Review: Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP Cognac

LOUIS ROYER_FORCE 53 VSOP silo

Most Cognac is bottled at the usual 80 proof, but Louis Royer’s Force 53 says screw that, let’s take a cue from the fellas in the whiskey world and go megaproof.

The choice of 53% abv (106 proof) isn’t accidental. The House of Royer got its start in 1853. Lucky for them, I guess, that the business didn’t launch in 1799. Or 1801.

From a spec standpoint, the higher alcohol level is the major distinguishing feature of Louis Royer Force 53. Otherwise it’s a standard VSOP Cognac in composition, which means that technically the spirit’s been aged a minimum of just four years in cask.

Turns out the extra alcohol (and some smart knowhow) makes quite a difference. Many VSOPs are perfectly drinkable and full of life, but few have the punch and power of Force 53. What could have come across as almost watery in an 80 proof Cognac is instead, well, forceful and lively in this bottling. Here, notes of caramel apple take on more apple pie-like overtones on the nose. The body is delightfully rich, dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder, offering fig and raisin notes on the back end. That classic Cognac sweetness is unmistakable throughout, all those fresh citrus, apple pie, banana cream, and molten caramel notes building to an expressive and delightful — yet still youthful — whole.

For barely 40 bucks, you will be hard pressed to find a brandy of any ilk that is as well-balanced and downright enjoyable as Force 53, and Royer may very well find it has launched a big trend with this “high strength” idea in a world where 80 proof has long ruled the roost.

A / $43 / louis-royer.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Lost Prophet Bourbon 22 Years Old

Orphan Barrel_Lost Prophet_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

These orphans are working harder than Oliver Twist for Diageo, and a fourth expression of the Orphan Barrel Project is now hitting the market: Lost Prophet.

The Lost Prophet stock was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Kentucky at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and, per the company, was found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville. The whiskey is bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The mashbill for Lost Prophet Whiskey is 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye.

This is a fun and intriguing spirit that’s hard not to like. The nose is immediately unique, almost startling, with notes of intense menthol, tanned leather, cloves, and citrus oils. The body punches hard — hotter at first than its proof level would indicate — with notes of molasses, dark cherry, big vanilla, some gingerbread lat in the game, and a moderate amount of wood.

Not at all hoary or tough the way many very old whiskeys can be, Lost Prophet Bourbon still manages to feel fresh and exciting, offering a rich and engaging experience that is both plenty complex while also being easy-drinking and refreshingly enjoyable. So many old whiskeys leave you with a bitter, astringent aftertaste, but Lost Prophet’s denouement is lightly sweet, lasting, and memorable.

For a bourbon over 20 years old, Lost Prophet is actually quite cheap. Doubt it will stay that way, of course…

90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch Tul-Tr-1.

A / $120 / orphanbarrel.com

Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

Dec12-BruichladdichCuvee-382-1

When people ask me what my favorite whiskey is — and they do that a lot — after I hem and haw about it for a while, I usually tell them it’s one they’ve never heard of: Bruichladdich 16 Years Old First Growth Series: Cuvee E Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes Finish, a limited edition that Laddie put out in 2010 and which is down to its last drops in my bar. (My “A” rating at the time is too low.)

Cuvee E is long gone from the market, but Bruichladdich recently put out a spiritual successor of sorts, Cuvee 382 La Berenice. It’s a different animal — five years older and finished in both Barsac and Sauternes casks, but with my beloved Cuvee E nearly spent, I sprang for a bottle of 382 to keep the party going.

Cuvee 382 is a study of contrasts, starting out much, much darker in color than Cuvee E, offering the appearance of what looks like a well-sherried whiskey. The nose is serious, more intense than Cuvee E, and less sweet from the start. Biscuits, gingerbread, and leather oil pervade the racy, punchy nose. The body brings lots of dried fruits into the equation, folding these into notes of roasted grains, more leather, and some citrus peel. It doesn’t offer the bright and sweet honey character of Cuvee E, however, rather it takes things in a more austere direction. Watch for a surprising rush of sea salt on the finish to polish it all off.

Altogether, this is a surprisingly different whisky than the distillery’s prior Sauternes-oriented bottling, though it has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While it sticks closer to a more traditional malt whisky formula than Laddie’s previous experiment with a sweet white wine finish, it remains a remarkable and remarkably drinkable dram.

92 proof.

A / $170 / bruichladdich.com

Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

The-Balvenie-Tun-1509 batch 1

Lucky day: Not one, but two new bottlings from a perennial favorite: The Balvenie. Actually, the distillery has recently released three different whiskies, the third being The Balvenie Fifty, Cask 4567, a 50 year old expression that runs $38,000 a bottle.

We did not manage to nab a bottle of this lattermost one, but no matter: We did sample the other two, a new 25 year old single barrel release and a new sibling in the Balvenie Tun series, Tun 1509, Batch 1.

Let’s discuss each in turn.

First, The Balvenie is adding a new single barrel edition to its regular release range, a 25 year old single barrel expression that joins the 12 year and 15 year single barrel expressions that have launched in recent years. This new 25 year old expression spends its life entirely in traditional American ex-bourbon casks, a departure from the sherry cask barrels used for the 15 year single barrel bottling. Again, this is an ongoing release, and while stocks will be limited, it will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Second, The Balvenie Tun 1509 is the sequel and successor to the impressive Tun 1401 series, which composed a set of nine different batches of whiskies that were blended up in small quantities, about 2000 liters per batch, and released in very limited amounts over the last few years. We reviewed several of the Tun 1401 series (see Batches 3, 6, and 9) — only a few of the nine ever made it to the U.S. — but all were gone much too soon. Now, Tun 1401 has been retired, and Tun 1509 is in. This mixing vessel can hold 8000 liters, which means the whisky blended up in it may be less “rare,” but it will at least be easier to find.

Thoughts on both of these whiskies follow.

The Balvenie 25 Years Old Traditional Oak Single Barrel – Shockingly light in color, this hardly looks like it’s been in barrel for a year, much less 25. The actual presentation on the tongue and nostrils, however, is quite the opposite. Seductive notes of caramel and some citrus notes are well-integrated on the nose, making it candylike without being cloying. The body takes this and runs with it, firing on all cylinders. The caramel notes turn toward dark chocolate sauce, the fruitiness toward essence of orange flowers, caramel apples, honey, and some spice — cinnamon, allspice, and a bit of brown sugar. Throughout, Balvenie 25 keeps things light and lively, a whisky that’s lithe and light on its feet, a treat that combines the pleasures of a well-aged senior statesman with the gentler body of a fresher, younger spirit. If it weren’t so gorgeous I’d call it a simple pleasure. 95.6 proof. A / $599

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt – Batch #1 of Tun 1509 is made from whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels (35 casks) and sherry butts (7 casks), for a total of 42 casks worth of single malt commingling in Tun 1509. The results are powerful compared to the quieter 25 year old single barrel, evident from the start by looking at the deep amber color of the whisky. The nose is exotic and rich, offering punchy notes of well-burnt sugar, coffee, dried figs and raisins, and a touch of coal fire smoke. The body then takes all of these components and promptly kicks them right in the ass. Dried fruit takes a spicy, Christmas-like turn toward the baking pantry, with notes of cloves and cinnamon dominating. There’s more red fruit on the palate — think plums — along with notes of blood orange and tangerine. Some malt is here, but the cereal character is warm and inviting, like a well-doctored bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. This whisky drinks embarrassingly easy despite topping 94 proof, taking its burly, rounded body and just having its way with your palate from start to finish. Speaking of the finish — it’s long, warming, and, as it vanishes, it leaves you begging for more. One of Balvenie’s best whiskies ever. 94.2 proof. A+ / $350

thebalvenie.com

Review: Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2014

Herradura Reposado Scotch Cask Image 3

It’s another round with Herradura’s Coleccion de la Casa limited edition line of reposado tequilas — each one aged first in a standard Bourbon barrel, then finished in another type of specialty cask. (See also the first two releases in this annual series: Port and Cognac finished tequila.)

This year, Herradura turns to former Scotch barrels, casks which really aren’t used for much other than, well, more Scotch. According to the company, “This limited edition tequila is aged to perfection in charred American oak casks for eleven months. Prior to bottling, the tequila is then transferred to carefully select [sic] single malt scotch casks from the renowned Highland and Islay regions of Scotland for three additional months of aging.”

There’s only a little that raises an eyebrow in the first nosing of this tequila. While the nose is lightly smoky, it’s balanced by the essence of chili pepper, caramel, and a bit of salty brine. The smokiness is unusual for tequila, but could easily be chalked up (along with the brine) to the impact of agave if you weren’t aware of the finishing element here.

The body starts off by showcasing agave, tempering that with notes of austere wood, sweet honey cake, Madeira, and a reprise of those seaside smoky elements. This lattermost element melds surprisingly well with the sweet agave punch that comes back around on the finish — if you’ve ever had a mezcal-meets-whiskey cocktail, you know how interesting the combination can be. Here the duo combine to create a whole that is bigger and burlier than the sum of its parts — and stands as a mighty fine, if wholly unexpected, achievement from Herradura.

80 proof.

A / $90 / herradura.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach_25YO

Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

mortlach.com

Review: 2012 Collazzi Liberta Toscana IGT

LIBERTA-2012 fotoThis Tuscan mutt is 55% merlot, 30% syrah, and 15% sangiovese. It’s also awfully damn good for a sub-$20 wine. Earth hits the nose first, with notes of dried mint, violets, and cedar chest coming along in short order. On the palate, the merlot is right up front, offering those characteristic floral notes, slightly sweetened by the fruity, cherry character in the syrah and the sangiovese. The finish offers notes of chocolate, mint, amari, and a dusting of cloves. Any restaurant looking for an amazing wine-by-the-glass should add this to their list pronto.

A / $17 / collazzi.it

Review: Genius Gin and Navy Strength Gin

genius gin

Texas loves its gin (why? it’s hot!), and they’re making some right there in the capital now. Genius Gin hails from Austin, Texas, where they (of course) do things a little differently. Per the company:

The many ingredients in Genius Gin are balanced and treated with individual care. Our incredibly detailed two-part “Hot and Cold” process caters to the delicate and unique characteristics of each botanical as exposed to different temperatures.

First, we ferment and create a low % alcohol (essentially a beer), to be redistilled for purification and strength reasons. This first run is prepared through our beautiful 6-plate copper still. The resulting product is then infused at room temperature with the first half (the Cold) of our proprietary botanical blend for over 72 hours. (this blend includes: Elderflower, Lavender, Lime Peel, Angelica Root, and more….) When ready, this fragrant and colorful mix is distilled again (the Hot) in a process that pushes vapors through our remaining ingredients enclosed in a basket within the still. These heat activated ingredients include: Juniper, Cardamom, Coriander, and a few others..) Each “Hot” preparation involves the toasting and muddling of all the fresh ingredients. (think “made to order” Gin).

That’s a complicated process, so let’s see if the proof is in the bottle.

Genius Gin (Standard Strength) – Fragrant right out of the bottle, it’s got plenty of juniper up front, but the more feminine elements like lavender and elderflower make a strong showing on the nose, too. The body offers a surprisingly complex collection of flavors. Floral at first, it quickly segues into evergreen notes alongside complex touches of mushroom, grapefruit peel, and some cloves. A final act comes along in the finish, where fresh fruit and citrus notes dominate. Think frozen table grapes dusted with fresh lime zest. There’s a ton going on here, but Genius presents itself in courses, offering something new with each passing second. It’s a really, er, genius product. 90 proof. A / $26

Genius Navy Strength Gin – Surprisingly, the nose is less powerful here than that of the standard strength edition. Evergreen notes still dominate, but the intensity isn’t quite as sharp, and the floral notes are gone. The body is naturally a powerhouse of alcohol first and foremost, and it takes some time to really warm up and show off its charms. It comes across as sweeter than the standard strength, offering more of a caramel note that washes over the rest of it. Lavender is the strongest secondary note. The finish offers less clarity. You could add water to coax out more of the gin’s nuance as evidenced above… but what would be the point of that? 114 proof. B+ / $33

geniusliquids.com

Review: 2012 Pinot Noirs from Domaine Carneros

DC_LA_TERRE_PROMISE_PN_NVThree new Pinots from Domaine Carneros, all part of the 2012 vintage, including two single-clone varietals, a rare feat in the Pinotverse.

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir Clonal Series Swan – Each year Domaine Carneros spotlights one of the 12 different Pinot Noir clones grown here by bottling it separately. The 2012 vintage is the first year to feature the Swan clone. It’s textbook Pinot at first, but eventually reveals itself to be a bit on the sweet side, with notes that veer more toward chocolate sauce and raisin notes up front, with a tart, mouth-puckering finish that hints at tobacco leaf. As a big Pinot fan I could drink this any day, but the lushness of the body becomes a bit overwhelming by the end of the second glass. B+ / $55

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir Clonal Series Dijon 115 - Another wine from the Clonal Series, Dijon 115 is a better-known clone and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular, offering a dense cherry core that’s studded with notes of cola, tea leaf, and chocolate. The finish heads floral, recalling violets and a touch of spice. Pretty but also lush, this wine could easily be released as is, no blend required. A / $55

2012 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir La Terre Promise – This is a single-vineyard estate wine from Domaine Carneros, created from a blend of Pinot clones. Here the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The wine is deep and rich, with chocolate notes, but it’s lacking the lively fruit that great Pinot has, replacing it with Port-like currant notes. There’s a touch of vegetal-driven bitterness here, too, particularly on the finish. My wife said she never would have guessed this was Pinot if she’d tasted it blind, and it’s easy to see why. The density and sweetness of the wine make it come across closer to a Zin-Cab hybrid, not the elegant type of wine I typically associate with Domaine Carneros. B+ / $55

domainecarneros.com

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