Review: 2014 Apothic Inferno

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What hath Robert Mondavi wrought? Wines aged in whiskey barrels are following its lead and pouring out of the woodwork, the latest being this California blend, which is aged for 60 days in ex-whiskey barrels. The particulars of the whiskey are a mystery, as is the wine itself. Not that it really matters — no grape could withstand the assault of two months of heavily-charred ex-bourbon casks, though the zinfandelishness of this offering makes a strong case for that varietal.

Tasting notes are hardcore: Prune, dried red berries, wet leather, chewing tobacco, and pulverized dried figs. A big vanilla-heavy and maple syrup-infused sweetness hits hard on the lengthy and overpowering finish, reminding one of the whiskey casking the wine has undertaken. As for the 15.9% alcohol level, well, best not to think about that too much.

As trends go, this one has yet to make much of a positive impression.

C- / $12 / apothic.com

Review: Smirnoff Ice Electric Mandarin and Berry

smirnoff ice electric berry

Leave it to Smirnoff to invent a whole new category of booze. As it did with Smirnoff Ice, now the company as it it again with Smirnoff Ice Electric. Available at first in two flavors, Ice Electric is a non-carbonated beverage that comes in a resealable, 16-ounce plastic bottle. It looks like a Gatorade because it’s supposed to look like one, the idea being that you get hydration and a little buzz in a package that you can still take to the beach and sip on from time to time. The alcohol inside is non-carbonated malt liquor, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

As with a real Gatorade, these are beverages better identified by color rather than ingredient, designed not to dazzle an audience but to liven up outdoor festivities. Do people care whether or not their fruity malt beverages are fizzy? I’m not sure… but I’m willing to at least give Ice Electric a try.

Both are 5% abv.

Smirnoff Ice Electric Mandarin – Tastes largely as expected, like orange Kool-Aid with a slightly bitter edge from the alcohol. Only semi-sweet, it is fortunately restrained on the sugar front, letting a lemon-lime character take hold on the finish. B-

Smirnoff Ice Electric Berry – The “blue” flavor. A general raspberry/strawberry mix, slightly sweeter but more artificial tasting than the Mandarin, and a bit funkier on the finish. It’s not really offensive, but like the Mandarin, not entirely memorable, either. C-

each $8 per 15.9 oz. bottle / smirnoff.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

Review: Dark Corner Distillery World’s Best Moonshine and Whiskey Girl Flavored Whiskeys

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Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville, South Carolina is the home of a number of youthful whiskey products, including an unaged moonshine and a series of flavored whiskeys bottled under the Whiskey Girl (aka Whiskeygirl) brand. All of this is distilled and bottled at Dark Corner’s Greenville operation.

Four reviews — the aforementioned moonshine and three flavored whiskeys — follow.

Dark Corner Distillery The World’s Best Moonshine – The “corn whiskey” moniker on the label doesn’t tell the whole story; this clear spirit is made from a mash of corn, red wheat, and barley. The nose is both rubbery and corny, classically moonshine — which is to say, not all that compelling. The body is lightly sweet but with plenty of popcorn, with a racy but not fiery finish that is shaded with black pepper, cinnamon, and ample hospital character. “World’s best” may be pushing it. 100 proof. B- / $32

Dark Corner Distillery Whiskey Girl Peach Flavored Whiskey – This (along with the following two reviews) is naturally flavored corn whiskey; I presume the whiskey is unaged (though this is not specified by the company) and that the color is derived from caramel or other flavoring agents. It’s oozing with peach candy notes, both fruity and sweet on the nose in equal proportions — plus a little milk chocolate, too. The body however is downright overloaded with sweetness, punchy with candy notes melting onto the tongue. It’s a peach-heavy spirit as promised (with no whiskey notes to be found), and it’s pleasant enough at first, but the finish is rubbery and lingers for far too long. 70 proof. C- / $28

Dark Corner Distillery Whiskey Girl Apple & Maple Flavored Whiskey – The nose is indistinct, neither particularly apple nor maple but rather just vaguely fruit-syrupy. The maple syrup notes break through first, hitting the palate like Sunday morning. On the tongue, apple is more elusive, but there if you hunt for it in the form of baked apple crisp, complete with cinnamon and crumbly crust. It’s hardly a nuanced product, but I can see this being a big hit at dollar shot night. The lower abv helps. 60 proof. B / $28

Dark Corner Distillery Whiskey Girl Butterscotch Flavored Whiskey – I saved the most brazenly candylike product for last, and for good reason — it’s a sugar-coated monster from start to finish. I’m unclear how butterscotch is created with “all natural ingredients,” but I’m not sure the answer really matters. The end product here is overpowered with weird chemical flavors, hospital notes, and an intensely sweet, syrupy, funky finish. The furthest thing from “whiskey” I can imagine. 70 proof. D / $28

darkcornerdistillery.com

Review: 2012 Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru

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“Affordable Bordeaux” is always a loaded term, and this release from Lassegue’s second label shows why. A very simplistic wine, it exudes a heavily earthy and vegetal character, with notes of truffle, tobacco, and green beans. The body is surprisingly thin, while the finish is thick with a canned vegetable aftertaste.  It has a few brief moments of brightness somewhere in the middle of all that, but they’re decidedly fleeting.

C- / $25 / chateau-lassegue.com

Review: Mulberry Club Fruit Brandies

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Regions like Albania and Azerbaijan are known primarily for their brandies — though few of these bottles ever make it to our shores. Two that did come from Mulberry Club, and Azerbaijani producer of fruit brandies. The company sent us two to sample, one made from local cherries and another, of course, from mulberries.

Both are 100 proof. Thoughts follow.

Mulberry Club Mulberry Brandy – Intense and funky on the nose, with notes of raw alcohol, fruit pits, and petrol. Give it some time to let the more astringent elements blow off — think pisco — and gentle fruit notes emerge. It’s slightly citrusy, with heavy herbal overtones, featuring notes of black tea, nutmeg, and cloves. The finish remains a bit rubbery, with hospital overtones. Heavy stuff. C-

Mulberry Club Cornelian Cherry Brandy – Similar aromas as described above — with young brandy there’s not much way around it — but the body offers significantly more fruit and less funk, right from the start. It isn’t particularly identifiable as cherry, but more as a vague berry salad by way of some hot, hot heat. Relatively clean on the finish with just a touch of cereal notes, though quite warming. B

prices $NA / website NA

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

Reviewing Gluten-Free Beer: Coors Peak Golden Lager and Copper Lager

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Despite the science, the “gluten-free” movement still refuses to go away, so that sea of footnotes indicating glutenlessness continues to mar restaurant menus, and gluten-free alternatives to regular products continue to line grocery shelves. Including gluten-free beer.

Beer is traditionally made from barley, which is loaded with gluten, so making a beer without gluten presents some thorny issues. While you can use magic science to remove gluten from beer, if the raw ingredients ever had gluten in them, you can’t call the finished product “gluten free.” To get around that issue, Coors turned to our gluten-free friend, rice. The Coors Peak beers include brown rice malt, brown rice, protein from peas, hops, and caramel sugar. Pea-based protein? Well if that doesn’t sound refreshing, I don’t know what does!

Now, “gluten-free” anything does not have a major association with “great-tasting,” so even if Peak is the “best gluten-free beer,” that may be damning it with faint praise. That caveat aside, let’s find out where these brews stand. Note: Both are available only in Portland and Seattle. Sorry, Tennessee!

Coors Peak Golden Lager – Initially malty and fairly fresh, things quickly take a turn for the worse as that traditional, slightly sweet, lager body takes an acidic and unnatural turn, offering vegetal notes, some mushroom, and a weird Band-Aid character that lingers forever on the finish. 5% abv. C-

Coors Peak Copper Lager – While the Golden Lager could pass for a traditional beer if you squint your taste buds, the Copper Lager, a redder beer that seems to have more caramel sugar in it, is an entirely different monster. Caramel-heavy and quite sweet, it overwhelms with a saccharine faux-malt note then fades out with notes of stale popcorn, raw carrots, and ash. Awful. 4.7% abv. F

each $7 per six pack / coorspeak.com

Review: Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK American Brandies

Craftwerk Bottle Lineup

American brandymaker Copper & Kings is up to something wild with this line of four new brandies, each of which is aged not in old bourbon barrels or new oak but rather barrels that come from craft beer companies. Each of these four bottlings spends 12 months in a different beer barrel; the resulting brandy bears the name of the brewery on its label.

We sampled all four of these unique spirits. Thoughts on each follow.

Each is bottled at 111 proof.

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK 3 Floyds “Dark Lord” Russian Imperial Stout – Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds provides stout barrels for this experiment. Immediate notes of chocolate and cloves arrive on the nose — there’s definitively the essence of a stout here — along with a significant and dusty wood influence. This expands on the palate, eventually becoming almost overwhelming. I like the slightly smoky, sweet-and-savory notes on the nose considerably more than the palate, but both make for an interesting spin on brandy — something that feels like what Kentucky would come up with if you gave them a pot of molasses to work with. B

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Sierra Nevada Smoked Imperial Porter – Straight outta Chico, California, C&K uses a smoked porter from Sierra Nevada instead of the expected IPA. This brandy exudes a strong nuttiness alongside some chocolate notes. Although the nose is restrained, the body showcases more flavor, a stronger focus, and a better balance than most of this field. Cocoa-dusted walnuts, some juicy raisin notes, and a hint of baking spice give this brandy some real staying power — and a character that feels closer to a real brandy than some of the other expressions here. A-

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Oskar Blues “G’Knight” and “Deviant Dale’s” Imperial IPA – This brandy spends time in two different types of IPA barrels from Oskar Blues’ Brevard, NC facility. I was skeptical that a bitter, hoppy beer like an Oskar Blues’ IPA would be a good companion to brandy, and I was right. This combination doesn’t work all that well, kicking things off with a sweet and spicy attack that is almost immediately dampened by a hugely bitter, earthy element. As it evolves on the tongue, that bitterness becomes overwhelming and enduring, sticking to the back of the throat with a fiery and vegetal character that comes together with a character akin to fresh cigarette ash. Water is an absolute must with this one.. C-

Copper & Kings CR&FTWERK Against the Grain “Mac Fanny Baw” Peated Scottish Ale – Finally, it’s a peated Scottish ale from Louisville, Kentucky whose barrel is the final vessel for this brandy. Peat and brandy didn’t sound like a natural fit, but on the nose this brandy gives up few clues about how it will all come together. The aroma is at first hard to place, offering a variety of herbal notes that evoke an aged gin more than a brandy. The body is a bit whiskeylike, but unlike the more bourbon-like Dark Lord expression above this one is by way of Islay as you might expect (and hope). That doesn’t entirely correspond to a perfectly balanced body, the smokiness of the peat playing somewhat unhappily with the base spirit, giving the ultimate combination something closer to an essence of rotting fruit and some raw vegetal notes. C+

each $50 / copperandkings.com

Review: Woodchuck Cherry Barrel Aged, Day Chaser, and Campfire Pancakes Hard Cider

 

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Three new seasonals from nonstop cider-churner Woodchuck. Let’s dive in to three very different expressions!

Woodchuck Private Reserve Cherry Barrel Aged Hard Cider – Made from Michigan cherries and aged in Napa cabernet sauvignon barrels. Crisp and tart cherry from start to finish, with just a hint of nutty character and some malt for backbone. On the palate, more of the same, plus a modest vanilla note to give it some sweetness. Almost overpowering at first, this cider eventually settles into a groove that works quite well… provided you’re into cherries, that is. 6.9% abv. B+ / $11 per six-pack

Woodchuck Day Chaser Semi-Dry Hard Cider – A semi-dry style made from a mix of apple varieties, this is a harmless and only slightly sweet cider. The body evokes a pear flavor predominantly, with some minor floral elements. Mostly it comes across as a watery version of the sweeter stuff — Cider Lite, perhaps? 5.5% abv. B- / $8 per six-pack

Woodchuck Campfire Pancakes Smoked Maple Hard Cider – You can smell the reek of maple syrup from across the room the minute this is cracked open. While the body isn’t quite as sweet as that entry would telegraph, it is tough to get past much of anything else as one attempts to sip away at this Frankenstein of a cider (slight apple fizz on the finish notwithstanding). 5.5% abv. C- / $8 per six-pack

woodchuck.com

Review: BG Reynolds Tiki Cocktail Mixers

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Tiki drinks are some of the most iconic cocktails anywhere, but they’re so complicated to make that few people bother at home. The typical Mai Tai has five or six ingredients. The Zombie: More than 10. I never make these drinks myself, and it’s my job.

So, how about a shortcut, courtesy of syrup-maker BG Reynolds? BG is expanding its repertoire from simpler syrups into more complex but (almost) alcohol-free tiki mixers — just add rum ad you’re ready to go.

Each is made in small batches from natural ingredients (which you’ll note during the considerable amount of settling each undergoes after a few days of sitting idle). Shelf stable at purchase, the 750ml bottles can be refrigerated for up to 90 days after opening.

Thoughts on the three inaugural mixers follow.

BG Reynolds Mai Tai Cocktail Mixer – A mix of sugar, orange juice, lime juice, almonds, and various flavorings. Straight up, it showcases lime-heavy citrus and lots of gooey almond/marzipan notes, which together give it an interesting banana kick. Fortunately, the orange juice (not a Mai Tai ingredient, though orange liqueur is) doesn’t overwhelm the beverage. The addition of rum (I used Cruzan Single Barrel) tends to dominate the mix, so dial it back and shake well, which lets the vanilla in the rum shine alongside the almond sweetness. While the color is a bit too mustardy (due to the OJ) vs. the typically brown shade of the usual Mai Tai, the drink is full of flavor and tastes surprisingly authentic, making this a huge winner that works well. A- / $16

BG Reynolds Zombie Punch Cocktail Mixer – A mix of sugar, grapefruit juice, lime juice, pomegranate juice, Angostura bitters, overproof rum, and spices/flavorings. (The mixer is still under 0.5% alcohol, despite the inclusion of rum in the mix.) On the palate, cloves completely dominate — which is odd, because the traditional Zombie does not have cloves in the recipe. They’re so prominent it’s hard to taste much of anything else, but some vague citrus later on at least recalls grapefruit. Mixing with overproof rum as specified (I used Cruzan Clipper 120) turns this into a Christmas monstrosity, overflowing with cloves and gingerbread and the pungent petrol that overproof rum usually brings. I’m not sure what this is, but it’s not a Zombie that I recognize, nor anything that I could imagine drinking a full glass of. C- / $16

BG Reynolds Jet Pilot Cocktail Mixer – A mix of grapefruit juice, sugar, lime juice, Angostura bitters, overproof rum, and spices/flavorings. The functional flavor here is allspice — a cinnamon/clove mix that is pungent but is immediately more approachable than the Zombie mix. Standard, not overproof, rum is specified as the mixer here (I used the Cruzan Single Barrel again), and its addition brings the cocktail to a more satisfying balance. The cinnamon still dominates, but the tart citrus gives it some backbone. That said, the herbal aftertaste is enduring and a bit much, after a while. B / $16

bgreynolds.com

Tasting Affordable Bordeaux, 2016 Releases

grand-vin-de-reignac-2006Bordeaux means money, pure and simple. Or is it? There’s plenty of affordable Bordeaux out there, and while quality can be hit and miss, if you take the time to sift through the market, you can find some gems.

Here’s a sampling of five affordable Bordeaux wines — two whites and three reds. Affordabordeaux? No?

Starting with white wines…

2013 Chateau La Freynelle Bordeaux Blanc – Sauvignon blanc, semillon, and muscadelle compose this awfully tart white, a sour apple-infused wine with ammonia overtones. The finish offers fruit with just a touch of tropical character, but by and large it’s a bit too tart for easy enjoyment. C / $12

2014 Augey Bordeaux Blanc – 75% sauvignon blanc and 25% semillon. Not bad, a fresh but simple wine showcasing lemon and some apple fruit, with floral notes on the finish. Just a hint of sweetness gives it easy drinkability without veering into plonk. B+ / $9

And now the reds…

2009 Domaine de Montalon Bordeaux Superieur – A classically funky wine that exhibits everything people dislike about Bordeaux wines: mushrooms galore, forest floor, old dirt… this is rustic stuff that would be more interesting if the body wasn’t so thin to the point of wateriness. A miss. C- / $17

2013 Chateau Genins Bordeaux – Pungent, with a slightly sour character that recalls unripe blackberries and balsamic vinegar. The short and tart finish fades as quickly as it arrives. C / $11

2012 Grand Vin de Reignac Bordeaux Superieur – Merlot heavy. Easily the best red of the bunch (but also the most expensive), a full-bodied sipper with dark currants and notes of dark chocolate, moderate tannins, some black pepper, and a lengthy, silky finish. Nothing fancy, really, but exactly what an inexpensive Bordeaux ought to taste like. B+ / $25