Review: McMenamins Billy Whiskey and Aval Pota Apple Whiskey

BillyWhiskey_4

In the Portland area (and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington), McMenamins is a bit of an institution. Operating dozens of restaurants and some two dozen breweries, the bar/pub/dining destination is also home to two different microdistilleries, which have been running since 1998: Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery in Hillsboro and Edgefield Distillery in Troutdale.

At these locations, the company uses copper pot and column stills to manufacture spirits for sale exclusively at a handful of McMenamins locations. (These include numerous whiskeys, two gins, two rums, three herbal liqueurs (coffee, hazelnut and herbal), and several brandies.) Thoughts on two of the company’s whiskeys follow.

McMenamins Billy Whiskey – Made primarily from a wheat-based mash (malt barley makes up the rest), Billy Whiskey is pot distilled then aged for two years in new oak barrels before bottling. The nose is youthful but not brash, with ample cereal notes touched with popcorn, vanilla, and the heavy, young wood elements that are wholly characteristic of young whiskeys like this. The palate has more to chew on, if you will. Notes of caramel apple, mixed nuts, Cracker Jack, and banana bread come on strong here. While the finish is lightly cerealed and a bit racy, it’s just mature enough for easy sipping, and just complex enough for lasting enjoyment. 87 proof. B / $35 / mcmenamins.com

aval potaMcMenamins Edgefield Distillery Aval Pota – Made in a column still, this is apple flavored whiskey inspired by Irish poitin. Made from malted barley then infused with fresh apples and a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon, it is bottled with no aging information. The nose is very heavy on the apples, though its closer to applesauce than apple pie. Appealing, it invites exploration on the palate, but here things start to break down. The initial apple rush is sweeter than expected, but that doesn’t last long, as a sizable alcoholic burn quickly takes over. A bit raw and punchy, it quickly washes away the apple and leaves behind an indistinct medicinal character. 66 proof. C / $26 / mcmenamins.com

Review: Angry Orchard Cinnful Apple Hard Cider

angry orchard cinnful appleAny product that tries to pull off the play on words by subbing “cinn” (meaning cinnamon) for “sin” is already off to a bad start, and Angry Orchard’s cinnamon-infused apple cider doesn’t do much to change directions. The light touch of cinnamon on this cider — evident primarily on midpalate as just a dusting of Cinnabon flavor — ultimately does little to change the overall impact of the cider, which presents itself as a typically appley/muddy concoction that just tastes too much like Spring Break for me.

5% abv.

C / $8 per six-pack / angryorchard.com

Review: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Mixers

cascade iceMixers are getting a bad rap of late, what with all the added sugar and extra calories they add to your glass. Here’s a new brand of no-cal, flavored, sparkling waters: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Sparkling Water. They all contain pear juice — but not enough to give the drinks a single calorie, about 1% — and are sweetened with sucralose, sometimes to within an inch of their lives.

31 flavors are now available. We tasted five, all of which are some shade of pink or purple. Can you really mix with these? You be the judge. (Oddly, Cascade Ice didn’t send us their actual mixers like Margarita and Mojito flavors, so you’ll just have to read about these fruit-centric ones instead.

Cascade Ice Blueberry Watermelon – Impossibly sweet, with essence of watermelon Jolly Rancher. C-

Cascade Ice Strawberry Banana – Veers more toward the banana side of things, with a sweet-tart finish. Also impossibly sweet. C

Cascade Ice Cranberry Pomegranate – Incredibly sweet, but more of a classic cocktail mixer than the other flavors here. Tastes much like any cran-whatever mixer. Used sparingly, could be acceptable in a low-cal cosmo. C+

Cascade Ice McIntosh Apple – That’s a pretty specific type of apple, ain’t it, Cascade Ice? The resulting beverage is slightly caramelly, with a touch of crisp apple coming along on the finish. Less sweet than many of those above, but still overpowering. C+

Cascade Ice Huckleberry Blackberry – Who’s your huckleberry? This easy winner in the Cascade Ice lineup, which balances the sugar with tart berry notes — though which berries are a bit tough to place. This is the only one among the group that I could drink straight, and which, used sparingly, would make for the most interesting cocktail companion with its nodes toward creme de cassis. B

each about $2.50 (17.2 oz.) / cascadeicewater.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Austerity 2013 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

austerity winesTwo new bottlings from Austerity, a Monterey County-based operation. Thoughts follow.

2013 Austerity Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – Classic SoCal Point structure, rich with cherry jam and strawberry preserves. But the flabby body and overly sweetened finish mar an initially appealing character. Notes of tea leaf and coffee bean add a touch of mystery, at least. B / $17

2013 Austerity Chardonnay Arroyo Seco – An unfortunate misfire. The nose smells just fine, typical of California Chardonnay with buttery, woody, fruit. The body starts off with brisk apple and vanilla notes, but this quickly takes a turn into less delightful character, with notes of canned fruit, sugar syrup, and aluminum foil. Meh. C / $17

cecchettiwineco.com

Review: 2013 Burbank Ranch Arneis and Grenache Rose

burbank ranch Grenache RoseTwo new releases from Paso Roble’s Burbank Ranch Winery. Thoughts follow.

2013 Burbank Ranch Arneis Little Rascal Paso Robles – Densely herbal and laden with notes of lemon peel, with overtones of marshmallow fluff. The strong notes of sage and rosemary carry over into the finish — which is lasting and lightly bitter. C / $29

2013 Burbank Ranch Grenache Rose Picnic Meadow Paso Robles – Fresh strawberry on the nose, with a side of herbal notes. Floral elements (perfumy rose petals, mainly) take hold on the midpalate, digging on to the end, where a bitter edge becomes evident. B / $24

burbankranch.com

Review: Fall 2014 Pumpkin Beer Blowout

  • magic hat wilhelm scream
  • red hook pumpkin porter
  • alaskan Pumpkin Porter 12oz_Bottle_WET
  • 21a pumpkin spiced

October is here, and that means everyone and his sister is putting pumpkin into beer in honor of the arrival of autumn. For some, pumpkin brews are something they wait for urgently all year long. For others, a pumpkin beer is something you enjoy precisely once and quietly wait for the season to pass. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle… mainly because it depends on what’s inside the specific bottle.

Here’s a look at four new pumpkin beers vying for your gourdly attention this fall.

Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream Pumpkin Ale – If you aren’t familiar with the Wilhelm Scream, you can read all about it here. I expect that will not alter your enjoyment of Magic Hat’s first ever pumpkin beer in any way, though. This ale drinks with burly, brown, fall-friendly flavors, only one of which is a dusting of pumpkin. Cloves and cinnamon, ginger, and some earthier notes tend to dominate. Overall it’s quite dry, with chewy, nougaty maltiness pushing through to the finish. 5.4% abv. B / $9 per 6-pack

Redhook Brewery Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter – A spiced dark ale made with maple syrup, this is a very dark and brooding brew, quite the opposite of the relatively light bodied Wilhelm Scream. Deeply malty, the maple syrup adds a viscosity to the beer that coats the mouth like a barrel-aged porter. The clove character is on point here, but any sense of pumpkin is pushed well into the background. For fans of traditional, British-style dark brews. 5.8% abv. B / $10 per 6-pack

Alaskan Brewing Co. Pumpkin Porter – Quite bitter, but almost gooey with raw malt syrup notes. The malt overpowers anything else in the beer — including brown sugar and burnt pumpkin notes that don’t quite integrate with the rest of the beer. Difficult balance, with a finish that is not at all refreshing. Save for winter. 7% abv. C+ / $1.60 per bottle

21st Amendment/Elysian He Said Baltic-Style Porter – Collaborative brew project. An epic alco-bomb (and a lager, by the way) with a nose further from anything autumnal than the rest of the lineup here. Lots of malt, wood and cardboard notes, wet earth, mushroom, and some green vegetable notes. No pumpkin character to speak of. 8.2% abv. C / $9 per 4-pack (cans)

Review: Bolla Prosecco and Sparkling Rose

BL_Prosecco_DOCBolla makes wines in a wide range of qualities, but these sparklers decidedly tip the lowest end of the price scale. Thoughts follow.

NV Bolla Prosecco Treviso DOC –  100% Glera grapes. Harmless, with a moderate level of carbonation and fruit right from the start. The body offers big apple and pear notes, touches of grapefruit, and a finish reminiscent of creamy vanilla wafers. Like many budget Proseccos, it is simultaneously unmemorable and wholly drinkable on a hot day. B / $10

NV Bolla Sparkling Rose Wine – Don’t call it Prosecco: This sparkler is merely from “Italy” (actually the Veneto region, the very home of Prosecco) and is made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Raboso grapes. Very light fizz. Very fruity, with strong peach overtones and notes of cotton candy. The sugary sweetness goes on for days. It’s not sparkling white zinfandel, but it’s edging dangerously close to that territory. C / $12

bolla.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon Warehouse Floor Experiments

Buffalo Trace Warehouse Floor Experiment

More tinkering in the form of experimental whiskeys from the mad scientists at Buffalo Trace. This is one of the company’s most interesting and telling ones to date: Three 12-year-old, rye-heavy bourbons each aged on a different floor of Buffalo Trace’s massive Warehouse K (floors 1, 5, and 9). Warehouse K is built of brick, with wooden floors (because that seems to matter, too).

The same Bourbon, in the same building, just aged on a different floor. Why on earth would the aging floor matter? Simple, as any middle school science student can tell you: Heat rises. The lower floors are relatively cool. The top floors are scorching hot. This impacts aging in a direct and profound way — in part, because water and alcohol evaporate at different temperatures. (That said, all three of these whiskeys are bottled at 90 proof to make comparisons considerably easier.)

And so, how do these compare side by side by side? Let’s take a look…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #1 – Aged on the bottom floor. Some funky notes of olives and green pepper hit the nose at first, with plenty of sweet stuff riding on its coattails. The palate is sharp and fiery, with elements of burnt butter, cayenne, and ample sawdust in contrast to its toffee notes. Balance is a mess, flavors hitting you from every which way. C

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #5 – Aged right in the middle, but is it the Goldilocks of the group? It’s not as different as you might expect, those olive notes still hanging on, but to a much less powerful degree. Floor #5 settles down much more fully and quickly, revealing more of a rounded butter toffee note that’s fused with a melange of cloves, candied pineapple, and lumberyard notes. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, but overall more palatable and approachable than Floor #1. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #9 – From the hot top floor, where some of BT’s blue chip Bourbons, like George T. Stagg, are sourced. This is clearly the best of the bunch, featuring toasted marshmallows and more gentle wood notes on the nose, followed by a body that is lush with brown sugar sweetness, cinnamon and cloves, vanilla caramels, and cake frosting. Gorgeous in structure, and radically different than the other two installments in this series. Grab it if you find it! A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Town Branch Bourbon

Town_Branch_Bourbon__65405_zoomFull confession: the first batch of this stuff was so bereft of quality, it was not uncommon to passive-aggressively serve generous pours to irritating house guests in hopes of expediting its stay on the shelf to the recycling bin. A few years since its initial release, reconsideration is warranted; with the hopes of quality control finally living up to its purpose.

As usual, a bit of context: Town Branch is made by AllTech, not a small family operation as you might expect by that folksy company name but rather a large conglomerate specializing in animal feed and nutrition. The company also makes a reasonably tasty bourbon-barreled stout and ale. Town Branch takes it namesake from the body of water on which the city of Lexington was founded, and boasts to be the first (legally) produced bourbon within the city limits in quite some time. It also has a rather limited distribution chain, so availability no doubt plays into its cachet. The mashbill is also somewhat peculiar in that it meets the 51% corn standard, but it uses only malted barley as the secondary ingredient, eschewing the traditional wheat or rye.

The color is a wonderful amber hue behind rather pleasant packaging: the bottle is gorgeous, the label not so much (typography and text is a bit tough to translate at points). But as the saying tells us not to judge books by their cover, let’s go deeper. The nose offers up much sweetness: traces of fruit and butterscotch immediately followed by mild oak and sawdust. The sweetness stays throughout and really doesn’t let up through the entire experience, and the finish is like a 4th of July firecracker: short and… sweet. A bit of a bang mixed with caramel, bananas, bread, and a mild burn. Those liking drinking matters smooth and easy may find the experience enjoyable, but for those who want to know they’re drinking bourbon and not a bourbon-inspired liqueur, this may not be the best bottle to bring to the table.

At 40% abv, it’s pretty tame when compared to other bourbons at the $30 price point. There’s also talk of a rye expression arriving on shelves in short order, which shall hopefully add the much-needed punch and unveil greater potential than what’s showcased here. I’ll most likely revisit this again in another two years, when this trial is far from fresh in my memory.

80 proof.

C / $27 / kentuckyale.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Six Ciders from Tieton Cider Works

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It’s time for a gaggle of apple ciders from Tieton Cider Works, based in Tieton, Washington. TCW makes at least 10 different products. Here we review a half dozen, all spins on the classic apple cider formula, and arranged from dryest to sweetest. Enjoy.

Tieton Cider Works Tieton Blend Cider Dry – English style cider, bone dry with barely a hint of sweetness. This is a tough one for those more accustomed to fruitier, sweeter ciders, and even after putting on my dryest of dry white wine hats, I couldn’t cut through it. Herbs and minerals abound here, but the overall effect is like a weak sauvignon blanc. 7% abv. C

Tieton Cider Works Yakima Valley Dry Hopped Cider Dry – Dry cider blended with local hops. Cider plus beer is known as a “snakebite,” but I’ve never seen anyone actually drink one. Here, the sweet, sour, and bitter are combine to create an initially off-putting concoction, but over time your palate adjusts and reveals a complex and unique brew. The sour apple notes remain the heaviest component, the hops largely blowing off to show themselves primarily as a hint on the finish. 6.9% abv. C+

Tieton Cider Works Wild Washington Apple Cider Semi-Dry – Aptly described, with tart and sweet elements. Lots of mineral notes here, along with an earthy (“wild,” perhaps) pungency on the nose. This is a cider for those who are OK with sweeter stuff, but who might want to experience a somewhat dryer beverage from time to time. 7% abv. B

Tieton Cider Works Apricot Cider Semi-Dry – Blended with apricots, naturally. Quite fruity, with strong overtones of fresh and dried apricots. Seems sweeter than “semi-dry” would indicate, with a biting acidity on the finish. The simplest, but perhaps the best, of the bunch. 6.9% abv. B+

Tieton Cider Works Apple Cherry Cider Semi-Sweet – Plenty of cherry flavor up front here, so much so that it almost drinks like pomegranate/cherry juice. Heavy sour notes on the finish abate over time, leaving behind the essence of fruit, with an almost mineral edge to it. Not bad. 6.9% abv. B

Tieton Cider Works Blossom Nectar Cider Sweet – Includes apple blossoms in the mix. Quite sweet, and indeed very floral, with a pleasant balance between tart apple and the perfumy, rose-scented blossoms. The perfume does take on a “grandma’s house” note over time, particularly as it warms up, but hey, you’re drinking cider, so stop moaning. 7% abv. B+

$42.60 as a mixed six-pack of 500ml bottles (one of each of the above) / tietonciderworks.com