Book Review: Hennessy: A Toast to the World’s Preeminent Spirit

The title might cue you off that this is a project sponsored by Hennessy, a coffee table book which serves as a richly illustrated historical guide to everything there is to know about this famed Cognac.

The book is divided into sections, each built around a topic or a specific luminary that has something to do with Hennessy. This ranges from eighth generation Hennessian Maurice-Richard Hennessy to, no joke, Fab 5 Freddy.

After wrapping up some basic history, the book is heavily organized around Q&A style interviews. These Q&As could use some tightening up — there’s a lot of “Well… you know… er… um…” in the transcripts — but if you’re interested in the brandy or the people doing the talking, or the relationship between the two, they’re worth a read in the way that a quickie Esquire lunch interview can be a fun way to spend five minutes. (Writer Glenn O’Brien is best known as a veteran interviewer with a focus on music.)

An equal focus of the book is art, which ranges from original illustrations to archival photos, ad images, and other ephemera that ranges back decades. It’s just as much fun (or more) to flip through the pictures as it is to see what Nas has to say about things.

B / $28 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Bison Ridge Special Reserve Canadian Whisky 8 Years Old

Prestige Beverage Group (known for Kinky, Glen Moray, and more) is out with a new Canadian whisky, Bison Ridge. Bison Ridge comes in two expressions, a 3 year old blend and this Special Reserve, which carries an 8 year old age statement (with aging noted in American oak). Sourcing and mashbill information are not provided.

An eight year old whisky for 20 bucks? Hold your garters, because I’ve seen it as cheap as $14.99. That’s unheard of in today’s whiskonomy.

Sadly, the whisky itself is nothing all that special. The nose is particularly Canadian, with a nutty character plus a mix of baking spices leading the charge. Vanilla and maple syrup notes are also distinct, with some sulfur character lingering at the end. On the palate, the body is immediately a bit gummy in texture, with flavors of cinnamon toast, barrel char, vanilla-flavored candies, peppermint, and jasmine. It’s a mixed bag of expected and unexpected flavor notes, with a finish that comes across like eating vanilla frosting straight out of the tub. This kind of saccharine character of course isn’t unheard of for Canadian whiskies, although one would have thought that an 8 year old would have grown out of it by this point.

80 proof.

B / $20 / prestigebevgroup.com

Review: 2016 Kim Crawford Rose Hawke’s Bay

This New Zealand rose is made from merlot grapes and presents itself as an uncomplicated, moderately sweet rose with notes of strawberry, cinnamon rolls, and a touch of balsamic character on the back end. This adds some bitterness, but also balance, which the wine seems to be in further need of. Fine for these early days of spring as an afternoon sipper, but depth is elusive.

B / $18 / kimcrawfordwines.com

Review: The Rums of Maggie’s Farm

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Maggie’s Farm is focused on one spirit only: rum (plus a couple of liqueurs, one of which is a falernum). The name of the distillery hails from a Bob Dylan song, and while he didn’t mention rum production in it, a quick listen might get you into the mood to sip some of their craft-distilled goodies.

Below find our thoughts on six of the nine rum expressions the company currently produces. Production differs from product to product, so follow along closely!

Maggie’s Farm White Rum – Made from 100% raw turbinado sugar and unaged after pot distillation. Pungent with oily fuel notes, as is typical for unaged rum, with some aromas of citrus peel, lavender, and ginger. On the palate, the more industrial-tasting notes are dialed back, with notes of ripe banana and marshmallow fluff showing, though the finish is loaded up with coal dust and hints of petrol. Not unapproachable, but strictly a mixer. 80 proof.  B / $28

Maggie’s Farm La Revuelta Dark Rum – (“The uprising.”) This is a funky product that is actually a blend: Maggie’s Farm’s raw cane pot-distilled rum from Pittsburgh mixed 50/50 with a column-distilled molasses rum from Trinidad. Solid stuff here: The nose is rich and authentic, with caramel and molasses notes, strong vanilla, and some chocolate, too. Mildly floral aromas persevere, given enough time. The palate is sweet and loaded with cinnamon-heavy baking spice, applesauce, and just a hint of diesel on the back end to give it some kick. A top-notch, well-aged rum. 80 proof. A / $35

Maggie’s Farm Spiced Rum – This is the turbinado-based rum, flavored with eight different spices, “including Tahitian vanilla bean, fresh orange zest, nutmeg, and allspice.” It is not sweetened with sugar. The nose is bold with notes of lemon, vanilla, gingerbread, and evergreen Christmas notes. Enticing, it leads the way to a body loaded with those baking spices, dusky root beer notes, some green olive, and loads of vanilla. It’s strong for a spiced rum, but as promised, it’s only very lightly sweet, so let your mixer do any sugar-sweetening you need. 80 proof. B+ / $30

Maggie’s Farm Queen’s Share Unaged – “Queen’s Share Rum is made exclusively from the tail runnings of our normal cane rum distillations. Being heavier than alcohol, the flavor and aroma compounds boil off the still in a higher concentration at the end of the distillation cycle. We keep these tail runnings and re-distill them on their own. This results in a more flavorful and complex spirit. This unaged version is the unadulterated and bottled at cask strength.” Much more neutral than the standard White Rum, this is both fruitier and more floral, with a honeysuckle kick. At 57% abv, it’s hot but not scorchingly so, with a slight petrol finish, followed by some more banana. Milder than you’d think. 114 proof. B / $24 (375ml)

Maggie’s Farm Queen’s Share Rye Barrel Finish – The Unaged Queen’s Share mentioned above spends 18 months in rye whiskey barrels before bottling. The whiskey character is undeniable here, from the sweet caramel nose, loaded with rye-heavy baking spice, to the lush and clove-forward, toffee-soaked palate. Some flambed banana notes remind you that this is actually rum, not whiskey, with a finish that adds in notes of bubble gum and some fresh cherry fruit. Fun stuff, but far off the beaten path of traditional rum. 110 proof. A- / $35 (375ml)

Maggie’s Farm Queen’s Share Double Cask Finish – This is another Unaged Queen’s Share rum, finished in two types of casks for 21 months. Mysteriously, the identity of both of those casks hasn’t been revealed to me. Again it’s got a whiskey kick to it, all toffee and caramel, cut with baking spice, banana bread, and almonds. Some moderate but sharp citrus notes percolate here and there, but the sweeter notes of vanilla and creamy caramel dominate. The finish is racy with allspice and cloves, spiced nuts, and hints of gunpowder. I like the more straightforward rye finish a bit better. 110 proof. B+ / $NA

maggiesfarmrum.com

Review: New Belgium La Folie 2017 and Juicy Watermelon

Something old, something new from New Belgium. One is a reprise of its annual sour release, the other a fruit-flavored ale. Let’s try both!

New Belgium La Folie Sour Ale 2017 – New Belgium’s annual release of La Folie — a sour brown ales matured in oversized French oak wine barrels for up to three years — is here. No surprises for those familiar with the beer. It’s intensely sour, with a heavy focus on fruit notes — apple and lime, especially — that are mouth-puckeringly tart. At the same time, it lacks that heavy acidity and pungency that can make so many sours overblown and undrinkable. While this is undoubtedly a powerhouse, it guides that power into something with balance and grace. 7% abv. A- / $16 per 22 oz bottle

New Belgium Juicy Watermelon – Watermelon lime ale? Sounds like something from which I’d run away screaming (and perhaps a reprise/rebrand of last year’s Heavy Melon), but much to my surprise, this fruit-heavy ale is quite approachable. You don’t even notice the fruit at first, which drinks more like a lager, malty and lightly sweet, with some Christmas spice elements. As the beer warms up, the watermelon becomes more evident, but it’s kept in check, never spiraling (quite) into Jolly Rancher territory. Summery, for sure, so hold out for a hot day. 5% abv. B / $9 per six pack

newbelgium.com

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: Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten (2017), Port Charlotte 10 Years Old (2017), Octomore 10 (2017), and Black Art 5.1

With Jim McEwan out and Adam Hannett in as master distiller, Bruichladdich hasn’t taken its foot off the gas even for a second. This summer the company hits the ground with three new ten year old whiskies — all revivals of earlier limited editions — plus a new release of Black Art, Hannett’s first stab at this mysterious (intentionally) vatting of very rare whiskies.

Thoughts on the quartet follow.

Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – The Laddie Ten is becoming a classic of younger single malts, and now a second limited edition is arriving. Distilled in 2006, this release is a 10 year old just like the first, and is made again from unpeated barley, and the whisky is aged in a mixture of bourbon, sherry, and French wine casks. Departures from the first edition are evident from the start. The second edition is quite a bit more cereal-focused on the nose than the original, with orange-scented barley and light mushroom notes wafting in and out. The palate is a bit sweeter than the nose would cue you off to, with a distinct chocolate character and notes of Honeycomb cereal. The finish is lively and sherry-heavy, with a nagging echo of dried mushrooms. It’s not as essential a whisky as the original Laddie Ten, but it remains worthwhile and is still not a bad value. 100 proof. B+ / $58

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – Another round with the 10 year old Port Charlotte. Made from 100% Scottish barley, and aged in a mix of first-fill bourbon, sherry, tempranillo, and French wine casks. Peated to a moderately heavy 40ppm. Sweet orange and some strawberry interplay nicely with the smoky, salty nose. This leads to a palate of dried fruit, sultry smoked bacon notes, and hints of camphor. It’s a fine dram, but as Islay goes, it’s not overwhelmingly well balanced and not all that special. Not my favorite whisky in this batch, but nothing I’d spit out, of course. 100 proof. B / $62

Bruichladdich Octomore 10 Years Old (2017) – You’ll need to look at the fine print to determine that this is from the 2017 edition, but no matter. This release is a 100% Scottish barley edition, aged in full-term bourbon casks (60%) and full-term grenache blanc casks (40%). Peating level is 167ppm. Fans of the Octomores of yesteryear will find this a familiar old friend. The extra age (typical Octomore is about 5 or 6 years old) doesn’t really change this spirit much at all; though perhaps it does serve to better integrate the raw peat with more interesting aromatics, including roasted meats, camphor, and Asian spices. On the palate, the smokiness and sweet notes are integrated well, giving the whisky the impression of a smoky rendition of sweet Sauternes, studded with orange zest and the essence of honey-baked ham. As always, this is fun stuff, though I think some of the younger Octomores are more interesting. 114.6 proof. B+ / $200

Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 – 24 years old, unpeated. Hannett’s stab at Black Art, per Bruichladdich, plays down the wine barrel influence, which was always a big thing with McEwan and which was effective at keeping drinkers guessing about each whisky’s makeup. I’ve always felt Black Art was a mixed bag, and despite the change in leadership this expression is no different, though the distillery is right that the wine influence is played down. In its stead, the nose offers austerity in the form of wood oil, walnut shells, roasted game, and some dried cherry fruit. The palate offers a respite from some of the wood and meat with light notes of white flowers (I’d wager dry white wine casks play some role here), dried pineapple, plum, golden raisins, and some gentle baking spice notes. The finish is surprisingly malty, with some briny elements. It’s a departure for Black Art, to be sure, and yet it still manages to be weird and, at times, hard to embrace. 96.8 proof. B / $350 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

bruichladdich.com

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