Category Archives: Rated A-

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

Review: Wigle Rye Whiskey Deep Cut and Barrel-Rested Ginever

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Wigle (aka Pittsburgh Distilling Company) is an up-and-coming craft distiller that makes loads of products including, in a page taken from the Tuthilltown/Hudson Distillery playbook, a wide range of different whiskeys — seven of them at current count.

Today we look at two of the company’s products, a rye and an aged “ginever,” both curiosities that you’ll only find from a true craft operation.

Thoughts follow.

Organic Rye Deep Cut 375 5 300x300 Review: Wigle Rye Whiskey Deep Cut and Barrel Rested GineverWigle Organic Rye Whiskey Deep Cut – Called “Deep Cut,” per the company, because of the “bold cuts taken on this Whiskey to create our most assertively Rye-forward, spiciest Whiskey.” I presume that means they leave more heads and tails in the still with this than the do with other products. Whatever the case, the description is apt. A small-batch product, it’s made from local, organic grains. Aging time varies from bottle to bottle, but is set at about a year in 10- to 15-gallon casks.

Deep orange in color, it looks like an intense Bourbon. At full cask strength — nearly 60% abv — it’s a fireball in the glass. The nose is intense with roasted grains, wood smoke, and tar. Sipping it at full proof doesn’t reveal a lot — I don’t often balk at cask strength whiskey, but this one’s just too much to parse without water. Adding a healthy slug of H2O is a huge help, revealing a gentler smokiness that’s balanced by deep cereal notes, lush allspice and cinnamon. There’s a brutish core to this whiskey that is somehow balanced by its celebration of the underlying grain. It is fire and earth, both at once. Though when push comes to shove, fire is winning. 117.5 proof. Reviewed: Batch DCK#3, aged 14 months. B+ / $61

Aged Ginever 750 300x300 Review: Wigle Rye Whiskey Deep Cut and Barrel Rested GineverWigle Organic Barrel-Rested Ginever – This aged gin (nothing really to do with genever) is made from a pot-distilled mash of local and organic wheat, rye, and malted barley (don’t call it ginwhiskey!), the white spirit is infused with a collection of botanicals, including juniper berries, cardamom, cubeb, and lavender (among other undisclosed agents). The resulting spirit is aged for an unstated length of time. Racy nose, offering a complex collection of aromas in the world of dried herbs, licorice, modest juniper, dried apricots, and raw wood notes. It’s muddy, but vaguely enticing, too.

The body is equally weird. It starts out almost bitter, with a quinine and licorice/root beer character to it. Sweetness emerges quickly to wash this away, and here the vanilla notes driven by the barrel aging start to take hold. The finish is both fruity and floral, offering a fresh apricot note flicked with honeysuckle, brown sugar crystals, and cardamom spice. Some cinnamon and nutmeg come across on the finish.

Weirdly lovable, it’s like a gin and whiskey mix, maybe with a dash of amaro in it. Endless cocktail possibilities. 94 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. A- / $50

wiglewhiskey.com

Review: 2013 White Wines from Bodegas Terras Gauda

o rosal 114x300 Review: 2013 White Wines from Bodegas Terras GaudaToday we look at two white wines (both Albarino-based) from Spain’s Terras Gauda winery, based in the Rias Baixas region. You may have to look closely for the parent name, but both are bottled under the Bodegas Terras Gauda umbrella. Here’s a look at two very good — and quite different — white wines.

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda Abadia de San Campio Albarino Rias Baixas – Exotic, with lots of lemons but also some subtle peach and lychee notes up top, particularly on the unique and racy nose. The body is high in acid, with a touch of banana character adding some creaminess on the long, grapefruit-infused finish. Quite a unique wine, and definitely worth exploring if you like tart, unoaked styles. A / $18

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal Rias Baixas – A blend of 70% Albarino, 20% Loureira, and 10% Caino Blanco. It’s a much more straightforward wine than the Abadia above, offering plenty of lush fruit in the form of apricots, lemons, and a touch of grapefruit. Tart but not nearly as acidic as the above, this wine is more of an easy drinker, with less complexity, but also less that you have to think about it. A- / $24

terrasgauda.com

Review: Tomatin Single Malts: 12, 14, 15, and 18 Years Old — Plus 1988 Vintage

tomatin 525x225 Review: Tomatin Single Malts: 12, 14, 15, and 18 Years Old    Plus 1988 Vintage

Highlands-based Tomatin offers a classic experience of Scotland in a glass — even though it is actually owned by Japan’s Takara Shuzo company.

Tomatin is shaking up the brand of late, introducing a new 14 Year Old expression and a 1988 Vintage expression to the core line (while the latter lasts, I presume), while discontinuing both the 15 and 30 Year Old expressions. (That said, we have a review of the 15 below.) The 12 Year is also getting a proof upgrade.

The only member of the new five-expression Tomatin lineup we don’t have reviewed here is Legacy, Tomatin’s entry-level, no-age-statement bottling.

Thoughts on everything else, though, follow.

Tomatin 12 Years Old Sherry Cask Finish – Finished in Oloroso sherry casks, this 12 year old whisky noses like a more mature spirit, balancing its cereal notes with some light smokiness and iodine character. On the palate, the chewy malt is balanced with notes of heather and more of those smoky wisps, with a burnt orange peel character coming along on the finish in the back of the throat. I’d love more fruit here, but Tomatin 12 is so well-balanced — despite its simplicity — that it’d almost be a shame to change anything. 86 proof (recently upgraded from 80 proof). A- / $30

Tomatin 14 Years Old Port Wood Finish – The higher alcohol level dulls the nose on this whisky, finished in Tawny Port pipes for about a year. After a time, the nose takes on an intensely woody, cedar box, tobacco leaf character. The body also has lots of wood bark, plus dark chocolate, coffee, and some cinnamon. Again, the fruit is held in check, and the expected raisiny sweetness from Port finishing never materializes. Not bad, though. 92 proof. B+ / $55

Tomatin 15 Years Old – This whisky is on the verge of being discontinued, so grab it while you can. The only whisky in this lineup that has a full maturation in ex-Bourbon casks, with no finishing. It’s markedly lighter in color than the other whiskys in this roundup, by a good margin. Hospital notes are strong on the nose here, with tons of cereal coming forth on the body, plus undercurrents of marshmallow, banana, and a bit of smokiness on the back end. More of a journeyman whisky than even the 12 Year Old. Perfectly serviceable, but I can understand the phase-out. 86 proof. B / $45

Tomatin 18 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Finished in sherry casks. A little sweaty on the nose, with more of that iodine character than the other Tomatin expressions. The body is pure sherry, though. This is a well-matured whisky with a big body and a chewy fruitiness to it. Lots of fresh plums, macerated apricots, and juicy oranges to go around, with a bit of sandalwood on the finish. Big whisky, with lots to like once the odd nose blows away, revealing more of a honey character. Amazing value for an 18 year old whisky. 92 proof. A- / $60

Tomatin 1988 Vintage Batch #1 – Matured in both Bourbon and Port barrels, this first batch of Tomatin 1988 (roughly 25-26 years old, by my count) is available in a selection of 2500 bottles. Surprisingly austere and malty on the nose, with a floral element to it. The body’s got an air of oatmeal cookies, buttery toffee, and indistinct flowers, with a bit of a vegetal note on the finish. I got no Port character here at all, rather mainly a rich maltiness that tends to overpower everything. I’d like to see more complexity at this price level. 92 proof. B+ / $250

tomatin.com

Review: Our/Vodka Berlin

ourvodka front 661x1024 525x813 Review: Our/Vodka Berlin

What happens when one of the biggest vodka producers in the world decides to go hyperlocal? Our/Vodka, that’s what.

Absolut’s audacious Our/Vodka project, 3 1/2 years in the making, began rolling out earlier this year: The idea, to produce a number of “glocal” renditions of the iconic spirit. It works like this. Absolut selects a city, where it funds and builds a distillery, then hands the reins over to a local entrepreneur distiller. They then take the brand and run with it, making vodka using a recipe provided by Absolut but using only local ingredients and water. Bottles are small (just 350ml) and feature a generic label indicating the city the vodka came from. The idea (in part) is to see how each city’s vodka compares — essentially looking at how terroir impacts “neutral” spirits. Up first: Berlin (reviewed here) and Detroit.

By the way, depending on which bottle you get, you’ll notice the label says it is “vodka with a flavor.” Says Absolut: “The thing with the German label is that when we first did them, we didn’t know for sure if our patented yeast (that has been developed by the Pernod Ricard research center) and that can carry flavor fractions through fermentation, would pass without having to put “flavor” on the bottle. Now we know that we don’t need it.”

Finally, let’s look at Our/Vodka Berlin — aka “Local Vodka by Our/Berlin” — the first product to come from this project. The nose is extremely mild, just hints here and there of bananas, walnuts, orange candies, and cherries. Nothing major, but enough to make things interesting. The body is even less punchy. Very simple, some mild fruit flavors — again those lightly sweetened orange candies — are the most evident secondary characteristic, but on the whole Our/Berlin comes across as simple to the point of being almost too clean. Our/Vodka is bizarrely bottled at just 75 proof, which is part of the reason why the flavor is so neutral — almost like sipping on water, which makes it go down much too easily. That’s both a good and a bad thing, but it does set an interesting starting point for this series. Hopefully we’ll be able to compare it the vodkas that come from Detroit and elsewhere down the line.

A- / $18 (350ml) / ourvodka.com

Review: 2012 Pacific Rim Riesling and Vin de Glaciere

pacific rim riesling Review: 2012 Pacific Rim Riesling and Vin de GlaciereBased in Washington’s Columbia Valley, Pacific Rim is obsessively focused on Riesling. In fact, that’s all they make, in nearly a dozen varieties. Today we look at two of the winery’s single vineyard bottlings, both made from organic grapes.

2012 Pacific Rim Riesling Organic - Not your typical, high-acid, new world Riesling! Initially quite sweet, this honeyed wine reveals layers of pineapple and melon after settling down and warming up a bit. Ultimately that sugary core never quite fades, but the fruit flavors eventually meld together as a whole. B / $16

2012 Pacific Rim Riesling Vin de Glaciere Organic – A bit weedy on the nose, but all fruity sweetness on the body. Honey, fresh apples, figs, and light brown sugar. It all comes together easily, with a touch of nuttiness on the finish. A- / $16 (375ml)

rieslingrules.com

Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose Whiskey

Whipnose Front Small 401x1200 Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose Whiskey

The Seven Stills of San Francisco returns with its second beer-based whiskey, this time pot-distilled from 1600 gallons of double IPA from Pacific Brewing Laboratories along with some maple sugar. The beer is then aged in new, five-gallon American oak barrels for six months before bottling.

As with Chocosmoke, this is a young and wild little whiskey. Bright amber in color, the whiskey exudes a complex arrangement of citrus, hoppy spices, menthol, mothballs, and wildflowers on the nose. The body is big and racy, its youthful grain character punched up with even more of those citrus-driven hops, vanilla syrup, and eucalyptus. Powerful and lasting, this is another whiskey that really lets its brewery roots come through. Like Chocosmoke, it’s not for the faint of heart or the delicate of tongue, and it invites endless exploration into a truly unique style of distilling.

94 proof.

A- / $40 (375ml) / sevenstillsofsf.com

Tasting the Wines of Charles Krug, 2014

Napa’s Charles Krug — now managed by the Peter Mondavi family — is an icon of California. Krug (the man) was a Prussian journalist who emigrated to the San Francisco area in the 1840s and eventually started dabbling in winemaking before opening his first winery in 1861.

In 2011 his namesake company marked its 150th vintage. And the company is still expanding, launching its inaugural vintage of a new Howell Mountain Cabernet, reviewed below. With a focus on “old world” wine stylings, it’s the oldest winery in Napa and the home of arguably the oldest winemaker in the country: Peter Mondavi, Sr., who turns 100 this year.

Thoughts on four upcoming wines, a 2013 white and three big reds from the 2011 vintage, all tasted online with Peter Mondavi, Jr. and winemaker Stacy Clark both in attendance,  follow.

2013 Charles Krug Estate Sauvignon Blanc Limited Release – Only the third vintage of this wine, which is not the same as its general release. (The easy way to tell the difference is this one comes in a Burgundy-style bottle; the general release comes in a Bordeaux-style bottle. The Limited Edition is also twice the price.) Heavily acidic and tart, with intense grapefruit and lemon notes, this is classic Sauvignon Blanc with an extreme level of intensity. Long, biting finish. A- / $35

2011 Charles Krug Merlot Napa Valley – 84% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petite Sirah, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot. Some interesting layers of coffee bean, licorice, vanilla, and cinnamon in this one, with a fragrant, coffeehouse nose. The body is lacking in presence, unfortunately, which dulls the fruit and the finish. B / $25

2011 Charles Krug Family Reserve “Generations” Napa Valley – 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, 3% Merlot. Beautifully floral nose on this, violets and an undercurrent of brambly blackberries. The body is driven as much by cigar box, licorice, and some rocky soil notes as it is that blackberry core. A quiet wine (at 13.9% abv) that still exudes lots of character. A- / $50

2011 Charles Krug Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley – The inaugural release of this wine, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. Bigger, bolder, and racier… and yet just 13.7% abv. A chewier mouthfeel leads to notes of mint, chocolate bars, almonds, and vanilla cream. The fruit is somewhat understated — more plum than currants — with a rounded finish. Fun wine, and a bit atypical of what you see on Howell Mountain in general. A- / $75

charleskrug.com

Review: Firemans Brew Blonde Beer, Brunette Beer, and Redhead Ale

FB 3bottles.dry  525x645 Review: Firemans Brew Blonde Beer, Brunette Beer, and Redhead Ale

We last encountered Firemans Brew five long years ago — we mistakenly gave them an unattributed apostrophe back then — so with summer upon us, a fresh look is in order. The company still makes three hair-color-themed beers, though the “Brewnette” has been reformulated with a newish name (a straightforward “Brunette”) and less alcohol.

Fresh thoughts on the So-Cal based “The Original Firemans Brew” follow.

Firemans Brew Blonde Beer – A classic pilsner lager. A big body elevates this over your typical “baseball game” brew, with a chewy, sourdough bread core studded with a touch of pine and a hint of brown sugar. Some caramel notes emerge on the finish, but mostly it’s a crisp and clean slugger from start to finish. 5% abv. A-

Firemans Brew Brunette Beer – A burly double bock, with considerably more alcohol than the other brews in this lineup. Lots of malt on this one builds up layered notes of coffee, chocolate, and chicory, atop a sultry, creamy base. Built for fans of bigger bodied brews. 8% abv. B+

Firemans Brew Redhead Ale – A red amber ale that will offend no one, this malty, woodsy beer is built with a moderate body and a chewy, almost nutty character on the palate. The finish comes along with strong notes of fresh-baked bread and a touch of fresh coffee notes. Harmless. 5.5% abv. B

firemansbrew.com

Review: Pinot Blancs from Kuentz-Bas and Elena Walch

alsace kuentz bas 130x300 Review: Pinot Blancs from Kuentz Bas and Elena WalchJust in time for summer come these two white wines from two different regions in western Europe — one northern Italy, one eastern France. Both are made from the Pinot Blanc (aka Pinot Bianco) grape, and side by side they show just how incredibly different these wines can be. Thoughts follow.

2011 Kuentz-Bas Pinot Blanc Tradition Alsace – Simple and fresh, this wine offers a floral nose, with hints of nuts and a touch of forest floor. The body, however, is quite fruit-forward, moderately acidic with notes of lemon, lime, and touches of melon. Clean and simple finish, seasonally perfect, and drinking beautifully at the tender age of three. A- / $15

2013 Elena Walch Pinot Bianco Alto Adige – Much more lemony than the Kuentz-Bas, almost to a fault. The nose on this wine is vividly acidic, almost metallic, and the body is even more so, offering raw lemon juice character backed up by the essence of aluminum cans. Weak finish. C+ / $13

Review: Woody Creek Colorado 100% Potato Vodka

woody creek Vodka Bottle Single One 525x787 Review: Woody Creek Colorado 100% Potato Vodka

According to Woody Creek Distillers, it’s the only company in the U.S. that “controls every element of its 100% potato vodka production.” Woody Creek grows its own potatoes (Rio Grande russet, Chepita and Lady Claire varieties) on its own Colorado farms, processes them, and distills them into vodka. Unlike so many other “distilled 80 times” spirits, Woody Creek is distilled just once, in a custom column still. Local water from the Aspen area is used to bring it down to proof for bottling.

Despite the fascinating story, Woody Creek doesn’t reinvent the wheel — which is not a bad thing. The nose is indistinct, adding a slight earthy element to the hospital character base. The body is modest in texture, the astringency of the alcohol balanced by notes of marshmallow, vanilla wafer, mandarin oranges, and marzipan. Some slight red pepper notes on the finish, but on the whole, there’s very little in the heat department throughout the spirit.

All in all, it’s a unique vodka with a traditional makeup and a classic appeal that both straight sippers and cocktail hackers will amply appreciate.

A- / $37 / woodycreekdistillers.com

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram and The Barreled Boulevardier

We’re finally getting around to reviewing High West’s latest products, a new rye and a second barrel-aged-and-bottled cocktail. These have both been around for a few months, so please forgive our tardiness!

high west midwinters night dram 136x300 Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram and The Barreled BoulevardierHigh West A Midwinter Nights Dram – Never mind the typo (it should be “Night’s,” no?) and never mind that I’m reviewing a clearly holiday-themed spirit in mid-June. Wow, this rye whiskey finished in French oak and ex-Port barrels is cherries cherries cherries from start to finish. The nose features macerated cherry fruit, steeped in vanilla and a touch of dusty wood. On the tongue, a powerful brandied cherry character emerges, with notes of ginger, vanilla cream, rhubarb, and fruitcake. OK, maybe I’m imagining the fruitcake, but the festive name of this spirit couldn’t be more appropriate. Initially a bit off-putting with its incredible fruitiness, the whiskey eventually settles down into something that’s quite enjoyable and wholly unique. Reviewed: “Act 1, Scene 1313″ of this “limited engagement.” 98.6 proof. A- / $80

high west Boulevardier 750 bottle 173x300 Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram and The Barreled BoulevardierHigh West The Barreled Boulevardier – A Boulevardier cocktail is composed of 1/3 bourbon, 1/3 sweet vermouth, and 1/3 Campari. Here, High West uses Vya vermouth and Gran Classico in lieu of Campari, then ages the combination in ex Bourbon barrels. Here, some ice helps to bring this to proper cocktail temperatures and to add a little meltwater to the mix. The result is an interesting mix of cocoa powder, red cherries, honey syrup, and a bitter, spicy kick on the finish. It’s a strong drink, one which benefits from slow sips and lots of reflection, as the bitter aftertaste it leads can be hard to shake. For a segment of the populace in love with the Negroni, this will probably have them endlessly abuzz. 72 proof. B / $55

highwest.com

Review: Lotus Vodka

lotus vodka 95x300 Review: Lotus VodkaLotus is a new vodka that hails from Italy. Rather, it’s a slight rebranding of an older vodka colloquially known as White Lotus Vodka, its bottle slightly revised to add a pop of color but otherwise keeping things clean.

In the company’s own words, “Lotus Vodka is made from select European corn and is triple distilled through reverse osmosis and charcoal filtering. It is infused with natural herbs, ginseng, and guarana (also known as Brazilian cocoa).”

In reality, you’d be hard-pressed to peg this vodka as containing any flavors or infusions. The body is silky-sweet like so many modern vodkas, offering light notes of white flowers, marshmallow cream, and maple syrup. Only the floral element is unexpected over what you’d normally see from a modern vodka, and even that is held in restraint. This is a surprisingly gentle vodka all around, drinking neatly and ending up clean, not harsh or bitter.

With its fresh, modest body and light, refreshing finish, Lotus is a vodka worth experiencing whether you’re looking for a mixer, a “straight” sipper, or something with just a touch of exoticism to it. The only question that remains is: Is it straight or is it a flavored spirit? Eh, what does it matter?

80 proof.

A- / $26 / lotusvodka.com

Review: Stone Enjoy By 07.04.14 IPA

stone enjoy by 225x300 Review: Stone Enjoy By 07.04.14 IPAAs always, Stone’s latest ultra-fresh bottling has less than a month to go before you can no longer “enjoy” it (35 days after bottling)… ostensibly, anyway. In keeping with the past iterations of this long-running series, this beer is bursting with liquid pine character.

But 07.04.14 is balanced just a touch by some hints of caramel, lemon peel, and Asian spices (Stone’s tasting notes suggest peaches and tropical fruit, but I don’t much get those).

Whatever the little touches are, by and large it’s that huge hoppy pine character that positively spews forth from start to finish, as “Enjoy By” brews always provide. With 13 varieties of hops used (Ahtanum, Super Galena, Simcoe, Amarillo, Delta, Target, Calypso, Cascade, Citra, Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, and Helga) and 88 IBUs, one would hope so.

9.4% abv.

A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / enjoyby.stonebrewing.com

Tasting the Wines of Hourglass Vineyard, 2014 Releases

I recently had the opportunity to attend a live event with Napa-based Hourglass Vineyard’s owner Jeff Smith and its new winemaker Tony Biagi. Before tasting through four of the winery’s current releases, the duo discussed the changes involved with switching winemakers, including their new approach to winemaking and their return to higher-acidity, more elegant winemaking as they retreat from the traditional opulence of Napa. As well, the winery has a new focus on blending (and seemingly a love affair with Petit Verdot). Thoughts on all four wines follow.

2013 Hourglass Sauvignon Blanc Estate – Quite acidic, with pineapple and lemon balanced by touches of ammonia. Fresh, with lots of mineral notes, and touches of peach rising on the finish. There’s a bit of coconut in there, too. Solid. B+ / $40

2012 Hourglass Blueline Estate Merlot Napa Valley – 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot. Mint, chocolate, and a layering of raspberry, blackberry, and dried raisin character. Not as racy or acidic as I’d hoped for, the mint character really overpowering things on the back end. The finish goes out with more of a whimper than a bang. B / $75

2012 Hourglass Blueline Estate Malbec Napa Valley – 75% Malbec, 25% Petit Verdot. Again, heavy on the mint character, which plays well with the heavy chocolate and strawberry notes in this wine. Again the body isn’t as racy or as acidic as I’d expected, but here the flavors complement one another more completely. Give this one time to open up and some violet character emerges. Not exactly the Malbec you might be expecting, but worthwhile. B+ / $75

2012 Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Franc Napa Valley – 83% Cabernet Franc, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot. Easily the darkest of these wines, both in color and in body. Dark chocolate, licorice, floral notes, and strawberry jam all come together in one powerhouse of a whole. This is the most “old school” (meaning: late-’90s) wine from this collection, a more dense and chewy wine with a lengthy finish — that mint returning for an encore. Probably my favorite wine of the bunch, but you’ll pay for the privilege, to be sure! A- / $135

hourglasswines.com