Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: Tomatin Cu Bocan Standard Edition Single Malt Scotch

Cu Bocan Bottle Image1 Review: Tomatin Cu Bocan Standard Edition Single Malt Scotch

The newly released Cu Bocan is a bit of a “second label” for Highlands-based Tomatin, with CU BOCAN in big letters up top and “Tomatin” buried at the bottom of the bottle.

There’s a good reason for this. Cu Bocan — the name refers to a purported ghost dog that haunts the nearby village — is Tomatin’s only peated expression. It makes non-peated whisky year-round, then one week a year it cooks up its spirit with peated malt. (A limited edition 1989 vintage, bottled in a black decanter and not reviewed here, was allegedly made by accident to get this whole party started.)

Anyway, those peated whisky barrels are now being turned into the ongoing Cu Bocan line, which is bottled without an age statement but which is matured in a mix of raw oak, bourbon, and sherry casks. Phenol totals about 15ppm, so ultimately the peat level is pretty light.

For all the talk of peat, the nose on Cu Bocan is surprisingly delicate and enchanting. It’s just wisps of smoke, with overtones of nougat and a clear sherry influence. The palate ramps up with incense and baking spice, gently roasted grains, and fruit notes that include peaches and apricots. The body is moderate to big — mouth-coating to a degree — and the finish is both warming and gentle. All in all this is a representative whisky of the lightly smoky Highland style and a well-rounded, balanced spirit in just about every way. It may lack the extremes of depth and flavor you get with more mature spirits, but it’s so easy to sip on that it’s difficult not to recommend.

92 proof.

A- / $53 / cu-bocan.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014

These days, Stone Brewing Company is a juggernaut of new releases, with new brews sometimes arriving at the pace of one every couple of weeks. Here we have two of Stone’s latest, including a relaunch of one of the company’s most famed IPAs, and a three-way collaboration among some California brewing icons.

Thoughts on both follow. Get ‘em while you can!

Stone Unapologetic WEB 125x300 Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA – This collaborative brew is from the California-based trio of Beachwood Brewing (Long Beach), Heretic Brewing (Fairfield), and Stone (Escondido). It’s a big IPA crafted with Magnum and Chinook hops, plus four new Washington-grown strains (HBC 342, Hopsteiner 06300, Azacca, and Belma), giving it a truly unique makeup (and a bit of a new flavor profile, too). The beer is a hop monster but it’s also loaded with fruit flavors. After the initial rush of bitterness dies down, look for notes of lemon and peaches, almost like a fruit custard has been blended into the classic, piney notes of the IPA. The finish is sweet and tropical, hinting at coconut milk, making for an unusual IPA that is both intensely hoppy as well as dessert-friendly. 8.8% abv. A- / $9 per 22 oz. bottle

Stone RuinTen Heroshot WEB 2014 224x300 Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014Stone RuinTen IPA 2014 – “A stage dive into a mosh pit of hops” is about right. This is the 2014 release of Ruination, which Stone originally launched to much fanfare in 2002 and which was released as an even hoppier version in 2012 for the 10th anniversary of the company. The recipe here is the same as the 2012 bottling; only the name has changed. (The name is intended to be suggestive of what this beer will do to your palate, given its 110 IBUs — and, at over 10% alcohol, what it will do to your mind as well, I presume.) RuinTen features ample hops (five pounds of Columbus and Centennial hops (then dry-hopped with Citra and Centennial), per barrel of brew), but presents itself with class and finesse. The nose and body are resinous with pine tree sap, bitter orange peel, and cloves. Ultra-ripe fruit comes on strong as you sip it, culminating in a somewhat malty, syrupy, and lightly smoky combination of flavors. The finish offers hints of marshmallows and canned fruits, pine trees and applesauce. All kinds of flavors going on, and firing on all cylinders. 10.8% abv. A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

stonebrewing.com

Review: Ardbeg Auriverdes

ardbeg auriverdes 525x585 Review: Ardbeg Auriverdes

Earlier this summer, iconic Islay distillery Ardbeg released its annual “Ardbeg Day” limited-edition whisky release, Auriverdes. The name is from Portuguese and refers to the colors green and gold (Ardbeg’s classic color scheme) and is a nod to the Brazilian flag and the just-completed World Cup.

The whisky eschews finishes for what is a bit of a gimmicky barrel treatment: Standard American oak (ex-Bourbon) barrels are given “specially toasted lids” that were used just for Auriverdes. Considering the relatively small surface area of the lids of the barrel compared to the rest of the cask, I can’t imagine that this toasting regimen has had a significant effect on the whisky inside. Putting that aside, let’s look at the spirit within. As usual for these releases, it is bottled at cask strength and with no age statement.

Auriverdes starts off with sweet barbecue smoke on the nose, with touches of burnt orange peel, sherry, and salted caramel. The body is quite sweet — sweeter than I expected from an Ardbeg — with notes of rum raisin, creme brulee, and Madeira up front. As the whisky develops in the glass and on the tongue, you catch snippets of meaty bacon and syrup, more smoked meats (pork ribs, methinks), plus light chocolate and vanilla malt notes on the back end. The finish is long and continues to grow in sweetness, really coating the mouth and becoming increasingly warm and rounded as it develops. The only cure is the fiery bite of another sip… and we know what that leads to.

This is a completely solid Ardbeg release, and the heavy, winey notes make it seem like it has had a finishing run in some kind of fortified wine barrel, but that’s not the case. It doesn’t entirely reinvent the well-worn Ardbeg wheel, but it provides enough of a unique spin on the formula to make it worth exploring.

99.8 proof.

A- / $100 / ardbeg.com

Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Facundo11356 Facundo33A51F115 525x366 Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Bacardi is a name synonymous with rum, but it is not a name that is synonymous with high-end rum. Best known for its unavoidable white rum and a plethora of flavored expressions, Bacardi dominates the market by keeping prices low and consumers inundated with clever advertising.

Now Bacardi is taking its first real steps upmarket. While expressions like 1873 Solera, 8 Anos, and Oakheart are nods in this direction, the Facundo collection is something entirely different: Real, “sipping rums” that you’ll shell out up to $250 a bottle for.

Not a typo.

Facundo is named for Facundo Bacardi, the Spanish-Cuban founder of the Bacardi empire back in 1862. In celebration of 150(ish) years in business, this collection celebrates Bacardi’s legacy with some rums that Facundo would certainly have been proud to have his name on.

All rums are aged expressions sourced from the Bahamas and are bottled at 80 proof. Thoughts on the four-expression lineup follow.

Bacardi Facundo Neo – Made from rums 1-8 years old, then filtered back to white (almost, anyway). Lots of raw alcohol notes on the nose here; it cuts a surprisingly young profile. Hints of orange peel, lemon, roasted nuts, and black pepper emerge after a time. On the palate, quite a different animal, with distinct and strong banana, coconut, and creme brulee notes. Not at all heavy on the alco-burn scale, but rather a delightfully tropical rum that mixes fruit with just the lightest tough of red pepper flake. An incredible mixer, even at this price. A- / $45

Bacardi Facundo Eximo – 10-12 years old, unfiltered. This is the only rum in the collection that is blended before it goes into barrels for aging. Again the nose starts off hot, tempering some of the more delicate notes in the rum. Wait a bit, and what emerges is a woodier experience with the essence of nuts, Madeira, and baking spices. The body again amps up the fruit, particularly the tropical notes of pineapple and mango, swirled with caramel notes. Nutty notes evolve as the finish pushes along, with leather, raisins, and more of those Madeira notes. Unique and fun. A- / $60

Bacardi Facundo Exquisito – A blend of runs 7-23 years old (some filtered) but quite dark in color. The finished blend is aged a further month in sherry casks for a minimum of one month for finishing. This is a remarkably balanced and fun rum, offering an immediate nose of coffee, toffee, cigar box, and mincemeat pie. The body is dense and layered, with notes of plums, raisins, chocolate pie, more toffee, and spiced (lightly smoked) almonds. Lots going on here, and it fires on all cylinders. A real knockout. A / $90

Bacardi Facundo Paraiso – The big guy, made of rums up to 23 years old (with an emphasis on the oldest rums), each individually filtered, then blended and married in French oak casks for at least one month. Deep, down-the-rabbit-hole nose. Brooding and woody, with notes of roasted coffee beans, burnt sugar, coconut husks, and leatherbound books on demonology. The body is a real departure from the sugar-forward rums that precede it. Here we find more of the bittersweet — chocolate, very dark caramel, torched walnuts, and curious notes of olive pits and indistinct savory spices. It’s a much different rum and one that requires more reflection than the pure joy that’s bottled up in the Exquisito, but it’s also a rum with purpose and with a soul. A- / $250

facundorum.com

Review: Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15

racer 15 96x300 Review: Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15Bear Republic’s Racer 5 is one of the west coast’s most iconic IPAs. Cafe Racer 15 is its bigger, burlier, limited-edition brother, a monstrous Double IPA that fans of Racer 5 will definitely want to check out.

Named after a type of motorcycle (and not speedy coffee), Cafe Racer 15 uses Citra, Amarillo, Cascade, and Chinook hops to create a bruising hop regimen that hits over 100 IBUs. Up front watch for lots of ultraripe fruit and those trademark piney notes. This fades into a rather malty, mouth-coating character, ripe with notes of orange sherbet and applesauce. The finish is fruity and brings out more of the base barley’s cereal character. While the attack is brisk, the finish is less mouth cleansing than your typical IPA. That malty character positively demands the next sip be taken to clear things out and get you ready for the next pull… and the next… and the next…

9.75% abv.

A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / bearrepublic.com

Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery – Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

lost distillery gerston 525x721 Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery   Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

This is one of the niftiest ideas to come out of the whisky world in years. As the Lost Distillery Company reminds us, some 100 Scottish distilleries were shut down or destroyed in the last century, which means most of us will never know what their spirits tasted like. Until now, as they say.

What Lost Distillery does is concoct recreations of these “silent stills,” some of which have been nothing but ash for 100 years. By doing a lot of research about the stills used, the type of barley, the water, the wood, and more, the company sources malts and mixes up a spirit which — in their mind — is a faithful recreation of the original. (All are vattings of various single malt whiskies, technically “blended malts.”)

No, they don’t have stashes of whisky made in the 1800s to compare their version to (you can check out the Shackleton bottlings if you’re interested in a taste-alike approach to recreating old whisky), but are rather using history as a guide.

Lost Distillery launched with three recreations, and the company has copious historical information about all three of the whiskies on its well-researched website. What I can offer, however, is notes on how the spirits they’ve created taste.

Note: All three of these bottlings are available in “Deluxe” and “Vintage” editions, the Vintage versions being limited edition, one-off bottlings. We’re only looking at the Deluxe versions today — which, to make things even more confusing for you, don’t say “Deluxe” anywhere on the bottle.

Lost Distillery Auchnagie – Auchnagie was around from 1812-1911 in the southern Highlands. Here we have a whisky with a fairly typical Highlands construction: Lots of heather and grain, ample citrus, and a healthy backing of dense wood and smoky notes on the nose. The body plays up the orange and lemon notes, almost hinting at grapefruit on the finish. Sweet to start, the cereal character becomes stronger as the whisky develops on the palate, leading to a finish that is a bit on the hot side but which offers a bold afterimage rather than a gentle fade-away. Reviewed: Batch i. 92 proof. A-

Lost Distillery Stratheden – Stratheden existed from 1829-1926 in the Lowlands. This recreation offers a gentle experience, with nicely mellowed cereal notes, light chocolate and caramel, and a light squirt of orange oil. A mild peatiness emerges with time, lending a smoldering note to the spirit that is reminiscent of  toasted bread. It’s a straightforward and somewhat simple dram, but not nearly as rustic as I’d expected. Warming but a bit short, the finish vanishes just in time for you to reach for another sip. Reviewed: Batch ii. 92 proof. B+

Lost Distillery Gerston - Gerston existed in two incarnations, from 1796-1882 and 1886-1914, based in the far north of the Scottish mainland (part of the Highlands). Elusive nose, with more of a raw alcohol character than the Stratheden, but with much of its cereal character to offer. This is a bolder, pushier, and more forward whisky, punctuated with notes of bitter orange, roasted grains, licorice, and diesel fire. As the finish fades, watch for sea salt and seaweed notes to develop. This is a less refined and less purely enjoyable spirit on its own merits, but my hunch is its a more authentic recreation of the spirits of the era. Reviewed: Batch 1.1X. 92 proof. B

each $65 / lost-distillery.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Wines of Pina Napa Valley, 2014 Releases

pina napa valley 142x300 Review: Wines of Pina Napa Valley, 2014 ReleasesEvery year we anticipate a shipment of wines from Pina Napa Valley for review, and every year that shipment seems to get larger. For 2014 the winery has offered a whopping six wines for review — five from different regions of Napa — upon which we’re happily ready to offer our commentary.

2012 Pina Napa Valley Chardonnay Low Vineyard Oak Knoll District – My first encounter with Pina’s Chardonnay. In fact, I didn’t even know they made a Chardonnay. This is a rather textbook Chardonnay, imbued with a big, meaty character, dense fig and pear notes, vanilla, and a touch of salted caramel. The body is missing the certain creaminess that you need with bold Chardonnays like this, and it fares better as it warms up a bit. B- / $34

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon D’Adamo Vineyard Napa Valley – Bold, classic Napa Cab. The nose is full of currants, dark chocolate, and violets. On the body, sweeter than expected, with more of a blackberry jam character touched with black tea, gooseberries, and a bit of coffee bean, which adds just a hint of bitterness on the back end. A- / $80

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Wolff Vineyard Yountville – A milder, fatter-bodied Cab, this wine offers a juicy nose of blackberry jam, currants, and light black pepper notes. The body is ripe and lush — it’s as close to a summer-worthy Cabernet as you can get without putting an animal on the label — with a long, almost fruit-juice finish. One of Pina’s simpler wines, but highly enjoyable on its own merits. A- / $85

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Ames Vineyard Oakville – A simpler expression of Pina. Relatively tannic and on the green side, this wine dials down the jam in favor of notes from the earthier side of things, including mushroom, celery, cracked pepper, and saddle leather. Very dry and restrained, it offers only minimal fruit but packs in ample elegance. Drink now. B+ / $90

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Buckeye Vineyard Howell Mountain – Racy and dense, this is a classic mountain Cab, loaded with intense blackberry, currant, and plum notes, alongside touches of blueberry, black tea, licorice, and leather. Lots going on, but this is a wine firing on all cylinders, dark as could be but masking a brooding and authentic soul. A / $90

2011 Pina Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard Rutherford – The greenest and most vegetal of this vintage, the Firehouse Vineyard bottling comes off as almost astringent at first, offering plenty of tannin and oak notes but only a dusting of fruit. There’s just not much life in this wine, and without food it comes off as already past its prime. B- / $90

pinanapavalley.com

Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

laphroaig 10 year cask strength 525x969 Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

The only member of the Laphroaig core lineup that we haven’t reviewed — but stay tuned for two new expressions dropping in the next couple of weeks — Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength is exactly what it says on the label: A cask strength version of the classic Laphroaig 10 Years Old expression.

Now anything from the Islay-based Laphroaig is always hot stuff, but Laphroaig Cask Strength is a true blazer. Packed with peat smoke and the essence of red pepper, it takes some doing to get it to settle down in the glass. Lots of air works if you’re patient, or you can start adding drops of water to speed up the process. Actually, I recommend the latter no matter what. While you can catch the whiffs of citrus and grapefruit uncut, these are far stronger when you add a splash of water. Try adding more and more as you drain the glass (which will have the side effect of making the glass appear to never empty) and out come more tropical notes of banana, lychee, and pineapple, even a touch of coconut.

Think of it as a more complicated, layered, and — yeah — expensive version of the standard bearer, one that doesn’t let go of its secrets without a fight.

114.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #005, bottled February 2013.

A- / $67 / laphroaig.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Angry Orchard “The Muse” Cider

angry orchard The Muse Hi Res 89x300 Review: Angry Orchard The Muse CiderSummertime is cider time, at least that’s what I hear.

The latest addition to Angry Orchard’s apple-based specialty cider lineup — called the Cider House Collection — is The Muse, a semi-sweet concoction that’s been aged “on French oak staves” and is sold, Champange style, in a 750ml corked bottle.

This cider pours with gentle effervescence and its bright apple nose offers a collection of experiences that include tart apple, rich forest floor, and hints of vanilla. The body’s almost like a fresh apple tart in a glass. Notes of complex baking spices and more of that vanilla character add a festive element that you don’t often see in ciders, but the mix of tart and sweet apples is what keeps going strong, well into the finish.

From start to finish the cider is quite sugary, and that sweetness only gets stronger and stronger as the finish arrives. One glass is almost too easy to knock back, but after that my palate starts searching for something a little more savory. Share with friends.

7.7% abv.

A- / $15 (750ml) / angryorchard.com

 

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

jim beam harvest 525x308 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

Discontent to let Buffalo Trace have all the fun with experimental whiskeys, Jim Beam has been hard at work with its annual Signature Craft releases to show how little changes can have a big impact on a finished spirit.

Now it’s pushing boundaries even further, with a series of six Bourbons called the Harvest Bourbon Collection (technically a sub-group of Signature Craft). The spin on this project is that these six whiskeys each incorporate one unusual grain into the mashbill. They’re all still Bourbon — made with at least 51% corn and some amount of malted barley — but in each whiskey that extra grain is used in a significant amount in the mash (though in undisclosed and variable proportions). All six expressions were aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

The six expressions include: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye, and Six Row Barley. The first two on that list arrive in September 2014. The other four will ship through 2015.

Some of these are more unusual than others on that list, of course. Wheat, rye, and barley are all common whiskey components, though here Beam is using different strains or proportions. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, which leaves two big oddities on the list: Rolled Oat and, especially, Brown Rice. Both are common supermarket grains that are nonetheless bizarre to find in a whiskey. Color me curious on how these things turn out.

For now, we’ve got our hands on two of the six: Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat. Without further ado, here’s how they turned out.

JB SC Harvest Wheat 134x300 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled OatJim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat – Made with Kentucky and Indiana wheat, a common ingredient in Bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This initially struck me with a slightly funky, sweaty nose, but I let it settle down and things started to clarify, revealing a more straightforward wood character, with hints of earthiness. This is well-aged whiskey and it shows from the start. On the palate, hints of cherry (not unusual for Beam products) and ample, almost overpowering oak character. Even with a healthy amount of water you can’t push that wood character down, a fact which I chalk up more to the aging regimen than to wheat being in the mashbill. Surprisingly tough to muddle through. B-

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Rolled Oat – I’ve had a few whiskeys that incorporate oats and I always find them fascinating, at least for a diversion. Here Beam has produced a whiskey with a distinct sweetness on the nose, almost like baking spices with cinnamon and cloves, with rich wood notes underneath. On the palate, again it is quite hot on the tongue, and water helps to bring out the unique charms of the spirit. This is a far different whiskey than the Red Wheat expression, a much softer, gentler, and more engaging spirit on the whole. Cinnamon sugar notes play well with a caramel/dulce de leche base, with that woody nose melting into a pulpier, piney character on the palate. All of this plays well together, giving the Rolled Oat expression a balance that the Red Wheat doesn’t have. Perhaps it was simply better able to stand up to the aging regimen? Either way, it’s a winner. A-

This is a fun start to an interesting lineup. Hopefully we’ll have reviews of the other four expressions for you in the Harvest Collection soon!

each $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

JB SC Quarter Cask e1404621828786 525x830 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

For the third installment (and second annual release) of Jim Beam’s Signature Craft series (find reviews of the first limited annual release and the permanent member of the series here), the company is offering a curious concoction. While it’s called “Quarter Cask Finished,” that’s a little misleading. The whiskey is actually a blend of standard five-to-six year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon that is married with a separate Bourbon that has spent from four-to-six years in quarter casks. (Craft whiskey and Laphroaig fans know that quarter casks are exactly what they sound like: Barrels that are 1/4 the size of regular ones, and which tend to mature much more quickly.)

Semantics aside, this is an intriguing new, limited edition whiskey from Beam, and the use of small barrels (at least in part) makes it a considerable departure from the norm. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon starts off sweet and doesn’t let up. The nose offers notes of caramelized fruit — Bananas Foster, I would argue — along with sugared orange peel and vanilla-scented sugar cookies. The body brings that home, with heavy doses of vanilla caramels, milk chocolate, and hints of cherry. Wood notes start to develop, particularly on the finish, as the whiskey settles down in the glass. It’s not particularly hot, at 86 proof, but it does benefit from a little air time, which allows the various flavor and aroma components to meld.

I like this whiskey a lot, though it’s not at all what I was expecting (a bruiser heavy on wood and tannin) and ultimately doesn’t venture all that far from the winning Beam formula. Bottom line: With ample fruit and sweeter elements in abundance, there’s a little something here for Bourbon fans of every stripe.

86 proof. Available beginning in September 2014.

A- / $40 / jimbeam.com

Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Singleton 28 bottlebox High Res 525x773 Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Whisky #8 in the Diageo Special Releases series is an installment from The Singleton line, this one from Dufftown. (There have been many whiskies in “The Singleton” line, but only Dufftown is current.)

This old fogey is from an actually operational still in Speyside, aged completely in American oak for its 28 years. (It was distilled in 1985.)

This is a big, malty whisky. The nose is rich with wood notes and hints of oatmeal, and there’s a little acetone character in there as well. As noted, bit malt notes are the key element here. It’s a big bowl of cereal (good cereal, mind you) with raisins, maple syrup, and a squirt of honey. It sweetens up as air gets to it, and it also brings out more of its well-aged wood notes.

The Singleton of Dufftown 28 may start off simple, but its complexity grows as the whisky matures in the glass. I was ready to dismiss it as almost boring at the start, but eventually it won me over as a warm and inviting new friend.

104.6 proof. 3,816 bottles produced.

A- / $400 / malts.com

4 Cremant d’Alsace Wines Reviewed, 2014 Releases

gustave lorentz cremant 4 Cremant dAlsace Wines Reviewed, 2014 ReleasesThis sparkling wine made in the mountains between France and Germany is always a great option when you want high-quality sparkling wine at a reasonable cost. Cremant d’Alsace is made from a variety of grapes — riesling, pinot blanc, pinot noir, pinot gris, auxerrois blanc, and chardonnay are allowed — but pinot blanc and noir are the most common. Stylistically floral and fruity, it is typically dry and not as heavily carbonated as Champagne.

Recently we received four nonvintage Cremants (vintage Cremant is a rarity) from a range of producers in Alsace for review. Thoughts on each follow.

NV Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Rose – 100% pinot noir. Lots of fruit, almost sour at times with notes of table grapes, sour apple, and juicy plums. Modest carbonation is offset with secondary notes of fresh herbs — lavender and rosemary — and the scent of violets. Really fun. A- / $25

NV Baron de Hoen Cremant d’Alsace Brut – 100% pinot blanc. The nose of fresh apples is wonderfully inviting, and the modest level of fizziness makes it quite approachable, even as a sipper with food. Some very light, white-flower floral notes emerge as the wine warms a bit, adding complexity. A- / $16

NV Willm Cremant d’Alsace Brut Blanc de Blancs – 100% pinot blanc. Not a typo in the name there, by the way. A perfectly acceptable Cremant from a less well-known producer, this is less fruity on the nose; it’s more floral, but harder to peg down. The body offers steely minerals, some more white flowers, and a lighter dusting of fruit in the form of grapefruit, pears, and lychee. Lots of acid on the finish. B+ / $10

NV Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose – 100% pinot noir. A rose version of Albrecht’s popular blanc de blancs. Less refined than other selections on this list, it’s got more of a sour character to it, with a mild earthiness up front. This fades into gentle red plum notes, some raspberry, and figs. Fizzier than the others on this list, also. Just so-so balance with some herbal notes that make the finish a bit strange. B / $15

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old and Lagavulin 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

These two Lagavulin single malts are our #4 and #5 entries into the 2013 Diageo Special Release series. For the uninitiated, Lagavulin’s standard bottling is a 16 year old, but Diageo puts out a younger 12 year bottling pretty much every year as part of the annual Special Release program. This year it’s backing that up with an extremely rare and ungodly expensive 37 year old. Let’s take them both in turn.

Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2013 is everything you’ve come to expect from this Islay distillery. Vatted from refill American oak casks, it’s a pale yellow in color, offering a gentle, sweet, smoked meat style of smokiness on the nose along with touches of citrus. Though bottled at cask strength, the body is surprisingly easygoing. The smoke and fruit are well integrated here, that light peat — more earth than seaside — quickly giving way to notes of fresh orange, banana, and surprising tropical notes of mango and pineapple. It’s nicely balanced but the experience fades away all too quickly due to a relatively short finish. 110.2 proof. “Limited quantities.” A- / $136

Lagavulin 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2013 – Now here’s a real rarity (distilled in 1976), bottled after 37 years in American and European oak refill casks. It’s the oldest Lagavulin that Diageo has ever released (and undoubtedly the most expensive, too). Deep amber in color, the nose offers notes of old Madeira, iodine, sea spray, and balsamic vinegar. There’s lots going on here, maybe too much. With complex and layered notes of fading coal fires, wood polish, menthol, pine needles, and ancient, oxidized bottles of sherry, it’s a whisky that invites exploration but never really reaches Nirvana. The finish is rustic and more than a bit rough — a long way from the gentle simplicity of the 12 year old and further evidence that this Lagavulin has, tragically, probably spent a few years too long in the barrel. 102 proof. 1,868 bottles produced. B / $3,320

malts.com

Review: Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve Unpeated Style Limited Edition 2013

Caol Ila 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve Unpeated Style Limited Edition 2013

Diageo 2013 Special Release #2 of 9 is this whisky, from Islay-based Caol Ila, which is a well-known bastion of the peated style of malt whisky. This however is a very rare unpeated malt from the distillery, made just once a year by the company. Made from a mix of casks using refill American Oak, rejuvenated American Oak, and ex-bodega (sherry casks, I presume) European Oak, it is bottled without an age statement.

Made in a “Highland style,” this whisky is big and hot, and a dash of water is a huge help from the start. With some tempering the Stitchell Reserve offers a savory nose of coal dust, roasted grains, and sandalwood. The body follows suit, keeping any sweetness at bay while playing up those notes of oatmeal, almonds, and gentle wood. Honey notes — a bit denser and a bit more herbal than you’d expect — start to build as the whisky settles down, adding just the right amount of sugar to a very well-balanced spirit. Not your father’s Caol Ila by any stretch, and a fun diversion from the usual fare from Islay.

119.2 proof.

A- / $119 / malts.com

Review: Kavalan Whisky Lineup 2014

kavalan 300x300 Review: Kavalan Whisky Lineup 2014Kavalan is the best-known Taiwanese whisky distiller (at least in the U.S.), rapidly increasing its footprint from a single bottling just a few years ago (which we reviewed) to a total of nine on the market now. At least five of these whiskies, all single malts, are available in the U.S., and today we take a fresh look at this five-bottle lineup, which includes two standard-proof bottlings and three from the cask-strength Solist line.

Kavalan doesn’t bottle its spirits with age statements, but it does rely on some exotic barrel treatments to create some truly unique spirits.

Thoughts on the five-whisky lineup follow.

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky – I get strong apple notes up front this time around, followed by healthy citrus character. Otherwise my notes mimic those I had in 2011. The palate drips with honey, balanced with modest toast-and-cereal notes, vanilla, and and touches of nougat. The finish brings a pleasant bit of fruit to the forefront before fading away. Straightforward, a bit rustic, and quite simple, it drinks like a young single malt Scotch, modest yet full of life. 80 proof. B+ / $73  (prior rating: A-)

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Concertmaster Port Cask Finish – Look for the unmistakeable jade-green bottle. Finished in a variety of Port casks, this whisky has a bolder, fruitier nose that hints at raisins and Christmas spice. The body brings it all home, with lush fruit notes — plum and plump raisins, hints of fresh cherries, all lightly touched with cinnamon and morsels of cereal. The finish keeps it going for the long haul — lasting with ample spice notes. It’s drinking well in the summer but would be perfect for Christmastime. 80 proof. A- / $89

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask - A rather muted nose, hard to parse out from the aroma, though eventually it reveals notes of apple and red berries, with a slight iodine kick to it. The body is something else entirely, punchy with raw alcohol that masks a citrus kick alongside notes of vanilla and peaches — maybe even a touch of coconut. The finish is on the short side — mostly fire, a touch of sawdust, and a vanilla-soaked marshmallow that fades away just a bit too fast. Try water. 114 proof. B+ / $170

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Sherry Cask – Matured fully in oloroso sherry casks; a dark tea-brown in color. What an unusual spirit… the nose offers notes of dried figs and prunes, with a well-aged sherry character to it. The body is intense, a bruising collection of Madeira notes, rum-soaked raisins, burnt orange peel, and cocoa bean. Slightly bittersweet on the finish in the way that old sherry can be, it’s a digestif style whisky with plenty of depth and originality. 114 proof. A- / $180

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Vinho Barrique – Matured fully in ex-American red wine barrels that have been re-charred. Deep amber, about the same as the prior whisky, this spirit offers a dense and deep nose, offering exotic notes of ginger, chocolate cake, and salted caramel. The body brings out those chocolate notes, touched with a surprising licorice note and some extra spices — lemon pepper, cloves, and a healthy slug of wood. Wild and, again, exotic stuff. 114 proof. A- / $157

kavalanwhisky.com

Review: 2012 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 Caymus 40th 750ml Bottle 300dpi 103x300 Review: 2012 Caymus Cabernet SauvignonI give Caymus all the credit for making me a real wine lover. When I was in grad school, my friend Sonny would regularly have me over for dinner — Korean style steaks, asparagus, and Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, which we procured for $20 a bottle back then.

It was a bit of indulgence for kids on a budget, but I’m sure we thought the expense was worth it if we ate Taco Bell and TV dinners the rest of the week.

Caymus quickly elevated itself into cult wine status to the point where I haven’t had it in years — particularly the ritzy Special Selection bottling. But for the winery’s 40th anniversary I was lucky enough to snag a sample bottle. Is the wine just as I remembered? Thoughts follow.

This is classic, dense Napa Cabernet. The nose offers intense blueberry and blackberry notes, hints of menthol, and dark chocolate. These are played up further on the body, along with a strong tart cherry character that comes on strong on the finish. This acidity is a welcome counterpart to the otherwise big, gripping body of the wine, giving some much needed balance to the experience. Tons of aging potential here.

A- / $60 / caymus.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

bittermilk no 3 525x525 Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

OK, yes, there are dozens of pre-packaged cocktail mixers on the market. And yes, most of them claim to be ultra-premium-better-than-you-can-make-yourself products. And — yes — most of them are passable at best, swill at worst.

Well, finally, here’s one that isn’t. Bittermilk is a Charleston, South Carolina operation that is making truly high-end mixers that even I would not hesitate to serve to my guests.

The secret is right there on the label and in the bottle: Very high-quality, mostly organic ingredients that take original spins on some classic recipes — the Old Fashioned, the Tom Collins, and the Whiskey Sour.

Bittermilk mixers have no alcohol, so bring your high-end hooch when you’re mixing something up. They may look small, but remember that each pint-sized bottle is good for about a dozen cocktails, depending on how tall you make ‘em. At a little over a dollar per cocktail, that’s not a bad deal. Hell, you’ll spend more on a couple of limes these days!

Thoughts on each of the three current Bittermilk offerings follow.

Bittermilk No. 1 Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned – Made with burnt cane sugar, orange peel, gentian root, and cinchona bark, then aged in Willett Bourbon barrels. I made versions with Rittenhouse 100 Proof Rye and with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. This one comes in a significantly smaller vial than the others, since you mix it 1:4 with your spirit, vs. 1:1 with the others. Sweet up front, with ample sugar in the mix (I’d err toward 1:5 or 1:6 proportions on this one), the burnt-ness of the sugar becomes apparent only as the finish starts to build. It’s here that you start to pick up the bitter edge of the mixer, too — grated roots and bark and a quinine character — though the citrus character, essential to an Old Fashioned, never quite arrives in full. Ultimately, it’s the bitterness that sticks with you the longest, lasting long after the sweetness has faded. A completely capable Old Fashioned — though the barrel aging isn’t immediately evident, and it’s more fun to drink an Old Fashioned with actual fruit muddled into it. Much better with rye (as specified on the label). A- / $15 (8.5 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 2 Tom Collins with Elderflowers & Hops – Made with lemon juice, sugar, elderflower & elderberry, and Centennial hops. I made versions with Ketel One Vodka and Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin (the bottle specifies either spirit). The weirdest of the bunch. With vodka, the hops add a level of funkiness here, and lots of it. Up front there’s a solid sweet-and-sour character, but that initially light bitter hops element brings a bit of discord to the finish, growing as it develops on the palate. It finishes almost like a shandy. With gin, this is a much better combination, those aromatics firing just about perfectly with the citrus and the elderflower, which comes through more clearly alongside the brightness of the gin. Here the hops play a very muted role, adding just a hint of bitterness on the back end rather than the lingering power you get with vodka. On the whole it’s a success, but it’s my least favorite of the bunch. Use gin, and a bit more than is called for. B+ / $15 (17 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour – Made with lemon juice, Bourbon barrel-smoked honey, sugar, and orange peel. I made this one with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. Shockingly delicious. It doesn’t reveal much on the nose, but the body is stuffed full of a melange of sweet and savory notes — bracing lemon, silky honey, and just a touch of smokiness on the back end. If you’re not a smoke fan, be not afraid. The effect here is subtle and well integrated into what reveals itself to be a lovely concoction. The lemon hangs along til the finish, where everything comes together into a fully realized whole. Sure, the whiskey sour is hardly the world’s most elevated cocktail, but in Bittermilk’s hands it’s one you’d have no problem gulping right down… maybe two. A / $15 (17 oz.)

bittermilk.com

Review: Cabernets of Louis M. Martini, 2014 Releases

Louis M. Martini 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauv 750ml 87x300 Review: Cabernets of Louis M. Martini, 2014 ReleasesNo need for a lot of throat-clearing here. Check out these three new Cabs from both Napa and Sonoma, all made by Louis M. Martini.

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County – Textbook Sonoma Cab, milder on the palate than Napa’s fruit bombs, but with plenty of earthy mushroom notes, leather, balsamic vinegar, and hints of blueberry on the nose. Breathe deep for hints of the garden — some thyme and peppermint on the back end — and watch for some Christmas spice on the palate’s finish. Imminently drinkable, it’s a fun yet modest wine. A- / $35

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A benchmark Napa cab from Martini, with a mix of floral, currant, pepper, and light leather notes on the nose, followed by a solid slug of blackberries, black cherries, and just hints of earth that are laced into the palate. Light on its feet but full of nuance, this wine shows restraint while offering a plenty ample body and a spot-on finish. One of Martini’s finest cabs in years and dirt cheap. A / $22

2012 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A simple, almost rustic, “burger” wine (which is exactly how I drank it). A little weedy up front, with some notes of sweet pepper, an interesting counterpart to the relatively sweet and cinnamon-infused body, which offers some tropical and brown sugar notes. Perfectly serviceable, if short of awe-inspiring. B / $14

louismartini.com

Review: Wines of CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, 2014 Releases

Crossbarn By Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2011 Bottle 900x900 300x300 Review: Wines of CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, 2014 ReleasesOnce called “the Steve Jobs of wine,” Paul Hobbs is a NorCal bigshot that makes wines under his own label as well as importing stuff he really likes. CrossBarn is his new, lower-cost label.

We sampled three wines (two Pinots, one Chardonnay) under the CrossBarn label. Thoughts follow.

2013 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – Virtually unoaked (80% fermented in tank, 20% in neutral French oak), this wine presents a citrusy but quite herbal nose, with a body offering spiced apples and Meyer lemon, plus some apricot on the finish. Easy to love. A- / $18

2012 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Sonoma County – A slightly thin, somewhat meaty example of the varietal. The body’s light blueberry fruit is indistinct, muddied by the savoriness that makes it feel a bit like old fruit juice. B- / $35

2012 CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – A much more refined Pinot. It starts with some Port-like notes on the nose, and plenty of macerated cherries. The body isn’t exactly dense with fruit, but it has lots of life and only a hint of vanilla and some woody bramble character by way of terroir. A solid, easy-to-love wine. B+ / $35

crossbarnwinery.com