Review: Manhattan Moonshine

manhattan moonshineMoonshine connotes hillbillies cooking up corn in a crude oil drum still tucked away in the woods, high-test hooch bottled in a ceramic jug.

And then there’s Manhattan Moonshine, made “using a unique blend of four premium New York grains [including rye, spelt, and oats — but not corn] and innovative, modern production methods,” bottled in an art deco decanter, and on the shelves for 45 bucks. Decried already in a piece entitled “End times: Hipsters drinking craft moonshine,” this is white whiskey at its terminus, a product that offers an unaged spirit at four times the price of a bottle of Jim Beam. How does it stand up?

On the nose, Manhattan Moonshine offers some classic cereal character and plenty of raw alcohol, backed with notes of lemongrass and some oily sandalwood. On the palate, it’s surprisingly sweet — and gentle, considering the higher alcohol level. It doesn’t take long for the hallmarks of moonshine to come to the fore — intense cereal notes, some petrol character, and a pungent pepperiness. Some pet-like overtones — think about the smell when you walk into a veterinarian’s office, and I don’t mean that negatively — emerge with time. (Now, as I wrap up this tasting, it’s all I can think of.)

Overall, this is not a bad expression of moonshine (and a credible cocktail ingredient) in a market that is rife with overpriced rotgut. That said, at nearly $50 a bottle, it remains a tough sell no matter how fancy it looks.

95 proof.

B+ / $45 / manhattan-moonshine.com

Review: Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition Batch 15-3

balcones 1

Distiller Chip Tate may now be gone from Balcones, but they’re still turning out whiskey (er, “whisky,” here) at the Waco-based operation.

Balcones 1 — one of the distillery’s best-known spirits and a product that’s widely considered the best American-made single malt — is still being produced, and we got our hands on a post-Tate bottling which saw its way into glass only a month ago. Yes, Tate certainly had a heavy hand in the distillation and other facets of the creation of the spirit, but here’s a peek at the direction things are headed from here, a few months after Tate’s departure.

And that direction is… well, pretty much the same as it was during Tate’s reign, it seems.

I’ve had Balcones 1 on several occasions and this 2015 bottling doesn’t stray far from the course the spirit has been on for the last few years. Balcones 1 is officially released without an age statement, but it starts off in smallish 5-gallon new oak barrels before finding its way into larger tuns for marrying and blending. Finishing woods and ex-bourbon casks are sometimes used, I’ve read, but batches have evolved over the years and have varied widely in production methods, proof, and other details.

The most dominant part of Balcones 1 — this batch or any other — involves the influence of wood. The nose starts off with some butterscotch, raisin, and mint, but sniff on it for more than a few seconds and huge sawdust and lumberyard notes come to the fore. On the palate, Balcones 1 takes some time to settle down as the woody notes blow off a bit, ultimately revealing a toffee and treacle core, very dark chocolate notes, a touch of campfire ashes, and dried figs. The back end of the whisky is a big return to the lumberyard, where a monstrous, tannic, and brooding finish adds a touch of coffee grounds to the mix.

As far as American malt whiskeys — which have to be aged in new oak to be called straight malt or single malt due to TTB rules — go, Balcones 1 is near the top of the heap. But that’s a small heap and one that is stacked largely with whiskeys that aren’t terribly drinkable. New oak and malted barley simply aren’t easy companions, and it’s amazing that Balcones is able to do so much with two odd bedfellows like these. Consider me a fan — but a cautious one.

Reviewed: Batch 15-3; bottled 3-10-15. 106 proof.

B+ / $80 / balconesdistilling.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: DeLeon Tequila Reposado

Deleon ReposadoHey, remember P. Diddy’s blanco tequila, DeLeon? Well, now we’ve got the next step — DeLeon Reposado. This expression spends eight months in ex-bourbon and former French oak wine casks before bottling.

It’s a bit darker than most reposados due to the somewhat longer aging cycle, and the nose offers a light smoky character that you don’t often see in reposado tequilas. There’s lots more going on in that nose, which layers in notes of citrus, green banana, and lumberyard, with some tart and a bit off-balance vinegar character.

The body adds more complexity, but again it’s a touch out of balance. Notes of vanilla and oak are countered by some petrol overtones and an awful lot of acidity, again with notes of white wine vinegar. The overall character is peppery and punchy, which isn’t typically what I like to see in a reposado, where the wood should be holding its own against the agave.

It’s a curious and unique tequila that fans of the Mexican spirit should try, but the Platinum bottling is more assured.

80 proof.

B+ / $70 / deleontequila.com

Review: Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry and Gumption Hard Cider

Gumption six pack

It’s time for two new ciders from Vermont-based Woodchuck. Here they are.

Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry Hard Cider – Fresh apple melds with tart, sour cherry notes in this surprisingly balanced cider, which offers nothing unexpected aside from those two simple notes — apple to start, cherry to finish — but which drinks more like a grown-up soda than a typical cider. That said, it’s one of the better ciders I’ve experienced in recent memory thanks to its vibrant fruitiness. 5.5% abv. B+

Woodchuck Gumption Hard Cider – This cider, named in honor of an old-timey drink that P.T. Barnum pushed on his crowds, pairs dry and bittersweet cider apples with fresh apple juice from common “snack apples.” The result is a sweeter cider than most, a fresh-tasting brew that starts with some sweet caramel notes, moves into classic, tart cider character, then finishes with a touch crisp Granny Smith bite. Again, this has a nice balance — but of a much different sort than Cheeky Cherry — offering a kind of tour of the apple universe and a pleasantly summery finish. 5.5% abv. A-

each $9 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Review: Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey 8 Years Old

greenore

This single-grain whiskey is distilled at Cooley from a mash of 95% corn and 5% malted barley. Sound familiar? It’s the same whiskey as Teeling Single Grain, only Teeling is aged in wine barrels, while Greenore spends its eight years in bourbon casks.

The difference is striking. The richness and sweet vanilla of Teeling is harder to peg in the Greenore, which lets the grain do more of the talking here. Ripe banana starts things off, then more intense oatmeal/cereal notes rise to the top. The nose is especially redolent of corn meal and tortillas, with a dusting of marshmallow sweetness. Frosted Flakes? The finish is warm but soothing, with some peppery notes to balance out an echo of grain character.

Bottom line: This is the starting point for Irish single grain… or probably any single grain for that matter. Compare and contrast.

80 proof.

B+ / $45 / greenorewhiskey.com

Review: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com

Tasting the Brunellos of Col d’Orcia with Count Francesco Marone Cinzano

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I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day I get to have lunch with an honest to god Count. Frenceso Marone Cinzano runs the show at Col d’Orcia, where he has produced Brunello di Montalcino (amongst a number of other wines) since 1992. (His family has owned the estate since 1973.)

Cinzano visited San Francisco for a classically Italian lunch recently and he brought along a number of his wines, all made with estate fruit, dating back to 2001. Thoughts follow.

2012 Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino DOC – Very herbal on the nose, fresh cherries and some balsamic notes. Dense tannins emerge with woody notes. Rosemary and some bitter edges hit the finish. B / $25

2010 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Just released. This is much more lush and fruity, with a light body and a nice structure. Some black pepper notes amidst all the red berries. A- / $55

0222006 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Densely earthy with cassis and bay leaf notes. Long finish provides florals and rocky, earthy elements. Slight muddiness in the body with time in glass. A- / $150

2004 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Sweeter and fruitier on the nose, with some tropical and even coconut notes showing. Tart raspberry character is matched by smoky, leathery notes on the finish. A- / $150

2001 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – An exceptional wine. Perfect balance of fruit and earth, with dense cassis and blueberry really enveloping the wine. The finish is epic, with light herbs, blackberries, and no end in sight to the opulence. Fantastic from start to finish. A+ / $160

2010 Col d’Orcia “Nearco” Sant’Antimo DOC – A blend of 50% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, and 5% petit verdot. Lots of density here, with chocolate, licorice, and a woody finish. B+ / $45

2009 Col d’Orcia “Olmaia” Sant’Antimo DOC – 100% cabernet sauvignon. Fresh herbs — sage and thyme — with lots of dark fruit notes. Currants and vanilla galore nudge this toward a California style. A- / $77

 

coldorcia.com

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Review: Wines of La Merika, 2015 Releases

La Merika Cab bottle 001All of a sudden these La Merika wines are everywhere I look. Bottled by Delicato, these are affordable, bulk wines produced primarily in the California Central Coast region. You probably won’t pick one up at Ruth’s Chris, but with a couple of these bottlings, you could do worse.

2013 La Merika Pinot Grigio Monterey – As pale a wine as I’ve ever seen, this Pinot Grigio offers a nose of canned pears, with a touch of ammonia. The body is lightly tropical with more old/canned fruit notes, and a heavily bittersweet finish that recalls dried, faded herbs that have been sitting in the cupboard for the last decade. Largely unpleasant. D+ / $13

2013 La Merika Chardonnay Central Coast – A standard-grade Chardonnay with reasonable fruit and modest oak, a perfectly acceptable everyday/party wine that will excite no one but offend none, either. Mild citrus and a touch of tropical character add at least some nuance. B- / $13

2012 La Merika Pinot Noir Central Coast – Traditional cherries on the nose, plus some vanilla — this leads to a slightly oversweet but also surprisingly smoky palate, which ultimately fades away to a bittersweet note on the finish. Notes of cola add something to the otherwise somewhat watery palate. C / $15

2012 La Merika Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast – Surprisingly not at all bad. Ample fruit, with currents and raspberries, with a little dusting of chocolate underneath. Vanilla notes emerge with time, but the wine manages to stay out of jam territory while still keeping the tannins very lean. There’s no real complexity, but there’s nothing offensive about it at all. Again, a surprisingly great value. B+ / $15

lamerika.com [BUY THEM NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Review: Gordon Biersch Maibock

GB Maibock_BottleGordon Biersch’s latest seasonal is this German-style Maibock, a beer that’s close to Dan Gordon’s heart and which translates to “bock beer of May.” Says GB: “The malty, German-style lager gets its flavor from heavy doses of dark roasted caramel malt. Originally brewed in the 14th century in the Lower Saxony town of Einbeck, it quickly became so popular in the South that Bavarian brewers actually enticed a brewer to relocate and ply his trade in their region.”

The caramel notes are what really define this beer, which balances some winey notes with the essence of salted caramel on the nose. There’s some sweetness on the palate along with a little Madeira character and a heavily malty, slightly mushroomy body. Notes of peanut shells on the finish.

Fun stuff, and a good choice for something “serious” to drink amidst the usual summertime fare.

7.3% abv.

B+ / $9 per six-pack / gordonbiersch.com

Review: Far North Spirits Solveig Gin and Alander Spiced Rum

solveig ginYou’re a Minnesota-based craft distiller that names its products after Scandinavian words. For your first two products, what do you release? You nailed it: Gin and spiced rum, just what our friends from the north are known for!

Kidding aside, Far North (technically Får North, which would be pronounced “for north,” but never mind) produces craft spirits in some really beautiful, minimalist, Scanditastic packaging. While the company now boasts five spirits in its stable, here’s a look at the first two out of the gate.

Far North Spirits Solveig Gin – Pronounced soul-vai. Distilled from Minnesota rye and flavored with juniper, grapefruit, thyme, and other undisclosed botanicals. This is an update on our original review, which we removed when Far North said we received a bad batch of its gin tainted by problems from a bad water purifier. With round two, I’m not noticing any of the funky, methane-and-rubber characteristics I got in the bad batch. Rather, this bottle of Solveig is surprisingly light and almost tart on the nose — with notes of lemongrass, grapefruit, mixed florals, and white pepper coming to the fore. Some earthier elements emerge on the nose with time in glass. The juniper is dialed way back from start to finish, though; some gin drinkers may find this pushed too far into the citrus world, and some lavender notes, particularly strong on the body, are not going to be for everyone. But the fruitier elements are engaging and refreshing, just dusted a bit with perfume to take things to a clean and enchanting finish. 87 proof. B+ / $30

Far North Spirits Alander Spiced Rum – (oh-lander) Louisiana sugar cane spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves — plus a hint of espresso(!). This is a much more capable spirit, but it’s incredibly exotic for this category. Things start out with gentle sweetness before diving into some exceptionally sultry, savory spice notes. That espresso hits you immediately — more cocoa nib than ground coffee — while the cloves and allspice play a strong supporting role. The body is far more bitter than you might expect from a spiced rum, almost to the point of astringency at times. It takes some doing, but the finish manages to dial it back a bit. Here, gentle notes of sweetness finally re-emerge, the way a bite of too much cinnamon can initially be overwhelming but eventually settle down into something nostalgic and soothing. 86 proof. B / $30

farnorthspirits.com