Review: 2014 Josh Cellars Chardonnay

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This widely available wine carries an unspecific California appellation, but it drinks at a surprisingly much higher level than that would normally indicate.

Pretty pear and apple notes are balanced by mild caramel and vanilla — but Josh Chardonnay stays well on this side of the “oaky-buttery” monstrosity that informs most California chardonnay. The finish is clean, slightly sweet with notes of pie crust and sugar cookies — uncomplicated, but refreshing and brisk.

An amazing value and a worthwhile wine.

A- / $14 / joshcellars.com

Review: Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey

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Swift is a new entry into the burgeoning Texas craft distilling industry, a region which is particularly enamored with malted barley rather then the more typically American corn and rye.

The latest single malt to cross our path comes from Swift, a husband and wife team with a distinct and particular goal: To replicate Scotch whisky as closely as possible, just in Texas.

Swift starts with Scottish malted barley, which is shipped to Dripping Springs, Texas, where it is made into a mash and fermented. Two distillations take place in a copper pot still, then the whiskey is aged in bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. There’s no age statement per se, but Swift does include the date of distillation on each bottle. This one was from a batch distilled just about two years ago (as of the time of this writing).

Let’s give this whiskey a go.

There’s a slight haze to it — Swift doesn’t mention filtering its whiskey — and the color is a very light gold, clearly youthful but not overwhelmingly so. The nose is gentle, with notes of caramel corn, sandalwood, and some dried herbs. On the palate, it’s a youthful experience, with notes comprising gentle caramel, coconut husk, and a lick of smoke. The sherry barrel influence bubbles up in time, with an orange peel character becoming evident for a bit before the finish arrives. The conclusion offers some winey character followed by a return of somewhat malty, grain-forward notes to end the experience.

In attempting to recreate Scotch on Texas soil, Swift has been remarkably successful. I’d say two years in ultrahot Texas are roughly the equivalent of five in chilly Scotland. It’s a terrific start… but oh, what I’d give to see Swift at the age of six.

86 proof. Reviewed: Distillation from 3/14/2014

B+ / $46 / swiftdistillery.com

Review: Beers of Yee-Haw Brewing

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Johnson City, Tennessee is the home to Yee-Haw Brewing, which offers four permanent brews in addition to rotating seasonals. We tried all the members of the primary lineup (from bottles, which today you’ll find only in Tennessee and Kentucky). Thoughts follow.

Yee-Haw Pilsner – Surprisingly bold for a pilsner, both showcasing ample malt along with moderate hops and a big nutty character to boot — the latter two of which are not readily characteristic of pilsner. Notes of roasted vegetables and even coffee arrive on the back end as the finish fades. The overall experience is engaging and a little mysterious — it’s not a bad beer, but stylistically it doesn’t really fit with expectations. 5.3% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Pale Ale – Restrained, but bitter enough (~35 IBUs), and backed up by notes of mushroom, fresh herbs, and roasted meats — alongside sweeter, chewy malt notes. With much in common with the English style of pale ale (rather than today’s hops-or-bust west coast IPAs), it balances bitterness with other elements to showcase a gentler, lightly sweeter ale that’s worth some attention. 5.7% abv. A-

Yee-Haw Eighty (80 Shilling) Scottish-Style Ale – Bold and nutty, with overtones of coffee, caramelized carrot, brown sugar, and toffee. Its burly body smolders on the tongue and goes down easy, any bitterness rather expediently washed away by the sweet malt and hints of raisin and prune on the finish. 5% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Brewing Dunkel Munich Dark Lager – Another rich and nutty beer, loaded with coffee and chocolate overtones and a heavy, belly-filling maltiness that lingers forever. The finish is loaded with the essence of chocolate malted milk balls, with a hoppy, slightly weedy bitter edge. Compare and contrast to the 80. 5.5% abv. B+

pricing NA / yeehawbrewing.com

Tasting the Beers of Baeltane Brewing, Spring 2016 Releases

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Baeltane Brewing is located right in my backyard in Novato, California — they have brewed their beer in an industrial park here since 2012 and even run a little tasting room out of the front of it. Baeltane can also be found in bars and stores around the Bay Area, all the way up to Lake Tahoe.

Recently I dropped in on Baeltane to taste with head brewer Alan Atha and his partner Cathy Portje (both pictured). Beers on tap are highly seasonal but are always highly influenced by Belgian and northern French classics, Atha’s favorite styles. Here’s a look at what’s cooking in spring 2016 (all sampled on draught, unless noted).

021Baeltane Cobblestone Biere de Garde – French in style, with a slightly tart edge (though far from a sour). Nutty, with notes of cocoa and berries, with a huge amount of malt. 6.6% abv. B+

Baeltane Corsair Dark Strong Ale – A Trappist ale, quite burly with notes of maple syrup, mushroom, raisin, and plum. Lots of malt again, with woody overtones on the finish. 9% abv. A-

Baeltane Citroen Farmhouse Ale – Of Baeltane’s releases, I’ve experienced this one the most often, a hoppy and fruity brew that is loaded with notes of apples and oranges, plus a touch of spice. A refreshing beer with a bright and crisp finish and which drinks like a much lower alcohol beer. 7.5% abv. A-

Baeltane Luminesce Tripel – From bottle. Gooey, dark caramel and dark brown sugar coats the palate. The malt here is overwhelming, leading to some vegetal notes on the finish for me. 10% abv. B

Baeltane Quagmyre Scottish Ale – Very dark malt notes, loaded up with chicory and coffee character. Dark and brooding, it evokes wood notes on the finish. 6% abv. B+

Baeltane Beleriand Barleywine – Aged in Arkansas Black Applejack barrels (another local company). A gorgeous Portlike brew, but strong as hell, with notes of crab apple, raisin, and heavy spice on the finish. Really grows on you over time, but will knock you out in short order. 12% abv. A-

Baeltane The Frog That Ate the World Double IPA – Baeltane’s sole west coast style poured today was arguably my favorite, a strongly bitter brew with classic piney notes — but also a bit outside the box, with touches of wet earth and some fresh, grassy notes, too. 8.5% abv. A-

prices vary / baeltanebrewing.com

Review: Stone Enjoy By 05.30.16 Tangerine IPA

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You’ve got only 18 more days to enjoy this very limited release from Stone, so you best get busy.

Once you crack into Stone’s latest, a “tangerine IPA” made with 12 different hop varieties plus pureed tangerines. it won’t be hard to enjoy what the brewery has cooked up. Ample hoppiness is paired with fresh, sweet tangerine juice, bouncing this brew between bitter and sweet, back and forth, back and forth. It’s the balance, though, that works just about perfectly here, the sweetness tempering the bitterness just enough to make this a thirst-quenching, yet surprisingly complex, experience.

IPA fans need to their mitts on a bottle, pronto.

9.4% abv.

A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / enjoyby.stonebrewing.com

Review: Alexander Walker & Co. Polly’s Casks Double Barrel Aged Single Malt Scotch Whisky

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Who is Polly and what is so special about her casks? Allow me to explain.

Alexander Murray is a major private Scotch bottler — in the U.S. it’s best known for making the Kirkland brand of whiskies that show up in Costco (and which we often write about).

With Polly’s Casks, Alexander Murray has something far more complex in mind. It starts with 60 barrels of Tullibardine single malt whisky, aged normally in used bourbon barrels. AM shipped this whisky to Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in California, which then aged for an additional 12 months that already-maturing Tullibardine in oak barrels used for Firestone’s Proprietor’s Vintage beers. (Those barrels in turn were also used bourbon barrels… circle of life, circle of whisky.) The whiskies, released with no primary aging information, have been named after the matriarch of the Walker clan, Polly Firestone Walker.

That’s a big build-up. How does it all acquit itself?

The whisky is clearly very young, a pale shade of yellow I mainly associate with aged gins or reposado tequila. The nose offers simple and sweet cereal notes, gentle fruit, and just a touch of smoke. Some green, vegetal hints emerge here as well, once the whiskey opens up with air.

On the palate the spirit is a bit brighter, but it still drinks quite young. Sweet and grainy, the body offers caramel corn and a hint of baking spice… and little else. Only on the finish does the brewery’s influence start to show itself, with a slightly tannic, bittersweet edge that offers echoes of roasted nuts, charcoal, and iodine.

This isn’t an immediately successful spirit, but the main problem lies in its youth. A beer barrel might take a mature single malt in a new direction, but this whisky just doesn’t seem to have much to work with from the start. It’s not a bad product by any means, but there’s just not enough to get excited about, particularly at this price.

80 proof.

B- / $86 / alexandermurray.com

Review: 2011 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port

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A new LBV release has arrived from Port titan Dow.

Surprisingly restrained, the omnipresent raisin character of this Port is muted by heavy milk chocolate notes, vanilla, and notes of pie crust. The body is loaded with sweetness, but lacks some needed gravity, coming across more like a candy bar than the bold dessert wine it wants to be. Fair enough for a casual dessert wine, but it isn’t a standout of the genre.

B / $15 / dows-port.com