Review: Frey Ranch Vodka and Gin

Frey-Gin-Bottle (Jeff Dow)

Nevada-based Frey Ranch produces its spirits with an intense estate focus — just about everything that goes into the products is produced on the Frey Ranch estate. As the company likes to say, “When you purchase a bottle at our distillery, it is the first time any of these quality ingredients have ever left Frey Ranch.”

We tasted Frey Ranch’s home-grown vodka and gin. (A whiskey, not reviewed here, is also produced.) Thoughts on both of these follow.

Frey Ranch Vodka – Triple distilled from a blend of corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The nose is quite corny, almost like a white whiskey, with some unfortunate mothball notes. The palate is sweeter, the granary note fading into a sweet corn character that’s underpinned by some nutty brown rice notes, scorched sugar, and mushroom. On the whole, this is an atypical vodka that will likely be divisive to vodka lovers. It’s not entirely to my taste, but your mileage may vary. 80 proof. C+ / $40

Frey Ranch Gin – Presumably made with the same base as the vodka, this gin is flavored with estate-grown juniper and sagebrush (not the same thing as sage, by the way), plus a mix of imported (and unstated) botanicals. This comes together more effectively than the vodka, its heavy aromatics hitting on the nose with a combination of camphor, herbal sage, and juniper — in that order. The body is heavy with all things herbal — no citrus overtones on this one — pushing those green notes even further as it attacks the palate. The finish is all herbs, pungent with a touch of cucumber and a dusting of black pepper. If you like your gins with a heavy vegetal note (and I know some of you do), this one’s for you. 90 proof. B / $33

freyranch.com

Review: Liberated 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

liberated

A pair of mid-2016 releases of Liberated are here, both North Coast bottlings but different as night and day. Thoughts follow.

2015 Liberated Sauvignon Blanc North Coast – A fresh and lightly tropical sauvignon blanc that nonetheless has enough acidity to keep things alive and vibrant. Pineapple finds a companion in light, white floral elements and a spritz of perfume on the back end. The clean finish has a gentle dollop of sweetness. B+ / $17

2013 Liberated Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast – This wine immediately comes across as very young and a bit brash, quite green up front without much structure. Instead, it’s all pushy and immature wine notes, simple berries, and a slug of vanilla on the back end. Rather plain. C+ / $17

liberatedwine.com

Review: Pickle Juice Chaser

pickle juice

Want the flavor of pickles but without those troublesome brined cucumbers? Good news, now you can, thanks to Pickle Juice, brought to you by The Pickle Juice Company.

Pickle Juice has one legitimately known use in cocktailing: The Pickleback. The Pickleback has no known origin, but the name was coined only in 2006 in Brooklyn. The ingredients are awfully simple: shot of whiskey (often bourbon or Irish), chased by a shot of pickle brine. It’s a simple formula: Sweet followed by sour and salty.

Pickle Juice isn’t exactly the runoff from pickle-making. It is a rather simple blend of water, vinegar, salt, dill flavor, plus some preservatives and yellow #5. On its own, it tastes like a reasonable facsimile of pickle juice, though not an exact simulacrum. It’s hard to put a real finger on, but it feels like the recipe could use more variety in the herbs aside from dill. Maybe some garlic and black pepper to liven things up a tad? Pickle Juice just sort of sits there and wallows in its dillness when what you’re looking for is a big, acidic bite — the equivalent of biting into a lime after a rotgut tequila shot. Too bad it smells better than it tastes, which is a bit of a letdown.

Ultimately this is the kind of product that is designed for folks (bars, let’s say) that simply can’t keep enough pickles on hand in order to serve their Pickleback-drinking regulars. If you’re out of actual pickle juice, Pickle Juice Chaser is a reasonable substitute — provided you’re OK with the fact that it’s just not really the same thing.

C+ / $5 (1 liter) / picklepower.com

Tasting the Chenin Blanc Wines of South Africa, 2016 Releases

chenin blancs

South Africa is making a name for itself with chenin blanc — or at least it’s trying to, and recently a number of vintners from the region banded together to showcase how chenin blanc was evolving in the country. (More chenin blanc is planted here than in any other country in the world.)

During an online tasting event, six wines from the region, ranging from the 2013 to the 2015 vintage, were introduced and tasted. These wines exemplify a wide range of styles, but the “house style” for South African chenin blanc offers crisp minerality along with a big enough body to stand up to food. In the U.S. you can think of chenin as a bit of a middle ground between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Designed to be versatile, it has a lot in common with modern pinot grigio, though it is usually a bit less fruity.

So, is chenin blanc from “.za” worth a look? Thoughts follow on the full half dozen.

2013 Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc – Fresh and crisp, with slate-heavy, stonelike aromatics. The fruit here is simple and restrained, showing light peach notes, with ample minerality on the finish. B+ / $20

2015 Bellingham The Old Orchards Chenin Blanc – Considerably racier, balancing heavily perfumed aromatics with a slightly meaty backbone. Far more tropical than the typical chenin blanc tasted today. B+ / $22

2015 Stellar Winery The River’s End Chenin Blanc – The balance feels off on this wine, veering into astringent notes. Things open up in time, but I never got past the almost mothball-like aromatics and the heavily meaty body. C+ / $15

2015 Terre Brûlée Le Blanc – An exotic tropical note takes hold right from the start, with heavy pineapple notes fading into notes of guava. Somewhat atypical for chenin — though the perfumy aromatics remind you of its provenance — with a lengthy, fruit-forward, and rather heavy level of acidity. A favorite. A / $15

2015 Solms-Delta Chenin Blanc – Classic chenin blanc on the nose, lightly perfumed and showing ample mineral character. Almost textbook from start to finish, the wine takes those classic rocky slate notes and layers on notes of peach and pineapple, leading to an impressively lengthy finish. A- / $15

2014 Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc – Take a little of all of the above and you’ve got Beaumont’s chenin blanc, which showcases floral perfume notes, fresh pineapple fruit, and a touch of beef jerky. Lovely balance on the whole. A- / $32

wosa.co.za

Review: Hard Frescos

hard frescos

Mexican sodas (aka frescas) are one of life’s little pleasures. Naturally someone had to try and improve on them by adding alcohol.

Hard Frescos are, as is common in this category, not really sodas but rather malt beverages with copious flavoring added. In other words, they’re heavily doctored and sweetened in order to attempt to drown out the malt liquor funk that is omnipresent in these kinds of drinks. To its credit, everything is natural in each of the four Hard Frescos expressions, and each includes 25% fruit ingredients in the bill. All of the expressions clock in at 5% abv, and all bottles are 11.5 oz. (16 oz cans are also available.)

Can you shortcut your way to a Tequila Sunrise with a Hard Fresco? (Strangely, a Paloma-esque grapefruit soda is not available.) Let’s find out.

Hard Frescos Cola Buena – Smells like cola (this is “brewed with real kola nut”), but the palate is sickly sweet with notes of cheap, Chinese candies and laden with an overripe fruit character that dominates any vanilla-cinnamon notes that one expects from a cola-flavored drink. The aftertaste is epic and, I should add, far from buenaD+

Hard Frescos Juicy Jamaica – A hibiscus flavored drink, again very sweet and fruity, but here the sweetness is more warranted, making the experience come across more like a boozy fruit punch. The malty funk found in the Cola Buena is largely absent here; if you can handle some heavy strawberry and cherry notes (and precious little floral character), this isn’t a bad spin on an, indeed, juicy punch. B

Hard Frescos Citrico – Flavored with “real citrus and guava” — but looks like orange soda. Tastes like it too (with a slight tropical edge), but again there’s a funky, medicinal character underneath that tends to dominate the experience. It’s more evened out than the cola, but more obviously “alcoholic” than the jamaica. If you imagine this to be a very cheap and abstract version of a margarita, it makes the experience a bit more worthwhile. B-

Hard Frescos Tangy Tamarind – Jarritos made me a tamarindo convert, but this Hard Frescos rendition is decidedly weird, offering notes of cocoa powder, walnuts, marzipan, and brewed tea — all of which are various shades of brown but none of which taste anything like tamarind. This concoction, whatever it is, doesn’t taste particularly offensive, but it pales in comparison to what a real tamarind soda is like. C+

each about $4 per 11.5 oz bottle / hardfrescos.com

Review: Wines of Chateau Tourril, 2016 Releases

tourril rose

A new arrival to the U.S. market, Chateau Tourril is a Languedoc-based winery based in Minervois. The operation relies primarily on traditional Rhone Valley grapes, though you’ll need to check the back label to see what’s inside each bottle: Tourril has a fanciful name for each of its bottlings that has nothing to do with the grape varietals it uses for the wine.

We tasted five expressions from Chateau Tourril. Thoughts follow.

2015 Chateau Tourril Helios Grand Vin du Languedoc Minervois – 100% roussanne. A fairly crisp and fresh white, with an initial vanilla and caramel kick that gives way to dense apple notes, some pear, and a long, slightly bitter-tinged finish. Very summery. B+ / $17

2015 Chateau Tourril Havana Minervois – 70% cinsault, 30% grenache. A simple strawberry-heavy rose, showing bitter and herbal notes around the edges and on the quiet, simple finish. A basic French rose, with notes of rosemary to give it some nuance. B / $13

2013 Chateau Tourril Livia Grand Vin du Langudoc Minervois – 100% syrah. Simple and uncomplicated, with slight smoky notes layered atop a surprisingly weak body that offers notes of currants and plums. Notes of roasted meats, dried herbs, and mushroom endure on the finish. Lackluster. C+ / $27

2013 Chateau Tourril Panatella Grand Vin du Langudoc Minervois – 80% syrah, 20% grenache. Surprisingly sweet, with notable cherry notes atop that plum and currant core previously noted. Again, rather thin and a bit out of balance, with a tart and fruit-heavy finish. B- / $20

2011 Chateau Tourril Philippe Grand Vin du Langudoc Minervois – 40% carignan, 30% syrah, 30% grenache. At least it’s not thin. This heavy, meaty wine showcases notes of smoke and roasted lamb atop a dense, currant-heavy core. It drinks like a blend of syrah and young cabernet, with a lightly balsamic, berry-scented finish. Mind the heavy sediment. B / $15

chateautourril.fr

Review: Moosehead Lager and Radler

Moosehead bottle

Moosehead is Canada’s oldest independent distillery and the only remaining major distillery owned by Canadians. And it’s still turning out the same beer you remember from college. Or your dad remembers from college.

The New Brunswick-based operation recently launched a new product, which we’ll get to in a second. First, let’s consider the original Moosehead…

Moosehead Lager – The classic Canadian lager still tastes just like it did in college — malty, slightly sweet, a big vegetal, with a heavy corny/grainy character on both the nose and the palate, with overtones of yeast. Plenty of fizz helps this all go down relatively easy, leaving behind a finish that recalls freshly baked bread. Harmless. 5% abv. C+ / $7 per six-pack

Moosehead Radler – This new style was introduced to Canada in 2014, and it is now finding its way to the U.S. Radlers are a combination of beer and juice, and moosehead uses three juices: grapefruit, grape, and lemon. The results are heavy on the grapefruit and lemon — particularly on the citrus-heavy nose — while the body bounces between the sweet-and-sour citrus notes and the maltier, rather grainy beer element. The finish washes most of the fruit away altogether. It’s not a style I often gravitate to, but it’s a reasonably refreshing and a zippy change of pace. 4% abv. B / $9 per six-pack7

moosehead.ca

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: 2014 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Aged in Bourbon Barrels

RMPS Bourbon Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon  750ml Bottle ShotWhiskey goes into wine barrels, that’s the way it’s always been. Wine into whiskey barrels? Not something that you see. Ever, I mean.

Well, this Private Selection bottling from Robert Mondavi just does that, taking cabernet sauvignon and aging it not in new oak but in used Kentucky bourbon casks. Nutty idea, eh? Let’s see how well this works.

The results here are, well, exactly what you would expect. The nose blends the traditional cabernet-currant notes with vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon, plus some scorched wood tidbits. The body is a cacophonous experience to say the least: cherry cola, intense vanilla, chocolate syrup, smashed raisins. There’s a hugely sweet rush (as you would expect) that is immediately off-putting, the chocolate-cherry note becoming almost overpowering until a brown sugar sweetness overpowers everything else.

The finish is saccharine and quite a bit overbearing. This lightens up as the wine opens up in the glass, but not nearly enough. Even after an hour of trying to figure out the impetus behind this wine, I wasn’t much further along from where I started. Is this a wine specifically built for whiskey fans? I can understand it conceptually, but by palate says no.

C+ / $14 / robertmondaviprivateselection.com

Review: White Wines of Murphy-Goode, 2014 Vintage

murphy-goode-the-fume-nv-266Murphy-Goode hits with a collection of three white wines, spanning the gamut of major California styles. All 2014 vintages, let’s dig in to these affordable bottlings.

2014 Murphy-Goode Pinot Grigio California – Lightly tropical and lightly aromatic — emphasis on “light.” This is a simple wine for simple time — summer sipping, barbecues, bar mitzvahs, you know. Touches of pineapple, particularly on the finish, give the wine more legs than its near transparency would indicate. Nothing fancy, but good enough for the price.  B / $13

2014 Murphy-Goode Chardonnay California – Modest on the nose with overtones of grilled meats, some lemon, and a little perfume on the back end. A bit nutty at times, the body is somewhat undercooked, with light melon notes and some nougat. Largely forgettable. C+ / $14

2014 Murphy-Good “The Fume” Sauvignon Blanc North Coast – Crisp and lemony, this is a mild and lightly perfumed expression of California sauvignon blanc, its focus squarely on its clean structure and mineral components. Steely but not harshly acidic, with just the slightest touch of honey, it’s a simple wine but feels solid enough this time of year. B+ / $14

murphygoodewinery.com

Review: Cambria Benchbreak 2014 Chardonnay and 2013 Pinot Noir

cambriaTwo new wines from Cambria and its Benchbreak series, a line of sustainably grown wines from the Santa Maria Valley. Thoughts follow.

2014 Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley – Intensely oaky and meaty on the nose, this chardonnay — which is otherwise lightly bodied and quite fruity — takes the butter and pushes it in a different direction — namely, toward sausage and smoked ham notes, which really put a damper on the party. The finish blends a vegetal and bacon character, neither of which I’m particularly looking for in a white wine and which definitely doesn’t work here, at least sans a meal. C+ / $22

2013 Cambria Benchbreak Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley – Surprisingly light bodied, this gentle pinot initially offers forth light notes of tea leaf, cardamom, and simple red berries. Over time, it evolves a bit of a black pepper note — mild, but folding in a bit of crispness to what is otherwise a wispy wine. Grows on you, though. B / $25

cambriawines.com

Review: Wines of Cycles Gladiator, 2014 Vintage

cycles cabernetIf you’ve ever been in a California supermarket, you’ve probably seen Cycles Gladiator on the wine shelves. Oddly, I’d never tried it even after years and years of seeing its Art Nouveau-inspired labels, turned off by its rock bottom pricing.

The brand has changed hands in recent years, moving from giant Constellation to a new company called Wine Hooligans. Under this leadership, Cycles Gladiator is now being overseen by winemaker Adam LaZarre, formerly of Hahn Estates. Today the fruit is all being sourced from the Central Coast (and carries that appellation) but the price is remaining at a low $10.99 per bottle.

Five wines make up the brand’s pantry. Three are reviewed here. Let’s see what these Cycles can do!

2014 Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay Central Coast – Modestly buttery, with restrained vanilla that pairs beautifully with the wine’s brisk apple notes. Subtle nutmeg notes emerge on the finish, but the wine stays in a nice band that is both fruit-forward but not overpowered or overly dessert-like. A real crowd pleaser at a great price. A- / $11

2014 Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast – Fruit-forward, with chocolate overtones and notes of burnt walnut shells. The body plays up vanilla, some roasted nuts, and more chocolate notes. Initially quite jammy, it eventually settles down and lets the chocolate do more of the talking. That said, the sweetness here might clash with some dishes, but it’s not a bad effort at this price. B / $11

2014 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah Central Coast – A divisive wine, for sure — intensely smoky up front, with herbal and vegetal notes not far behind. The fruit here feels like jam at best, canned at worst — almost pruny. The finish fades quickly, but it leaves behind a brown sugar residue, mixed with raisin and plum notes, that is hard to shake. C+ / $11

cyclesgladiator.com