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

benhams gin

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

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

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

90 proof.

A / $40 /

Review: Mortlach Special Strength


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

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

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

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

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

98 proof.

A / $105 (500ml) /

Tasting the Pinots of Emeritus Vineyards, 2013 Vintage

Emeritus HR

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

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

Thoughts on each of these wines follow.

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

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

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

Review: Ron Zacapa 23 (2016)

zacapa 23

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

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

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

All told, it remains an essential bottling.

80 proof.


Review: Gilles Brisson Cognac VS and VSOP

brisson cognac vs

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

Both are 80 proof.

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

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

Review: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Tequila 2016 Edition

cuervo RESERVA-2016 3 BOTELLA - lo_res

Jose Cuervo’s top-end bottling, Reserva de la Familia, is out for 2016. THis year’s box design was produced by Jorge Mèndez Blake, a Guadalajara native, who is “famous for merging different historical and geographical elements as he promotes Mexican art.”

This year’s expression immediately feels a bit spicier than the bottlings of the past, though not enough to change the character dramatically. The nose is clean and classic — clean agave, dark caramel, and some interesting lime zest and cayenne pepper notes. On the palate, again it comes across with well-matured caramel and vanilla notes, plus secondary notes of banana, orange peel, cloves, and oak-driven spices. The finish follows suit, racy with spices and a bit of heat.

Compared to all the prior expressions of Reserva de la Familia I have on hand (for reference, see 201520142012, 2010, and 2008), the 2016 is bolder and rounder, less sweet up front but with more peppery, savory notes on the finish. It’s not a massive departure, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow or two, particularly given the consistency of this bottling year after year. That said, while you might miss the rush of brown sugar on the back end, what the 2016 replaces it with is equally compelling.

80 proof.

A / $150 /

Tasting the Chenin Blanc Wines of South Africa, 2016 Releases

chenin blancs

South Africa is making a name for itself with chenin blanc — or at least it’s trying to, and recently a number of vintners from the region banded together to showcase how chenin blanc was evolving in the country. (More chenin blanc is planted here than in any other country in the world.)

During an online tasting event, six wines from the region, ranging from the 2013 to the 2015 vintage, were introduced and tasted. These wines exemplify a wide range of styles, but the “house style” for South African chenin blanc offers crisp minerality along with a big enough body to stand up to food. In the U.S. you can think of chenin as a bit of a middle ground between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Designed to be versatile, it has a lot in common with modern pinot grigio, though it is usually a bit less fruity.

So, is chenin blanc from “.za” worth a look? Thoughts follow on the full half dozen.

2013 Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc – Fresh and crisp, with slate-heavy, stonelike aromatics. The fruit here is simple and restrained, showing light peach notes, with ample minerality on the finish. B+ / $20

2015 Bellingham The Old Orchards Chenin Blanc – Considerably racier, balancing heavily perfumed aromatics with a slightly meaty backbone. Far more tropical than the typical chenin blanc tasted today. B+ / $22

2015 Stellar Winery The River’s End Chenin Blanc – The balance feels off on this wine, veering into astringent notes. Things open up in time, but I never got past the almost mothball-like aromatics and the heavily meaty body. C+ / $15

2015 Terre Brûlée Le Blanc – An exotic tropical note takes hold right from the start, with heavy pineapple notes fading into notes of guava. Somewhat atypical for chenin — though the perfumy aromatics remind you of its provenance — with a lengthy, fruit-forward, and rather heavy level of acidity. A favorite. A / $15

2015 Solms-Delta Chenin Blanc – Classic chenin blanc on the nose, lightly perfumed and showing ample mineral character. Almost textbook from start to finish, the wine takes those classic rocky slate notes and layers on notes of peach and pineapple, leading to an impressively lengthy finish. A- / $15

2014 Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc – Take a little of all of the above and you’ve got Beaumont’s chenin blanc, which showcases floral perfume notes, fresh pineapple fruit, and a touch of beef jerky. Lovely balance on the whole. A- / $32