Review: Rums of Rhum J.M. (2016)

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When we last left Rhum J.M., Martinique’s celebrated rhum agricole brand, it was 2012. Since that time, J.M. has done a little rebranding, relabeling, and in some cases renaming of its products. In honor of this, we’re giving Rhum J.M. a fresh look — or at least, four of its more widely available products.

Fresh thoughts on these four agricole-style rhums (reminder: made from free-run sugarcane juice, not molasses like regular “no H” rum) follow.

Rhum J.M. Rhum Agricole Blanc White Rum 50% – Note that an 80 proof version also exists, so check the fine print. Intense but unsurprising, this is raw agricole rhum at its purest. The nose has the funky intensity of a white agricole blanc, backed up by tropical banana, coconut, and papaya notes. The finish recalls notes of cherry pits and more ripe banana, with a petrol sheen to it. 100 proof. B+ / $30

Rhum J.M. Rhum Agricole Elevé Sous Bois Gold Rum – Aged in oak for 12 months. Lots of exotic character here, with a nose that runs to lemon, ginger, and some floral elements. On the palate, that petrol funk gives way to moderate vanilla notes plus gingerbread, with some camphor and mothball notes adding a medicinal edge to the finish — which detracts a bit from the experience. (This character is far more pronounced in the Gold than in the White Rum, actually, which is quite a surprise.) 100 proof. B / $34

Rhum J.M. Rhum Vieux Agricole V.O – Not a typo: There is no period after the O here, at least not on the official label. Aged in a combination of new American oak and re-charred bourbon barrels for three years. Notes of cola and Madeira kick things off on the nose, with an undercurrent of vanilla and brown sugar. The palate is particularly winey, offering up red berries after a time, followed by smoldering, ashy molasses, which linger for a time on the raisin-sweet but drying finish. 86 proof. A- / $40

Rhum J.M. Rhum Vieux Agricole V.S.O.P. – A slight spin on the VO, the VSOP is aged for 3 years in re-charred bourbon barrels and finished for an additional year in lightly toasted new American oak. A shade darker and a bit richer, but otherwise many of the same notes from the VO remain, including a distinct wine character. Here that’s pumped up with clearer notes of cinnamon and gingerbread, particularly on the racier, spicier finish that offers echoes of Cognac. This makes for a different experience that’s more focused on the spice element, though not necessarily a “better” one than the more fruit-centric VO. 86 proof. (Was 90 proof.) A- / $50

rhumjmusa.com

Review: Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky

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Nikka’s Coffey Grain Whisky — named because of the Coffey still (a column still, not a pot still) that is used to produce it — has gained almost cult status since its 2013 arrival in the U.S. Now its big brother — a single malt made using the same still — is arriving on our shores. Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky is 100% single malt; as with Coffey Grain, there is no age statement provided.

On the nose, sweetness pervades. Butterscotch and sugary Bit-O-Honey, chocolate and malted milk balls — all told it gives the aromatic impression of walking into a boozy sweet shop. The palate continues the theme. More butterscotch starts things off, infused with notes of coconut, candied flowers, and some orange marmalade. That may make Nikka Coffey Malt sound more complex than it really is. In truth, it’s a rather one-note experience, the overwhelming sweetness tending to dull these more exotic elements. A touch of petrol, perhaps indicative of youth, is the only real departure from a well-traveled course.

The finish is a touch more complex, layering in some chocolate raisin notes and a heavier coconut component. While it doesn’t break from the sweet stuff, it does take things out on a more interesting note than the relatively straightforward flavors of the palate.

90 proof.

B+ / $75 / nikka.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey

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Swift is a new entry into the burgeoning Texas craft distilling industry, a region which is particularly enamored with malted barley rather then the more typically American corn and rye.

The latest single malt to cross our path comes from Swift, a husband and wife team with a distinct and particular goal: To replicate Scotch whisky as closely as possible, just in Texas.

Swift starts with Scottish malted barley, which is shipped to Dripping Springs, Texas, where it is made into a mash and fermented. Two distillations take place in a copper pot still, then the whiskey is aged in bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. There’s no age statement per se, but Swift does include the date of distillation on each bottle. This one was from a batch distilled just about two years ago (as of the time of this writing).

Let’s give this whiskey a go.

There’s a slight haze to it — Swift doesn’t mention filtering its whiskey — and the color is a very light gold, clearly youthful but not overwhelmingly so. The nose is gentle, with notes of caramel corn, sandalwood, and some dried herbs. On the palate, it’s a youthful experience, with notes comprising gentle caramel, coconut husk, and a lick of smoke. The sherry barrel influence bubbles up in time, with an orange peel character becoming evident for a bit before the finish arrives. The conclusion offers some winey character followed by a return of somewhat malty, grain-forward notes to end the experience.

In attempting to recreate Scotch on Texas soil, Swift has been remarkably successful. I’d say two years in ultrahot Texas are roughly the equivalent of five in chilly Scotland. It’s a terrific start… but oh, what I’d give to see Swift at the age of six.

86 proof. Reviewed: Distillation from 3/14/2014

B+ / $46 / swiftdistillery.com

Review: Beers of Yee-Haw Brewing

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Johnson City, Tennessee is the home to Yee-Haw Brewing, which offers four permanent brews in addition to rotating seasonals. We tried all the members of the primary lineup (from bottles, which today you’ll find only in Tennessee and Kentucky). Thoughts follow.

Yee-Haw Pilsner – Surprisingly bold for a pilsner, both showcasing ample malt along with moderate hops and a big nutty character to boot — the latter two of which are not readily characteristic of pilsner. Notes of roasted vegetables and even coffee arrive on the back end as the finish fades. The overall experience is engaging and a little mysterious — it’s not a bad beer, but stylistically it doesn’t really fit with expectations. 5.3% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Pale Ale – Restrained, but bitter enough (~35 IBUs), and backed up by notes of mushroom, fresh herbs, and roasted meats — alongside sweeter, chewy malt notes. With much in common with the English style of pale ale (rather than today’s hops-or-bust west coast IPAs), it balances bitterness with other elements to showcase a gentler, lightly sweeter ale that’s worth some attention. 5.7% abv. A-

Yee-Haw Eighty (80 Shilling) Scottish-Style Ale – Bold and nutty, with overtones of coffee, caramelized carrot, brown sugar, and toffee. Its burly body smolders on the tongue and goes down easy, any bitterness rather expediently washed away by the sweet malt and hints of raisin and prune on the finish. 5% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Brewing Dunkel Munich Dark Lager – Another rich and nutty beer, loaded with coffee and chocolate overtones and a heavy, belly-filling maltiness that lingers forever. The finish is loaded with the essence of chocolate malted milk balls, with a hoppy, slightly weedy bitter edge. Compare and contrast to the 80. 5.5% abv. B+

pricing NA / yeehawbrewing.com

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

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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: 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