Review: 2013 Lander-Jenkins Pinot Noir California

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Budget pinot noir is never my (or anyone’s) go-to beverage, but this California bottling from Lander-Jenkins, part of the Rutherford Wine Company, actually does a respectable level of service to a $15 bottle of vino.

Primary tasting notes include classically-pinot cherry and tea leaf, though there’s a bit of brown sugar sweetness, almost molasses-like at times, that tends to linger on the finish. All told, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s a wine that fights above its weight by showing more balance than you might expect — and which will probably blend in well enough on your holiday table.

B / $15 / rutherfordwine.com

Review: Breckenridge Brewery Chocolate Orange Stout and Christmas Ale

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Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery is out with two new seasonals, a nitro chocolate orange stout, and a classic Christmas ale. Let’s give both a try!

Breckenridge Brewery Chocolate Orange Stout – You might expect a nitrogen-charged stout flavored with chocolate and orange zest to be heavy, even overwhelming — but Breckenridge’s nitro choc-orange stout is anything but. Light on its feet but velvety without being overpowering, the brew lets the bittersweet cocoa notes shine the most brightly, with just a hint of citrus on the back end. The main event is nutty and malty, but could benefit from more spice to liven up an otherwise somewhat muddy middle. 6% abv. B / $12 per four-pack of 15.2 oz cans

Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale – Christmas ales can often be overloaded with baking spices, brown sugar, and evergreen notes to the point of undrinkability, but Breckenridge’s version plays things a bit cooler. Yes, all of the above are present in the mix, but the caramel and spice notes are tempered. The likely reason: “Unlike other holiday and winter beers on the market, Breckenridge Brewery does not add any spice to Christmas Ale, rather the spicy characteristics come from the Chinook and Mt. Hood hops.” Relatively bold on the tongue — enough to stand up to the cold weather outside — it’s got enough bitterness on the finish to counterbalance the festive notes that come before. 7.1% abv. A- / $9 per six-pack of 12 oz bottles

breckbrew.com

Review: Crown Royal Vanilla Canadian Whisky

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Crown Royal continues to experiment with flavored whiskies, its latest expression being a natural whisky fit: Vanilla. The product is described as “a blend of hand-selected Crown Royal whiskies infused with the rich flavor of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla.”

If you like vanilla and you like Canadian whisky, well, you’ll love Crown Royal Vanilla, which is a “best of both worlds” experience. Mind you, it’s nothing you’ll be writing postcards about, but rather a vanilla-heavy experience that borders on marshmallow-sweet (and -flavored) at times. The heavy sugariness of the experience isn’t a deal-breaker, and given the intention of this whisky to be used as a mixer, not a sipper, it’ll fit right in with cola or another simple combo. (See below for more cocktail ideas.) Light mixed berry notes add a touch of complexity on the back end, along with some simple milk chocolate character and just the lightest hint of woody barrel char — but by and large this is a showcase for sweet vanilla syrup from start to finish. That’s not a bad thing, I suppose. All told, this is nothing that will blow your mind, but there’s nothing not to like here, either.

70 proof.

B / $26 / crownroyal.com

Below please find some recipes that Crown Royal suggests, in partnership with Hella Company and Cocktail Courier (which will deliver all the ingredients you need to make both of these in one kit). They’re both quite pungent, so feel free to work with the proportions liberally.

Crown Vanilla and Hella Cola
1.5 oz. Crown Royal Vanilla
1 oz. Hella Cola cocktail syrup
3.5 oz. club soda
whole vanilla bean*

Mix in a highball glass filled with ice. Use vanilla bean as a stirrer and leave bean in glass as if a straw. Garnish with an unsqueezed lime wedge if desired.

* yes, they mean a pod, not a whole bean

Vanilla Old Fashioned
1.5 oz. Crown Royal Vanilla
0.5 oz Woods Boiled Cider
3 dashes Hella Orange Bitters

In a double rocks glass add all ingredients, then add ice to above the level of liquid. Stir for 10 seconds. Garnish with thick orange peel if desired.

Review: El Consuelo Tequila Reposado

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El Consuelo is a new brand just launched this year. It is one of only a few USDA-certified organic tequilas, made with Highland agave and, curiously, is aged in Cognac barrels instead of the usual bourbon barrels. We received the reposado for review, which spends six months in wood before bottling.

Heavy agave kicks off the nose; for a reposado I’d expect a more sedate herbal character, but here it’s really quite pungent, the agave showing overtones of petrol and mushroom. On the palate, again the powerful agave is front and center — it initially drinks like a blanco rather than a typical reposado — but give it some time and sweeter elements make their way to the fore. It’s nearer to the finish that notes of maple syrup, raisin, and vanilla candies finally bubble up. But the biggest surprise is saved for last, as the finish evokes a very atypical note of fresh thyme, which becomes particularly evident primarily on the nose.

All told it’s a very unusual tequila, and worth sampling at least once.

B / $46 / elconsuelotequila.com

Review: Morocco’s Ouled Thaleb 2013 Signature and 2012 Aït Souala

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Quick, what’s the wine hot spot of the Arab world? Morocco, it turns out, where Domaine Ouled Thaleb is the country’s oldest working winery. Ouled Thaleb has been pushing into the States of late, and recently the company began exporting two new blends to our shores. Curious how Moroccan wine — here represented by a pair of blends that mix together both oddball varietals and better-known international grapes — fares? Read on.

2013 Ouled Thaleb Signature – 50% marselan, 35% petit verdot, 15% carmenere. (Marselan is a cross of cabernet sauvignon and grenache.) Rustic but well-rounded, this blend offers a core of dark fruits alongside a significant earthiness, loading up notes of leather and tar, with a finish that echoes violets and some balsamic notes. A mixed bag, but for the most part it’s approachable and engaging. B / $28

2012 Ouled Thaleb Aït Souala – 50% arinarnoa, 25% tannat, 25% malbec. This is a much more approachable wine (arinarnoa is a cross of merlot and petit verdot), starting with heady, aromatic aromas of cloves, baking spice, and ginger — but cut with some tarry character — that then moves into a lush, fruit-forward body. Raisins, plum, and raspberries all mingle with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, and a gentle touch of leather. The finish is very lightly sweet, but that sweetness integrates well with all the fruit and spice that comes before. A very versatile wine, I could drink this with just about anything. A- / $24

nomadicdistribution.com

Book Review: The Beer Geek Handbook

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Patrick Dawson’s Beer Geek Handbook is a kooky, breezy look at the often nutty world of beer – with the self-described “beer geek” squarely in mind. Extensively illustrated by Greg Kletsel, it covers the basics of beer, while tiptoeing into the rarified air of the Great American Beer Festival, beer trading, whether collaborative brews are any good, and what a DONG is. Reading this book won’t help you score a glass of Pliny the Younger, but it will help you better understand the obsession (perhaps critical if you’re a BS, a Beer geek Significant other, in the parlance of the book).

The book’s sections are quick, easy to digest, and best consumed piecemeal – and arguably while one is occupied on the toilet. While certain sections are more useful than others (the short sections on key breweries to visit is definitely worth a look), the whole affair is plenty of fun. A nice stocking stuffer.

B / $11/  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Wines of Lazy Creek Vineyards, 2016 Releases

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Lazy Creek Vineyards, part of the Ferrari-Carano family of wines, is an Anderson Valley winery focused on pinot noir. Winemaker Christy Ackerman makes all of its wines as well as all of Ferrari’s pinots, and she invited a number of wine writers to sit in on an online tasting to sample the winery’s wares and learn more about what makes Lazy Creek so darn lazy.

First, some back story:

Lazy Creek Vineyards sits on a 95 acres ranch in Mendocino County’s bucolic Anderson Valley. Its vineyards were first planted more than 100 years ago, by the Italian Pinoli family. The winery was established in 1973 by Hans and Theresia Kobler, and quickly earned its reputation for excellent pinot noir and Alsatian-style gewurztraminer. In 2008, Lazy Creek Vineyards was acquired by Don and Rhonda Carano, who have continued a winemaking program emphasizing single-vineyard, terroir-driven pinot noirs and gewurztraminer, under the direction of winemaker Christy Ackerman. In 2014, Lazy Creek Vineyards was designated a California Certified Sustainable Winery (CCSW) by the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).

And now let’s taste some wines!

2015 Lazy Creek Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir – A beauty, very lively and fresh, closer to a white wine than a classic, fruit-driven rose. Strawberry notes meld with sea spray and slate here, with a fresh and lightly floral finish. A- / $22

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Lazy Day Pinot Noir – This is the only Lazy Creek wine in broad distribution and comes from a blend of various estate vineyards. Fairly standard-issue for Anderson Valley, loaded with notes of cherries, raspberry, and some vanilla. A little licorice edge on the back end gives this some tannic grip and a bolder profile that is more aggressive than more inland pinots. Highly drinkable. A- / $35

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir – As weighty as the Lazy Day pinot is, this expression pushes things much further. Big notes of licorice, coffee bean, and some smoky wood notes dominate, giving the wine a body closer to a syrah than a typical pinot noir. The bittersweet finish offers a respite in the form of dried cherry and light cocoa notes, but what comes before is quite aggressive and needs careful attention, particularly if attempting to pair it to food. B / $58

2014 Ferrari-Carano Anderson Valley Pinot Noir – A point of comparison for the tasting, as this is bottled under the primary Ferrari-Carano label, but still comes from Anderson Valley fruit. Again the licorice kicks off right from the start, with darker blackberry notes forming the core. Spicy clove and black pepper give it an aggressive edge, along with some balsamic character. The finish is rougher than Lazy Day, but not as bold as the Estate pinot. B+ / $38

lazycreekvineyards.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2016, The Dissident 2016, and Conflux Collage #2

Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2016 – Jubelale is always the first taste of Christmas for me each year, and for 2016 the brewery’s winter ale seems particularly pleasing, a warming experience that builds on a malty base with gentle notes of raisin and fig, mulling spices, and vanilla. What Jubelale has in spades this year is balance, and the beer manages to ride the line between malt, fruit, and light bitterness with aplomb. One of the best versions in recent memory. 6.7% abv. A- / $8 per six-pack

Deschutes Brewery The Dissident 2016 – Now an annual release, this beloved sour, a Flanders-style sour brown brewed with Oregon cherries, strikes with a vengeance. I’m never big on sours, but The Dissident is one I can happily sip on, its tart cherry notes surprisingly restrained against a backdrop of Madeirized wine, almond and walnut notes, chocolate malt, and stone fruit pits. The key to the beer’s success is that the sourness here isn’t the slap-yer-mama affair as it can so often be in big sours, but rather a refined and elevated experience that shows that sours can have a surprising elegance. 10.9% abv. A- / $16 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Conflux Series Collage #2 – This is a wacky, wacky thing, the second beer in Deschutes’ Conflux Series, which blends up a bunch of rare, barrel-aged beers from both Deschutes and Hair of the Dog brewery to make one insanely, super-rare, barrel-aged beer. I never saw Collage #1, but Collage #2 is a different blend, which incorporates Deschutes’ The Abyss (only the portion from Pinot barrels) and The Stoic (100% aged in Pinot barrels) plus Hair of the Dog’s Fred (aged in American oak and rye whiskey barrels) and Doggie Claws (100% aged in cognac barrels). That’s four barrel-aged beers, all aiming squarely at your gullet with an alcohol level that’s over 14 whopping percent. It’s definitely interesting as a sipper, but decidedly not an everyday experience. Notes of intense raisin, fig, and prune mix with overwhelming, syrupy caramel, thick molasses, and grainy malt extract. The beer is uncommonly sweet with dark sugar and dried fruit notes, with a finish that will linger for hours if you let it, eventually devolving into a pungent, mushroom-and-molasses character. Beers like this are rarified air, something fun to sample while you’re bloated after Christmas dinner, but nothing I need to experience more than a few ounces of. 14.3% abv. B / $25 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Whiskeys of Cedar Ridge – Iowa Bourbon, Wheat, Rye, Malted Rye, Single Malt

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As the first distillery in the state since Prohibition, Iowa’s Cedar Ridge makes everything from gin to rum to apple brandy. Today we look at five of the company’s whiskeys (it makes at least eight), which are all distilled on site (not sourced) but which are bottled without age statements. Cedar Ridge makes heavy use of Iowa-grown corn in its products, but not all are corn-based, and less is said about the sourcing of its other grains. (Though notably the company also makes wine, from estate-grown grapes.)

Without further ado, let’s dive into this selection of whiskeys.

Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – A bourbon made with 75% corn, 14% rye, and 12% malted barley. Youthful on the nose, with a sharp granary and fresh corn character, it features notes of tobacco, barrel char, green pepper, and black pepper. The finish offers some caramel corn sweetness, smoky notes, and a vaguely vegetal encore. 80 proof. B- / $39

Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey – Made from 100% malted wheat — technically making this a single malt whiskey. Light in color and fragrant on the nose, this is a delightful spirit, gossamer thin but loaded with intense floral aromas. On the palate the grain is quite clear, but a moderate sweetness keeps things moving, leading to more notes of white flowers, honey, graham crackers, and just a hint of cinnamon. The finish is soothing and sweet enough to balance out the aromatics that come before. 80 proof. B+ / $40

Cedar Ridge Rye Whiskey – This is a “traditional” rye made with a 70% “toasted rye” mash and bottled overproof. Racy but also quite woody, its big clove and raw ginger notes lead to a rather sweet finish, with notes of cinnamon-heavy apple pie and ripe banana. The spicy notes are lingering as the finish fades, along with a rather pungent Madeira character. Interesting, flavor-forward stuff. 115.2 proof. B / $43

Cedar Ridge Malted Rye Whiskey – An unusual whiskey made of 51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn, and 3% malted barley. The result is a gentler spin on rye (though this is just 43% abv if you’re comparing to the regular rye above), which takes that apple pie note and filters it through more supple notes of graham crackers, toasted marshmallow, coconut, and dried banana. Of all the whiskeys in this roundup, this one is the most refined and the most complex, a spirit that is clearly youthful and which still offers fresh granary notes up front, but which manages to round out its sharp and rough edges in style. 86 proof. A- / $40

Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey – This is a classic American single malt (malted barley) release, but with few of the expected fixins. The nose is moderately woody, studded with grain, and lightly spiced. On the palate, caramel makes a surprising impact, with overtones of evergreen and a heavy chocolate note. This cocoa character lingers on the finish, giving it a dessert-like character you rarely find in domestic single malts. Well done. 80 proof. B+ / $50

crwine.com

Review: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength

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Usquaebach’s first new release in nearly 25 years is here: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength, a blended malt composed of more than 20 single malts (and no grain whisky), each aged 10 to 21 years, packaged in a blue glass version of its traditional flagon decanter. Says Usqy:

Carefully crafted by longstanding Usquaebach blenders, Hunter Laing and Co., the An Ard Ri is made with casks from Master Blender Stewart H. Laing’s personal collection. Mr. Laing selected from a range of Highlands whiskies, including Inchgower, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Glengoyne, Dailuaine, Blair Athol, and Auchroisk. At 57.1% ABV, the finished product is a powerfully complex and structured, yet harmoniously smooth cask strength blend that faithfully maintains Usquaebach’s position as “King of the Blended Whiskies.” The 2,000 bottle limited release is packaged in a striking gold and blue variation of Usquaebach’s signature flagon bottle, keeping with the product’s theme of bringing ancient tradition to a modern audience.

This is a well-rounded but distinct blended malt. The nose offers some unusual notes, topping a backbone of malty grains with notes of roasted carrots, anise, pipe tobacco, and leather. The palate shows a bit more sweetness, including some molasses notes, burnt bread, coffee grounds, and a touch of torched citrus peel. The finish is modest and drying, coaxing out a bit of prune alongside notes of dried herbs.

All told, Usquaebach makes more interesting whiskies, but An Ard Ri is adept at showcasing the blender’s more savory side of the blend.

114.2 proof. 2000 bottles produced.

B / $200 / usquaebach.com

Review: Nautical American Gin

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Vertical Spirits is a new company (founded in 2015), and Nautical Gin is its first product. It’s actually made by Massachusetts-based Berkshire Mountain Distillers on behalf of Vertical, which is based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Though billed as an “American” gin, stylistically it is harder to peg. The botanicals do hold some curious surprises, the list running thusly: juniper, coriander, Pacific kombu (a coastal vegetable), spearmint, rosehips, lemongrass, angelica root, orange peel, cinnamon, orris root, lemon peel, cubeb, allspice, elderberry, and black pepper.

Some wild stuff in there, but the nose is heaviest on juniper, with notes of mint following close behind. Hints of pepper and clove-heavy allspice mingle among them. The palate is more exotic, with a heavy herbal/juniper character, stronger anise, and lemongrass overtones. The finish is lengthy and heavy with herbs, eucalyptus, earth, and aromatics, making this a nice pick for those who like their gins squarely on the side of earthy, heavily savory botanicals.

Neat bottle.

84 proof.

B / $30 / nauticalgin.com

Review: Koloa Hawaiian Rums, Coffee Liqueur, and Ready-to-Drink Cocktails – Complete Lineup

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The tiny Hawaiian island of Kauai is home to Koloa Rum, a small operation with a surprisingly robust line of rums, a coffee liqueur, and ready-to-drink cocktails. All five rums are made from the mash of raw cane sugar, double distilled in a copper pot still, and cut with filtered water from Mount Waialeale. That said, there’s no aging or other information on how the white, gold, and dark rums differ from one another.

Here’s a look at the entire Koloa lineup of (5) rums, (1) liqueur, and (3) premixed cocktail products. Whew!

Koloa Kauai White Hawaiian Rum – Lots of vanilla, chocolate, and coconut notes give this the character of a flavored rum, with unexpected coffee notes emerging in time. Moderate sweetness gives way on the palate to notes of hazelnut and a lingering coffee note on the back end. Very easy to sip on — but not at all what I was expecting from a white rum. 80 proof. B / $27

Koloa Kauai Gold Hawaiian Rum – There’s more fruit on this one, but more astringency, too, particularly on the sharper nose. All told this rum has a more classic (and youthful) construction, with some dusky coconut husk notes and a somewhat raw, ethanol-heavy character, but on the whole it’s a passable mixer. 80 proof. B- / $27

Koloa Kauai Dark Hawaiian Rum – Heavy on notes of molasses and coffee, with chocolate overtones. Like any good dark rum, it’s built with lumbering sweetness in mind, rich and chewy and appropriately dessert-like. That said, it’s relatively light on its feet, but short on complexity. 80 proof. B / $27

Koloa Kauai Spice Hawaiian Rum – Yes, it’s “spice,” not “spiced.” Said to be a response to other “oversweetened spiced rums,” but Koloa’s rendition feels amply sweet to me, studded with cinnamon, cloves, honey, cola, and tons of vanilla. It comes together a lot like a Vanilla Coke, or perhaps a Vanilla Diet Coke, with lightly artificial overtones on an otherwise rousing, somewhat fiery finish. Surprisingly, it’s overproof, not under, making it a solid mixer, for sure. 88 proof. B+ / $27

Koloa Kauai Coconut Hawaiian Rum – Heavy coconut, as expected, here backed with a touch of banana (particularly on the finish), and vanilla milkshake notes. Unctuous and rolling on the palate, it’s got ample (but not overblown) sweetness, hints of pineapple, and — as you’d expect (and desire) — plenty of coconut. As good as any other coconut rum out there. 80 proof. A- / $27

Koloa Hawaiian Kauai Coffee Liqueur – This is a collaboration with Kauai Coffee Company, and it’s a robust and lightly-sweetened but otherwise quite pure expression of coffee in classically alcoholic form. The finish finds a surprise in some slightly peppery notes, with nutty and dark chocolate overtones. The whole affair comes together quite beautifully and with sophistication. 68 proof. A- / $27

Koloa Hawaiian Mai Tai Cocktail – Gatorade-green in color, this offers a pungent, overwhelming almond character on the nose, then segues to a vague tropical character with lemon/lime overtones. Somewhat bitter on the finish, the citrus notes veer toward notes of bitter lime zest. 34 proof. C+ / $15 (1 liter)

Koloa Hawaiian Rum Punch – Grapefruit and pineapple are heavy here, with a squeeze of lemon and a touch of vanilla. It’s a credible punch, but quite light on its feet, with a light nuttiness that lingers on the finish. Perfectly sippable, though it’s quite low in alcohol, making it feel a bit frivolous. 20 proof. B / $15 (1 liter)

Koloa Hawaiian Pineapple Passion Rum Cocktail – Another simple punch, this one punching up the fruit component with a stronger pineapple and passion fruit character, giving it a slightly floral edge. What you think of when you imagine a drink with an umbrella in it, it’s a slurp-’em-down beverage that will offend no one, though I think the standard Rum Punch is a bit better balanced. 20 proof. B / $15 (1 liter)

koloarum.com