Review: Ardbeg Dark Cove

dark cove

There’s been much chatter about Ardbeg’s latest special release, Dark Cove, which uses a lot of flowery language to say that this “darkest Ardbeg ever” is blended from a mix of bourbon cask-matured and sherry cask-matured (presumed to be Pedro Ximenez) stock. No age statement is included, per the norm.

Saying this is the darkest Ardbeg ever (which is always very pale in color) is a bit like me bragging about my darkest tan ever, but perhaps that’s irrelevant. How does Dark Cove actually taste? Let’s give it a shot.

The nose shows sherry first, with an undercurrent, quite restrained initially, of pure peat. Touches of coffee, anise, and cloves fade in and out, giving the whisky an exotic approach. The body is smokier but still mildly peaty, with notes of smoked fish, creosote, dark (nearly burnt) toffee, and some fresh ash. The sherry-driven citrus notes find a purchase here, but only for a time before the slightly rubbery finish takes hold.

Ardbeg’s limited edition releases have slowly been dialing back their heavy peat character for years now, and Dark Cove is another step along that journey. The sherry masks some of the youth that’s otherwise evident in this release, but I can’t say I don’t like the way it works with the addition. It’s not my favorite expression of Ardbeg to arrive in recent years — and in comparison to a number of recent releases it’s on the lackluster side — but on the whole I still find myself managing to enjoy it well enough to cautiously recommend.

93 proof.

B+ / $190 / ardbeg.com 

Review: 2015 Matchbook Rose of Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills

Mtchbk15RoseTempHiRes

It’s been a few years since we’ve reviewed this wine, produced by JL Giguiere under its Matchbook brand, a Yolo County rose made from Tempranillo grapes. Not much seems to have changed. Heavily fruit-forward, with notes of orange blossoms, strawberry, and vanilla, it’s a summertime sipper with ample sweetness but an appropriate amount of bite underneath. The finish is so full of berry notes that it drinks like a summery cocktail.

B+ / $12 / crewwines.com

Review: Coopers’ Craft Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Coopers Craft bottle

Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Old Forester, has released its first new bourbon brand in 20 years: Coopers’ Craft.

There’s a lot of confusing information out there about Coopers’ Craft, so let’s try to clear it all up.

First, note that the whiskey’s name is Coopers’ Craft, not Cooper’s Craft. The whiskey is designed to “celebrate barrel-making and recognize the importance of wood” — coopers being barrel-makers. It was not crafted by a guy named Cooper. That apostrophe makes all the difference, and it’s going to be wrong every time you see it on a whiskey menu.

As Brown-Forman notes, “In addition to being matured in barrels raised by master coopers at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, Coopers’ Craft is crafted using a special beech and birch charcoal filter finishing process, creating a smooth and flavorful bourbon.” There’s some mention of a special wood toasting process with this whiskey, though it isn’t elaborated upon. As well, charcoal filtration is famously a big part of Tennessee Whiskey (though sugar maple is the preferred wood), but I don’t have statistics on how many non-Tennessee whiskeymakers are using it. I’ve read charcoal isn’t uncommon in Kentucky, even though few distilleries brag about it for fear of being compared to Jack. The use of beech and birch wood likely don’t add any significant flavor on their own.

It’s also been written that Coopers’ Craft is “lower proof.” Lower than Woodford Reserve, yes, but higher than JD, it turns out. At 82.2 proof, Coopers’ is largely in line with standard-grade bourbon.

What do we not know about Coopers’ Craft? Not the mash — which is said to be unique to this whiskey in the Brown-Forman stable — and nothing about the aging time (though I’ve read it’s a 4- to 6-year-old bourbon).

Well, how about the big question: How does it taste? Let me tell you.

The nose is quite sweet, distinctly fruity, with a strong but not overpowering wood component. Aromas of apricot and orange peel are evident, along with a touch of peach.

On the tongue, the whiskey is gentle, again showcasing bright fruit notes loaded with citrus and stone fruits. The barrel char creeps up as the initial attack fades, giving the spirit a chewy, though not overwhelmingly woody, character. Rather, the bourbon pumps up its vanilla notes and even offers a bit of licorice candy before finishing with notes of light baking spice, particularly a lingering cinnamon-sugar character.

Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris knows what he’s doing, and Coopers’ Craft is a solid product at an attractive price. It’s considerably different than the other mainstream brands in the Brown-Forman stable, and while it lacks in the complexity you might want for a sipper, it’s an easy choice to mix cocktails and for the occasional shot-on-a-budget.

82.2 proof.

B+ / $29 / brown-forman.com

Review: Amici Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay and Olema Pinot Noir, 2016 Releases

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I hadn’t heard of St. Helena-based Amici before (or its second label, Olema), and as such I didn’t have any real expectations for these three wines. Consider me both surprised and a new fan: These wines are uniformly excellent — and pretty good values, to boot.

Thoughts follow.

2014 Amici Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – Lots of fruit on the nose — lemons, apricots, and peaches. The body deftly balances this fruit with its more sultry elements — nicely browned butter and a slug of vanilla — leading to a very well-rounded and supple finish. Highly worthwhile. A / $25

2013 Amici Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Notes of sweet licorice on the nose add complexity to an otherwise straightforward but well-made Napa cab. The body ups the ante with modest tannins and folds in light raisin notes, vanilla, some tea leaf, and a simple, slightly sweet, chocolate-scented finish. An easy winner. A- / $45

2014 Olema Pinot Noir Sonoma County – A second label from Amici, here we find tart cherries, lush strawberry, and a gentle lacing of vanilla all whipped into a frothy, zippy, and easy-drinking lather. Just a touch of dark chocolate and some well-integrated but mild tannins. A perfect little everyday pinot at a very compelling price. A / $20

amicicellars.com

Review: Kooper Family 100% Rye

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Kooper Family Rye is a single-grain, 100% organic rye whiskey made by a small, family operation located in Dripping Springs, Texas — a small town near Austin. This distillate itself is actually sourced from Koval in Chicago. It is shipped unaged to Kooper, after which it spends two years in white oak barrels from Missouri treated with a #3 alligator char.

On the nose the whiskey is a bit hot, grain-forward but engaging, with notes of black pepper, cayenne, fresh ginger, and menthol. On the palate the vanilla and spice from the wood hit first with a quick rush of flavor, followed by notes of orange peel, some raisin, intense mint, licorice, and quite strong pepper notes. Anyone looking for the trademark “spiciness” of rye whiskey need look no further — Kooper has all you could want and more. At the same time, there’s ample sweetness to balance things out — though in the final analysis, it’s the spice that ultimately rules the day (and the palate).

The finish is a bit astringent, but cleansing and still engaging. There’s no doubt that Kooper Family Rye is young — very young, to be sure — but it’s a fun entree into the world of craft distilling, made (or at least aged) by people who obviously know what they’re doing.

80 proof.

B+ / $43 / kooperfamily.com

Review: High West Light Whiskey 14 Years Old

high west light whiskey

Contrary to (and in fact the exact opposite of) what certain ill-informed websites will tell you, light whiskey is not distilled to a lower proof than regular whiskey. In fact, it is whiskey (made of unspecified grain) that is distilled to a higher proof — generally 80 to 95 percent alcohol. That puts it somewhere between “real” whiskey and neutral spirits like vodka, which are distilled to 95% alcohol or higher. Typically light whiskey is used like grain whiskey is for blending, and it finds a home in various whiskey products, including Canadian whiskey. Rarely do you find it released on its own.

For this limited release, High West sourced 100 barrels of light whiskey from Indiana’s MGP, distilled from corn between 1999 and 2001, which spent 14 years in second-fill barrels, and it’s releasing it all uncut and unblended.

The nose is slight, with notes of caramel corn, butterscotch, and some astringency. The body is surprisingly sweet — corn syrup, caramelized banana, and whipped cream. Very light on the tongue — the moniker of “light whiskey” isn’t a bad one — it gets to the finish quite quickly, which is fairly clean, quiet, and uncomplicated, but which offers notes of tobacco and gentle grains.

92 proof.

B / $100 / highwest.com

Review: Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old and 18 Years Old

Port Dundas 12

While the history of the distillery is complex, Diageo-owned Port Dundas has been producing single grain spirit since the mid-1800s, making it one of the oldest grain distilleries in Scotland. At least until 2010, when it was shuttered. The whisky that flowed from these Glasgow-based stills was used far and wide in blends like Johnnie Walker, J&B, and more. To honor this storied but now silent still, Diageo is releasing two single grain expressions that bear the Port Dundas name, drawn from now restricted stock.

Let’s look at these two limited release expressions, a 12 year old and an 18 year old bottling.

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old – No surprises on the nose, which offers heavy cereal notes and some astringent hospital character, alongside some root vegetable character. On the palate, things brighten up, the grains offering up some notes of lemongrass and dark brown sugar — but counterbalanced by notes of mushroom and wet earth. On the whole it drinks like a very light style of blended Scotch, which isn’t a slight, but which isn’t the biggest compliment I have in my pocket, either. 80 proof. B / $50

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 18 Years Old – A clear step up from the 12, this is single grain firing on all cylinders. The nose is much more dense, with aromas of nuts, toffee, flamed orange oil, and a wisp of smoke. On the palate, the slightly higher alcohol level makes all the difference, rounding out the mouthfeel with some welcome oiliness and punching up the body with notes of spiced nuts, more toffee, vanilla custard, cinnamon toast, and some menthol, particularly on the finish. Unlike the simplistic 12, this expression drinks closer to a quality single malt, offering both complexity and boldness, elegance and power. Definitely worth seeking out. 86 proof. A- / $100

malts.com