Review: 2015 Bear Flag Zinfandel Sonoma County

Here’s proof that zinfandel needn’t be an over-jammed fruit bomb.

The possible secret is that Bear Flag, which draws its name from California’s iconic 1846 flag and is part of the Gallo group, uses Sonoma fruit instead of grapes from the more typical Lodi, giving them access to a territory that is slightly cooler and has more varied terroir. The results are a supple (and sure enough high-alcohol) zin with notes of blackberry, dark chocolate, and lingering notes of cloves. Altogether it’s a hearty, heady wine built for the holidays — right down to the old-timey, gold-etched labeling.

A- / $30 / bearflagwine.com

Review: Auchentoshan The Bartender’s Malt

Lowlands whisky producer Auchentoshan recently came up with a weird idea: to produce a single malt curated not by its own master blender buy by a group of bartenders (who presumably know nothing about the task).

Anyhoo.

Auchentoshan’s The Bartender’s Malt is “a bespoke innovation comprised of a blend of whiskies selected by the New Malt Order, a collective of highly skilled, innovative bartenders from around the world who came together to create this product. Developed by bartenders, for bartenders, this is the very first Auchentoshan Single Malt Scotch of its kind.”

What does “for bartenders” mean? It means the whisky is designed for use in cocktails. Why do they need that? Presumably because most whisky is too sweet. The current bartender meta is to restrain sweetness — or, at least, to be able to more carefully control it — so a higher-proof, lower-sugar spirit is definitely in order.

That makes some degree of sense — it’s the same reason why Christian Brothers’ Sacred Bond Bonded Brandy was released last year — but let’s be honest: “Twelve of the world’s most innovative bartenders” have not exactly reinvented the wheel here. If you’re looking for a very dry whisky that will mix without much fuss, allowing your other ingredients to shine, this might be a good fit.

But for starters, let’s taste it on its own just to see how it acquits itself.

The nose is, as expected, dialed back, which allows the malt to shine. Toasted bread, cereal, and smoldering wood embers form the core of a whisky that lets you know, up front, that you’re not going to get a vanilla bomb or a citrus-fueled sherry monster. On the tongue, it’s a little more complex than the nose lets on, though the experience remains quite dry. Here the flavors run toward grassy notes of heather and fresh-cut grains, some lemon peel, and a soothing (but not really sweet) honey character that emerges on the finish. Said finish is drying and short, but perfectly pleasant… something you’d look for to add a little grainy edge to a cocktail but hardly anything that would enlighten you sipping neat on a Saturday night.

Which, I suppose, is by design.

94 proof.

B / $50 / auchentoshan.com

Review: 2015 Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon Bourbon Barrel Aged

Hey kids, another bourbon barrel-aged red wine! This one carries a California designation but, per the company, is Paso Robles-sourced cabernet sauvignon that spends four months in Kentucky bourbon barrels. Let’s see how this one fares.

At first I was slightly optimistic: The nose evokes both black pepper and blackberry fruit — interesting and engaging — but the palate is sweet beyond all get-out. Loaded with notes of Concord grape jam, liquefied chocolate and caramel sauce, it quickly runs to a finish that evokes cinnamon-spiked applesauce. All told, this isn’t a wine but rather tonight’s dessert special blended into oblivion and poured into a glass.

C- / $18 / staveandsteel.com

Review: Samuel Adams Utopias (2017 Release)

The thing about Samuel Adams’ Utopias — the extreme barrel-aged beer that drinks more like a Port or sherry than a can of Boston Lager — is that although they constantly tweak the recipe, the beer itself never seems to change that much. Variations on a theme, really.

2017 marks the 10th release of Utopias (and our sixth encounter with it, which began with the 2007 installment), with 13,000 bottles made. The twist this time: the “2017 recipe includes Utopias aged in a variety of barrels including new Scandinavian Aquavit barrels as well as a portion of the final blend aged in Muscat barrels, a first for the beer.”

Some extra data on this release:

The 2017 release is a blend of batches, some having been aged up to 24 years in a variety of barrels. A portion of the freshly brewed beer is then aged in hand-selected, single-use bourbon casks from the award-winning Buffalo Trace Distillery while the rest is aged in a variety of barrels including Bourbon, White Carcavelos, and Ruby Port. New this year, Utopias aged in Aquavit barrels, a Scandinavian spirit with distinct flavor from spices and herbs, primarily caraway or dill. Throughout the year, the brewers practice “barrel turns,” meaning beer is moved from one barrel to another, to continually impart complex flavor from the barrels to the brew.

Then, the brewers carefully create the final blend by sampling and blending barrel-aged beer on its own including 24-year-old Triple Bock and 17-year-old Millennium aged in the Samuel Adams Bier Keller, as well as previous Utopias vintages and a variety of barrel-aged blends. The Samuel Adams Bier Keller, the former bier keller of the historic Haffenreffer Brewery, is the new home for aging Triple Bock, Millennium, and experimental barrel-aged beers at the Boston Brewery. This year’s final blend included a touch of Kosmic Mother Funk, a one-of-a-kind Belgian ale that ferments for two years in Hungarian Oak foeders to add dark fruit and slightly tart notes.

After the blend is finalized, the brewers “finished” some of the 2017 Utopias in Moscat barrels, a wine known for its slightly smoky character. “Finishing” is a creative way for the brewers to impart additional flavor from a barrel before the beer is bottled.

In tasting Utopias 2017, as previously mentioned, my tasting notes don’t depart too wildly from what I’ve said before. That said, some differences are in store for the Utopias fanatic, starting with the nose, which is more bitter and wood-heavy than the typical Utopias, giving it more of an old sherry character than a Port-like one. Rye-like notes of caraway (aquavit-driven, perhaps?) and some bitter amaro aromas are particularly evident.

The palate is bittersweet, with that caraway/bitter root note leading to some notes of dried figs and dates, burnt coffee and toasted nuts — all classic Utopias flavors — before hitting a more sour cherry note on the finish (though this year’s is less overwhelming than in 2015). All told, I like the conclusion of Utopias 2017 much more than the attack, a surprising reversal of prior years’ comments.

Utopias is always the same, I think I said at the top of the review? Huh, what do I know?

28% abv.

B+ / $199 / samueladams.com

Review: NV Dark Horse Double Down Red Blend

A ten-dollar, nonvintage red wine made from who-knows-what that’s called Double Down… Perhaps you can forgive my skepticism going into this one. Truth be told, Dark Horse’s lighter wines are not as terrible as their name, and this expression — technically a “limited release” — is far better than I was expecting.

According to the producer, this is a blend of “Tannat, Teroldego, Zinfindel [sic], and Petite Syrah [sic],” all of which is sourced from California. And try as I might to hate it based on poor copy editing alone, I simply can’t. It’s just a blend that works: Lightly sweet and certainly doctored, but done so by someone that knows what they’re doing. The palate is heavily spicy with nutmeg and cinnamon, with a raisiny note emerging in short order, eventually giving way to a slightly syrupy chocolate finish. It’s not cloying, but it certainly sticks to your ribs.

As a “big” red wine, Double Down is aptly named and built for either a bold meal or getting totally lit. I’m not going to judge you either way.

B / $10 / darkhorsewine.com

Tasting Report: 2015 St. Emilion Bordeaux Wines

In 2014 we covered the wines of Bordeaux’s St. Emilion region, diving into the 2009 and 2010 vintages in earnest. Recently, Grand Cru producers from the area visited San Francisco to pour their 2015 bottlings, and each was invited to offer an older bottling by way of comparison. These ranged from 2010 to 2014 (though a few did not bring an older vintage at all).

We tasted through 20-some wineries to evaluate the 2015s. As is typical of Bordeaux, quality was variable, with a few major standouts but also a number of lackluster wines that have some growing to do.

Let’s dig into the 2015s.

Tasting Report: 2015 (and Older) Emilion Bordeaux Wines

2015 Château Bellefont-Belcier Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tight, but similar in notes to the chocolate-themed 2011, more spice-forward / A-
2015 Château Bellefont-Belcier Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – heavy with cocoa, licorice, and mild spices; lovely balance, one to watch / A
2014 Château Chauvin Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – burly, but with ample fruit / B+
2015 Château Chauvin Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – lots of acidity, heavy with herbs / B
2015 Château Grand Corbin Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – aromatic with lots of fruit, earthy hints, a standout / A
2012 Château Grand Corbin Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – full-bodied, ample fruit, great balance / A
2015 Clos Des Jacobins Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – intensely herbal notes, almost grassy / B-
2011 Clos Des Jacobins Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – aging well, better balance / B+
2015 Château La Commanderie Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – heavy, with an herbal core / B+
2015 Couvent Des Jacobins Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – more restrained, lush fruit, an herbal edge / B+
2010 Couvent Des Jacobins Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – chewy, rounded with licorice and spice notes, some cocoa / A-
2015 Château Dassault Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – lighter in body, but still daunting with jammy fruit / B
2010 Château Dassault Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – very fruit forward for a wine of this age, almost gummy at times / B
2015 Château Faurie de Souchard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – overly fruity, but similar to the 2014 / B
2014 Château Faurie de Souchard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tons of dried fruit, jam-heavy / B+
2015 Château de Pressac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – nutty and lush, but a bit over-extracted / B+
2013 Château de Pressac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – very expressive, lots of fruit and a baking spice core / A
2015 Château Fombrauge Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tough and tannic / B-
2014 Château Fombrauge Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – austere; dark fruits and plenty of barrel influence; finish is off / B
2015 Château Fonplegade Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – astringent and muddy / B-
2014 Château Fonplegade Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – earthy and leathery, dark, dusty / B
2015 Château Fonroque Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – very meaty, heavy / B
2014 Château Fonroque Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – a touch musty, some candied fruit notes emerge / B+
2015 Château Franc Mayne Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tough, needs some time; strong herbal currents / B+
2012 Château Franc Mayne Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – some minor oxidation, showing lots of fruit and spice / A-
2015 Château Grand Pontet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – lush and fruity, light florals with hints of chocolate / A
2010 Château Grand Pontet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – showing its age, with ample raisin, spice, nutmeg, and some cocoa notes; drink now / A
2015 Château Le Prieure Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – much softer than 2014; more expressive fruit / A-
2014 Château Le Prieure Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tight graphite and tar notes, leathery; blackberry underneath / B+
2015 Château Jean Faure Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – fresh and vibrant, very fruit-forward but full of life ahead / B+
2014 Château Jean Faure Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – a little dark chocolate amidst the tannin here, pencil lead and lots of fruit at the core / A-
2015 Château La Marzelle Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – youthful, extremely fruit heavy / B+
2012 Château La Marzelle Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – some oxidation, otherwise showing a nice blend of fruit and spice / B+
2015 Château La Tour Figeac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – bold and expressive, with dried fruits and spices; juicy / A-
2014 Château La Tour Figeac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – mushrooms and earth, lively fruit; a touch astringent / A-
2015 Château Laroze Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – tight but extracted; lots of leather and dried currants / B
2012 Château Laroze Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – nose of pepper and spice, pretty violet florals; body is lacking / B
2015 Château Yon Figeac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – more fruit, some leather notes; quite big / A-
2013 Château Yon Figeac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – heavy earth, licorice, and dusty mushroom / B
2015 Château Ripeau Saint-Emilion Grand Cru –curiously juicy, with a raspberry/blackberry core; youthful / B

Bar Review: The Silver Dollar, Louisville

While you’ll find The Silver Dollar on many lists of the best whiskey bars in the country, the impressive brown water offerings at this funky and casual spot are not even mentioned in the “About” section of their website. The bar is a take on a 1950s Bakersfield, California honky-tonk, complete with rustic décor (exposed brick, metal chairs and barstools), quirky touches like multicolored Christmas lights behind the bar, and, of course, plenty of “Bakersfield sound” playing in the background. Even with such a unique setting, their whiskey list remains the primary reason many tourists and locals alike seek out this bar in the Clifton Heights neighborhood outside of downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

The first thing I received when I saddled up to the bar at The Silver Dollar was, unsurprisingly, a whiskey list. While many whiskey bars provide something akin to a road atlas, the menu here was thankfully much smaller – in size but not in contents. There were hundreds of whiskeys to choose from, all organized by distillery and including most of the coveted and rare bourbons made across the state. While priced not quite as stratospherically as other whiskey bars in cities like New York and San Francisco, there’s clearly a tourist mark-up on familiar names like Van Winkle and Weller.

The smart money, however, is on one of The Silver Dollar’s many amazing personally selected barrels, which, at the end of the day, are actually more rare than almost anything else behind the bar (yet are priced considerably lower). There were at least 15 on my menu, including multiple barrels of the same brands like Four Roses, Old Weller Antique, and Henry McKenna, all at different ages and proofs. I dutifully digested the options but asked for mercy from the bartender who told me, without any hesitation, to try the second of their three barrels of Old Weller Antique 107 proof. I ordered it neat, and it arrived in what looked like a tall shot glass (since no respectable honky tonk would serve whiskey in a Glencairn, I guess). The choice of glassware aside, my pour of Weller 107 was simply fantastic, full of baking spice and wonderfully balanced. I’d easily have put it up against a bottle of the William Larue Weller at four times the price.

The cocktail list takes up only one page (the first) of the 20 or so page drink menu, but that doesn’t mean cocktails get less attention behind the bar. Again, I put myself at the mercy of the bartender, and he produced in short order an excellent Old Fashioned made with standard Old Weller Antique 107. It was served without any fruit (not even a cherry!), but the flavors were all there and in perfect proportion.

After a surprisingly good dinner of grilled chicken thighs and fried okra, I decided to round out my evening with one last pour. Again, I resisted the temptation to empty my wallet on a 20 year Pappy or rare Wild Turkey, and instead perused the menu for less familiar names. I settled on Old Charter 10 year, a bourbon that is well into the “dusty” category in most places now but can still be found and purchased in Kentucky at a reasonable price. My drink cost $11, but I would have easily paid three times that in DC or New York. It was a mellow bourbon, light on the palate with subtle rye spice and a little bottom-shelf, grassy funk to it. It was the perfect end to my whiskey-focused evening.

This was my third visit to The Silver Dollar, and it was just as enjoyable as every time before. While whiskey bars have exploded in popularity across the country in recent years, most are overstuffed, uncomfortably highbrow, or painfully inauthentic. And all have plenty of whiskeys on their oversized, leather-bound menus not worth drinking, especially for the asking price. I guess the world needs more honky-tonks like The Silver Dollar.

A / whiskeybythedrink.com

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