Review: NV Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco Valdobbiadene

rusticoGood, cheap Prosecco isn’t hard to find, but Nino Franco’s Rustico bottling stands near the top of that list. For 13 bucks, you get an awful lot of nuance: bubbly apples up front, light sweetness on the tongue, and a surprising herbal kick on the back end. It’s not too heavy, just a dusting of thyme and sage as the bubbles wash everything away. A solid effort.

A- / $13 / ninofranco.it

Review: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye Whiskey (2015)

JB750_82Good old “yellow label” Jim Beam Rye was, for many drinkers, their first exposure to rye whiskey. What was it? Aside from something mentioned in a Don McLean song? Beam’s Rye was good enough — cheap, too — like a racier bourbon, but maybe not as sweet. Or you could go for Old Overholt if you wanted something fancier in your Sazerac.

Fast forward a decade and the world of rye has been completely upended. Tons of great ryes are available now, many costing up to 70 bucks a bottle or more. Who buys Yellow Label in the face of all kinds of rye goodness out there?

Beam got the hint, and Yellow Label (more recently repackaged with a sort of Beige Label) is going off the market. Reformulated and upgraded, Jim Beam Rye has been reimagined for the premium rye era, crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe” and bottled at 90 proof instead of 80. Mashbill composition is not available. The new, official name: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. Just don’t let the green label confuse you, as Jim Beam Choice is still hanging around out there. (To clarify, this is now Beam’s only mainstream rye.)

And we tried it:

Deep butterscotch notes hit the nose first, ringed with hints of dark chocolate. It’s common to describe the body rye as “spicy,” but that’s often misconstrued to mean spicy with hot red pepper. What spicy often means, as it does here on Beam, is more akin to baking spice: Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, all wrapped up with some smoky bacon and just a touch of licorice. It’s lightly sweet with a vanilla custard note to it, but not as powerful as the punch of bourbon. Initially quite light on the body, it grows on you with its gentle notes of apple pie, caramel, and that slightly savory, almost smoky lacing. The finish is modest, almost short, but engaging and more than pleasant as it fades away.

I was ready to dismiss this as a gimmicky attempt to grab some share in a rapidly growing market, but whaddaya know? The stuff’s legit.

90 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com

Review: 2013 Erath “Willakia” Chardonnay Eola-Amity Hills

This is Oregon-based Erath’s first wine from its newly-purchased Willakia Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. Just 238 cases were made. Says Erath:

The 2013 Willakia Chardonnay was harvested on October 12, two weeks after a series of rain showers – remnants of Typhoon Pabuk that eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan – passed through the Willamette Valley. The prolonged warm, dry period that followed the rain allowed the vineyard to dry out and provided for extended ripening and maturation of the remaining fruit. The wine was then fermented in a combination of French oak and stainless steel, before being aged on its lees for eight months in 100% French oak with 40% new barrels.

A breath of fresh air in the overoaked world of Chardonnay, the acidity up front drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc, and the midpalate pumps up the citrus — grapefruit and lemon zest. At the same time, the nose offers hints of vanilla and oak, and there’s a touch of marshmallow on the back end. All of this works together surprisingly well, making for a lively wine that balances the buttery notes of a classic Chardonnay with some bright fruit. Very food friendly, as well.

A- / $34 / erath.com

Review: DeLeon Tequila Platinum

Deleon 69469 1

P. Diddy‘s not happy to be a major player in the world of vodka. Now he wants to rule tequila, too.

DeLeon is a new ultra-premium Highland tequila, 100% agave of course, designed to go toe to toe with Patron and other top-shelf tequila brands. Available in no fewer than six expressions — including Diamante, a joven expression, and Leona, a reserve anejo bottling that costs $825 — the most simplistic (and affordable) of the bunch is a blanco: DeLeon Platinum, which runs $60 and up. All the better to pay for the fancy, thick-glass bottle, metallic stopper, and talk of traditional clay ovens and such.

And hey, celebrity branding aside, it’s a pretty good tequila.

The nose is rich with peppery notes, but also hints at lemon custard, along with some vanilla-dusted creme brulee notes. It’s got the character of a classic blanco, but it also hints at austerity — despite the fact that this is a completely unaged and unrested tequila. The body continues the theme: Spicy agave, bright lemon juice — almost candied with a sweet edge — honey, and touches of menthol. It’s very mild, and extremely easy-drinking — the same qualities that make Patron so very popular.

DeLeon Platinum is a tequila that doesn’t exactly pump up the agave, but it doesn’t try to mask it, either. Rather, it takes the natural herbal character of blanco tequila, then tosses in some natural complementary flavors that add subtlety and complexity. The end product may be on the lighter side — so approach DeLeon with the appropriate attitude — but that may suit many tequila drinkers just fine.

80 proof.

A- / $60 / deleontequila.com

Review: Anchor Distilling Old Tom Gin

Anchor OldTomGin081514KO-HR

Old Tom, for the uninitiated, is a style of gin that was last at its height of popularity somewhere around 1880. As London Dry came to the forefront, Old Tom fell out of favor, and from the 1950s until a few years ago, no one made it.

The modernist cocktail revival has brought Old Tom back to the masses, and San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling is one of a handful leading the charge.

Old Tom has no official style, but it tends to have a bigger body than London Dry gin has but without as much of the bite. Most notably, Old Tom tends to be sweeter, owing to the use of sugar or other added sweetening agents. Old Tom also tends to be pot-distilled while most London Dry gins are column distilled. Some brands are barrel aged before bottling (like the vastly different Ransom Old Tom). Anchor’s Old Tom is pot-distilled and, while not aged, it is unfiltered, giving it a gentle cloudiness you don’t see in London Dry gin. The gin is flavored with the typical gin botanicals, but the infusion bill also includes star anise and licorice, plus the addition of stevia as a sweetener.

Lightly hazy, Anchor Old Tom Gin gets going with a nose of sharp juniper but also sweet dairy cream and citrus. There’s an undercurrent of savory herbs — coriander-like — that complement all of the above. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet — not overdone, but lightly sugary and touched with a bit of cinnamon. A lightly woody, almost smoky element arrives after some time in glass, until, finally, the licorice/anise element hits solidly as the finish builds. Anchor Old Tom goes out not with a fiery bang but with a sigh, slowly making its sultry, sweet escape.

90 proof.

A- / $30 / anchordistilling.com

Review: Boulard Calvados Pays d’Auge VSOP

Boulard VSOP 70 CL-1Boulard is one of the pre-eminent producers of Calvados. This VSOP is just one step up from Boulard’s entry-level bottling, composed of a blend of brandies aged 4 to 10 years old, but it shows nonetheless how one company can do wonders with the simple apple.

Crisp, classic apple notes are fresh on the nose, touched with lively menthol, cocoa powder, and gentle astringency. The body is lush with the essence of a boozy apple pie — fresh and baked apples, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon, and a gingery finish. Straightforward but sophisticated and well-crafted, it’s a near-perfect expression of a younger apple brandy.

80 proof.

A- / $50 / calvados-boulard.com

Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky - Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) and Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015)

Winter/spring seasonals from Deschutes have arrived — both can likely be considered 2014/2015 releases, but we did our best on pegging them to a release year in order to keep things organized for those searching through the archives. Thoughts follow.

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) – This heavily malted Northwest Pale Ale is immediately sweet from the start, with an almost maple syrup character to it. Less blatantly sugar-focused than I remember from prior bottlings, this expression also features slightly less alcohol, which helps to liven up the body a bit. Some orange flower and candied grapefruit notDeschutes-HopHengeIPA-Labeles emerge on the finish if you give it some time to warm up a bit. 6.2% abv. B+

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015) – This classic “IBU escalation” brew is now engaging in a bit of “abv escalation,” too. Last year’s Hop Henge was a “mere” 8.8% alcohol. Now it’s pushing 10%. Dropping from 99 IBUs to 90 hasn’t hurt: This year the beer is drinking with a nice balance of piney notes, grapefruit, and a touch of caramel sauce on the back end. I catch faint notes of baked apple and incense, as well, making this a more complex and, frankly, enjoyable beer than it’s been in recent years. 9.5% abv. A-

each about $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer

claiborne and churchill Dry_Gewurztraminer_no_vintage_lTwo aromatic whites from this San Luis Obispo-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22

claibornechurchill.com

Review: 2012 Markham Cellar 1879 Blend Napa Valley

markhamGod bless the lunatic who dreamed up this insane blend of six grapes that shouldn’t go together. Markham’s Cellar 1879 blend is composed of Napa grapes in this proportion: 36% Merlot, 21% Petite Sirah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 9% Zinfandel, and 8% Petit Verdot. Named in honor of Markham’s founding, it’s an insanely drinkable bottling that won’t break the bank.

There’s lots going on here: Intense violets, chocolate sauce, and a core of blackberry jam. Big currant notes build up, but it’s vanilla and chocolate — almost confectionery in quality — that dominate the juicy finish. Fortunately this is all just short of hitting that rampant jamminess that mars so many wines, and the floral elements are present throughout — though fleeting. A fantastic food wine, it’s a bit sweet (and a bit dangerous) on its own.

A- / $25 / markhamvineyards.com