Review: Allagash Belfiüs

Allagash Brewing Company has been busy of late creating new beers with unique profiles. Belfiüs is particularly adventurous, labeled as a Saison Ale Blended with Spontaneously Fermented Ale. The bottle provides a helpful description:

This bottle contains two of Belgium’s well-known beer styles: a spontaneously fermented ale and a saison. The spontaneously fermented ale is also known as our Coolship beer. The name comes from a key brewing tool – the coolship – that allows the beer to be inoculated with wild yeast and other microflora.

After inoculation, the beer ages in oak barrels for up to three years. The second beer in the blend is our Saison, a dry ale defined by its notes of citrus and peppery spice. Blended together, they create a golden beer with an herbal aroma that contains both spice and tart fruit. Its taste is one of restrained sourness rounded out by a hint of oak.

Let’s give it a try. Poured aggressively into a glass, this bright yellow-golden beer presents a large head that quickly dissipates. The nose offers vibrant saison character with notes of hay, grass, citrus, and green apple. The beer’s high carbonation level can be seen in the bubbles that rise steadily from the bottom of the glass. It is a pleasure to note that the carbonation results from the fermentation process that takes place in French oak wine barrels, not other sources.

On the palate, Belfiüs opens with green apple, which is followed by a surprisingly sharp acidity. The acidity makes this an excellent beer to pair with a range of foods, and I was wishing I had some sausage and onions to enjoy with it. The acidity also suggests this beer could improve with aging. Following its bracing attack, the beer presents a mild sourness. The finish is a soft one, as the sour note slowly fades but never turns bitter. For all that this beer offers, it is fairly light bodied and quite drinkable. For those who love saisons, this is an exciting beer to try thanks to its distinctive, sour twist.

6.7% abv.

B+ / $15 per 375ml bottle /

Review: 2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Chardonnay, Grand Detour Pinot Noir, and Overlook Pinot Noir

Today it’s a trio of 2016 vintage wines from Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma — a chardonnay and two pinot noirs — including a few expressions we’ve never seen before.

2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – This standby chardonnay finds a moderate to heavy wood profile giving its underlying fruit a slathering of bacon, vanilla, and a hint of Eastern spices. The finish is lengthy and unctuous with butter and oak; on its own it’s a bit much, but it does pair well with seafood. B+ / $40

2016 Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – With that earthiness and chewy graphite character, this is iconic Sonoma Coast pinot noir from the outset. Notes of tea leaf give the black cherries at the wine’s core some gravitas, with a light meatiness adding weight to the back end. Some floral notes emerge in time, particularly as that finish lingers. While its dense and rich, there’s an elegance here that’s beautiful today — and will probably be more forthcoming in 2021 and beyond. A- / $30

2016 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir – Very meaty, this wine is almost tough with notes of beef jerky and fried ham, with a bit of a charred, burnt toast character to it. The savory elements dominate any fruit that’s to be found here; that runs to plums and a slightly raisiny, almost Port-like note. Pairs reasonably well with food, but on its own it lacks the vibrancy one wants from a truly soulful pinot. B / $20

Review: Crystal Head Aurora Vodka

Remember Crystal Head Vodka, the Dan Aykroyd-conceived spirit that wrapped UFOs, ectoplasm, and other planes of existence into the mythology of a bottle of 80-proof booze? Well, 10 years later, Crystal Head is back with a new, special edition called Aurora, complete with an updated skull bottle, and a revamped spirit inside.

Here’s how Aurora is different, in a nutshell, starting with the inventive showpiece of a bottle:

Distilled in Newfoundland, Canada, Crystal Head AURORA comes in a beautifully crafted bottle, which is an accurate rendering of the human skull. With an iridescent finish, the bottle was designed in celebration of the most vivid aerial phenomenon in the world – ‘the Northern Lights.’ To create the aesthetic of the lights’ mysterious visual properties, the skull shaped bottle is first placed into a sealed chamber and electrically charged. Two metals in powder form are activated seven times and released in the pressurized chamber. The powder is drawn to the electrically charged bottle – completely coating it. Then heated at high temperature, the powder melts, creating a uniquely iridescent metallized finish in which no two bottles are alike.

Inside, the spirit has also seen some changes.

AURORA is additive-free and made with high quality English wheat grown in the hills of North Yorkshire, and with pristine water from St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is five times distilled in a traditional column still prior to filtration. The vodka is filtered a total of seven times, the first three filtrations using activated charcoal – lasting six hours to remove impurities, next it is filtered three times over 10,000 Herkimer diamonds before finally going through a micro filtration prior to being bottled. Because AURORA was crafted with English Wheat, its flavor offers a drier, bolder, and spicier vodka than the Crystal Head original, made from peaches and cream corn.

Some how I missed that the original Crystal Head was made out of peaches and cream corn, but anyway, let’s taste Aurora and see how it acquits itself.

It’s good vodka, much like its forebear. The nose is clean but lightly medicinal, with hints of savory herbs, pencil lead, and a bit of rubbery band-aid character that emerges as the earlier notes fade. The palate shows an initial marshmallow sweetness, and a hint of rose petal florals, before settling into a somewhat astringent — almost bitter at times — groove. But this too fades away, leaving behind notes of rubber, some licorice, and dusky spices, almost coming across as Eastern spices at times. The finish is mostly clean, but does see a little of that band-aid note lingering.

All told, it’s a perfectly credible vodka — albeit a very expensive one — but what’s inside doesn’t nearly measure up to the wildly impressive bottle itself.

80 proof.

B+ / $60 /

Review: UWA Tequila Blanco and Reposado

“The Scottish Tequila Company” — UWA — has as its avowed mission a question: “What would happen if we took elements from both [regions] and created a blend of both tequila and whisky in a single drink?”

Don’t be too alarmed. UWA isn’t a blend of tequila and scotch; it’s merely tequila that has been aged in single malt, Speyside-born Scotch whisky casks instead of the typical American bourbon casks. UWA is 100% Lowlands blue agave, triple distilled, then aged according to the rules of tequila. While the three standard varieties are available, today we look at only the Blanco and Reposado.

Both are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

UWA Tequila Platinum Blanco – This is unaged tequila, so only a bit of a nod to Scotland. Heavy agave on the nose initially comes across as a bit rough, but some air gives it life, revealing notes of juicy lemon and pear. The palate is extremely peppery, but this too settles down a bit to reveal a softer side, including some citrus and applesauce notes. The finish is spicy but not overwhelming, particularly given some time in glass. B+ / $61

UWA Tequila Reposado – Aged for seven months in cask. The time in whisky casks gives this spirit an impressive depth. The nose is a mix of agave and vanilla, some red pepper, but the palate takes things down a new road. Here, Mexican chocolate, loaded with cinnamon and milky cocoa, provide a dessert-like balance that isn’t even hinted at in the blanco expression. Bold yet easily approachable, the finish meanders toward caramel sauce, dusted just so with chili powder. Beautiful stuff. The anejo must be a dazzler. A / $67

Review: Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar and 2×4 DIPA

Melvin Brewing can be found in Alpine, Wyoming, where some serious hopheads have been turning out brews since 2009. Today we take a spin through our first encounter with Melvin, both of which are available in cans, but only one of which (the big boy) has WWE wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan as a spokesman.

Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar – A collaboration of sorts with Teton Gravity Research, an action sports media company, this is a bright and lemony pilsner, light on the malt and crisp on the finish with notes of saltines and a hint of applesauce. Very easy to enjoy, and harmless at a mere 4.5% abv. B+ / $NA

Melvin Brewing 2×4 DIPA – A bruiser of a double IPA, this burly brew is densely packed with the trappings of the IPA world — “a stupid amount of hops,” per the label. Sticky, resinous pine tar is thick on the palate, but there’s complexity here in the form of orange peel and salted caramel notes. The intense bitterness lingers on the finish for days, a reminder that you’re drinking a beer that clocks in at a whopping 9.9% abv. Hello! A- / $9 per 4-pack

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: Deadhead Dark Chocolate Flavored Rum

From a packaging standpoint, Deadhead Rum is definitively one of the most talked-about bottles in my collection. Now the company is extending the line into a flavored rum — dark chocolate, specifically — while attempting to outdo itself with this monkey-headed decanter. (Again, it’s a plastic shell on top of a glass bottle beneath.)

It’s a lot like Cocoa Pebbles on the nose, a little dusty with dry cocoa powder notes dominating, but with a slight vegetal hint underneath. The palate is semi-sweet with chocolate dominating, alongside significant notes of vanilla, burnt caramel, and a slightly winey character. The finish gets a bit saccharine as the chocolate notes fade in prominence, though that’s probably not readily noticeable in a cocktail (preferably one with ice cream). As flavored rums go, it’s one of the better ones on the block, and that’s not even considering the insane monkey head bottle.

70 proof.

B+ / $35 /

Review: Sangre de Vida Tequila Blanco (2018)

We should probably start with the bottle. That’s a human heart, pressed out of red-tinted glass. Inside is blanco tequila, the brand name Sangre de Vida, which previously made some of those cute Day of the Dead skull-themed decanters as well. Sangre de Vida was sued by KAH for copyright infringement and ultimately lost its case; the skulls went away, and in came the heart.

It’s unclear whether the juice in the bleeding heart is the same as that which was in the painted skull — though my tasting notes are quite a bit different, so I’m guessing there have been some changes under the hood as well as changes to the hood itself.

Let’s taste the new blood.

The nose has a lot going on, more than you typically see in a blanco tequila. It’s immeditely quite pungent, thick with agave and red pepper, alongside hints of lemongrass, which provides both citrus and herbal notes. A healthy amount of lime zest adds a bit more aromatic zing as it opens up in the glass.

A gentle whiff of smoke leads the way to a robust palate, bold with white pepper, cayenne, and gunpowder, though just a hint of sweetness manages to make its presence felt for a time. Just as the aromatic buildup would imply, the body is immensely long and intense, with a finish that really doesn’t quit. The peppery notes hang on to the tongue for what feels like minutes — which is ultimately perhaps more energizing than I might want in my glass of tequila. Sangre de vida, indeed.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 /

Review: Centenario Rum 7, 9, 12, 20, 25 and 30 Years Old

Centenario Rum, also known as Ron Centenario (and not to be confused with Gran Centenario Tequila), is based in Costa Rica, where the company produces a massive number of expressions, all made from local sugar can and aged in oak.

Centenario sent its core lineup of six rums for us to review (there’s also an 18 year old , from its affordable 7 year old to its ultra-rare 30 year old. The 7, 9, and 12 year old rums are all aged “Spanish style” in barrels (and thus represent true age statements). The 20, 25, and 30 year old rums are all made in the solera style, so those years represent the oldest spirit in the bottle.

Thoughts on the series of six rums, which have recently seen updated packaging, including gift boxes or canisters, follow.

All are 80 proof.

Centenario Rum Anejo Especial 7 Years Old – Still youthful on the nose, but engaging, with ample vanilla of course, plus some coconut, almond, and quite gentle baking spice notes. Similar notes fill the palate, but the body is on the small side — slightly funky, not in a bad way — and the finish is short. Though it’s got a decent amount of age on it, it’s a rum built for mixing, not sipping. Which is fine, because we have a long way to go here. B / $18

Centenario Rum Conmemorativo 9 Years Old – Two extra years make a modest difference here, namely in the body, which is stronger and more pungent, with a slightly winey character. That aside, more coconut and an emerging chocolate note arise to complement the vanilla at the rum’s core, leading to a sharper finish that hints at sherry. B+ / $23

Centenario Rum Gran Legado 12 Years Old – Some clearly older notes percolate here, the nose taking on a winey, sherried note, heavy with notes of baking spice. A salted caramel character is heavy on the palate, with the coconut notes taking on a more toasted character. While it’s slightly chocolaty on the finish, the fortified wine notes are what endure the longest. B+ / $30

Centenario Rum Fundacion 20 Years Old – Getting into the solera releases (this one is 6 to 20 years old), the rum finds a particularly wine-heavy character to it, almost brandy-like at times. Notes of tobacco and old wood begin to appear on the nose, while notes of sour cherry, intense vanilla, and cocoa powder dominate the palate. The finish finds a certain sweetness, almost like a candied strawberry, lingering for some time. In the end, there’s an impressive balance between the spirit-driven power and the elegance that comes with extended time in wood. A lovely rum that straddles the line between crowd-pleaser and sophisticated sipper. A- / $40

Centenario Rum Gran Reserva 25 Years Old – This 6 to 25 year old solera style rum is very dark, like that of strong tea, with a deep and powerful nose that offers notes of coffee, aged sherry, cocoa powder, and walnut oil. Raisiny and spicy on the palate, notes of furniture polish, old leather, and mocha dominate, the finish bouncing between those strong wine and coffee notes. Rich, but with some acidity to give it life on the palate, it’s a pure sipper that invites examination and discussion. A- / $60

Centenario Rum Edicion Limitada 30 Years Old – The top of the line carries less age information than the 20 and 25: All we know is the maximum age of this solera style rum is 30 years old. It continues the theme started by the 20 and 25 year olds, pushing further the agenda of coffee and increasingly dark chocolate. While very winey on the nose, the composition is sweeter on the palate than the 20 or the 25, those nutty notes taking on a candied character, the more intensely oily, polish-heavy notes mellowing just enough to let the fruit in the rum pop. The finish is still sharp and strong, but the warming character fits what’s come before perfectly. Try this after dinner instead of a cup of coffee. A / $100

Review: KO Distilling Battle Standard 142 Navy Strength Gin

Before you get too excited, note that the 142 doesn’t refer to the strength of this gin, from Manassas, Virginia-based KO Distilling. It refers rather to a story about 142 cadet-midshipmen merchant marines who died in WWII. Says the company: “Our founders’ alma mater, the USMMA, is the only federal academy authorized to fly a Battle Standard in memory of those brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

A standard proof version and a barrel finished gin — neither tasted here — are also available. All are made using the same eight botanicals: juniper, orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, grains of paradise, angelica root, and orris root, making this sound like a very traditional London Dry style of gin. That said, the company calls it a New Western style. Let’s taste it and find out.

The nose is indeed a step back from London Dry, showcasing more than its share of spices: cinnamon is particularly strong, with some black pepper backing up a healthy slug of juniper. On the palate, a mix of earth tones, coriander/cardamom, and a stronger citrus profile show themselves. If anything makes the claim for a New Western gin it’s this, that bright orange note that endures until a drying, almost chalky juniper character takes hold on the finish. All told, it’s a totally solid entry into the giniverse, one that would serve well as a cocktailing workhorse, but it doesn’t offer a truly unique enough experience to rave about.

I will say that, for a gin that’s 57% alcohol, it drinks with an impressive cleanness that feels much cooler. For a heavily overproof spirit, that alone is something to recommend it.

114 proof.

B+ / $35 /

Review: Godelia 2015 Godello-Dona Blanco and 2012 Mencia

You’ll find Godelia in the Bierzo region of Spain, north of Portugal, near the Rias Baixas region. Some details:

Godelia is a relatively young project, at least in its present form.  Over half of Godelia’s 86 acres of vineyards were planted in 1989.  Yet, the remaining 40 acres feature 100-year-old bush vines planted on the best, rocky, high altitude slopes of Spain’s Bierzo D.O.  Local resident, Vincente Garcia Vasquez purchased the Godelia estate in 2009. The name ‘Godelia’ is Vincente’s invention.  It is a made up contraction of Godello (being the native white grape variety of Bierzo) and Lias (lees).

Godelia sent two of its wines, a white and a red, for our consideration. Thoughts follow.

2015 Godelia Godello-Dona Blanco Bierzo – 80% godello, 20% dona blanco. This lemony, lightly creamy wine could pass for any number of simple whites, and with its modest acidity and grassy approachability, it pairs well with a wide range of foods. B+ / $17

2012 Godelia Mencia Bierzo – Fruity and somewhat soft, this cherry-forward wine melds notes of fresh berries and graphite into a cohesive whole, with hints of vanilla, supple wood, and, quite intriguingly, green banana. A great value choice for a comforting Sunday dinner. B+ / $19

Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Tomahawp Whiskey

Seven Stills of San Francisco continues its march of collaborative whiskeys with Tomahawp. It starts as a Double IPA (also called Tomahawp) brewed in collaboration with Alvarado Street Brewery. The whiskey takes the Tomahawp beer and ages it in new American oak. As Seven Stills notes, “We didn’t do anything post-distillation to the whiskey aside from barrel age it, but it is aggressively dry hopped in the secondary fermentation.”

Aggressive, for sure, but Tomahawp isn’t overdone. The nose finds plenty of musky, peppery hop aromas, but underneath that bitterness there’s a mint chocolate note and hints green apple as well as coffee. The palate kicks off unsurprisingly, a tobacco and heavy herb note, with hits of cloves and burnt toast lingering. The finish is sweeter than expected, but spicy with black pepper and showing lingering coriander notes.

Tomahawp doesn’t reinvent the world of IPA-distilled whiskeys, but it’s still a well-crafted example of the style.

94 proof.

B+ / $39 (375ml) /