Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated Bourbon Warehouse Floor Experiments

buffalo trace Wheated Bourbon Warehouse Floor Experiment

Last summer, Buffalo Trace released a series of three experimental whiskeys, each aged on a separate floor of its wooden-floored Warehouse K. These rye-heavy bourbons were as different as night and day — and now BT is back to do the same experiment again, this time with wheated bourbons.

The experiment is otherwise the same as with the rye bourbons: 15 barrels placed in Warehouse K, five each on floors 1, 5, and 9, for 12 years. The point, as I mentioned last time, is that heat rises: Lower level warehouse floors are cooler than the ones at the top, and heat (more specifically variations between hot and cold throughout the day) is a significant factor in the way Bourbon ages.

All are bottled at 90 proof. Here’s how they stack up.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Wheated Bourbon – Floor #1 - Lots of wood on this, but some butterscotch and brown butter notes help to temper the essence of the lumberyard which otherwise dominates. The body is both a bit astringent and a little watery, all of which combines to give this whiskey a slug of sweetness that settles uneasily atop a somewhat racy but lightly bitter backbone. The finish is tough, with an enduring vegetal character. C+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Wheated Bourbon – Floor #5 - What an incredibly different experience this is, those butterscotch notes dominating some light cereal character underneath. Over time, more wood character comes to the forefront, with the finish offering a blend of both sweet and savory notes. Look for some dried mango, some cloves, and a little red berry fruit on the back end. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Wheated Bourbon – Floor #9 – As with the rye, this wheated collection shows that up top is where it’s at. The core character remains the same — butterscotch plus melted, lightly burnt butter notes — but they’re elevated here by notes of baking spice, red pepper, and the essence of campfire smoke. Silky caramel and marshmallow (roasted?) are big on the finish, along with notes of brewed tea and some baking spice. Lots to enjoy, but it’s also got a punchiness that turns it into an interesting conversation piece. A-

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur

kerrygold irish cream

Yeah, you’re reading that right. The iconic producer of Irish cheeses and butter is now venturing into spirits, with this fitting Irish Cream Liqueur. The spirit is being made in conjunction with Imperial Brands, best known as the producer of Sobieski Vodka. The new product “features cream from grass-fed, Irish cows, aged Irish whiskey, and luxurious chocolate.”

Exceedingly drinkable, it’s a textbook example of what Irish Cream should be, like chocolate milk touched with cinnamon notes driven by the whiskey. The nose offers a gentle milk chocolate/cocoa powder character — as innocuous an introduction to any spirit as you’re likely to get. The body is punchy with chocolate — more than you get in some other Irish Cream brands — and the whiskey character is slow on the build. You might not notice it at all if you’re taking small sips or drinking with ample ice (or, ahem, are dumping it atop chocolate cake). A big gulp reveals some of the hallmarks of Irish whiskey, including a rustic honey character, cinnamon and nutmeg, and gentle wood notes. I’m not the kind of guy who sits around tippling on Irish Cream, but this ends up being a bottling that’s hard to resist.

34 proof. Available in Illinois and Florida.

A- / $17 / kerrygoldirishcream.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Fifteen

The penultimate release of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project is here, which means only a dozen bottles of the series of 192 bourbons remain to be released. For those keeping score, this makes 180 bourbons sampled to date over nearly four years of staggered releases.

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s our past coverage to date:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen
Round Fourteen

Round 14 is a mixed bag of bourbons focusing mainly on the barrel, the variables being tested including the wood grain of the barrel, tree cut, and, as always, rye vs. wheat in the recipe. All whiskeys in this batch went in at 105 proof, used barrels with 6 months of wood seasoning and a #3 char, and were aged in a concrete floor warehouse.

By and large it’s a very good batch, including one of the best whiskies in the collection, barrel #149. Barrel #82 remains the fan favorite among all the bourbons released to date.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #21 – Sherried notes on the nose lead to a rather racy body. Lots of wood up front, but this works its way, eventually, into touches of licorice, brown butter, cloves, and more. Let this whiskey open up in the glass. I spent more time with this bourbon than anything else in this edition of the SOP, and though it wasn’t my absolute favorite, it does seem to have the most depth and intrigue in it. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #22 – Another butterscotch bomb with some evergreen hints to it, maybe touches of sage. This is a solid, but mostly straightforward bourbon that wears its vanilla on its sleeve. Balanced with hints of cinnamon creeping in on the back end. An all-around winner, with some slightly unusual elements to it. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #53 – Burly and woody, with a big slug of licorice and (very) dark chocolate on the back end. The finish speaks of coffee bean and burnt almonds. Almost feels scorched, even overcooked. C+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #54 – Big wood up front, big wood in the middle, big wood at the end. The sweeter core emerges with time, in contrast with the largely shut-down #53, but the overall experience is a bit astringent, with just touches of dried fruit and some spice on the finish. B- (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #85 – A straightforward, woodsy expression of bourbon, offering notes of clove, spearmint, and flamed orange peel. The lumberyard notes are the main focus, however, lending a certain austerity to this bottling. B+ (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #86 – Nicely balanced, firing on all cylinders. Vanilla, baking spices, some orange notes, and delicate wood oil all come together in a cohesive, harmonious whole. This drinks how I’d like my “everyday bourbon” to taste — not exactly complex, but refreshing and full of flavor. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #117 – Cinnamon-sugar hits up front, leading to a buttery body that offers some toasty oak notes. The sweet-meets-wood combo is appealing, but a little undercooked. Could use another year in barrel. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #118 – Interesting, dark cocoa powder on the nose. The body adds in some vanilla and wood notes, but also a fair amount of heat. The lumberyard notes grow  and break out a bit of Middle Eastern spice on the back end. A little odd, but worthwhile. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #149 – Beautiful caramel sauce up front, just touched with the slightest hint of orange peel. The finish is strong but balanced between sweeter chocolate/vanilla/caramel notes and the density of toasty oak on the back end. Easily the best bourbon in this edition, and one of the best in the whole series. A (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #150 – Creme brulee notes up front, then modest orange fruit and some nuttiness — peanut butter, even — on the back end. There’s a nice combination of flavors going on here, but it could use a bit more body to prop up the sweetness. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #181 – Baking spices and pretty butterscotch up front leads to a silky sweet body with a lightly drying finish. Notes of red pepper emerge if you give it a little time in glass, giving this whiskey a surprising complexity. Nearly as enjoyable as #149, but with its own sense of style. A (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #182 – Butterscotch notes are clear here, much like #181, but in this expression the sweetness grabs hold and sticks with the whiskey to the end. The finish is almost candylike, without the spicy nuance. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Chateau du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac VS Classique

Tariquet VS Classique avec Etui

Armagnac, in the Gascony region of France near Bordeaux, has long played second fiddle to the better-known and more prestigious Cognac. Subtle production differences exist between the two. Cognac uses up to three grape varieties. Armangac can include four (Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Baco). Cognac is distilled twice, Armangac only once.

Bas-Armangac is the largest of the three subregions within Armangac, and it’s where this bottling from Domaine du Tariquet hails from (the spirits are now denoted Chateau du Tariquet, while the wines carry the Domaine name).

VS is the youngest grade of Armangacs, indicating barrel time of a minimum of three years. Composed of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Baco, Tariquet VS is an outstanding introduction to how well-made a young brandy can be.

Youthful and full of punchiness, Tariquet XO Classique offers a nose full of nuts, dried figs, and oak. On the palate, the fruit shines brighter than expected, intermingling notes of citrus with rum raisin, incense, vanilla, mixed dried fruits, and cocoa. The finish is nutty and a bit rustic, but not rough, and the brandy’s not insignificant sweetness carries the day. I wasn’t expecting much from this Armagnac, but I was converted thanks to a surprisingly complicated spirit that really earns its stripes.

Those put off by the VS indicator should give this a taste. The price is comparable to run-of-the-mill Cognacs like Hennessy and Courvosier, but the flavor is more intense and much more intriguing. Consider me a fan!

80 proof.

A- / $35 / tariquet.com

Review: Wines of Smith-Madrone, 2015 Releases

smith-madroneThree new winter releases from Smith-Madrone, located at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain.

2012 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Napa Valley Spring Mountain District – Buttery, with strong notes of vanilla and nuts. Not much in the way of a surprise here, with modest pear and lemon notes duking it out with that big, brown butter back end. Ultimately there’s a bit too much wood on this traditionally styled California Chardonnay for my tastes, but it’s a fair enough sipper in the right context. B / $32

2013 Smith-Madrone Riesling Napa Valley Spring Mountain District – Fresh, moderately sweet Riesling, this bottling offers notes of honey and candied apple, with notes of honeysuckle flowers. The floral notes lend a perfumed, but fresh, character to the finish. A- / $27

2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Spring Mountain District - Solid, but uncomplicated, with notes of green olive studding simple cassis and raspberry notes. Modest finish, with more fresh, savory herbs coming to the fore. A solid effort. B+ / $48

smithmadrone.com

Review: Wines of Esporao, 2015 Releases

esporaoThree new offerings from Portugal’s Esporao, new releases from the company’s Reserva line as well as its Quinta dos Murcas Reserva offering. Some thoughts follow.

2011 Esporao Reserva Red DOC Alentejo – Made from a blend of traditional Portuguese grapes, including aragonez, trincadeira, cabernet sauvignon, and alicante bouchet. Incredibly dense, this wine starts with licorice notes and jumps straight down an earthy, leathery hole. The wine simply doesn’t let up, finishing dry as dust, with a raisiny character and a tannic, brambly back-end. B- / $25

2013 Esporao Reserva White DOC Alentejo –  A blend of antão vaz, roupeiro, perrum, and semillon. Bold, buttery, and honeyed, this wine is packed with ultra-ripe fruit — rich and sweet like a Sauternes — but without the unctuous body. That sweetness makes it a bit much for food, but the pushy fruitiness is fun enough in its own right. B / $20

2010 Esporao Quinta dos Murcas Reserva DOC Douro – This blend of old vine tinta roriz, tinta amarela, tinta barroca , touriga nacional, touriga francesa, and sousão is a cut above the other wines in this roundup. Simple red berry and currant notes slide their way into more complexity — tea leaf, coffee bean, and some savory herbs — but all wrapped up in a rounded, mature body. There’s the slightest hint of vinegary oxidation on the very back end, which lends a touch of austerity and maturity to what might otherwise be a too-simple wine. It’s working surprisingly well right about now. A- / $40

esporao.com

Review: RIPE Bar Juice

ripe bar juice

Sure, there’s nothing better than fresh-squeezed juices you press yourself. But fresh, cold-pressed, pre-bottled juices run a pretty close second.

RIPE makes a line of seven fresh-squeezed juice-based mixers — all refrigerated, natural, unpasteurized, lightly sweetened with agave nectar (all except the Bloody Mary mix), and uncut with preservatives. Essentially RIPE is a juice company, but with its eyes on the bar, not the breakfast table.

We tried six of the company’s mixers, and are itching to pour them by the liter into this year’s holiday punch. Thoughts follow.

RIPE Cranberry Cocktail Bar Juice – Made from cold-pressed Ocean Spray cranberries. Tart, but lightly sweetened, just about perfect for cocktail use if you want actual cranberry flavor to come through — rather than vague sugar and red color. Flavorful, but not too punchy, though drinkers accustomed to sweeter mixers might find it not sugary enough. B+

RIPE Classic Cosmopolitan Bar Juice – Take the cranberry mixer above and mix in lime and orange juices and you get this, highly appealing, straight-up pink number. The Cosmo has a bad rap — OK, a terrible rap — but this mixer is really appealing, featuring a melange of super-bright fruit and that kick of real lime (which grows stronger and stronger on the back end, finishing clean and crisp). A-

RIPE Agave Margarita Bar Juice – Take the cranberry out of the Cosmo mix and you’ve got this appealing blend of lime and orange juices, lightly sweetened and ready to go in any quality margarita. Just add tequila, and you’re good to go with a cocktail that offers powerful — but not overpowering — lime character. The agave is stronger and more noticeable on this one (as opposed to cane sugar), but that suits a margarita just fine. A-

RIPE Agave Lemon Sour Bar Juice - Lemon and agave, a simple sour mix that offers versatility and bright lemon notes. Sweeter than some of the other mixes, and less focused on the specific fruit than, say, the margarita mixer. B+

RIPE Bajan Punch Bar Juice – This “tiki sour” includes lime, pineapple, and orange, and is spiced with Angostura Bitters and fresh nutmeg. The most complex of these juices, it’s an instant tropical drink in a glass — even the nutmeg comes through clearly and expressively. Not overdone one bit, it’s perfect for when you need a ready-to-go punch. A

RIPE San Marzano Bloody Mary Bar Juice – Naturally there’s a Bloody Mary mix, and this one includes San Marzano tomatoes, celery and lemon juice, horseradish, balsamic vinegar, white vinegar, sea salt, pepper, and cayenne. A thick one, and in many ways sweeter-tasting than anything else in this lineup, thanks to the power of those tomatoes. Racy, but not too hot, with maybe a bit too much lemon flavor on the back end. Still a highly credible and delicious Bloody Mary mix. A-

$10 each per 1 liter bottle / drinkripe.com

Tasting the Wines of Marchesi de’Frescobaldi

We previously reviewed  two wines (including the first two wines discussed below) in our coverage of Tuscany-based Frescobaldi, one of the royal families of Italian winemaking. In a recent online tasting with the family, we were led through a guided look at four of their current releases. All four are 90% to 100% sangiovese-based wines, but each comes with a much different terroir, aging regimen, and end result. Some thoughts on the four wines tasted follow.

2010 Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva Nipozzano – Solid cherry with some bright acid, with notes of dark chocolate and coffee bean. Very herbal on the finish, with notes of rosemary and thyme. Quite drying but a clean, pure expression of Chainti. A- / $20

2011 Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva Nipozzano Vecchie Viti – Bolder, with more balsamic character up front, and a more brooding, pungency underneath. The finish remains tougher and denser than the standard bottling, but quite food friendly. B+ / $30

2011 Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva Montesodi – An estate selection of the Frescobaldi sangiovese harvest. Really lovely on the nose, with notes of both fruit and perfumed florals. Bright and lush, the body folds together cherries and chocolate sauce into a balanced and complex whole, presenting notes of tea leaf, bay leaf, and mint leaf. Lots of leaves. A / $40

2008 Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Castelgiocondo – A gorgeous wine, with a nose of chocolate covered cherries and a body that approaches the density of Port. Big and chewy, with touches of dried figs and black tea. Waves of vanilla wash ashore on the finish. Quite a wine, but definitely worth reserving for a special, meat-heavy meal. A- / $75

frescobaldi.it

Review: Tullamore D.E.W. Celebratory Phoenix Irish Whiskey

tullamore dew celebratory phoenix_bottle___box_01_no_shadow_s

You’ll have to look very closely to distinguish this special edition bottling from Tullamore D.E.W.’s other limited edition release, Tullamore D.E.W. Phoenix.

Tullamore D.E.W. Celebratory Phoenix comes from a single production batch of the Phoenix release and is being launched in honor of Tullamore’s new distillery opening. Just 2,014 bottles are available, and they are available only in select Irish retail outlets.

This isn’t an identical whiskey to Phoenix — far from it, in fact. It is still a blend of pot still, single malt, and grain whiskey, but it is matured in Oloroso sherry cases and finished in virgin oak casks. (Standard Phoenix is matured in Bourbon barrels then finished in Oloroso sherry casks.)

For sure, it’s similar: Instant honey and banana hit the nose, with plenty of almond and hazelnut character on the palate. But then Celebratory Phoenix takes another turn. Quite malty and pungent, it starts off really pushing the malt whiskey component the heaviest, then segueing into a handful mixed nuts before finishing on rich notes of clove, sawdust, and mushroom.

Compared to the standard bottling of Phoenix (which I re-tasted fresh just for this writeup), it’s overwhelmingly different. Phoenix is brighter with fruit and offers more sweetness and more tangy acid to it — and, frankly, it has a better balance among its component flavors. Celebratory Phoenix is distinctly burlier, with a distinct forest floor edge to it. Frankly, I find myself drawn to the sherry-finished standard edition bottling more strongly… which is good, because it’s half the price — and you can actually buy it in this country.

110 proof.

A- / $112 / tullamoredew.com

Review: Hillrock Solera Bourbon, Single Malt, Double Cask Rye, and White Rye

HED Family Slate

When famous distiller Dave Pickerell (ex of Maker’s Mark) opened Hillrock Estate Distillery in upstate New York, he had but one product, a high-rye Bourbon aged in the solera style and finished in oloroso sherry casks. Since then, Hillrock has added three more craft distilled products, all super-local and carefully handmade, to its stable: a single malt, a rye, and a white rye (made in limited quantities). We tasted all three new products and took a fresh look at the originl Bourbon to see if things were holding up.

Thoughts follow.

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – This is an update on Hillrock’s crazy solera-aged, oloroso sherry-finished Bourbon. Today I’m finding the sweetness almost overpowering up front: Bit-o-Honey, ripe banana, mandarin oranges, and chewy nougat comprise a complex nose. The body pumps that up further, with notes of pungent coconut, cherry juice, and orange oil. There’s so much going on in this whiskey — and so many flavors outside the norm of Bourbon, sometimes bordering on rum-like — that it can sometimes come across as overwhelming. It’s a mighty curious experience, though, and one that still bears repeating. 92.6 proof. A- / $80

Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey – A New York single malt whiskey, no age statement. Very malty/cereal-focused on the nose, with hints of smoke. There seems to be some fruit in there, but it’s buried under an avalanche of toasted Cheerios. The body offers racy and savory spices, pepper and some cloves, with a growing wood influence racing up behind it. The grain character remains the strongest, however, with lots of well-fired barley rounding out a very youthful but expressive spirit. 86 proof. B / $100

Hillrock Double Cask Rye – Made from estate-grown organic rye, which is aged in traditional oak casks and then finished in secondary casks composed of American oak with a #4 char and 24 months of seasoning. (No actual age statement, though.) The huge level of wood on the nose makes me wonder about the point of that secondary cask finishing. It’s all sawdust and furniture store, dulling the fruit and spice considerably. The palate opens things up a bit, with some butterscotch, caramel apple, and banana bread. It’s actually quite charming in the end, and after the wood wears away a bit (time in glass is good for this, as is water) a more typical essence of rye is revealed. You’ll need to fight for it, though. 90 proof. A- / $90

Hillrock George Washington Rye Whiskey (not pictured) – This is  a white rye, and it’s something pretty unique: “Pot distilled at Hillrock Estate following the General’s original recipe by Mount Vernon Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, each bottle contains an aliquot of whiskey made at the Washingtons’ reconstructed distillery at historic Mount Vernon. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this whiskey supports the educational programs at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” So, in other words, pot-distilled Hillrock rye mixed with a little bit of Mount Vernon rye, bottled unaged. It’s a classic white whiskey, with the focus squarely on the grain, lightly musty, with overtones of new leather, birch bark, tobacco leaf, and freshly turned earth. Sweetness is elusive on this one, but the punchy, roasted grain character — and the touch of history here — make it worth a brief encounter. 86 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

hillrockdistillery.com