Review: Wines of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, 2016 Releases

KJVR_13MerlotFour new wines in the KJ stable have recently been released, all in the Vintner’s Reserve line, the second (from the bottom) level in the five tiers that Kendall-Jackson produces.

Thoughts on these wines, all reds, follow.

2013 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Merlot Sonoma County – As inoffensive a wine as anyone could hope for, this simple merlot showcases blackberry and blueberry, with a modestly tannic core. Some vanilla comes to the forefront alongside a nice bite of bitterness and a gentle denouement. It’s a perfectly drinkable pizza ‘n’ pasta wine… but it tastes like it could be any varietal. B / $19

2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Syrah Santa Barbara County – Musty and smoky, even a syrah lover like me had some trouble pushing past the funk here. Once inside, the sour cherry core offers few real pleasures, and the bittersweet finish comes across as lackluster and cheap. C / $17

2013 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – The nose is bright with currants and blackberries, but the body is flat and almost watery, with zero finish. Harmless currants and black pepper stud the caramel-focused body for very brief time it spends on the palate, and the finish offers a slug of tannin that quickly fades. Improves with some air, but this isn’t a wine that should merit decanting. B- / $24

2013 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red Wine Blend California – A mystery blend that includes merlot, zinfandel, syrah, and other grapes. Lush, almost opulent, a big surprise in an otherwise lackluster lineup. Big currants and blueberry dominate, while soft tannins lead the way to some baking spice and vanilla notes on the finish. Excellent balance with a lush and rounded finish and an easy approachability. Buy this one; it’s a huge value. A- / $17

kj.com

Tasting 2016’s Octomore 7 with New Bruichladdich Master Distiller Adam Hannett

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When Jim McEwan left Bruichladdich last year after 50 years in the business, many wondered how a legend like McEwan could be replaced. The answer: You can’t, really, but the Islay distillery’s Adam Hannett is on his way to filling some mighty big shoes.

Hannett recently visited San Francisco as part of a U.S. “get to know ya” tour, and he brought with him a collection of Bruichladdich’s Octomore releases, including three from the Octomore 7 line. Among those is Octomore 7.4, the first “.4” release in the line (more on that later) and Hannett’s first solo release since McEwan’s departure.

The distillery world is full of nice guys, and while Hannett is one of the nicest I’ve met, he’s also full of big ideas, like the recent announcement that, in the name of transparency, customers will soon be able to look up the complete provenance of their Bruichladdich bottles online — even NAS releases. At SF’s Wingtip, we walked through the three latest Octomore 7 releases, plus a couple of whiskies for comparison.

IMG_7542Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie – “Classic” for a reason, this sweet whisky offers notes of granulated sugar and gentle notes of grain wafting in and out. Impossibly good, it’s one of my favorite “everyday” malts, Hannett says he chalks up the gentle, oily body to the slow distillation it undergoes. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Last year’s release (5 years old, all ex-bourbon barrel) remains a classic, strong peat on the nose (at 167ppm) that offers intense citrus once you dig into the body. The finish is clean and fruity, with layers of smoke on top of everything. I’m really digging the structure and balance today. Perfect at 114 proof. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.1 – This new release (also a 5 year old, ex-bourbon bottling, as all the .1 releases are) is a bit hotter, with much more peat at 208ppm. It doesn’t come across heavily on the nose, where sweeter notes prevail. The body offers chocolate and caramel, and then the smokiness takes hold, leading to a heavy, petrol-laden finish. This rubbery note lingers for a while. Quite a counterpart to the sweeter 6.1. 119 proof. A-

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.3 –.3 signifies an “all Islay” release. This year’s spends 5 years in bourbon cask, with a little Spanish wine cask included. Earthy and maritime notes explode on the nose — a true essence of Islay aroma — the body is clean and uncomplicated, offering fruit and grain together, with a distinct chimney smoke finish. 169ppm, 126 proof. A-

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 – The newest Octomore is the first in the .4 line, which signifies the whiskey was aged in virgin oak casks instead of refills. Unlike other Octomores, which are generally 5 years old, this release spent 7 years in toasted French oak, laid down in 2008. It’s quite a departure from other Octomore releases, and the intense grain and lumberyard notes immediately reminded me of younger American single malts, which are also generally aged in new oak, a la bourbon. Malt always struggles with new oak, but the heavy peat at least gives Octomore 7.4 some legs to stand on. After seven years, the grain notes have tempered only slightly, but the smoky character gives that something to play again. The finish offers notes of chocolate and gentle candy-like sweetness. It’s a whiskey that is initially a little off-putting but which definitely grows on you over time. Definitely a series to keep an eye on. 167ppm, 122.4 proof. B+

bruichladdich.com

Review: Writers Tears Irish Whiskey

writers-tears-pot-still-blend-whiskeyAmerican visitors to Ireland often ask “what whiskey should I try that I can’t get in the U.S.” That’s been a fairly short list of late, and the top of it always includes one name: Writers Tears.

Writers Tears is a product introduced only in 2009 by Walsh Whiskey, the company that’s best known stateside for The Irishman brand of whiskeys. Writers Tears was designed — this is all sourced whiskey, a blend of single malt and pure pot still — to be an upscale alternative to that more mainstream brand, a “boutique” offering that was “a little more edgy,” as the company puts it.

Fast forward to today, when Writers Tears is finally available for the first time in the United States. At last, Americans can see what all the fuss is about. This is the first time I’ve tried Writers Tears outside of Dublin — so let’s dig in to a fresh sample.

Writers Tears is, as the name suggests, a softer and gentler whiskey. The nose speaks of honey syrup, cinnamon, and a touch of lemon. If you think about a cup of nicely sweetened tea, that’s the kind of tone Writers Tears sets at the start. On the palate, it’s as quiet as a mouse — the honey fading into citrus, a touch of ginger, some lightly nutty notes, and a lightly herbal malt character that builds toward the finish. That conclusion folds in lightly bitter licorice notes, but echoes its initial sweetness, inviting some rather eager sipping. The whiskey goes down so easily it’s hard to stop with just one glass — and while its initial softness might make the spirit feel simple, underneath that veneer is the essence, well, of Ireland.

80 proof.

A-  / $40 / walshwhiskey.com

Review: Mt. Brave 2012 Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon

nullNapa’s Mt. Brave is back with two big 2012 releases: A malbec and a cabernet sauvignon, the winery’s signature release.

Thoughts on both wines follow.

2012 Mt. Brave Malbec Mt. Veeder – 98% malbec, 2% cabernet sauvignon. It may be a little thin around the edges, but the notes of black pepper, currants, and rhubarb all combine to give this wine a big, balanced lift. Nicely herbal, the body is long, dusted with licorice and cloves. While I’d love to see a little more acid lift this wine up a bit, the light chocolate notes and hints of roasted nuts give it a fun New World spin when compared to many a malbec. A- / $75

2012 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder – 88% cabernet sauvignon, 5% merlot, 4% cabernet franc, 3% malbec. This is the best expression of Mt. Brave I’ve encountered to date, a lush and rounded cabernet that is loaded up with chocolate, currants, brambly earth, and lightly bitter coffee grounds. The body develops and brings with it notes of cloves, some Asian spices, and licorice — all good and engaging things that make this Napa cabernet all the more engaging. One of the best 2012 cabernets I’ve experienced so far. A / $75

mtbravewines.com

Review: Wahaka Mezcal Complete Lineup

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Mezcal is always fun, but it gets really fun when you can compare different styles and species of agave that are used to create this unique spirit.

Wahaka, based in the Tlacolula Central Valley region of Oaxaca, offers five different Mezcals — four joven (silver) varieties, and one reposado. We tasted them all. Thoughts follow.

Wahaka Mezcal Joven Espadin – Espadin is the most common strain of agave used for mezcal, and from the nose you would expect this to be a rather smokily pungent expression of the spirit. The body is quite another experience, though — quite gentle, with ample sweetness, notes of apples, and some green banana. Beyond the smoke-filled nose, it’s as gentle as mezcal gets, with its savory notes quickly fading as it leaves behind a mildly herbal but mostly fruit-filled finish. If ever there was a “starter mezcal,” this is it. 80 proof. B+ / $33

Wahaka Mezcal Joven Tobala – Tobala is a wild, small, high-altitude agave known for fruity notes. Here, the nose offers a distinctly sweeter note, one that is studded with notes of peaches but also herbal rosemary notes. The palate hits the tongue with dried tropical fruits and segues into notes of fresh pineapple and mango, filtered through a smoky lens. These notes go together surprisingly well, with an especially sweet and tropical finish. If the Espadin is starter mezcal, this is the perfect chaser — and quite a little delight that doesn’t just sip well on its own, it also mixes well. 84 proof. A- / $90

Wahaka Mezcal Joven Madre-Cuishe – Another wild agave strain, this mezcal presents with a more pungent and heavily peppered nose, offering ample sweetness but stuffing it with notes of smoked meats and a touch of molasses. On the palate, the sweeter house style endures, but considerable smoke and black pepper manage to dominate. Those looking for a burlier, meaty, and pungent mezcal will find it in this Madre-Cuishe expression That said, it is still accessible and quite engaging. 84 proof. A- / $90

Wahaka Mezcal Joven Ensamble – As the name implies, this is a blend — 50% Espadin, 25% Tobala, and 25% Madre-Cuishe. The nose is straightforward and mildly smoky, fairly in line with the Espadin. On the tongue, some citrus — oddly absent in the single-varietal expressions — leads the way, meandering into more of that green banana, brown sugar, and marshmallow notes. There’s plenty going on here, but balance is something of a concern, with Ensamble turning out to be a bit plain, something less than the sum of its parts. 80 proof. B+ / $90

Wahaka Mezcal Reposado con Gusano – A lightly aged reposado mezcal, origin unknown — worm (gusano) included. The nose offers more of a barbecue sauce character, with an orange juice kick. Much sweeter than the jovens, this reposado offers immediate notes of fresh mango and papaya, banana (again), and that barbecue character hitting hard on the finish. Smokiness takes a distinct back seat here, which is common in barrel-aged expressions. Fun as a diversion… plus you can ponder that worm staring at you. 80 proof. B+ / $47

wahakamezcal.com

Review: Alaskan Hop Turn IPA

alaskan hop turnAlaskan’s latest IPA in a seemingly endless procession of IPAs is Hop Turn (cute skiing-inspired name there), which is designed to be a “German-style IPA” — a style of beer that doesn’t readily exist.

It’s made with Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich malts, Magnum and Sterling hops, and is dry-hopped with Sterling — “radical” choices, none of which you’ll find in the typical IPA. It’s a funny mix of styles, starting with an undercurrent of sweetness that flows through the entire experience, backed up by a slug of earthy hops. It isn’t particularly piney, but the forest floor and mushroom notes are surprisingly natural companions with the malt.

All told it’s surprisingly enjoyable, but best (like any German beer) when consumed very cold. As it warms up, the body becomes a bit mushy and muddy.

7.5% abv.

A- / $10 per six-pack / alaskanbeer.com

Review: Suntory The Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 Single Malt Whisky

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In 2014 Jim Murray pronounced The Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky of the year, and the world promptly exploded. Everybody likes Japanese whisky — why wouldn’t you? — but giving this small bottling a “best in the world” award led to the expected chaos.

All of Japanese whisky has been impacted by the surge in sales — even common bottlings are now regularly allocated — but nothing was hit harder than this specific edition, which was immediately snapped up, with prices on remaining bottles shooting through the roof.

And now there is another.

The Yamazaki is finally back with a new edition of this hot product, Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 vintage. Sherry of course is not a new thing at Yamazaki, but using it exclusively in released expressions isn’t common. Japanese whisky can be quite delicate, and sherry casks provide an effect in the diametric opposite direction. The final blend in this release bears no age statement but starts with the same lot of whiskies (over 100 sherry-aged casks) used to make the Sherry Cask 2013 release. These spent two extra years in cask, to which Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo then added some additional, older sherry-casked stock, some of which were more than 25 years old. So basically, if you liked Sherry Cask 2013, the idea is that you’ll love 2016.

Without further ado, let’s dig into this rarity.

The color is exceptionally dark, a deep amber that verges on mahogany, clearly showcasing both some significant age and the pure impact of the sherry cask. The nose is enchanting — lush caramel malts and bright sherry notes, cocoa-dusted nuts with some oxidized notes, leather, and cigar tobacco — all told, the picture of a very old and well-sherried Highland single malt.

The palate sticks with the theme, offering intense nuttiness, quite bitter, with notes of wet leather, tobacco leaf, incense, and spicy cloves. The finish goes on and on with notes of Madeira wine, prunes, well-steeped black tea, and bittersweet cocoa powder. After one sip my mind immediately raced back to my experience with Highland Park 50 Years Old, which remains seared into my brain. Many of the same notes are there, a licorice kick nagging at the back of the throat.

As with HP50, Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 is a hoary old beast that presents itself as brash and punchy, unashamed of its majesty. Give it the respect it deserves.

92 proof. 5000 bottles produced. The MSRP is $300, but $2000 is about the best you’ll find at retail. I’ve seen up to $3000 so far. Good luck, gents.

A- / $2000 / suntory.com