Review: J. Wray & Nephew Silver Rum, Gold Rum, and Overproof Rum

Jamaica’s J. Wray & Nephew — or just Wray & Nephew — lays claim to being the #1 producer of rum in the country, and when you consider that the company makes both Appleton and Captain Morgan, it’s a claim that’s not hard to believe. Wray & Nephew also makes pot-distilled rum that is released under its own label, some of it highly sought-after by rum aficionados. Recently, Wray & Nephew’s entry-level bottles, a white and a gold rum, both finally made it to the U.S., joining the company’s renowned overproof expression.

Let’s find out what the fuss is all about.

J. Wray & Nephew Silver Rum – This is an aged rum, filtered to white. I will go on record and tell you this is one of the best white rums I’ve ever encountered. Gentle but full of depth, it offers a nose of toasted coconut, vanilla, fresh cream, and just a hint of hospital character. On the palate, the expect rush of rubber cement flavor so typical in white rum is absent. Just supple coconut and light caramel, sweet vanilla cream, and subtle banana notes. The finish is clean, just a touch rubbery (to remind you it’s rum, of course), but fresh and quite versatile. Everything a white rum should be — a clear winner. (Get it!?) 80 proof. A / $25

J. Wray & Nephew Gold Rum – Aged (and indeed gold in color) but with no particulars attached. This has an immediately much more pungent nose, with notes of mushroom, red bean paste, burnt toast, and barrel char. It settles down on the palate, bringing out a sweeter side that showcases toffee, coconut, vanilla, and some baking spice notes. There’s more complexity here than in the silver, but you’ll find this kind of richness more commonly in a number of other rums in this category, which makes it a bit less unique. 80 proof. A- / $25

J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum – This is the flagship rum from Wray and the rum with which most American drinkers will be familiar. This is familiar instantly on the nose, with a mixture of citrus and petrol notes, very aromatic with florals and the raw alcoholic notes one expects from an overproof rum. The body is a bit tougher and astringent, slightly charcoal-dusted but otherwise intense with fruit, both citrus and tropical, with overtones of overripe banana, bubble gum, and a touch of eucalyptus on the finish. Surprisingly approachable despite the heavy alcohol level. 126 proof. A- / $19

camparigroup.com

Book Review: The Big Man of Jim Beam

With all the hubbub over half-recanted price hikes of Booker’s Bourbon, it’s an inauspicious time to be releasing The Big Man of Jim Beam, a biography of the Beam distiller which Booker’s is named after: Booker Noe.

Noe died in 2004, so this book, written by Jim Kokoris, is quite distanced from the man himself. And maybe that’s fine. The Big Man of Jim Beam is a dutiful, authentic, and clearly 100% authorized exploration of the man who was, by all accounts, larger than life. (He was, after all, called “the big man.”) Such a strange choice then to encase his life story in a pocket-sized book that measures barely over 5″ by 7″.

Kokoris is a no-nonsense writer, so don’t expect a ton of fluff as we go from Noe’s childhood to his early days as a distiller to his ascendency at Beam to lean times in the ’70s and ’80s to the creation of his baby, Booker’s Bourbon. (Curious why Booker’s is sold in wine bottles? Read the book to find out!) The anecdotes about Noe’s life are plentiful yet thin, though it is fun to imagine Noe trying to smuggle foie gras back from France, wrapped up in his underwear. Kokoris even manages to wrangle some pathos out of Noe’s dying days (diabetes) and deathbed wishes.

I never met Booker Noe, but I’ve heard plenty of stories from his contemporaries and successors, and it’s fun enough to encounter them again in this tome. One wishes the prose were a bit more lively, however — and particularly that it had been more closely edited. A “pallet” is something you might put cases of bottled whiskey on for transportation. What the writer (and Noe) surely mean when discussing the experience of tasting whiskey is a “palate.”

B- / $24 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: 2014 La Follette Chardonnay and Pinot Noir North Coast

It’s been many years since I dined with Greg La Follette, back when he was making wine under the Tandem label. Now La Follette has a label under his own name, and his North Coast-sourced 2014 releases are here. Let’s give them a try.

2014 La Follette Chardonnay North Coast – Vanilla cookie notes are heavy on the nose, but tempered by clear notes of lemon and toasty brioche buns. The body is quite bold and rounded, but it’s nonetheless fresh and lively, with a lasting finish that works well alone or with food. An excellent example of a big California chardonnay that is dialed back just the right amount. A- / $22

2014 La Follette Pinot Noir North Coast – Moderate body, with notes of blackberry and dark cherry, tempered through light vanilla and gentle, toasty wood. There’s an undercurrent of licorice-loaded tannins here, but it’s kept in check by a gentle sweetness and a distinct silkiness on the palate. A- / $22

lafollettewines.com

Review: Nomad Outland Whisky

“Born in Scotland and raised in Jerez, Spain.” So says the tagline on Nomad Outland Whisky, and it’s not just a euphemism for the typical sherry cask finishing: Nomad is a blend of of some 30-plus five to eight year old malt and grain whiskies from Scotland that are aged for three years in their homeland, then physically shipped to Jerez, Spain, where they spend at least another year in old Pedro Ximenez casks.

As blends go, you won’t find much like it — and if you’re a hardcore sherried whisky fan you’ll want to snap up a bottle to experience.

Nutty on the nose, Nomad offers heavy overtones of maple syrup, vanilla, and orange peel that wash over the drinker. On the palate, the body plays up that sticky-sweetness with notes of blackberry jam, molasses, and sticky toffee. Heavy notes of oxidized Madeira wine (or aged sherry) endure on the finish. If you’re getting the impression this is a sweet and sherry-forward whisky, then at least I’m doing my job halfway decently, but the truth is Nomad isn’t so much sherry-forward as it is sherry-laser-focused, as if it’s actually a blend of aged sherry and Scotch, with the focus bent more toward the former.

Sherry-heavy whisky isn’t unusual in the world of Scotch, but Nomad is something else entirely. Raised in Jerez, Spain? You better believe it.

82.6 proof.

B / $45 / gonzalezbyass.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTER OF MALT]

Review: Wines of Lula Cellars, 2016 Releases

Mendocino’s Lula Cellars is the brainchild of winemaker Jeff Hansen, who produces a number of traditional Anderson Valley varietals in his Philo facility. Today we look at three of the winery’s new releases (all from late 2016), a pair of pinots and a zinfandel.

2013 Lula Cellars Pinot Noir Mendocino – Fairly burly, even by Mendocino standards, offering notes of blackberry, tea leaf, bitter herbs, and tobacco all wrapped up in a slightly earthy, mushroom-tinged body. The fruit endures to the end, but it’s tempered by a powerful grip that, at times, feels a bit out of place. B+ / $45

2013 Lula Cellars Pinot Noir Costa Vineyard Mendocino – This single-vineyard pinot is a clear step up from the more general bottling, and it finds a bolder body pairing nicely with expressive blueberry, cherry, and a denser, more powerful tea character. The blackberry notes in the above wine are more evident on the juicy finish, which is tempered with just a touch of herbal, earthy bitterness. A beautiful, versatile wine through and through. Oddly, it’s the same price as the non-single-vineyard Mendocino bottling; absolutely this is the one to get. A / $45

2014 Lula Cellars Zinfandel Mariah Vineyard Mendocino – A softer zin, Lula’s Mendo bottling offers notes of cola, chocolate-covered cherries, and a touch of vanilla, particularly evident on the back end. Some tannins give the wine a bit of grip, but they’re kept in check by the lightly sweet body and silky finish. B+ / $29

lulacellars.com

Review: Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Vodka Vodka

We were big fans of Sonoma-distilled D. George Benham’s gin, so it made natural sense to take a spin with its vodka. The title above isn’t a typo: This is “Vodka Vodka,” or “vodka-flavored vodka,” in the parlance of Graton Distilling, a nod to the purported purity of the spirit. That moniker didn’t pass legal muster, though, so “Vodka Vodka” it was.

This is a curious vodka, with four individual distillates of grapes, organic white wheat, rye wheat, and red cracked wheat all blended together, proofed, and filtered through charcoal. The nose is simple but pleasant, lightly dusty with charcoal notes and hints of grain but otherwise it’s quite neutral.

On the palate, you can see why they wanted to call it “vodka-flavored vodka.” Quite neutral and flavorless at the start, it nods to old world vodkas with a light medicinality, before slowly passing through a gentle vegetal note, finally settling on a lightly lemon-sweet finish. Easygoing to a fault, its round and lightly creamy body is probably better designed for mixing rather than sipping straight, where a sharper spirit works better, but all told it’s a versatile spirit that will work for just about anything, in a pinch.

80 proof.

B+ / $28 / gratondistilling.com

Review: Stateside Urbancraft Vodka

Philadelphia-based Federal Distilling’s inaugural Stateside Urbancraft Vodka does not disappoint.

Beginning with the fun flip-top bottle and ending with the seamless  finish, this is a very enjoyable vodka. Distilled seven times and aerated with “medical grade oxygen,” Stateside has a very pleasant, gin-like juniper and citrus nose upon first approach. The vodka drinks cleanly and is well-balanced. On the palate there are hints of grapefruit and spring rain, and a very subtle sweetness reminiscent of the corn used to distill it. The vodka’s finish is very well-structured, leaving only the citrus notes to play with a little residual sweetness.

Overall, it’s a well balanced vodka that is very enjoyable neat or as the base for an exemplary martini.

80 proof.

A / $30 / statesidevodka.com

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