Review: 2008 Kaiken Mai Malbec Mendoza

KaikenMai10This 2008 wine from Argentina’s Kaiken is 100% malbec and is definitely starting to show its age. The fruit is extracted and dense, loaded with black pepper, cedar, and tar notes on the nose. The body is rich with currants and fresh herbs, but it also has some Madeira characteristics starting to emerge. This is offset by some incredibly thick tannins plus a smoky, almost meaty element. Based on the tannins it needs more time in the bottle, but the fruit won’t last long enough for them to catch up. (2010 bottling pictured.)

B / $60 / kaikenwines.com

Review: Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA, Bandstand Barleywine, and Little Red Roostarr (2015)

Reviver_bottleStarr Hill keeps cranking them out. Here’s a look at three limited and seasonal releases for spring 2015.

Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA – A hybrid, amber-hued IPA, this is a great example of how blending beer styles can turn out well. Up front, the brew offers semi-sweet notes driven by malty caramel and chocolate note… then the hops take hold, slowly turning things bitter and slightly citrus-focused. There’s no big piney notes like you see in the typical IPA but rather a more harmonious bitter finish that balances out the sweeter notes up front. Really well-balanced and deftly crafted — and just 6.2% abv, too. A / $NA

Starr Hill Bandstand Barleywine Ale Volume 1 – A big American barleywine, dry-hopped and aged in bourbon barrels from Smooth Ambler Spirits. Unsurprisingly massive, this bomb of caramel and chocolate offers gentle coffee notes and a touch of bitter on the back end. Nice little number with a solid balance between its sweet and savory components — but a glass of this will go an awfully long way. 13.5% abv. A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

Starr Hill Little Red Roostarr Coffee Cream Stout (2015) – This is our third annual look at this coffee stout, and it doesn’t cut a terribly different profile in 2015 as it has in the last couple of years. It may be a little milder in 2015 than in previous years — with a bit less malt, slightly more watery coffee notes, and a touch of dark chocolate on the back end — but my primary issue, the lack of “creaminess” promised by the name, remains. Drinkers will likely remain divided. 5.8% abv. B / $7 per 22 oz. bottle

starrhill.com

Review: Global Vodka

Global Vodka 2014 Bottle-0Global? Well, Italian. So, pretty global.

This vodka is triple distilled from organic wheat and blended with spring water from the Dolomites, and the results are… not entirely distinguishable from any number of well-crafted but largely anonymous vodkas.

The nose is heavily medicinal, with some woody notes giving it some backbone. The body is indistinct and largely neutral, lightly creamy with some brown sugar and caramel notes and touched with a bit of licorice and leather. The finish is dense with those somewhat tannic notes, but not in an unpleasant way, as a touch of sweetness mellows things out in the end.

Good value.

80 proof.

B / $18 / global-vodka.com

Review: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com

Review: Sugar Skull Rum

sugar skull rum

Here’s a new batch of rums, comprising five flavored expressions. Sugar Skull is made from can sourced throughout the Caribbean and South America and distilled in the Caribbean (the company doesn’t say where) in a column still. The final product is blended and flavored in the U.S. before bottling in dia de los muertes inspired decanters.

Five expressions are being produced, all of which are flavored to some degree (even the silver rum, see below). We checked out three of them for review. Thoughts follow.

Sugar Skull Rum Tribal Silver – Flavored with “a slight essence of cocoa and vanilla.” The flavoring agents mainly serve to soften this rum a bit, giving it a clearer vanilla spin, particularly on the palate. Hints of coconut (more so than chocolate) emerge on the back end. The nose is less distinct and hotter than the above might indicate, with more traditional rum funk throughout. The body seems tailor-made for mixing, however, and would excel with a simple cola or in a tropical concoction. 80 proof. 

Sugar Skull Rum Mystic Vanilla – This rum features “natural vanilla overtones” … but “overtones” is a bit light for the vanilla bomb in store for drinkers of this ultra-punchy spirit. Very sugary on the nose, with marshmallow overtones. These carry through to the palate, which doesn’t so much come across as vanilla as it does liquified rock candy. It ventures way too far into candyland for my palate… but hey, at least it has “sugar” in the name. 80 proof.

Sugar Skull Rum Native Coconut Blend – At first I thought the back label — “infused with a slight aroma of wild blueberries” — was a typo, but this seems to be on point: This coconut rum also has a touch of blueberry in it, too, making for a weirdly unexpected fruit kick atop a base of traditionally sweetened coconut “party rum”. The berries hit the nose more than the palate, which is heavily sugared and clearly designed to be used as something like half of your pina colada. The berry notes make a return appearance on the finish, which they impact in a strangely unctuous and lingering way. 42 proof. 

each $28 / sugarskullrum.com

Tasting the Brunellos of Col d’Orcia with Count Francesco Marone Cinzano

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I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day I get to have lunch with an honest to god Count. Frenceso Marone Cinzano runs the show at Col d’Orcia, where he has produced Brunello di Montalcino (amongst a number of other wines) since 1992. (His family has owned the estate since 1973.)

Cinzano visited San Francisco for a classically Italian lunch recently and he brought along a number of his wines, all made with estate fruit, dating back to 2001. Thoughts follow.

2012 Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino DOC – Very herbal on the nose, fresh cherries and some balsamic notes. Dense tannins emerge with woody notes. Rosemary and some bitter edges hit the finish. B / $25

2010 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Just released. This is much more lush and fruity, with a light body and a nice structure. Some black pepper notes amidst all the red berries. A- / $55

0222006 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Densely earthy with cassis and bay leaf notes. Long finish provides florals and rocky, earthy elements. Slight muddiness in the body with time in glass. A- / $150

2004 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Sweeter and fruitier on the nose, with some tropical and even coconut notes showing. Tart raspberry character is matched by smoky, leathery notes on the finish. A- / $150

2001 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – An exceptional wine. Perfect balance of fruit and earth, with dense cassis and blueberry really enveloping the wine. The finish is epic, with light herbs, blackberries, and no end in sight to the opulence. Fantastic from start to finish. A+ / $160

2010 Col d’Orcia “Nearco” Sant’Antimo DOC – A blend of 50% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, and 5% petit verdot. Lots of density here, with chocolate, licorice, and a woody finish. B+ / $45

2009 Col d’Orcia “Olmaia” Sant’Antimo DOC – 100% cabernet sauvignon. Fresh herbs — sage and thyme — with lots of dark fruit notes. Currants and vanilla galore nudge this toward a California style. A- / $77

 

coldorcia.com

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Review: Makar Glasgow Gin

makar glasgow gin

As the full name suggests, Makar is produced in Glasgow, the first gin made in this Scottish city. Makar is focused on the number seven (lucky, I guess?). It is (curiously) pot distilled seven times, bottled in a heptagonal shaped decanter, and infused with seven botanicals — angelica root, liquorice, coriander seeds, lemon peel, cassia bark, black peppercorns, and rosemary. Of course, it’s also infused with juniper, but for some reason Makar doesn’t include that key ingredient in the botanical list. The other ingredients are all “pillars supporting the heart of the recipe.” By the way, if you’re wondering, the name Makar is a Scots word for poet.

It’s a funky and unique little gin not without some amount of charm. The nose first comes off a bit musty — traces of that pot-distilled spirit, I’m sure — with mushroom, tree bark, licorice, and gunpowder aromas. I catch hints of bitter apple, too. The body is a little more familiar, but still quite dusty, that angelica and coriander making a major impact. Even the juniper is dialed back, with the peppercorns and rosemary making the most lasting impression on the finish.

Interesting stuff, but more citrus elements — and maybe some florals — would add some balance that would make this a bit friendlier.

86 proof. Available only in Scotland for now.

B / $53 / glasgowdistillery.com

Review: Thump Keg Rye IPA and Agave Amber Ale

thump keg Rye 6pk w-Bot

Diageo recently came up with a nutter of an idea: Brew beers using some of the ingredients in its spirits. These aren’t aged in spirit barrels — they aren’t aged at all — nor do they contain any actual spirits. They are just, the story goes, made using some of the raw components that go into the company’s whiskey and tequila.

And so this pair of Thump Keg beers was born in Latrobe, Penn. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is made by City Brewing Company, where Rolling Rock and other brands are made.)

I tried them both, and some comments follow.

Thump Keg Rye IPA – “Brewed with George Dickel Sour Mash Bill” (so… corn, rye, and barley), this hybrid IPA offers a malty, nutty and slightly sweet attack — loaded with sugared almonds and a honeycomb character — that fades to a chewy, bitter brew on the back end. Lots of racy grain character comes to the forefront as the finish kicks in, offering a spicy conclusion backed by lots of hops. It’s not entirely balanced nor overwhelmingly “rye” like, but it’s an enjoyable diversion. 8.2% abv. B

Thump Keg Agave Amber Ale – “Brewed with the essence of Peligroso Select Mexican Agave.” I’m not entirely sure what that means — it actually has raw agave in the mash? — but this beer does offer a slightly honey-focused character that rounds out a decent amount of malt and some cocoa notes. If there’s any agave character here it comes through as a light herbal note on the front of the palate. Otherwise it’s fairly straightforward in structure. 5.8% abv. B

each $9.50 per six-pack / thumpkeg.com

Review: Far North Spirits Solveig Gin and Alander Spiced Rum

solveig ginYou’re a Minnesota-based craft distiller that names its products after Scandinavian words. For your first two products, what do you release? You nailed it: Gin and spiced rum, just what our friends from the north are known for!

Kidding aside, Far North (technically Får North, which would be pronounced “for north,” but never mind) produces craft spirits in some really beautiful, minimalist, Scanditastic packaging. While the company now boasts five spirits in its stable, here’s a look at the first two out of the gate.

Far North Spirits Solveig Gin – Pronounced soul-vai. Distilled from Minnesota rye and flavored with juniper, grapefruit, thyme, and other undisclosed botanicals. This is an update on our original review, which we removed when Far North said we received a bad batch of its gin tainted by problems from a bad water purifier. With round two, I’m not noticing any of the funky, methane-and-rubber characteristics I got in the bad batch. Rather, this bottle of Solveig is surprisingly light and almost tart on the nose — with notes of lemongrass, grapefruit, mixed florals, and white pepper coming to the fore. Some earthier elements emerge on the nose with time in glass. The juniper is dialed way back from start to finish, though; some gin drinkers may find this pushed too far into the citrus world, and some lavender notes, particularly strong on the body, are not going to be for everyone. But the fruitier elements are engaging and refreshing, just dusted a bit with perfume to take things to a clean and enchanting finish. 87 proof. B+ / $30

Far North Spirits Alander Spiced Rum – (oh-lander) Louisiana sugar cane spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves — plus a hint of espresso(!). This is a much more capable spirit, but it’s incredibly exotic for this category. Things start out with gentle sweetness before diving into some exceptionally sultry, savory spice notes. That espresso hits you immediately — more cocoa nib than ground coffee — while the cloves and allspice play a strong supporting role. The body is far more bitter than you might expect from a spiced rum, almost to the point of astringency at times. It takes some doing, but the finish manages to dial it back a bit. Here, gentle notes of sweetness finally re-emerge, the way a bite of too much cinnamon can initially be overwhelming but eventually settle down into something nostalgic and soothing. 86 proof. B / $30

farnorthspirits.com

Review: Red Jacket Orchards Joe’s Half & Half

joes half_half - NEWHere’s an Arnold Palmer with a twist: Guayusa tea mixed with Red Jacket’s custom lemonade, one that’s made with New York apple juice instead of sugar. So half and half and half? This is a pleasant enough concoction, with the apple and tea components the clearest part of the beverage. The tea has a green tea-like herbaciousness that complements the lemonade well. Overall, the half and half could definitely use a little more lemon to give it a bit more of that classic, zingy tartness, but if you don’t mind a strong punch of apples in your drink — complete with the flashbacks to your youth — it’s a fun diversion from the usual Arnold Palmer.

B / $18 per three 32 oz. bottles / redjacketorchards.com