Review: Hangar 1 Vodkas (2016)

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Hangar One was an icon of the independent spirits world, a trailblazer that was founded by small time St. George Spirits in 2002 and which grew to become one of the most beloved vodka brands around, at least amongst cocktail connoisseurs.

We reviewed them all formally in March 2010. In April 2010 the company was purchased by one of the industry’s giants: Proximo Spirits — best known as the owner of Jose Cuervo. While the vodka is still made in Alameda (it recently moved across the street from its original home), for many the shine wore off the day Hangar One went corporate.

Today, Hangar One has refreshed its labels and bottle design and even put a spin on its name to turn “One” into a numeral, though the production methods (still pot-distilled from a blend of wheat and viognier grapes) and the core flavored versions remain the same.

Here’s how they acquit themselves in 2016. All are (still) 80 proof.

Hangar 1 Straight Vodka – Notably “winey,” with dry, herbal aromatics and hints of lemon peel. The body is surprisingly thin, but the lack of unctuous oils keeps things clean and the finish lively, with a slight hint of black pepper. I really have no complaints. This remains a top-notch mixer and a solid all-around team player in the vodkaverse, though some drinkers might be forgiven for looking for a little more power on the palate. A-

Hangar 1 Kaffir Lime Vodka – Famously flavored with Thai Kaffir limes, this is Hangar 1’s most iconic version. The nose is intensely heavy with lime, including a smattering of herbal notes that recall rosemary and, especially, bay leaves. The palate is quite sweet and comes off a bit more candylike than I recall, with a duskiness on the finish that evokes lots of black pepper along with some earthy elements. I get hints of anise. Less of a thrill than it was back in the day — perhaps simply because after 14 years it’s no longer a novelty — but still one of the best flavored vodkas on the market. A-

Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka – The creepy Buddha’s Hand is the basis for this spin on lemon vodka. Oddly enough, I now grow Buddha’s Hands myself and they are tons of fun to look at. (Less so to try to cook with.) Here we find that intensely sour lemon base taking on all kinds of kooky secondary notes. Today I get chocolate, raspberry, and vague herbal notes, which linger provocatively, outlasting the hardcore lemon notes even. As with the Kaffir, though, it’s drinking a touch sweet for me today. A-

Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka – This is, as with the prior version, a milder expression of orange vodka, which is never unappreciated in a world where hefty flavoring agents tend to beat you over the head. Decidedly floral, to the point of being perfumy, this is a true expression of oranges still on the tree rather than ones  skinned and juiced. It’s pastoral at times with some earth notes — a common theme with this year’s releases — but balanced by intensifying tropical notes that emerge on the nose as the spirit opens up in the glass. The finish: Pure flowers. Blossoms, that is. All told, it’s arguably my favorite this year — surprising even me. A

$35 each / hangarone.com

Review: Studebaker Old Fashioned and Manhattan Bottled Cocktails

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Studebaker is a new brand out of Norwalk, Connecticut, which is using Canadian whisky as the base for two “Prohibition inspired” bottled cocktails — both classics, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Let’s see how these manage to turn out, unadulterated and straight from the bottle.

Both are 60 proof.

Studebaker Old Fashioned – Made with bitters, lemon, cherry, orange, and simple syrup. There are lots of orange notes here, as there should be, and they work well with the gentle caramel and vanilla notes of the whisky proper. Relatively uncomplicated, it offers touches of milk chocolate on the finish, though very little in the way of bitterness. Pleasant enough for a Sunday afternoon, but owing to the lack of power in the underlying whisky, it’s nothing Don Draper would write home about. Compare to the more engaging and powerful Bully Boy rendition. B+

Studebaker Manhattan – Made with sweet vermouth, bitters, and maraschino cherries. This one’s out of balance from the start, initially coming across as overloaded with vermouth notes — oddly dry, with heavily herbal overtones. Things get even less coherent from there, the concoction turning gummy and vaguely vegetal. There’s little semblance of whisky here — there’s a reason soft Canadian whisky is never used in a Manhattan — particularly on the flabby finish. Skip it. C-

each $25 / studebakercocktails.com

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2016 Releases

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You will not stop Francis Ford Coppola from pumping out wines. The man directed The Godfather, for Pete’s sake. Four new wines — all from the 2014 vintage — are on tap for review in mid-2016. Let’s dig in..

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Chardonnay Sonoma County – Oak and butter, nothing surprising here, but some notes of green figs and banana give this otherwise straightforward bottling at least a little something to hang on to. The finish ends up a bit on the sweet side, however. B- / $15

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Chardonnay Russian River Valley – A higher-end bottling and a much different wine than the above — quite dry and herbal, with notes of melon complementing a more gentle pear character on the palate. The lengthy finish offers up some of chardonnay’s characteristic buttery sweetness, but keeps things restrained and balanced. B+ / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – Surprisingly lovely, this coastal pinot offers both bright fruit and more sultry notes of licorice, wet earth, and mushroom to add complexity and balance. The finish remains heavily acidic, with tart cherry notes pushing through everything. A great value bottling. A- / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – A very gentle pinot, uncharacteristic of the Russian River, with notes of restrained cherry, licorice, and root beer. The very light body supports these notes, layering in some strawberry character, leading it to a quiet and uncomplicated finish. An easy crowd-pleaser with just enough complexity to make it worth talking about. A- / $24

francisfordcoppolawinery.com

Review: Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition

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Booker’s Rye isn’t the only special edition whiskey hitting from Beam this summer. Slightly under the radar is another limited edition, a 2001 vintage edition of Knob Creek.

Says Beam: “Started by Booker Noe and now finished by his son, Beam Family Master Distiller Fred Noe, Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition Bourbon commemorates a significant year for the brand, when the tradition and responsibility of stewarding Knob Creek Bourbon was passed from father to son. This is the first limited release from Knob Creek Bourbon, as well as the oldest expression to-date from the brand.”

This is a 14 year old bourbon — pretty hefty for a brand that is only 24 years old altogether. There are three batches available, each said to be slightly different — batch 1 sweeter, batch 2 woodier, batch 3 somewhere in between. It’s unclear how this is denoted on the bottles, as well as what batch this review sample was drawn from. (As with many limited editions we cover, this is being reviewed from a small press sample, not a full bottle.)

As for this sample, it’s a very lush and lovely whiskey that evokes Knob Creek at its best. As a refresher, rack Knob Creek is 9 years old, but also 50% alcohol — like this 2001 edition. Comparing the two side by side, the 2001 offers a woody nose with hints of cloves, but on the palate it is notably sweeter, with prominent notes of butterscotch, vanilla ice cream, gingerbread, and Christmas cake. More cloves emerge on the finish, which is lightly bittersweet and flecked with cocoa notes.

In comparison, standard Knob is considerably heavier on the wood, with ample winey/Madeira notes. Here those more biting characteristics have mellowed out to let some intense vanilla character really shine through. It’s definitely a whiskey for someone with a sweet tooth (perhaps this is drawn from batch 1?) — but underneath the surface there’s a true depth of flavor to be discovered.

100 proof.

A / $130 / knobcreek.com

Review: Kilchoman Sanaig

kilchoman Sanaig 2016 Btl Box

Kilchoman’s second permanent release, following Machir Bay, has arrived. Sanaig (seemingly pronounced sann-ig) is named for an inlet northwest of Kilchoman, and unlike Machir Bay, which is partially finished for a few months in sherry barrels, Sanaig spends a “significant” amount of time in Oloroso sherry hogsheads — reportedly 10 months of its total aging time. Otherwise, no age information is being released — an unusual move for the normally forthcoming distillery.

Let’s see how it compares to its big brother.

Clearly heavily sherried, the nose evokes lemony, at times grapefruit-like, aromas, with a hefty underpinning of peat smoke. The body offers a nice interplay between these two components and provides a better balance than we’ve seen in some prior Kilchoman releases, its salty, briny elements providing a compelling counterpoint to both the citrus and the sweet smoke. It’s the barbecue-like smokiness that lingers for quite some time on the finish… and which has me hungry for ribs.

92 proof.

A- / $70 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Gonzalez Byass Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva P.X.

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We visited with Gonzalez Byass and two of its Spanish brandies (including one Lepanto brand) earlier this year. Now we’re back with higher end expression of Lepanto: affectionately abbreviated as Lepanto PX.

Lepanto PX is made from 100% palomino grapes and spends its first 12 years, solera style, in Tio Pepe Fino sherry casks, then does a tour of three years in much darker Pedro Ximenez sherry casks; all told, it is 15 years old.

The beautifully colored, coffee-brown spirit offers aromas of raisin, dried figs, and caramel-heavy banana flambe. On the palate it’s initially an intense spirit (despite the lower alcohol level), folding those dried fruit notes into lingering flavors of coffee, tea leaf, and cocoa powder. The body is ultimately gentle and quite sweet, but this sweetness is never overblown. The brandy takes on a lightly bitter edge as the finish develops, which adds both balance and nuance, its Port-like, raisiny notes lingering for ages.

72 proof.

A- / $60 / gonzalezbyass.com

Review: Firelit Coffee Liqueur

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Firelit is an artisan coffee liqueur, originated in 2009 by Jeff Kessinger, “who developed the original cold brew coffee liqueur formula along with his two high school friends, Marcus Urani and Tyler Warrender, and with the help of James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee Co.” After five years of contract distilling, Kessinger is now producing in his own facility in Napa, California, using a rotating selection of high-end coffee producers as the base for the spirit (currently San Rafael, California-based Weavers Coffee).

Firelit is made thusly, per the company: “The coffee is cold brewed for 18 hours immediately following the roasting process and then is blended with a brandy/coffee infusion. The blend is aged in stainless steel tanks for one full month to allow the ingredients to fully integrate. Before bottling, a cold brew batch of fresh coffee is brewed for proofing.”

Let’s move on to tasting…

This is an authentic coffee liqueur that Java fans will easily enjoy. The nose is heavy with pure coffee bean character, virtually no sweetness is detectable. The body is intense and, again, authentic, offering notes of heavy dark roast coffee, loaded with notes of nuts and bitter cocoa powder. Again, those expecting the sugar rush of Kahlua won’t find it here. This is “coffee, black,” turned into a liqueur. OK, maybe there’s just a hint of cane sugar is added to brighten up the otherwise hardcore experience, but if you’re looking for the real deal in a coffee-flavored spirit, you’ve found it here.

60 proof.

A- / $40 / firelitspirits.com