Review: Hangar 1 Vodkas (2016)

hangar_one

Hangar One was an icon of the independent spirits world, a trailblazer that was founded by small time St. George Spirits in 2002 and which grew to become one of the most beloved vodka brands around, at least amongst cocktail connoisseurs.

We reviewed them all formally in March 2010. In April 2010 the company was purchased by one of the industry’s giants: Proximo Spirits — best known as the owner of Jose Cuervo. While the vodka is still made in Alameda (it recently moved across the street from its original home), for many the shine wore off the day Hangar One went corporate.

Today, Hangar One has refreshed its labels and bottle design and even put a spin on its name to turn “One” into a numeral, though the production methods (still pot-distilled from a blend of wheat and viognier grapes) and the core flavored versions remain the same.

Here’s how they acquit themselves in 2016. All are (still) 80 proof.

Hangar 1 Straight Vodka – Notably “winey,” with dry, herbal aromatics and hints of lemon peel. The body is surprisingly thin, but the lack of unctuous oils keeps things clean and the finish lively, with a slight hint of black pepper. I really have no complaints. This remains a top-notch mixer and a solid all-around team player in the vodkaverse, though some drinkers might be forgiven for looking for a little more power on the palate. A-

Hangar 1 Kaffir Lime Vodka – Famously flavored with Thai Kaffir limes, this is Hangar 1’s most iconic version. The nose is intensely heavy with lime, including a smattering of herbal notes that recall rosemary and, especially, bay leaves. The palate is quite sweet and comes off a bit more candylike than I recall, with a duskiness on the finish that evokes lots of black pepper along with some earthy elements. I get hints of anise. Less of a thrill than it was back in the day — perhaps simply because after 14 years it’s no longer a novelty — but still one of the best flavored vodkas on the market. A-

Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka – The creepy Buddha’s Hand is the basis for this spin on lemon vodka. Oddly enough, I now grow Buddha’s Hands myself and they are tons of fun to look at. (Less so to try to cook with.) Here we find that intensely sour lemon base taking on all kinds of kooky secondary notes. Today I get chocolate, raspberry, and vague herbal notes, which linger provocatively, outlasting the hardcore lemon notes even. As with the Kaffir, though, it’s drinking a touch sweet for me today. A-

Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka – This is, as with the prior version, a milder expression of orange vodka, which is never unappreciated in a world where hefty flavoring agents tend to beat you over the head. Decidedly floral, to the point of being perfumy, this is a true expression of oranges still on the tree rather than ones  skinned and juiced. It’s pastoral at times with some earth notes — a common theme with this year’s releases — but balanced by intensifying tropical notes that emerge on the nose as the spirit opens up in the glass. The finish: Pure flowers. Blossoms, that is. All told, it’s arguably my favorite this year — surprising even me. A

$35 each / hangarone.com

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2016 Releases

ffc directors cut

You will not stop Francis Ford Coppola from pumping out wines. The man directed The Godfather, for Pete’s sake. Four new wines — all from the 2014 vintage — are on tap for review in mid-2016. Let’s dig in..

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Chardonnay Sonoma County – Oak and butter, nothing surprising here, but some notes of green figs and banana give this otherwise straightforward bottling at least a little something to hang on to. The finish ends up a bit on the sweet side, however. B- / $15

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Chardonnay Russian River Valley – A higher-end bottling and a much different wine than the above — quite dry and herbal, with notes of melon complementing a more gentle pear character on the palate. The lengthy finish offers up some of chardonnay’s characteristic buttery sweetness, but keeps things restrained and balanced. B+ / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – Surprisingly lovely, this coastal pinot offers both bright fruit and more sultry notes of licorice, wet earth, and mushroom to add complexity and balance. The finish remains heavily acidic, with tart cherry notes pushing through everything. A great value bottling. A- / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – A very gentle pinot, uncharacteristic of the Russian River, with notes of restrained cherry, licorice, and root beer. The very light body supports these notes, layering in some strawberry character, leading it to a quiet and uncomplicated finish. An easy crowd-pleaser with just enough complexity to make it worth talking about. A- / $24

francisfordcoppolawinery.com

Review: Kilchoman Sanaig

kilchoman Sanaig 2016 Btl Box

Kilchoman’s second permanent release, following Machir Bay, has arrived. Sanaig (seemingly pronounced sann-ig) is named for an inlet northwest of Kilchoman, and unlike Machir Bay, which is partially finished for a few months in sherry barrels, Sanaig spends a “significant” amount of time in Oloroso sherry hogsheads — reportedly 10 months of its total aging time. Otherwise, no age information is being released — an unusual move for the normally forthcoming distillery.

Let’s see how it compares to its big brother.

Clearly heavily sherried, the nose evokes lemony, at times grapefruit-like, aromas, with a hefty underpinning of peat smoke. The body offers a nice interplay between these two components and provides a better balance than we’ve seen in some prior Kilchoman releases, its salty, briny elements providing a compelling counterpoint to both the citrus and the sweet smoke. It’s the barbecue-like smokiness that lingers for quite some time on the finish… and which has me hungry for ribs.

92 proof.

A- / $70 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Gonzalez Byass Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva P.X.

Lepanto px

We visited with Gonzalez Byass and two of its Spanish brandies (including one Lepanto brand) earlier this year. Now we’re back with higher end expression of Lepanto: affectionately abbreviated as Lepanto PX.

Lepanto PX is made from 100% palomino grapes and spends its first 12 years, solera style, in Tio Pepe Fino sherry casks, then does a tour of three years in much darker Pedro Ximenez sherry casks; all told, it is 15 years old.

The beautifully colored, coffee-brown spirit offers aromas of raisin, dried figs, and caramel-heavy banana flambe. On the palate it’s initially an intense spirit (despite the lower alcohol level), folding those dried fruit notes into lingering flavors of coffee, tea leaf, and cocoa powder. The body is ultimately gentle and quite sweet, but this sweetness is never overblown. The brandy takes on a lightly bitter edge as the finish develops, which adds both balance and nuance, its Port-like, raisiny notes lingering for ages.

72 proof.

A- / $60 / gonzalezbyass.com

Review: Firelit Coffee Liqueur

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Firelit is an artisan coffee liqueur, originated in 2009 by Jeff Kessinger, “who developed the original cold brew coffee liqueur formula along with his two high school friends, Marcus Urani and Tyler Warrender, and with the help of James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee Co.” After five years of contract distilling, Kessinger is now producing in his own facility in Napa, California, using a rotating selection of high-end coffee producers as the base for the spirit (currently San Rafael, California-based Weavers Coffee).

Firelit is made thusly, per the company: “The coffee is cold brewed for 18 hours immediately following the roasting process and then is blended with a brandy/coffee infusion. The blend is aged in stainless steel tanks for one full month to allow the ingredients to fully integrate. Before bottling, a cold brew batch of fresh coffee is brewed for proofing.”

Let’s move on to tasting…

This is an authentic coffee liqueur that Java fans will easily enjoy. The nose is heavy with pure coffee bean character, virtually no sweetness is detectable. The body is intense and, again, authentic, offering notes of heavy dark roast coffee, loaded with notes of nuts and bitter cocoa powder. Again, those expecting the sugar rush of Kahlua won’t find it here. This is “coffee, black,” turned into a liqueur. OK, maybe there’s just a hint of cane sugar is added to brighten up the otherwise hardcore experience, but if you’re looking for the real deal in a coffee-flavored spirit, you’ve found it here.

60 proof.

A- / $40 / firelitspirits.com

Review: Usquaebach “Old-Rare” Superior Blended Flagon

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We last covered Usquaebach, a Highland producer of blended whiskies and blended malts, in late 2015. Missing from that lineup was the blender’s top-end bottling, “Old-Rare,” most easily recognized by the stoneware flagon in which it is bottled. (“Old-Rare” is in tiny print at the very top of the decanter; the rest of the writing goes on at length about the company’s 225 years of history.)

Old-Rare includes a whopping 41 single malt Scotch whiskies (mostly Highlands, it seems) each up to 20 years old, plus 15% grain whisky in the mix. Let’s pull the cork from this olde tyme bottle and see how it fairs.

The nose is a bit hot, and rough around the edges with more of a granary character than you’d expect, which dulls the notes of leather, caramel, and some citrus peel. Subtle smokiness emerges as the spirit opens up in the glass. Things quickly coalesce on the palate, which layers in coffee and cocoa notes, juicy orange, and malt balls. The finish is lively and youthful, and even evokes a bit of lime zest to give it a bit of zip when you least expect it. After a lackluster start, it proves to be solid stuff.

86 proof.

A- / $100 / usquaebach.com

Review: The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Train Collection

Single Cask Range with Box

I scratched my head, too: Why would a major producer of Scotch whisky name a series of high-end releases after a train invented in the United States? We’ve got the full story, courtesy of The Glenlivet.

The Glenlivet has been a standard-setting luxury brand for nearly 200 years, appealing to whisky connoisseurs looking for a rare expression steeped in heritage and history. The brand’s historical ties to the Pullman Company, a pioneer of first-class railroad travel, are due in large part to the business savvy Captain Bill Smith Grant, Founder George Smith’s last distilling descendant. Grant was able to persuade the Pullman Company to offer 2-ounce miniatures of The Glenlivet as one of the only Scotch whiskies available in the dining cars helping to spread the whisky’s fame across the US.

To commemorate this piece of The Glenlivet’s history, The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Train Collection are three new, special-edition Single Cask whiskies marking the first time ever the brand has released a Single Cask in this market and available exclusively in the US. The name of each bottle is inspired by the Pullman connection: Pullman Club Car, Pullman Twentieth Century Limited, and Pullman Water Level Route.

Founded on the three pillars of rarity, purity, and uniqueness, each Single Cask within the Pullman Train Collection is hand-selected by Master Distiller, Alan Winchester. Chosen for its exceptional quality and intense flavor, The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition has been transferred from cask to bottle purely, at their natural cask strength and without chill filtration, therefore locking in the original flavor and character from the cask’s influence. Only a few hundred bottles of whisky were drawn from each cask, making them a highly collectible and unique Single Malt series.

Though it might seem like a natural fit, these are not travel retail releases but will rather be released — obviously in very small amounts — to the general market in the U.S. only. As these are three single-cask releases, each expression is limited to just a few hundred bottles.

With that said, all aboard! Let’s try ’em!

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route – “The original high-speed train” connected Chicago and New York. 14 years old, matured fully in an American oak hogshead. This is a solid example of bourbon-barrel matured single malt. Heavy on the nose with caramel and spice, florals burst forth with time in the glass. On the palate, a warm and lightly grainy attack gives way graciously to a mountain of dense chocolate, chewy nougat, and a touch of candied orange peel. The finish is lengthy and full of warmth, finishing with gentle notes of caramel and vanilla. Again, it’s a textbook example of how glorious unsherried single malt can be. 111.88 proof. 321 bottles produced. A  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition 20th Century Limited – The most famous train in the world at the time, this was the train that took the aforementioned Water Route from NYC to Chicago. This whisky is also 14 years old, but aged in a refill European oak butt that was previously used for another Scotch whisky. Bright on the nose with honey and nutmeg notes, with time it evolves aromas of camphor and mint. On the palate, the unctuous body offers notes of gingerbread, marzipan, and cloves. A light smattering of sherry-like citrus peel notes emerge primarily on the finish, rounding things out with a bit of zip. Not quite as lush as the Water Route, but an easy winner in its own right. 115.46 proof. 588 bottles produced. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Club Car – Finally we get to the Club Car, essentially the bar car, where Glenlivet would have been served on the train. This is an 18 year old whisky drawn from sherry butts. By far the darkest and richest whisky in this lineup, the nose offers notes of first-fill sherry, heavy with sherry and complemented by prominent baking spices, cocoa powder, and butterscotch. The palate plays up the above, adding ample notes of apricots, peaches, toasted marshmallow, and a creeping impression of barrel char. Again this is a fantastically well-structured whisky — all of these barrels were clearly chosen for a reason — that offers complexity and nuance alike. 112.48 proof. 618 bottles produced. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

each $350 / theglenlivet.com