Category Archives: Rated B-

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

Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish Head

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?” – Cicero

Thankfully, there are modern day custodians of history keeping the past alive and well, presenting long-silenced voices in time and framing the act of rediscovery as an innovative art. Such is the case with magazines like Lapham’s Quarterly, podcasts like Hard Core History, and Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series.

Working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Director of Biomolecular Archaeology for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health Dr. Patrick McGovern, Dogfish CEO Sam Calagione revives long lost recipes and brings to light traditional beermaking methods that folks in the United States would consider highly exotic (you can see their discovery and process in action on their reality show Brewmasters, now streaming on Netflix). More often than not though, the efforts pay off.

jiahu Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish HeadChateau Jiahu – A variation on the world’s oldest fermented beverage recipe, this is an incredibly sweet beer made with hawthorn fruit, sake, barley, rice and honey. The majority of these ingredients are more than evident throughout the experience. Took a bit to get used to, but once invested, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 10% abv. A- / $12 (25.4 oz.)

Midas Touch – “Indiana Calagione” and Dr. McGovern found the molecular evidence of this recipe in a Turkish tomb that was allegedly the property of one King Midas. Incredibly sweet, and as the story goes it’s actually somewhere on the scale between a wine and mead. I’m inclined to believe it. Leaves a bit of a dry finish with a few faint herb notes. 9% abv. B / $12 (12 oz. four-pack)

theobroma Review: The Ancient Ales of Dogfish HeadTheobroma – Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Taking its recipe cues from a chemical analysis of Honduran pottery over 3,000 years old (it feels kind of ridiculous just typing that), this is a chocolate beer recipe filled to the brim with cocoa, a bit of bitter honey, and a bit of chili spice on the back end. The deceptive light coloring (you’d think a chocolate beer would be a bit darker) teases and lets the chili and cocoa do their dance. Excellent stuff! 9% abv. A / $12 (25.4 oz)

Ta Henket – Bread bread and bread… which makes perfect sense because this recipe comes from Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The yeast stands out with traces of the chamomile and other herbs listed as secondary ingredients. Probably my least favorite of the bunch, but being the weak link in this chain could be the strongest on any other lineup. 4.5% abv. B- / $11 (25.4 oz)

The company also offers a variety of special brewpub only editions, including one involving a whole mess of human-masticated corn and saliva. Hopefully these other experiments will see mass production shortly, but given the time and effort it takes to make them happen, it may just require a visit to Delaware instead.

Dogfish Head has a tendency to sometimes enter the realm of the comically absurd. In keeping with the spirit of the company’s mantra, that’s a risk that unconventional brewing must take in order to stay innovative and interesting. For this series it’s an investment that pays off handsomely and provides an enjoyable education into the complexity of beer history for those willing to pay the cost of admission.

dogfish.com

Review: Samuel Adams Utopias (2013 Release)

sam adams utopias 2013 525x525 Review: Samuel Adams Utopias (2013 Release)

Sam Adams continues its annual release of Utopias, a barrel-aged, mega-alcohol, highly expensive brew that stands as one of America’s longest-running “extreme beers” (and which is made without the freeze-and-skim technique that most other high-booze beermakers rely on.

For 2013, Utopias has been “blended with Samuel Adams Kosmic Mother Funk (KMF), a Belgian-style ale barrel-aged for at least nine months (and up to two years) in Hungarian oak tuns,” per the company. This is a big shift for Utopias, and one which is supposed to bring a whole new dimension to the mega-beer. The beer is partly aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, and partly aged in ex-Port casks. It borrows a bit from prior releases, as well as pulling off some new tricks.

Utopias 2013 immediately offers a sweet, maple syrup nose when it’s poured, but this quickly fades, revealing a more brooding, savory character beneath. After a few minutes in a snifter, Utopias 2013 gives off aromas of chestnuts, coffee grounds, and very dark chocolate. The lattermost of these is most prominent in the body, which features a pruny, stewed-fruit character that is much deeper, and more bittersweet than prior versions of this beer. The nose is more Port-like, but the body is all leather and bitter spice, turning almost astringent at times. I do like the added complexity, but the whole affair ultimately starts to fall out of balance, particularly on the mouth-puckering finish.

28% abv. 15,000 bottles made. Also can be paired with a special Utopias-seasoned cigar (which I didn’t review), purportedly the first craft beer-infused cigar ever made ($13).

B- / $199 / samueladams.com

Tasting the Wines of Emiliana’s Coyam

Chile’s Emiliana produces wines under a number of labels, but few are as popular as Coyam, an organic and biodynamic wine that’s blended from up to six indigenous grapes.

The neat thing about Coyam is that the blend varies — sometimes wildly — from year to year, and resident winemaker Noelia Orts recently traveled to San Francisco to explain how the wine was made and, intriguingly, to showcase the six component varietal wines in their primitive, barrel-sample form. The idea: Taste how these very different wines, when sampled separately, combine to form a unique whole.

Tasting the 2013 barrel samples was eye-opening. The syrah was far from finished, dense and undercooked, while the carmenere offered good acidity. I was most taken by the mourvedre, which had impressive balance and fruit already. While we didn’t get to start blending the wines directly — what a mess that would have been at a restaurant — the experience did aid in the understanding of how complicated blends are made.

Over lunch at San Francisco’s Hakkasan, we turned to tasting the finished wines, a range of vintages dating back to 2001. (Also sampled in brief was Emiliana’s Ge, one of the most prized “cult” wines of Chile.) Thoughts on those finished wines follow.

2001 Coyam – 36% merlot, 21% carmenere, 21% cabernet sauvignon, 18% syrah, 4% mourvedre. Aging but still lively, lots of wood, quite tannic on the finish. B+ / $NA

2007 Coyam – 38% syrah, 21% cabernet sauvignon, 21% carmenere, 17% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% mourvedre. A big Chilean vintage, some floral elements, with a bit of licorice on the back end. Complex, somewhat Burgundian in style, with a nutty finish. B+ / $45

2009 Coyam – 41% syrah, 29% carmenere, 20% merlot, 7% cabernet sauvignon, 2% mourvedre, 1% petit verdot. Fresh, some mint, with big berry notes and a rush of wood. Slightly huskier than the 2010. A- / $30

2010 Coyam – 38% syrah, 27% carmenere, 21% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 1% mourvedre, 1% petit verdot. Some jam, growing in balance as it evolves. Fresh fruit, with blackberry and spice. A- / $30

2012 Coyam (barrel sample) – 46% syrah, 21% carmenere, 16% cabernet sauvignon, 5% mourvedre, 2% mablec. Quite a different recipe, with no merlot. A bit muddy as it develops, somewhat pruny, with leather notes. B- / $TBD

2010 Ge – 48% carmenere, 38% syrah, 14% cabernet sauvignon. Revelatory. Chocolate, licorice, and incredible depth, featuring touches of almonds and cinnamon. I could drink this all day. A+ / $75

emiliana.cl

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Review: New Amsterdam Citron and Coconut Vodkas

New Amsterdam Coconut 750ml 89x300 Review: New Amsterdam Citron and Coconut VodkasI can’t explain why our review of New Amsterdam Gin is one of the most popular pages on the site, but the Modesto-based company has continued expanding its spirit lineup, first with a straight vodka, and now with a few flavors. New Amsterdam now has four flavors available, with Citron (citrus) and Coconut the most recent arrivals. As always, tasting notes follow. Both are 70 proof.

New Amsterdam Citron Citrus Flavored Vodka – Alcoholic notes prevail on the nose, its grain neutral spirit base dominating. Lemon peel makes for a modest secondary character in the aroma. The body is on the thin side, with simple lemon peel and a touch of orange oil flavoring a relatively raw and simple spirit base. There’s really just not enough flavor here, particularly given the uninspired character of the base spirit: The finish is largely medicinal, not well balanced, and quickly forgotten. C+ / $13

New Amsterdam Coconut Flavored Vodka – Very tropical on the nose, almost more pineapple than coconut, with no real hint of vodka. The body’s much bigger on the coconut front, with that telltale harshness making an appearance right in the middle. The finish turns bitter, almost rubbery at times. If you’re out of Malibu, I suppose this would work in a pinch in a faux Pina Colada… but I’d get to the store the next day. B- / $13

newamsterdamspirits.com

Review: 2012 Wines of Portugal’s Monte Velho

MV Red 2012 173x300 Review: 2012 Wines of Portugals Monte VelhoThis brand, from Portugal’s Esporao is now 40 years old. With a focus on ultra-cheap blends both red and white, Monte Velho’s packaging has been redesigned with a focus on environmentalism (the bottles are amazingly lightweight, at least when empty), while keeping costs to a bare minimum.

That said, quality remains uninspiring. Thoughts on the 2012 bottlings follow.

2012 Esporao Monte Velho Alentejano White – A white blend of 40% antao vaz, 40% roupeiro, and 20% perrum grapes. Exotic, honey-laden nose. The first notes on the palate are tropical, but things are less enticing later, followed by notes of cedar wood, canned peaches, and twine fiber. Somewhat astringent on the finish. C- / $10

2012 Esporao Monte Velho Alentejano Red –  A red blend of 40% aragonez, 35% trincadeira, 20% touriga nacional, and 5% syrah. A little dusty, surprisingly dry. The nose has a bit of barnyard on it, and some prunes. The body is more of the mushroom/leather variety, with a finish that offers modest currant character. B- / $10

esporao.com

Review: Ivanabitch Vodka Complete Lineup

ivanabitch 62x300 Review: Ivanabitch Vodka Complete LineupMade in the Netherlands, the Ivanabitch people have gone out of their way — way out of their way — to simultaneously give Ivanabitch an Old World back story (it involves a “half-mad” Russian in the 1600s named Dmitri Ivanabitch) and a hip/fresh look with a modern (or at least ’80s) bottle design and a name, well, that has “bitch” in it. (It’s tough to believe, but some people actually think this mad Russian story is true.)

This “vodka with attitude,” as the slogan goes, is made from an unspecified mash, distilled five times, and charcoal filtered. The straight vodka is 80 proof. The flavored versions are 70 proof each. Thoughts follow.

Ivanabitch Vodka – Instant sugar rush on the nose. Sweet on the palate, too, with notes of caramels and butterscotch. Simple and uncomplicated, and, er, did I mention how sweet it is? I’m not sure I’d call this vodka with “attitude,” but I guess “vodka with sugar” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. An easy mixer. Skip it straight. B

Ivanabitch Cherry Vodka – Surprisingly easy and straight-up with a cherry candy nose and body. Almost a cherry cola kick to it, with some hints of strawberry. Not at all bad, this would be a decent mixer in any number of beach-tinis. Alt Singapore Sling, maybe? B+

Ivanabitch Blackberry Vodka – Harsh on the nose, medicinal. The body is vague and indistinct. Blackberry? Blueberry? Tastes more like a mixed cobbler dipped in rubbing alcohol. The finish finally brings along some blackberry character, but it’s a long time coming. C

Ivanabitch Dutch Apple Vodka – Apple Jolly Ranchers on the nose. Sweet and sour and easily identifiable. The body’s tailor-made for classic(?) Appletinis, but surprisingly it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, featuring a touch of Granny Smith tang to balance things out. I’d drink it. B+

Ivanabitch Coconut Vodka – Unlike the rest of the vodkas in the lineup, this one is slightly tinged a pale yellow. Smells like Malibu, sweet and coconutty and might-as-well-be-on-the-beach. Very sweet, which masks any sense of alcohol. But the coconut character is solid, infused with just a hint of peanut character. Not bad, but I’d rather have rum. B

Ivanabitch Peach Vodka – Bigger peach notes on the body than the nose, but both are reasonably authentic, though more in the vein of canned peaches in syrup than a fresh peach. SoCo fans will probably find this to their liking, but it’s one of those flavors where I struggle to figure out how to use it. B-

Ivanabitch Lemmon Vodka – A complicated story on the back of the bottle references “Lemmon Island,” which does not exist. What does exist: Sugar! There’s plenty of that here, along with intense lemon oil/lemon custard notes, with a long, sweet finish. Lemon drops, anyone? Just add ice, I guess. B

Ivanabitch Red Berry Vodka – Much like the Blackberry vodka, this one has less sweetness and more vaguery — though the strawberry and chocolate notes here are a little more easygoing. The finish heads into strawberry shortcake character, as that familiar sweetness comes on more strongly in the end. Harmless. B

Ivanabitch Orange Vodka – Not triple sec, but you’d never know it from the taste. Hefty Valencia oranges on the nose and palate, with a lightly bittersweet orange peel character on the finish. Surprisingly light and easygoing, it’s a quick Cosmo shortcut if you’re out of orange liqueur. B+

Ivanabitch Vanilla Vodka – Also translucent, a slightly darker brown than the Coconut flavor. Overwhelming birthday cake on the nose, a powerhouse that punches you in the gut on the palate. And yet, it manages to turn bitter on the finish. A weak entry. C-

Ivanabitch Tobacco Vodka – Already much maligned as “the end of flavored vodkas,” I figure if “Electricity Flavored Vodka” can exist, why not Tobacco? (Note: there’s no tobacco or nicotine in the vodka.) This is funky stuff. The nose is of fresh leaves, not burning ones or smoking cigarettes. The body, however, is something altogether different. Sort of vanilla, sort of cinnamon, very very sweet, and overwhelmingly off-putting with a funky, sweaty, indescribable finish. By the nose I thought I was in for a unique, even passable, treat. You don’t need to sip it for long to realize that’s not the case. D

Ivanabitch Menthol Tobacco Vodka – Of course there’s a menthol version! The nose is familiar, not terrible distinctive vs. the standard Tobacco version. It is, perhaps, even more powerful though. The body isn’t quite as bad. The addition of mint to the cauldron of flavors here improves things a bit, though that isn’t saying much. After the vanilla and Sweet-N-Low portion of the spirit wears off, you’re left with a vague peppermint character on the back of the throat. It’s hard to shake. In a bad way, I mean. D+

ivanabitch.com

Review: Martell Caractere Cognac

martell charactere 206x300 Review: Martell Caractere CognacMartell recently launched this Cognac, a simple blend of brandies (in an admittedly snazzy bottle), with no age indication at all. In other words: This is entry-level Cognac, so let’s see how it tastes.

On first blush it’s a clearly young spirit, somewhat brash on the nose, but tempered with notes of incense and, curiously, sawdust. On the body, there’s plenty of heat, along with some more raw grapeseed notes. Again, secondary notes save the day from driving Caractere into forgetability. Prune/raisin, some orange oil, and chewy caramel provide interest, although there’s no real sense of balance or cohesion in the end. Ultimately this would work for a mixing brandy (Martell’s cocktail ideas including mixing it into a blend of pineapple juice and cola), but it just doesn’t have the austerity for drinking straight.

80 proof. Exclusively available in California.

B- / $35 / martell.com

Review: Douro Wines of Quinta de Roriz

post scriptum 50x300 Review: Douro Wines of Quinta de RorizSymington is one of Portugal’s premiere Port bottlers, but recently the company has been expanding into non-fortified wines from Portugal’s Douro region, many of which are made using the same grapes you’ll find in Port, thanks to a partnership with the Prats family which is a big name in Bordeaux.

These wines, made under the Prats + Symington banner, have been produced for many years, but are finally working their way to our shores. How do they measure up? Well, they aren’t Port, but they aren’t bad, either…

2010 Quinta de Roriz Prazo de Roriz Douro DOC  – A blend of at least six different Portuguese grapes, the most prevalent being Tinta Barroca at 37%. Lightly peppery and vaguely smoky nose, with some balsamic notes. On the body, mild and quite simple, dark berries, plus a touch of tar and chocolate. That black pepper on the nose makes a return on the finish, but just barely. Easy to drink and a little mysterious. B+ / $16

2011 Quinta de Roriz Post Scriptum Douro DOC – A blend of four grapes, Touriga Nacional making up 56%. Despite the playful tea character on the nose, this is a  heavy wine with dark prune and a strong, salt licorice character. Long finish. Definitively a food wine, and one that can stand some time in bottle. B- / $25

chryseia.com

Review: Blue Flame Spirits Washington Rye and Wheat Whiskeys

blue flame washington rye 525x916 Review: Blue Flame Spirits Washington Rye and Wheat Whiskeys

Blue Flame is a craft distillery based in Prosser, Washington. The company focuses on hyper-local distilling: Both of these products are made from ingredients sourced from within 45 miles of the distillery, including grain from the distillery’s own farm and the barrels (made from local wood and custom designed by distillery owner Brian Morton) in which they’re aged. We’ll talk more about what’s in the bottle in the two reviews below. Both spirits are 80 proof, no age statements offered.

Blue Flame Spirits Washington Wheat Whiskey - 100% local wheat — a rare mashbill in today’s world. Initially young and brash, this youthful endeavor starts off without revealing many of its charms. Heavy granary notes start the show, clean but full of cereal character. Over time, the whiskey builds to offer restrained notes of banana, butterscotch, and caramel. Light toasted almond notes atop the cereal-driven body can be found on the finish. A curiosity. B- / $36

Blue Flame Spirits Washington Rye Whiskey – 100% local rye (rare, but not quite as rare as the 100% wheat). This rye is sweeter than the wheat, with a more interesting collection of flavors to explore on the whole. As with the wheat, the rye starts with young cereal notes, but here they quickly build and evolve into a new direction. A light smokiness on the nose offers a touch of nuance for the nostrils. The body features toasted marshmallow, hazelnut, and some light chocolate, all atop a more racy grain underpinning. The finish brings all of this together into a rough sort of dessert with a surprisingly enjoyable and easy-drinking balance. B+ / $33

blueflamespirits.com

Review: 4 Imported Sakes from SakeOne

WinterWarriorKO 91x300 Review: 4 Imported Sakes from SakeOneOregon-based SakeOne is America’s largest producer of sake, and it’s one of its biggest importers of Japanese sakes, too. Recently the company added two new imported sakes to its lineup. We tasted them both (plus two previously available expressions), and have some opinions to share.

Here are thoughts on the four new products, which should all have fairly broad, national distribution.

Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry Sake – A dry style, with fresh melon and light almond notes on the nose. Some earthiness adds curiosity (particularly on the nose), but the fruit is solid, with a big cantelope finish. Refreshing and easy to drink, with plenty to explore. B / $30

SakeMoto Junmai Sake – A bit more rustic, with some bite on the back end that you don’t get in more refined sakes. Still, at this price you’re getting a surprising level of quality: mushroom layered with melon and some floral notes, with a fresh, honeydew-infused finish. B- / $11

Murai Family Nigori Genshu Sake – Undiluted (genshu) sake bottled at 19.9% alcohol. Unfiltered also, which makes it creamy and cloudy, an increasingly popular style. Big nose, bigger body. Melon meets roasted nuts, with a palate that features tapioca, sweet mango, and cotton candy. Easy to love. B+ / $25

Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior (pictured) – Nigata (snow based) style sake, this sake has perhaps the most fruit of the bunch, as well as the best balance. Tropical notes with melon, lightly floral aromatics, and a lightly oily body that is still refreshing and clean, this is my favorite sipper of the lineup. A- / $27

sakeone.com

Review: Wines of Menage a Trois, 2013 Releases

folie a deux 82x300 Review: Wines of Menage a Trois, 2013 ReleasesMenage a Trois is a second, low-cost label produced by Napa-based Folie a Deux. These aren’t the world’s most challenging bottlings, but they’re by and large good enough for everyday drinking. Here’s how the current batch of releases measure up.

2012 Menage a Trois Sauvignon Blanc California – Unsurprising Sauv Blanc. Huge grapefruit and pepe du chat notes on the nose, more citrus on the palate, sour lemon, and a touch of green pepper. Highly acidic on a light body. Very simple and in some ways refreshing with the right kind of food, though hardly a showstopper. B-

2011 Menage a Trois Pinot Gris California – Quite sweet, surprisingly so for this style of wine. Pineapple and mango on the front give the impression of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with candied/canned peaches coming up behind. A simple wine, as expected, but dialed a bit too far forward with the sweetness. B

2011 Menage a Trois Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast California – A simple wine, with notes of menthol and green pepper on the nose. Medium body, with understated notes of plum and cassis jam, blueberries, and spice. Short finish fades quickly. B

2011 Menage a Trois Merlot California – Menthol-driven berries, raspberry primarily. Notes of black tea and licorice add a little complexity, but overall this is a sweet little number driven by almost over-ripe fruit than its other elements. B

2011 Menage a Trois Malbec Mendoza Argentina - A plummy, slightly jammy Malbec, missing the intensity, earth, and black pepper that characterizes the bolder blends. This drinks rather easy, almost like Merlot or a milder Syrah, though the green pepper finish keeps things interesting without becoming bitter (well, almost). B

each $11 to $12 / menageatroiswines.com

Review: TOPO Vodka, Gin, and Carolina Whiskey

topo piedmont gin 208x300 Review: TOPO Vodka, Gin, and Carolina WhiskeyTop of the Hill Distillery, affectionately “TOPO,” promises its spirits are “100 miles from grain to glass.” That’d be more comforting if I was closer to North Carolina, where TOPO is based. Good luck finding these farther afield. Fortunately, I was able to sample the full lineup of three unaged spirits from way out here in California. Thoughts on these organic spirits follow.

TOPO Vodka – Made from organic Carolina wheat. Whew, pungent on the nose, redolent of a typical white whiskey, with lots of grain aromas filling the nostrils. On the tongue, it belies that funky nose with a brisk sweetness, almost marshmallow-like in character, with a pungent medicinal character underneath. Kind of a strange combination. There’s a lot going on here, and those that like their vodka on the more rustic side will find plenty to enjoy. On the other hand, if you’re looking for balance and refinement, TOPO’s definitely got some growing up to do. 80 proof. B- / $29

TOPO Piedmont Gin – Also an organic wheat spirit. Piedmont, I’m guessing, refers not to Italy but to a big swath of area that runs along the eastern seaboard and crosses straight through central North Carolina. (Now you know!) But whatever the nomenclature, it’s an American style gin flavored with ample juniper, cardamom, coriander, star anise, and organic cucumber. On the nose there’s ample juniper, so much so that you might think TOPO Gin is going to be a one-trick pony. Take a sip and you’re in for a surprise: The juniper fades. Sweet licorice notes, floral snippets, and hints of orange peel arise in its wake. What’s most surprising is the kind of candied flower finish. Either that, or that my tasting notes bear no resemblance to those of TOPO’s. 92 proof. A- / $29

TOPO Carolina Whiskey – Like the above, this is young whiskey based on organic Carolina wheat. It has a lot in common with the vodka, too, as you might expect. It is, however, considerably more pungent (distilled fewer times and likely more pot-distilled spirit than in the vodka, I’d guess), full of deep grain and traditional fuel-driven notes on the nose. The body is of greater interest, loaded with chewy sweetness, plus plenty of cereal notes. The effect is not unlike a good granola bar, breakfast and dessert all in one package. It’s not overblown, but surprisingly well balanced among its various characteristics. As white whiskeys go — which is often a Bad News Bears situation — it’s one of the better ones around. 84 proof. B+ / $22

topodistillery.com

Review: Chinaco Tequila

AD Chinaco blanco 215x300 Review: Chinaco TequilaAn oddity in the tequila world, Chinaco — one of the first, if not the very first, 100% agave tequila released in the U.S. — is produced not in Jalisco (where the vast majority of tequila hails from) but in Tamaulipas, a state to the east which borders on the gulf of Mexico. This terroir gives Chinaco a considerably different character than most Jalisco tequilas — in fact, it is the only licensed distillery in Tamaulipas altogether.

Everything in Tamaulipas is a little different. The soil is a mix of types, quite different from the clay you will find in Jalisco, and the distillery’s location, less than 50 miles from the Ocean, offers uniqueness, too. Even the agave growing elevation — ranging from 500 to 5000 feet — spans what would be considered both highland and lowland growing areas in Jalisco. Agave used in Chinaco is all organic.

So, how does Chinaco taste? Thoughts follow.

All expressions are 80 proof.

Chinaco Blanco Tequila – Huge vegetation on the nose, pure agave through and through. The body is funky and tough, a push through the weeds and swamp water to a finish of tobacco, tar, and earthy tree roots. Touches of lemongrass and juniper add complexity, but ground it firmly as one of the more unique blanco tequila experiences. B- / $41

Chinaco Reposado Tequila – Aged for 11 months in white oak barrels not from Bourbon country but from France and England, some former Scotch casks. Still has loads of agave on the nose, but it is mercifully tempered by sweet vanilla notes from its time in barrel. The reposado’s got spice, fire, and burnt sugar notes, but it’s the racy agave — still earthy and prickly — that commands your attention. The peppery finish is long and complex. Altogether a solid and quite interesting reposado that keeps the sweetness at an appropriate level. A- / $48

Chinaco Anejo Tequila – Aged for 30 months in the same barrels as the reposado, plus some bourbon barrels, as well. Heady with alcohol notes, this anejo is again a racy and peppery spirit, only with an extra level of sweetness atop it. Clear wood character takes hold on this tequila, which is somewhat at odds with the butterscotch-meets-peppered-bacon character that lies beneath. I like the increased vanilla and creme brulee notes in the body here, but the deep wood character — rough and dusty at times — doesn’t play well with the other notes in the spirit, throwing it a bit out of balance. B+ / $59

chinacotequila.com

Review: Mama Walker’s “Breakfast” Liqueurs

Mama Walker Group 237x300 Review: Mama Walkers Breakfast LiqueursBreakfast at the real Mama Walker’s house (presuming there is one), must have been quite an affair. Donuts, blueberry pancakes, bacon… all that’s missing is the scrambled eggs and OJ.

Presumably a scrambled egg liqueur is forthcoming from this brand, which exists exclusively to sell these “breakfast” themed liqueurs. At 70 proof, I’m not sure what makes them liqueurs vs. flavored vodkas, but that’s what’s on the label. Make your own call. You can surely use them interchangeably.

As for what’s inside, well, you’re in for something unique, to say the least. When we received our sample box, one of the bottles inside had broken and completely leaked out. The smell lingered in the house for days.

Thoughts follow.

Mama Walker’s Glazed Donut Liqueur – The nose is more like cotton candy or burnt marshmallows than donuts. I’ve smelled this before in Smirnoff’s Iced Cake vodka. They are probably spiked with the same stuff. This liqueur adds a maple syrup kick and more vanilla. The finish is ultra-sweet but also hard-edged, with a sharp, alcoholic kick. C-

Mama Walker’s Blueberry Pancake Liqueur – Extremely pungent, with a nose that is more blueberry muffin than blueberry pancake. It smells just like the muffins my mother used to make out of the Betty Crocker box, the one with the little tin of canned blueberries in it. (Do they still sell that?) Drinking this is like alcoholic nostalgia, filled with all the pros and cons that could come with a boozed-up version of your youth. My head’s spinning, but the taste — much like the nose; big, canned blueberries, bread, and a lingering, maple syrup (again) finish — isn’t half bad. B-

Mama Walker’s Maple Bacon Liqueur – Bacon flavor is always dicey in spirits, but here it kinda works. I guess the secret is to add plenty of sugary syrup to it. The bacon is (mercifully) understated next to the syrup, which Mama Walker must go through by the tanker load considering how prevalent it is in all of its products. Still, the bacon notes are distinctly there, a smoky/meaty character that has no real equal in the food world and which translates embarrassingly well to this spirit. I have zero idea how I’d use this in day to day cocktailcrafting (maple bacon margaritas, anyone?), but I’m curious to try. B

(There are recipes on the Mama Walker’s website (see below) for all of these. Tread at your own risk.)

each $13 / mamawalker.com

Review: Hornitos Lime Shot Tequila

I was surprisehornitos lime shot 165x300 Review: Hornitos Lime Shot Tequilad to see Hornitos — one of the most respected names in mainstream tequila — releasing a flavored product like this, clearly aimed at the party-crowd shot market. At the same time, I was intrigued. If anyone was going to do a good job with a “lime shot” tequila, it ought to be Hornitos.

The tequila, a very pale green/gold in color, doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation. It’s a 100% agave tequila, kicked with a touch of natural lime flavor. (The website says there’s salt added too, completing the trifecta.)

The nose offers quite a bit of lime, with a modest agave underpinning. More Meyer lemon than lime, at first blush, but close enough. The agave notes build over time as you let it settle in the glass, the overall effect becoming more “tequila-like.”

The body offers more of the above, but with more sweetness than sourness in the mix. Lime is abundant, something like a lime candy, but I don’t get any salt. What I also don’t get: Much tequila. What’s there is mild, a simple plata with just a touch of vanilla to give the sugary character some interest. Other than that, you won’t be able to pick out much more given all the lime flavoring.

If the idea was to recreate a bar shot, where you really don’t taste anything but lime juice, mission accomplished. But honestly, I’m still scratching my head just trying to figure out what the point of this is. Are limes that hard to cut up?

70 proof.

B- / $18 / hornitostequila.com

Review: Mina Real Mezcal Silver

mezcal mina real bot high 141x300 Review: Mina Real Mezcal SilverOaxaca-based Mina Real is 100% agave mezcal that is made with a hybrid modern and historical technique. Per the company: it is “made from agave that has been steam-roasted in low pressure brick kilns in order to highlight the plants’ bright highland flavor and floral bouquet without the layers of smoke traditionally found with wood-roasted mezcal agave.”

And yet Mina Real is still smoky. The nose offers an aroma of barbeque pits, sweetened up with a touch of honey. On the tongue, this sweetness is even stronger than you’d expect, with a mouth-coating viscosity that layers your tongue and throat with jammy liquid. It’s got a deep flavor of blood oranges, strawberries, and some green pepper/green bean notes — all laced with lightly smoky touches. I’m not sure it comes together the way the distillery may have hoped, but it’s definitely a mezcal for newcomers who aren’t thrilled by smoke to try — though that uncharacteristic sugariness may be ultimately misleading.

A reposado bottling (pictured) also exists, but we have not seen it for review.

84 proof.

B- / $30 / haas-brothers.com

Review: Dry Sodas

DRY Soda 5 can lockup 300x185 Review: Dry SodasDry Soda is a company making a business out of soda with no high fructose corn syrup, less sweetness, lower carbonation, and an overall healthier approach to drinking the stuff. Its products all famously have just four ingredients — water sugar, natural flavors, and phosphoric acid. A 12 oz. can typically hits between 45 and 65 calories. Nine versions are available. We tasted five for review.

All take a little getting used to, but damn if you don’t feel like a better person for drinking on instead of popping open a Mountain Dew.

Thoughts follow.

Dry Vanilla Bean Soda – Mild, not really flavorful enough. Vanilla tastes authentic, but there’s just not enough of it. The overall impact is a slight cream soda character, though not nearly as mouth-filling. B-

Dry Blood Orange Soda – There’s enough fruit flavor here to give it a little more oomph over the comparably dulled Vanilla Bean Soda. It comes off a bit like an upscale orange crush that’s been left with ice to melt, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. B

Dry Apple Soda – A success. Solid apple on the nose and on the palate. Good carbonation level, which balances the apple, offering just a touch of vanilla on the back end. B+

Dry Ginger Soda – My favorite, a simpler spin on ginger ale, with a modest bite but clear ginger notes, touched with a little citrus character. I’d have no trouble mixing with this or drinking it straight. A-

Dry Cucumber Soda – An oddity, just as it sounds. Mild cuke notes, with a kind of lime kick to it. Relatively refreshing, but just not as enjoyable as some of the others in the series. B-

$15 per 12-pack of 12 oz. cans / drysoda.com

Review: Aga Vie Esprit D’Agave

aga vie 143x300 Review: Aga Vie Esprit DAgaveWhat is it about the French and tequila? First Given blends tequila with lime juice and grape juice in Cognac, France, and now there’s Aga Vie, a commingling of blanco tequila and Cognac that have been (re-)distilled together into one oddball spirit. (This distillation removes whatever color is left behind, namely from the Cognac.)

Describing Aga Vie leads terms that are exactly as you’d expect: The nose is sweet like tequila, and the body offers an agave punch plus some of that brandied sweetness. To dig into the details, when you first get a whiff of Aga Vie, imagine not blanco but reposado tequila (there’s some wood in there), with a little honey thrown into the mix. On the palate, things get weird. The tequila’s there — though it’s not particularly definable beyond indistinct agave notes — but it’s considerably overpowered by the sweetness of the Cognac. Aga Vie doesn’t delineate the proportions of tequila to brandy in this spirit, and it’s hard to tell whether a little expensive Cognac goes a long way in a lot of cheaper tequila or whether it’s the other way around, but either way the mixture will be confusing to anyone who’s accustomed to drinking either of the two. The vanilla notes from the Cognac make you feel like you’re drinking an older tequila stock at first, but the impression soon fades as a hefty sweetness takes hold on your throat. The spirit ends with a mouth-coating candy-like character that is hard to shake and which, all things considered, is the only part of the experience that isn’t particularly satisfying.

The natural question you might ask next is: But why? Why would you take perfectly good tequila and Cognac and blend them together? The official story on the Aga Vie website evokes the French occupation of Mexico (a brief period in the country’s history), but I doubt anyone was mixing up tequila and Cognac during those years. Whether we should be doing that now is left as an exercise for the reader.

B- / $45 / agavie.com