Review: Dulce Vida Extra Anejo Tequila

dulce vida extra anejo

The arrival of a new extra anejo tequila is always cause for rejoicing, and Dulce Vida’s new bottling is no exception.

This tequila spends 5 1/2 years not in bourbon barrels but in a mix of former Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot barrels from Napa’s Rombauer winery. Crafted in the Jalisco Highlands, the tequila is fair-trade certified. The producer expects stock to last for the next two to three years.

Thoughts follow.

The nose is classic, well-aged tequila — all caramel, butterscotch, and Mexican chocolate notes. On the palate, it’s a much bolder, racier tequila than many extra anejos tend to be. Here, the agave is surprisingly pushy, offering immediate spice and black pepper notes and backed up by lots of punchy salted caramel character. Notes of rhubarb and red berries emerge, given enough time. The finish melds the two major components — racy agave and sugary caramel sauce — together, ping-ponging back and forth between the sweet and the savory. The finish is long-lasting and engaging, an exotic but approachable XO tequila that marries its seemingly disparate components together in beautiful, harmonious fashion.

100 proof.

A / $160 / dulcevidaspirits.com

Review: Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

Carpano Antica Formula VermouthCarpano’s Antica Formula vermouth is the first lady of aromatic wines. In a world where most vermouth runs under $10 for a bottle and is tossed out during clean-up from last night’s party, the $30 or more you’ll pay for a liter of Antica Formula indicates at least someone thinks pretty highly of it.

The heritage of this spirit dates back to the late 1700s, when vermouth was invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano — inspired by German aromatic wines. Antica Formula doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to today’s German wines, but it doesn’t take long to see why it has such a loyal following.

On its own, Antica Formula offers a complex nose of raisins, prunes, licorice, root beer, and citrus peel. The body is initially sweet, then slowly turns more and more bitter — almost to the level of an amaro — as it fades in the glass. In cocktails, this can create a dazzling complexity and, depending on how much you use, an intensity of flavor. Manhattans are gorgeous with it, the vermouth a wonderfull foil for whiskey, and Negronis take on another dimension. Rather than disappearing into a cocktail, the wine coaxes out notes of cocoa powder, dark fruits, and the spices of Christmas.

That said, drink it year-round.

33 proof.

A / $32 (1 liter) / specialitybrands.com

Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

majeste xo cognac

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Bear Republic Apex Special IPA (2015)

apex ipaAh, another fine seasonal release from our NorCal neighbors at Bear Republic. Apex, an Imperial IPA, isn’t made every year, but 2015 marks two years in a row that it has. Each year the beer’s profile changes, reflecting seasonal varieties of hops available and new strains that are developed. Apex is a beer that is intended to be “forward looking.” For this 2015 release, Apex — the name connoting the pinnacle of beermaking — includes Cascade, Columbus, Centennial, Chinook, Simcoe, Citra, El Dorado, Azacca, and Lemondrop hops. Some familiar names in there, and some obscurities, too.

If you like bold, piney IPAs, this is one to miss. Take the crispness of Racer 5 and weed out some of its burlier, almost lumber-like elements and what you have left is Apex. Intensely bitter, it melds evergreen notes with grapefruit and orange peel, lingering notes of roasted grains, and some surprising floral character on the finish. As it lingers, a touch of mushroom on the back end takes you back to the earth.

Gorgeous from start to finish.

8.25% abv.

A / $NA (22 oz. bottle) / bearrepublic.com

Review: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Tequila 2014 Edition

jose cuervo reserva 2014

I’ve said before that Cuervo’s top-shelf bottling, Reserva de la Familia, doesn’t vary much from year to year.

This year, at least the packaging is changing. Reserva de la Famila is now officially an Extra Anejo, not just an Anejo. The label has been significantly reorganized, keeping the same overall design motif but placing Reserva de la Familia front and center while shuffling Jose Cuervo off to the corner. Of course, the wooden box has also been updated in keeping with this tequila’s annual tradition. This year’s was designed by artist Carlos Aguirre, one of the foremost figures in Mexican contemporary art.

Under the hood, it’s pretty much business as usual here — molten caramel, laced with spicy, racy agave notes, dominates — while underneath some light, fresh herbal character adds nuance. Think sage and rosemary, touched with black pepper. The finish offers ample vanilla extract notes, oak, and banana.

Pitting the 2014 Reserva against the 2012 and 2008 bottlings — all that I have on hand — shows off the series’ exceptional familia resemblance, as usual. Today, the 2012 is exhibiting a stronger cinnamon note on the nose while the 2008 offers a bit more fruit — apple and pear — but on the whole they remain extremely similar. Kudos for the consistency… I think?

80 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #08753, bottled 6/24/14.

A / $100 / cuervo.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Rye

woodford reserve ryeRye has long been the Next Big Thing in whiskeydom, and now it’s Woodford Reserve’s turn to get into the game. (When Maker’s Mark Rye eventually comes out, we can finally be assured that we’ve hit Peak Rye.)

Woodford Reserve Straight Rye uses a mash of 53% rye, 14% malted barley, and 33% corn, and, like most American rye, it is bottled without an age statement in a package quite similar to the iconic Woodford Bourbon bottle.

And here’s what it tastes like.

A glorious aroma of cinnamon toast hits the nose as you crack open the bottle. In the glass, it presents a rich, bourbon-like character on the nose, all vanilla and baking spice, with an undercurrent of caramel-driven wood notes. The body is where the rye starts to shine, offering chewy notes of gingerbread, cherries, and lots of clove-cinnamon apple pie spices. Wait for the finish to start to settle and back down and you’ll find a delightful chocolate malt character bubbling up — a perfect fade-out to lead you into that vanilla rush that starts things off on your next sip. All in all, it’s a really enchanting rye that’s hard to put down.

90.4 proof.

A / $38 / woodfordreserve.com

Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

tasting whiskeyLew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.

As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.

Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.

I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Spirit Works Gin, Barrel Gin, and Sloe Gin

spirit works aged gin

Sebastapol, California is in the heart of Northern California’s winemaking operations, and it’s here where Spirit Works can be found, cranking out a variety of gin, vodka, and white whiskey products. They even make an authentic sloe gin here — and we were lucky enough to try it, along with the company’s standard gin and a barrel-aged variety. All are made with California botanicals and hand-labeled with batch information. Thoughts on the gin, barrel-aged gin, and sloe gin all follow.

Spirit Works Gin – Distilled from red winter wheat grown in California, infused with juniper berries, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, orange and lemon zest, and hibiscus. The nose is hefty with grain, initially coming across almost like a white whiskey. Heavy on earth tones, the body is surprisingly un-gin-like. Juniper is present, but just barely. Instead you’ll find it dense with notes of mushroom, Eastern spices, and eucalyptus. The finish is touched just a bit with some citrus peel, but all told it could really use more of a punch to push it more squarely into gin territory rather than this curious middle ground it currently occupies. 86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #010. B / $35

Spirit Works Barrel Gin – The above gin, aged for several months in new American oak barrels. This is a far different animal, the nose coming across like — you guessed it — a young whiskey. Racy lumberyard notes meld with aromas of incense, roasted meats, and aftershave. The body sticks along these lines, folding in vanilla notes to a palate that features light evergreen, bitter lemon, and ground cardamom. The finish is a blessed release of sweet butterscotch pudding, ultimately making for one of the most decidedly weird gins ever. 90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch #001. B / $38

Spirit Works Sloe Gin – A traditionally-made spirit infused with whole sloe berries, giving this crimson-hued sloe gin the sweet-and-sour flavor of liquefied cranberry sauce. Good sloe gin is hard to come by — and rarely used these days in cocktails — but the hints of mint, orange peel, rhubarb, and eucalyptus oil make this a standout in a truly niche industry. 54 proof. Reviewed: Batch #008. A / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

spiritworksdistillery.com

Review: 2010 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Vineyard

Don Melchor 2010For the 2010 vintage, Chile’s (arguably) biggest cult wine Don Melchor (a splinter of Concha y Toro) is composed of 97% cabernet sauvignon and 3% cabernet franc. Grown in the Alto Maipo Valley, the wine is aged 15 months in French oak (3/4 new, 1/4 second use).

Appropriately huge, the nose is thick with notes of dark chocolate, anise, and rich, juicy currants. The body is densely aromatic, starting off with violets and fresh fig, then taking a leap off the cliff, right into the vines. Big blackberry notes, lashings of root beer, licorice, reduced vanilla syrup, and well-integrated wood follow along in short order. The finish is lengthy, moderately tannic, and just as dense as everything that’s come before.

An amazing wine now, but in 2018 it’ll be a knockout. Patience!

A / $125 / donmelchor.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #6 – Ledaig 1997, Speyside Port Matured 2004

Ledaig

New indie Scotch bottlings are hitting now from The Exclusive Malts, we got two to try. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 1997 17 Years Old – Batch #5 featured a youthful 8 year old Ledaig (which is made at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull). This one’s over twice as old. Surprisingly pale for a whisky of this age, this Ledaig features soft peat notes that are laced into notes of crisp apple cider, fresh cereal, and barbecued meats. Well structured but with a featherweight body, the finish is seductive but not entirely lasting. I had expected more grip and power from a peated whisky of this age. 109.8 proof. B+ / $150

SpeysideThe Exclusive Malts Speyside Port Barrel Matured 2004 10 Years Old – Much like Batch #5’s Speyside bottling, this is also a mystery Speyside malt, sourced from a distillery “near Aberlour.” This 10 year old expression is matured in Port casks, making it an unusual offering in single malt world. Glorious from the start, if offers a nose of intense raisin, cloves, and gingerbread. The body punches those notes up even further, with gentle touches of cereal on the back end. God, look at that color! The Port has done an impressive job on this whisky, tempering the granary character and giving it a festive, holiday-like exuberance. Too bad it’s January. 115.4 proof. A / $110

impexbev.com