Review: Mad River Maple Cask Rum and PX Rum

Mad River Distillers is based in Warren, Vermont, where it was founded in 2011 by John Egan, Brett Little, and Maura Connolly to produce high-quality, handcrafted spirits using locally-sourced, non-GMO ingredients and local spring water. The company now has four rums, three whiskeys, and a brandy in its lineup — and more stuff is on the way.

Our first encounter with Mad River looks at two of its rums. Let’s dig in.

Mad River Maple Cask Rum – This is a rum made from demerara sugar, aged in charred oak barrels then finished in spirit barrels that previously held maple syrup. Initially quite rustic, this rum eventually sheds some of its aromas of burlap, raw wood, and mushroom to reveal more layered aromas of licorice, raisin, and Eastern spices. There’s nothing much in the realm of maple syrup here, as the palate is on the raw side, pungent with greener vegetal notes and oily petrol, but here the rum also opens up given some time to reveal a reprise of sweet licorice plus bitter amaro, juicy prune, and a touch of ginger on the finish. Interesting — but ultimately rough — stuff. 92 proof. B / $36

Mad River PX Rum Limited Edition – Same deal as Maple Cask, only the finishing barrel is a Pedro Ximenez sherry barrel, quite unusual for rum. Rich and nutty, this is the opposite of Maple Cask in that the sherry is evident right from the start, with a nutty, wine-scented aroma that overlays a funky interior. The palate is in keeping with the nose, a pungent and forceful collection of flavors that coalesce into notes of raisin, fig, and sharp tobacco notes, with a finish that exudes cloves, nutmeg, and well-torched sugar. This is again an intense rum with tons of flavor, but here the balance is better, and the overall character is so unique that it’s hard to put down. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. A- / $42

madriverdistillers.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2017 Edition

Old Forester’s annual Birthday Bourbon — celebrating the birthday of founder George Garvin Brown — has arrived.

Some details:

The 2017 Birthday Bourbon barrel selection was drawn from 12 year old barrels from different warehouses and floors on May 27, 2005. 93 barrels matured together on the 4th floor of G warehouse, yielding an extremely spice forward expression. The remaining 27 barrels matured together on the 5th floor of K warehouse contributing a rounding sweetness to the blend. Several barrels from both lots basked in the sun, highlighting the effects of maturation along an external wall in Old Forester’s heat cycled warehouses.

The craft of bourbon making- from barrels to bottling- is a mixture of art and science. For this year’s Birthday Bourbon, science plays an integral role in the product story. During the transfer of bourbon from the holding tank to the bottling line, alcohol vapors were lost during bottling, causing the proof to drop. As a result, this year’s Birthday Bourbon will be presented at both 96 proof and 95.4 proof. This distinction is identifiable in the proof statements on the bottle.

The 2017 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon will be on shelves with a suggested retail price of $79.99. Florida and Georgia will receive the 95.4 proof expression and remaining states will receive the 96 proof expression. Kentucky is the only state which will receive both expressions with the 96 proof expression shipping first.

We’re reviewing the 96 proof version. If anyone has the 95.4 proof expression and would like to share their thoughts, please fire away in the comments.

Meanwhile, our own tasting notes:

2017 presents a somewhat thin expression of OldFo, relatively lackluster next to the knockout of 2016. Here we find a dulled nose that hits some of the usual notes — butterscotch, buttered popcorn, caramel, baking spice, and ample wood, but it’s filtered through a muddy haze that puts a damper on things. On the palate, the popcorn dominates, with clove-driven spice, black pepper, and tobacco leaf the dominate secondary notes. The finish is again quite earthy, though more raw alcohol notes redirect the focus as said finish develops.

All told, it’s an acceptable but relatively innocuous entry into the increasingly erratic Old Forester Birthday Bourbon lineup.

96 proof.

B / $80 / oldforester.com

What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)

You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.

Barley

The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.

Corn

Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.

Wheat

Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot  be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.

Rye

Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.

Other Grains

The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.

As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!

Review: Sparkling Wines of Martini & Rossi, 2017 Releases

You’re probably singing it right now — Martin and Rossi / Asti Spumante. Well, Italy’s Martini & Rossi is still around and, it turns out, is trying to slowly move upmarket, God bless ’em. Yes, Asti Spumante is still here too — they just call it Asti now — but the brand has its sights on grander designs, namely the release of its first vintage-dated Prosecco, under the “Martini” brand.

Below please find thoughts on the upcoming 2016 Prosecco — to be released in early 2018 — and three of the Martini & Rossi nonvintage wines… including the classic!

2016 Martini Prosecco DOC – As noted, this is the first vintage-dated Prosecco from M&R, labeled on the front with only “Martini” (sorry, Rossi!). Surprisingly fizzy and effervescent, this bottling benefits from letting the bubbles settle down a little, which allows the stone fruit and crisp green apple notes to come through more clearly. As it warms a bit, a fragrant lavender note emerges, with perhaps a touch of rosemary on the back end. Priced to move! A- / $20 to $25

NV Martini & Rossi Sparkling Rose – A blend of Moscato Bianco, Brachetto, and Malvasia from northern Italy. Pleasant and uncomplicated, the wine is effervescent, fresh, and a bit floral, but lacking in any other truly defining character aside from the strawberry notes that hit on the finish. Nothing that will blow your mind, but not at all bad at this price. B / $12

NV Martini & Rossi Prosecco DOC – This nonvintage version of M&R’s Prosecco isn’t half as much fun as the 2016 bottling, and you’ll save just a few bucks on the price. A bit gummy, with a heavy pear flavor, it’s a simplistic and over-sweetened version of Prosecco that misses the floral fun of the 2016. B- / $12

NV Martini & Rossi Asti DOCG – 100% muscat, and sweet as the dickens. That said, it’s better than expected, the muscat’s peachy notes complementing a core that tastes like pure honey. The fizz cuts the sweetness enough to make one see why people gravitated to this stuff in the ’70s. B / $12

martini.com

Review: Port Askaig 110 Proof

Before you book a flight to Islay, know this: There is no distillery at Port Askaig. This whisky is rather “created from carefully selected casks from distilleries across Islay. All whiskies from Port Askaig are truly ‘small-batch’ with as few as two, and no more than 40, casks used for each bottling.” Since it’s billed as a single malt, though, each Port Askaig must be sourced from a single distillery, not multiple ones. This is the first Port Askaig release to arrive in the U.S.

Port Askaig 110° Proof is the first of this unique range of single malt whiskies to launch in the US but there will be more releases, including US exclusives, to come in the next few years. Port Askaig 110° Proof is a cask-strength whisky, bottled at 55% and matured in American oak, offering the perfect balance of smoke and sweet fruit. In order to maintain the authenticity of the Port Askaig liquid, the creators do not use chill filtering and no colouring is added.

Let’s give Port Askaig’s first U.S. landing a taste.

A very pale straw color is the first inkling of how gentle this whisky will be. The nose is classically Ardbegian — light on its feet but oily, with significant floral overtones atop gentle petrol notes. The palate is equally quiet, despite bottling at 55% abv it shows more delicate floral notes, light vanilla, and a spritz of citrus. At the same time, there’s a backbone here — peat smoke, but with a character that comes across like it’s been well-filtered and refined, like a cigar detected from across the room, one which makes one wonder, maybe I should find one of those cigars for myself…

110 proof.

A- / $75 / portaskaig.com

Review: Wines of Kelley & Young, 2017 Releases

Late Harvest Zinfandel

Recently we attended Kelley & Young Winery’s first Meet the Winemakers Dinner and enjoyed a selection of this California-based operations products. Here’s our impression of the wines served.

2015 Kelley & Young Sauvignon Blanc finishes fermenting at a lower alcohol content a month after crushing the grapes. This Sauvignon Blanc has a clear pretty yellow color and a bright scent, reminiscent of grapefruit, that is less brassy than many other Sauvignon Blancs on the market. The palate of lemon, vanilla, and pear mingle nicely. It has a light dry finish, making it the perfect wine to go with appetizers. B / $27

2015 Kelley & Young Kathleen Rosé has a blush rose color. On the nose, strawberries and cherry notes hint at an overall sweetness. Five varietals of grapes are used to make it. A / $25

2014 Kelley & Young Zinfandel has a beautiful, ruby red body with a lovely bouquet. While aromatically rich, I get a nose of phosphorous. The taste of dark, sweet cherries comes through with a light but spicy dryness on the finish. B+ / $36

2014 Kelley & Young Late Harvest Zinfandel starts off with a rich, blood red color. As you would expect from a dessert wine, it is sweet both in scent and palate, but not syrupy. The palate hints at a Port with notes of cherry and chocolate — which is particularly clear because the winemakers indeed add dark chocolate tannin to the blend. Coming through that are notes of dark cherries and oak. A+ / $35

kelleyyoungwines.com

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 / glenmorangie.com

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