Review: Candolini Grappa Bianca

This pure, clear grappa — a distillate of the leftovers from wine production — is made from a blend of the pomace of several grapes: sangiovese, trebbiano, cabernet, aglianico, and falanghina.

As grappas go, Candolini Bianca — made by Fratelli Branca and a top seller in its homeland of Italy — is as light on its feet as they get. That pungency that unaged grappa unilaterally shows is front and center on the nose, but those typically musty notes here instead come across with aromas of roasted mushrooms, rosemary and sage, and burning underbrush. Time in glass helps things to meld, revealing a complex — yet intensely earthy — character.

On the palate the grappa shows off an interesting floral character — honeysuckle blended with toasted almonds, brown butter, and more of that lingering mushroom character, though this time it’s more akin to mushrooms sauteed in butter with a spray of fresh herbs on top. The lengthy finish offers hints of lemongrass, marzipan, and more sage notes.

Grappa is definitely an acquired taste, but Candolini’s expression is an interesting and expressive entry to the category.

80 proof.

B / $40 (1 liter) / branca.it

Review: Spirits of Long Road Distillers – Vodka, Gin, Aquavit, Wendy Peppercorn, Cherry, and Wheat Whisky

Long Road Distillers, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has an exhaustive spirits catalog (now spanning 10 products), almost all of which is made from locally-sourced red winter wheat. Want to see how versatile a single grain can be? Here’s a look at five different spirits that Long Road makes from it (plus a cherry brandy made from local fruit).

Long Road Distillers Vodka – Quite pungent on the nose, with notes of mushroom, bean curd, and varnish. On the palate, there’s a vanilla cream and marshmallow sweetness but these can’t overpower the funky, shroominess of the experience — ultimately blurring the line between vodka and white whiskey. 80 proof. C- / $35

Long Road Distillers Gin – Six botanicals are used in the making of this gin, but none save juniper are revealed. And juniper is the primary aromatic and flavor element here, and it actually works well with that earthy, mushroomy base that is revealed in the vodka. Light citrus, both orange and lemon, show up on the palate later in the game, adding a much-needed layer of brightness and adding some acidity. The finish is on the earthy side, but works well enough with what’s come before to merit a cautious recommendation. 90 proof. B / $35

Long Road Distillers Aquavit – Long Road doesn’t disclose its aquavit botanicals, but the nose offers blatant caraway notes, giving it a rye bread character from start to finish. Long Road keeps it simple throughout — there’s no overload of herbs and spices to distract you, just a touch of mint on the finish and some coconut husk character — but if caraway’s not your bag, well, you’ll want to explore other spirits. 90 proof. B / $35

Long Road Distillers Wendy Peppercorn – This is an exotic name for an overproof vodka that’s spiked with pink peppercorns, pepper being a classic Scandinavian garnish. The nose is very fragrant, loaded with fresh pepper aromas along with a gentle fruit character that tempers the spice with sweetness. The palate is initially racy, but the pepper quickly settles down to reveal notes of fresh pine needles, cherry fruit, and a touch of antiseptic astringency. Approachable even though it’s over 50% abv, and fun to drink. Try it ice cold, of course. 101 proof. A- / $35

Long Road Distillers Cherry – This is Long Road’s cherry brandy, a limited release distilled from Michigan cherries. They are sweet and lush on the nose — Maraschino style cherries with a burst of sugar — but the palate takes that cherry and filters it through light notes of savory spices and a touch of roasted grains. The palate is less sweet than the amazingly expressive nose would indicate but it’s gentle enough to sip on and works well as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B / $35 (375ml)

Long Road Distillers Wheat Whisky – Distill that red winter wheat and age it in a #3 charred oak barrel for 6 months and you’ve got Long Road’s wheat whisky. Nothing all that surprising here. This is a typically youthful craft spirit that offers a nose of heavy barrel char, toasty grains, and some butterscotch, all whipped into a slightly scattered experience. The body is loaded with that lumberyard character, then it quickly fades into notes of spent grain, mushroom funk, and more barrel char — though a solid vanilla character, layered with gingerbread, manages to come through clearly on the finish. 93 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. B / $40

longroaddistillers.com

Review: Monteru French Brandy – Sauternes Finish, Sherry Finish, and Triple Toast

Maison Monteru makes French brandy and “has its roots” in Cognac, but it’s not a Cognac nor an Armagnac. Monteru is actually based in the town of Pons, a quick 15 mile trip to the south from Cognac, where it produces small batch brandies outside of the strict rules of the big names. Double distilled in Charentais copper pot stills and finished in unique cask types, “this innovative and modern spirit range combines both authenticity and tradition while creating a new product category of brown spirits somewhere between the most traditional brandies and single malt whiskies.”

Arriving first in the U.S. is a trio of small batch brandies (all under 3000 bottles in total production, each hand-numbered), each with a different aging regimen — though all are four years old in total, distilled in 2012 and bottled in 2016. For all three of these brandies, the vast majority of the aging actually takes place in the “finishing” barrel.

Coming soon after will be a series of brandies based on single varietals of grapes. We look forward to bringing you our report on these in the near future. Until then, thoughts on three of Monteru’s inaugural releases hitting our shores follow.

Maison Monteru French Brandy Rare Cask Sauternes Finish – Aged briefly in refill French oak, then finished in Sauternes wine casks. Results are impressive for what must be a relatively young brandy. The nose offers light aromatics in the floral space, with elements of nuts and honey. On the palate, you’ll find some slightly rustic/alcohol-heavy notes, which lead to notes of candied walnuts, golden raisins, more honey, and sugar cookies. Incredibly drinkable yet relatively simple and light on its feet, it’s an everyday brandy that has enough of a spin to it to merit a solid recommendation. 81.6 proof. Reviewed: Batch #002. 1926 bottles released in the U.S. B+

Maison Monteru French Brandy Rare Cask Sherry Oak Finish – This expression, also aged for a few months in refill French oak, is transferred to sherry casks to finish the maturation process. It drinks a lot more like a traditional Cognac, perhaps because sherry has a closer flavor profile to brandy than Sauternes. The nose is again a bit nutty, though here tinged with distinct orange peel notes, so much so that you can see a strong kinship with single malt Scotch. On the palate, the sweeter, dried fruit notes of the brandy mingle with that citrus-driven sherry character to really pump up the fruit, with a finish that offers light baking spice notes and hints of caramel, banana, and sweet cream. As much as love Sauternes anything, everything gels just a bit better in this expression, making it a real, yet modest, treasure. 83.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #001. 1998 bottles released in the U.S. A-

Maison Monteru French Brandy Triple Toast – Again, a few months in refill French oak lead to a finishing barrel, this one a “triple toast, heavily charred American oak barrel,” which is, I think, a fancy way of saying “old bourbon barrels.” The most whiskeylike of the bunch — understandably — this brandy offers clearer lumberyard and charcoal aromas mingled with sweet wine notes — almost Port-like — alongside some floral elements. The palate settles down on the barrel char notes and lets the burnt sugar and stone fruit character shine through, at least for a time. By the time the finish arrives, the oily viscosity returns and offers a wood-heavy reprise, some menthol notes, and a bit of coconut husk scratchiness. All told it’s a significantly more dense brandy than the two expressions above, charming in its own way but not quite as unique and compelling. 85.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #003. 1572 bottles released in the U.S. B

each $58 / maisonmonteru.com

What’s the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Even if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the world of spirits, Cognac can come across as opaque. It can be hard to tell where Cognac fits into the broader spectrum of spirits, and that’s even before you’re introduced to Armagnac, Cognac’s lesser-known sister spirit. So what are you actually getting when you buy a bottle of Cognac or Armagnac, and what’s the difference between the two? Read on.

To start with, both Cognac and Armagnac are both varieties of French brandy. To be reductive, brandy is distilled wine (just like whiskey is distilled beer). Though you can also make brandy out of other fruits, “properly” it’s made from grapes, and this is the case for both Cognac and Armagnac.

Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. Cognac is mostly made from three major varietals of grapes that you rarely see in wine: Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard, as well as smaller percentages of a few other grapes like Sémillon. These grapes, if fermented, would make a wine that is extremely acidic and often unpalatable, but when distilled makes for a spirit that is unparalleled in aging and blending potential. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are regulated in size and shape by the French government. Once distilled, Cognac is stored in French oak barrels to age. All Cognacs are blends of various barrels, and each individual Cognac in a blend is referred to as eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’ The age statement on a bottle of Cognac is an indication of how old the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is, and for really exclusive bottles, the other Cognacs in a blend can be over a hundred years old. Cognac doesn’t usually carry direct age statements like a bottle of whiskey, however; Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.

Armagnac is brandy made in the Armagnac region in Gascony, further south than Cognac. Armagnac uses Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard grapes like Cognac does, with the addition of Baco blanc, a grape that outside of Armagnac isn’t used for much of anything. Instead of Cognac’s copper pot stills, Armagnac is typically distilled in column stills similar to American bourbons,, Armagnac is only distilled once instead of twice in the case of Cognac. The single distillation and the column still combine to make Armagnac generally a more aromatic and brooding spirit than Cognac, perhaps a better entry into French brandies for someone used to bourbons. Armagnac uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages don’t match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight. Also important for the imbiber more conscious about how much they’re spending on alcohol, as Armagnac isn’t as well-known outside of Europe, old Armagnac tends to be cheaper than similarly-aged Cognac.

So to summarize, Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills, and Armagnac is distilled once in column stills, and the grapes used can be a bit different. Ready to go use your new knowledge and pick up a few bottles? Try some of our favorite Cognacs, like Gilles Brisson VSOP or Martell Blue Swift, or Armagnacs like Chateau du Tarquiet or Marquis de Montesquiou!

Review: Bache-Gabrielsen XO Decanter Cognac

Norway’s Bache-Gabrielsen has been doing some rebranding and relaunching of late. Its most recent launch is a third XO expression (not to be confused with its Classic XO or XO Fine Champagne bottlings, which are both separate products and different blends). You’ll immediately notice the difference because the XO Decanter is packaged in a squat decanter and comes in a custom box to hold it.

This XO is a blend of ugni blanc and folle blanche grapes sourced from the Fins Bois, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne regions. The Limousin oak barrels hold spirit from 10 to 30 years, with an average age of 20 years at bottling.

All told, it’s a lovely, well-aged (but not too old) brandy, offering a nose of light wood notes that mingle with brown sugar, golden raisin, ripe banana, and a fistful of crushed red berries. Fresh and light on its feet, the palate is just as elegant and refined, offering gentle notes of raspberry jam, orange marmalade, and cedar box, all melding wonderfully with a supple dried fig and raisin note that is laced throughout the experience. This dried fruit character is what endures the most on the finish, and it hangs on for quite some time as the brandy makes its long, slow fade-out.

As quiet and demure a Cognac as I think I’ve ever encountered, Bache’s XO Decanter drinks beautifully today while serving as a signpost that points the way to a future where these spirits continue to age gloriously. I’m dying to check out what comes next.

80 proof.

A / $100 / bache-gabrielsen.com

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Martell Blue Swift

martell-blue-swift-large

Finishing Cognac is officially a thing. Hot on the heels of Bache-Gabrielsen’s new oak-finished Cognac comes this spin from major Cognac house Martell, a VSOP Cognac that is finished in previously used Kentucky bourbon casks. No word on the length of the finishing, but Martell does say this:

Martell Cognac’s latest offering represents the essence of the curious and audacious spirit of founder Jean Martell. Engraved on the bottle, Martell’s iconic swift emblem is significant as legend has it, Jean Martell was guided by the flight of a swift on his original journey from the island of Jersey to Charente, while the bird is famous for flying exceptionally long distances, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice a year. A tribute to the shared history between Martell and the United States, Martell Blue Swift joins the core lineup along with Martell VS, Martell VSOP, Martell Cordon Bleu, and Martell XO.

Blue Swift is a rousing success that shows how Cognac and bourbon can work beautifully together. The color of the spirit is bourbon-dark, much deeper in hue than any standard VSOP you’ll encounter. On the nose, there’s lots going on, the traditional raisin-plum notes of brandy mingling nicely with oaky whiskey notes, layering in some cinnamon, flamed banana, and a touch of almond.

The palate follows that up with aplomb. A relatively light body gives way to lush fruit, touched with oak. Currants and vanilla, figs and cocoa, hints of peppermint and gingerbread — they all come together into a surprisingly cohesive whole that showcases the best of both the brandy and bourbon worlds. The finish is light on its feet, not at all heavy, cloying, or otherwise overblown. Rather, it’s slightly drying and quite clean, its toasty wood notes lingering while echoing hints of fruity raisin.

It’s lovely in its own right, but I’m particularly hard-pressed to think of a better Cognac at this price point. Stock up!

80 proof.

A / $50 / martell.com

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