Review: Ardbeg Grooves

Ardbeg’s latest Ardbeg Day Committee Release is here (or at least it will be in June): The funkily named Ardbeg Grooves. If you’re thinking music has something to do with it, you’re not wrong, as the whisky is inspired by the life and times of livin’ on Islay in the 1960s. Says Ardbeg:

From the experimental folk at Ardbeg, comes this intensely mellow dram – Ardbeg Grooves.

Here at Ardbeg, we’ve always been passionate about the benefits of an alternative lifestyle. We dig peat. But we also dig crofting, crocheting, Celtic crosses and campfires.

And for this Limited Edition Committee bottling, we’re rolling back the years to an Islay time gone by – back to village of Peat & Love.

Produced using our grooviest casks ever, aromas of smoked spices combine with distant bonfires fading into a mellow haze of apple and smoked pear.

Ardbeg Grooves – It’s just good vibes…and good whisky, man.

That’s not a lot of information to work with, but it turns out those “groovy casks” are actually re-toasted red-wine casks, of which a portion of the whisky has been matured.

We received a sample of the cask-strength Committee Edition (as always, a lower-proof version will also be available in wider release). Let’s taste.

The aroma of the whisky isn’t immediately expressive of what’s inside. Saline and seaweed dominate, with more of a wood-burning campfire smoke heavy on the nose. The palate is a different animal, showing complexity immediately. On top of the peat comes a rush of fruit: pineapple, orange slices, and a hint of lemon. Maritime notes build in short order, but the salt spray takes on a sweeter note, akin to salted caramel. The finish sweetens the picture even further; I get a note of banana pudding, though the kick of smoke at the tail end reminds you, hey, this is Ardbeg after all.

103.2 proof.

A- / $123 /

Review: Allagash Belfiüs

Allagash Brewing Company has been busy of late creating new beers with unique profiles. Belfiüs is particularly adventurous, labeled as a Saison Ale Blended with Spontaneously Fermented Ale. The bottle provides a helpful description:

This bottle contains two of Belgium’s well-known beer styles: a spontaneously fermented ale and a saison. The spontaneously fermented ale is also known as our Coolship beer. The name comes from a key brewing tool – the coolship – that allows the beer to be inoculated with wild yeast and other microflora.

After inoculation, the beer ages in oak barrels for up to three years. The second beer in the blend is our Saison, a dry ale defined by its notes of citrus and peppery spice. Blended together, they create a golden beer with an herbal aroma that contains both spice and tart fruit. Its taste is one of restrained sourness rounded out by a hint of oak.

Let’s give it a try. Poured aggressively into a glass, this bright yellow-golden beer presents a large head that quickly dissipates. The nose offers vibrant saison character with notes of hay, grass, citrus, and green apple. The beer’s high carbonation level can be seen in the bubbles that rise steadily from the bottom of the glass. It is a pleasure to note that the carbonation results from the fermentation process that takes place in French oak wine barrels, not other sources.

On the palate, Belfiüs opens with green apple, which is followed by a surprisingly sharp acidity. The acidity makes this an excellent beer to pair with a range of foods, and I was wishing I had some sausage and onions to enjoy with it. The acidity also suggests this beer could improve with aging. Following its bracing attack, the beer presents a mild sourness. The finish is a soft one, as the sour note slowly fades but never turns bitter. For all that this beer offers, it is fairly light bodied and quite drinkable. For those who love saisons, this is an exciting beer to try thanks to its distinctive, sour twist.

6.7% abv.

B+ / $15 per 375ml bottle /

Review: Crown Royal Deluxe Blended Canadian Whisky

We’re filling in some of the back catalog today, kicking things off with a long overdue review of Crown Royal, the Canadian whisky classic with the motto “An Unmistakably Smooth Taste.”

The original Crown Royal — the one in the purple bag — is officially known as Crown Royal Deluxe (or “Fine de Luxe” if you’re feeling Quebecois). The whisky’s a blend, but a blend of what? Crown says a full fifty whiskies go into the mix here, but beyond that, who knows?

Let’s give the cruise ship standby a sip, shall we?

The nose is heavy with apples, followed by some basic barrel aromas and hints of the cereal so common with young whisky. It’s all fairly innocuous, though, and the palate follows suit: That apple fruit is unmistakable, as is a significant brown sugar and honey note that provides plenty of sweetness to the whisky. The finish has an industrial bent to it — in that there really isn’t one, just a quick fade-out designed to be as harmless as possible.

It’s not much for sipping straight, but considering what Crown Royal is really for — to mix with Coke and not really be tasted — it’s probably just about perfect.

80 proof.

B- / $17 /

Review: 2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Chardonnay, Grand Detour Pinot Noir, and Overlook Pinot Noir

Today it’s a trio of 2016 vintage wines from Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma — a chardonnay and two pinot noirs — including a few expressions we’ve never seen before.

2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – This standby chardonnay finds a moderate to heavy wood profile giving its underlying fruit a slathering of bacon, vanilla, and a hint of Eastern spices. The finish is lengthy and unctuous with butter and oak; on its own it’s a bit much, but it does pair well with seafood. B+ / $40

2016 Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – With that earthiness and chewy graphite character, this is iconic Sonoma Coast pinot noir from the outset. Notes of tea leaf give the black cherries at the wine’s core some gravitas, with a light meatiness adding weight to the back end. Some floral notes emerge in time, particularly as that finish lingers. While its dense and rich, there’s an elegance here that’s beautiful today — and will probably be more forthcoming in 2021 and beyond. A- / $30

2016 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir – Very meaty, this wine is almost tough with notes of beef jerky and fried ham, with a bit of a charred, burnt toast character to it. The savory elements dominate any fruit that’s to be found here; that runs to plums and a slightly raisiny, almost Port-like note. Pairs reasonably well with food, but on its own it lacks the vibrancy one wants from a truly soulful pinot. B / $20

Review: Crystal Head Aurora Vodka

Remember Crystal Head Vodka, the Dan Aykroyd-conceived spirit that wrapped UFOs, ectoplasm, and other planes of existence into the mythology of a bottle of 80-proof booze? Well, 10 years later, Crystal Head is back with a new, special edition called Aurora, complete with an updated skull bottle, and a revamped spirit inside.

Here’s how Aurora is different, in a nutshell, starting with the inventive showpiece of a bottle:

Distilled in Newfoundland, Canada, Crystal Head AURORA comes in a beautifully crafted bottle, which is an accurate rendering of the human skull. With an iridescent finish, the bottle was designed in celebration of the most vivid aerial phenomenon in the world – ‘the Northern Lights.’ To create the aesthetic of the lights’ mysterious visual properties, the skull shaped bottle is first placed into a sealed chamber and electrically charged. Two metals in powder form are activated seven times and released in the pressurized chamber. The powder is drawn to the electrically charged bottle – completely coating it. Then heated at high temperature, the powder melts, creating a uniquely iridescent metallized finish in which no two bottles are alike.

Inside, the spirit has also seen some changes.

AURORA is additive-free and made with high quality English wheat grown in the hills of North Yorkshire, and with pristine water from St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is five times distilled in a traditional column still prior to filtration. The vodka is filtered a total of seven times, the first three filtrations using activated charcoal – lasting six hours to remove impurities, next it is filtered three times over 10,000 Herkimer diamonds before finally going through a micro filtration prior to being bottled. Because AURORA was crafted with English Wheat, its flavor offers a drier, bolder, and spicier vodka than the Crystal Head original, made from peaches and cream corn.

Some how I missed that the original Crystal Head was made out of peaches and cream corn, but anyway, let’s taste Aurora and see how it acquits itself.

It’s good vodka, much like its forebear. The nose is clean but lightly medicinal, with hints of savory herbs, pencil lead, and a bit of rubbery band-aid character that emerges as the earlier notes fade. The palate shows an initial marshmallow sweetness, and a hint of rose petal florals, before settling into a somewhat astringent — almost bitter at times — groove. But this too fades away, leaving behind notes of rubber, some licorice, and dusky spices, almost coming across as Eastern spices at times. The finish is mostly clean, but does see a little of that band-aid note lingering.

All told, it’s a perfectly credible vodka — albeit a very expensive one — but what’s inside doesn’t nearly measure up to the wildly impressive bottle itself.

80 proof.

B+ / $60 /

Bar Review: NICO, Mt. Pleasant, SC

The upscale bedroom community of Mount Pleasant is just a few minutes and a big bridge away from Charleston, South Carolina, and a decade ago no one would have thought to put a high-end French bistro in these parts. Things have changed, though, as Mt. Pleasant has continued to vault its way upmarket.

NICO, which opened here five months ago, isn’t just a restaurant and bar, it’s also a man: Nico Romo, who is one of the world’s youngest French Master Chefs. The man clearly has a passion for seafood, and his and general manager Cal Goodell have even extended that to the drinks menu with the Scotch Oyster.

Put simply, the Scotch Oyster is a raw oyster with a small shot of Scotch served on the side. You drink the brine, pour a little whisky on the bivalve, gobble the combination up, then pour the rest of the Scotch into the shell to finish it off. NICO used to use Bowmore in the menu item, but at $12 it was a little ritzy. At $6 with a shot of blended whisky John Barr, it’s something you can probably have by the tray instead of just a single. The combination works well, too: I’ve had the oyster-whisky mix in the past, and I think it works better with a milder blend than with a stout Islay spirit. This one’s a great little combo.

NICO’s cocktail menu is heavy on the classics, though most have a bit of a Charleston spin to them. The French Martini takes Dixie vodka and mixes in house-made creme de cassis and pineapple juice to make for a fruit-heavy crowd pleaser. Also quite summery is the Absinthe Swizzle, which is not made with absinthe but rather Absentroux, an anise-flavored vermouth-like wine, plus Green Chartreuse, lemon and lime, Angostura bitters, and house-made ginger beer. Refreshing and fun, it’s served on a mountain of crushed ice — but I’d have loved to see it with even more Chartreuse… and served with a straw to help keep the ice off my face.

My favorite cocktail of the evening was the least “spun” of them all, the Coleman Boulevardier, which is made with Rittenhouse Rye, Campari, and Dolin Rouge vermouth. The garnish is a cool-looking wood-fired orange that adds a bit of creme brulee character to the mix, though not so much to really change the structure of the drink. All told, it’s a solid conclusion to a nice roundup of beverages — and next time I’m going for a plate of fresh, raw oysters to pair with it all!

Review: UWA Tequila Blanco and Reposado

“The Scottish Tequila Company” — UWA — has as its avowed mission a question: “What would happen if we took elements from both [regions] and created a blend of both tequila and whisky in a single drink?”

Don’t be too alarmed. UWA isn’t a blend of tequila and scotch; it’s merely tequila that has been aged in single malt, Speyside-born Scotch whisky casks instead of the typical American bourbon casks. UWA is 100% Lowlands blue agave, triple distilled, then aged according to the rules of tequila. While the three standard varieties are available, today we look at only the Blanco and Reposado.

Both are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

UWA Tequila Platinum Blanco – This is unaged tequila, so only a bit of a nod to Scotland. Heavy agave on the nose initially comes across as a bit rough, but some air gives it life, revealing notes of juicy lemon and pear. The palate is extremely peppery, but this too settles down a bit to reveal a softer side, including some citrus and applesauce notes. The finish is spicy but not overwhelming, particularly given some time in glass. B+ / $61

UWA Tequila Reposado – Aged for seven months in cask. The time in whisky casks gives this spirit an impressive depth. The nose is a mix of agave and vanilla, some red pepper, but the palate takes things down a new road. Here, Mexican chocolate, loaded with cinnamon and milky cocoa, provide a dessert-like balance that isn’t even hinted at in the blanco expression. Bold yet easily approachable, the finish meanders toward caramel sauce, dusted just so with chili powder. Beautiful stuff. The anejo must be a dazzler. A / $67

Review: Traverse City Premium Cocktail Cherries

Traverse City is a craft whisky distillery in the eponymous town in Michigan. Lately they’re also introduced cocktail cherries — of the “brandied” variety, not artificial maraschinos. Some details:

TCWC Co-founder Chris Fredrickson chose to use Northern Michigan Balaton Cherries,which are harvested exclusively from orchards in the Traverse City area. The large, plump, firm cherries, which are dark burgundy in color, are delivered to the distillery in five-gallon pails that also contain a natural syrup base that acts as a buffer to protect the fruit from smashing together. The syrup is mixed with Traverse City Straight Bourbon Whiskey and brought to a boil, while the Balaton Cherries are heated to a near-boil, in nearby copper pots, before jarring.

Once the premium cherries are jarred and weighed, they get backfilled with the boiling syrup, which has burned off all of the alcohol during its slow-cooking process. The TCWC team prides itself on traditional jarring methods, better known as the “hot-filled” process, which kills all possible bacteria.

We gave them a try in a couple of cocktails to see if they were worth adding to your garnish library.

These are big cherries, larger than your typical Luxardo, and considerably different in flavor, too. The texture difference is immediate: Traverse’s cherries have bite, almost crunchy, with a relative dryness at their core instead of a burst of juice. The flavor takes a spin away from the typical sweet/tart cherry character one finds with a Luxardo. Here, the cherry has a distinct chocolate character that acts as a foil to a modest earthiness beneath. There’s less sweetness here than in any other cocktail cherry I’ve encountered, but perhaps that’ll be to the liking of some drinkers? For me, however, while I enjoyed eating the cherries on their own, I found them a bit too savory for most recipes.

B / $16 per 16 oz jar /

Harvest in Chile’s Casablanca Valley – A Dusty Paradise

View from the top of Montsecano

“In many ways, for wine, Chile is like a mirror image of California,” said Byron Kosuge as we strolled from the winery to view the vast expanse of Kingston Family Vineyards in Casablanca Valley. Byron has been consulting winemaker for Kingston Family since 2003. He spends part of each year in Chile and the rest in Northern California where he consults for other labels and produces his well-regarded eponymous label B. Kosuge Wines.

Wonderful hosts at Espiritu Santo Restaurant

His comparisons to California stem from Casablanca’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which provides a recurrent marine layer that protects and nurtures the fruit in an otherwise hot and dry climate, the valley’s mineral rich soils and the temperatures ranging from roughly 45 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit—warm days, cool nights.

I was lucky enough to get an insider’s recommendations about which other Casablanca wineries to visit on my trip, and all the wines I tasted were very well made. The following four producers, distinct in character and vision from each other, all produce beautiful expressions of the land they’ve planted. And the land in Casablanca! The mountain ranges are massive and never-ending, mountains behind mountains behind mountains. They’re rocky and full of cactus, dotted with trees and terraced with grapevines. As you exit from a long tunnel (if you’re driving from Santiago), Casablanca Valley appears as an oasis of green vines, every row dreamlike and enticing.

Pro tip: Go to Valparaíso for lunch or dinner and enjoy the punk rock lux of the city by the sea and the delicious food and drink at Espiritu Santo. You can also stay there. You won’t regret it.

María Luz Marin and Renee Humphrey


Consulting winemaker Byron Kosuge taking us through a Kingston Family tasting

Owner/Winemaker María Luz Marin is like a triple shot of fine whiskey, petite with an impressive punch. The Viña Casa Marin property is 4km from the ocean just Southwest from Casablanca in the San Antonio Valley. Before planting there in 2000, the common wisdom was that land that close to the water was entirely inhospitable for wine grapes. She stuck to her guns though, and is now producing spectacular, cool climate wines.

I was particularly drawn to the whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. However, the 2011 Casa Marin Pinot Noir also made me do a happy dance. The 2016 Gewürztraminer had an uncommon, wonderfully nutty funk on the nose and was deliciously dry. One of her sons, Felipe Marin, is her co-winemaker and also produces his own label from the estate called Viñedos Lo Abarca. His 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was so unusual to me, and very enjoyable over the course of three days. Less than 300 cases produced, the wine showed wet stone and asparagus on the nose, minerality with a hint of tropical fruits and dried plantains on the palate, and a lingering citrus, lemon peel finish.

Like so many small wineries, Viña Casa Marin is a family affair. Maria’s eldest son Nicolas Marin is Operations Director of the company and runs their scenic estate restaurant Cipreses Vino Bar. If the plate of salami, cheeses, fruits and nuts, and baguette topped with avocado, red onion relish, white fish, and crème fraiche they were kind enough to whip up for me was any indication of what else is on offer, run don’t walk and have dinner there too.

Cipreses Vino Bar with view of Viña Casa Marin vineyards


When I first drove through the gate at Kingston and headed up the dirt road lined with majestic palm trees, I took a wrong turn. I wound around the rows of vines into a pack of wild horses. It was a surprise! I found out later that the horses lived there, and weren’t supposed to be in the vineyards but sometimes sneak in to eat the grapes. The animals are so loved by the family that the wines are named after them

The first Kingston to come to Chile in the later 1800s was a Michigan mining prospector. He bought the land and, through several iterations, his farm is now the vineyards plus a stunning tourist property. They receive lots of visitors stopping in from Santiago en route to Patagonia, or the End of the Earth, and are building a house to host visitors overnight that will soon be ready. The multilingual family and staff are gracious, knowledgeable and ready to help with whatever travel information you may need. They also export and ship their wines from the U.S. so it’s easy to join their club, but I highly recommend a visit to the winery if you can swing it.

The wines are great, organically farmed and very reasonably priced. They currently produce Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Rose. As I mentioned, Northern CA winemaker Byron Kosuge consults, and Amael Orrego is the winemaker, a Chilean native whose family owns Cascada de Las Ánimas. On our tour, we started with their lovely Syrah-based Rose. While taking in the beauty all around us, we learned that Chilean vines are rare because they have native roots rather than imported rootstock.

The Kingston wines all had characteristics of a slightly warmer climate than Viña Casa Marin, more fruit-driven, but still fresh with a nice acid balance. My favorite was the 2013 Lucero Syrah, a savory bit of brooding blackberry that will perfectly complement your steak, bloody or otherwise.


Julio Donoso showing us 2018 Refugio juice from its concrete egg

I had to get a ride from Byron to Montsecano because no easy directions were available. If they were, they’d have been in the nature of ‘once in Casablanca, turn right at the flowering bush, then hard left at the broken tree,’ etc. So we drove through a magical forest, up a mountain and landed at an industrial, thatched-roofed hut busy processing the final grapes of the 2018 harvest. Julio Donoso appeared out of the construction site for the new underground cellar, and swept us into a tour of the winery.

All fermentation for Montsecano and his other Pinot Noir label, Refugio, is done in either stainless steel or concrete eggs, with only concrete planned for future harvests because Julio prefers working with it. From tank and egg we tasted the juice of freshly picked Pinot for both labels, and a new Chardonnay project he’s working on. He was pleased with the rapid fermentation and the fine acid levels the 2018 harvest was producing. Many of the Pinots were surprisingly close to ready to drink.

Next we hopped in his car and survived a death-defying road trip to the top of the relatively small vineyard site. The inexpressibly beautiful 360 vista, a huge bird—that Julio called a white eagle—flying overhead, and the newly planted, fertile rows of vines along with some more mature blocks made me want to find a sleeping bag and stay right there for the night. These wines are sometimes hard to find, but I urge you to make the effort. The farming practices are all biodynamic and the whole operation just couldn’t be cooler.

Montsecano Vineyard


Bodegas Re tasting by appointment

The Re in Bodegas Re stands for reinvention, revive or rebirth. A second-generation project from a Concha Y Toro alumni winemaker, the Casablanca vineyard property is vast but most of the fruit is sold to other vintners. A small amount of fruit is chosen for the Bodegas Re brand to make intriguing blends with historical resonance and names that highlight rather than obscure the blending, like SyrahNoir, Cabergnan or Pinotel. (5 points if you can figure those out without looking at their website).

I enjoyed the Re 2014 SyrahNoir quite a bit, a blend of Syrah and Pinot Noir. It had the light on its feet character of many Pinots coupled with the meatiness and savory notes of Chilean Syrah, all well-balanced together. I also liked the Re 2010 Cabergnan, a blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and a small amount of Carignan that is still wildly fresh and could probably lay down for another ten years. It was most pleasurable to drink after being open for 24 hours.

Bodegas Re amphora and oak barrels

Being a tourist at Bodegas Re is easy and fun. My guide spoke perfect English, although I assaulted her with my broken Spanish now and then. She took me through the vineyard, the old school Licor de Frutilla room filled with booze-soaked fruit in pretty bottles, and the winery where they use amphora-inspired clay vessels as well as neutral French and American oak to age their wines.

The tour culminated in a lovely wine tasting accompanied by bread, cheese and olives, and a superb olive oil that is also produced on the property. The tasting room is open daily from 10 to 6 P.M. and tours are scheduled by appointment.

Review: Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar and 2×4 DIPA

Melvin Brewing can be found in Alpine, Wyoming, where some serious hopheads have been turning out brews since 2009. Today we take a spin through our first encounter with Melvin, both of which are available in cans, but only one of which (the big boy) has WWE wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan as a spokesman.

Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar – A collaboration of sorts with Teton Gravity Research, an action sports media company, this is a bright and lemony pilsner, light on the malt and crisp on the finish with notes of saltines and a hint of applesauce. Very easy to enjoy, and harmless at a mere 4.5% abv. B+ / $NA

Melvin Brewing 2×4 DIPA – A bruiser of a double IPA, this burly brew is densely packed with the trappings of the IPA world — “a stupid amount of hops,” per the label. Sticky, resinous pine tar is thick on the palate, but there’s complexity here in the form of orange peel and salted caramel notes. The intense bitterness lingers on the finish for days, a reminder that you’re drinking a beer that clocks in at a whopping 9.9% abv. Hello! A- / $9 per 4-pack

Review: Amaro dell’Etna

Amaro dell’Etna isn’t a new brand of amaro, but it’s new to America. To wit:

M.S. Walker has announced that it is introducing Amaro dell’Etna, a Sicilian digestif that has been produced near Mt. Etna in Italy for more than 100 years, into the U.S. market. Amaro dell’Etna has its roots, both literally and figuratively, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, where more than twenty-six native herbs and aromatic plants used to craft this spectacular digestif grow. The 100% natural recipe embodies the volcanic nature of Sicilian soil and, even after more than one hundred years, still possesses its traditional taste.

The process to craft Amaro dell’Etna follows a traditional recipe and utilizes the best raw materials obtained from a selection of over twenty-six herbs and aromatic plants, including organic bitter orange peel, licorice, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel, and more. The all-natural ingredients are carefully washed before the flavors and aromas are skillfully extracted via maceration, with the liquid then left to mature for more than two months to draw out the full potential and bold spiced flavor of Amaro dell’Etna.

Let’s give this amaro a try.

Aromatically, there are lots of cinnamon and cloves here, which is a nice balance to the lightly minty, moderately bitter nose. The palate sees the addition of vanilla, some cocoa powder, and an orange peel element all layering upon one another, leading to a finish that is at first moderately bitter, but over time revealing itself to be sweeter than expected. The finish is a combination of licorice, cinnamon/clove, and a sweet/earthy note I can only describe as carrot cake.

The more I drink it, the more I like it.

58 proof.

A- / $40 (1 liter) /

The BroBasket: Boozy Gift Baskets… For Bros!

The BroBasket is part of the burgeoning “man crate” market, but with a focus on giving, not receiving. The company offers a wide array of baskets designed for giving to your man-friends, many of which are built around booze. In the photo above you’ll see a gofl-themed basket, complete with a bottle of Johnny Walker. For kicks, the company sent me a martini-themed basket, built around a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, dry vermouth, and — in a fun twist — pickled green tomatoes instead of the usual olives. The baskets aren’t cheap (ranging up to $300), but you can always customize your own if one of the premade collections don’t work for you.

Check it out! Father’s Day, after all, isn’t far off.