Review: Hillrock Solera Bourbon, Single Malt, Double Cask Rye, and White Rye

HED Family Slate

When famous distiller Dave Pickerell (ex of Maker’s Mark) opened Hillrock Estate Distillery in upstate New York, he had but one product, a high-rye Bourbon aged in the solera style and finished in oloroso sherry casks. Since then, Hillrock has added three more craft distilled products, all super-local and carefully handmade, to its stable: a single malt, a rye, and a white rye (made in limited quantities). We tasted all three new products and took a fresh look at the originl Bourbon to see if things were holding up.

Thoughts follow.

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – This is an update on Hillrock’s crazy solera-aged, oloroso sherry-finished Bourbon. Today I’m finding the sweetness almost overpowering up front: Bit-o-Honey, ripe banana, mandarin oranges, and chewy nougat comprise a complex nose. The body pumps that up further, with notes of pungent coconut, cherry juice, and orange oil. There’s so much going on in this whiskey — and so many flavors outside the norm of Bourbon, sometimes bordering on rum-like — that it can sometimes come across as overwhelming. It’s a mighty curious experience, though, and one that still bears repeating. 92.6 proof. A- / $80

Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey – A New York single malt whiskey, no age statement. Very malty/cereal-focused on the nose, with hints of smoke. There seems to be some fruit in there, but it’s buried under an avalanche of toasted Cheerios. The body offers racy and savory spices, pepper and some cloves, with a growing wood influence racing up behind it. The grain character remains the strongest, however, with lots of well-fired barley rounding out a very youthful but expressive spirit. 86 proof. B / $100

Hillrock Double Cask Rye – Made from estate-grown organic rye, which is aged in traditional oak casks and then finished in secondary casks composed of American oak with a #4 char and 24 months of seasoning. (No actual age statement, though.) The huge level of wood on the nose makes me wonder about the point of that secondary cask finishing. It’s all sawdust and furniture store, dulling the fruit and spice considerably. The palate opens things up a bit, with some butterscotch, caramel apple, and banana bread. It’s actually quite charming in the end, and after the wood wears away a bit (time in glass is good for this, as is water) a more typical essence of rye is revealed. You’ll need to fight for it, though. 90 proof. A- / $90

Hillrock George Washington Rye Whiskey (not pictured) – This is  a white rye, and it’s something pretty unique: “Pot distilled at Hillrock Estate following the General’s original recipe by Mount Vernon Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, each bottle contains an aliquot of whiskey made at the Washingtons’ reconstructed distillery at historic Mount Vernon. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this whiskey supports the educational programs at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” So, in other words, pot-distilled Hillrock rye mixed with a little bit of Mount Vernon rye, bottled unaged. It’s a classic white whiskey, with the focus squarely on the grain, lightly musty, with overtones of new leather, birch bark, tobacco leaf, and freshly turned earth. Sweetness is elusive on this one, but the punchy, roasted grain character — and the touch of history here — make it worth a brief encounter. 86 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

hillrockdistillery.com

Review: Gordon Biersch WinterBock

gordonbierschThis Gordon Biersch seasonal is sold from November to January, a dark, double bock that’s just about perfect for the winter season. Rich and malty with subtle notes of cocoa and coffee, it’s a nicely balanced beer despite a relatively hefty 7.5% abv, which makes the finish a touch winey. Rounded and lush, it offers an almost chewy body that complements its burly flavor profile in impressive fashion.

A- / $7 per six-pack / gordonbiersch.com

Review: Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka

Hanson

Hanson of Sonoma — based in, of course, Sonoma, California — distills its vodkas from the most abundant product around these parts: grapes. Using a massive 50-plate column still, it runs its spirits through seven filtering systems before bottling them in snazzy, artisan-looking bottles (all of which are signed and numbered).

Hanson of Sonoma is sold in six expressions (one straight, five flavored with organic infusions — no syrups or concentrates). We tried five of the six vodkas available — all but the boysenberry version.

All expressions are 80 proof, and all are from batch #0123.

Hanson of Sonoma Vodka – Shockingly fruity. I would have thought this was a flavored vodka, it’s so full of mixed berries — strawberry, blueberry, and hints of citrus. Super light bodied and refreshing, it’s like a distilled pink lemonade. An easy mixing vodka with fruit-centric cocktails. Not a martini vodka. A-

Hanson of Sonoma Mandarin Flavored Vodka – Sweet orange on the nose — the essence of orange Chuckles. The body’s got more grip to it, a medicinal character that overtakes the citrus notes quickly. As the orange fades into the background, a drying, neutral finish takes hold. Fine for your cosmos, I’m sure, but the original, unflavored expression would do the job just as well. B+

Hanson of Sonoma Ginger Flavored Vodka – Very mild ginger on the nose — it could easily be mistaken for lemon or maybe grapefruit. That said, it’s the berry notes of the straight expression of the vodka that come through the clearest, particularly on the palate, though this expression is much drier than the Original. B

Hanson of Sonoma Cucumber Vodka – Another sweeter vodka style, which is a little jarring next to the light cucumber notes here. In fact, the nose has more of a lime zest character to it, while the body is clearer on the vegetal cucumber notes. It eventually comes together on the finish with some crisp spa-water essence, but it’s never distinct enough to merit crafting a cocktail around it. B

Hanson of Sonoma Espresso Flavored Vodka – The big finish always goes to coffee. This is the only non-clear expression of Hanson of Sonoma. Notes of a very dark espresso roast on the nose. The body is pungent, almost bitter with heavily-charred espresso beans. Imagine the darkest, blackest cup of coffee you’ve ever had, then filter that through the lens of a fruity vodka. This one was by far my least favorite expression of the bunch, particularly thanks to its tannic, chalky finish. C-

hansonofsonoma.com

Review: Wines of Sojourn, 2012 Vintage

Sojourner_PN_2011These three new releases hail from Santa Rosa-based Sojourn. The wines themselves are made from grapes sourced all the Northern California wine country. Thoughts follow.

2012 Sojourn Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast – Big and buttery on the nose, and the body largely follows suit. Subtle notes of melon, tropical fruits, and tart gooseberry percolate on the tongue — but it’s that almost overbearing wood-and-vanilla character that sticks with you on the finish, and for a long while after. B / $48

2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Wohler Vineyard Russian River Valley – A lush, rounded Pinot, typical of what you see from the Russian River. Lush cherry and raspberry get a lick of black pepper, some fruit-infused tea, and hints of lychee on the back end. Dangerously drinkable. A- / $48

2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Ridgetop Vineyard Sonoma Coast – Quite a strange expression of Pinot, dense to the point of being almost raisiny on the nose, with some overtones of lavender and wet earth. The body is equally punchy, taking an almost Port-like body and lacing it with vegetal character and more of that wet earth. Needs more acidity — or perhaps just some more bottle time — to bring out the fruit in the grapes. B+ / $59

2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sangiacamo Vineyard Sonoma Coast – A fresh, classic Pinot, this one’s firing almost perfectly. Fresh cherry mingles with touches of black pepper, while the finish sweetens things up a tad with notes of strawberry. Perfect balance with just the right mix of acidity and oomph. Hard to put down. A / $54

sojourncellars.com

Review: Kilchoman Single Cask Releases – Sherry Matured and PX Finish

kilchoman px finish

Lookee here: Two new single-cask, barrel-strength Kilchoman releases (literally, these are both made from one cask), exclusive to U.S. importer ImpEx. We got to try them both.

Kilchoman Single Cask Release Sherry Matured – Distilled in 2009, this Islay whisky then spent 5 years in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. This is a powerful and searing expression of Kilchoman, blazing with peat smoke up front before segueing into notes of burnt orange peel, Madeira, black pepper, and iodine. Not exactly a subtle whisky, but rather a pure essence of Islay, filtered through a sherry haze. The 2012 lower-proof, non-single-cask sherry release of Kilchoman was a bit more manageable. 115.8 proof. Cask #85/09. B / $130

Kilchoman Single Cask Release PX Finish – Distilled in 2009, aged in first-fill Bourbon casks, and finished in a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask. A much more balanced and engaging dram than the above. It’s just as full of seaside peatiness as the Sherry Matured expression, but it finds a foil in sweeter orange and light tropical character, brown sugar, and a gentler expression of smokiness that approaches beautifully barbecued beef. Despite an even higher alcohol level that approaches 60% abv, it’s also an overall gentler whisky — something to savor by the fireside for this surly winter. 118.4 proof. Cask #394/09. A- / $130

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Hudson Baby Bourbon and Four Grain Bourbon

4grain-bourbon

Tuthilltown Spirits, based in Gardiner, New York, has been on the forefront of craft distilling since its launch in 2005. Its Hudson line of craft whiskeys remains one of the most iconic exemplars of what can be done with a careful hand and a lot of ambition, and I’ve interviewed distiller and all-around nice guy Gable Erenzo on several occasions over the years  to talk about his approach to production and, particularly, aging. (Erenzo is a pioneer in the use of small barrels in craft whiskey aging; Hudson whiskeys are aged in a variety of casks ranging from 2 to 14 gallons in size — and Erenzo will often play loud music in the warehouse to get the bass shaking the whiskey in and out of the pores of the wood.)

Today, Tuthilltown markets four whiskeys in its permanent lineup, plus a variety of seasonal releases. Here we look at two of them, including Hudson Four Grain Bourbon and Hudson Baby Bourbon, the first bourbon distilled in New York.

Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey – 100% New York corn, double distilled and aged less than four years in small oak barrels. Unfiltered. This is a whiskey that has always worn its grain on its sleeve, and this bottling is no different. Pure popcorn up front — particularly on the bristly, rustic nose — finally gives way to something sweet after you give this whiskey some air, and some time. With ample patience, you’ll find notes of sweet cherry juice, butterscotch, menthol, and some baking spices. The back end is tough and astringent, bringing back that gritty popcorn character and proving it’s made in a frontier style in every sense of the word. All in all it is not without its charms, but it does require a certain mindset to really get into. Reviewed Year 14, Batch 4. 92 proof. B / $40 (375ml)

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a mash of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley, double distilled and aged under four years. This is a gentler whiskey than the Baby Bourbon — as it should be, due to the addition of those other grains beyond straight corn. The nose is lightly minty, and adds notes of chocolate to a slightly corny base. The body is quite pretty, with a buttery and mouth-filling richness to it, offering notes of creme brulee, intense vanilla, some dried tobacco, and fresh-cut timber. On the finish, touches of popcorn re-emerge to remind you that, four grains or no, you’re still drinking bourbon, and a good one at that. Reviewed Year 11, Batch 24. 92 proof. A- / $42 (375ml)

tuthilltown.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip (2014) and Chasin’ Freshies (2014)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHey, it’s new editions of Hop Trip and Chasin’ Freshies — limited edition IPA seasonals from our friends at Deschutes. Here we go with reviews!

Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip (2014) – A hotter (and more full-bodied) beer than last year’s edition, this pale ale starts off piney but then reveals some chocolate and almond notes, adding an interesting counterpoint to the typical citrus/evergreen character. Quite enjoyable, with a curious touch of cardamom on the finish. 5.9% abv. A- / $9 per six-pack

Deschutes Brewery Chasin’ Freshies Fresh Hop IPA (2014) – This year’s release features Mosaic hops, an “It Hop” if there is such a thing, which gives this seasonal IPA a slight nutty edge to the usual, hoppy pine tree character. Resinous but balanced with notes of grapefruit, cinnamon, and gingerbread, this beer starts out gentle then builds to a bitter, crashing finish. Lots to like here if you’re an IPA nut. 7.4% abv. A / $6 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: James E. Pepper 1776 Ale

1776 Ale PhotoGeorgetown Trading is the company behind John L. Sullivan Irish whiskey and James E. Pepper “1776” whiskey — and now the company has decided to get into barrel-aged beers, too. Proprietor Amir Peay explains:

We had been selling our whiskey barrels to some great brewers and always loved the beer they had been making, and wanted to do some type of collaboration but nobody was interested – so I found a contract brewer and we developed our own recipe and aged it in freshly dumped barrels from our James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye. We wanted to try something a bit different so instead of a porter or stout we went with an imperial brown ale. And the really great thing about this beer is that we have complete control over the supply / age / type of whiskey barrels we use because we have large stocks of whiskey and lay down our own stocks for aging. And even better we time it so our barrels get filled with beer no less than 30 days after the whiskey has been dumped – so you really get that great Rye whiskey finish.

James E. Pepper 1776 Ale is technically a barrel-aged American brown ale in line with other barrel-aged brews of its ilk. Thick and winey, this hefty ale piles on the chocolate and coffee right from the start, alongside some notes of smoked meats, molasses, and plenty of malt. There’s a moderate whiskey influence here — it comes across mainly in vanilla, cinnamon, and gingerbread touches on the finish, hallmarks of rye whiskey (though not particularly James E. Pepper rye whiskey, which I sampled again for this review). Otherwise it’s as powerful and punchy as almost any other barrel-aged beer, long on malty syrup and all but absent on the bitter side of things. Full of flavor, but super-boozy, so tread with caution.

10.4% abv.

A- / $NA (22 oz. bottles) / jamesepepper.com

Review: Glenfiddich “The Original” Single Malt Whisky

2014_Glenfiddich_Tin_Bottle

In 1963 Glenfiddich launched a single malt whisky and sold it outside of Scotland, a highly unusual move considering that the whisky world at the time really only knew of blended Scotch, not single malts. While many may very well debate the claim (considering single malt whisky dates back to at least the 1400s), the distillery has put a stake in the ground as the inventor of the modern single malt category as we now know it.

So, what Glenfiddich has done is recreate the 1963 “Original,” as it was called back then, for a modern audience. Assuming this is an accurate representation of the past, they were drinking pretty impressively back in ’63. Much like the Shackleton recreations, Glenfiddich Original — created in keeping with an authentic recipe from the era and aged in sherry butts — offers a gentler experience with the focus more squarely on the grain.

The Original starts with aromas of nicely roasted malt, rounded out by modest, restrained sherry notes. The nose goes on to offer almond and dried apple plus gentle coal fire notes driven by the wood.  The body is rounded but relaxed and easy, offering notes of coconut, dried banana, light citrus, and fresh hay on the finish. It’s not overwhelmingly complex, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead it’s a lightly sweet, delightfully drinkable whisky that is just as welcome today as it must have been 50 years ago.

80 proof.

A- / $100 / glenfiddich.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting Report: 6 Spanish Garnacha Wines

Some say Garnacha, the Spanish inflection of Grenache, is the next “It Wine.” (It doesn’t hurt that most Garnachas are extremely inexpensive.) Is it so? We tasted six Garnachas (one of which is a Garnacha/Syrah blend), from 2009, 2012, and 2013 vintages, to see where this varietal is headed.

2009 Bodegas y Vinedos del Jalon Alto Las Pizarras Garnacha Vinas Viejas – Engaging, exotic, almost perfumed on the nose. Notes of violets and raspberry mingle with hints of black tea and coffee to create a surprisingly rousing and rounded whole. The finish heads toward more of a candied violet character, but there’s plenty of tannin here to keep things out of jam territory. A / $9

2009 Castillo de Maluenda Punto y Seguido Garnacha Vinas Viejas – The embarrassingly simple label wouldn’t cue you in to how impressive the wine in this bottle is, a showy, fruit-forward wine that simultaneously offers depth and balance. Notes of tea leaf, cola, and leather are layered atop blackberry and cherry forming a core that drinks with lushness but which features muted, well-smothered tannins. The finish is complex, echoing everything that’s come before with a fresh denouement. A / $15

2009 Vinas del Vero Secastilla Somontano - A little pruny and overcooked, almost stewed. Very dense fruit competes with balsamic notes and runs up against a finish that offers coffee bean and dense, oily leather notes. C- / $25

2012 Castillo de Monseran Carinena Garnacha – Very fruity, almost like a Gamay-based wine. Thick strawberry jam leads to a finish that’s almost sickly sweet and unbalanced. C- / $8

2012 Pagos del Moncayo Garnacha – A very easy-drinking garnacha, offering a refreshing mix of strawberry and currant notes, backed with light chocolate, some tea leaf, and gentle tannins. Though not entirely complex, it’s lovely from start to finish, and ready to go immediately. A- / $12

2013 Bodegas Paniza Agoston Garnacha & Syrah – A blend, as the name suggests, with a surprising amount of fruit from the start — it almost comes across as candied berries with a dusting of chocolate sprinkles. More herbal notes take hold as the wine develops on the palate — think thyme and rosemary on a Sunday roast — but that youthful spirit and dense fruit maintains the focus through to the finish. B+ / $8