Tasting the Beers of Baeltane Brewing, Spring 2016 Releases

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Baeltane Brewing is located right in my backyard in Novato, California — they have brewed their beer in an industrial park here since 2012 and even run a little tasting room out of the front of it. Baeltane can also be found in bars and stores around the Bay Area, all the way up to Lake Tahoe.

Recently I dropped in on Baeltane to taste with head brewer Alan Atha and his partner Cathy Portje (both pictured). Beers on tap are highly seasonal but are always highly influenced by Belgian and northern French classics, Atha’s favorite styles. Here’s a look at what’s cooking in spring 2016 (all sampled on draught, unless noted).

021Baeltane Cobblestone Biere de Garde – French in style, with a slightly tart edge (though far from a sour). Nutty, with notes of cocoa and berries, with a huge amount of malt. 6.6% abv. B+

Baeltane Corsair Dark Strong Ale – A Trappist ale, quite burly with notes of maple syrup, mushroom, raisin, and plum. Lots of malt again, with woody overtones on the finish. 9% abv. A-

Baeltane Citroen Farmhouse Ale – Of Baeltane’s releases, I’ve experienced this one the most often, a hoppy and fruity brew that is loaded with notes of apples and oranges, plus a touch of spice. A refreshing beer with a bright and crisp finish and which drinks like a much lower alcohol beer. 7.5% abv. A-

Baeltane Luminesce Tripel – From bottle. Gooey, dark caramel and dark brown sugar coats the palate. The malt here is overwhelming, leading to some vegetal notes on the finish for me. 10% abv. B

Baeltane Quagmyre Scottish Ale – Very dark malt notes, loaded up with chicory and coffee character. Dark and brooding, it evokes wood notes on the finish. 6% abv. B+

Baeltane Beleriand Barleywine – Aged in Arkansas Black Applejack barrels (another local company). A gorgeous Portlike brew, but strong as hell, with notes of crab apple, raisin, and heavy spice on the finish. Really grows on you over time, but will knock you out in short order. 12% abv. A-

Baeltane The Frog That Ate the World Double IPA – Baeltane’s sole west coast style poured today was arguably my favorite, a strongly bitter brew with classic piney notes — but also a bit outside the box, with touches of wet earth and some fresh, grassy notes, too. 8.5% abv. A-

prices vary / baeltanebrewing.com

Review: 2011 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port

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A new LBV release has arrived from Port titan Dow.

Surprisingly restrained, the omnipresent raisin character of this Port is muted by heavy milk chocolate notes, vanilla, and notes of pie crust. The body is loaded with sweetness, but lacks some needed gravity, coming across more like a candy bar than the bold dessert wine it wants to be. Fair enough for a casual dessert wine, but it isn’t a standout of the genre.

B / $15 / dows-port.com

Review: Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Lineup – 12 DeLuxe, Master, 18 Special Reserve, and Red Seal

Buchanan's Special Reserve

Buchanan’s isn’t a blended Scotch brand that gets a whole lot of play, or respect, stateside, and my experiences with it in the past have not been particularly memorable.

Today I put aside my preconceptions and sat down with the full hierarchy of four expressions, tasting them in order from bottom to top, to see how they really stack up against the big blend brands. Note that two of the products are just “Buchanan’s.” The higher-echelon bottlings add “James” to the front of that to give them more gravitas.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

Buchanan’s DeLuxe 12 Years Old – Malty and fresh, this is a young but lively blend  that showcases ample honey and sugared cereal notes, plus a light dusting of citrus. The finish is surprisingly lengthy and warming, its honey and lemon notes hanging on for quite awhile. Overall, it’s exactly what you’re expecting in a light-bodied blended Scotch, uncomplicated and built for blending — or budget sipping, if that’s your bag. B+ / $26

Buchanan’s Master – A NAS blend that is the “personal creation” of master blender Keith Law. It’s a burlier, more savory blend that more clearly showcases the grain, heather, and some light mushroom notes. A bolder, more oily body leads to a slightly vegetal finish, lengthy with notes of roasted nuts, rhubarb, and a bit of motor oil. An interesting adjunct to the 12, but less balanced or clear in its approach. B / $38

James Buchanan’s Special Reserve 18 Years Old – Drinking with austerity, this blend amps up notes of almond, nougat, and chocolate, all atop a dense honey syrup backbone that gives it some weight. Some orange notes arrive on the otherwise nutty finish, touched with a slight dusting of herbs — and a healthy, palate-coating grip. Surprisingly engaging. A- / $60

James Buchanan’s Red Seal – The top of the Buchanan’s line, here we find the blend pumping up the sherry considerably, while backing that up with a weighty, oily body that offers plenty of malt, nougat, and a smattering of fresh herbs, particularly a clipping of rosemary. The finish is enduring and strongly focused on the sherry component, an unmistakably earthy, woody, slightly sweet orange peel character that really endures, leaving behind echoes of toasted marshmallow and slivered almonds. As blends go, you’ll have trouble finding one with more nuance and grace. A- / $140

buchananswhisky.com

Review: Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Complete Lineup

Damoiseau

Rhum agricole (made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses) is a French style of rum-making made almost exclusively in the French West Indies, specifically on Martinique, where the majority of agricole producers (at least 14 of them) can be found.

Less well-known in the U.S. is rhum agricole from Guadeloupe, which is the home of Damoiseau (among many other distilleries). Damoiseau has been producing spirits for 70 years and is now is imported into the U.S. by Rhum Clement, which makes its own highly-regarded agricole line.

The distillery produces four different bottlings. All are reviewed below. Thoughts follow.

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 80 Proof – Single distilled and rested in an oak vat for six months before being brought down to proof. Color is completely clear and transparent. Quite cachaca-like on the nose, with heavy overtones of petrol mixed with super-sweet tropical notes, white sugar, and notes of white flowers. On the palate, the rum is a bit thin, with the myriad overtones present in the nose dialed way back on the tongue. The floral elements are the strongest of these, with some mushroom and earth elements emerging in time. A touch of chocolate on the finish adds a bit of nuance where I wasn’t expecting to find much of any. Interesting, at the very least. 80 proof. B / $30

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 110 Proof – Overproof cane rum isn’t common, but here we have Damoiseau’s, aged in oak for three months and bottled with a tinge of yellow left behind. The overall character is very similar to the 80 proof, but with more of a vanilla note on the palate. The already intense petrol notes are enhanced by the abv here, but they manage to remain enough in check so that you can sip on this rum without water — though, again, it is obviously designed for use as a high-test mixer in tiki and other exotic drinks. Worth keeping on the back bar for special occasions. 110 proof. B / $34

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole VSOP – Aged for a minimum of four years in ex-bourbon barrels. Here we see more classic old rum character — notes of brown sugar, banana, coconut, caramel, and baking spices, all whipped up into a concoction you could sip on any time, but particularly alongside something sweet to eat. While the nose isn’t as expressive as the body, the overall impact is both expressive and complex, a subtle smokiness emerging on the finish to add to its mysteries. 84 proof. A- / $42

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole XO – Aged for a minimum of six years in ex-bourbon barrels. Heady Cognac overtones lead the way to this XO bottling, which is a bit winey, floral, and fruit-heavy on the nose, with notes of incense popping up. The body takes on herbal notes of thyme and rosemary, its muted caramel sweetness backed up by some not insignificant barrel char notes, a modest slug of raisin and dried cherry, and a drying, slightly tannic finish. This is a rum not particularly showcasing “extra old” character but rather exhibiting its turbulent adolescence, offering ample contradictions and only a hint of underlying sweetness. 84 proof. A- / $70

damoiseaurhum.com

Review: 2015 Chasing Venus Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

chasing venus

JL Giguiere, which makes the Matchbook line of wines, imports this sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and bottles it in the U.S. No surprises here for anyone familiar with NZ wines: Hope you like pineapple and mango, because Chasing Venus is loaded with it. Fans of Jamba Juice will find plenty to enjoy in this sweet and lightly acidic offering, which finishes clean with a touch of cucumber and mint.

B / $16 / crewwines.com

Review: Armorik Breton Single Malt French Whisky – Classic, Double Matured, Sherry Finish (2016)

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It’s been five years since we last checked in with Armorik, a single malt whisky producer in Brittany, France. Its lineup has been radically revamped and updated, with numerous new expressions hitting the market in the intervening years. The 80 proof expression we reviewed in 2011 is no longer produced under that name, but you can still get it as “Armorik Original Edition” if you are interested.

Among the changes: a stronger use of sherry, locally-sourced wood, and, most notably, increasing the alcohol level to the current 92 proof (which is the abv at which all of the below are bottled). Today we look at three of the company’s expressions that are now available in the U.S. Thoughts follow.

Armorik Breton Single Malt Classic – A marriage of spirits aged in sherry and bourbon casks, representing a variety of ages. Herbal and slightly floral on the nose, with notes of flamed orange peel. On the palate, it offers a classic single malt composition — ample malt, honey and vanilla sweetness, roasted nuts, and a bit of cocoa. The finish is a touch astringent and youthful with some green notes, but approachable enough for an everyday dram. B / $50

Armorik Breton Single Malt Sherry Finish – While Armorik Classic is a blend of whiskies matured in either bourbon or sherry casks, all the whisky in Sherry Finish spends time in both — first bourbon casks, then sherry casks for a few months of finishing. This whisky doesn’t come across like your typical sherry finished spirit, offering caramel, barrel char, and coffee notes on the nose. The palate is a bit mushroomy, with overtones of charred bread, more barrel char, and a heavily malty finish. The sherry just doesn’t make much of an impact at all here, either because it doesn’t spend enough time in those barrels, or because they’re spent from too much reuse. B- / $60

Armorik Breton Single Malt Double Matured – A somewhat unique whisky, Double Matured starts not with bourbon casks but with casks made from wood cut from Brittany’s forests. After “many years” in these casks (used or new is not stated), the whisky is then transferred to sherry casks for finishing. Though there’s still no age statement, the whisky inside on average is likely a little older. Age comes across on the nose, which provides a more complex and intricate experience right away, with notes of cloves, menthol, and sherried fruit. The body is nuttier and richer than the Classic, with a heavier (but surprisingly balanced) wood component. The whisky finishes strong but doesn’t overpower, the ultimate impact being something of a hybrid of a single malt and an American whiskey. Interesting stuff, worth exploring. B+ / $60

heavenlyspirits.com

Review: Trinchero 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Mario’s

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New wines from Trinchero Napa Valley, which just opened a brand new state-of-the-art visitor center. Let’s give the duo a try.

2014 Trinchero Sauvignon Blanc Mary’s Vineyard Calistoga Napa Valley – A rather dry style of sauvignon blanc, offering gentle grapefruit notes mixed with lemon peel and fruit custard. All’s well and good until the finish, which is quite herbal and almost oppressively bitter. It may be built for summertime sipping, but it needs a meal to back it up in order to show off its strengths. B / $24

2012 Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon “Mario’s” Napa Valley – A lively estate cabernet, this rich and balanced wine offers a dense plum and currant core, notes of licorice, tobacco, chocolate-covered raisins, and a gently bittersweet but lengthy finish. Again, the beautiful balance, which evokes light floral notes right alongside its dense fruit backbone, makes this wine so compelling that it’s tough to put down. A truly beautiful example of what Napa cabernet can be. A / $50

trincheronapavalley.com