Category Archives: Rated A+

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

laphroaig travel tube bottle 04131 525x350 Review: Laphroaig QA Cask and Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013

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 old 263x300 Review: Isle of Jura Camas an Staca 30 Years Old and Juar 1977 36 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 1977 300x295 Review: Isle of Jura Camas an Staca 30 Years Old and Juar 1977 36 Years OldIsle 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 1079 75x300 Review: Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1079, 1414, and 1146If 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 Old 212x300 Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2012This 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

Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2012

Port Ellen 32 Year Old 212x300 Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2012Islay’s Port Ellen, shut down in 1983, is one of the most collectable and prized whiskys on the market today, particularly if you’re a pan of peated Scotch. This 12th release for the Classic Malts series is a whopping 32 years old, distilled in 1979 and bottled at cask strength.

Wow, this is a stunner of a whisky. The smoke has mellowed and integrated into a lush and beautiful, balanced whole. What’s inside? What isn’t? There’s orange, banana, lemon, marshmallow, amber waves of grain, and Chanel No. 5 perfume all crashing together with Louis Armstrong playing full throttle in your ear. This all turns out over the last ashes of a campfire where you had the best meal of your life, sitting on a tree stump under the stars.

OK, I may be waxing poetic, but this is a deep and complex whisky that defies simple tasting notes. It is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I’d love to tell you more of my impressions about it, except I drank it all. (Don’t get jealous, it was just a mini.)

Crazy expensive, mind you.

105 proof. 2,964 bottles made.

A+ / $936 / malts.com

Review: The Glenfiddich Rare Collection: 1974 Vintage Reserve

Mitch Bechard is a Glenfiddich ambassador and a friend, and I don’t just say that because he drops by the house with goodies like this from time to time, I swear.

This very special whisky is a vatting of just a handful of barrels from 1974, selected by Bechard and the other Glenfiddich ambassadors in conjunction with the company’s Malt Master, Brian Kinsman.

One taste and you’ll see why. This 36-year-old, green-tinted whisky hints at its age by looks alone, but once you tuck into it the proof is right there in the spirit. Up front the character is a bit madeirized, with notes of banana, wood, and salty iodine. Let it open up for a few minutes so those more acidic notes can blow off, and layers and layers of character reveal themselves. Graham crackers, strawberries, classic nougat notes, and vanilla sugar cookies all come through, and that light saltiness really balances things out, the way sea salt in a good dessert really ups the flavor. (Think salted caramels.)

It’s a deep and lasting experience with an incredibly long and soothing finish. At 93.6 proof, it isn’t even remotely hot, but rather a dead-solid-perfect expression of how a properly cared-for old whisky should taste. I wouldn’t dream of adding water, but Bechard says it opens things up even more.

1000 bottles produced, 35 on sale in the U.S. (I’m told all 35 are sold out but you can find them at some specialist shops on the west coast.) Reviewed from bottle #964.

A+ / $800 / glenfiddich.com

glenfiddich 1974 Review: The Glenfiddich Rare Collection: 1974 Vintage Reserve

Review: Z Tequila

The brainchild of Pepe Zevada, a spirits industry veteran, Z Tequila is a fairly new brand of 100% agave tequilas based on Zevada’s own recipes. These tequilas use seven-to-nine year old agave plants and age the reposado and anejo in new Canadian oak barrels.

We tasted each of the three expressions extensively. All are 80 proof. Universally we had trouble with the closures: Some wouldn’t seal tightly after opening, some wouldn’t pour well. The photo below doesn’t lie, either: The bottles are simply terribly ugly. Never mind all that though, it’s what’s inside that counts. Thoughts follow.

Also known as “Pepe Z Tequila.”

Z Blanco Tequila – An unaged silver tequila, this is a really beautiful spirit. Lovely caramel notes (always surprising in an unaged tequila), matched with touches of lemon, lightly smoked wood, leather, and of course a moderate slug of agave. Amazing balance, with modest sweetness to counter the agave’s vegetal notes. Absolutely solid. A / $30

Z Reposado Tequila – Aged nine months, this pale yellow reposado offers a very similar profile to the blanco. A touch more edge, a touch more creaminess in the body. Vanilla, again, is the primary character, and it comes together in wonderful harmony with the agave. The finish is more on the chocolate front, really lush and smolderingly sweet. Like the blanco, this is simply a beautiful tequila — but it’s bigger body and slightly bolder flavor push it just that much higher. Remarkable value, too. A+ / $33

Z Anejo Tequila – After 21 months in oak, Z’s anejo is a bit overcooked. The sweet dessert flavors of vanilla and chocolate have disappeared into a surplus of raw wood and smoke — and result in a surprisingly hotter tequila with considerably more bite. In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be a bad tequila by any definition — the whiskey-like finish is particularly appealing — but compared to the masterful blanco and reposado it just isn’t in the same league. B+ / $35

pepeztequila.com

z tequila Review: Z Tequila

Review: Big Bottom Whiskey

It’s hard not to think of Big Bottom without immediately jumping to this, but after a few sips of this distillery’s products, my thinking is finally changing.

The company produces two very young whiskeys largely in the Bourbon style (though they aren’t billed as Bourbon). The whiskey is actually made in Indiana, then it is shipped to Oregon where it is barreled and finished; you’ll find the latter state’s name on the label. The mash is primarily corn but they’re heavy on the rye and feature a barley kicker. They’re night and day when it comes to tasting notes but both are exemplary — not to mention incredible bargains.

Snap these small batch whiskeys up if you ever see them for sale.

Both are 91 proof.

Big Bottom Whiskey 3 Years Old New White Oak – The rye (36% of the mashbill) immediately jumps to the top of mind — and the palate — when you sip this young but powerful whiskey. It’s a shock that it’s just three years old, with a maturity and depth of flavor — vanilla, caramel, and intense cinnamon, pepper, and tons of spice — that many eight-year-old Bourbons can’t touch. Great balance among all the elements. Love it. A / $30

Big Bottom Whiskey 2 Years Old Port Cask Finish – Also a 36% rye mashbill whiskey, but just two years old — and finished in Port casks from Prager Port Works in Napa, California. The difference between the New Oak whiskey is astonishing, with this whiskey frankly exhibiting an embarrassment of riches: Dark, dark chocolate, raisins, and intense caramel notes, plus all that rye spice on the back end. The balance is perfect, the color a deep and ruddy rust that looks more like Cognac than whiskey. It’s sweet and savory in perfect harmony: This is an absolutely gorgeous whiskey and, now, one of my favorites. Watch out Kentucky, you’ve got competition. A+ / $40

bigbottomwhiskey.com


Drinking Tequila with Casa Dragones’ Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Casa Dragones is almost certainly a tequila brand you have never tried or likely even seen. That’s a sad thing, because it is one of the best silver tequilas on earth.

Casa Dragones is the proud bearer of a number of unique traits. It is the brainchild of Bob Pittman, a founder of the MTV network. It is a joven tequila — blanco in appearance but made up of both unaged and aged tequilas, then filtered to clear, giving it a substantial complexity. It is a lowland tequila, rare in an age where most tequila makers boast about their mountain agaves. It is column distilled, not pot distilled. It is made by the only female Maestra Taquilera ever to be certified in Mexico. Only 24,000 bottles will be produced this year, each at a cost of $275 per bottle.

Said Maestra, Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, explained all of this to me on a recent trip to San Francisco. A former cultural ambassador from Mexico to Japan and ten year veteran of Cuervo, Nieves doesn’t look like the typical Maestro Taquilero I meet with — usually grumpy old men who’d rather be back in the agave fields than on the road meeting with bloggers — but she understands tequila to a surprising depth. In between discussions about the origins of Casa Dragones (born at a New York City party where she and Pittman met) and who the Dragones actually were (left as an exercise for the reader), we enjoyed a fabulous shot of this unique “sipping tequila.”

The tequila is simply superb. Again, there is only one variety — and there will only ever be one — and the nose at first hints at nothing special. Lemon and orange peel mingle with what come across as somewhat boozy vodka notes. Breath deep and you get a sense of nuttiness, but little else. I wasn’t expecting a lot… and then I took a sip.

Casa Dragones slips across the tongue with beautiful citrus notes, building warmth as it segues into vanilla and cocoa notes, driven clearly by the extra anejo tequila that makes up the blend. It gets sweeter as you sip, showing coffee character and more of a dessert-like body, a surprise that makes you reconsider the crystal clear color of what you’re sipping. And yes, you’re sipping, not gulping. The finish is warm but has no bite, a smooth operator through and through. This tequila may indeed be a Johnny come lately, a stunt driven by a millionaire who wants a tequila to call his own — and a price tag to match — but damn if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.

80 proof. Tasted bottle #655 of lot #3.

A+ / $275 / casadragones.com

bertha nieves of casa dragones Drinking Tequila with Casa Dragones Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Review: Tequila Avion

This new brand hails from New York, where a former Seagram exec decided to strike out on his own in the brave new world of tequila. As the story goes, founder Ken Austin scoured Jalisco for the best spirit that hadn’t made it to the U.S., and found it on the highest agave plantation in the area, where the agave was being slow-roasted at low temperatures in order to keep a mellow, sweet character in the resulting spirit.

The result is Avion, bottled from this mysterious source (and even ready in reposado and anejo versions) and ready for sale in the U.S.

I tasted all three varieties during an Avion visit to San Francisco recently and have sampled the Silver on its own later — only reconfirming my thoughts about this solid, top-shelf product.

All are 100% agave and 80 proof.

Tequila Avion Silver – Sweeter than the blanco you’re probably used to, with a buttery body and fruity notes of pineapple and lemon. Herbs and some agave kick in for the finish, which is smooth and without almost any bite at all. Gorgeous. A / $45

Tequila Avion Reposado – Aged 6 months, quite long for a reposado, which gives it impressive caramel and vanilla notes, which play well with the agave in the body. It’s surprisingly light in color for a spirit with a flavor this rich, while also disarming in its complexity. A / $50

Tequila Avion Anejo – A masterpiece. Aged two years, giving it huge vanilla and cinnamon character, with notes of nougat, chocolate, and fresh cookies. Maple syrup lines the finish, but all the way it is nothing but smoothness. A beautiful, old tequila that can stand up to the big boys’ anejos — and extra anejos. Also an absurd bargain considering the quality. A+ / $55

tequilaavion.com

tequila avion Review: Tequila Avion

Tasting Spanish Wines with Bodegas Terras Gauda Winemaker Emilio Rodriguez

Meet Emilio Rodriguez. He makes wine at Bodegas Terras Gauda — primarily white Albarino — and Pittacum — primarily from the red Mencia grape. Together, these two Spanish wineries (“bodegas” to those in the know) pack a one-two punch, representing two exceptional, crisp whites plus one of the best Spanish reds I’ve ever tasted. If you happen to stumble upon Pittacum’s Aurea –only 7,500 bottles were produced — I highly encourage you to snap it up.

Over lunch at San Francisco’s Piperade, we tasted the four latest releases from these two wineries and got an update on winemaking in the Rias Baixas and Bierzo regions of Spain (both are in the northwestern most part of the country).

Sweetbreads were served.

Tasting Notes – Bodegas Terras Gauda and Pittacum

2009 Terras Gauda Albarino / $20 / B+ / An unaged, and no-malolactic white that has a surprisingly creamy butteriness; bright acidity and citrus on this one, with touches of lemon in the finish alongside a bit of earth.

2009 Terras Gauda Rias Baixas O Rosal / $24 / A- / 70% Albarino, 20% Loureira, and 10% Caino Blanco — Terras Gauda grows 95% of the world’s production of Caino Blanco, and it all pretty much goes into this wine, so if you want to experience it, you better come here. The added grapes give this white a much more interesting profile, with some zip on the tongue and a touch of peachy, Viognier-like character. Racy, but with a well-structured body.

2006 Pittacum Mencia Bierzo / $24 / A- / Solid Mencia, which is normally not a world-class red. This one’s a bit dusty, with flavors of roasted meat and smoke on the nose. Very lean tannins and easy to drink young.

2006 Pittacum Aurea Mencia Bierzo / $52 / A+ / Very New World in structure, like a fine California Merlot. Very silky, with mellow tannins and an intense richness, packed with berry and laced with light smoke notes. Perfect balance. I instantly fell in love with this wine and demand another glass of it, posthaste!

terrasgauda.com

pittacum.com

Review: St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

The elderflower trend may be coming to an end as haute bartenders move on to yumberry, acai, and other oddities, but I remain an undeterred St. Germain fanatic. There are simply few cocktails in the world that this golden French spirit can’t either improve or twist into something new and exciting.

In fact, you owe it to yourself to give this a try. Except for the most bitter of concoctions, add a drop (1/4 to 1/2 an ounce) of St. Germain to a few of your favorite cocktails before you shake them up, then see what you think. I’m willing to wager that at least half the time you’ll find the end result a better cocktail than without it. (Go ahead and take the credit yourself for inventing a new drink.)

Sure, this won’t work for everything (particularly whiskey drinks), but it speaks to St. Germain’s serious versatility. Sweet but not cloying, the 40 proof liqueur offers a strong lychee character that is balanced with lavender and summer herbs plus a lemon finish, altogether giving it a lightness that you rarely (if ever) find in other fruit-flavored liqueurs.

The only real problem is the price: At $30 a bottle (or more) you spend way too much money since you’ll find you use far too much of this stuff, it’s that good.

Need St. Germain cocktail ideas? Take a spin through the Recipes category on Drinkhacker and you’ll find loads.

A+ / $30 / stgermain.fr

st germain elderflower liqueur Review: St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

Review: 2007 O’Shaughnessy Merlot Howell Mountain

I’ve waxed poetic on O’Shaughnessy’s cabernet, but its merlot (100%, nothing blended) is, to be frank, not to be missed either. This wine is huge with chocolate notes, backed with raspberry character that immediately recalls a classic dessert. Perfect texture, this is a wine that proves that not only should merlot not be shunned, in the right hands, it’s something to be treasured.

A+ / $60 / oshaughnessywinery.com

2007 oshaughnessy howell mountain merlot Review: 2007 OShaughnessy Merlot Howell Mountain

Review: Hangar One Vodkas

Practically a next-door neighbor to Drinkhacker HQ, California’s own Hangar One has long been a hometown favorite vodka amongst those ’round these parts who can’t handle whiskey. Available in a straight version and three exotic flavors, we’ve been drinking these for years but finally got around to sampling them all “officially” for the site. Created using a  combination of column- and pot-distilling methods from U.S. wheat and viognier grapes (not your everyday combo) — and obviously made with considerable care — these are vodkas that deserve their vaunted reputation.

All four varieties are 80 proof.

Hangar One Straight Vodka has a distinct wintergreen character, and the viognier grape notes are easy to pick out. With a real aromatic wine finish, this vodka is perfectly sippable even at room temperature, and it adds complexity to otherwise boring vodka cocktails. A

Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka takes the straight vodka base and infuses it with this particular Thai fruit. Kaffir lime isn’t easy to come by: Hangar One says that at one point it owned every commercially available Karrif lime leaf in North America. As Hangar One notes, most lime-flavored spirits can taste like Life Savers (at best), but H1′s spirit is an unabashed victory of the fruit, not just deeply citrus in character but also featuring herbs and pepper. The touches of viogier wine shine through in the finish. A masterpiece. A+

Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka uses the oddball Buddha’s Hand fruit for its flavoring agent. A relative of the lemon, it’s definitely in the lemon arena, with a touch of lime-ness to it and a good dose of jasmine incense in the nose. This one has a little more of an artificial tone (though all of these vodkas are naturally flavored), which gives it a harder edge. Still quite drinkable and one of the better lemon vodkas out there. A-

Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka is the orange member of the family. Orange-flavored vodkas are tricky, though, because there are so many orange-flavored liqueurs — in a variety of styles — that invariably taste better than orange vodka. Of course, Hangar One goes apey in using pounds of Mandarin orange blossoms to flavor its vodka, but the effect is not entirely different from the usual orange affair. It’s quite acidic but perfumy and nicely orange flavored. I’d use it in a pinch, but throwing in a splash of triple sec to a standard vodka does the job considerably better if you need a little orange in there. B+

$35 each / hangarone.com

Tasting Highland Park 1968 Limited Edition (and Cheese!)

It’s not every day I get to sample a four-figures-a-bottle whiskey. This week I got to try two side by side.

Highland Park brought out its newest bottling — the vintage-dated 1968 Limited Edition (bottled in 2008, it’s a 40-year-old whisky) — which is on the cusp of being released into the wilds. At $4,000 a bottle, it’s twice the price of HP’s 40 Year Old bottling and likely to be considerably rarer: 1,550 bottles, give or take, are being produced, and that’s that. (Highland Park’s last vintage-dated whisky was the 1958 Limited Edition, 665 bottles of which were released in 1998.)

But before we delved into the 1968, Highland Park brand ambassador Martin Daraz — ever a character to chat with — led us through four other HP expressions, Highland Park 18, 25, 30, and 40 Years Old. And, in a bit of an experiment, each whisky was paired with a cheese. A traditional pairing in Scotland, it’s not something I’ve often done, and the experience was quite informative and, I should add, delicious. Favorite pairing: buttery and sharp Abbaye de Belloc sheep’s milk cheese with Highland Park 25, which wildly elevated my prior opinion of HP25, which always seems to be paired with sweet desserts instead of savory items.

But eventually out came the 1968 Limited Edition, and my, what a treat it was to sample this special whisky. Light and pale in color, one would never expect it to be so old, and the body continued this theme: With no heat (even at 91.2 proof), Sauternes-like notes, and honey sweetness in the finish, this lovely, lovely Scotch went down impossibly easy… with or without cheese. Gorgeous. A+ / $4,000

highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Cold River Vodka

This potato-based vodka hails from Maine — who knew they had potatoes in Maine? — from tubers grown on Cold River’s own farm and bottled using water from its own local aquifer.

In fact, everything is done on the premises, and the results show in the finished product: This is a smooth and enchanting vodka that I’m happy to recommend. Both versions are 80 proof.

Cold River Vodka (unflavored) is exceptionally smooth but a bit sweet, with berry notes that made me think I had mistakenly tried the blueberry flavored version of the vodka (see below) first. Hints of honey, lemon, lavender, and gingerbread are at play here, making for a vodka with that rare combination of exquisite smoothness and interesting nuance. Excellent stuff. A+

Cold River Blueberry Vodka sounds like a curious choice for the company’s sole flavored version, but apparently they have blueberries in Maine, too. These are wild, soaked in alcohol for several days, flavored with a bit of sugar, and then blended into the vodka. Cold River claims its Blueberry Vodka has 1% sugar vs. other vodkas, with 12 to 15% sugar — and bottled at a full 80 proof. The result: the aroma of blueberry muffins fills the room when your pour out a glass of this stuff, and the flavor is as promised: Mostly fresh blueberry and minimally sweet. Tastes like a bakery, but again with that lavender hint in the mix. A rare flavored vodka that is a solid experience even on its own… but which would do exceptionally well in cocktails. A

$40 each / coldrivervodka.com

cold river vodka Review: Cold River Vodka

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 2000 Vintage

Here’s an outstanding return to form for Evan Williams’ Single Barrel bourbons, which the company’s been bottling for years, an amazing whisky that I highly recommend.

The 2000 Single Barrel shares a lot of DNA with the 1999, but while last year’s version is noteworthy for its lightly bitter, wood and charcoal finish, the 2000 is as smooth as can be. As with the ’99, there’s lots of honey, vanilla, and caramel in the body, but here an orange character is at play on the palate, with some floral notes and even a little herbal character. The finish is smooth and easy, a perfectly balanced whiskey at a ridiculously affordable price.

Sampled from barrel #1, bottled on 10/29/2009. 86.6 proof.

A+ / $26 / evanwilliams.com

evan williams single barrel bourbon 2000 Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 2000 Vintage

Drinking Ginger Beer with Fever-Tree’s Tim Warrillow

What’s that hot kick in your typical ginger beer from? If you said ginger, you’re probably wrong: Many brands put cheap chili pepper oils in their brews to give them that kick, which is why so many come off as hot, but not particularly spicy in the way that real ginger is.

That’s just one of the insights I was granted by Tim Warrillow, a co-founder of Fever-Tree, whose artisinal mixers (particularly its tonic water) are the bottles of choice for discriminating drinkers.

We reviewed the company’s Ginger Ale previously — and in the next few weeks (late July 2009) Fever-Tree will finally bring its long-awaited Ginger Beer to the U.S. (It’s already the company’s #2 selling product in the UK, after tonic water.)

Warrillow brought a four-pack by today and we compared his new offering with standbys, including Reed’s, Bundaberg, and the new Gosling’s.

Warrillow’s pride is wholly appropriate. As much as I liked Gosling’s compared to its competition at the time, Fever-Tree runs rings around this brew to the point where I’m almost embarrassed. Intensely spicy with an amazing flavor of fresh ginger, you can actually see bits of ginger floating in the bottle. It’s almost translucent, there’s so much of it in there. By comparison, Reed’s honey-and-pineapple-sweetened ginger beer is pathetic, and the other two ginger beers tasted were effectively weaklings.

That translates to throat-warming heat and lots of it, with a lasting finish that is really quite delicious. But Fever-Tree Ginger Beer isn’t a one-man show. It’s perfectly sweetened (with cane sugar, not corn syrup), and is equally palatable on its own as it is with rum (the Dark & Stormy) or vodka (the Moscow Mule). Or, hell, whatever else you want to throw in there. Fever-Tree’s new brew can stand up to anything, I assure you.

A+ / $5.69 (estimated) for four-pack of 6.8-oz. bottles / fever-tree.com

Review: Thatcher’s Blueberry and Dark Chocolate Organic Liqueurs

Previously we’ve raved about three of Thatcher’s Organic Liqueurs, and now we’re about to rave about two more, so put on your happy hats.

Thatcher’s Organic Blueberry is as simple as they come: Organic blueberry smashed into 30-proof oblivion. The flavor is clean and authentic, a berry bomb that is clearly sweet, unadulterated blueberry. It’s a bit tart; I recommend lots of ice and a little cold water if you want to drink it alone. For the same reason few people drink plain blueberry juice, it can be a little too much without something else. It’s also not the manliest drink on earth. The color is more lavender than blue. But hey, I’m secure enough to knock a few back without shame. B+

Thatcher’s Organic Dark Chocolate is whoaaaaaa full of deep, dark chocolate flavor. It’s almost whiskey-like in color, which is disarming considering most chocolate liqueurs are as opaque and thick as chocolate syrup, but the body is stuffed full of chocolate notes. The initial rush is sugary, candy-like, and then a big, cocoa-powder finish rolls in. It is indeed dark chocolate, lightly bittersweet and amazingly rich. Love this one. Also 30 proof. A+

$25 / thatchersorganic.com