Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish

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The 11th installment in Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection release is here. For 2016, standard, “fully mature” Woodford is finished in American brandy casks for nearly two years. Which brandy isn’t stated (but since Woodford’s parent company Brown-Forman owns Korbel, I have a strong hunch where the casks came from).

Woodford notes, “Brandy, a spirit distilled from wine or fruit, is often aged in oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, brandy does not have the new, charred barrel requirement allowing their barrels to be used multiple times. Therefore, this release is technically not a bourbon but rather a finished whiskey.” That’s really splitting hairs, though. Finishing barrels have become quite popular in bourbon country in recent years (see also Angel’s Envy), and the use of one does not, in my mind, disqualify this from being called a bourbon.

And in fact, there is nothing at all not to like in the 2016 Master’s Collection bourbon. Fresh from the start, the nose is moderately woody, tempered by light chocolate, cinnamon (a Morris classic), and plenty of lightly scorched caramel. Some raisin and dried fig notes come forward with time. On the tongue, the whiskey quickly settles into a beautifully balanced groove. Notes of raisin, ripe banana, and gingerbread wash over a spicy, vanilla- and caramel-heavy core. As a reprise, some gentle wood notes bring up the rear, a nice callback to the way things started.

The two years in old brandy casks have worked nicely at mellowing out a bourbon that can sometimes be overblown with wood. The brandy cask adds something in the form of those gently sweet raisin notes, but more importantly is what it takes away, which is some of the heavier tannin and lumberyard notes that standard Woodford can express. As with the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir release, this expression is a whiskey that takes a solid spirit and elevates it even further.

Morris has stumbled upon a really magical combination here. It may be the best Master’s Collection release to date.

90.4 proof.

A / $100 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: 3 Mezcals from Craft Distillers – Alipus Ensamble, Mezcalero #16, and Mezcalero Special #2

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Craft Distillers has doubled down on mezcal, and it imports both the Alipus and Mezcalero lines of mezcal. Alipus is generally available, but the Mezcalero line is a series of limited production releases, numbered in sequence. 1 through 14 are now sold out; you can still get 15 and 16, the latter of which is reviewed below, along with a new “special bottling” of Mezcalero.

Let’s dig in to all three.

Mezcal Alipus San Andres Ensamble  – The first blended Alipus (all the others being single-village bottlings), Ensamble is a blend of 20% wild bicuishe agave harvested at 5300 feet plus 80% traditional espadin. It’s hard to miss the powerful sweetness here, coming across like honey for starters and almost maple syrupy at times. The smoke grows from there. What is palpable on the nose is well-integrated into the palate, where it takes on a fruitlike character not unlike sherried Islay Scotch. This, however, goes too far, pushing overripe fruit elements that culminate in a somewhat saccharine mishmosh of flavors that hit strong citrus notes before diving into a finish of salt spray and cigar smoke. A bit scattered on the whole. 94.4 proof. B / $65

Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel –  Angel takes semi-wild madrecuishe (agave karwinskii) from a 5200-foote high soil and turns it into this, an elegant and truly gorgeous mezcal. The nose is restrained and citrus-focused, with clear notes of lemon and grapefruit. The palate weaves gentle smoke into the picture, meandering from wood fires to clean citrus and back again. The body is modest but fulfilling, the finish clean and lightly sweet, with just a hint of that sour citrus juice squeezed on top. So easygoing, it’s hard to put down — and a perfect example of what quality mezcal should be. 94.2 proof. A / $96

Mezcalero Special Bottling Release #2 – A higher-end, even more limited production. This release comprises “552 liters distilled in October and November of 2012 by Don Valente Angel from semi-wild Dobadaan (agave rhodacantha). It was harvested from a south-facing slope of a hill known as Loma de la Mojonera comprised of sandy, ferriferous soil at 5350 feet of elevation. The agaves were wood-fire roasted in a stone horno, shredder-crushed, fermented with wild yeasts, double distilled using artisan methods on a 200-liter copper potstill, and bottled in March of 2016. 736 bottles produced.” To clarify, this is tank-rested (not barrel-aged) for over three years before bottling. The results are impressive. This is a soft, seductive mezcal that starts slow and builds to a crescendo, kicking off on the nose with gentle notes of black pepper, simple smoky notes, and a basic citrus character. The palate follows suit, dialed way back at first with just a short, simple sweetness, some orange peel, and pepper. From there, it builds up to quite a hefty, mouth-filling body, rolling in notes of mint, gunpowder, apple, and campfire smoke. The mezcal goes out not with a whimper but with a bang, finishing sharply and scorching the back of the throat. Exciting stuff, and fun to explore. 97.52 proof. A- / $135

craftdistillers.com

Review: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon Barrel #3402 NHLC Collection

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Remember that time that the New Hampshire Liquor Commission bought 15 barrels of Jack Daniel’s, the largest single purchase of JD single barrels ever? Well, they did it again, this time with Knob Creek, purchasing 8 barrels and bottling them as New Hampshire exclusives, all 120 proof, 9 years old.

We got a sample from Barrel #3402, complete with an embossed metal plaque on the bottle.

Let’s give this special edition, available only in New Hampshire, naturally, a spin.

The nose is classic Knob Creek, maple syrup-sweet with moderate to heavy wood overtones, backed up by burnt caramel notes. On the tongue, it’s sweeter and more rounded than the 60% abv would make you expect, but the brown sugar and syrup notes quickly burn off, replaced by notes of cinnamon red hots and cloves. The finish brings out the wood again, here more clearly oak than the spicy cedar you can get in standard Knob Creek, with simpler vanilla and caramel notes rounding out the finish. Don’t be afraid of a little water to smooth out the edges.

The Granite State has done a bang-up job with its single barrel selections of late, and this Knob Creek special bottling stands at perhaps the top of that list.

120 proof.

A / $47 / liquorandwineoutlets.com

Review: Chapters of Ampersand Et No. 1 Limited Edition Cognac

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Chapters of Ampersand is a new Swedish company that wants to bring the absolute finest in Cognac to the world. This isn’t going to be inexpensive, to say the least. For its first ultra-limited expression, called Et No. 1, the company is blending three Cognacs in collaboration with Tiffon Cognac: a Grande Champagne Cognac distilled in 1974, a Grande Champagne Cognac from 1943, and a pre-phylloxera Cognac from 1870. None of those are typos. The finished product is bottled in a unique piece of Swedish art glass crafted by artist Göran Wärff.

We received an understandably small sample to review. Let’s check it out!

The nose offers intense and nearly overwhelming complexity: raisin notes up front, then cinnamon, nougat, spiced nuts, and some dark cherry. A slight soapiness emerges with some time in glass, but this evolves into more of a powder room perfume character that doesn’t detract from the notes of nuts and old fruit.

On the palate, this character segues toward a maple syrup note, though it’s filtered through a heavy leather character, with some notes of fresh tobacco, those raisin notes settling into a Madeira character — winey, lightly balsamic, and moderately sweet. The finish is far lighter and livelier than I expected, going out gently and almost subtly with lightly toasted wood notes. It stands in a stark contrast to that punchy, brooding nose, but does offer a lingering touch of dried fruit that hangs around on the palate as a lovely little reminder of what’s come before.

Et No. 2 is reportedly in the works. Can’t wait to see what the Swedes unearth next time!

80 proof. 300 bottles produced.

A / $8395 / chaptersofampersand.com

Review: Wines of Dierberg, 2016 Releases

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Established by Jim and Mary Dierberg in 1996, Dierberg Vineyards is a pinot and chardonnay shop that grows grapes in two cool-climate estate vineyards: the 160-acre Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley appellation, and the 70-acre Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. (The family also runs the Star Lane winery, which is in the Happy Canyon area.

Today we look at the 2016 releases of the Santa Barbara-esque Dierberg.

2013 Dierberg Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Dierberg Vineyard – Nicely balanced between fruit and brown butter, this is a Santa Maria chardonnay that starts off with classic vanilla and oak notes, plus a bit of roasted meat character, then finally settles into a fruity groove that offers notes of figs, passion fruit, pears, and baked apples. Gentle sandalwood notes dust the finish, which manages to hang on tightly to that fruit all the way to the end. Beautiful Burgundy-style chardonnay… and an amazing value wine. A / $25

2013 Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Dierberg Vineyard – A dense SoCal pinot, this flavor-packed wine offers raspberry and baking spice, heavy on the cloves, with a finish that heads toward tobacco and licorice. As it opens up, a lively strawberry note takes hold, which helps to balance out the darker fruit up front. A touch of pencil lead lingers on the back end. The body is on the dense side, but the finish lightens things up just enough. Great on its own, it excels with food. A- / $40

2013 Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard – Heading south, and up from the valley and into the hills of Santa Rita. Oddly this wine takes a turn toward a lighter style, restrained in flavor, but lively and light. Blueberries and blackberries take the lead here, but with more acidity — a bit like a fruit-flavored lemonade, dialed down, anyway. The finish is lightly sour, with rhubarb notes, making it pair better with food than on its own. B+ / $43

dierbergvineyard.com

Review: Stone Enjoy By 10.31.16 Tangerine IPA

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It’s another tangerine-infused IPA in Stone’s “Enjoy By” series, this one “expiring” in just a few weeks on Halloween. Thought the bottle is festooned in appropriately ghoulish decor, the recipe doesn’t seem to be any different than the last Enjoy By we covered, including 12 different hop varieties plus pureed tangerines in the mix. This time, for me, the citrus seems more restrained, and I get a touch of coffee character. though the finish offers a nice burst of orange rind to temper the heaviness of the hops. All told, it’s a winner, again!

9.4% abv.

A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / enjoyby.stonebrewing.com

Tasting the Wines of Amalaya and Colome, 2016 Releases

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Amalaya and Colome are both based in Salta, Argentina — and both are owned by California’s Hess Family Wines. Today we look at two wines from each, a torrontes and a malbec, all delightfully different despite being neighbors, both geographically and business-wise.

2015 Amalaya Torrontes/Riesling Salta – 85% torrontes and 15% riesling. The riesling is a huge help here, and a big influence on the wine, giving it both tightly perfumed aromatics and some apricot/peach notes reminiscent of viognier. The flatter torrontes benefits from this, lifting it up into a more festive, zippy wine. B+ / $10

2015 Amalaya Malbec Salta – A blend of 85% malbec, 10% tannat, and 5% syrah. It’s a very dry wine, dusty at times before exhibiting notes of tree bark, chicory, and licorice overlaying its lightly balsamic, blackberry core. Modest body, but the finish is quite drying, slightly pruny, and a little thin. B / $12

2015 Colome Torrontes – Quite lemony, with a pinch of rosemary in the mix. The finish diverges toward a more heavily herbal character, including notes of juniper, though its acidity is high enough to at least keep this in check to some degree. B- / $12

2013 Colome Malbec Estate – What a breath of fresh air this wine is. Malbec can be so overwhelming, but Colome’s expression is full of fruit but tempered with a sprinkle of licorice, savory herbs, cloves, and graphite. Some mushroom evolves on the nose; give it time and some lively floral notes emerge, too. The finish is dry and a bit leathery, which actually makes for a balanced and engaging experience. A lovely and unexpectedly special wine — one to stock up on. A / $20

amalaya.com
bodegacolome.com

Review: Ardbeg 10 Years Old, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan

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At 200 years of age, Ardbeg is one of the most venerable of Scotch whisky distilleries, and it’s an icon of Islay, where peat has long been the currency of whiskymaking.

While we’ve reviewed many of Ardbeg’s annual, limited edition Committee releases, we’ve somehow never taken our pen to the core range, which spans three expressions. Finally, the time was ripe to review them all, and it just happened to coincide with Ardbeg’s release of a VR experience that lets fans who can’t get to Islay experience a virtual visit there, however brief. Three short but immersive experiences, delivered via VR headset, let you wander through the distillery, hike out to the Uigeadail loch, and even visit the Corryvreckan whirlpool north of Islay (the lattermost being the most disorienting of the trio). The Ardbeg VR experience will be available only at key events for now, but watch for a lighter, web-based version to arrive later this year — which may be all the better to experience, because you can do so with a glass of Ardbeg 10 in hand.

Thoughts on “the big three” follow.

Ardbeg 10 Years Old – The essential Ardbeg, and the only one of this bunch with an age statement, all 10 of those years having been spent in ex-bourbon casks. The classic Ardbeg bottling, and one of the most heavily peated entry-level whiskies from all of Scotland. Ten years are just about right for taming Ardbeg’s fire, though the nose is still moderately heavy with straight, smoky peat notes, though also lightly briny but distinctly maritime in its tone. The body follows in lockstep, adding to the burning embers of driftwood notes of iodine, orange peel, coriander, and ginger. Beautifully balanced despite the heavy peat influence, it remains one of the most essential Islay whiskies — and an essential whisky that is required drinking for anyone who wants to form a base understanding of single malts. 92 proof. A / $45  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Uigeadail – Named for Ardbeg’s own loch, Uigeadail — if you hike the 3 miles to get there from the distillery, you’ll find a lockbox containing whisky and glassware, gratis. Uigeadail is quite different from the 10 Year Old because it is blended from both bourbon and sherry casks, including some older stock. The sherry influence alone makes for a vastly different experience, starting with the nose, which dampens the smokiness with notes of roasted nuts, citrus, and an earthy, leathery character that simply feels like history. The palate offers a rather different experience, which adds to the curiosity and interest, melding smoke with notes of well-roasted meats, walnut shells, pipe tobacco, and cloves. The finish is lengthy and brooding — aided by the considerably higher alcohol level — a lingering reminder of how this Ardbeg may be an entirely different beast, yet just as good as the 10. 108.4 proof. A / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Corry is unusual in that it is a blend of whiskies aged in bourbon casks and in new French oak — the latter of which is rarely utilized in Scotch. While beloved by its fans, this is admittedly my least favorite of the trio, a bold and brooding Islay. For me, it simply takes things too far, the new oak damaging the seductive soul that’s inherent in the great Ardbeg expressions. The peat is doubled up here but it’s done in a rather brutish fashion, giving it a tarry, ashy character that finishes on salty licorice and heavy iodine notes. Peat freaks will absolutely love it — the finish lingering for what feels like hours — but a nuanced whisky it simply isn’t. 114.2 proof. B  / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

ardbeg.com

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon

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Like all bartenders and spirits producers, Old Forester is in love with Prohibition — even though this period of time is hardly associated with high-quality anything. At the same time, you can barely count the number of “Prohibition Edition” spirits that have hit the market in recent years. Are we as a society really that eager to recreate the era of bathtub gin?

Perhaps it’s not all that bad. Old Forester had a license to produce a limited quantity of medicinal whiskey during the 1920s, and this release is meant to recreate that experience, its defining characteristic being bottled at a hefty 115 proof.

As the abv suggests, this is a bold and in-your-face spirit, though not quite as punchy as many cask-strength whiskies. The nose offers aromas of dried fruit and wood, both in agreeable balance, notes of dried orange, grapefruit, and mixed florals evident even through the haze of 57.5% alcohol. On the palate, the richness impresses even more, providing a chewy core that’s loaded with fruit, well-integrated oak, baking spice, and some hints of licorice. Lush and rounded, it’s a whiskey with soul — and I’m not even going to start down some road of making “ghost of Dorothy Parker” analogies, because that would be totally crazy.

Old Forester 1920 finishes on point, improving on an already impressive start as it builds to a sweet and fulfilling conclusion. Warming but not overpowering, and lengthy on the finish with echoes of both sweet fruit and dusky spices, it’s at once unusual and a classic example of how great bourbon ought to taste. In addition, it’s the clear champion of the Whiskey Row collection to date (see also 1870 and 1897). If you see it, buy it.

115 proof.

A / $60 / oldforester.com 

Review: Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy One-Time Blend No. 23

Once Only

Germain-Robin makes some amazing brandies, but this may be the best I’ve seen from the company to date. The catch: it’s a one-time only blend, as the name suggests, so if this review catches your palate, better grab a bottle now.

The focus of this blend is French colombard grapes, which were the preferred grape in Cognac before the phylloxera era. As a blend, it is a single barrel mix of a number of different brandies aging in the Germain-Robin collection, primarily including the following distillates:

  • 1991 colombard from Ukiah Valley
  • 2003 and 2004 malolactic colombard from Hopland
  • 2006 colombard from Redwood Valley
  • 2006 viognier used for aromatics

Germain-Robin has all the technical information you could want here. While you’re digesting all of that, let’s give it a taste:

The nose is beautiful, that classic sweet raisin aroma — but as it develops in the glass it also develops an herbal note of rosemary and thyme, which makes for a fun study in contrasts. The palate keeps things more directed to the sweeter side of the street, where notes of baked apples, cinnamon buns, and golden raisins dominate. The finish offers some astringency, a mild reminder of the high-acidity colombard grapes used to make this spirit. Lightly spicy, even peppery at times, it lets you down easy, with a throat-coating brown sugar sweetness that absolutely begs for another sip or two.

Not only is the brandy worthwhile, it’s an excellent value at this price.

Aka Germain-Robin Only Once Blend No. 23.

84.2 proof.

A / $75 / craftdistillers.com

Visiting and Tasting With Hourglass Wines

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“Michelin restaurants have more equipment than we do.”

So says Tony Biagi, winemaker at north Napa’s Hourglass and a celebrity in his own right, having made wines at Plumpjack, CADE, and other blue-chip operations. Now he’s got another feather in his cap in the form of Hourglass, a cult winery in the making, where a few years ago he replaced Bob Foley as winemaker.

Hourglass is the brainchild of Jeff and Carolyn Smith. Jeff is a wine veteran with grapes in his blood — his family’s been making wine in the Valley since 1975. After a stint selling Skyy and watching it become a national phenomenon (Jeff says he came up with the cobalt blue bottle), he bought his first vineyard, planted mainly cabernet, and hasn’t looked back.

Hourglass now has 18 vintages under its belt, and with Biagi now holding the reins, the winery seems poised for greatness, with a series of coveted releases now under its belt. Biagi will talk your ear off about his research into balancing tannin with “bound color” in a wine while aiming to minimally manipulate his finished product, but the main event today surrounds tasting a collection of young and unbottled 2015 vintage wines, including single-varietal malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc (one of Biagi’s beloved pet projects), plus some pre-release blends made from these grapes.

Some photos of this small but impressively well-designed winery follow, along with official tasting notes from three current/almost-released expressions of Hourglass’s cabernets from the 2014 vintage. Thanks to Tony and Jeff for a great day in Napa!

2014 Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – I love this wine (which is 100% cabernet sauvignon). So nicely balanced, it offers an incredibly complex profile of gentle fruit, saddle leather, pipe tobacco, and violets. A slight balsamic edge endures well into the palate, which leads to a finish of black pepper, (very) dark chocolate, and tart blackberry. The denouement is lengthy, a classic yet complex representation of Napa cab. A / $165

2014 Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A denser and bolder version of the the flagship wine, 90% cab blended with 6% malbec and 4% petit verdot, all drawn from Hourglass’s prized Blueline Estate Vineyard. This wine ups the ante on those tobacco and leather notes, tamping down the fruit a tad in the service of brambly tannins. Blackberry emerges as the wine opens up, along with restrained floral notes and some citrus. Again, give this one ample time or decant and chocolate notes emerge as well. A- / $125

2014 Hourglass Blueline Estate 36-24-36 – Moving up to the really rare stuff. Named for the iconic measurements of the “perfect” woman, this is a blend of 92% cabernet sauvignon and 8% petit verdot. This is a dense wine, more so than I would have expected based on this blend, loaded with hardy licorice, balsamic, and tart blackberry atop well-integrated oak notes and a light herbal character. There’s epic length here, culminating in some light menthol notes and a touch of cocoa. It’s enchanting today, but this wine needs ample time to open up — either by decanting or significant time in glass… or by letting it age in bottle for a few more years. A- / $225

hourglasswines.com

Review: Compass Box The Circus and Enlightenment

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Two new limited expressions from the ever-interesting blenders at Compass Box: The Circus and Enlightenment. Let’s take a look at both. Thoughts follow.

Compass Box The Circus – This is another complicated whisky that requires an infographic to explain how it is blended. The gist is that The Circus is composed of a mix of old malt whisky, grain whisky, and blended stock, in these proportions: 57.2% blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt; 26% blended grain whisky from a refill sherry butt; 15.4% Benrinnes malt whisky from a first-fill sherry butt, and 1.4% of a second blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt. Whew! Compass Box says it actually doesn’t know much about the whiskies inside those mystery casks, but that those refill casks are all “marrying casks,” and that the whiskies inside each of them have been lingering there for a long, long time. To say that this whisky is sherry forward would be a massive understatement. All that time in sherry butts has given the spirit a nutty, citrus-peel intensity that is the very essence of sherry cask aging. Secondary aromas include tea leaf and tree bark. Underneath all that, the palate offers notes of nougat, cinnamon, dried fruit, and gentle brown sugar. It drinks more like a sherried single malt than a blend, providing just a hint of the underlying malty grain that endures into the finish, where lightly herbal notes linger. A stellar blend. 98 proof. 2490 bottles produced. A / $300

EnlightenmentCompass Box Enlightenment – This is a much different but equally complicated whisky, a blended malt rather than a standard blend (meaning there’s no grain whisky in this one). It’s almost all aged in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, so there’s no sherry influence and the color is much, much lighter. The all-single-malt blend looks like this: 48.2% Clynelish, 36.7% Glentauchers, 10.8% Balblair, and 4.3% Mortlach (this one in a rejuvenated bourbon barrel). UK regulations prevent revealing the ages of these whiskies, but nonetheless these are not young bucks. The nose reveals toasty wood, coconut, almonds, and subtle gingerbread notes. On the palate, there’s more of this lightly sweet, nutty character, leading to almond-laden nougat and Christmas spice notes later on. The finish is a bit heavier, with bolder granary notes, new leather, and a sense of wet earth that tends to weigh down the delights that have come before. Enlightenment is still a great whiskey — though perhaps it is difficult to consider it entirely fairly next to the near-masterpiece of The Circus. That said, I could still drink it every day. 92 proof. 5922 bottles produced. A- / $90

compassboxwhisky.com