Review: Wathen’s Kentucky Bourbon Single Barrel Private Selection from SF Wine Trading

San Francisco Wine Trading Company recently sent us its Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection offering, and while it was a knockout, the truth is that private selections of Four Roses Single Barrel are a dime a dozen — sometimes it seems like every liquor store has one.

No SF Wine Trading is out with another private selection bourbon, this one much more unusual: Wathen’s, which is made by the Charles Medley Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky from a mash of 77% corn, 10% rye, and 13% malted barley. (Wathen’s carries a giant number 8 on the front label, but that’s not an age statement: Wathen’s is officially a NAS whiskey.)

Wathen’s isn’t generally regarded as an outstanding bourbon (and that’s reflected in a price that can run as low as $30), and this private selection (with a 50% premium) isn’t overwhelmingly impressive, either. That said, it has enough charm to merit some attention.

The nose is a bit unusual, with notes of raisin, prune juice, and a bit of petrol atop otherwise straightforward notes of toasted wood and somewhat scorched caramel. The palate is a bit more interesting, taking some of those more exotic notes and flipping the script such that vanilla and caramel take more of a center stage, with dried fruit and some new chocolate notes stepping back into the background a bit. The petrol appears again on the relatively hot finish alongside some new wood notes, but neither is overwhelming, and together they manage to end the experience with a semblance of balance.

94 proof. Barrel #0094.

B / $45 /

Review: Westland Garryana Native Oak Series 2017 Edition 2|1

Westland’s single malt “Garry Oak” series continues with this second edition, a follow up to the inaugural 2016 release. I won’t rehash what a Garryana oak is, but will instead focus on how this release differs from the first. The main thing: No peat.

Like its predecessor, Edition 2|1 features Garry Oak as the lead note in a broader composition that brings together a variety of distillates and cask types. The most noteworthy change from last year to this is the absence of a peated component. This is an intentional inquiry. Garry Oak contains a relatively high amount of natural phenols, and so we felt compelled to see how its particular brand of smoke expresses itself when it doesn’t share the stage with the peaty kind. If Garryana 1|1 was a grand gesture; this edition portrays an expression of subtle depth.

Garryana 2|1 is also bottled at a somewhat lower proof (50% abv)… and is on shelves with a somewhat higher price. As with the first release, there’s no age statement.

Let’s move on to the tasting…

The nose is a touch odd — a bit sweaty, with notes of roasted vegetables, fresh-cut lumber, and dusky cloves. The palate however has more in common with a typical American single malt. Grain-forward, but not overly so, the wood influence is powerful, giving the body ample tannin plus notes of burnt sugar and roasted hazelnuts — the latter a common thread from the first edition of the whiskey. The finish sees the emergence of additional spicier elements — nutmeg and cinnamon, dried red berries, and a lightly sweet, milk chocolate note. The wood grips at the back of the throat as the finish fades, providing a curiously saccharine note to the conclusion.

It’s a strange whiskey — and one that’s quite different than its predecessor.

100 proof. 2600 bottles produced.

B / $150 /

Is Boxed Wine Any Good? Tasting Boxes from The Naked Grape, Vin Vault, and Liberty Creek

Don’t look now, but boxed wines have come leaps and bounds since you last snuck a sip from that box of Franzia in your parents’ refrigerator. Designed for big groups, low budgets, beach venues, or for folks who just want a glass every now and then without a whole bottle going bad (most large-size boxes will last for a month due to the airtight construction of the bag inside), boxed wine is a credible solution for any number of occasions.

That is, if the wine inside is any good. We put three recent bottlings — er, boxings — to the test. Let’s start sipping!

NV The Naked Grape Pinot Grigio California – A perfectly credible “house white,” this spritely wine is brisk and acidic, with notes of pineapple, melon, and lingering lemon and lime on the back end. Cleansing and fresh; uncomplicated but plenty pleasant. B+ / $20 (3 liters)

NV Vin Vault Cabernet Sauvignon California – This one’s barely drinkable, a fruit bomb that tastes more like strawberry-flavored syrup and jelly than it does any wine I would rank as palatable. Chocolate, marshmallow, and vanilla notes give it a distinct dessert-like bent, particularly on the gummy finish. D / $20 (3 liters)

NV Liberty Creek Chardonnay California – This is a workable chardonnay, minimally oaked (or treated) and featuring just a hint of vanilla that works fairly well as a companion to a lemon-heavy palate, which is otherwise lightly sweet but approachable enough for afternoon porch-sipping. Nothing complex, but I wouldn’t be ashamed to serve it. B / $4 (500ml)

Review: Beers of East Brother Beer Co.

Richmond, California, is a rough-and-tumble suburb north of San Francisco, and it’s also the home of the new(ish) East Brother Beer Co., which was founded with the goal of creating “familiar, classic styles with precision and a modern sensibility.” No grapefruit IPAs here: East Brother uses traditional ingredients to put its own (modest) spins on the classics of brewing.

Reviews of four of East Brother’s beers — the Wheat IPA was unavailable — follow. Look for them in East Brother’s taproom, at your local Bay Area watering hole, or in 16 oz. cans.

East Brother Red Lager – A bit on the bitter side for a lager (this one a Vienna-style number), with a bit of an herbal element to it. The finish is quite dry — again, particularly so considering this is a lager, not an ale — with notes of rhubarb, roasted nuts, and sunflower seeds. 4.6% abv. B

East Brother Oatmeal Stout – This is a brisk and quite solid rendition of oatmeal stout, mouth-filling but with enough carbonation to let the lighter elements — some berry fruit, a squeeze of citrus — shine past the core of roasted walnuts, dark chocolate, and coffee grounds. Surprisingly refreshing. 5.4% abv. A-

East Brother Bo Pils – A lovely “Bohemian style” pilsner, it’s got ample malt, a pleasantly light bitterness, and layers of fruit on top of all of it — lemon, lime, and pineapple — plus just a hint of oregano. Incredibly drinkable, the toasty, bready backbone soothes the palate as well as the soul. 5.0% abv. A

East Brother Red IPA – Another malt-forward brew, a clear departure from the typical IPA format, with nuttier elements up front, leading to a fruity, lively expressionality (not a word, but I can’t come up with anything better) on the palate. The finish sees some modest hoppiness — nothing any IPA fan will even shrug at — but ultimately the balance between malt and hops proves to be surprisingly deft. 6.8% abv. A-

prices $NA /

Review: St. Mayhem Craft Wine Cooler – Ginger Loves Company

It’s hard to hear “wine cooler” without thinking back to the 1980s when virtually every major liquor company mixed cheap wine with fruit juice to make a party alternative to inexpensive beer. St. Mayhem’s newest wine cooler bears virtually no relation to the earlier beverages with which it shares a name. Ginger Loves Company is made with quality wine, includes virtually no fruit juice, has a much higher alcohol content (14.1%), costs more, and tastes good. Ginger Loves Company begins with Chardonnay sourced from Napa and Clarksburg and then is aged with organic peaches and organic dried ginger root. The result is not a college party drink, but a glass of wine with an unusual profile.

The nose on Ginger Loves Company reveals typical chardonnay character as well as clear notes of ginger. The palate opens like a California chardonnay, with some buttery creaminess. The slightly sweet flavor of peaches follows, but it isn’t overpowering. Finally, ginger appears in the finish, which I think some may appreciate, but which I didn’t enjoy more than a good chardonnay.

I don’t know if I’m sold on Ginger Loves Company, but it’s enjoyable and worth trying. More importantly, I am impressed by St. Mayhem’s creative innovation as they take quality wine into bold new territory.

B / $25 /

Review: Q Drinks Mixers – Complete Lineup

Q is a leading name in the artisan mixer space, and recently the company fairly radically revamped its lineup, jettisoning a few products, adding at least one, and most importantly, dropping its bottle size from 9 ounces to 6.7 ounces — more in line with “single serving” size and, more importantly, allowing them to reduce the price from $8 per four-pack to $6.

Today we look at the full Q Drinks lineup as it stands at the moment — seven products spanning the gamut of the most common mixers. Let’s dive in!

Q Drinks Club Soda – Heavily carbonated (“as much carbonation as the bottle will hold”) and quite neutral in flavor, with just a hint of salt and a splash of bitterness on the back end. Extremely versatile and — yes — fizzy! A

Q Drinks Ginger Ale – Much spicier than your typical ginger ale — and remember, Q makes a ginger beer, too, so hang on to your hat. I could use a touch more sweetness in my ginger ale, but in the favor of this throat-clearing rendition is a clean and crisp character that gives it ample versatility… plus that trademark Q Drinks heavy carbonation. B+

Q Drinks Ginger Beer – A bit hazier, with ginger bits floating in it. It’s definitely a spicier concoction than the ginger ale, but not so overpowering as to make one cry. This is spicy, lightly sweet, and clean in construction from start to finish. A solid palate cleanser and a great little companion for rum. A

Q Drinks Kola – A refreshing blend of kola nut, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, lemon, lime, and agave for sweetness. It’s a touch sweet for my taste, with less carbonation than other Q products, and the agave gives the finish an herbal touch that is a bit at odds with the baking spices up front, and which comes through even when mixing. B

Q Drinks Grapefruit – Designed specifically for paloma cocktails, per Q, this grapefruit soda is plenty refreshing on its own, too — with the perfect balance of sweet, sour, and bitterness giving it a complexity well beyond a can of Squirt. Brisk and refreshing, and a beautiful shade of pink, be careful with anything you mix with it, as these cocktails go down far too easily. A

Q Drinks Tonic Water – Bracingly bitter, with plenty of quinine, with a hint of lemon peel on the back end. Lots of carbonation gives this tonic a ton of length, and the finish sees the bitterness, with some hints of amaro, lingering for what seems like minutes. A definite top tonic for bitterness nuts. A-

Q Drinks Indian Tonic Water – If you like your tonic with a touch of sweetness, this is the expression for you. It’s still powerfully bitter and highly fizzy, but the spritz of lemony sugar gives it added complexity. Designed to stand up to more powerful gins, I’d say it’s mission accomplished. A

each $6 per four-pack of 6.7 oz. bottles /

Review: Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Vermouth, Dry Gin, and Quince

Newly available in the U.S. is this collection of products from Germany’s Avadis Dsitllery. Bottled under the Ferdinand’s label, these products all involve a unique ingredient: Riesling wine from the Mosel region, where the distillery is based.

Some additional details from the company:

Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin is crafted from grain to bottle at Avadis Distillery located in Germany’s Mosel Region. Only the highest-grade late and select harvest grape wines from the neighboring steep shale slopes of the Saarburger Rausch vineyards are used for the gin’s wine infusion. These semi-sweet Rieslings from the Saar are not just known for their elegance and fruity complexity, but also exhibit the maximum degree of extract density, providing a refinement characteristic to Saar Dry Gin. The raw distillate produced from the grain is distilled several times to form the basis for a selection of 30 hand-picked herbs, spices and fruits, which are carefully macerated to produce an eau-de-vie. The additional use of a steam infusion of freshly harvested herbs adds unique fresh floral notes to this gin, and it is rounded off with a precise measure of Schiefer Riesling to guarantees a high-quality product.

We tasted three products in the Ferdinand’s line. Thoughts follow.

Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Vermouth – Dry vermouth made from the riesling grape. Quite dry, and surprisingly bitter given the riesling base. Notes of oxidation, rosemary, and quinine all mix together a bit unevenly, finishing on a Meyer lemon note. Scattered and off-balance, with too much wormwood in the mix, it has a certain charm but doesn’t add a whole lot in a mixed drink. 18% abv. B- / $23

Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin – This is the riesling-infused gin, with 30 (undisclosed) botanicals. The nose is intense with juniper, lemon peel, and thyme — largely traditional, with the riesling not making a major showing. On the palate, the wine character is far more evident, a bittersweet character that offers a lemon syrup note, followed by layers and layers of savory herbs, leading to a surprising, very bitter finish. Daunting on its own, it’s an intensely herbal experience that needs a lot more citrus in the bill to find balance. 88 proof. C+ / $45

Ferdinand’s Saar Quince – This oddity, an homage to traditional sloe gin, is an infusion of Saar Dry Gin (though the label says “vodka”) with estate-grown quinces and 2011 Kabinett class riesling. The exotic nose combines sweet white wine, honey, lemon and grapefruit (or quince-ness), and a smack of herbs to create a truly unusual but not unappealing aroma. The palate is quite sweet, again laced with a rather intense amount of herbs but cut with lots of that lemony citrus character. The finish is bittersweet, a bit sour, and quite herbal, but it all fades out on a sweet lemon sherbet note. Not really a substitute for sloe gin, but you might see what you can do with it in lieu of triple sec — or half-and-half with a regular gin. 60 proof. B / $50 (500ml)