Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 39.99 and 95.19

Every year our friends at the SMWS send us a couple of recent releases to sample and enjoy. Some quick thoughts on a couple of nice little indie releases follow.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 39.99 – Linkwood from Speyside, 23 years in refill (bourbon) hogsheads. Distilled in April 1990. Curious and atypical iodine and seaweed notes hit the nose up front, very strange notes for Speyside whisky. These are backed by notes of grains, cinnamon rolls, mixed nuts, some citrus, and light vanilla. On the palate, this cask strength spirit is surprisingly easy to sip on, offering notes of marzipan, ripe banana, spiced nuts, and a lengthy finish that pours on the flamed citrus oil notes. It’s here where things finally start to get a little racy, the alcohol kicked up a notch as it warms and soothes. It’s not a whisky that feels like it’s got 23 years under its belt, but it’s a very capable sipper nonetheless. 117.8 proof. B+ / $185

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 95.19 – Auchroisk from Speyside, 17 years in refill hogsheads. Distilled in August 1997. Pale straw in color, it seems set up to be mild and youthful. That’s not the case here, as this whisky cuts a shockingly powerful profile. The nose is a bit astringent and hot — though this is hardly a blazer of a spirit. Light medicinal character, savory herbs, incense, and some green bell pepper get things started. I know, that hardly sounds like a recipe for excitement, but stick with me for a bit and take a sip or two. On the palate, the whisky explodes with flavor — caramel collides with spearmint, burnt honey runs with gently fruity notes, including raspberry and hints of strawberry. The finish is hot but offers a denouement of roasted grains and a bit of citrus peel… all of which leaves one with a big question: How is so much flavor packed into such a mild-looking spirit that offers no hints of it on its nose? Answers are far from forthcoming. 106.4 proof. A- / $150

smwsa.com

Review: Azzurre Gin

AzzurreGin_Bottle_PRESSBased in Las Vegas and produced in Mountain View, California, Azzurre Gin is a spirit unlike any other — and this is coming from a guy that’s seen an awful lot of spirits. The brainchild of corporate finance veteran Dan Pettit, the gin is made from a distillate that is bizarre to say the least: It’s made from 33% apple, 33% grape, and 34% sugar cane. Let’s call it a third of each.

Botanicals aren’t fully revealed, but the bill does include tangerine, grapefruit, ginger, basil and rose petals — all of which are designed, per Azzurre, to tame the juniper character.

Despite all that, the nose is surprisingly traditional, with dominant juniper notes along with notes of licorice and some nutty elements. Over time, a sweetness emerges on the nose, once the juniper has time to fade a bit. Given this introduction, the body comes across as sweeter than expected, fruity with a melange of peach, blood orange, grapefruit, and apricot notes up front. The finish however turns somewhat herbal and occasionally vegetal, with echoes of evergreen. As a gin, what I find definitively missing are the earthy characters that really round out a solid gin. I was excited about the tangerine/grapefruit idea — but they don’t really come through cleanly and clearly enough.

80 proof.

B- / $NA / azzurrespirits.com

Review: 2014 Hahn GSM Central Coast

Hahn_GSM_2014Chocolate-covered blueberries explode in this rich grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend (65%, 31%, 4% — in that order). That burst of flavor — backed by some cinnamon and notes of currants — is an initial rush, but an overwhelming sweetness arrives soon after, quickly giving the body a raisiny/pruny quality that works against it as a table wine. The finish is dense and lengthy but on the saccharine side.

C+ / $12 / hahnwines.com

Review: Vikre Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit Lineup

vikre spruce white bkgrdDuluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, is the home of Vikre Distillery, which takes a localvore approach to making a wide range of (mostly white) spirits, using local grains, herbs, and water from the lake next door to make its craft spirits. The six spirits below — 1 vodka, 3 gins, and 2 aquavits — represent the bulk (but not all) of Vikre’s production. Who’s ready to take the plunge into the production from this neighbor from the Great White North?

Join us.

Vikre Lake Superior Vodka – Distilled from malted barley. Very mild, clean, and fresh. The nose is gentle but hints at hospital notes. On the palate, light sweetness starts things off, but the overall impression is surprisingly clean and pure. Only on the finish do some secondary notes start to emerge… a dusting of bee pollen, some thyme and rosemary, and a pinch of cinnamon. Surprisingly well done and nearly perfect in its balance. 80 proof. A / $35

Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin – Purportedly a traditional dry gin, including standard (local) botanicals plus rhubarb. One whiff and this is anything but traditional — quite sweet on the nose, at offers heavily fruity notes and an intensely floral/rose petal undercarriage. The body hones in on that sweet-and-sour rhubarb, confectioner’s sugar, a mild slug of juniper, and chocolate notes on the finish. I know what you’re thinking: What a random collection of flavors. And so am I. Calling this a “Juniper Gin” leaves me a bit bewildered. 90 proof. C / $35

Vikre Boreal Spruce Gin – Spruce is the primary botanical here, as you might expect. The overall impact is a lot closer to a traditional gin than the Juniper Gin above, though again it carries with it a sweetness that is unexpected. Piney notes mingle with brown sugar and, again, more indistinct florals and perfume notes. Here, the balance is a bit more appropriate, as the spruce character is brought up to where it needs to be, and the sweeter elements are dialed back. Still, it’s an unconventional gin that will need the right audience. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin – This one was fun because I’m allergic to live cedar, so I was excited to see if I would break out in hives from drinking a gin flavored with cedar wood (along with wild sumac and currants). I didn’t, and I wasn’t in love with the gin, either. The nose is much different than the two above gins — musty and mushroomy on the nose, with a medicinal note and some evergreen beneath that. Again, the body is quite sweet — the currants are distinct — with a slurry of notes that include ripe banana, fresh rosemary, and some nutty characteristics. Pumped up evergreen on the body tends again to give this a more balanced structure, but the overall character is, again, a little out there. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Ovrevann Aquavit – It’s actually Øvrevann Aquavit, but I have no idea if that’s going to render properly online. Caraway, cardamom, and orange peel are infused into this traditionally-focused aquavit, which is a more savory, herbal meditation on gin. Appropriately Old World, it layers exotic, caraway-driven, Middle-Eastern-bazaar notes with touches of licorice, juicy citrus, seaweed, and light sandalwood notes. Credible on its own, but it probably works best as a substitute for gin, cutting a profile that was probably along the lines of what Bombay Sapphire East was going for. 88 proof. B / $35

Vikre Voyageur Aquavit Cognac Cask Finished – The above aquavit, finished (for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give the spirit a gentle yellow hue) in used Cognac casks. I like the combination a lot. The nose features a fruitiness that Ovrevann doesn’t have, plus a touch of barrel char that adds mystique. This leads to stronger licorice notes on the nose, plus notes of cloves, raisins (a clear Cognac contributor), menthol and spearmint, and a lingering, herbal finish. The Cognac balances out the sweet and savory notes in the spirit, giving this a well-rounded yet entirely unique character that’s worth exploring. 86 proof. A- / $57

vikredistillery.com

Review: Virginia Dare 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

virginia dareThe latest addition to Francis Ford Coppola’s growing wine empire, Virginia Dare Winery is a Sonoma-based operation with an old-timey feel. “American Wines Since 1835” is a bit of an odd thing to say for a winery that was founded in 2015, but it turns out the name has been around for quite a bit longer than that.

The story of the Virginia Dare Winery began with North Carolina’s first commercial winery, Medoc Vineyard, which opened in 1835. Two businessmen, known as the Garrett brothers, purchased the property in 1865 calling it Garrett & Company. They began producing the Virginia Dare label which quickly became one of the nation’s top selling wines. With the start of Prohibition in 1919, Garrett & Company was forced to move, first to Brooklyn, New York, and then to Cucamonga, California, where the business transformed into the Virginia Dare Winery. It was one of the first wineries to sell wine after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and was considered a booming business for much of the late 40s and 50s, but eventually saw turmoil and nearly faded into history.

So who is Virginia Dare? Born in 1587, she was the first English child born in the British colonies, and she was named after the land in which she was birthed. There’s a lot of mythology around Dare — none of it wine-related — but digging into all that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thoughts on the two inaugural wines follow.

2014 Virginia Dare Chardonnay Russian River Valley – This is a chardonnay with restraint. It shows the usual oak and brown butter notes, but aromas of lime zest and herbs add some nuance to the typical character. The overall impression is surprisingly restrained and fruit-forward — an easy, everyday white that still has some class. B+ / $25

2014 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – A perfectly pleasant pinot, like the chardonnay it showcases restraint while engaging with notes of blackberry, ground black pepper, and a slug of black olives. That sounds awfully black, I now realize, but everything is dialed back and kept in harmony — perhaps it’s dialed back a little too far. Again, it’s a simple wine, but it has lots of charm, particularly at this price point. B+ / $25

virginiadarewinery.com

Review: Sipsmith V.J.O.P. Gin and Sloe Gin

sipsmith (2)

Sipsmith isn’t content to just make a single gin in its garage of an operation in London, England. It actually produces a range of artisan spirits and fortified wines — including the two reviewed below, which are exported to the U.S.

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy (pictured) was recently in my neck of the woods, and we sat down with the Sipsmith portfolio for tasting and exploration. (After the meeting he sent me home with the two below bottles, which I reviewed later on my own.)

sipsmith (1)The highlight of the meeting had nothing to do with the company’s commercially available products, though. Rather, it was a trio of samples that Galsworthy had brought in unmarked bottles. These bottles represented in-progress Sipsmith London Dry gin at three different stages off the still. After the heads portion is cut, it takes about three hours for the gin to complete its distillation (until the tails arrive). Galsworthy presented the evolution of Sipsmith London Dry, one hour at a time. After the first hour, the gin showcases clear citrus notes, almost like an orange vodka. It isn’t until the second hour that the juniper really starts to show, with earthier notes coming to the fore during hour three. I didn’t write up any significant notes on these samples since they aren’t actual products for sale, but it was a lot of fun to see how a spirit evolves over a short amount of time during the distillation process. (Click on the chart above for a little more detail.)

Fun stuff, but let’s look at two commercially available Sipsmith bottlings.

Sipsmith Signature Edition Series V.J.O.P. Gin – This is the same botanical mix as standard Sipsmith London Dry — but with three times the juniper and a three day maceration instead of one day. The results are as expected — palpably piney. Juniper is overwhelming on the nose, to the exclusion of nearly anything else in the botanical bill. On the palate, it’s crushingly juniper-forward and very hot (just look at that proof). Water coaxes out more notes — though the juniper dominates from front to back, it features fresh orange, some brown sugar, licorice, and a touch of cinnamon. While it’s an overwhelming experience, it’s not an unsatisfying one — the juniper finishing on a clean and refreshing note. While I’m not normally fond of juniper-heavy gins, Sipsmith’s V.J.O.P. (“Very Junipery Over Proof”) is quite a compelling beast that lets you know from the get-go what its intentions are, and follows through with style. 115.4 proof. A- / $52

Sipsmith Sloe Gin Special Edition 2013 – Sipsmith only makes a sloe gin on an occasional basis (the photo on its website is a 2010 bottling), so I have no idea if this is the current edition. Why vintage? Because sloe berries are an annual harvest, and these are picked in the wild of West Country, UK, in the autumn. The London Dry gin is rested on these berries for 3 to 4 months before bottling. The company says each vintage does indeed taste different, but 2013 is “noteworthy.” Sloe gin often has a cough syrup character to it — it’s really not meant for straight sipping — and Sipsmith’s offers a powerful and pungent character that grabs you by the throat right away. The nose features aromas of dense raspberry and melted Jolly Ranchers, but the body is extremely tart, the hallmark of sloe gin. It comes on strong with an intense herbal overtone, notes of bitter chocolate, and orange rind. All in all, it’s pretty much exactly what you want a good sloe gin to be — sweet and sour in solid balance, with a distinct weirdness you can’t quite place. 58 proof. A- / $43

sipsmith.com

Review: Vida Tequila Reposado

vida reposado_newWe did the Blanco. We did the Anejo. Now it’s time for the final frontier, Vida Tequila’s Reposado bottling.

This tequila, aged a relatively lengthy six months in barrel before bottling, offers a quiet nose that is mostly sweeter notes. At first sip, it evokes gentle notes of caramel flan, melding burnt sugar with a dense creaminess. As it evolves on the palate, peppery agave comes to the fore, but it’s held in check by the sweetness, which turns toward notes of banana and a little milk chocolate.

All told, it’s got spice, it’s got sweetness, it’s got moments of brilliance, but mixes well while also drinking well on its own. A very well made reposado.

80 proof.

A- / $58 / vidatequila.com

Review: NV Faire la Fete Brut Cremant de Limoux

CSrDIbkVAAEV7FoA sparkler from France’s Languedoc region (the Limoux AOC dates back only to 2005), Faire la Fete is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and chenin blanc grapes.

It’s an intriguing wine — very fruit-forward, with a moderate level of fizz. The palate includes notes of fresh apple, tangerine, banana, and light floral touches. The finish is clean and quick, making this almost perfect for a pre-dinner sipper. It may be a wholly unserious wine, but it’s the perfect bottle to crack open at the beginning of a celebration.

A- / $20 / fairelafetewines.com

Review: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky

famous grouseThe Famous Grouse — a blended whiskey made by the same folks that produce Highland Park and The Macallan, including a significant sherry cask regimen — is a major player in the blended world. (It is the best-selling whisky in Scotland, so that’s saying something.) Somehow it’s escaped our review (though the more recent Black Grouse did get a writeup in 2010) — until now.

It’s easy to see why the Famous Grouse is so well-liked — it’s a baby Macallan at a fraction of the price.

The sherry doesn’t take long to make its presence known — big, sharp, and juicy, it’s got a powerful punch of citrus peels and a squirt of clementine juice that hits the senses right away. Toasted brioche notes are sizeable underneath all that citrus, but the overall aroma is altogether gentle and inviting.

On the palate, the juicy rush is palpable, offering notes of both grapefruit and satsumas, amply sherried with some winey/oxidized notes. As this fades, a stronger grain character hits; what is restrained on the nose is more palpable on the tongue, and as the sherry washes away, the toasty/bready character dominates the palate in full. Secondary characteristics include touches of heather, honey, and a hint of nutmeg — but none of this is overwhelming or particularly pushy.

The finish is more astringent than I’d like, with a slightly chewy mushroom quality and some more raw alcohol character that is a bit at odds with what’s come before, but given the price of the whisky and the pedigree of its makeup, it’s hard to complain too vociferously.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / thefamousgrouse.com

Review: 2013 Carmel Road Pinot Noir Monterey Drew’s Blend

Carmel Road 2013 Drew's Blend PNWho is Drew, you ask? Drew Barrymore, that’s who.

America’s favorite ’80s star is the name brand behind this wine, produced with winemaker Kris Kato, which is a delightful little pinot from the little-known label Carmel Road.

Drew’s Blend is a precious wine, gentle on the palate but studded with notes of cherry, tea leaf, eucalyptus, and a squeeze of citrus. Very light on its feet, it is quaffable on its own and pairs well with food, too. It worked delightfully well with a butter-sauteed shrimp and spiced tomato rice dish. Notes of black pepper mingle with mint tea on the finish.

A- / $28 / carmelroad.com