Review: 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Sanford Pinot Noir

The nose of this Santa Rita-originated Pinot Noir offers tantalizing black cherry and raspberry notes, plus hints of black pepper, but the body is heavily extracted to the point where it starts to get a bit pruny. Notes of green olive, currant jelly, and brewed tea. Fun at the start, it ultimately takes things too far out of bounds.

B / $44 / sanfordwinery.com

Review: Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin

Bluecoat has become a beloved gin of the New American school, and now the brand is taking things a step further by launching a barrel-finished expression.

Essentially this is standard Bluecoat that is aged — for an unstated length of time — in new American oak barrels. This gives the gin a lively bronzed yellow color, something akin to a reposado tequila.

On the nose, the juniper is restrained, relegated to the background while notes of cedar wood, butterscotch, and honeysuckle take over. There’s also a sharp, acidic edge to the aroma, something that’s tough to identify but which I can best describe as a lingering floral character that’s mingled with crushed red berries. The body is more juniper-forward than all that would imply, but there’s a lot more going on here as well than simple botanical notes and wood. On the palate you get a rush of evergreen that is chased by a wild collection of notes that include forest floor, orange peel, cream soda, and some hospital character. There’s a whole lot going on, but finding a balance in all of this is elusive to the point where the spirit ultimately becomes confusing.

94 proof. Available February 2015.

B / $TBD / bluecoatgin.com

Review: McMenamins Billy Whiskey and Aval Pota Apple Whiskey

BillyWhiskey_4

In the Portland area (and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington), McMenamins is a bit of an institution. Operating dozens of restaurants and some two dozen breweries, the bar/pub/dining destination is also home to two different microdistilleries, which have been running since 1998: Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery in Hillsboro and Edgefield Distillery in Troutdale.

At these locations, the company uses copper pot and column stills to manufacture spirits for sale exclusively at a handful of McMenamins locations. (These include numerous whiskeys, two gins, two rums, three herbal liqueurs (coffee, hazelnut and herbal), and several brandies.) Thoughts on two of the company’s whiskeys follow.

McMenamins Billy Whiskey – Made primarily from a wheat-based mash (malt barley makes up the rest), Billy Whiskey is pot distilled then aged for two years in new oak barrels before bottling. The nose is youthful but not brash, with ample cereal notes touched with popcorn, vanilla, and the heavy, young wood elements that are wholly characteristic of young whiskeys like this. The palate has more to chew on, if you will. Notes of caramel apple, mixed nuts, Cracker Jack, and banana bread come on strong here. While the finish is lightly cerealed and a bit racy, it’s just mature enough for easy sipping, and just complex enough for lasting enjoyment. 87 proof. B / $35 / mcmenamins.com

aval potaMcMenamins Edgefield Distillery Aval Pota – Made in a column still, this is apple flavored whiskey inspired by Irish poitin. Made from malted barley then infused with fresh apples and a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon, it is bottled with no aging information. The nose is very heavy on the apples, though its closer to applesauce than apple pie. Appealing, it invites exploration on the palate, but here things start to break down. The initial apple rush is sweeter than expected, but that doesn’t last long, as a sizable alcoholic burn quickly takes over. A bit raw and punchy, it quickly washes away the apple and leaves behind an indistinct medicinal character. 66 proof. C / $26 / mcmenamins.com

Review: 2011 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

sequoia groveA fine, if unremarkable, Cab from Rutherford’s Sequoia Grove. This wine features an indistinct fruit medley at its core, plums and blackberries mostly, dancing with modest oak notes and gentle to moderate tannin structure. The finish is dusty and slightly chalky, the tannins finally building up some body to support the wine through to the finish. I’d suggest aging this for a few years, but I’m not sure what limited fruit is present would hang on that long.

B / $38 / sequoiagrove.com

Review: Master of Mixes “Chef Inspired” Bloody Mary Mixers

bloody mary mixers

Brunch season is here (isn’t it?), which means it’s Bloody Mary time for millions. Few of us bother to make our own mix when there are plenty of solid, ready-to-go mixes on the shelf.

Master of Mixes is a brand that’s been around forever, producing the usual Pina Colada, Margarita, and Bloody Mary mixes to make home cocktailing easier. But while MoM has traditionally focused on the lower end of the scale, it has recently partnered with the Food Network’s Anthony Lamas to produce three slightly more upscale Bloody Mary mixers. (If you’re looking for these, check to ensure you’re getting the “Chef Inspired” versions; MoM makes several other Bloody mixers, some with the same names even, but which are not inspired by anyone.)

Master of Mixes Chef Inspired Classic Bloody Mary Mixer – Quite “juicy,” not ketchup-chunky like so many products in this category. There’s plenty of Worcestershire flavor here, and a surprisingly pungent amount of celery in the mix, too. As the finish takes hold, it’s the celery salt notes that easily wins out, going down with plenty of that spice gripping the palate and lingering for minutes. B

Master of Mixes Chef Inspired Loaded Bloody Mary Mixer – For the Bloody fan that likes more “stuff” in his drink, this concoction is instantly much sweeter than the Classic expression, offering clear notes of cucumber and green bell pepper to get things going. Touches of carrot, garlic, sweet corn, and black pepper all emerge in the glass, creating something akin to a liquefied ratatouille. More soup than sipper, this one’s simply less effective in a cocktail. B-

Master of Mixes Chef Inspired 5 Pepper Bloody Mary Mixer – Naturally there’s a spicy one to contend with. The five peppers on the ingredient label include red pepper, habanero, jalapeno, ancho, and chipotle. Only one of those is especially hot, and for a mixer with a bunch of chili peppers on the label this one’s remarkably restrained. The attack is heavy on the tomato and black pepper notes, with heat building only as the drink settles on the palate for a while. The finish is both lip-searing and salty — just how a good Bloody should go out. While it’s the least complex of the bunch, the addition of a good slug of heat — but not quite overpowering heat — makes this my favorite. B+

each $5 (1 liter) / masterofmixes.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: 2012 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast

smith & hook cabernetA blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah from the San Antonio Valley, Arroyo Seco, and Paso Robles AVAs, this inky black wine is simply overflowing with blackberry jam and liquid chocolate. There’s no structure here to speak of. Instead it’s all juicy berries and a quick, lightly-tart finish that serves to lightly cleanse what quickly becomes a palate overwhelmed by sweetness. When pairing, think of cheese plates and chocolate mousse, not steak and rack of lamb.

B / $30 / smithandhook.com

Review: Solbeso No. 1 Fresh Distilled Cacao

Solbeso Bottle 2

First: Solbeso is not a creme de cacao, and it is not a cocoa-flavored anything. Solbeso is a new type of spirit that is distilled directly from cacao fruit, the first and only spirit of its kind (at least that I’m aware of).

How does this work? Cacao pods are picked at various South American farms, the fruit surrounding the pods (not the pods themselves) is juiced, and fermented with a combination of local yeast and Champagne yeast. Distillation is completed in hybrid column/pot stills on a regional basis, then the various regional distillates are finally brought together and blended in the United States before bottling.

So, to recap: This is a distillate of fermented cacao fruit juice.

Almost clear in color, Solbeso is closest in character to a white rum. The nose is not chocolaty, but rather indistinctly sweet. As you exhale, there are touches of light cocoa powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar — notes that grow in intensity as they develop in the glass. There’s also a moderate burn on the nose, but it’s nothing too overwhelming.

The body  is more citrus-focused at first, offering a sourness that mingles with dusky floral elements. Solbeso’s tasting notes identify (rightly, I think) this as honeysuckle. Again, my mind turns to hints of chocolate — cinnamon-infused Mexican chocolate is a better analogy — but maybe that’s just my mind playing with me? The finish is a bit rustic, but continues to showcase both citrus/floral notes as well as a dusky, cocoa-hinting character that sticks in the back of the throat.

All in all this is quite the odd duck and doesn’t show its greatest strengths on its own, but it is something which would fare well as a substitute for white rum in any number of cocktails — even something as mundane as a rum & Coke. Others have compared Solbeso favorably to pisco, and Solbeso Sours are also worth exploring.

80 proof.

B / $35 / solbeso.com

Review: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Mixers

cascade iceMixers are getting a bad rap of late, what with all the added sugar and extra calories they add to your glass. Here’s a new brand of no-cal, flavored, sparkling waters: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Sparkling Water. They all contain pear juice — but not enough to give the drinks a single calorie, about 1% — and are sweetened with sucralose, sometimes to within an inch of their lives.

31 flavors are now available. We tasted five, all of which are some shade of pink or purple. Can you really mix with these? You be the judge. (Oddly, Cascade Ice didn’t send us their actual mixers like Margarita and Mojito flavors, so you’ll just have to read about these fruit-centric ones instead.

Cascade Ice Blueberry Watermelon – Impossibly sweet, with essence of watermelon Jolly Rancher. C-

Cascade Ice Strawberry Banana – Veers more toward the banana side of things, with a sweet-tart finish. Also impossibly sweet. C

Cascade Ice Cranberry Pomegranate – Incredibly sweet, but more of a classic cocktail mixer than the other flavors here. Tastes much like any cran-whatever mixer. Used sparingly, could be acceptable in a low-cal cosmo. C+

Cascade Ice McIntosh Apple – That’s a pretty specific type of apple, ain’t it, Cascade Ice? The resulting beverage is slightly caramelly, with a touch of crisp apple coming along on the finish. Less sweet than many of those above, but still overpowering. C+

Cascade Ice Huckleberry Blackberry – Who’s your huckleberry? This easy winner in the Cascade Ice lineup, which balances the sugar with tart berry notes — though which berries are a bit tough to place. This is the only one among the group that I could drink straight, and which, used sparingly, would make for the most interesting cocktail companion with its nodes toward creme de cassis. B

each about $2.50 (17.2 oz.) / cascadeicewater.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye

Slow & Low Bottle Shot

Rock & Rye is coming back into vogue as a cocktail, and that’s probably just fine with the folks at Hochstadter’s, who are bottling a premade version of the cocktail called Slow & Low Rock and Rye. (The producer is the same company behind St. Germain, among other recent classics.)

Hochstadter’s takes rye whiskey and flavors it — strongly — with orange and honey (plus a bit of lemon, grapefruit, and horeshound), then bottles the concoction along with plenty of rock candy syrup, which knocks the sweetness into the stratosphere. We sampled a bottle to see what the fuss was all about a century or so ago…

The nose starts off surprisingly perfumed, then that orange peel character starts to push its way to the front. Sharp and sweet, it is punctuated by the earthier honey notes beneath the fruit. The palate is heavy, very heavy, on fruit. Tasted blind (literally blind) I doubt I would be able to peg this as based on whiskey at all, much less rye. Ignore the bottle and you could be drinking a special bottling of Grand Marnier, or perhaps a flavored rum. That’s a long way of saying that the characteristic sweet-and-spice of rye whiskey is largely absent here. What you do get are some vanilla overtones, but these aren’t distinctly whiskeylike. That honeyed orange element is just too powerful to mess with.

Mind you, that’s not a slight. Slow & Low is a flavored whiskey-slash-cocktail in a bottle, and as such the flavor component of that really should shine. That said, Slow & Low is quite the powerhouse, and it’s a bit overwhelming on its own — much more so than any Old Fashioned you’d encounter in a bar or mix up at home. Try it with plenty of ice and maybe a splash of water (or soda) to mellow things out a bit and make it . Also: Mind the extremely wide-mouth bottle. It pours fast!

84 proof.

B / $24 / drinkslowandlow.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Austerity 2013 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

austerity winesTwo new bottlings from Austerity, a Monterey County-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Austerity Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – Classic SoCal Point structure, rich with cherry jam and strawberry preserves. But the flabby body and overly sweetened finish mar an initially appealing character. Notes of tea leaf and coffee bean add a touch of mystery, at least. B / $17

2013 Austerity Chardonnay Arroyo Seco – An unfortunate misfire. The nose smells just fine, typical of California Chardonnay with buttery, woody, fruit. The body starts off with brisk apple and vanilla notes, but this quickly takes a turn into less delightful character, with notes of canned fruit, sugar syrup, and aluminum foil. Meh. C / $17

cecchettiwineco.com