Review: The Spirits of Sugarlands Shine

Don’t look now, but one of the busiest distilleries in the country — based on tourism visits — is Sugarlands Distilling, in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. A connection with the popular show Moonshiners doesn’t hurt, nor does the vast product lineup, which includes 21 varieties of moonshine, rum, and liqueurs, which range from a straight white rye to a peanut butter and jelly moonshine, all bottled in (incredibly messy) mason jars. Candy- and dessert-flavored ‘shines are a particularly specialty of the operation.

It’s impossible to keep on top of all of these flavors — there will be more by the time you read this — so consider this a representative sampling of what Sugarlands is up to. Thoughts follow.

Sugarlands Shine Silver Cloud Moonshine – This corn and cane sugar moonshine is the starting point for much of what Sugarlands makes, and it’s a fair enough ‘shine to get you going. Plenty popcorny at the start, particularly on the nose, the spirit offers hints of vanilla and cinnamon but otherwise drinks relatively flatly but cleanly, with a jet fuel-soaked finish — that classic moonshine pungency. 100 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Unaged Rye – Billed as a rye, though no mashbill information is available. This is a more classic white whiskey, loaded with popcorn and roasted grains, with a subtle undercoat of baking spice. Lacking the sugar of the moonshine, the finish is rougher and more rustic, with a mushroom and tobacco note, plus some hints of baked bread. 100 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Appalachian Apple Pie Moonshine – Less sweet than many an apple pie moonshine, the raw cereal character of the spirit comes through more clearly. The fruit takes on an apple cider character, somewhat oxidized with a kind of butterscotch note that isn’t completely on the pie spectrum. The finish is reminscent not of apples but of cherries, particularly the cough syrup variety. 50 proof. C / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Hazelnut Rum – Nicely nutty on the nose, those hazelnuts roll over anything that’s particularly rummy in the mix. Some brown sugar notes and cloves at least offer a nod toward a spiced rum, with a touch of that funky petrol layering itself in underneath. The finish is a sustained nuttiness, with notes of toasted marshmallow. Hazelnuts are a smart choice to give this spirit a strong and unique flavor, but it drinks almost like a liqueur rather than a rum. 80 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Root Beer Moonshine – Spot-on root beer aromas kick the nose off on this heavily flavored (and nearly opaque) ‘shine, which is heavy on the sassafras and baking spices. Alongside a healthy slug of sweet vanilla, the body sees more peppermint coming to the fore than I would like or expect, with surprisingly heavy clove character. These cloves endure for quite some time, eventually mellowing as the finish fades into a sort of charred wood character, which erases some of the excitement and nostalgia of what’s come before. 70 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Butter Pecan Cream Liqueur – Not dark brown as the bottle would indicate, but rather a gentle, creamy tan. Extremely sweet on the nose, with light brown sugar the clearest component. The buttery, nutty pecan notes are a bit slightly clearer on the palate, but there’s so much sugar that it overwhelms just about all of it, leading to a milky finish akin to melted vanilla ice cream. 40 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Dark Chocolate Coffee Cream Liqueur – The color of milk chocolate, with a nose that is a heavier blend of coffee with some chocolate syrup swirled in. Ample vanilla kicks off the palate, along with some butterscotch sweetness, before the relatively gentle coffee character arrives. There’s nothing really “dark” about the chocolate in this liqueur. As far as the cocoa goes, it’s about as milky as it gets. Nevertheless, it works fairly well. 40 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

sugarlandsdistilling.com

Review: 2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

New releases from Hahn and its upscale SLH line of wines, both made with grapes sourced from its estate in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

These both represent a bit of a premium over the standard Hahn bottlings, but as you’ll see, they’re worth it.

2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highands – A thinner wine, particularly on the barely-there nose, but the initially watery body eventually builds to offer some bolder notes of licorice, charred wood, roasted meats, and savory spices. The finish is earthier and meatier than I’d like, but that does help it to pair better with a bolder meal than most pinot noirs. B / $20

2015 Hahn SLH Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands – Oak and butter on top of oak and butter, pumped up beyond imagination. Hahn can so often be a model of restraint, but for 2015 someone threw open the throttle and just let everything fly. Well, some mild lemon notes notwithstanding, the blowout of vanilla and brown butter simply destroy any hope of nuance. B- / $20

hahnwines.com

Re-Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (2017)

crown royal rye

In 2015, I reviewed Crown Royal Northern Rye. I thought it was OK. I graded it a B.

Later that year Jim Murray named it his whisky of the year, and all hell broke loose. A $30 Canadian whisky is the best whisky of the year? Sales went through the roof. The price shot up. Everyone asked me about the little whisky that could.

That’s bothered me for the last two years. Was I wrong? Was I missing the plot on this one? I reached out to Crown Royal to see if I could get a fresh sample, in order to see if I could suss out what I missed.

To refresh your memory, this is a 90% rye, bottled with no age statement. Let’s give a brand new bottle a fresh look.

Well, much as I said previously, the nose is loaded with dried apple notes, cinnamon, and caramel. It’s apple pie in a glass at least aromatically. I can see how someone would like it, but the fruit is so blown out that it strikes one as a a flavored spirit.

The palate offers few surprises, though the caramel is stronger and notes of barrel char, and, now that I explore it more deeply, a character closer to baked pear than apple. Slightly gummy and fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, it’s got sweetness pushed almost to the breaking point, with a lasting finish that is fragrant but gummy.

In the end: I still don’t understand the fuss. In fact, I like it even less now than I used to. And no, I’m not trying to be contrarian, mom.

90 proof.

B- / $45 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Glen Moray Elgin Classic, 12 Years Old, 15 Years Old, and 18 Years Old

Speyside’s Glen Moray bills itself as offering “affordable luxury,” marketing a range of single malt whiskeys in a variety of styles. The new Elgin Heritage Range comprises three malts — and they all have age statements, clocking in at 12, 15, and 18 years old. Today we look at all three of these, plus one NAS release known as the Elgin Classic. Thoughts follow.

Glen Moray Elgin Classic – Indeed, a “classic” NAS single malt (entirely bourbon cask aged), lightly grainy but imbued with plenty of caramel (lightly salted) and some nougat aromas. The palate is lightly sweet, milk chocolatey with some orange and lemon peel overtones. It’s got ample youth — Glen Moray says the whisky here is an average of seven years old — but Glen Moray makes the most of a relatively simple spirit that melds salt, grain, and cocoa powder into a decent whole that comes at a highly attractive price. (Note that there are a number of specialty finished versions of Elgin Classic, but those aren’t reviewed here.) 80 proof. B- / $22

Glen Moray 12 Years Old – Like the Elgin Classic, this is aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks. This is an instant upgrade to the Elgin Classic, a malty but rounded experience that offers a nose of supple grains and a touch of cinnamon raisin character. The palate can be a touch sweaty at times, but on the whole it’s got a body that offers a beautifully integrated combination of roasted grain, walnuts, raisins, and caramel sauce. The finish integrates the cinnamon with some chocolate notes, a touch of dried plum, and a hint of gingerbread. A really fine experience and, again, a pretty good bargain. 80 proof. A- / $37

Glen Moray 15 Years Old – This 15 year old expression is a blend of whisky matured in bourbon casks and sherry casks, making for a much different impression right from the start. The nose has that oily citrus character driven by the sherry casks, but this tends to come across as quite youthful, almost underdeveloped at times, though some white florals and elderberry notes peek through at times. The palate is more of a success, with lots of fruit, a creme brulee-like vanilla note, and a twist of orange peel, though the finish is a touch on the harsh side, with some lingering acetone notes. All told this drinks like a younger sherried whisky (younger than it is, anyway). Some time with air opens things up nicely. 80 proof. B / $58

Glen Moray 18 Years Old – We’re back to straight bourbon barrels for this 18 year old release, which has no sherry influence. Bold butterscotch, vanilla syrup, pine needles, and menthol all dance on the nose. The palate is hot — this is considerably higher proof — with notes of roasted nuts and brown sugar. Some chocolate notes evolve in time, alongside a cinnamon punch and a dusting of powdered ginger. What’s missing is much of a sense of fruit — aside from some hints of dried peaches and apricots, the whisky falls a bit flat, particularly on the relatively grain-laden finish. Note that this one is quite hard to find at present. 94.4 proof. B / $100

glenmoray.com

Review: Sir Edward’s Smoky Blended Scotch Whisky

With the promise that it is “matured in wood casks,” Sir Edward’s Smoky sure does sound enticing, doesn’t it? This venerable (but lower-shelf) blended Scotch brand is out with a new expression, a lightly peated blend without much else in the way of production information (except for a bit about a “Speyside heart”). Let’s give it a whirl.

For a whisky that costs less than a dollar per shot, it’s really not half bad. The nose is very light on the smoke, with notes of sea spray, petrol, and some rubbery medicinal overtones. None of this is overwhelming, but the nod at peated barley is at least somewhat noticeable. On the palate, the gentle body offers notes of honey foremost, plus a squeeze of lemon and a spritz of fresh sugar syrup. The peat is just as gentle and quiet as what’s come before, a modest puff of smoke across the top of an otherwise simple and sweet concoction. The finish sees the smoke vanish nearly entirely, leaving behind some residual sugar that, to be truthful, is perfectly enjoyable for an outlay of $14 per bottle.

80 proof. (Available only in foreign markets at present.)

B- / $14 / siredwards.com

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 1: American Whiskey – Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Old Thompson

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are bargain bottles that are enjoyable and offer considerably higher quality:value ratios than more expensive options. Today we pore through the “bottom shelf” bottles in order to find whiskeys that are enjoyable yet affordable while attempting to steer drinkers clear of the ones that still aren’t worth the price.

Let’s start with a look at three lower-cost American whiskeys.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon (White Label)

It’s important to read the label closely when purchasing bottom shelf whiskeys. Jim Beam’s most inexpensive whiskey is White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. To advertise itself as a bourbon, a whiskey must adhere to certain rules, the most important of which state that it is: (1) made from at least 51% corn, (2) aged in new oak barrels, and (3) aged at least four years if it is to call itself “straight bourbon.” This means that, as inexpensive as Jim Beam is, it lives up to the minimum requirements of a
demanding labeling system.

The payoff for following the legal requirements to label a whiskey “straight bourbon” are apparent when sampling this one, which is simple and straightforward, but drinkable. The nose offers soft notes of corn mixed with candy corn. There is a touch of spice, but it isn’t a particularly enjoyable smell as it carries a slightly medicinal quality. On the palate, Jim Beam is quite smooth. Notes of of corn and candy corn appear again but are very light. For the serious bourbon fan, the taste is too smooth, even watery, as it hints at bourbon’s possibilities without delivering the goods. But for the novice, this might be a good start. The finish is long and smooth, and introduces some of the oak that this whiskey aged in for at least four years. None of the unpleasant flavors appear which tend to mar the finish of some inexpensive whiskeys. As an affordable mixer, Jim Beam is a great choice. See additional coverage here.

80 proof.

C+ / $14 / jimbeam.com

Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon

Evan Williams Black is also a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and it is aged around 5 years in new oak barrels and bottled at a slightly higher alcohol level than most bottom shelf whiskeys, 86 proof. The higher alcohol presents in the nose, but not so strongly as to be off-putting. It is accompanied by pleasant smells of caramel, vanilla extract, and a bit of mint. The palate is corn sweetness mixed with caramel and brown sugar, but it is not cloying. For such an inexpensive bottle, the flavors are surprisingly balanced. The finish is medium in length, ending in wood, but not bitterness. This is a great starter bourbon, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to drink neat. For those on a budget who appreciate the taste of bourbon, Evan Williams Black is tough to beat. See additional coverage here.

86 proof.

B- / $14 / evanwilliams.com

Old Thompson American Whiskey

Old Thompson is not a bourbon, but rather a blend of whiskeys coupled with neutral grain spirits (vodka). If you’ve had Seagram’s 7, you know the deal. The blend strictly follows the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which requires that a beverage contain at least 20% whiskey (aged at least 2 years) to be labeled “American Whiskey.” The consequences of just barely staying within the legal definition of American Whiskey are immediately apparent. The nose is almost nonexistent with hints of gasoline and nail polish remover, along with the slightest whiff of what might be corn sweetness. This makes sense considering that 4/5 of the product is unaged grain alcohol. On the palate, Old Thompson is harsher than its proof would suggest and offers an unpleasant sweetness that doesn’t seem to draw from the whiskey in the product. These flavors are followed by a short finish and lingering bitterness. Perhaps Old Thompson works as a mixer since it is mostly grain alcohol, but I would recommend an inexpensive vodka instead.

80 proof.

D- / $8 / sazerac.com

Review: St. Augustine Distillery Florida Double Cask Bourbon

Florida-based St. Augustine’s craft bourbon starts with a mash bill of 60% regional corn, 22% malted barley, and 18% regional wheat. Per the company, “the grains are milled and mashed on site, and fermented with proprietary yeast strains in closed-top fermenters.” The barrels in this release range from 16 to 28 months old, and they’re aged “in a sequence of new 25-gallon and seasoned 53-gallon barrels” (i.e. the “double casks”). You may also note that former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell is a consultant here.

The nose is popcorn-grainy, with toasty overtones of barrel char and denser chimney soot. The palate softens up on all of this a little, offering clear notes of coffee grounds, match heads, and heavily toasted grains — before finally fading into a character that approaches something akin to a modern bourbon, with notes of vanilla and baking spice more clearly evident. The coffee character and its entre to sweeter elements make for some interesting points of exploration — though it’s impossible to shake the notion that, on the whole, this remains a bourbon that’s simply been bottled too young.

Perhaps a triple barrel is needed.

93.8 proof.

B- / $50 / staugustinedistillery.com

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