Review: Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila

hornitos Black Barrel Bottle Image

The world’s love affair with whiskey has now come… to tequila.

Say hello to Hornitos Black Barrel, a unique spin on an Anejo from the Sauza-owned distillery. The production process is on the complex side, so let’s let Hornitos tell the tale for us:

Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila is redefining the premium tequila experience. Hornitos Black Barrel is a super smooth, triple aged, 100% agave tequila uniquely aged to embark distinct and complex whiskey notes. The tequila starts with 100% Hornitos Tequila, which is aged in traditional American Oak barrels [presumably ex-Bourbon barrels -Ed.] for 12 months. Once the soft, smooth, complex flavor of the Añejo tequila has been achieved, the liquid is placed in deeply charred American Oak barrels for four months to ensure that the tequila breathes through the caramelized layer of sugar, imparting the rich character, golden amber color and smoky notes traditionally found in whiskey. Lastly, the tequila is aged in specially-toasted American Oak barrels for two months to impart a creamier, vanilla character to add depth and complexity to the final spirit.

I’m still not entirely sure what all of that means, but the goal here is clearly to pump as much wood character (read: whiskey) into the tequila in as short a time as possible. Hornitos Black Barrel arrives on April 14 in limited release. Look for the black-frosted bottles.

Thoughts on both Black Barrel and a fresh review Hornitos Plata (last covered here (weakly) in 2007!), from which it is born, follow.

Hornitos Plata Tequila – Unaged, but it tastes like it has a bit of wood on it nonetheless. Fresh citrus (heavy on the lime) is on the nose, along with spicy agave. The palate is racy, but tempered by fruit. There are touches of pear, hints of mango, and hints of cinnamon, vanilla (that wood-seeming influence), and butterscotch. The body’s a little on the watery side, but overall it’s got a good kick and stands as a solid base from which to build some aged expressions, particularly at this rock-bottom price. 80 proof. A- / $17

Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila – At the outset, it’s a wholly different experience than pretty much any tequila I’ve ever had. (See if you can fool your friends!) The nose is distinctly whiskey-like, but what kind of whiskey is hard to say. I get notes of raw wood (foremost), VapoRub, brandied cherries, and a ginger spice that recalls Christmas cake, punched up with chili powder. The body largely follows suit. Chewy with vanilla and nougat with touches of fresh charcoal, it’s got a whiskey kick but it can’t mask that agave, at least after it opens up in the glass. Over time, Black Barrel develops more of a traditional anejo character, where agave and vanilla notes are a little more balanced. Unconventional — and purists will hate it — but tradition aside, it’s pretty good stuff. 80 proof. A- / $30

hornitostequila.com

Book Review: Liquid Vacation

Liquid VacationThe Tiki drink revival may not have really taken off the way that rum nuts had hoped, but fanatics intent on making fruity, high-proof drinks in the comfort of their own homes and hula skirts can find solace in Liquid Vacation, a large-size recipe book from P Moss, who runs Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas (reportedly the world’s only 24/7 Tiki bar).

While there are about a dozen Tiki classics to be found here — Mai Tai, Fog Cutter, Scorpion — you can find those schematics anywhere. Rather, it’s the 77 original concoctions, all from Frankie’s bartenders — that are the bigger draw.

There’s a science to mixing rum, sugar, and fruit juice, and Moss will get you to your destination in style, if a bit addled in the brains. Be warned: None of these drinks will be simple to make, and the ingredients list will challenge even the best home stocked bar… unless you keep Tuaca, jasmine liqueur, falernum, POG juice, guava nectar, and papaya nectar handy. Well, perhaps now you have a reason to stock up.

Bonus: Every drink gets a glorious full-page photo, and a handy “skulls” rating system clues you in to how potent each cocktail is: “More skulls equals more fun.” I don’t think there are any drinks in the book that clock in at fewer than three skulls.

A- / $28 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 48.29 and 93.47

It’s been well over a year since we’ve encountered the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s always-interesting independent bottlings. These two recently outturned expressions showed up almost as a surprise. Thoughts follow.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 48.29 – 12 year old Balmenach from Speyside. Big, malty nose, but also quite sweet, with hints of orange and sugar cane. The body starts off amazingly sweet, with marshmallow and vanilla, before evolving more fruity notes, almost jam-like, in the mid-palate. Cereal notes come along in the finish, quite mild, but also complementary to what comes before, lending the affair a pastry-like experience. 122 proof. A-

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 93.47 – 9 year old Glen Scotia from Campbeltown. Immediately intriguing and unusual on the nose: some smoke, cocoa powder, coal fires, and roasted nuts. The body brings even more complexity: seaweed and salt mix with sweet pound cake, vanilla frosting, marzipan, and a dusting of spice. The finish is a little short considering all that’s going on, but the overall experience is marvelously fun to explore on the whole. 119.4 proof. A-

prices $NA / smwsa.com

Review: Widow Jane “Heirloom Varietal” Bourbon Whiskeys

widow jane heirloom bourbons

The Scots have messed around with single-varietal barley expressions of Scotch for years — so why not Bourbon? Does the type of corn used to make Bourbon make a difference, too?

You’d think this kind of experiment would be performed by the brain trust at Buffalo Trace, which never stops experimenting and releasing the results of those experiments for you and I to tipple on. But this experiment is being done, oddly enough, in the state of New York, by the good folks who make the impressive Widow Jane craft Bourbon.

This is not sourced whiskey, like Widow Jane’s 7 Year Old expression, but rather whiskey distilled right in Widow Jane’s Brooklyn-based stills. Three expressions are offered, one using Wapsie Valley corn, a hybrid of American Indian corn that was farmed in Iowa. The other varietal is Bloody Butcher corn, “bred by crossing Native American seeds with settlers’ white seeds around 1800, in the Appalachian mountains.” One of the Bloody Butcher varieties is a “high rye” expression, using the same corn. (More appropriately: the other variety is a “no rye” expression.)

All three of these are young spirits. No age statements are offered, but the mashbills are detailed exactly. All three are bottled at 91.8 proof. Thoughts, as always, follow.

Prices reflect 375ml bottles (gulp).

Widow Jane Wapsie Valley Single Expression Bourbon – 60% organic Wapsie Valley corn (mixed yellow and red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 25% rye. Nutty, almost smoky, with exuberant corn notes. The body starts off a bit brash and overpowering with popcorn notes, but these settle down a bit to reveal some notes of maple syrup and honey. That intense, smoky corn character lingers. B / $115

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher Single Expression Bourbon – 85% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley. How to put this? Even cornier, and smokier — with a touch of that maple syrup character. While the nose is a bit rougher (85% corn will do that), the body brings on ample sweetness, like a cola syrup, up front. Racy with spice, big cinnamon notes that do a good job at massaging some of the cornier notes and the rougher edges. A- / $125

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher High Rye Bourbon – 58% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 27% rye. Similar nose as the above, perhaps a bit gentler, with graham cracker and Bit-O-Honey notes. Cleaner on the body, too, which turns toward mint in the mid-palate, but finishes on the hot and indistinct side. B+ / $135

widowjane.com/heirloom/

Review: 2012 FEL Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Fel winesFormerly known as Breggo, FEL is a new label for this winery, but little else has changed. Perhaps the biggest name, aside from a name switcheroo which now honors owner Cliff Lede‘s mother, is the discontinuation of Breggo’s old Riesling and Gewurztraminer bottlings. Thoughts on the remaining wines (the Pinot Gris wasn’t tasted) follow.

2012 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley – Unoaked, brisk with notes of vanilla and lemon up front, then fading to butterscotch, light caramel, and slightly tart lemon custard on the finish. Extremely food friendly and fun. A big win for Chardonnay haters. A- / $28

2012 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – Simple Pinot that doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The mild cherry also offers some sweet vanilla, and a slightly sweet finish gives this wine a pretty, pre-dinner feel to it, though it stands up well against foods like barbecue, where the fruit-forward character helps cut the spice. Nothing fancy, but worthwhile. B+ / $38

felwines.com

Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private Reserve

millbrook distillery bourbonThat’s a mouthful of a name for this Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie area), New York-based spirit, a sourced whiskey made from a corn/rye/barley mashbill. Little else is disclosed, including age.

Woody on the nose, there’s depth here that recalls brandied cherries and Christmas cake. The body, however, is surprisingly sweet, with a distinct honey tone to it. Sultry, slightly earthy notes add body, with a fruity character (apples and plums, perhaps) providing some nuance. The finish veers a bit into wood oil territory, but on the whole it’s a well-balanced bourbon with lots to recommend it.

90 proof.

A- / $37 / millbrookdistillery.com

Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp Brewing

base camp Smore Stout Bottle smallLike any good craft brewer, Portland, Oregon-based Base Camp makes a dozen-plus different beers, some with very exotic compositions. Unlike most craft brewers, it then puts these beers into oversized 22 oz. aluminum bottles, which are “made for adventure.”

We tested four of the company’s brews. Thoughts follow. 

Base Camp Brewing In-Tents IPL – An unusual copper-colored India Pale Lager. Deep forest notes and cedar closet on the nose. The body is equal parts IPA and malty lager, but the earthy, almost musty finish that develops (thanks to the beer being aged in oak barrels) is a bit too much, overpowering some of the delicate pine notes up front. 6.8% abv. B

Base Camp Brewing Ripstop Rye Pils – A German pilsner with the addition of rye malt. This is a beautiful combination, the pilsner lush and rounded, and the rye giving it a bit of extra zip. Straightforward with fresh baked bread notes, moderate bitterness, and with just a touch of orange peel on the finish. Lovely balance. Easy, summery brew. 5.7% abv. A-

Base Camp Brewing Northwest Fest – An Oktoberfest-style brew, moderately gold in color and quite malt-forward. Quite a good one, it’s been lagered on toasted oak to give it a touch of vanilla sweetness, but the mildly dry hoppiness and fresh baked bread notes overpower everything else in the end. Straigthtforward, it’s a richer, more mouth-filling choice than both of the above. 5.6% abv. B+

Base Camp Brewing S’More Stout – An American stout with all the trimmings: Chocolate, coffee, and intense malt extract on the nose and the body, leading into a thick, bittersweet finish (emphasis on the bitter). Not enough nuance in this one for me… just a punishing blackness punctuated by hints of dessert. 7.7% abv. B-

basecampbrewingco.com

Review: Tincup American Whiskey

tincup american whiskey

Tincup (or Tin Cup, or TINCUP, as I refuse to write it) is the brainchild of Jess Graber, who launched Stranahan’s Whiskey in Colorado, where Tincup also hails from.

These are different animals, though. Stranahan’s is 100% malted barley distilled and aged on site. Tincup is rather simply sourced bourbon (from where the company doesn’t say), watered down with Colorado water and bottled here.

Nothing wrong with that, and it sure keeps the cost down. Tincup is half the price of Stranahan’s — though just as with Stranahan’s, you also get a metal cup on top of Tincup, an homage I presume to the whiskey’s moniker.

The specifics of Tincup are scant, but it’s a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley, no age statement offered. Curiously, the company doesn’t use the term “bourbon” on the label (it does on its website), but the maker does make a claim to a “high rye content.” Instead, the company just goes with the style name of “American Whiskey.”

All of this is surprising, actually. As whiskey goes, Tincup is one of the gentlest I’ve ever had, which is the antithesis of how we usually consider high-rye spirits. The nose offers vanilla and butterscotch, and as it opens up in the glass, dusty wood notes develop. This all leads into a quiet and surprisingly understated body: apple cinnamon, vanilla caramels and ice cream, and chocolate covered raisins. Curious strawberry notes, something you don’t typically find in bourbon, come along on the finish, which is otherwise silky, moderately sweet (solid caramel notes returning here), and hard not to like.

All in all, this is a simple little bourbon — “American whiskey” all the way — that could easily become the “house bottle” at many a home bar, Colorado-based or not.

84 proof.

A- / $28 / tincupwhiskey.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Garrison Brothers TxSBW Image 1

Hye is one of those tiny towns that everyone from Texas (including myself) has heard of, but no one actually knows where it is. There it lies, on the road from Austin to Fredericksburg, and it’s here where Garrison Brothers is making some fine “micro” whiskey.

The brothers Garrison don’t disclose their exact mashbill on this, their flagship product, but it’s about 3/4 local corn (#1 Panhandle White, in case you’re curious), along with estate-grown wheat and malted barley (not local) making up the rest. At present, the whiskey is aged for two years in American oak barrels before bottling. But intriguingly, Garrison doesn’t just say that its product could change over time, rather the distillery insists that it will.

Garrison Brothers takes a vintage-based approach to whiskeymaking, insisting that each year’s product should be better than the last. That began with its first batch in 2008. Reviewed below is a bottle distilled in 2010 and released in Fall 2013 (bottle number 453). Garrison insists it should be better than the whiskey in 2009, just as the whiskey from 2011 should be an improvement over this. (As of late 2013, six different “vintages” had been released — more than one vintage is produced each year.) The only question is whether it can really deliver on that promise, which we hope to put to the test over the next decade or so. The company says it is now warehousing some 5000 barrels of product.

As for the whiskey we have here, it’s burly, frontier stuff with plenty of kick. The nose is strong with wood, lumberyard notes intermingled with hints of vanilla and caramel. The body reveals far more — eventually. That wood character is powerful up front, to the point where you wonder if that’s the whole show. It isn’t until the finish gets going where Garrison Brothers’ other characteristics begin to shine. As it’s but two years old, there’s plenty of youthful roasted corn here, but unlike many other young whiskeys, those notes are balanced with some more exciting, and more mature, flavors. There’s deep, almost burnt, caramel here, as well as brown butter, cloves, and some chili powder. This all develops more seamlessly and interestingly than you’d think — and all at the end. Give this whiskey ample time in the glass — Garrison recommends a cube of ice — and you’ll see the popcorn settle down and the other components really begin to build up.

Fun, fun stuff, although quite expensive for the drinker used to $25 bottlings from Kentucky. No matter: I’m looking forward to seeing the Garrison Brothers’ next act!

94 proof. Reviewed: Fall 2013 release.

A- / $75 / garrisonbros.com

Review: 2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine and 2008 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine

inniskillin gold vialYears have passed since we last encountered Inniskillin and its masterful Canadian ice wines. We recently had the good fortune to sample two new vintages from Inniskillin, both sweet yet low-alcohol dessert wines made from frozen grapes from way up north. Thoughts follow.

2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine – Gorgeous, with a rush of honey, applesauce, and vanilla. On the body, it’s beautifully sweet with more apple, apricots, ripe bananas, and tropical notes…  all layered with that rich honey character. Lovely complexity with a long, long finish. Be careful with this one. 9.5% abv. A- / $50 (375ml)

2008 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine – Red ice wines are always a little strange — sweet, ice cold… and red like tawny port. The nose offers all the honey and jammy fruit notes of white ice wines, and at first the body keeps that rolling, with notes of strawberry, vanilla, and fresh cream. The finish is where things change, that sweetness veering toward sour cherry notes, with add complexity, but leave things on a funky, oxidized note. 9.5% abv. B+ / $100 (375ml)

on.inniskillin.com