Review: Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale

not your father's ginger aleLike Not Your Father’s Root Beer before it, this creation of Small Town Brewery is an alcohol-infused rendition of ginger beer. This is now a surprisingly large category, and standing out is becoming difficult. Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale isn’t really able to do that — a flavored beer product that manages to work some spicy ginger notes into the mix, but ends up promoting flavors more akin to sour apple, with ample malt sneaking up behind it.

The root beer is better.

5.9% abv.

C+ / $11 per six pack of 12 oz. bottles / smalltownbrewery.com

Review: Wines of Sokol Blosser, 2016 Releases

sokol blosser

Oregon’s Sokol Blosser is out with a panoply of new releases, ranging from sparkling stuff to single-block pinot noir.

Let’s taste the lot.

NV Sokol Blosser Evolution Sparkling Wine – An everyday brut sparkler made from grapes unknown, but which goes down without a fight. Notes of nuts and brioche on the nose lead to a very fruit-forward body, loaded with fizzy apple, apricot, and white grape notes. Party wine. B+ / $20

2014 Sokol Blosser Pinot Gris Willamette Valley – Stellar pinot gris, with tropical notes on the nose and melon on the body. They come together with bright acidity, modest sweetness, and a bit of exotic baking spice on the back end. Quaffable by the glassful, but also thought-provoking on its merits. A / $18

2013 Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Estate Dundee Hills – Not my favorite release from Sokol Blosser, a meaty and somewhat astringent expression that offers dusky notes of Vienna sausages, old cloves, spent wood, and brambly thickets. The fruit is stamped down, almost into oblivion, which is not the usual way Sokol Blosser’s pinot behaves. C+ / $30

2012 Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Estate Dundee Hills Goosepen Block – A single-block designate of Sokol Blosser’s estate pinot, only 300 cases made. (Note that this is a prior vintage, too.) Here we see Sokol Blosser firing on all cylinders. The nose offers chocolate, raspberry jam, and tea leaf. On the palate, light notes of grilled meats segue into notes of darker fruits, more milk chocolate, and a lightly bittersweet finish. Quite a departure from the previous wine, and a massive upgrade. A- / $65

sokolblosser.com

Review: 2014 Hahn GSM Central Coast

Hahn_GSM_2014Chocolate-covered blueberries explode in this rich grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend (65%, 31%, 4% — in that order). That burst of flavor — backed by some cinnamon and notes of currants — is an initial rush, but an overwhelming sweetness arrives soon after, quickly giving the body a raisiny/pruny quality that works against it as a table wine. The finish is dense and lengthy but on the saccharine side.

C+ / $12 / hahnwines.com

Review: 1800 Coconut Tequila

1800 coconutFlavored tequila can be a mixed bag, and straight out of the bottle, 1800’s coconut-flavored expression smells exactly like Malibu — at least until you stick your nose into the glass, when sharp agave notes come to the fore.

On the palate, it’s a combination of the two, as the spirit bounces between notes of sweet coconut flakes and brash, green, and peppery blanco tequila (100% agave is used here, though), with very little else happening in between. A touch of pineapple hits the finish, but otherwise this is sugary coconut and punchy agave notes, trying to live side by side.

My mind struggles trying to figure out the appropriate use for the spirit, though. As a sipper the two styles never quite get together in a friendly enough way. As a mixer, the same issue applies — the tequila clashes with cola or another standard add-in.

That really leaves one option: Coconut margaritas, anyone?

70 proof.

C+ / $24 / 1800tequila.com

Review: 2014 Atalon Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

atalonAtalon has been releasing wines since 1997, with just three offerings on the table — two reds, and this sauvignon blanc.

Intensely grassy, this is sauvignon blanc that at first showcases a wine pushed to its herbal limits. As it develops, notes of grapefruit peel and saltwater taffy give this wine an extreme profile, a bitter-sour attack leading to an increasingly sweet finish. This is a wine that defies easy categorization — except for drinkers who, I’m sure, will largely either love it or hate it.

C+ / $21 / atalon.com

Review: 2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay

KENDALLJACKSONParadoxically, the “Vintner’s Reserve” designation is pretty much Kendall-Jackson’s lowest-end bottling, but let’s not get too caught up in the names. The 2014 vintages of its iconic California white wines are finally here, so let’s give them a spin.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc California – Almost New Zealand in style, this super-sweet sauvignon blanc boosts the tropical notes while keeping the minerals and herbs to a minimum. The finish offers notes of sugar-coated lemon and orange candies, which might be fine on the deck of your yacht, but which clashes at mealtime. C+ / $13

2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay California – A considerable improvement over the sauvignon blanc, this chardonnay keeps the butter and oak in check while pushing notes of baked apples, vanilla cookies, and a sweetness that I’ll call cereal milk. B / $17

kj.com

Review: Bronx Brewery Belgian Style Pale Ale and Rye Ale

bronx brewery

See if you can guess where Bronx Brewery is based. Not sure? Check out their website, then consider these two offerings from the company’s collection of (all canned) beers.

Bronx Brewery Belgian Style Pale Ale – A bit musty and earthy from the get go, with muddy hops and overtones of forest floor. The finish is sharp, with heavy notes of bitter herbs. The beer doesn’t much improve as it aerates, and while I could tell some sweeter, malt-driven notes were trying to break free, they could never quite hit escape velocity. Ultimately it lands with a rather lifeless thud. 6.7% abv. C+

Bronx Brewery Rye Ale – A better balanced brew, with notes of toasty, roasted grains, some cinnamon spice, and a fresh baked bread character. The finish has some of the muddy-earthy elements of the Belgian Pale Ale, but they’re kept in check by a more rounded grain bill and better-integrated bitterness. 6.3% abv. B+

each $11 per six-pack of 12 oz. cans / thebronxbrewery.com

Review: Flora Springs 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

Flora Springs Napa Valley Cabernet SauvignonTwo new releases from Napa’s Flora Springs. Thoughts follow.

2014 Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley – Pale and young, and surprisingly sweet for a sauvignon blanc. Notes of overripe melon and pineapple wash away a lightly minerally backbone, leaving just a hint of steel and slate in the wine’s predominantly tropical wake. In need of balance. C+ / $20

2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A straightforward Napa cab, with initial notes of menthol, cinnamon, and significant barrel influence. Dusty licorice notes and tar meld with a fruity, cassis-loaded core, giving the wine enough complexity to maintain interest without things getting too hoary. B+ / $40

florasprings.com

Review: Gonzalez Byass Soberano and Lepanto Spanish Brandy

Lepanto Gran ReservaGonzalez Byass is one of Spain’s leading sherry bodegas — but the company also produces a wide range of spirits, including gin and whiskey. Brandy is the more natural fit, however, as Spain has a long history of producing exotic brandies that don’t much resemble what you’ll find next door in France.

Recently the company sent us two bottlings to sample. Thoughts follow.

Gonzalez Byass Soberano Brandy – Made from Airen grapes and aged, solera-style, in sherry casks. It’s immediately intense on the nose, with notes of roasted — almost burnt — nuts, petrol, green vegetable, and raisins. The body is just as exotic, but more cohesive and user-friendly. On the palate emerge notes of cloves, anise, and lots of coffee. Eventually some smoky, toasted marshmallow — still quite sweet — emerges, leading to a slightly chocolatey, coffee-laden finish. Like a lot of Spanish brandies, all of this doesn’t quite gel the way perhaps it should in the end. Occasionally interesting, but it’s largely a curiosity. 80 proof. C+ / $29

Gonzalez Byass Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva – Made from Palomino grapes, this brandy is aged 15 years in solera in former Fino sherry casks. Lighter on its feet than the Soberano, this brandy offers a nose of more nuts and raisins (trail mix?) but layers on moderate floral elements to add some intrigue. On the palate, initial sweetness drives both fruit and flowers together, with some citrus mingling with a darker hazelnut character. A cappuccino note closes out a comparatively delicate and nicely balanced brandy. 80 proof. B+ / $46

gonzalezbyass.com

Review: HKB Baijiu

hkb baiju

Pundits love to pontificate about “what’s next” in the world of whatever it is they’re experts about. When it comes to spirits, one word is increasingly bubbling up to the top: Baijiu.

Baijiu is a Chinese distillate of fermented sorghum, though other grains like rice and wheat are sometimes used, depending on where it is made. Unlike most shochu, baijiu (white alcohol in Chinese) is typically quite strong — on par with vodka, a spirit for which it is often substituted (and which is largely produced in a similar fashion).

HKB — short for Hong-Kong Baijiu — is a newer brand of baijiu that is slowly making inroads in the U.S. It is distilled in China from a mash of five grains — sorghum, rice, sticky rice, corn, and wheat — and is blended in Italy by a grappa producer after aging (in large, neutral terra cotta urns) for two years.

The results are unlike any white spirit you’ve likely had, though grappa is the closest analogue. Intensely aromatic on the nose to the point of filling the room after simply pouring a glass of the stuff, HKB is punchy with overripe tropical fruits, coconut, and camphor. The palate is also very, very fruity, pungent as it starts off with a fermented pineapple character and loading up some oddball secondary notes, including rosemary, cloves, lemongrass, rhubarb, and more. The finish is epic in length, punchy with bitter-sour camphor/mothball notes, pure ethanol notes, and the aftertaste that comes with off-brand citrus-flavored candies. As a baijiu newbie, I was wholly unprepared for the sensory assault that is contained in that opaque red bottle, and as I write this after sampling the product, I’m still unprepared for another go-round.

That said, I can see how this could be an interesting cocktail ingredient (in the same way that a white whiskey, cachaca, or heavily flavored vodka can be). On the other hand, I’m not necessarily ready to go there myself whole-hog. All in all, it’s a category to keep an eye on as it winds its way into the American market.

86 proof.

C+ / $50 / baijiuamerica.com

Diving into Sherry: Hidalgo Fino and Bodegas Dios Baco Oxford 1.970 Pedro Ximenez

WFS_InfographicsSherry is slowly making inroads into the U.S., but even those who enjoy it don’t know a whole lot about Spain’s classic fortified wine. Fortunately, our friends from Wines From Spain have put together a handy infographic outlining and explaining the six major varieties of sherry, along with general information about how Jerez (Spanish for sherry and also the name of the town nearest to where many sherry grapes are cultivated) is produced. Check it out by clicking the image to the right.

While you’re reading, here’s a look at a couple of popular bottlings of the stuff, produced in two very different styles.

Emilio Hidalgo Fino Jerez Seco – Fino is the lightest and driest of sherry styles, made from Palomino Fino grapes and lightly aged with a blanket of yeast, called flor, on top of it. In many ways this is sherry at its purest, and it’s what most people likely think of when they think about sherry. Dry to an extreme, this Fino presents notes of nuts, melon, and a bit of sea spray — in many ways it reminds me of sake, and it can be consumed in similar fashion. The finish is Pedro Ximénez (1)where things go a bit off-track for me — that dryness turning astringent, with some petrol notes overstaying their welcome. 15% abv. C+ / $16

Bodegas Dios Baco Oxford 1.970 Pedro Ximenez Jerez – The other side of the sherry universe, made from Pedro Ximenez grapes and ages without flor (the 1970 is just a brand name, not a vintage), then sweetened up for bottling. Deep brown/almost black in color, the Oxford 1.970 is loaded with notes of spiced raisins, coffee, chocolate, and lots of figs. A cousin to Port, it’s less brooding and more fruit-forward, those fig notes elevating the sherry into a livelier less intense experience. 17% abv. A- / $17 (500ml)

winesfromspainusa.com

Review: Rebel Yell Bourbon, Rye, and American Whiskey (2016)

rebel yell

St. Louis-based Luxco (which also makes Ezra Brooks and Admiral Nelson’s Rum) is behind Rebel Yell, a line of value whiskeys which has recently begun to show up more and more in bars and on store shelves. What’s the haps about “The Yell?”

The Rebel Yell line begins with its core product — old-school Kentucky Bourbon, in the form of a brand dating back to 1849. But recently Rebel Yell has been expanding, both into flavored whiskeys (not reviewed here) as well as a rye and a blended whiskey, both of which we taste below.

Let’s put this trio to the test!

Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a corn/barley/wheat mashbill. No age statement, but this wheater is clearly quite young. Heavy roasted corn notes dominate the nose, with just a touch of baking spice underneath. On the palate, there’s plenty more of that corn character, plus some sweet chocolate notes that emerge only after the corniness begins to fade. This sustains for much longer than you’d think, taking the initially quite rustic whiskey out on a nicely seductive note. A very basic whiskey, there’s just not much more to report. Compare to 2011 version here. 80 proof. C+ / $15  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye Whiskey – Made from a mash of rye, corn, and barley. Distilled in Indiana by MGP, aged two years. Much spicier on the nose than the bourbon, with gentler, grain-fueled notes coming up underneath. The palate is surprisingly full of life, with a rounded body that showcases both the spice and the cereal notes, including a bit of cherry fruit on the back end. All in all, the whiskey features a relatively well-balanced structure that belies its youth but showcases an overall better construction. Rebel Yell Rye is a capable mixer at the least, a surprisingly acceptable sipper at the best. 90 proof. B / $21  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Rebel Yell American Whiskey – A 50-50 blend of the bourbon and rye above, all in one bottle, but raised up to 90 proof rather than the expected 85. Aged 2 years. This comes across like, well, a pretty even mix of the two spirits — featuring both the baking spices of the rye plus the ample corn notes of the bourbon. It’s not a bad combination in the abstract, but the two whiskeys don’t entirely complement each other in a meaningful way. The playfulness of the rye is ultimately dulled by the more brash corn character of the bourbon, though the flipside — the spicier rye giving the corn a boost — could also be said to be true. In the end, the whiskey lands right where it should — somewhere in between the two spirits that go into it. 90 proof. B- / $21  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

rebelyellbourbon.com