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 / paulmassonbrandy.com

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

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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

impexbev.com

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

svedka.com

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

francisfordcoppolawinery.com

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

milagrotequila.com

Review: Oak by Absolut

absolut oak by absolutTo quote Tom Cruise in Risky Business, sometimes you gotta say, What the fuck?

How big is whiskey? So big that the vodka guys are trying to muscle in on the business.

Oak by Absolut is Absolut vodka rested in oak barrels. Or, more accurately, it is “oak infused vodka, vodka, [and] vodka rested in barrels,” per the label. What any of that means I don’t really know. The mechanics of the oak infusion aren’t disclosed, nor is any information about the type of barrels or the length of time the vodka spends in them. Was the vodka rested at distillation proof or at Absolut’s standard 80 proof? I just don’t know.

The end product looks and tastes exactly as you think it will. As dark as any whiskey (well, almost any whiskey), it certainly looks the part. On the nose it’s tough to parse — notes of vanilla are at the forefront, then cinnamon, raspberry, root beer soda, and marshmallows. It doesn’t really smell like whiskey… but it doesn’t smell like anything else either. A very young brandy? Some kind of flavored Irish whiskey? It’s a chameleon.

The palate pushes on with abandon — sweet vanilla custard, a modest lashing of lumber, and some cherry notes hit first. The main event is a distinct A&W Root Beer character — not a dense amaro bitterness, but a highly sweetened version of the stuff that leaves a hint of rootiness behind for the finish. Here things slowly fade away, offering some notes of prune juice and brown sugar amidst the lingering root beer character.

What’s surprising about Oak by Absolut — besides the fact that it exists at all — is how harmless it is. Those expecting a rank lumber bomb — which often happens if you put rack vodka in a wood barrel — won’t find it here. Whatever Absolut has done to doctor this oddity — and that must be significant — it’s been able to avoid turning it into the disgusting monster you were expecting it to be. At the same time, there’s really no reason, absolutely no reason at all, for it to exist. No whiskey fan in their right mind would pick this even over a $12 bottle of bourbon, and no vodka drinker would ever set foot near it. So why does this exist? As a gateway to whiskey (which Absolut doesn’t make)? Someone lost a bet? You got me.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch B-14.01 (or B-19.01… bad handwriting).

B- / $25 / absolut.com

Review: Voli Vodka

voli vodkaMade in Cognac, France, this vodka is crafted from French wheat, 5x distilled, blended with local water, and endorsed by Pitbull.

Voli (aka Voli Black) has a hyper-modern profile from start to finish. On the nose, it offers substantial sweetness, with caramel notes and a bit of citrus. The body is as sweet as you would expect, offering overtones of marshmallow, sweetened coconut, and vanilla. There’s none of the citrus hinted at from the nose on the palate, but the finish wraps things up with some baking spice and more brown sugar.

Did I mention the sweetness? Just checking.

80 proof.

B- / $20 / volivodka.com

Review: The Traveler Beer Co. Seasonal Shandies

illusive traveler grapefruit aleThree crafty shandies from Burlington, Vermont-based Traveler Beer Co., each using a wheat ale for a base and with a variety of fruity/sweet additives for spin. Each is fairly low alcohol and, of course, a bit different than your typical suds.

Thoughts follow.

The Traveler Beer Co. Curious Traveler Lemon Shandy – Slightly sweet, with juicy lemonade notes up front. The beer itself is rather innocuous, just a hint of malt and caramel, but it does pair fairly well with the citrus, at least at the start. 4.4% abv. B-

The Traveler Beer Co. Illusive Traveler Grapefruit Shandy – Considerably more bitter/sour than the lemon shandy, this bottling provides a somewhat muddy attack, but it does offer a better balance of fruit and malt. The finish is quite bitter, playing off both the grapefruit and the wheat ale elements. While the lemon shandy becomes a bit overwhelming, this one tends to grow on you. 4.4% abv. B

The Traveler Beer Co. Jack-o Traveler Pumpkin Shandy – Take your gingerbread/pumpkin spice latte and dunk it into your hefeweizen and you’ve got this concoction, which is better than you think it will be but not much. Quite sweet and overwhelming with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, this is a true seasonal in every sense of the word. 4.4% abv. C-

each $7 per six-pack / travelerbeer.com

Review: Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita – Key Lime and Strawberry

Sandra Lee is a celebrity chef (my wife knew who she was anyway) who’s branching out of cookbooks and into… margies!

These ready-to-drink margarita cocktails are targeted at the higher shelf consumer, as they’re made with real fruit, cane sugar, and “premium blue agave tequila and triple sec liqueur”? I’m not entirely sure if that means the tequila is 100% agave, but let’s assume maybe.

Two flavors exist — lime and strawberry — and we tried them both. Either way, you can’t argue with the price. At less than $3 a serving, it’s hard not to consider packing one of these for your next beach outing.

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Key Lime – A classic margarita. Not at all bad, a completely credible margarita, featuring moderate sweetness (not too sweet), tart lime (not too tart), and a touch of bite (though it could use quite a bit more). At 13% alcohol, this is a pretty tame margarita, but an extra ounce of your favorite silver tequila should bring it completely up to snuff. Straight from the bottle, however, it’s perfectly acceptable for an afternoon poolside. Once of the better margaritas-in-a-bottle out there. B+

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Strawberry – Naturally, this is the strawberry margarita version. Very, very fruity, first on the nose, then on the palate. Lots and lots of sweetness here dulls the rest of the cocktail with its melted Jolly Rancher character, and again an extra shot of blanco offers an improvement. Probably better as a frozen drink (though I didn’t try it that way). B-

each $16 per 750ml bottle / cocktailtime.com