Review: Havana Club Tributo 2017

The second rum in Cuba-based Havana Club‘s Tributo Collection has hit shelves, but not many of them: Just 2500 bottles of this expression will be released globally.

We missed out on Tributo 2016 but were excited to land a sample of the new release. The company explains a bit about why it’s so special.

Havana Club Tributo 2017 has been crafted by Asbel Morales, Havana Club Maestro del Ron Cubano, from a new blend of hand-selected base rums and a decades-old ‘aguardiente’ – or spirit base. The ‘aguardiente’ is at the heart of this rum, and has been enhanced by maturation in barrels that are over 80 years old. The result is an exceptional rum with a distinctive dry note and an intriguing array of flavours, highlighting and paying homage to the finest Cuban sugar cane. The 2017 edition is bottled at 40% abv, with an amber glow and flavours of chocolate, tobacco and coffee.

This unique blend of Havana Club’s exceptional rum reserves honours the passion and knowledge of the Maestros del Ron Cubano, a role that has recently been declared a Cultural Patrimony of the Cuban nation by the Culture Ministry in Cuba. As such, each bottle of Havana Club Tributo is individually numbered and adorned with the signature of Havana Club Maestro del Ron Cubano, Asbel Morales. The outer packaging will entice rum connoisseurs and spirits drinkers alike with luxury green gold cues evoking the sugar cane lands used for generations in the production of authentic Cuban rum.

A sultry experience from the start, this rum offers an impressively deep aroma that mingles Madeira wine with coffee, tobacco, and toffee. This is the barrel doing nearly all the talking, intense and well-integrated wood notes doing the heavy lifting for that fortified wine character that only comes with many years of mellowing in cask. The palate is just as complex and rarefied, loading up immediately with flavors that run from coffee bean and dark chocolate to dried raspberry and green banana. The overwhelming flavor element throughout all of this is a slightly smoky blend of vanilla and caramel, not too sweet as it laces in notes of coconut en route to a finish that echoes more dark (very dark) chocolate. It all comes together quite beautifully, lingering on the tongue for ages and demanding significant thought and analysis.

All told, this is an enchanting and beguiling rum that can go toe to toe in terms of the complexity with some of the world’s most enigmatic spirits, including well-aged Cognac and Scotch whisky. If you happen to encounter a bottle in your travels, strongly consider picking it up (despite the hefty price tag).

80 proof.

A / $390 /

Review: Stone/Maine DaySlayer India Pale Lager

This Stone collaboration with Maine Beer Company, based in Freeport, is an India Pale Lager — a hybrid brew that takes the form of a heavily malted beer that’s loaded with tons of hops. The India Pale side of the equation definitely rules the roost here, the hops giving it an almost crushing bitterness — to which the malt really can’t hold a candle.

The bummer is that rather than piney and/or citrus-forward, DaySlayer’s hops are tough and overbearing, building a generalized pungency that isn’t nearly as refreshing as the devil skull on the label might have you believe. The sweet malt gets lost in this mix, too, and when the finish comes it’s a bit muddy. Drinkable in the way that many ultra-bitter brews are, but muddy.

7.5% abv.

B / $8 per 22 oz bottle /

What is Fortified Wine and How Is It Made?

“Silver and ermine and red faces full of port wine” – John Betjeman

Fortified wine, that is, wine with a spirit (usually brandy) added to up the alcohol content, is a style that fell out of fashion decades ago. While once enjoyed in the salons of well-off aristocrats throughout Western Europe, these days ports, sherries, and their fellow fortified wines are a much more niche pleasure, a hidden gem for those seeking something more powerful and rich and decadent than they might get otherwise. For a wine aficionado with cellar room to spare, fortified wine’s high alcohol content provides its ability to be aged exceptionally long, with good ports having the potential to be cellared for a century or more. If you want to try something new, follow along and discover the world of four of the most common styles of fortified wine: port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.


Port is the most wide-ranging and approachable of these four wine, and for more detail on the intricacies of its production, check out our Portugal wine travel guide. For now though, know that port comes from and is named after the city of Porto in Portugal, where port wine is still stored and shipped out to other countries. The actual growing and fermenting of the grapes is done along the Douro River in the Northeast of the country, which for centuries was then brought downstream to Porto for sale and distribution in rickety boats. What makes port so complex is that it has many different sub-categories of style within the general umbrella of “port.”

The post famous style of port is known as Vintage Port, and it’s the one that a wine drinker can put down for a few decades to invariably improve; because of the spirits added to the wine, a good vintage port usually won’t go bad within one person’s lifetime, and will continue to improve for 30 years or more. Vintage ports are massive, brooding, and sumptuous with the blackest of black fruit flavors, and ageing them will add endless complexity with notes of brown sugar, nutmeg, butterscotch, and other delights. Vintage port benefits greatly from decanting before drinking, to let the true force of the flavors open up and to eliminate sediment.

Ruby ports and Late Bottled Vintage (or “LBV”) ports on the surface look, smell, and taste like vintage ports, but they are simpler, not made for ageing or decanting. If you are curious about port and don’t want to immediately spend a fortune on a bottle of vintage, an LBV port is a good way to try the style. With an LBV you’ll get notes of dark raisins, black plum, and other rich fruits, without the nuance and complexity of a vintage port, but usually also at a quarter of the price or less.

If you pick up a bottle of Tawny Port, you may notice an age statement (such as “10 years”) and think you’re getting a great deal — but tawny port is really a bit of stage magic on the part of port makers. Tawny ports are aged in small wood barrels to make for a more complex, wood-forward character, and then blended with other tawny ports to approximate the typical flavor of a tawny at that age. As such, tawny ports are nutty and loaded with baking spices, chocolate, and some oxidized notes. Like LBVs, they’re designed to be a good value compared to vintage ports, and are a good way to try out a bottle to see if you like what this style of port has to offer.


Other than port, the only other fortified wine with much of a presence these days is Sherry, though finding good sherries can be a more arduous task than finding good ports. Sherry comes from the region of Jerez on the Southern coast of Spain near Gibraltar, right where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge. One of the defining characteristics of sherry is the production of a thick film of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine in the barrel, called flor, which speeds up the process of converting sugar into ethanol, as well as protects it from excess oxidation. While there are many, many styles of sherry, three tend to dominate; the amount of flor that is allowed to interact in the wine determines which style of sherry you’re getting.

The driest of sherries is Fino, which is made when flor converts almost all of the sugar found in the wine to alcohol. Fino is very dry and nutty, with a flinty, mineral quality that can be off-putting to those who aren’t used to it. Like an Italian Pinot Grigio, however (another dry wine loaded with a mineral taste), fino sherry goes great with food, especially salty food. Try a glass of fino with nuts or dried seafood, and its dryness will blend perfectly with the salt on your tongue.

Next up is Amontillado, which begins its life as fino, but the layer of flor doesn’t last in the barrel and the wine partly oxidizes. As such, amontillado has residual sugars which give it a sweeter taste, and the contact with air gives it a rich brown color not unlike tawny port. Compared to fino, amontillado is similarly nutty, but the flinty quality is replaced with a bit of meaty richness, like smoked meat or sauteed mushrooms. A good pairing for amontillado would be pork or duck, something with a little gaminess that would blend well with the wine’s smoky qualities. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories will also recognize amontillado as the object of revenge in his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The last style of sherry we’ll discuss today is Oloroso, the biggest, boldest, and often sweetest of the sherries. While amontillado is made when the sherry’s flor breaks down on its own, with oloroso the cellarmaster destroys the layer of yeast intentionally, which allows the wine to oxidize heavily. Oloroso is often made with the grapes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which make the wine much sweeter than fino or amontillado, a closer taste to port for those not used to sherry. Oloroso will also be a style of interest for Scotch drinkers, since many Speyside Scotches, like Macallan, are often aged or finished in oloroso sherry barrels.

Marsala and Madeira

Port and sherry are by far the most common kinds of fortified wine, but it’s worth mentioning two other kinds: Marsala and Madeira. Both are widely known to consumers these days for use in cooking, but both are fortified wines that can be consumed alone just like any other. Marsala comes to us from Sicily in Italy, and is typically consumed as an aperitif. Its aromas and tastes include vanilla and apricot. Like sherry, it can range in taste from dry to sweet, though it doesn’t have special designations for each style like sherry does.

Madeira gets its name from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Taste-wise, it has the nutty and spiced components of a tawny port, like caramel and hazelnut, as well as a bit of the citrus of a sherry, like peach and orange peel. There are several styles of Madeira, but the main ones are Finest, which is a drier wine aged 3 years, and Rainwater, which is sweet and fruity and is great in cocktails or on its own. Numerous styles of aged Madeiras, made with different grapes to impact the amount of sweetness in them, are also available. (Click the above link for some examples.)

As you can see, there’s a lot to say about fortified wine, and this article only scratches the surface. Let us know what you think in the comments, and maybe an article exclusively on port or sherry is in our future!

Review: Rioja from Marques de Murrieta – 2012 Reserva and 2007 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva

Marques de Murrieta has been producing Rioja wine since 1852. Here’s a look at two of the most recent (and highest-end) wines from this venerable producer.

2012 Marques de Murrieta Rioja Reserva – Surprisingly thin on first blush, with an almost watery character that washes away what should be some engaging red berries, touched with rosemary and rhubarb. Air actually helps things develop quite a bit, the red berry sliding a bit toward blackberry, with secondary notes of tobacco leaf, roasted meats, and some black pepper. The finish is a bit on the sweet side for a Rioja, but works well enough with food. B / $24

2007 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial – This is the highest tier of Rioja, and this 10 year old bottling is the current release. Oxidation is beginning to have its way here, but let it breathe a few minutes and some of the more volatile notes burn off. What’s left behind is a surprisingly supple wine, loaded with blackberry, tobacco, and fig jam, with a smattering of herbs crushed on top. The finish seems some chocolate folded in as well. This probably would have been a bit better in 2015, but today it’s still a top-shelf example of what well-aged Rioja can be. A- / $90

Review: D’usse Cognac XO

I didn’t find much to love in D’usse’s inaugural Cognac, a VSOP, but this upscale update, an XO, has a whole lot more to recommend. All the eaux de vie in the finished product are at least 10 years old — and the black bottle is arguably even cooler than the one used for the VSOP.

The nose is incredibly sultry and aromatic, offering aromas of dark wood, cinnamon sticks, cloves, currants, and a sharp coffee note that lingers for awhile. Fruit is dialed back in favor of duskier notes, spices and toasty wood being the primary elements. On the palate, the coffee and cinnamon meld into a mocha character, quite chocolate-heavy with overtones of toffee, coconut, and a lingering note of burnt sugar and torched banana.

Well-rounded and full of character, this is a Cognac that plays down fruit in favor of more dessert-focused notes — emphasizing the more exotic elements of brandy instead of the lithe sweetness this spirit can often exhibit. It’s a change of pace from what most Cognac fans will be familiar with, but it’s definitively worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $230 /

Review: A Trio of Albarinos, 2017 Bottlings

Albarino — that crowd-pleasing white wine from the north of Spain — is sure to make an appearance on your summer table at least once. Here’s a look at three new releases, all currently on the market.

2016 Atlantis by Maetierra Albarino Rias Baixas – A slightly creamier expression of albarino, this bottling is a massive crowd-pleaser, bursting with notes of peaches, fresh tangerines, and pineapple, then fading into a very light grassy character. Simple and straightforward, but it fires on all cylinders. A- / $12

2015 Pazo de San Mauro Albarino Rias Baixas – A straightforward wine, quite acidic and tropical on the whole, with notes of mango, orange blossoms, and some apricot — brisk and biting from front to back. The finish is crisp and fresh, with a lemony kick to it. B+ / $15

2015 Vionta Albarino Rias Baixas – This was an enjoyable albarino back in the 2008 vintage when I last reviewed it. In 2015 it’s just as lively, with notes of pineapple, peaches, mango, and melon, fading to a slightly salty, melon-heavy finish. Moderately creamy, with a definitive sweetness. B+ / $16

Review: No. 209 Barrel Reserve Gin – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay Finished

No. 209, based in San Francisco, is going on a tear with its gin. Not only is it still producing standard and Kosher versions of its straight gin, it’s also out with three barrel-finished expressions, each spending time in a different type of California wine barrel. Today we look at two of those — gin finished in sauvignon blanc barrels and gin finished in chardonnay casks. Thoughts follow.

Both are bottled at 92 proof.

No. 209 Barrel Reserve Gin Finished in Sauvignon Blanc Barrels – Immediately a little curious, because sauvignon blanc is uncommonly barreled in the U.S. — but this spends 134 days in barrel nonetheless. Powerfully aromatic, with a nose that’s hard to place — eucalyptus, menthol, and a sweet citrus I usually associate with moscato wine. The palate initially packs less of a punch, offering quick citrus, grapefruit, and lemon peel notes — then sharpens up quickly with a reprise of menthol, camphor, and some slightly smoky and deeply earthy herbal character lingering on the finish. There’s a lot going on in this gin, but it works quite well on the whole, evoking some even more exotic notes, like violets and rhubarb, as you explore it in greater depth. None of that really has anything in common with sauvignon blanc, but hey, that’s the magic of the barrel. Reviewed: Batch #4. A- / $60

No. 209 Barrel Reserve Gin Finished in Chardonnay Barrels – 119 days in barrel. This is a radically different gin than the sauvignon blanc bottling, and a less assured one. The nose is greener, with a malty underpinning and moderately oaky — as you’d expect from a chardonnay. The palate is considerably more creamy and rounded than the sauvignon blanc bottling, with initial notes of Indian spices, more malt, and some funkier mushroom notes. The finish is where it starts to fall apart, those mushroom characteristics picking up steam and dominating the rest of the experience, taking the finish to an overwhelmingly earthy (and oak-driven) place that is devoid of fruit or spice. Offhand, chardonnay doesn’t sound like a bad match for gin, but in this release it just seems like they may have spent too long together. Reviewed: Batch #1. B- / $60