Review: Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” 2016

Booker's Rye Bottle + Box Lifestyle Shot

It is easily the most notorious whiskey release of the year, but Booker Noe — otherwise known exclusively for bourbon — couldn’t have predicted such when he decided to lay down some rye barrels in 2003. (Noe died in 2004, but his name has lived on in his namesake bourbon.) Apparently he took the mashbill information on this whiskey — believed to be about 70% rye — with him.

Now, 13 years (and 1 month and 12 days) later — roughly double the time that Booker’s Bourbon spends in cask — Beam Suntory has turned out those barrels and bottled them at cask strength. It is the first and so far only rye whiskey released under the Booker’s name, a very well-aged, one-off release that is turning heads mainly because of one thing: A $300 price tag.

Rye is red hot right now, but this release now has observers wondering whether we’ve hit “Peak Rye.” Even cult-level rye bottlings like WhistlePig’s rare bottlings don’t command that kind of coin. You have to look at the tiny number of Sazerac 18 Year Old bottles out there if you want to find any competition in the price range.

Ah well, let’s see what’s inside these ritzy bottles, shall we?

The nose is intense, one of the richest and most powerful I’ve encountered in an American whiskey in a long time. Huge aromas of toffee, barrel char, and licorice are backed by notes of orange marmalade, ginger, and torched brown sugar. The nose just goes and goes — it’s one of those rare whiskeys that is intensely enjoyable without ever taking a sip.

And yet, sip we must, and said sip is glorious. At 68% alcohol, Booker’s Rye ought to be a blazer, but it’s surprisingly gentle and easily approachable even at full strength. The body is complex and soaked through with notes of molasses-dark caramel, flambeed banana, tons of cloves, and Port wine. While it isn’t required, water doesn’t hurt, coaxing out more up-front sweetness to endure on the finish. All told, it’s a dramatic, powerful, and beautiful whiskey, perfectly aged and well worth sampling should you manage to encounter one of the few bottles that were produced.

Have we arrived at Peak Rye? You better believe it. Does it matter? As long as the whiskey turns out this amazingly: No.

136.2 proof.

A / $300 / bookersbourbon.com

Tasting Summer Wines from Germany – 2013 S.A. Prum Luminance and 2013 Guztler Pinot Noir

sa_prum_luminance_ries_mv_750

German wines are only made for roast pork knuckles and boiled sausages with lots of kraut, right? Not so. Here’s a look at a couple of German bottlings that are down-right cool for the summer, designed for lighter fare.

2013 S.A. Prüm Luminance Dry Riesling – A lovely Mosel riesling, offering a mix of citrus and tropical character, with ample acid to back up all that fruit. I wouldn’t exactly call it “dry” — there’s plenty of juicy fruit here to give at least the impression of sweetness, and just a touch of caramel sauce particularly on the nose — but it works well as a food companion and as an aperitif on its own. A- / $15

2013 Guztler Pinot Noir Dry – Germany’s not my go-to region for great pinot (note the prominent “dry” indication on the label), but this bottling from Gutzler, in the Rheinhessen (western central Germany), isn’t half bad. Up front it offers fruit, but restrained, showing a hint of spice atop its easy cherry core. The finish has a little of that classically German, mushroomy funk, but otherwise offers a clean and food-friendly profile. B / $20

Review: FOS Greek Mastiha Liqueur

fos

File under ???

First, some history.

Mastiha is a unique spirit made exclusively in the Mediterranean, and it is best known on the Greek island of Chios, where it has protected status. A cousin of ouzo, it is a liqueur that starts with neutral spirits and flavors that with resin from the mastiha tree, also known as the crying tree. “The resin droplets, known as mastiha tears, are left to slowly seep out of the bark and dry in the natural sunlight to form translucent golden crystals. Before the first autumn rain, when the tears are ready to be harvested, the area around the tree is cleaned, leveled, and coated in a fine white soil on which the tears fall and are gathered,” per the company that is making FOS. (The tears look a lot like demerara sugar crystals.) Additional “secret ingredients and special formulas” give FOS its ultimate character.

Presented as a moderate-proof liqueur, FOS Greek Mastiha offers a nose of pine needles, anise, and eucalyptus — making one instantly recall Greece’s infamous retsina wine. That’s not intended as a slight, for FOS tastes less like Pine-Sol and more like an evergreen-dusted lemon candy — sweet, with a lacing of, well, resin. That resin character hangs with you for quite awhile, its sweetness never quite overcome by the heavy herbal component, but rather oddly complemented by it. Like ouzo, it’s nothing I’d turn to on a regular basis, but I could see how this stuff could grow on you.

56 proof.

B / $32 / ambrosiagrp.com

Bar Review: Whitechapel, San Francisco

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Of all the gin joints in San Francisco, well, you probably walked into this one, the only temple to this classic white spirit in town — in fact, the only one I’ve ever been to at anywhere.

Whitechapel opened in October 2015, part of the resurgence of classy, artisanal, and/or themed cocktail bars sweeping the nation, and particularly the Bay Area.

Whitechapel was dreamed up by Alex Smith, formerly of ThirstyBear, who after years of shopping the idea got Smuggler’s Cove proprietor Martin Cate to come aboard as a partner. The new establishment is a few blocks away from Smuggler’s, located in SF’s otherwise dead-at-night Civic Center district. (The good news: There’s plenty of parking available here.)

Inside, Whitechapel has been painstakingly designed to resemble a “steampunk Victorian era tube station,” though one imagines they were not drinking fancy gin cocktails in the London Underground in the late 1800s. Someone spent a lot of money here to make a really new place look really old.

But the cocktails here, oh my! Yes, they are all built around gin of some form (either straight, barrel-aged, or genever, or a combination of the three), and the dense cocktail menu stretches back to the 1800s. Some absolute classics (from Pink Gin — gin and bitters, served room temperature) are represented, but most drinkers head to the more updated concoctions which are presented at the front of the book and on “cheat sheet” one-pagers handed to every guest.

It’s one of these recipes that has quickly risen to become one of my favorite cocktails ever — it’s also a Whitechapel top-seller — the Narc Angel, a mix of Ford’s gin, orange curacao, maraschino, ginger, mint, and lemon. It’s great like that, but the genius is that it is served with a pipette filled with Campari. You squeeze as little or as much into the drink as you like, and as you drink. It starts off with gorgeous sweet-and-herbal notes in balance, then layers in that bitter edge as you guzzle it down — which is embarrassingly easy to do.

I also tasted the Lamplighter’s Story, a powerful blend of Plymouth Gin, hibiscus, grapefruit marmalade, serrano chili, and bitter orange soda, but felt the floral element was oddly overpowering. The frothy Holmes’ Bonfire is a frothy almond- and licorice-flavored concoction that looks (and tastes) a bit mad scientistish. And there’s the Penny Dreadful, a spirit-heavy drink made with various gins and vermouths, plus bitters and “smoked Islay peat.” The overall effect is a lot like a Manhattan — only made with gin instead of whiskey.

Whitechapel also serves food, with tastes running heavily to the origins of gin, the Netherlands and Britain — with a nod to Bangladesh, whose people now dominate the Whitechapel neighborhood in London. The poffertjes (buckwheat doughnut holes) are a sweet companion to a stout drink, but it’s the $120, 36-ounce tomahawk steak that really turns heads. Built to share, of course, Smith says they are regularly purchased and that the record is sales of eight or nine of the monsters on a single night.

Think gin is just for tonic and martinis? Think again by visiting Whitechapel.

whitechapelsf.com

Review: Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve, Complete Lineup (2016)

milagro single barrel

Milagro is a run-of-the-mill tequila brand that nonetheless produces one of the most expensive product lines in Mexico, the Select Barrel Reserve line, which comes packaged in an elaborate bottle designed to look like an agave plant erupting from the interior of the decanter. It’s a neat trick that earns some premium coin for these three expressions.

We previously reviewed the silver Milagro SBR bottling back in 2010, but have never covered the rest of the lineup. Until now.

Here’s a fresh look at the 2016 silver bottling of the Select Barrel Reserve, plus the reposado and anejo versions.

All expressions are 80 proof.

Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Silver – Mellowed for 30 days in French oak before bottling (presumably after filtering back to clear). Strongly peppery and a bit vegetal on the nose, with no trace of sweetness. The body tells a much different story, offering cotton candy, marshmallows, and bubble gum notes, leading to a lingering vanilla-scented finish. A curious and often engaging sipping tequila, though one that doesn’t drink much like a silver at all. B+ / $50  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Reposado – Aged from three to six months in a combination of French and American oak. Similar aromas to the silver, though some baking spice aromas develop with time in glass. The body offers some wood notes, with notes of chocolate, coconut, and lemongrass. Some peppery agave bite endures on the finish, giving this more complexity than the silver shows off. A- / $56  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo – Aged from 14 to 24 months in a combination of French and American oak. Here we see the SBR really showing its strengths. The nose melds sweet vanilla with peppery and herbal agave notes, all put together with inviting and enticing balance. On the palate, the yin-yang story continues — a more intense version of the reposado presenting itself. The sweetness is relatively restrained, its vanilla and spun sugar notes pulling back into a sort of sugar cookie character. The finish nods at herbaciousness, but this too is minimalistic in tone, adding a slightly savory balance to what is otherwise a sugar-forward spirit. All told it works very well, showing off many of anejo tequila’s more engaging characteristics at their best. A / $100  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

milagrotequila.com [BUY THEM ALL NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Yuengling Traditional Lager and Summer Wheat

yuengling

“America’s oldest brewery” gets minimal play out here on the west coast, but Yuengling (est. 1829) is nonetheless a well-known brand in these parts, even though we don’t often see its labels being peeled off of damp bottles. That’s because Yuengling is also a very large brewery — roughly the size of Sam Adams’ parent company, actually.

Today we look at Yuengling’s classic expression, a lager, and a more recent release, a wheat beer. Thoughts on both follow.

Yuengling Tradtional Lager – Traditional is right. This is a malty, robust, slightly nutty amber lager that exudes the old world from front to back. Grain lingers on the finish, with just a touch of gingerbread making a late appearance on the back end. Ball park beer at its best. 4.5% abv. B / $8 per six-pack

Yuengling Summer Wheat – A simple hefeweizen, Yuengling’s take on this brew offers lots of coriander and dried orange peel, giving the heavy wheat notes underpinning it a huge amount of spice. Initially off-putting, I eventually came around to the brew, though its boldly sweet and malty finish left me longing for some hops. 4.6% abv. B- / $8 per six-pack

yuengling.com

Review: Wines of Terra d’Oro, 2016 Releases

Amador County is home to Terra d’Oro, the first winery to open in this region since the end of Prohibition. Formerly bottled under the Montevina label, the winery was established in 1973 with a focus on historic grape varietals — particularly those of the Italian persuasion.

We sampled a vast array of current releases from Terra d’Oro. Thoughts follow.

First, some white and rose…

2015 Terra d’Oro Chenin Blanc & Viognier Clarksburg – 87% chenin blanc, 13% viognier. Peaches and lemons arrive up front, with perfume-driven notes taking the lead in short order. The finish offers hints of vanilla and caramel. On the whole, the wine is tropical and a bit buzzy, and it offers a refreshing take on a style that can often be overwhelmingly fruity. B+ / $16

2015 Terra d’Oro Pinot Grigio Santa Barbara County – There’s a nice slug of mango on the front of this wine, an an otherwise standard pinot grigio from Santa Barbara, far from Amador. Light and quite fresh, it’s an uncomplicated crowd pleaser with a brisk and nicely acidic finish. A- / $16

2015 Terra d’Oro Rose Wine Amador County – Made mostly of nebbiolo grapes. Fruit forward, and loaded with strawberry notes. A surefire crowd pleaser, this is a lively and fragrant wine that showcases crisp acidity and a slight sweetness on the finish. Nothing too fancy going on, but it’s difficult not to enjoy in the moment. B+ / $13

And on to the reds…

2014 Terra d’Oro Barbera Amador County – A bit fruity for a barbera — in fact, it’s got so much bright plum and cherry notes that barbera would’ve been my last guess. That said, this barbeque sipper has plenty to like, including a healthy vanilla note, a dusting of black pepper, and some dried herbs on the back end. It’s a definitive “new world” example of this grape, however. B- / $18

2014 Terra d’Oro Aglianico Amador County – This obscure Italian varietal makes for an interesting alternative to zinfandel, showcasing chocolate and caramel notes along with a moderate slug of citrus. Not as sweet as you’re expecting — at least not after it opens up for a few minutes — and the finish offers restraint. B+ / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Sangiovese Amador County – A dense wine, with intense cherry and vanilla notes, plus a dusting of dark chocolate on the back end. The plummy finish and lack of herbal notes recall cabernet more than sangiovese, which isn’t entirely a bad thing — but which doesn’t ring authentic to the grape. B / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Teroldego Amador County – Made from a obscure Alto Adige grape, this is an inky, ultra-ripe wine with notes of anise, cloves, and loads of dark currants. Sweet up front with a lingering earthy, tannic, and herbal finish, it makes me think of a cross between zinfandel and amarone… with all the good and bad that that connotes. B- / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Petite Sirah Amador County – Ripe and juicy, with a ton of sweetness and residual notes of black tea, black pepper, and licorice. With time, this wine settles down enough to be approachable but the overwhelming sweetness otherwise makes the experience rather singular, culminating in a raisin- and cherry-heavy finish. B / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Amador County – Restrained for zinfandel, with plenty of sweet raisin notes but also notes of blackberry, sweet tea, and vanilla candies. The finish is, again, quite dialed back, bringing forth notes of chocolate and licorice. It’s not an overly serious wine, but it’s a fun one. A- / $18

Finally, a pair of single vineyard zinfandels…

2014 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Home Vineyard – Chocolate and intense Port notes — this is classic Amador County zinfandel, dusted with black pepper and notes of vanilla cake frosting. The finish offers notes of dried blueberry and a solid amount of baking spice and dried ginger notes. Though the body lacks structure (so common with zinfandel) and tends to fade away rather than go out with the bang I’d like to see, it’s still a fun and worthwhile zin. B+ / $24

2014 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Deaver Vineyard – A somewhat vegetal expression of zin, with notes of coffee, sweet tea, and fruity, juicy plums throughout. Lots of tannin and a heavy wood influence muddy the waters, while the intense cherry jam notes come across as a bit cheap. B- / $22

terradorowinery.com