Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy 525x323 Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

santafespirits.com

Review: Widow Jane “Heirloom Varietal” Bourbon Whiskeys

widow jane heirloom bourbons Review: Widow Jane Heirloom Varietal Bourbon Whiskeys

The Scots have messed around with single-varietal barley expressions of Scotch for years — so why not Bourbon? Does the type of corn used to make Bourbon make a difference, too?

You’d think this kind of experiment would be performed by the brain trust at Buffalo Trace, which never stops experimenting and releasing the results of those experiments for you and I to tipple on. But this experiment is being done, oddly enough, in the state of New York, by the good folks who make the impressive Widow Jane craft Bourbon.

This is not sourced whiskey, like Widow Jane’s 7 Year Old expression, but rather whiskey distilled right in Widow Jane’s Brooklyn-based stills. Three expressions are offered, one using Wapsie Valley corn, a hybrid of American Indian corn that was farmed in Iowa. The other varietal is Bloody Butcher corn, “bred by crossing Native American seeds with settlers’ white seeds around 1800, in the Appalachian mountains.” One of the Bloody Butcher varieties is a “high rye” expression, using the same corn. (More appropriately: the other variety is a “no rye” expression.)

All three of these are young spirits. No age statements are offered, but the mashbills are detailed exactly. All three are bottled at 91.8 proof. Thoughts, as always, follow.

Prices reflect 375ml bottles (gulp).

Widow Jane Wapsie Valley Single Expression Bourbon - 60% organic Wapsie Valley corn (mixed yellow and red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 25% rye. Nutty, almost smoky, with exuberant corn notes. The body starts off a bit brash and overpowering with popcorn notes, but these settle down a bit to reveal some notes of maple syrup and honey. That intense, smoky corn character lingers. B / $115

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher Single Expression Bourbon - 85% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley. How to put this? Even cornier, and smokier — with a touch of that maple syrup character. While the nose is a bit rougher (85% corn will do that), the body brings on ample sweetness, like a cola syrup, up front. Racy with spice, big cinnamon notes that do a good job at massaging some of the cornier notes and the rougher edges. A- / $125

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher High Rye Bourbon - 58% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 27% rye. Similar nose as the above, perhaps a bit gentler, with graham cracker and Bit-O-Honey notes. Cleaner on the body, too, which turns toward mint in the mid-palate, but finishes on the hot and indistinct side. B+ / $135

widowjane.com/heirloom/

Review: Neige Apple Ice Wine

neige 300x300 Review: Neige Apple Ice WineYou can make wine out of any fruit, including apples. So what about ice wine? From frozen apples? Why not.

Neige (which means “snow”) is made in Canada and imported by Boisset. It’s not really made from frozen winter apples but rather from apples picked in the fall which are then juiced, the juice frozen and concentrated into syrup, and then fermented into wine.

The nose of the wine is a bit on the hoary side — more apple seed than apple fruit. Underneath there’s a hint of fruit, but it needs time in the glass to develop. On the body, a rush of sweet fruit hits you first. The character then turns back toward a woody, cider-like character as the finish arrives, slightly sour but curiously interesting, at least for a wee glass.

13% abv.

B- / $35 (375ml bottle) / boissetfamilyestates.com

Review: 2012 FEL Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

FEL CH AndersonValley 12 198x300 Review: 2012 FEL Chardonnay and Pinot NoirFormerly known as Breggo, FEL is a new label for this winery, but little else has changed. Perhaps the biggest name, aside from a name switcheroo which now honors owner Cliff Lede‘s mother, is the discontinuation of Breggo’s old Riesling and Gewurztraminer bottlings. Thoughts on the remaining wines (the Pinot Gris wasn’t tasted) follow.

2012 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley – Unoaked, brisk with notes of vanilla and lemon up front, then fading to butterscotch, light caramel, and slightly tart lemon custard on the finish. Extremely food friendly and fun. A big win for Chardonnay haters. A- / $28

2012 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley - Simple Pinot that doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The mild cherry also offers some sweet vanilla, and a slightly sweet finish gives this wine a pretty, pre-dinner feel to it, though it stands up well against foods like barbecue, where the fruit-forward character helps cut the spice. Nothing fancy, but worthwhile. B+ / $38

felwines.com

Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private Reserve

millbrook distillery bourbon 240x300 Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private ReserveThat’s a mouthful of a name for this Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie area), New York-based spirit, a sourced whiskey made from a corn/rye/barley mashbill. Little else is disclosed, including age.

Woody on the nose, there’s depth here that recalls brandied cherries and Christmas cake. The body, however, is surprisingly sweet, with a distinct honey tone to it. Sultry, slightly earthy notes add body, with a fruity character (apples and plums, perhaps) providing some nuance. The finish veers a bit into wood oil territory, but on the whole it’s a well-balanced bourbon with lots to recommend it.

90 proof.

A- / $37 / millbrookdistillery.com

Review: Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy and Immunity

Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy Open Display  53466.1367463494.1280.1280 224x300 Review: Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy and Immunity Ola! Yerba Mate! Green tea! Hawaiian Ola’s Noni energy and immunity shots sure do sound like they’re going to be good for you. Packed with organic, GMO-free juices from a bunch of crazy looking Hawaiian fruits, these now-familiar shots are a way to get your morning jolt and at least feel a little better about what you’re drinking. Brief thoughts on the two varieties follow.

Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy – A nose of canned peaches and over-ripe apples. Much of both on the palate, with an incredibly bittersweet aftertaste, likely caused by the addition of 150mg of caffeine. Better than most “energy shots.” Try it chilled. Made me jumpy, but I don’t drink anywhere near that much caffeine on a typical day. B-

Hawaiian Ola Noni Immunity – Essentially a caffeine-free version of the above, with double the sugar and some added vitamins in the mix. Much more palatable without the gritty bitterness in it, but this time it’s a bit too sweet on the finish. Again, best chilled. B+

each about $3 per 2.5 oz. bottle / website non-functional

Review: 2011 Cliff Lede and Moondance Dream Cabernet Sauvignon

cliff lede 2011 198x300 Review: 2011 Cliff Lede and Moondance Dream Cabernet SauvignonNew 2011 Cabs from Cliff Lede, one of Napa’s blue chip bottlers. Surprising thoughts follow…

2011 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Stags Leap District – A big misstep for the normally spot-on Cliff Lede. This ultra-premium Cab has lost all its body, coming across as flabby and pruny, without the barest hint of acidity to keep things alive. The nose is restrained, too, offering some currant but mostly chocolate notes, leaving the body to try to work with notes that approximate a warmed-over, raspberry-inflected melted Hershey bar. C+ / $75

2011 Moondance Dream Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District – Cliff Lede’s blue chip bottling. A massive improvement over this year’s standard edition, a lush but restrained expression of pure Cabernet, gorgeous with distinct black pepper inflections atop currant jelly. The body is less racy than the nose would indicate, with silky, but not quite jammy, notes of cassis and red berries, layered with mild cedar wood notes. Hints of spice come back around on the finish. Beautiful. A / $95

cliffledevineyards.com

Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp Brewing

base camp Smore Stout Bottle small Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp BrewingLike any good craft brewer, Portland, Oregon-based Base Camp makes a dozen-plus different beers, some with very exotic compositions. Unlike most craft brewers, it then puts these beers into oversized 22 oz. aluminum bottles, which are “made for adventure.”

We tested four of the company’s brews. Thoughts follow. 

Base Camp Brewing In-Tents IPL – An unusual copper-colored India Pale Lager. Deep forest notes and cedar closet on the nose. The body is equal parts IPA and malty lager, but the earthy, almost musty finish that develops (thanks to the beer being aged in oak barrels) is a bit too much, overpowering some of the delicate pine notes up front. 6.8% abv. B

Base Camp Brewing Ripstop Rye Pils – A German pilsner with the addition of rye malt. This is a beautiful combination, the pilsner lush and rounded, and the rye giving it a bit of extra zip. Straightforward with fresh baked bread notes, moderate bitterness, and with just a touch of orange peel on the finish. Lovely balance. Easy, summery brew. 5.7% abv. A-

Base Camp Brewing Northwest Fest – An Oktoberfest-style brew, moderately gold in color and quite malt-forward. Quite a good one, it’s been lagered on toasted oak to give it a touch of vanilla sweetness, but the mildly dry hoppiness and fresh baked bread notes overpower everything else in the end. Straigthtforward, it’s a richer, more mouth-filling choice than both of the above. 5.6% abv. B+

Base Camp Brewing S’More Stout – An American stout with all the trimmings: Chocolate, coffee, and intense malt extract on the nose and the body, leading into a thick, bittersweet finish (emphasis on the bitter). Not enough nuance in this one for me… just a punishing blackness punctuated by hints of dessert. 7.7% abv. B-

basecampbrewingco.com

Review: Tincup American Whiskey

tin cup 525x679 Review: Tincup American Whiskey

Tincup (or TINCUP, as I refuse to write it) is the brainchild of Jess Graber, who launched Stranahan’s Whiskey in Colorado, where Tincup also hails from.

These are different animals, though. Stranahan’s is 100% malted barley distilled and aged on site. Tincup is rather simply sourced bourbon (from where the company doesn’t say), watered down with Colorado water and bottled here.

Nothing wrong with that, and it sure keeps the cost down. Tincup is half the price of Stranahan’s — though just as with Stranahan’s, you also get a metal cup on top of Tincup, an homage I presume to the whiskey’s moniker.

The specifics of Tincup are scant, but it’s a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley, no age statement offered. Curiously, the company doesn’t use the term “bourbon” on the label (it does on its website), but the maker does make a claim to a “high rye content.” Instead, the company just goes with the style name of “American Whiskey.”

All of this is surprising, actually. As whiskey goes, Tincup is one of the gentlest I’ve ever had, which is the antithesis of how we usually consider high-rye spirits. The nose offers vanilla and butterscotch, and as it opens up in the glass, dusty wood notes develop. This all leads into a quiet and surprisingly understated body: apple cinnamon, vanilla caramels and ice cream, and chocolate covered raisins. Curious strawberry notes, something you don’t typically find in bourbon, come along on the finish, which is otherwise silky, moderately sweet (solid caramel notes returning here), and hard not to like.

All in all, this is a simple little bourbon — “American whiskey” all the way — that could easily become the “house bottle” at many a home bar, Colorado-based or not.

84 proof.

A- / $28 / tincupwhiskey.com

Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Garrison Brothers TxSBW Image 1 525x1167 Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Hye is one of those tiny towns that everyone from Texas (including myself) has heard of, but no one actually knows where it is. There it lies, on the road from Austin to Fredericksburg, and it’s here where Garrison Brothers is making some fine “micro” whiskey.

The brothers Garrison don’t disclose their exact mashbill on this, their flagship product, but it’s about 3/4 local corn (#1 Panhandle White, in case you’re curious), along with estate-grown wheat and malted barley (not local) making up the rest. At present, the whiskey is aged for two years in American oak barrels before bottling. But intriguingly, Garrison doesn’t just say that its product could change over time, rather the distillery insists that it will.

Garrison Brothers takes a vintage-based approach to whiskeymaking, insisting that each year’s product should be better than the last. That began with its first batch in 2008. Reviewed below is a bottle distilled in 2010 and released in Fall 2013 (bottle number 453). Garrison insists it should be better than the whiskey in 2009, just as the whiskey from 2011 should be an improvement over this. (As of late 2013, six different “vintages” had been released — more than one vintage is produced each year.) The only question is whether it can really deliver on that promise, which we hope to put to the test over the next decade or so. The company says it is now warehousing some 5000 barrels of product.

As for the whiskey we have here, it’s burly, frontier stuff with plenty of kick. The nose is strong with wood, lumberyard notes intermingled with hints of vanilla and caramel. The body reveals far more — eventually. That wood character is powerful up front, to the point where you wonder if that’s the whole show. It isn’t until the finish gets going where Garrison Brothers’ other characteristics begin to shine. As it’s but two years old, there’s plenty of youthful roasted corn here, but unlike many other young whiskeys, those notes are balanced with some more exciting, and more mature, flavors. There’s deep, almost burnt, caramel here, as well as brown butter, cloves, and some chili powder. This all develops more seamlessly and interestingly than you’d think — and all at the end. Give this whiskey ample time in the glass — Garrison recommends a cube of ice — and you’ll see the popcorn settle down and the other components really begin to build up.

Fun, fun stuff, although quite expensive for the drinker used to $25 bottlings from Kentucky. No matter: I’m looking forward to seeing the Garrison Brothers’ next act!

94 proof. Reviewed: Fall 2013 release.

A- / $75 / garrisonbros.com

Book Review: Savory Cocktails

savory cocktails 180x300 Book Review: Savory CocktailsSometimes you don’t want “something sweet.” Sometimes you want something, well, savory.

Greg Henry’s book, Savory Cocktails, offers 100 recipes were sugar (in all its forms) is not the focus. Separated into various chapters such as Sour, Spicy, Smoky, and Strong, Henry walks you through some basic nonsweet stuff (Martini, Bloody Mary, Pickleback) but focuses on originals (most from third-party barmen around the country) that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. And yeah, a lot of them have a little sweetness, usually in the form of a flavored syrup.

The book is straightforward, the pictures numerous (if not quite A-grade in quality), and the searchability is strong. If you’re looking for a drink and your sweet tooth is out of commission, you’ll be able to find something here. If you can’t, well, maybe try some beef jerky.

B+ / $12 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: 2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine and 2008 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine

inniskillin gold vial 113x300 Review: 2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine and 2008 Cabernet Franc Ice WineYears have passed since we last encountered Inniskillin and its masterful Canadian ice wines. We recently had the good fortune to sample two new vintages from Inniskillin, both sweet yet low-alcohol dessert wines made from frozen grapes from way up north. Thoughts follow.

2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine – Gorgeous, with a rush of honey, applesauce, and vanilla. On the body, it’s beautifully sweet with more apple, apricots, ripe bananas, and tropical notes…  all layered with that rich honey character. Lovely complexity with a long, long finish. Be careful with this one. 9.5% abv. A- / $50 (375ml)

2008 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine – Red ice wines are always a little strange — sweet, ice cold… and red like tawny port. The nose offers all the honey and jammy fruit notes of white ice wines, and at first the body keeps that rolling, with notes of strawberry, vanilla, and fresh cream. The finish is where things change, that sweetness veering toward sour cherry notes, with add complexity, but leave things on a funky, oxidized note. 9.5% abv. B+ / $100 (375ml)

on.inniskillin.com

Review: Lombard Jewels of Scotland Springbank 21 Years Old

Springbank 21 Year Old Lombard Jewels of Scotland Bottling Single Malt Scotch 525x750 Review: Lombard Jewels of Scotland Springbank 21 Years Old

This independent bottling of Campbeltown favorite Springbank is a D&M Liquors exclusive (link below), so don’t go shopping all over creation for it. Only 263 bottles were produced. 21 years old and fully matured in a bourbon hogshead, this is Springbank at its finest.

The nose is mysterious and mild, with hints of greenery and a kind of petrol note. The body, however, opens up in just phenomenal ways. Fruit hits you first — apples and tangerines, banana and a bit of coconut. From there, make way for some smoky campfire and vanilla marshmallow notes, cedar box, and a touch of seaweed. The finish calls to the barley and heather, both malty and chewy.

Gorgeous stuff. Get it while you can.

99.4 proof.

A / $350 / dandm.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon Entry Proof Experiments

Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Entry Proof Family 300x159 Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection   Rye Bourbon Entry Proof ExperimentsLast year, Buffalo Trace released a line of Experimental Collection bourbons put into barrel at various entry proofs.

As I explained back then: Entry proof describes the alcohol level of a whiskey when it goes into the barrel for the first time. Generally whiskey is watered down a bit before barreling, often to between 105 and 125 proof, before it’s wheeled into the warehouse.

This release differs from the last one in two ways. First, the white dog came off the still at 140 proof, not 130. Second, this recipe is BT’s rye bourbon mashbill (aka mash #1), not the wheated one from last year. Same as last time, though, this white dog was split into four batches, one barreled at 90 proof, one at 105, one at 115, and finally one at 125 proof. All four spent 11 years, 9 months in barrel, and when bottled, they were all brought down to 90 proof. (These barrels were distilled, barreled, and bottled all around the same time as the wheated ones.)

Thoughts follow…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 90 Entry Proof – Light and airy, a candy bar of a whiskey with notes of cherry, nougat, and caramel. Finishes smoothly sweet and easy. Not a lot of complexity, but it makes up for it in delightful simplicity. This is one you could drink all day. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 105 Entry Proof - Much different on the nose, with wood-forward aromas and hints of baking spice and menthol. The body is generous and considerably more balanced than the nose would indicate. Caramel and orange are the major notes, with the burly woodiness coming on stronger on the end. A straightforward if unremarkable rendition of an older bourbon. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 115 Entry Proof - Racy on the nose, with Madeira and Port-like notes. Bold on the palate, with notes of sherry, clove-studded orange, and vanilla caramel on the finish. Great balance here, with a rich, well-rounded body. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 125 Entry Proof - This is BT’s standard entry proof, so should be closest to a typical Buffalo Trace mash #1 whiskey at this age. It’s a blazer on the nose, masking leather and wood notes with somewhat raw heat. It settles down with time, however, revealing a fairly traditional profile of vanilla, caramel, and milk chocolate, with some sawdust edges licking up on the back end. A fine effort but one that doesn’t really distinguish itself especially. B+

As with the rye experiments, this is again a fun exercise — and curiously I liked both the 90 proof and 115 proof expressions the best the last time out. Still, my hunch is that barrel variability probably has a bigger ultimate impact than entry proof does.

each $46 per 375ml bottle / buffalotrace.com

Review: GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old and Cask Strength Batch 2

GlenDronach 15yo Tawny Port 191x300 Review: GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old and Cask Strength Batch 2GlenDronach, “the sleeping giant,” is a storied Highlands distillery that dates back to 1826. As is often the case with these companies, the distillery changed hands a few time and was shut down in 1996. Five years later it was acquired by BenRiach and is now producing again. It’s also releasing aged, old stock, including a core range — all sherry-finished — and a number of special, limited releases, including the two reviewed below, which are both new to the U.S. market.

GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old – Fiery, roasted grains dominate the nose, like hot bread fresh from the oven. Citrus and red pepper notes follow. On the palate, lots of flavors emerge, rapid-fire, lingering for awhile: Big malt, leather, coconut, and more of that mammoth cereal character are the most prominent. The body is big, the finish lasting. The overall effect: Interesting, but muddy and lacking focus. What’s really missing here? Any semblance of tawny port. If I didn’t know better, I’d have guessed this was a sherry-finished spirit. 92 proof. B / $80

GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 2 – No age statement on this, but it’s finished in both Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Punchy on the nose, with notes of cigar box and tar. The body brings forward more of these notes, backed with stronger sherry character, gentle smokiness, and ample malt, the lattermost of which builds considerably on the finish. Hot, but not overpowering, the big, citrus-meets-malt finale recalls a simple breakfast on a sunny day. 110.4 proof. 16,500 bottles made. B+ / $150

glendronachdistillery.com

Book Review: The Drunken Botanist

DRUNKEN BOTANIST 216x300 Book Review: The Drunken BotanistIt only came out last year, but Amy Stewart’s incredibly obsessive-compulsive tome, The Drunken Botanist, has already become a staple of the spirits obsessed.

The idea is deceptively simple. Whatever you drink — Scotch, rum, tequila, vodka — has its origins in the earth — barley, sugar cane, agave, potato (or whatnot). Where do these plants, fruits, and vegetables come from? What makes them different than what we put on the table? And (of course) can you grow your own?

Stewart is deep in the rabbit hole on this stuff, taking you through the botanical origins of, say, the tamarind, describing how it grows and where, and how it’s used in beverages. Tips for growing your own plants — typically herbs and spices — are proffered, and Stewart of course peppers the text with plenty of cocktail and flavored syrup recipes.

Easily digested and broken up into natural chunks, The Drunken Botanist is both easy to jump in and out of while also making a fantastic reference. What’s lemon verbena, anyway? Mauby? Myrrh?

I won’t spoil the answers.

A- / $16 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B / hardwaterbar.com

Review: The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt Whisky

glenrothes 2001 525x756 Review: The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt Whisky

It’s been three years since the last Glenrothes Vintage release (the 1998 vintage), and finally the Speyside distillery with the barrel-shaped bottle is out with a new one, 2001, another limited release that sticks closely to the Glenrothes house style. Bottled in mid-2012, it’s an 11 year old single malt whisky.

The nose is surprisingly malty on first blush, with a healthy slug of vanilla and some citrus underpinnings. The palate is at first quite bready, but this fades as the spirit opens up, and as the next wave of flavors start to develop. As the body grows, it shows notes of sherry, creme brulee, and even touches of red berry and chocolate in the finish. Over time, lemon rind and menthol notes develop, too, but the nose brings things back to the bready, malty character that started the whole thing off.

86 proof.

B+ / $70 / theglenrothes.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard

 Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard

Everyone loves a good story, and to spin a good yarn around an original tale is becoming a talent synonymous with spirits industry. A brand simply can’t stand on its merits alone anymore. A successful product launch now requires no less than a multi-million dollar yacht, international release parties, the courtship of the tastemaker kings and queens, and a celebrity endorsement or five. However, nothing shines quite like a good lacquered coating of embellishment to make a product beam in the eyes of the unsuspecting and trustworthy. It is human nature and a constitutional right to amplify facts with the intent of impressing people. Once in high school, a certain writer once stretched a passing conversation with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye into a lunch of vegan tacos, Coca-Cola and a two-hour conversation about the future of his band Fugazi.

So it comes as no surprise that Diageo, dream weavers of the potentially-fictitious dream history of Bulleit, present the Orphan Barrel project: a new chapter in the company’s incredible alternate history of whiskey. If Diageo’s tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters – these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as the Stitzel-Weller distillery. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch this new whiskey series, with more planning on being “discovered” throughout the forthcoming seasons.

Now it appears this long-lost S-W juice was actually made at the Bernheim distillery. The barrels also weren’t “lost,” they just never got used for their original intent. What was the original home intended for these barrels? Either Diageo doesn’t know (unlikely) or simply isn’t saying, which seems more likely. Why let those traveling down the yellow brick road get a peek at how the Wizard makes the sausage?

Either way, the barrels were shipped from S-W and bottled at the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, a state enjoying the attention and courtship of Diageo as of late. How many barrels? Good question. No one knows the answer to that either, but the edition numbers on the back of the bottles posted on the internet have now reached the 40,000 mark. Given how little would be left in each orphaned barrel at 20+ years of age, the number of barrels involved would have to be in the thousands, hard to “lose” and hardly qualifying as “limited edition” — unless you’re comparing it to the voluminous output of something like… say… Jack Daniel’s?

This lack of confidence on provenance combined with a balance inquiry at a local ATM were big sticking points as to whether or not we should purchase samples for review. Neither eager nor willing to shell out the $225 required for both bottles, a local establishment was pouring small samples for ladies and gentlemen who would otherwise shop the aisles for Kentucky Gentleman. $10.50 was the safer investment of the two options, it made sense to minimize risk and see what the buzz was about. As Chris is wont to say: “Thoughts follow.”

Barterhouse 20 Years Old – With more text on the bottle than a Russian novel, Diageo seems hellbent on cramming as many typographical flourishes as possible per label to remind the consumer of the epic saga they’ve purchased for their mantle, possibly to distract you from what’s inside. (It’s worth noting that Barterhouse’s mascot is a rather sly looking fox.) It’s incredibly sweet, with vanilla and butter on the nose, and soft on the palate, making it hard to even believe this is 20 years of age (with very little oak or sulfur on the taste). The finish is even weaker. Very easygoing and inoffensive, it would be a great starter bourbon for the uninitiated and those with ample money to spend. 90.2 proof. B- / $75

Chris says: I get more of a burnt toffee and considerable heat on the nose, with cinnamon and brown butter on the body. Kind of a weird balance of flavors, but a lot going on. I found this fun to explore, but difficult enough on the finish to make things a bit strange. My rating: B+

Old Blowhard 26 Years Old – A 26-year-old bourbon bearing the name of a cantankerous old man. I might be reading too much into the glass with the brand names here, but if I’m right Diageo isn’t being very subtle. It has a very strong presence right from the moment it lands in the glass. A nose of spices, cinnamon, and a touch of campfire smoke blend with a strong taste of toffee, vanilla, cloves, and a plentiful punch of oak. By comparison to Barterhouse (below), it has a much stronger and present finish with a nice burn of oak and alcohol. At $150, though, it’s hard to get excited on the cost versus quality scale of things. There are way better bourbons at this price point worth considering. That said, this is definitely the better of the two “orphan barrels.” 90.7 proof.  B / $150

Chris says: Quite a different animal. Cloves and peppermint on the nose. The body shows off big vanilla and toffee notes, but the finish turns a bit brutish, with a kind of heavily-flamed orange peel character. Becomes increasingly woody as it opens up in the glass. Intriguing. B+

With this new armada of orphan barrels, Diageo is placing bets on the casual consumer who enjoys higher end premium stuff and places as much stock on the envelope, paper, and penmanship as they do the contents of the letter. The kind of person who would purchase a $150 bottle of bourbon in order to subtly out-compete at the court of the well-heeled Keeneland’s clubhouse on opening day, or a tailgating affair at Churchill Downs in May. Much to the company’s credit, it sort of works. They’ve managed to put the fox in some very nice sheep’s clothing for the flock. However, in the end, the best consumer is one that is as well-informed as possible. Or as the song goes: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.*”

Limited Edition of Ten Frillion, or whatever number Diageo wants.

diageo.com

*The author is well aware of the thick glaze of irony created by enlisting references to the traditionally sober, straight-edged and highly anti-corporate Fugazi in a whiskey review.

Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer – BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Stock Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Bacon doughnuts, bacon gum, bacon mints, and now… bacon beer? One of the hottest crazes to sweep the nation lately has been bacon-flavored products, and not even beer seems to be able to escape its allure. In 2011, Oregon-based Rogue Ales teamed up with Voodoo Doughnut to release its Bacon Maple Ale, but now homebrewers can join in on the swine-inspired fun. (Which I did, for your reading pleasure.)

Northern Brewer’s BACON! Smoked Red Ale homebrew kit is available in both extract and all-grain varieties, featuring cherrywood smoked malt to cement the smoky, meaty character. However, what sets the Northern Brewer kit apart from crowd is the inclusion of liquid bacon extract. At first glance, this vial is intimidating; it appears thick, smells of a combination of brine and bacon, and doesn’t shy away from potency. Keep in mind, though, that this 30ml of extract is enough for 5 gallons of beer.

Bacon 3 Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Out of the box, the extract version of the kit contains specialty grains (chocolate malt, honey malt, Caramunich, and the aforementioned cherrywood smoked malt), dry malt extract (amber and wheat), dark malt syrup, an ounce of Willamette hops, 30ml of bacon extract, and your choice of dry or liquid yeast.

While steeping the specialty grains and during the boil, a strong smoke and barbecue aroma fills the air as the cherrywood malt works its magic. When I added the bacon extract after the boil, I could sense how meaty this beer was going to turn out.

Bacon 2 525x350 Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Disclaimer: Each homebrewer has different equipment, technique, and experience. Your results may vary.

Despite the aggressive pork notes that emerge while brewing the beer, BACON! cleans up nicely within the glass after a few weeks of conditioning in bottles. While Northern Brewer’s stock photo shows a radiant ruby color, my version was a little bit darker, bordering on mahogany. In the nose, the bacon still stands in the spotlight but isn’t overpowering. In fact, there’s a pleasant balance between the meatiness and a honey, caramel sweetness. This balance continues into the body, where a mild amount of chocolate contributes to the complexity.

Overall, my version of this beer had a bold but not overwhelming bacon characteristic; I went back and forth on questioning if I would’ve liked to see a more brash beer — without compromising the drinkability of how it is now. All told, I enjoyed what I ended up with and will probably explore this kit again in the future.

B / $50 (extract version) / northernbrewer.com