Category Archives: Rated A+

Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2012

Port Ellen 32 Year OldIslay’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: 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

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

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

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

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

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