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

Review: Few Spirits Single Malt Whisky, Italia Bourbon, Copper & Kings Bourbon, and Copper & Kings Rye

Evanston, Illinois-based Few Spirits recently dropped a pile of new whiskeys, all limited editions (with some of them single barrel releases). Stylistically, they’re all over the map, so pay close attention here — and nuzzle up with your local spirits merchant if they sound enticing — to get the lowdown on each of the quartet.

Few Spirits Single Malt Whisky – Distilled from 100 percent malted barley, a portion of which is smoked with cherry wood. No aging information provided. Instantly weird, with a nose of roasted vegetables, Brussels sprouts, and grainy horse feed. That grassy, hay-heavy note continues on to the palate, quite smoky at times and heavy with notes of the field — pastoral cereals, dried weeds, and campfire embers. The finish is lightly sweetened with honey and just a squeeze of lemon. Undercooked, but not without some charms. 93 proof. B- / $70

Few Spirits Italia Bourbon – A collaboration between Few, Eataly, and Folio Fine Wine Partners, which provided casks from Sicily’s Donnafugata (which specific wine is unclear), used for finishing. This is a young and initially quite savory whiskey, heavy with wet earth and popcorn notes on the nose, though it’s cut with a spice one seldom sees in bourbon of this age. Hints of sweet red fruit on the palate offer more promise here, but the sweetness is quickly overpowered by a thick layer of asphalt and tannin, leading to a sultry and earthy finish, heavy with tobacco notes. That said, enough of that wine-driven fruit manages to shine through here, brightening up the whiskey with notes of blackberry and baking spice, to elevate it into something unique, approachable, and worth sampling. 93 proof. B / $50

Few Spirits Copper & Kings Bourbon Finished in American Brandy Barrels – A single barrel bottling, which consists of Few Bourbon finished in C&K’s brandy barrels. It’s a racy whiskey, though quite grainy at times, with an aroma heavy with toasted bread, caramel corn, and indistinct spice. The palate is surprisingly chocolaty, with notes of chicory and bitter roots. The finish sees some ginger notes, but it still plays it close to a vest composed of fresh-cut lumber and hemp rope. On the whole, the brandy influence is tough to find. B / $40

Few Spirits Copper & Kings Rye Finished in American Brandy Barrels – Also a single barrel, C&K brandy barrel-finished bottling, only this one uses Few’s rye as the base. A surprisingly different spirit than the above, though the nose is still a bit restrained, here showing a slightly sweeter side, some tea leaf, and a savory, dill-like herbal component. The palate finds a melange of new flavors, including notes of strawberry jam and a bold, powerful spiciness that really gets to the heart of what rye is all about. With an almost chewy body, that spice finds plenty of purchase on a platform that finishes with hints of dark chocolate and rum raisin notes. Worth checking out, particularly at this price. 93 proof. B+ / $40

Review: Wines of Cycles Gladiator, 2016 Releases (Plus Canned Pinot)

Cycles Gladiator (we last covered its 2014 vintage) is known as a solid budget brand — and now it’s adding to that notoriety its first canned wine. Today we’re looking at the full cycle of Cycles, so to speak, in bottles, plus taking a peek at its pinot noir in a can. We’re including thoughts on that wine in both bottled and canned formats.

2016 Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay Central Coast – Workmanlike but fully workable, this is a California chardonnay in its native form, full of (but not overloaded with) vanilla, oak, and brown butter. Lemon and apricot give the wine its fruit core, with lingering spiced apple notes. Not at all bad. A- / $12

2016 Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir Central Coast (bottle) – Budget pinot is never a major thrill, but Cycles gets it close enough here, with a bottling that is heavy on raspberry and strawberry notes, with a light undercurrent of beefsteak. Short finish, with some light florals on the finish. B+ / $12

NV Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir California (can) – Technically there is no vintage information on this expression, and it carries a California designate instead of a Central Coast one, so it’s probable not actually the same wine. It’s a sweeter expression of pinot than the above, lacking almost all of those meaty tones, replaced instead with pure strawberry jam. It’s nonetheless still approachable and drinkable, provided you pour it into a glass (or, to be honest, a Solo cup) first: Straight from the can it tastes like pure, sugary fruit juice. B- / $6 per 375ml can

2014 Cycles Gladiator Merlot Central Coast – OK, back to bottles. This merlot is a bit of a surprise, slightly peppery, with ample blueberry and blackberry notes. Notes of pencil lead and tobacco give the finish a more savory kick, which seems uncharacteristic for this varietal. One of the most balanced wines in this collection, and one which flirts with elegance. A- / $12

2015 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah Central Coast – The 2014 petite sirah was a bust, and this one’s no better. Again it’s a combo of pruny, jammy fruit and leathery, vegetal funk — overripe plums meet the compost heap in a pungent, overwhelmingly earthy way. The finish lingers on the palate for an eternity. C / $12

Review: Michter’s US-1 Toasted Barrel Finish Rye 2017

Michter’s Toasted Barrel whiskey releases are arguably its most sought-after spirits. The whiskeys are unique in that they are first aged in new oak, then finished in barrels that have not been charred but rather just toasted — lightly torched, but not burnt to a char. As this is a single-barrel, cask strength release, proof will vary.

While the 2015 release of Toasted Barrel Finish was a bourbon, for 2017 (we’re a bit slow getting to this one), Michter’s is going with a rye — and it’s bottled at a considerably higher proof.

As with prior releases of Toasted Barrel, this one is hefty with wood right from the start, its nose loaded up with straight lumberyard aromas, plus undercurrents of cherry and sandalwood. The palate finds a similar character — plenty of wood, almost smoky at times, with dense notes of licorice, tobacco, and cloves on the palate. The finish is quite tough and leathery, with loads of charcoal dust, black olives, and throat-clearing menthol that lingers on the back end.

Toasted Barrel, as with prior releases, is clearly designed for wood fanatics. If that’s your jam, you’ll probably find this one a lot more enjoyable than I did.

110 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #17C570.

B- / $75 /