Category Archives: Rated A

Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

refind Gin-Vodka

Distilled from grapes in Paso Robles, California, Re:Find is a boutique distillery that turns its “neutral brandies” into a variety of straight and flavored spirits. Distilled “from grapes” has certain connotations, but Re:Find is careful to note its vodka is not grappa, a specific type of brandy that is distilled from a by-product of winemaking. Re:Find is rather made from “free run” juice called saignee that is bled off during pressing, before red wine grapes are fermented — so it’s closer to an unaged brandy in composition. These are high-end grapes, which just so happen to be used to make wine at Villicana Winery — which is under the same ownership.

Mostly available only in California, we got a look at four of the spirits in Re:Find’s lineup. All four spirits reviewed below are 80 proof.

Re:Find Vodka – A bit grappa-like on the nose, with some of that funky, twig-‘n’-stem character you see on this spirit, but it’s undercut with the lightest aromas of honey and marshmallow. The body offers more in the way of hazelnuts, banana, and vanilla cookies, which makes for an interesting counterpart to the funkier nose (again, much like a good grappa). There’s a lot going on in this spirit and while it’s initially a bit much when sipping straight, it does show lots of nuance and character, and it merits exploration both on the rocks and in more complex cocktails. A- / $35

Re:Find Cucumber Vodka – Interesting choice for your first flavor, but damn if a nose full of Re:find Cucumber doesn’t smell like you’re headed to a day at the spa. Crisp and authentic, this vodka offers pure and refreshing cucumber flavor through and through, with just the lightest dusting of sweetness on the finish to offer some balance against the vegetal notes up front. You get none of the earthy grappa character in the unflavored vodka here, just fresh cukes from start to finish. Impressive considering this is legitimately flavored with fresh cucumbers. Seasonally available. A / $25 (375ml)

Re:Find Gin – Triple distilled and infused with (mostly local) juniper berry, coriander, orris root, lemon & orange peel, grains of paradise, and lavender. This is an engaging gin, juniper-forward on the nose, with hints of lavender underpinning it. On the palate, things get a bit switched up. Here the lavender picks up the ball and runs, with the citrus notes coming on strong. It’s quite a trick, as the nose sets you up for a big evergreen bomb, then the body lets you down easy with a more sedate character suitable for the tropics. Re:Find Gin could benefit from a bit more complexity — maybe grapefruit peel or black pepper, or both — but as it stands it’s an engaging and quite drinkable little spirit. A- / $43

Re:Find Limoncello – Pale in color in comparison to many commercial limoncellos and translucent, Re:Find’s Limoncello looks and smells more like pure, fresh lemon juice — much more so than the stuff you typically see from Italy. Heavy on sour juice and bitter zest, this is intense stuff. If you’re looking for a sweet and lightly sour limoncello that will pair well with your berries-and-whipped-cream dessert, this isn’t the liqueur for you. If intense, almost raw, lemon character is your bag, give it a go… though you’ll have to visit Re:Find’s distillery to get some. B+ / $NA (375ml)

refinddistillery.com

Review: BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 3

bridgeport Trilogy 3The final round of BridgePort Brewing Company’s 30th anniversary line of beers is finally here: Trilogy 3 Brewers’ Class. This is a truly interesting beer, made in collaboration with the Fermentation Science Program at Oregon State University. (Did you know? My book on film criticism is a textbook at OSU!) Given little direction, the students and profs dreamed up a brown ale that’s been dry hopped, a nifty spin on an old standard.

Trilogy 3 is easily my favorite beer in the lineup. Tasting all three beers side by side, Trilogy 1 is now drinking a little strangely — too nutty and too corny on the finish. Trilogy 2 is faring better, but still suffers from a dearth of fruit or evergreen notes, essential for a big IPA win. Trilogy 3 stays a little closer to established beer “rules,” but the dry hops work surprisingly well as an adjunct to that classic nutty, slightly chocolaty brown ale. Giving it some pop and a piney bite on the finish, rather than that typical, muddy-sweet character that brown ales so often lack.

BridgePort will bottle the beer that consumers pick as their favorite as a year-round release starting in 2015. Consider my vote cast!

5.0% abv.

A / about $8 per six-pack / bridgeportbrew.com

Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along “The Highland Journey”

old pulteney 35

I had the recent good fortune to attend an online tasting called “The Highland Journey,” a road that took us through four distilleries and six single malts, all from distilleries throughout the Scottish Highlands. Tasted roughly from southeast to northwest, the experience covered anCnoc, Speyburn, Balblair, and Old Pulteney. We sampled a range of malts made in a variety of styles, some youthful and tough, others much older and finished with fruit-forward sherry casks.

Tasting notes from the event follow.

anCnoc 22 Years Old – We recently covered a few offerings from anCnoc, but this 22 year old is something else. Lovely apple notes up front. Brisk roasted grain character attacks the palate, with a fiery note that melds well with strong sherry cask influence that hits hard on the finish. Touches of dried fruits here and there. A lovely, balanced whisky that still lets the grain shine in an enticing, attractive way — and does not feel at all like its anywhere near past its prime. 92 proof. A- / $130

Speyburn 10 Years Old – This is entry-level Speyburn, which is a perennial best buy in the single malt space. Simplistic nose, with some charcoal fire notes and a bit of raw wood. The body is quite malty, with caramel and cloves — the tougher wood character takes a nutty turn on the finish. Pleasant but loaded with an almost rustic character. Bolder than I remember. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Speyburn 25 Years Old – An older expression of Speyburn, which you don’t see as often. Aggressive citrus on the nose. Sherry character remains the showcase on the tongue, with some lightly smoky notes building as the spirit develops on the palate. Baking spices and fruit compote emerge, with a touch of iodine/sea salt on the finish. 92 proof. A- / $300

Balblair Vintage 2002 First Release – 10 years old. Woody/malty notes on the nose mask it at first, but the body of this Balblair is very sweet, almost with a granulated sugar character to it. The sweetness rises on the finish, taking on an almost cotton candy character. The finish offers nougat, caramel sauce, and a bit of dried fruit. A fun, after-dinner sipper. 92 proof. A- / $60

Old Pulteney Clipper – A new, limited edition NAS whisky from Old Pulteney. Surprisingly lively. Malty and grain-heavy up front, but with a seductive candy bar character that balances that out. The end result is something akin to raisin-studded oatmeal, a mix of savory and sweet that works. The body is modest — despite a punch of spice that attacks the back of the throat — but balanced and enjoyable. A fine everyday dram choice. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Old Pulteney 35 Years Old – A different animal in this roundup. Elevated above an otherwise solid crowd here. Notes of Port wine, sultanas, clementine oranges, and banana fill the mouth, along with touches of marshmallow. Glorious, bright sherry notes emerge in time for the finish, which melds fresh citrus juices with raisins and candy bars. Lovely! 85 proof. A / $700 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Cloudy Bay 2011 Te Wahi Pinot Noir and 2012 Sauvignon Blanc

Te wahi 2011 (Native) [MHISWF041779 Revision-1]New Zealand’s most notable winery is back with new vintages — including a major departure for the brand with its new Pinot. Let’s not let my intro get in the way. Here are thoughts on two new releases from Cloudy Bay.

2011 Cloudy Bay Te Wahi Pinot Noir Central Otago – This is Cloudy Bay’s first wine not sourced from the Marlborough region and its first new product in 18 years. A gorgeous Pinot, it drinks more like a California wine than a jammy New Zealand wine. Notes of tea leaf, cinnamon, and ginger mingle with a cherry/blueberry core just perfectly. The wine is best with a touch of chill on it; too warm it starts to feel a bit watery. That said, on the whole it comes together beautifully. A / $75

2012 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough – Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, offering tropical notes, some brown sugar, and a lemon-fueled finish. Herbal notes emerge on the big, juice palate as the wine warms a bit, revealing more balance and a somewhat sour citrus finish. A- / $36

cloudybay.co.nz

Review: Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, and Unblended American Whiskey

To clarify my earlier commentary on the company: Michter’s is an old name that’s reviving its distillery operations — but while that’s getting going, the company is bottling contract-produced spirits under its own label. Label copy on this series of US-1 — aka US*1 — whiskeys is decidedly vague. The bourbon reviewed below, for example, is “made from the highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in a hand-selected charred white oak barrel… it is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”

Curious.

We’ve reviewed Michter’s before, and no matter how secretive it may be about its sourcing, the company makes a pretty solid product. (More to the point: It tells someone else to make a solid product, and they do.) The three spirits reviewed below comprise three of the four entry-level spirits from Michter’s (the Sour Mash fourth is covered in the review linked above), so we’re finally rounding out the company’s basic offerings. As for the older stock, we’ll just have to bide our time for it.

Thoughts follow.

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon - Aged in new oak for an indeterminate time. A bold and aggressive whiskey. Intensity from the get-go on the nose: Butterscotch, over-ripe banana, creme brulee, and cinnamon. The body takes all that and runs with it, adding brisk oak elements, apple pie notes, dried figs, and a touch of red hot candies. That bit of heat doesn’t last. The finish is seductive and supple, offering a wonderful balance between dusty wood and brown sugar sweetness. An excellent buy, the dearth of data on the spirit notwithstanding. Reviewed: Batch #14C123. 91.4 proof. A / $40

Michter’s US-1 Single Barrel Straight Rye – Aged 36 months-plus in new oak; otherwise no mashbill information is offered. Clear, spicy rye notes on the nose, with a dusting of sawdust. As the body develops, you get lots of caramel apple, more intense wood, and some bitter chocolate notes. While the nose offers tons of promise, frankly I was hoping for more on the palate. What comes across is a rather straightforward whiskey that masks its more interesting elements in lumber. Drinkable and mixable, but short on character. Reviews: Batch #14C118. 84.8 proof. B / $40

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey – This one’s the most mysterious of the bunch — a mystery grain whiskey that is aged (for a mysterious amount of time) not in new oak but in used bourbon barrels. The nose is immediately curious — gingerbread, molasses, and some lumber, but also tinned apples and cinnamon. The body is sweet with milk chocolate and maple notes, I’m thinking a distilled version of Sunday breakfast with some Nestle’s Quik on the menu. This isn’t a bad whiskey but it is a curious one, playing its identity cards close to the vest. Wheat whiskey, perhaps? Why not just say so? No batch information. 83.4 proof. B+ / $40

michters.com

Review: Hibiki 17 Years Old and 21 Years Old

hibiki 21

Great news for lovers of Japanese whiskies. Suntory has just launched two older Hibiki expressions, 17 Years Old and 21 Years Old, to join its 12 year old bottling that arrived on our shores way back in 2009. We got fresh looks as the first shipments hit the U.S.

Hibiki 17 Years Old – Nicely balanced between supple grain notes and dessert-like characteristics on the nose, including sherried nuts, honeycomb, and nougat. The body plays up both sides of this equation nicely. The cereal side is well-aged, mellow, and slightly racy, while the oak-driven side offers deep almond and hazelnut notes and a lightly sweet, whipped cream finish that ties it all together like a nice ice cream sundae. Could be a touch punchier, but overall it’s a great way to end an evening. 86 proof. A- / $150

Hibiki 21 Years Old – Elevated. Almost cognac-like on the nose, with austerity and grace, but also clear sweetness. The palate starts out a bit hot — surprising given the relatively gentle alcohol level here — with a cinnamon-like burn and more of those roasted cereal notes. Give it a little time in glass and some honey character emerges along with soothing brown sugar notes. The finish is where Hibiki 21 really kicks in, with some red fruits, sherry, red peppers, and a bit of chewy marshmallow to top it all off. Exemplary. 86 proof. A / $250

suntory.com

Review: Roca Patron Tequila

Roca Patron Reposado

Quien es mas rico? No es Patron. Es Roca Patron.

If standard Patron isn’t ritzy enough for you, now there’s Roca Patron, an artisanal version of the tequila classic. What’s a roca? And how is this different from the regular bottling? In Patron’s words:

Roca Patrón starts with a tahona, a giant two-ton stone wheel hand-carved from volcanic rock (roca) that slowly crushes the cooked agave to break the bonds of fiber and release the rich agave juice. From here, both the juice and the agave fiber are placed together into wooden fermentation vats for 72 hours, and then distilled in small-capacity copper pot stills. Only a handful of the more than 150 working tequila distilleries in Mexico still utilize the tahona process.

While Roca Patrón is the company’s first line of tequilas crafted exclusively from the tahona process, the process itself is nothing new to Patrón. From the brand’s very beginning, every tequila in the Patrón portfolio has included tahona tequila in the blend. The core line of Patrón tequilas, and Gran Patrón Platinum and Gran Patrón Burdeos, are created from a combination of tahona tequila and tequilas produced from the more modern roller mill process. Patrón has also recently introduced a tahona-only extra añejo, Gran Patrón Piedra.

The aged variants are rested in single-use American bourbon barrels – Roca Patrón Reposado for five months, Roca Patrón Añejo for 14 months; this differs from the core Patrón line, which are aged in a blend of new and used oak barrels. The Patrón master distiller determined that the ideal flavor characteristics of Roca Patrón Silver came through at 45 percent alcohol (90 proof). Similarly, Roca Patrón Reposado is optimal at 84 proof, and Roca Patrón Añejo at 88 proof.

We tried the blanco, reposado, and anejo expressions. Thoughts follow:

Roca Patron Blanco Tequila – Silver, unaged. Classically herbal on the nose, grassy with lemon/lime overtones. Surprisingly similar on the palate. This is more vegetal than standard Patron — or, more accurately, my memory of the last time I had Patron — with more bite, more acidic tang, and a clear focus on fresh herbs. A lot of this is likely due to the 45% alcohol that Roca Blanco is bottled at. A fully capable but decidedly simplistic blanco; you’ll find more nuance and depth of flavor in other bottlings on the market. 90 proof. B+ / $70

Roca Patron Reposado Tequila – Aged 5 months. The nose is quiet, with a crisp focus on lemon — think lemon meringue pie — and agave in the distant background. The body is silky as all get out. This is the kind of tequila people will invariably describe as “smooth” as they knock it back a handle at a time. It’s got just the right consistency, melding the bite of agave with more lemony citrus, vanilla custard, a dusting of cinnamon, and a touch of woody lumberyard notes. The finish fades from sweet and soothing to drying and clean with a twist of lime, a nifty little trick and one that will sure have happy drinkers ordering a second shot at the bar. Firing on all cylinders. 84 proof. A / $80

Roca Patron Anejo Tequila – Aged 14 months. Exotic nose. Lots of agave hanging in there at first, bringing aromas of rosemary and sage to mingle with some burnt marshmallow and anise notes. But after a sip or two you clearly see the impact of wood just having its way with this spirit. 14 months isn’t all that old for a solid anejo, but here the astringent wood barrel notes nonetheless overpower both the agave notes and the sweetness you’d normally see from barrel aging. Instead of that classically anejo silky caramel character we get a slug of raw lumberyard that dominates the spirit and never lets up. A disappointment considering the promise of the reposado. 88 proof. B / $90

All in all: A mixed bag, but I can think of nothing but this when the bottle’s in front of me.

patrontequila.com

Preview: Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 and 1974 Vintage

011

Cuvee Lheraud (lerr-oh) is a family-owned Cognac producer that makes a million bottles of brandy every year all from its estate vineyards. And you’ve never heard of them, because until now they have not sold products in the United States.

This fall, Lheraud arrives on U.S. shores, bringing its unique spin on Cognac to our esteemed shores. While it makes single-vintage editions much like many other high-end producers, it also takes the same approach to its higher-end non-vintage dated blends. As Export Manager Francois Rebel explained to me on a recent visit to San Francisco to introduce the brand, the various cuvee bottlings, including the 20 year old Cuvee 20, are made from casks of exactly that age. This year’s Cuvee 20 was made from casks distilled in 1994. Next year it’ll be 1995 casks, and so on. Doesn’t this cause a problem with consistency from year to 013year, if you can’t blend from other vintages to achieve a flavor profile that doesn’t vary from year to year? Yes. But that’s the way we do it, says Rebel. Some years customers may not like the changes, but “Lheraud does not blend.”

Neat idea, though I could never get a clear explanation of why the Cuvee 20 doesn’t indicate it’s a Cuvee 20 distilled in 1994 — which would seem to boost sales. Ah, the French!

Rebel tasted me on two of the distillery’s upcoming releases, and my thoughts are below. Note: Our sampling was quite limited to small tastes, so these should be considered preview descriptions and ratings and not canonical reviews. Prices are estimated based on overseas pricing. Will update with official pricing when it is available.

Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 (2014 Bottling) – Made from grapes from the Petite Champagne region. Classic style for a Cognac this age, light incense and raisin notes atop a sweet core that offers oaky, almond, and honey notes on the palate. Easy to like. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Cognac Lheraud 1974 Vintage – Made from Grand Champagne-grown grapes. A 40 year old bottling, bottled at cask strength — unusual for any Cognac. More exotic on the nose than the Cuvee 20, it offers darker chocolate and nut character, dark raisins, dried figs, and drying, resinous oak on the finish. Less sweet than the Cuvee, but it still has plenty of sugar to go around. Complex and worthwhile. 98 proof. A / $500+

cognac-lheraud.com

Tasting Report: Cinsault Wines from Lodi’s Bechthold Vineyard, 2014 Releases

Cinsault may not be a household wine varietal, but they sure seem to grow a bunch of it up in Lodi, located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. Recently the Lodi winemaking trade group sponsored a tasting of four Cinsault wines, all from the region’s Bechthold Vineyard.

Primarily known as a blending grape in the Languedoc region of France, Cinsault makes for surprisingly soft and fruity wines, often with a dash (or more) of spice. It lies somewhere between Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. As another point of reference, Cinsault and Pinot Noir were crossed to make Pinotage, the unofficial national grape of South Africa.

The four wines below demonstrate how widely variable wines made from this grape can be — even those made from grapes grown in the same vineyard. Thoughts follow.

2013 Turley Cinsault Bechtoldt Vineyard Lodi – Immediately spicy on the nose — cinnamon and ginger, unusual qualities in any wine — with tons of fruit. Strawberries and crisp rhubarb burst forth, with a long, slightly sweet finish. Most would guess this is Pinot. Either way, it’s lots of fun. [sic] on the spelling of the vineyard name on the label. A / $17

2013 Michael David Ancient Vine Cinsault Bechthold Vineyard - Dense and chocolaty, easily mistaken for Zinfandel. Earthy and lightly smoky, the only thing connecting this to the Turley is the strawberry at its core — but here it is more like strawberry jam or preserves. A much different, but compelling, wine. B+ / $25

2012 Estate Crush Cinsault Bechthold Vineyard – A more middle-of-the-road wine, offering a blend of jammy fruit and a dusting of baking spices. Strawberry is the clear fruit component here, pulling you into a vanilla-infused finish. B+ / $26

2011 Onesta Cinsault Bechthold Vineyard – A more brooding wine, somewhere between the prior two wines in intensity and depth of flavor. Give it a few minutes in the glass and plenty of strawberry notes come forward, along with ample chocolate and caramel character, adding nuance. Definitely a wine that would work with dessert — but also with the main course. Worthwhile. A- / $29

Review: Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old

glenfiddich 26

2014’s autumn of whiskey releases continues with this new release from Speyside’s Glenfiddich, a permanent addition to the distillery’s portfolio.

Nothing fancy here: Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old is aged entirely in American oak ex-bourbon casks, with no finishing. It’s actually the first whisky in the company’s permanent collection to be entirely aged in ex-bourbon casks.

While it’s got Glenfiddich DNA through and through, this is a powerful spirit from the Speyside giant. The nose is intense with fruit — pears, apricots, and a dollop of orange blossom honey to sweeten things up. Fairly light oak notes emerge here as well. The body is a powerhouse to match the big nose. Intense honey character gives this the impression of a Sauternes-finished whiskey, with notes of vanilla, almond, charred wood, and roasted cereal grains coming along toward the finish. The body is rich and viscous, which adds to the depth of flavor and a quite lengthy finish. It’s not the most complicated whisky in the world, particularly considering its age, but its power and deep honey notes make it compelling in its own right.

86 proof.

A / $500 / glenfiddich.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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_2009Sicily’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_3Today 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

 

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)

Parker's Original Batch Bottle Shot

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

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

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

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 SherryThe 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

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum

vizcaya 21

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