Review: Counting Sheep Coffee

counting sheep

Once you reach a certain age, the idea of drinking coffee after dinner starts to sound insane. And yet it still sounds appealing to kick back with a cup of Java after a delightful meal while you share the molten lava cake.

Enter Counting Sheep, a novelty coffee producer that actually wants that late night cup of coffee to make it easier for you to go to sleep. The trick? It’s decaf that’s spiked with Valerian root, a widely regarded natural sleep aid.

The coffee’s available in two varieties. I gave the “40 Winks” version a try, which packs 176mg of Valerian into each serving, right before hitting the hay. (A stronger version, “Lights Out,” has 235mg and is a darker roasted coffee.)

The aroma is sharp, slightly nutty, and seemingly bitter. The body is lighter than I was expecting based on the punchy nose, with only a mild bitterness and a strong almond flavor on the tongue. I felt like I made a relatively strong pot, but the body was still slightly watery to me. Maybe that’s OK for a coffee intended to be sipped right before bed. Who wants a thick coffee taste in their mouth right before they brush their teeth? Ultimately, this is a simple blend with a modest flavor profile. Enjoyable enough but nothing that would compare with your favorite single-village blend.

That said, if you’re drinking Counting Sheep it’s probably not entirely for the taste. After my cup-o-Sheep, I fell asleep quickly but tossed around quite a bit while I was asleep, waking frequently, but only briefly. Your mileage may vary; herbal sleep-aids tend to effect people differently. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt; for what this product is — an herbal sedative in the form of a cup of coffee — it acquits itself amiably.

B / $12 per 12 oz. bag / countingsheepcoffee.com [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Alaskan Big Mountain Pale Ale

Alaska Big Mountain bottleDo you like fruit? Do you like pale ales? Have I got a brew for you: Alaskan’s new spring seasonal, Big Mountain Pale Ale.

Alaskan explains:

Big Mountain is a flavor departure for us, with a very new combination of hops that we have never used in our bottled beers before,” said David Wilson, Alaskan’s head of Quality Assurance. “The most distinct flavors and aroma come from Simcoe and Mosaic hops, which bring a stone fruit and berry taste and aroma, but also have a very complex nose and a flavor of tropical fruit and herbs.

That’s no flowery overstatement: Big Mountain starts off with big apple cider notes, then positively pours on notes of pineapple and peaches. Some hints of lemon and grapefuit — traditional in many IPAs — come around, but by then the rugged, bitter hops have come to the forefront, lingering and pushing towards a woody, earthy finish. This is fun for a while, but eventually the rollercoaster of fruit-bitter-fruit-bitter becomes a little overbearing. It’s just a bit too far in left field to be a big hit.

5.8% abv.

B / $8.50 per six-pack / alaskanbeer.com

Review: Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel and Chardonnay, 2015 Releases

frank family zinfandelNapa’s Frank Family has two of its flagship wines ready for their 2015 debut. Thoughts on the winery’s Chardonnay and Zinfandel follow.

2013 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros – Same aging regimen on this Carneros bottling — barrel fermented in 34% new, 33% once, and 33% twice-filled French oak barrels for 9 months. Moderately tropical on the nose, but it’s surprisingly mild on the whole. The big, oaky body is a clear Cali bomb — all brown butter, vanilla, and notes from the barrel. Desperate for some acidity, the finish is a bit flabby and uninspired for a wine at this price. B- / $35

2012 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley – Textbook Zin, pushing the fruit to within an inch of its life, but still just hanging on to some balance by the skin of its teeth. Raisin notes, some forest floor, and tea leaf all make an appearance, giving this an unusual but surprisingly lively construction. Quite food-friendly. 79% Zin, 18% Petite Sirah, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. B / $37

frankfamilyvineyards.com

Review: Glenmorangie Tusail

Tusail Bottle & Carton (White)

The Glenmorangie Private Collection continues to grow, with Tusail the latest launch from this Highlands producer. The focus on this one isn’t a special barrel-aging regimen (typical for Glenmorangie), but rather it’s a unique type of barley used to make the whisky. In Glenmorangie’s own words:

The 6th release from Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition, Tùsail is the product of a carefully-selected parcel of Maris Otter barley, floor-malted by hand using traditional techniques, and non chill-filtered. A rich winter variety of barley first introduced in 1965, Maris Otter was bred specifically to meet the demand for a high quality brewing malt and recognized for its ability to impart rich, rustic malty flavours. Now used only by a select few who continue, like Glenmorangie, to uphold an ethos of sacrificing yield for quality by using only the finest ingredients, the result is a whisky celebrating the variety’s renowned taste profile.

This is an exotic and curious expression of Glenmorangie. The nose features cereal notes backed by lots of sugared fruit — pears, tangerine, and some honey on the back end. The body is driven heavily by the grain, but it’s tempered with notes of cinnamon toast, pears (or pear-sauce, if that exists), and a bready, malty chewiness. The finish is racy and hot, really a bit of a scorcher at times, pushing a bit of fruitcake character blended with pear cider. Ultimately, Tusail isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like. I understand the desire to showcase the grain, but said grain just isn’t integrated well enough with the fruity components of the spirit, leaving behind a whisky with two faces. Both are interesting, but they seem to still be struggling against one another for dominance.

92 proof.

B / $125 / glenmorangie.com

Review: Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey and Single Malt Straight Rye

old potrero 18th centuryOld Potrero is the craft distilling arm of San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling, and in addition to a number of gin and unaged whiskey products, it also produces a handful of aged spirits under the OP label.

Today we look at two extreme oddities, both made 100% malted rye, which means the rye has been partially germinated in the same way that malted barley, the key ingredient of single malt Scotch whisky, is made. Malting rye is hardly common, and that’s hardly the only trick up OP’s sleeve when it comes to producing these two spirits. It has also been pointed out that both of these whiskeys are technically “single malts,” though neither is what you would expect from the phrase.

Thoughts follow.

Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey – This is a 100% malted rye whiskey that is aged for 2 1/2 years in barrels that are not charred — by far the standard in American whiskey — but are rather merely toasted. Both new and used barrels are incorporated into the production process. It’s extremely unusual from the choice of grain to the exotic barrel program, and it shows in the finished product. At heart this is a young spirit, racy on the nose with raw wood, raw grain, and a bit of hospital character. The body is almost astringent — so much wood character has leeched into this spirit that it’s drained of just about everything else. There’s a little bit of peppery rye up front, but this fades to a fiery, almost smoky, medicinal character in the finish. It’s, sadly, difficult to really dig into. 102.4 proof. C / $65

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye – This is another 100% malted rye whiskey, but it’s aged for 3 1/2 years in traditionally charred oak barrels. Often referred to as Old Potrero’s “19th Century Style Whiskey,” it has a more modern construction to it altogether. The nose offers the cereal character of many a craft whiskey, though there’s plenty of the medicinal funk of the 18th Century Style to go around. The palate is initially tempered nicely with sweetness — butterscotch and toffee — but this fades to a more breakfast cereal character within a few seconds. The finish brings up more of those pungent wood notes, and a modest amount of menthol-laden medicinal character, but again it hints at some caramel and coffee character from time to time that elevates the drinking experience to something much more intriguing. Released seasonally with a fluctuating alcohol level, the expression we reviewed (there’s no vintage/batch or other identifying information on my sample bottle) is bottled at 90 proof. B / $70

anchordistilling.com

Review: 2012 Loveblock Pinot Noir Central Otago

LBK_pinotnoir Btl_NV_rgbThis New Zealand Pinot (produced by Kim Crawford) is a lean expression of the grape, particularly by Kiwi standards. Herbal, almost vegetal on the nose, it hits the palate with a surprising degree of sweetness. This settles down quickly once it gets some air, however, revealing notes of cherry juice, cinnamon, a bit of oxidized citrus, and some tobacco. The finish is drying and surprisingly tannic, almost bittersweet at times.

B / $37 / loveblockwine.com

Review: The Exceptional Grain Whisky

the exceptional grainGrain whisky fans can get excited. Here’s a new blended grain whisky that’s whipped up from some really old stock — by some industry pros. Details are a bit scarce about the inaugural product from this new label — “Sutcliffe & Son” — but here’s what we do know.

[The Exceptional is a] … small batch Scotch Whisky created by Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers and 35-year veteran of distilled spirits marketing, in collaboration with Willie Phillips, for 23 years managing director of The Macallan. A blend of remarkable aged grain whiskies, including a barrel of 30-year-old from the Carsebridge Distillery, long since closed. Finished in first-fill sherry casks.

Big cereal notes attack the nose, with an undercurrent of sherry and citrus. As can often be the case with grain whiskies, it’s a bit tough to sink your teeth into at first, those toffee- and caramel-scented cereal notes really muscling everything else out of the way. There’s some essence of mint, jasmine, and coal dust that phases in and out while sipping this spirit, but the finish remains stuck with the granary. Drying and a touch dusty, it’s almost stark in its austerity and simplicity, until finally The Exceptional Grain lets go of its grip and releases just a hint of sweetness at the very end to soften things up. It’s an intriguing whisky, but one that takes some warming up to.

86 proof. 1500 bottles produced.

Also of note: An Exceptional Malt and Exceptional Blend are currently in the works for release this year.

B / $90 / craftdistillers.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

Majeste_XO_White Background

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Kibo Junmai Sake

Kibo180MEDIAshot

Canned beer is old news. Canned sake, now that’s something else.

Kibo, made in Japan and imported by Oregon’s SakeOne, is released in memory of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan and the Suisen Shuzo in which this sake is made. Rising from the rubble, Suisen Shuzo is now exporting Kibo (the name translates as “hope”) to the U.S. — its first ever product for our country.

The choice of a can is unique and intriguing; Kibo is designed for outdoor festivals and the like, for party-goers tired of the usual beer and wine options.

As for what’s inside that can, it’s a largely traditional example of Junmai sake, heavy with melon overtones, somewhat earthy and mushroomy as the palate expands, and lightly sweet on the finish. It’s pleasant enough for sipping while you’re watching Arctic Monkeys jam and you’re grooving with the masses, but Kibo doesn’t even pretend to offer the refinement of a more elegant sake. Totally worth 6 bucks.

15.5% abv.

B / $6 (180ml can) / sakeone.com

Review: Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian Blonde, Hermit Ale, and Boysenberry Sour

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde

Three limited release beers from our friends in San Jose at Hermitage Brewing Company. Thoughts follow.

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde – A chewy, malty brew, this Belgian blonde is drier than most beers of this style, offering restrained notes of fresh barley, just a touch of dried fruit, and gentle hops on the back end. The finish is leaner than I’d like — while it offers a crisp and mostly refreshing conclusion, it fades away too fast to leave much of an impression. 6% abv. B / $NA (22 oz. bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Barrel Aged Hermit Ale – An old-school pale ale inspired by a late 19th century style of beer (akin to a strong ale), aged in bourbon barrels for 6 months. Thick and brooding, this intensely bitter ale offers notes of tree bark, licorice, and burnt toast before turning to a slightly sweet, somewhat pruny body. The finish is lasting and mildly syrupy, offering light vanilla notes driven by the bourbon barrels mingled with a lasting bitter edge. It grows on you. 7% abv. B+ / $NA (500ml bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Boysenberry American Sour Ale – This sour, boysenberry-infused beer spends two years in California wine barrels before bottling. Indeed, it tastes like a lot like a young wine, huge with tart fruit, but tempered with a yeasty fizz and intense notes of sour fruit candies — think mouth-puckering raspberry and strawberry sours. More instantly drinkable than many sour beers — in an old-school soda fountain kind of way, with quite the punchy pop on the backside. 6.5% abv. B / $NA (750ml bottle)

hermitagebrewing.com