Review: The Exceptional Blend – Blended Scotch Whisky

The-Exceptional-Whisky-Blend

First there was The Exceptional Grain. Then came The Exceptional Malt. Now, of course, the trilogy is complete: The Exceptional Blend, which combines the best of both the grain and malt worlds.

For those unfamiliar, The Exceptional is a line of small batch Scotch whiskies from Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers, and Willie Phillips, former managing director of the Macallan for 23 years. Together they have sourced a variety of grain and malt whisky barrels and put them all together to make this trio of limited release spirits.

While The Exceptional Grain was composed entirely of grain spirits and The Exceptional Malt was purely single malts, The Exceptional Blend contains a bit of both, and includes grain whisky from North British, Strathclyde, and a 33-year old grain whisky from Cameron Bridge, plus mature malts from from Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Balvenie, Kininvie, Glenfiddich, Alt-a’Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Westport, Speyside, and a 30-year-old Macallan. The whisky is finished in first-fill sherry casks before bottling.

The results are impressive and fascinating — this is clearly the best whisky in The Exceptional lineup.

The malt kicks off with an impressively complex nose that includes a fistful of grains, strong aromatic herbal notes including fresh thyme, lavender, and a bit of nutmeg. There’s sweetness mixed in with all of this, gentle citrus-meets-sugar notes that are immediately both austere and enchanting.

On the palate, the whisky feels perhaps a bit simpler than that build-up would indicate, but I prefer to think of it as focused rather than uncomplicated. Sweetened grains kick things off, followed by light notes of dried herbs, melon, and lemon peel. Quite quickly the whisky’s sweetness kicks in, offering almondy nougat notes that burst quickly, followed by touches of gingerbread and Christmas spice. These notes take you through to the finish, which lingers without overstaying its welcome.

Again, it’s the clear winner of the Exceptional line, and a solid blended whisky in its own right.

86 proof. 1200 bottles produced.

A / $120 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Pasote Tequila

Pasote_Trio

Sonoma-based August Sebastiani’s 3 Badge Beverage Corp. (the new name behind Kirk & Sweeney rums, Uncle Val’s gins, and others) has launched its first tequila: Pasote, which is made by Felipe Camerena in the Los Altos region of Jalisco.

Made in part with rainwater instead of just spring water, it’s made using traditional methods and bottled in antique-style glass. The reposado and anejo are aged in former, American oak bourbon barrels. We got all three expressions for review. Thoughts on each of the bottlings follow.

Each expression is 80 proof.

Pasote Blanco Tequila – Unaged, silver tequila. The nose is heavily peppered, with notes of citrus and a serious, agave undertone. A blast of lemon and green agave invade the palate straight away, building across a moderately oily palate to what emerges as a bold and herb-heavy finish. That finish is lasting as it sticks to the palate, offering a lingering expression of crisp, clean agave, unadulterated by any significant secondary character. B / $49

Pasote Reposado Tequila – Aged six months in oak. This is quite a tequila, taking that intense agave core as discussed above and filtering it through a very gentle, almost subtle filter of brown sugar and creme brulee. This reposado doesn’t reinvent tequila, but the balance between these two components is phenomenal, deftly threading the needle between sweet and savory spice with amazing aplomb — offering light pepper notes, cinnamon, lemon, and butterscotch, all in impressive balance. Reposado tequila can often turn into a middling middle ground between blanco and anejo, but Pasote’s shows how well-crafted this style can be. A / $59

Pasote Anejo Tequila – This anejo spends 18 months in oak, but it’s still decidedly light in color. This expression drinks a lot like a reposado, just pushed further along to the sweeter end of the spectrum. It’s still a very well-crafted tequila, its herbal characters tamped down and its sweetness dialed up. Here the overall palate takes on notes of marshmallow, vanilla, light caramel, and some cinnamon-scented Mexican chocolate notes. The agave may be dialed back, but it’s still present, kicking around primarily on the nose as well as a spicy reminder that hits well into the finish. It’s deftly handled and still light as a feather, but a worthwhile counterpart to some of the industry’s more overbearing anejos. A- / $69

3badge.com

Review: Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin

benhams gin

The ornate and elaborate label on D. George Benham’s gin looks like it could be straight out of old Londontown, but the truth is it hails from Sonoma County, California. What’s a “Sonoma Dry Gin?” As Graton Distilling Co. owner Derek George Benham describes, it’s a cross between old school London Dry and fruitier New Western styles. This column-distilled gin is infused with 12 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, Meyer lemon, Buddha’s Hand citrus, chamomile, peppermint, orris root, cardamom, grains of paradise, angelica root, star anise, and galangal (a ginger-like root) — so a little off the beaten path, but nothing too terribly crazy.

The nose is fresh, almost pungent with both juniper and citrus; as a melding of styles goes, Benham’s starts off especially strong. You catch a touch of ginger aromas here, too, which adds nuance and intrigue. On the palate, the body is loaded with flavor: bright citrus — lemon and grapefruit — plus fresh ginger notes, gentle juniper, and a racy finish that, again, recalls the ginger notes on the nose. I keep going back to it… there’s a subtle floral note that emerges over time, and a light undercurrent of earthiness. All told, the gin’s balance is impressively spot-on, dancing among the various components on the palate until the finish — hot but not oppressive, a bit oily but otherwise quite clean — eventually fades out.

It’s a versatile spirit that works well with any mixer as well as on its own or in a martini. Bold and powerful but also decidedly refined, I don’t hesitate to call this one of the best gins of the year.

90 proof.

A / $40 / gratondistilling.com

Review: Mortlach Special Strength

mortlach

The conventional wisdom holds that since the distillery’s relaunch, three Mortlach expressions are available — Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old.

Not quite. There is a fourth expression: Special Strength, which is available only at travel retail. (Where I bought this.)

Special Strength is a surprisingly appropriate and non-obfuscating name for this whisky. It is the same spirit as Rare Old (no age statement but a knockout of a single malt), but bottled at higher proof: 98 proof, to be specific. (All of the other Mortlach bottlings hit 86.8 proof.)

As for Special Strength, it takes everything that’s great about Rare Old and only makes it better. The nose offers classic Speyside heather and grains, but with some little twists — grapefruit peel, red pepper, pickles, and notes of smoked salt. The palate is lush without being overpowering, The barley still comes through, but it is tempered delightfully by notes of caramel sauce, orange oil, dried herbs, and sesame oil. It’s well balanced on the whole, its flavor profile running more toward the savory than the sweet — and even though it’s a solid 49% alcohol, it drinks as easily as iced tea. The finish evokes very light floral elements and a touch of pepper, a nice way to end the dram.

As with the rest of the Mortlach lineup, it’s a smashing whisky that commands significant attention.

98 proof.

A / $105 (500ml) / mortlach.com

Tasting the Pinots of Emeritus Vineyards, 2013 Vintage

Emeritus HR

Emeritus began in 1999 when the irascible Brice Cutrer Jones, founder of Sonoma-Cutrer, bought a coveted 115-acre apple orchard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Apples went out. Pinot noir grapes went in. The goal: Craft an all-estate-grown Burgundy-style wine “from scratch,” its grapes carefully dry-farmed for maximum flavor extraction — and to actually showcase the terroir of California. (This vineyard is said to be the largest dry-farmed vineyard in California.)

Today Emeritus spans three small vineyards (two in the Sonoma Coast), with each responsible for producing a single-vineyard pinot noir. Today a small group of writers sat down (via a web chat) with Jones and his daughter and partner Mari Jones to step through the three latest bottlings of Emeritus pinot, all 2013 vintage releases, and listen to Jones extol the benefits of dry farming… and rail against the commercial winemaking practices of the Napa Valley.

Thoughts on each of these wines follow.

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Pinot Hill Vineyard – The newest vineyard, about 30 acres on the northern end of the Wind Gap, planted in 2008 (before that it was a llama farm). Distinctly Burgundy style, with notes of bacon and pepper on the nose. The body is loaded with fruit, gentle raspberry and cherry notes, plus notes of tea leaf. The conclusion is gentle and easy, with light wood notes. A quiet nod to the Cote de Nuits. B+ / $55

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Hallberg Ranch Vineyard – Sourced from the original 115-acre vineyard discussed above. Brighter, more acidic, and with a clearer, though not overblown, fruit character. It’s a departure from the ultra-jammy style that’s typical of the Russian River, with a smattering of savory spices, and a finish that evokes crisp red apple notes. Really gorgeous, elegant, and fresh, it’s easy-drinking and light on its fight… but loaded with a depth of flavor that merits considerable thought. Definitively not your daddy’s RRV pinot. A / $42

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast William Wesley Vineyard – Sourced from a high-elevation vineyard, a 30-acre plot that was originally a partnership with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of Domaine Romanée-Conti. De Villaine eventually backed out of the project, but the finished product nonetheless has some of his DNA. It’s heavily Burgundian in style, brooding on the nose with wet earth and some, big meaty notes, and tempered with touches of spearmint. There’s a density on the palate, loaded with notes of licorice, blackberry bramble, and some tar, which combines to make for a quite heavy pinot that might even be mistaken for syrah at times. That’s not a slight. Brice thinks of this as his winery’s “grand cru” bottling… and he’s not wrong in that descriptor. A- / $67

emeritusvineyards.com

Review: Ron Zacapa 23 (2016)

zacapa 23

It’s been eight years since we formally reviewed Ron Zacapa’s “23” expression, a Guatemala-born rum made from the first pressing of sugar cane juice (not the more typical molasses) and aged in solera style. (Zacapa 23 is not 23 years old but is rather blended from various rums aged 6 years old and up.)

Recently the company put Zacapa 23 through some minor bottle changes, and, given the amount of time that has passed, we felt a fresh look was called for. Let’s look at Zacapa 23 as it stands as of 2016.

A beautiful shade of toffee in color, the rum presents itself as amply aged, and the nose bears that out. Notes of old wine, coffee, roasted nuts, and milk chocolate all make an appearance, giving this rum a beautiful complexion before you ever take that first sip. The body shines just as brightly, though, offering a mix of fruity sherry notes driven by some of the barrel aging, deeply roasted and spiced nuts, all backed up with the essence of a solid cafe mocha. The body is unctuous but not gooey, the finish lengthy and complex but not overwhelming. Everything there is to like about rum can be found in Zacapa 23. Or should I see, everything there is to like about rum can still be found here.

All told, it remains an essential bottling.

80 proof.

A / $48 / zacaparum.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Gilles Brisson Cognac VS and VSOP

brisson cognac vs

Gilles Brisson, or just Brisson, is a Grande Champange-based producer of Cognac located in the Grande Champagne region of Châteaubernard. With just 65 hectares of production, Brisson is a relatively small producer, but it makes some impressive brandy from all estate fruit. Today we look at its two lower-level releases (a Napoleon and XO bottling are also available).

Both are 80 proof.

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VS – A bit rough and tumble, but it’ll work in a pinch. Initially a tad alcoholic and overtly woody on the nose, it opens up with time to reveal ample fruit and spice. The body leads the way with simple apple and cinnamon notes, vanilla touched with a bit of lemon peel, gingerbread, and grapefruit notes. The finish isn’t altogether clear, though, with a somewhat grainy character that isn’t unpleasant but which takes the focus off the fruit. I’d use this as a solid mixer or for straight sipping in pinch. B+ / $25

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VSOP – A clear step up, this Cognac offers immediately more maturity, its nose distinguished by more well-integrated wood notes complementing winey characteristics and well-matured fruit notes (think sultanas and figs). The body is seductive and dusky with notes of sherry, dried cherries, orange peel, and ample ginger. On the finish, a gentle coffee character comes to the fore, lingering alongside a complement of dried citrus. Lovely balance, and an outstanding value. A / $35

franckssignaturewines.com