Tasting Report: Hardy Cognac

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I recently had the good fortune to taste Cognac with one of its grande dames, Benedicte Hardy, one of the proprietor’s of the Cognac Hardy house in France.

Benedicte recently visited San Francisco and treated a number of media and trade professionals to a deep dive into Hardy’s “Anniversary Series” lineup at the city’s legendary seafood palace, Scoma’s. Five different spirits were tasted, along with savory bites, cheeses, and chocolates from Michael Recchiuti.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Hardy XO Cognac – Hardy ages its XO for a minimum of 20 years, a long time in this business. This is a blend of grand champagne and petit champagne eaux de vie, which exhibits spicy notes up front, with butterscotch and loads of baking spices on the body. A touch of astringency leads to a nutty finish, with notes of chocolate backing it up. Clean but quite rich. A- / $100  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Hardy Noces de Perle “Pearl” – This cognac carries no age statement but is blended solely from barrels that are 30 years old (“no more, no less”) — very unusual in Cognac. Pure grande champagne eau de vie, from here on out. Feminine and delicate at first, the Cognac presents increasing notes of vanilla and butterscotch as it develops. Floral elements emerge on the finish, making for a very pretty and engaging spirit. (Price may be high.) A / $900

Hardy Noces d’Or – “Gold” for the 50 year anniversary — though it’s the only bottling in this series that doesn’t have a formal English nickname. Much like the Rosebud, this is made entirely from 50 year old spirit. Richer and nuttier, with stronger notes of citrus peel, red berries, and some leather and tobacco notes. A more powerful expression that has a lot in common with the XO. A- / $225

Hardy Noces de Diamant “Diamond” – 60 years old. More fruit here, particularly up front, though the back end is a bit dulled by a significant wood influence, which overpowers some of the sweeter caramel and vanilla notes at the core. Still a lovely expression. A- / $700

Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” – This is a slight departure from the above, a blend of Cognacs aged between 75 and 100 years; an extreme rarity, only 500 bottles have been sold to date worldwide. The nose starts with sultry incense, grapefruit, and golden raisins. The body takes all the sunshine and elevates it with beautiful bursts of citrus, light sandalwood, and some strawberry. The finish holds the brightness, offering a touch of toffee and a hint of pie crust. Perfect spirits are hard to come by, but Rosebud is clearly one of them. I guess Charles Foster Kane knew what he was talking about. A+ / $2250

hardycognac.fr

Review: 2014 Josh Cellars Chardonnay

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This widely available wine carries an unspecific California appellation, but it drinks at a surprisingly much higher level than that would normally indicate.

Pretty pear and apple notes are balanced by mild caramel and vanilla — but Josh Chardonnay stays well on this side of the “oaky-buttery” monstrosity that informs most California chardonnay. The finish is clean, slightly sweet with notes of pie crust and sugar cookies — uncomplicated, but refreshing and brisk.

An amazing value and a worthwhile wine.

A- / $14 / joshcellars.com

Review: Beers of Yee-Haw Brewing

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Johnson City, Tennessee is the home to Yee-Haw Brewing, which offers four permanent brews in addition to rotating seasonals. We tried all the members of the primary lineup (from bottles, which today you’ll find only in Tennessee and Kentucky). Thoughts follow.

Yee-Haw Pilsner – Surprisingly bold for a pilsner, both showcasing ample malt along with moderate hops and a big nutty character to boot — the latter two of which are not readily characteristic of pilsner. Notes of roasted vegetables and even coffee arrive on the back end as the finish fades. The overall experience is engaging and a little mysterious — it’s not a bad beer, but stylistically it doesn’t really fit with expectations. 5.3% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Pale Ale – Restrained, but bitter enough (~35 IBUs), and backed up by notes of mushroom, fresh herbs, and roasted meats — alongside sweeter, chewy malt notes. With much in common with the English style of pale ale (rather than today’s hops-or-bust west coast IPAs), it balances bitterness with other elements to showcase a gentler, lightly sweeter ale that’s worth some attention. 5.7% abv. A-

Yee-Haw Eighty (80 Shilling) Scottish-Style Ale – Bold and nutty, with overtones of coffee, caramelized carrot, brown sugar, and toffee. Its burly body smolders on the tongue and goes down easy, any bitterness rather expediently washed away by the sweet malt and hints of raisin and prune on the finish. 5% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Brewing Dunkel Munich Dark Lager – Another rich and nutty beer, loaded with coffee and chocolate overtones and a heavy, belly-filling maltiness that lingers forever. The finish is loaded with the essence of chocolate malted milk balls, with a hoppy, slightly weedy bitter edge. Compare and contrast to the 80. 5.5% abv. B+

pricing NA / yeehawbrewing.com

Tasting the Beers of Baeltane Brewing, Spring 2016 Releases

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Baeltane Brewing is located right in my backyard in Novato, California — they have brewed their beer in an industrial park here since 2012 and even run a little tasting room out of the front of it. Baeltane can also be found in bars and stores around the Bay Area, all the way up to Lake Tahoe.

Recently I dropped in on Baeltane to taste with head brewer Alan Atha and his partner Cathy Portje (both pictured). Beers on tap are highly seasonal but are always highly influenced by Belgian and northern French classics, Atha’s favorite styles. Here’s a look at what’s cooking in spring 2016 (all sampled on draught, unless noted).

021Baeltane Cobblestone Biere de Garde – French in style, with a slightly tart edge (though far from a sour). Nutty, with notes of cocoa and berries, with a huge amount of malt. 6.6% abv. B+

Baeltane Corsair Dark Strong Ale – A Trappist ale, quite burly with notes of maple syrup, mushroom, raisin, and plum. Lots of malt again, with woody overtones on the finish. 9% abv. A-

Baeltane Citroen Farmhouse Ale – Of Baeltane’s releases, I’ve experienced this one the most often, a hoppy and fruity brew that is loaded with notes of apples and oranges, plus a touch of spice. A refreshing beer with a bright and crisp finish and which drinks like a much lower alcohol beer. 7.5% abv. A-

Baeltane Luminesce Tripel – From bottle. Gooey, dark caramel and dark brown sugar coats the palate. The malt here is overwhelming, leading to some vegetal notes on the finish for me. 10% abv. B

Baeltane Quagmyre Scottish Ale – Very dark malt notes, loaded up with chicory and coffee character. Dark and brooding, it evokes wood notes on the finish. 6% abv. B+

Baeltane Beleriand Barleywine – Aged in Arkansas Black Applejack barrels (another local company). A gorgeous Portlike brew, but strong as hell, with notes of crab apple, raisin, and heavy spice on the finish. Really grows on you over time, but will knock you out in short order. 12% abv. A-

Baeltane The Frog That Ate the World Double IPA – Baeltane’s sole west coast style poured today was arguably my favorite, a strongly bitter brew with classic piney notes — but also a bit outside the box, with touches of wet earth and some fresh, grassy notes, too. 8.5% abv. A-

prices vary / baeltanebrewing.com

Review: Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Lineup – 12 DeLuxe, Master, 18 Special Reserve, and Red Seal

Buchanan's Special Reserve

Buchanan’s isn’t a blended Scotch brand that gets a whole lot of play, or respect, stateside, and my experiences with it in the past have not been particularly memorable.

Today I put aside my preconceptions and sat down with the full hierarchy of four expressions, tasting them in order from bottom to top, to see how they really stack up against the big blend brands. Note that two of the products are just “Buchanan’s.” The higher-echelon bottlings add “James” to the front of that to give them more gravitas.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

Buchanan’s DeLuxe 12 Years Old – Malty and fresh, this is a young but lively blend  that showcases ample honey and sugared cereal notes, plus a light dusting of citrus. The finish is surprisingly lengthy and warming, its honey and lemon notes hanging on for quite awhile. Overall, it’s exactly what you’re expecting in a light-bodied blended Scotch, uncomplicated and built for blending — or budget sipping, if that’s your bag. B+ / $26

Buchanan’s Master – A NAS blend that is the “personal creation” of master blender Keith Law. It’s a burlier, more savory blend that more clearly showcases the grain, heather, and some light mushroom notes. A bolder, more oily body leads to a slightly vegetal finish, lengthy with notes of roasted nuts, rhubarb, and a bit of motor oil. An interesting adjunct to the 12, but less balanced or clear in its approach. B / $38

James Buchanan’s Special Reserve 18 Years Old – Drinking with austerity, this blend amps up notes of almond, nougat, and chocolate, all atop a dense honey syrup backbone that gives it some weight. Some orange notes arrive on the otherwise nutty finish, touched with a slight dusting of herbs — and a healthy, palate-coating grip. Surprisingly engaging. A- / $60

James Buchanan’s Red Seal – The top of the Buchanan’s line, here we find the blend pumping up the sherry considerably, while backing that up with a weighty, oily body that offers plenty of malt, nougat, and a smattering of fresh herbs, particularly a clipping of rosemary. The finish is enduring and strongly focused on the sherry component, an unmistakably earthy, woody, slightly sweet orange peel character that really endures, leaving behind echoes of toasted marshmallow and slivered almonds. As blends go, you’ll have trouble finding one with more nuance and grace. A- / $140

buchananswhisky.com

Review: Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Complete Lineup

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Rhum agricole (made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses) is a French style of rum-making made almost exclusively in the French West Indies, specifically on Martinique, where the majority of agricole producers (at least 14 of them) can be found.

Less well-known in the U.S. is rhum agricole from Guadeloupe, which is the home of Damoiseau (among many other distilleries). Damoiseau has been producing spirits for 70 years and is now is imported into the U.S. by Rhum Clement, which makes its own highly-regarded agricole line.

The distillery produces four different bottlings. All are reviewed below. Thoughts follow.

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 80 Proof – Single distilled and rested in an oak vat for six months before being brought down to proof. Color is completely clear and transparent. Quite cachaca-like on the nose, with heavy overtones of petrol mixed with super-sweet tropical notes, white sugar, and notes of white flowers. On the palate, the rum is a bit thin, with the myriad overtones present in the nose dialed way back on the tongue. The floral elements are the strongest of these, with some mushroom and earth elements emerging in time. A touch of chocolate on the finish adds a bit of nuance where I wasn’t expecting to find much of any. Interesting, at the very least. 80 proof. B / $30

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 110 Proof – Overproof cane rum isn’t common, but here we have Damoiseau’s, aged in oak for three months and bottled with a tinge of yellow left behind. The overall character is very similar to the 80 proof, but with more of a vanilla note on the palate. The already intense petrol notes are enhanced by the abv here, but they manage to remain enough in check so that you can sip on this rum without water — though, again, it is obviously designed for use as a high-test mixer in tiki and other exotic drinks. Worth keeping on the back bar for special occasions. 110 proof. B / $34

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole VSOP – Aged for a minimum of four years in ex-bourbon barrels. Here we see more classic old rum character — notes of brown sugar, banana, coconut, caramel, and baking spices, all whipped up into a concoction you could sip on any time, but particularly alongside something sweet to eat. While the nose isn’t as expressive as the body, the overall impact is both expressive and complex, a subtle smokiness emerging on the finish to add to its mysteries. 84 proof. A- / $42

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole XO – Aged for a minimum of six years in ex-bourbon barrels. Heady Cognac overtones lead the way to this XO bottling, which is a bit winey, floral, and fruit-heavy on the nose, with notes of incense popping up. The body takes on herbal notes of thyme and rosemary, its muted caramel sweetness backed up by some not insignificant barrel char notes, a modest slug of raisin and dried cherry, and a drying, slightly tannic finish. This is a rum not particularly showcasing “extra old” character but rather exhibiting its turbulent adolescence, offering ample contradictions and only a hint of underlying sweetness. 84 proof. A- / $70

damoiseaurhum.com

Review: Laphroaig Lore

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“The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies.” “A stunningly complex expression.” “The story of how we make Laphroaig, encapsulating the skills that have been passed down from generation to generation for over two centuries.”

Laphroaig doesn’t beat around the bush when describing Laphroaig Lore, its newest limited edition release from the peat-filled island of Islay.

Lore is heavy on superlatives but short on actual production information. What is known is that it is a “marriage of classical Laphroaig styles and many ages of Laphroaig; some as old as vintage 1993.” What that means is that Lore is essentially a vatting of a wide range of Laphroaig casks, including including “double matured first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels followed by virgin European Oak, first-fill Oloroso Sherry butts, first-fill and refill quarter casks, and refill ex-Laphroaig stock.”

So, you can take a shot of every bottle of Laphroaig in your collection and mix it up… or try this.

The results are quite good, completely in line with some of Laphroaig’s best expressions.

The nose is loaded with classic and heavy peat notes, all iodine, seaweed, and beachside fire pit. The sweetness lies beneath, taking the form of green banana, tangerine, and some scorched cloves.

On the palate, things start off as expected, with dense and sticky-smoky-sweet peat over everything. Quite a bit of that fruit comes through — primarily sherry-driven citrus notes, backed up by notes of sugar cookies, lemongrass, and lots of salty brine. The finish is big, bold, and lengthy, gripping the palate for ages. All the stuff of classic Laphroaig, just a bit outsized in comparison to standard expressions.

Lore doesn’t reinvent the wheel (Laphroaig would likely argue that it merely rediscovers it), but it’s not one that was in need of reinvention in the first place.

96 proof.

A- / $125 / laphroaig.com