Review: Arkansas Black Applejack

arkansas HI-RES

As far as local spirits go, for me, there’s nothing more local than Arkansas Black Applejack. It’s made by a husband and wife that live right around the corner from me, from Arkansas Black apples (hence the name) plus some Golden Delicious. The applejack is actually produced in Oregon at Clear Creek, after which it is aged in a mix of French Cognac and American Bourbon barrels.

Each bottle is a limited-cask bottling; the sample I tried came from a 2014 batch of just 2 barrels. (In 2015, 10 barrels are on tap for bottling.)

This is about as pure an expression of applejack as you’re likely to find in America today. The nose if immediately filled with baked apples — and a little bit of the funkiness you expect to see in a craft apple brandy. Bittersweet but authentic, the body is powerful with chewy apple notes, vanilla caramels, and baking spices. Initially quite sweet, almost like a grape brandy, it edges toward bitter as the palate takes hold, with the wood influence becoming more expressive. The finish balances these elements, offering a sugary zing tempered by notes of apple cider, root beer, licorice, and some savory herbs.

98 proof. Reviewed: Batch A, barrel TL-1, bottle #273.

A- / $50 / via facebook

Review: Boulard Calvados Pays d’Auge VSOP

Boulard VSOP 70 CL-1Boulard is one of the pre-eminent producers of Calvados. This VSOP is just one step up from Boulard’s entry-level bottling, composed of a blend of brandies aged 4 to 10 years old, but it shows nonetheless how one company can do wonders with the simple apple.

Crisp, classic apple notes are fresh on the nose, touched with lively menthol, cocoa powder, and gentle astringency. The body is lush with the essence of a boozy apple pie — fresh and baked apples, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon, and a gingery finish. Straightforward but sophisticated and well-crafted, it’s a near-perfect expression of a younger apple brandy.

80 proof.

A- / $50 /

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

Review: Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Complete Lineup

Calvados XO AprevalDon’t call it apple brandy: It’s Calvados, the most exclusive of apple-based spirits and the only fruit brandy with a serious pedigree. Created by a family-owned estate of 25 hectares of apple trees (17 varieties are grown here) in France’s Pays d’Auge, on the banks of the Seine River, this French classic is making its way to the U.S. for the first time, with a staggering selection of expressions available… suitable for any price point. Apreval’s Calvados brandies are double-distilled, then aged in French oak barrels.

We got to to try them all… nine expressions of Calvados in total, ranging from a two-year old youngster to varieties aged nearly half a century (and priced as you’d expect). So, how do they acquit themselves? Thoughts follow, ordered from youngest to oldest.

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Blanche – Aged 2-3 years. Crisp apple aroma, but there’s plenty of heat here as well. The body offers tart apple (think Granny Smith), lemon peel, some floral elements, and a touch of wood on the back end. Rustic, almost pastoral. This is clearly young stuff, particularly on the slightly rubbery and lightly vegetal finish, but it still drinks well. I’d consider it primarily for cocktailing, sipping neat in a pinch. 80 proof. B / $55

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Reserve – Aged 4-6 years. Slightly nutty, almost Amaretto-like, on the nose, with clear apple cider coming through behind. A clearly stronger wood influence lends this Calvados a bigger and bolder body, with a rounded mouthfeel and stronger vanilla notes on the palate. The finish is still a little tough, though the more vegetal notes have started to balance out with the sweet ones. 84 proof. B+ / $67

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Grande Reserve – Aged 10-12 years. The nose is mellowing out here, with more of an applesauce and gentle honey character to it. The body offers strong apple flavors, balanced by hazelnuts, chocolate, and a light herbal quality. Good balance, with a bit heat on the back end. It’s definitely a Calvados I’d have no trouble sipping on, offering the best of both the orchard and the world of brandy. 84 proof. A- / $92

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados XO – Aged 15-20 years, noticeably darker in color (from here on out). Becoming increasingly Cognac-like on the nose, with sweet caramel, gingerbread, and incense notes… but still those unmistakable apples shining through beautifully. Robust on the body, with thick cinnamon-apple notes and a big Christmas cake character that lasts for a long while. The finish builds dramatically to something that is both sweet with notes of cake frosting, and savory, with a woody, almost earthy conclusion. Lots going on here, and probably my favorite expression in this lineup. 84 proof. A- / $134

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados 1980 – Single-vintage (harvest?) brandy from 1980, 33 years old. Just imagine, when these apples were picked, Jimmy Carter was President. Sultry nose, with a slight licorice note to it, along with ample wood. The body is vast, with the wood notes taking center stage.There’s even a touch of astringency here, as the deep oak character muscles aside the fruity apple cider core from time to time. Intriguing but a much different animal than the XO. Try the two side by side for a real mindbender. 84 proof. A- / $230

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Cuvee Victor – A blend of brandies, each at least 30 years old. Coffee and licorice notes on the nose lend this a Spanish brandy feel. There’s lots of dried fruit — not just apples but raisins, too — on the palate, but the finish takes things toward a winey character, almost like a Marsala, with some balsamic touches. Quite the curiosity — rich and austere. 82 proof. A- / $283

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Cuvee Gustave – A blend of brandies, each at least 40 years old. Dense coffee, mixed nuts, and dark chocolate notes. You won’t catch much more than a bare whiff of apple character on the nose, but it comes across on the body — dried, baked, then chocolate-covered and baked into an almond torte. Another intriguing, hoary, and unexpected spirit. 82 proof. A- / $356

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Brut de Fut 1974 – Single-vintage Calvados from 1974, 39 years old.  Stronger apple character here than in some of the other old expressions, with a distinct vegetal note on the nose. Spicy on the palate, with some cinnamon notes, but also a tougher, more rubbery finish. Not as successful as the blends. This is no longer in production. 84 proof. B / $NA

Manoir d’Apreval Calvados Brut de Fut 1967 – Single-vintage Calvados from 1967, 44 years old (bottled 2011). This is a bit of an anomaly. This is a 44-year old 1967, bottled two years ago. It’s no longer on the market, but a 46-year-old version of the same spirit, bottled 2013, is available. Since this version spent 2 years less in cask, it’s not going to be identical to the new bottling, but it should be in the vicinity (the proof level may differ, also). A much hotter spirit, it’s got a more alcoholic nose that mutes some of the fruit from the start. The palate offers heavily woody notes with touches of mint, with a big lush apple in the core (ahem) of the brandy. But that that tough and tannic finish creeps in as the body begins to fade, dulling the fruit. 102 proof. B+ / $650 (current version)

Review: Harvest Spirits Core Vodkas, Liqueurs, and Brandies

harvest spirits farm distilleryHarvest Spirits Farm Distillery, in Valatie, New York, focuses like so many other operations in this region on using local fruits to produce artisinal, farm-to-bottle spirits. The lineup below represents a full farmers’ market of goodies. Thoughts on the bulk of Harvest Spirits’ production follow.

Harvest Spirits Core Vodka – Another vodka distilled from New York apples, these grown in the company’s own orchards and triple distilled (leaving only the “core” of the spirit… get it?). Clean on the nose, with a caramel note. Slightly sweet, somewhat nutty on the body, with a surprisingly grain-focused finish. Apple character is evident on the nose, but only in passing, as the spirit opens up in glass. Intriguing and unique. 80 proof. B+ / $34

Harvest Spirits Rare Pear Brandy – Double distilled from Hudson Valley pears and aged for two years in American oak. Wood and pear — always a tricky combination — don’t come together well on the nose, here. It’s got a huge medicinal quality to it, vaguely fruity but knocked around by astringency and pungency, redolent of mothballs. The body is less palatable, more of that mothball character with a hint of pear on the finish. Just not drinkable. 80 proof. D- / $35 (375ml)

Harvest Spirits Cornelius Applejack – Named after a veteran cider presser from the company farm, this apple brandy is rested in oak barrels for an unstated length of time before bottling. On the nose: Apples? Sure, but less present than you think: This is surprisingly far more whiskey-like than any applejack I’ve had. The body backs that up, with clear vanilla notes, wood, and a smooth cocoa finish. In a world where you’d probably never dream of drinking rustic applejack unless it was the last bottle left on the back bar, Cornelius challenges what this spirit can be and proves it belongs on the top shelf. 80 proof. A- / $50  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Harvest Spirits Core Black Raspberry Vodka – A flavored vodka, distilled from apples and black raspberries (both local), with a small amount of black raspberry juice added back in afterward, giving it an impossible (yet natural) pink color. Incredibly fruity nose, a perfect complement to that incredible hue. Unlike the unflavored vodka, it has distinct apple notes underneath that big berry character. The body is immensely sweet (though there’s no added sugar), loaded with that raspberry — almost blackberry — character. Toss in some triple sec and you have an instant Cosmo, sans cranberry juice. 80 proof. B+ / $NA

Harvest Spirits Peach Jack – Not what you think. Fresh peaches are pitted and soaked in Cornelius Applejack, then the mix is strained and aged a second time in oak barrels. There’s a lot going on here, maybe too much. The peach is overwhelming in an old school peach brandy sort of way, and combined with the apples it all gets a bit cloying on the palate. The finish feels authentic, but rough to sip on even at a relatively modest 60 proof. I can see how some folks would be fans, though. C+ / $33 [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting the Liqueurs and C2 Cognac/Liqueur Blends of Merlet

Merlet C2 CitronWe covered Merlet’s new Cognac a few weeks ago, but the company is arguably best known for its fruit liqueurs, which we’re finally getting around to covering them. All of them, actually. Thoughts on these high-end liqueurs and two unique Cognac/liqueur blends follow.

Merlet Triple Sec – Triple sec is perhaps the toughest liqueur there is to mess up, and Merlet’s, made with bitter orange, blood orange, and lemon, is perfectly solid and is at times a bit exotic with its melange of interrelated fruit flavors. A very pale yellow in color, the lemon is a touch more to the forefront than I’d like, lending this liqueur a slight sourness, but on the whole it’s a perfectly worthwhile and usable triple sec that I have no trouble recommending. 80 proof. A- / $30

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Review: Belle de Brillet Poire Williams

belle-de-brillet-poireI’ve had a mini of Belle de Brillet around for years. So it came as quite a surprise to find out that Kobrand would be “bringing” this brand (which launched in the 1980s) to the U.S. (The bottle I have was imported by Pasternak.)

I figured I’d crack it open and give it a spin. Assuming the recipe hasn’t changed — it takes Williams pears (Poires Williams) from the Alsace region of France and blends them with Brillet Cognac to create this liqueur — it’s an exotic and fruit-filled spirit. Extremely sweet, the authentic pear character on the nose can’t hold a candle to the massive amount of sugar that lies beneath it. Those nutty, somewhat earthy pears are just doused in syrup — a bit like a canned fruit cocktail. The finish lasts for days. Fine in small quantities.

60 proof.

B / $43 /

Review: Germain-Robin Pear de Pear Liqueur

The pear gets minimal respect in the booze biz. Heck, even apples have high-end brandies dedicated to them — in multiple countries, no less. In comparison, pear brandies are normally unaged quickie spirits. Finding a pear spirit that’s spent time in oak is almost unheard of. Craft Distillers’ Joe Corley cares not for any of this: He’s put together this limited edition aged pear liqueur (not a straight brandy), and it’s a mighty success.

Inspired by the pear liqueur of the same name from the now defunct RMS Distillery in Napa (sold only at its tasting room, it was never released to the open market), Corley uses Lake County and Mendocino County Bartlett pears as the basis for this rich and exotic liqueur.

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Review: Dutch’s Spirits Sugar Wash Moonshine and Peach Brandy

Built atop the underground distilling and bootlegging operation of the gangster Dutch Schultz (and on family land now owned by co-founder Alex Adams), Dutch’s Spirits is a new New York-based distillery that’s attacking the spirits industry with some unexpected products — no gin or whiskey here, be warned!

We tasted Dutch’s two inaugural spirits. Thoughts on each follow.

Dutch’s Spirits Sugar Wash Moonshine – This white spirit is a tribute to Schultz’s “own hooch,” a white spirit distilled from 100% Demerara sugar in copper pot stills. I wasn’t entirely sure how to classify this oddity, since it’s technically a rum (and a rhum agricole or cachaca at that) but isn’t branded as such. It is closest in style to a Puerto Rico-style white rum, with smoothed-over flavors of vanilla and a touch of chocolate to it. There’s none, however, of those gasoline flavors or raw alcohol notes you get with most cachaca and none of the burning heat of the typical corn-based moonshine. Moderate body with a lightly floral and herbal finish. The name may be a bit baffling, but the results are impressive if you’re a rum fan and are looking for something unique. A / $28

Dutch’s Spirits Peach Brandy – Americans are simply not drinking enough peach brandy. It’s a fact. I’m not sure that Dutch’s version of it is going to change that. While the nose offers lots of fresh fruit flavors — more apricot and apple than peach — the body is not nearly sweet enough to carry the day. Deeply bitter, the fruit notes are washed under the base alcohol’s astringency, though you can tell there are some deep and lush fruit flavors and brown sugar-sweetness just dying to get out. Much better as a cocktail flavoring agent (in small quantities) than on its own. C / $42

Review: Daron Calvados Fine Pays D’Auge

We don’t drink much apple brandy round these parts, either domestic or foreign. Daron is the Calvados brand you’re probably most likely to encounter in the wild. There’s not a lot of information about the brandy’s provenance available (it’s Daron’s entry-level spirit), but it comes from the Pays d’Auge region of France, which is widely regarded for its apple orchards. Aging time is not disclosed.

The nose is mild, distinctly apple but slight and a bit thin. On the body, a rush of alcohol, then old wood tones. Apple comes on later, with a bit of vanilla and cinnamon on the finish. The balance is off on this; there’s not enough fruit and the wood character is too hoary and rough for what ought to be an elegant spirit, and the body is too thin for any of it.

Sure, at this price you don’t expect greatness, but this Calvados is mainly fit only for mixology, not straight sipping.

80 proof.

B- / $20 (375ml bottle) /

daron calvados