Review: The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition

macallan testino edition

The Macallan isn’t exactly known for doing things half-assed and on the cheap. The distillery is known for megabucks, megaold bottlings of some of the most renowned whiskies in Scotland. One of its pet projects is called Masters of Photography, in which it partners with a series of megafamous photographers and releases a limited-edition, one-off, megaexpensive whisky with each of them. Prior shutterbug partners have included Annie Leibovitz and Albert Rankin.

This is Edition #5, a partnership with Mario Testino, who’s probably best known for this picture of Princess Diana (and perhaps, now, Miley Cyrus). Testino is from Peru, so I figure he knows diddlysquat about Scotch whisky, but that’s no matter. The Macallan’s whisky pros have done the hard work for him: Selecting six casks from the archives to be bottled as the Mario Testino Edition.

There’s a big cover story here about Macallan’s “six pillars” of whiskymaking, and how the six casks chosen for this release represent each of those pillars, but I wouldn’t let any of that distract you too much. This is an amazing spirit — easily the best Macallan I’ve ever tasted, though it strays considerably from the sweeter, more syrupy house style.

There’s no age statement on this, but the deep color and powerful nose indicate this is a spirit with considerable age. While it’s drawn from a variety of styles of sherry casks, the nose pushes past the citrus to reach into a world of leather, cloves, and toasted almonds — just a bit of the essence of that glorious, well-aged sherry character. The nose is so delightful it’s hard to pull your head out of the glass.

That’d be a big mistake, because Macallan’s Mario Testino Edition is even better on the palate. Chewy raisin and fig, chocolate pudding, fresh gingerbread, and loads of baking spices get things going, as the sweet-but-spicy body builds. Here the more raisin-laden notes battle with gentle wood, some walnut, and touches of exotic incense. It just goes and goes, bursting with intensity and popping in the mouth. The finish is long, lasting, and seductive, the ultimate expression of a whisky that was plucked from the cask at just the right moment and released into the world at last… and soon, alas, never to be seen again.

But wait, there’s more! Per the distillery:

This limited edition whisky – only 1,000 have been created – is presented, along with one of the four iconic shots captured by Mario, in a beautiful, glossy black case, designed in collaboration with Mario himself.  The pièce de résistance is a secret compartment, released by pressing a button hidden under the bottle.  It contains six miniatures from the six single casks that make up the limited edition whisky.  Never before has a whisky maker released the individual casks that make up his craft.

Hell, I’d drink it even without the minis and the fancy picture.

92 proof.

A+ / $3500 / themacallan.com

Book Review: Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life

Heathe GreeneThe first time I heard the Ramones, I was barely into my teens, and was immediately captivated by their simple, straightforward sound and mutant lyrics. It was punk, and something anyone could do if they knew three guitar chords, a basic beat and cultivated enough attitude. The group’s first four albums would lead me down a tunnel into the wild and wonderful world of punk rock that would become a staple of my teenage years. It was immediate, accessible and led to spending hours in my bedroom learning chords and playing along to dubbed cassettes of endless songs on a half busted Sony Walkman.

My point is that everyone has to start somewhere, and Heather Greene’s Whiskey Distilled is the perfect first book for newcomers to acquire. Quite simply: In the last two years of reading and reviewing books about spirits, I do believe this is might be the most accessible and informative introductory guide I’ve come across.

Versatile enough to welcome everyone with easy to follow language and great anecdotes, Greene leaves no stone unturned in covering the basics. But she also takes the reader through advanced concepts such as chemistry and flavor profiles, distinctions between the various whiskies of the world, necessary hardware for cocktail construction, suggested food pairings, and so much more. She takes time to explain, rather than assume or boast about drinking the rarest whiskies in the world, and her writing style brings a warmth and inclusion often missing from books similar in scope.

This is an outstanding, essential guide for anyone getting his or her feet wet on the big whiskey wave, and is worthy of space on anyone’s bookshelf. Plus on top of all of this? Greene gets kudos from actor/woodsmith/sage Nick Offerman on the jacket sleeve. And if it’s good enough for Ron Swanson, it’s good enough for you.

A+ / $19 / [BUY IT HERE]

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: 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: Casa Noble Tequila, 2014 Re-Review

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From time to time we like to revisit spirits we’ve spent time with in the past. Management changes. Production practices change. Formulations change. Climate changes. And stuff varies from bottle to bottle even when none of the above changes. Sometimes our reviews are identical. Sometimes they’re wildly different.

Today we look again at Casa Noble, a venerable ultra-premium tequila line that we last reviewed in 2009. Very little seems to have changed on Casa Noble’s end, and from my perspective, very little has changed too. My ratings are all the same, with one slight (yet watershed) upgrade for the masterful anejo.

You’ll note some slight packaging changes (the reposado bottle is no longer blue but is now clear; the anejo is still in its distinctive purple bottle), but otherwise I expect nothing much has been altered behind the scenes of these three tequilas. (Amazingly, prices seem to have fallen a bit in the last few years!) All are of course 100% agave and all are 80 proof.

New thoughts follow.

Casa Noble Crystal (Blanco) – Pungent on the nose, with deep, deep agave notes, white pepper, and cayenne. The body isn’t nearly the agave bomb you might be expecting. It is both sweet and peppery, but not really vegetal at all. Instead you’ll find notes of tart lemon juice, caramel sauce, and a touch of rhubarb. Very well crafted. Everything a blanco should be. A / $35

Casa Noble Reposado – Spends 364 days in French white oak, making this a very well-aged reposado. The nose has that trademark peppery pungency of the blanco, but with an undercurrent of stone fruit — peaches and apricots — to give it some balance. The body is very fruity, slight tropical notes atop lemon and oranges, plus notes of chocolate peppermints and ample wood-driven vanilla. It doesn’t drink nearly as leathery and “old” as my prior comments indicated, but perhaps that’s just my increased experience with tequila over the last five years talking. Still delightful, either way. A / $45

Casa Noble Anejo – Aged “to perfection” for two years in French white oak. Nicely dark, but not overdone. That peppery agave is still front and center on the nose, with more of a caramel/marshmallow character attempting to overtake it. The body shows that it’s a silky dessert sipper all the way. The palate starts with bittersweet chocolate and graham crackers, then hops to burnt caramel and dark brown sugar notes. The fruit is absent save for a little flamed orange peel, which plays nice with the molten chocolate cake character that bubbles on and on on the finish. A benchmark anejo that mixes a racy attack with a silky sweet finish. A+ / $50

casanoble.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting the Wines of Emiliana’s Coyam

Chile’s Emiliana produces wines under a number of labels, but few are as popular as Coyam, an organic and biodynamic wine that’s blended from up to six indigenous grapes.

The neat thing about Coyam is that the blend varies — sometimes wildly — from year to year, and resident winemaker Noelia Orts recently traveled to San Francisco to explain how the wine was made and, intriguingly, to showcase the six component varietal wines in their primitive, barrel-sample form. The idea: Taste how these very different wines, when sampled separately, combine to form a unique whole.

Tasting the 2013 barrel samples was eye-opening. The syrah was far from finished, dense and undercooked, while the carmenere offered good acidity. I was most taken by the mourvedre, which had impressive balance and fruit already. While we didn’t get to start blending the wines directly — what a mess that would have been at a restaurant — the experience did aid in the understanding of how complicated blends are made.

Over lunch at San Francisco’s Hakkasan, we turned to tasting the finished wines, a range of vintages dating back to 2001. (Also sampled in brief was Emiliana’s Ge, one of the most prized “cult” wines of Chile.) Thoughts on those finished wines follow.

2001 Coyam – 36% merlot, 21% carmenere, 21% cabernet sauvignon, 18% syrah, 4% mourvedre. Aging but still lively, lots of wood, quite tannic on the finish. B+ / $NA

2007 Coyam – 38% syrah, 21% cabernet sauvignon, 21% carmenere, 17% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% mourvedre. A big Chilean vintage, some floral elements, with a bit of licorice on the back end. Complex, somewhat Burgundian in style, with a nutty finish. B+ / $45

2009 Coyam – 41% syrah, 29% carmenere, 20% merlot, 7% cabernet sauvignon, 2% mourvedre, 1% petit verdot. Fresh, some mint, with big berry notes and a rush of wood. Slightly huskier than the 2010. A- / $30

2010 Coyam – 38% syrah, 27% carmenere, 21% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 1% mourvedre, 1% petit verdot. Some jam, growing in balance as it evolves. Fresh fruit, with blackberry and spice. A- / $30

2012 Coyam (barrel sample) – 46% syrah, 21% carmenere, 16% cabernet sauvignon, 5% mourvedre, 2% mablec. Quite a different recipe, with no merlot. A bit muddy as it develops, somewhat pruny, with leather notes. B- / $TBD

2010 Ge – 48% carmenere, 38% syrah, 14% cabernet sauvignon. Revelatory. Chocolate, licorice, and incredible depth, featuring touches of almonds and cinnamon. I could drink this all day. A+ / $75

emiliana.cl

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Review: Laphroaig QA Cask and Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013

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It’s not every day we get to experience a new Laphroaig expression, and it’s pretty much never when we get to try two of them. At a recent Laphroaig Live event, these two expressions were introduced by Laphroaig Distillery Manager and Friend of Drinkhacker John Campbell.

The night started with Quarter Cask, Laphroaig’s fastest growing expression, now accounting for 25 percent of the company’s sales just nine years after introduction, then moved on to the new stuff. Maker’s Mark, which supplies the used barrels to Laphroaig which it uses for its primary aging, was also on hand to let us taste Maker’s 46 by way of comparison.

Here are some thoughts on the new stuff.

Laphroaig QA Cask – A travel retail exclusive launched in April 2013. Like Quarter Cask, this is double matured, but rather than finishing this whiskey in small casks it is finished in unused, new charred oak barrels, a la Bourbon. (QA stands for quercus alba, the scientific name for white oak.) Compared to Laphroaig 10 or Quarter Cask this is a much different whisky, immediately striking the palate with more of a wood smoke character than a peaty one. It’s chewy and bold — yet bottled at just 80 proof — a surprisingly nutty whisky with notes of coal, chocolate, and light spice notes — nutmeg, perhaps — with a little toffee and burnt sugar on the finish. The saltiness of Laphroaig adds balance and curiosity, but it’s far from overdone. At first it’s quite jarring in comparison to Quarter Cask, but its charms grow on you, and fast. Definitely one to keep experiencing and contrasting against other Islay whiskys. A- / $84 (1 liter)

Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013 – It’s easy to see why Laphroaig bottled this, which is finished in Port pipes, in a clear bottle instead of its typical green: The rosy orange color is unique and really quite lovely. Wow, one sip and this is an instant, utter knockout. It starts with sweet strawberries and cream, jam on toast, light rose petals — then that characteristic Laphroaig DNA kicks in on the back end, with its salt and brine balancing things out perfectly. The brain barely knows what to do with this. Is it Islay? Is it a strange Highland whisky? Is it a Port cocktail? The mind boggles, but the tongue is happy. Incredibly hard to put down, and so pretty to look at, too. Stock up. 102.6 proof. A+ / $75

laphroaig.com

Review: Isle of Jura “Camas an Staca” 30 Years Old and “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old

jura 30 years oldTwo new and very rare single malts from Isle of Jura, based on an island just a stone’s throw north of Islay. These are ultra-limited-edition whiskys just now hitting the market. Snap them up while you can!

Isle of Jura “Camas an Staca” 30 Years Old – 30 year old spirit that has spent 3 of those years finishing in Oloroso sherry casks. Pretty butterscotch notes on the nose alongside gentle coal fires and old wood. On the body, there’s a really surprising amount of grain remaining in the spirit, plenty of fresh, roasted barley character. Hints of Madeira and old wine are evident as you continue to experience the whiskey, with a curious mix of licorice, orange peel, and sea spray on the back end. Named for Jura’s oldest standing stone. 200 bottles released in the U.S. 88 proof. A- / $550

jura 1977Isle of Jura “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old – Moving on up we get to this extra-rare expression of Jura (alternately listed as 35 Years Old on some listings). Finished in Port pipes for 12 months. A stark contrast to the almost youthful 30 Year Old whisky, the 1977 is a glorious revelation on the nose, full of fruit and mystery. A punch of fruit aromas hit the senses up front: apples, Bing cherries, blood oranges, and crushed raspberries — plus a bit of incense. On the palate, quite a bit of that Jura grain character comes across, but it’s well tempered and balanced with more of that fruit — including some tropical fruit notes. Over time, a chocolaty richness develops, leaving behind a long and lasting finish that comes across a bit like salted caramel. Really, really gorgeous whisky… and hard to put down. Named after the Yew tree. 52 bottles released in the U.S. 92 proof. A+ / $950

jurawhisky.com

Review: Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1079, 1414, and 1146

artenom 1079If you haven’t heard of what ArteNOM is doing, you’re not a tequila lover. NOMs are four-digit numbers assigned by the Mexican government to each tequila distillery. Want to know where any given bottle of tequila is made? It’s easy: Just look up the NOM, which is printed on every bottle of tequila sold. (Numerous brands are invariably made at the same distillery.)

What ArteNOM does is it eschews its own branding and simply seeks out really great products — selling them at generally reasonable prices. These are issued in limited release as “ArteNOM Seleccion de XXXX,” where the X’s roll from one NOM to the next — wherever the very best tequila is being made.

That’s the theory anyway. A three of the expressions below come from highland distilleries. Oddly, the reposado and anejo expressions don’t indicate the amount of aging they undergo — and I haven’t found this information online. All are of course 100% agave and all are 80 proof. Here’s how they shake out.

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1079 Blanco – Made at the highest-altitude distillery that makes tequila. I’ve had good blanco tequilas before, but this is something else. Immediately peppery on the nose, it features true agave character plus some sea salt/marine notes. The body brings on layer after layer of complexity. It starts with a rush of agave, then turns to a rich dessert — caramel, Mexican chocolate, burnt marshmallow. The finish is hazelnuts, long and soothing. All of this: In perfect balance. Really exquisite. Love tequila? Think you don’t like tequila? Try this blanco and see what you think. (This bottling seems to have been retired but there’s plenty of it left on the market.) A+ / $40

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1414 Reposado – Another racy tequila, rich with space and ample agave notes. Wood has mellowed things out a bit, though it’s clearly still hanging on to its agave roots. More of a butterscotch character in the mid-palate here, along with modest wood notes. The finish is a bit vegetal, not in a bad way. Good stuff, but not nearly the masterwork that the blanco is. A- / $45

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1146 Anejo – Ample agave on the nose leads to a lush and well-rounded body. Deeply complex, this anejo offers immediate caramel sweetness but also cinnamon, coffee beans, toasty oak, and a long, long finish where the agave makes a lightly spicy return. Not overdone, with agave the clear and continued focus of the spirit. Amazing balance here, it’s difficult to follow the blanco no matter what, but this anejo just about does the job. A / $50

deltequila.com

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2012

Brora 35 Year OldThis whisky comes to us from the Northern Highlands’ Brora Distillery, where it was distilled in 1976 and 1977… before the plant was shuttered in 1983.

The color of yellow Chartreuse, this whisky is a true delight, the kind of experience that you can get from a malt only after it spends decades mellowing in cask.

Classic Highland structure, this is a malt that wallops you with complexity — fruit, wood, and touches of smoke one after the other. Honey starts you off, then the fruit rushes in — orange juice, applesauce, and bananas. There’s a nut character below that — a Three Musketeers nougat with almonds and walnuts — with a touch of spice dusting the lot. The finish is just the lightest bit smoky, a puff of cigar smoke sent your way by a billionaire who nods to let you know, yeah, he knows you’re drinking the good stuff. It’s an incredible whisky. Don’t even think of cutting it with water.

Yeah, it’s hard to give out two A+ ratings in a week, but it’s another whisky that earns its stripes.

96.2 proof. 1,566 bottles made.

A+ / $624 / malts.com