Category Archives: Rated A

Review: Deschutes Brewery The Abyss Aged Stout 2013 Edition

deschutes the Abyss 2013 Label 525x460 Review: Deschutes Brewery The Abyss Aged Stout 2013 Edition

It’s been three years since we tucked into a bottle of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery’s rare barrel-aged concoction. Time again then for a fresh look at this bold annual release, The Abyss, now in its 8th installment.

Sadly, I’m still two months before the 8/16/14 “drink after” date on this beer… but by that point, this will all be off the market, and you won’t be able to buy it.

This Imperial stout is brewed with black strap molasses, licorice, cherry bark and vanilla. 6% of the beer is aged in oak ex-bourbon barrels, 11% in oak ex-pinot noir barrels, and another 11% in new oak barrels. It all comes together in glorious fashion; I think this is one of the best Abyss bottlings I’ve tried to date.

On the nose, the coffee-brown brew offers beautiful licorice notes up front, with aromas of coffee bean and cocoa powder backing it up. The body is intense with dark coffee character, ultra-bitter chocolate, and a panoply of mild vegetal notes that include green bean and that olive character that’s a classic part of The Abyss’s finish. The denouement is like sipping on the last of a truly great espresso.

Great stuff, hard to put down.

11% abv. 70 IBUs.

2013 Edition: A / $12 per 22-oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur

barrows intense ginger 74x300 Review: Barrows Intense Ginger LiqueurIt should be noted at the start that “INTENSE” is by far the largest text on the label of this liqueur, but that’s to be expected from any ginger-flavored spirit. It simply comes with the territory.

Ginger liqueurs are a small category, for obvious reasons. The number of cocktails you can use it in is limited, and ginger beer does the trick in most cases. My bottle of Domaine de Canton — the most venerable product in this category — has been half-empty for years.

But Barrow’s, an artisanal product made in Brooklyn, NY, easily gives it a run for its money. This cloudy, intriguing liqueur (Canton is transparent) really does live up to its name. The nose is pungent without being overwhelming, offering legit ginger character plus a smattering of lemon and grapefruit notes. There’s more of the same on the body, which starts off with moderate sweetness — brown sugar melted into ginger ale — then jumps off a cliff into that classic, fresh-grated-ginger bite. The finish is spicy hot yet oddly refreshing, a spirit that’s both rustic and authentic. (The swing top bottle stopper completes the effect.)

Do I still like Canton? Absolutely, but it’s more perfumed, offering jasmine, incense, and vanilla notes up front, with all the ginger in the back. Barrow’s is a bolder and less distracted rendition of the spirit with, yes, a bit more intensity.

44 proof.

A / $31 / barrowsintense.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Ketel One Vodka (2014)

ketel one 2014 bottle 353x1200 Review: Ketel One Vodka (2014)

The Netherlands-distilled Ketel One was one of the brands that drove vodka’s rise to super-premium status, and it’s been 6 years since we took a look at this iconic, venerable brand.

Recipes and production methods change, over time. So how has Ketel One fared in the last half-decade as its found itself attacked by competitors? We took a fresh look at a recent-vintage bottle.

I tasted Ketel One before reading my prior review. The vodka is cleaner than I remember, with distinct lemon notes on the nose backing up some hefty hospital character. The body is crisp and sharp with classic medicinal character, and also mildly lemony with a slight backbone of vanilla. Lovely balance on the whole, making it easy to enjoy straight or in any number of cocktails. A clear go-to that deserves its spot on the back bar.

I didn’t catch the menthol notes this time around, but more importantly that ashy charcoal character was wholly lacking in this 2014 bottle. All in all, Ketel One remains a top choice for a high-end vodka, and in fact may even be getting better.

A / $20 / ketelone.com

Review: Charbay R5, S, and Release III Hop Flavored Whiskeys

WhiskeyFall2013150dpi 525x419 Review: Charbay R5, S, and Release III Hop Flavored Whiskeys

It’s commonly said that “whiskey is made from beer,” though that’s typically not quite true. Most whiskey is made from a low-alcohol, fermented grain sludge that you would never want anywhere near your mouth (I know, I’ve tried it). Usually this is just called mash, but sometimes it’s colloquially known as beer, because it’s kind of the same thing (though whiskey mash does not commonly include hops in it).

Well, Virginia, you can also make whiskey out of real beer, too. This is not often done, because real beer is much, much more expensive than grain sludge. But that didn’t stop Ukiah, California-based Charbay from doing it anyway. The whiskeys below are all made from actual beer — hence the “hop flavored” moniker in the name. (The flavor comes from the hops in the beer, not from anything added after the distillation takes place.)

We’ve seen younger versions of at least one of these before… but these are all newly-released whiskeys. Thoughts follow.

Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey Lot 511A – A couple of years ago we reviewed a pre-release version of Charbay R5, a whiskey made from bottle-ready Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA beer. Now a more finished version of Charbay R5 is out, aged for 29 months (vs. 2012’s 22-month version) in French oak following double-distillation in copper pot stills. As with the younger (and unaged) versions of this spirit, R5 Lot 511A wears its beer cred right on its sleeve. The nose is intensely hoppy, but also almost sherry-like with orange and clove notes Lots of wood here, almost smoky. The body has real intensity, with clear notes of Racer 5 as the whiskey develops on the palate — herbal, bittersweet, and plenty hoppy. The finish offers ample grain notes, sweet and salty and impregnated with the essence of the fields from which this whiskey was born. Exotic and exciting. 99 proof. B+ / $79  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Charbay S Hop Flavored Whiskey Lot 211A – Also made from a Bear Republic beer, this one Big Bear Black Stout. As with R5, it is double distilled and aged for 29 months in French oak. This whiskey has a more mellow nose, offering a curio cabinet full of brown sugar, cinnamon, incense, and more grain character than the R5. On the palate, you’ll find musky, dusky spice, a big grain profile, and subtle notes of coffee and dark chocolate. The mid-palate is more rustic than R5, but the finish is more compelling, fading into an echo of an Irish coffee. 99 proof. B+ / $140

Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey Release III - This is the third release from Charbay’s 1999 collector’s series, comprised of 10 barrels of whiskey distilled 15 years ago. Distilled from a bottle-ready pilsner beer (no brand name is offered), the distillate spent six years in new #3 “gator skin” char American oak barrels, then 8 additional years in neutral vessels before bottling. The whiskey is offered at barrel strength — and barrel price, apparently. A much deeper brown color than Charbay’s other whiskeys, this whiskey shows just what this distillery can do with enough time to kill. The nose is dense, full of vanilla and chocolate notes (and not at all pilsner-like). On the palate, it’s eye-burningly hot. Water dramatically helps reveal its charms, which include dark coffee, burnt marshmallows, and a dark, roasted grain character. While not entirely in the same wheelhouse, this is the most bourbon-like of Charbay’s whiskey lineup, sweet and spicy and bound up with lots of enticing dessert notes. Whether that adds up to $400 a bottle — provenance aside, this is a 6 year old whiskey when push comes to shove — is a matter that can be debated in the comments. But one thing’s for sure: Charbay Release III is a knockout the likes of which you aren’t going to encounter anywhere else. 132.4 proof. 2713 bottles made. A / $410

charbay.com

Review: KAH Tequila

KAH Reposado side 525x659 Review: KAH Tequila

KAH is a tequila brand you won’t quickly forget, whether you’ve tried it or not. Bottled in painted ceramic skulls with Day of the Dead motifs on them, these spirits stand out so much they’re almost too pretty to open.

But what’s inside? It’s lowlands tequila, 100% agave, bottled in the typical varieties — but with a twist on reposado, which is boosted up to a massive 110 proof. Why 110 proof? I’m not sure, but the bottle is designed in the image of “El Diablo,” a fitting moniker I’m sure among those who’ve had a shot too many.

KAH isn’t cheap, but there’s an easier way to try out this curious tequila: A sampler kit of three 50ml bottles (which are mini versions of the painted ceramic ones) is just $30.

KAH Tequila Blanco - Enticing, with intense agave on the nose, mixed with notes of creme brulee and spiced, roasted almonds. On the tongue, a powerful array of elements expected and otherwise emerge. It starts with creamy marzipan before delving into sultry spices — clove-studded oranges and cinnamon cream — while folding in plenty of well-roasted, herbal agave. It comes together marvelously in a creamy body with a moderate and engaging finish with nary a second of bite. Nearly everything a blanco should be. 80 proof. A / $45

KAH Tequila Reposado – Aged 10 months in French oak. Surprisingly divergent from the blanco. Initially hot, the nose is a bit distant and obscured by alcohol, of which there is plenty in this oddball repo. The body is a strange symphony of flavors, beginning with hard candy and toffee notes, then taking you into various notes of nougat, red wine, whisky barrel, and sharp agave herbaciousness at the end. Almost the opposite of the blanco’s creaminess, it’s a bit of a tough nut to crack and not half as enjoyable. 110 proof. B / $60

KAH Tequila Anejo – Spends two years in American oak. Big caramel and vanilla notes on the nose, typical of a well-aged, quality anejo. The body sticks close to the formula, keeping the sweetness heavy and layering on a bit of milk chocolate as the finish starts to roll over you. Agave is largely absent here… only a residual slug of herbs on the nose proves that you’re not drinking rum. Still, all in all it’s a solid dessert-like experience. 80 proof. A- / $60

kahtequila.com

Review: Crazy Steve’s Bloody Mary Mixes

ghostship 300x241 Review: Crazy Steves Bloody Mary MixesCrazy Steve is making Bloody Mary mixes, dry spices, salsas, and pickles in the heart of New Jersey. (He’s also trying to help out the damaged Jersey Shore, so give him a hand.)

Our focus today however is on his two Bloody mixes (made with fresh cucumber, celery, onion, and jalapeno) and their rimmer companion. Thoughts follow.

Crazy Steve’s Badass Barnacle Bloody Mary Mix – Thick, with enticingly meaty overtones. Almost a gazpacho in a glass, it offers notes of garlic, onion, bouillon, and a bit of mixed garden vegetables. Moderate heat — it burns the lips but not the belly. All in all, there’s a great balance of flavors here, all coming together in a viscous yet easily drinkable package. Good on its own or spiked with vodka. A / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s GhostShip Bloody Mary Mix – Spiked with ghost peppers, aka “the hottest pepper in the world,” hence the name. Smells great. Peppery, like black pepper, atop the garlicky tomato notes. The body at first comes off much like the Badass Barnacle, but the heat builds quickly and steadily as it settles into your gullet. GhostShip quickly rises to the level where it seems like you’re going to break into a sweat, and your tongue is starting to prickle with an uncomfortable level of heat… and then it breaks. A seasoned (ha!) heat-seeker can handle GhostShip without a beer or milk chaser, but it’s more comfortable with a little something on the side. A- / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s Shot Over the Rim Spicy Bloody Mary Salt – Made with salt, red wine vinegar powder, chili powder, jalepeno powder, onion powder, cider vinegar powder, cumin, garlic powder, and some other stuff. I really like it. Most Bloody Mary rim salt is too heavy on chili powder, too light on salt. Crazy Steve has the balance right — plenty of salt (though not too much), with a kind of smoky, chipotle kick behind it. Good heat, but not overdone. Who knew that vinegar powder would be a killer secret ingredient? A keeper. A / $6 per 6 oz. container [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

crazystevespickles.com

Review: Pernod Absinthe “Original Recipe”

PERNOD ABSINTHE NEW BOTTLE 2 WHITE BACKGROUND HD 525x700 Review: Pernod Absinthe Original Recipe

It wasn’t long ago that Pernod re-entered the market with an authentic absinthe (i.e. one with wormwood in it). But purists complained: Why would Pernod, whose absinthe cred dates back to 1792 and which was the market leader for over a century, release an absinthe with a wholly new recipe? Does not compute.

Following a minor outcry (absinthe nerds are a loud bunch, they’ll be the first to admit), Pernod recently announced some big news: It is returning to its original formula, having spent the last two years researching remaining records from the 1800s to determine how Pernod was made back then.

According to the company, there are three main differences. First, the base spirit has changed from grain alcohol to a grape-based spirit, or brandy. In fact, Languedoc grapes are used for the brandy in keeping with the original recipe. Second, the grande wormwood in the spirit is sourced from Pontarlier, France, Pernod’s historic home. Finally, the new spirit is colored through macerated green nettles, not added dyes or artificial colors. While the eschewing of colorants is a nice touch, it’s the move to a brandy base that is really the biggest shift here. That adds considerable complexity and cost to the production… but what does it do to the final product?

I just so happened to have a bottle of Pernod from its prior recipe (unopened, circa 2012) as well as a sample of the new “Original Recipe” Pernod. Let’s compare.

Pernod “Original Recipe” is slightly different in color. Slightly closer to a solid green, less yellow/chartreuse. On the nose it’s tougher to pick out differences. The prior recipe seems to offer just a hint of added sweetness — like licorice candy — on the nose, but this is also a slight change. Finally, to the body. I’m happy to report that “Original Recipe” Pernod is a standout absinthe… but I thought the prior recipe version was exceptional, as well. The brandy base likely has made the biggest impact here, giving the spirit a somewhat sour edge at first, but also providing a bigger, more robust body than the sharper and somewhat cleaner prior bottling. Otherwise, the botanicals struck me about the same way. Maybe a touch more lemon verbena in the mix on this new absinthe, but otherwise, a fresh, anise-driven body with clean citrusy, licorice-twisted notes behind it.

So, the bottom line: Is Original Recipe better? I’m truly on the fence. The differences are not great, and Pernod should be credited for putting out a classy bottling in its first stab at a post-ban absinthe. The lack of chemical dyes in the new version is to be commended, but the freshness and slight sweetness of the former version also resonate with me. Call it a tie?

136 proof (same as before).

A / $68 / pernodabsinthe.com

Review: Cutty Sark Tam O’ Shanter Blended Scotch Whisky 25 Years Old

cutty sark tam o shanter 525x562 Review: Cutty Sark Tam O Shanter Blended Scotch Whisky 25 Years Old

Venerable Cutty Sark has been making big moves of late (more on these in a few weeks), but the biggest is easily the launch of Tam O’ Shanter, the Scottish company’s ultra-premium blend of 25 year old malt and grain whiskys. Decidedly limited, it’s far from your grandpa’s old green bottle of Cutty’s classic blended Scotch.

Rich and dense, you know you’re in from a treat with Tam O’ Shanter, starting with the mahogany color and the powerful nose, which offers orange peel, incense, almonds, nougat, and leathery old wood notes. The nose is racy and hot… but the palate isn’t a mouth-burner at all. Instead, you’ll find both power and nuance in abundance, with light grain notes leading their way into bittersweet chocolate, cigar box, light smoky notes and plenty of orange/sherry character to round it all out.

The body is rich and inviting, warming and round without being unctuous. The finish is also strong and lengthy, sticking around for minutes as you recall some of the components that have come before. A lovely dram which, it probably goes without saying, is the best thing Cutty Sark has ever put into a bottle.

999 bottles available in the U.S. (5000 total globally.) 93 proof.

A / $300 / cutty-sark.com

Review: NV Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 10 Years Old

Blandys 10YR Malmsey 88x300 Review: NV Blandys Madeira Malmsey 10 Years Old A few months ago we took a deep dive into the world of Madeira, with a survey of four different grape varietals, all made by Blandy’s and all five years old. Today we look at an older version of one — Malmsey — at 10 years old. Malmsey was my favorite Madeira then and I put this 10 year old expression side by side with the younger version to see how it shaped up.

The answer: Surprisingly well. At 5 years old, Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira is still a bit funky, offering a raisiny fortified wine with touches of bittersweet chocolate and an acidic finish. At 10, the wine has matured wonderfully, bringing more of that chocolate to the forefront and imbuing it with a beautiful expression of raisin, fig, and currants. That tight, almost sour funkiness has vanished, leaving behind a sultry experience that begs for a rich cheese or a dense chocolate cake. Quite lovely.

19% abv.

A / $35 / blandys.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Stave Drying Time Experiments

buffalo trace Stave Drying experiment 525x517 Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection   Stave Drying Time Experiments

When trees are cut down and turned into lumber, the wood planks are dried, or “seasoned,” by leaving them out in the open air. After a few months, the wood has lost enough of its oiliness to allow the staves to be turned into barrel planks. (If the wood isn’t dried at all, the moisture will likely lead to significant barrel leakage.)

But stave drying also has effects on the way the bourbon tastes — impacting how the whiskey is absorbed into the wood, and the amount and types of tannins, sugars, and other chemicals that are released into the spirit.

For this Experimental Collection release, Buffalo Trace focused on the very narrow variable of stave-drying time. The distillery normally dries its staves for six months. That’s the “control” in this experiment. For comparison, some wooden staves were dried for 13 months before being turned into barrels. Both were then coopered and filled with the same new make spirit (BT’s rye mash #1), and aged for 15 years. Both are bottled at 90 proof. New wood vs. old… which makes a better bourbon? Thoughts follow.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Standard Stave Dry Time – Proof that you needn’t mess with a winning formula. 15 year old rye-heavy bourbon in all its glory, full of vanilla and caramel character, and touched with orange oil, cloves, and cinnamon. Great balance, and incredibly well-rounded, this is just a great, well-aged bourbon that finds everything firing on all cylinders. A

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Extended Stave Dry Time – Hotter on the nose, with clear mint notes. Punchy, with much stronger orange fruit notes and a finish that is reminiscent of balsa wood. The vanilla is kept in check, with just hints of caramel. A racier spirit but one that starts to spiral out of balance. Amazingly instructive in how a small thing can impact a spirit in such a major way. B+

$46.35 each (375ml bottles) / buffalotrace.com

Review: 2008 Banfi Brunello di Montelcino

CB Brunello di Montalcino 86x300 Review: 2008 Banfi Brunello di MontelcinoCastello Banfi’s newest vintage in its Brunello di Montelcino line is a knockout, and a great improvement over last year’s oxidized mess. For 2008, Banfi has produced a well-balanced mini-masterpiece, with a nose of black pepper and dried cherries, and a body of fresh cherries and raspberries, light tar notes, and a sultry vanilla-inflected finish. It all comes together in glorious fashion, incredibly drinkable with food and on its own — 100% Sangiovese at its best.

A / $55 / castellobanfi.com

Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third Release

Two new expressions from Islay’s Kilchoman, still the youngest distillery in Scotland and arguably its most intriguing…

kilchoman 2007 Vintage 249x300 Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third ReleaseKilchoman 2007 Vintage – This is Kilchoman’s oldest bottling to date, a six-year-old single malt whiskey matured entirely in ex-Bourbon barrels. Here we see Kilchoman starting to mellow out, its aggressive peat subdued by some of the wood and vanilla notes emerging from the barrel. It’s still got plenty of phenol on its tongue, but now the spirit is locked tightly into a struggle with something sweeter, leading to a more refined and ambitious spirit. Beneath the peat, you’ll find notes of cinnamon, apple pie, and lemongrass. To be sure, it’s a whiskey that’s still developing — and will continue to do so for years or decades to come — but is already coming into its own. 10,000 bottles made. 92 proof. A- / $80

kilchoman 100 percent Islay 3rd Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Third Release – This is a new version of the single malt whiskey Kilchoman put out last year, made entirely with Islay products — most notably including the barley used in the mash. As it’s been a year since the Second Release, and the primary difference is that the stock in the bottle is about a year older, now a vatting of four- and five-year-old malts, aged in former Bourbon barrels. It’s quite a seductive bottling, restrained on the nose with floral and citrus notes, and surprisingly little peat. The body has more where that came from, adding in nougat notes, clove-studded oranges, butterscotch, and a lightly, lacily-smoked finish that begs for sip after sip. This one’s hard to put down, and is almost certainly Kilchoman’s best expression to date. 10,000 bottles made. 100 proof. A / $90

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Infuse Flavored Vodkas

infuse vodka 525x700 Review: Infuse Flavored Vodkas

Oh man, I’m a sucker for a bottle of hooch with something floating around in it. Long shafts of herbs, whole pears… what doesn’t look amazing bobbing around inside a bottle of alcohol?

Infuse’s flavored vodkas all adhere to this conceit, each with something or other inside, proving, ostensibly, that natural elements are responsible for the flavors within the bottle and not chemical sludge out of a test tube.

Infuse Vodkas, made in California, are distilled from Kansas corn, then flavored with actual fruits and spices (everything goes in dried, so shelf life should be quite lengthy) instead of mysterious “natural flavorings.” There are at least six varieties on offer. We sampled four for review. All 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Infuse Lemon Vodka – Pale yellow color. Tart lemon notes on the nose, fresh and clear like Limoncello. The body sticks closer to the vodka formula, with bracing medicinal notes cut with a touch of lemon peel. That body feels like it could have more of a fruit element to it to balance out the booziness, but otherwise it’s a solid and authentic rendition of a mild lemon vodka. Of special note: The long strips of lemon peel lose their yellow color over time, leaving what looks like limpid white linguine floating in the bottle. B

Infuse Mango Vodka – Again, a super-fresh and authentically tropical nose on this vodka, a moderately pale yellow spirit with three slices of (dried?) mango in the bottom of the bottle. It’s so fragrant it’s hard to stop smelling it. Fortunately the body doesn’t disappoint. Here the fruit and punchy alcohol notes are in balance, the vodka offering silky mango sweetness with a dusting of bite to back it up. This is nice enough on its own but would be gorgeous in a Cosmo-esque cocktail. A

Infuse Cinnamon Apple Vodka – The most visually appealing of the bunch, a whiskey-brown spirit with numerous apple slices floating at the top of the bottle. The nose is pure apple, with touches of cinnamon, just like grandma used to bake. Smooth as silk on the body — the vodka is really only evident on the finish, as the sweet, dessert-like character of the product takes center stage. Not exactly a mainstream combination that you’ll turn to nightly, but a fun change of pace to be sure. A-

Infuse Chili Pepper Vodka – Three lonely chili peppers float at the top of this (again) pale yellow vodka, the only hint that something spicy’s going on. Even the nose is not particularly pungent, the most clearly vodka-like — medicinal, but tempered with some sweetness — of the bunch with just a hint of red pepper on the nose. The hospital notes hit you first on the tongue, then the pepper arrives. It’s a pleasant heat — moderate, a little more biting than gentle, particularly if you take an especially large sip, which gnaws a bit at the back of the throat. I’ve never been a huge fan of pepper vodkas, but Infuse’s rendition is as good as any. Spicy Bloody Mary? Sure. Beyond that, I’ve no idea how to use it. Grows on you, though. B

each $28 / infusevodkas.com

Review: 2011 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley

chateau montelena chardonnay 196x300 Review: 2011 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa ValleyIt’s a crisp and bright Chardonnay from Montelena for this year’s release. The nose hints at both fruit and minerals, but not much oak, a hallmark for the Napa version of this varietal. Both melon and tropical notes are present, atop a core that offers peaches and lemon notes. Lots going on, but all kept in near-perfect balance. It’s probably tough to ask anyone to pay 50 bucks for Chardonnay at retail (think $100 on a wine list!), but if you’re going to do it, do it with this bottling.

A / $50 / montelena.com

Review: Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Rum Lineup

Cruzan Bottles Distillers Collection 2013 525x372 Review: Cruzan Distillers Collection Rum Lineup

Cruzan, based in St. Croix, is something of an underrated distillery in the world of rum. Now it’s moving ever so slightly upmarket, with the launch of three new premium rums, all part of the new Distiller’s Collection.

All three of these rums start with the same base stock — a blend of rums from barrels that are aged from 5 to 12 years old. They’re then treated in different ways, as we’ll discuss below. Each of these rums is a winner, and all are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Light Rum - This is the base 5-12 year old rum stock, charcoal filtered to white. There’s a massive amount of flavor here for a white rum, with a deep woodiness, and notes of raisins, brown sugar, caramels, and chocolate. There’s still a touch of funk to remind you it’s actually rum, with that big and burly body keeping things on a woody keel. It’s a unique rum with lots of depth; worth exploring. A- / $20

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Dark Rum – This is the same stock as the above, bottled as a dark rum without the filtration. Good color here, though not as dark as you’d expect given its age. This is a more well-rounded rum, with more prominent almond notes and a little coffee to even out some of the tannic wood character in the light rum. Plenty sweet, this rum has its edges smoothed out and presents itself as a refined and balanced sipping rum. An utter steal. A / $20

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Single Barrel Premium Extra Aged Rum – Again, this is from the same stock as the above, so how can a blend of rums spanning a seven year aging period be a “single barrel” rum? Because that rum is aged for a second time in new American oak barrels (for an indeterminate time), and then those barrels are bottled as single barrel rums. (Note that no barrel number is noted on the label.) The rum has an almost sherried, orange-peel character to it, along with ample wood character driven by that second stretch of aging in oak. The body offers a wealth of experiences, including a caramel core laced with cinnamon and cloves, plus brown butter and brown sugar crumble. Touches of coffee develop over time in the glass. The most whiskey-like rum of the bunch, it’s also the most satisfying, a deep and sultry rum with a long and soothing finish. Much to love at this price. A / $30

cruzanrum.com

Book Review: Whiskey Women

Whiskey Women Cover 393x5901 Book Review: Whiskey WomenOne of the more problematic challenges of historical books is their inability to provide truly holistic, objective testimony on actual events. There will always be omitted perspectives, conflicting stories and incomplete narratives. Facts and figures may contradict oral histories and withering records may not fill in cracks the way one would hope. When it comes to the history of alcohol, many of these books share the deficit of not recognizing the plentiful contributions women have made over the centuries to the history of drinking. Perhaps this can be attributed to the lack of consistent information needed to construct a narrative; perhaps this is due to the male-dominated arena of alcohol-oriented historical non-fiction. Whatever the case, there’s plenty of attribution to go around at the table.

Which is why Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women makes for such a crucial piece of historical documentation: It remedies many of these errors through incredibly thorough scholarship. He takes the reader from the earliest of recorded history in Egypt all the way to Marge Samuels’ invention of the red wax packaging now synonymous with Maker’s Mark. Along the way Minnick makes stops in Europe and the United Kingdom to keep the reader compellingly flipping pages through amusing anecdotes and stories which otherwise may have been lost to dust and library basements. He is passionate in his subject and serves to provoke the reader into considering different approaches to the largely accepted traditional narratives long after the book has been put down. Hopefully this is the first of many books providing an alternative history, giving life to those voices largely ignored.

A / $17 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Plantation Original Dark Rum and Extra Old Rum 20th Anniversary

20130709102147 plantation 20 anniversary 445x381 300x256 Review: Plantation Original Dark Rum and Extra Old Rum 20th AnniversaryWe’ve covered a number of rums from France-based Plantation, and now we have a pair of new releases, both blends of the Caribbean’s best to write about, including one special release bottled in honor of the distillery’s 20th anniversary. Thoughts follow.

Plantation Original Dark Rum 40% – One of Plantation’s standby bottlings, a blend of dark rums with no age statement, finished in Bourbon casks. Very strong on the nose with coffee and raisin notes the most powerful elements, along with a hefty slug of hogo. On the palate, it’s more easygoing, but offers mushroom, more coffee grounds, and a slightly sweaty finish. A winner if you like your rum musky and a little funky. A 73% Overproof variety of this expression is also available. 80 proof.  B / $17

Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary – Casks of already old pot- and column-distilled rum are re-casked and aged for a second time in small French Cognac barrels for another 12 to 18 months. This rum is just one shade of brown darker than the Original Dark, but it’s much more fully developed. The nose offers intense chocolate and coffee notes, with kind of a brown sugar sweetness on top. The body is glorious, a big rum full of dessert notes that run from chocolate pudding to marshmallow cream. Butterscotch and gingerbread notes come along in the finish, all begging in unison for this rum to be served alongside a nice slice of cake. Something with chocolate, methinks. 80 proof. A / $43

plantationrum.com

Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish Head

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?” – Cicero

Thankfully, there are modern day custodians of history keeping the past alive and well, presenting long-silenced voices in time and framing the act of rediscovery as an innovative art. Such is the case with magazines like Lapham’s Quarterly, podcasts like Hard Core History, and Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series.

Working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Director of Biomolecular Archaeology for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health Dr. Patrick McGovern, Dogfish CEO Sam Calagione revives long lost recipes and brings to light traditional beermaking methods that folks in the United States would consider highly exotic (you can see their discovery and process in action on their reality show Brewmasters, now streaming on Netflix). More often than not though, the efforts pay off.

jiahu Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish HeadChateau Jiahu – A variation on the world’s oldest fermented beverage recipe, this is an incredibly sweet beer made with hawthorn fruit, sake, barley, rice and honey. The majority of these ingredients are more than evident throughout the experience. Took a bit to get used to, but once invested, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 10% abv. A- / $12 (25.4 oz.)

Midas Touch – “Indiana Calagione” and Dr. McGovern found the molecular evidence of this recipe in a Turkish tomb that was allegedly the property of one King Midas. Incredibly sweet, and as the story goes it’s actually somewhere on the scale between a wine and mead. I’m inclined to believe it. Leaves a bit of a dry finish with a few faint herb notes. 9% abv. B / $12 (12 oz. four-pack)

theobroma Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish HeadTheobroma – Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Taking its recipe cues from a chemical analysis of Honduran pottery over 3,000 years old (it feels kind of ridiculous just typing that), this is a chocolate beer recipe filled to the brim with cocoa, a bit of bitter honey, and a bit of chili spice on the back end. The deceptive light coloring (you’d think a chocolate beer would be a bit darker) teases and lets the chili and cocoa do their dance. Excellent stuff! 9% abv. A / $12 (25.4 oz)

Ta Henket – Bread bread and bread… which makes perfect sense because this recipe comes from Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The yeast stands out with traces of the chamomile and other herbs listed as secondary ingredients. Probably my least favorite of the bunch, but being the weak link in this chain could be the strongest on any other lineup. 4.5% abv. B- / $11 (25.4 oz)

The company also offers a variety of special brewpub only editions, including one involving a whole mess of human-masticated corn and saliva. Hopefully these other experiments will see mass production shortly, but given the time and effort it takes to make them happen, it may just require a visit to Delaware instead.

Dogfish Head has a tendency to sometimes enter the realm of the comically absurd. In keeping with the spirit of the company’s mantra, that’s a risk that unconventional brewing must take in order to stay innovative and interesting. For this series it’s an investment that pays off handsomely and provides an enjoyable education into the complexity of beer history for those willing to pay the cost of admission.

dogfish.com

Review: Firefly White Lightning Moonshine and Apple Pie Moonshine

Firefly Moonshine Rocks 525x349 Review: Firefly White Lightning Moonshine and Apple Pie Moonshine

I’m a big fan of Firefly’s tea-flavored vodka, probably the best on the market. Recently the distillery, based in Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, branched out into moonshine — unaged “raw corn whiskey,” available unflavored or in one of five different flavored versions. We got both the pure stuff and one of the flavors. Thoughts — surprising thoughts — follow. 

Firefly White Lightning Moonshine – Popcorn nose, almost buttery. From the sharp nose you might think you’re in for a rough and rustic body, but that’s not the case. This White Lightning is surprisingly silky, presumably sweetened but not overdone, this is spicy (over 100 proof) but flavorful, driven by its corn origins but mellowed out with a glazing of sugar. That’s not a slight. This may be moonshine, but it tempers its frontier heritage with a sweetness that’s wholly appropriate. 100.7 proof. B+

Firefly Apple Pie Moonshine – I’ve had apple pie-flavored spirits before, but this is the first time I’ve had one that gets all the components of the dessert in one little shot. It’s all here: apples, cinnamon, caramel, and pie crust. As with Firefly’s masterful tea-flavored vodka, this proves how flavored spirits can be crafted with intelligence, and without being crammed full of as much sugar as possible. This is sweet, but an apple pie is also sweet. Like a well-made pie, Firefly has figured out the balance of the equation (low alcohol doesn’t hurt here), and I have to give them props on that count. 60.3 proof. A

each $20 / fireflymoonshine.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve

Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve Limited Edition 525x787 Review: Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve

Earlier this fall I wrote (and spoke on video at length) about the end of Johnnie Walker Gold Label and the rise of its replacement, Platinum Label. What was a bit murky at the time was where Gold Label Reserve might fit in with all of this. Formerly a non-U.S., limited release product, Gold Label Reserve has been an oddity for years, particularly while the (non-Reserve) Gold Label was also available.

And now we have the answer: Gold Label Reserve is coming to America, at least for a limited time. Also, you’ll want to dig the bottle: It’s opaque, not transparent, giving the impression of a gold ingot stood on its side.

Gold Label Reserve is, like (nearly) all Johnnie Walker, a blended whisky, though the company offers few details about its components. The company does reveal it includes “casks of Clynelish,” but that’s about it.

I still have the original Gold Label on hand, so as I did with Platinum Label, I put the two spirits side by side. Some thoughts follow.

On the nose, there’s lots of fresh fruit and sherry to spare, a sharp aroma with immediate appeal and a light nuttiness on the back end. The body follows through with more of that sherry, some nougat notes, plus a touch of graham cracker. I get hints of fresh cherry fruit, cinnamon, and honey-spiked sweet tea, all coming together in a remarkably well-balanced and easy to enjoy dram.

It’s not as malty and rich as the original Gold Label — and is overall a bit of a departure from the chewy, almost bready Johnnie Walker house style — and that’s perhaps a good thing. Gold Label Reserve is sophisticated and more refined, with both balance and an inviting finish. My only real complaint is the alcohol level: At 80 proof it doesn’t pack in quite enough of body, and the initial sharpness ultimately becomes a bit flabby in the middle. Knock this up to 92 proof and you’ve got perhaps the best blended Scotch on the market.

At $87, it’s expensive for a blend, but is priced about in line with the old Gold Label. Of course, you’re getting a brick of gold in the bargain, so what are you moaning about?

A / $87 / johnniewalker.com