Review: Craft Distillers Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy

Millard Fillmore

Some of the best American brandy you can buy is coming from Ukiah, California-based Craft Distillers, but said brandy can often cost a pretty penny, if you can find it.

A few years ago, the company decided to see if it could produce a more affordable product that still offered high quality, and 3 1/2 years later, it’s here: Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy.

Naming a brandy after our 13th president — one of the least effective in the country’s history — is auspicious, to say the least, but let’s try not to judge a book by its cover. This brandy takes column-distilled grape spirit from the San Joaquin Valley and blends it with pot-distilled brandy from Germain-Robain’s old timey Cognac stills. The result is a hybrid of styles, but unfortunately it’s not a wholly effective one.

There’s lots of youth on Millard’s nose, both in the form of raw wood and raw alcohol. Gentle fruit notes line its pockets, but this brandy wears its inexperience on its sleeve. On the palate, it’s more of the same: dusty lumberyard character tempered by oily petrol notes, then finally some juicy red berries and plum notes to offer a counterpoint. Notes of licorice, tobacco, and oily leather bring up the rear, though it’s that immature wood character that makes the most lasting impression.

80 proof.

C+ / $35 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Purity Vodka

purity vodka 2

So a funny story about Purity Vodka. I was all set to review Purity in 2010, and then the sample bottle disappeared. My housekeeper stole it, a testament to how pretty the bottle is. I ended up firing her, and forgot all about the Purity review… until now, when at last a new bottle of Purity has appeared on my doorstep, at last ready to review. My current housekeeper doesn’t drink, so this bottle survived unscathed.

Purity hails from Sweden, where its claim to fame is being column distilled 34 times. Those numbers don’t mean a lot in column stills, which tend to be continuous, but you get the idea. Purity, made from a mash of organic winter wheat and malted barley, is supposed to be pure — as neutral as vodka can get. Bottles are numbered and identified by batch.

Purity certainly lives up to its promises. The nose is very slight, with gentle hospital notes touched lightly with sugar, marzipan, and a touch of herbs. The palate is very clean, sweeter by a hair than the nose would indicate, with notes of lemon peel and some macadamia nut notes. The finish stays on the ultralight track, adding some vanilla to the mix.

Final analysis: As vodka goes, it couldn’t be an easier sipper and works easily as a versatile mixing ingredient.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #87.

A- / $28 / purityvodka.com

Review: South Hollow Spirits Dry Line Gin

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Massachusetts-based South Hollow Spirits focuses on rum, but it also makes gin, particularly this bottling, which is, like its rum, made from 100% sugar cane. More specifically, here’s the full process:

Dry Line Cape Cod Gin is a small batch, twice-distilled spirit made from organic sugar cane juice. The sugar cane juice is fermented for three weeks and distilled for the first time before the botanicals are added. After the first distillation, the gin moves to 55 gallon steel drums to spend 48 hours steeping with large hemp bags containing a carefully curated local selection of botanicals, including Eastern Red Cedar juniper berries, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamom, allspice, coriander, orris root, grains of paradise, angelica root, anise, and dried cranberry. This infusion method enables the spirit to absorb essential oils from the botanicals before it is redistilled and brought to its final proof of 94.

That’s a pretty traditional botanical bill (cranberry aside); in fact the use of sugar cane as the fermentation base is the biggest twist. It comes through on the finished product, which offers a nose of light juniper, rosemary, and lots of vanilla-citrus sugar layered underneath the herbs. The palate is extremely soft for a gin of this alcohol level, juniper-restrained and silky with light notes of hazelnuts, cloves, and even some milk chocolate. The finish is sweet and lengthy, folding light herbal notes into some lingering sweetness. All told it’s quite unorthodox for a gin, but surprisingly worthwhile in the unique story it has to tell.

Think of it, perhaps, as a juniper-infused white rum.

94 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #22.

A- / $45 / southhollowspirits.com

Review: Jim Beam Double Oak Twice Barreled Bourbon

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Take a four year old Jim Beam and put it into a newly charred barrel (for indeterminate time) and what do you get? Jim Beam Double Oak, a twice-barreled bourbon that attempts to up the ante on the aging process through another spin through the rinse cycle. This of course isn’t a new idea. Maker’s 46 hit in 2010, and Woodford Reserve launched its Double Oaked Bourbon in 2012. Those of course are positioned as ultra-premium whiskeys, while Beam is, well, Beam is Beam — a fine spirit in its price band but not something you’re going to give to your dad for Christmas.

Jim Beam Double Oak is joining Beam’s permanent lineup in September, and we got a preview of the new juice to give it a full review, so let’s get started.

First a bit of surprise: The nose is relatively restrained but eventually gives up notes of dense wood, baking spice, and some licorice. With air, some leathery notes evolve, ultimately giving it a fairly straightforward, but generally wood-centric focus. The palate offers some added surprises, mainly how low-key it tends to be. I was expecting a big blast of wood but instead got notes of sweet tea, gingerbread, and a quite restrained and gentle wash of lumber on the back end. The finish does have a bit of gritty sawdust character to it, but even that is dialed back and in line with pretty much any mainstream bourbon.

Compared to both Maker’s 46 and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, it’s a night and day experience. Maker’s blends up a complex melange of chocolate, toffee, fruit, and bananas, while Woodford presents a burly frontier style bourbon with winey notes, and a lengthy cocoa-and-coconut finish. Neither of these are particularly overbearing when it comes to wood, but neither are they anything I’d describe as a understated… which is really the first thing that comes to mind with Beam’s Double Oak expression.

86 proof.

B / $22 / jimbeam.com

Review: The Exceptional Blend – Blended Scotch Whisky

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First there was The Exceptional Grain. Then came The Exceptional Malt. Now, of course, the trilogy is complete: The Exceptional Blend, which combines the best of both the grain and malt worlds.

For those unfamiliar, The Exceptional is a line of small batch Scotch whiskies from Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers, and Willie Phillips, former managing director of the Macallan for 23 years. Together they have sourced a variety of grain and malt whisky barrels and put them all together to make this trio of limited release spirits.

While The Exceptional Grain was composed entirely of grain spirits and The Exceptional Malt was purely single malts, The Exceptional Blend contains a bit of both, and includes grain whisky from North British, Strathclyde, and a 33-year old grain whisky from Cameron Bridge, plus mature malts from from Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Balvenie, Kininvie, Glenfiddich, Alt-a’Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Westport, Speyside, and a 30-year-old Macallan. The whisky is finished in first-fill sherry casks before bottling.

The results are impressive and fascinating — this is clearly the best whisky in The Exceptional lineup.

The malt kicks off with an impressively complex nose that includes a fistful of grains, strong aromatic herbal notes including fresh thyme, lavender, and a bit of nutmeg. There’s sweetness mixed in with all of this, gentle citrus-meets-sugar notes that are immediately both austere and enchanting.

On the palate, the whisky feels perhaps a bit simpler than that build-up would indicate, but I prefer to think of it as focused rather than uncomplicated. Sweetened grains kick things off, followed by light notes of dried herbs, melon, and lemon peel. Quite quickly the whisky’s sweetness kicks in, offering almondy nougat notes that burst quickly, followed by touches of gingerbread and Christmas spice. These notes take you through to the finish, which lingers without overstaying its welcome.

Again, it’s the clear winner of the Exceptional line, and a solid blended whisky in its own right.

86 proof. 1200 bottles produced.

A / $120 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Pasote Tequila

Pasote_Trio

Sonoma-based August Sebastiani’s 3 Badge Beverage Corp. (the new name behind Kirk & Sweeney rums, Uncle Val’s gins, and others) has launched its first tequila: Pasote, which is made by Felipe Camerena in the Los Altos region of Jalisco.

Made in part with rainwater instead of just spring water, it’s made using traditional methods and bottled in antique-style glass. The reposado and anejo are aged in former, American oak bourbon barrels. We got all three expressions for review. Thoughts on each of the bottlings follow.

Each expression is 80 proof.

Pasote Blanco Tequila – Unaged, silver tequila. The nose is heavily peppered, with notes of citrus and a serious, agave undertone. A blast of lemon and green agave invade the palate straight away, building across a moderately oily palate to what emerges as a bold and herb-heavy finish. That finish is lasting as it sticks to the palate, offering a lingering expression of crisp, clean agave, unadulterated by any significant secondary character. B / $49

Pasote Reposado Tequila – Aged six months in oak. This is quite a tequila, taking that intense agave core as discussed above and filtering it through a very gentle, almost subtle filter of brown sugar and creme brulee. This reposado doesn’t reinvent tequila, but the balance between these two components is phenomenal, deftly threading the needle between sweet and savory spice with amazing aplomb — offering light pepper notes, cinnamon, lemon, and butterscotch, all in impressive balance. Reposado tequila can often turn into a middling middle ground between blanco and anejo, but Pasote’s shows how well-crafted this style can be. A / $59

Pasote Anejo Tequila – This anejo spends 18 months in oak, but it’s still decidedly light in color. This expression drinks a lot like a reposado, just pushed further along to the sweeter end of the spectrum. It’s still a very well-crafted tequila, its herbal characters tamped down and its sweetness dialed up. Here the overall palate takes on notes of marshmallow, vanilla, light caramel, and some cinnamon-scented Mexican chocolate notes. The agave may be dialed back, but it’s still present, kicking around primarily on the nose as well as a spicy reminder that hits well into the finish. It’s deftly handled and still light as a feather, but a worthwhile counterpart to some of the industry’s more overbearing anejos. A- / $69

3badge.com

Review: The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve, Sherry Cask Reserve, Vintage Reserve, and Peated Cask Reserve

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It’s a quartet of Glenrothes single malts today… all part of the new Reserve Collection that Glenrothes formally launched in 2015. These all arrive as new Malt Master Gordon Motion takes over from the venerable John Ramsay.

The first three whiskies reviewed here — Bourbon Cask Reserve, Sherry Cask Reserve, and Vintage Reserve — are each available separately as regular 750ml bottles, or as part of a “tri-set” of three 100ml bottles ($40). The newcomer, Peated Cask Reserve, is available on its own for now. Details on what’s inside each of these bottlings follow, along with a review, of course.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve – As the name implies, this whisky is exclusively drawn from bourbon cask-matured spirits from a range of years, though no specific age information is offered. The whisky drinks a lot like you’d expect from a bourbon casked single malt, with fresh grain up front followed by notes of caramel, coconut, chocolate malt balls, and a heavy nut character, both on the nose and the palate. There’s quite a bit of charcoal, tobacco, and scorched hazelnut on the back end, followed by notes of menthol. Again, it’s a classic bourbon-matured spirit, a fine example of the “base” style of single malts — those made without a finishing cask — but nothing that will feel at all unfamiliar to Scotch regulars. B / $50

The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve – The first all first-fill sherry cask expression from The Glenrothes, matured predominantly in European oak instead of American oak. Again, no age statement; this is a blend of sherry casks of different vintages. It’s not a completely iconic example of sherry cask malt, its orange peel aromas overpowered by notes of almonds and a small touch of mint. On the palate, the citrus finds a natural companion in notes of ginger and baking spice — particularly cloves. The finish is warming and considerably longer than the Bourbon Cask Reserve, quite satisfying as lingering caramel and gentle orange notes are the last to fade. A- / $50

The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve – This expression is a mutt of a whisky, representing a vatting of a variety of vintages and cask types that includes whisky from each of the following years: 1989, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. The greatest proportion of whisky comes from the 1998 vintage. (How refreshingly transparent, eh?) The malt shows off a range of styles, coming together in a nicely balanced fashion. The nose is classic Speyside, as is the attack. Chewy, malty cereals kick things off on the palate before a wave of flavors driven by gentle citrus notes and some cinnamon bun-heavy baking spice arrive on the back end. The body feels a little thin, the finish a bit rushed, but on the whole it presents a balanced, if unsurprising, vision of Speyside. B+ / $50

The Glenrothes Peated Cask Reserve – Like any good Speyside operation, Glenrothes doesn’t peat its whisky, but with this semi-experimental release, the distillery took the Vintage 1992 single malt and gave it a temporary finishing in a used Islay cask. The idea: “to reflect a time in the distillery’s history when it formed an association with the Islay Distillery Co Ltd. in 1887.” The gentle peat on this whisky’s nose is about as innocuous as smoke can get in a peated malt. Here the lick of iodine and coal fire smoke meld quite well with an otherwise lightly sweet body, which offers notes of heather, nougat, and a light lacing of herbs. The finish brings both worlds together with aplomb — it’s got just the right mix of smoky to go with the sweet and smoky — although the whisky’s body is so light on the whole that it ultimately doesn’t leave that much of an impression. See also The Balvenie, which previously released a peated cask expression to high acclaim. B+ / $55

theglenrothes.com