Review: Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition Batch 15-3

balcones 1

Distiller Chip Tate may now be gone from Balcones, but they’re still turning out whiskey (er, “whisky,” here) at the Waco-based operation.

Balcones 1 — one of the distillery’s best-known spirits and a product that’s widely considered the best American-made single malt — is still being produced, and we got our hands on a post-Tate bottling which saw its way into glass only a month ago. Yes, Tate certainly had a heavy hand in the distillation and other facets of the creation of the spirit, but here’s a peek at the direction things are headed from here, a few months after Tate’s departure.

And that direction is… well, pretty much the same as it was during Tate’s reign, it seems.

I’ve had Balcones 1 on several occasions and this 2015 bottling doesn’t stray far from the course the spirit has been on for the last few years. Balcones 1 is officially released without an age statement, but it starts off in smallish 5-gallon new oak barrels before finding its way into larger tuns for marrying and blending. Finishing woods and ex-bourbon casks are sometimes used, I’ve read, but batches have evolved over the years and have varied widely in production methods, proof, and other details.

The most dominant part of Balcones 1 — this batch or any other — involves the influence of wood. The nose starts off with some butterscotch, raisin, and mint, but sniff on it for more than a few seconds and huge sawdust and lumberyard notes come to the fore. On the palate, Balcones 1 takes some time to settle down as the woody notes blow off a bit, ultimately revealing a toffee and treacle core, very dark chocolate notes, a touch of campfire ashes, and dried figs. The back end of the whisky is a big return to the lumberyard, where a monstrous, tannic, and brooding finish adds a touch of coffee grounds to the mix.

As far as American malt whiskeys — which have to be aged in new oak to be called straight malt or single malt due to TTB rules — go, Balcones 1 is near the top of the heap. But that’s a small heap and one that is stacked largely with whiskeys that aren’t terribly drinkable. New oak and malted barley simply aren’t easy companions, and it’s amazing that Balcones is able to do so much with two odd bedfellows like these. Consider me a fan — but a cautious one.

Reviewed: Batch 15-3; bottled 3-10-15. 106 proof.

B+ / $80 / balconesdistilling.com

Review: Square One Bergamot Vodka

square one bergamot

The bergamot is a type of sour orange, grown mainly in Italy, that often shows up in tea preparations (particularly Earl Grey) — and which is now arriving on the marquee of this new flavored vodka from Square One.

Bergamot is really just the beginning, though. Based on the company’s outline of the infusion bill, there’s quite a bit more to it: “The vibrant taste of organic bergamot citrus is layered with the essential oils of pressed organic mandarin, navel and tangerine oranges and the essences of organic ginger, coriander, and juniper botanicals.”

So, almost a gin? Not at all, really.

The nose is distinctly orange, with clear notes of mandarins and a slightly caramel-infused back end. In between those two, this is quite a gentle, restrained vodka, keeping its sweetness in check while promoting a pretty melange of citrus character. A slight bitter edge evokes the reality that citrus peel is a major component here, but that’s not a slight. This is on the whole a delightfully crafted and mostly straightforward citrus vodka that I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to incorporate into any orange-centric cocktail… or even, on a lark, sip on its own or with a simple soda or tonic mixer.

Don’t let the gothic “bergamot” turn you away — this is your new favorite citrus vodka.

80 proof.

A / $35 / squareoneorganicspirits.com

Review: DeLeon Tequila Reposado

Deleon ReposadoHey, remember P. Diddy’s blanco tequila, DeLeon? Well, now we’ve got the next step — DeLeon Reposado. This expression spends eight months in ex-bourbon and former French oak wine casks before bottling.

It’s a bit darker than most reposados due to the somewhat longer aging cycle, and the nose offers a light smoky character that you don’t often see in reposado tequilas. There’s lots more going on in that nose, which layers in notes of citrus, green banana, and lumberyard, with some tart and a bit off-balance vinegar character.

The body adds more complexity, but again it’s a touch out of balance. Notes of vanilla and oak are countered by some petrol overtones and an awful lot of acidity, again with notes of white wine vinegar. The overall character is peppery and punchy, which isn’t typically what I like to see in a reposado, where the wood should be holding its own against the agave.

It’s a curious and unique tequila that fans of the Mexican spirit should try, but the Platinum bottling is more assured.

80 proof.

B+ / $70 / deleontequila.com

Review: Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac

Domaines HINE Bonneuil 2005 pack shot

Here’s a new, limited-edition Cognac from Hine (it rhymes with “wine,” by the way). I’ll allow Hine to explain how it came to be:

Bonneuil 2005 will be the first expression in a new collection of single grand cru, single harvest cognacs, originating exclusively from Hine’s own 297 acre estate, Domaines Hine.  Only 18 casks (8,100 bottles) of Bonneuil 2005 were selected for bottling. Hine is one of the few houses in the Cognac region to have its own vineyard and each year, if the quality is up to Hine’s standards, a careful selection will be made to create a new addition to the collection.

This brandy is surprisingly light in color, particularly for a Cognac with such depth of flavor. The nose is heavily perfumed with florals, oranges, strong raisin notes, and some cedar box. It’s a little hot on the nose, but still manageable. The body doesn’t offer much of a digression from the above. Again, intense, almost jammy raisin notes pervade, with sweet, incense-dusted overtones. After that, notes of graham cracker, dark chocolate, and a bit of prune emerge. The finish is warming but quite soothing, fading out with some citrus notes and another hint of floral-focused incense. Quite lovely on the whole.

86 proof.

A / $140 / hinecognac.com

Review: Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry and Gumption Hard Cider

Gumption six pack

It’s time for two new ciders from Vermont-based Woodchuck. Here they are.

Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry Hard Cider – Fresh apple melds with tart, sour cherry notes in this surprisingly balanced cider, which offers nothing unexpected aside from those two simple notes — apple to start, cherry to finish — but which drinks more like a grown-up soda than a typical cider. That said, it’s one of the better ciders I’ve experienced in recent memory thanks to its vibrant fruitiness. 5.5% abv. B+

Woodchuck Gumption Hard Cider – This cider, named in honor of an old-timey drink that P.T. Barnum pushed on his crowds, pairs dry and bittersweet cider apples with fresh apple juice from common “snack apples.” The result is a sweeter cider than most, a fresh-tasting brew that starts with some sweet caramel notes, moves into classic, tart cider character, then finishes with a touch crisp Granny Smith bite. Again, this has a nice balance — but of a much different sort than Cheeky Cherry — offering a kind of tour of the apple universe and a pleasantly summery finish. 5.5% abv. A-

each $9 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Review: Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey 8 Years Old

greenore

This single-grain whiskey is distilled at Cooley from a mash of 95% corn and 5% malted barley. Sound familiar? It’s the same whiskey as Teeling Single Grain, only Teeling is aged in wine barrels, while Greenore spends its eight years in bourbon casks.

The difference is striking. The richness and sweet vanilla of Teeling is harder to peg in the Greenore, which lets the grain do more of the talking here. Ripe banana starts things off, then more intense oatmeal/cereal notes rise to the top. The nose is especially redolent of corn meal and tortillas, with a dusting of marshmallow sweetness. Frosted Flakes? The finish is warm but soothing, with some peppery notes to balance out an echo of grain character.

Bottom line: This is the starting point for Irish single grain… or probably any single grain for that matter. Compare and contrast.

80 proof.

B+ / $45 / greenorewhiskey.com

Review: MarkThomas Double Bend MT Selection Glassware

markthomasAustria’s MarkThomas is bringing its ultra-luxe line of hand-blown stemware to the U.S. If you’ve got a taste for quirky designs and exceptionally high prices, well, maybe it’s for you.

The Double Bend collection is defined by, well, the double bend in the bowl of each glass. Rather than curve inward gradually, the glasses just out then back in sharply, making for a sort of double trapezoidal design. (The picture will explain this much better than I can.) Whether this is to your liking or not is going to be a matter of individual taste, but the idea is that the point of the bend is where you are supposed to fill the glass to. I found the glasses a bit homely, but others thought they were modern and stylish.

Either way, they perform admirably. They’re light as a feather but feature big bowls and razor-thin walls. The larger red wine glass worked beautifully with numerous wines, really concentrating the aromas in the center while remaining easy enough to drink out of. I also worked with the beer glass, but found I preferred a little more heft in my beer glassware, particularly given that beer glasses are filled much fuller.

The glasses feel as fragile as could be, and I consider it a minor miracle that I didn’t break one during my week of testing. I’d happily sip from them again… provided I could scrape together a grand to set up a 12-piece collection.

A- / $65 to $85 per glass / markthomas.at

Review: 2010 Tenuta di Arceno Il Fauno di Arcanum Toscana IGT

il fauno di Arcanum Bottle ShotThis Tuscan winery is owned by the enormous Jackson Family of Wines operation, and it’s only the company’s second Italian brand under its umbrella. Tenuta di Arceno’s Il Fauno di Arcanum bottling (not the same as Arcanum) is a Bordeaux-style blend of 56% merlot, 23% cabernet franc, 20% cabernet sauvignon, and 1% petit verdot.

It’s a complex little number, with a nose that kicks off some menthol, dense wood, licorice, and a touch of coal. On the body, more fruit comes through — though restraint is the name of the game — as notes of blackberry and currant emerge, plus a backbone of dark chocolate and a bit of coffee grounds. Some fresh tobacco leaf pops in on the finish. A restrained wine, but one with a lot of charm.

A- / $30 / arcanumwine.com

Review: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com

Review: Sugar Skull Rum

sugar skull rum

Here’s a new batch of rums, comprising five flavored expressions. Sugar Skull is made from can sourced throughout the Caribbean and South America and distilled in the Caribbean (the company doesn’t say where) in a column still. The final product is blended and flavored in the U.S. before bottling in dia de los muertes inspired decanters.

Five expressions are being produced, all of which are flavored to some degree (even the silver rum, see below). We checked out three of them for review. Thoughts follow.

Sugar Skull Rum Tribal Silver – Flavored with “a slight essence of cocoa and vanilla.” The flavoring agents mainly serve to soften this rum a bit, giving it a clearer vanilla spin, particularly on the palate. Hints of coconut (more so than chocolate) emerge on the back end. The nose is less distinct and hotter than the above might indicate, with more traditional rum funk throughout. The body seems tailor-made for mixing, however, and would excel with a simple cola or in a tropical concoction. 80 proof. 

Sugar Skull Rum Mystic Vanilla – This rum features “natural vanilla overtones” … but “overtones” is a bit light for the vanilla bomb in store for drinkers of this ultra-punchy spirit. Very sugary on the nose, with marshmallow overtones. These carry through to the palate, which doesn’t so much come across as vanilla as it does liquified rock candy. It ventures way too far into candyland for my palate… but hey, at least it has “sugar” in the name. 80 proof.

Sugar Skull Rum Native Coconut Blend – At first I thought the back label — “infused with a slight aroma of wild blueberries” — was a typo, but this seems to be on point: This coconut rum also has a touch of blueberry in it, too, making for a weirdly unexpected fruit kick atop a base of traditionally sweetened coconut “party rum”. The berries hit the nose more than the palate, which is heavily sugared and clearly designed to be used as something like half of your pina colada. The berry notes make a return appearance on the finish, which they impact in a strangely unctuous and lingering way. 42 proof. 

each $28 / sugarskullrum.com