Review: Wildwood Spirits Stark Vatten Vodka and Kur Gin

Stark VattenWildwood Spirits is a new craft distillery located in Bothell, Washington. We tasted the company’s first two products, a solid vodka and a uniquely flavored gin. Thoughts follow.

Stark Vatten Vodka – Swedish for “strong water,” made from heirloom, local red winter wheat in a self-proclaimed European style. I think that’s a reasonably fair description. This is a rounded and creamy vodka with mild, vanilla- and cocoa-tinged sweetness. The core however offers modest hospital notes, gentle astringency that isn’t exactly biting but which finishes clean and easy. While a true European vodka would have less sweetness and more of a medicinal kick, this is at least a good entry point to the style. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Kur BottleKur Gin – Essentially made the same way as Stark Vatten, then infused with “classic juniper aromas and flavors with subtle citrus (Seville orange) as well as Douglas Fir and Braeburn apples from Mr. Liedholm’s [the distiller] back yard.” Also in the mix are orris root, fennel seed, and coriander seed. There’s no soft hand with the juniper on this one; it’s a punchy pine bomb from the get go. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apple notes are intense and vivid — the lively and saucy character like what you get in a young apple brandy, lightly spiced with what come across like pie spices of cinnamon and cloves. The finish is chewy and hangs on the fruit, building caramel notes and tempering the juniper considerably. A very unusual, but worthwhile, gin. 80 proof. B+ / $29

wildwoodspiritsco.com

Review: Koma Unwind Relaxation Beverage

koma unwind

Koma Unwind is another one of these newfangled beverages designed not to turn you into a bon vivant but rather into a slumbering snoozer. This canned, sparkling beverage includes mostly familiar active ingredients: B12, milk thistle, valerian root, rose hips, and melatonin. These goodies are dropped into a rather familiar soda format — sweet and (mostly) grape juice flavored — technically labeled “Berrylicious.”

I tried Koma before bed and went to sleep with no trouble. I slept straight through the night until about 6am, when wild and lucid dreams roused me. I’m not sure if Koma aided my sleep quality, but it didn’t seem to have damaged it at all.

Koma tastes fine for what it is — spiked purple stuff — but I have to wonder about the wisdom of adding 45 grams of sugar to a beverage that’s called “koma” and is designed to get you to go to sleep. (The 12 oz. can’s ingredients label is misleading, as a “serving size” is only 8 oz.) There’s a sugar free version but it suffers from the same bitter edge that most diet sodas do… though it’s nonetheless probably a smarter choice before bedtime. A shot-based version (not reviewed here) is also available.

B / $2 per 12 oz. can / komaunwind.com

Review: Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur

kerrygold irish cream

Yeah, you’re reading that right. The iconic producer of Irish cheeses and butter is now venturing into spirits, with this fitting Irish Cream Liqueur. The spirit is being made in conjunction with Imperial Brands, best known as the producer of Sobieski Vodka. The new product “features cream from grass-fed, Irish cows, aged Irish whiskey, and luxurious chocolate.”

Exceedingly drinkable, it’s a textbook example of what Irish Cream should be, like chocolate milk touched with cinnamon notes driven by the whiskey. The nose offers a gentle milk chocolate/cocoa powder character — as innocuous an introduction to any spirit as you’re likely to get. The body is punchy with chocolate — more than you get in some other Irish Cream brands — and the whiskey character is slow on the build. You might not notice it at all if you’re taking small sips or drinking with ample ice (or, ahem, are dumping it atop chocolate cake). A big gulp reveals some of the hallmarks of Irish whiskey, including a rustic honey character, cinnamon and nutmeg, and gentle wood notes. I’m not the kind of guy who sits around tippling on Irish Cream, but this ends up being a bottling that’s hard to resist.

34 proof. Available in Illinois and Florida.

A- / $17 / kerrygoldirishcream.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Fifteen

The penultimate release of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project is here, which means only a dozen bottles of the series of 192 bourbons remain to be released. For those keeping score, this makes 180 bourbons sampled to date over nearly four years of staggered releases.

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s our past coverage to date:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen
Round Fourteen

Round 14 is a mixed bag of bourbons focusing mainly on the barrel, the variables being tested including the wood grain of the barrel, tree cut, and, as always, rye vs. wheat in the recipe. All whiskeys in this batch went in at 105 proof, used barrels with 6 months of wood seasoning and a #3 char, and were aged in a concrete floor warehouse.

By and large it’s a very good batch, including one of the best whiskies in the collection, barrel #149. Barrel #82 remains the fan favorite among all the bourbons released to date.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #21 – Sherried notes on the nose lead to a rather racy body. Lots of wood up front, but this works its way, eventually, into touches of licorice, brown butter, cloves, and more. Let this whiskey open up in the glass. I spent more time with this bourbon than anything else in this edition of the SOP, and though it wasn’t my absolute favorite, it does seem to have the most depth and intrigue in it. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #22 – Another butterscotch bomb with some evergreen hints to it, maybe touches of sage. This is a solid, but mostly straightforward bourbon that wears its vanilla on its sleeve. Balanced with hints of cinnamon creeping in on the back end. An all-around winner, with some slightly unusual elements to it. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #53 – Burly and woody, with a big slug of licorice and (very) dark chocolate on the back end. The finish speaks of coffee bean and burnt almonds. Almost feels scorched, even overcooked. C+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #54 – Big wood up front, big wood in the middle, big wood at the end. The sweeter core emerges with time, in contrast with the largely shut-down #53, but the overall experience is a bit astringent, with just touches of dried fruit and some spice on the finish. B- (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #85 – A straightforward, woodsy expression of bourbon, offering notes of clove, spearmint, and flamed orange peel. The lumberyard notes are the main focus, however, lending a certain austerity to this bottling. B+ (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #86 – Nicely balanced, firing on all cylinders. Vanilla, baking spices, some orange notes, and delicate wood oil all come together in a cohesive, harmonious whole. This drinks how I’d like my “everyday bourbon” to taste — not exactly complex, but refreshing and full of flavor. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #117 – Cinnamon-sugar hits up front, leading to a buttery body that offers some toasty oak notes. The sweet-meets-wood combo is appealing, but a little undercooked. Could use another year in barrel. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #118 – Interesting, dark cocoa powder on the nose. The body adds in some vanilla and wood notes, but also a fair amount of heat. The lumberyard notes grow  and break out a bit of Middle Eastern spice on the back end. A little odd, but worthwhile. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #149 – Beautiful caramel sauce up front, just touched with the slightest hint of orange peel. The finish is strong but balanced between sweeter chocolate/vanilla/caramel notes and the density of toasty oak on the back end. Easily the best bourbon in this edition, and one of the best in the whole series. A (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #150 – Creme brulee notes up front, then modest orange fruit and some nuttiness — peanut butter, even — on the back end. There’s a nice combination of flavors going on here, but it could use a bit more body to prop up the sweetness. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #181 – Baking spices and pretty butterscotch up front leads to a silky sweet body with a lightly drying finish. Notes of red pepper emerge if you give it a little time in glass, giving this whiskey a surprising complexity. Nearly as enjoyable as #149, but with its own sense of style. A (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #182 – Butterscotch notes are clear here, much like #181, but in this expression the sweetness grabs hold and sticks with the whiskey to the end. The finish is almost candylike, without the spicy nuance. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Chateau du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac VS Classique

Tariquet VS Classique avec Etui

Armagnac, in the Gascony region of France near Bordeaux, has long played second fiddle to the better-known and more prestigious Cognac. Subtle production differences exist between the two. Cognac uses up to three grape varieties. Armangac can include four (Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Baco). Cognac is distilled twice, Armangac only once.

Bas-Armangac is the largest of the three subregions within Armangac, and it’s where this bottling from Domaine du Tariquet hails from (the spirits are now denoted Chateau du Tariquet, while the wines carry the Domaine name).

VS is the youngest grade of Armangacs, indicating barrel time of a minimum of three years. Composed of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Baco, Tariquet VS is an outstanding introduction to how well-made a young brandy can be.

Youthful and full of punchiness, Tariquet XO Classique offers a nose full of nuts, dried figs, and oak. On the palate, the fruit shines brighter than expected, intermingling notes of citrus with rum raisin, incense, vanilla, mixed dried fruits, and cocoa. The finish is nutty and a bit rustic, but not rough, and the brandy’s not insignificant sweetness carries the day. I wasn’t expecting much from this Armagnac, but I was converted thanks to a surprisingly complicated spirit that really earns its stripes.

Those put off by the VS indicator should give this a taste. The price is comparable to run-of-the-mill Cognacs like Hennessy and Courvosier, but the flavor is more intense and much more intriguing. Consider me a fan!

80 proof.

A- / $35 / tariquet.com

Review: Wines of Smith-Madrone, 2015 Releases

smith-madroneThree new winter releases from Smith-Madrone, located at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain.

2012 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Napa Valley Spring Mountain District – Buttery, with strong notes of vanilla and nuts. Not much in the way of a surprise here, with modest pear and lemon notes duking it out with that big, brown butter back end. Ultimately there’s a bit too much wood on this traditionally styled California Chardonnay for my tastes, but it’s a fair enough sipper in the right context. B / $32

2013 Smith-Madrone Riesling Napa Valley Spring Mountain District – Fresh, moderately sweet Riesling, this bottling offers notes of honey and candied apple, with notes of honeysuckle flowers. The floral notes lend a perfumed, but fresh, character to the finish. A- / $27

2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Spring Mountain District - Solid, but uncomplicated, with notes of green olive studding simple cassis and raspberry notes. Modest finish, with more fresh, savory herbs coming to the fore. A solid effort. B+ / $48

smithmadrone.com

Review: Wines of Esporao, 2015 Releases

esporaoThree new offerings from Portugal’s Esporao, new releases from the company’s Reserva line as well as its Quinta dos Murcas Reserva offering. Some thoughts follow.

2011 Esporao Reserva Red DOC Alentejo – Made from a blend of traditional Portuguese grapes, including aragonez, trincadeira, cabernet sauvignon, and alicante bouchet. Incredibly dense, this wine starts with licorice notes and jumps straight down an earthy, leathery hole. The wine simply doesn’t let up, finishing dry as dust, with a raisiny character and a tannic, brambly back-end. B- / $25

2013 Esporao Reserva White DOC Alentejo –  A blend of antão vaz, roupeiro, perrum, and semillon. Bold, buttery, and honeyed, this wine is packed with ultra-ripe fruit — rich and sweet like a Sauternes — but without the unctuous body. That sweetness makes it a bit much for food, but the pushy fruitiness is fun enough in its own right. B / $20

2010 Esporao Quinta dos Murcas Reserva DOC Douro – This blend of old vine tinta roriz, tinta amarela, tinta barroca , touriga nacional, touriga francesa, and sousão is a cut above the other wines in this roundup. Simple red berry and currant notes slide their way into more complexity — tea leaf, coffee bean, and some savory herbs — but all wrapped up in a rounded, mature body. There’s the slightest hint of vinegary oxidation on the very back end, which lends a touch of austerity and maturity to what might otherwise be a too-simple wine. It’s working surprisingly well right about now. A- / $40

esporao.com

Review: Glendalough Poitin

glendalough poitin

Poitin (po-cheen) pushers are trying their darnedest to bring this ancient Irish spirit back to the masses. A distillation of malt barley and sugar beets, the finished product is aged in virgin oak (but generally filtered back to white). Ireland’s Glendalough sent us a trilogy of poitins for us to sample. Our thoughts follow.

Glendalough Poitin – The curious marshmallow notes on the nose are no preparation for what comes next on the body — rubber at play with gasoline notes that immediately recalls both American moonshine and Brazilian cachaca. Unfortunately, there’s no fruit, no real interest on the palate to make this investment worthwhile, just a cacophony of raw flavors straight off the still that never quite makes it. All poitin tends to be something of an acquired taste, but this expression may require more acquiring than others. 80 proof. D+/ $31

Glendalough Mountain Strength – I guess they like it strong up there in the mountains. The extra alcohol of this high-proof expression actually helps to soften things up a bit, but the palate is still possessed by a moonshiny monster. A longer finish is simultaneously both a good and a bad thing, bringing out some hints of tart berry fruit, but also pumping up the petrol character. 120 proof. C- / $37

Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish – This is the only non-clear expression of Glendalough, which undergoes a secondary finishing in sherry casks. The citrusy wood influence sure doesn’t hurt, tempering that rubbery character a bit with some orange peel and incense, particularly on the nose. The finish doesn’t go nearly far enough, however. While there’s a little savory lumberyard character in the mix, that raw, almost saccharine character still manages to shine through. 80 proof. C- / $37

glendaloughdistillery.com

Review: Bowen’s Whiskey

BowensWhiskey-BottleHere’s a craft spirit out of Bakersfield, California, a Bourbon-like whiskey that’s not quite Bourbon, a spirit that wears its smoky character on its muscular sleeves.

The company describes how it is produced thusly:

Bowen’s Whiskey, a true artisan whiskey, is made from 100% corn, cut to proof with a proprietary, structured micro-clustered water to bring out the grain’s complex nuance. Natural, forest fire charred red oak, hand-selected during expeditions into the Piute Mountains of central California, provides the whiskey its unique smoky, campfire flavor.

No age statement is offered, but one would probably not be overly useful anyway with this curiosity.

Smoked grain starts things off on the nose, with ample wood influence. The picture of the campfire on the label isn’t just for show — the body features smoky wood fire notes, some dark clove and cinnamon notes, and the essence of burnt toast. Imagine the charred remnants of a campfire over which you’ve cooked the best steak of your life, and you’ve got Bowen’s in a glass. What it’s lacking is much in the way of sweetness — but that’s more of a stylistic choice than a specific fault. You’ll find some vanilla if you give it some time to open up in the glass and have plenty of patience. It’s there, waiting for you as the burly finish starts to fade.

90 proof.

B+ / $39 / bowenswhiskey.com

Review: Oregon Spirit Vodka and Merrylegs Genever

vodka odsTwo more spirits from Oregon Spirits Distillers in Bend, Oregon — these renditions of those two most classic white spirits, vodka and gin. Let’s taste them together!

Oregon Spirit Vodka – Distilled from winter wheat. Very innocuous on the nose, it’s got just some modest hospital notes and a dusting of white grape juice to provide tartness and sweetness. The body is extremely neutral — all vodka is supposed to be flavorless, in theory, but this is one of the most neutral vodkas I’ve ever encountered. No bite. Nothing much at all on the palate aside from just the lightest touch of toffee character to provide a little sweetness on the very end of the finish. If you truly want a flavorless vodka, look no further. 80 proof. A / $25

merrylegsMerrylegs Genever Style Gin – Genever-style gin is distinguished by being a distillate of barley wine, and sure enough Merrylegs stakes its claim on being “authentic” because it is indeed made from a base of 100% malt barley. The infusion bill includes juniper, coriander, star anise, green anise, pink rose, and lemon. The gin is fragrant like a white whiskey, its malt character rising instantly to the forefront. This masks all the botanicals on the nose, but you’ll find them front and center on the palate. The anise character is easily the strongest, giving this gin a light licorice touch up front. At the back end, the coriander makes its presence felt more strongly, with a little kick of sweetness and a licorice candy echo to finish things off. I’m not sure what to think of this product — it’s easy to sip on, but it doesn’t come across much like gin at all. (I get almost no juniper character in it at all.) White licorice whiskey? Starter absinthe? You tell me. 80 proof. B+ / $30

oregonspiritdistillers.com