Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: Wines of Italy’s Stemmari, 2014 Releases

stemmari pinot noir 94x300 Review: Wines of Italys Stemmari, 2014 ReleasesStemmari is a major winemaker of Sicily, where it produces wines from both native and international varietals, with a ruthless focus on keeping costs down. Most of its wines are available for under $10 a bottle, and some of these are quite good.

The naming system may be a little tricky. The less-expensive, single varietal wines all have Stemmari on the label, and some list Feudo Arancio, an older/alternate name for the company, on the label as well. The blends — which are more expensive — do not use Stemmari on the label but only say Feudo Arancio. Confusing, sure, but either way, they all come from the same company, and the same island… Sicily.

Thoughts follow.

2011 Stemmari Pinot Grigio Sicilia IGT – Crisp. Light peach and pineapple on the nose. The body veers more toward lemon, with a touch of grapefruit. Almost candylike, it’s dangerously easy to drink. A- / $7

2012 Stemmari Feudo Arancio Nero D’Avola Terre Siciliane IGT – Tough and tannic at first, this wine settles down eventually and reveals a quite jammy, strawberry-laden core. Subtle tea and milk chocolate notes add nuance, but the somewhat sweet finish becomes tiresome after awhile. B / $8

2011 Stemmari Pinot Noir Sicilia IGT – Serviceable Pinot, but on the earthy/pruny side of things. Notes of cola and black cherry are also prominent, but the finish is on the tight side. B / $8

2012 Stemmari Feudo Arancio Moscato Sicilia IGT - Super-sweet moscato (just 8.5% alcohol), loaded with peaches, pineapple, and bananas foster. Simple, but it’s what sweet moscato should be. B+ / $9

2010 Feudo Arancio Cantodoro Sicilia IGT - 80% nero d’avola, 20% cabernet sauvignon. Easily the best wine in Stemmari’s lineup, a rich and balanced collection of currants, plums, tobacco, leather, and dark chocolate. It all comes together rather seamlessly, making for a seductive and luscious experience. A- / $18

2010 Feudo Arancio Dalila Sicilia IGT - A blend of 80% grillo (stainless steel fermented) and 20% viognier (aged 8 months in oak barrels). Weird and chardonnay-like up front, with big butter and vanilla notes up front. The body brings out meatlike characteristics that can be a bit at odds with the mild peach and lemon notes that come along on the finish. B / $20

feudoarancio.it

Review: 2010 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder

Mt. Brave Single Bottle Shot with Corkscrew 214x300 Review: 2010 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. VeederNapa’s Mount Veeder has a new resident: Mt. Brave Winery, one of the most difficult and rugged parts of the Napa Valley. Mt. Brave is focusing on Malbec, Merlot, and (of course) Cabernet Sauvignon, the signature grape of Mount Veeder.

This 2010 release is an impressive early effort for Mt. Brave. Intensely dark purple — this stuff will turn your lips almost black! — it’s a bold and quite delicious Cab. The nose offers berries and candied violets, with touches of milk chocolate. The body is on the sweet side, barely, with bold strawberry, vanilla, and blueberry character. Not quite venturing into dessert territory — it paired exquisitely with pasta with creamy marinara sauce — but getting close, which I like to think means it’s versatile.

A- / $75 / mtbravewines.artisanwine.com

Review: Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin

Beefeater Burroughs Reserve Gin 525x609 Review: Beefeater Burroughs Reserve Barrel Finished Gin

Remember when genever was going to be the next big thing? Of course you don’t. That stillborn trend gave way to aged gin, which is now — cautiously — on the rise. Will barrel-aged gin be successful where genever was not? Let’s take a look at a bottling from one of the biggest names in gin, Beefeater.

Burrough’s Reserve (tagline: “the gin for free thinkers”) is distilled in 268-liter small batches (the botanicals used are not published) before being aged for an unspecified time (not long, I think) in former Lillet aperitif wine barrels.

The color is a light gold, not unlike Lillet Blanc, with a nose reminiscent of modern gins. The intense juniper notes of Beefeater are absent here, replaced with notes of camphor, licorice, citrus peel, and some curious sea salt notes. The more seaward components are what linger in the nostrils, even as you sip it to reveal some of the classic gin components, including angelica, light lemon and orange notes, white flowers, and vanilla on the finish. The body is on the sweet side, and surprisingly creamy. Juniper? Frankly it’s hard to find at all here, just a vague evergreen character that develops on the nose over time.

The only sticking point with Burrough’s Reserve, an otherwise excellent product that both gin and brown spirits fans should like, is the price. At $70 a bottle it’s a hard sell, even if you’re a gin fanatic. If the price is too rich, maybe stick with the genever then?

86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #5, bottle #74.

A- / $70 / pernod-ricard.com

Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast 21 Bottle 525x668 Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast is one of the most beloved of high-end Irish whiskeys there is, a triple-pot distilled whiskey made of malted and unmalted barley that wins pretty much every “Best Irish Whiskey” award that comes around. That said, the 12 year old expression has always been a bit too chewy and pungent for my taste, a malty monster in a category prized for being gentle and easygoing.

On the other hand, I respect Redbreast. Different strokes and all. And now a sure-to-be much desired 21 Year Old version is about to hit the market. What can an extra 9 years do to a whiskey that’s already a beast?

Let’s put it this way: If you like Redbreast 12, you’ll love Redbreast 21. All of Redbreast’s classic notes are intact: ultra-ripe banana, coconut husks, and butterscotch, to name but a few. But there’s also burnt honey, coal fires, and a powerful caramel note on the finish. The citrus notes — driven by partial aging in first-fill sherry casks — are particularly present here. No matter what you think about Redbreast, there’s always something new to discover lurking somewhere in a dram of this whiskey.

Rest assured: Redbreast’s DNA runs through this expression like a river, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to find a lot of difference here vs. the 12 year old version. It’s a bit more pungent and funky, but it’s just not overwhelmingly different than the 12. The 12 is just such a massive whiskey already that the extra age simply doesn’t change things as much as it otherwise might. Either way, Redbreast fanatics should give it a try before deciding whether the extra age merits more than twice the price.

92 proof.

A- / $180 / irishdistillers.ie

Book Review: The New Old Bar

the new old bar Book Review: The New Old BarChicago-based restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh go by the moniker of “The Hearty Boys,” an homage to the restaurant they run, Hearty. In this, their second book, Smith and McDonagh focus on the bar, offering 200 cocktail recipes (including all the ones they serve at Hearty), plus a chapter or two that cover the basics of how to run the bar.

The recipes run the gamut from classics that have recently made a comeback (Pegu Club, Boulevardier, Corpse Reviver #2), as well as newfangled recipes of the Hearties’ devise. Grilled fruits are a common and interesting theme, as are flavored syrups (recipes are included for these separately). One even uses roast beef (as a garnish). By and large the selection is interesting, skimmable (recipes are not sorted but are mere alphabetized by name), and fairly easy to replicate.

The final portion of the book features a welcome collection of bar snack recipes, with 25 items offered, each sounding more delicious than the next. Poutine and Kix Mix… breakfast of champions!

A- / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail Rimmers

Herb Crystals Cilantro 136x300 Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail RimmersFresh Origins, the maker of a unique set of herb-flavored cocktail rimmer crystals, is back at it, with two new “MicroGreens” flavors that are on the rise in the cocktailverse: Hibiscus and Cilantro. As with its original four flavors, these are natural flowers and herbs mixed with cane sugar crystals, creating crunchy, edible garnishes for your cocktail glass rims. We put these two new versions to the tongue to see how they measure up as ingredients of your next cocktail creation.

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Hibiscus Crystals – Quite sweet, with the hibiscus notes understated. The flavor comes across as more of a cherry/strawberry mix than a floral one, though hibiscus is always a tricky flavor to work with. This would be exemplary on a Cosmo or other fruit-focused cocktail. A-

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Cilantro Crystals - Appropriately bittersweet, but the addition of sugar makes cilantro tough to pick out. The attack is more akin to celery or perhaps even artichoke, but even that is quite muted compared to the sugar component. The company suggests pairing this with a margarita, but rimming a shot of Cynar with it is also interesting. B+

each $10 per 4 oz. jar / freshorigins.com

Review: Chambord French Black Raspberry Liqueur

Chambord 218x300 Review: Chambord French Black Raspberry LiqueurDrinkhacker finally takes a look at one of the classics, a staple of the back bar and an inimitable ingredient in any number of amazing cocktails. Need a dash of color and a kick of jammy fruit in your drink? A drop of Chambord (actually made from both raspberries and blackberries, along with currants, vanilla bean, Cognac, and some other additives) from its iconic Holy Hand Grenade bottle will do the trick.

The nose of this liqueur features big, burly, well, raspberry notes. Not so much bright, fresh fruit but rather raspberry jam, dense and well-sugared. Sipped straight, the body is more dessert-like than you might expect, offering an almost candylike character that mixes darker raspberry notes with clear vanilla and somewhat lighter chocolate notes. Ultimately, the berry fruit is what sticks with you. Not quite Jolly Ranchers, but not quite fresh berries, either. Chambord lands somewhere in between, which might be what makes it perfect for cocktailing.

31 proof.

A- / $30 / chambordonline.com

Review: Booker’s 25th Anniversary Edition Bourbon

Bookers 25th 525x1187 Review: Bookers 25th Anniversary Edition Bourbon

If Colonel Blanton is the Louis Armstrong of the bourbon world, there is no question that that bellowing, boisterous Booker Noe is its John Coltrane. His larger-than-life presence dominated the bourbon world during a time when personalities were less idolized than today. So it is most appropriate that on the silver anniversary of creating the small batch bearing his name, an amplified version of the original Booker’s arrives for consideration.

(Before we begin, it should be mentioned that in 2012 our editor in chief recently placed kindred bourbon Baker’s above Booker’s in a blind taste test. That would not have happened with your faithful author. Booker’s is easily my favorite thing to originate from Team Beam, and one of my top go-to bourbons went introducing new folks to the spirit. Chris’s comments on Booker 25 are at the bottom of the review.)

What’s different? Whereas most Booker’s hovers around the 6-7 year mark at about 125-127 proof, this 25th anniversary edition clocks in at 10 years, 3 months and 130.8.  These were the last of the barrels Booker personally oversaw, and Beam master distiller/son-of-a-Booker Fred Noe wished for something special: an uncut, unfiltered no frills beast of bourbon with a deluxe upgrade in packaging and presentation. The dark colors, gold ornamentation, and wooden box are equally enjoyable to stare at while taking everything in. The presentation does the product justice.

However, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and this certainly delivers. The extra years of aging certainly make a difference, with a nose heavier on the oak and a bit of pepper to make its presence felt. The taste is straightforward and demanding, very hot with resonant notes of cinnamon, cayenne, leather and tobacco all mixed in leading up to a smoky finish which holds for quite some time. Actually, it really doesn’t hold. Much like a good Coltrane solo, it keeps the listener braced and gripped attentively, while waiting patiently for the eventual rest in the hope of starting the experience all over again.

The only real drawback is the cost of admission. I found my bottle at a local store for a whopping $100 plus tax. The price point is questionable. Four Roses 125th Anniversary edition and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection are priced lower. That bit of trivia aside, it stands head and shoulders above any new product Beam has introduced in recent years. Making a separate annual release at this age and proof would be another welcome addition to an already growing, soon-to-be Suntory stable. However, at an edition of around 1000 cases, this will be here, gone and on black market auction sites before too long, so if you’re hesitating: Don’t.

This is Booker’s masterpiece.  It’s a beautiful sun-setting encore — a time-released final farewell from one of the greatest titans to ever run a distillery, and a heartfelt love letter from a son to a father.

Chris says: As Rob alludes, this is remarkably different stuff than standard-grade Booker’s. While Booker’s pours on the heat and never lets up — even with water — Booker’s 25th Anniversary Edition is full of nuance — even without water. In lieu of the brash chocolate-covered-plum character (how I’m describing it today) of standard Booker’s, Booker’s 25 comes across as nuanced and layered. At proof I get notes of rich caramel, cinnamon toast, cafe au lait, and Fred Noe’s flop sweat (just kidding!). A little water amplifies the wood notes, particularly on the finish. I’m with Rob on his rating, and might even kick it up to a full A, even at $100. (GOOD LUCK!) And I still love Baker’s. -Ed.

130.8 proof. Edition of 1000 cases.

A- / $100 / smallbatch.com

Review: Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia and ESB

alaska Hopothermia 106x300 Review: Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia and ESBAlaskan Brewing Co., arguably Alaska’s most noteworthy brewery, is releasing these two beers this spring — with Hopothermia now joining the ranks as a year-round release. Bold, bitter, and hoppy, they’re both worthy sippers no matter what the weather is like.

Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia Double IPA – A stellar IPA, a little citrus, a little piney — particularly on the finish, when the evergreen notes really start to show. Big and bright and loaded with hops, this one’s a rich and delicious dazzler. 8.5% abv. A / $NA per 12 oz. bottle

Alaskan Brewing Co. ESB Extra Special Bitter Ale – This amber ale offers bracing bitterness without being overly hoppy. Dark chocolate and mild coffee notes dominate the body, while the bitter finish cleans up any lingering savory components, leaving a chewy and almost woody character behind. 5.3% abv. A- / $NA per 22 oz. bottle

alaskanbeer.com

Book Review: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course

windows on the world 273x300 Book Review: Kevin Zralys Windows on the World Complete Wine CourseSituated at the top of One World Trade Center, Windows on the World was a restaurant-bar-entertainment venue that was beloved by just about everyone until the tower’s tragic destruction. Its resident cellar master was the equally beloved Kevin Zraly, and for the last 25-plus years he’s been publishing his own book on wine. Actually, it’s a “course,” designed to teach newcomers on wine everything they need to know to get comfortable with wine in a relatively slim volume.

Annually updated, the book combines timeless information with current events. Here you’ll find a page on how weather impacts the grape harvest, along with a sidebar digesting recent storms around the world. This contextualizes Zraly’s lessons while giving the dedicated fodder they can conjure up at cocktail parties.

It’s a breezy book, often presented in Q&A format and with lots of headings followed by a quick paragraph or two of detail. There are plenty of pictures and maps, but Zraly keeps things simple and easy to digest. (The book’s errors — Napa doesn’t have an “Atlas Creek,” but rather an “Atlas Peak,” last time I checked — are curious, but not deal killers.)

One of my favorite things about the book are the nuggets you simply don’t get anywhere else — and would be hard-pressed to dig up online, even. A map of the U.S. with the number of wineries and AVAs in each state? It’s here. A list of the major wine conglomerates and all the brands they own? Got it. The wine grapes native to Hungary? Perhaps less useful, but it’s here too.

Zraly deserves his reputation and should be praised for condensing a complex subject into just over 300 pages (plus online extras) while covering far more than “just the basics.” You may not need to buy it every year, but one copy will get you a long way.

A- / $30 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: The BenRiach Horizons, Septendecim, Solstice 2ed, and Authenticus

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It’s been over 5 years since our last serious look at BenRiach’s distillery bottlings, and things have been afoot. This Speyside distillery has recently launched four new expressions, retiring a few and updating a couple with older versions.

Let’s not delay. Thoughts follow.

The BenRiach Horizons 12 Years Old Triple Distilled – Most Scotch whisky is distilled twice, but Horizons was born in the ’90s of an experimental run that toyed with triple distilling. Afterward, the finished product was aged in standard ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years. The results are delightful. Though the overproof entry is racy, offering notes of honey, brown sugar, fresh-baked bread, and modest vanilla. All in all, the nose of a classic Scotch whisky. The body offers more of the same, with an orange peel note on the finish. It’s hard to tell if that third distillation has done any magic here, but the finished product is crisp, clean, and satisfying beyond its 12 years of age. 100 proof. A- / $80

The BenRiach Septendecim Peated 17 Years Old – A new addition to BenRiach’s peated range, 17 years old and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Heavy peat and barbecue smoke on the nose, with modest apple notes. The body is unique, starting with that smoky peat before quickly building distinct cantaloupe notes, something that’s quite rare for malt whisky. Spiced nuts and a melange of raisins, cloves, and Madeira wine notes bring up the rear. 92 proof. B+ / $80

The BenRiach Solstice 2nd Edition 17 Years Old – This 17 year old bottling is heavily peated, then aged in bourbon barrels before finishing in Tawny Port casks. It succeeds a 15 year version of the spirit that used the same overall technique. The nose brings peat at first, though less pungent than in Septendecim. On the tongue, things are considerably different: Smoked meats play with plums, ripe raisins, applesauce, and touches of caramel and toffee. This whisky is a true delight, and it improves as you sip it, opening up to reveal more and more fruit, while leaving the smoke to play in the background like a roaring fire in the living room on Christmas Eve. A winner. 100 proof. A / $100

The BenRiach Authenticus Peated 25 Years Old – Formerly available as a 21 year old, Authenticus is back at a full 25 years of age. Peated and bourbon barrel aged. Unique nose, with more fruit and less peat than all of the above (including Horizons) — with a chocolate-covered apple slice, orange peel, and currant character to it. On the palate the spirit builds to offer distinct raisin and chocolate notes, burnt caramel, and a touch of mint. The finish is a bit woodier than expected, which leaves a bit of tannin on the back of the throat. Hardly a deal-killer, though. This is amazing stuff on the whole. 92 proof. A / $250

benriachdistillery.co.uk

Review: 2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and 2011 Trilogy

flora springs trilogy 70x300 Review: 2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and 2011 TrilogyMore new releases from our friends at Napa Valley’s Flora Springs, including the 2011 vintage of its flagship wine, Trilogy, a Bordeaux style blend.

2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay - Initially quite oaky, this barrel-fermented Chardonnay opens up with notes of figs, peaches, vanilla, and creme brulee. Time in glass is the friend of this wine, which starts out quite dense — you might even decant it! — as the brooding body eventually reveals more of its fruit over an hour or so. B+ / $35

2011 Flora Springs Trilogy Napa Valley - 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Petite Verdot, 5% Malbec. A pretty and restrained Trilogy this year offers modest currants and dried cherry notes, plus tobacco, tea leaf, and cocoa bean notes. Quite a bit of tannin is hanging out on the back end, where a bit of touch of blackberry jam awaits. Good stuff. A- / $75

florasprings.com

Book Review: Bitter Brew

bitter brew 197x300 Book Review: Bitter BrewI really had no idea that the Busch family had gone through such a turbulent century, with the fortunes of Budweiser careening up and down. But then again, like most readers of this blog, I don’t give Budweiser a whole lot of thought, anyway.

But with Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, author William Knoedelseder grabs you right from the start (with the ultimate fall — the company’s foreign takeover in 2008), before backtracking to 1857 when Adolphus Busch took over a small, bankrupt brewery and launched the A-B empire. While some tales, like the Busch’s obsession with and purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals, may not carry much weight with readers who are more interested in the sudsier side of things, but Knoedelseder’s gifts with the pen will keep you flipping the pages nonetheless.

One tragic oversight: No mention of Spuds MacKenzie.

A- / $13 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Camus VSOP Elegance and VSOP Borderies Cognac

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A Borderies Cognac… that’s a youngish VSOP. Borderies, for those not in the know, is a small, very renowned grape-growing subregion of Cognac. Normally, Borderies bottlings are old XO expressions — which command even higher prices due to their regional pedigree. vsop camus borderies Review: Camus VSOP Elegance and VSOP Borderies CognacAnd while Camus does offer an XO Borderies, it has recently (and quietly) put out this VSOP Borderies expression, a rarity I’ve never seen before now.

It just so happens I had a fresh bottle of Camus VSOP (now known as Camus VSOP Elegance) to compare against this limited-edition Camus VSOP Borderies. Here’s how they shake out.

Camus VSOP Elegance – Recently cleaned up with strong “Elegance” labeling and more modern styling, the off-the-rack Camus VSOP bottling offers classic younger Cognac notes: oak, Christmas cake, and lingering citrus notes, tinged with cinnamon. It’s an easygoing sipper that doesn’t overly complicate things. B+ / $40

Camus VSOP Borderies – More fruit up front here, growing considerably as it gets some air to it. Cinnamon apple, apricots, even coconut and pineapple notes come across. You don’t get much of that with the standard VSOP, which keeps its cards closer to its vest. The finish only builds up the fruit component. 15,000 bottles made. A- / $57

camus.fr

Review: 5 Whiskies from Japan’s Nikka Distillery

Nikka Coffey Grain 750ml 300 389x1200 Review: 5 Whiskies from Japans Nikka Distillery

An old part of the Asahi empire, Nikka (est. 1934) suddenly finds itself part of the new guard of Japanese whiskys positively flooding into the U.S. Nikka makes a massive number of whiskys in a wide variety of styles and ages. What we present here is but a small selection of Nikka’s world, reflecting the most common Nikka expressions you’ll find in our shores today.

Thoughts follow.

Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12 Years Old – A classic single malt (100% malted barley from Nikka’s newer distillery) with tons to love. The nose is pretty and modern, offering well-integrated grain, oak, and nougat elements. The subtle smokiness starts to develop primarily on the palate, which offers crisp citrus notes, butterscotch, and some floral notes. Beautiful integration here, on a creamy, sexy body. Vanilla custard sticks with you for ages after a few sips. Feels far more accomplished than its 12 years of age would dictate. 90 proof. A / $120

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15 Years Old – Single malt, older distillery than Miyagikyo, which explains how this 15 year old whisky can be priced the same as its little brother. Quite a different spirit, the Yoichi brings a bit more smokiness, and a more rustic composition, with a racier nose and a considerably bigger smoke profile. The body offers big citrus notes, applesauce, cloves, and a chewiness driven by the barbecue-like smokiness. A fun and flavorful whisky, but it pales next to the refinement of the Miyagikyo. 90 proof. B+ / $130

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old – I’m an avowed fan of the Taketsuru 12 Years Old, a pure malt (a blend of single malts from multiple distilleries), so this 17 year old expression sounds delightful right off the bat. The smoke-and-sweetness of this malt’s nose remind me of the Yoichi 15, but the body is a different animal. Here, that rusticness has faded away to reveal a satin body, mouth-filling with thick caramel, vanilla custard, and just wisps of smoke. There’s an almost lemon candy-like character around the edges that’s hard to pin down… but is quite delicious. 86 proof. A- / $150

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old – Lots of grain on this older expression of Taketsuru, which is surprising. The nose initially feels hot, heavy with old wood character. The body is equally laden with heavy woodiness, a tannic and tough spirit that just feels “too old” — almost sour at times with past-its-prime cherry, burnt cocoa beans, and charcoal notes. Not at all my favorite of this lineup. 86 proof. B- / $180

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – This is a huge departure from the above, a grain whisky (corn, barley, wheat) made in a continuous still instead of a pot still. It’s what blended whisky is blended with, but this is a 100% grain whisky, with no single malt added. Sharp on the nose, with lemon notes, vanilla, and strong menthol character. The body is surprisingly easygoing, a fruity whiskey with notes of hazelnuts, coffee bean, sea salt, and modest smokiness. There’s a lot going on here, that menthol character bringing it all into (for the most part) balance. Worth exploring, and it’s a bargain compared to the rest of the Nikka stable. 90 proof. B+ / $70

nikka.com

Review: The Arran Malt 12 Years Old Cask Strength Batch #2

Arran 12 cask strength 140x300 Review: The Arran Malt 12 Years Old Cask Strength Batch #2Batch #2 of  this rarity, a cask strength bottling of Arran 12 Years Old, was crafted from 17 first-fill sherry butts and 4 second-fill sherry hogsheads. There can’t be much of this to go around. In fact, as I type this, Arran is already on Batch #3 according to its website.

The nose is hot, but pretty. Nougat, malty — almost bread-like — with dense orange and spiced apple notes after. On the palate, the orange character takes on some raisin, marshmallow, and marzipan. Though it’s only 107.2 proof — many cask strength bottlings are far higher in alcohol — it really benefits from a few drops of water, soothing the heat and bringing out the more enchanting, dessert-like components of the malt — with even a touch of chocolate that you don’t find when sipping it sans water.

Fun stuff from the only distillery on the Isle of Arran.

107.2 proof.

A- / $68 / arranwhisky.com

Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon Region

HERITAGE DU TEMPS SINGLA 2005 115x300 Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon RegionRoussillon is southern France’s answer to Sauternes. This small part of the Languedoc region, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains, specializes in sweet dessert wines, made much in the same style of the more famous — and much more expensive — brethren to the north.

These wines, known as Vins Doux Naturels in their sweetened state, come from a number of sub-districts and are made with a variety of grape varietals. (The most noteworthy wines from this area are the well-regarded wines from the tiny Banyuls region, though these are closer to Port.) You’ll note the “Ambre” designation on some of the wines below. “Ambre” means that a wine from this region has been aged for at least two years in an oxidative container (like a large oak vat) before bottling, similar to Tawny Port. This can give the wine a much deeper, golden color.

And by the way, the district isn’t just promoting their value as an alternative to pricier stickies — it’s also got cocktails you can check out using Roussillon as a base.

Today we look at three selections from the Roussillon region, all fortified whites. Thoughts follow.

2006 Chateau Les Pins Rivesaltes Ambre – A blend of 25% White Grenache, 25% Malvasia, and 50% Macabeu grapes. Aromatic and perfumy, almost like an Alsatian wine. The body initially hits you with honey, then spins into an orange/lemon character before finishing with notes of cereal, something that’s almost like a granola. Refreshing, and different enough to make experiencing worthwhile over other white dessert wines. 16% abv. B+ / $15

2011 Chateau Les Pins Muscat de Rivesaltes -  50% Muscat Petit Grains and 50% Muscat Alexandrie grapes. Typical of Muscat, with a nose of peaches and marshmallow cream. On the tongue, more aromatics develop, with a perfumed white flower character that balances the fruit. The result is fresh and fragrant, a more pure expression of the vine than the almost malty/bready character that comes along in the Ambre. 16% abv. A- / $15

2006 Domaine Singla Heritage du Temps Ambre – A much different experience than the Les Pins, this 100% Macabeu wine has the intensity of a lighter sherry, crossed with a Madeira. The nose offers the distinct, old-wine sharpness of Madeira, with hints of floral aromatics and some sweetness beneath. On the palate, you’ll find more of a honey character backed with chewy nougat, nuts, and that sour cherry finish that again recalls Madeira. Not bad, but hardly the crowd-pleaser that the (cheaper) Muscat de Riversaltes is. B / $56

winesofroussillon.com

Review: Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 03 Pugacehev’s Cobra

hangar 24 barrel roll Pagachevs cobra 265x300 Review: Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 03 Pugacehevs CobraA Russian Imperial Stout brewed with maple syrup and aged in bourbon barrels for eight months, Hangar 24′s latest barrel-aged brew is indeed, as promised, “an assault on your senses.”

They mean that in a good way, but at first, Pugachev’s Cobra, now in its third release (it comes out every December), is a little jarring. Of course, at 13.8% alcohol, a beer will do that to you.

Give it time to settle down a bit and this Barrel Roll bottling becomes quite the charmer. Smooth coffee notes (not ultra-bitter), rounded out by just a touch of that maple flavor, give this a delightful dessert-like feeling at the start. Cocoa notes come along in short order, as the malty core starts to build. On the finish, it’s fruitier than you’d think, with notes of raisin, plum, and blackberry, all shrouded in vanilla syrup driven by the bourbon barrel (and that monumental body).

This isn’t a beer you’re going to crack open and guzzle, but by the fireside — which is where I’m enjoying it — it’s quite a little delight.

A- / $20 per 750ml bottle / hangar24brewery.com

Tasting Chopin Vodka: Potato vs. Rye vs. Wheat

chopinkit 525x930 Tasting Chopin Vodka: Potato vs. Rye vs. Wheat

Curious how the base carbohydrate impacts the way a straight vodka tastes? Well, Poland-based Chopin is here to illustrate. It’s one of the few companies that make a multitude of straight vodkas from different base products. In fact, it now makes three: one from potato, one from rye, and one from wheat.

While I’ve tasted (and reviewed) both the potato and rye versions before, this is the first time I’ve sampled all three side by side (and the first time I’ve had any of them in many years). I sampled the trio blind, so as not to be tainted by preconceived notions, with thoughts below. But never mind my thoughts — this is a great little experiment to try for yourself at your favorite watering hole.

Each is 80 proof.

Chopin Potato Vodka – Similar nose to #1, with just a hint more power. On the body, it offers a punchier mouthfeel with a more savory character, and a somewhat earthy, mushroomy component on the finish. Still on the light side, but with more heft. The most “old world” vodka in the lineup. My favorite here, by a slight margin (and a significant departure from my opinion of it back in 2008). A-

Chopin Rye Vodka - Clean, slightly sweet nose, with a breezy, almost tropical nuance. Very clean, light body, with a slight astringency on the finish. Flavor profile includes very mild tropical character, and a kind of doughy finish. Easily the lightest spirit, in both body and character, in this lineup. B+

Chopin Wheat Vodka – Sharper nose, with more of a lemon curd character to it. The body hints at orange juice, adds more sweetness in the form of a nougat, almost chocolate character. Stylistically it’s the most “modern” of the bunch, with the cleanest finish. B+

each about $28 / chopinvodka.com

Review: Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey (2014)

Powers Gold Label Bottle Image 2014 420x1200 Review: Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey (2014)

The good folks at Ireland’s Powers don’t know when to quit. First they rebrand and relabel their classic Gold Label Irish whiskey in 2009, now they’re back at it again, redoing the bottle a second time while boosting the proof a bit. (And that doesn’t even include the launch of the masterful John’s Lane special edition bottling.)

Nothing has changed about the recipe to Gold Label — it’s still triple distilled at Midleton, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and non-chill filtered. The only change (aside from bottle cosmetics that now include a metallic neck hanger) is the increase in alcohol up to 43.2% — the product’s original export strength — from the standard 40%.

The change is a good one, giving a little more power (ahem) to the whiskey while maintaining the easy charm and gentle flavor profile that attracts so many people to Irish whiskey.

There’s lots of traditional Irish character here to explore, with a nose that’s full of ripe banana, butterscotch, cereal, and gentle honey notes. On the body, all of the above are met by orange notes, along with both coconut and pineapple on the back end. The finish is both fruity and malty, reminiscent of a frozen custard spiked with toppings. The slight bump in alcohol works well at boosting the body just a smidge, adding just a bit more creaminess to an already well-balanced spirit.

86.4 proof.

A- / $25 / powerswhiskey.com