Review: Bar Keep Bitters

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Greenbar Distillery doesn’t just make vodka, whiskey, and a very cool liqueur, it also makes bitters, all of which are organic and bottled at 48% abv. Each was made in conjunction with a different bartender (or two), part of a series of bitters-designing competitions the company has sponsored for several years. Here’s a look at five of the company’s (many) bitter offerings.

Bar Keep Apple Bitters – Solid apple flavor, with a healthy grating of cinnamon on top. It fades away fairly quickly into a more general bitterness, taking the fruit character with it. B+

Bar Keep Lavender Bitters – Finally, some bitters you can use in your spa! Floral notes like this can be overpowering, but if you can find a cocktail where you want a pop of lavender, you’ve got a wholly credible candidate here. B

Bar Keep Fennel Bitters – A really like the licorice kick on this one, and it’s got quite a bit of cayenne spice to back it up. Don’t want to bother with an absinthe rinse? Try a drop of these bitters… but be careful with the quantity. A little goes a long way. A-

Bar Keep Saffron Bitters – Subtle flavors here, but they linger for quite a while. A little saffron always goes a long way, and in a cocktail it can be hit or miss. A tricky product with a distinctive flavor. B

Bar Keep Chinese Bitters – Inspired by Chinese five spice blend, but heavy on cloves, with a bit of cinnamon and anise. The more I toy with it, the more I like it, particularly the lingering but relatively mild finish. A-

each $13 per 8 oz bottle / greenbar.biz

Review: Courvoisier VS, VSOP, and XO Cognac

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Courvoisier is revamping the packaging of its VS, VSOP, and XO expressions, with the VSOP getting the biggest switch, moving from its old, iconic, and unwieldy bottle design (called the Josephine) to a more stylish, modern look (see above). Changes to the VS and XO aren’t as extreme. We took the opportunity to review all of the above in their latest incarnations. Thoughts follow.

 

All are 80 proof.

Courvoisier VS Cognac – Aged from three to seven years old. A fairly garden variety Cognac, this VS is a showcase of caramel and vanilla, with just a hint of apple and raisin fruit bubbling up toward the back end. Easy to enjoy, but difficult to truly love, it’s fine for a sidecar but just doesn’t have enough going on to merit serious attention. The finish sees some more raw, ethyl alcohol notes pushing through, as well. B- / $31

Courvoisier VSOP Cognac – No specific aging information supplied, but reportedly under 10 years old. Bolder and a bit tannic, it’s a little rough at first, but eventually it settles into a groove that showcases raisins, chocolate, caramel sauce, and heavy baking spices — maybe a bit too much, as the cloves tend to dominate before the raisiny finish makes a reprise. More exciting than the VS, but still a bit unbalanced. B / $41

Courvoisier XO Cognac – From eaux de vie 11 to 25 years old. On the nose, it’s immediately heavy on almond/marzipan notes, then dried fruits, baking spice, and toasty wood. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet with slightly winey notes, with cherry overtones — bold, but far from overwhelming, and not incredibly complex. A little menthol creeps in on the finish, along with a touch of pepper plus some vaguely soapy notes. All told it’s a perfectly credible cognac, though it doesn’t drink as particularly old or austere. I think it might be the only XO I’ve tried that I’d have no qualms about using to mix a Sidecar. B+ / $125

courvoisier.com

Review: 2013 Rotari Brut and Rose

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The Trento DOC is part of Italy’s Alto Adige, and it is home to Rotari, a well-distributed sparkling wine made using traditional methods. Generally gentle in style, these are wines that drink well on their own, with food, or in cocktails like Mimosas. As for these specific bottlings, here’s a look at two new, vintage-dated releases from Rotari. (Rotari also makes a lower-end nonvintage wine, so be sure you’re looking at the right bottling.)

2013 Rotari Brut Trentodoc – 100% chardonnay. Surprisingly light on its feet, this drinks like Prosecco crossed with Cava. Fresh and fruity with an apple-heavy core, the dry wine also offers notes of almond, lemon, and a bit of coconut. Gently fizzy with fine bubbles, it’s refreshing and cleansing on the lightly bubbly finish. The bottle may not look like much, but this is an easy go-to sparkler that won’t break the bank. A- / $20

2013 Rotari Rose Trentodoc – Made from pinot noir and chardonnay. Not nearly as much fun as the Brut, the rose has an overly creamy character that makes it a bit muddy at times, and which dulls the fruit profile. Notes of red berries and flowers on the nose give way to an odder body, which offers notes of peaches, bananas, and whipped cream. The finish is short, though harmless. B / $20

rotari.it

Review: Virtue Cider Lapinette Cidre Brut

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Virtue Cider’s Lapinette is a “Norman-style cidre brut fermented with French yeast and patiently aged for months in French oak.”

This Michigan-born cider is lightly sparkling but bone dry, which can be a bit surprising and even challenging at first but which eventually wins you over. On the tongue it offers an earthiness at first, mushroomy and yeasty, before stronger apple notes eventually emerge. It’s cut with balsamic notes, particularly on the high-test finish, which mercifully offers some acidity to cut that extremely dry character early on.

6.8% abv.

B / $10 (765ml) / virtuecider.com

Review: Seattle Distilling Idle Hour Whiskey

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Home-grown Washington barley finds its way into Seattle Distilling’s Idle Hour single malt whiskey, which adds local wildflower honey into the fermentation to sweeten things up a bit (Seattle Distilling calls this “its Irish character”). The distillate is aged in re-charred, used French oak cabernet sauvignon wine casks, though no age statement is offered.

This is oaky American malt whiskey, and like most American single malts, it’s youthful and brash and overloaded with new wood — but at least Idle Hour shows a bit of restraint in comparison to other whiskeys in this category.

Perhaps its the old wine barrels that temper Idle Hour, which kicks off on the nose with plenty of fresh cut lumber, yes, but also offers notes of menthol, honeysuckle, and jasmine. The palate is a surprise, milder than expected, again tempering its evident and drying toasty oak character with gentle florals, some almond notes, and a bit of lime zest. The finish sees some canned, green vegetables and offers some odd, lingering notes of ripe banana and tobacco leaf.

All in all it’s better than I expected, and despite some odd departures and U-turns, it reveals itself to be a unique and often worthwhile spirit in many ways.

88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #7.

B / $25 (375ml) / seattledistilling.com

Review: Wild Sit Russ and Wild Docta’ Alcoholic Sodas

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Two new alco-pops (that is, alco-soda-pops) from the Wild company, which produces Wild Ginger and Wild Root. Let’s explore.

Wild Sit Russ Alcoholic Citrus Soda – Sit Russ (bad name or the worst name?) An alcoholic version of Sprite, though the color is closer to Mountain Dew. The flavor of this one is surprisingly clean, without much of that weird malt beverage overtone so common in these types of drinks. Instead, it offers a fairly clear lemon-lime character (heavier on the lime) but quite sweet through and through. Carbonation is decidedly minimal; it could definitely benefit from more, and would help to mask a slightly vegetal finish. But on the whole, the simplicity of this concoction is its strength, and it makes for one of the better installments in this series. 4.5% abv. B+

Wild Docta’ Original Rock & Rye Soda – Rock and Rye? Let’s make it clear: This is a Dr. Pepper clone, right down to the maroon shading on the can. Tastes like it too, particularly on the nose, which nails the raisiny-pruny character of Dr. Pepper, pelting it with just the right amount of vanilla. As the palate evolves, however, it loses steam, fading back into simpler notes of molasses with the characteristic plum/prune more as an afterthought. Fair enough to enjoy, though! 5% abv. B

each $9 per six-pack of cans / wgbrewing.com

Review: 3 Mezcals from Craft Distillers – Alipus Ensamble, Mezcalero #16, and Mezcalero Special #2

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Craft Distillers has doubled down on mezcal, and it imports both the Alipus and Mezcalero lines of mezcal. Alipus is generally available, but the Mezcalero line is a series of limited production releases, numbered in sequence. 1 through 14 are now sold out; you can still get 15 and 16, the latter of which is reviewed below, along with a new “special bottling” of Mezcalero.

Let’s dig in to all three.

Mezcal Alipus San Andres Ensamble  – The first blended Alipus (all the others being single-village bottlings), Ensamble is a blend of 20% wild bicuishe agave harvested at 5300 feet plus 80% traditional espadin. It’s hard to miss the powerful sweetness here, coming across like honey for starters and almost maple syrupy at times. The smoke grows from there. What is palpable on the nose is well-integrated into the palate, where it takes on a fruitlike character not unlike sherried Islay Scotch. This, however, goes too far, pushing overripe fruit elements that culminate in a somewhat saccharine mishmosh of flavors that hit strong citrus notes before diving into a finish of salt spray and cigar smoke. A bit scattered on the whole. 94.4 proof. B / $65

Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel –  Angel takes semi-wild madrecuishe (agave karwinskii) from a 5200-foote high soil and turns it into this, an elegant and truly gorgeous mezcal. The nose is restrained and citrus-focused, with clear notes of lemon and grapefruit. The palate weaves gentle smoke into the picture, meandering from wood fires to clean citrus and back again. The body is modest but fulfilling, the finish clean and lightly sweet, with just a hint of that sour citrus juice squeezed on top. So easygoing, it’s hard to put down — and a perfect example of what quality mezcal should be. 94.2 proof. A / $96

Mezcalero Special Bottling Release #2 – A higher-end, even more limited production. This release comprises “552 liters distilled in October and November of 2012 by Don Valente Angel from semi-wild Dobadaan (agave rhodacantha). It was harvested from a south-facing slope of a hill known as Loma de la Mojonera comprised of sandy, ferriferous soil at 5350 feet of elevation. The agaves were wood-fire roasted in a stone horno, shredder-crushed, fermented with wild yeasts, double distilled using artisan methods on a 200-liter copper potstill, and bottled in March of 2016. 736 bottles produced.” To clarify, this is tank-rested (not barrel-aged) for over three years before bottling. The results are impressive. This is a soft, seductive mezcal that starts slow and builds to a crescendo, kicking off on the nose with gentle notes of black pepper, simple smoky notes, and a basic citrus character. The palate follows suit, dialed way back at first with just a short, simple sweetness, some orange peel, and pepper. From there, it builds up to quite a hefty, mouth-filling body, rolling in notes of mint, gunpowder, apple, and campfire smoke. The mezcal goes out not with a whimper but with a bang, finishing sharply and scorching the back of the throat. Exciting stuff, and fun to explore. 97.52 proof. A- / $135

craftdistillers.com

Book Review: Distilled Stories

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There’s a certain segment of the population — Californians interested in craft distilling — that will find Distilled Stories particularly appealing. That isn’t to say the rest of you won’t dig the book, but there’s a certain down-the-rabbit-hole inquisitiveness that’s required of anyone wishing to drill down into this somewhat obscure world.

Distilled Stories takes the form of vignettes presented by some 20 different distillers (or groups of distillers), each telling the tale of how their company came to be. I know many of these people personally and some I consider friends, and yet I didn’t know all the ins and outs of how their operations came into being. In fact, there are companies in this book I’d never even heard of.

Some of these stories are more interesting than others, and the writing quality varies widely. (The book was written by a large number of contributors, and individual pieces are not bylined.) I don’t want to play favorites but definitely take a particularly close at the stories of Adam Spiegel and the Karakasevic clan.

B / $20 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: 2013 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

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Avignonesi’s latest 100% Sangiovese wine from the Montepulciano is very dry, almost dusty at times, with more balsamic on the body than I’d expect for a wine of this age. Pleasant enough with food but somewhat thin on its own, the core of dark cherries and blackberries is powerful enough at the start, but eventually it gives way to tobacco, coal dust, and some heavier, green notes.

B / $29 / avignonesi.it

Review: Broadside 2014 Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

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Here’s a pair of new releases from Broadside, based in Paso Robles.

2014 Broadside Chardonnay Central Coast Wild Ferment – This classic California chardonnay has heavy notes of brown butter, but dials back the overbearing wood character. Some mild notes of figs and pears take up the slack with a dash of vanilla extract on the back end. It’s a little flabby and gummy around the edges, but it’s good enough as an aperitif. B / $18

2014 Broadside Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles – With a nose that offers notes of bramble and tar, you might expect Broadside’s cab to knock you out with tannin on the palate. Not so. The wine is a surprisingly soft expression of cabernet, offering notes of gentle red fruit, baking spice, slate, and touches of vanilla. The finish is a bit herbal, but quite nicely balanced. A- / $18

broadsidewine.com

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, Late 2016 Releases

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A septet of new releases from our friends at FFC. Quality on this round is literally all over the place…

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Blanc de Blancs Monterey County – The cellophane wrapper should connote luxury, but to me it always comes across as scary. This wine — vintage blanc de blancs! — smells like fizzy chardonnay, which is basically what it really is. Notes of bubble gum and vanilla candy aren’t wildly inappropriate against the backdrop of a gummy, foamy body, but it hardly makes for a nuanced drinking experience. C+ / $15

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Rosso & Bianco Pinot Grigio – A simple pinot grigio on the whole, though notes of marzipan and parmesan cheese take things in an unexpected, somewhat rustic direction. Gentle with citrus and apple fruit, lightly acidic, and mildly perfumed, it’s got a bit of everything, which is both good and bad, but which helps to acquit the wine appropriately for what’s intended to be an everyday table wine. B+ / $9

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection Pinot Grigio – A fruit-heavy style of pinot grigio, with notes of lychee, mango, and pistachio, with a finish that echoes notes of nougat. Quite sweet, but approachable. B / $12

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Votre Sante Chardonnay California – The label is perhaps meant to remind one of Burgundy, but the palate instead screams “Central Valley.” This is some questionable chardonnay, doctored up and over-oaked to within an inch of its life, offering a nose of sweet honey and a palate that pinballs between candy and canned vegetables. Throughout all of this: An overlay of liquid oak. Ugh. D / $10

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection Pavilion Chardonnay – The fine print on the back details that this is a Santa Lucia Highlands wine, and its elevated appellation (over the California-only appellation of the Votre Sante) shows bright apple fruit with light vanilla notes, brown butter, and fresh cream. There’s a lovely balance here that many of the wines in this roundup are lacking, and a freshness on the finish that is almost inspiring. A- / $20

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Rose Monterey County – This is the still rose from the Sofia sub-label, a strawberry-hued and -flavored oddity that won’t inspire or excite. Underneath those sweet berries there’s a somewhat muddy character, lingering on the finish side by side with some increasingly candy-like notes. C / $15

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Pitagora Red Wine Blend Sonoma County – The sole red wine in this collection, Pitagora is a blend of syrah, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petite sirah, but it feels closest in tone to a rustic Italian wine, full of dried herbs, cherries, and olive notes. Very dry, with an undercurrent of balsamic. B / $26

francisfordcoppolawinery.com

Review: Hermitage Brewing Company Sour Cherry Sour Ale

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The name doesn’t lie. This orange-pink, wine-barrel-aged, ultra-fizzy sour from San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing is overwhelming with cherry notes up front, intensely sour from start to finish. The ale takes a turn for the earthy late in the game, which isn’t a poor match for the up-front cherry character, but the monumental sourness of the entire experience is quite overpowering. The lingering sour cherry mixes with notes of graphite, dried herbs, and slate on the finish. Stylistically, you know already if this is for you.

6.5% abv. Winter 2015-16 release.

B / $30 (750ml bottle) / hermitagebrewing.com