Review: 2012 FEL Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Fel winesFormerly known as Breggo, FEL is a new label for this winery, but little else has changed. Perhaps the biggest name, aside from a name switcheroo which now honors owner Cliff Lede‘s mother, is the discontinuation of Breggo’s old Riesling and Gewurztraminer bottlings. Thoughts on the remaining wines (the Pinot Gris wasn’t tasted) follow.

2012 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley – Unoaked, brisk with notes of vanilla and lemon up front, then fading to butterscotch, light caramel, and slightly tart lemon custard on the finish. Extremely food friendly and fun. A big win for Chardonnay haters. A- / $28

2012 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – Simple Pinot that doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The mild cherry also offers some sweet vanilla, and a slightly sweet finish gives this wine a pretty, pre-dinner feel to it, though it stands up well against foods like barbecue, where the fruit-forward character helps cut the spice. Nothing fancy, but worthwhile. B+ / $38

Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private Reserve

millbrook distillery bourbonThat’s a mouthful of a name for this Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie area), New York-based spirit, a sourced whiskey made from a corn/rye/barley mashbill. Little else is disclosed, including age.

Woody on the nose, there’s depth here that recalls brandied cherries and Christmas cake. The body, however, is surprisingly sweet, with a distinct honey tone to it. Sultry, slightly earthy notes add body, with a fruity character (apples and plums, perhaps) providing some nuance. The finish veers a bit into wood oil territory, but on the whole it’s a well-balanced bourbon with lots to recommend it.

90 proof.

A- / $37 /

Review: 2011 Cliff Lede and Moondance Dream Cabernet Sauvignon

cliff lede 2011New 2011 Cabs from Cliff Lede, one of Napa’s blue chip bottlers. Surprising thoughts follow…

2011 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Stags Leap District – A big misstep for the normally spot-on Cliff Lede. This ultra-premium Cab has lost all its body, coming across as flabby and pruny, without the barest hint of acidity to keep things alive. The nose is restrained, too, offering some currant but mostly chocolate notes, leaving the body to try to work with notes that approximate a warmed-over, raspberry-inflected melted Hershey bar. C+ / $75

2011 Moondance Dream Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District – Cliff Lede’s blue chip bottling. A massive improvement over this year’s standard edition, a lush but restrained expression of pure Cabernet, gorgeous with distinct black pepper inflections atop currant jelly. The body is less racy than the nose would indicate, with silky, but not quite jammy, notes of cassis and red berries, layered with mild cedar wood notes. Hints of spice come back around on the finish. Beautiful. A / $95

Review: 4 Beers from Base Camp Brewing

base camp Smore Stout Bottle smallLike any good craft brewer, Portland, Oregon-based Base Camp makes a dozen-plus different beers, some with very exotic compositions. Unlike most craft brewers, it then puts these beers into oversized 22 oz. aluminum bottles, which are “made for adventure.”

We tested four of the company’s brews. Thoughts follow. 

Base Camp Brewing In-Tents IPL – An unusual copper-colored India Pale Lager. Deep forest notes and cedar closet on the nose. The body is equal parts IPA and malty lager, but the earthy, almost musty finish that develops (thanks to the beer being aged in oak barrels) is a bit too much, overpowering some of the delicate pine notes up front. 6.8% abv. B

Base Camp Brewing Ripstop Rye Pils – A German pilsner with the addition of rye malt. This is a beautiful combination, the pilsner lush and rounded, and the rye giving it a bit of extra zip. Straightforward with fresh baked bread notes, moderate bitterness, and with just a touch of orange peel on the finish. Lovely balance. Easy, summery brew. 5.7% abv. A-

Base Camp Brewing Northwest Fest – An Oktoberfest-style brew, moderately gold in color and quite malt-forward. Quite a good one, it’s been lagered on toasted oak to give it a touch of vanilla sweetness, but the mildly dry hoppiness and fresh baked bread notes overpower everything else in the end. Straigthtforward, it’s a richer, more mouth-filling choice than both of the above. 5.6% abv. B+

Base Camp Brewing S’More Stout – An American stout with all the trimmings: Chocolate, coffee, and intense malt extract on the nose and the body, leading into a thick, bittersweet finish (emphasis on the bitter). Not enough nuance in this one for me… just a punishing blackness punctuated by hints of dessert. 7.7% abv. B-

Book Review: Savory Cocktails

savory cocktailsSometimes you don’t want “something sweet.” Sometimes you want something, well, savory.

Greg Henry’s book, Savory Cocktails, offers 100 recipes were sugar (in all its forms) is not the focus. Separated into various chapters such as Sour, Spicy, Smoky, and Strong, Henry walks you through some basic nonsweet stuff (Martini, Bloody Mary, Pickleback) but focuses on originals (most from third-party barmen around the country) that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. And yeah, a lot of them have a little sweetness, usually in the form of a flavored syrup.

The book is straightforward, the pictures numerous (if not quite A-grade in quality), and the searchability is strong. If you’re looking for a drink and your sweet tooth is out of commission, you’ll be able to find something here. If you can’t, well, maybe try some beef jerky.

B+ / $12 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: 2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine and 2008 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine

inniskillin gold vialYears have passed since we last encountered Inniskillin and its masterful Canadian ice wines. We recently had the good fortune to sample two new vintages from Inniskillin, both sweet yet low-alcohol dessert wines made from frozen grapes from way up north. Thoughts follow.

2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine – Gorgeous, with a rush of honey, applesauce, and vanilla. On the body, it’s beautifully sweet with more apple, apricots, ripe bananas, and tropical notes…  all layered with that rich honey character. Lovely complexity with a long, long finish. Be careful with this one. 9.5% abv. A- / $50 (375ml)

2008 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine – Red ice wines are always a little strange — sweet, ice cold… and red like tawny port. The nose offers all the honey and jammy fruit notes of white ice wines, and at first the body keeps that rolling, with notes of strawberry, vanilla, and fresh cream. The finish is where things change, that sweetness veering toward sour cherry notes, with add complexity, but leave things on a funky, oxidized note. 9.5% abv. B+ / $100 (375ml)

Review: GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old and Cask Strength Batch 2

GlenDronach 15yo Tawny PortGlenDronach, “the sleeping giant,” is a storied Highlands distillery that dates back to 1826. As is often the case with these companies, the distillery changed hands a few time and was shut down in 1996. Five years later it was acquired by BenRiach and is now producing again. It’s also releasing aged, old stock, including a core range — all sherry-finished — and a number of special, limited releases, including the two reviewed below, which are both new to the U.S. market.

GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old – Fiery, roasted grains dominate the nose, like hot bread fresh from the oven. Citrus and red pepper notes follow. On the palate, lots of flavors emerge, rapid-fire, lingering for awhile: Big malt, leather, coconut, and more of that mammoth cereal character are the most prominent. The body is big, the finish lasting. The overall effect: Interesting, but muddy and lacking focus. What’s really missing here? Any semblance of tawny port. If I didn’t know better, I’d have guessed this was a sherry-finished spirit. 92 proof. B / $80

GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 2 – No age statement on this, but it’s finished in both Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Punchy on the nose, with notes of cigar box and tar. The body brings forward more of these notes, backed with stronger sherry character, gentle smokiness, and ample malt, the lattermost of which builds considerably on the finish. Hot, but not overpowering, the big, citrus-meets-malt finale recalls a simple breakfast on a sunny day. 110.4 proof. 16,500 bottles made. B+ / $150

Book Review: The Drunken Botanist

DRUNKEN BOTANISTIt only came out last year, but Amy Stewart’s incredibly obsessive-compulsive tome, The Drunken Botanist, has already become a staple of the spirits obsessed.

The idea is deceptively simple. Whatever you drink — Scotch, rum, tequila, vodka — has its origins in the earth — barley, sugar cane, agave, potato (or whatnot). Where do these plants, fruits, and vegetables come from? What makes them different than what we put on the table? And (of course) can you grow your own?

Stewart is deep in the rabbit hole on this stuff, taking you through the botanical origins of, say, the tamarind, describing how it grows and where, and how it’s used in beverages. Tips for growing your own plants — typically herbs and spices — are proffered, and Stewart of course peppers the text with plenty of cocktail and flavored syrup recipes.

Easily digested and broken up into natural chunks, The Drunken Botanist is both easy to jump in and out of while also making a fantastic reference. What’s lemon verbena, anyway? Mauby? Myrrh?

I won’t spoil the answers.

A- / $16 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B /

Review: Sammy’s Beach Bar Red Head Macadamia Nut Flavored Rum

sammys beach bar redhead

You gotta love a first. For his first line extension from Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, the “Red Rocker” Sammy Hagar has added a Macadamia Nut-flavored expression to this Hawaii-born product.

What the heck is this stuff?

Distilled from Maui sugar cane, it is steeped with Macadamia nuts and colored blood red (fruit and vegetable juice color is added). Right off the bat, it’s an assault to the senses — the color of wine, but with the nose of crushed nuts. At first the aroma is hard to place — closer to hazelnut than macadamia — with light sweetness underneath.

The body reveals more nuance. Again, the nut notes are the most prominent component here, far overpowering any of the sweet rum elements present. The overall effect is uncannily like a gentler, slightly sweeter version of Frangelico, with a slightly winey, strawberry finish (likely driven by the intense coloring  involved). Rum? It’s difficult to get even a hint of it, particularly the heavy funkiness of Sammy’s, but I trust him that it really is there as a base spirit. I can’t specifically peg macadamia nut here, either, for that matter.

Nonetheless, it’s a well-crafted and quite unique spirit. My recommendation: Use it in lieu of nut liqueurs, not necessarily rum.

70 proof.

A- / $20 /