Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky - Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Rye

woodford reserve ryeRye has long been the Next Big Thing in whiskeydom, and now it’s Woodford Reserve’s turn to get into the game. (When Maker’s Mark Rye eventually comes out, we can finally be assured that we’ve hit Peak Rye.)

Woodford Reserve Straight Rye uses a mash of 53% rye, 14% malted barley, and 33% corn, and, like most American rye, it is bottled without an age statement in a package quite similar to the iconic Woodford Bourbon bottle.

And here’s what it tastes like.

A glorious aroma of cinnamon toast hits the nose as you crack open the bottle. In the glass, it presents a rich, bourbon-like character on the nose, all vanilla and baking spice, with an undercurrent of caramel-driven wood notes. The body is where the rye starts to shine, offering chewy notes of gingerbread, cherries, and lots of clove-cinnamon apple pie spices. Wait for the finish to start to settle and back down and you’ll find a delightful chocolate malt character bubbling up — a perfect fade-out to lead you into that vanilla rush that starts things off on your next sip. All in all, it’s a really enchanting rye that’s hard to put down.

90.4 proof.

A / $38 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) and Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015)

Winter/spring seasonals from Deschutes have arrived — both can likely be considered 2014/2015 releases, but we did our best on pegging them to a release year in order to keep things organized for those searching through the archives. Thoughts follow.

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) – This heavily malted Northwest Pale Ale is immediately sweet from the start, with an almost maple syrup character to it. Less blatantly sugar-focused than I remember from prior bottlings, this expression also features slightly less alcohol, which helps to liven up the body a bit. Some orange flower and candied grapefruit notDeschutes-HopHengeIPA-Labeles emerge on the finish if you give it some time to warm up a bit. 6.2% abv. B+

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015) – This classic “IBU escalation” brew is now engaging in a bit of “abv escalation,” too. Last year’s Hop Henge was a “mere” 8.8% alcohol. Now it’s pushing 10%. Dropping from 99 IBUs to 90 hasn’t hurt: This year the beer is drinking with a nice balance of piney notes, grapefruit, and a touch of caramel sauce on the back end. I catch faint notes of baked apple and incense, as well, making this a more complex and, frankly, enjoyable beer than it’s been in recent years. 9.5% abv. A-

each about $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

tasting whiskeyLew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.

As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.

Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.

I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer

claiborne and churchill Dry_Gewurztraminer_no_vintage_lTwo aromatic whites from this San Luis Obispo-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22

claibornechurchill.com

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2015 Releases

rodney strong merlotRodney Strong’s mainstream releases for 2015 are hitting right about now.  We tasted a trio of its entry-level Sonoma County wines. Thoughts follow.

2013 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Buttery, but not overdone, this rich-and-creamy Chardonnay offers marshmallows atop notes of tropical fruit — pineapples, plus peaches. Some meaty character gives this some oomph, but none of the proceedings are entirely out of the ordinary. B / $17

2012 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – Slightly peppery on the nose, with notes of candied violets. The body is simple and easy, a pleasantly fruity wine that offers notes of raspberry and strawberry atop a very mild core. Nothing disagreeable whatsoever here, but the wine hardly challenges the senses. B+ / $20

2012 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A well-oiled Cab, studded with milk chocolate, raisins, and juicy blueberry notes. A gentle wine with a silky body and a short finish, you’d bow down to the restaurant that chose this for their “house cabernet,” but would probably kick yourself if you ordered it off the wine list. B / $20

rodneystrong.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Castello Banfi 2011 Belnero and 2013 San Angelo Pinot Grigio

Belnero_US_2012Two new bottlings from Banfi recently arrived, including an older vintage of the blended Belnero, the 2012 vintage of which we reviewed a few months back. 2010 vintage notes can be found here.

2011 Castello Banfi Belnero IGT - A sangiovese-heavy blend, this wine is immediately overpowered by chocolate notes, making for a stark contrast to the 2012 vintage of this wine. Against a moderately acidic backdrop, the wine doesn’t quite find its footing, ending up a bit muddy, its notes of coffee and tobacco never quite melding with the rest of the wine. B / $23

2013 Castello Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio Toscana IGT – Strikingly boring, this vintage of Banfi’s Pinot Grigio is feather-light, as easy to forget as it is to drink. Some tropical and floral notes stud the nose, but the sweet almond paste and nougat notes on the body wash the fruit away quickly. Surprisingly plain. B- / $16

castellobanfi.com

Review: Lockhouse Vodka

lockhouse vodkaBuffalo, New York’s first distillery since Prohibition is Lockhouse, and its eponymous Lockhouse Vodka is its first product. (A gin is now also available.) Column-distilled from local grapes, it’s an unusual spirit in the increasingly familiar vodka space.

A pungent nose offers the immediate connotation of a white whiskey, with hospital notes mingled with toasted grains. The body however is a study in cacophony. At first, aromatic notes reminiscent of Muscat or Riesling grapes roll across the tongue, offering a spicy and floral character. This doesn’t linger, however. Those grainy, almost hoary, notes make a rapid return here to the palate, giving the bulk of the body an intense astringency. The finish is earthy and funky when it should be fresh and bracing. An acquired taste, I think.

80 proof.

C+ / $38 / lockhousedistillery.com

Book Review: The Spirit of Gin

The Spirit of GinJesus, Matt Teacher really likes gin. His new hardcover, The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of of the New Gin Revival, crams nothing but juniper-scented spirits into its 350-plus pages.

Rest assured, there’s not really 350 pages of material to be revealed in the giniverse. The Spirit of Gin is breezy and light, with lots of white space and plenty of pictures.

The book begins with the dutiful history of gin and some discussion of various gin distillation methods. Cocktail recipes old and new are interspersed with profiles of gin-focused bars around the world (but priumarily in the U.S.) — good old-fashioned “gin joints,” all of ‘em. A full third of the book is devoted to an “incomplete” catalog of modern gins, a simple, alphabetical guide to some of the noteworthy craft gin brands out there. If your tastes run more to Caorunn than Tanqueray, it’s a section you’ll enjoy perusing to pick up a few new suggested bottles.

The “Miscellany” in the subtitle is right. The Spirit of Gin is built like an encyclopedia but reads more like a coffee table book. Incredibly scattered but interesting, it’s the kind of book that is more fun when you simply open it to a random page than when you try to read it from front to back. Hey, who wants a Tom Collins?

B / $20 / [BUY IT HERE]