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: Offshoot Beer Co. Relax [It’s Just a Hazy IPA]


As the name suggests, Offshoot Beer Co. started as a side project for another brewery, the Bruery, based in Orange County, California. What makes this hop-focused side project surprising is that the Bruery began with the express intention of brewing virtually every style and variety of beer — except IPA. They are known for experimenting with diverse ingredients and innovative approaches in pursuit of new beer possibilities. I suppose, by creating Offshoot, the Bruery technically isn’t brewing an IPA, but we’re splitting hairs. Let’s give their new, canned IPA a try.

Unfiltered, Relax [It’s Just a Hazy IPA] is indeed a hazy golden yellow color in the glass. A short, white head quickly dissipates after a vigorous pour. On the nose, Relax offers lemon and orange peel notes, as well as some pineapple and a bit of pine. The palate leans much more toward grapefruit and finishes clean, with just a touch of bitterness. All told, Relax is a nice example of a New England style IPA: juicy, unfiltered, and not-too-bitter. It has a fine balance to it and doesn’t aspire to be a double IPA. With all of the amazing IPAs that are widely available today, Relax doesn’t really stand out as anything unique, but it is an enjoyable and highly drinkable beer.

6.8% abv.

B / $15 per 4-pack of 16 oz cans /

Review: Allagash Map 40

Portland, Maine is one of the most brewery-rich cities in the country, currently boasting 17 breweries despite a modest population of 66,000. One of the oldest and most respected of the city’s breweries is Allagash, which offers a range of excellent beers that are widely available nationwide.

Allagash’s newest, limited-release beer, Map 40, describes itself on the bottle as “a Belgian style stout with cold-brewed coffee from Speckled Ax.” Speckled Ax is a coffee shop opened by Matt Bolinder in Portland, Maine in 2012 that roasts its own coffee beans.

Sampling the beer, Map 40 lives up to the description, seamlessly blending some of the best characteristics of its two components. The beer appears virtually pitch black and offers a one-inch brown head that is slow to dissipate when poured aggressively into a glass. The nose offers bold notes of coffee, malt, and dark chocolate along with the slight sweetness common in Belgian style stouts. On the palate, Map 40 presents flavors that mirror the nose, with rich coffee and dark chocolate coming to the fore, followed by a bit of yeast and sweet raisin, and a light, enjoyable hop bitterness on the finish. The beer is not overly heavy, showing a medium body, which is surprising in light of its complex, assertive flavor. For those who like Belgian style stouts as well as those who like beers made with coffee, this is one to seek out.

7.5% abv.

A- / $13 per 4 pack /

Review: Friends Fun Wine Coconut Chardonnay and Sangria

Based in Miami, Friends Fun Wine produces low alcohol wine flavored drinks that, they say, “could only have been created from the cool and chill vibe of South Florida.” Friends Fun Wine beverages are reminiscent of wine coolers and seem designed to appeal to a party crowd. Unlike virtually all other wine based beverages on the market today, Friends Fun Wine lists the ingredients on their bottles along with all of the standard nutritional information. Their bottles are festive and colorful, boasting designs by world-famous graffiti artist Miguel Parades. Tasting notes for its first two expressions follow.

Friends Fun Wine Coconut Chardonnay – This Fun Wine variety bursts with sweet artificial coconut notes on the nose and palate. I am not entirely sure I would have guessed that it includes Chardonnay if the bottle didn’t say so. But in the ingredients, I find it listed first: Chardonnay wine, water, sugar, juice, carbon dioxide, flavorings, citric acid. The sugar plays a major role here, taking over after a few sips. Perhaps some ice would help keep it chilled, as the bottle recommends, and you might also add water to tame the sweetness. At only 5.5% alcohol, and relatively low in calories (71 per 4.2 oz. serving), Coconut Chardonnay seems designed to be enjoyed in hot weather and in significant quantity. C+ / $9

Friends Fun Wine Sangria – More candy sweetness appears in this variety, although this time it resembles grape Jolly Ranchers. The nose is a bit more restrained than the palate, which explodes with sugar and then is followed by a touch of bitterness. Just a bit of tannin can be discerned, but it can’t stand up to this sweet summer beverage that again calls for some ice to tamp down the sugar content. The ingredients listed for Sangria are, oddly, the exact same as the ones for Coconut Chardonnay except that instead of “Chardonnay wine,” this beverage lists “Red wine.” The alcohol content is also 5.5% and this beverage is also fairly low calorie (81 per 4.2 oz serving). C / $9

Review: Green Spot Chateau Montelena

It has been almost four years since we reviewed the original Green Spot and celebrated its arrival in the U.S., a single pot still whiskey which we lauded for its bold, balanced flavor. With time and universal acclaim, the makers of Green Spot have sought to offer new products. The last one, Green Spot finished in Bordeaux casks was quite nice, but didn’t really improve on the original whiskey. The newest product is this gem, made with Green Spot whiskey (which for starters is aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks) that is finished for a year in Chateau Montelena zinfandel wine casks.

Tasting notes follow.

On the nose, this whiskey is identifiable as being born from the original Green Spot, showing banana, vanilla, honey, marshmallow, and cereal grains, but the zinfandel casks add some cherry sweetness which integrates well with the other notes. The palate is exceptional, offering fruity berries and honey that turn to dry marshmallow as the wood develops. Spicy notes assert themselves as the flavor progresses further, leading to a finish that is fairly long and shows off the chocolate malt balls that appear in the original. The whiskey finally fades without ever turning bitter.

Green Spot Chateau Montelena is a great spin on an already great whiskey, the use of zinfandel casks managing to add elements to the whole without disrupting the balance that marks the original Irish whiskey.

A / $95 /

Perfect Pairings: Sushi and Sauvignon Blanc

Surely you know the major food and drink pairings. Red wine goes with meat. White goes with fish. White zinfandel goes with a hangover. There is some truth to these generalizations, but only some. There are many exceptions as well. And, at the end of the day, it is important to remember that the most important rule is to drink what you like. The discriminating drinker takes the time to reflect upon what one pours and enjoy it fully. That means that if you take pleasure in drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio with your rare steak, enjoy!

That said, there are instances in which one particular style of wine, beer, or whiskey accompanies a particular food so well that we want to share the news with friends. We want to have them over so that they can experience that perfect paring in which food makes a beverage shine and vice versa. In our “Perfect Pairings” posts, of which this is the first, we will share the food and beverage marriages that we think are made in heaven.

Perhaps my single favorite pairing, and certainly the one I enjoy most often, is sushi and Sauvignon Blanc wine. Sushi, whether nigiri (pieces) or maki (rolls), typically includes a variety of fish coupled with rice seasoned with vinegar and soy sauce. The rice and fish present subtle flavors that can be overwhelmed by many wines. Light white wines have the best chance of pairing with it, and when I drink Sauvignon Blanc, particularly varieties from New Zealand, magic happens.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc typically offers bright citrus, grapefruit, passion fruit, and grassy notes. The wine’s high acidity works almost like the ginger that accompanies sushi. Ginger is intended to be eaten between bites of sushi to cleanse the palate so that you can distinguish the nuances of your next piece. Additionally, the wine’s acidity wipes away the salty flavor of soy sauce. Sauvignon Blanc perfectly accompanies the fresh flavors of sushi and heightens the experience of each new bite. It helps that fine bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can be found for under $10. Coupled with negihama (yellowtail and scallion maki), that’s the cost of dining happiness.

Review: Wines of Wakefield

Wakefield Winery is actually Taylors Winery, but they are not permitted to use the family name in much of the Northern Hemisphere due to trademark restrictions. Located in the Clare Valley of South Australia, the winery was opened in 1969 by Bill Taylor Sr. and his sons Bill Jr. and John, and the family still runs the winery today. Their first major wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon which drew immediate praise, and they offer a broad range of varieties and tiers today. Below please find reviews of a range of their offerings drawn from across the winery’s portfolio.

2016 Wakefield St. Andrews Riesling – In the past, I have described wines as “tart” and having “bracing acidity,” but I don’t think I fully appreciated the terms until trying this Riesling. It is almost too much. But when the wine is coupled with food (I tried it with spicy Indian food), it comes alive. The wine presents lemon and subtle apple on the nose. The lemon notes continue on the palate along with sharp acidity, fine minerality, and a touch of peach. The wine is bright and citrusy, but absolutely dry. St. Andrews Riesling is enjoyable now but still very tight. I wonder how much better it will get with a few years of aging. B+ / $40

2016 Wakefield Promised Land Unwooded Chardonnay – On the nose, this wine presents aromas of apple and a light touch of lemon. The palate follows suit, but a touch of bitterness appears. With food, the bitterness disappears as the wine’s fine acidity steps forward. This wine is best enjoyed with food, and it would pair nicely with a wide range of possibilities. For me, a little cheese and crackers worked perfectly. B / $13

2015 Wakefield Jaraman Shiraz – South Australia is renowned for Shiraz, and Wakefield’s Jaraman Shiraz is a fine example of it. The wine pours a deep, dark purple. The nose is reserved, presenting subtle aromas of wild berries and pepper. The palate is much more assertive, offering lush blueberry and black cherry along with black pepper, some dusty chocolate, and medium tannins. The wine is fruity but completely dry, and the finish is long and enjoyable. This wine drinks fine by itself but really shines with food. A- / $30

2015 Wakefield Estate Shiraz – South Australia offers some of the most enjoyable bargain bottles of Shiraz you can find, and Wakefield’s lower-end Estate Shiraz shows why. On the nose and palate, this wine offers ripe plum and blackberry. Flavors of tart cherry and gentle tannins also appear. Very approachable, this wine is enjoyable with or without food. B / $17

2015 Wakefield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This is a juicy, fruity wine on the nose, with lots of ripe plum accompanied by a touch of mint. The lush plum carries forward into the palate, but is restrained by just the right amount of tannin. The finish is surprisingly dry for such a fruity wine and just a little bit astringent. This is an excellent value Cabernet, showing richness and depth at an affordable price. B+ / $17

2015 Wakefield Estate Merlot – Merlot rarely comes to mind when one considers the wines of South Australia, but Wakefield Estate Merlot is solid. When first opened, the nose was fairly tight. Allowed to sit for an hour, it revealed cherry and spice aromas. On the palate, the wine was more expressive, presenting black cherry, cinnamon, a touch of chocolate, and soft tannins. The finish is quite enjoyable as the flavors slowly fade but never turn bitter. B / $17 or

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 5.4

A Midwinter Nights Dram is High West’s excellent Rendezvous Rye, finished in French oak and ex-Port barrels, bottled non-chill filtered. We first reviewed this unique whiskey in 2014 and gave it high marks (review can be read here). We briefly reviewed last year’s release and gave it an A (review can be read here), but I think this year’s bottling might be even better.

In the glass, this whiskey is a bright copper color. The nose offers rich red cherry and strong spearmint notes. The palate presents lots of brandied cherry, coupled with cinnamon and candied ginger. The finish is quite long with its robust rye character fading to a final note of dark chocolate. This is a full bodied dram with lots going on, and the flavors blend beautifully.

98.6 proof.

A / $90 /

Review: Breckenridge Brewery Oak Aged Saison

Oak Aged Saison is part of Breckenridge’s “Brewery Lane Series,” a line of specialty brews that aim to be adventurous in style and approach. This particular beer is made with French Saison yeast and Gewurztraminer grape juice. The beer is aged for 55 days in oak barrels and clocks in at more than 10% alcohol. The beer’s abv is particularly surprising when you realize that many Gewurztraminer wines aren’t much higher than that.

Poured into a pint glass, Oak Aged Saison presents a rich, clear, copper color. The nose abundantly expresses the wild yeasty notes one expects of a saison along with a mild sweetness that likely comes from the grape juice. On the palate, the beer diverges significantly from other saisons and establishes Breckenridge’s unique take on the style. The Gewurztraminer juice blends with the saison into what tastes like a lovely hybrid of beer and wine. The beer flavor takes precedence, but the juiciness and spice of the Gewurztraminer grapes complement the saison beautifully. The high alcohol content is fairly well-hidden in the rich flavor of the Saison yeast and the bright acidity of the grape juice.

I applaud all efforts to push the envelope and see what can be accomplished with creativity and audacious brewing. Breckenridge’s Oak Aged Saison is a fine example of what happens when experimentation goes well. I can only imagine how well this beer would accompany spicy jambalaya, Indian food, or Szechuan Chinese.

10.3% abv.

A- / $NA per 750ml bottle /

Review: Lawson’s Finest Liquids Sip of Sunshine IPA

Vermont is pretty serious beer country, and brewers in the state have managed, in a few short years, to make New England style IPA a unique and respected variety across the USA. Whereas West Coast IPA is usually clear and shows piney dankness and a strong, bitter finish, New England IPA appears hazy and presents tropical fruit flavors with far less bitterness at the end. Sip of Sunshine is one of the most popular and coveted examples of the New England style. Lawson’s recently expanded production, which means that instead of waiting in long lines to get the beer in Vermont, people can wait in long lines to get it at stores throughout New England, where it sells out in hours and sometimes sooner.

Sip of Sunshine is a bold, assertive New England-style IPA, somewhere between an IPA and a double IPA. There is balance and complexity in this beer, but not subtlety. Poured into a glass, the beer appears hazy and bright orange-gold. The nose offers an array of tropical fruit including lots of fresh pineapple and grapefruit. There is a touch of malt as well. The palate follows the nose, with a burst of tropical fruit, but there is a fair amount of bitterness as well, which contributes to the beer’s crisp finish. The malt introduces a little sweetness, adding complexity.

There is a lot of hype surrounding this beer, and I have to say, Sip of Sunshine manages to impress. It is bold, balanced, fresh, and flavorful. Some people who enjoy this beer recommend that it be enjoyed soon after purchase since the flavors can fade if it languishes in the closet or in one’s refrigerator for too long. But if you like IPA at all, I don’t think you have to worry.

8% abv.

A+ / $15 per 16 oz. four-pack /

Review New Amsterdam Raspberry and Lemon Vodkas

In the last few years, we’ve reviewed (and recommended) a number of New Amsterdam products due to their wide availability, low price point, and general quality (you can find those reviews here, here, here, here, and here). The addition of Raspberry and Lemon flavors to New Amsterdam’s range of flavored vodkas makes sense, and the new products follow recent precedent in both their strengths and weaknesses.

Tasting notes follow. Both are at 70 proof.

New Amsterdam Raspberry Vodka – Sampled straight, New Amsterdam Raspberry Vodka tastes like a hard Jolly Rancher candy. It is exceedingly sweet and sour, with virtually no alcoholic bite at all. With a few sips, the amount of sugar in the product becomes virtually overwhelming, and I wouldn’t recommend mixing it with tonic or anything that is also sweet. Perhaps seltzer is the best mixer since the bubbles and water would dilute the cloying candy flavor. Anyone looking for genuine raspberry flavor will be disappointed, but taken for what it is (candy-flavored vodka), New Amsterdam’s Raspberry Vodka is enjoyable enough and will probably fill a niche.  B- / $13

New Amsterdam Lemon Vodka – It seems a bit odd for New Amsterdam to offer a Lemon vodka after previously releasing a Citron variety, but the two are different enough that it makes sense. The primary distinction is the level of sweetness, with the Lemon showing even more sugar. The Lemon Vodka does not hide its alcohol as well as the Raspberry and even at 70 proof, it is hot on the nose and the palate. Sampling this vodka blind, I would probably guess I was drinking a full-on Kamikaze. It is sweet and lemony, like a lemon drop, leaving behind a citric acid burn. Like the Raspberry, the Lemon would also go well with an unsweetened mixer, like seltzer, but New Amsterdam suggests mixing it with iced tea, and I think they are on to something with that idea. Unsweetened iced tea takes some of the alcoholic bite out of the vodka while the sweetness of the vodka seems appropriate to my expectations of sweetened lemon tea. B- / $13

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 3: Gin – Seagram’s, Dover Strait, New Amsterdam

Good liquor can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive gins. For those on a budget who want to drink well, the results are promising — at least, better than when we looked at whiskey (here and here)! Since gin is minimally aged, it typically is not as labor intensive as many whiskeys, which means producers can spend a little more on higher-quality raw materials.

Here are three bargain bottles we put through the paces.

Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin

Seagram’s is just approachable enough to drink straight, although I don’t really recommend it. Orange rind and pungent alcohol notes figure prominently in the nose and the palate, with juniper (gin’s most common component) appearing only very faintly in the finish. I am surprised by how hot this gin is considering it is only 80 proof. Tonic tames the alcohol, but the flavors don’t really blend well. One might do better to follow Snoop Dogg’s recommendation and use Seagram’s for “gin and juice.” 80 proof. C+ / $11 /

Dover Strait American Gin Extra Dry

This is my first experience with Dover Strait, and I’m not encouraged by the nose. Rather than notes of juniper, I detect nail polish remover and a little ginger ale with a touch of lemon rind. On the palate, Dover is less off-putting. The acetone notes are completely absent, and the gin comes across as an inexpensive, but not offensive, vodka. The lemon rind notes appear on the palate, but they are very subtle. Adding tonic makes me think I’m drinking a vodka tonic, which is not such a bad thing, but the smell of nail polish remover lingers. 80 proof. C- / $10

New Amsterdam Gin

The nose and palate of New Amsterdam (see prior review here as well) make it the most palatable of the three gins, and I had no qualms about drinking it straight. We have reviewed this gin before, and on a new tasting, the notes remain the same. Juniper appears on the nose, but orange and orange rind are far and away the dominant notes on the palate. This might annoy gin purists who want juniper to appear front and center, but I happen to like a lemon twist in my martinis, and I found this gin to be smooth enough to appear in one. For bargain hunters who agree, New Amsterdam is an affordable and enjoyable gin. In a gin and tonic, New Amsterdam is a vibrant, citrusy cocktail, ideal for a hot day. 80 proof. B / $12 /