December 24, 2014

December 9, 2014

Standing Stone Saperavi 2013

The Saperavi grape is a dark red, acidic, teinturier-type variety native to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where since 1886 it has been used to make many of the region's distinctive wines. However, in the U.S. it now has a special new status.

Saperavi grapes are a bit of a mixed bag in the Finger Lakes. Although the varietal received official status 11 months ago from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, McGregor Vineyard has grown them since the early 1980s and uses them in its Black Russian Red blend. For the past two years, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars has produced a Saperavi, but under the name Cuvée Rouge.

However, it has always received special attention at Standing Stone Vineyards to the point that the Lodi winery held a Saperavi vertical tasting last month: the just-released 2013 vintage, plus four previous vintages including their first, the 2005, finishing with barrel tastings of the 2014 and the 2013 reserve.

Owners Marti and Tom Macinski have been growing the hardy, cool-climate grape since 1994, three years after they purchased the vineyards. They did not market anything under the Saperavi name because of the lack of government recognition. However, in December 2013 Standing Stone petitioned for it which resulted in a blindingly rapid -- for government -- thumbs up just one month later.

Thus, its champions are hoping, a star has been born.

I had the opportunity to sample the 2013 vintage just hitting markets in time for the holidays. The intensely dark red wine ("saperavi" means ink in the Georgian dialect) has a smoky, plummy initial taste, leveling out with hints of cedar and stone fruits, all of which give promise of a wine that will be eminently drinkable even some years from now. It has been aged a year in used oak, which seems to be enough to sand off any rough edges, and is bottled at 13.2% abv.

With its name now solidly recognized, Saperavi wines should be popping up in more places. However, the Macinskis' early recognition of its possibilities has led to their five-acre plot of it, believed to be the largest such planting outside of Georgia. Catching up to them will be the order of the day.

Suggested retail price: $29.99.

Castel Grisch Johannisberg Riesling

The Watkins Glen winery and restaurant Castel Grisch has a penchant for Swiss- and German-style foods and German-style wines, made in its facility overlooking Seneca Lake. Here is an anecdote about one of its older wines. 

A few days before Thanksgiving, I was rooting around in my wine collection for a white wine Herself could use to make her very special cranberry sauce.

I came across a long-forgotten bottle of Castel Grisch Finger Lakes Johannisberg Riesling. Normally, I'd have picked it up without a second thought. This time, however, I had second, third and even fourth thoughts.

Why? It was a 1996 vintage. Since Castel Grisch is not known for wines of longevity, I assumed this one probably had turned to vinegar by now. So, I dusted off the bottle and uncorked it with some degree of trepidation.

Surprise. Not only was it not vinegar, it still was a pretty decent Riesling -- golden color, full bouquet, slightly tangy-sweet on the tongue, and pretty darned good as a cranberry sauce component, as it turned out.

I don't recall what I paid for this wine all those years ago, but current vintages go for an average retail price of $12.99.

January 1, 2014

Glenmorangie Companta

Dr. Bill Lumsden, the energetic and engaging head of distilling and whiskey creation at the Glenmorangie distillery, is known for his experimentations with many varieties of woods for his Highland single malt Scotch whiskies. This is the fifth release in the company's "hugely successful, award-winning Private Edition series," he said in a handwritten note to me that arrived with a laboratory sample of the new creation. 

 When Bill Lumsden comes up with another in a series of Glenmorangie's Private Edition single malts, the whisky world pays attention. He is sort of the benevolent mad scientist of the Scotch world, working away in his lab at the Highlands distillery in Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, on a picturesque former piece of farmland.

There, using a variety of woods from all over and local water from the Tarlogie Springs, he continually comes up with excellent single malts known for their sophistication, deep flavors and wonderfully lingering finishes.

The first four creations in the Private Edition, most of which are very difficult to find now because they were limited releases, were Finealta (aged in used American white oak and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks); Sonnalta (matured 10 years in used American white oak casks then two years in used Pedro Ximenez PX sherry casks); Artein (aged in "super Tuscan" used casks), and Ealanta (aged 19 years in heavily toasted virgin American Oak casks)

This is the latest, Companta -- Scots Gaelic for "friendship." It is an extra-matured spirit that has been aged in vintage French wine casks -- Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and fortified wine casks from the Cótes du Rhòne.

Says Lumsden about the selection of woods for this creation, "As a true wine aficionado, some of my most memorable visits have been to the vineyards of Burgundy, where the dedication and attention to detail that goes into their craft never ceases to amaze me.. The smaller vineyards of the region don't seem to worry about yields, costs or timings. They work tirelessly simply to produce the very best wine. ... This shared philosophy inspired me to create Companta, the ultimate tribute to my longstanding love for French vineyards and the friends that I've had the pleasure to make throughout my travels."

Companta is a total pleasure, from the first glance at its slightly ruby color to its welcoming nose of red berries, oak and even woodsmoke. On the palate, it is like slipping into a comfortable cashmere jacket, enveloping you with its warmth and a spicy palate that offers hints of cherries, oranges, brown sugar and plums.

Companta is scheduled to go on the market in the U.S. this month. A suggested retail price has not been announced, but it no doubt will be in the same $100+ range as its Private Edition companions.

Tikveš Rkaciteli 2012

The history of Macedonian wine has been erratic over the decades. In ancient Macedonia, this region north of Greece was a major supplier of wine to surrounding regions. When it was part of Yugoslavia, it produced in the 1980s two-thirds of that nation's wine. After the federation broke up, wine production fell off dramatically, but has been making a nice rebound in recent years.

This light, refreshing pale yellow wine from the Republic of Macedonia shares a number of characteristics of its region: pale in color, attractive on the nose, clean on the palate.

It's a bargain-basement buy that went well with my New Year's Eve tapas that included sauteed Maryland crab cakes with a light remoulade sauce, Moroccan spiced chicken skewers with a variety of dipping sauces -- salsa, Thai spicy peanut and portobello tapanade -- and an avocado-lemon-tomato salad, thus showing its versatility.

Notes of pear and peach were evident in the first sip, although it is far from a sweet wine, clearly shown by the presence of   thyme and melon elements. Floral and fennel notes add to its clean mouth feel.

This particular wine stands out as part of a minority of production in Macedonia, where 80% of the wine is red. Tikveš is the largest winery in the country. Its Rkaciteli — pronounced "rkah-tzeetely,"meaning “red stem” —  originated in the nation of Georgia, where it is spelled "Rkatsiteli" as it is in the U.S. It is one of the world's oldest grape varieties, with a genealogy stretching back at least to 3000 B.C.

Suggested retail price: $9 for the 750ml bottle.

October 10, 2013

Jack Daniel's Winter Jack Hard Cider

A sudden boomlet in the hard cider and flavored whiskies product niches has come together in a new Brown-Forman seasonal release.

The aroma of a spirit can be a real fooler. Take the new Jack Daniel’s Winter Jack Tennessee Cider, for example.

Nosing a just-poured sample, I could have sworn it was simply a delicate apple cider that would quietly touch my palate and quickly dissipate.


While the liqueur’s fragrance was light and sweet, the taste was full-bodied, robust and spicy with nuances of apple, orange peel, cinnamon and clove along with the signature Tennessee whiskey.

It’s a delightful cold weather liqueur, made even better when briefly heated in a microwave as the distiller suggests to turn it into a version of a mulled hot apple cider, something long popular for the winter holidays.

The cider liqueur, bottled at 30 proof (15% abv), retails at a suggested retail price of $16.99 for the 750ml bottle.

September 21, 2013

Angel's Envy Cask Strength Bourbon

This limited edition bourbon release from Louisville Distilling Company was sold last year in Kentucky and in Nashville, YN, on a test basis. It sold out on two weeks.

If you liked Angel's Envy, you'll probably love Angel's Envy Cask Strength Bourbon. The only problem is that the national release consists of a mere 350 total 9-liter cases.

It was released this month, a followup to a test release last year restricted to Nashville, TN, and Kentucky that sold out in two weeks. This time, in addition to Tennessee and Kentucky, it is for sale in limited venues in New York, California, Florida and Texas. 

Cask Strength -- which in this case is 61.5% abv (123 proof) -- is the last product from Lincoln Henderson, the master distiller who died earlier this month after copming out of retirement to create the original Angel's Envy. The noted spirits expert Paul Pacult rates the new product as tied for No. 1 "Best Spirit in the World" in his Spirits Journal. (The other No. 1 is Highland Park 25 Year Old Orkney Islands Single Malt Whisky, at 48.1% abv and $250 a bottle).

This iteration of the super-premium Angel's Envy bourbon used Kentucky limestone-filtered water and locally-sourced grains. Henderson let it magture up to eight years in the usual American white oak charred barrels. He then blended those barrels iunto a single batch in port casks up to three years.

The port wood is a genius touch, adding a silkiness to the finish -- especially after a few drops of water are added to coax the spirit into opening up. There is a butterscotch and vanilla quality, abetted by the boldness of the abv, as well as a savoriness that suggests sipping the spirit with a hearty, crusty roast or fudgy chocolate dessert. 

Suggested retail price is $149 for a 750ml bottle.

Oh, the name? In the whiskey industry, the part of the alcohol that evaporates during aging is known as "the Angel's share." This is a takeoff on that, referring to what's left behind.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Southern Comfort Bold Black Cherry

The industry push to crank out more and more flavored whiskies -- aimed primarily at the female and young adult market niches --  is embracing numerous brands. Here, an iconic old label has joined the rush once more.

Southern Comfort missed the mark in its try for something different in the form of Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, which debuted last fall. Now, it's back for another go-round, this time with Bold Black Cherry. They may have tried too hard.

As I have found with several other cherry-flavored spirits, the cherry is rather treacly and overpowering.

The sample I received came packaged with a Coke Zero, and the urging to try the two beverages as a cocktail. Even though Coke Zero has no calories, it does have its own sweet taste, and the cocktail ingredients did not enhance either of them. In fact, the various flavors clashed on all levels.

The original Southern Comfort is itself a flavored whiskey -- notes of peach, oak, honey and a tiny touch of spice -- but the distiller doesn't seem to be breaking any real ground with its latest attempts to broaden the product line.

It would, however, be a shame to think that it won't somewhere along the line find a fitting portfolio-mate to the original Southern Comfort created by a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter way back in 1874.

Bold Black Cherry is bottled at 35% abv (70 proof).

Suggested retail price: $16.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach

Picture 6The House of Marnier LaPostolle released this limited-time Cognac this month, the second in an annual series of Signature Collection blends that began last year with a cherry-infused Grand Marnier.

Grand Marnier is the signature orange-tinted Cognac liqueur against which all others (Grand Gala, for example) are measured. So, when it releases a variation on its theme it should be judged against its own standards.

Up front, it must be said that the new Grand Marnier Signature Collection No. 1 Raspberry Peach, just released on a limited basis, isn't in the same league as its core blend.

On the nose, very little raspberry is evident, with the basic Grand Marnier orange and the addition of aromas of the red peaches from Ardéche in the south of France clearly coming through. On the palate, the same tends to hold true although after several sips the raspberry makes a more pronounced appearance.

This is less of a smooth product than its forebear, or even last year's limited-release Grand Marnier Signature Collection No. 1 Cherry. There is a sharpness to the taste and aftertaste that made me lean toward using it in a cocktail rather than as a standalone sip.

The Cognac is packaged in the bottle shape and style familiar from the producer's Cordon Rouge, although with a clear glass to showcase the rose color of the liquid.

Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach is bottled at 40% abv (80 proof).

Suggested retail price: $39.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

May 29, 2012

Knob Creek Rye Whiskey

Knob Creek is among bourbon royalty, running up more sales than any other in the super premium category. Now, it is about to release a new whiskey to get into the competition in a resurgent category -- rye.

Fred Noe is in the direct line of distillers from the Beam family that has give us some of the best American whiskeys for generations. This new product, which will go on the market in July, comes two decades after his father, Booker Noe, created Knob Creek Bourbon.

This is Fred's second Knob Creek expression, the first one released last year under the Single Barrel Reserve name. It was a hit, and there is no reason his rye whiskey shouldn't follow suit.

I tried it both straight -- with an ice cube to help open it up -- as well as in a Manhattan, and give it an eager thumbs-up both ways.  

The light amber color and the spiciness of the rye mash on the nose are immediately appealing. The bold flavor, with notes of herbs, oak and vanilla usually found in good bourbons, is pleasing, but the kick of the rye adds another layer of pleasure. In combination with sweet vermouth, it is powerful enough to maintain its own character while easily blending with the other spirit for an excellent drink.

The whiskey is bottled at 100 proof (50% abv) in the same-shaped bottle as Knob Creek bourbon.

Suggested retail price: $40.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

March 14, 2012

White Pike Whiskey

The popularity of the market niche for unaged whiskey among American craft distillers shows no signs of slowing. In fact just the opposite. One of the latest players is a New York State white spirit its makers boast is "aged 18 minutes in reused cooperage." 

"Crafted by a man trained in the Alabama school of fast whiskey, White Pike is a refined spirit made to be shot, sipped, or mixed."

I presume that quote from Finger Lakes Distilling refers to Thomas Earl McKenzie, one of the two unrelated McKenzies who make this burgeoning Upstate New York company one of the hottest craft distillers around.

White Pike is made from a mash of 59% corn, 28% organic spelt and 13% malted wheat. Despite its lack of aging, the malted wheat provides a bit of a woody taste that smooths the edges of what usually is a sharp product. It is warm and slightly syrupy on the tongue, surprisingly light on the palate and provides a clean finish that pure-corn unaged spirits often miss.

It is bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) and packaged in a bottle that is half black and half clear, making it stand out on the shelf.

White Pike is sort of a co-op project with Mother New York, a decidedly offbeat company that lists its services as "Creating White Pike Advertising, Design, Misc. festivities, Short films, Longer films, Puppetry, Fine spirits, Internet things, Video games, High quality still photography, Business cards, Sausage making, etc."

The corn and wheat come from the Burdett, Seneca County, area, where the distillery is located. The spelt is imported from nearby Canadian growers.

Retail price: $39.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

January 17, 2012

Conjure Cognac

I've always wondered why rapper Chris Bridges uses the stage name "Ludacris." Sure, it's a play on his first name, but the correct spelling -- ludicrous -- certainly isn't something most people would want to be called. Nevertheless, the name hasn't hurt his career as Grammy winner and businessman. He's the spokesman for Birkedal Hartmann, the French maker of cognac for the past century and seems to be doing just fine. The company, incidentally, guarantees that Brown had a major role in developing the product.

It's statistically shown in the spirits industry that African Americans constitute the largest U.S. consumer group for cognac, closely followed by Asian Americans.

So, if you like the same musical genre enjoyed by many blacks, enjoy, because it permeates Conjure's video and print advertising. Even if you don't, persevere. Once you wade through all that you'll find a pretty good cognac awaiting you.

Fourth-generation wine and spirits producer Kim Birkedal Hartmann, who makes no bones about liking new products, got together with Bridges and master blender Philippe B. Tiffon to come up with Conjure.

It is made from the ugni blanc grape and aged in 50-year-old French Limousin oak barrels.

It's a lighter cognac, less viscous than most, with a sweet/floral nose, and distinct notes of roses, almonds and cardamom along with vanilla and caramel, the latter two not unexpected given the French oak in which it is matured. The finish is pleasingly long, allowing for contemplation and enjoyment of the warmth and flavor.

The house of Birkedal Hartmann suggests using Conjure in cocktails (one example, the Sunset Boulevard -- 2 ounces Conjure, one ounce orange liqueur, splashes of lime and orange juices and a few drops of grenadine). I suggest merely allowing it to open in a tasting glass, then sipping your way into a very good mood.

Retail price: $29.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

January 3, 2012

Red State/Blue State Bourbons

The presidential caucus being held today in Iowa is the starter for the run-up to the November presidential election. Heaven Hill Distilleries is using the event to try a clever marketing gimmick -- Red State and Blue State bourbons.

This entertaining marketing effort allows political-minded consumer to purchase a bottle of bourbon along party lines -- Red State for Republicans, Blue State for Democrats. The colors are in line with politial pundits' nicknames for states that tend to vote one way or the other in presidential elections.

However, Heaven Hill Distilleries is being very neutral despite the political overtones. The two bourbons are actually the same, just with different labels. And, if you click on "like" on either one's Facebook page, the same $1 donation goes to the same organization, the VFW Foundation.

Heaven Hill generally makes nice spirits -- rye, bourbon, gin, bodka, etc. -- and this basic bourbon is one of them. Bottled at 80 proof, it has plenty of wood notes on the tongue and a lot of the requisite caramel and vanilla notes.

It seems to be just a touch raw, although it is aged at least two years since it is labeled "straight bourbon," but let it breathe for just a few minutes, or open up over a couple of cubes of ice and you have a nice drink. I especially liked it in my favorite cocktail, a bourbon Manhattan.

If you like this one, stock up because it won't be produced after this year.

Suggested retail price: About $15 for a 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

December 2, 2011

MacKinlay Rare Old Highland Malt

 • The saga of Shackleton's whisky -- the discovery in early 2007 of a cache of spirits left behind by an early 20th Century expedition to the South Pole -- has all the elements of derring-do from an era when men and their potables were rustic, burly and beyond the scope of mortals.

Recreating a legend seldom fares well. Witness the flops we saw in trying to revive "Charlie's Angels" on TV this season. But, such dangers did not deter its makers from producing Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt.

The saga began during explorer Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909. He and his group barely escaped alive, and left behind 100 cases of Mackinlay’s. Fast forward to February 2007 and we have other explorers unearthing -- or de-icing -- the whisky stash. It was dispatched to Whyte & Mackay, the original brand owner. There, master blender Richard Paterson headed up a team that sought to recreate the original spirit.

What they wound up is a blend of whiskies, some as old as 30, that is somewhat shy yet spicy at first imporession. As it opens, we are treated to notes of melon, cinnamon, vanilla, leather and menthol that Paterson and company found in the original flavor.

Since it is based on the flavor profile of a historical oddity rather than on a major prize-winner,   I didn't know what to be prepared for but I was pleased with what I got. A lingering, slightly sweet finish makes a nice finish with a lot less bite than in the original impact.

Suggested retail price: $150-plus for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve

Put a good Scotch whisky in a mixture of 70%-30% Olorosso Sherry and American White Oak casks, and you come up with this winner.

I haven't smoked in a quarter-century, but I still fondly recall the aroma of a fine cigar accompanied by a fine whisky. Sampling the Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve put me back in those more carefree, and careless, times.

The initial slight cigar-smoke nose, with backnotes of lighter tobacco, loamy soil, caramel and spice, promise the palate a good time. Then, true to that promise, comes an alluring, rich taste experience.

A surprising number of fruit notes emerge as one lets the amber liquid loll on the tongue -- pineapple, mango, kiwi -- along with the expected toffee and vanilla.

This whisky is matured for most of its life in Oloroso Matusalem sherry butts and bottled at 44% alcohol by volume (88 proof). Even without a cigar, it's a fine, fine dram. So fine, in fact, that it earned a gold medal in the Beverage Tasting Institute's global competition in June.

Suggested retail price: $125 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

November 16, 2011

Lan Rioja Crianza 2006

Photo by Bill Dowd
Lan is a leading 40-year-old Spanish winemaker involved exclusively in the creation of Crianza red wines. It was named to Wine Spectator's 100 best wines list in 2010.

This 100% Tempranillo is aged in American and French oak barrels for 12 months, followed by several months in the bottle. The result is a deep cherry red wine, with violet hues, an enticing appearance.

The fruit-forward taste is redolent of plums, cherries and black raspberries, bold on both the nose and the palate. The 2006 vintage is an especially good one, one that will be drinkable for another half-dozen or more years.

The winemaker suggests serving this bold rioja with cold starters, pasta or poultry. I'd broaden the possibilities after finding it stacked up beautifully to an autumnal meal of beef pot roast and root vegetables, the fruits of the wine mingling with the earthy tastes of the veggies and the savory  beef. An excellent marriage.

Suggested retail price: A bargain at $11 to $13.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

November 9, 2011

Woodford Master's Collection Rare Ryes

For its sixth annual release in its Master's Collection, Woodford Reserve has created a change of pace with a pair of 375ml bottles of rye -- one aged in a used, charred cask, the other in new wood.

Woodford master distiller Chris Morris hates being predictable. Thus, the "Rare Rye" version of his Master's Collection, to be released sometime in November.

The two are a triple distilled rye bottled at 92.4 proof. I obtained samples of both and evaluate them side-by-side, as Morris suggests doing.

The New Cask Rye has an enticing aroma, heavy on the brown sugar caramel with a hint of spice. On the tongue, both elements expand to go along with a noticeable heat one might expect from being matured in new wood. The finish is lingering, spicy and smooth.

The Aged Cask Rye has, surprisingly, a much more restrained nose and lighter color -- both more of a lemon honey than the pale brown and brown sugar, respectively, of its companion. On the tongue, there is a distinct tarry edge before the semi-sweet chocolate, thyme and burnt sugar notes kick in. A long finish, smooth to the very end.

To be frank, I'm not wild about the execution of either, but like elements of both.

Suggested retail price: $99.99 for the two 375ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

November 7, 2011

Whiskey anthology perfect for holiday gifts

Here's a thought for an easy holiday gift. Pick up copies of my new book, "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y In Jiggers and Shots," just released by the New York publisher Sterling Epicure.

The suggested retail price for the hardcover book is $18.95. You can get a copy, often at a discounted price, via such online sites as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart and others.

Bill Dowd
I selected, edited and co-wrote this collection of essays from numerous writers famous in the field, from F. Paul Pacult to David Wondrich, and such multi-field notables as Tom Wolfe to Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Okrent of The New York Times.

Through them you will discover the spread of whiskey throughout the world and how it helped build countries. Read profiles of some of the most famous giants of the industry as Jack Daniel, George Smith and the Beam family.

Plus, go behind the scenes of Prohibition to check out the legendary gangsters, small-time rumrunners, and a famous NASCAR champion who made his mark as a moonshine runner. And, you'll get insiders' looks at legitimate whiskey-making in such diverse spots as Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., South Africa, India and Japan, as well as how the infamous Whiskey Ring scandal almost brought down a U.S. presidency.

November 5, 2011

Smirnoff Espresso Vodka

Here's a first for this blog. Because I do not care for the taste of coffee in any form -- liquid, ice cream, flavoring, etc. -- I prevailed on my wife and frequent imbibing companion, April Dowd, to evaluate this product. It is the first time in the history of the blog that began in February 2005 that someone other than I posted a review.

Smirnoff came out last year with two coffee flavored vodkas. There’s a dark roasted espresso and a regular espresso; I tried the latter.

I’m a tea drinker most of the time, but on occasion enjoy a good cup of coffee. The moment you remove the cap on a bottle of Smirnoff Espresso the distinct aroma of the coffee hits your senses -- as though you were making yourself a cup of the rich, intense coffee.

The flavor is much the same as the fragrance, and the vodka has a very creamy texture on the tongue even when thoroughly chilled. No disappointment in this flavor.

Suggested retail price: $17.99 for the 750 ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

October 24, 2011

Old Pulteney 21

Old Pulteney is Scotland's northernmost distillery, but it's not out of sight. Jim Murray has anointed its 21-year-old expression "World Whisky of the Year" in his influential 2012 Whisky Bible.

Old Pulteney 21, which had a nice European following before being introduced to the U.S. market in 2007, is drier and a touch spicier than the popular 17 year old. I suspected there was a difference between the types of sherry casks used for each in addition to the ratio of whisky-to-wine barrels.

Master Distiller Malcolm Waring confirmed my suspicions, noting that olorosso casks are used for the 17 and fino for the 21. The 17 year old is aged 90% in bourbon barrels and 10% in sherry. The 21 year old is aged in 66% bourbon and 33% sherry. Both are bottled at 92 proof.

The 17 has pronounced notes of caramel and vanilla, as one would expect, but overtones of honey, citrus and apple come through as well. Once cut with a few drops of water, the nose opened quite a lot, releasing floral esters.

The 21 provides what I refer to as "full tongue," a complete experience of all the elements the tongue can detect -- sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Caramel, chocolate, honey and a touch of smoke are evident, as are lower tannins than in the 17. The complexity of the flavor range makes it a perfect after-dinner drink.

Retail price: Above $100, average $115.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

October 20, 2011

Troy & Sons Moonshine

Troy & Sons has something unusual going for it. Troy. As in Troy Ball, a female distiller in a world heavily dominated by men. When I lunched with her at the Mount Vernon Inn in Virginia recently, she insisted her moonshine would be the best I ever tried. Here's what happened.

I examined the bottle. Elegant, classic lines, understated yet bold at the same time. I sniffed the moonshine, ready to pull back quickly as one often must do with such young spirits. Hmmm. No need to. It's pleasant, with a whiff of corn.

I tasted. Right off the bat, something was missing. The acrid taste of your everyday 'shine, which this certainly is not.

Ball's moonshine is made 100% from corn, but not just any corn. Crooked Creek Corn, a white grain Ball says once was grown in North Carolina and Tennessee, but now only in NC, fortunately near her home. She buys hers from the McEntire farm where it has been cultivated for more than 120 years.

Ball experimented with various recipes acquired from the North Carolina State Archives and from residents of Madison to McDowell counties who had a history of home cooking. Her final product, arrived at on August 18, 2010, not only has rounded edges, a slightly floral nose and rich, smooth taste, it also does not linger overly long in the soft tissues of the mouth as so many moonshines of lesser character. It is, as Ball promised, the best 'shine I've ever tried.

Retail price: $29.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Note: If you have difficulty finding Troy & Sons, you can e-mail Joy Suchlicki at

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

October 14, 2011

George Washington's Aged Rye Whiskey

Photo by Bill Dowd
The rebuilt distillery at George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, VA, had its grand opening in 2007. Since then, everything distillers have made there has been a hit. For the most part, the uniqueness of the operation has created the demand for its output among collectors. And that was unaged whiskey, the same way it was sold in Washington's day when he was the young nation's top distiller.

It will be interesting to see how fast the 2-year-old George Washington Aged Rye Whiskey will go when the limited edition goes on sale at Mount Vernon on October 22.

The first such bottles, Nos. 1 and 1, went for $12,000 at auction Wednesday night during the anual gala there sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). The event raised a total of $214,000 for Mount Vernon.

I was fortunate to have a sampling of the aged rye earlier in the day. A distinctive nose, with virtually no alcoholic heat, enticed me to quickly go further. This is a nice rye, not yet in the class of a Michter's or a Sazerac, but made nicely under master distiller Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker's Mark and now consultant to numerous micro-distillers.

The tang of the rye base is evident, and notes of citrus, leather and perhaps a touch of cardamom are layered, a pleasant surprise from such a relatively young spirit. A tip of the hat to Pickerell and company, working with the only operating 18th Century-style equipment in the nation.

Retail Price: Better get yourself or a surrogate to Mount Vernon early on opening sales day. Just 300 limited-edition bottles will be sold for $185 each beginning at 10 a.m. that Saturday. Proceeds will go toward upkeep and operation of the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens.

Go here for "Recreating the past at Mount Vernon distillery."

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

August 31, 2011

Final days for whiskey book discount

My new book, "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y In Jiggers and Shots," will officially be released on September 6.

The retail price then will be $18.95, but you can get a hefty 33% pre-release discount from by going here.

It is a collection I co-wrote and edited with essays from numerous writers famous in the field, from F. Paul Pacult to David Wondrich to Tom Wolfe.

You'll discover the spread of whiskey throughout the world and how it helped build countries. Read profiles of some of the most famous giants of the industry as Jack Daniel, George Smith and the Beam family.

Plus, go behind the scenes of Prohibition to check out the legendary gangsters, small-time rumrunners, a famous NASCAR champion who made his mark as a moonshine runner. And, you'll get insiders' looks at legitimate whiskey-making in such diverse spots as Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., South Africa, India and Japan.

May 28, 2011

Ardbeg Alligator

Photo by Bill Dowd
Bill Lumsden, director of whisky creation for such labels as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, likes to play around with wood. That's how he came up with his latest creation as well as its name. It won't be on the market until September, but I was fortunate to get an advance sample.

This will be Ardbeg's annual new release when it hits the global market in the fall. The name alone is sure to create some interest.

The Islay non chill-filtered single malt is aged in new, severely charred -- thus the "alligator-ing" effect -- new American white oak barrel. The resulting product is blended with "regular" Ardbeg 10 Year Old, then aged another year in refill casks before being bottled at 51.2% alcohol by volume (102.4 proof).

It has all the deep smokiness of Ardbeg 10 in the initial nose but with additional elements -- tangy barbecue sauce, cocoa, and a hint of ginger. The taste broadens to include even more leather and smoke, making one long for some spicy food to complement it (see my adventure with "chili and 'gator"). The finish is long, smooth and with a hint of sweet chocolate at the end.

Don't go scrambling to your local spirits shop just yet, though. Ardberg Alligator won't be on the market until September.

Suggested retail price: To be announced.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

April 1, 2011

Core Vodka

Photo by Bill Dowd
New York State's micro-distilling movement is gaining momentum. Harvest Spirits, the distillery at the sprawling Golden Harvest Farms in Columbia County, one of Upstate's major fruit growers, has a line of vodka, brandy, applejack and eau de vie products.

The name is a tipoff that this is not a grain-  or potato-based spirit. Think core, think apple -- in this instance, mostly Macintosh apples, grown in profusion in Upstate New York, and frequently used by the state's micro-distillers.

The craftsmen at Harvest Spirits experimented with several apple styles, but liked the consistency of the Mac. It is evident in the finished product, creamy on the palate and carrying a slight apple tang. However, because apple flavors do change from crop to crop, each bottle carries the batch and bottle number.

The charcoal filtration process has eliminated any rough edges, leaving Core a clean-finishing experience with a warm, lingering aftertaste.

Suggested retail price: $29.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

March 23, 2011

Karlsson's Gold Vodka

Peter Ekelund was behind the creation of a potato vodka in the Cape Bjäre  region of southern Sweden. He had been instrumental in the launch of Absolut a quarter-century earlier, but making a potato vodka revived a style that had been prevalent in Sweden until the late 1970s when all distillers converted to grain bases. Ekelund enlisted retired Absolut master blender Börje Karlsson to help work out the new recipe. This is the result.

The distillers at Karlsson's say their vodka is "crafted from virgin Swedish potatoes." That's comforting, because I'd be thrown off if I had to sample a potato with no morals. (Actually, a "virgin" potato is one on which the skin has yet to form.)

Potato vodkas are, in my view, the best of the breed even though there are many competitors since vodka can be made from any organic matter containing starch or sugar. This particular entry, made at the  Gripsholms Distillery near Stockholm, uses seven different potato varieties in a sour mash method similar to the one used to make bourbon.

Karlsson's is a single distillation and unfiltered, differentiating it from those vodkas that have been purified to a fare-the-well, losing a lot of character in the process. It rests for just 24 hours after distillation, then is sent right to the bottling facility.

I tried it in the obligatory martini, to good results, but found that sipping it straight from the freezer was the best way to enjoy its bold characteristics -- a pleasant amount of heat, a creamy texture and full, round flavor on the tongue.

Suggested retail price: $39.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

March 17, 2011

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey

In a surge of innovation that hasn't been seen around Lynchburg, TN, in a long time, the Jack Daniel Distillery has put out its second new product in a month, this one following its line of ready-to-drink versions of infused Jack whiskey.

What do you call an alcoholic beverage that is cold, warm and hot stuff all at the same time? You got it.

This new product from the Jack Daniel Distillery that just this week is being rolled out in various U.S. markets should become a quick hit, especially with women and the younger male-female demographic that has shown by their purchasing choices in recent years that they like a robust drink with a sweet component.

There is no coyness about what is in this bottle. It's the standard JD Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey with a touch of a proprietary honey liqueur. It comes in at 35% alcohol by volume, which means 70 proof compared to the usual JD 80 proof.

The makers suggest drinking it straight and cold. I can see why. Following that suggestion, I tried it while expecting the usual too-sweet product that seems to happen so often when whiskey and fruit or honey are combined. This, however, was a very pleasant surprise.

Notes of caramel, charcoal and honeysuckle immediately came through on the nose, followed by a warm rush of the smoothest Jack I've had, thanks to the honey liqueur. The honey, vanilla and oak coated the tongue, and finished warmly and fragrantly.

Jack has a winner here.

Suggested retail price: $22 for the 750ml bottle. It also comes in 50 ml, 375 ml and one-liter sizes.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

February 12, 2011

Pisco Portón

A group of U.S. investors led by Johnny Schuler, founding member and president of the National Tasters Guild of Peru, is introducing Pisco Portón to the United States market in April; good timing, since the grape-based brandy is slowly gaining popularity in the U.S.

This style of pisco is called a "mosto verde," which translates to "green must." That means it is distilled before the fermentation of the grape juice is complete, the most complicated and expensive pisco style. The process lowers the sugar content, making it a bit dryer than most piscos.

It is a powerful unaged brandy, rated at 43% abv (86 proof), made from a blend of Quebranta, Torontel and Albilla, three of the eight grapes allowed by regulation for pisco manufacture.

I tasted a lab sample which, I presume, is identical to what eventually is bottled for commercial distribution.

The nose is a touch stronger in alcohol than a lot of brandies, but that is offset by a crisp, clean base that reminds me of an upscale moonshine. Unlike the practice at many Chilean pisco distilleries -- always something to keep in mind since Peru and Chile, once one nation, have long feuded over who makes the "real" pisco -- Pisco Portó never uses the heads and tails from the distillations, thereby rendering it a smoother product.,

Suggested retail price: $40 to $50, depending on the state.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Glenmorangie Finealta

• As anyone who knows Dr. Bill Lumsden can attest, Glenmorangie's head of whisky creation never rests. That's because he's always busy ... well ... creating whiskies. Think Signet, Astar, LaSanta. Here is the latest from the Scottish distiller, just now becoming available in the U.S. market.

This new blend has a very old pedigree. It was re-created from a recipe dating to 1903 that was  in the company archives. Back in the day, Glenmorangie dried its barley in a peat-fired kiln which provided a touch of peatiness absent from most of the company's modern expressions.

Finealta -- Scots Gaelic for "elegant" -- has been matured in a combination of used American white oak and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. It is the second release in the company's Private Edition range of limited-edition whiskies chosen from what the company refers to as its "cabinet of curiosities." (The first was Sonnalta, which means "generous.")

Finealta is non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% alcohol by volume (92 proof).

There is a richness to Finealta that quickly spreads across the palate with notes of pineapple,  butterscotch and caramel. The peatiness doesn't linger as much as one might expect since it stays prominent on the nose throughout a tasting, but it does add to the husky boldness of the concoction.

Suggested retail price: $85 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

John L. Sullivan Irish Whiskey

Bill Dowd photo
John L. Sullivan was one of the first Irish American names I learned as a kid. The last bare-knuckle world heavyweight boxing champion who hung 'em up in 1889 after a 75-round title defense was a familiar sight in posters and illustrations that abounded in athletic clubs, saloons and meeting halls. This tribute whiskey comes from the Cooley Distillery, Ireland's only independently owned distillery. (Scroll down for notes on its Michael Collins brand.)

This is a small-batch blend of single grain and single malt whiskeys, aged 4 to 10 years in used American white oak barrels that had contained bourbon. That gives Sullivan a touch that has helped so many Scotch whiskies gain extra notes of smooth maturity.

John L. was a complex man, said the sports scribes of his day, so it is only fitting that the whiskey bearing his name is likewise.

I detected layers of spice, citrus and then vanilla, coupled with the light oakiness of the bourbon cask. That is followed by touches of rosewater, honey and cinnamon, with the latter clinging slighty to the long finish.

As with Cooley's Michael Collins, I much preferred this whiskey over a cube of ice to release its notes, although I admit it wasn't at all bad in a Manhattan, a testament to its bourbon-like character.

Suggested retail price:$24 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Michael Collins 10 Year old Single Malt

Michael Collins, the whiskey made by the only independent distiller in Ireland, is re-booting its image and a New York importer is helping them do it. Sidney Frank Importing Company of New Rochelle has teamed up with Cooley Distillery to launch the new look of Michael Collins whiskies in the U.S.

The dark, moody label features the iconic silhouette of Collins, the renowned Irish patriot, on his bicycle, a familiar sight during the nation's struggle for independence from England. The brightness comes inside.

Cooley is considered to be the only distillery in Ireland to double distill its whiskeys and use peated malted barley. What that process has has resulted in is a wonderfully smooth, yet still kicky whiskey. There is a definite spice note to each sip, perfectly compatible with the rich, deep body of the whiskey.

I find this not as pleasing in a cocktail as I did over a single ice cube in a tasting glass. Must be the independent Collins spirit asserting itself.

Suggested retail price: $39.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Collingwood Blended Canadian Whisky

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to try my hand at blending Canadian whisky under the tutelage of Master Distiller Harold Ferguson at the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario. (Harold retired in 2010.) One thing I learned was that Canada has very strict rules about how its whiskies are made. So, I was quite anxious to sample a new expression, named for the distillery's location and just now being rolled out in select U.S. markets.

Brown-Forman, which owns the distillery where Collingwood is made, takes great pains to emphasize that this is not a Canadian Mist product. It is made with a separate mash still, separate barrels, and so on, created under the auspices of Chris Morris, B-F's master distiller.

The Collingwood bottle is flask-shaped, slightly concave in the back, with an over-flap protecting the screw-off cap. Collingwood is triple distilled, matured in white oak casks, then finished in toasted maplewood, something unique in the world of Canadian whiskies.

What all that effort leads to is a gorgeous deep amber color, a caramel, maple-y nose, and one of the smoothest hits on the tongue I've tasted in years. A variety of notes caress the palate -- some light spice such as coriander, a touch of rose petals; then maple and brown sugar assert themselves, resulting in a long, clean finish.

Suggested retail price: $26.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

February 3, 2011

Early Times 354 Bourbon

Photo by Bill Dowd
In the 1950s, Early Times was the No. 1-selling bourbon. In 1983, it switched to a Kentucky Whisky (spelled in the Scottish manner without an "e"). Now it has returned to its roots with this new bourbon overseen by Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris.

From the first glance at the retro bottle design to the first sip, this expression is evocative of the old days, as is the number in the name (354 is the distillery permit number).

A deep amber color, immediately spicy on the nose with elements of ripe fruit and mature oak. I'm reminded of dried apricots and raisins on the tongue, along with a warmth and the signature caramel and vanilla of a good bourbon. The finish is long and warm with a touch of apple.

Early Times is making much of "a national, independent blind preference taste test in which Early Times 354 was preferred to Jim Beam White Label by male, Jim Beam drinkers ages 25-55."

Given modern drinking sensibilities that tend toward somewhat sweet liquors, that's not terribly surprising. Early Times has a bit more of a honeyed taste than JB White Label. In trying each in a standard Manhattan cocktail, I found them to be two distinctly different drinks -- both enjoyable, but each with its own special taste profile.

Suggested retail price: $15.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

December 2, 2010

Olivier LeFlaive Les Stilles Puligny - Montrachet

The publication Le Revue du Vin de France regards Olivier Leflaive as one of Burgundy's best white Burgundy producers. The "les Sétilles" is a blend from vineyards in the villages of Puligny-Montrachet (60%) and Meursault (40%). 

Like all Bourgogne Blancs, this is a Chardonnay, but the differences in the expressions from this region are legion.

The LeFlaive is a lemony blend that, when nosed with some of the wine still on the tongue, begins releasing nuances of honey, butter and even cinnamon.

Its rather short, yet pleasant, finish makes it a better match to lighter dishes -- vegetarian items, chicken and mild fish; although, it held its own with sampling portions of garlicky frogs legs and buttery sweetbreads.

Suggested retail price:  $25.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

November 24, 2010

Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish Bourbon

Woodford Reserve is a classy example of American distilling. The Versailles, KY, company's standard bourbon is a potent (94.4 proof) whiskey with a powerful, tasty edge.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Maple Wood Finish

Under Master Distiller Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve (once known as Labrot & Graham) has a strong commercial following. This new example of his Master's Collection will do nothing to harm that status. It is perhaps the best Woodford I've ever tasted.

Although I like Woodford in a cocktail, I find its finish a bit too sharp when tasted straight. The new wood finish of this version -- the industry's first bourbon to be finished in barrels made from toasted sugar maple wood after the standard aging in charred new white oak -- takes care of that, adding a sweet earthiness to both the nose and the finish: honey, spice and maple all creating a pleasing bouquet.

Suggested retail price: About $89.99.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

Cordier Chateau Plagnac 1997 Médoc

Bill Dowd photo
The northern Médoc region of France is recognized as an excellent terroir, with its fine gravel soil that allows strong root growth. As part of the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) of Bordeaux, its bold wines are noted for their longevity.

Cordier Chateau Plagnac 1997 Médoc

Sometimes a wine gets lost in the cellar, under coats of dust and indifference. Sometimes they're well past their drinkability when re-discovered. Sometimes they're a pleasant surprise.

The creators of this red Bordeaux, a 60-40% blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, said at the time of its release "It has excellent balance  and flavor which makes it enjoyable when young." What they didn't say -- or perhaps couldn't reliably predict -- was that it is enjoyable at the ripe old age of 13.

I found this cru bourgeois on a long-neglected shelf in my cellar while looking for something with some body to sip with Constant Companion on a chilly evening this week. We both were pleased with the rich, ruby color and the bold, fruity nose. On the palate, notes of blackberry and plum joined together to lead the way to a long, dry finish.

If you can find a bottle of this '97, carpe vino.

Suggested retail price: About $25.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

August 6, 2010

Chateau Larose-Trintaudon 2004 Haut-Médoc

Bill Dowd photo
The Haut-Médoc region in southwestern France is known as the grand classic of the six appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) sections of Bordeaux, a region known for its full-bodied wines. This vineyard's role began there late in the 17th Century when its first vines were planted.

Chateau Larose-Trintaudon 2004 Haut-Médoc

This rich red wine is a strong representative of wines from its AOC. It is estate bottled (mis en bouteille chateau), a 60-40 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, aged in French oak barrels.

The 2004 vintage was a particularly pleasing one for many such wines. It begins with a floral nose, which leads to a ripe, fruity classic, with notes of currants and blackberries. It holds up well with hearty casseroles or bold meaty sauces. A smooth, long-lasting finish makes it a wine to savor.

Suggested retail price: About $20.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

El Portillo 2008 Malbec

Bill Dowd photo
Malbec, the once-lowly European blending grape that has become a star in the high-elevation vineyards of Argentina, is fast becoming a staple in the U.S. market. Bodegas Salentein, which produced this wine, is located in the fertile Uco Valley.

El Portillo 2008 Malbec

I can't get enough Malbec, low-priced or premium. The bold, lush grape has emerged as a fruit most winemakers can handle nicely, and this estate-bottled example from Bodegas Salentien is no exception.

The initial aroma promises lush fruitiness, and the wine delivers it. Nuances of berries, bold hits of stone fruits -- ripe plums, black cherries -- and even a back-palate hint of leather make one long for a spicy stew, a slab of rare beef or something else to at once challenge and complement this hearty purple-red nectar.

Suggested retail price: $7.99.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

July 28, 2010

Château La Borne 2009 Bordeaux

Bill Dowd photo
This chateau is located just north of Bourges, in central France which is part of the sprawling Bordeaux region.

Château La Borne 2009 Bordeaux

I uncorked this estate-bottled Sauvignon not expecting much. No slight to the winery. It was just that its under-$5 retail price didn't strike me as promising a revelatory experience.

As it turned out, the experience was pleasant enough. This pale yellow Bordeaux offered light floral notes, and on the tongue provided wisps of citrus and melon. That makes it a decent representation of the genre, best enjoyed with a light salad, a cream soup or a fruit platter.

Suggested retail price: Under $5.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

May 11, 2010

BOE 2006 Social Club Red

Bill Dowd photo
It seems almost unnecessary to state that the BOE wine label is not one of New York State's most widely known. The acronym stands for Brooklyn Oenology, a winery in the Williamsburg section of the borough that uses Long Island-grown grapes for its portfolio. It offers a Merlot, a Viognier, a Chardonnay and a variety of blends. This one one of the latter.

BOE 2006 Social Club Red

This wide-ranging mix of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah grapes -- exhausting just thinking about the juggling that must go on to get just an acceptable balance -- turns out to be a pleasingly successful blend.

The tartness of blackberry and tobacco notes is complemented by the stone fruit nuances -- plum and black cherry, predominantly, which helps it as a standalone wine. I also tried it as an accompaniment to a thick, spicy chili and it worked beautifully, with its Cab and Malbec lineage easily helping it handle the chili's touches of jalapeño, garlic, thyme and Himalayan salt.

Incidentally, BOE wines wear special artwork. Each style has a different label, original art created by artists living or working in Brooklyn.

Suggested retail price: About $14.99 for the 750ml bottle.

Go back to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

Kouros Patras

Bill Dowd photo
Greek wines don't immediately spring to my mind three-quarters of the year. But, when we get to the salad and grilled fish season, ahh, that's different. Here's a budget-conscious selection.

2006 Kouros Patras

My favorite Greek white wine has always been Kretikos, from the island of Crete which produces 20% of Greece's wine. Before it became more popular, I usually had to content myself with getting a crisp, chilled bottle in some place like Tarpon Springs, a Greek-settled fishing town just north of St. Petersburg, FL.

The blend of 70% Vilana and 30% other indigenous white grape varieties such as Thrapsathiri and Athiri was the perfect summer wine.

The 2006 Patras from the Kouros winery isn't quite in that class, but it's a perfectly serviceable expression of the rhoditis grape that grows in abundance in the Peloponnesian foothills of southern Greece.

Petras is a characteristic dry white, with a rich yellow color with green tints. Elements of lemon and apple immediately hit the palate. There's a brief but soft, rounded finish that makes this wine hold up to lightly-sauced poultry and seafood dishes.

Suggested retail price: About $10 for the 750ml bottle.

Go to Dowd's Wine Notebook.

April 6, 2010

Metropolitan Ready-Made Martinis

Bill Dowd photo
Anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the adult beverage industry knows the RTD niche -- ready to drink -- keeps growing. However, the expansion usually comes in flavored versions of existing drinks, or ready-made cocktails with lots of fruit flavors. Here's one that breaks the mold, from Mystique Brands LLC in Brooklyn, NY.

Metropolitan Vodka Martinis

Talk about convenience. If you're planning on hosting a backyard cocktail party when the weather cooperates, what more could you want than a ready-made martini you can simply chill ahead of time, then peel off the cover and serve?

The cocktail is from the Metropolitan Martini Co., which launched its first RTDs back in 2006 in four flavors -- green apple, chocolate, cosmopolitan, and this one, the vodka martini.

They come in individual plastic martini glasses with peel-off covers -- which can be customized for you, your business or other organization. The vodka martini is a 60-proof drink; the others are 40 proof. The manufacturer packages them in two-martini tubes or cases of 24, which some shops are selling separately. They're made in Israel and distributed through Southern Wine & Spirits of America.

Oh, the taste?

I had dutifully chilled a couple of the RTDs as suggested by the maker. So, I peeled off the cover and stick-on label of one, and sipped.

Hot, rough-edged, utterly dreadful stuff. But, you get what you pay for. If your cookout guests aren't too picky maybe you can get away with it if the BBQ sauce is spicy enough.

Suggested retail price: $1.49 per cocktail.

Go to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

March 13, 2010

Van Gogh Blue Vodka

Van Gogh added this triple wheat vodka to its extensive portfolio at an interesting time -- when most competitors are adding flavored vodkas. Not that the Dutch distiller has ignored that. It recently added açai-blueberry and double espresso flavors.

Van Gogh Blue Vodka
 Master distiller Tim Vos uses three different European wheats in creating this vodka in small batches at the Royal Dirkzwager distillery in Schiedam, Netherlands. The result? Well, if an uninfused vodka can be said to have layers, this one does.

Vos explains the wheat selections this way:

"In Holland, the wheat is cultivated near the Dutch coast and is, therefore, a bit salty and dry from the maritime influence. The harvest in France comes from the center of the country and possesses a sweeter profile. While in Germany, the wheat is grown inb an area where the water comes from the melted ice of a nearby mountain, providing the grain with a mineral taste."

The words "nuanced" and "creamy" come readily to mind when sipping Van Gogh Blue fresh from the freezer. In short, a pleasing mouthfeel, a velvety middle with no astringency or edgy alcohol, and a crisp finish.

It also held up nicely to a splash of dry vermouth as a martini on the rocks.

Suggested retail price: $29 for the 750ml bottle.

Go back to Dowd's Spirits Notebook.

March 11, 2010

King Family Vineyards Meritage 2007

The Virginia wine industry may fly under the radar when it comes to national attention, but the commonwealth has many fine wineries. This particular wine was the Governor's Cup winner, the top prize, in the recent 2010 Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond. Earlier, it earned double gold in the 2009 Monticello Cup.

King Family Vineyards Meritage 2007

The deep garnet color arrests the eye. The first sip commands the taster's attention. The long, rich finish satisfies.

This blend is multi-layered, full fruited and bold. A blend of 56% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Malbec, it was aged in French oak for 18 months.

Thus, it has a very mixed heritage, a veritable melting pot of a wine. Immediate notes of plum, black cherry and raisins vie for dominance, but as it breathes additional toasty, smoky notes of clove and the wood emerge.

The silken, pleasingly clingy finish lingers just long enough to encourage another sip. A superb job by winemaker Matthieu Finot. Regretably, he and owner David King produced only 615 cases.

Suggested retail price: $25.95.

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March 2, 2010

Vermont Spirits Vodkas

There is no organic matter that cannot be used to make vodka. Thus, what Harry Gorman, the distiller for Duncan's Spirits of St. Johnsbury, VT, is producing makes great use of that fact and the fact that its home area has some very distinctive products.

Vermont White and Vermont Gold

The White vodka is delivered with a distinctive white cow embossed on the rear panel of the tall, elegant, four-sided bottles imported from France. It's a small-batch 80-proof vodka, triple distilled from pure milk sugar, combined with local spring water, then run lightly through charcoal filters.

There is a vague citrus note to the opening nose, and a clean, crisp finish on the tongue and throat. Despite its base, it is lactose free.

The Gold, with a gold leaf on the reverse side, is distilled from 100% maple sap, an iconic Vermont ingredient, bottled at 80 proof.

The company rather grandly refers to it as "the single malt of vodka." Considering the differences in time and attention between vodka and singly malt whiskey, that's a bit much. However, using maple sugar differs from the use of grains -- from which 90% of vodka is made -- in that cooking the grain mash is what releases the sugar from the starches. Since maple syrup is sugar already released from starch, it could be argued that it already has undergone a superb natural release.

The Gold is a very smooth, warm and clean spirit, especially nice when stored in the freezer then sipped neat from chilled small glasses.

The company also produces a Limited Release Vodka, made from the first run of maple sap which is prized among maple syrup producers as well.

Suggested retail price: $45 for the 375ml bottle.

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Old Crow Reserve

Bill Dowd photo
Old Crow is an old name among bourbons, but there's always room for a change. I was fortunate to be sent a free advance sample of Beam Global's newest expression to test the waters before its release.

Old Crow Reserve

As a longtime bourbon aficionado, I find that although I always enjoy a new expression I tend to lapse back to my "house bourbon" for Manhattans and my sippin' bourbon for quiet moments. For me, that's the standard Jim Beam and the Basil Hayden, in that order.

So, when I come across something that might shake up the order of my universe, I'm always on guard. Was it just the flush of something new that made me reconsider my priorities?

In this case, yes and no. Old Crow Reserve, bottled at 86 proof (43% abv) in a distinctive black-labeled bottle, certainly was new and appealing. But it was not simply something of passing interest. This is a superb spirit that fits splendidly into both of my bourbon uses -- cocktails and straight.

Old Crow Reserve has a lengthy pedigree. It is a four-year-old expression of what was begun in 1835 by Dr. James C. Crow, the Scottish chemist who invented the sour mash process now used by all bourbon distillers. The regular OC is a year younger.

It is slightly oakier than regular Old Crow, itself a light style bourbon, but has the same finely balanced notes of caramel and vanilla that distinguish the good bourbons of Kentucky and give evidence of their maturation in new white oak.

Also, the medium body and higher alcohol content makes Reserve a bit punchier than the standard OC, although without any resultant harshness.

When it hits the market in the coming months, make a point of trying it. I think you'll enjoy the experience.

Suggested retail price: $10 to $12 for the 750ml bottle.

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February 26, 2010

Edward III New York Absinthe

Bill Dowd photo
Tuthilltown Spirits of Orange County, NY, the state's first licensed distillery since Prohibition, has created a special bottling for a private customer, a first-timer in the distilling game.

Edward III New York Absinthe

This truly unusual spirit is the final version of a recipe Tuthilltown tweaked and produced for Mark Maurice and Edward Jahn, according to distiller Ralph Erenzo. It may be made elsewhere after the current supply runs out, but that still is up for discussion.

It is the state's second absinthe. The first was created by Cheryl Lins, proprietor of Delaware Phoenix Distillery in Walton, NY, in the western Catskills.

This version of the French liqueur undergoes the traditional two infusions. The first uses a proprietary mixture of herbs and wormwood in a neutral grain spirit, and the second infusion uses melissa (a/k/a/ lemon balm) and more wormwood.

Rather than being green, the most common absinthe color which gave rise to the nickname "The Green Fairy," Edward III is clear. It turns milky when a bit of water is added, rendering it the most drinkable stage.

There is the expected anise in the nose and first taste, but that quickly is joined by hints of violet French pastille candies, camphor and even vague notes of bread, honey and orange. An altogether pleasant product.

Suggested retail price: About $39 for the 375ml bottle.

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Tuthilltown Spirits Portfolio

Bill Dowd photo
Tuthilltown Spirits, located in the lower Hudson Valley of New York, is the state's first licensed distillery since Prohibition. I had the opportunity to sample four of its Hudson brand spirits during a whiskey-pairing dinner at Marché restaurant in Albany, NY, co-hosted by Tuthilltown co-founder and distiller Ralph Erenzo. Note the 375ml bottle, a Tuthilltown exclusive and the only amount in which its spirits are sold.

Hudson Corn Whiskey

This was Tuthilltown's first product, distilled from 100% New York corn. The expected aromas of popcorn and cooked sweet corn are immediate, but the pleasingly smooth middle range allows a slight sweetness to come through. Not at all the “moonshine” its name might connote. Powerful alcohol notes, typical of the genre. Warm, clean and a good introduction to the portfolio.

Retail price: About $29.

Hudson Manhattan Rye

This is made from 100% New York rye, which provides a spicy nose and initial palate impact which quickly opens to mix of caramel and clover notes. There is a certain woodsy quality to the spirit after a few drops of water help it open, an altogether pleasing transformation. At once robust and clean on the palate.

Retail price: About $45.

Hudson Baby Bourbon

This was Tuthilltown's first aged whiskey, distilled from a 100% corn mash and the first New York-made bourbon. As a bourbon-first person, I'm comfortable saying this holds its own against any better-known such expression: The requisite vanilla and caramel notes, a hint of oak in the middle notes, and a long, very smooth finish.

Retail price: About $55.

Hudson Single Malt

If your taste in single malts runs toward the unpeated expressions, this is a good option. It is darker and richer than many Scotch whiskeys, a result of using 100% malted Canadian barley. Excellent as an after-dinner sip, tahnks to its dark caramel notes with hints of pear and cardamom.

Retail price: About $55.

Tuthilltown also makes several vodkas, a four-grain bourbon, a New York whiskey and a rye whiskey.

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