Review: Copper Fox Peachwood American Single Malt

Many craft distillers today are producing good (if young) whiskey. Unfortunately, too many are bringing nothing that’s really new to the market and asking a hefty premium over quality bottles from the bigger distilleries. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of America’s craft whiskey movement: to create not just good whiskey but good whiskey that’s also unique.

Creativity is something not lacking at Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia. As an early East Coast pioneer of American single malt, its founder, Rick Wasmund, took lessons from Scottish tradition (they’re the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln) and combined them with completely original techniques like the use of different fruitwood smoke in their malt. The latest addition to their line-up, Peachwood American Single Malt, is perhaps their most unique endeavor to date, relying on peachwood as both a smoking medium during kiln drying and as a maturing catalyst inside the barrels. Surprisingly, much of the process behind the single malt is spelled out on the label, from the type of still used to the barrel entry proof to the ppm (parts per million) of Virginia peachwood smoke used in the malting. It’s clearly something different, but how does it taste?

On the nose, Peachwood American Single Malt is like a candied campfire. It’s sweet with a blend of toasted grain, ripe peach, and mesquite aromas. On the palate, the whisky showcases a great balance of sweet and savory with vanilla, clove, and citrus complemented by toasted oak, a briny smokiness, and gentle heat. The peachwood is less of a factor on the palate than on the nose, which is probably for the best, but it seems to have created some welcome, honeyed citrus notes not found in the distillery’s standard single malt offering. The finish is slightly drying, but still manages to carry those complex initial flavors for a decent length until they erode into smoke and caramel sweetness. It’s a well-made and extremely interesting single malt — and it’s just what the craft whiskey world could use a little more of.

96 proof.

A / $54 / copperfox.biz

Review: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Sherry Cask

The mad geniuses at Colorado’s Stranahan’s have, at last, added a new expression to their “yellow label” single malt: Stranahan’s Sherry Cask. Per the distillery, “This special release is the first of its kind for the Denver-based distillery, fusing the Rocky Mountain whiskey making style with the wine making traditions of Spanish Sherry.”

As the result of years of experimentation with aging and unique cask finishes, Master Distiller Rob Dietrich developed Sherry Cask by taking his four year-aged Rocky Mountain Single Malt whiskey and transferred it to 500 liter Oloroso Sherry barrels to finish. The barrels are procured from the Andalusia region of southwestern Spain, known to many oenophiles as the Sherry Triangle and one of the world’s most coveted wine regions. The barrels have aged sherry wine for over 40 years, leaving behind a depth of flavor soaked into the ancient oak staves. The resulting Stranahan’s Sherry Cask whiskey bursts with rich flavors of vanilla, caramel, dark chocolate, and depth of oak.

Stranahan’s Sherry Cask is the result of Rob’s passion for what he refers to as “coloring outside of the lines” also known as his approach to tasting and analyzing unique barrel finishes, as he does each year when he creates his coveted Snowflake. In a quest to maintain the sacredness of each annual Snowflake release, Rob began to experiment with cask finishing in just one type of wine barrel: the Oloroso Sherry.

“We tested the Oloroso Sherry cask-finished whiskey last year at our first annual Cask Thief festival and our fans and family loved it,” says Rob Dietrich. “That’s when we knew we had to bring it to the national market. I’m really excited to add this expression to our lineup of whiskeys and help expand and showcase just how special American Single Malt whiskey is and what it can bring to the world stage.”

I wish I could say I loved it as much as Dietrich did.

This is one of those unusual, sherried whiskies that comes across as, well, nothing but sherry. It’s right there on the nose and in your face, a hefty Amontillado-style character, loaded with aromas of roasted nuts, furniture polish, and old wood. If there’s malt whiskey in there, it’s tough to tease it out; the impact of the wine is downright overwhelming to the point of excluding anything else.

It’s much the same story on the palate. Here, the base whisky finds a bit more purchase, but predominantly in the form of heat backing up the same sherry notes mentioned above. On the tongue arrive notes of nuts, furniture polish, and at last, some baking spice that gives the body a little more to work with. There’s also a certain sharpness up front that is engaging and racy — but that acidity fades quickly as the sherry notes take over, leaving behind a rather flabby spirit. The finish struggles to find anything but old wine, pungent and often gummy.

Will different batches result in much different finished spirits, the way they do for Stranahan’s yellow label? Time will tell, and we hope to revisit the whiskey down the road.

94 proof.

C+ / $80 / stranahans.com

Review: Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey – Stout and Port Finished – and Hotaling’s 11 Years Old

In August 2017, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing was acquired by Sapporo. Though many assumed that meant its small distilling operation next door was going with it, that’s not the case. Anchor Distilling was effectively spun off and remains an independent operation today.

Anchor’s been busy in the distilling department, and today we look at three new whiskey releases, including two special editions of Old Potrero whiskey with unusual cask finishes, and a new 11 year old rye. Thoughts follow.

Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey Finished in Stout Barrels – This starts with standard Old Potrero single malt that is finished in a barrel that (follow closely) began as a rye cask, then worked as an apple brandy barrel, then spent time as a stout cask. For round four, it’s a single malt again, and things are getting a little murky. The nose is incredibly hoppy, to the point where I would have guessed this was from some kind of IPA cask, not a stout cask. Aromas range from fun vegetal compost notes to old wine to lemon peels to, ultimately, skunky hops. On the palate, similar flavors dominate, though a malty character at least gives it some sweetness, along with flavors of dusky spices, prunes, and cooked green beans. Somehow that all comes together with a finish that isn’t as off-putting as it may sound, though the overwhelming savoriness of the whiskey doesn’t exactly recall a pint of Guinness. 110.8 proof. C / $100

Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey Finished in Port Barrels – More straightforward, with single malt aged in new oak and finished in Port casks. This one’s an ever bigger surprise, and not in a good way. All the Port casks in the world cant mask the funk in this whiskey, which pushes past the barrel treatment almost completely. The nose is heavily hoppy, though secondary notes include a touch of butterscotch to temper the green bean character. The palate is sharp, almost acrid at times, with no real trace of Port sweetness. Instead I get a pile of roasted carrots, tar barrel, and coal dust, very little of which is what sounds appealing right now. 114.6 proof. C- / $100

Anchor Distilling Hotaling’s Whiskey 11 Years Old – An unusual whiskey, made from 100% malted rye (making it both a rye and a “single malt” of sorts). Aged in once-used charred fine-grain American oak barrels that previously held Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey for 11 years. This is a solid whiskey that eschews trickery in favor of old-fashioned maturity. The nose is mild, lightly grainy with a modest wood profile, perhaps a bit of banana bread underneath. The palate shows a remarkable integration of flavors, including maple, toasty oak, brown butter, and some racy spice and dried fruit notes. There’s still a rustic character to it, but, unlike that same character in the cask-finished whiskeys above, here that roughness comes across as almost charming. Very limited, with under 200 bottles made. 100 proof. B+ / $115

anchordistilling.com

Review: Few Spirits Single Malt Whisky, Italia Bourbon, Copper & Kings Bourbon, and Copper & Kings Rye

Evanston, Illinois-based Few Spirits recently dropped a pile of new whiskeys, all limited editions (with some of them single barrel releases). Stylistically, they’re all over the map, so pay close attention here — and nuzzle up with your local spirits merchant if they sound enticing — to get the lowdown on each of the quartet.

Few Spirits Single Malt Whisky – Distilled from 100 percent malted barley, a portion of which is smoked with cherry wood. No aging information provided. Instantly weird, with a nose of roasted vegetables, Brussels sprouts, and grainy horse feed. That grassy, hay-heavy note continues on to the palate, quite smoky at times and heavy with notes of the field — pastoral cereals, dried weeds, and campfire embers. The finish is lightly sweetened with honey and just a squeeze of lemon. Undercooked, but not without some charms. 93 proof. B- / $70

Few Spirits Italia Bourbon – A collaboration between Few, Eataly, and Folio Fine Wine Partners, which provided casks from Sicily’s Donnafugata (which specific wine is unclear), used for finishing. This is a young and initially quite savory whiskey, heavy with wet earth and popcorn notes on the nose, though it’s cut with a spice one seldom sees in bourbon of this age. Hints of sweet red fruit on the palate offer more promise here, but the sweetness is quickly overpowered by a thick layer of asphalt and tannin, leading to a sultry and earthy finish, heavy with tobacco notes. That said, enough of that wine-driven fruit manages to shine through here, brightening up the whiskey with notes of blackberry and baking spice, to elevate it into something unique, approachable, and worth sampling. 93 proof. B / $50

Few Spirits Copper & Kings Bourbon Finished in American Brandy Barrels – A single barrel bottling, which consists of Few Bourbon finished in C&K’s brandy barrels. It’s a racy whiskey, though quite grainy at times, with an aroma heavy with toasted bread, caramel corn, and indistinct spice. The palate is surprisingly chocolaty, with notes of chicory and bitter roots. The finish sees some ginger notes, but it still plays it close to a vest composed of fresh-cut lumber and hemp rope. On the whole, the brandy influence is tough to find. B / $40

Few Spirits Copper & Kings Rye Finished in American Brandy Barrels – Also a single barrel, C&K brandy barrel-finished bottling, only this one uses Few’s rye as the base. A surprisingly different spirit than the above, though the nose is still a bit restrained, here showing a slightly sweeter side, some tea leaf, and a savory, dill-like herbal component. The palate finds a melange of new flavors, including notes of strawberry jam and a bold, powerful spiciness that really gets to the heart of what rye is all about. With an almost chewy body, that spice finds plenty of purchase on a platform that finishes with hints of dark chocolate and rum raisin notes. Worth checking out, particularly at this price. 93 proof. B+ / $40

fewspirits.com

Review: Balcones “1,” Baby Blue, and Brimstone (2017)

It’s been roughly three years since Chip Tate left Balcones, the Texas distillery that he founded, but Balcones Distilling continues to pump out whiskey after whiskey from its Waco operation with Jared Himstedt at the helm.

We’ve been covering the distillery off and on for eight years now, and if anything can be said about Balcones, based on my notes, it’s that the distillery’s products are wildly inconsistent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — there’s magic in distilleries that have erratic quality, with genius occasionally struct along the way. (See also: Stranahan’s.)

But as for 2017, what’s the post-Tate situation for Balcones? We looked at three whiskies representing most of the core expressions from Balcones (not including Rumble) to find out.

Balcones “1” Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition – Single malt, aged at least 16 months in oak. A deep amber in color, the whisky looks well-aged but drinks with the signposts of significant youth. The nose is pungent with fresh lumber, though this is cut with loads of cloves, rum raisin, and aged sherry notes. There’s a cereal undercurrent, soft but present, a reminder that this is a single malt at heart. On the palate, wood again dominates, alongside up-front notes of fresh tar/asphalt, gunpowder, and wet earth. It’s actually quite off-putting until some sweet relief arrives to save the day, with notes of baking spice, more raisin/prune notes, and a torched sugar crust (think flamed creme brulee) arrive to save the day. The back and forth between fire and sugar can be interesting, though after a full dram my palate is completely worn out by the sheer volume of work. 106 proof. Reviewed: Batch SM17-4, 6/7/17. B- / $60 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whisky – Made from roasted blue corn and aged at least 6 months in oak. The nose is immediately funky, mixing notes of petrol, decaying vegetation, and saccharine sweetness. It’s not a promising start, but the palate is less offensive, lighter on the draw than the rather overbearing nose would have you believe. That said, wood is the dominant character, with notes of tobacco smoke and burnt popcorn strong secondary notes. The finish is slightly sweet, though that doesn’t go far to ease the sting of what’s come before. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch 8817-2, 6/14/17. C / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Balcones Brimstone Texas Scrub Oak Smoked Whisky – Made from the same corn as Baby Blue but “smoked with sun-baked Texas scrub oak using our own secret process” and “aged at least one day in oak.” Though that all implies something heavily smoky, the nose is surprisingly restrained, with modest smoke notes complementing notes of dried fruit and apple cider. It’s engagingly complex, but the palate is something quite different. An initial rush of sweetness quickly gives way to an utter smoke bomb — think a campfire full of smoldering cedar trees — with a pungent, ashy finish. A far different experience than a sultry Islay, Brimstone ends up brash and in your face, like a blast of cigar smoke blown in your direction. An extremely divisive whisky, your enjoyment of it is entirely dependent on your position in regards to licking ashtrays. 106 proof. Reviewed: Batch BRM 17-2, 5/18/17. C / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

balconesdistilling.com

A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

copperfox.biz

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

San Francisco’s WhiskyFest seemed as popular as ever this year, kicked off with the stampede to the Pappy Van Winkle booth that always marks the start of the show.

As always, there was plenty to enjoy at this year’s event — both new expressions and classic old friends ready for tasting. Here’s a full rundown on everything I tried.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

Scotch

Alexander Murray & Co. The Monumental Blend 18 Years Old / B+ / a touch hot for a blend
Alexander Murray & Co. Braes of Glenlivet Distillery 1994 21 Years Old / B+ / bold, spicy, with lots of oak
Alexander Murray & Co. Strathmill Distillery 1992 24 Years Old / B+ / lots of nougat, more granary note than expected; citrus on the back end
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1990 26 Years Old / B+ / earthy and unusual, big wet mineral notes
Alexander Murray & Co. Linkwood Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / a bit simple
Alexander Murray & Co. Glenlossie Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / old bread notes dominate
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1988 28 Years Old Cask Strength / B+ / overpowering sherry, but ample fruit
Bruichladdich Black Art 5 / B / sugar cookie dough, lots of vegetation
Laphroaig 25 Years Old / A+ / drinking absolutely gorgeously today, smoke and sweetness in perfect proportions
Tomatin 1986 / A- / bold cereal and malt notes, challah bread; cherry on the back
The Macallan Classic Cut / A- / the first cask strength Macallan in the U.S. in four years; bold and punchy; honeyed
Compass Box Phenomenology / A- / a mystery blend of five whiskeys; Compass Box will reveal their identity at the end of the year; this is a soft, lightly grainy whiskey with ample honey notes
Compass Box No Name / A- / this one is 75% Ardbeg, but the peat is light and quite floral; a really fun one
Highland Park Fire Edition / B / heavy grain and punchy alcohol today, not my favorite tonight
Highland Park Ice Edition / A / a massive step up, gently minty and cereal-infused; soothing
BenRiach 25 Years Old / A- / lemon is heavy on this light bodied 25
Shackleton Blended Malt (2017) / B+ / the third edition of the Shackleton is unrelated to the bottlings that Richard Paterson pulled together; this is a much cheaper blend in simpler packaging; for what it’s worth, it’s soft and simple inside, too, without much complexity but easy to enjoy
Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A / fully firing, lush with fruit and toast notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask Finish / B / 25 years old; 17 of those years in Bordeaux casks; bold and spicy, but the finish is off
Bowmore 25 Years Old / B / lots of potpourri and perfume here, overly floral on the finish

Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23 Years Old / A- / drinking well, lots of wood and baking spice folded together
Stagg Jr. / B / over-wooded, with licorice and cloves; really blown out (don’t know the release number)
W.L. Weller 12 Years Old / A / a classic wheater, with ample butterscotch and toffee; really worthy of its praise
Calumet Farm Single Barrel / B+ / a big undercooked for a single barrel, somewhat thin
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley 2017 / B+ / corn and barley only; very gentle with the smoke, understated but with a true, fruity complexity; full review in the works
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition “Al Young” / A / gorgeous, a vanilla powerhouse; a favorite of the night

Other Whiskey

John & Allisa’s 2 Month Aged Tennessee Whiskey / NR / this is a preview from the as-yet-unnamed Tennessee distillery that Sazerac got when it purchased the assets of Popcorn Sutton; it’s always fun to taste near new-make, but today it’s all corn, all the time; try us again in 4-6 years
Westland Distillery Peat Week 2017 / B+ / soft for a “peat bomb,” with minty notes on the back end and some stewed prunes
WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince / B / way overoaked, antiseptic at times; full review of this is coming soon
Bushmills 21 Years Old Single Malt / A- / very heavy maltiness, big body, lots of heather and a lovely depth

Cognac

Hennessy Cognac Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 / A- / 18 months in virgin oak, then 10-20 years in used casks; a wood-forward, domineering blend with tons of dried fruit to fill the palate

-->