Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: 7 Beers from North Coast Brewing Co.

north coast Pranqster.750ml 90x300 Review: 7 Beers from North Coast Brewing Co.Fort Bragg, California-based North Coast Brewing Co. isn’t your typical Cali brewer. Its focus on fruitier, malt-heavy, European-style ales is a far cry from the traditional west coast style IPAs that dominate its region. It’s particuarly ironic since North Coast is actually situated directly on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. You don’t get much more “west coast” than that.

North Coast makes a plethora of brews. We turn our attention to a lineup of seven — all of which are available in 12 oz. bottles instead of just 22 oz. bombers, so typical for high-abv rarities like some of these listed below.  (750ml bottlings of many of the higher-end beers are also available… like the one pictured here.)

Thoughts, as always, follow.

North Coast Old Stock Ale 2014 – An old ale made in the English style, with all-imported, English ingredients. Starts off fresh and fizzy, then the chocolate, coffee, and toffee notes come rushing at you like a freight train. The beer quickly turns into a burly, brooding monster with moderate sweetness and an epic finish that knocks you down with its notes of wine, figs, and intense malt character. Could use a touch more bitterness (or maybe some time in the cellar) to balance all of the above out. Ageable. 11.8% abv. B+ / $14 per 4-pack

North Coast Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale – A Belgian strong dark ale, this is a chewy, malty brew that brings a lot of fruit to the forefront. Raisins, figs, and plums are all amply represented here, with a dense, almost chocolate-driven core. Minimally hopped. The various components come together after a time — let it warm up a tad — creating a surprisingly harmonious whole. This drinks a bit more cohesively and less aggressively than the Old Stock Ale (at least without it seeing considerable cellar time). Ultimately it proves surprisingly silky and pleasant. 9.4% abv. A- / $12 per 4-pack

North Coast Le Merle Saison Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale – Slightly sour, this fruity saison offers notes of cherries and rhubarb, balanced with some yeast character. Dark caramel and coffee notes emerge on the finish, punching down some of this beer’s initial fruit notes. The overall impact is a little muddy, but compelling enough for enjoying on a hot day. 7.9% abv. B+ / $12 per 4-pack

North Coast Pranqster Belgian Style Golden Ale – Another strong Belgian ale, but not a dark ale — a pale ale. Initially a bit sour, this beer settles down with a strong granary character plus mild notes of apricots and peaches. A more modest dosage of hops give Pranqster a better balance than Brother Thelonious without requiring any aging time at all. Ultimately, the silky mix of bitter hops, chewy malt, and seductive fruit is a winner. 7.6% abv. A- / $10 per 4-pack

North Coast Scrimshaw – Even North Coast’s pilsner is burly and malty, a chewy, grain-heavy brew that is rounded and mouth-filling. Light citrus notes give it some complexity, but on the whole it’s a relatively simple brew with an Old World backbone. 4.4% abv. B+ / $8 per 6-pack

North Coast Blue Star Wheat Beer – A pale wheat ale, this Americanized hefeweizen drinks crisp and clean, lightly grainy (probably the least grain-forward of all the beers reviewed here) with a touch of juicy lemon and a hint of pine needles to it. As it warms, the wheat becomes more prominent, which makes things even simpler — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 4.5% abv. B+ / $8 per 6-pack

North Coast Old No. 38 Stout –  As stouts go, this rendition is dry and restrained, hoppier than most while nodding only gently toward those Old World notes of coffee and chocolate that are traditionally part and parcel of this category. No. 38 starts off with a gentle bitterness before fading into a sort of sweet-and-sour character that is only modestly dusted with notes of hot cocoa (er, cold cocoa), walnuts, and some lighter vegetable notes. A very pleasing and more easy-drinking (vs. dark and brooding) rendition of stout. 5.4% abv. B+ / $9 per 6-pack

northcoastbrewing.com

Review: Guinness Blonde American Lager

GUINNESS Blonde American Lager Bottle Shot 0 395x1200 Review: Guinness Blonde American Lager

Bar the doors and shutter the windows. Hell’s freezing over and it’s starting with the world of beer, of all places.

What happened? Guinness, the mother of all black-as-night stouts, is releasing a standard, pale, American lager.

Made in Latrobe, Pennsylvania(!), Guinness uses American Mosaic, Willamette, and Mount Hood hops plus its Dublin-born Guinness yeast to create Guinness Blonde, a chewy blonde lager that’s unlike anything else the company has ever produced. (That said, this is the first volley in the new “Guinness Discovery Series,” so it’s possible a cranberry lambic is coming up next.)

As for the beer, it is awfully good. Thick and rich, this malty brew drinks like a Czech style pilsner, with a core of buttery biscuits and a very mild nuttiness underpinning it. The body is moderately creamy, which balances the mild fresh-baked bread character quite well, and it offers a curious touch of brown sugar and cinnamon on the back end. Guinness Blonde American Lager is both filling to the stomach and pleasing on the tongue. It’s hardly the deep dive into the abyss that standard Guinness Stout is, but it makes for an interesting foil to the standard Guinness bloodline — and an obvious choice for the bottom half of a Black and Tan.

5% abv. Available September 2014.

A- / $9 per six-pack / guinness.com

Review: Bluewater Distilling Organic Vodka and Halcyon Gin

bluewater halcyon gin 88x300 Review: Bluewater Distilling Organic Vodka and Halcyon GinBluewater Distilling in Everett, Washington makes a variety of spirits (including an aquavit!), but it’s best known for two major staples, a gin and a vodka, both organically produced and crafted in a classic copper pot still — not a column still, which is by far the norm for most vodkas and gins.

Thoughts on both of these spirits follow.

Bluewater Organic Vodka – Pot-distilled from organic wheat. Immediately enticing. Classic, old-world nose, with rich light medicinal character and undertones of old wood and wet earth. This intriguing aroma leads you into an even more engaging palate. The body is surprisingly mild and easygoing, yet it’s quite punchy with flavor. It kicks off with notes of toffee and butterscotch, then develops fruit and acidity as it builds on the tongue. Within a few seconds, it’s pummeling the palate with lemongrass and grapefruit, black pepper, and some pine tree/cedar notes. The finish is both silky and sharp, but lacking in the expected astringency. One of those vodkas that’s easy to sip on at length, even at room temperature. 80 proof. A / $27

Bluewater Halcyon Organic Distilled Gin – Note that the “Bluewater” is very small on the bottle here. You’ll most likely find it listed under “Halcyon” instead. The wheat-based distillate on this London Gin style gin is crafted with a classic 24-hour infusion of juniper, orange, lemon, coriander, angelica root, orris root, licorice root, and cassia bark. The intense nose features lots of fruit, modest juniper, and some spongy, earthy notes driven by a few of the root-based ingredients. Unlike with the vodka, there are few surprises on the palate here. Lemon and orange remain strong, and the juniper is a bit more present on the tongue than the initial nosing would indicate. All in all it is stylistically on par with many a UK-crafted gin and a versatile spirit that works in all kinds of classic cocktails. 92 proof. A- / $30

bluewaterdistilling.com

Review: 2 Wines from the SommSelect Website

1162291x 125x300 Review: 2 Wines from the SommSelect WebsiteIf you’ve ever seen the documentary Somm, you will remember Ian Cauble, the bright-eyed sommelier who seems like a shoo-in to pass the Master Sommelier test administered at the end of the film. I won’t spoil what happens in the movie, but fast forward to today, and Cauble has his own internet wine website, SommSelect. Essentially a spin on the “daily deal” website, SommSelect is focused on bringing limited-release, high-end, international wines to market at discount prices. You won’t find $5 bargain bins here, mind you. The two wines the company sent us to try out both hover around $40 retail (though pricing as they appeared on the SommSelect site during their original offer is not available).

I can’t comment on SommSelect’s service — though the website seems really straightforward and you get free shipping if you buy just two bottles — but I can talk about a couple of the wines the company recently had on offer. Thoughts follow.

2011 Clos du Mont-Olivet Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Unique – This southern Rhone wine drinks like a much more mature bottling than it is, rich with earth tones, raisiny/Port notes, and some chalkiness. Despite a somewhat harsh attack on the palate, a little too balsamic-meets-barnyard for my taste, the wine settles down as it gets some air, offering notes of blackberry jam and distinct notes of fruit-flavored tea. An intriguing combination of Old World and New World, though ultimately those barnyard notes are tough to shake. B / $47

2012 Chanin Wines Chardonnay Los Alamos Vineyard Santa Barbara – Surprisingly tart and lemony for a Chardonnay, only 15% of this wine is finished in new oak, the rest remaining in neutral oak barrels. Bright with fruit and grassy notes, it does open up as it warms (as Cauble’s tasting notes promise), revealing apricot notes, creme brulee, ginger, and a seductively mushroomy, earthy backbone. A- / $38

sommselect.com

Tasting the Wines of Washington’s Columbia Winery with Winemaker Sean Hails

1288 300x225 Tasting the Wines of Washingtons Columbia Winery with Winemaker Sean HailsThough we’re only a few hundred miles away, here in California we honestly don’t see many wines from Washington state. And yet, after California, Washington has the 2nd largest number of wineries in the country.

Columbia is one of them. Not to be confused with Columbia Crest, Columbia recently became part of the Gallo empire, rebranded and relabeled its bottles, and hired Sean Hails to oversee the operation. With a focus on affordable bottlings (plus a large number of unique offerings sold only in the winery’s tasting room), Columbia seems to be keeping quality high and prices low.

I recently dined with winemaker Hails at Sausailto’s Murray Circle, where we tasted through the 2012 vintage of three of the company’s flagship wines, all bargains at $14 a bottle. Thoughts follow.

2012 Columbia Winery Chardonnay Columbia Valley – 89% chardonnay with some semillon and chenin blanc. This is a crisp wine with apple and lemon notes, some baking spice, and good acid. Really well made all around, with the fruit doing most of the talking. A-

2012 Columbia Winery Merlot Columbia Valley – 85% merlot, plus cabernet and syrah. Licorice and some smoke on the nose, but the body is all fruit, with well-integrated tannins and a simple blackberry/strawberry/raspberry character to it. Simple, well-honed finish. A-

2012 Columbia Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley – 86% cabernet sauvignon, with touches of petit verdot, syrah, and malbec. The only wine not totally ready to drink here, it’s thick with tannin and tight  but offers some jammy fruit, tempered with dusty notes of charcoal. This is a simpler wine but one which can handle food well. B+

columbiawinery.com

 

Review: 3 Wines from Four Vines, 2014 Releases

four vines 128x300 Review: 3 Wines from Four Vines, 2014 ReleasesThree new releases from our friends at Four Vines. Thoughts follow.

2012 Four Vines Naked Unoaked Chardonnay Santa Barbara – Unoaked as promised, which leaves this SoCal Chard buttery without being stuffed full of wood and sawdust notes. The body’s bigger than most unoaked Chardonnays I’ve experienced of late, which is a nice balance to the wine’s natural acidity. Some light vanilla biscuit notes round out the finish. Great price on this. A- / $10

2011 Four Vines Biker Zinfandel Paso Robles – A big, chocolaty Zin, dense with raisiny, Port-like notes, ample sweetness, notes of vanilla, and a nice chocolate kick on the back end. Plays poorly with food but can work all right as an after-dinner sipper. B / $20

2011 Four Vines Truant Zinfandel California Old Vines – A meatier, more nuanced Zin, loaded with chocolate but balanced by notes of plum and blackberry, some smoke, and some earthy bramble notes. Better balance here than in the overblown Biker, and better both on its own and with a meal. Another outstanding value. A- / $10

fourvines.com

Review: Rivulet Artisan Pecan Liqueur

Rivulet03B 525x787 Review: Rivulet Artisan Pecan Liqueur

Rivulet isn’t exactly a boozy praline in a glass, but it’s gettin’ there. As an enthusiast of all things Cajun, I mean that as a compiment.

Made from barrel-aged brandy, pecans, and other secret ingredients (sugar, methinks!), Rivulet offers a rich, toasty pecan nose with undercurrents of cinnamon, cloves, and brown sugar. The body is unctuous and deep, full of nutty flavor and backed with a ton of sweetness. The sweetness is what sticks with you, just like that slowly melting sugar of a good praline, coating the back of the mouth while the nuts take on a more glazed, dessert-like quality.

Nut-oriented liqueurs are often a simple experience along these lines, and Rivulet is no exception, bringing just about the right amount of sweetness to bear on one of my favorite nuts. It sips well on its own, excels in dessert cocktails in lieu of amaretto and its ilk, and undoubtedly has lots of utility in the world of baked goods.

60 proof.

A- / $24 / rivulet.com

Review: Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old

willettrye Review: Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old

 

With Willett’s renaissance running high, people have been waiting with anticipation for the first 100% rye offering from master distiller Drew Kulsveen’s new operations at the distillery.  Thankfully, patience has paid off and the whiskey was worth the wait. This small batch rye is like a rookie baseball player stepping up to the plate and hitting a walk-off home run at his first major league at-bat. Don’t be deceived by the label’s youthful age statement: this bottle presents a maturity that belies a rye aged only two years. It’s immediately evident in the nose; where there’s a wild complexity of citrus and spice that proceeds to a dose of floral notes. Tasting is another matter altogether: there’s an immediate hot punch usually reserved for rye spirits 4 to 6 years older, with wood and cinnamon giving way to a finish generous with fruit and mint that lingers for a pleasantly long time.

This is just the opening volley for something potentially incredible happening down the road in Bardstown (an expression with a Grand Marnier finish is on tap for later this fall), and as a bonus we get to reap the benefits of time. As the stock gets older, it will be interesting to mark the contrast between younger and older siblings of the same stock. If this two-year rye is indicative of things to come in the future, get ready for the media myth-making maelstrom to catapult the Willett brand into the stratosphere.

109 Proof.

A- / $40 / kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone Bourbon

With over a dozen spirits on offer, Three Oaks, Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery has a specific focus on craft whiskeys, bottling six expressions of the stuff in its permanent lineup. Here we review three — all young and punchy, and all worth sampling at least once.

Thoughts follow.

Silver sq 130x300 Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone BourbonJourneyman Distillery Silver Cross Whiskey – Made from a mash of equal parts rye, wheat, corn, and barley. No age statement. The nose is youthful and grain-focused, with citrus notes and some sea salt character along with touches of menthol. The body, as you might expect, has a ton going on. Alongside some surprisingly supple grains, I get notes of chocolate caramels, butterscotch, and Bit-O-Honey. It’s a rustic liquid dessert all the way — unusual for a young craft whiskey. A drop or two of water goes a long way toward smoothing out its rough edges and coaxing the sweetness forward. 1% of proceeds from the sale of this product go to a local golf-oriented charity. 90 proof. A- / $50


Journeyman Distillery Ravenswood Rye
– An organic blend of Minnesota rye and Michigan wheat, aged in 15 gallon barrels. No age statement. Notes of licorice and phenol on the nose, settling into an intense herbal character. The body is racy and on par with craft expectations: Very young, punchy, and heavy on granary notes. Give it some time, though. As with Silver Cross, notes of chocolate and caramel emerge, along with touches of orange peel, quinine, and a touch of Bing cherries. Less enticing than the Silver Cross (though, againFeatherbone 750 130x300 Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone Bourbon, water is of benefit here), but a solid effort. Reviewed: Batch #29, bottle #50. 90 proof. B / $50

Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon – Named for the Featherbone Factory, a Prohibition-era factory that made buggy whips and corsets and in which Journeyman is now based. Made of midwest organic corn, Michigan wheat, a little rye, and malted barley. Noage information offered. Credible craft bourbon here. It’s frontier style stuff, with a grainy, rustic attack, but the body settles down to reveal lots of vanilla, milk chocolate, and a touch of hazelnut. As with the Silver Cross, Featherbone eschews fruit in favor of dessert, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 90 proof. B+ / $45

journeymandistillery.com

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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