Review: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye Whiskey (2015)

JB750_82Good old “yellow label” Jim Beam Rye was, for many drinkers, their first exposure to rye whiskey. What was it? Aside from something mentioned in a Don McLean song? Beam’s Rye was good enough — cheap, too — like a racier bourbon, but maybe not as sweet. Or you could go for Old Overholt if you wanted something fancier in your Sazerac.

Fast forward a decade and the world of rye has been completely upended. Tons of great ryes are available now, many costing up to 70 bucks a bottle or more. Who buys Yellow Label in the face of all kinds of rye goodness out there?

Beam got the hint, and Yellow Label (more recently repackaged with a sort of Beige Label) is going off the market. Reformulated and upgraded, Jim Beam Rye has been reimagined for the premium rye era, crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe” and bottled at 90 proof instead of 80. Mashbill composition is not available. The new, official name: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. Just don’t let the green label confuse you, as Jim Beam Choice is still hanging around out there. (To clarify, this is now Beam’s only mainstream rye.)

And we tried it:

Deep butterscotch notes hit the nose first, ringed with hints of dark chocolate. It’s common to describe the body rye as “spicy,” but that’s often misconstrued to mean spicy with hot red pepper. What spicy often means, as it does here on Beam, is more akin to baking spice: Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, all wrapped up with some smoky bacon and just a touch of licorice. It’s lightly sweet with a vanilla custard note to it, but not as powerful as the punch of bourbon. Initially quite light on the body, it grows on you with its gentle notes of apple pie, caramel, and that slightly savory, almost smoky lacing. The finish is modest, almost short, but engaging and more than pleasant as it fades away.

I was ready to dismiss this as a gimmicky attempt to grab some share in a rapidly growing market, but whaddaya know? The stuff’s legit.

90 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com

Review: 2013 Erath “Willakia” Chardonnay Eola-Amity Hills

This is Oregon-based Erath’s first wine from its newly-purchased Willakia Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. Just 238 cases were made. Says Erath:

The 2013 Willakia Chardonnay was harvested on October 12, two weeks after a series of rain showers – remnants of Typhoon Pabuk that eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan – passed through the Willamette Valley. The prolonged warm, dry period that followed the rain allowed the vineyard to dry out and provided for extended ripening and maturation of the remaining fruit. The wine was then fermented in a combination of French oak and stainless steel, before being aged on its lees for eight months in 100% French oak with 40% new barrels.

A breath of fresh air in the overoaked world of Chardonnay, the acidity up front drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc, and the midpalate pumps up the citrus — grapefruit and lemon zest. At the same time, the nose offers hints of vanilla and oak, and there’s a touch of marshmallow on the back end. All of this works together surprisingly well, making for a lively wine that balances the buttery notes of a classic Chardonnay with some bright fruit. Very food friendly, as well.

A- / $34 / erath.com

Review: Rolling River Vodka

rolling river vodkaRolling River Spirits is a Portland, Oregon distillery producing vodka, gin, and — soon — a whiskey. Today we look at the company’s vodka, which is distilled from winter wheat in a small reflux column still.

Rolling River Vodka is both fruity and floral on the nose, but the body takes things in a different direction: burnt sugar, dark chocolate, and a vegetal, charcoal-laden undertone. This is a strange and incongruous vodka, where the sweeter aromas don’t ever really mesh with the more brooding, powerful body. It’s ultimately difficult to put the whole package together, but the bittersweet, almost tree-bark-laden finish pushes this more toward a curious gin alternative than anything else, at least in my book. Discuss amongst yourselves.

80 proof.

B / $25 / rollingriverspirits.com

Review: Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

Data Sheet Original Cask Strength copy

It’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of whiskies that flow from Islay’s Kilchoman, but this one really is unique: It’s the first official distillery bottling to be released at cask strength. (An ImpEx exclusive was also cask strength, but that was a just a single barrel. This release comprises 9,200 bottles.)

Production is simple for this release. All ex-bourbon-barreled whisky here, no sherry finishing, and all five years old. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

This is a big, briny, classically Islay whisky that sticks closely to the iodine-driven Kilchoman house style (at least its sans-sherry style). There’s a nice sweetness in the middle of this, some marshmallow, banana, and just a bit of pear on the back end. The finish offers up notes of smoked meats and peppery bacon — with ample fire driven by the high alcohol level. Good balance, and plenty of oomph thanks to the cask strength, but ultimately this doesn’t much change the overall picture that Kilchoman has painted to date.

118.4 proof.

B+ / $115 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: DeLeon Tequila Platinum

Deleon 69469 1

P. Diddy‘s not happy to be a major player in the world of vodka. Now he wants to rule tequila, too.

DeLeon is a new ultra-premium Highland tequila, 100% agave of course, designed to go toe to toe with Patron and other top-shelf tequila brands. Available in no fewer than six expressions — including Diamante, a joven expression, and Leona, a reserve anejo bottling that costs $825 — the most simplistic (and affordable) of the bunch is a blanco: DeLeon Platinum, which runs $60 and up. All the better to pay for the fancy, thick-glass bottle, metallic stopper, and talk of traditional clay ovens and such.

And hey, celebrity branding aside, it’s a pretty good tequila.

The nose is rich with peppery notes, but also hints at lemon custard, along with some vanilla-dusted creme brulee notes. It’s got the character of a classic blanco, but it also hints at austerity — despite the fact that this is a completely unaged and unrested tequila. The body continues the theme: Spicy agave, bright lemon juice — almost candied with a sweet edge — honey, and touches of menthol. It’s very mild, and extremely easy-drinking — the same qualities that make Patron so very popular.

DeLeon Platinum is a tequila that doesn’t exactly pump up the agave, but it doesn’t try to mask it, either. Rather, it takes the natural herbal character of blanco tequila, then tosses in some natural complementary flavors that add subtlety and complexity. The end product may be on the lighter side — so approach DeLeon with the appropriate attitude — but that may suit many tequila drinkers just fine.

80 proof.

A- / $60 / deleontequila.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Zarabanda

zarabandaWhat’s this? Acclaimed chef Jose Andres slumming it in the beer world? In Oregon?

Believe it or not, Andres and Deschutes have been collaborating for three years to come up with this: A spiced saison brewed with lemon verbena, pink peppercorns, sumac, and dried lime. Made with Vienna and Spelt malts (among others) along with Saaz hops, the beer is designed as a farmhouse-style brew. The name is inspired by the Spanish Saraband dance, which makes sense if you drink a sip or two.

Immediately exotic and funky, Zarabanda gets started with some mustiness that speaks more to earth and mushroom than to its intriguing aromatics. As the beer warms up a bit, it reveals some more of its fruity, herbal underpinnings. The pink peppercorn is a fun element, adding a gentle, smoky spice and some woodiness to the body. The citrus peel is the other noteworthy element here, adding not sweet lemon or lime notes but rather an additional herbal character that rolls around on the palate, seemingly for days.

Big, grassy, and loaded with oddball, avant-garde flavors — it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Andres to be involved with.

6.7% abv.

B / $NA (22 oz. bottle) / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey Lot 3

charbay R5_Lot3Three years back, Charbay released its first edition of Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey, a unique whiskey made from Racer 5 IPA. Last year, it struck again with Charbay R5 Lot 511A. Now there’s another version of R5 coming out. Lot 511B? No: This one is called Lot 3.

Confusing matters further, Lot 3 is aged for 28 months in French oak barrels. (The first edition was 22 months, Lot 511A was 29 months.) Otherwise, it’s made with the same production techniques, double pot distilled and bottled at 99 proof. Same price, too.

Not a lot seems to have changed from Lot to Lot with this spirit. The nose is pure IPA — evergreen notes, dusky sherry, and some mushroomy/hoppy notes. The body builds on this with a smokier-than-expected core, chewy ginger candy notes, and plenty on plenty of hops. As with the prior bottlings of R5, this is an unusual whiskey with a unique profile that’s unlike most anything else on the market. Big IPA fans will likely love it, while drinkers of more traditional whiskeys may find it a bit overpowering and odd in comparison to what they’re used to.

That said, it’s such an oddball offering that I recommend any whiskey fan give it a try and see for themselves.

B+ / $79 / charbay.com

Review: NV Blandy’s Sercial Madeira 10 Years Old

Blandys Sercial 10 YearThis Sercial bottling of Blandy’s Madeira is a 10 year old expression of its driest style of Madeira. Here it takes on notes of dry apple cider, roasted nuts, and spiced raisins. The finish has a sharpness to it — think spiked, wintry mulled wine — leading to more spicy, almost perfumed, baked apple notes. An interesting expression in comparison to the younger, drier 5 year old Sercial from Blandy’s.

B+ / $30 (500ml) / blandys.com

Review: Troy & Sons Platinum, Oak Reserve, and Blonde Whiskey

troy and sons oak reserve

Asheville Distilling Company in North Carolina is behind the Troy & Sons brand, but there really is a Troy: Troy Ball, who happens to be a woman. She indeed has three sons.

This craft distillery is heavily focused on corn whiskey/moonshine, and relies on heirloom grains for all its distillate. To date the company has three products, two all-corn whiskeys and one wheat/corn whiskey called Blonde. All are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Troy & Sons Platinum Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Made from Crooked Creek heirloom white corn, cut with Appalachian spring water. Classic corn on the nose, with strong petroleum overtones. The body is gentler than you’d think, heavy on the popcorn but tempered with easy sweetness, some mushroom notes, green pepper, and a bit of raw ginger on the finish. Fairly typical of today’s “craft” moonshines, but not without quite a bit of charm. B / $30

Troy & Sons Oak Reserve Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Per the company, this is not entirely whiskey but rather “aged moonshine,” rested in ex-bourbon barrels for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give it a classic whiskey coloration. There’s a strong pungency on the nose — raw wood, vanilla extract, and licorice — but as with Platinum, the body belies a simpler, more gentle construction. Easy cereal notes and some licorice ultimately lead to lots of tannic astringency as the more raw flavors from the wood barrel come forth on the finish. B- / $35

Blonde Whiskey – Not bottled under the Troy & Sons label, but rather, in the fine print, under the Asheville Distilling banner. Made from a blend of heirloom Turkey red wheat and its white corn, Asheville claims to take very precise cuts of its distillate so that only the purest whiskey goes into barrel. The whiskey is then aged in barrels made with “honeycomb-laced staves,” time unstated. The avowed goal of Blonde is to create a whiskey “without bite or burn,” but some might ask, “What’s the point of that?” Either way, what Asheville has done is craft a whiskey that is loaded with grain character but balanced by more traditional American whiskey notes — baking spices, vanilla, and gingerbread. The finish is much less oppressive than the Oak Reserve reviewed above, but it’s still a few solid years of barrel time away from true maturity. B / $40

ashevilledistilling.com

Review: Anchor Distilling Old Tom Gin

Anchor OldTomGin081514KO-HR

Old Tom, for the uninitiated, is a style of gin that was last at its height of popularity somewhere around 1880. As London Dry came to the forefront, Old Tom fell out of favor, and from the 1950s until a few years ago, no one made it.

The modernist cocktail revival has brought Old Tom back to the masses, and San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling is one of a handful leading the charge.

Old Tom has no official style, but it tends to have a bigger body than London Dry gin has but without as much of the bite. Most notably, Old Tom tends to be sweeter, owing to the use of sugar or other added sweetening agents. Old Tom also tends to be pot-distilled while most London Dry gins are column distilled. Some brands are barrel aged before bottling (like the vastly different Ransom Old Tom). Anchor’s Old Tom is pot-distilled and, while not aged, it is unfiltered, giving it a gentle cloudiness you don’t see in London Dry gin. The gin is flavored with the typical gin botanicals, but the infusion bill also includes star anise and licorice, plus the addition of stevia as a sweetener.

Lightly hazy, Anchor Old Tom Gin gets going with a nose of sharp juniper but also sweet dairy cream and citrus. There’s an undercurrent of savory herbs — coriander-like — that complement all of the above. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet — not overdone, but lightly sugary and touched with a bit of cinnamon. A lightly woody, almost smoky element arrives after some time in glass, until, finally, the licorice/anise element hits solidly as the finish builds. Anchor Old Tom goes out not with a fiery bang but with a sigh, slowly making its sultry, sweet escape.

90 proof.

A- / $30 / anchordistilling.com