Category Archives: Rated B-

Review: Wines from Merryvale and Starmont, 2014 Releases

2010 Merryvale CS 100x300 Review: Wines from Merryvale and Starmont, 2014 ReleasesNew wines from Napa’s Merryvale Vineyards and its second label, Starmont. Thoughts follow.

2012 Starmont Chardonnay Carneros – Typical of California Chardonnay. Oaked, but not overly so, with a big, buttery core that leads to restrained notes of pineapple, green apples, and vanilla caramels. Better with food. B / $22

2012 Starmont Pinot Noir Carneros – Simplistic and not altogether present, this Carneros Pinot has a slightly smoky nose to it, with a tart, jammy body. The finish is on the medicinal side, with a few astringent notes. Tastes cheaper than it is. B- / $27

2010 Merryvale Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A big, blue-chip Cabernet. The nose is dense and at first a little closed off — tobacco and leather, berry brambles. On the palate, things are still restrained as this wine continues to develop, but for now it is showing dense blackberry, licorice, and some tar character. Long, quite tannic finish. Try in 2017. A- / $65

merryvale.com

Book Review: A First Course in Wine

first course in wine 246x300 Book Review: A First Course in WineNovices will swoon over this handsome, lovingly photographed, generally quite beautiful guide to the basics of the wine world. As the name suggests, this is a first course in wine, and the book dutifully walks through some of the first questions a new wine consumer might have. What different grapes look like, where they’re grown, how wine is made, what to drink with different kinds of wine… that kind of thing. This is the kind of book that trots out the full-page chart of what you call oversize wine bottles (27 liters is a Goliath!), even though anyone reading this book will never encounter wine in that capacity.

There are many, many photos of vineyards in all their glory here… though not much explanation about why the wine lover should care about them (aside from their natural beauty). There are a few pages on offer about viticulture basics, but this is never tied into the art in the book. Similarly, despite copious photos of wine labels (many larger than life), only a few pages give the reader information on how to read them.

Still, for a “first” course in wine, this is a book that at least gets the basics down in a rudimentary fashion. It doesn’t hurt that it looks nice on the shelf, too.

B- / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Neige Apple Ice Wine

neige 300x300 Review: Neige Apple Ice WineYou can make wine out of any fruit, including apples. So what about ice wine? From frozen apples? Why not.

Neige (which means “snow”) is made in Canada and imported by Boisset. It’s not really made from frozen winter apples but rather from apples picked in the fall which are then juiced, the juice frozen and concentrated into syrup, and then fermented into wine.

The nose of the wine is a bit on the hoary side — more apple seed than apple fruit. Underneath there’s a hint of fruit, but it needs time in the glass to develop. On the body, a rush of sweet fruit hits you first. The character then turns back toward a woody, cider-like character as the finish arrives, slightly sour but curiously interesting, at least for a wee glass.

13% abv.

B- / $35 (375ml bottle) / boissetfamilyestates.com

Review: Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy and Immunity

Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy Open Display  53466.1367463494.1280.1280 224x300 Review: Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy and Immunity Ola! Yerba Mate! Green tea! Hawaiian Ola’s Noni energy and immunity shots sure do sound like they’re going to be good for you. Packed with organic, GMO-free juices from a bunch of crazy looking Hawaiian fruits, these now-familiar shots are a way to get your morning jolt and at least feel a little better about what you’re drinking. Brief thoughts on the two varieties follow.

Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy – A nose of canned peaches and over-ripe apples. Much of both on the palate, with an incredibly bittersweet aftertaste, likely caused by the addition of 150mg of caffeine. Better than most “energy shots.” Try it chilled. Made me jumpy, but I don’t drink anywhere near that much caffeine on a typical day. B-

Hawaiian Ola Noni Immunity – Essentially a caffeine-free version of the above, with double the sugar and some added vitamins in the mix. Much more palatable without the gritty bitterness in it, but this time it’s a bit too sweet on the finish. Again, best chilled. B+

each about $3 per 2.5 oz. bottle / website non-functional

Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp Brewing

base camp Smore Stout Bottle small Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp BrewingLike any good craft brewer, Portland, Oregon-based Base Camp makes a dozen-plus different beers, some with very exotic compositions. Unlike most craft brewers, it then puts these beers into oversized 22 oz. aluminum bottles, which are “made for adventure.”

We tested four of the company’s brews. Thoughts follow. 

Base Camp Brewing In-Tents IPL – An unusual copper-colored India Pale Lager. Deep forest notes and cedar closet on the nose. The body is equal parts IPA and malty lager, but the earthy, almost musty finish that develops (thanks to the beer being aged in oak barrels) is a bit too much, overpowering some of the delicate pine notes up front. 6.8% abv. B

Base Camp Brewing Ripstop Rye Pils – A German pilsner with the addition of rye malt. This is a beautiful combination, the pilsner lush and rounded, and the rye giving it a bit of extra zip. Straightforward with fresh baked bread notes, moderate bitterness, and with just a touch of orange peel on the finish. Lovely balance. Easy, summery brew. 5.7% abv. A-

Base Camp Brewing Northwest Fest – An Oktoberfest-style brew, moderately gold in color and quite malt-forward. Quite a good one, it’s been lagered on toasted oak to give it a touch of vanilla sweetness, but the mildly dry hoppiness and fresh baked bread notes overpower everything else in the end. Straigthtforward, it’s a richer, more mouth-filling choice than both of the above. 5.6% abv. B+

Base Camp Brewing S’More Stout – An American stout with all the trimmings: Chocolate, coffee, and intense malt extract on the nose and the body, leading into a thick, bittersweet finish (emphasis on the bitter). Not enough nuance in this one for me… just a punishing blackness punctuated by hints of dessert. 7.7% abv. B-

basecampbrewingco.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

 Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

Everyone loves a good story, and to spin a good yarn around an original tale is becoming a talent synonymous with spirits industry. A brand simply can’t stand on its merits alone anymore. A successful product launch now requires no less than a multi-million dollar yacht, international release parties, the courtship of the tastemaker kings and queens, and a celebrity endorsement or five. However, nothing shines quite like a good lacquered coating of embellishment to make a product beam in the eyes of the unsuspecting and trustworthy. It is human nature and a constitutional right to amplify facts with the intent of impressing people. Once in high school, a certain writer once stretched a passing conversation with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye into a lunch of vegan tacos, Coca-Cola and a two-hour conversation about the future of his band Fugazi.

So it comes as no surprise that Diageo, dream weavers of the potentially-fictitious dream history of Bulleit, present the Orphan Barrel project: a new chapter in the company’s incredible alternate history of whiskey. If Diageo’s tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters — these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as the Stitzel-Weller distillery. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch this new whiskey series, with more planning on being “discovered” throughout the forthcoming seasons.

Now it appears this long-lost S-W juice was actually made at the Bernheim distillery. The barrels also weren’t “lost,” they just never got used for their original intent. What was the original home intended for these barrels? Either Diageo doesn’t know (unlikely) or simply isn’t saying, which seems more likely. Why let those traveling down the yellow brick road get a peek at how the Wizard makes the sausage?

Either way, the barrels were shipped from S-W and bottled at the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, a state enjoying the attention and courtship of Diageo as of late. How many barrels? Good question. No one knows the answer to that either, but the edition numbers on the back of the bottles posted on the internet have now reached the 40,000 mark. Given how little would be left in each orphaned barrel at 20+ years of age, the number of barrels involved would have to be in the thousands, hard to “lose” and hardly qualifying as “limited edition” — unless you’re comparing it to the voluminous output of something like… say… Jack Daniel’s?

This lack of confidence on provenance combined with a balance inquiry at a local ATM were big sticking points as to whether or not we should purchase samples for review. Neither eager nor willing to shell out the $225 required for both bottles, a local establishment was pouring small samples for ladies and gentlemen who would otherwise shop the aisles for Kentucky Gentleman. $10.50 was the safer investment of the two options, it made sense to minimize risk and see what the buzz was about. As Chris is wont to say: “Thoughts follow.”

Barterhouse 20 Years Old – With more text on the bottle than a Russian novel, Diageo seems hellbent on cramming as many typographical flourishes as possible per label to remind the consumer of the epic saga they’ve purchased for their mantle, possibly to distract you from what’s inside. (It’s worth noting that Barterhouse’s mascot is a rather sly looking fox.) It’s incredibly sweet, with vanilla and butter on the nose, and soft on the palate, making it hard to even believe this is 20 years of age (with very little oak or sulfur on the taste). The finish is even weaker. Very easygoing and inoffensive, it would be a great starter bourbon for the uninitiated and those with ample money to spend. 90.2 proof. B- / $75

Chris says: I get more of a burnt toffee and considerable heat on the nose, with cinnamon and brown butter on the body. Kind of a weird balance of flavors, but a lot going on. I found this fun to explore, but difficult enough on the finish to make things a bit strange. My rating: B+

Old Blowhard 26 Years Old – A 26-year-old bourbon bearing the name of a cantankerous old man. I might be reading too much into the glass with the brand names here, but if I’m right Diageo isn’t being very subtle. It has a very strong presence right from the moment it lands in the glass. A nose of spices, cinnamon, and a touch of campfire smoke blend with a strong taste of toffee, vanilla, cloves, and a plentiful punch of oak. By comparison to Barterhouse (below), it has a much stronger and present finish with a nice burn of oak and alcohol. At $150, though, it’s hard to get excited on the cost versus quality scale of things. There are way better bourbons at this price point worth considering. That said, this is definitely the better of the two “orphan barrels.” 90.7 proof.  B / $150

Chris says: Quite a different animal. Cloves and peppermint on the nose. The body shows off big vanilla and toffee notes, but the finish turns a bit brutish, with a kind of heavily-flamed orange peel character. Becomes increasingly woody as it opens up in the glass. Intriguing. B+

With this new armada of orphan barrels, Diageo is placing bets on the casual consumer who enjoys higher end premium stuff and places as much stock on the envelope, paper, and penmanship as they do the contents of the letter. The kind of person who would purchase a $150 bottle of bourbon in order to subtly out-compete at the court of the well-heeled Keeneland’s clubhouse on opening day, or a tailgating affair at Churchill Downs in May. Much to the company’s credit, it sort of works. They’ve managed to put the fox in some very nice sheep’s clothing for the flock. However, in the end, the best consumer is one that is as well-informed as possible. Or as the song goes: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.*”

Limited Edition of Ten Frillion, or whatever number Diageo wants.

diageo.com

*The author is well aware of the thick glaze of irony created by enlisting references to the traditionally sober, straight-edged and highly anti-corporate Fugazi in a whiskey review.

 [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Book Review: Dr. Cocktail

dr cocktail 300x300 Book Review: Dr. CocktailCan drinking be medicinal? Since the dawn of time alcholic beverages have been billed as good for the body. That’s how legions of drinkers got their hands on booze during Prohibition, even — through a doctor’s prescription.

Alex Ott, “the sorcerer of shaken and stirred,” takes things a step further with his book Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind and Body. (“Dr. Cocktail,” by the way, is Ted Haigh, so don’t get confused…) In this slim, hardbound book, his goal is to create cocktail recipes that use herbal, traditional, natural, and homeopathic ingredients. These in turn are meant to reduce stress, encourage romance, build your appetite, or curb hangovers. Whether Ott’s mixture of gin, cranberry juice, and cucumbers really has anti-aging properties, well, that’s a matter for the scientists to look into, I suppose.

I was surprised how simple and straightforward most of the recipes in this book were. No acai, no yumberry, or any of the other foodstuffs that are generally considered really really good for you. There’s nothing really more unusual than turmeric and aloe juice here, which is great if you actually want to make this stuff, but bad if you’re looking for something truly novel that you won’t find elsewhere. Many of the recipes here look good, but more than a few are modest spins on time-worn classics. (I remain flummoxed how a Bloody Mary with a ton of Grenadine, Scotch, and bacon bits will detox you.)

But the most annoying thing about Ott’s book is the rampant product placement. While many a bartending book will call for certain name brand spirits, Ott’s does so in virtually every recipe. Hope you stock up on Svedka Vodka, Ecco Domini wines, and New Amsterdam Gin! One has to wonder: Does Ott really drink that much Svedka? Or is he just giving his employers (he’s an ambassador for all three) a contractual shout-out… on your dime?

B- / $13 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Sugar Island Spiced Rum and Coconut Rum

sugar island spiced rum 102x300 Review: Sugar Island Spiced Rum and Coconut RumMade from Caribbean cane sugar and bottled in California, Sugar Island is a new kid on the flavored and spiced rum block. (The company is not making an unflavored or aged variety.) Here’s how these new offerings measure up against the competition.

Sugar Island Spiced Rum – Very strong and pungent on the nose. The character is indistinct, with somewhat harsh, rubbery notes. On the palate, heavy burnt sugar notes overwhelm with unclear, clove-and-cinnamon character backing it up. A lengthy finish brings out not more sweetness but more of that rubbery, industrial character. Caramel added. 92 proof. C-

Sugar Island Coconut Rum – Tons of sweetness on the nose. Coconut is a secondary characteristic, overpowered by simple syrup. The body is heavy, full of gravity, with a powerfully sweet finish that offers a touch of mango character to it. Not at all difficult, but it’s a sugar bomb with few parallels in this category. 42 proof. B-

each $19 / sugarislandrum.com

Review: 5 Whiskies from Japan’s Nikka Distillery

Nikka Coffey Grain 750ml 300 389x1200 Review: 5 Whiskies from Japans Nikka Distillery

An old part of the Asahi empire, Nikka (est. 1934) suddenly finds itself part of the new guard of Japanese whiskys positively flooding into the U.S. Nikka makes a massive number of whiskys in a wide variety of styles and ages. What we present here is but a small selection of Nikka’s world, reflecting the most common Nikka expressions you’ll find in our shores today.

Thoughts follow.

Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12 Years Old – A classic single malt (100% malted barley from Nikka’s newer distillery) with tons to love. The nose is pretty and modern, offering well-integrated grain, oak, and nougat elements. The subtle smokiness starts to develop primarily on the palate, which offers crisp citrus notes, butterscotch, and some floral notes. Beautiful integration here, on a creamy, sexy body. Vanilla custard sticks with you for ages after a few sips. Feels far more accomplished than its 12 years of age would dictate. 90 proof. A / $120

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15 Years Old – Single malt, older distillery than Miyagikyo, which explains how this 15 year old whisky can be priced the same as its little brother. Quite a different spirit, the Yoichi brings a bit more smokiness, and a more rustic composition, with a racier nose and a considerably bigger smoke profile. The body offers big citrus notes, applesauce, cloves, and a chewiness driven by the barbecue-like smokiness. A fun and flavorful whisky, but it pales next to the refinement of the Miyagikyo. 90 proof. B+ / $130

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old – I’m an avowed fan of the Taketsuru 12 Years Old, a pure malt (a blend of single malts from multiple distilleries), so this 17 year old expression sounds delightful right off the bat. The smoke-and-sweetness of this malt’s nose remind me of the Yoichi 15, but the body is a different animal. Here, that rusticness has faded away to reveal a satin body, mouth-filling with thick caramel, vanilla custard, and just wisps of smoke. There’s an almost lemon candy-like character around the edges that’s hard to pin down… but is quite delicious. 86 proof. A- / $150

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old – Lots of grain on this older expression of Taketsuru, which is surprising. The nose initially feels hot, heavy with old wood character. The body is equally laden with heavy woodiness, a tannic and tough spirit that just feels “too old” — almost sour at times with past-its-prime cherry, burnt cocoa beans, and charcoal notes. Not at all my favorite of this lineup. 86 proof. B- / $180

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – This is a huge departure from the above, a grain whisky (corn, barley, wheat) made in a continuous still instead of a pot still. It’s what blended whisky is blended with, but this is a 100% grain whisky, with no single malt added. Sharp on the nose, with lemon notes, vanilla, and strong menthol character. The body is surprisingly easygoing, a fruity whiskey with notes of hazelnuts, coffee bean, sea salt, and modest smokiness. There’s a lot going on here, that menthol character bringing it all into (for the most part) balance. Worth exploring, and it’s a bargain compared to the rest of the Nikka stable. 90 proof. B+ / $70

nikka.com

Review: Whistling Andy Straight Bourbon Whiskey

whistling andy 198x300 Review: Whistling Andy Straight Bourbon WhiskeyUp next, craft distilling comes to… Montana. The curiously-named Whistling Andy offers this new, all-local bourbon (the state’s first) made from 100% Montana-grown grains. A unique blend of corn, barley, wheat, and rye is used for the mashbill, which is triple-distilled in pot stills, then aged for three years in medium-char new oak barrels.

The nose is instantly exotic and more than a little weird, a combination of big cereal grains, burnt marshmallow, campfire ashes, and Listerine. The body features the hallmarks of young whiskey, lots of fresh-cut grain character, popcorn, and toasty — but not creamy — caramel notes. The finish hints at fresh-cut apples and hazelnuts, but these are just wisps of flavor that quickly get away from you. All told, Whistling Andy is a whiskey that’s still trying hard to integrate its grain and wood components but hasn’t yet found its sweet vanilla core. It sure does wear its promise on its sleeve, though. Look me up in 2017.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. Fun fact: The company’s mash tanks was formerly used in an Eskimo Pie factory.

B- / $42 / whistlingandy.com

Review: Rekorderlig Swedish Hard Ciders

rekorderlig 3 Bottle Lock up USA Blended 525x525 Review: Rekorderlig Swedish Hard Ciders

Rekorderlig, Sweden’s hard cider, is available in myriad flavors, all clocking in at a low 4.5% abv alcohol level. Rekorderlig, popular in Europe and just now making its way to the States, isn’t made just for sipping straight. The creator also wants you to try it out in cocktails. A suggested recipe appears below. Meanwhile, we tried out the three varieties now available in the U.S.; thoughts follow.

Rekorderlig Premium Pear Hard Cider – Very sweet, with a long finish. The distinct taste of pears, bathed in a sort of vanilla cream, is especially heavy up front. As the cider fades it leaves behind a fizzy, more vaguely citrus finish. Refreshing, but the sweetness makes it a bit cloying. 

Rekorderlig Premium Strawberry-Lime Hard Cider – Very strawberry soda-like, with a little less sweetness and a bit less fizz than the Pear expression. The strawberry character is candylike, but in a tasteful way. The finish is actually more reminiscent of  real strawberries than candy. Fragrant and fun. B+

Rekorderlig Premium Wild Berries Hard Cider – Predominantly raspberry on the tongue, with more of a club soda-style foaminess that tends to mute the fruit. This is the least sweet but also the least flavorful of the bunch. B-

Recipe: Winter Fire
250ml Rekorderlig Pear
5-6 thin slices of ginger
20ml lime juice
30ml honey water (3 parts honey 1 part hot water) or squeeze tube honey
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Heat it up and serve, keep the ginger floating in the glass.

about $5 per 500ml bottle / rekorderlig.com

Review: El Jimador Tequila Blanco

el Jimador Blanco 89x300 Review: El Jimador Tequila BlancoLooking to boost its presence off the lower tier of tequilas (albeit the still-100% agave ones), venerable El Jimador, the #1 selling 100% agave tequila in Mexico, is revamping its image with a new bottle design. The new look is sleeker and considerably more upscale… but what of the tequila within?

2014-era El Jimador (we tasted only the blanco) is a Lowlands spirit, unaged and named in honor of the jimador, a Mexican agave harvester. There’s modest pepper on the nose, with red chiles, lemon, coconut, and roasted meats. The body is a little all over the place, with notes of chile oil, grilled pineapple, more lemon, and a sultry agave/herbal character on the finish. There’s quite a bit of that funky meat character on the finish, but it’s not overwhelming or pungent.

All told, El Jimador is pleasant enough for journeyman cocktail duty, but the spirit lacks finesse, and the body is decidedly on the thin side. That said, it is fortunate to be lacking the back-of-throat burn so common in cheaper tequilas. So that’s nice.

80 proof.

B- / $22 / eljimador.com

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Organic Winter Schnapps HR 525x742 Tasting the Spirits of Swedens Spirit of Hven

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka – Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

backafallsbyn.se

Review: Liqueurs of Vietnam’s Son Tinh

sonh tinh box 300x224 Review: Liqueurs of Vietnams Son TinhAnd now for something completely different…

Son Tinh is a liqueur producer based in Vietnam. The company makes a wide range of spirits, including a shochu-style liqueur, bitters, and fruit-based liqueurs. At present the company makes 11 products, 6 of which we (miraculously) got to sample, delivered via an awesome, custom-made wooden crate straight from Vietnam!

Here’s a look at the nearly full lineup. Son Tinh’s liqueurs are slowly making their way to stores — the company did win Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2013 — with wholesale pricing of between $9 and $16 per 450ml bottle. Availability is expected in late 2014.

Meanwhile, thoughts follow.

Son Tinh Minh Mang 160x300 Review: Liqueurs of Vietnams Son TinhSon Tinh Nep Phu Loc – A clear sticky rice liqueur similar to shochu. Fragrant, grassy nose. Moderately sweet on the tongue, similar to a western-style vodka, with some marshmallow/nougat notes and a slightly earthy undertone. Simple and quite pleasing, could be used interchangeably with either shochu or vodka as a base spirit in cocktails. 76 proof. A-

Son Tinh Minh Mang –  A light amber herbal liqueur that boasts 19 ingredients, matured from 3 to 5 years before bottling. Intense and immediately pungent, with a nose of bitter roots, dirt, and Thai basil. The body hints at sweetness before delving back into a hefty bitter character, dense with licorice, burnt orange peel, and more tough root character. A bit of a tough slog, even for amaro lovers. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Nhat Da – A dark brown herbal bitters matured from 3 to 5 years, the name means “one night.” Complex nose of coffee grounds, licorice, tar, and burnt lemongrass. The body is overwhelmingly bitter (plus a touch of that unavoidable sour edge), offering intense licorice and absolutely blackened coffee character. Strong and punchy, it never lets up with even a hint of sweetness to even things out. I’d say you’d get used to it, but you won’t. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Chanh Leo – Passion fruit liqueur. Pale gold, some edgy sour fruit notes on the nose. The body is full of sour apple and pear notes, with candied lemons and dried mango character. It’s a bit scattered, falling back on a brewed tea character before a modestly bitter finish takes hold. 54 proof. B-

Son Tinh Mo Vang – Apricot liqueur. Deep amber, with musky perfume on the nose. A taste on the tongue arrives with a rush of sugar… before cascading into an intensely sour experience. The apricot is initially vivid, but leaves an aftertaste of bitter roots and fruit vinegar. 54 proof. B

Son Tinh Tao Meo – Rose apple liqueur, based on the rare fruit of the rose plant. On the nose, a mix of fruit and flowers, as the name would imply. More perfume than fruit, and blessedly dialed back on that sour character. What remains is a somewhat Madeira-like spirit with notes of raspberry and rose petals. 54 proof. B+

sontinh.com

Review: Pasita and Rompope Liqueurs of Puebla, Mexico

rompope santa ines vainilla Review: Pasita and Rompope Liqueurs of Puebla, MexicoA friend of mine is an American expatriate living in Puebla, Mexico, and on a recent trip to the U.S. she brought me a few minis of Puebla’s unofficial liqueurs — Pasita and Rompope — the likes of which we don’t much see in these parts. I told her I’d review them, more for kicks and completionism than because I expect you to run to your nearest importer to try to track down bottles for yourselves. Thoughts follow. (Prices and website links are not available.)

Reljac Licor de Pasita – A very traditional, dark brown raisin-based liqueur. Originally I thought this might be a super-sweet coffee liqueur, but over time the raisin character evolves in the glass. While not particularly alcoholic, it’s incredibly dense, offering cappucino notes that give way to chocolate, licorice, prune, and of course raisin notes. The finish stays with you for, well, forever. In Mexico the liqueur is served with a cube of cheese as a garnish, which once you drink la pasita makes more sense than you’d think. 30 proof. B-

Santa Ines Rompope VainillaRompope is essentially an eggnog, tinted yellow due to the use of copious yolk in the recipe. This vanilla-flavored version of the liqueur is sweet and eggy and authentically mouth-coating, everything you’d want in an eggnog, and that’s coming from a guy who basically hates the stuff. 18 proof. B

Santa Ines Rompope Piñon – This version is flavored with pine nuts and colored Pepto pink. I don’t think the pine nuts add much here, giving the nose a somewhat sweaty, vegetal character to it, and the body is even sweeter, with more of a bubblegum character (though maybe that’s the off-putting color playing tricks on me) than a nutty one. 18 proof. C-

Review: Chicken Cock Flavored Whiskeys

chicken cock whiskey 525x762 Review: Chicken Cock Flavored Whiskeys

Chicken Cock!

I can’t do the origin story justice. Here it is in the distiller’s own words.

Originally established in 1856 in Paris, Kentucky, Chicken Cock quickly became a significant 19th century Bourbon brand. Forced to move production to Canada during Prohibition, Chicken Cock was smuggled across the border in tin cans, where it rose to fame as a popular pour at some of the era’s most famous speakeasies, including the eminent Cotton Club in Harlem. When patrons ordered a “Chicken Cock,” waiters would present the tin can tableside and ceremoniously open it to reveal the bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey inside. With an aluminum package and bold, new flavors, Chicken Cock Whiskey is back to once again bend the rules in the 21st Century.

Returning to its southern roots, Chicken Cock is bottled in Charleston, South Carolina in three different varieties – Chicken Cock Southern Spiced Whiskey, Chicken Cock Cinnamon Whiskey, and Chicken Cock Root Beer Whiskey.  Each is a flavorful blend of all natural ingredients and 86 Proof American Whiskey. A salute to the legendary tin cans, the bottles are made of 100% aluminum to facilitate and retain the optimal temperature for sipping chilled shots or mixing signature cocktails. Whether in a Southern Spiked Tea (Southern Spiced & Sweet Tea), a Root Beer Julep, or a Chicken’s Inferno (Cinnamon & Ginger Beer), Chicken Cock is adding a new dimension of flavor and quality to Southern classics.

These three narrow aluminum cans o’ unspecified, flavored whiskey make quite a statement, with their boasting rooster and that unforgettable name emblazoned at the top. Here’s how they shake out. As noted above, each is bottled at 86 proof.

Chicken Cock Root Beer Flavored Whiskey – The nose is a perfect recreation of root beer, but the body mixes it in with some standard-grade, heavy-wood whiskey… and as you sip on it the whiskey takes over. What starts with a nicely biting, root beer character fades into little more than sawdusty lumberyard notes. It’s not unpleasant, and I expect root beer fans will get a little kick out of this, considering how easy it goes down in the end, although it ultimately has little of substance to say. B-

Chicken Cock Southern Spiced Flavored Whiskey – The spices in question appear to be vanilla and ginger, maybe a touch of cinnamon, giving this a bit of a pumpkin pie spice character to it. Not bad, and it’s more balanced with the whiskey than the root beer version, offering a sweet ‘n’ savoriness that’s pleasant on its own but blends well with mixers. B

Chicken Cock Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey – A quite credible cinnamon whiskey. The spice is present but not overwhelming and mouth-scorching like so many cinnamon-focused spirits. Again, the nose is strong and focused, with the body a looser conflagration of cinnamon spice and moderate wood notes. But here the cinnamon wins out, kicked with a touch of vanilla that complements the spicier notes well. B+

each $20 / chickencockwhiskey.com

Tasting Red Sancerre Wines: La Croix du Roy and Jerome Gueneau

La Croix Du Roy Sancerre Tasting Red Sancerre Wines: La Croix du Roy and Jerome GueneauSancerre is a lovely wine made in the Loire Valley, a crisp white made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc… except when it’s not. They also make red wine in Sancerre, from Pinot Noir grapes, in total comprising about 20% of the region’s production.

Red Sancerre, or “Sancerre Rouge,” is virtually unheard-of in the U.S. due to being overshadowed by the big boys in Burgundy. Though it’s stylistically quite a bit different, Sancerre’s Pinots still hang onto some of that sense of terroir, with occasionally bright fruit showing through.

We tried two currently available bottlings to see what the fuss (or lack of it) was all about. Thoughts follow.

2008 La Croix du Roy Sancerre Rouge – Light color, a somewhat dainty-looking wine. Somewhat herbacious, slight mushroomy nose. The body, though, offers bright, tart cherry and raspberry character, punctuated with notes of tea and licorice root. The finish is quite acidic, washing away some of the big fruit notes. B / $30

2010 Jerome Gueneau Le Clos Chartier Sancerre Rouge – Less well-crafted than the La Croix du Roy, this Sancerre features more pruny, raisin-driven notes, with intense herbal qualities. The wine opens up after a while to reveal more sultry, berry-driven fruit, but the initial texture is thin and the finish somewhat saccharine. B- / $20

Review: Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Cognac Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2013

Coleccion de la Casa Cognac Cask Package2 525x386 Review: Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Cognac Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2013

Herradura expands its nascent Coleccion de la Casa line of specialty cask-finished tequilas with this 2013 release, which is polished off in Cognac barrels.

This release spends 11 months in American oak before being finished for another three months in Cognac casks.

This expression doesn’t reach the heights of 2012’s Port Finished tequila, starting off with a bit of an odd nose that speaks more of lumberyard notes — and a bit of odd hospital character — than it does of either tequila or Cognac. The body is more successful, though it really just comes across as a spicier style of young reposado, offering plenty of pepper and a touch of vanilla and cocoa powder. Alas, it’s the often bruising spiciness and heat that overpowers everything else, particularly any of the sweeter elements that the Cognac finishing might have added. I love tequila and I love Cognac, but here the two are just ships passing in the night.

Improves considerably with aeration in the glass.

80 proof.

B- / $90 / herradura.com

Tasting the Wines of Hardy’s Australia, 2013 Releases

Nottage Hill Pinot Noir Non Vintage 82x300 Tasting the Wines of Hardys Australia, 2013 ReleasesAustralia’s Hardy’s may be a big producer that competes with the “critter wines” of the world, but considering its wines are this affordable, it keeps quality surprisingly high. Here’s a look at five recently released Hardy’s vintages — bottled under both the William Hardy and Nottage Hill label. Thoughts follow.

2011 William Hardy Chardonnay South Australia – On the nose it’s simplistic, with a rather rough, wood-driven nose and some alcoholic vapor character. The body offers some very sweet honey notes, with apricots, lemon-lime, and some mango character on the finish. As it aerates, the sweetness — which is initially almost sickly — mellows out, taking any wood character with it. What’s left is a basic, quite tropical Chardonnay that wears its fruit on its sleeve. B / $20

2011 William Hardy Shiraz South Australia – Surprisingly drinkable, this fresh and fruity wine keeps the sugar dialed back enough to make for an easily sippable potion either solo or at mealtime. The nose is lightly brooding and a touchy meaty, while the body is pure strawberry and raspberry. An approachable midweek sipper. B+ / $15

2012 Hardy’s Nottage Hill Chardonnay South Eastern Australia - Again, alcoholic vapors up front, with a buttery character that veers on movie theater popcorn, but the body offers fresh peaches and pineapple. Quite sweet, it’s got a creamy character to it that complements the tropical notes, almost like a sherbet. This becomes a bit much over time, making this fine for a glass, but somewhat overwhelming for a refill. B / $8

2012 Hardy’s Nottage Hill Pinot Noir South Eastern Australia - A harmless red, somewhat sweet and not immediately characteristic of the grape. Tart raspberries up front, with a kind of coffee and cocoa bean character underneath. Easy, silky finish. B+ / $14

2012 Hardy’s Nottage Hill Shiraz South Eastern Australia - A slight pepper character on the nose is the only thing that tips you off that this is Shiraz, but the overall craftsmanship of this wine shows off a modestly structured wine, ripe with berry fruit and dense with sweetness. The finish brings along some cedar box character, a surprising touch in an otherwise straightforward bottling. B+ / $13

hardyswines.com

Review: Wines of Alto Adige, 2013 Releases

Nals Margreid Galea Schiava 106x300 Review: Wines of Alto Adige, 2013 ReleasesThe Alto Adige region in the far north of Italy (how far north? two-thirds of its inhabitants speak German) is best known for its most famous son: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. But there’s a huge diversity of grape varietals grown in this mountainous area — over 20 of them, despite the fact that its size is a third that of Napa Valley.

Thoughts on three newly released Alto Adige wines — stylistically all over the map — follow.

2011 St. Paul’s Lagrein Alto Adige – A grape that’s vinified virtually nowhere but in Alto Adige, Lagrein can be very complex but is often a somewhat mushroomy, skunky wine  that is quickly forgotten. That’s largely the case here: St. Paul’s 2011 Lagrein has ample green pepper on the nose, with a muddy, tar-laden, and slightly prune-driven body. Gamy finish. C- / $25

2011 Nals Margreid Galea Schiava Alto Adige – Another odd grape, Schiava is indiginous to Italy and Germany. Very light and clear in color, this wine is simple but full of strawberry notes. The wine develops some mushroom notes on the nose as it aerates, but the body remains brisk and tart. The overall effect is unusual, but the wine remains fresh and easy to enjoy. B+ / $20

2012 Tiefenbrunner Gewurztraminer Alto Adige – A slightly tough number, this perfumy wine offers a bit of astringency on the nose, and some rubbing alcohol character as you sip on it. Fortunately, some Viognier-like fruit — peaches and apricots — balance things out, but the fruit character fades over time as its left to its own devices in the glass. B- / $17