Book Review: Fire Water

fire waterIf you liked Alt Whiskeys, you’ll love Fire Water, Darek Bell’s follow-up tome on the intricacies of craft distilling.

While Alt Whiskeys focused mainly on the impact of using different grains in your whiskey mash, here the Corsair Distillery founder takes a look at how smoke can impact craft whiskeymaking. This isn’t just a lark. For this book, Bell experimented with over 80 different fuel sources to see how different types of woods, roots, and herbs would impact the finished, distilled product. Curious how avocado wood might make your whiskey taste? It’s in here. Persimmon tree wood? Cloves? Mugwort? Yohimbe? Chopped up, used bourbon barrels? All in here.

As with Alt Whiskeys, the actual utility of this book is extremely limited, as home distillation is totally illegal. That said, it’s still a ton of fun to flip through for kicks. If you’re a fan of peaty Scotch, Fire Water hints at the tantalizing promise that smoked American whiskeys might be arriving in short order. (In fact, some are already here, like Lost Spirits Leviathan, Corsair’s own Triple Smoke, and High West Campfire.)

And if you decide to go ahead and make your own smoky moonshine in your backyard, be sure to let us know what kind of wood you decided to use.

A- / $27 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu, Lychee Vodka, and Coconut Pandan Vodka

kai

Vietnam’s only vodka comes from Kai, which distills rice into both vodka and shochu (aka soju — it puts both names on the bottles), in a variety of flavors. Kai (slogan: “Taste the pleasure”) sent us three expressions of its Asian-inspired spirits for our investigation. Thoughts follow.

Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu/Soju – Very light and fragrant. The shochu starts with lemony notes and a heavy floral character on the nose. The body is moderately sweet, with plenty more of that flower-meets-citrus character throughout. The ginger kicks up at the end, but it’s more candylike than fresh ginger root. At just 24% alcohol, the spirit is lacking in heft but it makes up for it with that punchy, powerful fragrance. 48 proof. B+ / $30

Kai Lychee Vodka – Milder on the nose than expected, but the body is a fruity and largely authentic recreation of lychee fruit. Similar to, but not as sweet as elderflower, it offers perfumy aromatics and a surprisingly chocolaty finish that creeps up on you in time. Some mild astringency keeps this with one foot solidly in the vodkaverse and firmly away from the world of liqueurs. 70 proof. B+ / $35

Kai Coconut Pandan Vodka – Technically this reads “rice alcohol,” not vodka, but it’s really the same thing (and newer bottles appear to be updated to read vodka). Pandan is a tropical, palm-like tree that bears a fruit with some vanilla characters. The pandan gives this vodka a bit of an edge, turning the straight coconut notes into more of a savory, grilled-coconut affair, the equivalent of the coconut flavor you get in a Thai curry rather than an Almond Joy. More almond-focused than vanilla, it’s got a uniqueness you won’t find in other coconut vodkas, or even most coconut rums. 70 proof. A- / $35

kaivodka.com

Review: Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel – Texas Only Single Barrel Whisky

crown royal texas barrel select

And now for something completely different from Crown Royal — no, not another flavored whiskey — it’s Crown Royal’s first ever single barrel expression, straight from the cask!

The catch: It will only be on sale in Texas (and only through retailers who sign up to buy a full barrel of the stuff).

Off-the-rack Crown Royal is a blend of lots of different whiskeys, so expect Single Barrel Crown Royal to be a different animal. What we have here is a bottling of just one of the whiskeys that go into Crown.

The whisky is distilled in Crown’s Coffey Rye still in Gimli, Manitoba using a mash of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley. The spirit is aged in new oak, though no age statement is offered. Note that individual bottles are not labeled with a barrel code, so if you’re a collector, you’ll need to keep track of where you got each bottle on your own. My sample bottle did not include the neck ringer seen in the photo.

This is a considerably different whisky than your dad’s (granddad’s?) Crown, which tends to be driven more by the baking spice than the sugary notes. In this Hand Selected Barrel, big butterscotch on the nose duels with tropical fruit, bananas, and some cinnamon oatmeal character, making for a surprisingly sweet entry point. The body doesn’t stray far. Pure spun sugar hits the palate first, lingering on the tongue for a long while. Some more subtly grain-driven notes — think Sunday buckwheat pancakes, plus syrup — come along after, dusting the spirit with more cinnamon, ginger, browned butter, and powdered sugar. The finish is punchy and racy — at barrel proof it’s much stronger than other CR expressions — but warming and quite soothing.

Whisky fans looking for the big wood notes that are often implied by “single barrel” won’t find them here. Crown has pulled this whisky from the cask at the height of its ripeness. It isn’t the most complex Crown Royal I’ve tried, but damn if it isn’t fun to drink.

103 proof.

A- / $55 / crownroyal.com

Review: 2012 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate Bottled

KRUG_NV_CS_12This well-pedigreed Cabernet offers a ripe, blackberry-laden nose with touches of black pepper and dried herbs. The body is rich and lush with chocolate notes, some coffee bean, and vanilla. The finish is big and fruity, its tannins mellowing with ample time in the glass, leaving behind some notes of tea leaf, charcoal, and cocoa powder. Excellent quality at this price.

A- / $30 / charleskrug.com

Review: Samuel Adams Boston Lager plus Winter/Spring Seasonals

samadams-bostonlager--en--c2e3a813-e407-463c-bc95-efd9e8fda221The Boston Beer Company produces over 100 varieties of beer, but the biggest of them all is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Oddly, we’ve never reviewed it, but today we’re taking that opportunity, along with a look at three winter/spring seasonals now on the market. Thoughts follow.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager – The original (though surely it has changed considerably over the years as Sam Adams has grown). Technically a Vienna-style lager (along with many darker Mexican beers), this brew is malty and lightly hopped, making for a nicely balanced, yet slightly chewy brew. Bready with almost pretzel-like overtones, its long and savory yet quite simple finish makes it is surprisingly hard not to like. 4.9% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager – This winter wheat bock is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel, making for an appropriately festive winter brew that is nonetheless a touch overspiced. The cinnamon notes are a bit drying, the orange peel a bit too bitter. Lots of bready cereal character rumbles along on the finish, washing away much of the spice. Enjoyable enough in small doses, but not a favorite. 5.6% abv. B-

Samuel Adams Cold Snap – A spiced white ale (witbier) studded with orange peel, plum, and coriander. Jarring and heavily perfumed at the start, that strange, plum-driven sweetness keeps growing, compounding itself with the herbal character to reveal a flower petal character with a citrusy finish. Not a huge fan of this one. 5.3% abv. C-

Samuel Adams White Christmas – Another witbier, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel. More straightforwardly Christmasy than Cold Snap, White Christmas is easier-drinking, more full-bodied, and simply more enjoyable from start to finish. The citrus peel is understated and makes for a pleasant natural companion to the wheaty body, the baking spices just a mild dusting of sweetness that leaves behind a pleasant, frosty finish. 5.8% abv. B+

samueladams.com

Review: Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon

JB750_84Here’s a new release that really came out of the blue. Bonded whiskey was a big deal before Prohibition — when heavy tampering with spirits was a major problem — but it is rarely seen these days because of the cost involved and, surely, limited demand. (Rittenhouse 100 is one good example that’s still around.)

Bonded whiskey must be produced in accordance with strict Federal law and under official Federal oversight, so consumers could be sure of what they were getting: Bonded whiskey has to be 100 proof, spend at least four years in barrel, and be produced from a single season at a single distillery. Bonded, or “bottled-in-bond,” whiskey has to be stored at a Federally monitored warehouse, where it is essentially kept under lock and key for those four-plus years. For a bonded whiskey to be a bonded bourbon, it also has to meet all the standard requirements for bourbon, too (at least 51% corn, barreled in newly charred oak, and so on).

And so we get to Beam’s new Bonded Bourbon. The company has a bonded product, but it seems to be sold only in a few duty-free markets. This is a new, four-year-old expression destined for the U.S. this February. (This expression also has no age statement.)

On first whiff, it’s just like the whiskey dad used to drink. Sharp and woody, it’s austere, with a frontier-style nose. As the body unfolds, intense butterscotch and deep vanilla notes emerge, on top of notes of charry burnt marshmallow and thick wood oils. The finish coaxes out some bitterness in the form of rich pipe tobacco, possibly even cigars. Sweet and almost syrupy at the start, the hefty level of alcohol makes for an interesting juxtaposition on the back end.

Fun, old-timey stuff.

100 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: 2013 Jackson Estate “Stich” Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

JE SB 13 StichJackson’s New Zealand-born Sauvignon Blanc, named in recognition of John Stichbury, the founder of Jackson Estate, is a restrained expression of how this grape typically fares down south. Loaded with peach and pineapple notes, it manages to keep the sweetness at bay by offering some nice herbal notes, a bit of baking spice, and a finish that offers a touch of tart apple.

A- / $22 / jacksonestate.co.nz

Review: Boathouse Distillery Colorado Bourbon Whiskey

boathouse bourbon

Boathouse Distillery is based in Salida, Colorado, from which Colorado Bourbon hails. The back label copy of this whiskey alone is worth the price of admission: “Colorado Bourbon is especially formulated for Western women and men. We like adventure and the great outdoors.”

And that’s it!

Colorado Bourbon is sourced whiskey from whereabouts unknown, aged four years. As Boathouse proudly proclaims, “Our craft is in the finishing of spirits.”

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working pretty well. Boathouse is slightly smoky, slightly sweet, with a nose that offers curious notes not of the expected vanilla and wood staves but rather of match heads, beef vegetable stew, and celery salt. I mean all of that positively, offering intensely savory possibilities.

The body offers a nice combination of smoke and baking spice, some butterscotch, and lingering notes of roasted meats. Touches of red pepper and pencil shavings come along on the finish. Ultimately it’s hard to put your finger on it exactly. Boathouse rolls round and round, mingling a surface-level frontier character with a surprising sophistication and complexity deep down. At this price, it’s undoubtedly worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $35 / boathousedistillery.com

Review: Oban Little Bay and Oban 14 Years Old

Oban Little Bay

Next up in the NASverse is Oban, which is releasing its mew Little Bay expression just in time for Burns Day (January 25).

This isn’t just another random collection of mysterious whiskies. Much like Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Little Bay is aged in part in smaller casks, giving it a distinct character.

Says the company: “Crafted by selecting small batches of our finest single malt whiskies, and marrying the whiskies in our smallest casks to allow more contact with the wood, Oban Little Bay delivers the signature rich, smooth Oban expression with its rich, fruity style but with a more pronounced maritime and citrus character.”

Based in the Western Highlands, Oban (pronounced OH-bun, with the stress on the “OH,” not OH-BANN), creates a distinct style of malt whisky that is one of the standbys of the whisky world. How does Little Bay compare to the ubiquitous Oban 14? We put them head to head…

Oban Little Bay – Immediately, it seems on the thin side. The nose is restrained, offering more citrus and sweetness, but less smoke. The body is quite malty, but the chewiness comes at the expense of a lot of that fruity character. What remains is a sense of oatmeal character, some light cinnamon notes, and a touch of lemon peel that grows on the finish. None of this seems particularly enlightening, almost like the standby Oban 14 has been muzzled a bit, then bottled as a special edition. It isn’t bad. It’s just… curious. 86 proof. B+ / $75  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Oban 14-Year-Old… and for comparison’s sake…

Oban 14 Years Old – A classic. Lightly smoky, it offers tons of big, roasted grains up front, layered atop notes of toasted marshmallow and a hint of citrus. Oban is so easygoing it’s easy to guzzle by the glassful thanks to its big, rounded body, but if you did so you’d miss those wisps of incense, tropical guava, and just a touch of seaweed on the back end. Deserving of its reputation as one of the standbys of the whisky world. 86 proof. A- / $60

malts.com

Review: 2007 Tenuta Castelbuono Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG

Castelbuono_sagratino_hi_resSagrantino is grown mainly in the Umbrian region of Italy, where the village of Montefalco is the hub. Sagrantino is a dense, tough grape. Its wines are believed to be some of the most tannic made anywhere in the world.

This 2007 sagrantino from Castelbuono is an intense but delightful wine. Licorice notes complement dried thyme and rosemary up front, laced into a core of heavily extracted and juicy black cherry, plum, and currant notes. The finish is powerful with dense notes of wood, tannin, and forest floor. Decant this wine, or open it at least an hour before drinking in a large glass.

A- / $32 / palmbay.com