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

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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

Review: Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company Juices and Lemonades

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Florida-based Natalie’s Orchid Island makes fresh juices and lemonades, packing them in those familiar, squared-off, plastic pint bottles. These products are “gourmet pasteurized” but contain no preservatives, and must be kept refrigerated at all times. Is upscale juice worth the splurge? We checked out six varieties of juice and lemonade. For your consideration:

Natalie’s Orange Juice – A touch sour, but otherwise this is a reasonably credible orange juice that leans a bit toward the grapefruit/lemon end of the flavor spectrum. B

Natalie’s Orange Mango Juice – Light on the mango, which gives this blend a bit of a banana character — complete with a creamier body, almost smoothie-like at times. A-

Natalie’s Orange Beet Juice – Appropriately “beety,” it tastes awfully healthy, although the intense vegetal character of the beets makes this hard to drink a full pint of. I love beets, but beet juice — even when cut with a bit of orange — remains an acquired taste. (It’s worth noting that orange juice is the first ingredient, however.) B-

Natalie’s Lemonade – Nothing to complain about here. This lemonade nails the sweet and sour balance perfectly, with a slight lean toward fresh lemon, just as it should be. A

Natalie’s Strawberry Lemonade – Well-sweetened, with a nice balance between lemon and strawberry notes. Refreshing and tart, with a slight creaminess on the finish. B+

Natalie’s Lemonade Tea – The Arnold Palmer is a simple drink, but the majority of the time it is made, it tastes like garbage. Why is this so often screwed up? Good news: Natalie’s nails it. This is just about the perfect mix of lemonade and tea, starting off with that tart lemon kick, then settling down to finish with that gentle, sweet tea that lingers on the palate. That said, there are 48 grams of sugar in a pint, so perhaps drink only occasionally. A

$NA per 16 oz. bottle / orchidislandjuice.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2016 Edition

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Here’s a quintet of whiskeys you might have heard of once or twice. Yes, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has arrived, which will probably be sold out before I finish typing this sentence. Well, if you’re a glutton for punishment and want to take a stab at finding one of these rarities — particularly because this year’s batch is so exceptional — read on for the reviews.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Last year’s Sazerac 18 was famously bottled from the last drops of its massive quantity of well-aged rye, which had been sitting in tanks since 1985. 2016 marks the first “new” batch of Sazerac Rye in more than a decade. Distilled in 1998, there’s no tanked spirit in this batch — and, Buffalo Trace says, there won’t be any more tanked whiskey going forward. As it should, the whiskey tastes a bit different now, quite spicy on the nose with a huge baking spice punch while hanging on to its classic notes of brandied cherries, juicy raisins, and a layer of sandalwood. Some grassiness emerges on the nose, given time . The palate is racier and drier than expected, peppery on the back of the palate while allowing its cherry core to shine and light, toasty wood notes to emerge. The finish is lasting and allows some brown sugar notes to shine through, adding some balance to the lingering lumber. It may not be the same Sazzy 18, but it’s still a beauty. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – The 2016 edition of the classic Eagle Rare 17 has been aging on the first, second and third floors of Warehouses H and K. The nose feels racier than usual, eventually settling down to reveal some surprises: exotic and heavily tropical notes of coconut and pineapple, with a healthy dollop of vanilla on top. This highly unexpected but delightful nose spills over onto the palate, which is well-sweetened to the point where it approaches rum, although that is tempered by plenty of wood later in the game. Some more toasted coconut and almond notes emerge on the back end, alongside a modest level of barrel char. It’s at once strikingly unusual and, at the same time, a classically fruit-forward bourbon that is well worth exploring. 90 proof. A

George T. Stagg Bourbon – Always the centerpiece of the BTAC yet often overblown, this year’s Stagg is a cherry-picked compilation of 142 barrels sourced from warehouses M, N, H, L and K. Old stock, high proof, as always — this one’s over 72% abv, bruising even by Stagg standards. Notes of unlit cigars, rosemary, and cloves kick things off on rich and dense yet surprisingly balanced nose. Another surprise: At full proof the bourbon doesn’t completely overwhelm the palate with alcohol, but it is so dusty and drying on that it’s tough to cut through the massive amount of tannin to really appreciate what’s going on. Water is always Stagg’s best friend, and this year is no exception, eventually coaxing sweetness from that intense tobacco character, plus cherry fruit, loads of vanilla, torched marshmallow, and more cloves. As it opens up in the glass — again, particularly with water — it develops an intensely smoky aroma, which is a natural companion with the tobacco notes but which does tend to dull the fruit and leave your mouth a bit dry. That aside, this year’s expression is quite unique and worth some exploration, nearly earning the vaunted reputation it’s always had. 144.1 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A 13 year old expression of Weller — uncut, unfiltered, wheated recipe bourbon distilled in the spring of 2003 and aged on the third and sixth floors of Warehouses D, K, and L. As is becoming the norm with these BTAC Wellers, the nose is quite sweet, with (again) a butterscotch influence, plus marzipan and peppermint. The palate backs these up, but the finish takes a turn toward a more spicy, wintry character. While approachable at full, uncut proof, water may not be a bad idea, though more than a drop or two tends to dull some of the sweetness that otherwise makes this year’s Weller so compelling. One of the best expressions of W.L. Weller I’ve had in many years. 135.4 proof. A-

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – As always, this is a good-old six year old rye, the baby of the group, this installment distilled in the spring of 2010 and aged on the fourth, fifth and seventh floors of Warehouses I, K, and M. This year’s expression is better than it usually is, though the relative youth comes across immediately on the nose — moderately woody, with some butterscotch underneath. The tannin hits hard on the palate — those pushy lumberyard notes really lingering at the back of the throat. Unlike with the Stagg, water doesn’t restore balance but just dilutes the whole affair, bringing forth notes of burnt toast, heavy cereal, and lots of smoky oak. The finish is dusty and slightly green. There’s nothing all that offensive here, but compared to this field (or any other top shelf whiskey) it is just very ordinary. 126.2 proof. B

$90 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: Coravin Model One Wine Preservation System

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Since I reviewed the first Coravin wine preservation system in 2013 — the first review of the device ever published #humblebrag — the company has been up to a lot of work. The Coravin Model 1000 is now known as the Coravin Model Eight. A luxe edition called the Coravin Model Two has been released, and now there is a third version: A less expensive system called the Coravin Model One.

The Model One is designed to be millennial-friendly, clad in more Ikea-friendly white and blue plastic instead of black and silver. Other than that, slightly lighter materials, and some very minor design tweaks, I can tell you that after experimenting with both the Model One and the original Model 1000/Model Eight side by side, they are functionally identical.

Both devices work the same way: A needle goes down through the cork, wine comes out, and argon gas goes in. Argon canisters are replaceable (each handles about 3 bottles of wine) at a price of roughly $10 a canister, so figure a bit under $1 per glass for expendables. Both use the same needle (the Model Two has a slightly “faster” needle) and work exactly the same way.

So, if you’re considering a Coravin, should you spend $200 on the Model One or $300 on the Model Eight? Well, the blue and white color scheme isn’t the most attractive, but the Coravin isn’t all that handsome of a device to start with, no matter what color it is. If you’re choosing to keep the device in a drawer instead of on display (and since the Model One doesn’t come with a stand, you pretty much have to), I wouldn’t hesitate to save the hundred bucks and put that toward wine instead of gadgetry.

A / $200 / coravin.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Tasting Chenin Blanc – Vouvray vs. South Africa, 2016 Releases

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Chenin blanc is not a grape that people ooh and ahh over. Typically it’s the cheap wine on the by-the-glass list that you select only because you don’t drink chardonnay and you just don’t trust that New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be dry enough before dinner.

Chenin blanc is best known in its home in the Loire Valley, but it is also the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Once used exclusively to make semi-sweet wines, chenin blanc today is primarily a dry wine style, though the finished product can be quite variable… as we’ll find out in just a moment, as we explore both the Loire’s Vouvray region and South Africa, to see how chenin blanc styles have evolved in both of these areas. (Spoiler: It’s incredibly random.)

2015 Clos du Gaimont Vouvray AOP – A fresh and lively wine, offering notes of pineapple, mango, and coconut, all atop a brisk, moderate-to-highly acidic and vaguely floral base. The finish evokes clementine oranges, with hints of fresh peaches. A / $20

2013 Domaine Vincent Carême Vouvray Le Peu Morier – A very pungent wine, perhaps the opposite of the Paul Buisse above. This one showcases a sour face, with notes of white wine vinegar, green grass, and wilting flowers. The finish is tart and reminiscent of sherry. While there are elements of this wine that are enjoyable due to their uniqueness, on the whole it’s too overpowering for my palate. An extreme example of “old world” winemaking. C+ / $38

2015 Terre Brulee Le Blanc Swartland South Africa – Immediately flabby on the palate, with dominant notes of melon, green pepper, and some baking spice elements. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of flavors, which might not be so bad, but the lack of any noteworthy acidity takes things out on a muddy note. C- / $16

2015 Indaba Chenin Blanc – A Western Cape wine, and an improvement over the Terre Brulee — better acid, with more interesting notes of grapefruit, mango, and white flowers. Altogether it’s a more classic chenin in structure that feels like it could be a lower-tier Vouvray. B+ / $11

Review: Blood Oath Bourbon Whiskey Pact No. 2 2016

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Luxco’s Blood Oath series is officially turning into an annual affair, and Pact No. 2 is here. As promised last year, Pact No. 2 is a different whiskey, but it’s less different than than you might think. This year’s expression is, like Pact No. 1, a blend of three Kentucky bourbons: First, a 7-year old rye-heavy bourbon finished in Port barrels, second, an 11-year old wheated bourbon, and third, an 11-year old rye bourbon. While the overall structure is similar to Pact No. 1, none of those appears to be a repeat of last year’s release, though it did include an (unfinished) 7-year old high rye bourbon.

I really enjoyed Pact No. 2 right from the start. It’s a powerhouse of a bourbon, leading on the nose with somewhat heavy wood overtones, plus notes of lightly scorched sugar and cocoa powder. There’s plenty of spice here to go around, offering notes of cloves, allspice, and ginger, all atop notes of toasty grains.

The palate builds on this with a number of fun elements, starting with a nicely fruity attack that offers notes of red berries, applesauce, and brown butter. As the palate evolves it finds even more of a voice, layering in gingerbread, Christmas-like spiced apple cider, golden raisins, and some notes of citrus peel. The baking spice is deep and penetrating, with that sultry wood reappearing on the back end to make for a somewhat austere and mature finish. All of this put together, this is serious whiskey, blended by someone who really knew what they were doing. Frankly, I find it a tough bourbon to put down.

Yes, Luxco is the company that makes Everclear, but it’s also proving itself to be an impressive force when it comes to sourcing high-end bourbon barrels and blending up an enticing whiskey. This is definitely one to buy.

98.6 proof. 22,500 bottles produced.

A / $100 / bloodoathbourbon.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2016 Edition

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It’s the 15th edition of Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon, and I’m happy to report this year’s installment is one of the best in recent memory.

But first, a little detail from OldFo on this, a 12 year old bourbon, which is fully in keeping with the distillery’s history:

Each barrel in the Birthday Bourbon selections annually are drawn from the same day of production, this year’s on June 4, 2004, leading to the ‘vintage-dated’ reference. The 2016 release of 93 barrels uniquely matured together on the 5th floor of Warehouse K at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville, KY. The lot was positioned near a window facing west allowing them to be sun kissed, yielding a deeper oak mouthfeel. This warm location provides this year’s release with a deep, rich, oak forward personality.

That “official” description seems awfully backwards to me, and critically it misses what’s best about this whiskey. The 2016 Birthday Bourbon is fresh and fruity, definitively not woody, particularly on the nose, which exudes notes of cloves, spiced gingerbread, and muddled cherries. These engaging aromas come alongside a more gentle, encompassing lacing of barrel notes, which feels a bit winey at times. The palate is quite luscious, offering bright cherry fruit (I was immediately reminded of Baker’s Bourbon), dark chocolate, more cloves, and a hint of licorice. The finish is drying and bittersweet, but not especially influenced by traditional, classic barrel flavors.

All told this is a gem of a whiskey — getting more expensive every year, to be sure, but worth it at least for 2016. Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon releases are rarely my favorites, but Chris Morris and Co. have come up with a surprising delight that goes against the distillery’s often hoary style and manages to really engage with a fresh and enlightened style.

97 proof. 14,400 bottles produced.

A / $80 / oldforester.com