’s been a year and a half since we checked in with Hillsboro, Oregon-based Big Bottom Whiskey. For those unfamiliar, Big Bottom sources various whiskeys and typically finishes them in a variety of wine casks. While Big Bottom has previously specialized in bourbon, this latest release is a blended whiskey — and it isn’t barrel finished, either.

Ted Pappas, proprietor of Big Bottom, explains:

For Barlow, we were looking at getting the most we could out of the current bourbon supply we had. Of course, with a blended whiskey, we could have stretched it out with neutral spirits per the federal regulations, but that’s not our thing. We decided to find other whiskeys that would go well with our straight bourbon and we did. We keep the other two elements as proprietary, but the straight portion is bourbon. The other two elements are well aged and they are whiskeys. Our goal was to bring a true American blended whiskey to the market without grain neutral spirits and as it rolls through your palate, you get the different whiskeys starting with the spice from the bourbon.  The name comes from a trail that early settlers used to settle in the northwest, so it was a obvious name for us to use since this type of American spirit is somewhat pioneering.  We believe this product will appeal to the bourbon and lighter style drinkers out there in the market.

Barlow Trail is an interesting study in contrasts. The nose is quite sweet and comes across as quite youthful, showcasing some grain elements along with citrus, menthol, and nougat character. Breathe deep and there are touches of lime zest in here, too. I don’t get a huge rush that screams “bourbon” at me from the nose, but the body plays this up a bit more, offering at first some popcorn — or rather caramel corn — character. This is punched up with secondary flavors that come along later, offering notes of butterscotch pudding and banana cream pie. Is there some single malt in this blend? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Youthful whiskeys can often feel undercooked and heavy on the cereal notes, but Barlow Trail feels closer to a finished product than a work in progress. (That said, Big Bottom will be releasing a Port-finished version of Barlow in the near future.) This spirit may not raise the bar the way that some of BB’s Port-finished bourbons do, but it does achieve Pappas’ goal of being approachable to newcomers and fans of lighter-style whiskeys while still being engaging enough for veterans to get some enjoyment out of. It’s also pretty cheap, so what can you complain about?

91 proof.

B+ / $30 / bigbottomwhiskey.com

Review: 2013 Bodvar of Sweden No. 5 Rose Cotes de Provence

sweden wineRest easy: Sweden isn’t producing wine (or at least, it isn’t exporting any to our soils). This is a French Cotes de Provence created by a new, boutique wine company from our friends to the northeast: Bodvár of Sweden – House of Rosés.

The brainchild of Bodvar Hafström, the Bodvar brand includes sales of cigars, brandy, and now wine. No. 5 (no word on what happened to Nos. 1 through 4) is a rose of Grenache and Cinsault that hails from Saint-Tropez in the Provence region. Somewhat atypical of the typical wines from this region, it offers a nose ripe with mixed fruit, but it also has a sharpness to it, a strong tang — both touched with citrus juice and grated peel. The body is both lush with notes of peaches and apricots, with a dusting of dried herbs on the finish. This herbal quality grows as the wine develops and warms. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, as it robs some of the sweetness from an otherwise well-made wine, but at least it has me thinking.

B / $24 / bodvarofsweden.com

Review: Stone Coffee Milk Stout

stone coffee milk stoutIt’s breakfast for happy hour with Stone’s latest, a limited edition beer that was previous bottled as a pilot project called Gallagher’s After Dinner Stout. Stone tinkered and reformulated Brian Gallagher’s brew to bring it to the masses, and here it is, a stout brewed with milk sugar lactose and coffee beans from San Diego’s Ryan Bros. Magnum hops and mild ale malt are the other primary components of the beer.

It’s a gentler expression of stout, made creamy, slightly sweet, and studded with ample (but not overwhelming) coffee bean character. The name is apt. If you take your coffee with plenty of milk and sugar in order to knock the bitterness of the coffee back, this beer’s for you, balancing a sweetness up front with stronger coffee and hops notes in the back. As it warms up and develops in the glass and on the palate, some interesting licorice notes emerge in the back of the mouth. All told this is not a style of beer I gravitate to in general, but in this format I find it easy enough to enjoy as these days start to chill down.

4.2% abv.

B / $11 per six-pack / stonebrewing.com

Review: Platinum 7X Vodka

platinum vodkaAs the name implies, this low-cost vodka is seven times distilled, from American corn. There’s lots of sweetness up front on the nose alongside some raw alcohol notes, and little else of note. On the palate, sugar masks any impurities — or anything else of note — and the spirit finishes with little impact. Over time some light leather (or perhaps cardboard) notes emerge, but on the whole it’s completely harmless. Not a bad buy if you don’t mind a plastic bottle.

B- / $12 / platinum7x.com

Review: Highland Park 50 Years Old

highland park 50 years old - drinkhacker

When one receives an invitation to taste one of the rarest spirits in the world, one accepts before the bearer of the invitation realizes what he’s done. In this case, the offer was legit, and I found myself staring down a bottle of Highland Park 50 Years Old — 275 bottles made, $20,000 each, and sold out pretty much immediately upon release — and a 1/4 oz. of whisky that had my name on it.

After warming up on HP’s new Dark Origins and a gorgeous pour of Highland Park 25 Years Old, the main event arrived. You can spend a solid hour simply examining the Highland Park 50 bottle, worked over by the Queen’s royal silversmith and embedded with a sandstone carving, but eventually duty — and the liquid inside — calls. Approaching a spirit like this isn’t easy. It’s not the oldest nor the rarest whisky I’ve had — Dalmore Selene 1951, 58 years old, 30 bottles made, takes that honor — but that sampling was barely a drop. This was a small pour, but a true and proper one — enough to really get your arms around what you’re tasting.

Highland Park 50, distilled in 1960 and bottled in 2010, is deep mahogany in color, tipping you off right away to what you’re about to get into. It’s frankly nothing like the core line of Highland Park. The nose is redolent with tree sap, raisin, prunes, and wet leather straps — an earthy bog of aromas that hint at sweetness hidden deep within. On the palate, prepare for sheer intensity and a few flavors one rarely sees in single malts. Here, it’s all bitter roots, licorice, coal fires, and tons of wood. The fruit is there, but it’s locked up tight — dense, stewed prunes buried in a casket of old, brine-soaked wood. The finish is long and big with maritime notes — think salt air over seaweed — creating a neat counterpoint to the wild tannins on the palate.

I sat with these precious few sips of HP50 for at least half an hour, letting its leathery earthiness wash over me like I was browsing a rare old book — or taking a punch to the jaw from an ancient boxing glove. While initially a bit off-putting — particularly next to the seductively sweet HP25 — its charms grew on me as the evening wound down and I made my way home. The next day, as I write this, I find myself not with the gorgeous 25 on my mind, but rather with my thoughts returning to that punchy, cantankerous 50 year old, again and again and again.

89.6 proof.

A- / $20,000 / highlandpark.co.uk

Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along “The Highland Journey”

old pulteney 35

I had the recent good fortune to attend an online tasting called “The Highland Journey,” a road that took us through four distilleries and six single malts, all from distilleries throughout the Scottish Highlands. Tasted roughly from southeast to northwest, the experience covered anCnoc, Speyburn, Balblair, and Old Pulteney. We sampled a range of malts made in a variety of styles, some youthful and tough, others much older and finished with fruit-forward sherry casks.

Tasting notes from the event follow.

anCnoc 22 Years Old – We recently covered a few offerings from anCnoc, but this 22 year old is something else. Lovely apple notes up front. Brisk roasted grain character attacks the palate, with a fiery note that melds well with strong sherry cask influence that hits hard on the finish. Touches of dried fruits here and there. A lovely, balanced whisky that still lets the grain shine in an enticing, attractive way — and does not feel at all like its anywhere near past its prime. 92 proof. A- / $130

Speyburn 10 Years Old – This is entry-level Speyburn, which is a perennial best buy in the single malt space. Simplistic nose, with some charcoal fire notes and a bit of raw wood. The body is quite malty, with caramel and cloves — the tougher wood character takes a nutty turn on the finish. Pleasant but loaded with an almost rustic character. Bolder than I remember. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Speyburn 25 Years Old – An older expression of Speyburn, which you don’t see as often. Aggressive citrus on the nose. Sherry character remains the showcase on the tongue, with some lightly smoky notes building as the spirit develops on the palate. Baking spices and fruit compote emerge, with a touch of iodine/sea salt on the finish. 92 proof. A- / $300

Balblair Vintage 2002 First Release – 10 years old. Woody/malty notes on the nose mask it at first, but the body of this Balblair is very sweet, almost with a granulated sugar character to it. The sweetness rises on the finish, taking on an almost cotton candy character. The finish offers nougat, caramel sauce, and a bit of dried fruit. A fun, after-dinner sipper. 92 proof. A- / $60

Old Pulteney Clipper – A new, limited edition NAS whisky from Old Pulteney. Surprisingly lively. Malty and grain-heavy up front, but with a seductive candy bar character that balances that out. The end result is something akin to raisin-studded oatmeal, a mix of savory and sweet that works. The body is modest — despite a punch of spice that attacks the back of the throat — but balanced and enjoyable. A fine everyday dram choice. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Old Pulteney 35 Years Old – A different animal in this roundup. Elevated above an otherwise solid crowd here. Notes of Port wine, sultanas, clementine oranges, and banana fill the mouth, along with touches of marshmallow. Glorious, bright sherry notes emerge in time for the finish, which melds fresh citrus juices with raisins and candy bars. Lovely! 85 proof. A / $700 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Cloudy Bay 2011 Te Wahi Pinot Noir and 2012 Sauvignon Blanc

Te wahi 2011 (Native) [MHISWF041779 Revision-1]New Zealand’s most notable winery is back with new vintages — including a major departure for the brand with its new Pinot. Let’s not let my intro get in the way. Here are thoughts on two new releases from Cloudy Bay.

2011 Cloudy Bay Te Wahi Pinot Noir Central Otago – This is Cloudy Bay’s first wine not sourced from the Marlborough region and its first new product in 18 years. A gorgeous Pinot, it drinks more like a California wine than a jammy New Zealand wine. Notes of tea leaf, cinnamon, and ginger mingle with a cherry/blueberry core just perfectly. The wine is best with a touch of chill on it; too warm it starts to feel a bit watery. That said, on the whole it comes together beautifully. A / $75

2012 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, offering tropical notes, some brown sugar, and a lemon-fueled finish. Herbal notes emerge on the big, juice palate as the wine warms a bit, revealing more balance and a somewhat sour citrus finish. A- / $36

cloudybay.co.nz

Review: Menage a Trois Vodka, Complete Lineup

Menage a Trois Vodka Berry Martini HI Res Glamour Photo (1)

Menage a Trois is known for its cheap wines, but the company now also makes cheap vodka. (!)

Three expressions — one straight, two flavored — are on offer. All are distilled from corn and brought down to proof with “pristine California water.” The catch with the flavored vodkas: They’re all “triple flavored” with three different botanicals. Three! Get it!? Sure ya do.

Some thoughts follow. All are 80 proof.

Menage a Trois Vodka – Quite neutral, a touch sugary on the nose but the body is quite plain, with touches of marshmallow, a hint of popcorn, and some odd peanut notes that emerge on the finish. Otherwise, not a whole lot to it. Probably fine for making cosmos or punch. B

Menage a Trois Citrus Vodka – Infused with lemon, lime, and orange. Lime, lemon, orange — in that order. Extremely bright and quite sweet — but the finish takes things to an astringent, chewed-up-aspirin note. B-

Menage a Trois Berry Vodka – Infused with raspberries, cranberries, and pomegranate. So… healthy? Intensely cranberry, with raspberry notes building strongly on a finish that recalls cough syrup — but, I mean, really really drinkable cough syrup. B-

each $16 / menageatroisvodka.com

Review: Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, and Unblended American Whiskey

To clarify my earlier commentary on the company: Michter’s is an old name that’s reviving its distillery operations — but while that’s getting going, the company is bottling contract-produced spirits under its own label. Label copy on this series of US-1 — aka US*1 — whiskeys is decidedly vague. The bourbon reviewed below, for example, is “made from the highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in a hand-selected charred white oak barrel… it is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”

Curious.

We’ve reviewed Michter’s before, and no matter how secretive it may be about its sourcing, the company makes a pretty solid product. (More to the point: It tells someone else to make a solid product, and they do.) The three spirits reviewed below comprise three of the four entry-level spirits from Michter’s (the Sour Mash fourth is covered in the review linked above), so we’re finally rounding out the company’s basic offerings. As for the older stock, we’ll just have to bide our time for it.

Thoughts follow.

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon - Aged in new oak for an indeterminate time. A bold and aggressive whiskey. Intensity from the get-go on the nose: Butterscotch, over-ripe banana, creme brulee, and cinnamon. The body takes all that and runs with it, adding brisk oak elements, apple pie notes, dried figs, and a touch of red hot candies. That bit of heat doesn’t last. The finish is seductive and supple, offering a wonderful balance between dusty wood and brown sugar sweetness. An excellent buy, the dearth of data on the spirit notwithstanding. Reviewed: Batch #14C123. 91.4 proof. A / $40

Michter’s US-1 Single Barrel Straight Rye – Aged 36 months-plus in new oak; otherwise no mashbill information is offered. Clear, spicy rye notes on the nose, with a dusting of sawdust. As the body develops, you get lots of caramel apple, more intense wood, and some bitter chocolate notes. While the nose offers tons of promise, frankly I was hoping for more on the palate. What comes across is a rather straightforward whiskey that masks its more interesting elements in lumber. Drinkable and mixable, but short on character. Reviews: Batch #14C118. 84.8 proof. B / $40

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey – This one’s the most mysterious of the bunch — a mystery grain whiskey that is aged (for a mysterious amount of time) not in new oak but in used bourbon barrels. The nose is immediately curious — gingerbread, molasses, and some lumber, but also tinned apples and cinnamon. The body is sweet with milk chocolate and maple notes, I’m thinking a distilled version of Sunday breakfast with some Nestle’s Quik on the menu. This isn’t a bad whiskey but it is a curious one, playing its identity cards close to the vest. Wheat whiskey, perhaps? Why not just say so? No batch information. 83.4 proof. B+ / $40

michters.com