Review: Dry Town Vodka and Gin

So the guys that made your cell phone case started their own distillery! Curt and Nancy Richardson were the innovators behind the OtterBox. Recently they started a microdistillery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The distillery is called Old Elk Distillery, and their first products out the door are a vodka and gin, both released under the Dry Town label. (Bourbons and a bourbon cream are coming soon.) Greg Metze, formerly of MGP, is consulting with the company.

We tasted both releases. Thoughts follow.

Dry Town Vodka – This is distilled on site from a four-grain mash of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. Heavily vanilla and marshmallow notes invade the nose, almost chocolaty at time. The palate isn’t much more nuanced, offering more heavily sweetened flavors on the tongue, plus notes of mashed banana, before a rather harsh finish abruptly arrives. 80 proof. C+ / $28

Dry Town Gin – This gin is made with a base of Dry Town Vodka, re-distilled “with 10 fresh botanicals through an 18-hour soak and vapor extraction: Juniper, orris root, orange, lime, angelica root, black pepper, ginger, lemongrass, French verveine [lemon verbena], and sage.” That’s a lot of citrus-focused botanicals, and all of that fruit pairs well with the sweet core provided by the vodka, giving it a nose that mixes fresh lemon and herbs. The higher abv of the gin is also a boon on the palate, which is much more brisk than the vodka, and offers a blend of juniper, lemon, and a smattering of herbal sage and rosemary notes. The balance leans toward the sweet side, but on the whole, this is a much more fully realized — and somewhat unique — expression of gin. 92 proof. B+ / $30

drytown.com

Review: S.D. Strong Distilling Pillar 136 Gin

S.D. Strong Distilling, founded in 2012, can be found in Parkville, Missouri, where its spirits are produced in a cave 65 feet underground. The gin — named for the pillar that holds up the distillery — is vapor-infused with juniper and hand-zested lemon, lime, and orange peel, plus angelica root, cassia, orris root, ginger, and licorice root.

This is a somewhat strange gin — particularly so, since the botanical bill isn’t too off the wall. From the start, the nose is lightly smoky, earthy, and offers an aroma I can only describe as akin to that of new carpet. Juniper is evident, but so are notes of dark chocolate, an unusual twist.

The palate is equally odd — more citrus than the nose would let on, with overtones of brown sugar, allspice, lime peel, raisins, and licorice. Interesting stuff, but it’s all filtered through a muddy collection of wet leaves and dishwater, giving it a dullness that battles directly against the fruit and spice notes that come before. Ultimately, it feels like the gin’s balance is simply off, with lingering notes of burnt evergreen bark rather than juniper and evergreen needles.

90 proof.

C+ / $30 / sdstrongdistilling.com

Review: Cadee Distillery Complete Lineup – Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Rye, Deceptivus, and Cascadia

Based on the Isle of Whidbey, north of Seattle, Cadee (Gaelic for “pure”) is operated by a family of Scottish ex-pats with a passion for distilling. The distillery offers a wide range of spirits, from vodka to gin to a selection of whiskeys — clearly the focus here, considering the pride it takes in its oak barrel program.

We tasted, well, everything that Cadee makes. Thoughts on the complete lineup follow.

All bottles are individually numbered.

Cadee Distillery No. 4 Vodka – Distilled four times (hence the name) from unspecified grain. This is a prototypical modern vodka, a little mushroomy on the nose but balanced out with marshmallow-like sweetness that is particularly present on the creamy, versatile body. Hints of lemon and milk chocolate give the vodka some nuance, but otherwise it’s a straightforward and simply sweet vodka with mixing on its mind. 80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. B+ / $29

Cadee Distillery Gin – Juniper-focused, but botanicals are not disclosed. Reportedly made from an 18th century recipe. This London dry style gin is indeed heavily perfumed with evergreen notes and a touch of forest floor funkiness, but the body offers more interest, with those juniper notes slowly fading to reveal a complex array of flavors that include marzipan, lemongrass, and mandarin oranges. It’s those distinct mandarins that linger on the finish for the long haul, giving this gin a particular uniqueness that merits exploration. 88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A- / $36

Cadee Distillery Intrigue Gin – This is a distinct and separate gin expression, “full of character and botanicals, with a subtle citrus focus.” The mandarin notes from the standard gin are stronger here, particularly on the nose, which ride along with grapefruit and banana notes, plus some lime. That lime paints the way to the palate, which continues the heavily citrus (not at all “subtle”) theme, with more grapefruit and lemon notes, along with a healthy grind of black pepper and a touch of mint. For fans of fruit-forward vodka, this is a pretty and aromatic gin worth picking up. 88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A / $36

Cadee Distillery Bourbon Whiskey – Aged in new, charred American oak barrels for a minimum of just eight months, but you could’ve fooled me. This is young whiskey, but it has a depth and maturity that I never see in craft bourbons. While the up-front speaks of buttered popcorn and salted caramel, what follows is a character that would indicate much more seriousness: ample vanilla, chocolate malt, some match-head barrel char, and hints of roasted meats, cloves, and a soothing, rye-like baking spice character on the finish. The up-front, grain-heavy character makes a subtle showing on said finish, alongside some notes of hemp rope and, at the very end, hints of sweet Sauternes wine. Kooky fun. 84 proof. Reviewed: Batch #4. B+ / $43

Cadee Distillery Rye Whiskey – Same aging regimen as the bourbon, but with a rye mash. This one’s not as successful as the bourbon, with much less maturity — which is understandable given that, well, it’s not terribly mature. Sugary cereal plays with some weedy and mushroomy notes on the nose, with a slight undercurrent of lemon peel. On the palate, it’s quite sweet but otherwise similar, with a continued focus on grain and earthier elements. The finish is on the tough side, though a lot of brown sugar sweetness hangs on well after the granary notes fade. 84 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3. C+ / $39

Cadee Distillery Deceptivus – This is essentially Cadee’s bourbon, finished (for an unstated amount of time) in first-fill Port barrels. (Real Port from Portugal, not some weird Washington “Port.”) The nose has that telltale winey fruitiness, all plums, prunes, and raisins, with a smattering of Christmas spices behind it, plus a hint of caramel corn. The palate is sweetish without being overblown, fruity without tasting like jam. It’s hard to go wrong with Port finishing, and here the wine and whiskey notes come together to create a dessert-like spirit that balance one another with notes of brown sugar, rum raisin ice cream, cinnamon sticks, roasted almonds, cocoa nibs, and lingering dark chocolate notes. One to pick up, for sure. 85 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A- / $49

Cadee Distillery Cascadia – The Port-finished version of the standard rye. The whiskey has a lovely, pinkish hue to it. Even the Port can’t tamp down the grain here, which is just as cereal-focused as the unfinished version, a bit leaden with notes of hemp and wet earth, plus overtones of menthol. The palate is more of a success, layering in fruit atop the cereal, here showcasing lighter notes of strawberry and grape jelly, some orange oil, and a slightly sour rhubarb edge. Again, the finish is boldly sweet, though not so overpowering as to make one grimace. 87 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3. B / $50

cadeedistillery.com

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 1: American Whiskey – Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Old Thompson

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are bargain bottles that are enjoyable and offer considerably higher quality:value ratios than more expensive options. Today we pore through the “bottom shelf” bottles in order to find whiskeys that are enjoyable yet affordable while attempting to steer drinkers clear of the ones that still aren’t worth the price.

Let’s start with a look at three lower-cost American whiskeys.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon (White Label)

It’s important to read the label closely when purchasing bottom shelf whiskeys. Jim Beam’s most inexpensive whiskey is White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. To advertise itself as a bourbon, a whiskey must adhere to certain rules, the most important of which state that it is: (1) made from at least 51% corn, (2) aged in new oak barrels, and (3) aged at least four years if it is to call itself “straight bourbon.” This means that, as inexpensive as Jim Beam is, it lives up to the minimum requirements of a
demanding labeling system.

The payoff for following the legal requirements to label a whiskey “straight bourbon” are apparent when sampling this one, which is simple and straightforward, but drinkable. The nose offers soft notes of corn mixed with candy corn. There is a touch of spice, but it isn’t a particularly enjoyable smell as it carries a slightly medicinal quality. On the palate, Jim Beam is quite smooth. Notes of of corn and candy corn appear again but are very light. For the serious bourbon fan, the taste is too smooth, even watery, as it hints at bourbon’s possibilities without delivering the goods. But for the novice, this might be a good start. The finish is long and smooth, and introduces some of the oak that this whiskey aged in for at least four years. None of the unpleasant flavors appear which tend to mar the finish of some inexpensive whiskeys. As an affordable mixer, Jim Beam is a great choice. See additional coverage here.

80 proof.

C+ / $14 / jimbeam.com

Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon

Evan Williams Black is also a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and it is aged around 5 years in new oak barrels and bottled at a slightly higher alcohol level than most bottom shelf whiskeys, 86 proof. The higher alcohol presents in the nose, but not so strongly as to be off-putting. It is accompanied by pleasant smells of caramel, vanilla extract, and a bit of mint. The palate is corn sweetness mixed with caramel and brown sugar, but it is not cloying. For such an inexpensive bottle, the flavors are surprisingly balanced. The finish is medium in length, ending in wood, but not bitterness. This is a great starter bourbon, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to drink neat. For those on a budget who appreciate the taste of bourbon, Evan Williams Black is tough to beat. See additional coverage here.

86 proof.

B- / $14 / evanwilliams.com

Old Thompson American Whiskey

Old Thompson is not a bourbon, but rather a blend of whiskeys coupled with neutral grain spirits (vodka). If you’ve had Seagram’s 7, you know the deal. The blend strictly follows the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which requires that a beverage contain at least 20% whiskey (aged at least 2 years) to be labeled “American Whiskey.” The consequences of just barely staying within the legal definition of American Whiskey are immediately apparent. The nose is almost nonexistent with hints of gasoline and nail polish remover, along with the slightest whiff of what might be corn sweetness. This makes sense considering that 4/5 of the product is unaged grain alcohol. On the palate, Old Thompson is harsher than its proof would suggest and offers an unpleasant sweetness that doesn’t seem to draw from the whiskey in the product. These flavors are followed by a short finish and lingering bitterness. Perhaps Old Thompson works as a mixer since it is mostly grain alcohol, but I would recommend an inexpensive vodka instead.

80 proof.

D- / $8 / sazerac.com

Review: Heritage Distilling Rye and Bourbon Whiskies and Crisp Gin

Heritage Distilling makes a veritable ton of spirits in its Gig Harbor, Washington home, and by that I mean it actually makes them. This isn’t sourced or finished whiskey and gin, it’s the real deal, bringing in grains from the Pacific Northwest and Canada, mashed and fermented on site, and distilled in a copper column still. In other words: Everything here is a legit craft spirit.

Today we take a spin through a selection of Heritage’s product line, including five American whiskies as well as one of the company’s four gins.

Heritage Distilling BSB Brown Sugar Bourbon – Made from a mash of corn, rye, and malted barley, this whiskey is aged for less than two years in new American Oak charred barrels, then cut to 30% abv, with natural brown sugar and cinnamon flavors added. Pure Christmas on the nose, with intense cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg notes, plus a clear brown sugar overtone. The palate is very sweet, just shy of being overwhelming, and the cinnamon and sugar notes are omnipresent from the start. This of course comes at the expense of being able to taste any of the whiskey itself, which is common with heavily flavored spirits like this, although there’s a nutty, lightly corny character on the back end that at least hints at the underlying spirit. No “fireball” heat here, mind you — the experience is closer to a liquified gingerbread house than anything approaching red hots. 60 proof. B+ / $34

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a mash of corn, rye, and malted barley (likely the same as in BSB), then aged for less than two years in new American Oak charred barrels. This whiskey comes across as a bit more mature than it actually is, though the very dry, popcorn-heavy nose pushes the focus to the barrel char underneath. On the palate, again it’s quite dry, with pushy lumberyard notes, forest floor and tree bark notes, and hints of gingerbread, Christmas cake, and dried fruit notes lingering as those pushy, wood-driven notes start to fade. The finish is a bit nutty — keeping the theme from the BSB bottling — but the lack of any real sweetness causes it to fade away a bit too quickly. This is clearly a well-made spirit, though it’s simply bottled too young. Would love to see this as a four year old. 92 proof. B / $30

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Rye Whiskey – Made from a mash of rye and barley (no corn), aged less than two years in charred oak barrels. While the Elk Rider Bourbon may be dry, this rye is over the top dusty, a sawdust-infused monster that offers a nose of spice-dusted lumber and a palate of the same. Here, the body takes those intense cloves and heavy barrel char and complements them with notes of menthol, bitter roots, rhubarb, and wet wool. Clearly a work in progress. 92 proof. C+ / $33

Heritage Distilling Dual Barrel Collection Bourbon Whiskey – (These are sometimes denoted as the Double Barrel Collection but are otherwise the same.) The next two whiskeys start out much like their Elk Rider brethren above, but are then barreled for a second time in barrels that were previously used to age 15 pounds of pure vanilla beans. Lots of butterscotch on the nose here, with just a hint of barrel char and some surprising peanut butter aromas emerging. The palate offers considerably more sweetness than Elk Rider, and also more of those candylike notes, with notes of chocolate and Snickers bars layered atop toasty notes of brown butter and charred marshmallows. The wood-heavy barrel notes finally get their kicks in on the drying finish, which is equal parts sweet and savory. Overall, this whiskey is quite a surprise, and one of the better craft bourbons you’ll find on the market today. Exclusive to Total Wine. 92 proof. B+ / $29

Heritage Distilling Dual Barrel Collection Rye Whiskey – Aged the same way as the Dual Barrel Bourbon above. This whiskey is softer and sweeter than the Elk Rider version, though it still carries a modest barrel-driven character (particularly on the nose) as a backbone to a body that features plenty of that classic rye spice, heavy with cloves, spearmint, and some licorice character. This segues toward notes of caramel and milk chocolate on a finish that otherwise tends to keep things close to its barrel-driven roots taking the whiskey out with a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Exclusive to Total Wine. 92 proof. B+ / $29

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Crisp Gin – Distilled from 100% Washington grains, with traditional (but largely unrevealed) London Dry style botanicals. Especially medicinal on the nose, with heavy notes of camphor. Very herbal on the nose and on the tongue, it isn’t until the finish that some citrus notes finally push through, offering a touch of sweetness against what is otherwise an overwhelmingly pungent and savory experience. A tough nut to crack but one which might find the right home in, say, a Negroni. 94 proof. C / $28

heritagedistilling.com

Review: Peach Street Distillers Tub Gin

Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colorado is well known for its whiskey, but it also makes a complement of gins, including this limited edition expression called Tub. The gin is hopped and includes “plum spirits,” but otherwise the company keeps the botanical bill and production information close to the vest on this one.

The hops are light on the nose. What comes forth aromatically is more of a light blend of evergreen notes and fresh tobacco, some hospital character with overtones of overripe oranges and peaches.

The palate never fully gels either. Very dry, it starts off with only a modest character of perfumed white flowers and some light baking spice. Then, just like that, it is all whisked away by notes of lavender, some funky earth (driven by the hops), and a very dry and bitter finish. The juniper and strong citrus peel notes of a classic gin aren’t here at all, and while I understand Peach Street was aiming for something else entirely different from a London Dry, what they’ve ended up with doesn’t ever really engage, either on its own or as a mixer.

80 proof.

C+ / $33 / peachstreetdistillers.com

Review: 12 Beers from New Belgium, Early 2017 Releases

Today it’s a little bit of “something old, something new” from New Belgium, which released no less than 12 beers on tap for us to experience over the last few months… including a bizarre collaboration with none other than Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

Read on for reviews of everything…

New Belgium Pilsener – A “Bohemian style” pilsner, this lovely lager kicks off with mammoth notes of fresh bread — almost pizza crust-like — before finishing with a touch of sea salt (giving it a pretzel-like character) and just the mildest hint of bitterness late in the game. As straightforward (and enjoyable) lager I could imagine. 4.8% abv. A-

New Belgium Whizbang – Described as a hoppy blonde ale, this is an interesting hybrid style of beer that starts things off with a brisk (Mosaic-driven) bitterness before moving on to a maltier, meatier middle. Imagine an IPA stripped of fruit, with a chewy, bready character in its place, and you’ve got this interesting oddity just about figured out. 5.7% abv. B+

New Belgium Citradelic Exotic Lime Ale – This is a different beer than New Belgium’s older Citradelic, which is flavored with tangerines. As the name implies, this beer has lime as the focus — Persian limes, plus coriander and a little black pepper. Neat idea but, unfortunately, the lime here comes off as a bit plastic, slightly chemical in tone with just a hint of that coriander to give it a little spin. That said, it’s as drinkable as a Corona with a couple of lime wedges stuffed into it, for better or for worse. 5.2% abv. B

New Belgium Tartastic Lemon Ginger Sour – Not a “sour” in the sense that beer snobs think of it, but very acidic and lemony and not really all that pleasant, with an intense vinegar aftertaste that feels a little like the experience one gets when he has motions contrary to swallowing. 4.5% abv. C-

New Belgium Dayblazer Easygoing Ale – The name should tip you off that this is a session brew, a very pale ale that drinks closer to a lager than an IPA. Lightly sweet and malty, there’s an edge of slightly citrusy bitterness that takes it into ale territory. Easy to enjoy and light on its feet. That said, 4.8% abv is on par with the “regular” beers in this roundup. B+

New Belgium Accumulation (2017) – The 2017 release of a wheat-barley hybrid (a “white IPA”) we reviewed last year. Again it’s a chewy, hoppy encounter that offers ample and tart fruit notes and lemony notes on the finish. Heavily bready from start to finish, it’s an appropriate ale for the wintertime scene that appears on the label. 6.2% abv. B+

New Belgium Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale – As gimmicks go, this one’s out there — a blonde ale dosed with chocolate, brown sugar, and vanilla to give it indeed an ice-cream like character. It’s better than you’re thinking, its malty undercoating giving it a bit of malted milk character, and the chocolate/vanilla notes providing sweetness, but not too much. Lots of vanilla on the back end. It’s surely not something for every day, but it’s an approachable novelty for sure. Proceeds help Protect Our Winters. 6% abv. B

Voodoo Ranger is a sort of sub-brand from New Belgium, where “Voodoo Ranger” is larger in type size than the name of the brewery. Here’s three from the company…

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger IPA – A straightforward IPA expression, aromatic and piney up front but with some curious chocolate syrup notes on the back end. Both aromatically heady and burly on the palate, its alcohol level keeps things rolling without overwhelming the palate. 7% abv. A-

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA – Ample malt backs up this dense, almost gooey IPA, which is heavy on the pine and forest floor elements, with a quite limited citrus profile. Quite bready on the back end. 9% abv. B

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Ale – An octet of hop varieties gives this pale ale a bit of a scattered character, with intense bitterness fading into a muddy, forest-floor-laden back end. The finish is lightly vegetal, causing this beer to take a back seat to better-realized multi-hop beers. 5.5% abv. B-

And two collaborative offerings from New Belgium’s ongoing Lips of Faith series…

New Belgium in Collaboration with Anne-Francoise Spiced Imperial Dark Ale – Aged on “white oak spirals,” this Belgian collaboration is a deep and dense, dry-hopped beer that is flavored with the essence of the forest, including spruce tips and grains of paradise. Warming and malty, the wood-driven vanilla melds nicely with the sprinkling of baking spices, while a hoppy bitterness eventually finds its way to the finish. So much going on here, plan to spend some time getting to know this brew before figuring it all out. 9.5% abv. B+

New Belgium Clutch Collaboration Wood-Aged Imperial Sour Stout – Brewed in collaboration not with a brewery but with a band, Clutch. This is a blend of 70% stout, and 30% dark sour wood-aged beer. Results are straight-up crazy, the beer kicking off with sour apple and grapefruit peel notes that slowly trickle down into a melange of bitter roots, chocolate, coffee, cacao nibs, and oxidized wine. The mouth-puckering introduction that slowly turns rounded, burly, and bittersweet is nothing if not unique, but rather than developing over time, I feel it wears out its welcome fairly quickly. 8.5% abv. C+ / $13 per 22 oz. bottle

$17 per 12-pack unless noted / newbelgium.com

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