Tasting Report: Hardy Cognac

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I recently had the good fortune to taste Cognac with one of its grande dames, Benedicte Hardy, one of the proprietor’s of the Cognac Hardy house in France.

Benedicte recently visited San Francisco and treated a number of media and trade professionals to a deep dive into Hardy’s “Anniversary Series” lineup at the city’s legendary seafood palace, Scoma’s. Five different spirits were tasted, along with savory bites, cheeses, and chocolates from Michael Recchiuti.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Hardy XO Cognac – Hardy ages its XO for a minimum of 20 years, a long time in this business. This is a blend of grand champagne and petit champagne eaux de vie, which exhibits spicy notes up front, with butterscotch and loads of baking spices on the body. A touch of astringency leads to a nutty finish, with notes of chocolate backing it up. Clean but quite rich. A- / $100  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Hardy Noces de Perle “Pearl” – This cognac carries no age statement but is blended solely from barrels that are 30 years old (“no more, no less”) — very unusual in Cognac. Pure grande champagne eau de vie, from here on out. Feminine and delicate at first, the Cognac presents increasing notes of vanilla and butterscotch as it develops. Floral elements emerge on the finish, making for a very pretty and engaging spirit. (Price may be high.) A / $900

Hardy Noces d’Or – “Gold” for the 50 year anniversary — though it’s the only bottling in this series that doesn’t have a formal English nickname. Much like the Rosebud, this is made entirely from 50 year old spirit. Richer and nuttier, with stronger notes of citrus peel, red berries, and some leather and tobacco notes. A more powerful expression that has a lot in common with the XO. A- / $225

Hardy Noces de Diamant “Diamond” – 60 years old. More fruit here, particularly up front, though the back end is a bit dulled by a significant wood influence, which overpowers some of the sweeter caramel and vanilla notes at the core. Still a lovely expression. A- / $700

Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” – This is a slight departure from the above, a blend of Cognacs aged between 75 and 100 years; an extreme rarity, only 500 bottles have been sold to date worldwide. The nose starts with sultry incense, grapefruit, and golden raisins. The body takes all the sunshine and elevates it with beautiful bursts of citrus, light sandalwood, and some strawberry. The finish holds the brightness, offering a touch of toffee and a hint of pie crust. Perfect spirits are hard to come by, but Rosebud is clearly one of them. I guess Charles Foster Kane knew what he was talking about. A+ / $2250

hardycognac.fr

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2016

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The 17th annual Whiskies of the World event wrapped this March in San Francisco, and it was as fun and chaotic as ever to wander three stories of the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, moored in the San Francisco Bay.

This year I focused my attention primarily on independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, with Alexander Murray and Gordon & MacPhail both in attendance, along with veterans like the Exclusive Malts and Chieftain’s collections. Also highly worthwhile: A new distillery, Mosswood, which ages light whiskey in a variety of oddball barrels to produce the most exotic and interesting “flavored” whiskey you’ve ever tried. As for my favorite spirit of the night? Arran’s delightful “Smugglers’ Illicit Stills” offering, which comes complete in a fake book (see photo).

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Alexander Murray Bladnoch 25 Years Old – Notes of roasted nuts, grains, a touch of lychee / B
Alexander Murray Monumental Blended Scotch 30 Years Old – Very grainy — a surprise — notes of hay / B
Alexander Murray Speyside 40 Years Old – Quite gentle, malty, quiet citrus; surprising that this is 40 years old / A
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso – A bit overblown, with big toffee notes / B+
Aberlour Scapa Skiren – Simple; easygoing, with gentle grain structure / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old – Big molasses notes, scorched caramel, nice stuff / A-
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old – Ginger is fun, but granary notes surprise / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Years Old – Quite maritime, gentle peat and salt spray / A-
Lagavulin 12 Years Old – The classic; nothing new to report / B+
Lagavulin Distillers Edition Double Matured – Gorgeous, big mouthfeel and better balanced than the standard Lag 12 / A-
Glenmorangie Signet – Sweet chocolate notes, coffee, almost overblown with dessert notes / A-
The Balvenie 17 Years Old DoubleWood – Classic; light sherry, nougat, well balanced / A-
Macallan Rare Cask / Rounded and well sherried; still drinking lovely / A-
Chieftain’s Glen Grant 20 Years Old – Slightly racy, with heavy cereal notes / B
Chieftain’s Linkwood 17 Years Old – Chewy, with cherry notes, gentle finish / A-
Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 2002 – A big crowd pleaser, but it didn’t resonate with me; big cereal notes, yeasty, slightly astringent / B
Exclusive Malts Girvan 1988 Single Grain – Butterfinger candies, buttery body, surprising for a single grain / B+
Arran Amarone Finish – Starts off hot; leads to raisin and chocolate notes, a bit scattered / B+
Arran Smugglers’ Illicit Stills – Quietly spicy, with tons of malt, honey, and a touch of smoke; really compelling / A

022Bourbon

PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Eagle Rare – The first of five single barrel releases on tap from SF’s PlumpJack; big butterscotch notes, but quite woody / B
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV 8 years, 8 months – Lovely, with some pepper to it / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO 10 years, 6 months – Lots of heat; a bit astringent; peppermint notes / B+
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF 11 years, 7 months – Honeyed with baking spices and cinnamon / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OESQ 10 years, 5 months – Popcorn and malt, rather plain / B
Healthy Spirits Old Scout 9 Years Old – Another private bottling; big caramel, chocolate, cinnamon… but a touch grainy / B+

Other

Brenne 10 Years Old – The 10 year old expression of this French malt; enduring grain, notes of gingersnaps / B+
J. Seeds Apple Cider Whiskey – Unpalatable, incredible bite / C-
Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof – Lovely apple and caramel, with a drying finish / A-
Mosswood Apple Brandy Barrel Aged – Mosswood makes light whiskey and ages it in different barrels, giving it a really unique structure; this one has beautiful fruit, with gentle, cider-like character / A-
Mosswood Espresso Barrel Aged – Slightly smoky, earthy, and nutty – not the heavy coffee bomb you might expect / A-
Mosswood Umeshu Single Barrel Aged – An Asian plum wine barrel gives this a curious notes; on the palate the fruit really emerges alongside spice and a sweet backbone; quite a revelation in “flavored” whiskey / A
Germain-Robin Old Havana Brandy – A touch of tobacco, lingering raisin, very soft / A-
Germain-Robin Single Barrel Brandy – Bigger body, heavy raisin and spice elements / B+
Low Gap Wheat Whiskey 4 Years Old – Heavy pear notes, very fruity / B+
Roundstone Rye – 100% rye; youthful, earthy, mouth-filling / B-
Roundstone Rye 92 Proof – More rounded; heavy cloves / B+
Roundstone Rye Cask Proof – Aged in maple syrup casks and it shows; a bit cloying / B
Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose – 7 Stills makes whiskey from different styles of beer; this one’s an IPA base. Classic IPA notes add density and ample hops / B+
Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate – Coffee porter base with a touch of espresso added on the back end; clear coffee notes, slight caramel; lingering coffee finish / A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Dogpatch – Sour beer based, finished in a sour beer barrel. Some funk, a little cherry and raisin character; a bit crazy as whiskey goes. Need to spend more time with this one / B+

Review: Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK American Brandies

Craftwerk Bottle Lineup

American brandymaker Copper & Kings is up to something wild with this line of four new brandies, each of which is aged not in old bourbon barrels or new oak but rather barrels that come from craft beer companies. Each of these four bottlings spends 12 months in a different beer barrel; the resulting brandy bears the name of the brewery on its label.

We sampled all four of these unique spirits. Thoughts on each follow.

Each is bottled at 111 proof.

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK 3 Floyds “Dark Lord” Russian Imperial Stout – Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds provides stout barrels for this experiment. Immediate notes of chocolate and cloves arrive on the nose — there’s definitively the essence of a stout here — along with a significant and dusty wood influence. This expands on the palate, eventually becoming almost overwhelming. I like the slightly smoky, sweet-and-savory notes on the nose considerably more than the palate, but both make for an interesting spin on brandy — something that feels like what Kentucky would come up with if you gave them a pot of molasses to work with. B

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Sierra Nevada Smoked Imperial Porter – Straight outta Chico, California, C&K uses a smoked porter from Sierra Nevada instead of the expected IPA. This brandy exudes a strong nuttiness alongside some chocolate notes. Although the nose is restrained, the body showcases more flavor, a stronger focus, and a better balance than most of this field. Cocoa-dusted walnuts, some juicy raisin notes, and a hint of baking spice give this brandy some real staying power — and a character that feels closer to a real brandy than some of the other expressions here. A-

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Oskar Blues “G’Knight” and “Deviant Dale’s” Imperial IPA – This brandy spends time in two different types of IPA barrels from Oskar Blues’ Brevard, NC facility. I was skeptical that a bitter, hoppy beer like an Oskar Blues’ IPA would be a good companion to brandy, and I was right. This combination doesn’t work all that well, kicking things off with a sweet and spicy attack that is almost immediately dampened by a hugely bitter, earthy element. As it evolves on the tongue, that bitterness becomes overwhelming and enduring, sticking to the back of the throat with a fiery and vegetal character that comes together with a character akin to fresh cigarette ash. Water is an absolute must with this one.. C-

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Against the Grain “Mac Fanny Baw” Peated Scottish Ale – Finally, it’s a peated Scottish ale from Louisville, Kentucky whose barrel is the final vessel for this brandy. Peat and brandy didn’t sound like a natural fit, but on the nose this brandy gives up few clues about how it will all come together. The aroma is at first hard to place, offering a variety of herbal notes that evoke an aged gin more than a brandy. The body is a bit whiskeylike, but unlike the more bourbon-like Dark Lord expression above this one is by way of Islay as you might expect (and hope). That doesn’t entirely correspond to a perfectly balanced body, the smokiness of the peat playing somewhat unhappily with the base spirit, giving the ultimate combination something closer to an essence of rotting fruit and some raw vegetal notes. C+

each $50 / copperandkings.com

Review: Singani 63

singani 63The story goes that when Steven Soderbergh was shooting the movie Che in Bolivia, he tasted a traditional Bolivian spirit and fell in love with it. So much so that he decided to import it into the U.S. and market it on our shores.

What’s Singani 63? Distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, it is classified as a brandy by the U.S. but it more closely resembles Pisco, which is common right next door in Peru and Chile. (Also of note, it is bottled at 80 proof, not 63.) What did Soderbergh see in all of this? Let’s find out.

If you’re familiar with quality Pisco, you’ve got a head start on everyone else. The nose is fragrant and aromatic, racy with heady perfume notes, lemongrass, a touch of almond, and incense character. On the palate, again it’s quite brisk with buzzy perfume character, a squeeze of citrus, and some sandalwood. The finish features just a touch of mushroom and a wisp of menthol, but otherwise winds things up nice and clean, with a surprisingly refreshing finish.

Pisco isn’t something I use with any regularity, and Singani 63 will likely meet the same fate in my home bar. That said, if Pisco’s your bag, this is a fun spin on a spirit that’s rising in popularity as an alternative to vodka and gin. Wholly affordable, too.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / singani63.com

Review: Van Ryn’s Brandy 10, 12, 15, and 20 Years Old

Van Ryns 12 yearI say brandy. You say… Stellenbosch, South Africa?

The Van Ryn’s brand dates back to 1845, when it was founded in Cape Town. It’s been producing brandy from chenin blanc and colombar (same as colombard) grapes in its current facility since 1905.

Today the company produces a surprisingly delicious line of four brandies, all bottled with an age statement. Below we look at the complete Van Ryn’s lineup, from bottom to top. I have not seen these marketed in the U.S., but persistence at your local booze merchant may pay off.

Take note: All of these expressions are bottled at 76 proof.

Van Ryn’s Vintage Brandy 10 Years Old – Pretty, with notes of brown sugar, caramel, golden raisins, and a dusting of baking spice. Classic brandy, with no trace of alcoholic burn (courtesy of the lower proof, I think) but with gentle chocolate notes emerging on the increasingly nutty, spicy finish. Perfectly fine as a simple digestif. B+ / $48

Van Ryn’s Distillers Reserve Brandy 12 Years Old – Aged in small French oak casks, which makes it much more “old world” in style than the other brandies in this family. The nose is more intense, with a slight astringency driven by the wood. Still strong with raisin, well-baked apple, and spice notes, the wood notes grow heavier to the point of overpowering the spirit’s gentle fruit core. With time, the body offers up surprisingly tough notes of leather and furniture polish, with a slightly bitter bite on the finish. B / $61

Van Ryn’s Fine Cask Reserve Brandy 15 Years Old – Immediately more austere, with a distinct, but slight leathery character on the nose along with heavier notes of cloves, chocolate, and dark raisins. On the palate, it surprises with more sweetness than you’d think, again sticking with the chocolate and raisin theme before offering up some notes of cherry, Port wine, and ample vanilla. Well balanced, with enduring baking spice on the finish. A- / $72

Van Ryn’s Collectors Reserve Brandy 20 Years Old – Definitely reaching a more elevated maturity level, with a restrained nose that starts off a bit hot before running to notes of wood, spice, honey, and a touch of chocolate. On the body, things really pick up: dried fruits galore, chocolate milk, tea leaf, coffee, some leather, and a lengthy, honey-sweet finish with echoes of raisin, cherries, and dried plum. You can definitely feel the family resemblance flowing through these brandies (the 12 year old is a bit of an outlier), culminating in an impressively satisfying conclusion here at the 20 year old expression. A- / $97

vanryn.co.za

Review: Big Bottom Pear Brandy and Oregon Gin Collection

big bottom PearBrandy-10-NEWIf you know Big Bottom, you probably know the company for its bourbons, most of which feature exotic finishes and impressive levels of quality.

Big Bottom also makes white spirits, though, including fruit brandies (pear now, apple is coming) and a collection of gins. Today we take a look at four of BB’s latest white offerings… well, three white spirits and one with a touch of age on it.

Thoughts follow.

Big Bottom Oregon Pear Brandy – Made from a blend of Oregon-grown Asian pears. Rather musty up front, the nose offers fruit restrained by astringent notes, a commonality of young fruit brandies. On the palate, significant earthy notes interplay with modest pear character — and you can indeed pick out that slightly citrus Asian character vs. the more traditional flavor of domestic pears. The finish, however, is a bit hot and indistinct. This is clearly a labor of love, but as with many pear brandies, it’s one that could benefit from some tempering by wood. 80 proof. B- / $45

Big Bottom Oregon Gin – 16 botanicals (none named) are used in the production of this New Western gin. It’s got a significant floral character, with a touch of black pepper adding spice. Juniper is present, but modest and restrained, as sweeter notes dominate. On the palate, it’s a gentle gin with ample sweetness enveloping the palate, those floral notes — honeysuckle and some white flowers — quite dominant. Citrus elements come on strong as well, with just a little kick of that pepper hitting on the back end. Fun stuff, and a nice change of pace from juniper-forward bruisers. 91 proof. A- / $30

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Navy Strength – Same gin as the above, but higher in proof. It offers similar notes to the lower-proof product, but it’s plenty racier if that’s your bag. As with many an overproof product, the higher-proof version will immediately fire up the palate, but it also offers a few surprises: a slightly fruitier character, and juniper that’s more immediately evident. Slight caramel notes offer a silky sweetness on the back end. All in all, it’s a solid Navy version of a juniper-restrained gin. 114 proof. A- / $46

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels – Same gin as the first, aged (for 12 months in a new solera system) in used whiskey barrels outfit with new heads made from a mix of Oregon oak and Hungarian oak. The gin takes on a more dessert-like note here, with clear cinnamon notes and some mulled apple cider character. Sweet caramel on the finish takes this gin on a ride between a white spirit and a light, spiced whiskey, with notes of cloves and vanilla in lieu of any significant juniper or floral elements, which are washed away by the wood. Aged gins can be hit and miss, but this is surprisingly fun stuff, perfect for winter cocktails or even sipping straight with dessert. 91 proof. A / $38

bigbottomdistilling.com

Review: Domaine Dupont Calvados – Fine Reserve, Vieille Reserve, Hors d’Age

Calvados Dupont Hors d'ageThese Calvados bottlings hail from the Pays d’Auge, the primary production area for the classic apple brandy in France’s Normandy region.

The company produces over a dozen different expressions of Calvados (plus cider and other beverages). Today we look at three of the more common bottlings, all on the younger side of the company’s offerings. Let’s look at each in turn. (Note: Prices tend to vary widely, so shop around.)

Domaine Dupont Calvados Fine Reserve – Aged two years in barrel, half in new oak. A bright gold brandy, it features the classic mustiness you get with young apple brandies, followed by heavy notes of baked red apples. Light baking spices emerge on the end, then a lightly woody astringency takes hold. A very simplistic expression of Calvados, it is best regarded as a mixing alternative for vodka or even gin. 80 proof. C / $30

Domaine Dupont Calvados Vieille Reserve – Aged four years in barrel, 25% in new oak. Here the Calvados is settling down nicely, throwing off some of its medicinal and astringent notes and showcasing more of its apple core. A purer apple note — fruity and slightly sweet — is evident from the nose and follows as you work into the body. On the palate, it’s both surprisingly light and floral, with just a touch of nutmeg giving it a slightly wintry edge. The tougher, more industrial notes endure on the finish, but they aren’t as overpowering as in the Fine Reserve. 84 proof. B / $50

Domaine Dupont Calvados Hors d’Age – Aged six years in barrel, 25% in new oak. Further maturation gives this Calvados more austerity, though the upgrade isn’t as immediately evident as it is with the jump from Fine to Vieille. Again fresh apples dominate, with some baking spice and particularly nutmeg offering strong secondary notes. The finish feels hotter than both of the above, not due to industrial notes but more from the clearer presence of alcohol. This leads to more of a warming and cleaner finish that lets the more pure and fresh apple character shine through. B+ / $75

calvados-dupont.com