Review: Bushmills Red Bush Irish Whiskey

For its latest trick, Bushmills is taking things as old-school as they get. Bushmills Red Bush is a NAS variant of the classic Irish whiskey, one that is aged exclusively in first-fill, medium-charred, ex-bourbon casks. Bushmills Original (aka Original Bush) is aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. If you’re familiar with Black Bush and are curious what the difference is, that whiskey is aged exclusively in sherry barrels.

Like all expressions of Bushmills, Red Bush is 100% malted barley and is triple distilled. The use of nothing but American bourbon casks, according to the distillery, is meant to position the whiskey as something that bourbon fans new to Irish will find approachable.

The results are pretty much in line with expectations. The nose finds lots of toasty grains, butterscotch, walnuts, and hints of buttered popcorn — many aromas similar to what you’d expect to see in a bourbon, but more mellowed by the softer barley mash. The palate largely follows suit, though there are some initial citrus notes here that come unexpectedly, leading the way to notes of well-browned toast and chewy blondies, along with some furniture polish. The finish is marred by a bit of rubbery band-aid character and a sharpness that is at odds with the soothing front half of the experience, but on the whole the whiskey is at least worthwhile as a departure from the usual.

80 proof.

B / $22 / bushmills.com

Review: 2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

New releases from Hahn and its upscale SLH line of wines, both made with grapes sourced from its estate in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

These both represent a bit of a premium over the standard Hahn bottlings, but as you’ll see, they’re worth it.

2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highands – A thinner wine, particularly on the barely-there nose, but the initially watery body eventually builds to offer some bolder notes of licorice, charred wood, roasted meats, and savory spices. The finish is earthier and meatier than I’d like, but that does help it to pair better with a bolder meal than most pinot noirs. B / $20

2015 Hahn SLH Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands – Oak and butter on top of oak and butter, pumped up beyond imagination. Hahn can so often be a model of restraint, but for 2015 someone threw open the throttle and just let everything fly. Well, some mild lemon notes notwithstanding, the blowout of vanilla and brown butter simply destroy any hope of nuance. B- / $20

hahnwines.com

A Visit to Napa Valley Distillery

Like many small distilleries, Napa Valley Distillery — the first distilling operation since Prohibition to open its doors in a town that’s synonymous with wine — has a two-pronged approach to making product. It distills some spirits on its own (vodka and brandy, mainly, distilled from sauvignon blanc grapes) using a couple of neat, small stills, and it sources everything else. The focus with its sourced products is heavily on barrel finishing, and the company often makes use of local wine barrels to give rum, whiskey, and a variety of liqueurs a Napa-style spin.

Recently I took a tour of NVD as part of the Flavor! Napa Valley event, which included a quick tour of the small facility, followed by a cocktail tasting and food pairing in the reception hall situated upstairs from the distillery and warehouse. Owner Arthur Hartunian explained that his focus is really on hospitality foremost, and the speakeasy-like environment up here is designed as a bit of a nostalgic oasis for wine-soaked tourists looking for something a little different after a day of sipping chardonnay.

NVD plans to expand its distilling operations this summer, partnering with local breweries to make whiskey out of beer. Meanwhile, you can drop by the operation (note that reservations are required), take a quick spin and pay your respects to Walter White, and head upstairs for bespoke cocktails made exclusively from ingredients Napa Valley produces, including its own syrups and shrubs. If you can get an Aviation (made with its own clear creme de violette) or a Sazerac, I highly recommend both.

napadistillery.com

Review: Virtue Cider The Mitten

This new release from Virtue Cider is, as always, a Michigan-born cider, made from a blend of last season’s pressed apples. The cider is “aged in Bourbon barrels for up to one year, then back sweetened with this year’s fresh pressed apple juice.”

This is one of Virtue’s more interesting ciders, offering caramel and butterscotch notes that complement dried apples and cinnamon. It’s like a carbonated apple-flavored whiskey from the start, but the finish finds the fresher fruit notes enduring and hard to shake. Candylike on the back end, some lightly herbal notes linger here, along with a touch of bitter quinine, which helps balance out the sweetness.

6.8% abv.

B+ / $13 per four-pack / virtuecider.com

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 2: Canadian Whisky – Ellington, Black Velvet, LTD

bottom shelf

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive Canadian whiskies. (Cheap-ass American whiskey coverage can be found here.) Canadian whiskies are usually blends, as all three of these are.

Ellington Canadian Whisky

Note that the whisky reviewed here is the regular Ellington and not the Ellington Reserve, which lists itself as 8 years old. The age of this product is unstated, but to bear the label “Canadian Whisky,” all of the constituent whiskies must have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels (usually used barrels). The whisky’s light-yellow color suggests that coloring has been added to achieve an enticing hue in a blend that spent very little time in the barrel. The nose is gentle and presents a mix of nail polish remover, peanuts, and a touch of rye spice. The palate however is surprisingly supple and reminds me of cheap vodka. But I think it is better than cheap vodka. Slight wood notes and a touch of sweetness serve to round out the alcohol’s bite. The finish includes a touch of pepper and a slight bitterness. Ellington could serve as a promising mixer, particularly for people who aren’t huge fans of whisky (or alcohol) but still want to drink.

80 proof.

C / $11

Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky 3 Years Old

Like Ellington, this young whisky has an older sibling, Black Velvet Reserve, which is also aged 8 years. This younger, less expensive expression is light-gold in color, suggesting, as with Ellington, that color was used to achieve a pleasant hue in a very young whisky. The nose is virtually  nonexistent. I’m not sure I have ever smelled a whiskey (or another 80 proof product) that exhibited so light a nose. A light medicinal scent can be discerned when swirled in a glass. The taste is more pronounced than the aroma suggests, opening with some bitterness, followed by notes of cheap vanilla extract. A touch of pepper follows, which is nice, and then an alcohol burn. The finish is rather short but surprisingly clean. No bitter aftertaste.

80 proof.

C / $9 / blackvelvetwhisky.com

Canadian LTD

On the bottle, Canadian LTD states that it is “Canadian Whisky with Natural Flavors,” which means that some of the product is made up of whiskies aged for at least 3 years and some of it is a mystery. Most of the remaining product is likely neutral grain spirits (aka vodka). On the nose, LTD is presents faint aromas of nail polish remover with a little vanilla and just a whiff of peanut. The palate is much more assertive, opening with some pepper and then presenting strong flavors of cheap vanilla extract, which leads me to wonder if it is made with some of the same whisky as Black Velvet. The finish is fairly short and is followed by an unpleasant, but not overpowering, medicinal bitterness.

80 proof.

C- / $9

Re-Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (2017)

crown royal rye

In 2015, I reviewed Crown Royal Northern Rye. I thought it was OK. I graded it a B.

Later that year Jim Murray named it his whisky of the year, and all hell broke loose. A $30 Canadian whisky is the best whisky of the year? Sales went through the roof. The price shot up. Everyone asked me about the little whisky that could.

That’s bothered me for the last two years. Was I wrong? Was I missing the plot on this one? I reached out to Crown Royal to see if I could get a fresh sample, in order to see if I could suss out what I missed.

To refresh your memory, this is a 90% rye, bottled with no age statement. Let’s give a brand new bottle a fresh look.

Well, much as I said previously, the nose is loaded with dried apple notes, cinnamon, and caramel. It’s apple pie in a glass at least aromatically. I can see how someone would like it, but the fruit is so blown out that it strikes one as a a flavored spirit.

The palate offers few surprises, though the caramel is stronger and notes of barrel char, and, now that I explore it more deeply, a character closer to baked pear than apple. Slightly gummy and fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, it’s got sweetness pushed almost to the breaking point, with a lasting finish that is fragrant but gummy.

In the end: I still don’t understand the fuss. In fact, I like it even less now than I used to. And no, I’m not trying to be contrarian, mom.

90 proof.

B- / $45 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hochstadter’s Family Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey 16 Years Old

Your best bet for old rye whiskey these days seems to be good old Albert Distillers Limited, which has been pumping the stuff out for decades.

Cooper Spirits bottled up some of this under its Hochstadter’s line (known for its Slow & Low and Vatted Rye bottlings) and calls it Hochstadter’s Family Reserve. Imbued with a 16 year old age statement, it’s made from a 100% rye recipe and bottled at cask strength.

This is a very sweet whiskey, heavy on the nose with notes of mint, tangerine, and lemon oil. Quite sharp and hot, the whiskey offers a palate of toasty oak impregnated with plenty of sweet fruit, including strawberries and oranges, and a thick layer of brown sugar. Water’s a big help here, and though it tempers the heat, it isn’t as effective with the sweetness, which endures for the long haul. The finish keeps everything on a familiar path, all torched sugar and fresh fruit — though tamed with water it does allow more of that classic rye baking spice to make it to the fore.

Old 100% rye is more common than it used to be, and you’ll still pay a pretty penny for it. At $200 for what amounts to a fairly simple whiskey though, that remains a tough trigger to pull.

123.8 proof.

B / $200 / hochstadtersfamilyreserve.com

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