Scenes from Passport to Russian River Valley, 2015

The last weekend in June marked the third annual installation of the Passport to Russian River Valley, an event that sets the public loose on dozens of relatively remote wineries, many of which aren’t normally open to the public.

This year’s event took me to Benovia, Sonoma-Cutrer, Dutton Estate, and Inman Family Wines. Lots of fun to be had at each stop, including a memory ride to Sonoma-Cutrer’s “Pinot Barn,” where winemaker Mick Schroeter was on hand to talk about the company’s vineyard-desginated bottlings (while pouring 2014 samples direct from the barrel) and a lengthy chat with Kathleen Inman before posing for an on-site caricature. At Benovia we were treated to a tour and a lengthy, in-depth tasting of a variety of chardonnay and pinot noirs — the elegant 2012 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir being one of my favorite wines of the day — while Dutton paired each wine with a different morsel to eat (quite effectively, I should add).

The first day of the event ended at a memorable barbecue at Gail Ann’s Vineyard in the heart of Russian River Valley, headlined by a whole roast pig and a passel of locally-grown vegetables and capped off with a gorgeous sunset.

Lots of photos below. Hope to see you in the RRV in 2016!

Review: Innis & Gunn Rare Oak Pale Ale and Highland Ale

I&G Highland Ale Bottle with Box 660ml 2015 LO

It’s our second look at Scotland-based Innis & Gunn‘s beers, with two new oak-aged offerings (as all I&G beers are made) hitting the shelves now. The first is a seasonal brew, the second is a special edition that comes in a large-sized bottle and its own wooden carton.

Innis & Gunn Rare Oak Pale – Aged over Scottish oak, with the addition of elderflower and sweet gale (a medieval hops alternative) during the maturation. Sweet, but not aggressively so as in some Innis & Gunn bottlings, it offers distinctly floral and fruity notes — almost like juicy apple meets fresh violets. The vanilla-fueled oak plays out over all of that, with just the lightest touch of bitterness to even things out. 5.8% abv. B / $11 per four-pack

Innis & Gunn Highland Ale – This is an oversized, special edition brew, made from “Scotch Ale matured over oak chips infused with 18 Year Old Highland Scotch Whisky in Innis & Gunn’s patented Oakerators (think coffee percolator).” As with most Innis & Gunn bottlings, it’s very malty and quite sweet, pushy candylike notes with caramel sauce and cream soda notes. The whisky element comes through, a bit, on the somewhat racy nose and through a raisiny note on the body, but what this ale really needs is some bitterness to help cut through the sugar and add a little balance. 7.4% abv. B / $7 per 22 oz. bottle

innisandgunn.com

Review: Starr Hill King of Hop and Soul Shine (2015)

King of Hop 4pk_transIt’s time for one new, limited release — King of Hop — and the return of a seasonal — Soul Shine — to the Drinkhacker beer fridge. Let’s dig in…

Starr Hill King of Hop Imperial IPA – Not to be confused with the King of Pop, this is a classic, dry-hopped Imperial IPA with all the expected trimmings. Lovely citrus-pine notes up front, dusted with a touch of burnt marshmallow and notes of forest floor. Chewy and lightly resinous — but far from overpowering in the bitterness department — it’s a refreshing and well-crafted IPA with just a touch of uniqueness to carry things along. 7.5% abv. A- / $NA per four-pack

Starr Hill Soul Shine Belgian-Style Pale Ale (2015) – This “Americanized” Belgian ale grew on me a bit with this go-round, its late-game bitterness pairing a bit better with its heftier up-front maltiness and mushroomy, bready, slightly vegetal notes. 5.2% abv. B- / $10 per six-pack

starrhill.com

Travel: Touring Scotch Whisky Distilleries in Speyside, Scotland

The trouble with drinking whisky in Scotland is the regret you experience the moment you get home. No matter how long you spend there and how much you purchase, by the time you get back to the States you wish you’d tasted and brought home more than you did. The vastness of malt whisky options available to residents and visitors to the UK is impossible to overstate. Even the humblest of pubs is likely to have 100 or so bottles on the shelf, a few of which you will never even have heard of. At major whisky meccas like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inns in the heart of Speyside, it isn’t unusual to see 500 Scotch whiskies on the back bar — or rather jammed into every corner of the place. Each night at the Quaich bar in the Craigallechie Hotel in Speyside I got to ogle whiskies, just sitting on shelves next to the armchairs, that retail for $4000 or $5000 a bottle. Of course, it’s the ones I was able to sample that I will remember forever.

And so it is that I return to you, my bags stuffed with liters of whisky but my heart left in Scotland, following a pilgrimage I’ve wanted to make for the better part of a decade.

Visiting distilleries in Scotland isn’t difficult, but you’ll want to plan your trip carefully to make the most of your time there. With this post, I want to share some tips and advice if you decide to venture to see Scotland’s stills for yourself, along with commentary about each of the distilleries I visited.

For starters, unless you have a week or more to spend here and can cover multiple areas, you’ll want to pick a region to focus on. For some, Islay and its smoky malts is the place to be — and I’m told there’s really nothing else at all to do there except drink whisky. For others, its Speyside, which is where I spent four solid days.

Speyside is a great choice for visiting for a lot of reasons. First, some of the best whisky in the world is made here, so you’ll have endless opportunities to sample lovely malts. Second, the central location makes it relatively easy to get to. (Fly into Aberdeen, then drive about 80 minutes.) Third, and most importantly, Speyside boasts about half the distilleries in Scotland. From a base in Craigallechie, you’re about 15 miles from 40 or 50 distilleries, and more if you venture 25 or 30 miles away.

Not all distilleries are open to visitors, so keep that in mind when planning your trip by researching them in advance, and many require you book in advance if you want a tour. Don’t overlook this step, as you don’t want to venture 5000 miles to Scotland only to find out that the tours for the week are all booked.

Lastly, and this is where I blew it a little, note that many if not most Scottish distilleries shut down for a month or two in the summer, usually starting in early July. This is called the “silent season,” and it’s a period when the distilleries are repaired, upgraded, cleaned, and otherwise worked on. The stills can’t operate during the silent season, so many are indeed very quiet. That’s not that big a deal — you’ve see one mash tun, you’ve seen ’em all — but the bigger problem is that with all that construction you often can’t even venture into the stillhouses or other parts of the distillery because they’re closed off as a safety precaution. Despite all that, July is still a heavy tourism month for Scotland and most everyone is still operating a tour of some kind even during the shutdown. Just bear in mind you might not see everything you could if you were there, say, in the middle of winter.

As I mentioned above, we chose the Craigallechie Hotel as our base. This is a lovely place to stay — though the Wi-Fi is pants — with a perfect location, nice rooms, and solid dining in the Copper Dog restaurant below. The breakfast options (included) are amazing — and nothing beats a full Scottish to prime the pump before heading out to the distilleries. The Quaich Bar makes for a perfect nightly ritual, too.

So let’s get on to the distilleries. Here they are, in the order I visited them.

The Glenrothes

The Glenrothes is not open to the public, so it’s perhaps not fair to start here, since you can’t actually visit. But Ronnie Cox really set the stage for a memorable time here, treating us to a tour of the Rothes House — the spiritual home of parent company Berry Bros. and Rudd (literally, the town minister used to live there) — plus lunch and an in-depth tour of the distillery. Capped off by a deep dive into the Glenrothes spirit archives, our time included discussions about the geology and history of Speyside, a stroll through the (no longer haunted) Glenrothes cemetery, and even the raising of the U.S. flag in honor of my visit. I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Cox, and he really set a high bar for the other distillery visits we had in store.

Cardhu

Cardhu was a last-minute addition to our trip after some scheduling hiccups at another distillery, but it was a nice one to visit because it was actually up and running. Cardhu mostly ends up in blends, not single malts, but the tasting did include three single malts from the distillery, each made in a slightly different style. Higher-end tastings are available for an additional fee. The nosing challenge (where you try to ID what’s in a series of sealed containers) is particularly fun.

Aberlour

Aberlour’s tour was one of the more unique ones, with a distillery that includes a look at some rare parts of the facility, including the funky biologically-powered tanks that process the waste product from the stills and turn it back into water which can be returned to the river. The tour is concluded with a very nice, sit-down tasting that lets you sample the full range of Aberlour products, including distillery-only releases.

Macallan

Macallan is in the midst of a massive expansion. In two years there will be a whole new visitor’s center here. Our visit to the estate began with lunch at Easter Elchies House, a historic home on the property that you can find on the label of Macallan whiskies. After lunch, a tour takes you through every aspect of production — and includes a very well-done museum-style exhibit on the various types of wood that the distillery uses. For whisky newcomers, consider Macallan as an excellent first stop in order to aid with education. Following the tour (sadly, photos were off limits in many buildings) we sat down to a private tasting that started with the Fine Oak 21 Year Old and went deeper from there. Macallan saved the best for last, though: A sampling of the 1979 Gran Reserva, a long-off-the-market bottling that spent 18 years in first-fill sherry casks. This beautiful but incredibly intense whisky really showcases what sherry aging can do, and it was the perfect way to cap off the day.

Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich is a massive operation, with 47 warehouses full of whisky on the property. Our tour guide, Fergus, led us on a private tour of the facilities — again, some areas off limits and many with no photos allowed — which included some fascinatingly fun times. A stop at a warehouse to try to identify — simply by smelling the casks — which of three whiskies was in an ex-sherry barrel was much tougher than you think, and the chance to see Glenfiddich’s Solera vat, from which its famed 15 year old is drawn, was a unique experience. Of course, a major highlight of the trip was dropping our own “dog” into our choice of Glenfiddich barrel — first-fill or refill, sherry or bourbon — to bring home our own, bespoke, single-cask selection. We ended the day at Glenfiddich with a tasting of rare bottlings, including the 21 Year Old Gran Reserva Rum Cask, the red wine barrel-finished Age of Discovery (third edition), and the oddball 26 Year Old Excellence. Very different whiskies, and each memorable in its own way. Again, a highly recommended tour especially for newcomers to Scotch.

Benromach

All good things must come to an end, and we wound up our time in the Highlands at Benromach, which is about 30 miles north of the heart of Speyside, near the Moray Firth on the coast. Benromach is younger and smaller than all of the other distilleries we visited, and it operates under the ownership of famed indie bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. We dropped by on the road to the city of Inverness, the gateway to Loch Ness. Benromach was a great place to stop because it was in production, there are no crowds, and unlike the distilleries in the heart of Speyside, it uses a bit of peated malt in its production. This was a very casual tour — we asked for an expedited visit due to a time crunch — but the staff was friendly and accommodating and really distilled the operation well despite our shortened visit. We’ll have a full review of the newly released Benromach 15 Year Old in short order.

Thanks to all my new friends in Scotland for taking care of us ugly Americans! See also our coverage of drinking in Dublin, Ireland.

Tasting the Wines of Italy’s Lugana Region

IMG LUGANA (11)

What, you’re not drinking Lugana wines every night? You can be forgiven if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Lugana is a tiny region in the north of the country, nestled between the better-known areas of Lombardia and the Veneto, snug against the southern shores of Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy.

It’s here that Lugana makes primarily white wines, almost all from the turbiana grape, aka trebbiano di Laguna. What’s turbiana? There is significant debate about this — scientific in nature, even — and there’s no concensus quite yet. It’s not the same is trebbiano, but some researchers claim it is the same grape as verdicchio. Others say it is its own unique grape that lies somewhere between these two — and possibly other grapes — and even the many producers and importers that attended a recent lunch showcasing Lugana ultimately had no idea what the truth is. (If you want to get really into the weeds, Fringe Wine will help you.)

Lugana wines are, as is the case with most Italian white wines, crisp and acidic and loaded with minerals. The wines have similarities to Soave, to Pinot Gris, and to Sauvignon Blanc, depending on the bottling.

Tasting through a couple of dozen wines reveals a lot of commonality — high acid and generally low alcohol (12.5% or 13%), zippy mouthfeel and a cleansing finish with a touch of bitterness. Generally I preferred the younger wines to the older bottlings. After only a couple of years these fresh wines start to take on a pungency and develop some oiliness in the mouthfeel — similar to what happens to riesling as it starts to age. Nearly universal at the event was the opinion that Lugana wines were best when consumed with food.

Lugana wines typically run $16 to $20 in the U.S., and up to $25 for reserve bottlings. In Italy or neighboring Germany, where much Lugana is reportedly consuming, you’ll likely find these wines for under 10 euros.

L003ugana isn’t in hefty supply stateside, and that could be threatened in the near future by a new high-speed rail that’s being constructed to connect Milan and Venice. It will cut directly through the Lugana region and reportedly cut wine production by 30 percent in the process.

Brief thoughts on all wines — the majority of which are not currently imported to the U.S. — follow.

Tasting Report: Wines of Lugana, 2015 Releases

2014 Bulgarini Lugana / B / lots of zip, herbal aromatics
2012 Cesari Cento Filari Lugana / B / notes of cheeses and roast meats, apricots, some coconut
2013 Cà Lojera Lugana / B+ / nice tropical notes, some astringency, lovely aromatics
2014 Ca Maiol Fabio Contato Lugana / B- / lots of funk, meaty and vegetal at times
2014 Citari Conchiglia Lugana / B+ / tropical, lots of citrus, good balance
2014 Le Morrette Mandolara Lugana / B+ / pine needles, brisk finish
2014 Lenotti Decus Lugana / B+ / mild, fresh
2014 Le Preseglie Hamsa Lugana / B+ / fresh, zippy, floral and citrus
2014 Malavasi Lugana / B / quite herbal
2014 Marangona Lugana / B+ / brisk citrus, followed by light meat notes
2013 Marangona Tre Campane Lugana / A / good mouthfeel, well balanced, better structure; a standout here
0062014 Montonale Montunal Lugana / B+ / rougher, chewy body
2013 Pratello Lugana / A- / organic; higher altitude bottling; fresh herbs, citrus, lots of acidity
2014 Pilandro Terecrea Lugana / A- / nicely bitter edge, zippy, acidic; good balance
2014 Selva Capuzza Selva Lugana / B / meaty, rustic
2014 Selva Capuzza Antica casa Visconti Lugana / B-
2014 Tenuta Roveglia Limne Lugana / A- / bigger fruit, acid, tropical notes
2011 Tenuta Roveglia Vigne di Catullo Lugana / B+ / showing significant age; roast meats, oily
2014 Villabella Ca del Lago Lugana / B / meaty edge, fruit hits later
2014 Zenegaglia Carlo Montefluno Lugana / B+ / some briny notes
2014 Zeni Marogne Lugana / B- / off balance
2014 Zeni Vigne Alte Lugana / B+
2013 Il Lugana Lugana / A- / vanilla and coconut notes, sea spray, nice tang
2014 Ca dei Frati Il Frati Lugana / A / massive acid, big zing, another standout
2014 Olivini Lugana / B- / off balance

Review: 1792 Sweet Wheat Bourbon

1792 Sweet Wheat Bottle

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon has long been a well-respected but widely overlooked part of the Buffalo Trace stable, which is understandable since it’s made at its own facility, Barton 1792, quite a ways away from the thriving Buffalo Trace headquarters.

But BT is breathing some new life into 1792 with this, the first of what is planned to be a series of new, limited edition expressions of 1792.

1792 Sweet Wheat is a wheated bourbon, aged eight years at the Bardstown facility. (The standard 1792 uses rye.) Fret not about flavorings or added sugar. There’s nothing overly “sweet” about the whiskey beyond the house style of the whiskey itself; the sugars are derived from standard barrel aging the same way they are in any other straight whiskey.

1792 Sweet Wheat starts off not with sugar but with lumberyard notes; the nose is surprisingly forward with wood, tempered with tropical notes and a touch of peach. On the palate, it’s not especially sweet either, offering notes of tinned fruit, coconut, cinnamon, ample vanilla, and some gingerbread notes coming up the rear. There’s ample wood structure here, giving the whiskey some tannin — and tempering the sugars — which is actually a bit of a disappointment considering the name of the spirit. Give it a little air and things open up in time — the chewy cinnamon bun of a finish is worth waiting for — but otherwise there’s not that much to get too excited about.

91.2 proof.

B / $33 / 1792bourbon.com

Review: 2013 Mark West Pinot Noir California

MKW_PN_750ml_2013_LR1 (Standard_Final_JPG) [CA-ECM2159504 Revision-4]-2If there’s a store that sells wine in California that does not have Mark West on the shelves, I haven’t been there. But nine bucks for pinot is a deal that’s pretty tough to beat, so it’s easy to see why retailers and consumers alike gravitate to the brand and its iconic, yellow label.

The wine is short of the “remarkable” goal set by its founders (fun fact: the producer was founded in 1978), but it isn’t bad at all, particularly for a deep budget bottling. On the nose it’s driven by cola, dried grasses, and simple cherry notes. On the palate, the wine is drier than you’d think, its berry notes balanced with more cola character. As it aerates, it improves further, though the sugar does start to rear its head with continued drinking.

B- / $9 / markwestwines.com

Review: 2013 Humble Pie Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast

Humble Pie_BNAOur final Tony Leonardini wine of three is this humbly named humble cabernet from the humble Central Coast of California. It tastes a lot better than it should at this price point, offering a nose of fresh berries, with the palate taking things into a blackberry jam-and-chocolate arena. Quite sweet at first, it settles down to reveal tobacco, cola notes, and a bit of coffee on the finish, which dulls the sweetness a bit but ultimately leads to some light sulfur notes.

B- / $13 / bnawinegroup.com

Review: Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon 22 Years Old

BB22_BOTTLE_NOGLASS_White

When we first reviewed the entry-level Blade and Bow a few months ago, we noted that a second expression existed with a whopping 22 year old age statement. It wasn’t available to us at the time, but now we’ve obtained samples and can cover it in full.

As a refresher, it’s a wholly different bourbon than the “base” Blade and Bow, but like the entry-level bottling it also exists primarily as an homage to the original Stitzel-Weller Distillery. The production information reads like this: “Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is comprised of whiskeys distilled at both the distillery historically located at 17th and Breckinridge in Louisville, Ky. and the distillery historically located in at 1001 Wilkinson Blvd. in Frankfort, Ky. The limited release offering was most recently aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. At 92-proof, you can purchase a 750ml bottle for $149.99.”

At 22 years of age, this expression of Blade and Bow drinks like a well-matured — but not overdone — bourbon. Nosing the spirit, the sawdust and vanilla notes at the start are to be expected — but then things quickly push into citrus and peppermint oil. As it hits the palate, buttery caramel washes over the tongue first, followed by notes of cracked black pepper, crushed red fruit, and a touch of citrus oil — particularly evident on the surprisingly fruity finish. There’s plenty of wood throughout, but it’s kept in check. Plenty of heat, too, but it’s just shy of needing water to temper things. The finish is clean and inviting, and it demands continuous exploration deeper and deeper into the glass

Blade and Bow 22 Years Old is a limited edition expression that won’t be with us for long (and will likely command much higher prices than the one suggested below), but I’m not afraid to recommend that serious bourbon fans get to work seeking out a bottle for their collection.

92 proof.

A / $150 / diageo.com

Review: Westland American Single Malt, Sherry Wood, and Peated Whiskey

westland sherry woodAmerican single malt whiskeys get a bad rap, and that’s usually for a good reason: Many of them are borderline undrinkable.

Seattle-based Westland is trying to change that perception with it offerings, all single malts, and all produced in the style of their Scottish inspirations. Westland makes its whiskeys from five different malts, including a base made from Washington state barley. They’re clearly made with care and conviction — and watch out for the various single cask releases (generally bottled at cask strength) that hit the market periodically.

None have age statements. All are 92 proof. Thoughts follow.

Westland American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in new American oak casks. Surprisingly supple from the start, with a gentle nose of fresh malt and cereal, black pepper, a bit of lumberyard, and fresh mint. The palate is mild, again surprisingly so, offering notes of baking spices, especially cloves and ginger, then more wood and a butterscotch-driven finish. It drinks like a young Scotch, nothing over-complicated, but balanced and approachable. A nice surprise. B+ / $70  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in American oak casks used for Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry. This ought to be a killer combination, but the sherry doesn’t really elevate the spirit appreciably. Here the nose is overwhelmed by burnt sugar and toffee notes, plus a touch of scorched citrus. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly malty, almost chewy, with notes of graham cracker plus a mushroomy character on the back end. While the sherry element is tangible on the nose, it doesn’t really translate completely to the palate. B / $70

Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in a variety of used American oak and sherry casks. Modestly peated, this would be an appropriate introduction to this smoky style of whiskeymaking. The nose has a bit of a menthol edge to it, perhaps a remnant of the original spirit’s minty edge. The palate is mild with smoke, more barbecue than coal fire, with overtones of red fruit and cloves. The smoke lingers, but not for long, making for a pleasant and gentle winter warmer that doesn’t require an extreme amount of deep thought. B+ / $70  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

westlanddistillery.com