Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey


This white rye is made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. What about that name? “Pennsylvania Dutch folk art frequently features a bird in it, that, in German, is called a “Distelfink” or Thistle Finch. The bird is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.”

Thistle Finch is made from a mash of 60% rye, 30% wheat, and 10% malted barley — 90% of which is locally sourced. The company notes specifically that it mills its grains to a flour-like consistency (unusual if you’ve ever seen or tasted a typical, chunky whiskey mash), which it claims offers better conversion from starch to sugar and, thus, a more flavorful product. Distilled in a hybrid copper pot still and bottled unaged, all bottles are individually labeled and numbered.

This is an interesting and unusual white whiskey, and there might be something to the distillery’s claims that it extracts more flavor out of a flour-based mash. The nose offers classic white whiskey flavors — brisk cereal, fresh-cut hay, and slight vegetal, bean sprout notes. The body offers all of these, but it’s layered with more complexity than expected. As the grain fades out, in come waves of citrus peel, nougat, lemongrass, and butterscotch — the latter building particularly on the finish. Yes, it’s still young whiskey, but there are complex flavors here that go well beyond the harsh and funky bruising that you tend to get with the typical new make spirit. I’d try it first in a white whiskey sour.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #06.

B+ / $32 /

Review: Coppersea New York Raw Rye

Coppersea Bottle Shot (photo by John McJunkin)Coppersea Distilling is a new upstate New York-based craft distiller that’s doing things the old-fashioned way. Based on a farm in the Hudson Valley, the grains are grown locally, floor malted and milled on the premises, distilled, then blended with on-site well water.

With this product, the end result is an unaged rye (75% unmalted rye, 25% malted barley) — a rustic yet surprisingly refined spirit, which master distiller Angus MacDonald describes thusly: “The Raw Rye is what you would have gotten if, around 1825 to 1880, you walked into a bar in upstate New York, and said: whisky.” Just imagine: Frontier drinking right in the backyard of bustling Manhattan!

Cereal notes attack the nostrils from the start, but it’s touched with just a hint of honeycomb and golden syrup. The body builds on that, adding layers of complexity that I hadn’t thought I’d find. Notes of flinty stonework, mustard seed, tahini, and some burnt caramel character follow. That’s a lot to swallow, but Coppersea turns a melange of flavors into a fairly cohesive whole — at least for a white whiskey. You won’t escape that brash youthfulness here, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

90 proof. Best with some water.

B+ / $70 /

Review: American Born Moonshine

american born moonshine

Moonshine continues to grow as a category, and this Nashville-based producer, founded in 2012, is getting its first products on the market in its home state, plus four others. Featuring mason jar bottles with a custom pouring system built into the lid, the company aims to class up an (often intentionally) unsexy industry.

Purportedly made from a 200 year old recipe, American Born Moonshine uses a 100% corn mash that’s sweetened with sugar. Two flavored (and lower-proof) versions are also on the market. We tasted them all, straight out of mini Mason jars.

Thoughts follow.

American Born Moonshine Original White Lightning – Unaged and overproof, this moonshine is the legit stuff. Popcorn and cane sugar on the nose, it’s got a surprising level of refinement lacking from most moonshines, presenting some measure of balance from the start. On the tongue, the popcorn fades to reveal more sweetness, almost like that from grape juice, plus notes of toasted marshmallow, marzipan, and nougat. Sippable on its own, but more intriguing as a mixer, and one of the best white corn whiskeys you’ll find on the market right now. 103 proof. A-

American Born Moonshine Apple Pie – One of the most popular of flavors for moonshines these days, American Born’s apple pie flavored ‘shine is heavier on tart apple notes and lighter on those traditional apple spice characters like cinnamon and cloves. The nose hints at more, but the juicy body is more akin to cider than pie. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not exactly what’s on the label — and who wants a glass of juice when they could be eating pie? 83 proof. B

American Born Moonshine Dixie Sweet Tea – Tea flavoring has been fading from the vodka world for a while, but here it shows its face again. In fact, the company claims this is the first sweet tea-flavored moonshine on the market. ABM’s rendition is sweet first, tea second, though both components come through in spades. The slightly corny finish adds an interesting spin, but I can’t say I prefer it to a more straightforward tea-flavored vodka. As with its compatriots, it’s easily enjoyable on the whole. 83 proof. A-

each $25 /

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

Review: George Dickel White Whisky Foundation No. 1

Dickel No. 1 (2)

Just when it seems that everyone who’s anyone in American distilling has launched a white whiskey, well, you realize there’s room for one more.

The latest coming out the gate is Dickel, which is bringing its Tennessee Whiskey — bourbon-style mash of 84% corn, 8% rye, and 8% malted barley, but charcoal-filtered before bottling — to the unaged universe. Appropriately known as George Dickel Foundation No. 1, it’s the base spirit that’s used for all of Dickel’s aged bottlings.

No. 1 doesn’t launch until January 2014, but we got a sneak peek. Thoughts follow.

Pure popcorn, straight from the movie theater holding bin. Some peanut notes add intrigue to the nose, but otherwise this is the essence of corn whiskey. The body is surprisingly easygoing — that charcoal filtering is surprisingly effective at washing away those often overbearing raw alcohol notes — though No. 1 makes few bones about its grainy makeup. Whether you’re thinking about fresh popping corn or chawing on Corn Nuts, the analogy is about the same. Wait, did I mention the corn?

You can really taste the family resemblance between Dickel No. 1 with Dickel No. 8, which makes sense because it’s the youngest and simplest of the aged whiskeys Dickel offers. As the Dickel family gets older in No. 12 and Barrel Select, the vanilla notes driven by the barrel begin to crowd the corniness out.

As for No. 1, it’s a totally worthwhile white dog, and the charcoal filtering is a distinct advantage here. Better yet, it’s  not wildly overpriced like Jack Daniel’s clear offering is. (That said, Dickel rarely costs more than 20 bucks a bottle.) All in all: It isn’t as tasty as the aged stuff — white dog rarely is — but it’s a solid white lightning.

91 proof.

B / $22 /

Review: Anchor Distilling White Christmas White Whiskey 2013

Anchor White Christmas

Here’s a first: A limited edition white whiskey, created by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling exclusively for the 2013 holiday season.

It’s a neat idea. Every year Anchor’s brewing arm cooks up a special — and always unique — Christmas Ale. 2013’s White Christmas whiskey is distilled from the 2012 Christmas Ale, hence the whiskey’s subtitle, “The Spirit of Christmas Past.”

Twice distilled and unaged, the beer’s spicier elements come through clearly — so much so that you might do a double take and think you’re drinking gin. Orange peel, juniper berries, cloves, and cardamom notes are all present, but they’re atop an earthy, mushroomy core. The nose is light, the body rich but not overwhelming — and without the overwhelmingly hoary funkiness that’s so common with white dog. Sure, white whiskeys don’t often dazzle with nuance or depth, but as the category goes, this is one of the more unique, worthwhile, and drinkable white whiskeys I’ve encountered in recent months.

90 proof. Available in California only.

B+ / $50 /

Review: Batch 206 Vodkas, Gin, and Moonshine

BATCH 206 VODKASeattle-based Batch 206 is a craft distillery focused on hyperlocal raw materials — just about all of its source materials are from the Pacific Northwest. The company cooks up its goodies in a variety of stills, including a unique hybrid pot/column still, and most are filtered heavily through coconut husk charcoal before bottling. Thoughts on four of the company’s primary spirits follow.

Batch 206 Vodka – Hand-crafted and micro-batched it may be, this vodka, crafted from red winter wheat and malted barley, is one of the sweetest I’ve seen. Lush with honey notes up front, it isn’t until you’re well into tasting that the more traditional medicinality comes forth. You’ll have to push past lots of marshmallow notes to get to this vodka’s core… but it’s there, if you go a-huntin’. 80 proof. B / $25

Batch 206 Counter Gin – A modern American gin. The core is seemingly based on 206’s vodka as a base. It’s then flavored, per the company, with “juniper berries from Albania, whole cucumbers from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, tarragon and verbena leaves from Provence, lavender flowers from Sequim, Washington, and orange peel from Seville, Spain, along with Floridian Meyer lemon peel and English orris root as minor constituents.” The fresh nose is driven by the orange peel and juniper, but neither is overdone. These are also big on the body, and some floral characteristics come along next, slightly earthy (the verbena?) notes overwhelming the lavender, which can be a real downer in a gin. The finish is long, slightly sweet (just like the vodka), with some spiciness evident as well. I’d love to see this gin with a little black pepper in it to pump that component up a bit. Meanwhile, try it in a sweeter cocktail. 80 proof. B+ / $25

Batch 206 See 7 Stars Moonshine – Old-school white whiskey, crafted from a mash of Columbia Basin corn and Washington malted barley. Sweet, distinct caramel notes on the nose. The body’s got ample popcorn and plenty of peppery heat, thanks to its higher, heftier proof level and finishes with hints of sugar. Not terribly overwhelming, but not overly complex, either. This is a credible white dog driven by its constituent grain components. Treat appropriately. 100 proof. B / $28

Batch 206 Mad Mint Vodka – Peppermint-infused, overproof vodka, sweetened with local beet sugar. (The mint is Washington-grown, too.) The nose is a perfect recreation of an Andes mint — chocolate and mint, sandwiched together. It’s almost enough fun just to smell it. Of course, the body can’t compare… it’s half alcohol, after all. It’s got the essence of mint and a touch of cocoa here, injected with plenty of raw power. It grows on you wickedly… I presume driving the name of the spirit. Not exactly refined, but it is fun stuff. 100 proof. A- / $27

Review: Firefly White Lightning Moonshine and Apple Pie Moonshine

Firefly Moonshine Rocks!

I’m a big fan of Firefly’s tea-flavored vodka, probably the best on the market. Recently the distillery, based in Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, branched out into moonshine — unaged “raw corn whiskey,” available unflavored or in one of five different flavored versions. We got both the pure stuff and one of the flavors. Thoughts — surprising thoughts — follow. 

Firefly White Lightning Moonshine – Popcorn nose, almost buttery. From the sharp nose you might think you’re in for a rough and rustic body, but that’s not the case. This White Lightning is surprisingly silky, presumably sweetened but not overdone, this is spicy (over 100 proof) but flavorful, driven by its corn origins but mellowed out with a glazing of sugar. That’s not a slight. This may be moonshine, but it tempers its frontier heritage with a sweetness that’s wholly appropriate. 100.7 proof. B+

Firefly Apple Pie Moonshine – I’ve had apple pie-flavored spirits before, but this is the first time I’ve had one that gets all the components of the dessert in one little shot. It’s all here: apples, cinnamon, caramel, and pie crust. As with Firefly’s masterful tea-flavored vodka, this proves how flavored spirits can be crafted with intelligence, and without being crammed full of as much sugar as possible. This is sweet, but an apple pie is also sweet. Like a well-made pie, Firefly has figured out the balance of the equation (low alcohol doesn’t hurt here), and I have to give them props on that count. 60.3 proof. A

each $20 /

Review: 2bar Spirits Vodka and Moonshine

2bar moonshine

Seattle-based 2bar Spirits is a craft distillery named after a ranch that was part of the owners’ family for generations… before they decided to trade South Texas for Washington and hooves for hooch. The company makes two spirits, both unaged. We got ’em both. Thoughts follow.

Both spirits are 80 proof.

2bar Spirits Vodka – Distilled from local Washington wheat, this vodka has a strong white dog character to it, full of grainy cereal notes on the nose. But the body is balanced by a silky body and some sweetness — think of a very lightly sweetened breakfast cereal — giving it a touch of marshmallow character. The finish brings on some of the lighter medicinal notes that vodka fans will find familiar… while fading out with a return to light notes of grain. The overall impression is closer to a white whiskey than a vodka, and maybe that’s OK. White lightning is often too harsh and overpowering for easy consumption. Here things are dialed back enough to make it easier to sip on, while still residing in the vodkaverse. 80 proof. B+ / $33

2bar Spirits Moonshine – Distilled from local corn instead of wheat. Very easygoing nose, slightly sweet. The body is downright shocking: It’s milder and sweeter than the Vodka, a little flabby in its construction, the palate offering an easy mix of Corn Pops cereal and the lightest dusting of honey. This is a much more easy-to-sip spirit, and while it isn’t the most complex of things, its light notes of licorice and milk chocolate add nuance to what is often a straightforward and unsatisfying category. With its moonshine, 2bar proves that white whiskey can be engaging and fun, leaving the drinker with nary a grimace to be made. A- / $30

Review: Colorado Gold Bourbon and Corn Whiskey

colorado's own corn whiskey

Colorado continues to rise as a key craft distilling region. One of the vanguards is Colorado Gold, a company out of Cedaredge, which was established in 2007. The company makes a full range of spirits, and today we’re looking at two of its most popular ones, both whiskeys, and very different ones at that. Thoughts follow.

Colorado Gold Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Young stuff, but quite engaging. Made from a mash of 65% corn, 15% rye, 10% wheat, and 10% malted barley, and aged for three years in a new char #3 American oak barrel. There’s ample wood on the nose, balanced with a touch of citrus, a bit of menthol. The body takes things to a similar place — a good slug of wood, mild caramel, with some dusty, coal-fire notes on the finish. Pleasant but not overly nuanced, this is a surprisingly simple bourbon, but with the often abrasive corn/grain notes you find in so many craft bourbons mercifully stripped out. There’s ample wood, but it’s balanced with clever touches of marshmallow, vanilla, and orange oil, turning slightly bitter as the finish fades. I’m both impressed and intrigued. 80 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #8, bottle #79, distilled 1/19/13. B+ / $43

Colorado’s Own Corn Whiskey – Colorado Gold’s top selling product. Made from a mash of 85% corn, 10% wheat, and 5% malted barley and aged for 6 months in a fresh-dumped Colorado Gold (see above) bourbon barrel. This is lightly aged corn whiskey, emphasis on light — it’s got the barest shade of yellow tinting it. This is surprisingly easy to drink. It’s not at all harsh or overloaded with corn, rather a light and pleasant spirit that features simple vanilla caramel notes backed with touches of corn chips. A fruity character comes on in the finish — peaches, perhaps — before some dusty wood notes bring up the rear. Surprisingly fun stuff. 80 proof. B+ / $27