Tasting the 2012 Vintage Cabernets of Hourglass Vineyard

Deja vu? No. We just wrapped a tasting session with Hourglass a few months ago. Now proprietor Jeff Smith is back with the full lineup of his winery’s 2012 vintage Cabernets, including its two cult-status estate bottlings, Blueline Estate and Hourglass Estate. As we noted previously, 2012 is the winery’s first vintage with Tony Biagi (ex of CADE and Plumpjack) as full-time winemaker. (Bob Foley was the prior winemaker here.)

The winery’s trademark Cabernets weren’t ready for tasting in our prior meeting. But now they are — including a first look at HGIII, Hourglass’s new second label wine that’s composed of “odds and ends” from around the winery.

2012 Hourglass HGIII Red Wine – A non-estate blend of merlot, cab, and malbec. Initially quite dusty and restrained, some time in the glass helps elevate the subject matter. Lightly peppery on the nose, HGIII reveals notes of chocolate, cedar chest, and dense blackberry. The body is chewy, offering a blend of jam and chocolate sauce, finishing with some lightly astringent tobacco leaf character. Fine for a second label, but nothing shocking. (Aka HG III.) B+ / $50

2012 Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – 91% cabernet, 9% petit verdot from the Blueline Estate Vineyard. Dark as night. The nose is exotic and instantly different than your typical cab, offering intense violets and baking spice. There’s plenty of this to go around on the blueberry-focused palate, with a flinty character emerging late on the finish. Soothing and lush without becoming overly fruited, it also offers nice mineral notes as a companion. A / $125

2012 Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – 100% cab from the Hourglass Estate Vineyard, this is a classic, opulent, and beautiful wine that somehow manages to avoid the huge, fruit bombiness of the typical Napa cabernet. Light mint chocolate notes on the nose lead you to a lush body that’s ripe with blackberry, juicy currants, and stone fruit. More mint, fresh tobacco leaf, and lightly sweet vanilla emerge on the adroitly balanced and almost elegant finish, giving this a great complexity but also an easy, gorgeous drinkability. Collectors looking for a massive tannin structure may balk, but those who want to drink beautiful cabs today need look no further. A+ / $165

hourglasswines.com

Review: Aultmore 12 Years Old, 21 Years Old, and 25 Years Old

Aultmore_12YO

Aultmore, a Speyside distillery, has changed hands many times, but again became part of the Dewar’s portfolio in 1998. Normally used in the company’s blends — including Dewar’s — only now is Dewar’s releasing these three expressions of Aultmore as a single malt — known locally as “a nip of the Buckie Road.”

Since the bulk of Aultmore ends up in blends,  you might presume these whiskies are dull and boring. You would be wrong. These are indeed simple whiskies, but they are also incredibly well-crafted, flavorful, and amazingly approachable. I greatly enjoyed this lineup from the 12 year to the 25 — and would be hard-pressed to select a favorite. Thoughts follow on all three: 12, 21, and 25.

All expressions are bottled at 92 proof.

Aultmore 12 Years Old – Wonderfully alive. Lovely and just plain ready-to-go right out of the gate. Notes of fresh apple, pear, and banana attack the nose alongside gentle grains and notes of heather. That fruit is quite powerful on the palate, brisk applesauce, vanilla caramels, a touch of citrus and a clean, gently sweet finish that recalls once again the grain at its core. This is a simple, young whisky, but one which proves that age is far from everything. Snap it up. Now in general release. A / $53

Aultmore 21 Years Old – That gentle, fruity DNA from Aultmore 12 follows over to the 21, where it takes on a more austere, rounder, more full-bodied character. Malty and chewy, it takes the apple/banana fruit core of the 12 and bakes it in the oven for an hour, giving it a crusty, warm, and almost doughy character that dulls the bright, acidic fruit notes and replaces them with oomph. There’s a touch of citrus edge here, but just barely. All told, it’s a really interesting study in contrasts compared to the 12. Try them side by side if you can. Travel retail only. A / $NA

Aultmore 25 Years Old – This slightly older expression cuts a similar character as the 21, with just a touch more chocolate and a bit more malt — something like a chocolate milkshake. Subtle floral notes emerge over time, alongside notes of butterscotch, persimmon, and a growing smokiness on the back end. Not at all the departure from the 21 that those notes might seem to indicate, but rather a fitting finale to an amazing trilogy of malt whiskies. In limited release. A / $NA

lastgreatmalts.com

Review: Nicolas Feuillatte X’Ploration 2014 Brut Reserve Champagne

XPLORATION SLEEVE OR PACKSHOTThis limited edition bottling of Nicolas Feuillatte’s Brut Reserve is all set for the holidays, available in two, fancy sleeves (the gold one is shown at right; there’s also a black version). It’s a special edition for 2014 (at least the packaging is), but the wine itself is not vintage dated.

I’m a fan of Feuillatte in general, but this expression of Champagne hits all the right points for fresh, fun, holiday tippling. Crisp apple notes on the nose start things off, with lively touches of lemon peel and rhubarb joining the party after. The finish is clean and fresh, offering slight herbal notes on the finish that balance the citrus character up front. Delightful.

A / $36 / nicolas-feuillatte.com

Review: Fever-Tree Elderflower Tonic Water

fever tree 500ml Elderflower Tonic DryFor its latest trick, top-shelf mixer maker Fever-Tree is bringing forth a tonic water — its third expression, if you don’t include the diet version it also sells. As the name implies, Fever-Tree Elderflower Tonic Water is an elderflower-infused tonic water, made with Fever-Tree’s typically high-end ingredients, including cane sugar and natural quinine.

For those who find standard tonic water too bitter, this expression is just the ticket. The bitter quinine is softer here, mellowed by sweet-and-sour citrus notes that run more distinctly toward grapefruit and lime zest than elderflower specifically. The finish is clean and bittersweet, refreshing as those citrus notes endure. The tonic water pairs well with gin and vodka, though the fruitier notes tend to get overpowered by gin’s more powerful elements. I’d aim for a more citrus-focused gin over a juniper-heavy one when choosing a companion. All in all, lovely stuff — even for sipping on its own.

A / $3.50 (500ml) / fever-tree.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

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

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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