Review: The Fruit Ales of Redd’s

Last year Redd’s introduced as its limited edition “pick” (pun intended) a Blueberry Ale. Like all good things, it has returned for another full season along with new sidekicks, Redd’s Raspberry and this year’s limited edition, Peach Ale. Not wanting to leave the other fruity siblings out of the loop, a full flight tasting was in high order.

One thing to remember: These are not ciders. This cannot be stressed highly enough. This is beer flavored with fruit, and should not be placed in the same category as cider.

Redd’s Apple Ale – Delivering well on its promise, the brand’s flagship serves up the tartness of crisp apples with faint traces of beer notes. It’s quite light and tart with a mild bitterness, like an incredibly mild cider. Complexity is minimal, and this is incredibly straightforward; what you see is definitely what you get. It’s a nice alternative to heavier ciders or beers, and could compliment a nice cookout on the beach this summer. 5% abv. B+

Redd’s Blueberry Ale – A lovely blend of apples and blueberries on the nose, reminiscent of candies from childhood – always an enticing plus. Those two notes stay consistent throughout, with lots of sparring back and forth between the sweetness of the blueberries and the tartness of the apples. It’s pretty well balanced until the end, when the blueberry sweetness becomes a bit overpowering. In a prior review, Chris awarded this a “B” rating. I’d stand by that, and if there was a way to tone down the sweetness a touch, I’d even go one mark higher. 5% abv. B

Redd’s Raspberry Ale – Redd’s found this edition working part time at a five and dime, its boss was Mr. McGee*. It carries a wonderfully strong raspberry aroma on the nose right from the onset, with not a lot of apple accountability happening. The raspberries are front and center stage the entire time, strutting their stuff. There’s a little bit of malt peeking about, and combined with the sweetness and apple tartness, it brings out sharp notes commonly associated with ginger. This is easily my favorite of the bunch. Wouldn’t change a stroke, ’cause baby it’s the most. 5% abv. A-

Redd’s Peach Ale – Lots of lovely peach cobbler and brown sugar on the nose, with a slightly medicinal bent. The taste is supremely floral, and a bit syrupy, but not to the point of irritation like some peach-flavored ales. There’s really not much apple presence in this one, as the hops and ripe peaches go back and forth all the way to the short, punchy finish. Easy sipping, it’s just in time for the long (drinking) days of summer. Go to the country, drink a lot of peaches. 5% abv. B+

each about $8 per six-pack /

* with profound apologies to Prince Rogers Nelson

Understanding the Wines of France

To an average wine imbiber, a trek through the new world wine section of their store of choice is a painless ordeal; a California Cabernet has “Cabernet Sauvignon” written right there on the label. Same with an Oregon Pinot Noir, an Australian Syrah, and just about any other “New World” wine. Blends might be trickier, but oftentimes they’ll have a breakdown of which varietals they’re made of somewhere on the label.

This is not so for the labels from most wine-producing countries in Europe, which to the uninitiated can seem maddeningly confusing and needlessly opaque. How can someone tell what is in a bottle of Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, for instance? The answer is that, while French wine labels might be vague, France’s wineries are dominated by the governmental body Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC (with France’s entry into the EU, technically the term is now AOP, but many wineries still use the designation AOC). The AOC’s laws are very, very strict about what grapes can be grown in what region of the country, in order to maintain the terroir, or the individual taste of a wine region, and so by knowing how these grapes and regions match up, you’ll always have at least a basic idea of what to expect in any bottle of French wine. Join us today to take a whirlwind tour through four of France’s top wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux is the most famous of France’s wine regions — perhaps of all of the world’s wine regions — and is the region that most people think of when they think of French wine. Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on France’s southwest side, split in two by the Gironde estuary, some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Bordeaux, including the several-thousand-dollar Château Cheval Blanc, which featured heavily in the movie Sideways. The grapes most regularly used in red Bordeaux wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carbernet Franc, but of course it can’t be so simple as to just say that and call it a day. The split in the region caused by the Gironde also causes a split in the varietals of grapes used in the wines: on the left bank of the river, including areas like Médoc and Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the wines, whereas on the right bank, typified by areas like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are heavily Merlot-based wines. White Bordeaux blends are typically made between the two rivers that form the estuary, and are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Thanks to Bordeaux blending processes, a good Bordeaux can be endlessly complex, with fruit notes subordinate to tastes and scents like pencil lead, flat stone, loam, and others, depending on which grapes are used. They can be intimidating for new wine drinkers, but a Bordeaux blend has incredible aging potential and can continue to surprise you with new flavors and aromas hours after it’s been opened.

Across the country from Bordeaux, nearing the central east of France, is the region of Burgundy. The regional names you’ll see on the label for Burgundy include Chablis, Macon, and Beaujolais, but unlike Bordeaux, things are simpler here: With one exception, all red Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir grapes, and with no exceptions, all white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes. So why not just slap the grape name on the bottle? Because terroir is still strongly in effect within Burgundy, and white Burgundies made in different regions, for instance, can taste completely different. A white Burgundy from Chablis, for instance, usually tastes very dry, with a white stone minerality, not at all like a Chardonnay someone used to California butter bombs like Rombauer would expect, whereas white Burgundies from Pouilly-Fuisse tend to be more woody and creamy. The one exception to the Pinor Noir-based red Burgundies are the wines from Beaujolais. As you may know if you join in the tradition of opening a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau around Thanksgiving, Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, which is more fruit-forward and immediately ready to drink than a drier, earthier Burgundy made from Pinot Noir.

North of Burgundy, in the upper northeast of the country, right on the border with Germany, lies the region of Alsace. In the history of the two countries, Alsace has always been a point of contention, and it has changed hands between the two countless times; this gives the region a strong German influence that is shared with their wines. Alsatian wines are made almost exclusively with white grapes, especially Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They’re made in a more dry, mineral-forward style than someone used to United States Riesling and Gewurz might expect, but like an Italian Pinot Grigio, they’re very refreshing and go great with food. Alsatian Rieslings especially also have excellent aging potential among white wines due to their acidity, and in good conditions can continue to age well for decades.

Too cold up in Alsace? Head south, starting in the Swiss Alps and ending at France’s beautiful eastern Mediterranean coast, near Italy, where you’ll find the wine-growing region of the Rhône Valley. For someone used to a more fruit-forward style of red wine like those found in California or Australia, the wines from the Rhône area might be a good jumping-off point into the world of French wines. The primary grapes used in Rhône blends include red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier, though AOC allows additional varietals to be blended into the wines in more prestigious regions. Starting up in the north of the Rhône, around the Swiss Alps, you’ll find regions like Crozes-Hermitage that make spicy, savory Syrah that will age wonderfully for years. Further south you’ll find more of an influence of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wines, from inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône, to pricier, more complex Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to gorgeous, sumptuous blends from around the former Papal enclave of Avignon, called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the northern Syrahs tend to be savory and meaty, the climate of southern Rhône produces rich blends with a perfect balance of berries and the natural terroir that French wine strives for.

This is of course only very a basic overview of France’s four best-known wine regions. Whole books have been written about each of these, and there are many more lesser-known regions within the country, like the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon. Hopefully this overview will help you try a new French wine or two, and discover the wonders that the country has in store for a curious drinker.

Review: Drapo Vermouth Complete Lineup

Drapo is a line of vermouths produced in Turin, Italy – which as the company tells us was the birthplace of vermouth in 1786. These releases are all bottled at 16% abv, except the Gran Riserva, which hits 18%.

Thoughts on the lineup, which are soon/newly available in the U.S., follow.

Drapo Vermouth Dry – Aromatic and perfumed, with notes of white flowers, golden waves of grain, and orange peel, this lightly oxidized wine is bittersweet and sour all at once, with a complex palate of honey, green melon, and a hint of ginger. Well made and quite versatile. B+ / $14

Drapo Vermouth Bianco – One of the more unusual biancos (sweet white vermouth) I’ve encountered, with intense baking spice notes, particularly cinnamon, on the nose. The moderately sweet palate offers honey and citrus syrup, and a rising vanilla-lemon note on the back end. May clash in some applications. B / $14

Drapo Vermouth Rosso – Fresh and lively, there’s intense red berry fruit here, along with a spritz of orange oil on the nose. On the palate, the raspberry and strawberry notes dominate, melding nicely with lingering notes of tea leaf, some cloves, and a light bitterness that gives the wine some backbone. Delightful stuff with a surprising depth. A- / $14

Drapo Vermouth Gran Riserva – This is a sweet red vermouth that’s aged in French oak for at least 8 months and is bottled as a single barrel expression. Much more bitter than the rosso, it borders on an amaro, with intense root and tree bark notes, dried plum/prune and raisin, and loads of chewy clove and licorice notes. The finish is long and lasting and hard to shake, a dense and intense character that lingers until you force it off your tongue. Use carefully, or alone in lieu of an amaro. B+ / $20

Review: St. Augustine Distillery Florida Double Cask Bourbon

Florida-based St. Augustine’s craft bourbon starts with a mash bill of 60% regional corn, 22% malted barley, and 18% regional wheat. Per the company, “the grains are milled and mashed on site, and fermented with proprietary yeast strains in closed-top fermenters.” The barrels in this release range from 16 to 28 months old, and they’re aged “in a sequence of new 25-gallon and seasoned 53-gallon barrels” (i.e. the “double casks”). You may also note that former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell is a consultant here.

The nose is popcorn-grainy, with toasty overtones of barrel char and denser chimney soot. The palate softens up on all of this a little, offering clear notes of coffee grounds, match heads, and heavily toasted grains — before finally fading into a character that approaches something akin to a modern bourbon, with notes of vanilla and baking spice more clearly evident. The coffee character and its entre to sweeter elements make for some interesting points of exploration — though it’s impossible to shake the notion that, on the whole, this remains a bourbon that’s simply been bottled too young.

Perhaps a triple barrel is needed.

93.8 proof.

B- / $50 /

Review: Wines of (Illinois-Based) Cooper’s Hawk Lux, 2017 Releases

Cooper’s Hawk is a restaurant chain and winery based in Countryside, Illinois, which is a strange place for a vineyard, no? Rest easy then: Cooper’s Hawk trucks in fresh grapes from California, Oregon, and Washington, then crushes and vinifies them in Illinois before bottling. These wines are non-vintage stated, and some don’t even reveal the grape varietals used to make them.

Cooper’s Hawk makes nearly 50 different varieties of wine, and today we look at its top level of wines, Cooper’s Hawk Lux, which come in strikingly dark bottles and wrapped in tissue paper. Can fruit trucked from the west coast and turned into wine near Chicago compete with the local stuff in Cali? We sampled four “Lux” expressions to find out.

Thoughts follow.

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Sparkling Wine Brut – A mystery sparkler made from unknown grapes, this is a very dry wine, mostly chardonnay I’d guess, with initially herbal notes that eventually find their way toward notes of lemongrass, green apple, and a touch of pineapple. A pleasant aperitif on the whole. B / $30

NV Cooper’s Hawk Gewurztraminer – (Not part of the Lux series.) This is a semi-sweet style of Gewurztraminer, appropriately fragrant and aromatic with heavily perfumed florals and loaded on the body with the typical overtones of peaches and honey. The sweetness lingers on the finish, but it’s not overdone. The wine is quite a simple bottling, but it pairs nicely with seafood and works just fine as an aperitif. B / $30

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Pinot Noir – Fresh berries, some licorice and graphite notes, and a light tobacco undercurrent give the wine a slight funkiness, backed with evergreen and menthol notes, but on the whole this drinks like a lighter style of pinot noir that might as well be from Carneros. If the body had a bit more meat on it — instead of the slightly watery character we see — it’d be a dead ringer for California. B+ / $40

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage – A quite dry wine that offers aromas of dark chocolate, chicory, and well-dried currants. The body is dusty and a bit tannic, though again the chocolate and currant notes are at the forefront. The straightforward finish recalls many a Napa cab, but the blackberry-forward finish belies few complexities aside from a hint of vanilla. B+ / $40

Review: Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur

Hey, it’s something from Indiana that’s not whiskey from MGP! Bloomington, IN is the home to Cardinal Spirits, and Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur is one of the company’s most noteworthy products.

What’s in the bottle? Let me allow Cardinal to explain:

Most coffee liqueurs taste one dimensional – like sugar. But ours tastes like coffee, plus all of the complementary notes you get from freshly-roasted coffee, like caramel and chocolate. That’s because we make this spirit with a ton of freshly roasted coffee from our friends/neighbors at Hopscotch Coffee in Bloomington (for our Kentucky version of this spirit, we use coffee from Good Folks roastery in Louisville). Only coffee, Bourbon vanilla beans, cane sugar and our vodka are used to make our Songbird Coffee Liqueur – no flavor extracts or coloring, ever. Here’s a video of how we make our coffee liqueur.

If you like coffee — or coffee-flavored spirits — Songbird is one to seek out. The nose is pure coffee — a real fresh-ground character that feels like a freshly-opened bag of ground beans. Lightly nutty, with overtones of vanilla and sugar, it’s not an overblown espresso but something closer to a fresh, moderate roast. The palate is sweeter than expected — one feels Songbird might have dialed the sugar back a bit; get a drop on your hands and they’ll be so sticky you need to wash them immediately — but in the end the coffee becomes the centerpiece of the experience. With that much sugar, the impact can be a bit like a Vietnamese coffee (sans the milk), but finally the body manages to overpower the sweetness quickly enough with powerful notes of nutty, lightly smoky coffee beans and some burnt caramel character.

Great stuff, and highly versatile on its own or as a cocktail ingredient.

Note: The label doesn’t note this, but Songbird can settle out quite heavily, so shake well before pouring.

49 proof.

A / $25 /

Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Four Grain Bourbon

For 2017, Buffalo Trace’s Col. E.H. Taylor line is pulling out a relatively rare style of whiskey: bourbon made with four grains instead of the usual three… corn, barley, rye, and wheat. The whiskey is aged 12 years and bottled in bond.

Some notes from the distillery on this ninth release in the E.H. Taylor line:

Made from a distinct bourbon recipe using corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley, this bourbon was distilled in 2005, entered into the barrel at 104 proof, and has a distinctly different flavor profile from the typical rye and wheat recipe bourbons made at Buffalo Trace Distillery.  These four grains were chosen since they are the four grains E. H. Taylor would have had access to when he set up shop at Buffalo Trace in the late 1800s. During the 1860s, Taylor traded in grains and learned that they can vary tremendously from different farmers and harvests. Taylor consistently wanted the products produced in his distillery “of upmost class,” right down to the grains.

The whiskey is a bit of an odd one from stem to stern. The nose is heavy with butterscotch, salted caramel, and big mint notes, but then solvent overtones arrive that are hard to shake, giving it an ultimate character that is at times off-putting. The palate is similarly rough-hewn, slightly sweaty from the saltiness, with immediate flavors of toffee and butterscotch. As the finish approaches, the salty character slides closer toward a canned green vegetable character, somewhat mushy and musky, with a conclusion that’s loaded with tannins and heavy barrel char notes.

As my tasting notes likely indicate, while it has some moments of charm, it isn’t my favorite Taylor release by a longshot. That said, of special note, unlike most of Taylor’s previous releases, Four Grain won’t be a one-time-only release but will be released again in the spring of 2018. If it sounds appealing and you miss it this time, keep an eye out for next year’s version. For me, I’m looking forward to seeing if anything has changed come 2018.

100 proof.

B- / $70 /