Review: Barking Irons Applejack

BarkingIrons_Bottle_ByGievesAnderson

Barking Irons Applejack is a new apple brandy which is distilled (for its owners) at Black Dirt Distillery in upstate New York. The applejack starts with a distillate of jonagold, macoun, and gala apples that is aged in #2 char oak barrels (time unstated but said to be just a few months) at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Distilling before being individually bottled, hand-labeled, and numbered.

So, let’s see how this applejack fares in tasting.

On the nose, it’s rather racy stuff, immediately showing quite a lot of youth, with notes of raw wood and some petrol, though this is balanced out by a light lacing of apple cider character and some orange peel notes. On the palate, it quickly and thankfully reveals a much more well-rounded spirit, offering clear caramel-apple and butterscotch notes — though it’s backed up with more of that punchy lumberyard character. The finish is on the astringent side, though on the whole the spirit still manages to be quite sweet and fairly satisfying in the end.

All told, this is a young applejack that nonetheless manages to squeeze a whole lot of character out of that youth. Worth a look for apple brandy fans.

100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1 (400 cases produced).

B / $43 / barkingirons.com

Review: Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin

benhams gin

The ornate and elaborate label on D. George Benham’s gin looks like it could be straight out of old Londontown, but the truth is it hails from Sonoma County, California. What’s a “Sonoma Dry Gin?” As Graton Distilling Co. owner Derek George Benham describes, it’s a cross between old school London Dry and fruitier New Western styles. This column-distilled gin is infused with 12 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, Meyer lemon, Buddha’s Hand citrus, chamomile, peppermint, orris root, cardamom, grains of paradise, angelica root, star anise, and galangal (a ginger-like root) — so a little off the beaten path, but nothing too terribly crazy.

The nose is fresh, almost pungent with both juniper and citrus; as a melding of styles goes, Benham’s starts off especially strong. You catch a touch of ginger aromas here, too, which adds nuance and intrigue. On the palate, the body is loaded with flavor: bright citrus — lemon and grapefruit — plus fresh ginger notes, gentle juniper, and a racy finish that, again, recalls the ginger notes on the nose. I keep going back to it… there’s a subtle floral note that emerges over time, and a light undercurrent of earthiness. All told, the gin’s balance is impressively spot-on, dancing among the various components on the palate until the finish — hot but not oppressive, a bit oily but otherwise quite clean — eventually fades out.

It’s a versatile spirit that works well with any mixer as well as on its own or in a martini. Bold and powerful but also decidedly refined, I don’t hesitate to call this one of the best gins of the year.

90 proof.

A / $40 / gratondistilling.com

Review: VDKA 6100 Vodka

Here’s the bullet points on VDKA 6100. It hails from New Zealand (the 6100 refers to the 6,100 miles from the U.S. (where the vodka was envisioned) to NZ, where it is made). It is triple distilled from a mash made not using potatoes, corn, or wheat but from whey — yes, whey, the by-product of milk production. Finally: Robert de Niro is an investor in the product, and “helped with the design, packaging, branding, and positioning of the product.”

The vodka is one of the lightest out there. The nose is lightly sweet, with just a mild touch of hospital character, but otherwise very clean and very neutral. The palate follows suit: Thin, almost watery at times, with very gentle notes of simple syrup, fresh cream, and a touch of lemongrass. Is the whey-cream connection all in my head? At times the vodka seems like it drinks a bit like melted vanilla ice cream.

The use of whey as a base for vodka has been getting a terrible rap in the press, and if you’re looking for a spirit with power and character, I can see why one would complain. This is vodka lite, with all the connotations that entails. For those looking for a truly neutral base spirit that can blend in with whatever mixers you throw at it, well, here it is.

80 proof. Aka VDKA6100.

B+ / $25 / vdka6100.com

Tasting the Beers of Devils Backbone: Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, Black Rock Milk Stout, Catty Wompus, and Trail Angel Weiss

devils backbone

Lexington, Virginia-based Devils Backbone has been cranking out craft brews for years, and earlier this year the operation was acquired by Anheuser-Busch. The company says that the Bud connection won’t stifle its autonomy, and that it will keep releasing daring beers for years to come.

That’s starting with the brewery’s new Adventure Pack, which includes Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, and Black Rock Milk Stout, all of which were formerly available only at the Devils Backbone brewpub. We’re reviewing all four of these below, plus a couple of one-off releases, Catty Wompus and Trail Angel Weiss, further on down the page.

Let’s start with the four beers from the Adventure Pack.

Devils Backbone Five Apostles Saison Belgian-Inspired Farmhouse Ale – A relatively alcohol-heavy expression of a saison, this fruity and spicy ale offers notes of coriander, overripe apples, and a smattering of baking spices, culminating in a finish not far from fresh baked gingerbread. A bit drier than I expected, but that’s actually a positive — giving this saison a truly refreshing finish. 6.9% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Pear Lager – A lager flavored with natural pear flavor. That’s not a combination I’ve ever asked for (or even thought much about), but it works better than expected. Gentle though unspecific fruit mixes easily with the up-front malty lager notes, with these two factions fighting for control for quite some time as the palate builds and then fades to its curiously fruity but distinctly beer-like conclusion. 4.8% abv. B

Devils Backbone Golden Stag Blended Beer – Designed as a hybrid of a lager and an IPA, and the combination works quite well. The IPA at first seems that it will win this war of styles, with heavy (though not particularly citrusy) hops, but eventually the big and malty body muscles its way to the forefront. Bold without being overwhelming. 5.5% abv. B+

Devils Backbone Black Rock Milk Stout – A traditional, black-as-night milk stout sweetened with milk sugar, though it’s not as creamy or as sweet as you might be expecting. Notes of coffee and well-roasted nuts take center stage, with gently soothing sweetness acting as a very modest foil to the proceedings. The finish has a slightly odd touch of sourness to it. Curious. 5.4% abv. B+

And here’s a look at the two one-offs…

Devils Backbone Catty Wompus – “A Belgian inspired India Pale Ale,” this expression offers the best of both of those worlds, starting things off with a foot deeply set in the IPA world, then slowly letting those Belgian Ale notes take hold. That means a good dose of hops start things off with a healthy level of bitterness before some more subtle fruit components — apples, apricots, orange blossoms — start to take hold. The finish is a refreshing but rounded and mouth-filling blend of both elements. Well done. 7.5% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Trail Angel Weiss – Made in the “Bavarian style,” which is really how all weissbier is made. It’s a little funky at the start, with some mushroom notes that aren’t perfectly in sync with the lemon peel and substantial malt character, but at least gives the beer a hefty, chewy, bready body, something that isn’t always in the cards in the world of weissbier. 4.7% abv. B-

about $17 per 12-pack / dbbrewingcompany.com

Tasting Sicilian Grillo: 2014 Tasca and 2013 Firriato

I0007018_Tasca_Grillo_BS

Grillo is a Sicilian grape variety (thought to be a cross between moscato and catarratto) known best as one of the varietals used for the production of Marsala — but it can also be used to produce a lively table wine that echoes pinot grigio, but with a bolder and rounder body.

Recently we sampled two grillo bottlings, both from the Sicilia DOC. Thoughts follow.

2014 Tasca Tenuta Regaleali Grillo Cavallo delle Fate Sicilia DOC – Bold in body and chewy at times, but loaded with notes of fresh lemon, sweetened grapefruit, and mild apricot. At the back of the palate, the wine offers brightness and acidity — slightly floral. Some lightly meaty notes, touched with sweet marshmallow fluff, come along on a gently woody finish with recalls a gentler expression of American chardonnay. (While this is 100% grillo, grillo-chardonnay blends (and other grillo blends) are common.) B+ / $18

2013 Firriato Altavilla della Corte Grillo Sicilia DOC – Also 100% grillo. A somewhat similar wine, though here we find a stronger fresh fruit component — with more distinct tropical notes — plus a touch of vanilla-scented wood influence. This wine would be easier to confuse with a pinot grigio than the Tasca, but on the whole I find it just a touch more enjoyable thanks to a higher level of acidity. A- / $17

Exploring Port Wine: Touring Porto and the Douro Valley

073

Port is unlike any other wine you’ve tasted, and as such it’s only fitting that the place the make it — Porto and the adjacent Douro Valley — is unlike any wine region you’ve visited, either.

For those unfamiliar with Port wine, a brief primer is in order. All Port is made here in northern Portugal, and though over 100 varieties of grapes are certified for use in Port production, only five of these are common: tinta barroca, tinta cão, tempranillo, touriga francesa, and touriga nacional. Few Port makers keep tabs on what grapes go into any given bottle of Port. Most Douro vineyards harvest and vinify field blends.

099Enter the Douro

The grapes for Port are exclusively grown in the Douro — an unending series of breathtaking, beautifully-stepped mountainside vineyards that wind along the path of the Douro River. The factory farm era has yet to reach the Douro, and it probably never will. Nearly 40,000 farmers work this land, some with parcels as small as an acre or less. Anyone making Port must work with a patchwork of dozens or hundreds of growers in order to obtain fruit, after which the grapes move from the vineyards to various wineries in the region, which are here called quintas. This is where the wine is actually made.

Our friends at Taylor Fladgate graciously spent a day driving us around the Douro, where we visited the company’s three properties at the namesake Taylor Fladgate, Croft, and Fonseca. Each quinta has its own DNA and sense of style, from the crowd-pleasing scene at Croft to the brutally hot and quaint Fonseca. You can taste the stylistic differences in the wines, too, but more on that in a bit.

113Port Styles 101

The process of making Port is wildly different than that of table wine. While the juice for dry table wine can ferment for a month, Port grapes ferment for only two or three days, after which time the fermentation, still low in alcohol and high in sugar, is arrested by the introduction of fresh grape brandy (about 77% alcohol) or another very high-alcohol spirit, roughly 4 parts wine to 1 part spirit. The alcohol kills the yeast and preserves the sugar remaining in the wine, bringing the abv down to about 20%. This is all done with surprisingly old-school production, and in the Port world, tradition reigns supreme to this day: Most quintas actually still foot-tread their grapes instead of relying on machinery to crush grapes into juice (those are empty lagares above; here’s a video of the crushing in practice). Treading is done in silence and takes hours and hours to complete.

From here, the winemaking process diverges quickly depending on what type of Port you’re making. Once a relatively simple drink, Port innovators (led by Taylor Fladgate) have expanded the varieties and styles of Port on the market considerably. Ruby Port is the most basic: Fresh wine is put into enormous vats (often made of chestnut) that hold thousands of gallons of juice. It slumbers here for about two years until bottling, bright red and alive with sugar.

Tawny Port is the other primary variety. Tawnies are stored in smaller casks called pipes, each about 550 to 620 liters in size. Tawnies take on some wood influence but, critically, oxidize much more quickly in the smaller barrels. These are then blended and bottled as 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old wines — though this, paradoxically, does not refer to the actual age of the wine but of the general “style” of what’s inside. Drink a 30 year old Tawny and you are assured of getting “30 year old quality” — not necessarily any wine that is really 30 years old.

059

White Port is a relatively recent addition to the lineup; it’s made with white grapes (namely malvasia) instead of red and can work wonderfully as a cocktail mixer. The most recent addition to the industry is Rose Port, which is a fresh, “pink” style that has a lot in common with rose table wine.

Vintage Port is simply Ruby Port that comes from a single vintage. It’s only made in the best years, 2 or 3 times per decade. Vintage Ports command the highest prices of all Port wines, and they can be aged in bottle for many, many decades. Late Bottled Vintage Port is a bit confusing, because it has a vintage date on it, but it is not Vintage Port. LBV Ports come from quintas other than those used for Vintage Port, and are aged in cask much longer than the typical Ruby (5 to 6 years is common), which often gives it a deeper and more raisiny, almost Zinfandel-like character. It’s not as ageworthy as Vintage Port (LBV can usually be consumed right away), but can be considerably less expensive than Vintage Port.

Single Quinta Vintage Port also adds to the confusion because it is Vintage Port released from single wineries, as the name suggests, usually in years that a Vintage Port is not declared. They age in bottle just like Vintage Ports but can be purchased for much less. Lastly there are Colheita Ports, which are vintage-dated Tawny Ports. While regular Tawnies are blends of a wide range of vintages, Colheitas come from a single one.

 

065From the Douro to Porto

All of this aging takes place not in the Douro Valley quintas but rather in the city of Porto — or rather, in the Villa Nova de Gaia, which is the part of Porto that is on the east side of the Douro River. Nothing involving Port wine happens on the western Porto side (which features the old city center and most of the town’s industry). In Gaia, it is seemingly nothing but Port houses, which are called lodges in the local parlance. Why “lodge?” Simply because it sounds better than “warehouse,” of which there are dozens in Gaia, each of which is often emblazoned with a huge sign bearing the name of the owner in monstrous letters, making for a truly unique skyline. Wine is aged here instead of in the Douro exclusively because of the heat. In Porto it can easily be 20 degrees cooler than in the Douro — though modern air conditioning is starting to change this for a few producers.

Visitors to Porto can walk along the waterfront and visit any number of these Port producers, most of which have tasting rooms and visitors’ centers, just like you’d see in any highly touristed wine region. Some, like Taylor Fladgate, are incredibly modern, including such up-to-the-minute touches as a “selfie station” next to a giant barrel of Ruby Port. Some, like Niepoort, are exactly the opposite. Niepoort isn’t open to the public and doesn’t even have a sign on the door — in fact, the building doesn’t even have a proper floor. At Niepoort’s lodge, the ground is simply made of packed earth that can be hosed down to cool things off on hot days. Spiders are encouraged to roost in the windows; their webs help block out the sunlight. (Many thanks to Niepoort for giving us access and a private tour of the facility.)

045Most visitors to this area never leave Porto, and that’s fine. You can taste dozens of Port wines here and get the full scoop on understanding how Port is made if you never leave Gaia, but visiting the Douro itself is a day trip that’s really worth it — not just for the wine but for the unforgettable scenery, too. (Taylor Fladgate operates luxury hotels in both Porto (The Yeatman) and the Douro (The Vintage House), so you can easily spend a day in both locations if you’re game.)

Before we move on to some Port wine reviews, here’s one pro tip for drinking Port. Everywhere in Portugal, Port — no matter what the variety — is served at least slightly chilled. (White Port and Rose Port are typically served well-chilled.) Having Ruby and Tawny Ports about 10 degrees colder really makes a difference. In America, we tend to see these wines poured at room temperature, which puts a heavy focus on the brandy rather than the fruit, making Port taste “hot” with alcohol. By chilling things down, you’ll often find that the wine showcases a whole new dimension of character.

Many thanks to Taylor Fladgate for taking the time to give Team Drinkhacker a tour of the Douro and the Taylor Fladgate lodge in Porto. Taylor’s tasting center in Gaia is absolutely not to be missed if you visit.

Port Wine Reviews, 2016

And now, a catalog of the many Port wines we encountered during our time in the Porto and the Douro.

Niepoort Ruby Port – Fresh, mint notes, strong cherry and raspberry, vanilla and licorice. A big crowd-pleaser. A-

Niepoort Tawny Port – A sweeter style of tawny than usual. Dark tea, brown sugar, cloves, and ginger notes. A bit tarry on the finish. B+

Niepoort 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Intriguing strawberry notes, vanilla frosting; quite sweet for a tawny. B

2012 Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage Port – Chocolatey and dense, almost whiskey-like at times, showing dark cherries, tea leaf, fresh herbs, and some elderflower notes. A-

2005 Niepoort Tawny Colheita – Strawberry and mint start things off on a wine that showcases lots of depth. The finish evokes figs and dates. Very rich and lovely. A

2005 Niepoort Vintage Port – Very dense, with intense chocolate, dark raisin and prune character, and some honey on the finish. Still needs years of time to mature. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old White Port – Unusual to see a white port with an age attached; this one offers a sherry nose, orange peels, flowers, and golden raisins. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A little thin and rather plain. Leathery with subtle coffee notes and touches of figs. B

Caves Vasconcellos 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Quite smoky, with strong wood influence. I’m reminded a lot of Amontillado sherry. B-

Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port – Extra dry style, spends three years in wood. Fragrant and lightly nutty. Not sold in the U.S., it was the first White Port ever marketed. B+

2011 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage – Very dark and brooding, with blackcurrants, leather, and tobacco notes. The finish offers chocolate galore. A-

Taylor Fladgate 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Red berries and some chocolate notes, lightly oxidized with gentle balsamic character. Pretty but mild. B

Taylor Fladgate 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Heavily oxidized on the nose, with notes of orange peel, nuts, and a touch of coffee. B+

0941966 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Port – This is essentially a Colheita style port, a Tawny that is 50 years old. A knockout, with mint, intense nuttiness, coffee, and quiet raisin and baking spice character. Despite the age, it has a sunny finish. Opulent yet easily drinkable. Best Port I tried on the entire trip. A+

Croft Pink – The original rose Port, made from 100% red grapes that spend 6 hours on the skins; it never sees wood. Notes of strawberries and some tea leaf lead to a simple and fruity wine. We reviewed this years ago; it was more recently reformulated to reduce the total sugar level.) B+

Croft 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A nose of mocha and baking spice lead to a significantly more fruit-focused body, with notes of fruit tea and a jammy finish. B+

Fonseca Siroco White Port – Quite dry and herbal, with some astringency and floral notes. B-

Fonseca Terra Prima – Sold as Terra Bella in the U.S. Fonseca’s organic Ruby Port is fresh with fruit, mint, and offers a long, sweet finish. Quite luscious. B+

Fonseca 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Butterscotch heavy, with lots of acidity. Some herbs meld well with marzipan notes and a burnt sugar finish. A-

2012 Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port – Fonseca releases vintage-dated Port in non-vintage declared years under the Guimaraens sub-label. A big, dark chocolate nose leads to an explosive body, heavy with fruit and tannins. Long finish. A-

Ramos Pinto White Port Reserva – Fresh, lightly sweet, with some lemon notes. A little vegetal on the finish. B

Ramos Pinto 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Classic tawny, with lots of nuts, leather, and some Madeirized fruit. Coffee and tea on the finish. B+

2005 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port – Dense with dark chocolate and heavy cassis. Long finish with considerable life left in it. B+

090

Review: Mortlach Special Strength

mortlach

The conventional wisdom holds that since the distillery’s relaunch, three Mortlach expressions are available — Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old.

Not quite. There is a fourth expression: Special Strength, which is available only at travel retail. (Where I bought this.)

Special Strength is a surprisingly appropriate and non-obfuscating name for this whisky. It is the same spirit as Rare Old (no age statement but a knockout of a single malt), but bottled at higher proof: 98 proof, to be specific. (All of the other Mortlach bottlings hit 86.8 proof.)

As for Special Strength, it takes everything that’s great about Rare Old and only makes it better. The nose offers classic Speyside heather and grains, but with some little twists — grapefruit peel, red pepper, pickles, and notes of smoked salt. The palate is lush without being overpowering, The barley still comes through, but it is tempered delightfully by notes of caramel sauce, orange oil, dried herbs, and sesame oil. It’s well balanced on the whole, its flavor profile running more toward the savory than the sweet — and even though it’s a solid 49% alcohol, it drinks as easily as iced tea. The finish evokes very light floral elements and a touch of pepper, a nice way to end the dram.

As with the rest of the Mortlach lineup, it’s a smashing whisky that commands significant attention.

98 proof.

A / $105 (500ml) / mortlach.com