Review: Glenmorangie Astar (2017)

Glenmorangie released Astar way back in 2008. The concept was a weird one: It was a single malt entirely matured in oak from the Ozark mountains of Missouri, “designed to impart the wood’s maximum flavor to the spirit.” These barrels were toasted then filled with bourbon for four years before being emptied and shipped to Scotland to be filled with new-make single malt.

Astar was a one-off release (seeing as the barrels used were a one-off experiment), but nearly 10 years later, Dr. Bill Lumsden has orchestrated a revival, using the same Ozark wood. The new Astar as a bit different than the original — namely it has dropped from the original 114.2 proof — but the approach is otherwise the same.

Let’s taste.

Astar is heavy duty on the nose, not just driven by the wood but by the spirit itself. Things kick off with brisk lemon honey notes at first, followed by plenty of wood overtones driven by the Ozark-sourced wood. That wood mutes some of Glenmorangie’s characteristic floral notes, leaving behind more savory aromas that ultimately verge on mushroom and tobacco leaf, leaving things surprisingly earthy in the end.

The palate is quite racy at full strength, but here the lemon notes shine brightly before venturing down a path that takes you to roasted nuts, an amontillado sherry character, dried fruits, a melange of gingerbread/baking spices, and more of that intense wood character, here bordering on slightly smoky at times. Water helps the various flavor elements meld more fully, leading to a surprisingly savory yet complex finish.

Definitely worth a look.

105 proof.

B+ / $100 /

Review: Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend

Johnnie Walker’s experimental, limited-time releases continue this month with the second expression in the series to be released in the U.S.: Wine Cask Blend. (Two more expressions from this series, Rum Cask Blend and Espresso Roast, have been released internationally and are not available in the U.S. That brings the total number of experimental releases up to six.)

Some details:

The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in motion by Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge nearly a decade ago. In 2015 Aimee Gibson, a member of the Johnnie Walker blending team, took on the project and through experiments of her own, developed a wonderful new whisky in the Blenders’ Batch series. This welcoming blend includes some whiskies matured in wine casks. It is crafted with malt whiskies from the Highland such as Clynelish and some from Speyside such as Roseilse. It also includes creamy grain whiskies, such as those from Cameronbridge. The result is a light and vibrant whisky with notes of orchard fruit and red berries.

It’s a bit troubling that the only information on the aging is that “some whiskies” are matured in “wine casks.” There’s no information about how much of the blend goes into wine casks, for how long, or even what kind of wine we’re talking about. After all, sherry, Port, and white zinfandel are all “wine.” Naturally, there’s no age statement on the bottle, either.

Anyway, we’ll have to plow forward despite our ignorance…

Light as a feather, pinkish in color, and pleasantly aromatic, the whisky offers a few unusual aromas (driven by the wine cask treatment) of bold florals, fresh peaches, strawberry, and mint, alongside more traditional vanilla and some modest cereal notes. The palate is soft and expressive — and so sweet that it initially feels a bit like a rum, complete with plenty of fruit and lots of vanilla character. As it evolves on the tongue the whisky reveals more fruit character, including some apple, citrus, and red berries, along with classic baking spice notes. The finish is where you see the granary character the most, with a lasting cereal note that lingers as the fruit quickly fades.

For what it’s worth, my wife calls it a “whisky for ladies.” That ain’t a bad thing, but she’s not wrong.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 /

Tasting the Wines of Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou

The Cotes de Bordeaux is the youngest AOC in Bordeaux, established only in 2009 when four smaller communes were joined together to become a single region (with a bit more of marketing muscle than they had before). Cotes de Bordeaux wines aren’t very common here — though that’s changing, thanks in part to wineries like Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou, which is exporting on a limited basis to the U.S. for the first time this year.

I recently met with the chateau’s Yann Couturier over lunch in San Francisco to taste two of the wines that Bouhou is bringing into the states. Thoughts follow.

2014 Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou La Boha – This blend of 80% merlot, 10% cabernet sauvignon, and 10% cabernet franc is unaged in oak. It is held in concrete tanks only before bottling. Color my surprise at how incredibly drinkable Boha is, its heavy violet notes belying the merlot content while allowing freshly fruit-forward notes of cherry and red berries to rise to the surface. Very atypical of anything I’ve ever had from Bordeaux, it’s a perfect little “by the glass” offering (which is how it is commonly sold in France). B+ / $16

2012 Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou Grand Vin – This is Bouhou’s flagship wine, blended from 90% merlot and 10% malbec, and traditionally aged for a year or more in French oak barrels. Classically structured with more of a boldly tannic backbone, it still has ample fruit but is complemented by notes of pepper, grilled meat, and a tart finish. Worth a look. B+ / $24

Review: Ardbeg An Oa

Peat fans, consider it your birthday: Ardbeg is announcing a fourth whisky to join its core trio as a permanent addition to the range. Ardbeg An Oa (pronounced “an oh”) is the first new permanent expression from Ardbeg in almost a decade. The expression is named for the southernmost point of Islay, where towering cliffs stand resolute and shelter the southern coast of the island.

An Oa is a unique property drawn from Ardbeg’s new Gathering Vat – “especially created from fine French oak to bring Ardbeg An Oa into being.” Much like Glenfiddich’s Solera Cask, the Gathering Vat lets a variety of casks “mingle” in a large-scale environment. Into this cask go whiskies matured in Pedro Ximénez casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and virgin oak casks. There’s no info on the age of the whiskies that go into the Gathering Vat at the outset, and no information on how long they might stay in the Vat itself. However, the idea seems to be that, in classic Solera style, some of the spirits in the vat will get older and older even as new casks are added to the mix. We’ll have to see how An Oa evolves in the years to come.

For now, anyway, in a lot of ways, this comes across a bit like “starter Ardbeg.” The peat is dialed back on the nose, which allows notes of crisp brine, toasted marshmallow, and hints of nutty sherry to emerge. The palate finds sherry-driven citrus dominating, with tea leaf and a rounded vanilla character creeping up behind it. Peat weaves in and out of all of this, along with notes of grapefruit, gingerbread, and some more raw petrol notes that linger on the finish.

All told, it’s a bit of a melange of flavors that, if not exactly “starter Ardbeg” then at least comes across like “greatest hits Ardbeg” — a mix of this and that that feels at times like a blend of leftovers that didn’t get used in other expressions. That’s not totally a bad thing, really. Infinity bottles are fun for everyone!

93.2 proof.

B+ / $80 /

Review: 2014 Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC

An ultra-budget Tuscan, this is a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Canaiolo, and 5% Cabernet Franc. It’s got a mild body, heavy with cherry, blackberry, and tobacco notes, which meld quite beautifully with the fragrant nose. The body is modest and the finish just a touch sweet, with a hint of green pepper on the back end, but it’s hard to pass up at this price.

B+ / $12 /

Review: Scrappy’s Bitters – Seville Orange and Chocolate

Like any good bitters brand, Scrappy’s focuses on natural infusions and uses organic ingredients whenever possible. Produced in Seattle, the Scrappy’s line now runs to at least 11 varieties of bitters. We received two of the most popular — orange and chocolate — for review.

Thoughts follow.

Scrappy’s Bitters Seville Orange – Check out the little chunks of orange peel on the bottom of the bottle. This is a bitters with the focus squarely on the bitter element: Orange notes are filtered through a heavily bitter edge, with secondary notes of clove and licorice filling in the cracks. If you like an orange bitters that isn’t really a syrup in disguise, Scrappy’s is an excellent pick. 47.5% abv. B+  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Scrappy’s Bitters Chocolate – These bitters aren’t as overwhelmingly bitter as the orange, finding more of a balance between clear dark chocolate notes and some sweeter character that’s driven by brown sugar. The finish offers a touch of coffee character that could add some nuance to a cocktail. 47.6% abv. A- [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

each $18 /

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2017 Releases

I never get too excited when the massive box of Coppola wines show up, as quality tends to be all over the map. Well, with the 2017 releases (all from the 2015 vintage), that’s changed. Someone is clearly paying attention to quality at Coppola, and things have improved across the board, sometimes dramatically.

Let’s look at the latest wines from FFC: 3 reds, 3 whites.

2015 Virginia Dare Chardonnay Russian River Valley – A brisk and minimally oaked chardonnay, this lemon-scented wine offers a touch of marshmallow character and some butterscotch to sweeten up the proceedings — but ample acidity on the back end tempers the wine and gives it some length. B+ / $20

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Reserve Chardonnay Dutton Ranch-Jewell Vineyard – This is a bold and buttery chardonnay, but it finds balance in notes of pear and cinnamon-dusted apple, and crisp minerality that gives it a more acidic edge than expected. A squeeze of lemon lifts up the finish. A- / $38

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Chardonnay Director’s Cut Russian River Valley – A super-buttery and woody expression of chardonnay, though notes of grapefruit and allspice lift it out of that overly obvious experience and give it some acidity to grab onto. B+ / $17

2015 Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Noir Director’s Cut Russian River Valley – A moderate to dense pinot noir, this wine features a spicy nose that gives way to a considerably fruit-forward core, featuring brambly blackberry, cherry, and more baking spice layered into it. Slightly on the sweeter side of the aisle, it’s nonetheless a crowd-pleaser (despite the unorthodox bottle choice). B+ / $20

2015 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – As with the 2014 release, this is a perfectly pleasant pinot that would fit in perfectly well on any table. Ample notes of cherry, cola, and tea leaf give the wine plenty of depth, all atop a body of ample density and power. The finish is lightly spicy and only a touch on the sweet side. All told, this wine deserves a better label than it was given. B+ / $23

2015 Votre Sante Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – Don’t look now but Votre Sante now has an Anderson Valley designation instead of a rotgut California one. It’s a far better wine than before, too, leading with herbs and spice and venturing from there into notes of dried fruits and gentle tannin. A restrained wine, but it’s really quite compelling. A- / $35