Review: Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye Whiskey and Cherrywood Rye Whiskey

SCD_CherrywoodRye_RTRemember 1512 Spirits? This tiny Rohnert Park, California operation has grown by leaps and bounds — and recently changed its name to Sonoma County Distilling Company. SCDC is pumping out products, mostly young whiskeys, including bourbon, wheat whiskey, and at least two ryes, both of which we’re reviewing today.

Let’s take a look at what this humble operation north of San Francisco is pumping out.

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Sonoma Rye Whiskey – 100% California rye, primarily unmalted rye with malted rye as a secondary grain. Double distilled and aged in new charred American oak, finished in used barrels. It’s young stuff (likely only a year or two old, though there’s no age statement), and on the nose it’s full of youthful roasted cereal notes, raw lumber, and some hospital notes. The body is more well-rounded, adding ample baking spice notes driven by the rye, some cherry fruit, and gentle vanilla. The finish is quite lumber-driven, with an echo of cereal. 108.8 proof. Reviewed: Batch #8. B- / $50

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Cherrywood Rye Whiskey – This is a more complicated product, made from (primarily) unmalted Canadian rye, cherrywood smoked malted barley, and unmalted Canadian wheat. It’s double distilled, then aged in new oak and finished in used barrels. And this one carries an age statement: A minimum of one year in oak. The results: Not at all what I was expecting, in a good way. The nose is youthful and lightly grainy, but more breakfast cereal than toasted bread, with hints of butterscotch. The body is where this whiskey really shines, offering gentle sweetness, with plenty of vanilla, cake frosting, and dried fruits. There is a slight smokiness on the back end, compounded with toasted nuts and — finally — some heavier grain elements. The finish isn’t a standout, but the palate offers plenty to enjoy. I’d use this freely as a cocktail base. 96 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B+ / $50

Test-Driving Thanksgiving Wines from Lodi

Old Vine Zinfandel, Wegat Vineyard, Lodi AVA. Photography by Randy Caparoso.

There’s no more American holiday than Thanksgiving (well, except one, but that’s a beer-and-whiskey day) and if you’re ever looking for an excuse to try an American wine, this is it. Not just for nostalgia; many American heritage varietals pair beautifully with traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Fun fact: More wine is consumed in the U.S. on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year.

Our friends in Lodi, California recently sent a selection of local wines — including some unusual, “outside the box” varietals — designed to pair with hearty Thanksgiving meals. While I didn’t make the recipes they suggested (who has 10 pounds of short ribs handy on a Wednesday night?), you can check them all out for yourself here.

Here are some thoughts on each of the wines tasted during this live event.

2014 Acquiesce Viognier – Not at all your father’s (mother’s?) viognier. The typical peach/apricot notes are dialed way back and some uncharacteristic mushroom, slate, and dried herb notes come to the fore. This works far better with food than it does standing alone, the funkier, earthy elements helping to stand up well as part of a bigger meal. B- / $23

2013 m2 Wines Alicante Bouchet – Sweet and spicy, you could be easily forgiven for assuming this is Zinfandel. Bright, crushed strawberry and cherry notes mingle with cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a bit of tobacco on the finish. The sweetness rises up again as the wine fades out, though, a bit cloying for an otherwise highly drinkable red. B / $26

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah – A heavy wine, dense with prunes, dark chocolate, leather, and mushroom. A little of this goes a long way, the wine’s intensity taking it to a place of dusky, leathery tannins as it evolves in the glass. Challenging, but not without some charm. B- / $26

2014 Michael David Winery Symphony – 100% Symphony grapes go into this lightly sweetened wine that lands somewhere between a chardonnay and a muscat. Lots of honey, applesauce, and citrus notes fire atop a lacing of sugar — though note it is far from a Sauternes-like blowout. You could serve this in lieu of, say, a Riesling if you were so inclined, but it is easily a solid companion for a fruit-heavy dessert. B+ / $15

Review: Available 2013 Red Blend and 2014 Pinot Grigio

Available 2013 Red Blend Bottle ShotNapa-based Taken Wine Co. imports these wines from Italy — and I have to say, “Available” is one of the worst brand names I’ve come across for any wine, much less an import.

These two wines both hail from Puglia, “the heel” of Italy. Thoughts follow.

2014 Available Pinot Grigio Puglia IGT – Somewhat bland for Pinot Grigio, there’s a mushroom quality to the wine that dulls the impact of the fruit. Otherwise, relatively traditional but simple tropical notes mingle with some mixed citrus — with grapefruit particularly notable here. A slight floral edge hits the finish. B- / $13

2013 Available Red Blend Puglia IGT – A blend of mystery grapes, this wine initially evokes vegetal, leathery notes on the nose, but in the glass this opens up a bit, and the fruit at its core makes for an interesting companion to the greener characters that are more upfront. What emerges is surprisingly balanced wine that offers sweet and savory components, with a playfully bitter finish. A pleasant surprise. B+ / $13

Review: Plantation Rum Lineup (2015) – 3 Stars White, Original Dark, Barbados 5 Years Old, Extra Old 20th Anniversary, Old Reserve 2001, and Pineapple

Plantation 20 Anniv XO NEW - LOPlantation Rum is actually part of the French company Cognac Ferrand, and it produces over a dozen rums that are sourced from plantations all over the Caribbean and beyond. Some of these rums we’ve reviewed before, but today we’re taking a deep dive into six of the company’s offerings, including its first foray into a flavored product.

Let’s dive in!

Plantation 3 Stars White Rum (2015) – Made from a blend of various rums, filtered to clear. A clean white rum, it’s free of most of the petrol overtones that are endemic with so many whites. Here notes of banana and some coconut give this rum a lot of fruit and ample depth — which makes sense because some of the rum that makes up this expression is up to 12 years old. Very easygoing and highly mixable. 82.4 proof. A- / $17 (1 liter)

Plantation Original Dark Rum (2015) – Aged Trinidad stock. Funky on the nose — overly so — with bizarre hogo notes of green olives and feta cheese. A nutty, coffee-focused character emerges as the rum opens up on the palate, but it’s constrained by those herbal, bitter, funky flavors that really start to interfere with the big picture over time. 80 proof. B- / $17

Plantation Grande Reserve Rum Barbados 5 Years Old – Self-explanatory provenance here, in a rum that is light in color but long on character. A restrained nose offers hints of brown sugar, banana, and fresh apple, but keeps it in check. On the palate, huge coconut notes emerge, plus more banana and some pineapple notes. Fruit from start to finish: If you want the perfect rum for a pina colada, this is your guy. A huge bargain. 80 proof. A- / $16

Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary (2015) – The “XO” bottling of Plantation comprises old stock finished in ex-Cognac barrels. A brooding sophisticate next to the fruitier style of many of Plantation’s offerings, the XO features dense leather, tobacco, dark chocolate, and coffee notes before giving way to darker fruit notes — prune, plum, and blackberry. Some tropical emerge with time, but they struggle to get through the brooding, almost fireside character. That’s not a bad thing. This is complex, old, and quite enchanting rum at its finest. 80 proof. A / $43

Plantation Rum Old Reserve 2001 Jamaica – An update on the 2000 line, this single-vintage rum is pushy and funky, a cousin of the Original Dark above, writ small. It’s intense and funky, but light on its feet, folding fruit into a base that offers a heavily vegetal and pungent character. Slightly smoky, with hospital notes, it’s certainly not a rum for beginners, though one can see how it might find a home in a less fruit-forward cocktail like a Zombie or even a powerful update to a Hemingway Daiquiri. 84 proof. B / $40

Plantation Artisinal Infusion Original Dark Pineapple Rum – A pineapple-infused version of the Original Dark above. You’ll smell it right away from the second the bottle is cracked open — big, sugary pineapple notes that absolutely take over the whole affair. There’s an argument that perhaps the nose should do that — but for my money I’d rather take the more nuanced Barbados 5 Year Old (at half the price, mind you) and use that as the base for any fruity cocktails I was making. All in all, here we see juicy pineapple meet a dusting of brown sugar — and that’s really the end of the story. 80 proof. B / $43

Review: Paul Masson Grande Amber VS Brandy

Paul-Masson-VS-BrandyDon’t be fooled: The VS in Paul Masson’s Grande Amber VS doesn’t stand for very superior or very special, as it does in France. It stands for very smooth, as noted in tiny type underneath.

Yes, Paul Masson has come a long way since Orson Welles’ day, but it’s still an avowed budget brand. Brandy like this remains its most notable product (a VSOP is also sold), made from unknown grapes, aged three years in barrel, and likely colored within an inch of its life with caramel.

With all that said, for the price, this is not a bad product. I used this brandy to make a punch, but on its own it isn’t at all unpalatable. The nose has an alcoholic punch to it, but loads up caramel, vanilla, milk chocolate, and brown sugar notes, too. On the palate, the caramel-vanilla combo gives up a bit of time to notes of baked apples, raisin, and some cloves. The finish is a bit medicinal, though Paul Masson tries to cover that up with sugary fruit notes. It’s not entirely successful, but let’s give them points for trying…

80 proof.

B- / $10 /

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #9 – Deanston 1997, Ben Nevis 1996, Glen Keith 1996, Glen Garioch 1995, Allt-A-Bhainne 1995, Cambus 1988


It’s another outturn from indie bottlers The Exclusive Malts, with a series of eight single cask releases from a wide range of distilleries. Today we look at six of them. So, without further ado, let’s get on to the tasting!

The Exclusive Malts Deanston 1997 17 Years Old – A “midlands” distillery near Glasgow, Deanston doesn’t often get much notice, but this vanilla-heavy number is a solid sipper. It’s a low-key malt with ample roasted grain notes, a touch of citrus peel, and some oily leather/furniture polish notes on the back end — but the sweet vanilla character, tempered with some walnut notes, tends to take over the whole affair from beginning to end. 104.6 proof. B+ / $140

The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old – Highland malt, matured completely in a refill sherry cask. Here you’ll find more red fruits than citrus on the nose — almost strawberry at times, which is an exotic surprise, with a touch of lemon mixed in. There’s lots going on on the body — fresh mixed fruits, cinnamon, toffee notes, a bit of well toasted bread. Some coconut emerges on the finish, giving this a tropical touch. Lots of fun and highly worthwhile. 102.4 proof. A / $140

The Exclusive Malts Glen Keith 1996 19 Years Old – Speyside’s Glen Keith was shuttered from the late ’90s to 2013, when it reopened to make malt exclusively for blending. This is some of the last stock from that prior production run and a final chance to try Glen Keith as a single malt. It’s fairly traditional on the nose, with sizable cereal, some apple, and moderate wood influence. On the palate, it drinks on the hot side, with sweetened grains — think breakfast cereal — heavy on the tongue. Ultimately it’s a bit simplistic, particularly for a whisky of this age, though it’s completely serviceable. 100.2 proof. B / $155

The Exclusive Malts Glen Garioch 1995 19 Years Old – This is Highland malt aged in a rum cask from Guyana, a rarity you don’t often see in Scotch. Racy and spicy on the nose, the initial impression is one of a heavily sherried whisky, loaded with citrus and laced with cloves. The body is highly spiced, almost fiery at times, with tropical notes, rounded malt, and a bit of chocolate. Straightforward, a little hot thanks to the higher-than-expected proof, but a joy from start to finish. Wish I had more to tinker with. 112.6 proof. A- / $150

The Exclusive Malts Allt-A-Bhainne 1993 22 Years Old – This Speyside distillery is primarily used to make malts for Chivas blends, and it almost never shows up as a single malt. This well-aged number is the lightest shade of gold, with floral and grain-heavy notes up front, plus hints of baking spice and burnt sugar. Touches of petrol emerge with time. On the palate the whisky is initially sweet and innocuous, but some less savory components quickly come around — notes of coal, burnt paper, gravel, and ash. The finish is a bit rubbery, and short. Ultimately lackluster. 101.4 proof. B- / $160

The Exclusive Malts Cambus Single Grain 1988 26 Years Old – Cambus was a Lowlands grain whisky distillery that was shuttered in 1993. This is a darkish whisky, exotic on the nose with tropical fruits, irises, ripe banana, and coconut notes. On the palate, it’s intensely sweet — with amaretto notes and more ripe banana before venturing toward notes of watermelon, cherry, and rhubarb all mixed together. The finish is exceptionally sweet, almost cloying. All in all, this is a somewhat bizarre whisky that nonetheless merits consideration because it is so very unique. Not sure it’s a daily dram, however. 96.2 proof. B / $180

Tasting: Schiava Wines of Alto Adige – Abbazia di Novacella, Cantina Andriano, Nals Margreid

Cantina Andriano BocadoSchiava is a grape also known as Trollinger — and it’s one of the more heavily grown red wine grapes in Germany. It also finds a home in the north of Italy, where it is turned into this exotic and odd wine. Let’s take a look at three 100% Schiava wines from Italy’s Alto Adige region.

2014 Abbazia di Novacella Schiava Alto Adige DOC – A classic, slightly sour, young Italian red. Notes of thyme and nutmeg dust a tart cherry core, with a finish of leather, tobacco leaf, and gentian. Mild finish. Pairs well with food. B / $16

2013 Nals Margreid Galea Schiava Alto Adige DOC – Jammy, and reminiscent of rapidly fading Beaujolais Nouveau, with a gamy and balsamic-heavy undertone. Of minor interest only. C+ / $18

2013 Cantina Andriano “Bocado” Schiava Alto Adige DOC – Both sweet and tart, with strawberry and some cherry notes. Approachable, though the heavy acidity makes it somewhat off-putting at times. On the finish, a dusting of baking spices add a bit more complexity. B- / $21

Review: Svedka Vodka, Svedka 100, and Svedka Grapefuit Jalapeno

SVEDKA GrapefruitJalapeno Bottle

Sweden’s Svedka is one of the top global vodka brands, driven by an affordable price point and some amazingly successful marketing. 5x distilled from Swedish winter wheat, it’s widely available to the point of ubiquity. Let’s look at three of the company’s expressions, including a couple of new monsters.

Svedka Vodka – This is the standard Svedka bottling — presumably the one that that robot lady likes so much. The nose melds marshmallow notes with hospital overtones, but ultimately it’s the sweeter notes that carry the spirit. The palate is quite simplified, with a modest sugar component and just a wisp of astringency that attempts to provide some balance. It never quite gets there, though, leaving this best suited as a mixer. 80 proof. B- / $14

Svedka 100 Vodka – This is the 100 proof version of Svedka, but otherwise unflavored and made the same way. The nose is strikingly similar — offering that same mix of sweetness and medicinal character. Where things diverge is on the tongue, with Svedka 100 building up to a rather pungent and punchy character that is, primarily, driven by its alcohol content. This has the welcome side effect of tempering the sugar in the vodka and giving the spirit some much needed gravitas. A considerable improvement and only a buck more expensive. B+ / $15

Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno Vodka – Svedka makes 14 varieties of vodka, including 12 flavors. This new one is arguably the strangest, unless Swedes are munching jalapenos and swilling Squirt left and right without my knowledge. This flavored expression is all fruit on the nose — but more grapefruit candy than sour grapefruit juice. On the tongue it’s more of the same — remarkably sweet and sugary, offering citrus but nothing that’s particularly grapefruit focused. But what about that jalapeno, Drinkhacker? Well, the finish offers a little but distinct burn, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. That said, I couldn’t tell you whether it came from a pepper or a vat of mysteriously spicy chemicals, and you don’t care anyway. 70 proof. C- / $12

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2015 Releases

VendettaIt’s a bumper crop of new releases from Coppola. Here’s a look at something old and something new from this always-busy operation.

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Sauvignon Blanc Diamond Collection Yellow Label – A workmanlike, even gentlemanly, sauvignon blanc. Quite sweet, with marshmallow notes, lemon juice, and creamy orange Dreamsicle notes. Simple but with a lightly herbal edge to the finish, it’s classic yet cheap summer wine (if the bright yellow label didn’t cue you in). B / $16

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Grigio Diamond Collection Emerald Label – A rather tropical pinot grigio, melding mango and banana notes into a festive shell. Simple, lightweight, lightly sweet, and rather refreshing, but better as an aperitif than with food. B+ / $12

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Claret Diamond Collection Black Label – Surprisingly on point, the 2013 claret — a Bordeaux style blend that nonetheless reads “California Cabernet Sauvignon” on the back label — has youth and austerity, both in moderation. Bright red strawberries and raspberries seize the day — there’s not too much currant character here — with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and tea leaf (sweet tea, maybe?) lingering on the finish. Mostly dry but with a short, quick finish, this is as gentle an entry to this style of wine. B+ / $21

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Rose Monterey County – Pleasant, summery, and refreshing, this rose of syrah and pinot noir is an easy sipper with strawberry and blackberry notes, atop a fresh apple juice core. Probably the best thing you’ll find under the Sofia sub-label. A- / $19

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Noir Director’s Sonoma Coast – (Not the same as “Director’s Cut.”) Not a bad effort here, and it evolves to show more charm in the glass as it gets some air. Cherry up front, with some dusky brewed tea and cracked pepper notes. Nice balance, with a lightly bitter kick on the finish. B+ / $21

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Zinfandel Director’s Cut Dry Creek Valley – A reserved and quite tannic zinfandel, this wine features muted bramble notes, leather, and mild currants. Quite drying on the finish, with a licorice kick. B- / $17

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Vendetta – The new kid on the block. A cab-merlot blend, packaged in the oh-so-trendy paper-wrapped bottle. An often horrifying wine, doctored and pumped up (IMHO) with artificial sweeteners. Chocolate and cinnamon notes mingle with a cloying sweetness that positively coats the palate. Was the vendetta against me? D / $21

Review: Milagro Tequila (2015)

Milagro Core AnejoBottleIt’s been seven years since we looked at Milagro’s core line of three tequilas, and that early review is certainly showing its age. It’s time for an update of this readily available and largely affordable Highland tequila. Here’s a look at the standard lineup as of 2015.

All expressions are 100% agave and 80 proof.

Milagro Tequila Silver – An unaged blanco. Vegetal agave, with some sweetness on the nose. The body is relatively lightweight and heavy on sugary character, which leads to a very gentle experience. Notes of tinned peaches, some tobacco, and burnt marshmallow make an appearance, but they don’t add much nuance to an otherwise simplistic experience. Best for mixing. B- / $22

Milagro Tequila Reposado – Aged in oak for three to six months. It’s a very slight improvement over the silver, still sweet, with its agave rounded out with some notes of sandalwood, cinnamon, and dusky cloves. Some raw lumber character develops as the tequila sees time with air. Still not a challenging tequila, but also worthwhile as a mixer. B- / $28

Milagro Tequila Anejo – Aged in oak for 14 to 24 months. Easily the best of the lot, with a better balance of sugar and agave. The lumber has smoothed out as well, adding stronger vanilla notes to the spirit along with some light milk chocolate character and a bit of bitter root essence on the finish. This one’s also the most mellow of the bunch, but it’s still very light bodied and a little thin. Again, it’s harmless tequila, a solid mixer, and a pleasant enough sipper in its own right. B / $35