Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

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Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Merlet Cognac Selection Saint-Sauvant Assemblage No. 1

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Cognac’s Merlet is back with another new brandy, Selection St. Sauvant, a limited-edition blend that is made… well, we’ll let Merlet do the talking:

“Assemblage N°1” (Blend N°1) was bottled in 2013. This delicate cognac is a marriage of “eaux-de-vie” from the Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne aged over 10 years as well as from the Fins bois (1992 and 2001) and from the Petite Champagne (1993). The alcohol strength is then slowly reduced to allow a perfect balance of flavors. This cognac is unique and produced as a limited edition.

Quite fruity on the nose, the Cognac offers notes of peaches, tropical fruits, vanilla extract, and intensely perfumed aromatics. The body is immediately engaging, offering deep fruit notes atop quite a bit of bite, and a growing nutty character that emerges more clearly as the finish reaches its climax. The extra alcohol here is evident throughout, giving this brandy a headiness and punch that more gentler, lower-proof brandies simply don’t provide. But it’s the aromatics that lend a special character to St. Sauvant, melding gentle wood notes with clove-studded oranges, apricots with chocolate sauce. It’s a bit punchy from start to finish, but fun stuff, through and through.

90.4 proof. Less than 800 bottles available in the U.S.

A- / $100 / merlet.fr

Review: Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP Cognac

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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: The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac

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The Last Drop is a company with an amazingly fun story: It sources its spirits from shuttered, abandoned, or “lost” distilleries. When you buy the company’s product, that’s it. They’re gone and no one is going to make them again.

That’s a powerful promise of rarity. The Last Drop says it “found these casks in a tiny distillery lost in the woods near Cognac.” So, yeah, you aren’t getting any more of this stuff.

The Last Drop 1950 starts with a classic Cognac nose of old fruit, raisins, incense, and well-aged wood. It’s got a bit of a funky, almost burning undercurrent to it — like an old rhum agricole — offering notes of coconut husk and fuel oil. The body is immediately austere, with sherried stone fruits, balsamic, and oiled leather. With a salted caramel/cocoa powder back end, things start to go out on a lightly sweet high note, but the finish is so drying and woody that it sucks all the fruit away completely, ending on an almost astringent overtone.

That said, it’s a unique Cognac and an excellent example of what very old brandy is like. At this price, though, you might want something that’s still firing on all cylinders, and which is more balanced from start to finish.

83.6 proof. 478 bottles made (each includes a 50ml miniature as a bonus).

B+ / $2,600 / lastdropdistillers.com

Preview: Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 and 1974 Vintage

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Cuvee Lheraud (lerr-oh) is a family-owned Cognac producer that makes a million bottles of brandy every year all from its estate vineyards. And you’ve never heard of them, because until now they have not sold products in the United States.

This fall, Lheraud arrives on U.S. shores, bringing its unique spin on Cognac to our esteemed shores. While it makes single-vintage editions much like many other high-end producers, it also takes the same approach to its higher-end non-vintage dated blends. As Export Manager Francois Rebel explained to me on a recent visit to San Francisco to introduce the brand, the various cuvee bottlings, including the 20 year old Cuvee 20, are made from casks of exactly that age. This year’s Cuvee 20 was made from casks distilled in 1994. Next year it’ll be 1995 casks, and so on. Doesn’t this cause a problem with consistency from year to 013year, if you can’t blend from other vintages to achieve a flavor profile that doesn’t vary from year to year? Yes. But that’s the way we do it, says Rebel. Some years customers may not like the changes, but “Lheraud does not blend.”

Neat idea, though I could never get a clear explanation of why the Cuvee 20 doesn’t indicate it’s a Cuvee 20 distilled in 1994 — which would seem to boost sales. Ah, the French!

Rebel tasted me on two of the distillery’s upcoming releases, and my thoughts are below. Note: Our sampling was quite limited to small tastes, so these should be considered preview descriptions and ratings and not canonical reviews. Prices are estimated based on overseas pricing. Will update with official pricing when it is available.

Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 (2014 Bottling) – Made from grapes from the Petite Champagne region. Classic style for a Cognac this age, light incense and raisin notes atop a sweet core that offers oaky, almond, and honey notes on the palate. Easy to like. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Cognac Lheraud 1974 Vintage – Made from Grand Champagne-grown grapes. A 40 year old bottling, bottled at cask strength — unusual for any Cognac. More exotic on the nose than the Cuvee 20, it offers darker chocolate and nut character, dark raisins, dried figs, and drying, resinous oak on the finish. Less sweet than the Cuvee, but it still has plenty of sugar to go around. Complex and worthwhile. 98 proof. A / $500+

cognac-lheraud.com

Review: Cognac Claude Chatelier XO

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I recently encountered this Cognac for the first time on a trip. I wasn’t familiar with the brand at all, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the bottle of its XO release. No age statement is provided.

Perfectly fruity nose, with notes of cherry, apricot, and a bit of ruby Port. Some woody notes give it an incense character, too. On the palate, again the fruit dominates, offering pretty citrus, touches of plum, vanilla, and more of that woodsy incense character. A touch of heat makes the finish a bit racy, just enough to give this Cognac some curiosity, keeping it from devolving into an an utter fruit bomb. An all-around excellent effort at a very affordable price level.

80 proof.

A- / $50 / claudechateliercognac.com

Review: Camus VSOP Elegance and VSOP Borderies Cognac

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A Borderies Cognac… that’s a youngish VSOP. Borderies, for those not in the know, is a small, very renowned grape-growing subregion of Cognac. Normally, Borderies bottlings are old XO expressions — which command even higher prices due to their regional pedigree. vsop camus borderiesAnd while Camus does offer an XO Borderies, it has recently (and quietly) put out this VSOP Borderies expression, a rarity I’ve never seen before now.

It just so happens I had a fresh bottle of Camus VSOP (now known as Camus VSOP Elegance) to compare against this limited-edition Camus VSOP Borderies. Here’s how they shake out.

Camus VSOP Elegance – Recently cleaned up with strong “Elegance” labeling and more modern styling, the off-the-rack Camus VSOP bottling offers classic younger Cognac notes: oak, Christmas cake, and lingering citrus notes, tinged with cinnamon. It’s an easygoing sipper that doesn’t overly complicate things. B+ / $40

Camus VSOP Borderies – More fruit up front here, growing considerably as it gets some air to it. Cinnamon apple, apricots, even coconut and pineapple notes come across. You don’t get much of that with the standard VSOP, which keeps its cards closer to its vest. The finish only builds up the fruit component. 15,000 bottles made. A- / $57

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Review: Hennessy Privilege VSOP Cognac

hennessy privilegeA new VSOP from Hennessy, meant to stand as an upgrade to the standard-grade Hennessy, and with a slightly higher price to match.

Privilege is a perfectly acceptable brandy, with easy fruit on the nose, some raisins, some spice, and a little raspberry tea. The palate is warm, with applesauce notes, oranges, honey, and baking spice on the back end. The finish has a bit of alcohol on it — with ample caramel (like caramel candies) evident as well.

Altogether there’s really nothing shocking here, but Privilege is perhaps priced too high for what it is… and not really a huge improvement over the regular Hennessy bottling. That said, I’d have no trouble using it in a cocktail.

80 proof. 

B / $65 / hennessy.com

Review: Camus Family Legacy Cognac

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Camus Family Legacy arrived at Drinkhacker HQ with the most unfortunate typo. On our sample bottle, the price was listed as $12.99. That’s a mistake of two orders of magnitude. Camus’s latest is a full $1299 — the company’s entry into ultra-luxe spirits.

The production process sounds impressive — five crus involved in an eight-step maturation process that adheres to “ancestral rules of perfect blending”  — but is short on usable details. Given the price tag it’s safe to expect some truly old stock from Cognac’s greatest vineyards. It’s just not clear how old it is.

The nose is surprising in its initial level of heat, a blazer that eventually blows off to reveal a quiet and understated brandy. On the body — as with the nose it needs some time and air to settle down — this Cognac eventually mellows out to reveal a surprisingly nuanced Cognac with light sherry notes, gentle floral notes, raisins, creme brulee, and a modest, sandalwood character on the finish. Restraint is the order of the day here. This is a Cognac that’s considerably dialed back, an elegant and easy spirit that is marred only by an initial rush of alcohol that is bafflingly out of place.

81.6 proof.

A- / $1299 / camus.fr

Review: Martell Caractere Cognac

martell charactereMartell recently launched this Cognac, a simple blend of brandies (in an admittedly snazzy bottle), with no age indication at all. In other words: This is entry-level Cognac, so let’s see how it tastes.

On first blush it’s a clearly young spirit, somewhat brash on the nose, but tempered with notes of incense and, curiously, sawdust. On the body, there’s plenty of heat, along with some more raw grapeseed notes. Again, secondary notes save the day from driving Caractere into forgetability. Prune/raisin, some orange oil, and chewy caramel provide interest, although there’s no real sense of balance or cohesion in the end. Ultimately this would work for a mixing brandy (Martell’s cocktail ideas including mixing it into a blend of pineapple juice and cola), but it just doesn’t have the austerity for drinking straight.

80 proof. Exclusively available in California.

B- / $35 / martell.com