Review: Martell Blue Swift

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Finishing Cognac is officially a thing. Hot on the heels of Bache-Gabrielsen’s new oak-finished Cognac comes this spin from major Cognac house Martell, a VSOP Cognac that is finished in previously used Kentucky bourbon casks. No word on the length of the finishing, but Martell does say this:

Martell Cognac’s latest offering represents the essence of the curious and audacious spirit of founder Jean Martell. Engraved on the bottle, Martell’s iconic swift emblem is significant as legend has it, Jean Martell was guided by the flight of a swift on his original journey from the island of Jersey to Charente, while the bird is famous for flying exceptionally long distances, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice a year. A tribute to the shared history between Martell and the United States, Martell Blue Swift joins the core lineup along with Martell VS, Martell VSOP, Martell Cordon Bleu, and Martell XO.

Blue Swift is a rousing success that shows how Cognac and bourbon can work beautifully together. The color of the spirit is bourbon-dark, much deeper in hue than any standard VSOP you’ll encounter. On the nose, there’s lots going on, the traditional raisin-plum notes of brandy mingling nicely with oaky whiskey notes, layering in some cinnamon, flamed banana, and a touch of almond.

The palate follows that up with aplomb. A relatively light body gives way to lush fruit, touched with oak. Currants and vanilla, figs and cocoa, hints of peppermint and gingerbread — they all come together into a surprisingly cohesive whole that showcases the best of both the brandy and bourbon worlds. The finish is light on its feet, not at all heavy, cloying, or otherwise overblown. Rather, it’s slightly drying and quite clean, its toasty wood notes lingering while echoing hints of fruity raisin.

It’s lovely in its own right, but I’m particularly hard-pressed to think of a better Cognac at this price point. Stock up!

80 proof.

A / $50 / martell.com

Review: Magic Hat Belgo Sutra Quadrupel (2016)

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Magic Hat’s latest limited/seasonal is the latest installment of its monster of a Belgian-style dark ale, a quadrupel that is brewed with figs and dates to really pump up the intensity of the brew. The results are fascinating, if not entirely approachable at first. The beer drinks with sweet and bitter in relative balance, but the gummy body tends to overwhelm the palate. The eastern fruit character comes through clearly, but the finish sticks to the mouth and refuses to let go. Those looking for a Port-like dessert experience have found it here; for me, it can often run too far afield.

Belgo Sutra sales benefit the Vermont non-profit and HIV testing center Vermont CARES.

8.2% abv. Now available in bottles.

B / $NA per 22 oz. bottle / magichat.net

Review: Boodles London Dry Gin

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Founded in 1845, Boodles is a venerable, classic gin — and though it’s been off and on the market from time to time, it’s never been one you much hear about. Perhaps the name, which seems better suited for a cat than a gin, just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way, say, Beefeater does? Show me a red-blooded man that can confidently order a “Boodles Martini” at a bar and I’ll show you, well, a guy that’s probably drinking whiskey.

Named for a famous London gentlemen’s club and reportedly the favorite gin of Winston Churchill (a member there), the Boodles recipe is unique for containing no citrus. Botanicals include juniper, coriander seed, angelica root, angelica seed, cassia bark, caraway seed, nutmeg, rosemary, and sage. It is bottled in two strengths; the higher proof version, designed for the U.S. market, is reviewed here.

Crisp juniper on the nose is balanced by a healthy amount of rosemary, plus some classic earthy notes driven by angelica and various spices. On the palate, things more or less fall into place about as expected for a London Dry. Despite the lack of citrus in the botanical bill, it does show a hint of lemon-like character, which is effective at balancing out the more moderate juniper notes. A touch of cinnamon is present here as well, along with a twist of white pepper. As the finish builds, Boodles takes on a clearer herbal character — think lemongrass vs. lemon peel — and perfumed overtones of white flowers and more gentle pepper notes. The fade-out is clean, but the impact is lasting.

All told, Boodles is an outstanding London Dry that offers uniqueness, but doesn’t stray too far from the course, tweaking the recipe just enough to distinguish itself from Tanqueray, Beefeater, and other staples of the style. Give it a try on its own or in a cocktail, as its gentler juniper character gives it lots of versatility.

90.2 proof.

A- / $23 / boodlesgin.com

Review: Graham’s Tawny Port 10 Years Old (2016)

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Graham’s 10 year old tawny has been repackaged and relabeled in a squatter, fatter bottle since we last saw it in 2012, but little seems to have changed with this engaging, entry-level tawny. (Though prices are coming down a bit.) Prominent notes include the expected raisin notes, backed up by spicy gingerbread, cloves, and tea leaf notes. The finish is leathery and cherry-driven… all of which makes for a lot of consistency in this venerable brand, despite the altogether new look.

A- / $25 / grahams-port.com

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: The Independent” Rye Whiskey 14 Years Old 2016

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As Raj Bhakta and WhistlePig contend with internal corporate squabbles (Update: the lawsuit has been settled, so war pigs can stand down), the company is plowing ahead, business as usual, continuing to plant rye on its own Vermont farm for eventual mashing and distillation into rye whiskey, while also continuing to release new products. Its latest limited edition is a third release of Boss Hog, another very small offering composed of 30 barrels of 14 year old rye.

Every release of Boss Hog is different, and for The Independent, WhistlePig finished the already well-aged rye (sourced whiskey from its signature 100% rye mashbill) in hogsheads formerly used for Scotch. For those not in the know, a hogshead is about 50% bigger than a barrel, holding roughly 250 liters of liquid. (Because multiple barrels are married in the hogsheads, this does not qualify as a single barrel release.) Bottles are stoppered with a custom pewter “war pig,” complete with cannon, a nod to Bhakta’s current legal battle, one which, in conversation to me during a preview of Boss Hog III, Bhakta largely dismissed as a “distraction.”

The 2016 Boss Hog is quite a delight, though as with previous Hogs, it’s quite hot and benefits immediately from a touch of water. The nose is bold and heady with spices, and dense with lumberyard-heavy oak notes. Shades of red wine, perhaps some Madeira, waft up from the glass as well. On the palate, intense rye-loaded notes of cloves and red pepper dominate, with a rush of licorice following. Again, water helps to smooth this out considerably, but it does leave the whisky laser-focused on wood, even becoming ashy at times. The finish is naturally woodsy but it’s not overblown, coming across as lightly mentholated and clove-heavy — and showcasing a hint of malt whiskey out back.

Fans of big whiskies that don’t hold back on the wood profile will find plenty to like here, but those in search of balance and restraint may want to invest elsewhere. There’s more than one reason why there’s a pig with a cannon on the stopper.

120.6 proof.

A- / $300 / whistlepigwhiskey.com

Recipe: Never Die

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The Tahona Society Cocktail Competition recently completed its sixth annual installment in Guadalajara, Mexico, with challengers tasked with crafting a unique libation using Olmeca Altos Tequila.

We got a peek at the winning cocktail, Never Die, crafted by Kelsey Ramage of London’s Dandelyan. (Fortunately Olmeca Altos whipped up some mole orgeat for us in advance, but full instructions on the creation of the drink follow.) Warning: It’s extremely spicy!

Never Die
50 ml Altos Plata
15 ml pink pine nut/mole orgeat
1 dash Angostura Bitters
4 dashes piquin chili tincture

For mole orgeat:
100g pink pine nuts
6 allspice berries
2g cinnamon
6g cacao nibs

Stir all ingredients until chilled. Rim coupette with “soil” made from toasted leftover pine nuts, mulato chili and salt.

Mole orgeat method: Toast all ingredients in a pan until the pine nuts are toasted lightly. Add 500ml of water and flash blend. Transfer mixture back into a pan and keep over low heat until flavours in cinnamon and cacao come through. Strain through cheesecloth. Add sugar at 1:1 ratio. Retain spent nut/spice mixture for rim.

Rim method: Dry out nut/spice mixture left over from mole orgeat by toasting in a pan over low heat with some mulato chili. Once dry add salt to taste and blend into a finer texture.

Review: Glenfiddich 50 Years Old

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It’s not every day you get to sample a 50 year old whisky. I’ve now had four of those days, but the experience I had with Glenfiddich’s 50 year old single malt was definitively the most fulfilling and complete.

The evening began with dinner at Sausalito’s Murray Circle, with dishes paired with a variety of malts from Glenfiddich and sister distillery The Balvenie, all preludes to the final act, GF50.

Among the appetizers (whiskily speaking) were a sampling of Glenfiddich 15 Years Old Solera Vat, served atop a frozen layer of mineral water — a neat twist on “on the rocks,” followed by Balvenie 21 Years Old PortWood Finish, which was served in a miniature copper “dipping dog,” used in the warehouses to retrieve whisky — authorized or otherwise — from a cask. This unctuous, fig-and-raisin-dusted dram led to a tasting of austere Glenfiddich 26 Years Old, wrapping up with Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask, served with dessert, its gooey sweetness pairing perfectly with something sugary.

At last it was time for the finale, Glenfiddich 50 Years Old, bottle #301 of 450. Glenfiddich 50 was distilled in 1959. Two 50-year-old casks were married and put into a neutral vat in 2009 to suspend aging. 50 bottles have been released every year since then. The last 50 will go into bottle in 2017, and GF50 as we know it will be finished. The company says something old will be coming thereafter, but mum’s the word for now as to what it might be.

Unlike many very old whisky tastings I’ve attended, this one included a significant pour, at least 3/4 of an ounce, not a “full shot” but more than enough to really get a feel for the spirit. Given its rarity, the pour was quite generous and unexpected.

Digging into this dram, it immediately shows itself as light and delicate, a much different experience than many a hoary, old whisky that’s been done in by too much time in wood. The nose offers immediate surprises: tropical notes, primarily mango, and ample floral character. Just nosing it, you’d think this was a rather young spirit, not something born during the Eisenhower administration.

The palate showcases a considerably different experience. Quite nutty and malty, and infused with some barrel char, it’s here where it starts to show its age. I spent a long 20 minutes with this dram, letting it evolve with air and allowing its true nature to reveal itself. Notes of toasted coconut and orange peel make their way to the core, before the finish — quite sweet with creme brulee notes and candied walnuts — makes a showing. If there’s a dull spot in the 50, it comes as this finish fades, a very light mushroom/vegetal note that may well be remorse for having to live through the 1970s.

All told, this is a beautiful old whisky, one of the most engaging I’ve ever encountered. Should you find yourself with a spare $28K, I highly recommend picking one up.

96 proof.

A / $28,000 / glenfiddich.com

Review: 2014 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir Marlborough

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Cloudy Bay’s latest pinot noir is a simplistic affair, quite acidic up front but lacking much structure underneath. Instead of focusing on fresh fruit, the wine showcases dull notes of forest floor, indistinct vegetation, and just a small amount dried, almost Madeirized berries. The finish is surprisingly astringent but otherwise unremarkable. That said, the acidity helps it to work well enough as a mealtime companion, but on its own I feel like all I really experience are its faults.

B- / $35 / cloudybay.co.nz

Review: Chivas Regal Ultis

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Chivas is a venerable blended Scotch whisky brand, and after over 100 years in business, the company is releasing its first ever blended malt — a vatting of single malts, with no grain whisky included.

Chivas Regal Ultis is a premium offering composed of just five single malts that represent the “signature” of Chivas. The quintet are all Speyside distilleries: Strathisla, Longmorn, Tormore, Allt A’Bhainne, and Braeval. No aging information is provided, however, and Ultis does not carry any age statement.

And never mind any of that, because it’s a glorious whisky, showing that Chivas is a perpetually underrated producer that really knows its stuff. On the nose, you’ll find some unusual and exotic notes — Eastern spices and incense, sandalwood, flamed orange peel, and some dried flowers. The body kicks off with a core of sweetness — nutty malted milk, brown butter, some seaweed, and sesame seeds. The finish sees more of a fresh floral element, a touch of mint, and some almond notes.

That’s a lot to try to pick out, and indeed Ultis is a complex whisky with a big body and lots of depth. There’s a little bit in Ultis for everyone, but I don’t think master blender Colin Scott was being populist in creating it. I think he was merely looking at the five single malts he had to work with and said, “What’s the best whisky I can make out of this group of spirits?” Well, job well done.

80 proof.

A / $200 / chivas.com

Review: 2010 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva

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A bit flabby for a Rioja, its fruit undercut by dull notes of licorice, leather, and burnt butter. Some quiet aromatics emerge with a little time exposed to air, but the finish never really materializes, going out on a somewhat gummy note that evokes burnt matches and roasted vegetables. That said, it’s mostly innocuous. Best (by far) with food.

B- / $20 / marquesderiscal.com

Review: Craneo Organic Mezcal

craneo-mezcalDavid Ravandi, the man behind 123 Tequila, has at long last stepped into the world of mezcal. Craneo is a 100% organic espadin mezcal that is harvested at 5600 feet in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca. Traditionally processed, it is bottled at slightly-above average proof, at 42% abv.

Classically structured on the nose, the mezcal offers aromas of sweet barbecue smoke character layered with hints of citrus. The palate is fairly traditional, though it dances on the tongue thanks to a light and silky body. Notes of orange and grapefruit peel, green banana, and spun sugar punctuate the modestly sweet smokiness, while the finish adds on hints of iodine and a touch of anise.

What is most striking about Craneo is how light on its feet it is. While many mezcals can be overpowering with their intense smokiness, Craneo is balanced and quite restrained. Some may see this lightness as a sign that this is intended as a “starter” mezcal, but ultimately I think its gentle body it adds a ton of versatility to an often difficult spirit — try it in a cocktail — while ensuring it can serve quite nicely as a less overbearing sipper, too. Definitely worth a look.

84 proof.

(Note: If the tasting notes on the Craneo Mezcal website seem familiar, that’s because they were adapted from an earlier version of this review, based on a preliminary sample tasted earlier this year. This review has been updated based on the final, shipping version.)

A- / $60 / mezcalcraneo.com

Review: Gary Farrell 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

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Iconic Russian River winery Gary Farrell is out with its 2014 vintage wines, a chardonnay and a pinot noir. These are both the entry-level bottlings; single vineyard options abound if you want to go upscale. Let’s taste!

2014 Gary Farrell Chardonnay Russian River Valley – A gorgeous chardonnay, rich and full of fruit, with just the right amount of wood exposure to give it depth and body. Fresh apple finds a nice counterpart in big lemon notes, which add acidity and intrigue. The finish is round and lasting and just a touch herbaceous, which gives the wine balance while elevating it above the usual fare. Really, really well done. A / $35

2014 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – Surprisingly thin for a Russian River pinot, but with time in glass its simple cherry (both fresh and dried) notes become more forceful, tart and moderately acidic. The finish isn’t particularly engaging but finds some interesting companions in light notes of dried herbs, some licorice, and a touch of cocoa nibs. B / $45

garyfarrellwinery.com