Tasting Report: Rhone Valley Wines at Mondovino, 2018

I recently had the opportunity to attend Mondovino, an annual tasting event in Northern Virginia hosted by Kysela Pere et Fils wine distributors. The company was founded by a Master Sommelier whose own father is one of the larger wine collectors in America, so it was no surprise that the event showcased an exceptionally well-curated (and massive) collection of wines. I spent the bulk of my time stalking the Rhone Valley tables where I discovered some real gems you’ll want in your cellar for 2018.

Brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Rhone reds

2015 Alain Jaume, Cairannes, Les Travees – big and bold with lush dark berry notes. A-
2015 Alain Jaume, Rasteau, Les Valats – fruity with a touch too much drying smoke. B+
2016 Alain Jaume, Vacqueyras, Grande Garrigue – bright and clean with black fruit and spice. A-
2015 Chateau Mazane Vacqueyras Rouge – full-bodied with nice vanilla and cinnamon notes. A-
2015 Alain Jaume Gigondas Terrasses de Montmirali – surprisingly sweet and light on the palate. B+
2015 Alain Jaume Domain du Clos de Sixte Lirac Rouge – floral nose and big dark fruit palate. A
2016 Alain Jaume Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge Vieux Terron – a little too much stewed fruit and currant. B
2016 Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge Le Miocene – drinking a tad on the sweet side. B+
2016 Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge Les Origines – rich and complex; young but absolutely ready to drink. A
2016 Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vielles Vignes – big tannins but impressively balanced. A
2014 Les Pieds dans les Galets, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rouge, Vieilles Vignes – great balance with beautiful strawberry notes. A
2015 Les Pieds dans les Galets Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rouge, Vieilles Vignes – fresh with good red fruit notes but remarkable what a year of age does for this one. B+
2015 Corne Loup Lirac Rouge – a lot of woody tannins on this one. B
2015 Segries, Cotes du Rhone Rouge – sweet with a good acidity and clean. B
2015 Segries, Lirac Rouge, Cuvee Reserve – juicy with black licorice notes. B
2017 Mordoree, Tavel Rose, La Reine des Bois – intense flavors, fresh and mineral heavy but elegant. A
2016 Morderee, Lirac Rouge, La Dame Rousse – impeccable balance with a long finish. A
2016 Mordoree, Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, La Dame Voyageuse – big body with anise and a long, slightly smoky finish. A-
2016 Mordoree, Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, La Reine des Bois – sublime drinking with incredible blueberry notes and a lush, silky body. A+
2015 Clos des Cazaux, Vacqueyras, Cuvee des Templiers – herbal and mineral rich. B
2015 Clos des Cazaux, Gigondas, Tour Sarrasine – mineral heavy with leather and an intense earthiness. B+
2015 Colline St. Jean, Vacqueyras Rouge – big dried herb notes layered with overripe dark fruits. A-
2015 Colline St. Jean, Vacqueyras, Rouge, Vieilles Vignes – lavender notes with dark fruit and a subtle smokiness. A
2015 Fayolle Crozes-Hermitage, Rouge, La Rochette – somewhat bitter, young, and tannic. B
2015 Fayolle Crozes-Hermitage Rouge La Grande Seguine – nice minerality with a touch of white pepper on the finish. A
2015 Fayolle Crozes-Hermitage Rouge Dionnieres – deep red and black fruit notes with a long, juicy finish. A

Rhone whites

2017 Grand Veneur, Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc Reserve – floral and fruity. A-
2017 Grand Veneur, Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc de Viognier – intense white peach notes but a little thin. B
2016 Grand Veneur, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Blanc, La Fontaine – buttery and layered with honeysuckle and citrus. A

Review: Spreewood Distillers Stork Club Straight Rye Whiskey

Although it may seem like it, the explosion in craft whiskey distilling over the last decade hasn’t been confined to America alone. Even countries without a tradition of whiskey-making have started to get in on the game. Germany’s Spreewood Distillers is a great example of this trend. In a country better known for schnapps and Riesling, they’ve been distilling whiskey since 2004 just outside of Berlin. German rye grain is well-known for its quality and is used in the production of several American whiskeys (Wild Turkey and Bulleit, among others), so it’s no surprise that a rye whiskey would figure prominently in their portfolio. Stork Club Straight Rye is a 100% rye whiskey aged 3-4 years. It’s a blend of whiskey aged in three different cask types: virgin American oak, sherry (both Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez are used), and white wine. The Spree forest where the distillery is located is a swamp with very cold winters and humid, windless summers, making it ideal for whiskey maturation. On paper, Spreewood Distillers seems to have a lot of the necessary ingredients for good whiskey. But how does the final product actually taste?

I was expecting a big rye punch on the nose of this whiskey, but instead Stork Club Straight Rye showcases less rye spice and more of a peculiar fruity sweetness with dark red fruits, cola, and a little acetone. It’s clean and surprisingly soft given the proof. The palate is rich and oily with a familiar rye heat that moves quickly to the back of the throat. The different barrel influences are evident as the flavors develop. Notes of brandied cherry, dark raisin, clove, and red licorice are layered with oak, vanilla bean, cocoa powder, and a little caramel sauce. There’s a slight astringency on the palate (probably from the new American oak), but the flavors meld well, regardless. A warming and generous finish carries more dark red fruit notes and drying oak. It’s an interesting and enjoyable whiskey that easily stands up to some of the best craft offerings this side of the pond.

110 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2.

A- / $60 (500 ml) / storkclubwhisky.com

Review: Los Amantes Mezcal Reposado

We reviewed Los Amantes Mezcal Joven way back in 2013 when mezcal wasn’t nearly as popular as it has become today. We were impressed then, so we were excited to sample the reposado offering. Like the joven, this Oaxacan mezcal is made by hand with the most traditional of methods. It’s crafted from 100% Espadin agave, baked in traditional earthen pits, ground by a horse-powered stone mill, and double-distilled in copper stills. The mezcal is then aged for six to eight months in French oak barrels.

Unlike many mezcals that boast big barbecue notes, the nose on Los Amanates Mezcal Reposado is light and clean with sweet honey and soft mesquite wood smoke. If not for that trace of earthy smoke, I’d almost think this was tequila. The palate, however, creates no such illusions. There’s a nice heat and a smoldering campfire quality almost immediately that is mouthwatering and punctuated by notes of sea salt and white pepper. A subtle caramel and honey sweetness keeps the smoke from taking over completely, while the finish erodes with faint notes of lightly roasted coffee and green apple. Like the joven, Los Amantes Reposado showcases a surprising balance, and while it leaves me wanting just a little more complexity, the depth of flavor compensates for that shortcoming.

80 proof.

A- / $70 / losamantes.com

Early Bird Tickets Still Available for WhiskyFest DC, April 17

With the popularity of whisky showing no signs of letting up, the number of whisky festivals also continues to grow. Some of these are worth the price of admission while too many others are oversold and underperform on the quality of offerings. At the end of the day, how much moonshine or honey/apple/cinnamon-flavored whisky do you really want to try? Now in its 21st year (yes, the festival can legally attend itself!), WhiskyFest remains a great way to sample the largest variety of some of the best whiskies from around the world. Plus, it’s a great venue to meet other spirits enthusiasts and speak with some of the industry’s biggest names.

For only the third year, WhiskyFest will make a stop on April 17th at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., a town perpetually in need of a stiff drink. The pour list for the festival is impressive and gets longer by the day (while everyone else is waiting in line for last year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, I for one will be having some Laphroaig 30 Year with a side of Parker’s Heritage.) WhiskyFest seminars are also some of the most interesting of any spirits festival with some of the best industry names on hand to help you embrace your inner whisky geek. I’m particularly looking forward to making my own Elijah Craig blend with Heaven Hill Master Distiller Denny Potter and Brand Ambassador Bernie Lubbers. Denny has a real knack for explaining the unique aspects of distilling to even the most scientifically-challenged (and somewhat inebriated) audiences. And Bernie has a bottled-in-bond tattoo covering his entire right arm, so you know he takes his bourbon seriously.

Tickets for WhiskyFest DC are still on sale at Early Bird pricing! The VIP ticket provides an additional hour of sampling where you can discover some true unicorns; most exhibitors showcase a special bottle (sometimes literally just one) only for that hour. It makes an already expensive ticket even pricier, but you can make your money back with just a few of these ultra rare pours. Whether you splurge for the VIP hour or not, it’s a big show with a lot of great bottles so have a plan, and please don’t waste all of your time in the line for Pappy Van Winkle! See you there!

Review: W.L. Weller 12 Years Old (2018)

Van Winkle bourbons have become essentially inaccessible to the vast majority of bourbon drinkers, so naturally the hysteria has trickled down to other brands in the Buffalo Trace portfolio. The Weller line, which shares the same wheated mashbill as the highly coveted Van Winkles, has been the recipient of the majority of this secondhand enthusiasm. William Larue Weller, released annually as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, has become perhaps the most coveted of that bunch, and the lower shelf offerings in the line have seen their stock among whiskey enthusiasts climb as a result, perhaps none more so than W.L. Weller 12 year. We reviewed this bottle way back in 2013, when it was already gaining acclaim as “baby Pappy,” but we thought it was time for a revisit.

The nose on this whiskey is, not surprisingly, like smelling the inside of a Buffalo Trace rickhouse. I use this comparison only because I visited the distillery recently and remember that smell fondly. The aroma is rich with vanilla extract (the expensive stuff), caramel, marshmallow, and oak resin. On the palate, it’s oily and rounded, with a great balance of flavor; brown sugar and vanilla cream mixed with softer notes of cinnamon Red Hots, juicy citrus, and the slightest hint of bubble gum. A healthy dose of wood is present throughout, becoming sawdust on the finish, but it’s not too drying and never overpowers the other flavors. All in all, W.L. Weller 12 is a classic, flavorful bourbon, even better now than the last time we tasted it. The very best of the Weller barrels essentially go on to become Van Winkle, but I’d honestly be happy if I could just keep a few of these on the bar.

90 proof.

A / $30 (if you’re lucky) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyLIVE Washington DC 2018

Whiskey festivals come in all shapes and sizes, but WhiskyLIVE consistently produces a very approachable event for a fan at any stage in their whiskey obsession. There’s a good balance of offerings from industry heavy hitters and smaller craft outfits, as well as the occasional downright weird bottling. This year, I got to taste whiskey the way George Washington made it, but I somehow missed the 28-year-old Czech single malt (which I’m not sure I regret). There were no real standouts from our side of the pond this year (no duds really, either), but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed some of the line-up from Australian distiller Limeburners, as well as one or two other international whiskeys. Abbreviated thoughts on (most) everything tasted follow.

American

Elijah Craig 18 Years Old / B+ / familiar oak and cinnamon notes; not as balanced as previous releases

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch A118) / B+ / another fine barrel proof release from Heaven Hill; drinking a little hot

Wathen’s Barrel Proof Bourbon (Jack Rose Private Selection) / A- / extremely approachable at cask strength; full of clove and orange peel

Kentucky Peerless Rye Whiskey / A- / complex and rich for its age with a great balance between the rye spice and sweeter elements

Maker’s Mark Bourbon Private Select (Whisky Magazine & Schneider’s of Capitol Hill) / B+ / bold and complex but a little too sweet

Journeyman Last Feather Rye Whiskey / B / light and grainy with good clove and caramel notes

Journeyman Silver Cross Whiskey / A- / cereal-forward with a minty sweetness and chocolate and cola notes

Widow Jane 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon / A- / baking spice and a little dark chocolate; surprisingly good, if straightforward, (sourced) bourbon

Widow Jane Rye Mash, Oak and Apple Wood Aged / B- / medicinal nose saved by notes of overripe apple and pear, thin and unbalanced

Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye “Maple Finished” Cask Proof / A- / syrupy and sweet but balanced with a bold rye spice

Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / tastes like Jack Daniel’s but better

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey (unaged) / B / baked cereal and creamy with a heavy corn sweetness

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old / B- / chewy vanilla notes but unbalanced and astringent

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey 4 Years Old / B+ / age has clearly brought balance along with toffee and caramel notes; could be something special in a few more years

Scotch

Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso / B / jam toast on the nose; light-bodied with a little too much sherry influence

The Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A- / stewed fruit; sweet and earthy with an interesting chocolate covered cherry note

Aberlour 18 Years Old / B+ / a little hot with a good balance of raisin and creamy cola notes

Tamdhu Cask Strength / A- / rich, honeyed body with dried dark fruit and a little lemon zest, easy drinking at this proof (58.5%)

Glenglassaugh Revival / B / sweet, citrusy, meaty, and earthy; a bit all over the place

Benriach 10 Years Old / A- / complex and bold for its youth with great pear and citrus notes

Glendronach 12 Years Old / A / great balance of wood and honeyed dark fruit notes; a gateway single malt if there ever was one

Glendronach 18 Years Old / A- / more of a raisin quality than its younger sibling with a slightly thicker body and just as enjoyable

Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 / B / a bit flat and woody underneath all the smoke and meat

Deanston 20 Years Old / A- / a great sherry-aged whisky old enough to provide a solid baking spice punch

International

Limeburners Single Malt Whisky Port Cask / A- / creamy nose, dark fruits on the palate with a great caramelized sugar note

Limeburners Tiger Snake Whiskey / A / big cherry sweetness and mounds of brown sugar; one of my favorites of the evening

Amrut Port Pipe Single Cask Whisky / B+ / honeyed palate with a good balance of smoke and raisin notes

Glendalough 13 Year Old Irish Whiskey Mizunara Finish / A / pecan praline ice cream with a dusting of raw coconut; an already great Irish whiskey elevated

Crown Royal XO Canadian Whisky / B+ / silky body with rich oak and subtle nuttiness; the cognac influence is pronounced on this one

Brenne 10 Year Old French Single Malt Whisky / B / herbal and floral, but almost too much so

Lot 40 Cask Strength Canadian Whisky / A+ / massive palate full of bold, fruity rye spice and rich caramel; one of the better Canadian whiskies I’ve ever tasted

Review: Southern Grace Distilleries Conviction Small Batch Bourbon

Southern Grace Distilleries is a relatively new craft distillery housed in a former North Carolina prison. That’s right. A prison. In late 2016 the distillery released its first small batch bourbon, appropriately named Conviction. The whiskey is made from a mash of 88% corn and 12% malted barley. It’s bottled at cask strength after aging for less than a year in former jail cells at what has come to be known as “Whiskey Prison.” According to the website, Conviction is the first bourbon to ever be (legally) aged behind bars, and while that doesn’t exactly conjure images of quality or fine flavor, we were actually surprised with the final product.

On the nose, Conviction shows the expected dose of cereal notes, but they’re baked and caramelized, not raw or grassy as can often be the case in a young spirit. There’s a pleasant caramel corn sweetness, as well, along with lighter aromas of apple and molasses. The body is sizable given its youth, and it offers a surprising richness of flavor. Again, there are initial grain notes that suggest this whiskey may have escaped from prison too soon, but they evolve quickly into toffee, caramel, baking chocolate, and cola with vanilla frosting and a sprinkling of spice cabinet on a medium-length finish. One of the secrets here, I suspect, is Conviction’s low proof at barrel entry (100 proof) which gives this whiskey a good concentration of flavors for its youth and a very approachable heat, even at cask strength.

In the increasingly crowded world of craft whiskey, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out even with a quality product like Conviction Small Batch Bourbon. I wish I could say that whiskey distilled in a former prison is the pinnacle of gimmick in the world of craft distilling. But I’m sure it’s just the beginning.

97.72 proof.

B+ / $36 / southerngracedistilleries.com

Review: Old Fitzgerald Bourbon and Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

Old Fitzgerald is one of the more storied brands in bourbon history. First produced in 1870, it became a wheated bourbon only after being acquired by Pappy Van Winkle after Prohibition. The brand was one of the flagship offerings from Van Winkle’s infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery until it shut its doors in 1992. The name is emblazoned on a smokestack at the distillery (now Diageo’s Bulleit Frontier Experiece) to this day.

In 1999, Heaven Hill Distillery acquired the brand and adjusted the mashbill while still keeping the wheat component at 20%. Since that time, Old Fitzgerald has resided on the middle shelf in both an 80 proof and 100 proof, bottled-in-bond offering. With the increased popularity of Larceny, Heaven Hill’s older wheated bourbon made from the same mashbill, Old Fitzgerald has become harder to find. Recently, Heaven Hill announced a new addition to the line that will almost certainly reside on the top shelf: an 11-year-old, bottled-in-bond expression of Old Fitzgerald.

While we wait for that one, we thought we’d sample the brand’s current value-oriented offerings. Thoughts follow.

Old Fitzgerald Straight Bourbon Whiskey – The nose on this whiskey is light, corn sweet, and a bit grassy with honey and a slight floor polish note. It’s thin on the palate and mild with traces of  caramel, burnt sugar, and wood. This screams young bourbon. Or rather it whispers it. Nothing about this whiskey jumps out at you. There’s minimal heat on the palate, making for a very soft mouthfeel and easy sipping, but it’s so one-dimensional that it’s hard to recommend. This is bourbon for drinking fast or mixing with something else. 80 proof. C+ / $14

Old Fitzgerald Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond – The nose on the 100 proof version of Old Fitzgerald is similarly light, with less of the corn sweetness, more caramel, and that same floor polish note, albeit more subdued. On the palate, it’s a little thicker than the standard offering with oak and subtle cinnamon, butterscotch, and mint notes. It’s also clearly a young bourbon (though at least four years old), but with more heat, spice, and complexity than the standard offering. This is still a bourbon best mixed, but it’s my favorite of the two by far. B / $18

heavenhill.com

Get 20% Off at WhiskyLIVE DC 2018, March 2

I said this in 2017 (it’s maybe even truer a year later), but I’m pretty sure anyone within a 100-mile radius of the White House could use a drink or seven right about now. Why not join me, and hundreds of other DC-area whisk(e)y fans, at WhiskyLIVE DC this Friday, March 2?

This annual, internationally renowned whiskey tasting event will take place in our nation’s capital at the Fairmont Hotel in Georgetown, 2401 M St. NW, on March 2 from 6:00 to 9:30 PM. The show continues a 15 year tradition of sharing unlimited samples of hundreds of the world’s best whiskeys, along with the stories behind them as told by master distillers, brand ambassadors, and industry experts. They’ll be pouring internationally recognized brands such as Michter’s, Elijah Craig, Russell’s Reserve, Glenmorangie, Talisker, Yamazaki, and Highland Park along with dozens of spirits from craft distilleries, including Barrell Craft Spirits, Westland Distillery, WhistlePig and the region’s own Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. Products from non-traditional whiskey producing countries like India, Spain, and Australia will also be available for sipping. If straight whiskey isn’t quite your thing (or your date’s), the legendary Jack Rose Dining Saloon will be on hand to pour their favorite whiskey-inspired cocktails.

As with previous years, WhiskyLIVE is not just a chance to drink a lot of different whiskey. It’s also a great opportunity to talk about a lot of different whiskey with some of the industry’s most well known distillers, brand ambassadors, and journalists. For those looking to really brush up on their whiskey knowledge, you can attend an hour-long master class on non-age statement whiskeys or an hour-long guided tasting of select single malts from around the world.

Use promo code WLDC20 for 20% off WhiskyLIVE DC tickets (only valid on new purchases through the website link above)! I think I just gave you an excuse to splurge on the VIP ticket. See you there!

Review: Brewery Ommegang 20th Anniversary Ale

Cooperstown, New York-based Brewery Ommegang has been in the business of making Belgian-style beers for two decades now, and to mark the milestone they released their 20th Anniversary Ale late last year. It’s a Belgian dark ale aged for more than five months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. While bourbon barrel aging is a booming trend among brewers, it’s not something typically seen with Belgian-style beers. We couldn’t resist picking one of these up over the holidays, and our tasting notes follow.

The beer pours a very dark amber color with a light head. The nose is mild but complex with caramel, chocolate, and plenty of dark dried fruit. The body is big and silky. It’s not overly sweet on the palate, which can be a problem for some barrel-aged beers, and there’s minimal bitterness. A bit of spice is present among the beer’s variety of flavors: apricot, cherry, cream soda, and juicy raisin notes. The bourbon barrel aging serves to tie all of that together with a generous sorghum and vanilla sweetness that hangs on well after the other flavors have faded. All in all, 20th Anniversary Ale is a fitting celebration for Brewery Ommegang. Here’s to 20 more years!

11.5% abv.

A- / $20 per 750ml bottle / ommegang.com

Review: Copper Fox Peachwood American Single Malt

Many craft distillers today are producing good (if young) whiskey. Unfortunately, too many are bringing nothing that’s really new to the market and asking a hefty premium over quality bottles from the bigger distilleries. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of America’s craft whiskey movement: to create not just good whiskey but good whiskey that’s also unique.

Creativity is something not lacking at Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia. As an early East Coast pioneer of American single malt, its founder, Rick Wasmund, took lessons from Scottish tradition (they’re the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln) and combined them with completely original techniques like the use of different fruitwood smoke in their malt. The latest addition to their line-up, Peachwood American Single Malt, is perhaps their most unique endeavor to date, relying on peachwood as both a smoking medium during kiln drying and as a maturing catalyst inside the barrels. Surprisingly, much of the process behind the single malt is spelled out on the label, from the type of still used to the barrel entry proof to the ppm (parts per million) of Virginia peachwood smoke used in the malting. It’s clearly something different, but how does it taste?

On the nose, Peachwood American Single Malt is like a candied campfire. It’s sweet with a blend of toasted grain, ripe peach, and mesquite aromas. On the palate, the whisky showcases a great balance of sweet and savory with vanilla, clove, and citrus complemented by toasted oak, a briny smokiness, and gentle heat. The peachwood is less of a factor on the palate than on the nose, which is probably for the best, but it seems to have created some welcome, honeyed citrus notes not found in the distillery’s standard single malt offering. The finish is slightly drying, but still manages to carry those complex initial flavors for a decent length until they erode into smoke and caramel sweetness. It’s a well-made and extremely interesting single malt — and it’s just what the craft whiskey world could use a little more of.

96 proof.

A / $54 / copperfox.biz

Review: Goodwood Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Stout

Goodwood Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky distinguishes itself from most other craft breweries by wood-aging every beer in its portfolio. According to their website, this is done as “an homage to this region’s distilling legacy and to those old barrels out there that still have so much flavor left to give.” With some of the country’s best bourbon distilleries at their doorstep, Goodwood probably has access to some of the more sought-after used barrels. With this in mind, we recently sampled Goodwood’s Bourbon Barrel Stout. Thoughts follow.

The nose on this beer is restrained, bordering on nonexistent. Often, bourbon barrel-aged beers have a sweet, boozy aroma, but with this stout you get almost no alcohol and only a hint of vanilla and burnt chocolate chip cookies. The body is surprisingly thin. On the palate, like the nose, you have to really go searching for the flavor. There’s toasted grain and some sawdust, but very little evidence of those more complex whiskey flavors, the vanillas and caramels that are the reason brewers bourbon barrel age their beer in the first place. Chief among its few redeeming features is a solid, bittersweet chocolate bite, but even that is unfortunately short-lived. The barrels used in Bourbon Barrel Stout may have come from some great distilleries, but they sure seem to be spent on flavor, making for a beer that is far from the homage to Kentucky distilling that Goodwood intends.

8% abv.

C+ / $12 per four-pack / goodwood.beer

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