Review: 2012 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 Caymus 40th 750ml Bottle - 300dpiI give Caymus all the credit for making me a real wine lover. When I was in grad school, my friend Sonny would regularly have me over for dinner — Korean style steaks, asparagus, and Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, which we procured for $20 a bottle back then.

It was a bit of indulgence for kids on a budget, but I’m sure we thought the expense was worth it if we ate Taco Bell and TV dinners the rest of the week.

Caymus quickly elevated itself into cult wine status to the point where I haven’t had it in years — particularly the ritzy Special Selection bottling. But for the winery’s 40th anniversary I was lucky enough to snag a sample bottle. Is the wine just as I remembered? Thoughts follow.

This is classic, dense Napa Cabernet. The nose offers intense blueberry and blackberry notes, hints of menthol, and dark chocolate. These are played up further on the body, along with a strong tart cherry character that comes on strong on the finish. This acidity is a welcome counterpart to the otherwise big, gripping body of the wine, giving some much needed balance to the experience. Tons of aging potential here.

A- / $60 / caymus.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

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OK, yes, there are dozens of pre-packaged cocktail mixers on the market. And yes, most of them claim to be ultra-premium-better-than-you-can-make-yourself products. And — yes — most of them are passable at best, swill at worst.

Well, finally, here’s one that isn’t. Bittermilk is a Charleston, South Carolina operation that is making truly high-end mixers that even I would not hesitate to serve to my guests.

The secret is right there on the label and in the bottle: Very high-quality, mostly organic ingredients that take original spins on some classic recipes — the Old Fashioned, the Tom Collins, and the Whiskey Sour.

Bittermilk mixers have no alcohol, so bring your high-end hooch when you’re mixing something up. They may look small, but remember that each pint-sized bottle is good for about a dozen cocktails, depending on how tall you make ‘em. At a little over a dollar per cocktail, that’s not a bad deal. Hell, you’ll spend more on a couple of limes these days!

Thoughts on each of the three current Bittermilk offerings follow.

Bittermilk No. 1 Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned – Made with burnt cane sugar, orange peel, gentian root, and cinchona bark, then aged in Willett Bourbon barrels. I made versions with Rittenhouse 100 Proof Rye and with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. This one comes in a significantly smaller vial than the others, since you mix it 1:4 with your spirit, vs. 1:1 with the others. Sweet up front, with ample sugar in the mix (I’d err toward 1:5 or 1:6 proportions on this one), the burnt-ness of the sugar becomes apparent only as the finish starts to build. It’s here that you start to pick up the bitter edge of the mixer, too — grated roots and bark and a quinine character — though the citrus character, essential to an Old Fashioned, never quite arrives in full. Ultimately, it’s the bitterness that sticks with you the longest, lasting long after the sweetness has faded. A completely capable Old Fashioned — though the barrel aging isn’t immediately evident, and it’s more fun to drink an Old Fashioned with actual fruit muddled into it. Much better with rye (as specified on the label). A- / $15 (8.5 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 2 Tom Collins with Elderflowers & Hops – Made with lemon juice, sugar, elderflower & elderberry, and Centennial hops. I made versions with Ketel One Vodka and Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin (the bottle specifies either spirit). The weirdest of the bunch. With vodka, the hops add a level of funkiness here, and lots of it. Up front there’s a solid sweet-and-sour character, but that initially light bitter hops element brings a bit of discord to the finish, growing as it develops on the palate. It finishes almost like a shandy. With gin, this is a much better combination, those aromatics firing just about perfectly with the citrus and the elderflower, which comes through more clearly alongside the brightness of the gin. Here the hops play a very muted role, adding just a hint of bitterness on the back end rather than the lingering power you get with vodka. On the whole it’s a success, but it’s my least favorite of the bunch. Use gin, and a bit more than is called for. B+ / $15 (17 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour – Made with lemon juice, Bourbon barrel-smoked honey, sugar, and orange peel. I made this one with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. Shockingly delicious. It doesn’t reveal much on the nose, but the body is stuffed full of a melange of sweet and savory notes — bracing lemon, silky honey, and just a touch of smokiness on the back end. If you’re not a smoke fan, be not afraid. The effect here is subtle and well integrated into what reveals itself to be a lovely concoction. The lemon hangs along til the finish, where everything comes together into a fully realized whole. Sure, the whiskey sour is hardly the world’s most elevated cocktail, but in Bittermilk’s hands it’s one you’d have no problem gulping right down… maybe two. A / $15 (17 oz.)

bittermilk.com

Review: Cabernets of Louis M. Martini, 2014 Releases

Louis M. Martini 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauv 750mlNo need for a lot of throat-clearing here. Check out these three new Cabs from both Napa and Sonoma, all made by Louis M. Martini.

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County – Textbook Sonoma Cab, milder on the palate than Napa’s fruit bombs, but with plenty of earthy mushroom notes, leather, balsamic vinegar, and hints of blueberry on the nose. Breathe deep for hints of the garden — some thyme and peppermint on the back end — and watch for some Christmas spice on the palate’s finish. Imminently drinkable, it’s a fun yet modest wine. A- / $35

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A benchmark Napa cab from Martini, with a mix of floral, currant, pepper, and light leather notes on the nose, followed by a solid slug of blackberries, black cherries, and just hints of earth that are laced into the palate. Light on its feet but full of nuance, this wine shows restraint while offering a plenty ample body and a spot-on finish. One of Martini’s finest cabs in years and dirt cheap. A / $22

2012 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A simple, almost rustic, “burger” wine (which is exactly how I drank it). A little weedy up front, with some notes of sweet pepper, an interesting counterpart to the relatively sweet and cinnamon-infused body, which offers some tropical and brown sugar notes. Perfectly serviceable, if short of awe-inspiring. B / $14

louismartini.com

Review: Wines of CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, 2014 Releases

Crossbarn_By_Paul_Hobbs_Pinot_Noir_Sonoma_Coast_2011_Bottle-900x900Once called “the Steve Jobs of wine,” Paul Hobbs is a NorCal bigshot that makes wines under his own label as well as importing stuff he really likes. CrossBarn is his new, lower-cost label.

We sampled three wines (two Pinots, one Chardonnay) under the CrossBarn label. Thoughts follow.

2013 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – Virtually unoaked (80% fermented in tank, 20% in neutral French oak), this wine presents a citrusy but quite herbal nose, with a body offering spiced apples and Meyer lemon, plus some apricot on the finish. Easy to love. A- / $18

2012 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Sonoma County – A slightly thin, somewhat meaty example of the varietal. The body’s light blueberry fruit is indistinct, muddied by the savoriness that makes it feel a bit like old fruit juice. B- / $35

2012 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – A much more refined Pinot. It starts with some Port-like notes on the nose, and plenty of macerated cherries. The body isn’t exactly dense with fruit, but it has lots of life and only a hint of vanilla and some woody bramble character by way of terroir. A solid, easy-to-love wine. B+ / $35

crossbarnwinery.com

Review: Wigle Rye Whiskey Deep Cut and Barrel-Rested Ginever

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Wigle (aka Pittsburgh Distilling Company) is an up-and-coming craft distiller that makes loads of products including, in a page taken from the Tuthilltown/Hudson Distillery playbook, a wide range of different whiskeys — seven of them at current count.

Today we look at two of the company’s products, a rye and an aged “ginever,” both curiosities that you’ll only find from a true craft operation.

Thoughts follow.

Organic-Rye-Deep-Cut-375_5Wigle Organic Rye Whiskey Deep Cut – Called “Deep Cut,” per the company, because of the “bold cuts taken on this Whiskey to create our most assertively Rye-forward, spiciest Whiskey.” I presume that means they leave more heads and tails in the still with this than the do with other products. Whatever the case, the description is apt. A small-batch product, it’s made from local, organic grains. Aging time varies from bottle to bottle, but is set at about a year in 10- to 15-gallon casks.

Deep orange in color, it looks like an intense Bourbon. At full cask strength — nearly 60% abv — it’s a fireball in the glass. The nose is intense with roasted grains, wood smoke, and tar. Sipping it at full proof doesn’t reveal a lot — I don’t often balk at cask strength whiskey, but this one’s just too much to parse without water. Adding a healthy slug of H2O is a huge help, revealing a gentler smokiness that’s balanced by deep cereal notes, lush allspice and cinnamon. There’s a brutish core to this whiskey that is somehow balanced by its celebration of the underlying grain. It is fire and earth, both at once. Though when push comes to shove, fire is winning. 117.5 proof. Reviewed: Batch DCK#3, aged 14 months. B+ / $61

Aged-Ginever-750Wigle Organic Barrel-Rested Ginever – This aged gin (nothing really to do with genever) is made from a pot-distilled mash of local and organic wheat, rye, and malted barley (don’t call it ginwhiskey!), the white spirit is infused with a collection of botanicals, including juniper berries, cardamom, cubeb, and lavender (among other undisclosed agents). The resulting spirit is aged for an unstated length of time. Racy nose, offering a complex collection of aromas in the world of dried herbs, licorice, modest juniper, dried apricots, and raw wood notes. It’s muddy, but vaguely enticing, too.

The body is equally weird. It starts out almost bitter, with a quinine and licorice/root beer character to it. Sweetness emerges quickly to wash this away, and here the vanilla notes driven by the barrel aging start to take hold. The finish is both fruity and floral, offering a fresh apricot note flicked with honeysuckle, brown sugar crystals, and cardamom spice. Some cinnamon and nutmeg come across on the finish.

Weirdly lovable, it’s like a gin and whiskey mix, maybe with a dash of amaro in it. Endless cocktail possibilities. 94 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. A- / $50

wiglewhiskey.com

Review: 2013 White Wines from Bodegas Terras Gauda

o rosalToday we look at two white wines (both Albarino-based) from Spain’s Terras Gauda winery, based in the Rias Baixas region. You may have to look closely for the parent name, but both are bottled under the Bodegas Terras Gauda umbrella. Here’s a look at two very good — and quite different — white wines.

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda Abadia de San Campio Albarino Rias Baixas – Exotic, with lots of lemons but also some subtle peach and lychee notes up top, particularly on the unique and racy nose. The body is high in acid, with a touch of banana character adding some creaminess on the long, grapefruit-infused finish. Quite a unique wine, and definitely worth exploring if you like tart, unoaked styles. A / $18

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal Rias Baixas – A blend of 70% Albarino, 20% Loureira, and 10% Caino Blanco. It’s a much more straightforward wine than the Abadia above, offering plenty of lush fruit in the form of apricots, lemons, and a touch of grapefruit. Tart but not nearly as acidic as the above, this wine is more of an easy drinker, with less complexity, but also less that you have to think about it. A- / $24

terrasgauda.com

Review: Tomatin Single Malts: 12, 14, 15, and 18 Years Old — Plus 1988 Vintage

tomatin

Highlands-based Tomatin offers a classic experience of Scotland in a glass — even though it is actually owned by Japan’s Takara Shuzo company.

Tomatin is shaking up the brand of late, introducing a new 14 Year Old expression and a 1988 Vintage expression to the core line (while the latter lasts, I presume), while discontinuing both the 15 and 30 Year Old expressions. (That said, we have a review of the 15 below.) The 12 Year is also getting a proof upgrade.

The only member of the new five-expression Tomatin lineup we don’t have reviewed here is Legacy, Tomatin’s entry-level, no-age-statement bottling.

Thoughts on everything else, though, follow.

Tomatin 12 Years Old Sherry Cask Finish – Finished in Oloroso sherry casks, this 12 year old whisky noses like a more mature spirit, balancing its cereal notes with some light smokiness and iodine character. On the palate, the chewy malt is balanced with notes of heather and more of those smoky wisps, with a burnt orange peel character coming along on the finish in the back of the throat. I’d love more fruit here, but Tomatin 12 is so well-balanced — despite its simplicity — that it’d almost be a shame to change anything. 86 proof (recently upgraded from 80 proof). A- / $30

Tomatin 14 Years Old Port Wood Finish – The higher alcohol level dulls the nose on this whisky, finished in Tawny Port pipes for about a year. After a time, the nose takes on an intensely woody, cedar box, tobacco leaf character. The body also has lots of wood bark, plus dark chocolate, coffee, and some cinnamon. Again, the fruit is held in check, and the expected raisiny sweetness from Port finishing never materializes. Not bad, though. 92 proof. B+ / $55

Tomatin 15 Years Old – This whisky is on the verge of being discontinued, so grab it while you can. The only whisky in this lineup that has a full maturation in ex-Bourbon casks, with no finishing. It’s markedly lighter in color than the other whiskys in this roundup, by a good margin. Hospital notes are strong on the nose here, with tons of cereal coming forth on the body, plus undercurrents of marshmallow, banana, and a bit of smokiness on the back end. More of a journeyman whisky than even the 12 Year Old. Perfectly serviceable, but I can understand the phase-out. 86 proof. B / $45

Tomatin 18 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Finished in sherry casks. A little sweaty on the nose, with more of that iodine character than the other Tomatin expressions. The body is pure sherry, though. This is a well-matured whisky with a big body and a chewy fruitiness to it. Lots of fresh plums, macerated apricots, and juicy oranges to go around, with a bit of sandalwood on the finish. Big whisky, with lots to like once the odd nose blows away, revealing more of a honey character. Amazing value for an 18 year old whisky. 92 proof. A- / $60

Tomatin 1988 Vintage Batch #1 – Matured in both Bourbon and Port barrels, this first batch of Tomatin 1988 (roughly 25-26 years old, by my count) is available in a selection of 2500 bottles. Surprisingly austere and malty on the nose, with a floral element to it. The body’s got an air of oatmeal cookies, buttery toffee, and indistinct flowers, with a bit of a vegetal note on the finish. I got no Port character here at all, rather mainly a rich maltiness that tends to overpower everything. I’d like to see more complexity at this price level. 92 proof. B+ / $250

tomatin.com

Review: Our/Vodka Berlin

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What happens when one of the biggest vodka producers in the world decides to go hyperlocal? Our/Vodka, that’s what.

Absolut’s audacious Our/Vodka project, 3 1/2 years in the making, began rolling out earlier this year: The idea, to produce a number of “glocal” renditions of the iconic spirit. It works like this. Absolut selects a city, where it funds and builds a distillery, then hands the reins over to a local entrepreneur distiller. They then take the brand and run with it, making vodka using a recipe provided by Absolut but using only local ingredients and water. Bottles are small (just 350ml) and feature a generic label indicating the city the vodka came from. The idea (in part) is to see how each city’s vodka compares — essentially looking at how terroir impacts “neutral” spirits. Up first: Berlin (reviewed here) and Detroit.

By the way, depending on which bottle you get, you’ll notice the label says it is “vodka with a flavor.” Says Absolut: “The thing with the German label is that when we first did them, we didn’t know for sure if our patented yeast (that has been developed by the Pernod Ricard research center) and that can carry flavor fractions through fermentation, would pass without having to put “flavor” on the bottle. Now we know that we don’t need it.”

Finally, let’s look at Our/Vodka Berlin — aka “Local Vodka by Our/Berlin” — the first product to come from this project. The nose is extremely mild, just hints here and there of bananas, walnuts, orange candies, and cherries. Nothing major, but enough to make things interesting. The body is even less punchy. Very simple, some mild fruit flavors — again those lightly sweetened orange candies — are the most evident secondary characteristic, but on the whole Our/Berlin comes across as simple to the point of being almost too clean. Our/Vodka is bizarrely bottled at just 75 proof, which is part of the reason why the flavor is so neutral — almost like sipping on water, which makes it go down much too easily. That’s both a good and a bad thing, but it does set an interesting starting point for this series. Hopefully we’ll be able to compare it the vodkas that come from Detroit and elsewhere down the line.

A- / $18 (350ml) / ourvodka.com

Review: 2012 Pacific Rim Riesling and Vin de Glaciere

pacific_rim_rieslingBased in Washington’s Columbia Valley, Pacific Rim is obsessively focused on Riesling. In fact, that’s all they make, in nearly a dozen varieties. Today we look at two of the winery’s single vineyard bottlings, both made from organic grapes.

2012 Pacific Rim Riesling Organic - Not your typical, high-acid, new world Riesling! Initially quite sweet, this honeyed wine reveals layers of pineapple and melon after settling down and warming up a bit. Ultimately that sugary core never quite fades, but the fruit flavors eventually meld together as a whole. B / $16

2012 Pacific Rim Riesling Vin de Glaciere Organic – A bit weedy on the nose, but all fruity sweetness on the body. Honey, fresh apples, figs, and light brown sugar. It all comes together easily, with a touch of nuttiness on the finish. A- / $16 (375ml)

rieslingrules.com

Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose Whiskey

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The Seven Stills of San Francisco returns with its second beer-based whiskey, this time pot-distilled from 1600 gallons of double IPA from Pacific Brewing Laboratories along with some maple sugar. The beer is then aged in new, five-gallon American oak barrels for six months before bottling.

As with Chocosmoke, this is a young and wild little whiskey. Bright amber in color, the whiskey exudes a complex arrangement of citrus, hoppy spices, menthol, mothballs, and wildflowers on the nose. The body is big and racy, its youthful grain character punched up with even more of those citrus-driven hops, vanilla syrup, and eucalyptus. Powerful and lasting, this is another whiskey that really lets its brewery roots come through. Like Chocosmoke, it’s not for the faint of heart or the delicate of tongue, and it invites endless exploration into a truly unique style of distilling.

94 proof.

A- / $40 (375ml) / sevenstillsofsf.com