Category Archives: Rated A

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth Release

Islay-based Kilchoman may be one of the youngest distilleries in Scotland, but somehow it cranks out more different spirits than just about everyone else in the business. (Mainly because it’s presenting itself as a bit of a “work in progress,” so Kilchoman’s releases tend to be annual updates.)

Today we consider two of the main Kilchoman expressions, Loch Gorm and 100% Islay, in their 2014 editions.

Loch Gorm 2014 BC 249x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release – Distilled in 2008-09, bottled in March 2014. Fully matured in oloroso sherry butts (and five years old), this is the only all-sherry-matured release from Kilchoman. On the whole it’s a much more compelling whisky than the Loch Gorm First Release, which had a finishing round in a different type of sherry cask and which couldn’t find a balance between the peat and the sweet. With this second release, things have settled down nicely, with the overall impact being one of smoked, grilled citrus fruit. The nose is well-peated without being overpowering, while the body is packed with notes of tangerine and pears, singed with smoke. Miraculously it’s all exquisitely balanced, so harmonious that it’s hard to believe this is just another iteration of last year’s Loch Gorm, which boasted none of these qualities. I take back what I said about sherry being better as a finish for Kilchoman. Can’t wait for 2015′s expression. 92 proof. 17,100 bottles produced. A / $95

Kilchoman 100 Islay 4th Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Fourth Release – Distilled in 2009-10, bottled in May 2014. It’s round #4 for this all-Islay release (where everything from growing the barley to bottling is done on the distillery property). Lightly peated, this release is vatted from 32 five-year-old barrels and 8 four-year-old barrels, all of them first-fill Bourbon barrels. The combination of five-year and four-year whiskies is about on par with last year’s Third Release. Up front this whisky offers lots of smoke — creosote and coal fires and a bit of burnt paper. The fruit doesn’t arise until you’re will into your third sip, where some banana and pear notes start to emerge on the finish. Over time in the glass, it develops the character of orange marmalade, tinged through and through with those wisps of smoke. Mild fruitiness aside, it’s a slow burner. Not a palate-buster, but redolent with the character of a just-extinguished birthday candle. The lightly fruity finish adds complexity, but it never brings the whole package together in quite the way the prior installments of the 100% Islay expression have managed to do. 100 proof. B+ / $110

kilchomandistillery.com

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: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

 Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

Founded in 1758 in Haselünne, Germany, Berentzen is known for its eponymous apple liqueur, as well as some other fruit liqueurs. The company is expanding — hey, 250 years is long enough to wait — recently adding two new products to its lineup. We got ‘em both, and put them to the Drinkhacker test.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel is “straight bourbon whiskey, neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors.” Made with the apple juice-based Berentzen liqueur, this is a credible apple-pie-in-a-glass beverage, featuring silky-sweet apple juice notes balanced by a healthy slug of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and with just hints of those “neutral spirits” that provide a bit of a chemical character by way of aftertaste. Perfectly serviceable for those in love with apple cocktails, but you can approximate the same thing by splashing some standard bourbon into a glass of Berentzen if you don’t need a short cut. 60 proof. B / $22

Berentzen Icemint Schnapps is a “supermint” schnapps according to the company, and I’d say that’s fairly on point. I’m hardly an aficionado of peppermint schnapps, but Berentzen’s offering is surprisingly intriguing. The nose offers a light eucalyptus menthol note, and it’s surprisingly gentle. I couldn’t detect any real alcohol burn in it at all. On the palate it’s equally easygoing. The body is icy cool and appropriately minty, with wispy hints of chocolate, altogether coming across much like an after-dinner mint. It doesn’t drink at all like it’s overproof, which makes it a bit dangerous. Try sipping on a half-shot as a digestif. No more. No shooters. 100 proof. A / $25

berentzenusa.com

Review: Green Flash Road Warrior Imperial Rye IPA

green flash road warrior 74x300 Review: Green Flash Road Warrior Imperial Rye IPALet’s not mince words: This brewery may have a cult following, but Green Flash Brewing Company’s logo and labels are decidedly uninviting to the point where they look like they could be marketing a cleaning product. And this is the new label.

Pay no attention to what’s on the label. San Diego-based Green Flash’s just-released Rye IPA is an amazing little brew.

A summer beer designed intentionally not to be sessionable, Road Warrior uses crystal and rye malt along with a huge amount of Columbus and Mosiac hops to make a chewy, delicious red ale — and one that tips the alco-scales at 9% abv.

This beer is dense and bready from the start, like munching on a thick hunk of dark brown German rye. Notes of caraway seeds, sesame oil, tree bark, and dark chocolate complement the intense rye notes, giving Road Warrior ample complexity and intrigue. It’s not as piney or as fruity as many other IPAs, and I think this beer finds strength in that, drawing on more exotic flavors to complement its significant bitterness. I enjoyed drinking this beer from start to finish… which did not take long, I hasten to add.

Available through August.

A / $8 per four-pack / greenflashbrew.com

Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Oban21 bottlebox High Res 525x935 Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

#6 of 9 in the 2013 Diageo Special Release series comes from the classic Oban Distillery, located on the west coast of the Highlands where it’s a bit of an honorary, lesser member of the Islay group. Aged in rejuvenated American oak and second fill sherry casks, it’s the first Oban to come out of this series in a decade.

Unlike most of the whiskies that precede this spirit in the lineup, the Oban immediately strikes you as hot. The nose is fiery — with salt air and coal smoke peeking through, along with touches of buttery biscuits. The body cries for water, but after the heat dies down a bit it reveals notes of syrup-coated pancakes and some citrus. The smoke fades away almost completely here. Water coaxes out some herbal character along with lots of nuts — walnuts and almonds — before falling back on its core of malty grains with a twist of orange peel.

With the appropriate splash of water, this emerges as one of the best Obans I’ve ever had, balanced and pretty and full of complexities that invite exploration.

117 proof. 2,860 bottles produced.

A / $385 / malts.com

Review: Bell’s Oberon Ale

OberonBluSixBttle.tif 525x387 Review: Bells Oberon Ale

Summer is reaching its wonderful peak days, and while searching around for a review in our archives, I was surprised to find the glaring omission of Bell’s Oberon in our collection. I now seek to provide remedy to this matter.

I’ve been drinking Oberon since arriving at the legal age to tend to such important matters. Inquire with anyone indigenous to Michigan, learned on its healthy surplus of microbrews, and you’ll quite likely hear the same story over and over: summer really started on the Oberon release day. Every day until then was just a warmup to the real deal. It isn’t just one of the beers that put Bell’s on the microbrew map, it was the beer. In the ’90s, folks from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo (Bell’s home base) would line up on opening day, much like craft brew beer fanatics of today, to be amongst the first to get a fresh six-pack straight out of the case, or off the tap.

Waxed nostalgia aside, let’s get to brass tacks: this is a refreshingly light wheat beer with a healthy presence of spice and lemon up front. The balance of citrus and wheat give it an incredible sweetness and an easy finish. It doesn’t have the impact on the palate of many other summer brews: it floats gently along for the entire experience; completely unobtrusive and undemanding of complex analysis.

For those who have never traveled to the state’s beautiful surplus of remote lakes and witnessed gorgeous sunsets on one of its many isolated beachfronts, this is the closest thing to a teleportation device legally allowed on the market. Oberon is a lazy, beautiful Michigan summer in a bottle, and one of the best in its class.

5.8% abv.

A / $10 per six pack / bellsbeer.com

UpNorth 525x392 Review: Bells Oberon Ale

Photo by/Tip of the Tigers cap to: Zac Johnson

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Brora 35yo 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

This is the beginning of a special week here at Drinkhacker, as we’re finally about to launch into one of the most anticipated and exciting annual events in the whiskey world. No, it’s not a new Pappy Van Winkle release, it’s the arrival of Diageo’s annual limited edition Special Release single malts.

These whiskies are sourced from very rare, very old casks — often from long-since closed distilleries — and are produced in fleetingly limited numbers. While they all bear a 2013 release date, most are still in the process of hitting our shores.

2013 Special Releases Group Shots High Res1 525x193 Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

This series encompasses nine spirits, and we’ll be tackling them in turn, one each day.

First out the gate is this 35 year old expression from Brora (distilled in 1977), a Highlands-based distillery that was shuttered in 1983. Aged in refill American and European casks, it’s a bright yellow in color, a deception that masks its true age.

The scent of the sea pours out of the glass — iodine and seaweed, peat fires and smoked fish — along with hints at a sweeter underpinning. The body, as with most old Brora releases, is just gorgeous. Liquified honey gets things going, followed by notes of citrus peel, heather, brandy-soaked raisins, coconut, and ripe banana. Here, the smokiness so evident on the nose is almost completely lost, these big fruits and some dessert-like cookie notes running all the way to the finish line. Oily and mouth-filling on the body, the long and lasting finish brings out tropical fruit and some burnt sugar notes… a sweet dessert that counters that perfectly tricky, savory nose.

99.8 proof. 2,944 bottles produced.

A / $1,278 / malts.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

bittermilk no 3 525x525 Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

OK, yes, there are dozens of pre-packaged cocktail mixers on the market. And yes, most of them claim to be ultra-premium-better-than-you-can-make-yourself products. And — yes — most of them are passable at best, swill at worst.

Well, finally, here’s one that isn’t. Bittermilk is a Charleston, South Carolina operation that is making truly high-end mixers that even I would not hesitate to serve to my guests.

The secret is right there on the label and in the bottle: Very high-quality, mostly organic ingredients that take original spins on some classic recipes — the Old Fashioned, the Tom Collins, and the Whiskey Sour.

Bittermilk mixers have no alcohol, so bring your high-end hooch when you’re mixing something up. They may look small, but remember that each pint-sized bottle is good for about a dozen cocktails, depending on how tall you make ‘em. At a little over a dollar per cocktail, that’s not a bad deal. Hell, you’ll spend more on a couple of limes these days!

Thoughts on each of the three current Bittermilk offerings follow.

Bittermilk No. 1 Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned – Made with burnt cane sugar, orange peel, gentian root, and cinchona bark, then aged in Willett Bourbon barrels. I made versions with Rittenhouse 100 Proof Rye and with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. This one comes in a significantly smaller vial than the others, since you mix it 1:4 with your spirit, vs. 1:1 with the others. Sweet up front, with ample sugar in the mix (I’d err toward 1:5 or 1:6 proportions on this one), the burnt-ness of the sugar becomes apparent only as the finish starts to build. It’s here that you start to pick up the bitter edge of the mixer, too — grated roots and bark and a quinine character — though the citrus character, essential to an Old Fashioned, never quite arrives in full. Ultimately, it’s the bitterness that sticks with you the longest, lasting long after the sweetness has faded. A completely capable Old Fashioned — though the barrel aging isn’t immediately evident, and it’s more fun to drink an Old Fashioned with actual fruit muddled into it. Much better with rye (as specified on the label). A- / $15 (8.5 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 2 Tom Collins with Elderflowers & Hops – Made with lemon juice, sugar, elderflower & elderberry, and Centennial hops. I made versions with Ketel One Vodka and Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin (the bottle specifies either spirit). The weirdest of the bunch. With vodka, the hops add a level of funkiness here, and lots of it. Up front there’s a solid sweet-and-sour character, but that initially light bitter hops element brings a bit of discord to the finish, growing as it develops on the palate. It finishes almost like a shandy. With gin, this is a much better combination, those aromatics firing just about perfectly with the citrus and the elderflower, which comes through more clearly alongside the brightness of the gin. Here the hops play a very muted role, adding just a hint of bitterness on the back end rather than the lingering power you get with vodka. On the whole it’s a success, but it’s my least favorite of the bunch. Use gin, and a bit more than is called for. B+ / $15 (17 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour – Made with lemon juice, Bourbon barrel-smoked honey, sugar, and orange peel. I made this one with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. Shockingly delicious. It doesn’t reveal much on the nose, but the body is stuffed full of a melange of sweet and savory notes — bracing lemon, silky honey, and just a touch of smokiness on the back end. If you’re not a smoke fan, be not afraid. The effect here is subtle and well integrated into what reveals itself to be a lovely concoction. The lemon hangs along til the finish, where everything comes together into a fully realized whole. Sure, the whiskey sour is hardly the world’s most elevated cocktail, but in Bittermilk’s hands it’s one you’d have no problem gulping right down… maybe two. A / $15 (17 oz.)

bittermilk.com

Review: Cabernets of Louis M. Martini, 2014 Releases

Louis M. Martini 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauv 750ml 87x300 Review: Cabernets of Louis M. Martini, 2014 ReleasesNo need for a lot of throat-clearing here. Check out these three new Cabs from both Napa and Sonoma, all made by Louis M. Martini.

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County – Textbook Sonoma Cab, milder on the palate than Napa’s fruit bombs, but with plenty of earthy mushroom notes, leather, balsamic vinegar, and hints of blueberry on the nose. Breathe deep for hints of the garden — some thyme and peppermint on the back end — and watch for some Christmas spice on the palate’s finish. Imminently drinkable, it’s a fun yet modest wine. A- / $35

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A benchmark Napa cab from Martini, with a mix of floral, currant, pepper, and light leather notes on the nose, followed by a solid slug of blackberries, black cherries, and just hints of earth that are laced into the palate. Light on its feet but full of nuance, this wine shows restraint while offering a plenty ample body and a spot-on finish. One of Martini’s finest cabs in years and dirt cheap. A / $22

2012 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A simple, almost rustic, “burger” wine (which is exactly how I drank it). A little weedy up front, with some notes of sweet pepper, an interesting counterpart to the relatively sweet and cinnamon-infused body, which offers some tropical and brown sugar notes. Perfectly serviceable, if short of awe-inspiring. B / $14

louismartini.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Warehouse Floor Experiments

Buffalo Trace Warehouse Floor Experiment 525x385 Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Warehouse Floor Experiments

More tinkering in the form of experimental whiskeys from the mad scientists at Buffalo Trace. This is one of the company’s most interesting and telling ones to date: Three 12-year-old, rye-heavy bourbons each aged on a different floor of Buffalo Trace’s massive Warehouse K (floors 1, 5, and 9). Warehouse K is built of brick, with wooden floors (because that seems to matter, too).

The same Bourbon, in the same building, just aged on a different floor. Why on earth would the aging floor matter? Simple, as any middle school science student can tell you: Heat rises. The lower floors are relatively cool. The top floors are scorching hot. This impacts aging in a direct and profound way — in part, because water and alcohol evaporate at different temperatures. (That said, all three of these whiskeys are bottled at 90 proof to make comparisons considerably easier.)

And so, how do these compare side by side by side? Let’s take a look…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Bourbon – Floor #1 – Aged on the bottom floor. Some funky notes of olives and green pepper hit the nose at first, with plenty of sweet stuff riding on its coattails. The palate is sharp and fiery, with elements of burnt butter, cayenne, and ample sawdust in contrast to its toffee notes. Balance is a mess, flavors hitting you from every which way. C

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Bourbon – Floor #5 - Aged right in the middle, but is it the Goldilocks of the group? It’s not as different as you might expect, those olive notes still hanging on, but to a much less powerful degree. Floor #5 settles down much more fully and quickly, revealing more of a rounded butter toffee note that’s fused with a melange of cloves, candied pineapple, and lumberyard notes. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, but overall more palatable and approachable than Floor #1. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Bourbon – Floor #9 - From the hot top floor, where some of BT’s blue chip Bourbons, like George T. Stagg, are sourced. This is clearly the best of the bunch, featuring toasted marshmallows and more gentle wood notes on the nose, followed by a body that is lush with brown sugar sweetness, cinnamon and cloves, vanilla caramels, and cake frosting. Gorgeous in structure, and radically different than the other two installments in this series. Grab it if you find it! A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky 100 Proof Bottled-in-Bond

Rittenhouse 100 Review: Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky 100 Proof Bottled in Bond

One of the classic examples of this spirit, Rittenhouse is a 4-plus-year-old, 100 proof bottled-in-bond rye. The winner of all sorts of accolades and awards, the Heaven Hill-produced Rittenhouse Rye Whisky (the company’s spelling) recently updated its packaging with a “1930s inspired” label. (Fun fact: the brand was known as Rittenhouse Square Rye at the time.)

But inside the bottle, nothing seems to have changed. But here are some fresh thoughts on Rittenhouse based on a fresh tasting.

The nose is racy — iconically “rye” — filled with baking spices but also crushed red pepper notes that hint at heat. The palate is initially a bit hot — a drop of water or a few minutes are all it takes to let the vapors dissipate — but it quickly settles down to reveal layers of fun stuff. Gingerbread, orange peel, creme brulee, dark chocolate, light wood oils… all of these elements combine to create a really lush, pretty whole with just the right amount of wood. With a near-perfect flavor profile and just the right mix of bite and sweetness on the finish, Rittenhouse continues to hit it out of the park, and at these prices, it’s no wonder that many stores limit how many bottles you can buy.

100 proof.

A / $26 / bardstownwhiskeysociety.com

Review: 2013 White Wines from Bodegas Terras Gauda

o rosal 114x300 Review: 2013 White Wines from Bodegas Terras GaudaToday we look at two white wines (both Albarino-based) from Spain’s Terras Gauda winery, based in the Rias Baixas region. You may have to look closely for the parent name, but both are bottled under the Bodegas Terras Gauda umbrella. Here’s a look at two very good — and quite different — white wines.

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda Abadia de San Campio Albarino Rias Baixas – Exotic, with lots of lemons but also some subtle peach and lychee notes up top, particularly on the unique and racy nose. The body is high in acid, with a touch of banana character adding some creaminess on the long, grapefruit-infused finish. Quite a unique wine, and definitely worth exploring if you like tart, unoaked styles. A / $18

2013 Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal Rias Baixas – A blend of 70% Albarino, 20% Loureira, and 10% Caino Blanco. It’s a much more straightforward wine than the Abadia above, offering plenty of lush fruit in the form of apricots, lemons, and a touch of grapefruit. Tart but not nearly as acidic as the above, this wine is more of an easy drinker, with less complexity, but also less that you have to think about it. A- / $24

terrasgauda.com

Review: Cune Rioja 2010 Crianza and 2013 Monopole

cune rioja 164x300 Review: Cune Rioja 2010 Crianza and 2013 MonopoleCune, pronounced coo-nay, is a major producer of a range of Rioja wines. Alternately known as Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España (CVNE), Spain’s Cune dates back to 1879. Thoughts on two of its new releases follow.

2010 Cune Rioja Crianza - 80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha Tinta and 10% Mazuelo. What a delightful little wine. Simple but full of fruit — not jam or jellies — this Crianza is brilliant with gentle blackberry notes, laced with cocoa powder, cinnamon, and licorice. Touches of floral character on the nose add nuance. Everything’s in balance here, with the body mercifully dialed back to the lighter side of “moderate” while still far from dipping into “watery.” Summer-friendly reds that aren’t Pinot Noir are hard to come by, but this Crianza does the trick beautifully, and on the cheap. A / $15

2013 Cune Rioja Monopole – 100% Viura. A very acidic white, metallic and flinty with notes of melon, pineapple, and — especially — lemon. Comes on strong and never really lets up, with a brisk, almost enamel-dissolving finish. B+ / $15

cvne.com

Review: Starr Hill Whiter Shade of Pale Ale, Soul Shine, and Little Red Roostarr

SH  WhiterShade 22oz Bottle thumb Review: Starr Hill Whiter Shade of Pale Ale, Soul Shine, and Little Red RoostarrThree new brews from Starr Hill, arriving just in time for summer barbecues. Thoughts follow.

Starr Hill Whiter Shade of Pale Ale White IPA – A hybrid of Belgian wheat beer and India Pale Ale, a bit like one of my current favorite brews, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’. Made with wheat and two-row malt along with Cascade, Simcoe, Columbus, and Falconer’s Flight hops, it’s a nicely hoppy beer that still exercises some restraint with its bitterness (45 IBUs). The attack starts moderately big hop notes along with some orange fruit, quickly leading to a very pleasant and rounded body. Chewy on the palate, the wheat component makes for a more breadlike IPA than you may be accustomed to, but this is ultimately quite fulfilling and satisfying. The finish is soft and easy, more soothing than bracing like a classic IPA. All in all, an excellent brew. 7.5% abv. A / $10 per 22 oz. bottle

Starr Hill Soul Shine Belgian-Style Pale Ale - An “Americanized” Belgian ale, which means adding American hops (Falconer’s Flight, Cascade, Simcoe, and Columbus) and bringing it down to 5.2% abv. Though it’s specifically designed for lighter, summer drinking, the beer feels a bit watery, and super fizzy to boot. Relatively flavorless up front, I pick up very basic citrus notes interwoven with baked bread character. The body is short and quickly fades, however, leaving behind a minerally taste reminiscent of beer-spiked Perrier. Not my favorite in this batch. 5.2% abv. B- / $NA per six-pack

Starr Hill Little Red Roostarr Coffee Cream Stout – The odd man out in this otherwise summery collection of brews, Little Red Roostarr is an inky milk stout that offers the coffee ground and bittersweet chocolate notes you’d expect from this style, with a very modest hop character (East Kent Goldings) to it. What’s lacking is the “cream” component: Red Roostarr is fairly thin in the body, which ultimately takes the beer to a lackluster finish that has more chewy graininess in it than I care to see in a beer of this style. 5.8% abv. B / $7 per 22 oz. bottle

starrhill.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #4

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Five more tiny-production, very rare, Scotch whiskys are about to arrive on our shores, courtesy of the independent malt whisky bottlers at Exclusive Malts. As always, total bottles produced tend to number in the low hundreds, so if you see something you like, get it now.

The Exclusive Malts Linkwood 1999 14 Years Old – This Speyside distillery is known for providing its casks to blended Scotch producers, and here it turns in a spicy, racy, young-tasting single malt that, on first blush, feels like it would be right at home as a component in Dewar’s or Johnnie Walker. Cereal and heather give way to chewy nougat, finally revealing some restrained apple and banana character. Tough to crack, with a lightly smoky finish. Try some water to coax more out of it. 111.6 proof. B- / $97

The Exclusive Malts North Highland 1996 17 Years Old – A Highlands spirit, matured completely in a refill ex-sherry hogshead. Lots of sherry up front on the nose, of course, but also tar, cigars, and unripe banana. Quite fruity on the palate, it blends orange oil with notes of incense and baking spice, the finish coming across as racy, smoldering, and luscious. Quite fetching. 112.2 proof. A- / $138

The Exclusive Malts Bladnoch 1992 21 Years Old - Lowland whisky from the southwest end of Scotland, aged in an ex-Bourbon hogshead. Malty and grassy on the nose, tinged with lemon oil and a touch of iodine. The body is much fruitier than the nose lets on, a concoction that offers sweet lemonade and sweet(er) tea, with a candy-like nougat character that comes on strong on the finish. More grainy/grassy notes on the back end, also. Well-aged but far from hoary, this malt still has plenty of life left in it, and it drinks hotter than its (relatively) lower proof level would indicate. 96.2 proof. B+ / $170

The Exclusive Malts Glencadam 1991 22 Years Old - Coastal Highlands single malt from an ex-Bourbon hogshead, surprisingly light in color. Pure honey, tempered with touches of smoke. The beautiful nose is complex, adding touches of heather and a hint of granary character. The rounded body is seductive and sweet, pushing the honey notes to the limit. The finish nods at cereal while going out on a smoldering but sweet finale, inviting continued sipping and savoring. There’s not a terribly high level of complexity here, but this Glencadam is so enjoyable it’s hard not to love. 100.8 proof. A / $179

The Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2001 12 Years Old - The only Islay in this release, bottled after 12 years in a refill Sherry butt. Intense smoke and melting wax notes on the nose. Tons of iodine all around. On the palate, it’s an intense dram, blending sweet sherry notes and a Madeirized character with the essence of tire fire. These two characteristics do battle for some time on the tongue. Neither one ends up winning, a shame. 116.8 proof. B- / $138

impexbev.com

Review: Tawny Ports of Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate, 2014 Releases

1964 Single Harvest Tawny 2 525x802 Review: Tawny Ports of Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate, 2014 Releases

Even seasoned wine enthusiasts often get confused over the world of Port, and who can blame them? Bottled both in vintage-dated and non-vintage but “xx years old” varieties (and in ruby, tawny, white, and other versions), the topic quickly gets complicated — when all you want to do is enjoy something sweet with dessert.

What’s the difference between ruby and tawny, the two major types of nonvintage Port? As Taylor Fladgate wine director David Guimaraens says, “Most people are familiar with the dark purple, ‘ruby’ Ports which range from very basic up to the storied Vintage Ports.  Rubies are aged in bottles, so they keep their fresh red fruit flavors.  On the other hand, Tawny Ports are aged in wooden casks, so they have more interchange with the air around them.  This process evolves their color to a ‘tawny’ amber color, and changes their flavors from predominantly fruity to predominantly nutty.”

Guimaraens’ comments aside, I’d still characterize most tawny Ports as extremely fruity, but more chocolatey and coffee-like than rubies. These notes come across more distinctly in older bottlings, though. Young tawny can often be just as fruity as a typical ruby.

What does “10 years old” or “20 years old” mean in these Ports? Well, contrary to what you might expect, it doesn’t mean that in 2004 or 1994, Port was dumped into a barrel and a decade or two later was prepped for bottling. Ports with age statements like this are blends of a variety of years, and the number on the label is somewhat meaningless. Most tawnys are a blend of solera-style old stock and young stock, and the years noted on the label are a sort of moving target that the blender is supposed to aim for. There’s nothing requiring any sort of accuracy here, and in many cases no way of even knowing how old the wine is in any given bottle. But a 20 year old should at least taste older than a 10 year old, even if both of those numbers are fudged a bit.

The exception of course is when a vintage does actually appear on the label. That’s the case with the last tawny on the list below, a 1964 single-vintage Tawny Port from Taylor Fladgate. What that means is exactly what it sounds like: This Port was made exclusively from grapes picked in ’64. Yes, 50 years ago. They’ve been mellowing out in barrel ever since, and aren’t blended with other vintages. And unlike non-vintage Tawny, this stuff won’t be around forever, so snap it up while you can.

Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate are all sub-brands of Taylor’s, a mega-Port operation whose CEO, Adrian Bridge, we’ve met on several occasions. He’s a swell guy, and we’re excited to offer notes on several Tawny Ports in current release, as well as the exceptional 1964. Thoughts follow.

NV Croft Aged Tawny Porto 10 Years Old (bottled in 2010) – Bright raspberry and sour cherry notes, just the right amount of vinegar to balance out some very focused fruit flavors. I’ve always thought of Croft as the fruitiest of vintage Ports, and here it produces a tawny that is closer to the ruby style of Port than most others you’ll encounter. Very easy drinking and versatile. A- / $28

NV Fonseca Aged Tawny Port 10 Years Old – Jammier, with more chocolate notes, and a lightly minty finish. Long, bold, and lightly creamy on the palate, this is a tawny with a little more oomph and more sourness on the back end. B+ / $23

NV Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port 10 Years Old – Somewhere between the fruitiness of Croft and the power of Fonseca lies Taylor Fladgate’s 10 year Tawny, an inviting wine with ample fruit at the core, but with bittersweet edges of licorice, chicory, and coffee bean. These characteristics, plus some chocolate notes, tend to overtake the fruit on the finish, but the body, on the whole, is surprisingly delicate. Complex, yet a bit immature. B+ / $23

NV Fonseca Aged Tawny Port 20 Years Old - Plenty of fruit and body here, but the chocolate notes are pumped up, and the fruit takes on more of a classic, Port-like raisin character. At 20, some of the more rustic elements of the Fonseca 10 Year Tawny are rounded out, giving this Port a slightly more refined construction, albeit one with plenty of lasting sweetness. A- / $40

NV Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port 20 Years Old - Lots of intensity here, with an almost bruising sour cherry and tart raisin character that overpowers some of this Port’s more delicate coffee and chocolate notes. The finish is lasting and almost punishing in its mouth-puckering character. This is a step back from the 10 year. B / $40

1964 Taylor Fladgate Single Harvest Tawny Port (pictured) – Wow, this is how tawny should be experienced. Drawn from a single vintage that’s 50 years old, this tawny is showing well rounded notes of cinnamon, raisin, and allspice… layered with cedar wood, chocolate, and coffee bean notes. The finish is long and sweetly sour — ending on a note of Cherries Jubilee that has the perfect balance of fruity and winey flavors. Lovely. A / $300

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Review: Piccini 2009 Brunello and 2008 Brunello Riserva

Piccini Brunello Riserva NV 2 94x300 Review: Piccini 2009 Brunello and 2008 Brunello RiservaTwo new Brunello releases from Piccini, a huge Tuscan producer that still manages to carve out time for these rarities, 100% sangiovese wines from the Montalcino region, aged at least 2 years in oak.

Some thoughts follow.

2009 Piccini Villa al Cortile Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – A beautiful wine, showing a complex collection of cherries, blackberries, violets, and menthol on the nose. The body adds to that with hints of earthy mushroom, spicy licorice root, and touches of tobacco and cedar box on the finish. Over time, hints of prunes and raspberry emerge, too — this is a wine that evolves beautifully in the glass and is well worth exploring over the course of an evening. All in all, it’s a moderately dense wine with lots to recommend it, a Brunello that’s close to a benchmark for the style. A / $60

2008 Piccini Villa al Cortile Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG - Similar to the standard bottling, but tougher to parse. There’s more herbal character on this one, with those violets really pumped up to create quite a perfumy experience. The body still packs in plenty of tannin, and it doesn’t quite give up its grip even after an hour in glass. Notes of coffee and leather send the fruit into dried plum and dense, dried cherry areas. Still tough on the finish. This’ll probably be hitting its stride in 2018. A- / $80

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Review: Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon

wild turkey diamond anniversary 473x1200 Review: Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon

Celebrating sixty motherfreakin’ years in the business — Eisenhower was president, people! — Jimmy Russell is a distiller with no equal in the business. He’s the man who has singlehandedly defined Wild Turkey for decades, with son Eddie waiting in the wings for the day his dad, now 79 years old, retires.

To mark the occasion, probably the last multiple-of-five anniversary we’ll see from Jimmy at Wild Turkey, the company is putting out what could be its most thoughtful, rare, and special bourbon release in decades. How special? It’s all part of Wild Turkey’s “Year of Jimmy Russell,” the new name for 2014, so update your calendar.

Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary is a blend of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys, the barrels hand-selected by Eddie Russell. Immediately off the bat, it’s one of the gentlest whiskeys I’ve ever had from WT. The nose is fruity, with caramel apples, chocolate-covered orange slices, and hints of spearmint. Over time, the wood of the barrel starts to come through on the nose, but it’s never overbearing, and much less punchy than you’d expect from a Bourbon of this age.

The body is creamy, its proof level adjusted to just the right place where you could sip on it all night without reaching for the water but still never get bored. Lots going on here, but not too much. What arises here is more dessert-like, including notes of salted caramel, chocolate chip ice cream, and apple pie. Lightly woody on the finish, it is incredibly hard to put down. Sip after sip found me uncorking the bottle and sampling it again, just to see what I might have missed.

91 proof. 36,000 bottles for sale in the U.S. On sale August 2014.

A / $125 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

2014 LimitedEdition Front 525x777 Review: Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

Four Roses’ 2014 Single Barrel bottling sneaked up on me, a sample appearing out of the blue for us to review.

This year’s whiskey is made from Four Rose’s OESF mashbill — the “lower,” 20% rye mashbill — which has spent 11 years in barrel. OESF is a rarity — In some seven years I’ve never reviewed any Bourbon from 4R that even had it as a component (aside from blends that don’t release their constituent makeups). Bottled at a range of 108.3 to 127.6 proof, depending on the barrel you get, it’s hotter than last year’s awesome release. (My sample was about 120 proof.)

Very fruity on the nose (as the low-rye mash is known for), this is one of the gentlest bottlings of Four Roses Single Barrel that I’ve encountered. Think caramel apples, with a dusting of apple pie spices — cinnamon and some cloves. On the body, that caramel is positively poured over the spirit, with gentle vanilla and chocolate-covered-cherries rounding things out. Give it time in glass and quiet sawdust notes emerge, but only ever so slightly — and to a far less extent than any Single Barrel bottling going back to 2009. This is liquid dessert that goes down far too easily than its hefty alcohol level would indicate. Another gorgeous, if wholly unexpected and unusual, winner from Jim Rutledge and Four Roses.

5000 bottles made. Available mid-June 2014.

A / $80 / fourrosesbourbon.com

Review: Vodka DSP CA 162 – Straight and Flavored

vodka dsp 162 straight 525x347 Review: Vodka DSP CA 162   Straight and Flavored

In 2010, California-based Craft Distillers sold its highly-regarded Hangar One Vodka line to Proximo Spirits. (You may not have even realized this, but now you know.) At the time, Craft signed a strict non-compete agreeing not to make vodka for three years. Well, the three years are up, and Craft is now back at work with some vodkas which incorporate flavors that might sound a bit familiar.

No frills here, and that’s by design to keep the focus on what’s in the bottle; the brand name refers to an old federal designation for the distillery. The scientifically-named spirits are distilled in the company’s copper cognac still from a wheat base, and the flavored vodkas are made with real macerated fruits. They’re filtered, but these spirits do still have a slight yellow tint to them. All of the botanicals are grown in the rare-fruit orchards of John Kirkpatrick in the San Joaquin Valley.

Each vodka is 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Vodka DSP CA 162 Straight - This vodka takes the wheat-base spirit and blends it with vodka made from wine grapes (riesling and viognier). You can smell the pot still character right from the start. Mineral notes play with a bit of grainy character, marshmallow, and nougat on the nose. The body is silky with a pungent character common to grape-based vodkas, balanced by modest sweetness and, curiously, some stronger cereal notes on the finish. You’re left with a character that is, surprisingly, not unlike a white whiskey or a blanche cognac. B

Vodka DSP CA 162 Citrus Hystrix – Flavored with Malaysian limes and their leaves. Brisk lime character on the nose, like candied lime peel. Bracing on the body, with crisp lime balanced with the right amount of sweetness. The lasting finish really brings out the leaf component, with just the right of grassiness poured over the tart body. The old Kaffir Lime vodka was always the most popular Hangar One flavor (at least in my experience in the field), and the company hasn’t strayed far from a successful formula. Big win here. A

Vodka DSP CA 162 Citrus Medica var. Sarcodactylis - Flavored with Buddha’s Hand citrons. The aromatics are somewhat muddier than my memory of the crisp Hangar One Buddha’s Hand, but otherwise it’s very aromatic and unusual — almost perfumed — on the nose. The body has a creaminess to it — like lemon meringue pie — with a vaguely tropical character going on. Herbal notes or rosemary and sage emerge over time, particularly on the nose. A-

Vodka DSP CA 162 Citrus Reticulata var. Sunshine – Flavored with tangerine and tangelo. A pretty orange nose recalls mild mandarines, but the body pumps it up with a brightness that almost hits a Tang-like quality. Sweet but not sugary, this is probably the most “modern” vodka in the lineup, but it’s also the most approachable on its own. Cosmo lovers would be calling this vodka all night long, but I doubt many cosmopolitan drinkers could pronounce the name. A-

each $38 / craftdistillers.com