Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

San Francisco’s WhiskyFest seemed as popular as ever this year, kicked off with the stampede to the Pappy Van Winkle booth that always marks the start of the show.

As always, there was plenty to enjoy at this year’s event — both new expressions and classic old friends ready for tasting. Here’s a full rundown on everything I tried.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

Scotch

Alexander Murray & Co. The Monumental Blend 18 Years Old / B+ / a touch hot for a blend
Alexander Murray & Co. Braes of Glenlivet Distillery 1994 21 Years Old / B+ / bold, spicy, with lots of oak
Alexander Murray & Co. Strathmill Distillery 1992 24 Years Old / B+ / lots of nougat, more granary note than expected; citrus on the back end
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1990 26 Years Old / B+ / earthy and unusual, big wet mineral notes
Alexander Murray & Co. Linkwood Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / a bit simple
Alexander Murray & Co. Glenlossie Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / old bread notes dominate
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1988 28 Years Old Cask Strength / B+ / overpowering sherry, but ample fruit
Bruichladdich Black Art 5 / B / sugar cookie dough, lots of vegetation
Laphroaig 25 Years Old / A+ / drinking absolutely gorgeously today, smoke and sweetness in perfect proportions
Tomatin 1986 / A- / bold cereal and malt notes, challah bread; cherry on the back
The Macallan Classic Cut / A- / the first cask strength Macallan in the U.S. in four years; bold and punchy; honeyed
Compass Box Phenomenology / A- / a mystery blend of five whiskeys; Compass Box will reveal their identity at the end of the year; this is a soft, lightly grainy whiskey with ample honey notes
Compass Box No Name / A- / this one is 75% Ardbeg, but the peat is light and quite floral; a really fun one
Highland Park Fire Edition / B / heavy grain and punchy alcohol today, not my favorite tonight
Highland Park Ice Edition / A / a massive step up, gently minty and cereal-infused; soothing
BenRiach 25 Years Old / A- / lemon is heavy on this light bodied 25
Shackleton Blended Malt (2017) / B+ / the third edition of the Shackleton is unrelated to the bottlings that Richard Paterson pulled together; this is a much cheaper blend in simpler packaging; for what it’s worth, it’s soft and simple inside, too, without much complexity but easy to enjoy
Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A / fully firing, lush with fruit and toast notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask Finish / B / 25 years old; 17 of those years in Bordeaux casks; bold and spicy, but the finish is off
Bowmore 25 Years Old / B / lots of potpourri and perfume here, overly floral on the finish

Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23 Years Old / A- / drinking well, lots of wood and baking spice folded together
Stagg Jr. / B / over-wooded, with licorice and cloves; really blown out (don’t know the release number)
W.L. Weller 12 Years Old / A / a classic wheater, with ample butterscotch and toffee; really worthy of its praise
Calumet Farm Single Barrel / B+ / a big undercooked for a single barrel, somewhat thin
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley 2017 / B+ / corn and barley only; very gentle with the smoke, understated but with a true, fruity complexity; full review in the works
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition “Al Young” / A / gorgeous, a vanilla powerhouse; a favorite of the night

Other Whiskey

John & Allisa’s 2 Month Aged Tennessee Whiskey / NR / this is a preview from the as-yet-unnamed Tennessee distillery that Sazerac got when it purchased the assets of Popcorn Sutton; it’s always fun to taste near new-make, but today it’s all corn, all the time; try us again in 4-6 years
Westland Distillery Peat Week 2017 / B+ / soft for a “peat bomb,” with minty notes on the back end and some stewed prunes
WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince / B / way overoaked, antiseptic at times; full review of this is coming soon
Bushmills 21 Years Old Single Malt / A- / very heavy maltiness, big body, lots of heather and a lovely depth

Cognac

Hennessy Cognac Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 / A- / 18 months in virgin oak, then 10-20 years in used casks; a wood-forward, domineering blend with tons of dried fruit to fill the palate

Review: 2015 Talbott Kali Hart Chardonnay

A classic California chardonnay, Talbott’s latest offers a hefty roasted-meat profile, giving its honey-apple core a bit of a beefy texture. Ample vanilla and oak notes take the wine to its natural conclusion, which is round and buttery, fading away with more of those meaty notes — but also a hint of flamed banana and dried apples.

B / $23 / talbottvineyards.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2017 Edition

Alright whiskey fans, it’s time to get cracking to see if you can turn up a bottle or two of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection, which (aside from Pappy Van Winkle) represents the rarests of its rarities.

This year’s releases represent some clear departures from previous editions — but also shapes up as one of the best BTAC releases in years. Compare to 2016 (and beyond, if you’d like).

Thoughts on all five bottlings in the lineup follow.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – As with last year’s release, this is “new” spirit, not old rye that’s been sitting in tank for a decade. This rye was distilled in 1998 and tanked in 2016 before bottling this year. That could mean this is the same rye as the 2016 Sazerac 18, which was also distilled in 1998. Results: the nose is big and racy, an equal mix of baking spice and woody barrel-driven notes. Sazerac’s classic cherry notes are evident here, as well. On the palate, a gentle sweetness blends with the fresh wood notes, leading to some heavier spice — clove, then ginger — as the finish builds. Less overtly fruity than last year’s release (for whatever reason), the conclusion offers nutty notes alongside some watery brown sugar character. Less enchanting than usual, on the whole. 90 proof. B+

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – The 2017 edition has been aging on the first, second, and third floors of Warehouses C, K, and P. This is just good, old bourbon: Rich with wood, which gives it an intense level of spice, dark brown sugar, and toffee notes on the nose. The palate is wood-forward, heavy with char, cloves, and tobacco. Much less sweet and fruity than prior releases of Eagle Rare 17, its a bourbon that feels like it’s starting to lean past the tipping point and into over-oaked territory, but which maybe was caught just in time. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – “The powerhouse favorite of the Antique Collection,” this one is almost a full 15 proof less boozy than the bruising 2016. This year’s release contains bourbon from 309 barrels filled in the spring of 2002, stored across warehouses C, K, M and Q. I was ready for the heat on this one, less so for the spice. The nose is intensely spicy with baking spice notes, cut through with a bit of camphor and vanilla. On the palate, at full proof it’s manageable, but just barely, with all of the above in full effect alongside notes of dark chocolate, which linger particularly on the finish. Water sounds like a good idea here, but I was surprised to find that a healthy splash really dulled the experience and muted the flavors instead of bringing them to life. A couple of drops is all Stagg 2017 needs to wake up, tempering the heat while letting those spices dazzle. Buy a bottle, but be careful with it. 129.2 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – This is Weller at 12 years old — uncut, unfiltered, and wheated — aged on the third and sixth floors of Warehouses D, K, and L. And it’s just 1/2 a percent lower in alcohol than the Stagg. The whiskey is both a blazer and a super-sweet affair, the nose absolutely full of baking spice, chocolate, caramel, and butterscotch notes. At full strength it’s borderline drinkable, those boozy butterscotch notes hitting hard, sliding into more of a toffee character on the finish. Water is a great idea here, evoking a more herbal note, which is a slight surprise, and brings out more of that leathery lumberyard character that’s hidden deep down. The finish is lively and spicy, with a touch of cherry character that’s unusual for Weller (and for wheaters in general). 128.2 proof. A-

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – My perennial, general disinterest in Handy continues unabated: Again, this is the “loser” of the bunch, though that’s a relative term considering the quality of the competition and since this is certainly something I could put in an actual Sazerac and happily drink. On its own, this six-year old whiskey, aged on the third, fourth and fifth floors of Warehouses K, L, and Q, comes across on the nose as somewhat doughy, though well-spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. On the palate, it really does taste like a cinnamon-spiced cake doughnut, with toasty brioche and spice in equal proportions. The finish is hot and a little gritty. Water helps temper the beast, but pulls out more wood notes and dulls the rest of the experience. That said, it’s still one of the better Handys in recent memory. 127.2 proof. B+

$90 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: 2015 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

Justin’s 2015 cab shows just how far you can go with a $25 wine, that you needn’t resort to massive amounts of doctoring and additives to create a palatable bottling. The wine is lush with plums and currants, with a squeeze of blackberry jam, winding from there into notes of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, lavender, and lemony tea leaf. The finish is harmonious and fulfilling, with hints of figs and a light astringency. Drinking well above its weight class.

A / $25 / justinwine.com

Book Review: Tasting Beer

Randy Mosher’s been drinking beer for longer than most of us have been alive, and with the second edition of Tasting Beer, he revamps his intense and intensive guide to the way it should be consumed.

Note that this is a book for the professional, or at least for the wannabe professional. If you really want to geek out on beer, this should probably be your first stop.

Naturally, Mosher spends significant time going through the basics of brewing and the necessary historical lessons before delving into the good stuff: What are the flavor elements of beer? How are they best described? How is it best consumed? We’re talking about glassware, serving size, temperature, carbonation levels. There are worksheets.

About a third of the book, the last bit, covers beer styles in detail, broken down by region. If you don’t quite understand the difference between a Scottish Heavy and a Wee Heavy, Mosher will set you straight.

The writing is brisk and lively throughout the book, but it’s all in service of the greater good: Giving you a deeper understanding of beer. How it is made, sure, but more importantly, whether what you are drinking is any good.

A- / $15 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Xingu Beer – Gold and Black

Brazil is home to plenty of booze, but Xingu is definitely the stuff with the coolest name. This brewery isn’t old, but the recipe it uses to make its Black Beer is — reportedly dating back to 1557. Amazon stuff. Xingu isn’t brewed with corn and manioc today. Rather, it’s a fusion of Latin and European styles all whipped together into an inky black concoction. A gold lager is also on tap. Thoughts on both follow.

Xingu Gold Beer – A standard pilsner, heavy on the malt and lightly sweetened with mild tropical notes, a bit of coriander, and a hint of herbal character on the back end. None of this is so powerful as to make you think you’re drinking anything other than a well-made European lager, bready but with just a touch of spice to give it some kick. 4.7% abv. B+

Xingu Black Beer – A Schwarzbier, black in color but light in style. This is even sweeter than the Gold, with caramel and vanilla notes up front and some lighter cereal and a sprinkle of herbs on the back end. The finish shows a touch of charcoal — the only real hint of “blackness” in this brew, and a necessary palate cleanse for a beer that can at times get a bit cloyingly sweet. 4.6% abv. B

each $10 per six-pack / xingubeer.com

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2017 Edition

Deja vu? If it seems like Four Roses already put out a Small Batch Bourbon for 2017, that’s because it did. The masterful Al Young 50th Anniversary bottling, which arrived over the summer, was a one-off commemorative release. This bottling is a larger outturn, with more traditional packaging.

As always, Small Batch Limited Edition releases are comprised of rarities from the warehouse, and master distiller Brent Elliott got his hands on three types of bourbon for this year’s offering. For 2017, the whiskey is composed of a 15-year-old Bourbon from Four Roses’ OESK recipe, a 13-year-old OESK, and a 12-year-old OESV. For those paying attention, that means this is a “low rye” year for Small Batch, as there are no OB barrels in the mix.

As is the norm, the relative proportions of each recipe have not been disclosed.

The results are fine, if short of stellar. The nose is grain-forward, with an ample wood influence. Sharp, it offers overtones of vegetation, musk, and dried, savory spices. The palate is quite hot, again heavy with wood and cereal notes. Water is a must, as it works wonders at bringing out some much more engaging secondary notes: gingerbread, butterscotch, and cinnamon are all in play, alongside more of those savory spice notes, which here are racier than they come across on the rather dulled nose. It’s enough to redeem a rocky opening gambit to make the overall experience quite worthwhile. Whether it adds much to the discussion about what makes a great bourbon is left as an exercise for the reader.

107.3 proof. 13,800 bottles produced (which is larger than ever).

B+ / $130 / fourroses.us

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