Review: Cachaca 51

Cachaca-51Cachaca 51 is the best-selling brand of cachaca in Brazil, the home of this unique sugarcane-based spirit. That may not sound like a big deal, but according to the producer, they sell 240 million liters of the stuff annually, which makes it the second-biggest-selling spirits brand in the world. (Independent research does not seem to bear this out, but that’s largely irrelevant to our cause here — which is how it actually tastes.)

Cachaca 51 has the traditional fuel-like pungency of cachaca up front, but it’s folded in with some interesting notes of lime zest and lemongrass, tempering the petrol overtones considerably. The body is a bit sweeter than most cachacas, offering notes of light brown sugar, spearmint, and more citrus fruits — lime, especially — on the back end.

The palate is on the thin side and the finish is a bit saccharine, but mixed into a caipirinha or, well, anything else, that might actually work to its advantage.

80 proof.

B+ / $17 (1 liter) / geminispiritswine.com

Review: Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

Data Sheet Original Cask Strength copy

It’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of whiskies that flow from Islay’s Kilchoman, but this one really is unique: It’s the first official distillery bottling to be released at cask strength. (An ImpEx exclusive was also cask strength, but that was a just a single barrel. This release comprises 9,200 bottles.)

Production is simple for this release. All ex-bourbon-barreled whisky here, no sherry finishing, and all five years old. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

This is a big, briny, classically Islay whisky that sticks closely to the iodine-driven Kilchoman house style (at least its sans-sherry style). There’s a nice sweetness in the middle of this, some marshmallow, banana, and just a bit of pear on the back end. The finish offers up notes of smoked meats and peppery bacon — with ample fire driven by the high alcohol level. Good balance, and plenty of oomph thanks to the cask strength, but ultimately this doesn’t much change the overall picture that Kilchoman has painted to date.

118.4 proof.

B+ / $115 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Zarabanda

zarabandaWhat’s this? Acclaimed chef Jose Andres slumming it in the beer world? In Oregon?

Believe it or not, Andres and Deschutes have been collaborating for three years to come up with this: A spiced saison brewed with lemon verbena, pink peppercorns, sumac, and dried lime. Made with Vienna and Spelt malts (among others) along with Saaz hops, the beer is designed as a farmhouse-style brew. The name is inspired by the Spanish Saraband dance, which makes sense if you drink a sip or two.

Immediately exotic and funky, Zarabanda gets started with some mustiness that speaks more to earth and mushroom than to its intriguing aromatics. As the beer warms up a bit, it reveals some more of its fruity, herbal underpinnings. The pink peppercorn is a fun element, adding a gentle, smoky spice and some woodiness to the body. The citrus peel is the other noteworthy element here, adding not sweet lemon or lime notes but rather an additional herbal character that rolls around on the palate, seemingly for days.

Big, grassy, and loaded with oddball, avant-garde flavors — it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Andres to be involved with.

6.7% abv.

B / $NA (22 oz. bottle) / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey Lot 3

charbay R5_Lot3Three years back, Charbay released its first edition of Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey, a unique whiskey made from Racer 5 IPA. Last year, it struck again with Charbay R5 Lot 511A. Now there’s another version of R5 coming out. Lot 511B? No: This one is called Lot 3.

Confusing matters further, Lot 3 is aged for 28 months in French oak barrels. (The first edition was 22 months, Lot 511A was 29 months.) Otherwise, it’s made with the same production techniques, double pot distilled and bottled at 99 proof. Same price, too.

Not a lot seems to have changed from Lot to Lot with this spirit. The nose is pure IPA — evergreen notes, dusky sherry, and some mushroomy/hoppy notes. The body builds on this with a smokier-than-expected core, chewy ginger candy notes, and plenty on plenty of hops. As with the prior bottlings of R5, this is an unusual whiskey with a unique profile that’s unlike most anything else on the market. Big IPA fans will likely love it, while drinkers of more traditional whiskeys may find it a bit overpowering and odd in comparison to what they’re used to.

That said, it’s such an oddball offering that I recommend any whiskey fan give it a try and see for themselves.

B+ / $79 / charbay.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: NV Blandy’s Sercial Madeira 10 Years Old

Blandys Sercial 10 YearThis Sercial bottling of Blandy’s Madeira is a 10 year old expression of its driest style of Madeira. Here it takes on notes of dry apple cider, roasted nuts, and spiced raisins. The finish has a sharpness to it — think spiked, wintry mulled wine — leading to more spicy, almost perfumed, baked apple notes. An interesting expression in comparison to the younger, drier 5 year old Sercial from Blandy’s.

B+ / $30 (500ml) / blandys.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) and Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015)

Winter/spring seasonals from Deschutes have arrived — both can likely be considered 2014/2015 releases, but we did our best on pegging them to a release year in order to keep things organized for those searching through the archives. Thoughts follow.

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) – This heavily malted Northwest Pale Ale is immediately sweet from the start, with an almost maple syrup character to it. Less blatantly sugar-focused than I remember from prior bottlings, this expression also features slightly less alcohol, which helps to liven up the body a bit. Some orange flower and candied grapefruit notDeschutes-HopHengeIPA-Labeles emerge on the finish if you give it some time to warm up a bit. 6.2% abv. B+

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015) – This classic “IBU escalation” brew is now engaging in a bit of “abv escalation,” too. Last year’s Hop Henge was a “mere” 8.8% alcohol. Now it’s pushing 10%. Dropping from 99 IBUs to 90 hasn’t hurt: This year the beer is drinking with a nice balance of piney notes, grapefruit, and a touch of caramel sauce on the back end. I catch faint notes of baked apple and incense, as well, making this a more complex and, frankly, enjoyable beer than it’s been in recent years. 9.5% abv. A-

each about $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2015 Releases

rodney strong merlotRodney Strong’s mainstream releases for 2015 are hitting right about now.  We tasted a trio of its entry-level Sonoma County wines. Thoughts follow.

2013 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Buttery, but not overdone, this rich-and-creamy Chardonnay offers marshmallows atop notes of tropical fruit — pineapples, plus peaches. Some meaty character gives this some oomph, but none of the proceedings are entirely out of the ordinary. B / $17

2012 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – Slightly peppery on the nose, with notes of candied violets. The body is simple and easy, a pleasantly fruity wine that offers notes of raspberry and strawberry atop a very mild core. Nothing disagreeable whatsoever here, but the wine hardly challenges the senses. B+ / $20

2012 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A well-oiled Cab, studded with milk chocolate, raisins, and juicy blueberry notes. A gentle wine with a silky body and a short finish, you’d bow down to the restaurant that chose this for their “house cabernet,” but would probably kick yourself if you ordered it off the wine list. B / $20

rodneystrong.com

Review: Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu, Lychee Vodka, and Coconut Pandan Vodka

kai

Vietnam’s only vodka comes from Kai, which distills rice into both vodka and shochu (aka soju — it puts both names on the bottles), in a variety of flavors. Kai (slogan: “Taste the pleasure”) sent us three expressions of its Asian-inspired spirits for our investigation. Thoughts follow.

Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu/Soju – Very light and fragrant. The shochu starts with lemony notes and a heavy floral character on the nose. The body is moderately sweet, with plenty more of that flower-meets-citrus character throughout. The ginger kicks up at the end, but it’s more candylike than fresh ginger root. At just 24% alcohol, the spirit is lacking in heft but it makes up for it with that punchy, powerful fragrance. 48 proof. B+ / $30

Kai Lychee Vodka – Milder on the nose than expected, but the body is a fruity and largely authentic recreation of lychee fruit. Similar to, but not as sweet as elderflower, it offers perfumy aromatics and a surprisingly chocolaty finish that creeps up on you in time. Some mild astringency keeps this with one foot solidly in the vodkaverse and firmly away from the world of liqueurs. 70 proof. B+ / $35

Kai Coconut Pandan Vodka – Technically this reads “rice alcohol,” not vodka, but it’s really the same thing (and newer bottles appear to be updated to read vodka). Pandan is a tropical, palm-like tree that bears a fruit with some vanilla characters. The pandan gives this vodka a bit of an edge, turning the straight coconut notes into more of a savory, grilled-coconut affair, the equivalent of the coconut flavor you get in a Thai curry rather than an Almond Joy. More almond-focused than vanilla, it’s got a uniqueness you won’t find in other coconut vodkas, or even most coconut rums. 70 proof. A- / $35

kaivodka.com

Review: Samuel Adams Boston Lager plus Winter/Spring Seasonals

samadams-bostonlager--en--c2e3a813-e407-463c-bc95-efd9e8fda221The Boston Beer Company produces over 100 varieties of beer, but the biggest of them all is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Oddly, we’ve never reviewed it, but today we’re taking that opportunity, along with a look at three winter/spring seasonals now on the market. Thoughts follow.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager – The original (though surely it has changed considerably over the years as Sam Adams has grown). Technically a Vienna-style lager (along with many darker Mexican beers), this brew is malty and lightly hopped, making for a nicely balanced, yet slightly chewy brew. Bready with almost pretzel-like overtones, its long and savory yet quite simple finish makes it is surprisingly hard not to like. 4.9% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager – This winter wheat bock is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel, making for an appropriately festive winter brew that is nonetheless a touch overspiced. The cinnamon notes are a bit drying, the orange peel a bit too bitter. Lots of bready cereal character rumbles along on the finish, washing away much of the spice. Enjoyable enough in small doses, but not a favorite. 5.6% abv. B-

Samuel Adams Cold Snap – A spiced white ale (witbier) studded with orange peel, plum, and coriander. Jarring and heavily perfumed at the start, that strange, plum-driven sweetness keeps growing, compounding itself with the herbal character to reveal a flower petal character with a citrusy finish. Not a huge fan of this one. 5.3% abv. C-

Samuel Adams White Christmas – Another witbier, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel. More straightforwardly Christmasy than Cold Snap, White Christmas is easier-drinking, more full-bodied, and simply more enjoyable from start to finish. The citrus peel is understated and makes for a pleasant natural companion to the wheaty body, the baking spices just a mild dusting of sweetness that leaves behind a pleasant, frosty finish. 5.8% abv. B+

samueladams.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #6 – Ledaig 1997, Speyside Port Matured 2004

Ledaig

New indie Scotch bottlings are hitting now from The Exclusive Malts, we got two to try. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 1997 17 Years Old – Batch #5 featured a youthful 8 year old Ledaig (which is made at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull). This one’s over twice as old. Surprisingly pale for a whisky of this age, this Ledaig features soft peat notes that are laced into notes of crisp apple cider, fresh cereal, and barbecued meats. Well structured but with a featherweight body, the finish is seductive but not entirely lasting. I had expected more grip and power from a peated whisky of this age. 109.8 proof. B+ / $150

SpeysideThe Exclusive Malts Speyside Port Barrel Matured 2004 10 Years Old – Much like Batch #5’s Speyside bottling, this is also a mystery Speyside malt, sourced from a distillery “near Aberlour.” This 10 year old expression is matured in Port casks, making it an unusual offering in single malt world. Glorious from the start, if offers a nose of intense raisin, cloves, and gingerbread. The body punches those notes up even further, with gentle touches of cereal on the back end. God, look at that color! The Port has done an impressive job on this whisky, tempering the granary character and giving it a festive, holiday-like exuberance. Too bad it’s January. 115.4 proof. A / $110

impexbev.com