Review: Devils Backbone Bravo Four Point and Pumpkin Hunter

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Virginia’s Devils Backbone is back with two new beers, a session IPA and a seasonal pumpkin brew. Let’s dig in.

Devils Backbone Bravo Four Point Session IPA – Expectations are always low when session beers are involved, but Bravo Four Point manages to avoid hitting even those tempered hopes and dreams. This IPA starts with a restrained, moderately hoppy nose, then segues into a body that follows suit. Bitter enough at the start, the flavors are lackluster, featuring mainly muddy earth, funky pine, and some resin. Nothing undrinkable here, but it lacks inspiration. 4.4% abv. C+ / $10 per six pack of 12 oz cans

Devils Backbone Pumpkin Hunter – Our first pumpkin beer of the season, this one an amber ale brewed with pumpkin and spices. It’s restrained and very lightly sweet, with notes of pie crust, cinnamon, and gingerbread. Suitably malty but appropriately festive, it’s one of the better pumpkin beers I’ve encountered… pretty much ever. 5.1% abv. B+ / $11 per six pack of 12 oz bottles

about $17 per 12-pack / dbbrewingcompany.com

Review: Wines of Dierberg, 2016 Releases

dierberg

Established by Jim and Mary Dierberg in 1996, Dierberg Vineyards is a pinot and chardonnay shop that grows grapes in two cool-climate estate vineyards: the 160-acre Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley appellation, and the 70-acre Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. (The family also runs the Star Lane winery, which is in the Happy Canyon area.

Today we look at the 2016 releases of the Santa Barbara-esque Dierberg.

2013 Dierberg Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Dierberg Vineyard – Nicely balanced between fruit and brown butter, this is a Santa Maria chardonnay that starts off with classic vanilla and oak notes, plus a bit of roasted meat character, then finally settles into a fruity groove that offers notes of figs, passion fruit, pears, and baked apples. Gentle sandalwood notes dust the finish, which manages to hang on tightly to that fruit all the way to the end. Beautiful Burgundy-style chardonnay… and an amazing value wine. A / $25

2013 Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Dierberg Vineyard – A dense SoCal pinot, this flavor-packed wine offers raspberry and baking spice, heavy on the cloves, with a finish that heads toward tobacco and licorice. As it opens up, a lively strawberry note takes hold, which helps to balance out the darker fruit up front. A touch of pencil lead lingers on the back end. The body is on the dense side, but the finish lightens things up just enough. Great on its own, it excels with food. A- / $40

2013 Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard – Heading south, and up from the valley and into the hills of Santa Rita. Oddly this wine takes a turn toward a lighter style, restrained in flavor, but lively and light. Blueberries and blackberries take the lead here, but with more acidity — a bit like a fruit-flavored lemonade, dialed down, anyway. The finish is lightly sour, with rhubarb notes, making it pair better with food than on its own. B+ / $43

dierbergvineyard.com

Review: Blandy’s Madeira Collection, 10 Years Old

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Not too long ago, we rounded up the world of Madeira as Blandy’s sees it. I won’t go into the full Madeira backstory; click the link if you want the deep dive into what Madeira is and where it comes from.

In that review we looked at five year old Madeiras. Now we kick it up another half-decade and look at the same wines at 10 years old, double the age.

I won’t regurgitate the story of Madeira again (click the above link for that tale) and will instead delve into these fortified wines, one by one, going stylistically from driest to sweetest, each made from a different grape: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey.

Thoughts follow.

NV Blandy’s Madeira Sercial Dry 10 Years Old – A dark gold in color. Nutty and lightly fruity on the nose. Dry, but with enough life to keep things lively and sippable. Light tropical notes emerge on the finish, plus some lychee. This is quite pleasant on its own — or I might try it with tonic on the rocks as an aperitif. A-

NV Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho Medium Dry 10 Years Old – Classic amber-hued sherry color. More roasted nuts, with some citrus influence. Quite almond- and hazelnut-heavy on the palate, with slight coffee overtones, but still showing enough sweetness in the form of orange and lemon to add some balance. B+

NV Blandy’s Madeira Bual Medium Rich 10 Years Old – A dark tea-stained brown in color. This Madeira offers a distinct sherry-like sharpness, with notes of bitter orange peel, raspberry, with those classic nutty notes coming on strong on the finish — here showing themselves more in the form of candied walnuts. Rounded and lush, but fully approachable. A-

NV Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey Rich 10 Years Old – Dark, almost coffee brown. Very nutty, on the palate it has the classic character that I think of when I think of “Madeira,” loaded with dried fruit and Christmas spice. The finish is moderately sour, with a heavy raisin character that lingers on the palate for quite some time. B+

each $24 / blandys.com

Review: Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon (2016)

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Earlier this year, Elijah Craig became the latest Kentucky bourbon to lose its age statement. Formerly a 12 year old release, it is now NAS, though Heaven Hill says the product will be composed of stock aged from 8 to 12 years old (200 barrels at a time) and, of course, assures us that quality will remain exactly the same. A new bottle design was recently released, which is taller, sleeker, and more modern than the old — some might say dated — design.

To prove its claims, the distillery sent out bottles of the new Elijah Craig Small Batch to see how it fares. Sadly, I haven’t any of the old 12 year old stock to compare to, but I did put this 2016 release side by side with a recent Barrel Proof release (brought down to an equivalent proof with water) to at least give some semblance of comparison to the past.

First, let’s look at the new release. It’s a sugar bomb from the get-go, simple-sugar syrup heavy on the nose with some citrus undertones plus a baking spice kick. The palate pushes that agenda pretty hard; it’s loaded to the top with sweet butterscotch, light caramel, and vanilla ice cream notes before a more sultry note of orange peel and gentler baking spice character comes to the fore. Heaven Hill reportedly uses a 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley mashbill, and the spice level here comes across about as expected with that amount of rye in the mash. It isn’t until late in the game that gentle wood notes come around, making for a duskier finish to what initially seems like a fairly straight (and sweet) shooter.

While it’s an imperfect comparison, the watered-down Barrel Proof cuts a bit of a different profile, offering more wood, more spice, and a bolder body right from the start. There’s more nuance along the way in the form of cocoa, coffee, and raisiny Port wine, but this kind of enhanced depth isn’t uncommon with a cask strength release, even if you water it down in the glass. The new standard-grade Elijah Craig doesn’t have that kind of power, but it’s also a less expensive and more accessible bourbon. Taking all that into account, it’s definitely still worth a look. The grade is on the borderline with an A-.

94 proof.

B+ / $30 / bardstownwhiskeysociety.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Humboldt Distillery Humboldt’s Finest Hemp Vodka

Humboldts Finest April2016

Humboldt’s finest? We’re talking about redwood trees, amirite people? OK then, we’re really talking about cannabis sativa, good old hemp seed, and here’s another entry into the burgeoning market of hemp-flavored (and THC-free, of course) vodka.

There’s no real production info here, except that the vodka includes natural flavors and, oddly, certified color (it is tinted just the barest shade of green).

Many a hemp vodka can be an overbearing, hoary experience, but Humboldt’s is very, very mild. The nose offers notes of lime, lemongrass, and a little white sugar, but is otherwise straightforward. The palate is again quite light, slightly sweet with gentle herbal notes, plus hints of banana, orange peel, chicory, and a lightly earthy, cinnamon-dusted finish. It’s all very innocuous, and not at all bad, though there’s nothing here that even remotely recalls “hemp” in any of its incarnations, should you be looking for that skunky funk to get your Friday night started.

But don’t let that stop you. Humboldt suggests using this spirit as a substitute for gin in your favorite cocktail. That’s a fine idea, but it’s so mild that I’d take it one step further and suggest trying it in place of any old vodka, too.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / humboldtdistillery.com

Review: 2005 vs. 2007 Rioja Bordon Gran Reserva

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Bodegas Franco Espanolas, a Rioja winery dating back to 1890, recently released a three-pack of old Gran Reserva wines, including vintages from 1999, 2005, and 2007. The three-pack costs $125, but rarity of the ’99 is making it tough to come by.

We did however get a look at both the ’05 and ’07, which are blends of tempranillo, garnacha, graciano, and mazuelo, aged 24 to 36 months depending on the vintage in American oak barrels followed by a minimum of 36 months in bottle.

You can find them separately. Let’s take a look.

2005 Rioja Bordon Gran Reserva – Well aged, and starting to fade. This wine showcases a balsamic character up front, then offers notes of tart cherry, dusky dried herbs, and mushroom. The finish shows the wine on its way downhill, those heavy balsamic notes leading to a somewhat astringent finale. There’s some life left here, but not much. C+ / $25

2007 Rioja Bordon Gran Reserva – A much more rounded and balanced wine, showing the initial traces of balsamic but still offering plenty of fruit in the form of cherry and raspberry. The body layers in some cocoa powder and roasted nut notes, finishing with a return to those light balsamic notes and a twist of ground black pepper, plus well-integrated oak notes. B+ / $20

riojabordon.francoespanolas.com

Tasting the Wines of Amalaya and Colome, 2016 Releases

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Amalaya and Colome are both based in Salta, Argentina — and both are owned by California’s Hess Family Wines. Today we look at two wines from each, a torrontes and a malbec, all delightfully different despite being neighbors, both geographically and business-wise.

2015 Amalaya Torrontes/Riesling Salta – 85% torrontes and 15% riesling. The riesling is a huge help here, and a big influence on the wine, giving it both tightly perfumed aromatics and some apricot/peach notes reminiscent of viognier. The flatter torrontes benefits from this, lifting it up into a more festive, zippy wine. B+ / $10

2015 Amalaya Malbec Salta – A blend of 85% malbec, 10% tannat, and 5% syrah. It’s a very dry wine, dusty at times before exhibiting notes of tree bark, chicory, and licorice overlaying its lightly balsamic, blackberry core. Modest body, but the finish is quite drying, slightly pruny, and a little thin. B / $12

2015 Colome Torrontes – Quite lemony, with a pinch of rosemary in the mix. The finish diverges toward a more heavily herbal character, including notes of juniper, though its acidity is high enough to at least keep this in check to some degree. B- / $12

2013 Colome Malbec Estate – What a breath of fresh air this wine is. Malbec can be so overwhelming, but Colome’s expression is full of fruit but tempered with a sprinkle of licorice, savory herbs, cloves, and graphite. Some mushroom evolves on the nose; give it time and some lively floral notes emerge, too. The finish is dry and a bit leathery, which actually makes for a balanced and engaging experience. A lovely and unexpectedly special wine — one to stock up on. A / $20

amalaya.com
bodegacolome.com

Review: Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 – Copper Column vs. Copper Pot

mount gay origin series volume two

One of my favorite things in the world of whiskey is when distilleries start to get experimental. Buffalo Trace has become legendary for putting out all manner of experimental whiskeys that you can sample side by side. The idea isn’t just to see what different barrel treatments or mashbills do to a spirit — but to see how the various experiments compare to one another.

Last year, Mount Gay decided that whiskey shouldn’t have all the fun, that rum could do the experimental thing, too. It released Volume One of what has turned into an ongoing Origin Series of releases, two half-bottles of rum, identical in every other way, except one was aged in virgin oak and one was aged in a charred barrel. This release was a Barbados-only release and never made it to the U.S., but now Volume Two is out, looking at another variable in the distillation process.

For rum, this is a major one: The impact of the column still vs. the pot still. The two rums in this release are identical in ingredients and maturity (though none of that information is made public), they simply vary by the type of still used to create them.

So, let’s try these guys side by side and see how they compare. Fun, fun stuff!

Both rums are 86 proof.

Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 Copper Column – This is a fairly straightforward rum, sweet and slightly woody on the nose with a slightly winey note to it. On the palate, it’s a bit duskier than I expected, taking on a slightly burnt brown sugar character plus notes of coffee, light licorice, and cloves. The finish is still on the woody side, lightly astringent but otherwise clean and balanced — not too sweet, but plenty rich. When I think of a good rum for simple mixers, this is the kind of rum I look for. Bottle #6566/7200. A-

Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 Copper Pot – An immediately different experience. On the nose, some funk, with hints of hospital character, green vegetables, and piquant astringency. The body immediately shows off fruity notes of apricots and some grapefruit, offering a curious sweetness that verges toward bubble gum at times. The finish is dusky, with notes of gunpowder and pencil lead, also showing the wood that the column rum offers but with a hoarier, more forest-floor undertone. Normally I gravitate to pot-distilled rums over column-distilled rums, but this one shows how pot-distilled expressions might need and benefit from more barrel time. Bottle #0797/7200. B+

$95 for set of two 375ml bottles / mountgayrum.com

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 2007 Vintage

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After a two year drought, we are finally back with another Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon review.

What happened to 2005 and 2006? Good question. At the time, rumors swirled that the Single Barrel line was being discontinued or was becoming a distillery-only product. The distillery went dark to questions about the line, but apparently neither of those scenarios happened, and you can still find a smattering of reviews of the 2005 and 2006 online, though both are mixed. Neither release is widely available today, but diligent hunters can track both of them down with a bit of effort. To this day, I still haven’t sampled either one.

Fast forward to this, the 2007 release, which is an 8 year old expression (bottled in November 2015), making it a bit younger than the last EWSB we reviewed, the 9 1/2 year old 2004.

Let’s taste it.

This is a bigger, bolder, more wood-forward whiskey than previous releases in this line. The nose offers ample honey, butterscotch, and caramel corn notes, with a big lumberyard character backing up the sweeter elements. Wood again dominates the palate, which offers an initial rush of brown sugar followed by some lightly winey notes, some cloves, and licorice. It’s tannic and brooding at times, the finish coating the mouth and lingering as it washes away the upfront sweetness.

It’s a bit at odds with some of the older Evan Williamses, which are better balanced, more citrusy, and more rounded, often showcasing pretty chocolate notes. The older vintages, which I spot-tasted in preparation for this review, are almost unilaterally both more mature and more interesting. That said, a bit of youth isn’t the end of the world, and the 2007 release isn’t without its share of charm.

Compare to: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004.

86.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #1.

B+ / $34 / evanwilliams.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company Juices and Lemonades

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Florida-based Natalie’s Orchid Island makes fresh juices and lemonades, packing them in those familiar, squared-off, plastic pint bottles. These products are “gourmet pasteurized” but contain no preservatives, and must be kept refrigerated at all times. Is upscale juice worth the splurge? We checked out six varieties of juice and lemonade. For your consideration:

Natalie’s Orange Juice – A touch sour, but otherwise this is a reasonably credible orange juice that leans a bit toward the grapefruit/lemon end of the flavor spectrum. B

Natalie’s Orange Mango Juice – Light on the mango, which gives this blend a bit of a banana character — complete with a creamier body, almost smoothie-like at times. A-

Natalie’s Orange Beet Juice – Appropriately “beety,” it tastes awfully healthy, although the intense vegetal character of the beets makes this hard to drink a full pint of. I love beets, but beet juice — even when cut with a bit of orange — remains an acquired taste. (It’s worth noting that orange juice is the first ingredient, however.) B-

Natalie’s Lemonade – Nothing to complain about here. This lemonade nails the sweet and sour balance perfectly, with a slight lean toward fresh lemon, just as it should be. A

Natalie’s Strawberry Lemonade – Well-sweetened, with a nice balance between lemon and strawberry notes. Refreshing and tart, with a slight creaminess on the finish. B+

Natalie’s Lemonade Tea – The Arnold Palmer is a simple drink, but the majority of the time it is made, it tastes like garbage. Why is this so often screwed up? Good news: Natalie’s nails it. This is just about the perfect mix of lemonade and tea, starting off with that tart lemon kick, then settling down to finish with that gentle, sweet tea that lingers on the palate. That said, there are 48 grams of sugar in a pint, so perhaps drink only occasionally. A

$NA per 16 oz. bottle / orchidislandjuice.com

Review: Beers of New Belgium, Late 2016 Releases

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New Belgium just doesn’t stop, and today we take a tour through eight new releases from the Colorado/North Carolina-based brewery, including two one offs and six beers that are part of its new “Collabeeration Pack,” comprising five collaborations plus the original from which they are all spun-off.

Let’s start with the sextet…

New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is the original Fat Tire, included as a reference point and, one presumes, because it’s a pretty good beer. Nicely honed after many years of release, this is a malty and slightly sweet beer that eschews raw cereal notes and gumminess in favor of a clean and satisfying palate that culminates in a lightly bitter, well-rounded finish. There’s nothing too complicated here but it’s a significant step above some of the mass-produced brews out there, and good enough to conceivably recommend in its own right. 5.2% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Avery Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Wild Ale – A wild and funky take on Fat Tire, with the addition of Brettanomyces yeast. Results: Big and malty, with just a hint of sour cream-‘n’-chives character. Some lightly fruity elements hit on the finish, along with a dose of balsamic and chewy forest-like notes. Interesting, for sure, and an interesting tiptoe in the direction of wild fermentation. 6.2% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Hopworks Urban Brewery Fat Tire and Friends Fat Sour Apple Ale – A funky cross between a sour and a cider, this beer tries to thread the needle with minimal success, starting off malty and chewy, then taking an abruptly sharp turn into cidertown. The finish is sour but more akin to the kraut variety than the apple one. 5.9% abv. C+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Firestone Walker Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Hoppy Ale – Definitely West Coast IPA “inspired,” this beer finds some new territory by mixing in notes of roasted nuts and a touch of coffee with a modestly bitter backbone that offers a glimpse of the forest, though it skips the juicy citrus notes you find in a typical IPA in favor of a more straightforward, earthy character. The overall impact is surprisingly drinkable, closer in the end to a British pale ale than anything else I can describe. 6.0% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Rhinegeist Brewery Fat Tire and Friends Fat Pale Ale – This Belgian-style XPA is relatively innocuous as this series goes, offering pushy malt notes with grassy, with overtones of coffee and hazelnuts. It’s a big and chewy beer with subtle sweetness. Belgian fans will get a kick out of it. 6.0% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Allagash Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Funk Ale – A bit less funky than you might expect, considering this is a bottle-conditioned Belgian style ale that’s been treated with Brett. Lightly sour, the beer offers musty sourness, orange rind, and bubbly malt, with an earthy finish that echoes both tobacco leaf and balsamic vinegar. You’ll know from all of that whether this one is up your alley. 5.6% abv. B- 

And now, two one-offs from New Belgium…

New Belgium + Hof ten Dormaal Golden Ale – From the “Lips of Faith” series comes this collaboration with a small Belgian brewery, which has resulted in a somewhat wild, very slightly sour golden ale that offers loads of heavy, nutty malt, plus notes of fresh apple and pear, very ripe (mushy) banana, honeysuckle, and baking spices. The finish is throat-coating and a bit funky, loaded with heavy yeast notes. 7.0% abv. B

New Belgium Heavy Melon Watermelon Lime Ale – Somewhat self-explanatory, this seasonal brew shows off crisp, malty notes up front that quickly segue into fruit character — surprisingly, more lime-focused than watermelon, with overtones of honeydew and nougat. I won’t call it “girl beer” but I can’t control what other people do. (I joke, ladies, and I fully recognize you are all capable and discriminating drinkers.) 5.0% abv. B

$17 per 12-pack / newbelgium.com

Tasting Chenin Blanc – Vouvray vs. South Africa, 2016 Releases

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Chenin blanc is not a grape that people ooh and ahh over. Typically it’s the cheap wine on the by-the-glass list that you select only because you don’t drink chardonnay and you just don’t trust that New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be dry enough before dinner.

Chenin blanc is best known in its home in the Loire Valley, but it is also the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Once used exclusively to make semi-sweet wines, chenin blanc today is primarily a dry wine style, though the finished product can be quite variable… as we’ll find out in just a moment, as we explore both the Loire’s Vouvray region and South Africa, to see how chenin blanc styles have evolved in both of these areas. (Spoiler: It’s incredibly random.)

2015 Clos du Gaimont Vouvray AOP – A fresh and lively wine, offering notes of pineapple, mango, and coconut, all atop a brisk, moderate-to-highly acidic and vaguely floral base. The finish evokes clementine oranges, with hints of fresh peaches. A / $20

2013 Domaine Vincent Carême Vouvray Le Peu Morier – A very pungent wine, perhaps the opposite of the Paul Buisse above. This one showcases a sour face, with notes of white wine vinegar, green grass, and wilting flowers. The finish is tart and reminiscent of sherry. While there are elements of this wine that are enjoyable due to their uniqueness, on the whole it’s too overpowering for my palate. An extreme example of “old world” winemaking. C+ / $38

2015 Terre Brulee Le Blanc Swartland South Africa – Immediately flabby on the palate, with dominant notes of melon, green pepper, and some baking spice elements. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of flavors, which might not be so bad, but the lack of any noteworthy acidity takes things out on a muddy note. C- / $16

2015 Indaba Chenin Blanc – A Western Cape wine, and an improvement over the Terre Brulee — better acid, with more interesting notes of grapefruit, mango, and white flowers. Altogether it’s a more classic chenin in structure that feels like it could be a lower-tier Vouvray. B+ / $11