Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

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It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com

Review: 2015 AIX Rose Saint Aix Coteaux d’Aix en Provence

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AIX — aka Saint Aix — is a Provence rose, likely a busy blend of grapes (though no specific grape varietals are stated).

As you’d expect, the wine exudes light strawberry, with notes of peaches that fade quickly to a moderately acidic body and a fresh, breezy finish that evokes light floral notes alongside tropical elements. Exceptionally light on the tongue, it’s one of the most easygoing roses of the season.

B+ / $16 / aixrose.com

Review: Studebaker Old Fashioned and Manhattan Bottled Cocktails

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Studebaker is a new brand out of Norwalk, Connecticut, which is using Canadian whisky as the base for two “Prohibition inspired” bottled cocktails — both classics, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Let’s see how these manage to turn out, unadulterated and straight from the bottle.

Both are 60 proof.

Studebaker Old Fashioned – Made with bitters, lemon, cherry, orange, and simple syrup. There are lots of orange notes here, as there should be, and they work well with the gentle caramel and vanilla notes of the whisky proper. Relatively uncomplicated, it offers touches of milk chocolate on the finish, though very little in the way of bitterness. Pleasant enough for a Sunday afternoon, but owing to the lack of power in the underlying whisky, it’s nothing Don Draper would write home about. Compare to the more engaging and powerful Bully Boy rendition. B+

Studebaker Manhattan – Made with sweet vermouth, bitters, and maraschino cherries. This one’s out of balance from the start, initially coming across as overloaded with vermouth notes — oddly dry, with heavily herbal overtones. Things get even less coherent from there, the concoction turning gummy and vaguely vegetal. There’s little semblance of whisky here — there’s a reason soft Canadian whisky is never used in a Manhattan — particularly on the flabby finish. Skip it. C-

each $25 / studebakercocktails.com

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2016 Releases

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You will not stop Francis Ford Coppola from pumping out wines. The man directed The Godfather, for Pete’s sake. Four new wines — all from the 2014 vintage — are on tap for review in mid-2016. Let’s dig in..

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Chardonnay Sonoma County – Oak and butter, nothing surprising here, but some notes of green figs and banana give this otherwise straightforward bottling at least a little something to hang on to. The finish ends up a bit on the sweet side, however. B- / $15

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Chardonnay Russian River Valley – A higher-end bottling and a much different wine than the above — quite dry and herbal, with notes of melon complementing a more gentle pear character on the palate. The lengthy finish offers up some of chardonnay’s characteristic buttery sweetness, but keeps things restrained and balanced. B+ / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – Surprisingly lovely, this coastal pinot offers both bright fruit and more sultry notes of licorice, wet earth, and mushroom to add complexity and balance. The finish remains heavily acidic, with tart cherry notes pushing through everything. A great value bottling. A- / $20

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – A very gentle pinot, uncharacteristic of the Russian River, with notes of restrained cherry, licorice, and root beer. The very light body supports these notes, layering in some strawberry character, leading it to a quiet and uncomplicated finish. An easy crowd-pleaser with just enough complexity to make it worth talking about. A- / $24

francisfordcoppolawinery.com

Review: 2014 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

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New wines from Landmark — not just the chardonnay we frequently see, but also the winery’s pinot noir. Thoughts on both expressions follow.

2014 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay Sonoma County – Robust on the nose, with an initial body that offers notes of melon and citrus. Notes of buttered popcorn emerge on what fades into a somewhat thin and green finish, its moderately heavy oak treatment unable to rescue things as it fades out. B- / $25

2014 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir – 53% Sonoma, 39% Mendocino, 8% San Benito County. Significant crystallized deposits in this bottle. A little vanilla breaks up the relatively dense mix of cherry, currant, and fig fruitiness before giving way to a lightly sour-bitter finish. Relatively heavy for Landmark, but not unpleasantly so. B+ / $20

landmarkwine.com

Review: Woodchuck June & Juice Juniper Hard Cider

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Woodchuck’s latest “Out on a Limb” cider is this true oddity — June & Juice — a juniper-based cider that takes the gin and tonic as its inspiration.

It’s a semi-sweet apple cider made by steeping fresh juniper berries, rose buds, and orange peel into the mix. The results are better than I expected, a light and refreshing cider which isn’t too sweet and which doesn’t overdo the botanical elements, either. Lightly junipery, the rose flowers make a distinct impression and give it a floral focus. With a little time in the glass, citrus makes a stronger showing. The finish lets the apple base shine — again, with just the right balance between dry and sweet.

While it’s loaded with uncharacteristic flavors, it’s one of the more worthwhile cider releases in recent months.

5.5% abv.

B+ / $8 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Review: Few Spirits Breakfast Gin

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Gin for breakfast? Well, brunch anyway.

With Breakfast Gin, Few Spirits is targeting some specific cocktails — including the Ramos Gin Fizz and the French 75, which are a little more appropriate before noon than, say, a Manhattan. Botanicals include juniper, lemon, and Earl Grey tea (among others).

Launched in Chicago in summer 2015, the gin was a local hit and is rolling out nationally now.

Thoughts follow.

The gin is light on its feet, at first a bit woody on the nose, but in time revealing more of the herbal notes driven by the tea element. On the palate, the gin is gentle at first, with uncomplicated juniper notes up front. These give way to more of those tea-driven notes, heavy on orange peel and grapefruit peel notes, before finishing with a brighter burst of citrus.

It’s got less going on than you might expect based on the unusual addition of tea in the botanical bill, but it’s definitely worth trying out in the above mentioned cocktails, or in one of the ones below.

84 proof.

B+ / $40 / fewspirits.com

And now, some recipes…

Madteani
by Sara McDaniel, MAD Social, Chicago
3 oz. Few Breakfast Gin
.5 oz. brewed Earl Grey tea
.5 oz. honey syrup (1 part honey, 1 part water)
3 dashes Bar Keep Lavender Bitters

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a Martini or coupe glass. Garnish with an edible flower.

White Lady
by Todd Elkis, Adele’s Front Room, La Grange, Ill.
1.75 oz. Few Breakfast Gin
1.25 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. lemon juice

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

The Spell
by Ergys Dizdari, SIP, Chicago
1.5 oz. Few Breakfast Gin
.5 oz. elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain)
.75 oz. lemon juice
.75 oz. Rose-Lavender Syrup*

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a spritz of rosewater and a rose petal.

*Rose-Lavender Syrup
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cup dried rose petals
.5 cup dried lavender

Add all the ingredients to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and let stand until cool. Fine-strain and store in the refrigerator.