Review: Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano Bottle ShotAmaro Lucano recently returned to U.S. shores and broader distribution here. Hailing from the small town of Pisticci in Lucania, Italy, the amaro is made from a secret blend of 30-plus herbs and essential oils.

As amari goes, Lucano has a traditional and relatively centrist profile, aptly riding the line between bitter and sweet. On the nose: raisin and prune, cloves, sour cherry, and some wine-like notes to give it a sharper edge. Quite fruity for an amaro, but with a touch of cola note. On the palate, it’s considerably deeper and more complex. More of those cola notes start things off, then comes licorice, notes of drip coffee, bitter chocolate, orange peel, and a melange of macerated and dried fruits — raisin, some fig, and a touch of rhubarb. Floral notes emerge with time and consideration — a bit of violet and lilac, both of which push you through to the moderately bitter but very lasting finish.

Lucano has plenty of complexity but manages to remain modest in sweetness as well as restrained on the bitter front. It’s a well done product, and stands as an amaro that I will certainly return to time and time again.

56 proof.

A- / $30 / amarolucano.it

Review: Baron Cooper 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

baron cooperBaron Cooper isn’t a winemaker. He’s a dog and as the namesake of this series of wines he’s leading the charge toward the raising of funds for Best Friends Animal Shelter. Five percent of all sales of these wines — about a buck a bottle — will go toward ending the killing of dogs and cats in animal shelters nationwide.

There are a number of Baron Cooper wines, but we got a couple to try out. Thoughts follow.

2013 Baron Cooper Chardonnay California – A relatively unadorned chardonnay, lightly buttery with notes of vanilla and lychee. As the body takes hold, solid fruit emerges — golden apples and a touch of lemon — and the lightly sweet finish ties everything together. For a wine without much of a pedigree (and a “California” designation), it’s surprising how successful it is. A- / $24

2012 Baron Cooper Cabernet Sauvignon California – A less impressive wine, a more typically workmanlike example of a widely-blended, youthful cabernet. This expression offers some pruny notes, light astringency, and a woody character that ultimately makes for a fairly lifeless experience. Ho hum. B- / $25

baroncooperwines.com

Review: Deschutes Pinedrops, Foray, Twilight 2015, and The Stoic 2015

foray deschutes

We’ve been falling behind on Deschutes’ beer releases, so here’s a look at four new/seasonal/reissued bottlings hitting in time for summer sipping!

Deschutes Brewery Pinedrops IPA – Formerly an experimental brew served only on tap (and amde with Chinook, Centennial, and Equinox hops), this year Pinedrops goes into year-round rotation in bottles. A burly IPA with resin a plenty and ample, earthy undertones. More forest floor than canopy, there’s some mushroomy notes and a bit of stewed prune character to balance the gentler citrus peel and pine needle elements. A more brooding, less cleansing (but plenty bitter) expression of IPA. 6.5% abv. B+ / $10 (six-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

Deschutes Brewery Foray IPA – This new addition to the Deschutes Bond Street series of seasonals takes classic IPA hops (Nugget, Amarillo, Mosiac, CTZ, and Galaxy), and pairs them up with a Belgian yeast strain for the fermentation. The results: A bitter beer with more fruit, including some tart apple notes, some lemon, and slightly sour apricots. It’s a fun little change of pace from the usual pine and citrus focus, though not necessarily “better.” 6.5% abv. A- / $6 (22 oz. bottle)

Deschutes Brewery Twilight Summer Ale (2015) – This season’s Twilight offers a nice balance of piney bitterness and some dried citrus peel notes along with a little baked apple character. On the finish, notes of clove and nutmeg. It’s never been an overwhelmingly complex beer, but it’s a nice distraction from other blonde ales that are often a bit more biscuity. 5% abv. B+ / $10 (six-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

Deschutes Brewery The Stoic (2015) – Deschutes launched the original Stoic in 2011, and it generated a surprising backlash because drinkers felt it “didn’t taste like a Belgian Quad” — which the bear is styled after. Deschutes basically said it didn’t care and released a darker version called Not The Stoic in 20114. Now The Stoic is back with the original’s recipe, which balances Pilsner malt with Hallertauer Mittelfruh, Czech Saaz, and Northern Brewer hops plus Belgian candi sugars and pomegranate molasses. Pinot noir and rye whiskey barrels are used to gently age the finished beer. I don’t get much barrel influence here; instead the malt and molasses do most of the talking, giving this a very sweet approach and a powerful, juicy impact on the palate. The alcohol level (significant) isn’t readily noticeable, as the fruitier elements — figs, apricots, peaches, and a lacing of molasses — tend to mask it. The finish is clean but sticky with caramel notes making for a decadent — but a bit gooey — finish. 10.9% abv. B+ / $16 (22 oz. bottle)

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Old Forester Mint Julep

old fo mint julep

No, there’s no substitute for the real thing, but one often finds the afternoon hot and the mint absent, so what’s a julep lover to do?

Old Forester has been bottling pre-made, ready-to-drink mint juleps for years, and should this summer find you wanting, it’s a fine way to get your minted bourbon on in a pinch.

This concoction — essentially Old Forester, mint flavoring, sugar syrup of some form, caramel color, and some water to knock it down in proof a bit — makes for an easy way to enjoy a horse race. The key ingredients are present: The mint reasonably authentic, particularly on the body vs. the nose. The bourbon has a distinctly peachy spin to it, really boosting up the fruitiness. That works fairly well with the mint, giving the beverage an almost tropicality to it. The finish is sweet but short of overbearing, which is pretty much how you want the julep to fade out.

Again, a quality julep with fresh mint will put this concoction to shame — but I’ve made worse mint juleps than what comes out of this bottle myself.

60 proof.

A- / $24 (1 liter) / oldforester.com

Review: 4 Albarinos from Rias Baixas, 2013 Vintage

Pazo SeñoránsFour new albarinos from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, each showcasing that classic acid-meets-the-tropics character… but each with a unique little spin on the theme. Thoughts follow.

2013 Paco & Lola Abarino Rias Baixas – A perfectly serviceable albarino, creamy with notes of peaches and tropical fruits, and a caramel-dusted finish. A juicy party wine, with a nice balance of fruit and acid, but not entirely nuanced. B+ / $17

2013 Albarino de Fefinanes Rias Baixas – Very dry, with notes of white peach and restrained tropical character, with lots of acidity on the back end. The dryness demands food rather than a beach chair, but the mineral notes are intriguing in their own right. B+ / $26

2013 Namorio Albarino Rias Baixas – Initially quite dry, with some peachy notes. As it opens up, it reveals a nice balance between mineral notes and a growing tropical character that hits fairly hard on the finish. As the bargain bottling in this lineup, it’s worth a strong look as your new everyday white. A- / $15

2013 Pazo Senorans Albarino Rias Baixas – A slight herbal edge sets this apart on the nose immediately, with notes of sweet peaches, apricot, and lemon bubbling up on the palate. A tart, acidic body that oozes with touches of light marshmallow cream seals it as the winner in this lineup. A / $25

Review: Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon

duke-bourbon-bottle-shot-front-print

John Wayne wouldn’t let something as silly as being dead get in the way of drinking a good whiskey, and neither should you. Now you can drink just like John Wayne by drinking, er, the very essence of John Wayne — by swilling some Duke.

Duke Bourbon (sometimes called “The Duke,” but that’s not what the label says) is emblazoned with an iconic picture of Wayne along with his fabled nickname. Designed to celebrate everything about his Wayneness, it is said to have been formulated specifically to Wayne’s personal tastes “learned when his son, Ethan Wayne, discovered a private collection of his father’s liquor, letters and tasting notes dating back to the early 1960s.”

Read that again: John Wayne kept tasting notes, people.

Though producer Monument Valley Distillers laughably claims to be an artisan distiller “crafting small batches of superior bourbon, whiskey and brandy,” Duke is really (undisclosed) sourced bourbon from Kentucky (so not MGP) and is bottled without an age statement (and, of course, without mashbill information), but some have suggested it’s being produced by Wild Turkey (which would be unusual) and is a five to ten year old product (which would also be old for sourced whiskey). No one knows for sure, but does this whiskey have true grit?

The nose doesn’t give a lot of hints. The aroma is gentle and slightly corny with some lumberyard notes. It’s racy with alcohol but not particularly with spice — leading me to believe it’s got only a small amount of rye in the mash. On the palate, again it’s very easygoing — much more than its slightly overproof alcohol level would indicate anyway — very gentle with notes of candied almonds, dried apples, Cracker Jack, and some milk chocolate. A slight hint of smoke and a touch of mint add layers of complexity, but the finish is sweetness, a bit of baking spice, and gentle vanilla caramels.

Sure, Duke is a vanity bourbon project — God knows there are dozens of them on the market now — but I’d be remiss if I dismissed it as mere plonk served up in an overpriced bottle. I can’t weigh in on whether this resembles anything John Wayne would have actually consumed in real life — his persona seems like it would surely have preferred something more fiery and frontier-like — but if he was a man of discriminating tastes, he wouldn’t have been wrong in making this whiskey his go-to tipple.

88 proof.

A- / $30 / dukespirits.com

Review: El Mayor Tequila Complete Lineup (2015)

El-Mayor-Tequila-2

It’s been seven long years since we encountered one of the oddly shaped bottles of El Mayor Tequila, and even then it was just the blanco expression. Today we’re taking a fresh look at El Mayor — and covering the complete lineup of three expressions of this highlands-born, 100% agave spirit. (There’s an extra anejo too, not reviewed here.)

All are 80 proof. Read on for more.

El Mayor Tequila Blanco – Very gentle, it’s one of the lightest-bodied tequilas I’ve encountered in recent years. The nose is moderately sweet, with some honeysuckle notes and a bit of spicy black pepper leading to a punchy but balanced agave backbone. The body has some citrus notes, cloves, and a modest agave, which together with the citrus character gives it a bit of the flavor of pickled jalapeno on the finish — though not much of the heat. The tequila wraps up clean and fairly soft, just about perfect for a blanco sipper or as a premium mixer. Reviewed: Batch 1478. A- / $27

El Mayor Tequila Reposado – Aged up to nine months. Again, very gentle on the nose, though this time it’s got notes of cola, some vanilla, and emerging agave spice. The body features some cinnamon and gingerbread, more vanilla custard, and even butterscotch notes. Herbal agave notes are present, but fleeting, as the sweeter components do more of the heavy lifting. Some pepper on the finish keeps things grounded in the world of reposado. Reviewed: Batch 883. A / $30

El Mayor Tequila Anejo – Aged 18 months. The nose isn’t dramatically different from the reposado except for the addition of some lumberyard aromas — a few tannic notes that give the anejo more of a brooding character. The body starts off somewhat sharp, which is a surprise, before venturing into sweet, dessert notes — chocolate, toffee, caramel — that build and build on the lush finish. The agave takes a back seat here, but that’s typical in many anejos, as the barrel makes its influence known. El Mayor’s gentle blanco is a good match for that, leaving behind just enough herbal agave to make things worth exploring again and again. Reviewed: Batch 878. A- / $48

elmayor.com

Review: Black Dirt Bourbon 3 Years Old

BD Bourbon w fire

Black Dirt is made in New York State’s first microdistillery, where an applejack and this bourbon are produced. Made from a mash of 80% local “black dirt” corn (hence the name), 12% malted barley, and 8% rye, it’s aged for three years in #3 char new American oak barrels. Let’s take a look under the hood.

The nose is appealing, showing light popcorn and breakfast cereal, then lumberyard notes, plus gentle vanilla and caramel notes. It’s youthful, but not too young, just a peeling back of the layers of the spirit to reveal its grainy underpinnings. The body largely follows suit, offering a touch of chocolate up front, then a modest dip back into the grain pool for another helping. Some baking spice and a bit of citrus come along before you reach a finish that returns to chocolate for a reprise.

Cereal-heavy whiskeys are often a bummer, but Black Dirt (the name notwithstanding) is surprisingly easygoing and balanced between its granary notes and its sweeter components. The finished product may still drink like it’s in short pants, but it’s nonetheless quite enjoyable on its merits. It’s rare to find a microdistilled bourbon that has balance and a unique character all its own, but Black Dirt is one of them.

90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6.

A- / $38 / blackdirtdistillery.com

Review: Sauvignon Blancs of Brancott, 2015 Releases

brancottBrancott is a bit like the Mondavi of New Zealand. It was the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, a region that has become one of the world leaders in this style of grape. Today, Brancott makes dozens of wines, including eight different sauvignon blancs. We reviewed five of them, from entry-level juice to some surprising rarities that I wasn’t even aware of before cracking into them.

2014 Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – Entry level, and it shows. The tropical notes are strong, but come across more like canned mango and pineapple, with a slightly vegetal note. Best when served very cold, which helps accentuate the acidity. C+ / $14

2013 Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – Note that it doesn’t actually indicate “Brancott” on the label. The nose is tropical but also strongly bent toward melon notes. On the body, it’s slightly frizzante, which I’m not sure is intentional, but it brings out the cantaloupe/honeydew notes more distinctly. A little odd, but it grows on you. B / $18

2013 Brancott Estate Flight Song Sauvignon Blanc – A low-cal wine with 88 calories per 5 oz glass and 9% alcohol. Strongly orange on the nose, with floral notes and tropical underpinnings. Slightly buzzy on the tongue with a touch of fizz, but clean on the finish with and echo of more fresh citrus. Easy and breezy, so they say. Surprisingly good for “diet wine.” B / $15

2013 Brancott Estate Letter Series Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – A well-balanced sauvignon blanc, with strong pineapple and mango notes on the nose and a solid level of acidity in the body. Some sweet caramel and light almond notes continue on the palate — but the finish veers sharply into some earthier, mushroom tones, a bit discordant here. B / $26

2010 Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – Very well-aged for a sauvignon blanc, this wine starts with tropical character and then showcases creme brulee, vanilla caramel, and light lychee notes. Much more complicated then the relatively straightforward big-fruit-then-acid wines above, Chosen Rows uses a little funk to add depth to what is normally an uncomplex style. Bottled in the most exotic screwcap I’ve ever seen. A- / $65

brancottestate.com

Head to Head with 4 Bloody Mary Mixes: Scales, Tabanero, Bloody Good, and Bloody Amazing

tabaneroSummer is hear, and that means brunch with bloodies is upon us.

Sure, it’d be great if you could always crush your own tomatoes and grate your own fresh horseradish, but really, who’s got the time. Recently we’ve been inundated with bottled bloody mary mixers, which we put head to head to head to head.

Thoughts follow.

Scales Bloody Mary Mix – For a so-called low-carb bloody mary mix (5 grams of carbs per 3 oz.), this sure tastes sweet. The very dark color is a bit misleading; the mixer is more tart than spicy or meaty, a densely acidic mixer with a heavy tomato paste character and a metallic aftertaste. Not at all spicy, despite the claims of being made with Texas Pete’s hot sauce. B- / $6 per 1 liter bottle

Tabanero Spicy Bloody Mary Mix – Definitely “Mexican style,” with a salsa-like character to it. Intensely spicy, with lasting, burning habanero notes, plus notes of green pepper, cilantro, and lots of onion. It’s a bit on the watery side, so don’t expect to try watering it down to temper its heat. That said — I really like it (and the Tabanero hot sauce.) Mixing half and half with a less racy mix might work, though. Oddly has less carbs than the Scales. A- / $10 per 1 liter bottle

Bloody Good Bloody Mary Mix – A local brand you won’t likely find outside of northern California. Very fresh, with ripe tomatoes, some green veggies, black pepper, and lots and lots of horseradish. Quite gentle in spice level, but it’s pungent thanks to the horseradish component. Nicely balanced; definitely a strong contender. Very difficult to pour (as it’s bottled in what is basically a spaghetti sauce jar). / $9 per 32 oz jar

Bloody Amazing Premium Mary Mix – While Tabanero approaches bloodies from a salsa standpoint, Bloody Amazing comes at it from the shrimp cocktail sauce arena. Very dense, with stewed tomato notes, black pepper, and horseradish — plus lots of Worcestershire to add a brooding character that Bloody Good doesn’t have. This one’s more a matter of taste, as the overall character is very much a “coastal” one. Only slightly spicy; easily manageable. B+ / $13 per 750ml bottle