Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: James E. Pepper 1776 Ale

1776 Ale Photo 212x300 Review: James E. Pepper 1776 AleGeorgetown Trading is the company behind John L. Sullivan Irish whiskey and James E. Pepper “1776” whiskey — and now the company has decided to get into barrel-aged beers, too. Proprietor Amir Peay explains:

We had been selling our whiskey barrels to some great brewers and always loved the beer they had been making, and wanted to do some type of collaboration but nobody was interested – so I found a contract brewer and we developed our own recipe and aged it in freshly dumped barrels from our James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye. We wanted to try something a bit different so instead of a porter or stout we went with an imperial brown ale. And the really great thing about this beer is that we have complete control over the supply / age / type of whiskey barrels we use because we have large stocks of whiskey and lay down our own stocks for aging. And even better we time it so our barrels get filled with beer no less than 30 days after the whiskey has been dumped – so you really get that great Rye whiskey finish.

James E. Pepper 1776 Ale is technically a barrel-aged American brown ale in line with other barrel-aged brews of its ilk. Thick and winey, this hefty ale piles on the chocolate and coffee right from the start, alongside some notes of smoked meats, molasses, and plenty of malt. There’s a moderate whiskey influence here — it comes across mainly in vanilla, cinnamon, and gingerbread touches on the finish, hallmarks of rye whiskey (though not particularly James E. Pepper rye whiskey, which I sampled again for this review). Otherwise it’s as powerful and punchy as almost any other barrel-aged beer, long on malty syrup and all but absent on the bitter side of things. Full of flavor, but super-boozy, so tread with caution.

10.4% abv.

A- / $NA (22 oz. bottles) / jamesepepper.com

Review: Glenfiddich “The Original” Single Malt Whisky

2014 Glenfiddich Tin Bottle 525x700 Review: Glenfiddich The Original Single Malt Whisky

In 1963 Glenfiddich launched a single malt whisky and sold it outside of Scotland, a highly unusual move considering that the whisky world at the time really only knew of blended Scotch, not single malts. While many may very well debate the claim (considering single malt whisky dates back to at least the 1400s), the distillery has put a stake in the ground as the inventor of the modern single malt category as we now know it.

So, what Glenfiddich has done is recreate the 1963 “Original,” as it was called back then, for a modern audience. Assuming this is an accurate representation of the past, they were drinking pretty impressively back in ’63. Much like the Shackleton recreations, Glenfiddich Original — created in keeping with an authentic recipe from the era and aged in sherry butts — offers a gentler experience with the focus more squarely on the grain.

The Original starts with aromas of nicely roasted malt, rounded out by modest, restrained sherry notes. The nose goes on to offer almond and dried apple plus gentle coal fire notes driven by the wood.  The body is rounded but relaxed and easy, offering notes of coconut, dried banana, light citrus, and fresh hay on the finish. It’s not overwhelmingly complex, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead it’s a lightly sweet, delightfully drinkable whisky that is just as welcome today as it must have been 50 years ago.

80 proof.

A- / $100 / glenfiddich.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting Report: 6 Spanish Garnacha Wines

Some say Garnacha, the Spanish inflection of Grenache, is the next “It Wine.” (It doesn’t hurt that most Garnachas are extremely inexpensive.) Is it so? We tasted six Garnachas (one of which is a Garnacha/Syrah blend), from 2009, 2012, and 2013 vintages, to see where this varietal is headed.

2009 Bodegas y Vinedos del Jalon Alto Las Pizarras Garnacha Vinas Viejas – Engaging, exotic, almost perfumed on the nose. Notes of violets and raspberry mingle with hints of black tea and coffee to create a surprisingly rousing and rounded whole. The finish heads toward more of a candied violet character, but there’s plenty of tannin here to keep things out of jam territory. A / $9

2009 Castillo de Maluenda Punto y Seguido Garnacha Vinas Viejas – The embarrassingly simple label wouldn’t cue you in to how impressive the wine in this bottle is, a showy, fruit-forward wine that simultaneously offers depth and balance. Notes of tea leaf, cola, and leather are layered atop blackberry and cherry forming a core that drinks with lushness but which features muted, well-smothered tannins. The finish is complex, echoing everything that’s come before with a fresh denouement. A / $15

2009 Vinas del Vero Secastilla Somontano - A little pruny and overcooked, almost stewed. Very dense fruit competes with balsamic notes and runs up against a finish that offers coffee bean and dense, oily leather notes. C- / $25

2012 Castillo de Monseran Carinena Garnacha – Very fruity, almost like a Gamay-based wine. Thick strawberry jam leads to a finish that’s almost sickly sweet and unbalanced. C- / $8

2012 Pagos del Moncayo Garnacha – A very easy-drinking garnacha, offering a refreshing mix of strawberry and currant notes, backed with light chocolate, some tea leaf, and gentle tannins. Though not entirely complex, it’s lovely from start to finish, and ready to go immediately. A- / $12

2013 Bodegas Paniza Agoston Garnacha & Syrah – A blend, as the name suggests, with a surprising amount of fruit from the start — it almost comes across as candied berries with a dusting of chocolate sprinkles. More herbal notes take hold as the wine develops on the palate — think thyme and rosemary on a Sunday roast — but that youthful spirit and dense fruit maintains the focus through to the finish. B+ / $8

Review: Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao and Creme de Menthe

menthe Review: Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao and Creme de Menthe

Quick, when’s the last time you had a Grasshopper? Pink Squirrel? Brandy Alexander?

While some things never come back into vogue, for classics like these, it seems inevitable that hipsters will once again be guzzling these things by the gallon — and probably in hollowed-out coconuts and pineapples.

Creme de Cacao and Creme de Menthe are typically purchased — if they’re purchased at all — in the cheapest form available. But Petaluma, Calif.-based Tempus Fugit Spirits is dead-set on elevating the category with this pair of artisan liqueurs, recreated from well-researched historical recipes and high-end, natural ingredients (no oils or essences… or, yech, chemical flavorings here).

Thoughts follow.

Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao – Crafted from distilled raw cocoa, then flavored with additional cocoa and whole vanilla beans. A shade of light brown in color, the nose offers rich cocoa powder character, touched with the essence of barbecue spices — and other spice rack staples, including rosemary and thyme. Dark chocolate notes win out on the palate, as a dessert-friendly amalgam of cinnamon and vanilla wash over the body. By taking the focus off of pure sugar and keeping it locked in the baking cabinet and the chocolate bar, this creme de cacao is an easy winner in a maligned category. 48 proof. A / $31

Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe - An even more maligned category, demolished by the downfall of peppermint schnapps. But Tempus Fugit is undaunted. This liqueur distilled from winter wheat, then flavored with real peppermint and spearmint, plus added botanicals (in keeping with historical recipes). The result is both traditionally minty and surprisingly piney on the nose, leading into gentle peppermint candy notes with touches of vanilla extract and citrus peel emerging late in the game. An excellent digestif, but a bit syrupy for continued sipping. 56 proof. A- / $31

tempusfugitspirits.com

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

old forester 1870 470x1200 Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series   1870 Original Batch Bourbon

Rest assured, Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon was not made in 1870. Rather, this is a whiskey that is the first release in what Old Forester is calling its new Whiskey Row Series. “This unique series highlights our bourbon’s significant milestones and production innovations with each release.  From the first batched bourbon to a post-prohibition era style bourbon, the series will allow consumers to sip Old Forester as it was enjoyed in the late 1800s through the mid-1920s,” says the company.

And so we start here, an attempt to recreate the tone of 1870, when OldFo became, they say, the first “batched bourbon” — made at three different distilleries and blended together later. Attempts have been made to keep things legit:

To emulate Brown’s pioneering 1870 batching process, the 1870 Original Batch bourbon is comprised of barrels selected from three different warehouses with a different day of production as well as a different entry proof and maturation period. The expressions will be batched together to create this 90-proof product which represents the innovative technique developed by Brown which has become an integral part of the bourbon industry.

And so, let’s see how this first batch pans out…

Big notes of caramel apple attack the nose right from the start. Fruity notes carry well into the body, until some leathery, tobacco notes finally emerge as the palate starts to round out. The finish offers tons of grip and tannin, but it’s complemented by a slug of baking spices — cinnamon and ginger, mainly — giving it an almost candylike character on the back end. It’s an almost simple whiskey, though it’s so loaded with that candy apple character that it’s hard not to like.

90 proof.

A- / $45 / oldforester.com

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 2014

WhistlePig Spirit of Mortimer Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 2014

Clearly, Vermont-based WhistlePig has a stash of barrels of rye aging away in a warehouse, so each year the company can bottle a bit of it and see what happens, while the rest continues to mellow outtakes a little bit of its well-aged rye and bottles it just to see what’s going on. The rest lingers for another year.

This year WhistlePig’s special edition is a “nearly 14 year old” rye — 100% rye, as always — named in honor of the company’s deceased Kune Kune pig and mascot. “The Spirit of Mortimer” is marked not by a name on the label but by a large “M” and a pewter stopper that sits atop the bottle, a winged piglet that honors the deceased Mortimer. (To confuse matters further, the black label, similar in hue to 2012’s WhistlePig 111, merely indicates it’s “The Boss Hog,” akin to last year’s bottling.)

With that, we’re on to the tasting…

There’s ample wood and some campfire smoke on the nose of WhistlePig: Spirit of Mortimer, with hints of apple cider and cinnamon. The body is hefty and chewy, but with a fruitiness that shines through the haze of sawdust and lumber. Cinnamon and clove notes emerge on the racy finish, and while it’s all well-integrated with caramel characteristics at its core, it’s not altogether quite as intriguing as last year’s expression. Fine effort on the whole, however.

118 to 124 proof, depending on batch (our sample was not disclosed). 50 barrels bottled, less than 2,000 cases produced.

A- / $189 / whistlepigwhiskey.com 

Review: Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin

uncle vals restorative gin 394x1200 Review: Uncle Vals Restorative GinDoes this bottle look familiar? Does the name sound familiar, too? Ah, you’re probably thinking about Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, which we reviewed upon release in 2012.

Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin offers a somewhat different formulation. In lieu of juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage, and lavender — the key ingredients in Botanical — Restorative offers juniper, coriander, cucumber, and rose petals.

If that sounds a lot like Hendrick’s, that’s because it is a lot like Hendrick’s. And once again, my tasting notes run to some unexpected places that are not wholly in keeping with the botanical bill. The nose presents juniper and lemony citrus (surprising, as there’s no citrus in the gin), a brisk and powerful introduction that should keep fans of more traditional, juniper-forward gins happy.

The body folds in the florals — lots of rose petal character (considerably more than Hendrick’s) that fortunately manages to stay on this side of the perfume counter. The coriander adds an earthy element that is present mainly on the finish. Cucumbers are the only element that don’t really make a major showing. Intended to be “cooling,” the gin does have a gentler (and sweeter) let-down on the back end than you might expect, which takes things out on a refreshing and, well, restorative finish.

I like this gin a bit better than the Uncle Val’s Botanical bottling, although with only four botanicals to rely on, Restorative has to work harder for your love. For the most part, it succeeds in earning it. Hendrick’s fans should definitely give this a shot to compare and contrast.

90 proof.

A- / $40 / 35maplestreet.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Rueda Wines Reviewed: Shaya and Jose Pariente

Shaya Habis 376x1200 Rueda Wines Reviewed: Shaya and Jose ParienteFret not if you’re unfamiliar with Rueda. This region, directly to the west of Spain’s Ribera del Duero, is the home to a white wine that is beginning to find favor overseas. Long a favorite in its homeland, Rueda wines are made primarily from the verdejo grape (viura and sauvignon blanc are also grown here, as are some red wine grapes). Best of all, the wines are quite affordable and designed for everyday drinking (much like Ribera reds).

Think of verdejo as somewhere between sauvignon blanc and viognier. For a more detailed look at what this wine is like, we examined two recent vintages straight outta Rueda.

2010 Bodegas Shaya Habis Verdejo Old Vines Rueda – Somewhat buttery and nutty on the nose at first, the wine’s aromatics eventually take hold on the tongue, offering light perfume mingled with notes of apricot, lime zest, and a touch of tropical character. Hazelnuts make an appearance as the wine’s finish fades, bringing things full circle. A- / $25

2013 Jose Pariente Verdejo Rueda – A touch musty, this wine offers peaches and apricots on the nose. A touch of caramel and cotton candy get the palate started, and then more of a citrus and tropical character takes hold. Pleasant, simple, and fruit-forward. B+ / $10

Review: 2011 Matchbook Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills

matchbook tempranillo 83x300 Review: 2011 Matchbook Tempranillo Dunnigan HillsHere’s a surprisingly lovely little wine from JL Giguiere’s Matchbook brand, made from Tempranillo in Yolo County, grown in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The restrained nose features notes of tanned leather, stonework, touches of smoke, and dried fruits. On the palate, things are more fruit-forward: dark cherries, plums, tobacco, and cranberry notes lead to a well-rounded, moderately big finish. This wine offers balance as well as lasting fruit notes that polish off a food-friendly, imminently drinkable wine that drinks like a considerably more expensive bottling.

A- / $15 / crewwines.com

Review: 2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

avignonesi nobile2011 114x300 Review: 2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCGThis 100% Sangiovese wine from the Montepulciano region is a beautiful introduction to both the grape and the region. Bright cherry notes mingle with a touch of raspberry, plus touches of vanilla, flinty stone, coffee bean, and some cinnamon on the finish. Over time, hints of chocolate emerge — give it some air. Lush without being overpowering, the wine is a perfect solo fireside companion but also works perfectly with food.

A- / $29 / avignonesi.it

Review: Jardesca Blanco California Aperitiva

jardesca 525x700 Review: Jardesca Blanco California Aperitiva

Drinkhacker pal Duggan McDonnell — of Encanto Pisco fame — is up to some new tricks. His latest project: Jardesca, a lightly fortified, aromatic wine. Esseentially part of the vermouth/Lillet category, Jardesca is a blend of sweet and dry wines plus a double-distilled eau de vie that is infused with 10 different botanicals. The big idea: Find a balance between the cloyingly sweet stuff and the grimace-inducing bitter apertifs.

Jardesca’s bittersweet character is at first surprising because it’s so different from other aperitif wines. A bit off-putting, I found myself struck first by notes of dill, eucalyptus, and dried apricot. That’s a weird combination of flavors, and it takes some processing — and some time exploring the product to really figure out what’s happening here. The wine develops in the glass and on the palate, offering rich honey notes, grapefruit, and a nose that’s increasingly heavy with floral aromatics — lavender and honeysuckle, plus rosemary notes.

Like I said, lots going on here, and sometimes it comes together beautifully, and sometimes it comes across as a bit much. Actually I found myself enjoying the more herbal components of Jardesca over its sweetness, which helps it to shine quite brightly in a vodka martini. It works well on its own, but I think its true destiny is a spot on progressive bar menus as a more intriguing vermouth.

18% abv.

A- / $29 / jardesca.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach 25YO 525x787 Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bell 300x168 Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie BellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944

mortlach.com

Review: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res 480x1200 Review: Makers Mark Cask Strength

Hey, remember when Maker’s Mark said it was going to lower its proof from 90 to 84? That didn’t work out, so the company figured why not go the other way, with a limited-availability cask strength expression of the classic Maker’s Mark.

Cask strength bourbon is a bit at odds with the company’s avowed mission to market a “soft” whiskey, but there’s no denying that customers are going to eat this stuff up. The demand for overproof, barrel strength whiskey is seemingly insatiable, so, mission or not, I expect Maker’s knew exactly what it was getting into here.

Let’s engage in a tasting, shall we?

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is classic Maker’s on the nose — vanilla, lightly almond-like notes, modest wood, and hints of ripe banana. Modest and sweet-smelling, the spirit at first indicates little to the nose about its overproof nature. The body starts off with only a few minor surprises. Cinnamon and red hot candies start things off, but then it’s on to an intense, alcohol-laden punch as that 113-plus proof core takes hold. Bigger, tannic oak notes arise here, along with more of that sweet vanilla core, some cocoa powder, and hints of grain. The finish is drying and a little bittersweet — another Maker’s Mark hallmark — with notes of butterscotch and a little menthol and black pepper as the finish fades. All told, it’s not unlike classic Maker’s Mark, just punched up a bit in both the flavor and the body departments to appeal to the overproof whiskey lover in the family. There’s definitely more intensity and fire here, but it’s easily drinkable at bottle strength. A touch of water brings out more nuances in all of the above.

On the whole, I like it just fine, though not necessarily better than the classic Maker’s Mark. Frankly I’m not sure I need to have Maker’s at this proof level, but I like the idea that if I decide I do, I know it’s there for me.

Reviewed at 113.3 proof (abv will vary). Reviewed: Batch 14-02.

A- / $35 (375ml) / makersmark.com

Rioja Review: 2008 Rioja Bordon and 1998 Vina Albina

Franco Espanolas Reserva Bordon 2008 160x300 Rioja Review: 2008 Rioja Bordon and 1998 Vina AlbinaWhen it comes to upscale wines, Rioja is a category that is often overlooked. But these Spanish wines, primarily Tempranillo with a smattering of other Spanish regional grapes, like Mazuelo and Graciano, thrown in, can often be aged for a decade or more, particularly at the Reserva level or higher.

Today we look at a 2008 Reserva and a 1998 Gran Reserva (the only major production difference is time spent in barrel and bottle before release). Both are now available on the market.

2008 Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Bordon Rioja Reserva – There’s good age on this bottling of a classically-structured Rioja Reserva, offering a nose of dusky, dried fruits, charred wood, and roasted meat. The body is lightly balsamic with tart cherry character and more of those meaty/slightly smoky notes on the finish. A- / $15

1998 Bodegas Riojanas Vina Albina Rioja Gran Reserva – At 16 years old, this one’s starting to feel its age, with some oxidation starting to creep in on an austere and brambly experience. Notes of balsamic, dried figs, and cherry jam emerge, along with a heavily tannic, licorice-flecked finish. Still showing well, but it is beginning its downswing. B+ / $50

Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter III – “The Fiendish Finale”

devils punch bowl 3 525x714 Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter III – “The Fiendish Finale”

All good horror stories deserve a trilogy, and Arran Malt, with its Devil’s Punch Bowl series, is back for a third and final round of this special release whisky: The Fiendish Finale. See notes on Chapter I and Chapter II here.

There’s unfortunately not a lot of production information on this batch, but it is drawn from whisky that has been finished in oloroso sherry butts. No age information is offered. As with previous editions, it is a cask strength bottling.

This expression of the Devil’s Punch Bowl is racier and spicier on the nose than previous expressions, with a clearer expression of its barley base at first. The body is huge — powerful with sherry notes, chewy malt, and a finish that pushes forth notes of dried fruits, milk chocolate, and a sweetness akin to caramel sauce on fresh Belgian waffles. It’s not at all smoky like Chapter II, instead letting the sherry do almost all of the talking here, building a dessert-like confection that layers both fresh and dried citrus notes atop a big caramel core. Lots of fun, and a real go-to whisky for after-dinner drinking.

All in all, this is a fantastic way to round out one of the more memorable series of Scotch whiskies to arrive in recent years.

106.8 proof.

A- / $130 / arranwhisky.com

Review: Frescobaldi 2010 Nipozzano and 2011 Nipozzano Vecchie Viti

NipozzanoVecchiViti2011 79x300 Review: Frescobaldi 2010 Nipozzano and 2011 Nipozzano Vecchie VitiTwo new releases from  Marchesi de’Frescobaldi, the royal family of Tuscany — the standard bottling of Nipozzano (named after the 1000-year-old family estate) and a new release of Vecchie Viti, a bottling rarely seen on U.S. shores. Thoughts follow.

2010 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rufina – A textbook example of what Chianti should be, bright with that signature cherry of sangiovese, but complicated by notes of tea leaf, cocoa powder, and a mushroomy earthiness on the finish. The denouement is dour and brooding, not big and fruity — or highly acidic — like so much Chianti can be. A big winner at mealtime, less of a solo sipper. A- / $16

2011 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva Vecchie Viti Chianti Rufina – This “old vines” release of Nipozzano is a more fruit-forward, slightly jammier expression of Chianti. Aged 24 months in barrel, it exhibits notes of fresh cherries, strawberry, and fresh mixed berry jelly. A bit on the sweet side for my tastes — compared to the more herbal, earthy notes I like to see in a Chianti, but still a fun wine that’s worth exploring. B+ / $30

frescobaldi.it

Review: Aperol Aperitivo

APEROL 198x300 Review: Aperol AperitivoThe Aperol Spritz is a perennial favorite cocktail — but I can’t say that I’ve ever actually drank much Aperol on its own. Until now!

An aperitif that is often shelved alongside Campari (the same company now makes both), this liqueur’s most noteworthy ingredient (not including sugar) is bitter orange, though a host of other bitter roots are also used to give it its flavor. Lighter in color and much less bitter than Campari, the spirit is a bittersweet beauty. The up-front sweetness can be a little cloying, with a viscous body and spun sugar character that approaches cough syrup, but once that passes, its complexities take hold. Aperol offers gentle bitterness on the back end, with notes of chocolate and root beer leading to a pleasant, dessert-like finish. Not too lasting, the sweet and bitter eventually meld into a cohesive whole as the liqueur finally fades away.

Aperol can be used as an alternative to Campari in almost any cocktail — particularly if you’re not looking for the bitter wallop to the senses that Campari provides. For even more fun, use it as an alternative to Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or any other triple sec and see what the slug of bitterness does to your favorite cocktail.

22 proof. (The rating is for solo sipping…)

A- / $25 / aperol.com

Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

johnniewalker goldlabelreserve750  01937.1407759372.1280.1280 525x525 Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

Last year, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve arrived in the U.S. in limited release. We wrote about it at length at the time, but knew that, as just a visiting member of the family, our thoughts would be fleeting at best. Well, now Gold Label has its green card and is back in the family, a permanent resident in the JW lineup.

We got a fresh bottle of Gold Label Reserve (the non-gilded version of the bottle) and took it out for a fresh spin. While I didn’t like it quite as much as I did upon my first encounter, it’s still a standout blend and arguably the best part of JW’s lineup. My fresh thoughts on the latest release follow.

Racy on the nose, there’s an indistinct mix of citrus and grain character that combine with more base alcohol characteristics — all in all, the picture of a standard, sherried, blended whisky. The body starts off phenomenally sweet, spiking the cloves and citrus notes with big candy bar character. The sugar settles down as some more pungent Madeira notes emerge on the finish, but the overall spirit is balanced, on point, and lasting.

80 proof.

A- / $75 / johnniewalker.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2014

JubelaleBTL 79x300 Review: Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 20142014’s winter brew from Deschutes is upon us, and this year’s Jubelale is a bit of a smoother operator. It’s got the standby nut and malt core, plus notes of licorice, coffee bean, mushroom, and mild hops. That isn’t a surprising lineup of flavors for Jubelale, but this year things feel restrained a bit, making this a more introspective beer, almost like a coffee stout, rather than the flavor bomb it can sometimes be. The finish isn’t so much creamy and mouth-filling as it is soothing and — almost — refreshingly wintry.

6.7% abv.

A- / $8 per six-pack / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

refind Gin Vodka 525x1008 Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

Distilled from grapes in Paso Robles, California, Re:Find is a boutique distillery that turns its “neutral brandies” into a variety of straight and flavored spirits. Distilled “from grapes” has certain connotations, but Re:Find is careful to note its vodka is not grappa, a specific type of brandy that is distilled from a by-product of winemaking. Re:Find is rather made from “free run” juice called saignee that is bled off during pressing, before red wine grapes are fermented — so it’s closer to an unaged brandy in composition. These are high-end grapes, which just so happen to be used to make wine at Villicana Winery — which is under the same ownership.

Mostly available only in California, we got a look at four of the spirits in Re:Find’s lineup. All four spirits reviewed below are 80 proof.

Re:Find Vodka – A bit grappa-like on the nose, with some of that funky, twig-‘n’-stem character you see on this spirit, but it’s undercut with the lightest aromas of honey and marshmallow. The body offers more in the way of hazelnuts, banana, and vanilla cookies, which makes for an interesting counterpart to the funkier nose (again, much like a good grappa). There’s a lot going on in this spirit and while it’s initially a bit much when sipping straight, it does show lots of nuance and character, and it merits exploration both on the rocks and in more complex cocktails. A- / $35

Re:Find Cucumber Vodka – Interesting choice for your first flavor, but damn if a nose full of Re:find Cucumber doesn’t smell like you’re headed to a day at the spa. Crisp and authentic, this vodka offers pure and refreshing cucumber flavor through and through, with just the lightest dusting of sweetness on the finish to offer some balance against the vegetal notes up front. You get none of the earthy grappa character in the unflavored vodka here, just fresh cukes from start to finish. Impressive considering this is legitimately flavored with fresh cucumbers. Seasonally available. A / $25 (375ml)

Re:Find Gin – Triple distilled and infused with (mostly local) juniper berry, coriander, orris root, lemon & orange peel, grains of paradise, and lavender. This is an engaging gin, juniper-forward on the nose, with hints of lavender underpinning it. On the palate, things get a bit switched up. Here the lavender picks up the ball and runs, with the citrus notes coming on strong. It’s quite a trick, as the nose sets you up for a big evergreen bomb, then the body lets you down easy with a more sedate character suitable for the tropics. Re:Find Gin could benefit from a bit more complexity — maybe grapefruit peel or black pepper, or both — but as it stands it’s an engaging and quite drinkable little spirit. A- / $43

Re:Find Limoncello – Pale in color in comparison to many commercial limoncellos and translucent, Re:Find’s Limoncello looks and smells more like pure, fresh lemon juice — much more so than the stuff you typically see from Italy. Heavy on sour juice and bitter zest, this is intense stuff. If you’re looking for a sweet and lightly sour limoncello that will pair well with your berries-and-whipped-cream dessert, this isn’t the liqueur for you. If intense, almost raw, lemon character is your bag, give it a go… though you’ll have to visit Re:Find’s distillery to get some. B+ / $NA (375ml)

refinddistillery.com