Review: Anchor Distilling Old Tom Gin

Anchor OldTomGin081514KO-HR

Old Tom, for the uninitiated, is a style of gin that was last at its height of popularity somewhere around 1880. As London Dry came to the forefront, Old Tom fell out of favor, and from the 1950s until a few years ago, no one made it.

The modernist cocktail revival has brought Old Tom back to the masses, and San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling is one of a handful leading the charge.

Old Tom has no official style, but it tends to have a bigger body than London Dry gin has but without as much of the bite. Most notably, Old Tom tends to be sweeter, owing to the use of sugar or other added sweetening agents. Old Tom also tends to be pot-distilled while most London Dry gins are column distilled. Some brands are barrel aged before bottling (like the vastly different Ransom Old Tom). Anchor’s Old Tom is pot-distilled and, while not aged, it is unfiltered, giving it a gentle cloudiness you don’t see in London Dry gin. The gin is flavored with the typical gin botanicals, but the infusion bill also includes star anise and licorice, plus the addition of stevia as a sweetener.

Lightly hazy, Anchor Old Tom Gin gets going with a nose of sharp juniper but also sweet dairy cream and citrus. There’s an undercurrent of savory herbs — coriander-like — that complement all of the above. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet — not overdone, but lightly sugary and touched with a bit of cinnamon. A lightly woody, almost smoky element arrives after some time in glass, until, finally, the licorice/anise element hits solidly as the finish builds. Anchor Old Tom goes out not with a fiery bang but with a sigh, slowly making its sultry, sweet escape.

90 proof.

A- / $30 / anchordistilling.com

Review: Boulard Calvados Pays d’Auge VSOP

Boulard VSOP 70 CL-1Boulard is one of the pre-eminent producers of Calvados. This VSOP is just one step up from Boulard’s entry-level bottling, composed of a blend of brandies aged 4 to 10 years old, but it shows nonetheless how one company can do wonders with the simple apple.

Crisp, classic apple notes are fresh on the nose, touched with lively menthol, cocoa powder, and gentle astringency. The body is lush with the essence of a boozy apple pie — fresh and baked apples, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon, and a gingery finish. Straightforward but sophisticated and well-crafted, it’s a near-perfect expression of a younger apple brandy.

80 proof.

A- / $50 / calvados-boulard.com

Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky - Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) and Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015)

Winter/spring seasonals from Deschutes have arrived — both can likely be considered 2014/2015 releases, but we did our best on pegging them to a release year in order to keep things organized for those searching through the archives. Thoughts follow.

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) – This heavily malted Northwest Pale Ale is immediately sweet from the start, with an almost maple syrup character to it. Less blatantly sugar-focused than I remember from prior bottlings, this expression also features slightly less alcohol, which helps to liven up the body a bit. Some orange flower and candied grapefruit notDeschutes-HopHengeIPA-Labeles emerge on the finish if you give it some time to warm up a bit. 6.2% abv. B+

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015) – This classic “IBU escalation” brew is now engaging in a bit of “abv escalation,” too. Last year’s Hop Henge was a “mere” 8.8% alcohol. Now it’s pushing 10%. Dropping from 99 IBUs to 90 hasn’t hurt: This year the beer is drinking with a nice balance of piney notes, grapefruit, and a touch of caramel sauce on the back end. I catch faint notes of baked apple and incense, as well, making this a more complex and, frankly, enjoyable beer than it’s been in recent years. 9.5% abv. A-

each about $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer

claiborne and churchill Dry_Gewurztraminer_no_vintage_lTwo aromatic whites from this San Luis Obispo-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22

claibornechurchill.com

Review: 2012 Markham Cellar 1879 Blend Napa Valley

markhamGod bless the lunatic who dreamed up this insane blend of six grapes that shouldn’t go together. Markham’s Cellar 1879 blend is composed of Napa grapes in this proportion: 36% Merlot, 21% Petite Sirah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 9% Zinfandel, and 8% Petit Verdot. Named in honor of Markham’s founding, it’s an insanely drinkable bottling that won’t break the bank.

There’s lots going on here: Intense violets, chocolate sauce, and a core of blackberry jam. Big currant notes build up, but it’s vanilla and chocolate — almost confectionery in quality — that dominate the juicy finish. Fortunately this is all just short of hitting that rampant jamminess that mars so many wines, and the floral elements are present throughout — though fleeting. A fantastic food wine, it’s a bit sweet (and a bit dangerous) on its own.

A- / $25 / markhamvineyards.com

Book Review: Fire Water

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

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

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

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

A- / $27 / [BUY IT HERE]

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

kai

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

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

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

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

kaivodka.com

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

crown royal texas barrel select

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

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

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

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

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

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

103 proof.

A- / $55 / crownroyal.com

Review: 2012 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate Bottled

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

A- / $30 / charleskrug.com