Review: Starr Hill Northern Lights IPA (2015)

It’s not every day a brewer updates the recipe to one of their top-selling beers. But a few weeks ago, Starr Hill made some “enhancements” to Northern Lights IPA, its top-selling product since its introduction in 2007.

What’s been changed? Starr Hill explains: “New hop varieties — including Falconer’s Flight, Simcoe and Centennial — have been added to the mix with Columbus and Cascade. Following in the footsteps of recent IPA releases like Reviver and King of Hop, a greater emphasis was placed on dry hopping and the process of hop bursting. This gives Northern Lights fantastic levels of hop flavor and aroma without adding large amounts of bitterness. A simplified malt bill has also created a more harmonious balance for the base while coarser filtration allows for more flavor and aroma throughout.”

That’s actually a lot of change. (And not mentioned in all that is a slight reduction in alcohol from 6.5% abv to 6.2% abv.)

How confident is the company that this was the right move? Starr Hill actually sent me both the old Northern Lights and the new one to taste, side by side. Which I did. I have to say, I like them both, but they are surprisingly different beers.

The 2007 Northern Lights is an IPA, but it’s an earthier example of the style, with notes of coffee, tree bark, and mushroom against a backdrop of piney hops. The 2015 Northern Lights ejects those earth tones in favor of a more clear, west coast style: Big citrus (especially grapefruit), pine needle, and bright acidity meeting bracing, hoppy bitterness. Which you actively prefer is a matter of personal opinion, to be sure, but I like them each on their merits. Hey, why can’t we just rename one and have them both?

A- / $9 per six-pack / starrhill.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – Sweet Mash Redux and Double Double Oaked

woodford double double oaked

This year, Woodford Reserve takes a page from the Buffalo Trace playbook and is launching a series of one-off, limited release whiskeys for our fun and enjoyment. They aren’t quite as “experimental” as the BT Experimental series, but they are also not as unique as Woodford’s annually-released Master’s Collection whiskeys (which remain a separate entity).

Per Woodford:

The Woodford Reserve Distillery will release up to three expressions of the Distillery Series concurrently at various times throughout the year. The inaugural two offerings, Double Double Oaked and Sweet Mash Redux, will be available for purchase at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY, with a suggested retail price of $49.99 for a 375ml bottle. These small-batch offerings range from finished whiskies to straight bourbons and other unique spirits. Master Distiller Chris Morris has spent the last several years developing and perfecting the individual expressions within the Distillery Series which, in true Woodford Reserve form, offer consumers a first-hand look into the brand’s creative dexterity. Made with the same approach as other Woodford Reserve products that focus on adjusting one or more of the five sources of flavor, Distillery Series expressions represent alterations across four of the five sources: grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

In case you missed it: These are only available in half bottles, sold directly from the Woodford distillery in Kentucky.

So let’s taste these two inaugural releases, eh?

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Sweet Mash Redux – Sweet Mash was an early Master’s Collection release (2008) and now it’s back as a Distillery Series release. It’s explained: “While traditional Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is a sour mash bourbon, modifying the fermentation process to include a non-soured mash creates a bourbon of higher pH effect and heightened fruit notes throughout.” I’ll leave that as it stands, and move on to the tasting. It’s a curious spirit, with a nose that doesn’t exactly scream fruit. Rather, it showcases notes of lumberyard, dense grains, and some toasted spices. The palate does run to fruit, but I find it more in the raisin/fruitcake arena. I catch prunes alongside some crystallized ginger and clementine oranges, but then the wood and cereal combo come back and come back strong. Curious, but not my favorite expression of Woodford. 90.4 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Double Double Oaked – Take Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, then finish it for an additional year in its second, heavily toasted lightly charred new oak barrel, that’s Double Double Oaked. Tasting Double Oaked today I find it quite a delight, sweet and surprisingly delicate for something with such a scary name. Double Double Oaked then, what might that be like? The nose is considerably more wood-focused, it turns out, and initially more reminiscent of rack Woodford than the original Double Oaked. Sip it and give it time however and it develops quite a sweet intensity on the palate, with strong notes of butterscotch and fresh cinnamon rolls. The finish offers some curious notes. Camphor? Cherry pits? Hard to peg, but I can say that while I like it quite a bit, the standard Double Oaked has a touch better integration and balance. 90.4 proof. A- / $50 (375ml)

woodfordreserve.com

Review: West Sixth Heller Heaven Double IPA

lHellerHeavenCanWest Sixth brewing (aka: the guys that fought with Magic Hat over their logo) have been on a winning streak with seasonal offerings (I’m already counting the days until this year’s Christmas ale), and Heller Heaven is pleasantly no exception.

Lots of summer on the nose with an abundance of citrus, a little bit of pine and freshly cut grass. As expected. it is definitely sweet and floral on the taste, with tangerine and mango mixing around an aggressive kick of caramel at the end and a whole mess of hops throughout. Surprisingly easy drinking for a double IPA, this one easily bests the traditional IPA the brewery offers in its permanent rotation. Worth checking out before summer’s over, especially if you can get it straight off the tap.

9% abv.

A- / $10 per 4-pack / westsixth.com

Review: Gordon & MacPhail Imperial 1995

imperial 1995This was my most prized purchase in Edinburgh, where I nabbed the last bottle from Royal Mile Whiskies. Imperial was a Speyside distillery, opened in 1897 and shuttered in 1998 (and demolished in 2013), making this one of a dwindling number of bottles still available.

Bottled in 2014, this is 19 year old Imperial, which has seen at least some time in sherry casks.

The nose is delicate, offering gentle cereal and mixed florals, all backed by easygoing, sherried, orange marmalade character. White peaches emerge on the nose with continued time in the glass. On the palate, it’s a quiet spirit that showcases roasted barley alongside nougat and marzipan, clove-studded oranges, and a soothing finish that keeps the sharp citrus notes dancing on the body. Hang on for a bit and a touch of smoky char makes an appearance as the whisky fades away.

Enjoyable and understated.

86 proof.

A- / $95 (70cl) / gordonandmacphail.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey

jack daniels

Say what you want about JD, but the company’s Single Barrel releases, which debuted in 1997, really did play a role in bringing ultra-premium whiskey to the masses. Today, JD Single Barrel remains on the top shelf of many a back bar, and collectors snap up the bottles — reasonably priced but each a unique slice of Lynchburg, Tennessee — sometimes loading up on dozens of different expressions. As with black label, the whiskey is bottled with no age statement — but the company says only 1 out of 100 barrels of JD go into the Single Barrel program.

Each bottle of JD Single Barrel will be a bit different of course, but this one makes quite a nice impression and stands as a marked improvement over standard grade black label Jack Daniel’s. It’s sharp at first… (At 94 proof this is a lot closer to the JD that Frank Sinatra must have enjoyed in his day. Jack was sold at 90 proof until 1987 and has been diluted twice since then, down to the current 80 proof.) But give it a little time (and perhaps some water) to open up and it really shows its charms.

The nose offers rich toffee and caramel notes touched with cinnamon, really amazing depth here, with just a touch of charcoal to add some smokiness. The body pumps things up further, layering on notes of orange peel, cloves, and gentle dusty lumber notes. The ultimate impact isn’t exactly complex, but it is well balanced and features a wealth of happily integrated flavors. The finish is moderately long and soothing, blending sweet and spice together in a wholly satisfying way that ultimately shows, hell, this is why so many people love Jack Daniel’s.

Reviewed: Rick L-14, Barrel M-5425, Bottled 9-23-14. 94 proof.

A- / $45 / jackdaniels.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Starr Hill King of Hop and Soul Shine (2015)

King of Hop 4pk_transIt’s time for one new, limited release — King of Hop — and the return of a seasonal — Soul Shine — to the Drinkhacker beer fridge. Let’s dig in…

Starr Hill King of Hop Imperial IPA – Not to be confused with the King of Pop, this is a classic, dry-hopped Imperial IPA with all the expected trimmings. Lovely citrus-pine notes up front, dusted with a touch of burnt marshmallow and notes of forest floor. Chewy and lightly resinous — but far from overpowering in the bitterness department — it’s a refreshing and well-crafted IPA with just a touch of uniqueness to carry things along. 7.5% abv. A- / $NA per four-pack

Starr Hill Soul Shine Belgian-Style Pale Ale (2015) – This “Americanized” Belgian ale grew on me a bit with this go-round, its late-game bitterness pairing a bit better with its heftier up-front maltiness and mushroomy, bready, slightly vegetal notes. 5.2% abv. B- / $10 per six-pack

starrhill.com

Review: 4 Centre-Loire Wines, 2015 Releases

The Loire Valley is a sprawling wine region in northwest France — and the Centre-Loire (named because it is located in the geographic center of France) is the home to some of its most renowned wines, including the widely beloved Sancerre.

Today we’re looking at four Centre-Loire wines, all composed of sauvignon blanc grapes and all produced in a tight geographic area — but each with a distinct focus. All are from the 2013 vintage except for the 2014 Pouilly-Fume. Start by getting a sense of where these regions are in relation to one another, then dig into the reviews.

2013 Joseph Mellot Domaine de Bellecours Sancerre – Fresh and fragrant, with a nice balance of tropical and citrus notes, plus a modest, tart grapefruit character that emerges on the clean, pretty finish. Refreshing and acidic, but still fruit-forward, it’s a textbook example of what an everyday Sancerre should be. A- / $20

102915972013 Domaine de Chatenoy Menetou-Salon – Nice combination of citrus and melon here, with some tropical character. Modest acidity on the finish, with an echo of melon notes at the very end. A simple and fresh wine. B+ / $16

2013 Les Pierres Plates Reuilly – An instantly funkier wine, with notes of blue cheese on the nose, and a little barnyard character on the palate that mixes with some tropical notes. That actually helps to add some character to an otherwise straightforward wine, but a little cheese goes a long way. B / $20

2014 Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fume – One of the most acid-forward and melon-flecked of the bunch, this powerful wine has a huge backbone that almost borders on ammonia-scented — though the essence of cantaloupe and honeydew swoop in late to save the day. B+ / $24

Review: WhistlePig “Old World” Rye Whiskey 12 Years Old 2015

whistlepig old world

Every year WhistlePig — the acclaimed 100% rye whiskey — puts out a special edition. For the last three of those years the whiskey has been a spin on the original WhistlePig, generally getting older every year and/or bottled from a single barrel. For 2015, WhistlePig has something different in store: A whiskey that’s been finished in a variety of wine barrels.

WhistlePig has been experimenting with a variety of finishing barrels for its rye for a few months; I’ve never tasted any of them but they are still available in very limited release. Old World (aka Old World Marriage) marks the conclusion of those experiments — and unlike the finishing barrel releases it is a permanent addition to the WhistlePig lineup. The finished release is a blend of finished whiskeys: 63% from Madeira finished barrels, 30% Sauternes finished, and 7% Port finished. The whiskies inside are not 100% rye but rather 95% rye and 5% malted barley. (These spirits are also sourced from MGP in Indiana, not from Canada, which is where the prior WhistlePig bottlings are produced.) There’s no information available on the length of the finishing — but the whiskey inside is 12 years old. Of special note: While the individual Old World finished whiskeys were bottled at 90 proof, this one hits the bottle at a slightly lower 86 proof.

The experience is considerably different from the standard WhistlePig bottling. There’s tons of astringency and heat on the nose here — that’s nothing new — but give all that a little time to blow off before diving in. What emerges are distinctly winey aromas coming directly from those barrel finishes. No surprise that the Madeira leads the way, offering those oxidized wine notes plus dark chocolate, salted caramel, and some pungent rhubarb character. On the palate, it’s easily drinkable without water, the whiskey offers a complex array of flavors that starts off with golden syrup and bright citrus (the Sauternes influence, perhaps), then fades toward roasted grains, chocolate (here comes the Port…), and the winey notes that the Madeira drives.

WhistlePig is a textbook rye, all grain, lumber, and baking spices, but this expression takes the spirit in a whole new direction. Definitely worth seeking out, even if you’re just curious from a novelty factor perspective.

A- / $130 / whistlepigwhiskey.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: 3 Languedoc Wines – Montmassot Picpoul, Chateau du Donjon Rose, and Chateau Trillol

ChâteauduDonjonMinervoisRoséFrance’s Languedoc region is reknowned for offering an array of wines in diverging styles, almost all available at low prices. In recognition of this, we recently received three Languedoc wines for review — one white, one rose, one red — to gauge just how far a buck can go in this sunny, southern part of France. (Pro tip: White are best!)

Thoughts follow.

2014 Montmassot Picpoul de Pinet – An affordable, star-bright-white picpoul from the village of Florensac, offering crisp minerals and simple fruit notes — lemon, apple, and a touch of melon. Some say you can get a touch of salt air on this wine, and if I had a dozen oysters on hand I might be inclined to agree. That said, I’m drinking it with dill-roasted halibut and shrimp, and it’s a perfect, summery combination, especially at this price. A- / $11

2014 Chateau du Donjon Rose Minervois – A rose of 30% syrah, 30% cinsault, 40% grenache. Beautifully floral, and berry-infused. Lightly sweet, with a touch of marshmallow to juice up the strawberries and carnation petals underneath. Uncomplicated but perfectly summery. B / $12

2010 Chateau Trillol Grenache-Syrah Corbieres Cucugnan – Lots of pruny notes up front on this 60-40 grenache-syrah blend, with notes of smoked meats underneath. A bit flabby at the start, it warms up and its somewhat discordant flavors eventually manage to come together, somewhat fitfully. C+ / $15

Review: AnestasiA Vodka (2015)

anestasia

In 2012, a new vodka called AnestasiA hit the market, sporting an insanely avant garde bottle and an even more insane liquid inside. Charitably described as a mouth-numbing, menthol-flavored vodka (and not noted on the label as any such thing), the Oregon-produced vodka was derided by critics and, apparently, shunned by drinkers.

AnestasiA went back to the drawing board. They kept the bottle, but they axed the flavoring agents completely. The new AnestasiA is totally unflavored… a complete 180 from the original.

In fact, the new AnestasiA is one of the most “unflavored” spirits I’ve ever had.

AnestasiA 2015 has an extremely mild nose, with almost no discernable scent aside from some basic, simple medicinal notes. On the palate, it offers very light notes of rubbing alcohol, with a slight wash of both vanilla and brown sugar. The finish is clean, if short of bracing. There’s nothing not to like here, but nothing particularly memorable about the composition, either. For some, that’s what makes for a perfect vodka.

All in all: Smart move, guys.

80 proof.

A- / $29 / anestasia.com