Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: Charbay R5 Clear and Aged Hop-Flavored Whiskey

Whiskey is (basically) made from beer, so why not make it from really good beer?

For its long-awaited R5 whiskey, California’s Charbay (best known for its high-end flavored vodkas) took Bear Republic’s beloved Racer 5 IPA and put it through a still. This is not an inexpensive task: 10 gallons of beer distill down to 1 gallon of whiskey. Double-distilled in copper pot stills, the resulting whiskey is being released in two versions: “Clear,” an unaged version, and “Aged,” which spends 22 months in French oak barrels.

We got our hands on both varieties; both are bottled at 99 proof. Thoughts follow. Continue reading

Review: 2010 Breggo Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Savoy Vineyard

Breggo is a blue chip winery in Mendocino, based in Boonville and the proprietor of the Savoy Vineyard, located in the heart of this region’s Anderson Valley. While Breggo makes a wide range of wines, Anderson Valley is Pinot country, and this 2010 bottling is the flagship.

The 2010 Savoy Vineyard bottling features a shocking amount of herbs, dill, and licorice, atop a very deep core of black cherry and luscious wood that, when put together, comes across as almost whiskey-like. This is no delicate Pinot but rather a powerhouse of fruit and oak that builds itself into a punchy, Port-like finish. Quite pleasing, but no wallflower.

A- / $55 /

breggo 2010 Savoy Pinot Noir Review: 2010 Breggo Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Savoy Vineyard

Review: Casa Sauza XA Extra Anejo Edicion Limitada

casa sauza xa tequila 239x300 Review: Casa Sauza XA Extra Anejo Edicion LimitadaSauza may be best known for making inexpensive yet perfectly drinkable 100% agave tequila, but now it’s raising the bar with an extra anejo called Casa Sauza XA.

This fancy-pants bottling is indeed extra-old, 100% aged three years in a combination of new and used American oak barrels. The bottle is something like I’ve never seen, featuring a cork closure that is strapped down by a leather belt and buckle. (Cute, but inconvenient.)

Continue reading

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society October 2012 Outturn

Five whiskys this month from the SMWS. Thoughts follow on each.

SMWS Cask 5.35 – 12 year old Auchentoshan from the Lowlands – Big orange flower and honey on the nose. Very light smokiness on the finish. Youthful and fresh, it shows off its grain base but in a modest and understated way. The sweeter body and light touches of hay and fresh bread give this an almost breakfasty feel. Fun stuff, but pricey for 12 year old Auchie. Distilled 1999, 109.4 proof, allocation n/a. B+ / $105

SMWS Cask 26.84 – 21 year old Clynelish from the Highlands – Burned out. Old wood and hospital notes, a whisky that’s been in barrel too long (or in a barrel that had faded too much). Things settle down with some air, but the finish is still rough, hot, and coal-filled. Distilled 1990, 98.2 proof, allocation n/a. C- / $145

SMWS Cask 33.113 – 8 year old Ardbeg from Islay – Less smoke on the nose than I was expecting, but rest assured, it comes along later in the game. Sharp and wintry, this malt offers mulled spices and a long finish that smolders like a dying fire. Amazingly restrained, but so warming (at cask strength you won’t miss the heat) that you are overwhelmed with flavor anyway. Great balance, and worthwhile if you’re into Ardbeg. Distilled 2003, 120.8 proof, allocation n/a. A- / $85

SMWS Cask 85.23 – 12 year old Glen Elgin from Speyside – Hot stuff from a refill sherry butt. The first blush is all Orange Julius, creamy citrus and a chewy sweet finish. Touches of pine needles on the nose, and classic Christmas cake character. On the mid-palate, some graininess evolves — indicative of this whisky’s youth — with a finish that builds with malt and burly wood characteristics. The balance is good, not great. Would have loved to experienced this whisky in 2018. Distilled 1999, 118.8 proof, allocation n/a. B+ / $105

SMWS Cask 93.47 – 9 year old Glen Scotia from Campbeltown – Sugar and peat come together in this coastal dram, a young and brash smoke bomb that could easily be confused with young Laphroaig thanks to that barbecue smoke finish. There’s a certain inflection here that’s almost minty — again, those juniper and pine needle characters come along, this time very late in the finish. A somewhat simple peated style, again the price is a concern. Distilled 2002, 119.4 proof, allocation n/a. B+ / $90

october 2012 smws Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society October 2012 Outturn

Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin Edition 2012

Laphroaig cairdeas origin 2012 200x300 Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin Edition 2012In 2011 Laphoaig made the bold step to release its Cairdeas limited release whisky to the public. Previously held back as a private bottling for the Friends of Laphroaig, Cairdeas (“car-chass”) is an annual release that differs each year. Last year we were fortunate enough to try a very young version of Cairdeas with Laphroaig Master Distiller John Campbell.

Continue reading

Review: El Cartel Tequila

El Cartel tequila 199x300 Review: El Cartel TequilaThis new brand, the brainchild of Mike Hamod, was created to be “the Ciroc of tequila” as its goal — courtesy of celebrity sponsorship that includes Daddy Yankee, Jermaine Dupri, and Eddie Griffin. Made of 100% agave in the Highlands of Jalisco, it is initially available in two varieties, a silver expression and (wait for it) a silver tequila infused with gold flakes.

Thoughts follow. Both are 80 proof.

Continue reading

Review: Sarapo Family Wines

sarapo wines Review: Sarapo Family WinesSarapo is the second label from Eric Kent, and these wines are not made with secondary fruit, but are rather produced with a bit of a twist. Small lots from other winemakers — which would be destined for bulk blending in central California — are “rescued” by Sarapo, blended, and sold at bargain prices. (Cameron Hughes does the same thing, on a much bigger scale.)

Continue reading

Review: Graham’s Tawny Port 10 Years Old

Grahams tawny port 10 years old 132x300 Review: Grahams Tawny Port 10 Years OldThis 10 year old tawny port is pretty, offering more than just madeirized raisin character, but also touches of orange, grapefruit, and a bit of black tea character. Bing cherries come along on the very long finish. It’s still young and offers a bit of woody astringency on the finish too, but overall this is an effective and easy-drinking young tawny.

A- / $34 /

Review: Vecchio Amaro Del Capo Liqueur

Amaro del Capo 150x300 Review: Vecchio Amaro Del Capo LiqueurBorn in Calabria — the “toe of the foot” of Italy — Vecchio Amaro Del Capo (or just Del Capo) is a classic amaro made from 29 local herbs and roots. Lightly brown like a brewed tea, it looks a bit like whiskey in the glass but smells far different as it is poured.

Continue reading

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2012 Edition

Old Forester’s annual “Birthday Bourbon,” a limited edition release celebrating the birthday of one of Brown-Forman’s founders, is upon us.

This year’s B-day Bourbon is 12 years old (its typical age), crafted from a single-day’s production of 82 barrels of whiskey. (The twist with this batch is that the mashbill included 2% extra malted barley than the usual Old Forester mash.)

Immediately this whiskey struck me as very light and mild, not at all the smoky, burly monsters that Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbons can sometimes be. Peaches are at the forefront here, along with maraschino cherries, sugar syrup, and touches of orange juice. It is almost like a Manhattan cocktail in a glass.

This is one of the most easy-drinking Birthday Bourbons I’ve encountered, and it drinks much younger than its 12 years of age. That smoothness comes at the expense of some depth and complexity, but there’s no denying the overall quality and craftsmanship of this year’s Birthday Bourbon.

97 proof.

A- / $50 /

old forester birthday bourbon 2012 Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2012 Edition

Review: Limited Edition Beers of Magic Hat

Magic Hat is a new brewery to me, and the ungodly number of beer varieties it produces is challenging to get one’s head around. Packaged individually and in a number of variety packs, here’s a look at three of the newer offerings — all limited releases — from this South Burlington, Vermont operation. You can find all three of these, along with Magic Hat #9, in the company’s “Participation Variety Pak,” composed of brews selected based on a tally of votes from the company’s customers.

Magic Hat HI.P.A. -Traditionally styled India Pale Ale, with bracing bitterness, plenty of hops, and a slight underlying sweetness. Not at all heavy, despite the higher alcohol level. Nice fruitiness underneath: Citrus, with some orange peel and a touch of coriander. 6.7% abv. A-

Magic Hat Hex Ourtoberfest – A yummy, mild brown ale, caramel notes which open up with some orange notes in a wide-mouth glass. Maltiness is the key element here, lending a touch of sourness to the finish. Quite easy-drinking, though, at 5.4% abv. B+

Magic Hat Hocus Pocus – Not brewed since 2008. This lighter wheat beer was my least favorite of the bunch, but is still refreshing and enjoyable. Lemony with a malty body, it’s a hazy brew with plenty of mouthfeel behind it, but the very short, crisp finish is more reminiscent of simpler, summer beers. 4.5% abv. B+

Review: Blue Ice “G” Vodka

Blue Ice continues to expand its line of vodkas, and for once a company is pushing not into an endless panoply of flavors.

For its third unflavored vodka, Blue Ice G, the company is taking the affordable route with a vodka made from a blend of mixed grains.

And what a surprise it is: This may be Blue Ice’s most exciting spirit to date.

The vodka is racy and spicy, with lots of character. Up front there’s cinnamon, and dark cocoa powder, which together fade into sweet nougat and marshmallow tones. Red and black pepper character comes back as an echo in the finish, leaving a touch of heat on the palate (but not a cheap vodka “burn”). The overall impact is both fresh and refreshing, with just the right amount of spice to balance the sugar. Overall, there’s just great balance here in a vodka that does an awful lot despite a surprisingly light body — and affordable price tag.

80 proof.

A- / $15 /

blue ice g vodka Review: Blue Ice G Vodka

Review: Campo Azul Tequila

Campo Azul is a 100% blue agave from the Jalisco Highlands, most notable for the hologram that wraps around the neck of the bottle. We sampled both the blanco and extra anejo expressions of the spirit (sorry, reposado!) — two tequilas as wildly different in quality as they get. Both varieties are 80 proof.

Campo Azul Blanco Tequila – This unaged expression is clean, with a moderate agave backbone and a bit of an earthy character to, somewhat uncommon in blanco tequila. Very smooth, with no burn at all, light lemon notes, and light notes of fresh evergreen needles. Refreshing, and very affordable for 100% agave. A- / $23

Campo Azul Extra Anejo Tequila – Aged 18 months in oak, you’d think a sugar bomb was in store for you, but you’d be wrong. Instead, here the piney character goes overboard, with a finish that exudes Pine-Sol so heavily I was instantly transported to a Las Vegas bathroom. There are touches of vanilla on the finish, but nothing can stand up to that gin-like evergreen character. D+ / $27

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Second Release

kilchoman 100 percent islay second release 300x284 Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Second ReleaseKilchoman has recently updated its 100% Islay bottling — a whisky made from barley grown, malted, distilled, aged, and bottled all at the distillery on Islay — with a slightly different variation.

The difference with this 2012 Second Release is that the whisky is a blend of 3 year old and 4 year old spirit, all aged completely in Bourbon casks, 50-50 of each. (The 2011 version was all 3 year old Bourbon, finished in sherry wood.)

With no sherry in the mix this time, the whisky plays a lot closer to the expected: A moderate but (surprisingly) not overpowering rush of peat, revealing undertones of fruit. You get banana and pear, particularly on the finish, which offers forest fire-like smokiness, as of burning pine cones and evergreen needles.

100 proof.

A- / $90 /

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2012 Edition

There are a few things you can count on in the whiskey world, and one of them is the annual release of Buffalo Trace’s always-anticipated Antique Collection, a compilation of five very old and very rare American whiskeys that pretty much sell out immediately once they land on store shelves. (I’ve seen bars where these whiskeys are locked up behind iron grates.)

Here’s how the five whiskeys of the 2012 Collection stack up.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Big rye on the nose, with some honeysuckle in the mix. The body is sweet, with touches of tobacco. More wood develops with time in the glass, and a splash of water. Lots of tannin on the finish, all that time in wood leaving behind a lot of dusty sawdust character. Water helps. 90 proof (as always). 90 proof. B+

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – Very sweet, almost no woodiness for a 17-year-old Bourbon. Quite a bit of citrus under the caramel notes, I don’t get the “dry and delicate” character that the distillery describes in its official notes, but rather a classic whiskey with just a touch of tawny port character on the finish. Scarily drinkable though less complex than I might like. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – Chocolate and coffee notes a-plenty in this classic heater — 142.8 proof this year. Plenty of wood on the mid-palate, but it’s not overly hoary like the 2011 edition. A warming, sweet finish brings everything together. Make no mistake, this is hot, old whiskey — 17 years old for the 2012 bottling — but complex, burly, and quite delicious. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon –At “just” 123.4 proof, this year’s Weller is a lower-proof baby compared to previous renditions. Less exciting on the nose, this wheated Bourbon is mild, ultimately exhibiting some licorice and nutty, tree-bark flavors. Tannic and drying on the finish, even with water. 12 years old. B

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Definitely my least favorite of this year’s collection. The nose is innocuous, hinting at dark cherry character alongside cinnamon and some cocoa notes. The body, however, veers into somewhat overpowering astringency. Though just 6 years old, the woodiness is pungent and overbearing, leaving behind an oily, sawdust-driven finish that hangs around for a long, long time. It opens up with time in glass, but the overall effect just doesn’t come together the way it should. 132.4 proof. B-

about $70 each /

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2012 Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2012 Edition

Review: Camus Ile de Re Cognacs

Most (myself included) think of Cognac hailing from a small region in France just north of Bordeaux. But did you know that you can make Cognac (legally) on an island off the coast of France? To be fair, Ile de Re isn’t far offshore — it’s connected to the mainland via a bridge — but it’s unique enough to merit more than a little curiosity.

Camus is the first company to bring a Cognac produced from grapes grown on this little island to market, with three Ile de Re Cognac expressions launching now. All are classic Cognac expressions, but you’ll find them infused with a little unique island spirit, giving them a slightly salty spin, much in the way that Islay malt whiskys can only be from one place. Thoughts follow.

None of these expressions include age statements. All are bottled at 80 proof.

Camus Ile de Re Fine Island Cognac – A young and fresh brandy, this spirit is easygoing with a modest fruit core, but with surprisingly little of the funky burn that you get with most “affordable” Cognacs. Very light citrus and persimmon notes on the nose, and these follow through to the palate. A briny finish offers some savory balance. There’s a bit of heat in the otherwise muted body, but not enough to make you race for the water pitcher. While it isn’t going to wow you, on the whole it’s a surprisingly drinkable Cognac, particularly at this price level. B+ / $49

Camus Ile de Re Double Matured Cognac – Aged in two stages, first in a high-humidity cellar, then in “toasted barrels.” Similar in tone to the Fine Island version, but with a distinct orange character that laces the finish. Less heat here than the Fine Island, too, perhaps more an indication of age than the double barreling conceit, but probably worth the price upgrade. A- / $69

Camus Ile de Re Cliffside Cellar Cognac – Aged in part in a special cellar said to be 10 meters away from the Atlantic Ocean, here the orange character is up front rather than hidden away in the finish. Well-rounded, with some saltiness in the finish, which comes together with more of a dessert-like, salted caramel character. A- / $99

Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Rye Whiskey

Buffalo Trace’s Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. brand continues rolling along with this fifth expression, a bottled-in-bond rye.

The mashbill is interesting and unusual: Only rye and malted barley, no corn. The proportion of each isn’t disclosed, but it’s definitely heavy on the rye.

At 100 proof (like all bottled-in-bond whiskey is), it’s surprisingly hot. I was generous with the water to help bring out this rye’s character, though it dilutes the pretty amber color.

The nose offers classic rye notes: Lots of spice, with no restraint at all in its brashness. That’s not bad. I like rye to taste like a real rye. It’s sweet, but with lots of power backing it up and a long finish. Taylor has that, and water doesn’t impact that body at all (just tones down the alcohol burn). Lots of character to go around: Orange-infused caramel quickly fades and leaps into flavors of red pepper, rhubarb, strawberries, and cinnamon, then fades into an orange-flower honey finish. Great balance, with many layers.

My sample bottle was emptied well before my experience of this whiskey was, a rarity in a world where so many spirits wear their character on their sleeve.

100 proof.


E.H. Taylor Rye Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Rye Whiskey

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society September 2012 Outturn

Another outturn from SMWS, this one including my first grain whisky sample from SMWS, covering September 2012.

SMWS Cask 2.81 – 15 year old Glenlivet from Speyside – Blazing Glenlivet that’s turned out from first-fill sherry butts. (It’s unclear how long the whisky spends in the sherry casks, but based on the deep Bourbon-brown color, it’s clearly a long while.) Rum raisin is on the SMWS tasting notes and it was the first thing that came to mind, a cinnamon-infused Christmas cake with plenty of orange-fueled sherry to back it up. Gorgeous whisky, though it doesn’t stray far from dessert tones. A few drops of water helps immensely. Distilled 1996, 119.8 proof, 210 bottles allocated for U.S. A / $120

SMWS Cask 23.72 – 9 year old Bruichladdich from Islay – Big, sweet, barbecue character, smoky and sugary all at once. Finished in refill sherry butts, and bottled ultra-hot. Water is a big help, and don’t be shy with it, which helps coax out some coconut, toast, and chewy hay characteristics. Really quite good for such a a young whisky. Distilled 2002, 132.8 proof, 90 bottles allocated for U.S. B+ / $90

SMWS Cask 125.48 - 12 year old Glenmorangie from the Highlands – Woody, woody, woody. Not in a bad way, more in a Bourbon way. Some citrus, along with malty cereal notes and a finish that offers nutty, almond-heavy character. Warming and well-balanced, even at bottle strength. Distilled 1998, 104.2 proof, 150 bottles allocated for U.S. A- / $110

SMWS Cask G1.8 – 21 year old grain whisky from North British Distillery in Edinburgh – A different animal, and clearly not single malt from the get-go. There’s a big butterscotch and lemon mix on the nose, but sipping takes things in a hugely new direction. It starts with brown butter character that delves soon into intensely herbal notes — licorice, with an almost amaro-like character that goes on and on, intensifying as the finish lingers. Tons happening here. Add water to improve the balance a bit, and mellow out the heat. Distilled 1989, 125.8 proof, 60 bottles allocated for U.S. B / $145

SMWS september 2012 Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society September 2012 Outturn

Review: Buffalo Trace Giant French Oak Barrels Experiments Bourbons

With all the hubbub over small whiskey barrels going on, it almost went unnoticed that Buffalo Trace released a whiskey that went the opposite direction: Aged in oversized French oak barrels for a long, long time.

To be sure, the 135-gallon barrel (likely a “puncheon” as terminology goes) is not the largest wooden barrel out there. The biggest I know of is the gorda, which can store a whopping 185 gallons. Still, compared to the standard 53-gallon Bourbon barrel, that’s a big hunk of wood.

The science here should be obvious. Small barrels age whiskey exponentially faster, so large ones should age whiskey much more slowly. What else might happen? According to Buffalo Trace, it saw slower evaporation, too. (Some details follow.)

These barrels had a lighter char — #3 instead of the usual #4 — and the new make spirit put into each employed a rye-heavy Bourbon recipe. Both were aged on the ground floor and chill filtered before bottling at 90 proof. Notes from the distillery are in italics. My notes are in a regular font.

Buffalo Trace 19 Year Old Giant French Oak BarrelThis 135 gallon barrel was filled on January 28, 1993 and was bottled June 28, 2012. It came off the still at 135 proof and was entered into the barrel at 129.8 proof.  The evaporation rate on this barrel was 34.8%, which is considerably lower than a typical 53 gallon barrel, which averages 55-60% evaporation for the same time frame. Very tradition Bourbon character here. One would never guess this was nearly 20 years old. Sweet, with lots of dessert character: Caramel sauce, chocolate-covered cherries, and a woodsy note, particularly evident, almost like lumberyard, on the nose. Really quite pleasing and not overcooked at all. A-

Buffalo Trace 23 Year Old Giant French Oak Barrel – This giant barrel was also 135 gallons, filled on May 17, 1989 and bottled on June 27, 2012. The whiskey entered into the barrel at 130 proof and the evaporation rate was lower at 46.8% than a typical sized 23 year-old barrel. Those extra four years make a difference. This Bourbon offers more citrus notes, with a more wood-forward profile. Racier, but also with a dusty, drying finish. The wood has finally taken hold (evidenced from the much higher evaporation rate) here, giving the whiskey more of a sawdust character. Overdone, but hanging on just barely. B

$46 each (375ml bottles) /

Buffalot Trace Experimental Collection Giant Barrels Review: Buffalo Trace Giant French Oak Barrels Experiments Bourbons

Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl

Best whisky name ever now goes The Arran Malt, whose new Devil’s Punch Bowl single malt is seductive and devilish — and comes with packaging to match.

Named for a glacial hollow called Coire na Ciche on the Isle of Arran, the boggy hill sits in the distillery’s backyard. The whisky inside is drawn from 24 different Arran casks, including some sherry butts, some peated and some unpeated. It is released with no age statement.

The whisky is easy on the peat and comes across instead with an immediate and big sherry character. The dark citrus oil notes are backed with lots of almonds and sweet marzipan, adding a bit of chewy dessert character to the spirit, along with a touch of smoke (but not much). The whisky is a bit warm on the tongue at first — perhaps giving the devil his due — but this fades with time exposed to air. But the most curious thing about an otherwise quite tasty sherried malt is the sharp finish, a kind of acidic tang with touches of red chile and black pepper. Fire and brimstone? You got it.

104.6 proof. 6,660 bottles produced. 600 released in the U.S.

A- / $130 /

arran devils punch bowl Review: The Arran Malt Devils Punch Bowl