Review: BenRiach Classic Cask Strength, Single Cask #7367 Virgin Oak 10 Years Old, and Single Cask #2683 Peated Port Wood 12 Years Old

And now, three new limited releases from BenRiach, one of the few distilleries in Speyside that uses peat in some of its expressions. (BenRiach also triple distills some of its whisky, another oddity for Scotland.) All three of the whiskies reviewed below are a bit off the beaten path for single malt.

BenRiach Classic Cask Strength Batch #2 – This is a no-age-statement blend of whiskies from ex-bourbon barrels, Oloroso sherry casks, and virgin oak barrels. Big notes of licorice, black pepper, cloves, and gunpowder are all atypical for single malt Scotch. Credit (or blame) the virgin oak for that — this whisky wears its new oak notes on its sleeve. Heady on the nose and the palate, bold notes of fresh lumber, beef jerky, a bit of smoke, and roasted meat — again, all driven by new oak. After the initial savory rush, some sweetness merges. Water helps, revealing notes of nougat, lemon syrup, and almond. The finish is easy and short, again evocative of the barrel foremost. 121.2 proof. B / $95

BenRiach Single Cask #7367 Virgin Oak 10 Years Old – This is the Classic Cask Strength x2. Or more, considering it’s entirely aged in new, unused barrels. Huge lumberyard notes, immense with pepper, cloves, bacon, and almost acrid barrel char fill the nose. Malted barley has had quite a time interacting with the new oak, beaten to within an inch of its life by all that wood. Notes of red pepper, plum, and allspice add some nuance… but all have trouble competing with the overwhelming influence of the barrel. 118.8 proof. B- / $95

BenRiach Single Cask #2683 Peated Port Wood Finish 12 Years Old – This is a peated whisky, aged (presumably) in bourbon barrels and finished in Port pipes. The peat element dominates the nose, coming across as smoky though not particular salty, with some spice hiding beneath. The palate sees fruit melding with the smoky character, with notes of dusky, dried berries, blackberry bramble, and some menthol emerging. The finish keeps the full court press of wood smoke going strong, drowning out any real nuance. 107.2 proof. B / $110

Review: Crown Royal Deluxe Blended Canadian Whisky

We’re filling in some of the back catalog today, kicking things off with a long overdue review of Crown Royal, the Canadian whisky classic with the motto “An Unmistakably Smooth Taste.”

The original Crown Royal — the one in the purple bag — is officially known as Crown Royal Deluxe (or “Fine de Luxe” if you’re feeling Quebecois). The whisky’s a blend, but a blend of what? Crown says a full fifty whiskies go into the mix here, but beyond that, who knows?

Let’s give the cruise ship standby a sip, shall we?

The nose is heavy with apples, followed by some basic barrel aromas and hints of the cereal so common with young whisky. It’s all fairly innocuous, though, and the palate follows suit: That apple fruit is unmistakable, as is a significant brown sugar and honey note that provides plenty of sweetness to the whisky. The finish has an industrial bent to it — in that there really isn’t one, just a quick fade-out designed to be as harmless as possible.

It’s not much for sipping straight, but considering what Crown Royal is really for — to mix with Coke and not really be tasted — it’s probably just about perfect.

80 proof.

B- / $17 /

Tasting the Wines of South Africa’s Simonsig, 2018 Releases

South Africa’s Simonsig (pronounced SEE-mun-sigg) is one of the country’s most noteworthy operations, and recently we had the opportunity to sample five of its wines, courtesy of a live tasting with its winemaking and business staff, broadcast to us from Stellenbosch in South Africa.

We walked through five wines that run the gamut of Simonsig’s production. Thoughts follow.

2016 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose – We reviewed the 2015 vintage of this wine only a month ago. Mystery from that review solved: “Kaapse Vonkel” means “cape sparkling” in Afrikaans. The 2016 expression is made from the same three red grapes, and as with the 2015, it’s a very dry expression of sparkling wine, a bit meaty, its fruit character running to notes of rhubarb and dried strawberry. Quiet on the finish. B / $18

2017 Simonsig Chenin Blanc – Simonsig’s first wine, this chenin blanc is made from untrained, en gobelet vines. Picked very ripe, the wine has some natural sweetness to it, a honey and vanilla character that counters some of the earthier elements in the wine. A crisp, green apple note gives the finish a lift. B+ / $13

2015 Simonsig Pinotage – Bold and smoky bacon on the nose of this typical pinotage (a cross of pinot noir and cinsault) leads into a mildly fruity, somewhat thin palate, showing blackberry and raspberry, with licorice notes on the back end. That smoky bacon endures well into the finish, though, making this a love-it-or-hate-it experience. B- / $18

2015 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage – Essentially a single-vineyard pinotage, with some of its aging done in American oak, instead of just French oak. Much bolder, with spice and eucalyptus on the nose, dark chocolate and licorice giving it a bit of an American character. A definite food wine, it’s one that would benefit from time in bottle, to let some of its tannins settle out, letting the black fruit show itself more clearly. B / $34

2015 Simonsig Frans Malan Cape Blend Reserve – 67% pinotage, 29% cabernet sauvignon, and 4% merlot. Everyone’s been talking about “mulberries” here and it turns out it’s spot on — the wine showing a kind of blueberry/blackberry note that is stronger and more acidic, with a hint of vanilla extract underneath. This is a velvety but still youthful wine, its finish running to notes of balsamic, dark chocolate, and heady spices. Worth hanging on to. A- / $30

Review: 2015 Big Smooth Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon

With its velvet labels and funky scripting, first impressions of Big Smooth wine mainly run to raised eyebrows and tempered expectations, even though it is part of the Don Sebastiani & Sons empire. Made from grapes grown in Lodi, the wine is actually produced and bottled in Napa. We tasted both expressions available from the wine’s 2015 vintage.

2015 Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi – This is a curious expression of zinfandel, meaty and earthy, with overtones of both prunes and violets. A very “purple” wine, the body is somewhat chalky, with notes of bell pepper and cocoa powder emerging on the finish. Overall, the wine feels scattered and a bit lost, in search of a focus. C / $27

2015 Big Smooth Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi – A bit of a chocolate bomb, with vanilla and cherry highlights, this wine starts out promising, with a rich nose and a bold palate, but it doesn’t last. As the finish emerges, the wine gets a bit thin, and a healthy dose of sugar comes to the fore, muddying the fruit and cocoa notes up front. B- / $27

Review: Jura Seven Wood and Jura 18 Years Old

Jura, based on the Isle of Jura just one island over from Islay, has launched two new expressions, both of which join its permanent, national lineup. These will soon be replacing much of Jura’s current lineup, with Origin, Superstition, Diurachs’ Own 16 Years Old, and Prophecy all being sunsetted.

Let’s look at each of the new whiskies in turn.

Jura Seven Wood – This unique whisky, which carries no age statement, is “influenced by seven select French and American Oak barrels.” It is initially matured in first-fill American White Oak ex-bourbon barrels, then finished in six different French Oak casks — Limousin, Tronçais, Allier, Vosges, Jupilles, and Les Bertranges, all wood-producing regions in the country. Of special note, none of these casks have been used as wine casks — though it’s unclear what exactly they have been used for before ending up at Jura. Wood is indeed a strong element throughout the tasting experience of Seven Wood, starting on the nose, where a quite burly, almost New World character leads the way. Aromas of new lumber, roasted meat, allspice, and savory herbs are exotic but can be a bit daunting, muscling out the more approachable, sweeter aromas one might otherwise expect. The palate has a bit of sweetness at first, but with even a little time in glass this tends to dissipate. As it develops, the palate takes on a leathery, mushroom note, with flavors of hemp seed, bacon, and more toasty wood notes backing that up. Quite drying, it finishes on a spicy note that recalls allspice and layers in cloves and nutmeg, which is about as traditional as Seven Wood ever gets. Those looking for something off the beaten path may quite enjoy this, but it does tend to wander fairly far afield and never finds much in the way of balance. The name turns out to be perfectly apt. 84 proof. B- / $75

Jura 18 Years Old – This 18 year old single malt is matured in American White Oak ex-bourbon barrels and finished in European oak casks, formerly used to age an undisclosed red wine. It’s a more traditional whisky than the Seven Wood, but a well produced one to be sure. Malty and a little spicy on the nose, the whisky hints at nutmeg, licorice, and mint, with some dark chocolate and a touch of toasty wood making an appearance. On the palate, a stronger chocolate character dominates, with some clove clinging to the back of it. A burnt sugar note emerges as the palate develops, and here we see a little island influence, with a salted caramel note offering just the barest hint of briny peat character. The finish is sweeter than expected, and long with notes of spice and some hints of dark cherry and, from nowhere, a coffee bean note. Nice balance, with plenty to recommend. (Not to mention, a new single malt with an age statement? Color us shocked.) 88 proof. A / $130

Review: Chapter 7 Allt-a-Bhainne 9 Years Old and Aultmore 9 Years Old

We last wrote about the Swiss brand Chapter 7, a newer independent bottler of single malt Scotch, in mid-2017. Now the outfit has released two new releases in the U.S., both single cask bottlings offered at cask strength. Let’s check the duo out.

Chapter 7 Allt-a-Bhainne 9 Years Old – Allt-a-Bhainne is a Speyside distillery in the hands of the Chivas Brothers, built primarily to pump out malt for blends. This rare single malt expression (aged entirely in a first fill bourbon hogshead) initially shows nothing much special. The nose is green and a bit weedy, with heavy granary overtones and a raw pungency to it. The palate is fortunately much more enticing than the nose would indicate, offering quite a slug of spice, a bit of cinnamon red hots, some late-developing dark chocolate, and a soothing, bourbon barrel-driven vanilla finish. It’s rough around the edges, and would clearly have benefited significantly from extra aging, but it’s not without some measure of charm. 121.4 proof. B- / $65

Chapter 7 Aultmore 9 Years Old – Speyside’s Aultmore has a little more street cred, and single malts from this distillery are easier to come by. This 9 year old is bourbon cask aged but finished in an oloroso sherry cask. Again, though, the nose betrays the whiskey’s youth, though the sherry cask manages to give it an aromatic lift. That said, it’s underpinned by ample granary notes, a heavy barley pungency that pushes past whatever citrus and spice notes the sherry cask have given it. The palate is a bit of a bruiser at over 62% abv, and the sherry and underlying grain notes remain in serious conflict on the tongue. It’s perhaps a touch nutty from time to time, but simply too undercooked to show much charm. Water helps. 124.4 proof. B- / $70

Review: Crispin Rose Hard Cider

You’ve got rose wine, why not rose cider? That’s the thinking anyway behind Crispin’s latest, a new year-round cider that is made from “real rose petals, hibiscus, and an elegant blend of fresh-pressed juices made from hand-picked apples and pears from the Pacific Northwest.”

Unabashedly designed with women in mind, Crispin Rose is indeed quite floral, with an indistinct red flower note that, in the end, aligns itself more with the hibiscus than the rose petals. The apples and pears here are semi-dry, with just a hint of sweetness — not enough to dim the flowery notes, nor enough to make a somewhat muddy, twigs-and-stems character disappear.

While it’s hard not to love the pink color, the finished product is much muddier than I’d like — though, when amply chilled, drinkable enough.

5% abv.

B- / $10 per six-pack /

Review: Two Angels 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and 2015 Petite Sirah

A quick look at a few straightforward wines from Two Angels, sourced from California’s Lake County district.

2017 Two Angels High Valley Sauvignon Blanc – Initially quite tropical, with a surprising pineapple note, this sauvignon blanc quickly settles down to reveal a more mineral core, one which fades rapidly into a somewhat bitter, lackluster finish. Over time, some herbal notes develop on the nose, but the don’t readily complement the fruit in the game. B / $14

2015 Two Angels Red Hills Lake County Petite Sirah – A rather classic example of petite sirah, this is initially a powerhouse of dried berries that takes a slow fade into gamy notes of bacon and smoke, washing away the fruit that has come before. In the end, a tough and bitter element dominates, leaving behind an almost metallic taste on the tongue. B- / $15

Review: Talbott 2015 Chardonnay Kali Hart and 2016 Pinot Noir Kali Hart

Two new releases from Talbott, which can be found in California’s Carmel Valley. These Kali Hart bottlings hail from vineyards in Monterey.

2015 Talbott Chardonnay Kali Hart – A bit gamy, but notes of kiwi, banana, and some melon give this otherwise straightforward chardonnay a lift. The finish offers some minerals amidst the bacon notes, with a brisk and clean fade-out. B / $20

2016 Talbott Pinot Noir Kali Hart – Note that this is a 2016 vintage vs. the chardonnay’s 2015, and the wine is indeed showing as quite young. A savory, beefy flavor is most immediately telling, but there’s a clearly youthful expression of fruit here, too, plump and plum-flavored, with notes of tea leaf and cola. That said, it really lacks some of that backbone and structure, stuff that will only come with time. B- / $21

Review: Not Your Father’s Bourbon

After giving alcoholic root beer, ginger ale, and cream soda a spin, the “Not Your Father’s” brand has moved on up to hard spirits. Its first product in the category is an obvious one: Not Your Father’s Bourbon, a flavored bourbon which claims “a touch of vanilla” as its only adulterant.

Let’s give it a shot.

The nose is plenty sweet, with notes of sugar cookies, ample vanilla, and hints of cinnamon red hot candies. It’s whiskey, to be sure, but particularly bourbonish notes are elusive; though the hint of caramel corn and some rustic burlap notes at least nod in that direction.

The palate is well-sweetened although, perhaps, it is indeed “not too sweet” as the label indicates. For those with a distinct sugar fixation, NYFB will hit the spot with a candylike vanilla hit, a light note of milk chocolate, cinnamon, and a more evident popcorn note. The finish is on the racy side, again calling back more to cinnamon than vanilla, though both linger on the tongue.

It’s perfectly acceptable for a flavored whiskey, nothing to write home about but harmless, at least as a mixer, though one has to wonder: What was wrong with your father’s bourbon? It wasn’t sweet enough? Hands down I prefer my bourbon with less sweetness than this, as sugar tends to overpower the more delicate flavors that the whiskey might possess.

The back label of the bottle asks, “Why do flavored whiskeys always taste more like the flavor than the actual whiskey?”

To which I reply, “Why flavor the whiskey at all?”

86 proof.

B- / $25 /

Review: Bedlam Vodka

Graybeard Distillery can be found in Durham, NC, and it makes a single product, Bedlam Vodka, which is distilled from rice “with a deep Irish heritage.” The concept behind the vodka: Avoiding harshness. Per Graybeard CEO Brandon Evans. “After years of dissatisfaction with many vodka’s on the market, we came together to create a spirit based on our philosophy that vodka need not burn.”

Results: Bedlam doesn’t “burn” in any overwhelming sense, as it is softened by breakfast cereal notes and a notable sweetness. The nose is so grainy as to evoke a white whiskey, somewhat musty, with a few scattered notes of lemon peel. The body is fairly harmless, again with light citrus notes but with a considerably heavier cereal component. The finish is lightly sweet but bready, with a sweet baked goods element (think doughnuts) to it.

So, yes, Bedlam has successfully removed the bite from its vodka, but that is really to its detriment, as what’s left behind is somewhat saccharine and a bit dull. Really, if you take the burn out of vodka, what do you even have left?

80 proof.

B- / $22 /

Review: Sake Roundup – Fukucho, Bushido, Tozai, Konteki, and Kanbara

Sake is a daunting category that, for many westerners, has two sub-categories at best: hot sake, and cold sake. But as we’ve written about in the past, sake is in reality a complex universe that contains many styles and grades. Various sakes can be found in tiny cans for a few bucks, or in full-sized bottles for many hundreds of dollars.

Today we look at six different sakes, all brewed in Japan, that run the gamut of styles and quality levels — though these are all on the more affordable side. Thoughts follow.

Bushido Way of the Warrior Sake (can) – From Kizakura. This inexpensive mini can of sake looks innocuous, but it packs quite a bit of flavor into its tin innards. Punchy melon, some saline, and a slightly meaty edge give it much more complexity than you’d expect. B+ / $6 per 180ml can

Tozai Snow Maiden Sake – This cloudy sake is richer on the palate than a typical sake, with intense notes of honeydew melon and rice pudding. Quite approachable and easy drinking, it’s a simple but quite engaging sake, with a slight sweet, rounded finish punctuated by just a hint of bitterness. B+ / $10 per 300ml bottle

Tozai Living Jewel Sake – A clear Junmai sake, this is an iconic expression of sake at its simplest — rustic and a bit meaty, with notes of melon and wet earth in equal proportion. A sake for those who like a little funk in the mix. B / $10 per 300ml bottle

Konteki Tears of Dawn Sake – This Daiginjo sake offers a crisp attack, with notes of cantaloupe and some lemon around the edges. The finish has a banana character to it, with a slight maritime influence. Altogether, a fine and easily approachable example of the Daiginjo style. B+ / $21 per 300ml bottle

Kanbara Bride of the Fox Sake – Technically a Junmai Daiginjo, “this sake is inspired by the local legends of the Niigata’s annual fox-bride festival.” Heavy melon notes meet sultry earth, it’s a fragrant sake with aromas of both banana and musk. The chewy middle evokes taffy and peanuts, with a saline character that dominates the finish. B / $19 per 300ml bottle

Fukucho Seaside Sparkling Sake – Brewed by Miho Imada. This is a rather flat sake, despite the fizz generated by secondary fermentation in the bottle. Some notes of honeydew engage, but overall the experience is muted by dull, earthy notes. I think I would have enjoyed this more without the carbonation. B- / $33 per 500ml bottle