Review: Starr Hill Last Leaf and Basketcase

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These seasonals are part of Starr Hill’s 2016 Fall Tour Pack along with Whiter Shade of Pale Ale and Northern Lights. Let’s sample the new brews.

Starr Hill Last Leaf Maple Brown Ale – A brown ale brewed with real maple syrup. Definitely the best of both worlds here, a light brown sugary sweetness giving the malt a fresher lift and an appropriately festive feeling, without being overtly heavy on the baking spices and chewy malt. A light bitterness on the back end adds balance, with hints of maple syrup making quiet appearances throughout the experience. 6.1% abv. B+

Starr Hill Basketcase American Helles – This bready brew drinks as an otherwise unremarkable lager, mild on the hops while offering a fairly heavy effervescence, more so than you’d find in a traditional German Helles (perhaps making it particularly “American” in this case). It’s a clean and inviting, though nothing that makes me think especially of the fall. 5.4% abv. B+

about $15 per 12-pack / starrhill.com

Review: Charbay 2005 Double Aged Rum

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This new and highly, highly expensive rum from Napa’s Charbay was distilled in 2005 from Hawaiian and Jamaican first-press sugar cane juice (not molasses), fermented with Champagne yeast, and distilled on Charbay’s pot-style Cognac still. It was aged in stainless steel for five years then put into French oak Chardonnay barrels for three more years. It was bottled two years later, before finally being released at full barrel strength, uncut and unfiltered.

If the production methodology alone didn’t cue you in, this is an exotic and highly unusual rum. It has a lot in common with nicely aged rhum agricole, but it finds a style that’s completely its own, too.

The nose kicks things off with curiosity: dried banana, buttered popcorn, and notes of saltwater taffy. On the palate, the popcorn really pops, as notes of maple syrup, toasty brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves hit forcefully, followed by a backbone of earthy coffee bean, mushroom, and tobacco. Deep and lasting, it is surprisingly approachable at nearly 65% alcohol, but water is a lovely idea, which brings out some salted licorice notes that don’t fully show at cask strength.

137 proof. 2790 bottles produced; about 25% of that was released this year.

A- / $450 / charbay.com

Review: Wines of Lazy Creek Vineyards, 2016 Releases

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Lazy Creek Vineyards, part of the Ferrari-Carano family of wines, is an Anderson Valley winery focused on pinot noir. Winemaker Christy Ackerman makes all of its wines as well as all of Ferrari’s pinots, and she invited a number of wine writers to sit in on an online tasting to sample the winery’s wares and learn more about what makes Lazy Creek so darn lazy.

First, some back story:

Lazy Creek Vineyards sits on a 95 acres ranch in Mendocino County’s bucolic Anderson Valley. Its vineyards were first planted more than 100 years ago, by the Italian Pinoli family. The winery was established in 1973 by Hans and Theresia Kobler, and quickly earned its reputation for excellent pinot noir and Alsatian-style gewurztraminer. In 2008, Lazy Creek Vineyards was acquired by Don and Rhonda Carano, who have continued a winemaking program emphasizing single-vineyard, terroir-driven pinot noirs and gewurztraminer, under the direction of winemaker Christy Ackerman. In 2014, Lazy Creek Vineyards was designated a California Certified Sustainable Winery (CCSW) by the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).

And now let’s taste some wines!

2015 Lazy Creek Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir – A beauty, very lively and fresh, closer to a white wine than a classic, fruit-driven rose. Strawberry notes meld with sea spray and slate here, with a fresh and lightly floral finish. A- / $22

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Lazy Day Pinot Noir – This is the only Lazy Creek wine in broad distribution and comes from a blend of various estate vineyards. Fairly standard-issue for Anderson Valley, loaded with notes of cherries, raspberry, and some vanilla. A little licorice edge on the back end gives this some tannic grip and a bolder profile that is more aggressive than more inland pinots. Highly drinkable. A- / $35

2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir – As weighty as the Lazy Day pinot is, this expression pushes things much further. Big notes of licorice, coffee bean, and some smoky wood notes dominate, giving the wine a body closer to a syrah than a typical pinot noir. The bittersweet finish offers a respite in the form of dried cherry and light cocoa notes, but what comes before is quite aggressive and needs careful attention, particularly if attempting to pair it to food. B / $58

2014 Ferrari-Carano Anderson Valley Pinot Noir – A point of comparison for the tasting, as this is bottled under the primary Ferrari-Carano label, but still comes from Anderson Valley fruit. Again the licorice kicks off right from the start, with darker blackberry notes forming the core. Spicy clove and black pepper give it an aggressive edge, along with some balsamic character. The finish is rougher than Lazy Day, but not as bold as the Estate pinot. B+ / $38

lazycreekvineyards.com

Review: Mount Gay XO Cask Strength

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As a celebration of 50 years of Barbados independence comes Mount Gay XO Cask Strength, its most luxe bottling to date. This is a limited edition, overproof expression of its existing Mount Gay XO bottling, which is itself a blend of rums 8 to 15 years old.

This expression is a deep and brooding rum that kicks off with heavy aromas of barrel char, licorice, and coffee bean. Dark chocolate and cloves are both well represented on the nose. At 63% alcohol it’s a burner on the palate, and a healthy splash of water helps to reveal its significant charms. Sans water, the dusky notes of the nose follow through closely to the palate, but when tempered it reveals much more — ample wood, to be sure, but a backbone of rich baking spices, sweet coffee, molasses cookies, and ginger. There’s a lot going on, but it sticks closely to the family of holiday baked goods and, well, very old rum.

What’s not to like?

126 proof. 3000 bottles produced.

A- / $185 / mountgayrum.com

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Recipes: Thanksgiving Cocktails 2016

Once again, the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us. However, this year seems a bit more unusual for those of us accustomed to having our team serve as the butt end of football jokes: the Detroit Lions are sitting atop the NFC North in first place. Here are a few recipes we’ll be putting to good use while explaining to our 92 year old grandmother why everyone is so angry at Alexander Hamilton these days.

Also, be on the lookout for our annual Holiday Gift Guide arriving in short order. (Tomorrow, actually!) Check back to get the lowdown on our giftable selections on a wide range of libations!

appleshoneyApples & Honey
1 ¼ parts Drambuie
2 parts kosher pressed apple cider
¾ part lime juice
1 sm pinch kosher salt
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 part kosher sparkling white wine (for dryer cocktail, 2 parts sparkling wine)
Garnish with thinly sliced apples and mint

Combine liquid ingredients and salt minus wine into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain over ice. Top with Sparkling wine and garnish with thin apple slices and mint.

Spiced Autumn Mimosa
¾ oz Ciroc Mango
¾ oz champagne
¾ oz fresh orange juice
1 cinnamon stick

Garnish with grated cinnamon, orange wedge and pomegranate seeds.

star-of-autumnStar of Autumn
1 ½ parts Facundo Neo rum
1 part Laird’s Applejack
¼ part maple syrup
¼ part lemon juice
apple wheel (green or Granny Smith) for garnish

Shake all ingredients with plenty of ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a thin apple wedge or curled apple peel.

punchHippocras Punch
4 parts white wine
2 parts Hendrick’s Gin
1 part chamomile tea
½ pineapple chopped
1 ¼ cups sugar
3 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
4 orange peels
1 teaspoon ground white pepper

Combine all of the ingredients in a small pot and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into a teapot and serve hot in teacups. Garnish with pineapple, cinnamon stick and orange peel.

chicagoLast Harvest
Created by Ben Schiller, The Sixth (Chicago)

2 oz. Campari
2 oz. apple brandy
1/2 oz. Cinzano 1757 Vermouth
1 oz. Wild Turkey bourbon
1/2 oz. walnut liqueur
4 dashes of aromatic bitters

Build all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice for 15 seconds, then funnel into cocktail bottle. Drop in a small apple slice for garnish. Serves two.

Review: Del Maguey Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec Mezcal

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Del Maguey hits this month with not one but two of its Single Village Mezcals – Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec. Let’s try both.

Del Maguey Wild Papalome Mezcal – A 100% agave papalome bottling from the Mixteca Alta region. A definitively sweeter style of mezcal, its barbecue-smoke nose layers in notes of citrus and pineapple — almost Hawaiian in style at times. On the palate the mezcal offers few surprises. kicking off with a rather sharp but gently sweet note, then segueing into gentle smoke that influences notes of orange peel, lemon, green banana, and some white wine character. It’s definitely on the quiet side for mezcal, but pleasant and pretty from start to finish. (For what it’s worth, my tasting notes have nothing in common with Del Maguey’s back label; your mileage may vary.) 90 proof. B+ / $100

Del Maguey San Pablo Ameyaltepec – Also 100% agave papalome, this mezcal is made from 12 to 18 year old plants grown in Ameyaltepec, in the Puebla region, where mezcal production was only recently given the OK. Here’s proof that terroir matters in mezcal — this is a much different spirit than the Wild Papalome, kicking off with a nose that is both leathery and smoky-spicy, with notes of dried flowers, almost evoking potpourri. The body is gentle to moderate in strength, and it offers numerous surprises, including notes of milk chocolate, orange flowers, smoked meats, and dried apple character. On the finish we find notes of bubble gum, gingerbread, and wispy smoke — which lingers on the back of the throat. Taken as a whole, it’s an exotic mezcal with an awful lot going on, but an awful lot that manages to come together in inspiring fashion. 94 proof. A- / $110

delmaguey.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2016, The Dissident 2016, and Conflux Collage #2

Deschutes Brewery Jubelale Winter Ale 2016 – Jubelale is always the first taste of Christmas for me each year, and for 2016 the brewery’s winter ale seems particularly pleasing, a warming experience that builds on a malty base with gentle notes of raisin and fig, mulling spices, and vanilla. What Jubelale has in spades this year is balance, and the beer manages to ride the line between malt, fruit, and light bitterness with aplomb. One of the best versions in recent memory. 6.7% abv. A- / $8 per six-pack

Deschutes Brewery The Dissident 2016 – Now an annual release, this beloved sour, a Flanders-style sour brown brewed with Oregon cherries, strikes with a vengeance. I’m never big on sours, but The Dissident is one I can happily sip on, its tart cherry notes surprisingly restrained against a backdrop of Madeirized wine, almond and walnut notes, chocolate malt, and stone fruit pits. The key to the beer’s success is that the sourness here isn’t the slap-yer-mama affair as it can so often be in big sours, but rather a refined and elevated experience that shows that sours can have a surprising elegance. 10.9% abv. A- / $16 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Conflux Series Collage #2 – This is a wacky, wacky thing, the second beer in Deschutes’ Conflux Series, which blends up a bunch of rare, barrel-aged beers from both Deschutes and Hair of the Dog brewery to make one insanely, super-rare, barrel-aged beer. I never saw Collage #1, but Collage #2 is a different blend, which incorporates Deschutes’ The Abyss (only the portion from Pinot barrels) and The Stoic (100% aged in Pinot barrels) plus Hair of the Dog’s Fred (aged in American oak and rye whiskey barrels) and Doggie Claws (100% aged in cognac barrels). That’s four barrel-aged beers, all aiming squarely at your gullet with an alcohol level that’s over 14 whopping percent. It’s definitely interesting as a sipper, but decidedly not an everyday experience. Notes of intense raisin, fig, and prune mix with overwhelming, syrupy caramel, thick molasses, and grainy malt extract. The beer is uncommonly sweet with dark sugar and dried fruit notes, with a finish that will linger for hours if you let it, eventually devolving into a pungent, mushroom-and-molasses character. Beers like this are rarified air, something fun to sample while you’re bloated after Christmas dinner, but nothing I need to experience more than a few ounces of. 14.3% abv. B / $25 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Whiskeys of Cedar Ridge – Iowa Bourbon, Wheat, Rye, Malted Rye, Single Malt

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As the first distillery in the state since Prohibition, Iowa’s Cedar Ridge makes everything from gin to rum to apple brandy. Today we look at five of the company’s whiskeys (it makes at least eight), which are all distilled on site (not sourced) but which are bottled without age statements. Cedar Ridge makes heavy use of Iowa-grown corn in its products, but not all are corn-based, and less is said about the sourcing of its other grains. (Though notably the company also makes wine, from estate-grown grapes.)

Without further ado, let’s dive into this selection of whiskeys.

Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – A bourbon made with 75% corn, 14% rye, and 12% malted barley. Youthful on the nose, with a sharp granary and fresh corn character, it features notes of tobacco, barrel char, green pepper, and black pepper. The finish offers some caramel corn sweetness, smoky notes, and a vaguely vegetal encore. 80 proof. B- / $39

Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey – Made from 100% malted wheat — technically making this a single malt whiskey. Light in color and fragrant on the nose, this is a delightful spirit, gossamer thin but loaded with intense floral aromas. On the palate the grain is quite clear, but a moderate sweetness keeps things moving, leading to more notes of white flowers, honey, graham crackers, and just a hint of cinnamon. The finish is soothing and sweet enough to balance out the aromatics that come before. 80 proof. B+ / $40

Cedar Ridge Rye Whiskey – This is a “traditional” rye made with a 70% “toasted rye” mash and bottled overproof. Racy but also quite woody, its big clove and raw ginger notes lead to a rather sweet finish, with notes of cinnamon-heavy apple pie and ripe banana. The spicy notes are lingering as the finish fades, along with a rather pungent Madeira character. Interesting, flavor-forward stuff. 115.2 proof. B / $43

Cedar Ridge Malted Rye Whiskey – An unusual whiskey made of 51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn, and 3% malted barley. The result is a gentler spin on rye (though this is just 43% abv if you’re comparing to the regular rye above), which takes that apple pie note and filters it through more supple notes of graham crackers, toasted marshmallow, coconut, and dried banana. Of all the whiskeys in this roundup, this one is the most refined and the most complex, a spirit that is clearly youthful and which still offers fresh granary notes up front, but which manages to round out its sharp and rough edges in style. 86 proof. A- / $40

Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey – This is a classic American single malt (malted barley) release, but with few of the expected fixins. The nose is moderately woody, studded with grain, and lightly spiced. On the palate, caramel makes a surprising impact, with overtones of evergreen and a heavy chocolate note. This cocoa character lingers on the finish, giving it a dessert-like character you rarely find in domestic single malts. Well done. 80 proof. B+ / $50

crwine.com

Review: 2016 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau

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I’ve been hearing good things about the 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau releases — and can now confirm that, yes, they might be on to something.

As usual, Georges Duboeuf is first out the gate with this ultra-young, ultra-fruity wine, but the nose features a lightly bitter astringency that one doesn’t usually find in Nouveau. While the nose is candylike and jammy, the body is more refined, offering some tannin and tea leaf to complement blueberry and strawberry notes. The finish is surprisingly clean, though not without a touch of lingering bubble gum, which is a helpful way to make you forget, at least in part, the clip-art appearance of the bottle label.

B+ / $12 / duboeuf.com

Review: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength

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Usquaebach’s first new release in nearly 25 years is here: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength, a blended malt composed of more than 20 single malts (and no grain whisky), each aged 10 to 21 years, packaged in a blue glass version of its traditional flagon decanter. Says Usqy:

Carefully crafted by longstanding Usquaebach blenders, Hunter Laing and Co., the An Ard Ri is made with casks from Master Blender Stewart H. Laing’s personal collection. Mr. Laing selected from a range of Highlands whiskies, including Inchgower, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Glengoyne, Dailuaine, Blair Athol, and Auchroisk. At 57.1% ABV, the finished product is a powerfully complex and structured, yet harmoniously smooth cask strength blend that faithfully maintains Usquaebach’s position as “King of the Blended Whiskies.” The 2,000 bottle limited release is packaged in a striking gold and blue variation of Usquaebach’s signature flagon bottle, keeping with the product’s theme of bringing ancient tradition to a modern audience.

This is a well-rounded but distinct blended malt. The nose offers some unusual notes, topping a backbone of malty grains with notes of roasted carrots, anise, pipe tobacco, and leather. The palate shows a bit more sweetness, including some molasses notes, burnt bread, coffee grounds, and a touch of torched citrus peel. The finish is modest and drying, coaxing out a bit of prune alongside notes of dried herbs.

All told, Usquaebach makes more interesting whiskies, but An Ard Ri is adept at showcasing the blender’s more savory side of the blend.

114.2 proof. 2000 bottles produced.

B / $200 / usquaebach.com

Review: Nautical American Gin

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Vertical Spirits is a new company (founded in 2015), and Nautical Gin is its first product. It’s actually made by Massachusetts-based Berkshire Mountain Distillers on behalf of Vertical, which is based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Though billed as an “American” gin, stylistically it is harder to peg. The botanicals do hold some curious surprises, the list running thusly: juniper, coriander, Pacific kombu (a coastal vegetable), spearmint, rosehips, lemongrass, angelica root, orange peel, cinnamon, orris root, lemon peel, cubeb, allspice, elderberry, and black pepper.

Some wild stuff in there, but the nose is heaviest on juniper, with notes of mint following close behind. Hints of pepper and clove-heavy allspice mingle among them. The palate is more exotic, with a heavy herbal/juniper character, stronger anise, and lemongrass overtones. The finish is lengthy and heavy with herbs, eucalyptus, earth, and aromatics, making this a nice pick for those who like their gins squarely on the side of earthy, heavily savory botanicals.

Neat bottle.

84 proof.

B / $30 / nauticalgin.com