Tasting Report: Hardy Cognac (with Benedicte Hardy)

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I recently had the good fortune to taste Cognac with one of its grande dames, Benedicte Hardy, one of the proprietor’s of the Cognac Hardy house in France.

Benedicte recently visited San Francisco and treated a number of media and trade professionals to a deep dive into Hardy’s “Anniversary Series” lineup at the city’s legendary seafood palace, Scoma’s. Five different spirits were tasted, along with savory bites, cheeses, and chocolates from Michael Recchiuti.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Hardy XO Cognac – Hardy ages its XO for a minimum of 20 years, a long time in this business. This is a blend of grand champagne and petit champagne eaux de vie, which exhibits spicy notes up front, with butterscotch and loads of baking spices on the body. A touch of astringency leads to a nutty finish, with notes of chocolate backing it up. Clean but quite rich. A- / $100  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Hardy Noces de Perle “Pearl” – This cognac carries no age statement but is blended solely from barrels that are 30 years old (“no more, no less”) — very unusual in Cognac. Pure grande champagne eau de vie, from here on out. Feminine and delicate at first, the Cognac presents increasing notes of vanilla and butterscotch as it develops. Floral elements emerge on the finish, making for a very pretty and engaging spirit. (Price may be high.) A / $900

Hardy Noces d’Or – “Gold” for the 50 year anniversary — though it’s the only bottling in this series that doesn’t have a formal English nickname. Much like the Rosebud, this is made entirely from 50 year old spirit. Richer and nuttier, with stronger notes of citrus peel, red berries, and some leather and tobacco notes. A more powerful expression that has a lot in common with the XO. A- / $225

Hardy Noces de Diamant “Diamond” – 60 years old. More fruit here, particularly up front, though the back end is a bit dulled by a significant wood influence, which overpowers some of the sweeter caramel and vanilla notes at the core. Still a lovely expression. A- / $700

Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” – This is a slight departure from the above, a blend of Cognacs aged between 75 and 100 years; an extreme rarity, only 500 bottles have been sold to date worldwide. The nose starts with sultry incense, grapefruit, and golden raisins. The body takes all the sunshine and elevates it with beautiful bursts of citrus, light sandalwood, and some strawberry. The finish holds the brightness, offering a touch of toffee and a hint of pie crust. Perfect spirits are hard to come by, but Rosebud is clearly one of them. I guess Charles Foster Kane knew what he was talking about. A+ / $2250

hardycognac.fr

Review: Stone Enjoy By 05.30.16 Tangerine IPA

stone enjoy by 053016

You’ve got only 18 more days to enjoy this very limited release from Stone, so you best get busy.

Once you crack into Stone’s latest, a “tangerine IPA” made with 12 different hop varieties plus pureed tangerines. it won’t be hard to enjoy what the brewery has cooked up. Ample hoppiness is paired with fresh, sweet tangerine juice, bouncing this brew between bitter and sweet, back and forth, back and forth. It’s the balance, though, that works just about perfectly here, the sweetness tempering the bitterness just enough to make this a thirst-quenching, yet surprisingly complex, experience.

IPA fans need to their mitts on a bottle, pronto.

9.4% abv.

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

Review: Trinchero 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Mario’s

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New wines from Trinchero Napa Valley, which just opened a brand new state-of-the-art visitor center. Let’s give the duo a try.

2014 Trinchero Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard Calistoga Napa Valley – A rather dry style of sauvignon blanc, offering gentle grapefruit notes mixed with lemon peel and fruit custard. All’s well and good until the finish, which is quite herbal and almost oppressively bitter. It may be built for summertime sipping, but it needs a meal to back it up in order to show off its strengths. B / $24

2012 Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon “Mario’s” Napa Valley – A lively estate cabernet, this rich and balanced wine offers a dense plum and currant core, notes of licorice, tobacco, chocolate-covered raisins, and a gently bittersweet but lengthy finish. Again, the beautiful balance, which evokes light floral notes right alongside its dense fruit backbone, makes this wine so compelling that it’s tough to put down. A truly beautiful example of what Napa cabernet can be. A / $50

trincheronapavalley.com

Review: Amici Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay and Olema Pinot Noir, 2016 Releases

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I hadn’t heard of St. Helena-based Amici before (or its second label, Olema), and as such I didn’t have any real expectations for these three wines. Consider me both surprised and a new fan: These wines are uniformly excellent — and pretty good values, to boot.

Thoughts follow.

2014 Amici Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – Lots of fruit on the nose — lemons, apricots, and peaches. The body deftly balances this fruit with its more sultry elements — nicely browned butter and a slug of vanilla — leading to a very well-rounded and supple finish. Highly worthwhile. A / $25

2013 Amici Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Notes of sweet licorice on the nose add complexity to an otherwise straightforward but well-made Napa cab. The body ups the ante with modest tannins and folds in light raisin notes, vanilla, some tea leaf, and a simple, slightly sweet, chocolate-scented finish. An easy winner. A- / $45

2014 Olema Pinot Noir Sonoma County – A second label from Amici, here we find tart cherries, lush strawberry, and a gentle lacing of vanilla all whipped into a frothy, zippy, and easy-drinking lather. Just a touch of dark chocolate and some well-integrated but mild tannins. A perfect little everyday pinot at a very compelling price. A / $20

amicicellars.com

Review: Samuel Adams Spring 2016 Releases

sam adams rev_noble_bottle (2)Seven new releases from our friends at the Boston Beer Company, including a number of Brewmaster’s Collection releases and two additions to the Rebel IPA group.

Thoughts follow.

Samuel Adams Crystal Pale Ale – An pale ale made with Crystal hops, fairly representative of the style. Rather earthy up front, this hoppy brew offers notes of mushroom, leather, and dried herbs, without any of the evergreen notes you see in west coast style IPAs. Rather, the finish heads into a slightly sweet and malty character, with a touch of juicy orange. Simple, but quite drinkable. 5.3% abv. B+

Samuel Adams Noble Pils – A classically-structured Czech pilsener, made with all five varieties of Noble hops. This takes that golden, malty character you expect from a pils and punches up the bitterness quotient, though it feels far from overblown hop bomb, instead offering lightly floral notes, some grassiness, and a slight touch of citrus on the otherwise malty finish. 4.9% abv. B

Samuel Adams Escape Route – An unfiltered kolsch, this beer offers a bold attack with a healthy slug of malt, plus notes of lemon juice, wet earth, and some vegetal character that endures on the finish. A fair enough example of the style, offering solid (if uninspiring) refreshment. 5% abv.  B

Samuel Adams Session Ale – A lower-alcohol Extra Special Bitter (note the fine print), malty and hoppy and decently balanced between the two. The beer showcases a fairly strong nutty character that grows on the palate as you drink it. The finish culminates with a superfine level of fizz on the tongue, which feels almost soda-like at times. Overall, however, the beer is fully drinkable, but ultimately quite harmless.  5% abv. B

Samuel Adams Scotch Ale – A fairly typical brown ale, heavily nutty, malty, and slightly raisiny on the back end. The finish leaves behind a smokiness that catches in the back of the throat. It’s not a style I typically gravitate to, but should a cold snap hit this season, it’s worth a look. 5.5% abv. B

Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA – Grapefruit peel and juice give this IPA a nice burst of citrus, but almost in passing. The fruit can sometimes get lost amidst the sizable amount of hops in the beer, but on the whole the IPA feels balanced and eminently drinkable, elevating the experience the way a squeeze of lime in your Pacifico can give a little something extra to it. My only complaint: The finish comes across as a touch muddy. 6.3% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Rebel Cascade IPA – IPA made with Cascade hops, big and west coasty. This is a bold and very citrus-forward IPA, with ample bracing bitterness riding high on the back end. Juicy and lush, it’s a great example of the IPA style without feeling like it was hopped to within an inch of its life. 7.3% abv. A

each about $8 per six-pack samueladams.com

Review: Pittyvaich 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Pittyvaich 25

Why don’t you know anything about Pittyvaich? Because the Speyside distillery was built in 1975 and torn down in 1993. As Diageo notes, this Special Edition release, distilled in 1989, survived longer than the distillery itself did.

Aged in refill American oak and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, this is classic non-sherried Speyside from start to finish. On the nose, it’s surprisingly racy, its golden hues offering up gentle malt, heather, warm honey, butterscotch, and gentle vanilla.

In keeping with the luscious nose, the body is fairly hot yet quite well rounded, its oily, honey-dripping body showcasing a variety of treasures. Mild citrus, almonds, a smattering of baking spice — all come together quite beautifully to present themselves atop an enchantingly sweet palate, with a lingering finish that recalls Sauternes, honey syrup, and a slight dusting of cinnamon. Balanced just right, it showcases an achingly gorgeous sweetness without ever becoming cloying. It may not be incredibly complex, but its intensive focus on a handful of key, nicely harmonized flavors elevate this malt considerably.

A highlight of the 2015 Specials, at a “mere” $350, it’s also one of the best bargains in this year’s lineup.

99.8 proof. 5922 bottles produced.

A / $350 / malts.com

Review: High West Bourye (2016)

bourye_bottle_2015One of the icons of new wave distilling is back: High West Bourye, which is returning to limited release right about now.

The 2016 Bourye is, as always, a touch different from its forebears. This version of the now-classic bourbon and rye blend features a mashup of 9-year-old straight bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt), 13-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt), and 17-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt) — all from MGP. As always, the proportions of these three whiskeys are not disclosed — but the overall focus looks a lot like the 2015 rendition of this spirit, which also featured a nine-year-old-minimum. The major difference is really that everything in the bottle is from MGP this year.

Bourye is a whiskey I have always admired, and this year’s release is no exception, though it presents much differently than the fruity 2015. The nose is exotic and a bit unusual — heavy on the cloves, along with dark brown sugar, dark toast, barrel char, and some freshly burnt rubber — all meant in a good way.

On the palate, it’s sweet but restrained, a host of bittering elements — more cloves (classic Bourye), licorice, toasty wood, and a touch of roasted vegetable character. The caramel and vanilla notes endure above all of this, though, the bitterness catching in the back of the throat as the whiskey finds a balance slightly on the savory side of the wheel.

This is a significantly different whiskey than last year’s release — and frankly I prefer the sweeter 2015 edition to a slight extent. That said, this return to a more frontier style will likely resonate with more of the hardcore American whiskey fans.

Reviewed: Batch 15X20. 92 proof.

A / $80 / highwest.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Cynar 70 Liqueur

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Cynar’s a highly-regarded classic of the amaro world. So why produce a new version of this vibrantly bitter, artichoke-infused concoction? Because they can.

Cynar 70 is designed to put the liqueur into a category alongside Jagermeister and Fernet, both bitter aperitifs but bottled at a much higher proof than Cynar or Campari, which have the same bitter approach but hit 33 and 48 proof, respectively.

We’re reviewed the 33-proof Cynar twice (here and here), and today we look at Cynar 70 in true head to head fashion, comparing it side by side against its big brother. Note: The old Cynar isn’t going away, this is just a line extension. The two 13-ingredient recipes are the same; only the alcohol level is different.

It’s amazing what a different amount of alcohol can make to a spirit. Classic Cynar is immediately bitter, with overtones of chocolate, oranges, leather, and tobacco on the nose and palate. Cynar 70, on the other hand, is restrained on the nose — dark chocolate notes hit first, lightly sweet, and not particularly bitter. That classic cinnamon note is even more evident here than in the original Cynar, making it even more engaging right at the start.

The palate of Cynar 70 continues to diverge from its forebear. The attack is not particularly bitter — a striking contradiction to the original. Here, it’s lightly sweet at first — simple sugar, some molasses, a touch of raisin character — and then it builds from there. First more herbs arrive — cinnamon and anise, along with sweeter chocolate and fresh oranges — and then that long-awaited bitterness hits at last. It has a softer entry than the slam-bang punch of classic Cynar, slowly washing over you with its herbal-orange character rather than immediately dominating the experience. That said, it does eventually hit the same bitter high as the original Cynar, gripping onto the tongue and refusing to release, proving itself as a classic and enduring amaro.

The body of Cynar 70 is much creamier, the color considerably darker. Turns out this isn’t a New Coke situation: Cynar 70 takes everything that is great about Cynar and builds upon it while showing off a few new tricks. I was skeptical at first, but it turns out I actually preferred the sweet-then-bitter structure of Cynar 70 to the original in side by side tasting. Definitely worthwhile.

70 proof.

A / $37 (1 liter) / camparigroup.com

Tasting 2016’s Octomore 7 with New Bruichladdich Master Distiller Adam Hannett

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When Jim McEwan left Bruichladdich last year after 50 years in the business, many wondered how a legend like McEwan could be replaced. The answer: You can’t, really, but the Islay distillery’s Adam Hannett is on his way to filling some mighty big shoes.

Hannett recently visited San Francisco as part of a U.S. “get to know ya” tour, and he brought with him a collection of Bruichladdich’s Octomore releases, including three from the Octomore 7 line. Among those is Octomore 7.4, the first “.4” release in the line (more on that later) and Hannett’s first solo release since McEwan’s departure.

The distillery world is full of nice guys, and while Hannett is one of the nicest I’ve met, he’s also full of big ideas, like the recent announcement that, in the name of transparency, customers will soon be able to look up the complete provenance of their Bruichladdich bottles online — even NAS releases. At SF’s Wingtip, we walked through the three latest Octomore 7 releases, plus a couple of whiskies for comparison.

IMG_7542Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie – “Classic” for a reason, this sweet whisky offers notes of granulated sugar and gentle notes of grain wafting in and out. Impossibly good, it’s one of my favorite “everyday” malts, Hannett says he chalks up the gentle, oily body to the slow distillation it undergoes. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Last year’s release (5 years old, all ex-bourbon barrel) remains a classic, strong peat on the nose (at 167ppm) that offers intense citrus once you dig into the body. The finish is clean and fruity, with layers of smoke on top of everything. I’m really digging the structure and balance today. Perfect at 114 proof. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.1 – This new release (also a 5 year old, ex-bourbon bottling, as all the .1 releases are) is a bit hotter, with much more peat at 208ppm. It doesn’t come across heavily on the nose, where sweeter notes prevail. The body offers chocolate and caramel, and then the smokiness takes hold, leading to a heavy, petrol-laden finish. This rubbery note lingers for a while. Quite a counterpart to the sweeter 6.1. 119 proof. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.3 –.3 signifies an “all Islay” release. This year’s spends 5 years in bourbon cask, with a little Spanish wine cask included. Earthy and maritime notes explode on the nose — a true essence of Islay aroma — the body is clean and uncomplicated, offering fruit and grain together, with a distinct chimney smoke finish. 169ppm, 126 proof. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 – The newest Octomore is the first in the .4 line, which signifies the whiskey was aged in virgin oak casks instead of refills. Unlike other Octomores, which are generally 5 years old, this release spent 7 years in toasted French oak, laid down in 2008. It’s quite a departure from other Octomore releases, and the intense grain and lumberyard notes immediately reminded me of younger American single malts, which are also generally aged in new oak, a la bourbon. Malt always struggles with new oak, but the heavy peat at least gives Octomore 7.4 some legs to stand on. After seven years, the grain notes have tempered only slightly, but the smoky character gives that something to play again. The finish offers notes of chocolate and gentle candy-like sweetness. It’s a whiskey that is initially a little off-putting but which definitely grows on you over time. Definitely a series to keep an eye on. 167ppm, 122.4 proof. B+

bruichladdich.com

Review: Mt. Brave 2012 Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon

nullNapa’s Mt. Brave is back with two big 2012 releases: A malbec and a cabernet sauvignon, the winery’s signature release.

Thoughts on both wines follow.

2012 Mt. Brave Malbec Mt. Veeder – 98% malbec, 2% cabernet sauvignon. It may be a little thin around the edges, but the notes of black pepper, currants, and rhubarb all combine to give this wine a big, balanced lift. Nicely herbal, the body is long, dusted with licorice and cloves. While I’d love to see a little more acid lift this wine up a bit, the light chocolate notes and hints of roasted nuts give it a fun New World spin when compared to many a malbec. A- / $75

2012 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder – 88% cabernet sauvignon, 5% merlot, 4% cabernet franc, 3% malbec. This is the best expression of Mt. Brave I’ve encountered to date, a lush and rounded cabernet that is loaded up with chocolate, currants, brambly earth, and lightly bitter coffee grounds. The body develops and brings with it notes of cloves, some Asian spices, and licorice — all good and engaging things that make this Napa cabernet all the more engaging. One of the best 2012 cabernets I’ve experienced so far. A / $75

mtbravewines.com

Review: Speakeasy Syndicate No. 03

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San Francisco’s Speakeasy launched its limited-edition, barrel-aged Syndicate beer series in 2013. Today it’s an annually released series, “united by barrels and graceful age,” with Syndicate No. 03 now hitting the shelves and kegs.

Here’s what’s inside:

Syndicate No. 03 is a blend of seven different strong beers matured between 13-37 months in bourbon barrels. Every barrel in Speakeasy’s collection was sampled and carefully considered to create the final blend. Together they form an elegant, delicious, and complex brew, that won’t be repeated.

Blend:
Scarface Imperial Stout, aged 13 months (46%)
Imperial Black Hand, aged 37 months (18%)
Experimental Stout II, aged 20 months (12%)
Experimental Stout III, aged 19 months (11%)
Imperial Payback Porter, aged 19 months (10%)
Scarface Imperial Stout with Philz Coffee, aged 13 months (2%)
Joe’s Ale of Strength, aged 18 months (1%)

Fans of barrel-aged beers will absolutely love what Speakeasy has done here. The nose is loaded with coffee and toffee notes, both lightly sweet and bitter in near-perfect balance. Loaded up with dark brown sugar, raisins, and a touch of fresh cigar notes, it’s a sultry after-dinner sipper that is amazingly compelling without being overwhelming — watch for a hint of mint on the very end, even.

Barrel aged beers aren’t for everyone, but Speakeasy Syndicate No. 03 is one that I can heartily recommend to nearly anyone.

10.5% abv.

A / $17 per 22 oz. bottle / goodbeer.com

Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood Bourbon

EH Taylor Seasoned Wood Bottle & CanisterIt’s been nearly a year since Buffalo Trace’s last release in the Colonel E.H. Taylor line, and now the eighth of these whiskeys is here, and it’s got quite a story behind it.

First, it’s critical to note that this is a wheated bourbon, while the others are all rye-focused bourbons, except for one straight rye. Discussion is already heated up about how a single line of whiskeys can have so much variety; Chuck Cowdery has an excellent post wondering whether this should have just been an “Experimental Collection” release or whether the higher prices commanded by the E.H. Taylor label had something to do with it. Hey, I don’t judge.

The process behind Taylor’s Seasoned Wood release certainly sounds experimental. Sayeth BT:

The barrels in this release underwent a variety of special seasoning processes, including barrels made from staves that were immersed in an enzyme rich bath with water heated to 100 degrees. After spending time in this proprietary solution, these staves were then placed into kilns and dried until they reached an ideal humidity level for crafting into barrels.  Other staves were seasoned outdoors for six months, and still others were left outdoors for a full 12 months before being made into barrels and sent to Buffalo Trace Distillery to be filled and aged.  All barrel staves were seasoned, dried, and crafted at Independent Stave Company, who consulted on this project with the premiere expert on oak maturation, Dr. James Swan.

The whiskey is aged for “well over a decade,” but carries no formal age statement.

Whether it’s enzymes or whatever, what BT has put into the bottle here is outstanding. The nose is loaded with maple syrup, light cinnamon, cayenne pepper, ginger, and ample wood-influenced vanilla and caramel notes. On the palate, the initially intense sweetness is backed up by an explosion of flavor: Sweet vanilla backed up by black pepper, salted caramel, some barrel char, and a touch of herbal character on the finish. At 50% abv, it drinks a touch hot, but everything’s fully manageable as it warms the body late in the game. Over time, notes of gentle citrus fold into the maple syrup notes, giving it an orange marmalade character. Highly drinkable yet also unique and complex, it’s a fantastic little whiskey.

Doesn’t remind me at all of other E.H. Taylor releases, but that’s a story for another day.

100 proof.

$70 / A / buffalotracedistillery.com