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 / crownroyal.com

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

landmarkwine.com

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 / crystalheadvodka.com

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!

nicoshemcreek.com

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

uwatequila.com

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 / tcwhiskey.com

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

melvinbrewing.com

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) / agrosan.it

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.

thebrobasket.com

Tasting the Wines of South Africa’s Simonsig, 2018 Releases

South Africa’s Simonsig (pronounced SEE-mun-sigg) is one of the country’s most noteworthy operations, and recently we had the opportunity to sample five of its wines, courtesy of a live tasting with its winemaking and business staff, broadcast to us from Stellenbosch in South Africa.

We walked through five wines that run the gamut of Simonsig’s production. Thoughts follow.

2016 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose – We reviewed the 2015 vintage of this wine only a month ago. Mystery from that review solved: “Kaapse Vonkel” means “cape sparkling” in Afrikaans. The 2016 expression is made from the same three red grapes, and as with the 2015, it’s a very dry expression of sparkling wine, a bit meaty, its fruit character running to notes of rhubarb and dried strawberry. Quiet on the finish. B / $18

2017 Simonsig Chenin Blanc – Simonsig’s first wine, this chenin blanc is made from untrained, en gobelet vines. Picked very ripe, the wine has some natural sweetness to it, a honey and vanilla character that counters some of the earthier elements in the wine. A crisp, green apple note gives the finish a lift. B+ / $13

2015 Simonsig Pinotage – Bold and smoky bacon on the nose of this typical pinotage (a cross of pinot noir and cinsault) leads into a mildly fruity, somewhat thin palate, showing blackberry and raspberry, with licorice notes on the back end. That smoky bacon endures well into the finish, though, making this a love-it-or-hate-it experience. B- / $18

2015 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage – Essentially a single-vineyard pinotage, with some of its aging done in American oak, instead of just French oak. Much bolder, with spice and eucalyptus on the nose, dark chocolate and licorice giving it a bit of an American character. A definite food wine, it’s one that would benefit from time in bottle, to let some of its tannins settle out, letting the black fruit show itself more clearly. B / $34

2015 Simonsig Frans Malan Cape Blend Reserve – 67% pinotage, 29% cabernet sauvignon, and 4% merlot. Everyone’s been talking about “mulberries” here and it turns out it’s spot on — the wine showing a kind of blueberry/blackberry note that is stronger and more acidic, with a hint of vanilla extract underneath. This is a velvety but still youthful wine, its finish running to notes of balsamic, dark chocolate, and heady spices. Worth hanging on to. A- / $30

simonsig.co.za

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2018

Hey, look who’s not breaking his foot this year! Last year’s Whiskies of the World Expo was cut extremely short for me, but this year, safety was the name of the game. (Reminder: Don’t text while on the stairs, kids!)

I spent a lot more time than usual on American whiskeys this year, reflecting an amazing surge of craft distilleries appearing at WotW as well as a relative dearth of Scotch. That said, some of the Scottish drams I sampled were some of the best whiskies I’ve ever had — particularly Glencadam’s glorious 25 year old, to which I gave a spot rating of A+, thanks to its delightfully bright texture and fruit-forward palate. There was plenty of whiskey to like in America and beyond, too, but if I had to pick one product I’d like to sample in more depth, it’d have to be Healdsburg-based Alley 6’s bitters made from candy cap mushrooms they forage themselves on the Sonoma Coast.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow, as always.

Scotch

GlenDronach 12 Years Old – Bold sherry, nutty, with spice, but vegetal on the back end. B
GlenDronach 18 Years Old – Richer and better balanced, with big spices and some chocolate notes. A-
Ancnoc 24 Years Old
– A surprising amount of grain here for a 24 year old, with some orange peel notes; perfectly approachable but not overwhelming. B+
Balblair 1983
– Some smoke, barrel char, vanilla and chocolate. Nice balance. A
Glencadam 25 Years Old
– Bright and fresh, with a Sauternes character to it; some coconut, a little chewy; very lush and rounded. Best of show. A+
SIA Scotch Whisky – This has clearly been refined a bit over the years, now showing a youthful but silky caramel and vanilla notes; quite elegant for a blend. A-
The Exclusive Grain Cameronbridge 1992 25 Years Old
– One of the best single grains I’ve experienced in years; chocolate dominates, with a big sherry finish. A
The Exclusive Malts “An Orkney” 2000 17 Years Old
– I’m guessing Highland Park, then; traditionally built, but quite oaky. B+
The Macallan Edition No. 3
– A disappointment; a huge, bold body for Macallan, but surprisingly hot. B+
Highland Park Dark 
– HP in first-fill sherry barrels; the name is no lie, but the sherry takes it so far it ends up medicinal; overdone. B+
Highland Park Full Volume
– Chewy, with gunpowder and grain notes. A bit dull in the end. B
Alexander Murray Bunnahabhain 28 Years Old Cask Strength
– Lightly peated, with a solid Madeira note; gently floral. B+
Tobermory 21 Years Old Manzanilla Finish Cask Strength
– Blodly spice up front, but a bit raw and vegetal on the back end. B+
Deanston 20 Years Old Oloroso Finish Cask Strength
– Big grain base, with notes of cotton balls. B-
Ledaig 1996
– Punchy, with lingering grain and plenty of sweetness. B+

American

Belle Meade Mourvedre Cask Finish – A very rare offering that sold out in 2 days, it’s a beauty of a blend of wine and wood influence. A-
Belle Meade Imperial Stout “Black Belle” Finish – Bold and hoppy, notes of peanut butter, tons of fun. A
Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye
– Soothing menthol notes, but a little mushroomy funk. B+
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 2
– Wheated. Silky but rustic at times, with ample spice. A-
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 3
– High-rye. Youthful, some vegetal notes peeking through, showing promise. B+
Old Forester Statesman
– Special bottling for that Kingsman movie last year. Big chocolate notes dominate, with vanilla and clove. Classic Kentucky. B+
Amador Double Barrel Bourbon
– Quite sweet, with candied pecan notes, vanilla finish. A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Czar
– A burly whiskey made from imperial stout. Lots of smoke here, which would be fine but for the very green character. Overly malty and unbalanced. B-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Frambooze
– Racy berry notes in this whiskey, which is distilled from raspberry ale, plus notes of walnuts and dark chocolate. Lots of fun. A-
High West Bourye (2018)
– A classic whiskey, gorgeous with deep vanilla, spice, and chocolate notes. A
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 5.4
– The deep raisin profile remains a classic, showcasing both power and grace. A-
Do Good Distillery California Bourbon
– Very rustic, gritty with pepper and raw grain. C+
Do Good Distillery Cherrywood Smoked Whiskey
– Pungent, mainly showcasing pet food notes. D
Widow Jane Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old
– Absolutely massive, with notes of minerals, orange marmalade, creme brulee, and milk chocolate. A-
Widow Jane Rye Oak & Apple Wood
– Youthful, the apple really shows itself. B
Alley 6 Single Malt Whiskey 
– Rustic, pungent, but showing promise. B
Alley 6 Rye Whiskey
– Pretty, quite floral. A-
Mosswood Corbeaux Barrel Bourbon 6 Years Old – A private bottling for a SF retailer; a rustic style whiskey. B
Mosswood Sour Ale Barrel
– An old favorite, gorgeous with apple spices and a delightful, deft balance. A

Japanese

Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt – A young malt, gentle but simple, florals and biscuits. B+
Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt 8 Years Old – Surprisingly a bit thin, though more well-rounded. B
Fukano 12 Years Old
– Heavy greenery notes, drinking overblown tonight. B

Other Stuff

Alley 6 86’d Candy Cap Bitters – Insane mushroom intensity, really beautiful stuff. A
Mosswood Night Rum Scotch Barrel
– This is a rum, finished in Ardbeg whisky barrels. What!? The combination of sweet and smoke is almost impossible to describe; working on a sample to paint a bigger picture of this madness. A-
Mosswood Sherry Barrel Irish Whiskey
– A 3 year old Cooley Irish, sherry finished in the U.S. Fairly classic. A-
Amrut Double Cask
– Port finished Amrut from India; peat overpowers the sweetness it wants to show off. B

Review: Deadhead Dark Chocolate Flavored Rum

From a packaging standpoint, Deadhead Rum is definitively one of the most talked-about bottles in my collection. Now the company is extending the line into a flavored rum — dark chocolate, specifically — while attempting to outdo itself with this monkey-headed decanter. (Again, it’s a plastic shell on top of a glass bottle beneath.)

It’s a lot like Cocoa Pebbles on the nose, a little dusty with dry cocoa powder notes dominating, but with a slight vegetal hint underneath. The palate is semi-sweet with chocolate dominating, alongside significant notes of vanilla, burnt caramel, and a slightly winey character. The finish gets a bit saccharine as the chocolate notes fade in prominence, though that’s probably not readily noticeable in a cocktail (preferably one with ice cream). As flavored rums go, it’s one of the better ones on the block, and that’s not even considering the insane monkey head bottle.

70 proof.

B+ / $35 / deadheadrum.com

-->