Review: Aberlour a’bunadh Highland Single Malt Batch 54

Aberlour’s cask strength a’bunadh release is a special one among single malts, as it is released in serialized batches — now at least on #58. The construction is always the same — again, cask strength whisky, 100% ex-oloroso sherry barrel aged — but each batch varies in proof and, apparently, in flavor. Notably, there’s no age statement on this whisky, so the actual time in cask may vary from batch to batch, and batches are said to be blended from whiskies aged anywhere from 5 to 25 years old. No information about the number of bottles from each batch of a’bunadh is released.

We reviewed batch #26 some years ago. Today we turn our attention to batch #54, which features an updated label and, notably, at the time of its release, it was the second highest abv of a’bunadh ever released. (Proof levels are going nowhere but up since then.) Back during my review of #26, I had some reservations about the whisky. Let’s see how things have evolved in the last eight years.

The beautiful copper color, driven by all that sherry cask time, hasn’t gone anywhere. On the nose, the whisky is outrageously complex, loaded with notes of spiced nuts, reduced/concentrated orange oil, and oiled wood. There’s a green note that’s hard to place, something akin to lemongrass and green banana — which adds even more complexity to the experience. On the palate, the whisky is bold and rich and full of flavors, including all of the above, plus some lingering red berries, black tea leaf, ginger, and cinnamon. It’s a hot whisky, and water helps to round out the edges, revealing notes of black pepper and a stronger raspberry/blackberry component — which takes things out with some light but welcome sweetness.

Freshly comparing this batch to batch 26, batch 54 is a clear leader, though today I feel perhaps I was overly harsh with my earlier assessment of #26. Today I find the whisky on the muted side, but enchanting in its own way with notes of tangerine, sandalwood, fresh tobacco leaf, and some lingering phenols. Either way, I’ll keep checking out a’bunadh as I encounter it — and you should too.

121.4 proof.


Review: 2012 Dolin The Blue Note Malibu Coast

Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards, located in the SoCal Malibu Coast AVA, has released its inaugural bottling of The Blue Note — a blend of 44% merlot, 36% cabernet sauvignon, and 20% cabernet franc. I’m intrigued already.

It’s heavy, heavy on the violet notes, particularly on the nose. The body however is initially quite tannic and tight — this is a wine that needs decanting or time in glass before it really opens up, at least today. Once it loosens its grip, the wine showcases more candied violet notes, fresh blueberries, mixed florals, and a smack of apple pie spices on the back end. The longer I keep this wine in the glass, the more I like it.

Could handle 5+ more years in cellar, but I’d say buy a few bottles and drink one now, and one every other year.

A / $45 /

Review: Glenfiddich Project XX

Glenfiddich’s Project XX (pronounced “twenty”) is a unique experiment that defies easy categorization. I’m going to let the distillery explain before I go any further:

Project XX is the result of one of the most ambitious malt experiments of Glenfiddich’s 130 year history. The expression is the collaboration between the 20 Glenfiddich Brand Ambassadors from 16 countries from all over the world and malt master Brian Kinsman, who developed one unexpected, extraordinary whisky by bringing together 20 very special single malts.

Going against normal whisky conventions, Brian invited the ambassadors to explore and each select a cask from a warehouse at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown. Many of these ambassadors are the foremost experts on Glenfiddich in their respective countries, introducing single malts to whisky connoisseurs, enthusiasts and novices, imparting knowledge and information. Brian’s ambition was to create one remarkable single malt, by combining the curiosity and knowledge of these 20 experts.

This freedom of choice resulted in a 20-strong collection of some of the most unusual whiskies from Glenfiddich’s unrivalled stocks, amassed and carefully nurtured throughout the brand’s 130 year history. After each expert had chosen a single cask, from aged malts matured in port pipes to ancient sherry butts and first fill bourbon casks, Brian skilfully produced the final variant to reflect their individual tastes and interests. Expertly married together in a small batch vatting, the final flavour profile defined even his expectations.

So, 20 brand ambassadors each picked out a barrel from the Glenfiddich warehouses and then Kinsman blended the whole thing together. It sounds nutty, but Glenfiddich actually let us know what each barrel was, and if you click the image to the right you can completely geek out on the data, right down to the cask numbers on each barrel selected. The 20 casks include 17 ex-bourbon barrels, 2 sherry butts, and one Port pipe.

It’s an unorthodox whisky to be sure, but much to my surprise it’s a completely worthwhile one. I think it’s because Glenfiddich is not really mixing whiskies at random but is rather mixing these whiskies with a bit of a guided hand. There’s some method to the madness here, perhaps thanks to a benevolent intelligent designer working behind the scenes. How else would the mix of 17 bourbon casks and just 3 wine casks come to be if each of the 20 ambassadors was selecting in a vacuum?

Never mind all that. Let’s taste it.

The nose is lightly salty and nutty with clear citrus overtones, plus hints of nougat and baking spice. Surprisingly enchanting, it leads the way to a palate that’s filled with fruit — oranges, cinnamon-spiced raisins, and some quince — as well as ample caramel and vanilla, the classic components of those 17 ex-bourbon casks. The sherry component is modest but integrates well with the bourbon-soaked base, folding in gentle citrus and sweet, brown sugar before the clove-heavy finish arrives, again offering some well-roasted walnut notes and a lingering wood character that harmonizes well with what’s come before.

Bottom line: To be honest, I can’t stop sipping it. Pick it up if you happen to see a bottle.

94 proof.

A / $100 /

Review: Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur

Hey, it’s something from Indiana that’s not whiskey from MGP! Bloomington, IN is the home to Cardinal Spirits, and Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur is one of the company’s most noteworthy products.

What’s in the bottle? Let me allow Cardinal to explain:

Most coffee liqueurs taste one dimensional – like sugar. But ours tastes like coffee, plus all of the complementary notes you get from freshly-roasted coffee, like caramel and chocolate. That’s because we make this spirit with a ton of freshly roasted coffee from our friends/neighbors at Hopscotch Coffee in Bloomington (for our Kentucky version of this spirit, we use coffee from Good Folks roastery in Louisville). Only coffee, Bourbon vanilla beans, cane sugar and our vodka are used to make our Songbird Coffee Liqueur – no flavor extracts or coloring, ever. Here’s a video of how we make our coffee liqueur.

If you like coffee — or coffee-flavored spirits — Songbird is one to seek out. The nose is pure coffee — a real fresh-ground character that feels like a freshly-opened bag of ground beans. Lightly nutty, with overtones of vanilla and sugar, it’s not an overblown espresso but something closer to a fresh, moderate roast. The palate is sweeter than expected — one feels Songbird might have dialed the sugar back a bit; get a drop on your hands and they’ll be so sticky you need to wash them immediately — but in the end the coffee becomes the centerpiece of the experience. With that much sugar, the impact can be a bit like a Vietnamese coffee (sans the milk), but finally the body manages to overpower the sweetness quickly enough with powerful notes of nutty, lightly smoky coffee beans and some burnt caramel character.

Great stuff, and highly versatile on its own or as a cocktail ingredient.

Note: The label doesn’t note this, but Songbird can settle out quite heavily, so shake well before pouring.

49 proof.

A / $25 /

Review: Bear Republic Hop Shovel and Cafe Racer 15 (2017)

California’s Bear Republic has moved Hop Shovel into the year-round lineup, and is now releasing Cafe Racer 15, formerly only available in 22 oz. bottles, in regular six-packs. Nothing much has really changed with these brews (though this is our first real review of Hop Shovel), but let’s give them fresh looks nonetheless.

Bear Republic Hop Shovel IPA – A wheat and rye hybrid IPA made with Mosaic, Meridian, and Denali hops — and what a combination it is! The beer is beautifully balanced, offering loads of fresh citrus fruit to mellow out the piney evergreen notes that otherwise dominate the beer. A touch of salted caramel elevates the finish and gives it a nuance that IPAs don’t often exhibit. A near-perfect IPA! 7.5% abv. A

Bear Republic Cafe Racer 15 (2017) – The 2017 version of Cafe Racer (see 2014 review here) hasn’t changed much at all, and still offers the bold, chewy, resinous double IPA character that fans of this style adore. A malty attack leads to overtones of orange-laden syrup, hemp rope threads, toasted pine nuts, maple, and green apples. It’s a complex beer that finishes with a mix of cloyingly sweet and intensely bitter — which somehow manages to come off as oddly refreshing. 9.75% abv. A-

each $13 per six pack /

Review: Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila Blanco

Artisan tequila gets a leg up from Siembra Spirits, which takes a painstakingly traditional approach, blending tequila and mezcal production processes, to the creation of this new 100% blue agave tequila. Reportedly bringing together mezcaleros and tequileros for the first time in a century, creator David Suro hopes he is on to something new.

Mind you, this isn’t a simple blend of mezcal and tequila. This is something entirely different, a tequila untouched by machines during its production…

Creating Siembra Valles Ancestral goes beyond mere distilling: Suro and his team rely on hand maceration, fermentation in oak and distillation in pine to impart the flavors that vino mezcal de Tequila would have had 100 years ago, but they also produce the spirit using bat-pollinated(!) agave, harvested by carefully trained family farmers known as jimadores and roasted earthen pit ovens.

The distillation and production of Ancestral is an exercise in extraordinary care:

  • Hand-harvested agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in a hand-dug pit oven 6 feet deep for no less than 113 hours, where heat and smoke yield deeply flavorful fruits via methods that have not been used in tequila production for more than a century.

  • They are then hand macerated with wooden mallets to release just enough of their now perfectly roasted juices and distinctive agave flavor.

  • Bagasse fermentation takes place in oak and brick, and the distilled juice rests in demijohns capped the traditional way: with corn cobs that allow just enough oxygen to interact with the spirit as it stabilizes.

I hope you caught the part about the bat pollination. How many other spirits can claim that?

This is a fun and fascinating experience from start to finish, straddling the line between mezcal and tequila (though, to be honest, it’s got more in common with the former). The nose is lightly to moderately smoky, a bit sweet with honeyed notes, plus some tart lemon peel character. This all gets kicked up quite a bit when you dig into the body, which expands upon all of the above with notes of black pepper, bacon, cilantro, and a citrus note that is closer to lemongrass than lemon peel. This is all filtered through a haze of barbecue smoke, roasted meats, and charred mesquite — a lighter smoky touch than the typical mezcal but enough to spin the experience in a different and surprising direction.

All together, this turns out to be a difficult spirit to put down, a complex and exciting experience that makes you rethink the very nature of what tequila can be. Get some.

100.4 proof. Reviewed: Lot #2.

A / $120 /

Review: A Trio of 2013 Italian Value Wines – Masi, Montessu, and Salviano

Italy has its share of cult wines, but it’s also loaded with bargains, like these three wines (all imported by Kobrand), which showcase a tour of different Italian wine regions, all coming in at less than $20 a bottle. Let’s take a look!

2013 Masi Campofiorin – A “Superveronese” blended from corvina, rondinella, and molinara grapes (the same used for Amarone). A beautiful and balanced wine. Lush berry fruit notes pave the way toward light hints of vinegar, fresh herbs, and a finish that nods at nutmeg and ginger. A beautiful wine that drinks with more complexity than its price tag would indicate, the 2013 expression is one of the best examples of this wine in recent years. A- / $16

2013 Agricola Punica Montessu Isola dei Nuraghi IGT – A Sardinian blend of mainly carignane plus other grapes. This wine is a bit flat, its berry fruit filtered through a bit of applesauce and, emerging on the nose with time, some tar and leather elements. The body is muted, heavy on cherry fruit and meatier notes, with a fairly short finish. Tastes like a lot like the “house wine” at your favorite Italian restaurant. B- / $15

2013 Tenuta di Salviano Turlo Lago di Corbara DOC – A blend of 50% sangiovese, 30% cabernet sauvignon, and 20% merlot. This Umbrian blend is one of the best values I’ve ever found out of Italy. Beautiful cherry and raspberry fruit is deftly balanced with notes of fresh herbs, a touch of tobacco, a hint of vanilla, and a few green notes around the edges. Even the greenery doesn’t detract from what is a surprisingly lush and balanced experienced, perfectly quaffable on its own but an excellent companion to pasta dishes, as well. A / $13