Category Archives: Rated A

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Fourteen

We’re near the end of Buffalo Trace’s exhaustive (and exhausting) Single Oak Project, a series of 192 bourbons all made in a slightly different style — an attempt to find the whole grail of whiskeydom. With this round, we’ve got 168 down, 24 to go. Home stretch!

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s our past coverage to date:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen

Round 14 features whiskeys all aged in barrels made from the bottom half of the tree, put in barrel at 125 proof, and aged in a wooden-floor warehouse. Variables include char level, stave seasoning, wood grain, and of course recipe (rye vs. wheat). We’ve seen iterations on these variables in the past; at this point, the project is mainly about cleaning up what’s left in the lineup.

Two whiskeys — the classically structured Barrel #2 and the Stagg-like Barrel #34 stood out in an otherwise fair but unremarkable field. Nothing in this round was particularly unlikable, except perhaps the unbalanced Barrel #172. The overall winners so far (based on popular vote) are Barrel #82 and #83. I graded them both at a B+.

Complete thoughts on round 14 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #2 – Classic, with lots of depth of flavor. Touches of sandalwood, honey, and walnuts all meld together into a well-integrated, creamy, and lightly spiced (yet lengthy) finish. It goes down almost too easy, offering all the classic bourbon notes with every sip. Easily the best of this round. A (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #12 – Foresty — with eucalyptus and solid oak notes. The hearty body melds chewy wood with some modest fruit notes. A bit ashy on the finish. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #34 – Bold up front, with a rich, chocolaty nose. It all follows through to the body, with a rounded, almost malty character that pushes through to a racy, brown sugar-infused finish studded with cloves, cinnamon, and cayenne. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #44 – Dessert time! Marshmallows and light nuts on the nose. The body is all silky caramel and nougat, until some wood-driven astringency arrives on the finish. Slow start, but it builds to a delightful middle and an agreeable, balanced end. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #66 – Blazing with heat and big wood character, it’s hard to catch much nuance on the nose. The body however reveals some surprises: Spicy rye character at its core, with touches of baking spices blended with red pepper. Big and bold, it’s loaded with lumberyard notes that really hang on. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #76 – Racy with both baking spices and more savory ones — think red pepper, thyme, sage, and pine needles. Lots going on here that’s unusual for bourbon, but it’s not a whiskey without some charms — so Old World in its austerity, herbaciousness, and restraint. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #98 – Indistinct, alcohol-redolent nose, but the body is bursting with fruit. Orange and cherry notes play with dark brown sugar tones, and some cinnamon red hots on the finish. A fine whiskey; too bad the nose isn’t there to finish the job. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #108 – Intriguing on the nose, this whiskey strongly exudes cherry cola notes, with underpinnings of oak. The body is moderate and a bit more scattered. The cherry’s not here, but the cola notes are big, along with some tea leaf, heavy charred wood, licorice, cardamom, and a touch of cloves. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #130 – Unusual notes of lemon and wood here — think Pledge, but in a way you might drink — at least on the nose. The body is more indistinct in its citrus focus, drinking hot while offering ample notes of wood oil and cloves on the back end. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #140 – Traditional: vanilla, caramel, wood. This could be any rack bourbon, but it’s classy and refined — a darker, woodier, coal-fired, more cigars-in-the-back-room bourbon than most of the comparably fruity expressions you get in the SOP. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #162 – Mild menthol on the nose leads in to a very easygoing palate. The body on this one is liquid caramel from front to back, spiked with cloves. Strangely, a bit of barnyard character emerges on the nose after some time in the glass, dulling what is otherwise a pleasant, anywhiskey experience. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #172 – Not an incredible level of character here. The nose is filled more with raw alcohol than anything else, the body is a fiery experience that finishes with smoke and brimstone. Not the Project’s best. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Wines of Baglio di Pianetto, 2014 Releases

9 Ramione 2009 212x300 Review: Wines of Baglio di Pianetto, 2014 ReleasesSicily’s Baglio di Pianetto takes the classic grapes of this fiery island and funnels it through the mystique of a French chateau style of production. That’s what they say anyway. The production at this winery (which also has a resort on the premises) is extensive. Today we look at a selection of six wines — two whites and four reds, including two DOC “reserve” wines. Thoughts on everything follow.

2013 Baglio di Pianetto “BDP” Insolia Sicilia DOC – From the higher-end DOC bottling of Baglio di Pianetto comes this 100% insolia, a lovely white that has a lightly peachy nose, flecked with apricots and oranges. Also look for hints of graham cracker. The body follows suit, showing some of that vanilla you find in the Ficiligno, but drinking really wonderfully on its own. Look for a bit more earthiness up front here than with the aforementioned wine, but with a finish that’s both sweet and tart, and more citrus-driven. Equally enjoyable. A / $NA

2013 Baglio di Pianetto Ficiligno Sicilia IGT – A blend of insolia and viognier. What a fun white this is, lush with white peaches, apricots, lemon, and vanilla. It’s a perfectly dialed-back expression of viognier, that overwhelming fruit showing both restraint and mouth-filling gorgeousness. A / $16

2012 Baglio di Pianetto “BDP” Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC – Not a particularly refined Nero, a bit weedy, a bit barky, and a bit of old fruit. Dusky and brooding, but lacking the oomph of more powerful Neros. Some fun touches of licorice and vanilla emerge on the nose if you give it time. Fine, but more apropos as a food wine. B / $NA

2011 Baglio di Pianetto Ramione Sicilia IGT – This is a blend of merlot and nero d’avola. Softer than you’d think, with a strongly fruity nose of blackberries, touched with a bit of tobacco and leather. A simple wine, with some mild astringency on the finish. Works well with tomoto-based dishes. B+ / $20

2011 Baglio di Pianetto Shymer Sicilia IGT – A blend of syrah and merlot, which sounds like it will be a whole lot better than it ends up being. There’s almost no body or soul on this wine. It drinks like one of those grape-flavored waters you might buy when Aquafina just doesn’t do it. Has the fruit already raced out of this wine, or was there none to begin with? Not worth bothering with. C- / $20

2007 Baglio di Pianetto Cembali Nero d’Avola IGT – This 100% nero d’avola starts off muted and dull, but fruit emerges with some time in glass. Bright cherry and currant notes are fun for a bit, but they quickly turn toward the raisiny, with balsamic notes and some racy oxidized character coming to the forefront — indicative of this wine’s age. B / $20

bagliodipianetto.com

Review: Domaine Carneros 2012 The Famous Gate Pinot Noir, 2010 Brut Cuvee, and 2007 La Reve

1 90627750 3 Review: Domaine Carneros 2012 The Famous Gate Pinot Noir, 2010 Brut Cuvee, and 2007 La ReveToday it’s a smorgasbord of wines from our friends at Carneros-based Domaine Carneros. Let’s jump right in.

2012 Domaine Carneros The Famous Gate Pinot Noir Carneros – A gorgeous Pinot, with notes of currants, blueberry, brewed tea, cocoa nibs, and touches of violets. Everything’s firing almost perfectly here — it’s so easy-drinking that it’s hard to put down, but the panoply of flavors in the glass make it an exploratory revelation as well. A / $75

2010 Domaine Carneros Estate Brut Cuvee Carneros – 51% Chardonnay, 49% Pinot Noir. Crisp and fruit-forward, this sparkler has an apple-citrus kick with a touch of vanilla on the back end. One of the easiest-sipping sparkling wines you’re likely to find, with an orchard up front and plenty of homey biscuity notes in the back. A / $29

2007 Domaine Carneros La Reve Blanc de Blancs – 100% Chardonnay. A very fine and subtle edition of La Reve, this on with toasty notes that balance the pears, apples, and lemons that dominate the body. The modest fizziness is restrained but pairs well with fruit that grows and grows as the body builds to a seductive head. Let this one rest for a few more years. A- / $99

domainecarneros.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2014 Edition

buffalo trace 2014 BTAC 525x420 Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2014 Edition

 

Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection needs no introduction, I’m sure — this is one of the most well-respected and sought-after annual whiskey collections on the market. Closely allocated and tough to find, you’re best off starting your hunt now. These releases formally hit the market in late September/early October.

Thoughts on the 2014 lineup follow.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – It’s an open secret that Sazerac 18 has been sitting around in a stainless steel vat for years and doesn’t really change (effects of oxidation notwithstanding), making this less of a special release and more of a limited allocation of a very special spirit. Sazzy 18 rarely fails to disappoint. This year is no exception, with the whiskey showing a woody — yet fresh — nose, cherries jubilee up front on the body, and a finish that takes you to places of marzipan, apple pie, and streudel. Watch for apple cider notes to come along after you think the finish has faded away. 90 proof. A

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – This edition of Eagle Rare 17 is a vatting of whiskeys from the second, third, and sixth floors of Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse I and K. Aged “nearly two decades,” according to the company — so as with last year, it may be a bit older than 17 years. This one’s a smooth operator, not quite the burly old guard that it can sometimes present as. Instead, it’s all silky caramels, bittersweet chocolate, Bing cherry, and graham crackers. Some spicier notes of cloves and allspice develop in the finish. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – The one you’ve been waiting for. The bruiser of the bunch. The hottest bourbon that isn’t named Pappy. It’s telling that the Stagg is set apart from the rest of the batch in the photo above, I think. This is a monster of a whiskey. Just look at the depth of color compared to the other whiskeys in that lineup — and remember, there are some 18+ year old whiskeys in there! As always, this is the kind of whiskey that, as grandma used to say, would put herr on yer chest, and at 138.1 proof it’s nearly a return to the heady days of 2012 and prior, when the whiskey regularly hit 70% alcohol. Fear not the water on this one — a selection of barrels from warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q distilled in 1998 (making it 16 years old). You can douse it 1:1, water to whiskey, and still get plenty of its character. And that would include tobacco, (very) dark chocolate, fresh roasted coffee bean, slate, and pencil lead. A smattering of spices arrive in time for the finish — cinnamon and cloves, the usual stuff — which help to season what is, as always, a dark, mammoth, brooding whiskey. This year, Buffalo Trace has just about nailed it. Stagg is always a tough nut to crack — and my palate tends to prefer more nuanced spirits — but the sheer depth of its flavor has me finding myself drawn more to this release than it has in recent years. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A massive blazer, this is the hottest release of Weller in history. This is a 12 year old bourbon from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th floors of warehouses D, K, and L — basically a mutt from all over the place. An initial rush of smoke starts things off with thoughts of log cabins and a touch of mothball. The palate settles down after adding significant amounts of water, ultimately revealing some plum, chocolate, and coconut — but in the end the wood and smoky qualities take hold, pushing everything else out of mind. 140.2 proof. B

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Last year Jim Murray named the 2013 Handy Rye his #1 whiskey in the world. This created a massive run on Handy, despite the fact that no sane person would ever name this cask strength rye — typically 6 years old, as it is again this year — the best whiskey in the world. 2014’s Handy was aged on the fifth floor of warehouse M and arrives at a fairly typical strength for this spirit. This year’s expression exudes classic rye notes — lots of roasted grain character, chewy scorched cereal notes, some caramel, some baking spice, and a lengthy, campfire finish. Over time, some curious notes come forth — I can describe them only as fresh upholstery. Ample water is a must. I like it fine, but it frankly doesn’t hold a candle to the Sazerac 18 — which will probably be a hell of a lot easier to find thanks to Mr. Murray. 129.2 proof. B+

$80 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old (2014)

Parkers Original Batch Bottle Shot 414x1200 Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old (2014)

Last year Heaven Hill released the Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope, a 10 year old bourbon from which $20 of each bottle were donated to ALS research, a sober nod to Heaven Hill Master Distiller Emeritus Parker Beam, who was diagnosed with the disease two years ago. Promise of Hope ended up raising over $300,000 for ALS research (take that, ice bucket people!).

How do you follow that up? This year, Heaven Hill has decided not to release a Parker’s Heritage Collection bourbon at all.

What? Gotcha: The 2014 Parker’s Heritage Collection release is a Wheat Whiskey, technically not a bourbon at all. For this edition of the highly anticipated PHC, Heaven Hill is going back to basics. The bottles on offer are from the very first run of what would later become Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey — hence “Original Batch” in this expression — only this bottling is considerably older than Bernheim, at 13 years of age to be exact, aged on the top floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y, and bottled at barrel strength. The mash is predominantly winter wheat, plus corn and malted barley to round things out. Oh, and this year, $5 from each bottle sold will go to ALS research.

On to the tasting…

The woody nose, studded with vanilla and gentle baking spices, could herald the beginning of any solid bourbon. As with all of the Parker’s Heritage releases, it’s blazing with alcohol, and it can handle substantial water to bring out its true spirit. With some time, this whiskey’s unique and sophisticated nature becomes clear. Silky caramel and honey notes ooze out of this whiskey. Hints of apple pie, a touch of red pepper, and a little gingerbread — veering into cinnamon roll territory at times — dominate the finish. On the whole it’s a gorgeous, refined, and incredibly drinkable whiskey — and despite its lack of any noticeable popcorn or cereal character, most drinkers will readily assume it’s a well-aged bourbon, even after a couple of glasses. (That’s not a complaint, mind you.)

Sadly I don’t have any stock Bernheim on hand to compare this whiskey to, but it’s clear it carries some of the Bernheim DNA while being at heart quite a different animal. That is also not a complaint. As usual, Heaven Hill has crafted another unexpected and unique whiskey that merits strong attention from both casual whiskey drinkers and collectors alike. Grab it now.

127.4 proof as reviewed (individual bottle proof may vary).

A / $90 / bardstownwhiskeysociety.com

Review: Casa Noble Tequila, 2014 Re-Review

casa noble Bottle Anejo 2014 final cut Review: Casa Noble Tequila, 2014 Re Review

From time to time we like to revisit spirits we’ve spent time with in the past. Management changes. Production practices change. Formulations change. Climate changes. And stuff varies from bottle to bottle even when none of the above changes. Sometimes our reviews are identical. Sometimes they’re wildly different.

Today we look again at Casa Noble, a venerable ultra-premium tequila line that we last reviewed in 2009. Very little seems to have changed on Casa Noble’s end, and from my perspective, very little has changed too. My ratings are all the same, with one slight (yet watershed) upgrade for the masterful anejo.

You’ll note some slight packaging changes (the reposado bottle is no longer blue but is now clear; the anejo is still in its distinctive purple bottle), but otherwise I expect nothing much has been altered behind the scenes of these three tequilas. (Amazingly, prices seem to have fallen a bit in the last few years!) All are of course 100% agave and all are 80 proof.

New thoughts follow.

Casa Noble Crystal (Blanco) – Pungent on the nose, with deep, deep agave notes, white pepper, and cayenne. The body isn’t nearly the agave bomb you might be expecting. It is both sweet and peppery, but not really vegetal at all. Instead you’ll find notes of tart lemon juice, caramel sauce, and a touch of rhubarb. Very well crafted. Everything a blanco should be. A / $35

Casa Noble Reposado – Spends 364 days in French white oak, making this a very well-aged reposado. The nose has that trademark peppery pungency of the blanco, but with an undercurrent of stone fruit — peaches and apricots — to give it some balance. The body is very fruity, slight tropical notes atop lemon and oranges, plus notes of chocolate peppermints and ample wood-driven vanilla. It doesn’t drink nearly as leathery and “old” as my prior comments indicated, but perhaps that’s just my increased experience with tequila over the last five years talking. Still delightful, either way. A / $45

Casa Noble Anejo – Aged “to perfection” for two years in French white oak. Nicely dark, but not overdone. That peppery agave is still front and center on the nose, with more of a caramel/marshmallow character attempting to overtake it. The body shows that it’s a silky dessert sipper all the way. The palate starts with bittersweet chocolate and graham crackers, then hops to burnt caramel and dark brown sugar notes. The fruit is absent save for a little flamed orange peel, which plays nice with the molten chocolate cake character that bubbles on and on on the finish. A benchmark anejo that mixes a racy attack with a silky sweet finish. A+ / $50

casanoble.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal

del maguey Iberico 431x1200 Review: Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal

Del Maguey’s Pechuga Mezcal is legendary in the mezcal world, and justifiably so. For those not in the know, in Spanish, a pechuga is a poultry breast, commonly a chicken breast. Why would you call your mezcal Pechuga? Because it has a chicken breast in it.

How’s that? Del Maguey mezcel is distilled three times, and during the third distillation of Pechuga, a whole chicken breast (bones and all) is suspended in the air within the still. As the distillation progresses (a 24-hour process), the vapors interact with the chicken meat in a strange and incredibly compelling way. How anyone came up with this idea is beyond me, but the proof is in the bottle — Pechuga is easily my favorite of Del Maguey’s increasingly vast lineup of single village mezcals.

What then is Iberico? If you’re up on your gourmet foodstuffs, you’ll recognize the name Jamon Iberico, a ham made of free-range, acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs from Spain. Using your deduction skills you’ve probably figured out what Iberico Mezcal is by now: In lieu of a chicken breast, it’s made with an Iberico ham hanging in the still. A collaboration between Cooper and chef Jose Andres, it’s an equally bizarre and decidedly non-kosher approach to spirits production.

So, how’s it taste?

As with all mezcals, the nose is smoky, but here that pungent aroma takes on a curious scent of cigar smoke with fleeting undertones of mint chocolate. The body is beautiful. Racy with notes of cracked black pepper, the spicy body is tempered by a melange of flavors that include orange peel, grapefruit, nougat, and vanilla. That smokiness rushes back up on the finish, along with notes of camphor and incense. Complex with a load of flavors, yet extremely easy to sip on for hours, Iberico is nearly the same masterwork that Pechuga is — even though it doesn’t exactly remind you of Iberico ham at all.

Maybe I just need to enjoy a glass or two alongside some pata negra and see if that makes a difference…

100% agave espadin from Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca. 98 proof.

A / $250 / mezcal.com

Review: The Arran Malt 17 Years Old and Arran Sherry Premium Single Cask 1997

Arran 17yr 525x1106 Review: The Arran Malt 17 Years Old and Arran Sherry Premium Single Cask 1997

Isle of Arran-based Arran keeps pumping out special releases, with these two new offerings now hitting the market. Thoughts on both follow.

The Arran Malt 17 Years Old – A limited edition bottling, fully matured in ex-sherry casks, this is the second release in a trilogy of single malts leading up to what will be Arran’s first ever official 18 year old expression. Enchanting from the start, with a nose that offers a rich nougat character and ample aged/burnt orange notes. The body folds together those nicely roasted grains with the sherry core in a beautiful way. At 46% abv it’s a touch on the hot side, and a few scant drops of water really helps to open things up and settle down some of the whisky’s more fiery notes. As the spirit opens up, some nice chocolate notes begin to develop, particularly on the finish, alongside notes of cola, sea salt, and marshmallow. A really fun whisky that I easily recommend. 9,000 bottles produced. 92 proof. A / $95

Arran Premium Sherry 225x300 Review: The Arran Malt 17 Years Old and Arran Sherry Premium Single Cask 1997The Arran Malt Premium Sherry Cask 1997 – Arran had a version of this whisky from the 1996 vintage, now it’s “back in stock” with another one: Again, it’s a cask-strength single cask release, only this time it’s 17 years old, fully matured in a sherry cask (much like the 17 year old reviewed above). This whisky initially presents a lot like the 17 Year Old, but the extra alcohol pumps up the orange character even further, sending the more cereal characteristics into the background. Pure, tart tangerine and orange oil invades the nose and the tongue, with notes of black pepper, cardamom, incense, and toasted marshmallow coming up behind. This is an interesting foil to the 17 Year, offering a lot of similarities but just enough differences to make for a fun side-by-side comparison. Reviewed: Cask #217 (562 bottles produced from this cask). 106.4 proof. A / $125

arranwhisky.com

Review: The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old

balvenie sherry cask single barrel Review: The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old

The latest release from Balvenie is this 15 year old expression which has spent its entire life in former sherry casks. It is also a rare single cask release (Balvenie is the only distillery that has an ongoing single cask release of a single age as a part of its range), so you’ll find variation from bottle to bottle. How much variation? We were lucky enough to try this spirit drawn from two different casks — adjacent ones, in fact. The results might surprise you. Read on.

All bottles are 95.6 proof.

The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old Cask #4450 – Great balance on this, with supple notes of cinnamon-raisin oatmeal mixing with vibrant citrus notes. The body amps that up further, lending butterscotch and flamed orange peel notes to an already rich and vibrant whisky. This whisky is firing on all cylinders, and as it continues to open up it starts to show gentle smoke notes, a touch of iodine, and a return of roasted grain character (think really good pretzels). The sherry’s what sticks with you the most, however, hanging on for an epic finish. A

The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old Cask #4451 – A surprising degree of grain character here, infused with nougat and bitter orange peel. This doesn’t feel like a whisky that’s spent a full 15 years in sherry casks, the wood having more of an impact than you’d expect. The finish is drying, with emerging notes of seaweed and iodine, hemp twine and dusky roots. Interesting but flat, a whisky where the fruit is pulled back a bit too far for a whisky that wears its sherry cask heritage on its sleeve. B

$100 / thebalvenie.com

Review: Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum

vizcaya 21 525x794 Review: Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum

Don’t get too excited: Vizcaya’s “Cuban Formula” rum is actually made in the Dominican Republic. Don’t let that disappoint you, though; this is a masterfully produced rum that’s brimming with flavor and sophistication.

There’s not a lot of production information about this rum to share. For starters, the “21” on the label is a bit misleading. There’s certainly no actual cask #21 from which this rum is drawn — unless it’s a cask that holds hundreds of thousands of gallons of spirit and is constantly being refilled. The number is there to trick you into thinking it’s a 21 year old product, even though the label doesn’t say anything of the sort. In fact, Vizcaya doesn’t say much at all about its rums except that they’re made from sugar cane and aged in oak barrels, both of which are obvious.

None of that actually matters, though. As noted above, Vizcaya Cask 21 is actually an amazing product that I’m happy to recommend.

The nose is bursting with classic aged rum notes: vanilla, butterscotch, and plenty of cinnamon. The body follows suit perfectly. The rum is almost candylike but its sweetness is tempered with baking spices, smoldering oak notes, and just a hint of fire on the back end. Over time some tertiary notes emerge, including caramel apple, toasted marshmallow, and almond brittle. The finish isn’t particularly long, but there’s so much flavor on the palate that it doesn’t entirely matter. This rum drinks beautifully, and at $40 a bottle, it’s almost an absurd value.

80 proof.

A / $40 / vizcayarum.com

Review: Bluewater Distilling Organic Vodka and Halcyon Gin

bluewater halcyon gin 88x300 Review: Bluewater Distilling Organic Vodka and Halcyon GinBluewater Distilling in Everett, Washington makes a variety of spirits (including an aquavit!), but it’s best known for two major staples, a gin and a vodka, both organically produced and crafted in a classic copper pot still — not a column still, which is by far the norm for most vodkas and gins.

Thoughts on both of these spirits follow.

Bluewater Organic Vodka – Pot-distilled from organic wheat. Immediately enticing. Classic, old-world nose, with rich light medicinal character and undertones of old wood and wet earth. This intriguing aroma leads you into an even more engaging palate. The body is surprisingly mild and easygoing, yet it’s quite punchy with flavor. It kicks off with notes of toffee and butterscotch, then develops fruit and acidity as it builds on the tongue. Within a few seconds, it’s pummeling the palate with lemongrass and grapefruit, black pepper, and some pine tree/cedar notes. The finish is both silky and sharp, but lacking in the expected astringency. One of those vodkas that’s easy to sip on at length, even at room temperature. 80 proof. A / $27

Bluewater Halcyon Organic Distilled Gin – Note that the “Bluewater” is very small on the bottle here. You’ll most likely find it listed under “Halcyon” instead. The wheat-based distillate on this London Gin style gin is crafted with a classic 24-hour infusion of juniper, orange, lemon, coriander, angelica root, orris root, licorice root, and cassia bark. The intense nose features lots of fruit, modest juniper, and some spongy, earthy notes driven by a few of the root-based ingredients. Unlike with the vodka, there are few surprises on the palate here. Lemon and orange remain strong, and the juniper is a bit more present on the tongue than the initial nosing would indicate. All in all it is stylistically on par with many a UK-crafted gin and a versatile spirit that works in all kinds of classic cocktails. 92 proof. A- / $30

bluewaterdistilling.com

Review: 2012 Starmont Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Starmont 2012 StanlyRanchEstate Chardonnay 104x300 Review: 2012 Starmont Pinot Noir and ChardonnayTwo new high-end wines from this adjunct of the Merryvale Winery, located in Napa Valley. Both are exquisite offerings. Thoughts follow.

2012 Starmont Pinot Noir Stanly Ranch Estate Carneros – Gorgeous Carneros Pinot, light as a feather with silky notes of tea leaf, cherry, cola, and a little strawberry. Seductive on the nose, it’s got a brisk attack and a long, lasting finish. This is one of those pinots that you just drink and drink and keep pouring and pouring and then it’s gone and you sigh and think that, yeah, someone there knows what they’re doing. A / $55

2012 Starmont Chardonnay Stanly Ranch Estate Carneros – Buttery Chardonnay, but not overpoweringly woody. Instead it provides notes of vanilla, peaches, a touch of pineapple, and a lemon spritz on the finish. Touches of roasted meats on the back end as well. On the whole, it’s nicely balanced and very easy drinking — and it’s lovely with fish. A / $45

merryvale.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish

008 525x393 Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish

Every year, Chris Morris releases a special edition of Woodford Reserve called the Master’s Collection. This November will see the ninth release of the Master’s Collection, and yours truly was the very first person outside of Brown-Forman to sample it.

I sat down with Master Distiller Morris last night in advance of this bourbon’s formal previewing in San Francisco for a sample and chat. The appearance of Sonoma-Cutrer in the name may have tipped you off already that this is a wine barrel-finished bourbon, and that’s indeed the case. But part of the promise of the Master’s Collection is, in Morris’s own words, that Woodford will never repeat a whiskey. Every year, the company will focus on a different grain, barrel, fermentation process, aging regimen, or other facet of whiskeymaking, but once a Master’s Collection release is sold out, it’s gone.

009 300x225 Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir FinishThe second release of the Master’s Collection way back in 2007 involved a Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay finish, and it was a huge hit. The whiskey is now a bit of a cult favorite and sells for a pretty penny at auction. According to Morris, people still ask him regularly when he’s going to do it again… but given the restrictions of the Master’s Collection promise, the answer has always been “Never.”

Well, not quite. Now Woodford has put out a new Sonoma-Cutrer-finished whiskey, only this time Morris is using Pinot Noir barrels instead of Chardonnay to polish off the spirit.

The production process is straightforward: Fully matured, cask strength Woodford Reserve (roughly seven years old) is moved from its new oak barrel home to French oak Pinot Noir barrels, where it spends another 10 months. These barrels have seen three vintages of Sonoma-Cutrer (the winery is owned by Woodford parent Brown-Forman), so they’re about at the end of their life for wine barrels. Once the finishing is done, the final product is brought down to 90 proof (the same as standard Woodford) and bottled.

I tasted the whiskey with Morris alongside a glass of standard Woodford Reserve for comparison. And man, what an amazing spirit it is.

There’s a lot of DNA shared between these two whiskies, as well there should be. The standard Woodford offers strong notes of cherry, walnuts, and cinnamon, and the Pinot Noir finished whiskey builds on that. Butterscotch is the (surprising) initial rush, but over time – I worked my way through two glasses while Morris regaled me with tales of whiskeymaking – you pick up other notes, including dark chocolate, and fun licorice kick on the back end. The Sonoma-Cutrer bottling picks up more fruit as it aerates, while the standard bottling of Woodford sticks close to its nutty, woody core.

Amazingly balanced and so much fun to explore, this is one of the finest – if not the finest — Master’s Collection bottling I’ve encountered to date. It’s a whiskey that smartly starts with an already strong base, then builds upon it with a savvy finish. With 24,000 bottles produced (vs. 11,300 of the prior Sonoma-Cutrer bottling), you should be able to track some down if you give it a bit of effort, but you will have to wait until November before you start hounding your local liquor store.

What’s up next for these Woodford releases? Morris plays his cards close to the vest but he does reveal that this will be the last Master’s Collection release to feature a special finishing treatment for quite a while. In fact, the Master’s Collection releases have been fully planned out and are now aging in barrels which will cover the distillery’s annual releases through 2021(!) – so any finishing treatments will have to come after that… at which point Morris claims he’ll be preparing for his planned retirement in 2023. Why not start planning a Retirement Edition Bourbon now, I asked Morris. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied, looking off into space with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

A / $100 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Havana Club Rum 3 Years Old, 7 Years Old, and Seleccion de Maestros

havana club 525x350 Review: Havana Club Rum 3 Years Old, 7 Years Old, and Seleccion de Maestros

For the third time at Drinkhacker we turn our attention to Havana Club, the essential Cuban rum that many an international traveler (including myself) has come to love. Widely available overseas, Havana Club is not available in the U.S. due to trade restrictions with Cuba. Nonetheless today we turn our attention to three of Havana Club’s expressions — out of a total seven that the Havana-based distillery makes.

The reviews below are of 700ml UK-destined bottlings, and the prices are approximate representations of what you’d pay in a typical duty free shop. As a final reminder, remember that this Havana Club is the original and is completely unrelated to Bacardi’s “Havana Club,” which is made in Puerto Rico.

Havana Club Anejo 3 Anos - At 3 years old, this is the youngest of the distillery’s rums (all Havana Club is at least “anejo”) and the only Havana Club expression bottled in clear glass, letting you see the pale yellow (filtered) spirit within. The nose is fruity with some sharpness to it, with the exuberance and slight funk of a white rum balanced by its share of refinements. Fresh lime is the biggest fruit note here, with hints of grapefruit and blood orange coming along after. The finish is spicy and piquant, offering a touch of hogo that is quickly cleaned away. Excellent as a mixer, Havana Club says this is “made for mojitos,” and it’s easy to see why. 80 proof. B+ / $20

Havana Club Anejo 7 Anos –  The standard bearer of the Havana Club brand, 7 Anos offers a complex nose that, while clearly rum, ventures into exotic notes of polished wood, passion fruit, banana, coconut, and butterscotch. The body features tropical notes, ample vanilla caramel, cocoa powder, some smoky wood fire notes, and plenty of molasses. For kicks I compared this rum to the Italian-bought version of the same spirit (though the bottle has changed a bit) I reviewed in 2010. Very similar, indicating nothing major has changed at Havana Club in the last few years, though I get a bit more cocoa on the palate in the current bottling than the older one. Same rating. 80 proof. A / $30

Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros (pictured) – This “masters’ selection” is triple barrel aged, first in standard oak barrels, after which individual casks are selected and blended and aged further in a second set of barrels. After this round of maturation, the maestros sort through these barrels, pick their favorites, and blend them again in a third barrel, after which the rum is bottled at 90 proof. Sounds like a lot of work (and frankly, not a whole lot of information on either the wood used or the amount of time spent in it), but the results speak for themselves. The nose is intense and deep, a bit of a departure from Havana Club’s usual approachability. The nose includes light smoke, leather, nuts, and charred orange peel. On the palate, the extra alcohol is immediately noteworthy, giving the Seleccion more of a sherried character, along with notes of raisins and plums, incense, cinnamon, and tobacco. It’s a markedly different experience than the 7 Year Old expression, but of equally high quality and just as enjoyable in its own right. A / $60

havana-club.com

Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014

These days, Stone Brewing Company is a juggernaut of new releases, with new brews sometimes arriving at the pace of one every couple of weeks. Here we have two of Stone’s latest, including a relaunch of one of the company’s most famed IPAs, and a three-way collaboration among some California brewing icons.

Thoughts on both follow. Get ‘em while you can!

Stone Unapologetic WEB 125x300 Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA – This collaborative brew is from the California-based trio of Beachwood Brewing (Long Beach), Heretic Brewing (Fairfield), and Stone (Escondido). It’s a big IPA crafted with Magnum and Chinook hops, plus four new Washington-grown strains (HBC 342, Hopsteiner 06300, Azacca, and Belma), giving it a truly unique makeup (and a bit of a new flavor profile, too). The beer is a hop monster but it’s also loaded with fruit flavors. After the initial rush of bitterness dies down, look for notes of lemon and peaches, almost like a fruit custard has been blended into the classic, piney notes of the IPA. The finish is sweet and tropical, hinting at coconut milk, making for an unusual IPA that is both intensely hoppy as well as dessert-friendly. 8.8% abv. A- / $9 per 22 oz. bottle

Stone RuinTen Heroshot WEB 2014 224x300 Review: Beachwood/Heretic/Stone Unapologetic IPA and Stone RuinTen IPA 2014Stone RuinTen IPA 2014 – “A stage dive into a mosh pit of hops” is about right. This is the 2014 release of Ruination, which Stone originally launched to much fanfare in 2002 and which was released as an even hoppier version in 2012 for the 10th anniversary of the company. The recipe here is the same as the 2012 bottling; only the name has changed. (The name is intended to be suggestive of what this beer will do to your palate, given its 110 IBUs — and, at over 10% alcohol, what it will do to your mind as well, I presume.) RuinTen features ample hops (five pounds of Columbus and Centennial hops (then dry-hopped with Citra and Centennial), per barrel of brew), but presents itself with class and finesse. The nose and body are resinous with pine tree sap, bitter orange peel, and cloves. Ultra-ripe fruit comes on strong as you sip it, culminating in a somewhat malty, syrupy, and lightly smoky combination of flavors. The finish offers hints of marshmallows and canned fruits, pine trees and applesauce. All kinds of flavors going on, and firing on all cylinders. 10.8% abv. A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

stonebrewing.com

Review: Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur

ancho reyes 525x660 Review: Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur

The ancho chile is a dried poblano pepper. A popular element in both traditional Mexican cuisine and upscale cooking, ancho chiles have a gentle, smoky flavor with hints of chocolate and cinnamon. I use ancho a lot in the kitchen, but never thought about how it would fare in a cocktail.

Ancho Reyes is a new liqueur made in Mexico, reportedly made from a recipe created in Puebla in 1927. You can use it as a cocktail ingredient or drink it straight as an aperitif — neat or on the rocks.

This is fun stuff. Initially it offers an amaro-like character on the nose, with a root beer and licorice character to it. Spice emerges after a few seconds, a surprisingly racy, chili pepper heat that really tickles the nostrils. The body’s full of complexity and interest, immediately filling the mouth with heat, tempering that spice with vanilla, cinnamon, and dark chocolate. Exotic notes of incense, bitter roots, and orange peel emerge over time, particularly on the finish.

This is a versatile spirit with all kinds of applications, from adding it by the drop in a margarita to drinking it by the shot glass after a hefty meal. It may sound like a niche product, but it’s got a truly surprising level of flexibility.

80 proof.

A / $33 / anchoreyes.com

Book Review: Gentlemen Bootleggers

Gentlemen Bootleggers 350 200x300 Book Review: Gentlemen BootleggersThe recent trend of nonfiction surrounding historical events in the alcohol world is widely encouraging: It’s a field where much potential and promise for new scholarship is welcome and necessary. With a new pack of young writers establishing themselves for the long haul as historians and keepers of the flame, it is with great hope this groundswell doesn’t cease in the immediate future.

In his debut offering, journalist Bryce Bauer tells the tale of Templeton, Iowa, a community that refuted the early 20th century social structures commonly established throughout small Midwestern towns to band together and achieve success as bootleggers during Prohibition. The story centers around a wily cast of characters such as Otis P. Morganthaler, F.H. Huesmann, and Joseph Irlbeck, names which sound like they would own investment firms or a line of cookies in 2014, but here they each play a role in the town’s survival during one of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times. The whole tale seems to border on the comically absurd, and would make for one heck of a Coen brothers-crafted screenplay.

Bauer’s work is well documented and thoroughly detailed, leaving no doubt that these events really and truly happened (there are some skeptics who deny bootlegging even occurred in Iowa). But one of the best parts of Gentlemen Bootleggers is the level of engagement with which Bauer tells the story. His writing feels effortless; more like a really enjoyable conversation over several drams on a late winter’s afternoon, rather than a starchy, overly annotated tome gathering dust on a library stack. Like Fred Minnick’s Whisky Women in 2013, Gentlemen Bootleggers is a solid debut and hopefully not the last we’ve seen of Bauer on the subject of spirits.

A / $20 / [BUY IT NOW]

Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Facundo11356 Facundo33A51F115 525x366 Review: Bacardi Facundo Rum Collection

Bacardi is a name synonymous with rum, but it is not a name that is synonymous with high-end rum. Best known for its unavoidable white rum and a plethora of flavored expressions, Bacardi dominates the market by keeping prices low and consumers inundated with clever advertising.

Now Bacardi is taking its first real steps upmarket. While expressions like 1873 Solera, 8 Anos, and Oakheart are nods in this direction, the Facundo collection is something entirely different: Real, “sipping rums” that you’ll shell out up to $250 a bottle for.

Not a typo.

Facundo is named for Facundo Bacardi, the Spanish-Cuban founder of the Bacardi empire back in 1862. In celebration of 150(ish) years in business, this collection celebrates Bacardi’s legacy with some rums that Facundo would certainly have been proud to have his name on.

All rums are aged expressions sourced from the Bahamas and are bottled at 80 proof. Thoughts on the four-expression lineup follow.

Bacardi Facundo Neo – Made from rums 1-8 years old, then filtered back to white (almost, anyway). Lots of raw alcohol notes on the nose here; it cuts a surprisingly young profile. Hints of orange peel, lemon, roasted nuts, and black pepper emerge after a time. On the palate, quite a different animal, with distinct and strong banana, coconut, and creme brulee notes. Not at all heavy on the alco-burn scale, but rather a delightfully tropical rum that mixes fruit with just the lightest tough of red pepper flake. An incredible mixer, even at this price. A- / $45

Bacardi Facundo Eximo – 10-12 years old, unfiltered. This is the only rum in the collection that is blended before it goes into barrels for aging. Again the nose starts off hot, tempering some of the more delicate notes in the rum. Wait a bit, and what emerges is a woodier experience with the essence of nuts, Madeira, and baking spices. The body again amps up the fruit, particularly the tropical notes of pineapple and mango, swirled with caramel notes. Nutty notes evolve as the finish pushes along, with leather, raisins, and more of those Madeira notes. Unique and fun. A- / $60

Bacardi Facundo Exquisito – A blend of runs 7-23 years old (some filtered) but quite dark in color. The finished blend is aged a further month in sherry casks for a minimum of one month for finishing. This is a remarkably balanced and fun rum, offering an immediate nose of coffee, toffee, cigar box, and mincemeat pie. The body is dense and layered, with notes of plums, raisins, chocolate pie, more toffee, and spiced (lightly smoked) almonds. Lots going on here, and it fires on all cylinders. A real knockout. A / $90

Bacardi Facundo Paraiso – The big guy, made of rums up to 23 years old (with an emphasis on the oldest rums), each individually filtered, then blended and married in French oak casks for at least one month. Deep, down-the-rabbit-hole nose. Brooding and woody, with notes of roasted coffee beans, burnt sugar, coconut husks, and leatherbound books on demonology. The body is a real departure from the sugar-forward rums that precede it. Here we find more of the bittersweet — chocolate, very dark caramel, torched walnuts, and curious notes of olive pits and indistinct savory spices. It’s a much different rum and one that requires more reflection than the pure joy that’s bottled up in the Exquisito, but it’s also a rum with purpose and with a soul. A- / $250

facundorum.com

Review: 2013 Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

Merryvale 2013 Sauv Blanc NV 105x300 Review: 2013 Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc Napa ValleyThis is the way sauvignon blanc should be done. With this 2013 release Merryvale has perfectly balanced this simple but tricky grape. The nose and attack are floral and lightly sweet, hinting at white flowers and honeysuckle. As the body builds, there is more honey, tropical fruit, and a rich, creme brulee finish. Could use a touch more acid, but overall this is a hands-down winner that is exemplary on its own or with a light meal.

A / $28 / merryvale.com

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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