Tasting the Beers of Baeltane Brewing, Spring 2016 Releases

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Baeltane Brewing is located right in my backyard in Novato, California — they have brewed their beer in an industrial park here since 2012 and even run a little tasting room out of the front of it. Baeltane can also be found in bars and stores around the Bay Area, all the way up to Lake Tahoe.

Recently I dropped in on Baeltane to taste with head brewer Alan Atha and his partner Cathy Portje (both pictured). Beers on tap are highly seasonal but are always highly influenced by Belgian and northern French classics, Atha’s favorite styles. Here’s a look at what’s cooking in spring 2016 (all sampled on draught, unless noted).

021Baeltane Cobblestone Biere de Garde – French in style, with a slightly tart edge (though far from a sour). Nutty, with notes of cocoa and berries, with a huge amount of malt. 6.6% abv. B+

Baeltane Corsair Dark Strong Ale – A Trappist ale, quite burly with notes of maple syrup, mushroom, raisin, and plum. Lots of malt again, with woody overtones on the finish. 9% abv. A-

Baeltane Citroen Farmhouse Ale – Of Baeltane’s releases, I’ve experienced this one the most often, a hoppy and fruity brew that is loaded with notes of apples and oranges, plus a touch of spice. A refreshing beer with a bright and crisp finish and which drinks like a much lower alcohol beer. 7.5% abv. A-

Baeltane Luminesce Tripel – From bottle. Gooey, dark caramel and dark brown sugar coats the palate. The malt here is overwhelming, leading to some vegetal notes on the finish for me. 10% abv. B

Baeltane Quagmyre Scottish Ale – Very dark malt notes, loaded up with chicory and coffee character. Dark and brooding, it evokes wood notes on the finish. 6% abv. B+

Baeltane Beleriand Barleywine – Aged in Arkansas Black Applejack barrels (another local company). A gorgeous Portlike brew, but strong as hell, with notes of crab apple, raisin, and heavy spice on the finish. Really grows on you over time, but will knock you out in short order. 12% abv. A-

Baeltane The Frog That Ate the World Double IPA – Baeltane’s sole west coast style poured today was arguably my favorite, a strongly bitter brew with classic piney notes — but also a bit outside the box, with touches of wet earth and some fresh, grassy notes, too. 8.5% abv. A-

prices vary / baeltanebrewing.com

Review: Stone Enjoy By 05.30.16 Tangerine IPA

stone enjoy by 053016

You’ve got only 18 more days to enjoy this very limited release from Stone, so you best get busy.

Once you crack into Stone’s latest, a “tangerine IPA” made with 12 different hop varieties plus pureed tangerines. it won’t be hard to enjoy what the brewery has cooked up. Ample hoppiness is paired with fresh, sweet tangerine juice, bouncing this brew between bitter and sweet, back and forth, back and forth. It’s the balance, though, that works just about perfectly here, the sweetness tempering the bitterness just enough to make this a thirst-quenching, yet surprisingly complex, experience.

IPA fans need to their mitts on a bottle, pronto.

9.4% abv.

A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / enjoyby.stonebrewing.com

Review: Alexander Walker & Co. Polly’s Casks Double Barrel Aged Single Malt Scotch Whisky

pollys casks

Who is Polly and what is so special about her casks? Allow me to explain.

Alexander Murray is a major private Scotch bottler — in the U.S. it’s best known for making the Kirkland brand of whiskies that show up in Costco (and which we often write about).

With Polly’s Casks, Alexander Murray has something far more complex in mind. It starts with 60 barrels of Tullibardine single malt whisky, aged normally in used bourbon barrels. AM shipped this whisky to Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in California, which then aged for an additional 12 months that already-maturing Tullibardine in oak barrels used for Firestone’s Proprietor’s Vintage beers. (Those barrels in turn were also used bourbon barrels… circle of life, circle of whisky.) The whiskies, released with no primary aging information, have been named after the matriarch of the Walker clan, Polly Firestone Walker.

That’s a big build-up. How does it all acquit itself?

The whisky is clearly very young, a pale shade of yellow I mainly associate with aged gins or reposado tequila. The nose offers simple and sweet cereal notes, gentle fruit, and just a touch of smoke. Some green, vegetal hints emerge here as well, once the whiskey opens up with air.

On the palate the spirit is a bit brighter, but it still drinks quite young. Sweet and grainy, the body offers caramel corn and a hint of baking spice… and little else. Only on the finish does the brewery’s influence start to show itself, with a slightly tannic, bittersweet edge that offers echoes of roasted nuts, charcoal, and iodine.

This isn’t an immediately successful spirit, but the main problem lies in its youth. A beer barrel might take a mature single malt in a new direction, but this whisky just doesn’t seem to have much to work with from the start. It’s not a bad product by any means, but there’s just not enough to get excited about, particularly at this price.

80 proof.

B- / $86 / alexandermurray.com

Review: 2011 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port

LBV2011

A new LBV release has arrived from Port titan Dow.

Surprisingly restrained, the omnipresent raisin character of this Port is muted by heavy milk chocolate notes, vanilla, and notes of pie crust. The body is loaded with sweetness, but lacks some needed gravity, coming across more like a candy bar than the bold dessert wine it wants to be. Fair enough for a casual dessert wine, but it isn’t a standout of the genre.

B / $15 / dows-port.com

Review: Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Lineup – 12 DeLuxe, Master, 18 Special Reserve, and Red Seal

Buchanan's Special Reserve

Buchanan’s isn’t a blended Scotch brand that gets a whole lot of play, or respect, stateside, and my experiences with it in the past have not been particularly memorable.

Today I put aside my preconceptions and sat down with the full hierarchy of four expressions, tasting them in order from bottom to top, to see how they really stack up against the big blend brands. Note that two of the products are just “Buchanan’s.” The higher-echelon bottlings add “James” to the front of that to give them more gravitas.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

Buchanan’s DeLuxe 12 Years Old – Malty and fresh, this is a young but lively blend  that showcases ample honey and sugared cereal notes, plus a light dusting of citrus. The finish is surprisingly lengthy and warming, its honey and lemon notes hanging on for quite awhile. Overall, it’s exactly what you’re expecting in a light-bodied blended Scotch, uncomplicated and built for blending — or budget sipping, if that’s your bag. B+ / $26

Buchanan’s Master – A NAS blend that is the “personal creation” of master blender Keith Law. It’s a burlier, more savory blend that more clearly showcases the grain, heather, and some light mushroom notes. A bolder, more oily body leads to a slightly vegetal finish, lengthy with notes of roasted nuts, rhubarb, and a bit of motor oil. An interesting adjunct to the 12, but less balanced or clear in its approach. B / $38

James Buchanan’s Special Reserve 18 Years Old – Drinking with austerity, this blend amps up notes of almond, nougat, and chocolate, all atop a dense honey syrup backbone that gives it some weight. Some orange notes arrive on the otherwise nutty finish, touched with a slight dusting of herbs — and a healthy, palate-coating grip. Surprisingly engaging. A- / $60

James Buchanan’s Red Seal – The top of the Buchanan’s line, here we find the blend pumping up the sherry considerably, while backing that up with a weighty, oily body that offers plenty of malt, nougat, and a smattering of fresh herbs, particularly a clipping of rosemary. The finish is enduring and strongly focused on the sherry component, an unmistakably earthy, woody, slightly sweet orange peel character that really endures, leaving behind echoes of toasted marshmallow and slivered almonds. As blends go, you’ll have trouble finding one with more nuance and grace. A- / $140

buchananswhisky.com

Review: Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Complete Lineup

Damoiseau

Rhum agricole (made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses) is a French style of rum-making made almost exclusively in the French West Indies, specifically on Martinique, where the majority of agricole producers (at least 14 of them) can be found.

Less well-known in the U.S. is rhum agricole from Guadeloupe, which is the home of Damoiseau (among many other distilleries). Damoiseau has been producing spirits for 70 years and is now is imported into the U.S. by Rhum Clement, which makes its own highly-regarded agricole line.

The distillery produces four different bottlings. All are reviewed below. Thoughts follow.

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 80 Proof – Single distilled and rested in an oak vat for six months before being brought down to proof. Color is completely clear and transparent. Quite cachaca-like on the nose, with heavy overtones of petrol mixed with super-sweet tropical notes, white sugar, and notes of white flowers. On the palate, the rum is a bit thin, with the myriad overtones present in the nose dialed way back on the tongue. The floral elements are the strongest of these, with some mushroom and earth elements emerging in time. A touch of chocolate on the finish adds a bit of nuance where I wasn’t expecting to find much of any. Interesting, at the very least. 80 proof. B / $30

Damoiseau Rhum Agricole Blanc 110 Proof – Overproof cane rum isn’t common, but here we have Damoiseau’s, aged in oak for three months and bottled with a tinge of yellow left behind. The overall character is very similar to the 80 proof, but with more of a vanilla note on the palate. The already intense petrol notes are enhanced by the abv here, but they manage to remain enough in check so that you can sip on this rum without water — though, again, it is obviously designed for use as a high-test mixer in tiki and other exotic drinks. Worth keeping on the back bar for special occasions. 110 proof. B / $34

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole VSOP – Aged for a minimum of four years in ex-bourbon barrels. Here we see more classic old rum character — notes of brown sugar, banana, coconut, caramel, and baking spices, all whipped up into a concoction you could sip on any time, but particularly alongside something sweet to eat. While the nose isn’t as expressive as the body, the overall impact is both expressive and complex, a subtle smokiness emerging on the finish to add to its mysteries. 84 proof. A- / $42

Damoiseau Rhum Vieux Agricole XO – Aged for a minimum of six years in ex-bourbon barrels. Heady Cognac overtones lead the way to this XO bottling, which is a bit winey, floral, and fruit-heavy on the nose, with notes of incense popping up. The body takes on herbal notes of thyme and rosemary, its muted caramel sweetness backed up by some not insignificant barrel char notes, a modest slug of raisin and dried cherry, and a drying, slightly tannic finish. This is a rum not particularly showcasing “extra old” character but rather exhibiting its turbulent adolescence, offering ample contradictions and only a hint of underlying sweetness. 84 proof. A- / $70

damoiseaurhum.com

Review: 2015 Chasing Venus Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

chasing venus

JL Giguiere, which makes the Matchbook line of wines, imports this sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and bottles it in the U.S. No surprises here for anyone familiar with NZ wines: Hope you like pineapple and mango, because Chasing Venus is loaded with it. Fans of Jamba Juice will find plenty to enjoy in this sweet and lightly acidic offering, which finishes clean with a touch of cucumber and mint.

B / $16 / crewwines.com