Book Review: Tasting Whiskey For Dummies

coverAt $6 and a scant 25 pages in length — and not even an official “Dummies” title —  it’s difficult to give this one a full-throated endorsement, especially after just reading Heather Greene’s excellent guide on the same subject matter. Jake Olson does indeed cover the basics of whiskey tasting, with a very direct, almost dry, writing style. Brief entries on the history of whiskey, the process by which it is made, and the different types available make up the majority of the book. A few basic recipes for essential cocktails are offered. That’s really about it, folks. I believe the Wikipedia entry on whiskey is more expansive and informative. And free of charge.

The challenge was not to power through Olson’s primitive report, but to take this pamphlet as a legitimate body of work. Much more content could have been offered, and it certainly would have helped to have a decent copy editor; if only because it’s spelled “Johnnie” and not “Jonny” Walker. Sometimes it’s better not to self-publish. Sometimes it’s better to just leave things on a hard drive to send as a Word document to friends. This would be one of those times.

$6 / F / [BUY IT HERE?]

Review: Glendalough Poitin

glendalough poitin

Poitin (po-cheen) pushers are trying their darnedest to bring this ancient Irish spirit back to the masses. A distillation of malt barley and sugar beets, the finished product is aged in virgin oak (but generally filtered back to white). Ireland’s Glendalough sent us a trilogy of poitins for us to sample. Our thoughts follow.

Glendalough Poitin – The curious marshmallow notes on the nose are no preparation for what comes next on the body — rubber at play with gasoline notes that immediately recalls both American moonshine and Brazilian cachaca. Unfortunately, there’s no fruit, no real interest on the palate to make this investment worthwhile, just a cacophony of raw flavors straight off the still that never quite makes it. All poitin tends to be something of an acquired taste, but this expression may require more acquiring than others. 80 proof. D+/ $31

Glendalough Mountain Strength – I guess they like it strong up there in the mountains. The extra alcohol of this high-proof expression actually helps to soften things up a bit, but the palate is still possessed by a moonshiny monster. A longer finish is simultaneously both a good and a bad thing, bringing out some hints of tart berry fruit, but also pumping up the petrol character. 120 proof. C- / $37

Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish – This is the only non-clear expression of Glendalough, which undergoes a secondary finishing in sherry casks. The citrusy wood influence sure doesn’t hurt, tempering that rubbery character a bit with some orange peel and incense, particularly on the nose. The finish doesn’t go nearly far enough, however. While there’s a little savory lumberyard character in the mix, that raw, almost saccharine character still manages to shine through. 80 proof. C- / $37

glendaloughdistillery.com

Review: Bee d’Vine Honey Wine

BeeDvine_Brut_750_HIGHYou can make wine from just about anything, but honey wine has a long and rich history, dating back some 2000 years to Africa, where the honey seems to flow freely.

If you’ve ever had mead at a Renaissance festival (or your crazy uncle’s house), you basically know what you’re in for. Honey wine is essentially the same thing. Depending on who you ask, the addition of water to dilute the alcohol level is what separates mead from the lighter, gentler “honey wine.”

Bee d’Vine is a product made by The Honey Wine Company, based in San Francisco, California. The company’s fermented honey drink is blended in two varieties — a dry Brut and a sweeter Demi-Sec version. (Those terms are typically used with sparkling wines, but Dee d’Vine is still, not fizzy.) They were produced in 2013, but regulations prevent the inclusion of vintage dates on non-grape wines.

How you enjoy them will depend on your tolerance level for exotic oddities in your gullet. Thoughts follow.

Also of note: The company supports farming and environmental initiatives in California and in Ethiopia, the birthplace of honey wine.

(Updated 11/23 with factual corrections to The Honey Wine Co.’s location and its charitable initiatives.)

Bee d’Vine Brut Honey Wine – A dusty, earthy nose offers a dusting of familiar honey character but the overwhelming character is one of low-grade white wine, a muddy mix of old apples, earth, simple florals, and industrial elements. It’s pleasant enough at first — particularly when ice cold — but you have to be utterly nuts about honey to polish off a full glass once the more raw components take hold. D+ / $43

Bee d’Vine Demi-Sec Honey Wine – A semi-sweet expression of this wine, and probably more in keeping with what you’d be expecting of a product made out of honey. The nose is similar to the Brut — earthy and a bit musty, with honey overtones. The body blends its honey character with something akin to orangey Muscat wine, leading to a finish that is at first sweet but which quickly fades to an unwieldy combination of syrup and mud. C- / $43

beedvine.com

Review: 2013 Achaval Ferrer Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon

achaval ferrer CMendoza-20132013 releases from Achaval Ferrer, based in Mendoza, are here. We tasted the Malbec and the Cab from this major Argentinian producer.

2013 Achaval Ferrer Malbec Mendoza – Overpowering, and not in a good way. Intense notes of menthol cigarette smoke, backed by a heavily balsamic vinegar character. Mouth-puckering with heavy acidity and a vegetal underpinning, this is not Malbec at its finest. D+ / $19

2013 Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza – Starts off dusty and tannic, but with time it opens up to reveal a surprisingly capable, if simple, expression of Cabernet. Light plum on the nose leads to a dense, leathery, raspberry/blackberry-driven body. Lightly vinegary on the finish, but this works well enough, particularly with food. (I even had a good experience with it alongside grilled salmon.) B / $20

achaval-ferrer.com

Review: Wines of Joel Gott, 2012 Vintage

Gott II bottle 002To paraphrase Ayn Rand: Who is Joel Gott?

A fixture in California wine country, Gott is a longtime retailer, winemaker, and burger purveyor in the thoroughfares of Napa, where his Gott’s Roadside is a must-stop dining experience (also in the San Francisco Ferry Building). With his partners at Trinchero, Gott now has his own label — affordable wines designed for everyday drinking. We tried three from the 2012 vintage. (Random Gott bottling pictured.)

2012 Joel Gott Unoaked Chardonnay Monterey/Sonoma/Napa – Crisp with notes of lemon and apple, a very lively, easy-drinking Chardonnay. Touches of fig and vanilla ice cream emerge on the finish, giving it a bit too much sweetness, but at this price it’s hard to resist. A- / $13

2012 Joel Gott “Alakai” Grenache California – A big, fruity wine, but plenty shy of turning into jam in a bottle. The nose offers blackcurrants, blueberries, and tea leaf, with ample vanilla on the back end. The body is rich, the finish lasting. Slightly sweet with the tiniest hint of red pepper (red pepper jam?), giving this a lively, summery feel. B+ / $15

2012 Joel Gott “815” Cabernet Sauvignon California – Overblown, its intense, sweet tea character pumped up with sugary grape jelly, with a nose that reeks of fruit concentrate. Canned fruit on the finish. D+ / $12

gottwines.com

Review: CapaBubbles Sparkling Wine Cap

capa bubblesCapaBunga makes a pretty cool rubberized still wine stopper. It would therefore make sense that the company would want to do the same thing for sparkling wines, which are frequently resealed after opening and saved for another day. The problem of course is that you can’t just jam a cork into the neck. The gas in the wine would pop it right back out. Same goes for CapaBunga’s still wine stopper.

For decades consumers have relied on hinged sealers that grip beneath the flared lip to keep the wine sealed and the stopper in place. CapaBunga thought it had a better idea. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t really work.

The CapaBubbles stopper is a two-piece unit, a plastic base and a rubberized top. The base consists of two half-moon shaped pieces that bear screw threads on the outside. In theory, you just snap the hinge around the neck of the bottle, beneath the flared lip, to start the process. The top piece of the CapaBubbles then — again, in theory — screws down onto the base, creating a seal up top.

Neat idea, but in practice it’s a disaster. The major problem is that the necks of sparkling wine bottles are all kinds of different sizes, and the CapaBubbles doesn’t fit on them all. In my testing of a variety of different bottlings, I went two for four in getting the base to fit around the neck of the bottle. The other times the bottle neck was just too fat for the base to fit around it — and in one of the two successes I had, I just barely got it to work and only by peeling off the foil around the bottle’s neck completely. Even if you do get the base unit around the neck, screwing the top down on top of it is not a sure thing. Expect lots of trial and error — and often significant force — in getting the pieces to actually come together and make a solid seal.

Given its limitations and the fact that the CapaBubbles costs about two or three times as much as a typical hinged stopper, my rating is probably generous.

D / $16 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: 2 Wines from the International Wine of the Month Club

2005 Casa Silva Carmenère Microterroir de Los LinguesWine of the Month Clubs are legion, but if you want to get started with one that offers a pretty broad range of unusual (yet well curated) wines, perhaps you could do worse than one of the originals, the International Wine of the Month Club. The focus here is on imported wines, with selections coming in from across the globe. (Domestics also show up in the distribution, though.)

Three programs are available ranging in price from $33 to $70 a month, all providing two bottles a month (you choose red, white, or one of each). Prices quoted below are for additional bottle reorders from the club if you’re already a member or are indicative of market pricing.

We sampled two of the club’s recent offerings. While every wine it sends you is going to be different, of course, they are probably indicative of what you can expect in general. Thoughts on follow.

2012 Luma Inzolia-Chardonnay Terre Siciliane – 60% Inzolia, 40% Chardonnay from Sicily. Easily mistaken for a California Chardonnay at first, with butter and vanilla notes on the nose and up front on the palate. As the wine’s body evolves, acidity builds and some baking spices emerge. It’s well balanced between the two, a solid sipper that goes well with food, too. B+ / $19

2005 Casa Silva Carmenère Microterroir de Los Lingues  – Chilean Carmenere, from 2005, you say? Not a typo. Wow, this just has no business being on the market today. Well past its prime, the nose is all vegetal green pepper and old sofa cushions. The body fares just as badly, a sweaty, very green wine with a mushroomy finish. Some time opens things up a bit, but by then the wine diverges heavily into the barnyard. I’m chalking it up to a misfire. D- / $40

winemonthclub.com

Review: 2012 William Hill North Coast Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

william-hill-chardonnayGallo-owned William Hill has just launched a new “Coastal Collection” of wines from California’s indistinct North Coast, a vast region that covers a huge swath of land comprising the entirety of both Napa and Sonoma, plus a smattering of other NorCal AVAs.

Designed with the shopper’s budget in mind, here’s how these two new wines — a Chardonnay and a Cabernet — shake out.

2012 William Hill Chardonnay North Coast – Buttery vanilla on the nose, but all fruit on the body. Think pineapple, guava, a bit of lemon. Hardly any oak at all, but it’s there. A great little value wine. B+ / $17

2012 William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast – Dense, overblown purple color looks clearly doctored. The restrained nose is misleading: The body is pure strawberry jam, with chocolate syrup undertones. Sickly sweet to a fault, the finish is utterly cloying as it drives straight to the sugar bowl. D- / $17

williamhillestate.com

Review: Shock Top Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat Beer

Shock Top Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat bottleThis new Belgian-style unfiltered wheat ale from Shock Top is brewed with honey and caramel malt, then is aged on “bourbon cask staves” (so, not in casks).

What’s wrong with that? Just about everything. The nose offers vague honey intertwined with hospital notes. The body is thin. And the palate is simply bad: Melted Bit-O-Honey candies, quinine, and mints from your grandma’s purse. Wholly unbalanced and unsatisfying, with a funky and sickly sweet aftertaste that’s difficult to get rid of.

A complete miss for the Shock, alas.

5.5% abv.

D- / $8 per six-pack / shocktopbeer.com

Review: Exclusiv XO Napoleon Brandy-Flavored Vodka

exclusiv brandy vodkaFlavored vodka gets a whole new whaaaaaa? factor with the release of Exclusiv XO Napoleon, a brownish-colored vodka that is made “with natural brandy flavor and caramel added.” This may look like brandy — and that big “XO” on the front has to earn the award for the most misleading liquor designation of all time — but rest assured it’s really a flavored vodka, colored brown.

The company offers this by way of an explanation, “This is the first vodka of its kind, which uses 5-18 year old brandies to create an authentic XO flavor. Our goal in creating this product was to give our brown spirit drinkers an affordable taste alternative.”

Sadly, Exclusiv, which makes a perfectly credible straight vodka in its Moldova home base, has created a misguided monster with XO Napoleon. It certainly looks the part, a lovely iced tea-brown in color, but from there things just get weird. The tea character carries over into the nose, which comes across like weak Lipton spiked with Sweet’N Low. That’s a close approximation of the body, too — plus a little bit of dried leaves, a bit of sweetener, and a bit of rubber. There’s literally nothing here that resembles brandy in even its most simplistic, basic rendition. If you told me this was another tea-flavored vodka (a trend which seems to be winding down), I’d believe you, but I’d tell you I’d had better. For something that’s meant to approximate a brandy — no matter what the price — this simply doesn’t work.

While Exclusiv’s idea of bringing brandy, or at least the idea of it, to the masses for $10 a bottle has some semblance of a good idea within, its execution is basically a disaster. The fundamental flaw with XO Napoleon: There are plenty of $10 brandies on the market that are actually made out of brandy and which are far more interesting than this.

70 proof.

D / $10 / exclusiv-vodka.com

Review: Willa Vodka

willa vodkaA craft vodka made with Italian grain and water from Nantucket, where this vodka is created, Willa is part of the “low-cal” spirits trend. What that means in practical terms is it’s lower in alcohol — 70 proof vs. the standard 80 in the industry.

Very little about Willa enchanted me. The nose is charcoal and chalk, a kind of powdered mineral character that doesn’t really hint at anything of substance. On the body, it’s somewhat unctuous and sweaty, both in its structure and the aromas and flavors that develop as you sip it. The finish is thin (the 70 proof doesn’t help there), leaving a salty and unsatisfying aftertaste. Not much bite (which is the point, really). Pass on this one.

D+ / $30 / willavodka.com

Review: Ivanabitch Vodka Complete Lineup

ivanabitchMade in the Netherlands, the Ivanabitch people have gone out of their way — way out of their way — to simultaneously give Ivanabitch an Old World back story (it involves a “half-mad” Russian in the 1600s named Dmitri Ivanabitch) and a hip/fresh look with a modern (or at least ’80s) bottle design and a name, well, that has “bitch” in it. (It’s tough to believe, but some people actually think this mad Russian story is true.)

This “vodka with attitude,” as the slogan goes, is made from an unspecified mash, distilled five times, and charcoal filtered. The straight vodka is 80 proof. The flavored versions are 70 proof each. Thoughts follow.

Ivanabitch Vodka – Instant sugar rush on the nose. Sweet on the palate, too, with notes of caramels and butterscotch. Simple and uncomplicated, and, er, did I mention how sweet it is? I’m not sure I’d call this vodka with “attitude,” but I guess “vodka with sugar” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. An easy mixer. Skip it straight. B

Ivanabitch Cherry Vodka – Surprisingly easy and straight-up with a cherry candy nose and body. Almost a cherry cola kick to it, with some hints of strawberry. Not at all bad, this would be a decent mixer in any number of beach-tinis. Alt Singapore Sling, maybe? B+

Ivanabitch Blackberry Vodka – Harsh on the nose, medicinal. The body is vague and indistinct. Blackberry? Blueberry? Tastes more like a mixed cobbler dipped in rubbing alcohol. The finish finally brings along some blackberry character, but it’s a long time coming. C

Ivanabitch Dutch Apple Vodka – Apple Jolly Ranchers on the nose. Sweet and sour and easily identifiable. The body’s tailor-made for classic(?) Appletinis, but surprisingly it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, featuring a touch of Granny Smith tang to balance things out. I’d drink it. B+

Ivanabitch Coconut Vodka – Unlike the rest of the vodkas in the lineup, this one is slightly tinged a pale yellow. Smells like Malibu, sweet and coconutty and might-as-well-be-on-the-beach. Very sweet, which masks any sense of alcohol. But the coconut character is solid, infused with just a hint of peanut character. Not bad, but I’d rather have rum. B

Ivanabitch Peach Vodka – Bigger peach notes on the body than the nose, but both are reasonably authentic, though more in the vein of canned peaches in syrup than a fresh peach. SoCo fans will probably find this to their liking, but it’s one of those flavors where I struggle to figure out how to use it. B-

Ivanabitch Lemmon Vodka – A complicated story on the back of the bottle references “Lemmon Island,” which does not exist. What does exist: Sugar! There’s plenty of that here, along with intense lemon oil/lemon custard notes, with a long, sweet finish. Lemon drops, anyone? Just add ice, I guess. B

Ivanabitch Red Berry Vodka – Much like the Blackberry vodka, this one has less sweetness and more vaguery — though the strawberry and chocolate notes here are a little more easygoing. The finish heads into strawberry shortcake character, as that familiar sweetness comes on more strongly in the end. Harmless. B

Ivanabitch Orange Vodka – Not triple sec, but you’d never know it from the taste. Hefty Valencia oranges on the nose and palate, with a lightly bittersweet orange peel character on the finish. Surprisingly light and easygoing, it’s a quick Cosmo shortcut if you’re out of orange liqueur. B+

Ivanabitch Vanilla Vodka – Also translucent, a slightly darker brown than the Coconut flavor. Overwhelming birthday cake on the nose, a powerhouse that punches you in the gut on the palate. And yet, it manages to turn bitter on the finish. A weak entry. C-

Ivanabitch Tobacco Vodka – Already much maligned as “the end of flavored vodkas,” I figure if “Electricity Flavored Vodka” can exist, why not Tobacco? (Note: there’s no tobacco or nicotine in the vodka.) This is funky stuff. The nose is of fresh leaves, not burning ones or smoking cigarettes. The body, however, is something altogether different. Sort of vanilla, sort of cinnamon, very very sweet, and overwhelmingly off-putting with a funky, sweaty, indescribable finish. By the nose I thought I was in for a unique, even passable, treat. You don’t need to sip it for long to realize that’s not the case. D

Ivanabitch Menthol Tobacco Vodka – Of course there’s a menthol version! The nose is familiar, not terrible distinctive vs. the standard Tobacco version. It is, perhaps, even more powerful though. The body isn’t quite as bad. The addition of mint to the cauldron of flavors here improves things a bit, though that isn’t saying much. After the vanilla and Sweet-N-Low portion of the spirit wears off, you’re left with a vague peppermint character on the back of the throat. It’s hard to shake. In a bad way, I mean. D+

ivanabitch.com