Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Years Old Limited Edition 2016

special-releases-2016-caol-ila-15-yo-2

In recent years Diageo has been experimenting with unusual, unpeated expressions of Caol Ila — typically 14 to 17 years old — for its Special Release series. 2016 marks a another stab at the style, Caol Ila, breaking from tradition.

Unpeated or no, there’s still a hint of smoke here — giving the whisky a decidedly Highland feel. The nose is bready, lightly nutty, and astringent with hot but indistinct hospital notes. At over 61% abv, this is a blazer in comparison to prior versions of this whisky, and it benefits from a drop or two of water. At full strength it showcases fresh grains and baked bread. With water a hint of lemon, burnt marshmallow, coffee bean, and some toffee notes all emerge — though all quite lightly.

It’s always fun to see what the core of Caol Ila is like, unfiltered through peat, although every year it turns out to be relatively simple and straightforward. Nothing wrong with that, though.

123 proof.

B+ / $140 / malts.com

Review: Cragganmore Limited Edition 2016

special-releases-2016-cragganmore

It’s not Christmas yet, but that most anticipated time of the year has arrived: The release of Diageo’s Special Releases, rarities from Scotland-based distilleries (some long-closed) being trickled to our shores.

This year’s batch includes 10 whiskies, all of which we have on hand for review and will cover one of each day for the next 10 days. We’ll start with the only NAS release in the lot, a special cask strength release of Cragganmore.

This malt is filled from both refill and rejuvenated American oak hogsheads and ex-sherry European oak butts. Again, no age statement.

Cragganmore is a standard-grade but often quite lovely whisky, and at barrel proof it showcases a power it doesn’t usually offer when watered down. The nose is heavy with malted cereal, moderate to heavy sherry/citrus notes, and a haunting pepper/spice note that arrives when you inhale deeply. The palate continues this thread, offering a bruisingly powerful body that features loads of sweetened cereal, billowy heather, modest vanilla, and a lick of iodine late in the game. The finish is sweet, sherried, and lasting.

Traditional to its core, this expression of Cragganmore doesn’t exactly reinvent what we’ve come to expect from Speyside — but it does showcase its core flavors with the utmost of credibility.

111.4 proof. 600 bottles released in the U.S.

B+ / $600 / malts.com

Review: 2013 Saved Red Wine

bt-saved-red-lg

A blend of “Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel, and small amounts of other red varietals,” this is a California bottling from parts otherwise unknown. The wine is initially dialed back, but some air and time in glass reveals a denser-than-expected fruit core that showcases blackberries, blueberries, and currants. There’s a lacing of vanilla and a touch of balsamic in the mix, with a finish that echoes cake frosting (but in a good way), plus a hint of chocolate-dusted, bittersweet amaro.

The wine is also being released in conjunction with a new corkscrew designed by Saved creator Scott Campbell, who is a tattoo artist. Some deets:

Available at Shinola stores and online in time for the holidays, the solid brass corkscrew marries form and function to bring a little ceremony to the everyday act of opening a bottle of wine. With its intricate design of sigils, reflective of Scott’s tattoo style, this piece makes a perfect gift for those who appreciate design and fine wine equally. Available exclusively for holiday 2016 in Shinola stores and online at shinola.com for $125.

B+ / $16 / savedwines.com

Review: Few Spirits/The Flaming Lips Brainville Rye Whiskey

flaminglips-f

Celebrating five years in business, Chicago’s Few Spirits recently launched a collaboration with The Flaming Lips and artist Justin Helton to release a new rye called Brainville. Why? Read on…

The collaboration actually holds quite a bit of resonance for FEW Spirits’ founder and master distiller Paul Hletko: Before founding the distillery, he played lead guitar in a band called BerBer (short for Bourbon Bourbon, ironically) that got some local radio airplay and a feature at the CMJ Music Marathon in the early ’90s; ran a short-lived record label called Hank’s Recording Empire (“we put out one record, and it was a dismal failure,” he says); and opened a guitar effects-pedal company called Custompbox. “Music has always been an important part of my life, and when Justin Helton’s manager called me about a collaboration with The Flaming Lips and Warner Bros. Records to create a custom spirit, it was a no-brainer; they knew exactly which distillery they wanted to work with,” Hletko says.

The whiskey is a rye made with corn and malted barley grown within 150 miles of the Few distillery. Aging is in new, charred American oak barrels custom-made in Minnesota. (No age statement is offered.) Like Few’s standard rye, the mash is, unusually, fermented using a French wine yeast.

This is a young craft whiskey, dominated by notes of fresh grain, lumberyard, and a bit of Band-Aid character on the nose. Nothing too special, but on the palate emerges something considerably more complex and intriguing. Notes of malted milk give the whiskey a chewy backbone, before moving into spicy red pepper, ginger, and baking spice notes. There’s a youthful wood influence here, but it’s outdone by quiet fruit laced with spices and a finish that echoing melon and a grind of pepper. All told, it’s quite a compelling experience, though you’ll pay a pretty penny for the privilege.

80 proof. 5000 bottles produced.

B+ / $125 / fewspirits.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Three 2013 Red Wines from Portugal: Passa, Assobio, and Titular

big_v6esporaassmag

Best known for dense Ports and crisp whites, Portugal is also home to a bustling red table wine production. Today we sample three reds from Portugal, including selections from both the Douro and the Dao regions.

2013 Quinto do Passadouro Passa Douro Red Wine – A traditional blend of touriga franca, tinta roriz, and touriga nacional. Notes of dark cherry and licorice find a curious companion in some sweet almond character, with the wine lightening up on the palate as it evolves to show off strawberry, some cloves, and a bit of vanilla. Short on the finish, but lively and pleasant. B+ / $15

2013 Esporao Assobio Douro – Another blend of touriga franca (40%), tinta roriz (40%), and touriga nacional (20%). Fresh blueberry notes fade into a licorice and clove character, adding body to an otherwise quite fruity attack. It’s a relatively straightforward wine, all told, but a versatile one that works in a variety of dining scenarios. B+ / $15

2013 Caminhos Cruzdos Titular: Dao Red – This blend from the Dao region comprises touriga nacional (45%), tinta roriz (15%), jaen (10%), and alfrocheiro (30%). Youthful, heavy on blackberries and brambly notes, with heavy tobacco, leather, and licorice notes bursting forth on the rustic finish. B- / $9

Review: Laphroaig 25 Years Old and 30 Years Old (2016)

laphroaig_30yo

Old Laphroaig is one of life’s great pleasures, but I haven’t encountered any truly wonderful old stock from the Islay classic since 2009. Good news, folks: Laphroaig is reintroducing both the 25 year old expression and launching its 30 year old single malt stateside, to boot.

Best news: We got ’em both and we’re here to review the updates. Thoughts follow.

Laphroaig 25 Years Old (2016) – A blend of whiskies aged in second-fill European oak Oloroso sherry barrels and ex-bourbon American oak barrels, bottled at cask strength. A quarter of a century in barrel have ensured that the fruity notes temper the smoky aromas considerably, everything coming together to showcase notes of camel hair, wet asphalt, licorice, and ample iodine. On the palate, ripe citrus notes from the sherry barrels trickle down into a pool of molasses and salted licorice waiting below. Cloves, pepper, and other spices emerge on the racy and lasting finish. This expression isn’t as well-formed as its 2009 rendition, but it’s still highly worthwhile. 97.2 proof. B+ / $500

Laphroaig 30 Years Old – Double-matured in first- and second-fill ex-bourbon barrels. No sherry impact here. This is a glorious expression of old Laphroaig, sweet and smoky and mellow as can be. The nose is a racy, spicy beast, familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in older Islay. But the use of 100% bourbon casking lets a more pure expression of the whisky shine through. The nose’s fire and brimstone are tempered with vanilla and caramel, and unlike many an Islay, its sweetness is kept clearly and firmly in check. The palate builds on that base, taking the the dying embers of a spent fire and injecting them with fresh apple notes, plus notes of gingerbread and flamed banana. Again, its sweetness is kept firmly in check, the finished product showcasing a balance and delicacy you almost never find in Islay whiskies. The above may be simple flavors and tastes, but Laphroaig 30 is anything but a basic whisky. It’s a nuanced malt definitively worth exploring, savoring, and understanding. 107 proof. A / $1000

laphroaig.com

Review: Pyramid Ditto Session IPA

pyramid_ditto_12oz

Seattle-based Pyramid’s newest brew is Ditto, a session IPA “dry-hopped with two Pacific Northwest hop varieties, Amarillo and Calypso, and includes three kettle hops, Nugget, Delta and Chinook.” It also includes a blend of pale, caramel, and wheat malts in the mash.

The brew is light on its feet, offering fresh bread notes studded with a touch of orange peel. Moderately bitter at first, a growing, brooding bitterness emerges the longer it lingers on the tongue. The finish is rather earthy, with notes of slate and evergreen bark hanging in until the end. All told, it’s a great example of a session IPA — I would have guessed it to be of considerably higher alcohol level than a mere 4 1/2 percent.

Available in 12 oz and 22 oz bottles… though the latter sort of defeats the purpose of a session beer, no?

4.5% abv.

B+ / $NA / pyramidbrew.com

Review: Westland Garryana Native Oak Series 2016

westland-garryana-large

Who or what is Garryana? It’s short for Quercus garryana, a species of oak native to the Pacific Northwest, where Westland Distillery is based. While American oak barrels are traditionally formed form Quercus alba, a species of oak common to the midwest, Westland, as you might have guessed, aged part of this limited edition release of its single malt whiskey in so-called Garry oak, where it spent three years slumbering before hitting the bottle. Westland has more information than you could ever want to read about Garry oak at the link below, so I’ll leave that fun to them. In brief: 21% of the whiskey is distilled from pale malt aged in new Garry oak, the rest is a smattering of different malts (including peated malt) aged in Alba oak (mostly new, but 10% used).

But let’s move on to the task at hand. Today we immerse ourselves in Westland Garryana. Thoughts follow.

The nose hints at citrus and red fruit, woody notes echoing eucalyptus rather than simple sawdust. With time, the peaty notes come to the fore, gently smoky but clear enough to make an impact. The smokiness grows with time in glass, taking on a nostalgic note reminiscent of sweet-and-smoky barbecue-flavored potato chips (and which is making me want to run out for Lay’s immediately).

The whiskey is approachable without water, and drinks without too much heat. On the palate, flavors of wet wood, citrus peel, and fresh grain quickly give this a familiar, Scotch-like feel. There’s also a light caramel and butterscotch note here that gives the whiskey a heavier level of sweetness than expected, with notes of toasted marshmallow, nutty sherry, and hazelnut. Smoldering and lingering on the finish, the whiskey eventually finds a lovely balance between sweet and savory, though it feels a bit short on depth. Still, considering its youth, there’s plenty to engage the senses here. Fans of peated Scotch should particularly give this a look to see a sort of Upside Down version of their favorite spirit. I can completely see how something like Garryana could grow on you.

112.4 proof. 2500 bottles produced.

B+ / $120 / westlandgarryana.com

Review: Starr Hill Last Leaf and Basketcase

starr-hill-fall-tour-large

These seasonals are part of Starr Hill’s 2016 Fall Tour Pack along with Whiter Shade of Pale Ale and Northern Lights. Let’s sample the new brews.

Starr Hill Last Leaf Maple Brown Ale – A brown ale brewed with real maple syrup. Definitely the best of both worlds here, a light brown sugary sweetness giving the malt a fresher lift and an appropriately festive feeling, without being overtly heavy on the baking spices and chewy malt. A light bitterness on the back end adds balance, with hints of maple syrup making quiet appearances throughout the experience. 6.1% abv. B+

Starr Hill Basketcase American Helles – This bready brew drinks as an otherwise unremarkable lager, mild on the hops while offering a fairly heavy effervescence, more so than you’d find in a traditional German Helles (perhaps making it particularly “American” in this case). It’s a clean and inviting, though nothing that makes me think especially of the fall. 5.4% abv. B+

about $15 per 12-pack / starrhill.com

Review: Wines of Lazy Creek Vineyards, 2016 Releases

prt_956113_prtbigpic_20160129_151628

Lazy Creek Vineyards, part of the Ferrari-Carano family of wines, is an Anderson Valley winery focused on pinot noir. Winemaker Christy Ackerman makes all of its wines as well as all of Ferrari’s pinots, and she invited a number of wine writers to sit in on an online tasting to sample the winery’s wares and learn more about what makes Lazy Creek so darn lazy.

First, some back story:

Lazy Creek Vineyards sits on a 95 acres ranch in Mendocino County’s bucolic Anderson Valley. Its vineyards were first planted more than 100 years ago, by the Italian Pinoli family. The winery was established in 1973 by Hans and Theresia Kobler, and quickly earned its reputation for excellent pinot noir and Alsatian-style gewurztraminer. In 2008, Lazy Creek Vineyards was acquired by Don and Rhonda Carano, who have continued a winemaking program emphasizing single-vineyard, terroir-driven pinot noirs and gewurztraminer, under the direction of winemaker Christy Ackerman. In 2014, Lazy Creek Vineyards was designated a California Certified Sustainable Winery (CCSW) by the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).

And now let’s taste some wines!

2015 Lazy Creek Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir – A beauty, very lively and fresh, closer to a white wine than a classic, fruit-driven rose. Strawberry notes meld with sea spray and slate here, with a fresh and lightly floral finish. A- / $22

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Lazy Day Pinot Noir – This is the only Lazy Creek wine in broad distribution and comes from a blend of various estate vineyards. Fairly standard-issue for Anderson Valley, loaded with notes of cherries, raspberry, and some vanilla. A little licorice edge on the back end gives this some tannic grip and a bolder profile that is more aggressive than more inland pinots. Highly drinkable. A- / $35

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir – As weighty as the Lazy Day pinot is, this expression pushes things much further. Big notes of licorice, coffee bean, and some smoky wood notes dominate, giving the wine a body closer to a syrah than a typical pinot noir. The bittersweet finish offers a respite in the form of dried cherry and light cocoa notes, but what comes before is quite aggressive and needs careful attention, particularly if attempting to pair it to food. B / $58

2014 Ferrari-Carano Anderson Valley Pinot Noir – A point of comparison for the tasting, as this is bottled under the primary Ferrari-Carano label, but still comes from Anderson Valley fruit. Again the licorice kicks off right from the start, with darker blackberry notes forming the core. Spicy clove and black pepper give it an aggressive edge, along with some balsamic character. The finish is rougher than Lazy Day, but not as bold as the Estate pinot. B+ / $38

lazycreekvineyards.com

Review: Del Maguey Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec Mezcal

del-maguey-sanpabloameyaltepec

Del Maguey hits this month with not one but two of its Single Village Mezcals – Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec. Let’s try both.

Del Maguey Wild Papalome Mezcal – A 100% agave papalome bottling from the Mixteca Alta region. A definitively sweeter style of mezcal, its barbecue-smoke nose layers in notes of citrus and pineapple — almost Hawaiian in style at times. On the palate the mezcal offers few surprises. kicking off with a rather sharp but gently sweet note, then segueing into gentle smoke that influences notes of orange peel, lemon, green banana, and some white wine character. It’s definitely on the quiet side for mezcal, but pleasant and pretty from start to finish. (For what it’s worth, my tasting notes have nothing in common with Del Maguey’s back label; your mileage may vary.) 90 proof. B+ / $100

Del Maguey San Pablo Ameyaltepec – Also 100% agave papalome, this mezcal is made from 12 to 18 year old plants grown in Ameyaltepec, in the Puebla region, where mezcal production was only recently given the OK. Here’s proof that terroir matters in mezcal — this is a much different spirit than the Wild Papalome, kicking off with a nose that is both leathery and smoky-spicy, with notes of dried flowers, almost evoking potpourri. The body is gentle to moderate in strength, and it offers numerous surprises, including notes of milk chocolate, orange flowers, smoked meats, and dried apple character. On the finish we find notes of bubble gum, gingerbread, and wispy smoke — which lingers on the back of the throat. Taken as a whole, it’s an exotic mezcal with an awful lot going on, but an awful lot that manages to come together in inspiring fashion. 94 proof. A- / $110

delmaguey.com

Review: Whiskeys of Cedar Ridge – Iowa Bourbon, Wheat, Rye, Malted Rye, Single Malt

cedar_ridge_rye_whiskey_bottle_large-rgb-large

As the first distillery in the state since Prohibition, Iowa’s Cedar Ridge makes everything from gin to rum to apple brandy. Today we look at five of the company’s whiskeys (it makes at least eight), which are all distilled on site (not sourced) but which are bottled without age statements. Cedar Ridge makes heavy use of Iowa-grown corn in its products, but not all are corn-based, and less is said about the sourcing of its other grains. (Though notably the company also makes wine, from estate-grown grapes.)

Without further ado, let’s dive into this selection of whiskeys.

Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – A bourbon made with 75% corn, 14% rye, and 12% malted barley. Youthful on the nose, with a sharp granary and fresh corn character, it features notes of tobacco, barrel char, green pepper, and black pepper. The finish offers some caramel corn sweetness, smoky notes, and a vaguely vegetal encore. 80 proof. B- / $39

Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey – Made from 100% malted wheat — technically making this a single malt whiskey. Light in color and fragrant on the nose, this is a delightful spirit, gossamer thin but loaded with intense floral aromas. On the palate the grain is quite clear, but a moderate sweetness keeps things moving, leading to more notes of white flowers, honey, graham crackers, and just a hint of cinnamon. The finish is soothing and sweet enough to balance out the aromatics that come before. 80 proof. B+ / $40

Cedar Ridge Rye Whiskey – This is a “traditional” rye made with a 70% “toasted rye” mash and bottled overproof. Racy but also quite woody, its big clove and raw ginger notes lead to a rather sweet finish, with notes of cinnamon-heavy apple pie and ripe banana. The spicy notes are lingering as the finish fades, along with a rather pungent Madeira character. Interesting, flavor-forward stuff. 115.2 proof. B / $43

Cedar Ridge Malted Rye Whiskey – An unusual whiskey made of 51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn, and 3% malted barley. The result is a gentler spin on rye (though this is just 43% abv if you’re comparing to the regular rye above), which takes that apple pie note and filters it through more supple notes of graham crackers, toasted marshmallow, coconut, and dried banana. Of all the whiskeys in this roundup, this one is the most refined and the most complex, a spirit that is clearly youthful and which still offers fresh granary notes up front, but which manages to round out its sharp and rough edges in style. 86 proof. A- / $40

Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey – This is a classic American single malt (malted barley) release, but with few of the expected fixins. The nose is moderately woody, studded with grain, and lightly spiced. On the palate, caramel makes a surprising impact, with overtones of evergreen and a heavy chocolate note. This cocoa character lingers on the finish, giving it a dessert-like character you rarely find in domestic single malts. Well done. 80 proof. B+ / $50

crwine.com