Review: High West Light Whiskey 14 Years Old

high west light whiskey

Contrary to (and in fact the exact opposite of) what certain ill-informed websites will tell you, light whiskey is not distilled to a lower proof than regular whiskey. In fact, it is whiskey (made of unspecified grain) that is distilled to a higher proof — generally 80 to 95 percent alcohol. That puts it somewhere between “real” whiskey and neutral spirits like vodka, which are distilled to 95% alcohol or higher. Typically light whiskey is used like grain whiskey is for blending, and it finds a home in various whiskey products, including Canadian whiskey. Rarely do you find it released on its own.

For this limited release, High West sourced 100 barrels of light whiskey from Indiana’s MGP, distilled from corn between 1999 and 2001, which spent 14 years in second-fill barrels, and it’s releasing it all uncut and unblended.

The nose is slight, with notes of caramel corn, butterscotch, and some astringency. The body is surprisingly sweet — corn syrup, caramelized banana, and whipped cream. Very light on the tongue — the moniker of “light whiskey” isn’t a bad one — it gets to the finish quite quickly, which is fairly clean, quiet, and uncomplicated, but which offers notes of tobacco and gentle grains.

92 proof.

B / $100 / highwest.com

Review: Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old and 18 Years Old

Port Dundas 12

While the history of the distillery is complex, Diageo-owned Port Dundas has been producing single grain spirit since the mid-1800s, making it one of the oldest grain distilleries in Scotland. At least until 2010, when it was shuttered. The whisky that flowed from these Glasgow-based stills was used far and wide in blends like Johnnie Walker, J&B, and more. To honor this storied but now silent still, Diageo is releasing two single grain expressions that bear the Port Dundas name, drawn from now restricted stock.

Let’s look at these two limited release expressions, a 12 year old and an 18 year old bottling.

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old – No surprises on the nose, which offers heavy cereal notes and some astringent hospital character, alongside some root vegetable character. On the palate, things brighten up, the grains offering up some notes of lemongrass and dark brown sugar — but counterbalanced by notes of mushroom and wet earth. On the whole it drinks like a very light style of blended Scotch, which isn’t a slight, but which isn’t the biggest compliment I have in my pocket, either. 80 proof. B / $50

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 18 Years Old – A clear step up from the 12, this is single grain firing on all cylinders. The nose is much more dense, with aromas of nuts, toffee, flamed orange oil, and a wisp of smoke. On the palate, the slightly higher alcohol level makes all the difference, rounding out the mouthfeel with some welcome oiliness and punching up the body with notes of spiced nuts, more toffee, vanilla custard, cinnamon toast, and some menthol, particularly on the finish. Unlike the simplistic 12, this expression drinks closer to a quality single malt, offering both complexity and boldness, elegance and power. Definitely worth seeking out. 86 proof. A- / $100

malts.com

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+ / $9 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-pack

moosehead.ca

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2016

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The 17th annual Whiskies of the World event wrapped this March in San Francisco, and it was as fun and chaotic as ever to wander three stories of the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, moored in the San Francisco Bay.

This year I focused my attention primarily on independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, with Alexander Murray and Gordon & MacPhail both in attendance, along with veterans like the Exclusive Malts and Chieftain’s collections. Also highly worthwhile: A new distillery, Mosswood, which ages light whiskey in a variety of oddball barrels to produce the most exotic and interesting “flavored” whiskey you’ve ever tried. As for my favorite spirit of the night? Arran’s delightful “Smugglers’ Illicit Stills” offering, which comes complete in a fake book (see photo).

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Alexander Murray Bladnoch 25 Years Old – Notes of roasted nuts, grains, a touch of lychee / B
Alexander Murray Monumental Blended Scotch 30 Years Old – Very grainy — a surprise — notes of hay / B
Alexander Murray Speyside 40 Years Old – Quite gentle, malty, quiet citrus; surprising that this is 40 years old / A
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso – A bit overblown, with big toffee notes / B+
Aberlour Scapa Skiren – Simple; easygoing, with gentle grain structure / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old – Big molasses notes, scorched caramel, nice stuff / A-
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old – Ginger is fun, but granary notes surprise / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Years Old – Quite maritime, gentle peat and salt spray / A-
Lagavulin 12 Years Old – The classic; nothing new to report / B+
Lagavulin Distillers Edition Double Matured – Gorgeous, big mouthfeel and better balanced than the standard Lag 12 / A-
Glenmorangie Signet – Sweet chocolate notes, coffee, almost overblown with dessert notes / A-
The Balvenie 17 Years Old DoubleWood – Classic; light sherry, nougat, well balanced / A-
Macallan Rare Cask / Rounded and well sherried; still drinking lovely / A-
Chieftain’s Glen Grant 20 Years Old – Slightly racy, with heavy cereal notes / B
Chieftain’s Linkwood 17 Years Old – Chewy, with cherry notes, gentle finish / A-
Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 2002 – A big crowd pleaser, but it didn’t resonate with me; big cereal notes, yeasty, slightly astringent / B
Exclusive Malts Girvan 1988 Single Grain – Butterfinger candies, buttery body, surprising for a single grain / B+
Arran Amarone Finish – Starts off hot; leads to raisin and chocolate notes, a bit scattered / B+
Arran Smugglers’ Illicit Stills – Quietly spicy, with tons of malt, honey, and a touch of smoke; really compelling / A

022Bourbon

PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Eagle Rare – The first of five single barrel releases on tap from SF’s PlumpJack; big butterscotch notes, but quite woody / B
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV 8 years, 8 months – Lovely, with some pepper to it / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO 10 years, 6 months – Lots of heat; a bit astringent; peppermint notes / B+
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF 11 years, 7 months – Honeyed with baking spices and cinnamon / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OESQ 10 years, 5 months – Popcorn and malt, rather plain / B
Healthy Spirits Old Scout 9 Years Old – Another private bottling; big caramel, chocolate, cinnamon… but a touch grainy / B+

Other

Brenne 10 Years Old – The 10 year old expression of this French malt; enduring grain, notes of gingersnaps / B+
J. Seeds Apple Cider Whiskey – Unpalatable, incredible bite / C-
Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof – Lovely apple and caramel, with a drying finish / A-
Mosswood Apple Brandy Barrel Aged – Mosswood makes light whiskey and ages it in different barrels, giving it a really unique structure; this one has beautiful fruit, with gentle, cider-like character / A-
Mosswood Espresso Barrel Aged – Slightly smoky, earthy, and nutty – not the heavy coffee bomb you might expect / A-
Mosswood Umeshu Single Barrel Aged – An Asian plum wine barrel gives this a curious notes; on the palate the fruit really emerges alongside spice and a sweet backbone; quite a revelation in “flavored” whiskey / A
Germain-Robin Old Havana Brandy – A touch of tobacco, lingering raisin, very soft / A-
Germain-Robin Single Barrel Brandy – Bigger body, heavy raisin and spice elements / B+
Low Gap Wheat Whiskey 4 Years Old – Heavy pear notes, very fruity / B+
Roundstone Rye – 100% rye; youthful, earthy, mouth-filling / B-
Roundstone Rye 92 Proof – More rounded; heavy cloves / B+
Roundstone Rye Cask Proof – Aged in maple syrup casks and it shows; a bit cloying / B
Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose – 7 Stills makes whiskey from different styles of beer; this one’s an IPA base. Classic IPA notes add density and ample hops / B+
Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate – Coffee porter base with a touch of espresso added on the back end; clear coffee notes, slight caramel; lingering coffee finish / A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Dogpatch – Sour beer based, finished in a sour beer barrel. Some funk, a little cherry and raisin character; a bit crazy as whiskey goes. Need to spend more time with this one / B+

Review: Barrell Bourbon Batch 6 and 7

barrell 6

Two new releases from our friends at Kentucky’s Barrell Bourbon, which take a variety of sourced whiskeys and release them at cask strength, one (often wildly different) batch at a time.

Batch 6 and 7 are here, as are our thoughts.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 006 – A close sibling to Batch 5, this is 70% corn, 26% rye, 4% malted barley, distilled in Tennessee, aged 8 years, 6 months — “low in the rickhouse.” Big and blazing up front, it’s got an overload of baking spices, and plenty of barrel char influence. Big rye notes attack the body, which is heavily herbal but also showcases scorched caramel notes. As with its predecessor, water helps a lot, which helps to coax out fruit while taking all that wood in the direction of buttered popcorn. Racy and spicy through and through, it’s a classic rye-forward bourbon that fans of big whiskeys will enjoy, though it never quite cuts all the way through the hefty wood character. Compare to the more well-rounded Batch 5 if you can. Reviewed: Bottle #1864. 122.9 proof. B+ / $80

Barrell Bourbon Batch 007 – This bourbon is made in Tennessee from 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, and is aged just 5 years in #4 char oak barrels — putting this batch alongside the almost identical Bourbon Batch 1. I was promised ahead of time that this bourbon was “wise beyond its years,” and the nose comes across as a bold, relatively well-aged expression, with notes of butterscotch and heavy wood char. The body is more youthful than that would indicate, fairly heavy with popcorn and mushroom notes on the body. Water offers some improvements by coaxing out ample sweetness and balancing the affair, but it’s ultimately a bit short on nuance. Reviewed: Bottle #5446. 122.4 proof. B / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

barrellbourbon.com

Classic Book Reviews: The Home Bartender’s Guide and Song Book, American Bar, and Louis’ Mixed Drinks

song book

Old timey cocktails are back, and so are old timey cocktail books. While cheap paperback reprints have been rampant in recent years, now these out of print tomes (originals can run up to $700 on Amazon) are being remade with fancy hardcovers and all the original detailing intact.

Here’s a look at three, all recently republished by Cocktail Kingdom.

Originally published in 1930 (in the thick of Prohibition, it should be noted), The Home Bartender’s Guide and Song Book is a true classic of the home bar, one which melds cocktail recipes with, yes, drinking songs. As a look back in time, it’s fun to marvel at both the archaic recipes (martinis are made with bitters!) and the impressive drinking shanties, which presumably you were meant to sing when at a cocktail party:

Host, please do your duty,
Give us each a drink,
Just a little drink,
Just a little drink,
Just a little drink or two.

What tune you were supposed to sing these songs to is not revealed, but it probably doesn’t matter when you’ve had a Shameless Hussy, White Satin Cocktail, or Shaluta! cocktail or three. (To make a Shaluta!: One part “Dago Red,” one part gin, one part lemon juice, “handle any way you like.”) Mmmm.

It’s doubtful anyone will actually make cocktails using this book, but it’s a fun trip to the past nonetheless, complete with period typefaces, line drawings, and, of course, ample — yet subtle — racism. B+ / $28

Louis’ Mixed Drinks, originally published in 1906, was ahead of its time in offering recipes for bottled cocktails (pre-mix and keep ’em on hand!). Other cocktails included are era-appropriate, including 12-layer Pousse Cafes and plenty of fizzes, flips, and cobblers. Author Louis Muckensturm also was a bit of a wine fan, and if you need overviews of vintages from 1880 to 1905, he’s got you covered. This book is a bit less enchanting than The Home Bartender’s Guide (and harder to read owing to the elongated, narrow format) but, as with all of these tomes, a fun glance backwards at, you know, simpler times. B / $28

American Bar, from 1904,  is entirely in French, so you’ll need to bring your translator to bear on this one. No rating / $28

cocktailkingdom.com

Tasting Report: Wines of New Zealand 2016

nz wine

It’s been four years since we’ve checked in on the wines of New Zealand in earnest. At this year’s San Francisco installment of the New Zealand Wine Fair, I made it a point to focus particularly on white wines. Were they still tropical blowouts in the classic “New Zealand style” to which we’ve become accustomed? I’m happy to report that restraint is on the rise in NZ, with both whites and reds showcasing better balance, more floral notes, and a general pullback (for the most part) from that pineapple juice legacy.

A special mention for a winery that was new to me — Prophet’s Rock, from Central Otago, which had both the best Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines of the event. Its sub-labels, Rocky Point and Box o’ Birds, were’t too shabby, either.

Notes on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: 2016 New Zealand Wine Fair

2015 Astrolabe Province Pinot Gris Marlborough / $22 / A- / fruit and floral in balance, slightly tropical
2014 Astrolabe Wrekin Vineyard Chenin Blanc Southern Valleys / $24 / B+ / drier, with heavy minerality
2015 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough / $21 / A- / heavy pineapple and big tropical notes up front
2012 Craggy Range Te Muna Pinot Noir Martinborough / $45 / B+ / lively with cherry and black pepper notes, light body
2013 Craggy Range “Sophia” Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Merlot Blend / $70 / B / 62% merlot blend; lots of sweet cherry, heavy chicory, coffee
2014 Folium Pinot Noir Marlborough / $25 / B / restrained, rustic, a touch herbal; tight right now
2013 Folium Reserve Pinot Noir Marlborough / $35 / B+ / a bit brighter; slightly bolder fruit structure
2014 Folium Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $20 / A- / dry, with ample acid and zippiness
2014 Folium Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $25 / A- / a bit bigger mouthfeel, longer finish; still seems tight
2015 Gibbston Valley Collection Pinot Gris Central Otago / $25 / B / more floral, chewy with some caramel
2014 Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay Central Otago / $35 / B+ / herbal with grassy notes; buttery on the finish, not overblown
2014 Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir Central Otago / $55 / A- / very dense for NZ wines, cherry cola notes
2014 Gibbston Valley Glenlee Pinot Noir Central Otago / $55 / A- / Burgundy-like; earthy with barnyard notes, bold and unique for this area
2014 Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir Central Otago / $55 / B / rhubarb up front; less punchy with gentle fruit
2014 Gibbston Valley Reserve Pinot Noir Central Otago / $80 / A- / quite bold with notes of tea, some leather
2015 Greystone Pinot Gris Waipara Valley / $25 / B- / herbal, quite astringent
2015 Huia Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $20 / B+ / fresh, with modest tropical notes; bright and brisk
2015 Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $22 / B / pineapple and peaches, heavy on the palate, dessert-like
2014 Mt. Beautiful Chardonnay Canterbury / $22 / B- / herbal and grassy, some meaty notes
2014 Mt. Difficulty Bannockburn Pinot Gris Central Otago / $25 / B / some butter and butterscotch notes; herbal
2013 Nautilus Estate Pinot Noir Marlborough / $33 / B+ / earthy on the nose, licorice and black cherry
2013 Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir Central Otago / $55 / A / big tea notes; some raspberry, cherry, and pepper – a real highlight
2014 Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris Central Otago / $39 / A / lively, with tons of aromatics, beautifully fresh body; touches of coconut
2014 Rocky Point Pinot Noir Central Otago / $34 / A- / lightly bitter, sold fruit beneath; one to lay down
2014 Box o’ Birds Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $17 / B+ / very grassy, high acidity; bright and peppy
2014 Saint Clair Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $18 / B+ / simple, modestly structured
2014 Saint Clair Family Estate Pioneer Block 20 Cash Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $28 / A- / some salt spray, perfect for oysters; nice structure, balanced with a touch of bitterness on the finish
2012 Wooing Tree Pinot Noir Cromwell / $45 / A- / bolder fruit, some herbs and spice; racy finish
2011 Wooing Tree Sandstorm Reserve Pinot Noir Cromwell / $80 / A / some smoke with dark fruit; heavy body, long and bittersweet finish
2014 Wooing Tree Beetle Juice Pinot Noir Cromwell / $25 / B+ / some licorice, tobacco; restrained
2015 Wooing Tree Blondie Central Otago / $25 / B+ / a light pinot noir rose; loaded with tropical pineapple and mango notes; bold
2013 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / $29 / B- / indeed a bit wild; some meaty notes, roasted pork