Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky - Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer

claiborne and churchill Dry_Gewurztraminer_no_vintage_lTwo aromatic whites from this San Luis Obispo-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22

2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22

claibornechurchill.com

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2015 Releases

rodney strong merlotRodney Strong’s mainstream releases for 2015 are hitting right about now.  We tasted a trio of its entry-level Sonoma County wines. Thoughts follow.

2013 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Buttery, but not overdone, this rich-and-creamy Chardonnay offers marshmallows atop notes of tropical fruit — pineapples, plus peaches. Some meaty character gives this some oomph, but none of the proceedings are entirely out of the ordinary. B / $17

2012 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – Slightly peppery on the nose, with notes of candied violets. The body is simple and easy, a pleasantly fruity wine that offers notes of raspberry and strawberry atop a very mild core. Nothing disagreeable whatsoever here, but the wine hardly challenges the senses. B+ / $20

2012 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A well-oiled Cab, studded with milk chocolate, raisins, and juicy blueberry notes. A gentle wine with a silky body and a short finish, you’d bow down to the restaurant that chose this for their “house cabernet,” but would probably kick yourself if you ordered it off the wine list. B / $20

rodneystrong.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Castello Banfi 2011 Belnero and 2013 San Angelo Pinot Grigio

Belnero_US_2012Two new bottlings from Banfi recently arrived, including an older vintage of the blended Belnero, the 2012 vintage of which we reviewed a few months back. 2010 vintage notes can be found here.

2011 Castello Banfi Belnero IGT - A sangiovese-heavy blend, this wine is immediately overpowered by chocolate notes, making for a stark contrast to the 2012 vintage of this wine. Against a moderately acidic backdrop, the wine doesn’t quite find its footing, ending up a bit muddy, its notes of coffee and tobacco never quite melding with the rest of the wine. B / $23

2013 Castello Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio Toscana IGT – Strikingly boring, this vintage of Banfi’s Pinot Grigio is feather-light, as easy to forget as it is to drink. Some tropical and floral notes stud the nose, but the sweet almond paste and nougat notes on the body wash the fruit away quickly. Surprisingly plain. B- / $16

castellobanfi.com

Book Review: The Spirit of Gin

The Spirit of GinJesus, Matt Teacher really likes gin. His new hardcover, The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of of the New Gin Revival, crams nothing but juniper-scented spirits into its 350-plus pages.

Rest assured, there’s not really 350 pages of material to be revealed in the giniverse. The Spirit of Gin is breezy and light, with lots of white space and plenty of pictures.

The book begins with the dutiful history of gin and some discussion of various gin distillation methods. Cocktail recipes old and new are interspersed with profiles of gin-focused bars around the world (but priumarily in the U.S.) — good old-fashioned “gin joints,” all of ‘em. A full third of the book is devoted to an “incomplete” catalog of modern gins, a simple, alphabetical guide to some of the noteworthy craft gin brands out there. If your tastes run more to Caorunn than Tanqueray, it’s a section you’ll enjoy perusing to pick up a few new suggested bottles.

The “Miscellany” in the subtitle is right. The Spirit of Gin is built like an encyclopedia but reads more like a coffee table book. Incredibly scattered but interesting, it’s the kind of book that is more fun when you simply open it to a random page than when you try to read it from front to back. Hey, who wants a Tom Collins?

B / $20 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Spirit Works Gin, Barrel Gin, and Sloe Gin

spirit works aged gin

Sebastapol, California is in the heart of Northern California’s winemaking operations, and it’s here where Spirit Works can be found, cranking out a variety of gin, vodka, and white whiskey products. They even make an authentic sloe gin here — and we were lucky enough to try it, along with the company’s standard gin and a barrel-aged variety. All are made with California botanicals and hand-labeled with batch information. Thoughts on the gin, barrel-aged gin, and sloe gin all follow.

Spirit Works Gin – Distilled from red winter wheat grown in California, infused with juniper berries, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, orange and lemon zest, and hibiscus. The nose is hefty with grain, initially coming across almost like a white whiskey. Heavy on earth tones, the body is surprisingly un-gin-like. Juniper is present, but just barely. Instead you’ll find it dense with notes of mushroom, Eastern spices, and eucalyptus. The finish is touched just a bit with some citrus peel, but all told it could really use more of a punch to push it more squarely into gin territory rather than this curious middle ground it currently occupies. 86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #010. B / $35

Spirit Works Barrel Gin – The above gin, aged for several months in new American oak barrels. This is a far different animal, the nose coming across like — you guessed it — a young whiskey. Racy lumberyard notes meld with aromas of incense, roasted meats, and aftershave. The body sticks along these lines, folding in vanilla notes to a palate that features light evergreen, bitter lemon, and ground cardamom. The finish is a blessed release of sweet butterscotch pudding, ultimately making for one of the most decidedly weird gins ever. 90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch #001. B / $38

Spirit Works Sloe Gin – A traditionally-made spirit infused with whole sloe berries, giving this crimson-hued sloe gin the sweet-and-sour flavor of liquefied cranberry sauce. Good sloe gin is hard to come by — and rarely used these days in cocktails — but the hints of mint, orange peel, rhubarb, and eucalyptus oil make this a standout in a truly niche industry. 54 proof. Reviewed: Batch #008. A / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

spiritworksdistillery.com

Review: Starr Hill Shakedown Imperial Chocolate Cherry Stout

Starr Hill Shakedown Chocolate Cherry StoutStarr Hill flies a bit too close to cute with this Imperial Stout that has cherries and dark chocolate mixed in during the fermentation. The chocolate is far more noteworthy — there’s just a hint of sourness driven by the cherry component, and mostly that comes through on the finish. In the meantime, it’s a rich, coffee-laced stout that dusts cocoa powder and some bitter root notes atop a creamy body that balances malt and hops reasonably well. I’d simplify things next time out, though, and let the more traditional ingredients do more of the talking.

8% abv.

B / $NA (22oz. bottle) / starrhill.com

Book Review: The 12 Bottle Bar

The 12 Bottle Bar is founded on a great idea: Build a home bar not by amassing hundreds of obscurities like Chartreuse and Punt e Mes (guilty!), but rather by focusing on the bare essentials. With just 12BottleBar_CVR_MechOut 03.indd12 bottles, authors David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson say you can make hundreds of cocktails without breaking the bank or having to devote a spare room to your hooch (also guilty!).

I won’t belabor the mystery. Here are the 12 bottles:

brandy
dry gin
genever
amber rum
white rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
dry vermouth
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
orange bitters

OK. So, yes, that’s one way to do it. That’s a fine first draft. But… two kinds of rum? Genever? Humbly, I submit my own curated list of 12 most essential bottles:

brandy
dry gin
amber rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
reposado tequila
bourbon
absinthe
maraschino liqueur

Now that’s a starter bar. And arguably you could replace the rye with a single malt scotch, letting a good, rye-heavy bourbon sub in for straight rye in any number of cocktails. I don’t think you need two kinds of rum; just use amber and live with darker (and more flavorful) Daiquiris and Mojitos. Absinthe may not sound like a big deal, but it does open up the Sazerac and Death in the Afternoon, and works wonders as a rinse in any number of avant garde concoctions. Even the book notes that the lack of tequila in their list is a tough one, but life with Margaritas may not be worth living. Maraschino — in lieu of seldomly used orange bitters and basically-used-in-martinis-only dry vermouth — is, I think, one of my little linchpins here. Try it with rum or in a Manhattan.

But I digress.

Let’s look at The 12 Bottle Bar on its merits, not my own conjecture and my own wild bar ideas.

This is a really thick tome — 412 pages — for a book that is about making do with less. That’s a testament to how far 12 bottles will get you… but bear in mind you will still need fruits, juices, syrups, sodas, mint, cream, eggs, and more to make nearly anything in the book. With few exceptions, you can’t make any of the cocktails in the book with just these bottles. The Mai Tai, for example, has 6 ingredients, only 2 of which are in the above list. The curious Green Snapper has 7, but you’ll need to source 6 on your own time.

What emerges after spending time with the book is not instructions on getting by with a small bar, but rather a primer on using a handful of base spirits in numerous classic and avant garde cocktails. There’s plenty here to choose from, including some delightful-sounding concoctions, but the little black-and-white icons don’t do much to cue you in to what the final product is going to be like. Every cocktail has a story attached — typically far longer than the recipe itself. Given that design, I would have put each cocktail on its own page (the typical length of a recipe, anyway) instead of running free form, which makes the book much harder to scan.

So, fun idea, but the second edition could use a little better presentation. If anyone out there ever makes a genever cocktail at home, do let me know.

B / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Baileys Chocolate Cherry

Baileys Cherry

A chocolate-cherry cordial in liquid form sure sounds nice, but Baileys’ latest flavor doesn’t quite hit the mark. The idea is self-explanatory, but the execution isn’t totally there.

The nose is alive with sweet cherry notes, but it’s the chocolate that — surprisingly — is lacking throughout in this liqueur. Instead Baileys Chocolate Cherry is muddled with that inimitable Irish Cream pungency, just a whiff of whiskey and a bit of vanilla to remind you not to try drinking the entire bottle. The body is chewy and sweet like a maraschino plucked straight from the jar, but it also offers a modest slug of woody notes and some hospital character. Some mint notes emerge over time, as well.

As the finish builds, Baileys Chocolate Cherry begins to suffer from a malady so common in cherry-flavored spirits — the Cough Syrup Flavor conundrum, a problem that sends the reveler’s mind reaching not back to thoughts of cherry-filled confections but to days in bed sucking on Sucrets. But hey, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

34 proof.

B / $19 / baileys.com