Review: Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Barrel Size Experiment


.36 describes a bullet caliber used Colt “Ranger” pistol — and it’s also the designation used by San Antonio-based Ranger Creek Distillery for its bourbon — “with over two pounds of Texas corn in each bottle.”

With this release, Ranger Creek takes the same new make spirit and ages it two ways. One has been aged in a large barrel (25 to 53 gallons) for at least two years, the other has been aged in a small barrel (usually 5 gallons, but up to 10 gallons) for 11 months. The idea: Put them side by side and see which you prefer.

And so we did:

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Barrel Experiment “Big Barrel” – (This isn’t really an experiment, this is Ranger Creek’s standard .36 bourbon, but it serves as the control.) This is a rustic, but overall quite enjoyable, little craft whiskey. The nose is woody to be sure, but balanced with notes of black pepper, dark chocolate, charcoal, and tobacco. The palate is more engaging than expected, its hefty wood backbone complemented by notes of cloves, gunpowder, and cigar smoke. The finish is dense, continuing on the frontier theme, but nothing that seems unusual for a Texas-born bourbon. 96 proof. B / $55

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Small Caliber Series Batch #48 Barrel Experiment “Small Barrel” – This one’s the experiment, aged in a small barrel for less than a year, as noted. Normally small barrels will dominate a whiskey with wood notes, but I was downright shocked to see that wasn’t the case here. Compared the big barrel, this Small Caliber release is elegant and demure. The nose is a bit hot and moderately woody, with some of that pepper and tobacco, though nothing sweeter immediately evident. On the palate, the story’s a bit different. The wood takes a step back and lets a savory but engaging character to emerge, with notes of coconut, mushroom, banana bread, and some dried plums. The finish is silky, just barely touched with ruddy, winey sweetness, and hinting at fruit. Hands down, this is my favorite in the duo. 96 proof. Reviewed: Season – Spring ’16, aged 11 months. A- / $38 (375ml)

Review: Highland Park Magnus

Following on the release of Valkyrie, Highland Park continues to shake up its lineup with the release of Magnus, a NAS whisky that now serves as the unofficial entry-level expression of Highland Park. Unlike Valkyrie, Magnus is not replacing anything in the roster (though plenty of stuff, including Highland Park 15, Highland Park 21, and Dark Origins, has already been discontinued).

So what’s Magnus? Some back story:

Founding the northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world takes a very distinct sort of spirit. And we captured that spirit to make our own. Highland Park, The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul is proud to announce the newest addition to its core range: MAGNUS.

Exclusive to the US and Canada, this expression celebrates the distillery’s founder Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day, and bootlegger by night. Brave, irreverent and enterprising, Magnus was a direct descendant of the Vikings who settled on Orkney hundreds of years ago. His legacy of attention to detail and passion for whisky making remains today and little has changed in the way Highland Park is crafted in over 220 years.

Jason Craig, Highland Park Brand Director, said, “We are very proud to be launching MAGNUS exclusively in North America and we look forward to receiving reviews of the whisky from consumers who are already fans of our distillery as well as welcoming new drinkers to our tribe with this bold new bottling.”

“Magnus Eunson set up his illicit still at a small cottage at High Park, overlooking Kirkwall and it remains the site of our home today. We say that our distillery was founded in 1798 – but in truth, that’s just the year that the authorities finally caught up with Magnus – he was certainly making whisky before that!”

The label design in striking gun metal foil on the bottle represents M for MAGNUS. It has been created in the decorative Viking art style called Urnes, which complements the recently redesigned 12 and 18 Year Old packaging, just released in North America. The design harks back to Viking storytelling and features the legend of a lion locked in battle with the forces of evil in the form of serpent-like dragons.

The top of the bottle also features the heads of two serpent-like dragons as well as the brand’s signature ‘The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul.’  Established 1798 is also featured which references the date when Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky was established.

Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker, commented: “I wanted to create a whisky which had the lightly-peated characteristics familiar to the Highland Park family but with a sweeter and more profound vanilla flavor profile. The result is a whisky crafted using a high proportion of Sherry seasoned American oak casks along with refill casks which give MAGNUS its citrus, vanilla and lightly smoky taste.”

Now let’s give it a try.

This is one of the lightest whiskies I’ve ever encountered from Highland Park, and while that isn’t necessarily a slam, those looking for HP’s characteristic brooding depth of flavor will not find it here. The nose finds some of that trademark maltiness, an earthy note that conceals aromas of nutty sherry, dusky spice, musk, and furniture polish. Sounds intense, but the palate is something else: Light on its feet, almost floral at times, with sweeter notes of breakfast cereal, brown butter, graham crackers, and just a touch of smoke. The peat is extremely mild here, but there’s a green, slightly vegetal note on the finish that isn’t entirely what I was after.

As an introduction to the basic style of Highland Park, Magnus isn’t a bad place to start. The price is certainly right. The only issue: Magnus really doesn’t add anything new to the HP story; it just feels… a bit too familiar.

80 proof.

B / $40 /

Review: Beers of New Belgium, Late 2017 Releases

New Belgium seems to crank out more beer than anyone this side of Sam Adams. Here’s a look at five new releases, including a new Fat Tire bottling and our first pumpkin beer of the season.

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Passion Fruit IPA – The newest special release of New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger brand doesn’t need much introduction: It features Citra and Galaxy hops, backed up with passion fruit. It’s not a very compelling blend at all. Something in the juicy, floral passion fruit just doesn’t jibe with the bitterness from the hops, giving the whole affair a cacophonous character that feels at once artificial, candylike, and gooey. 8% abv. C- / $7 per 22 oz bottle

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin – The pumpkin spices pour right out of the bottle here, tons of cinnamon and nutmeg and autumnal sweetness. Take a sip and the “atomic” becomes clear: This brew is spiked with habanero peppers, giving the otherwise sweet body a fiery kick. I’m not quite sure what to think of this bizarre mix, but somehow it works better in the bottle than it does on paper. Tabasco on your pumpkin pie? I might have to try it this year, just to see. 6.4% abv. B / $8 per six-pack

New Belgium in Collaboration with Oud Beersel Transatlantique Kriek – This is a 50-50 blend of a tart cherry lambic from Belgium with New Belgium’s own golden sour ale (aged 1 to 3 years in oak). The results are intensely flavored with sour cherries, but it’s never overwhelming, coming off almost as refreshing as a bold cherry soda. Beyond that, not much, making this a one-note brew, to be sure, but one that’s so unique it’s worth exploring. 6.5% abv. B+ / $8 per 22 oz bottle

New Belgium Fat Tire Belgian White – This is the first ever addition to the Fat Tire brand, a wheat ale flavored with Seville oranges and Indian coriander. The spice thankfully isn’t overdone here, leading the bready core of the beer show itself more clearly, the coriander dusting the finish like cinnamon on toast. Overall it’s a well-made, if unsurprising, addition to the lineup. 5.2% abv. B+ / $8 per six-pack

New Belgium Sour Saison – This is a blended barrel-aged farmhouse ale, and not nearly as sour as I’d expected. The combination of sourness with a spicy saison style really works, those dusky herbs mingling well with notes of sour apple and some cherry on the finish. Lightly tart but incredibly refreshing, it’s easily the best brew in the mix this month. 7% abv. A- / $NA (12 oz bottles)

Review: Mad River Maple Cask Rum and PX Rum

Mad River Distillers is based in Warren, Vermont, where it was founded in 2011 by John Egan, Brett Little, and Maura Connolly to produce high-quality, handcrafted spirits using locally-sourced, non-GMO ingredients and local spring water. The company now has four rums, three whiskeys, and a brandy in its lineup — and more stuff is on the way.

Our first encounter with Mad River looks at two of its rums. Let’s dig in.

Mad River Maple Cask Rum – This is a rum made from demerara sugar, aged in charred oak barrels then finished in spirit barrels that previously held maple syrup. Initially quite rustic, this rum eventually sheds some of its aromas of burlap, raw wood, and mushroom to reveal more layered aromas of licorice, raisin, and Eastern spices. There’s nothing much in the realm of maple syrup here, as the palate is on the raw side, pungent with greener vegetal notes and oily petrol, but here the rum also opens up given some time to reveal a reprise of sweet licorice plus bitter amaro, juicy prune, and a touch of ginger on the finish. Interesting — but ultimately rough — stuff. 92 proof. B / $36

Mad River PX Rum Limited Edition – Same deal as Maple Cask, only the finishing barrel is a Pedro Ximenez sherry barrel, quite unusual for rum. Rich and nutty, this is the opposite of Maple Cask in that the sherry is evident right from the start, with a nutty, wine-scented aroma that overlays a funky interior. The palate is in keeping with the nose, a pungent and forceful collection of flavors that coalesce into notes of raisin, fig, and sharp tobacco notes, with a finish that exudes cloves, nutmeg, and well-torched sugar. This is again an intense rum with tons of flavor, but here the balance is better, and the overall character is so unique that it’s hard to put down. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. A- / $42

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2017 Edition

Old Forester’s annual Birthday Bourbon — celebrating the birthday of founder George Garvin Brown — has arrived.

Some details:

The 2017 Birthday Bourbon barrel selection was drawn from 12 year old barrels from different warehouses and floors on May 27, 2005. 93 barrels matured together on the 4th floor of G warehouse, yielding an extremely spice forward expression. The remaining 27 barrels matured together on the 5th floor of K warehouse contributing a rounding sweetness to the blend. Several barrels from both lots basked in the sun, highlighting the effects of maturation along an external wall in Old Forester’s heat cycled warehouses.

The craft of bourbon making- from barrels to bottling- is a mixture of art and science. For this year’s Birthday Bourbon, science plays an integral role in the product story. During the transfer of bourbon from the holding tank to the bottling line, alcohol vapors were lost during bottling, causing the proof to drop. As a result, this year’s Birthday Bourbon will be presented at both 96 proof and 95.4 proof. This distinction is identifiable in the proof statements on the bottle.

The 2017 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon will be on shelves with a suggested retail price of $79.99. Florida and Georgia will receive the 95.4 proof expression and remaining states will receive the 96 proof expression. Kentucky is the only state which will receive both expressions with the 96 proof expression shipping first.

We’re reviewing the 96 proof version. If anyone has the 95.4 proof expression and would like to share their thoughts, please fire away in the comments.

Meanwhile, our own tasting notes:

2017 presents a somewhat thin expression of OldFo, relatively lackluster next to the knockout of 2016. Here we find a dulled nose that hits some of the usual notes — butterscotch, buttered popcorn, caramel, baking spice, and ample wood, but it’s filtered through a muddy haze that puts a damper on things. On the palate, the popcorn dominates, with clove-driven spice, black pepper, and tobacco leaf the dominate secondary notes. The finish is again quite earthy, though more raw alcohol notes redirect the focus as said finish develops.

All told, it’s an acceptable but relatively innocuous entry into the increasingly erratic Old Forester Birthday Bourbon lineup.

96 proof.

B / $80 /

Review: Sparkling Wines of Martini & Rossi, 2017 Releases

You’re probably singing it right now — Martin and Rossi / Asti Spumante. Well, Italy’s Martini & Rossi is still around and, it turns out, is trying to slowly move upmarket, God bless ’em. Yes, Asti Spumante is still here too — they just call it Asti now — but the brand has its sights on grander designs, namely the release of its first vintage-dated Prosecco, under the “Martini” brand.

Below please find thoughts on the upcoming 2016 Prosecco — to be released in early 2018 — and three of the Martini & Rossi nonvintage wines… including the classic!

2016 Martini Prosecco DOC – As noted, this is the first vintage-dated Prosecco from M&R, labeled on the front with only “Martini” (sorry, Rossi!). Surprisingly fizzy and effervescent, this bottling benefits from letting the bubbles settle down a little, which allows the stone fruit and crisp green apple notes to come through more clearly. As it warms a bit, a fragrant lavender note emerges, with perhaps a touch of rosemary on the back end. Priced to move! A- / $20 to $25

NV Martini & Rossi Sparkling Rose – A blend of Moscato Bianco, Brachetto, and Malvasia from northern Italy. Pleasant and uncomplicated, the wine is effervescent, fresh, and a bit floral, but lacking in any other truly defining character aside from the strawberry notes that hit on the finish. Nothing that will blow your mind, but not at all bad at this price. B / $12

NV Martini & Rossi Prosecco DOC – This nonvintage version of M&R’s Prosecco isn’t half as much fun as the 2016 bottling, and you’ll save just a few bucks on the price. A bit gummy, with a heavy pear flavor, it’s a simplistic and over-sweetened version of Prosecco that misses the floral fun of the 2016. B- / $12

NV Martini & Rossi Asti DOCG – 100% muscat, and sweet as the dickens. That said, it’s better than expected, the muscat’s peachy notes complementing a core that tastes like pure honey. The fizz cuts the sweetness enough to make one see why people gravitated to this stuff in the ’70s. B / $12

Review: The Traveler Beer Co. Jack-O Traveler Pumpkin Shandy 2017

The unofficial post-Labor Day arrival of autumn ushers in things people look forward to all summer long: college football, campfires, and everything consumable blessed with a generous infusion of pumpkin. The beer world is not immune to this trend. One trip down a local beer aisle presents a plethora of pumpkin flavored beers around this time of the year, ready for consumption in every style imaginable.

Burlington, Vermont’s Traveler Beer Company joins in the chorus with its latest offering: The Jack-O Traveler Pumpkin Shandy. The front-end is heavy with typical autumnal notes of gingerbread, clove, and little bit of nutmeg. This combo can be a bit potent on the first sips, so if a mouthful of pumpkin pie happens to suit your palate, this will do the job nicely. Over time the rough edges smooth out and there’s a splendid aftertaste of vanilla and ginger.

In a previous review two years ago, Chris found this particular offering too sweet and overwhelming. I can see where he would reach that conclusion. Perhaps the recipe has changed a bit, because as pumpkin beers go, there are far worse to be found lurking in the great pumpkin patch.

Pairs well with a dollop of Cool-Whip.

4.4% abv.

B / $7 per six-pack /