Review: Not Your Father’s Vanilla Cream Ale

not your fathers cream ale

Is the third try the charm for Small Town Brewery and its “Not Your Father’s” line of hard sodas. While its root beer is acceptable, its ginger ale fell flat. Now let’s look at its vanilla cream.

Results: This one’s roughly in the middle of the trio.

To start with, it’s aided by copious amounts of sugar. The initial rush is like a glazed donut with vanilla whipped cream liberally applied to the top of it. It’s got a bit of a root beer kick, but that sassafras essence is again compounded by sugary vanilla wafers. Bottom line: If sweet vanilla is your jam, you’ll be all over this soda.

One word of warning. Make sure to drink it ice cold and fast, for when this Vanilla Cream Ale warms up the vegetal malt liquor base really starts to show itself, ultimately becoming quite dominating on the palate. As with other sodas of this ilk, that funky, raw alcohol note is tough to shake and lingers for far too long.

4.1% abv (considerably lower in alcohol than the other two products).

B / $11 per six pack of 12 oz. bottles /

Review: Compass Box The Circus and Enlightenment


Two new limited expressions from the ever-interesting blenders at Compass Box: The Circus and Enlightenment. Let’s take a look at both. Thoughts follow.

Compass Box The Circus – This is another complicated whisky that requires an infographic to explain how it is blended. The gist is that The Circus is composed of a mix of old malt whisky, grain whisky, and blended stock, in these proportions: 57.2% blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt; 26% blended grain whisky from a refill sherry butt; 15.4% Benrinnes malt whisky from a first-fill sherry butt, and 1.4% of a second blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt. Whew! Compass Box says it actually doesn’t know much about the whiskies inside those mystery casks, but that those refill casks are all “marrying casks,” and that the whiskies inside each of them have been lingering there for a long, long time. To say that this whisky is sherry forward would be a massive understatement. All that time in sherry butts has given the spirit a nutty, citrus-peel intensity that is the very essence of sherry cask aging. Secondary aromas include tea leaf and tree bark. Underneath all that, the palate offers notes of nougat, cinnamon, dried fruit, and gentle brown sugar. It drinks more like a sherried single malt than a blend, providing just a hint of the underlying malty grain that endures into the finish, where lightly herbal notes linger. A stellar blend. 98 proof. 2490 bottles produced. A / $300

EnlightenmentCompass Box Enlightenment – This is a much different but equally complicated whisky, a blended malt rather than a standard blend (meaning there’s no grain whisky in this one). It’s almost all aged in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, so there’s no sherry influence and the color is much, much lighter. The all-single-malt blend looks like this: 48.2% Clynelish, 36.7% Glentauchers, 10.8% Balblair, and 4.3% Mortlach (this one in a rejuvenated bourbon barrel). UK regulations prevent revealing the ages of these whiskies, but nonetheless these are not young bucks. The nose reveals toasty wood, coconut, almonds, and subtle gingerbread notes. On the palate, there’s more of this lightly sweet, nutty character, leading to almond-laden nougat and Christmas spice notes later on. The finish is a bit heavier, with bolder granary notes, new leather, and a sense of wet earth that tends to weigh down the delights that have come before. Enlightenment is still a great whiskey — though perhaps it is difficult to consider it entirely fairly next to the near-masterpiece of The Circus. That said, I could still drink it every day. 92 proof. 5922 bottles produced. A- / $90

Review: Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company Juices and Lemonades


Florida-based Natalie’s Orchid Island makes fresh juices and lemonades, packing them in those familiar, squared-off, plastic pint bottles. These products are “gourmet pasteurized” but contain no preservatives, and must be kept refrigerated at all times. Is upscale juice worth the splurge? We checked out six varieties of juice and lemonade. For your consideration:

Natalie’s Orange Juice – A touch sour, but otherwise this is a reasonably credible orange juice that leans a bit toward the grapefruit/lemon end of the flavor spectrum. B

Natalie’s Orange Mango Juice – Light on the mango, which gives this blend a bit of a banana character — complete with a creamier body, almost smoothie-like at times. A-

Natalie’s Orange Beet Juice – Appropriately “beety,” it tastes awfully healthy, although the intense vegetal character of the beets makes this hard to drink a full pint of. I love beets, but beet juice — even when cut with a bit of orange — remains an acquired taste. (It’s worth noting that orange juice is the first ingredient, however.) B-

Natalie’s Lemonade – Nothing to complain about here. This lemonade nails the sweet and sour balance perfectly, with a slight lean toward fresh lemon, just as it should be. A

Natalie’s Strawberry Lemonade – Well-sweetened, with a nice balance between lemon and strawberry notes. Refreshing and tart, with a slight creaminess on the finish. B+

Natalie’s Lemonade Tea – The Arnold Palmer is a simple drink, but the majority of the time it is made, it tastes like garbage. Why is this so often screwed up? Good news: Natalie’s nails it. This is just about the perfect mix of lemonade and tea, starting off with that tart lemon kick, then settling down to finish with that gentle, sweet tea that lingers on the palate. That said, there are 48 grams of sugar in a pint, so perhaps drink only occasionally. A

$NA per 16 oz. bottle /

Review: Blue Ice Creme Brulee Vodka

Blue Ice Creme Brulee

Outside of its “G” line, Blue Ice has just one flavored vodka, and that flavor is… no, not lemon. Not citrus. Creme brulee. Or, as it is listed on the Blue Ice website: Creme burlee. Or, elsewhere, Creme burele.

That is an extremely weird choice for one’s sole flavor, but to be sure, “creme brulee” is shorthand for “vanilla.” (More “natural” flavors are relegated to the Blue Ice “G” line, which has a more organic reputation.) Anyway, if you think about an actual creme brulee while you’re sniffing a glass of Blue Ice Creme Brulee, you really do get a real custard sense in it. It’s not just straight vanilla, but sugary and eggy all at once, complete with that caramelized crust. So, on that note, well done, Blue Ice.

On the palate, sugar dominates, but the flavors continue the theme established by the nose. The more raw elements of the vodka battle with the heavier flavoring elements, but the finish positively pours on the sweetness, sticking to your mouth and, well, anything else that might come into contact with the vodka: This is some sticky, sticky stuff.

Sure, this is hardly a nuanced spirit, and outside of novelty cocktails Blue Ice Creme Brulee doesn’t have a whole lot of utility, but let’s be frank: Once in awhile, everyone’s mom comes to visit. And she’s gonna love it in her coffee.

Now let’s work on that spelling.

60 proof.

B- / $16 /

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2016 Edition


Here’s a quintet of whiskeys you might have heard of once or twice. Yes, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has arrived, which will probably be sold out before I finish typing this sentence. Well, if you’re a glutton for punishment and want to take a stab at finding one of these rarities — particularly because this year’s batch is so exceptional — read on for the reviews.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Last year’s Sazerac 18 was famously bottled from the last drops of its massive quantity of well-aged rye, which had been sitting in tanks since 1985. 2016 marks the first “new” batch of Sazerac Rye in more than a decade. Distilled in 1998, there’s no tanked spirit in this batch — and, Buffalo Trace says, there won’t be any more tanked whiskey going forward. As it should, the whiskey tastes a bit different now, quite spicy on the nose with a huge baking spice punch while hanging on to its classic notes of brandied cherries, juicy raisins, and a layer of sandalwood. Some grassiness emerges on the nose, given time . The palate is racier and drier than expected, peppery on the back of the palate while allowing its cherry core to shine and light, toasty wood notes to emerge. The finish is lasting and allows some brown sugar notes to shine through, adding some balance to the lingering lumber. It may not be the same Sazzy 18, but it’s still a beauty. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – The 2016 edition of the classic Eagle Rare 17 has been aging on the first, second and third floors of Warehouses H and K. The nose feels racier than usual, eventually settling down to reveal some surprises: exotic and heavily tropical notes of coconut and pineapple, with a healthy dollop of vanilla on top. This highly unexpected but delightful nose spills over onto the palate, which is well-sweetened to the point where it approaches rum, although that is tempered by plenty of wood later in the game. Some more toasted coconut and almond notes emerge on the back end, alongside a modest level of barrel char. It’s at once strikingly unusual and, at the same time, a classically fruit-forward bourbon that is well worth exploring. 90 proof. A

George T. Stagg Bourbon – Always the centerpiece of the BTAC yet often overblown, this year’s Stagg is a cherry-picked compilation of 142 barrels sourced from warehouses M, N, H, L and K. Old stock, high proof, as always — this one’s over 72% abv, bruising even by Stagg standards. Notes of unlit cigars, rosemary, and cloves kick things off on rich and dense yet surprisingly balanced nose. Another surprise: At full proof the bourbon doesn’t completely overwhelm the palate with alcohol, but it is so dusty and drying on that it’s tough to cut through the massive amount of tannin to really appreciate what’s going on. Water is always Stagg’s best friend, and this year is no exception, eventually coaxing sweetness from that intense tobacco character, plus cherry fruit, loads of vanilla, torched marshmallow, and more cloves. As it opens up in the glass — again, particularly with water — it develops an intensely smoky aroma, which is a natural companion with the tobacco notes but which does tend to dull the fruit and leave your mouth a bit dry. That aside, this year’s expression is quite unique and worth some exploration, nearly earning the vaunted reputation it’s always had. 144.1 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A 13 year old expression of Weller — uncut, unfiltered, wheated recipe bourbon distilled in the spring of 2003 and aged on the third and sixth floors of Warehouses D, K, and L. As is becoming the norm with these BTAC Wellers, the nose is quite sweet, with (again) a butterscotch influence, plus marzipan and peppermint. The palate backs these up, but the finish takes a turn toward a more spicy, wintry character. While approachable at full, uncut proof, water may not be a bad idea, though more than a drop or two tends to dull some of the sweetness that otherwise makes this year’s Weller so compelling. One of the best expressions of W.L. Weller I’ve had in many years. 135.4 proof. A-

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – As always, this is a good-old six year old rye, the baby of the group, this installment distilled in the spring of 2010 and aged on the fourth, fifth and seventh floors of Warehouses I, K, and M. This year’s expression is better than it usually is, though the relative youth comes across immediately on the nose — moderately woody, with some butterscotch underneath. The tannin hits hard on the palate — those pushy lumberyard notes really lingering at the back of the throat. Unlike with the Stagg, water doesn’t restore balance but just dilutes the whole affair, bringing forth notes of burnt toast, heavy cereal, and lots of smoky oak. The finish is dusty and slightly green. There’s nothing all that offensive here, but compared to this field (or any other top shelf whiskey) it is just very ordinary. 126.2 proof. B

$90 each /

Tasting Report: Family Winemakers of California 2016

It’s been a few years since I’ve attended Family Winemakers of California, and event that once billed itself as the largest wine event in America, with hundreds of wineries showing off their wares.

Things have settled down a bit in more recent years, but with 125 wineries showcasing some 500-plus wines, there’s still far more wine than you could possibly sample in a full day here.

I spent some time checking out both some old favorites while seeking out many that were new to me. The experience did not disappoint, with a high proportion of really exceptional wines standing out above the crowd.

Who’s got great juice right now? Take a spin through my limited ratings and tasting notes below.

Family Winemakers 2016 Full Tasting Report

2012 Angwin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain The Kissing Trees / A- / classic, tart fruit, cherry and herbs
2012 Angwin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Estate / B+ / more sweetness here, a bit jammy on the finish
2013 Arrowood Chardonnay Carneros / B- / quite woody, some vegetal notes
2013 Belden Barns Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard / A- / very fruit forward, lots of depth
2014 Belden Barns Pinot Noir Serendipity Block / A / more earthy, balanced by earth, licorice, and spice
2013 Belden Barns Syrah / A- / heavy blackberry
2015 Belden Barns Rose / B / very heavy strawberry
2015 Belden Barns Sauvignon Blanc / B+ / lychee, pineapple notes; NZ style
2014 Belden Barns Gruner Veltliner / A- / bright, with mineral notes and lots of acid
2013 Belden Barns Chardonnay / B+ / better balance of fruit and butter/oak notes than most
2013 De Novo Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / B / very jammy, slight baking spice edge
2014 De Novo Wines Pinot Noir / B / interesting jam/spice combo
2011 De Novo Wines Merlot / B+ / pretty violet notes, long fruit finish
2014 De Novo Wines Cabernet Sauvignon / B+ / very fruit forward, some surprising strawberry notes
2009 Delectus Cabernet Franc / B / dark chocolate notes, lots of density, very tannic
2008 Delectus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley / B+ / settling down a bit, tart fruit on the back end
2010 Delectus Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley / A / really supple, rounded and fruity; balanced
2011 Delectus Cuvee Julian / B+ / a blend of cab/petite sirah/cab franc; fruit is dialed back to let heavy earth notes show; needs time
2012 Frostwatch Merlot / A- / elegant; notes of pencil lead, florals, ample fruit, and chocolate
2013 Frostwatch Merlot / A- / more fruit here, violets on the finish
2013 Jon Nathaniel Windfall Merlot / B+ / heavy florals, very dense for merlot
2013 Jon Nathaniel Windfall Cabernet Sauvignon / A / licorice and tea notes; big but balanced
2013 Jon Nathaniel Bodacious / A- / heavy blackberry, nice balance on the whole
2013 Jon Nathaniel Fabulist / B+ / lots of fruit, a bit overblown
2012 Krutz Family Cellars Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir / A- / heavy fruit; bold and big; lots of baking spice
2014 Krutz Family Cellars Magnolia Pinot Noir / B+ / subtle and gentle, a fresh “everyday” wine
2014 Krutz Family Cellars Anderson Valley Pinot Noir / A- / meaty nose, some acidity, modest baking spice
2013 Laird Family Estate Pinot Noir / B / some barnyard, black fruit, dense tobacco
2012 Laird Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / B+ / still developing, young and spicy
2013 Macauley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley / A- / bold, graphite notes and a big finish
2013 Macauley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / B+ / overdone, lots of dusty earthiness
2013 Macauley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon To Kalon Vineyard / A / domaintes the palate in full; spice, licorice, and coffee; needs cellar time
2013 Martinelli Chardonnay Martinelli Road / A- / bold and buttery; notes of figs
2012 Oakville East Exposure Cabernet Sauvignon / B+ / fruity up front; segues into earth
2013 Oakville East Exposure Cabernet Sauvignon / A- / denser and younger, a touch bitter but a more subtle wine
2013 Pride Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / A- / classic Napa, but dialed back to show restrained fruit
2012 Sullivan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon / B+ / slightly acidic, quite herbal
2012 Sullivan Vineyards Coeur de Vigne / B+ / intense tannin, dark and stony, coal dust
2012 The Crane Assembly Cabernet Sauvignon / A / intense and dense, fruit opens up to herbs and floral notes; $225 a bottle!
2014 The Crane Assembly Disciples / B / zinfandel; lush and chocolaty, with Port wine notes
2013 The Crane Assembly el Coco / B+ / a blend of zin/petite sirah/merlot/cab; more restrained than the Disciples; some bitterness
2013 The Withers Mr. Burgess / A- / GSM blend, heavy on the syrah; a stellar wine, dense chocolate, leather, great depth
2013 The Withers Bel Canto / B+ / GSM, heavy on the grenache; bitter notes that are balanced by spice
2013 The Withers Ruben / A- / GSM, heavy on the mourvedre; quite tart, but floral
2015 The Withers Rose / A / herbal, with fun gingerbread notes
2014 The Withers Pinot Noir Peters Vineyard / A / peppery, exotic, with dense fruit
2014 The Withers Pinot Noir English Hill / A / gentle and lighter in style; lovely
2013 The Withers Pinot Noir Charles Vineyard / A- / also quite light, but less fruit forward
2012 Vineyard 511 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain / A / lush and gorgeous, slight florals with a cherry bent

Review: Coravin Model One Wine Preservation System


Since I reviewed the first Coravin wine preservation system in 2013 — the first review of the device ever published #humblebrag — the company has been up to a lot of work. The Coravin Model 1000 is now known as the Coravin Model Eight. A luxe edition called the Coravin Model Two has been released, and now there is a third version: A less expensive system called the Coravin Model One.

The Model One is designed to be millennial-friendly, clad in more Ikea-friendly white and blue plastic instead of black and silver. Other than that, slightly lighter materials, and some very minor design tweaks, I can tell you that after experimenting with both the Model One and the original Model 1000/Model Eight side by side, they are functionally identical.

Both devices work the same way: A needle goes down through the cork, wine comes out, and argon gas goes in. Argon canisters are replaceable (each handles about 3 bottles of wine) at a price of roughly $10 a canister, so figure a bit under $1 per glass for expendables. Both use the same needle (the Model Two has a slightly “faster” needle) and work exactly the same way.

So, if you’re considering a Coravin, should you spend $200 on the Model One or $300 on the Model Eight? Well, the blue and white color scheme isn’t the most attractive, but the Coravin isn’t all that handsome of a device to start with, no matter what color it is. If you’re choosing to keep the device in a drawer instead of on display (and since the Model One doesn’t come with a stand, you pretty much have to), I wouldn’t hesitate to save the hundred bucks and put that toward wine instead of gadgetry.