Review: Rolling River Vodka

rolling river vodkaRolling River Spirits is a Portland, Oregon distillery producing vodka, gin, and — soon — a whiskey. Today we look at the company’s vodka, which is distilled from winter wheat in a small reflux column still.

Rolling River Vodka is both fruity and floral on the nose, but the body takes things in a different direction: burnt sugar, dark chocolate, and a vegetal, charcoal-laden undertone. This is a strange and incongruous vodka, where the sweeter aromas don’t ever really mesh with the more brooding, powerful body. It’s ultimately difficult to put the whole package together, but the bittersweet, almost tree-bark-laden finish pushes this more toward a curious gin alternative than anything else, at least in my book. Discuss amongst yourselves.

80 proof.

B / $25 / rollingriverspirits.com

Review: Troy & Sons Platinum, Oak Reserve, and Blonde Whiskey

troy and sons oak reserve

Asheville Distilling Company in North Carolina is behind the Troy & Sons brand, but there really is a Troy: Troy Ball, who happens to be a woman. She indeed has three sons.

This craft distillery is heavily focused on corn whiskey/moonshine, and relies on heirloom grains for all its distillate. To date the company has three products, two all-corn whiskeys and one wheat/corn whiskey called Blonde. All are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Troy & Sons Platinum Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Made from Crooked Creek heirloom white corn, cut with Appalachian spring water. Classic corn on the nose, with strong petroleum overtones. The body is gentler than you’d think, heavy on the popcorn but tempered with easy sweetness, some mushroom notes, green pepper, and a bit of raw ginger on the finish. Fairly typical of today’s “craft” moonshines, but not without quite a bit of charm. B / $30

Troy & Sons Oak Reserve Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Per the company, this is not entirely whiskey but rather “aged moonshine,” rested in ex-bourbon barrels for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give it a classic whiskey coloration. There’s a strong pungency on the nose — raw wood, vanilla extract, and licorice — but as with Platinum, the body belies a simpler, more gentle construction. Easy cereal notes and some licorice ultimately lead to lots of tannic astringency as the more raw flavors from the wood barrel come forth on the finish. B- / $35

Blonde Whiskey – Not bottled under the Troy & Sons label, but rather, in the fine print, under the Asheville Distilling banner. Made from a blend of heirloom Turkey red wheat and its white corn, Asheville claims to take very precise cuts of its distillate so that only the purest whiskey goes into barrel. The whiskey is then aged in barrels made with “honeycomb-laced staves,” time unstated. The avowed goal of Blonde is to create a whiskey “without bite or burn,” but some might ask, “What’s the point of that?” Either way, what Asheville has done is craft a whiskey that is loaded with grain character but balanced by more traditional American whiskey notes — baking spices, vanilla, and gingerbread. The finish is much less oppressive than the Oak Reserve reviewed above, but it’s still a few solid years of barrel time away from true maturity. B / $40

ashevilledistilling.com

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