Review: Smithworks American Made Vodka


“From the heartland,” the bottle boldly proclaims. Water from Lake Fort Smith, grain (corn) from Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Triple distilled in Kansas, bottled in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And Blake Shelton is the brand’s spokesperson.

So yeah, that’s some heartland stuff right there.

I’m happy to report that the heartland acquits itself admirably with this production. The vodka is solid stuff.

The nose is clean, offering lightly medicinal notes and a modest charcoal undercurrent. While lightly sweet on the palate, Smithworks keeps the sugar in check and lets some other elements shine on the body, including florals and quite a bit of fruit: a light dusting of cherries, red apples, and a hint of rhubarb. The finish is clean, again a touch sweet but on the whole working well with those light fruit elements.

All told it’s a versatile vodka, and one you can feel proud of pouring into your punch on the Fourth of July, dad gummit!

A- / $16 /

Review: Grand Poppy Liqueur

Los Angeles-based Greenbar Distillery is the home of TRU organic vodka, Crusoe rums, and Bar Keep bitters… plus this truly unique product, a bitter liqueur made (in part) from poppies.

Distilled from molasses a la rum, the finished product has quite a list of odd botanicals inside, including California poppy, orange, lemon, grapefruit, bearberry, California bay leaf, pink peppercorn, dandelion, blessed thistle, burdock, rue, artichoke, gentian, geranium, and cherry bark. The spirit is sweetened with cane sugar before bottling. Of special note, all of the ingredients (including the molasses) in the spirit are organic.

The nose offers an essence of lightly sweetened tea plus a smattering of savory herbs, including cloves, mint, mown grass, mixed florals, and a hint of tobacco. The palate sweetens the tea up a lot, at least up front, giving it a brown sugar/molasses spin before settling into heavier notes of more straightforward, earthy black tea. It takes some time for this all to fade and for the enchanting finish to emerge, which offers heady notes of jasmine, more florals, and a gentle but chewy and enduring gentian-driven bitterness reminiscent of a milder amaro.

What elevates Grand Poppy over, say, a typical bittersweet liqueur, is how beautifully all of these flavors come together, moving from sweet to floral to bitter, ending on a pretty combination of all of the above. Grand Poppy is hardly a household name but, well, here’s hoping this helps it become one.

40 proof.

A- / $30 /

Visiting and Tasting With Hourglass Wines


“Michelin restaurants have more equipment than we do.”

So says Tony Biagi, winemaker at north Napa’s Hourglass and a celebrity in his own right, having made wines at Plumpjack, CADE, and other blue-chip operations. Now he’s got another feather in his cap in the form of Hourglass, a cult winery in the making, where a few years ago he replaced Bob Foley as winemaker.

Hourglass is the brainchild of Jeff and Carolyn Smith. Jeff is a wine veteran with grapes in his blood — his family’s been making wine in the Valley since 1975. After a stint selling Skyy and watching it become a national phenomenon (Jeff says he came up with the cobalt blue bottle), he bought his first vineyard, planted mainly cabernet, and hasn’t looked back.

Hourglass now has 18 vintages under its belt, and with Biagi now holding the reins, the winery seems poised for greatness, with a series of coveted releases now under its belt. Biagi will talk your ear off about his research into balancing tannin with “bound color” in a wine while aiming to minimally manipulate his finished product, but the main event today surrounds tasting a collection of young and unbottled 2015 vintage wines, including single-varietal malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc (one of Biagi’s beloved pet projects), plus some pre-release blends made from these grapes.

Some photos of this small but impressively well-designed winery follow, along with official tasting notes from three current/almost-released expressions of Hourglass’s cabernets from the 2014 vintage. Thanks to Tony and Jeff for a great day in Napa!

2014 Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – I love this wine (which is 100% cabernet sauvignon). So nicely balanced, it offers an incredibly complex profile of gentle fruit, saddle leather, pipe tobacco, and violets. A slight balsamic edge endures well into the palate, which leads to a finish of black pepper, (very) dark chocolate, and tart blackberry. The denouement is lengthy, a classic yet complex representation of Napa cab. A / $165

2014 Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A denser and bolder version of the the flagship wine, 90% cab blended with 6% malbec and 4% petit verdot, all drawn from Hourglass’s prized Blueline Estate Vineyard. This wine ups the ante on those tobacco and leather notes, tamping down the fruit a tad in the service of brambly tannins. Blackberry emerges as the wine opens up, along with restrained floral notes and some citrus. Again, give this one ample time or decant and chocolate notes emerge as well. A- / $125

2014 Hourglass Blueline Estate 36-24-36 – Moving up to the really rare stuff. Named for the iconic measurements of the “perfect” woman, this is a blend of 92% cabernet sauvignon and 8% petit verdot. This is a dense wine, more so than I would have expected based on this blend, loaded with hardy licorice, balsamic, and tart blackberry atop well-integrated oak notes and a light herbal character. There’s epic length here, culminating in some light menthol notes and a touch of cocoa. It’s enchanting today, but this wine needs ample time to open up — either by decanting or significant time in glass… or by letting it age in bottle for a few more years. A- / $225

Review: Compass Box The Circus and Enlightenment


Two new limited expressions from the ever-interesting blenders at Compass Box: The Circus and Enlightenment. Let’s take a look at both. Thoughts follow.

Compass Box The Circus – This is another complicated whisky that requires an infographic to explain how it is blended. The gist is that The Circus is composed of a mix of old malt whisky, grain whisky, and blended stock, in these proportions: 57.2% blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt; 26% blended grain whisky from a refill sherry butt; 15.4% Benrinnes malt whisky from a first-fill sherry butt, and 1.4% of a second blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt. Whew! Compass Box says it actually doesn’t know much about the whiskies inside those mystery casks, but that those refill casks are all “marrying casks,” and that the whiskies inside each of them have been lingering there for a long, long time. To say that this whisky is sherry forward would be a massive understatement. All that time in sherry butts has given the spirit a nutty, citrus-peel intensity that is the very essence of sherry cask aging. Secondary aromas include tea leaf and tree bark. Underneath all that, the palate offers notes of nougat, cinnamon, dried fruit, and gentle brown sugar. It drinks more like a sherried single malt than a blend, providing just a hint of the underlying malty grain that endures into the finish, where lightly herbal notes linger. A stellar blend. 98 proof. 2490 bottles produced. A / $300

EnlightenmentCompass Box Enlightenment – This is a much different but equally complicated whisky, a blended malt rather than a standard blend (meaning there’s no grain whisky in this one). It’s almost all aged in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, so there’s no sherry influence and the color is much, much lighter. The all-single-malt blend looks like this: 48.2% Clynelish, 36.7% Glentauchers, 10.8% Balblair, and 4.3% Mortlach (this one in a rejuvenated bourbon barrel). UK regulations prevent revealing the ages of these whiskies, but nonetheless these are not young bucks. The nose reveals toasty wood, coconut, almonds, and subtle gingerbread notes. On the palate, there’s more of this lightly sweet, nutty character, leading to almond-laden nougat and Christmas spice notes later on. The finish is a bit heavier, with bolder granary notes, new leather, and a sense of wet earth that tends to weigh down the delights that have come before. Enlightenment is still a great whiskey — though perhaps it is difficult to consider it entirely fairly next to the near-masterpiece of The Circus. That said, I could still drink it every day. 92 proof. 5922 bottles produced. A- / $90

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2016 Edition


Here’s a quintet of whiskeys you might have heard of once or twice. Yes, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has arrived, which will probably be sold out before I finish typing this sentence. Well, if you’re a glutton for punishment and want to take a stab at finding one of these rarities — particularly because this year’s batch is so exceptional — read on for the reviews.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Last year’s Sazerac 18 was famously bottled from the last drops of its massive quantity of well-aged rye, which had been sitting in tanks since 1985. 2016 marks the first “new” batch of Sazerac Rye in more than a decade. Distilled in 1998, there’s no tanked spirit in this batch — and, Buffalo Trace says, there won’t be any more tanked whiskey going forward. As it should, the whiskey tastes a bit different now, quite spicy on the nose with a huge baking spice punch while hanging on to its classic notes of brandied cherries, juicy raisins, and a layer of sandalwood. Some grassiness emerges on the nose, given time . The palate is racier and drier than expected, peppery on the back of the palate while allowing its cherry core to shine and light, toasty wood notes to emerge. The finish is lasting and allows some brown sugar notes to shine through, adding some balance to the lingering lumber. It may not be the same Sazzy 18, but it’s still a beauty. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – The 2016 edition of the classic Eagle Rare 17 has been aging on the first, second and third floors of Warehouses H and K. The nose feels racier than usual, eventually settling down to reveal some surprises: exotic and heavily tropical notes of coconut and pineapple, with a healthy dollop of vanilla on top. This highly unexpected but delightful nose spills over onto the palate, which is well-sweetened to the point where it approaches rum, although that is tempered by plenty of wood later in the game. Some more toasted coconut and almond notes emerge on the back end, alongside a modest level of barrel char. It’s at once strikingly unusual and, at the same time, a classically fruit-forward bourbon that is well worth exploring. 90 proof. A

George T. Stagg Bourbon – Always the centerpiece of the BTAC yet often overblown, this year’s Stagg is a cherry-picked compilation of 142 barrels sourced from warehouses M, N, H, L and K. Old stock, high proof, as always — this one’s over 72% abv, bruising even by Stagg standards. Notes of unlit cigars, rosemary, and cloves kick things off on rich and dense yet surprisingly balanced nose. Another surprise: At full proof the bourbon doesn’t completely overwhelm the palate with alcohol, but it is so dusty and drying on that it’s tough to cut through the massive amount of tannin to really appreciate what’s going on. Water is always Stagg’s best friend, and this year is no exception, eventually coaxing sweetness from that intense tobacco character, plus cherry fruit, loads of vanilla, torched marshmallow, and more cloves. As it opens up in the glass — again, particularly with water — it develops an intensely smoky aroma, which is a natural companion with the tobacco notes but which does tend to dull the fruit and leave your mouth a bit dry. That aside, this year’s expression is quite unique and worth some exploration, nearly earning the vaunted reputation it’s always had. 144.1 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A 13 year old expression of Weller — uncut, unfiltered, wheated recipe bourbon distilled in the spring of 2003 and aged on the third and sixth floors of Warehouses D, K, and L. As is becoming the norm with these BTAC Wellers, the nose is quite sweet, with (again) a butterscotch influence, plus marzipan and peppermint. The palate backs these up, but the finish takes a turn toward a more spicy, wintry character. While approachable at full, uncut proof, water may not be a bad idea, though more than a drop or two tends to dull some of the sweetness that otherwise makes this year’s Weller so compelling. One of the best expressions of W.L. Weller I’ve had in many years. 135.4 proof. A-

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – As always, this is a good-old six year old rye, the baby of the group, this installment distilled in the spring of 2010 and aged on the fourth, fifth and seventh floors of Warehouses I, K, and M. This year’s expression is better than it usually is, though the relative youth comes across immediately on the nose — moderately woody, with some butterscotch underneath. The tannin hits hard on the palate — those pushy lumberyard notes really lingering at the back of the throat. Unlike with the Stagg, water doesn’t restore balance but just dilutes the whole affair, bringing forth notes of burnt toast, heavy cereal, and lots of smoky oak. The finish is dusty and slightly green. There’s nothing all that offensive here, but compared to this field (or any other top shelf whiskey) it is just very ordinary. 126.2 proof. B

$90 each /

Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate Whiskey


Seven Stills of San Francisco‘s next act in its distilled-from-beer whiskey line is Fluxuate, which is distilled from a coffee porter. To pump up the coffee flavor, the finished product is proofed down not just with water but also with a small amount of cold brewed coffee from a company called Flux (hence the name).

The nose is, surprisingly, not overwhelming with coffee but rather offers a dense Port wine note, enhanced with vanilla, dark chocolate, and spice. The coffee is far more intense on the palate, where it meets notes of licorice, dusty wood shavings, gingerbread, and fireplace ash. Additionally there is an ample grain character here, particularly on the finish, where it successfully challenges the coffee notes for dominance. That said, the balance of flavors here is really quite impressive, the coffee and more traditional whiskey elements coming together quite beautifully. Think a denser version of an Irish coffee and you’re on the right track.

94 proof.

A- / $36 (375ml) /  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Jack Daniel’s 150th Anniversary Limited Edition Whiskey


Tennessee’s iconic Jack Daniel’s is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and to celebrate the occasion it’s releasing a special edition of Old No. 7. Production on this release is the same, but JD offers some variations on how (or rather where) it was aged, and it’s bottled at 50% abv instead of 40%. No age statement is provided.

Some additional minutiae from the distillery:

True to the process established by its founder, the grain bill for the anniversary whiskey is the same as the iconic Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, consisting of 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley and 8 percent rye. Each drop was then mellowed through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal, before going into specially-crafted new American oak barrels, adhering to the guidelines required of a Tennessee whiskey.

Once filled, the barrels were placed in the “angel’s roost” of one of the oldest barrelhouses at the Distillery where whiskey has matured for generations at an elevation and with the exposure to sunlight that creates the perfect climate for the greatest interaction between the whiskey and barrel.

The nose is an iconic example of (high proof) Tennessee whiskey, offering ample alcoholic heat, plus aromas of maple syrup, toasted marshmallow, and some barrel char notes. There might be a bit too much heat on the nose, so give it a a drop of water or, at least, some time in glass to help it showcase its wares.

The palate isn’t nearly as racy as the nose would indicate, showing off a fruitier side of Jack, with notes of cinnamon-spiced apples, orange peel, and peaches. There’s ample vanilla, some chocolate-caramel notes, and a moderately dry finish that echoes the charred wood found on the nose. It doesn’t all come together quite perfectly, its tannic notes lingering a bit, but it’s an altogether impressive bottling from one of the biggest names in American whiskey.

100 proof.

A- / $100 (one liter) /