Category Archives: Rated A

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.

Update 10/2014: I tried this again in its near-shipping condition and had nearly identical tasting notes. Big cherry character up front, silky chocolate/caramel sauce on the back end, with a kind of funky licorice kick. Great stuff.

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

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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