January 10, 2017

Benachie / Jericho Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

The Scotland version
The Lost Distillery, an independent boutique Scotch whisky company,  has a name that is both intriguing and a touch confusing.

In the past few decades, a number of long-shuttered distilleries have been renovated and put back in service. This is not one of those. The "lost" part of the name refers to historic distillations the company is emulating to create its products. As the company describes it, "We don’t have a warehouse full of old forgotten whisky, we don’t have a secret recipe or DNA analysis, and we don’t have plans to reopen any of these lost distilleries. The answer to what we do lies in the history books."

The Lost Distillery partners distillers with an "archive team," led by Michael Moss of the University of Glasgow, to focus on what the company deems "the 10 key components that influenced the original character of these long lost whiskies" from long-closed distilleries.

Its spirits are divided into classic, archivist and vintage categories. Each marries anywhere from five to 10  single malt whiskies from different distilleries throughout Scotland. One good example of the craftsmanship is the whisky known in the U.S. as Benachie and in Scotland as Jericho. The original distillery was named Jericho when it opened in 1824 -- about two years after founder William Smith began making unlicensed whisky, then in 1884 became known as Benachie.

The Benachie, made from 100% malted barley, is a shimmering amber liquid with big, bold opening malt notes on the nose, and a pleasing sweetness on the palate that brings to mind brown sugar, raisins, and apricots, but a certain oakiness actually takes a bit of the edge off the flavor the nose promises. In the finish, however, it rebounds with a long, soft finale.

The Lost Distillery Company Classic Selection Benachie, bottled at 43% abv (86 proof) carries a suggested retail price of $43 for the 750ml bottle.

December 29, 2016

Tequila Herradura Port Cask Finished Reserva

There was a time when tequilas fell pretty much into several well-defined categories. But, about 15 or so years ago, helped along  by an influx of money from major distilling companies in the U.S. that had discovered a growing public taste for agave spirits, change set in at a number of Mexican distillers.

The basic categories stayed the same -- blanco (white) for the just-distilled tequilas, reposado (rested) if aged in white oak barrels at least two months and añejo (old) for at least 12 months. But, curious distillers encouraged by investors pushed for something more, something with a sleeker style and potentially more expensive.

It was back in 2007 that I wrote an article that was widely reprinted in the U.S. and Mexico called "When is a Tequila no longer a Tequila?" In it, I posed the question of whether we were seeing the gradual emergence of a spirit that no longer should be considered tequila.

You can go to that article for details of my in-person conversations with the heads of several prominent tequila houses. Suffice it to say the trend has become only stronger since then, with tequila makers introducing aged agave spirits that have been matured in anything from used bourbon barrels to cognac casks to wine barrels.

One of the latest, if not the latest, iterations is from Casa Herradura, one of four tequila brands owned by Brown-Forman Corp. of Louisville, KY. It creates and bottles estate tequilas in Amatitán, in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Its new release was created by Maria Teresa Lara, one of the few female master distillers in the tequila industry. It is a 2016 reposada she ages for 11 months in medium-char white oak barrels, far longer than required for the designation, and finishes for two additional months in port casks. It is the fifth in the series known as Tequila Herradura Colleccion De La Casa, and is a reintroduction of the Colección de la Casa, Reserva 2012.

A light copper color in the bottle intriguingly becomes a lighter amber in the tasting glass. The nose is clearly tequila, but initially on the palate the flavor isn't exactly tequila. In fact, it it slightly reminiscent of some whiskies, no doubt a trick performed by the alchemy of agave and port.

Further contemplation extracts notes of spice, star fruit, honey and dark cherry. On the finish it is definitely a fine agave expression with the familiar, pleasing floral notes of a good reposada dominating.

The spirit is in the process of  being rolled out nationwide at a suggested retail price of $89.99. It's worth every penny.

November 28, 2016

Stolen Smoked Rum

As a writer and judge of spirits and wines for several decades, it is not unusual to receive  products for review that are being marketed with all sorts of angles -- oddly-shaped bottles, glitzy presentation boxes, etc.

I thought I had seen it all. But, the other day the UPS guy dropped off a package containing a police evidence bag. Well, what looks like an actual evidence bag (see accompanying photo), certainly a first in my experience.

Inside was a sample bottle of Stolen Smoked Rum, the latest product from a New Zealand company that was formed in 2010 and has been marketing a limited edition, six-year-old Jamaican pot still product called Stolen Overproof  Rum (123 proof). They like to create labels that appear to have a brand name obscured by a Sharpie pen, plus plays on the "stolen" theme.

The company says this is the first smoked rum in the world. I'll take them at their word, but considering that rum is second only to vodka in how many places around the globe it is made there is a chance someone somewhere has tried the smoking trick before.

Attention-getting marketing ploy
Stolen Smoked Rum is made from rum distilled in Trinidad from both sugar cane and molasses, fermented with a proprietary yeast strain, then aged for up to two years in used American oak whiskey barrels. It is infused with Colombian-grown Arabica coffee from same-day roasted beans, as well as with Madagascan vanilla beans and Moroccan fenugreek, then finished off by being exposed to wood smoke.

On first approach, the smoky notes hit the nose before those of the rum, but on the palate they are more balanced. While the smoke stays evident from nosing through aftertaste, the quality of the rum is not obscured -- all the preferred caramel vanilla notes, plus a touch of the char and the coffee, with the signature warmth of rum on the tongue and back of the throat.

I would not recommend drinking it straight, as I would with many other rums, but it would make a good base for cocktails, particularly those with citrusy elements. There are a number of recipes available on the company website.

Stolen Smoked Rum, bottled at 42% abv (84 proof), carries a suggested retail price of $19.99 for the 750ml bottle. It currently is available in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.

November 24, 2016

Jim Beam Double Oak

First things first. The new Jim Beam Double Oak does not taste twice as oaky as the Jim Beam white label many of us know and love.

Yes, it has a darker color. Yes, it's a high-corn recipe (77%, with an almost equal balance of rye and malted barley in the mash). Yes, it tastes different. But, it is not as terribly oaky as the name may imply.

The creation process, in this instance, is not double wood, which would be initial aging in one kind of wood then maturation in another. Here, the spirit is aged as usual in new, charred American white oak. Then, it moves into another new, charred white American oak barrel.

The entire process is in the four-year range. The resulting 43% abv (86 proof) bourbon -- a bit higher than the 80 proof white label -- has notes of the char along with licorice and the signature vanilla, dried fruit notes, and leather of Beam whiskies. The finish is quite a bit dryer and a bit longer than the white label.

The suggested retail price is in the $25 range for a 750ml bottle.

November 11, 2016

Usquaebach 15 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch

You can't argue with the authenticity of Usquaebach as a product of Scotland. In addition to labeling it as being distilled, aged, blended and bottled there, its very name says it all.

Usquaebach -- pronounced oos-ke-bah -- is the Scots Gaelic word for whisky, meaning "water of life." The company claims the blend, or something very much like it, has been around for more than two centuries, although the brand name has been registered "only" since 1877. Today its marketing refers to its as "The Grand Whisky of the Highlands."

Usquaebach 15 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch is an excellent representative of the portfolio, one I would suggest sampling straight over a single ice cube. As the melt commences, notes of macerated fruit are released from the deep amber liquid, complementing the spiciness of the blend. Very quickly, on the palate notes of caramel, raisins, apricots and nutmeg increase the experience. The finish is both sweet and spicy. An agreeable adventure from start to finish.

This particular blend is aged in used European sherry casks, bottled at 43% abv (86 proof), and carries a suggested retail price of $75.

October 30, 2016

Luna Nuda Pinot Grigio 2015

luna-nudaIf I were looking for a wine to put training wheels on, it would be Luna Nuda's Pinot Grigio.

That is not a knock on the Northern Italian import. Far from it.

Luna Nuda -- an Italian phrase for "naked moon," referring to a clear, bright moonlit night -- is best known for its Pinot Grigios and Chiantis. I just sampled its 2015 Pinot Grigio, offered at 12.5% abv.

Bottom line, I liked it. But, a few lines before that I came away slightly perplexed.

It looks like most of its ilk, with the signature pale straw color and familiar floral and peach notes. But, it also has a slightly more pronounced acidic edge and a certain yeastiness, both no doubt due to several months of sur lie aging this winemaker likes to employ.

(For those unfamiliar with the process: Lees -- the English pronunciation for the French "lies" -- refers to deposits of dead or residual yeast and other particles that are carried to the bottom of a vat of wine. In sur lie aging, a finished wine is allowed to continue to sit on the lees to extract additional flavors.)

Oh, the training wheels observation? My tasting companion sparked that thought when she said, "This is a nice introduction to Pinot Grigio for people experiencing it for the first time."

Agreed. It's an inexpensive starting point, priced in the $12-$15 range compared to the $21-27 typical of category sales leader Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, produced in the same Alto Adige area of Italy as Luna Nuda. Santa Margherita, by the way, quickly became the gold standard import since it was introduced here by Anthony Terlato in 1979.

Back to that bottom line: Luna Nuda is clean, crisp and immediately drinkable, and at an affordable price. Pop on the wheels, pop the cork, and enjoy.

October 28, 2016

Sauternes wines

There are no wrong Thanksgiving wines."

That's the headline on an offering from esteemed wine writer Eric Asimov in this week's New York Times food section. As he says of the upcoming holiday ritual, "People will stuff their faces, just as they always do. Family and friends will abound, and though we may occasionally complain about grudges and petty differences, the gathering will be pretty fine in the end."

In my own "always," Thanksgiving was a very big deal in the household of my childhood. My stepfather, an otherwise unsentimental man, regarded it as the perfect holiday, his favorite holiday.

Although I didn't learn much else from him, I did absorb a thing or two about wines and spirits and the proper appreciation of both.

He left the creation of the turkey and assorted treats to my mother and me -- or whichever grandmother happened to be visiting -- but reserved to himself the selection of the accompanying wines for all holiday repasts.

His go-to for Thanksgiving usually was a Sauternes, that ethereal French wine produced in the maritime climate of the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, that nowadays can be a rarity to find. As the aforementioned Mr. Asimov wrote in a commentary two Thanksgivings ago, "Nobody drinks Sauternes anymore, it seems. That is a shame, because this revered sweet wine of Bordeaux can so often be sublime."

I concur. Should you be interested in trying a Thanksgiving wine you may not have experienced before, I suggest you try this blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as "the noble rot." That is a fungus that, despite its rather disgusting appearance, is welcomed by many grape growers because it imparts a special delicacy to the grapes it infects by causing them to become partially raisined, thus concentrating the flavors.

The best sauternes balance common flavor notes of honey, apricots and peaches, sometimes even a mild nutty note, with a dose of acidity. They are a yellow-gold in color if young, and grow darker as they get older. If you find one that tends toward the color of a copper coin, you're on the path to big taste -- and big money. Sauternes typically are best served at temperatures in the mid-50s, although older versions can be a touch warmer.

I must caution, though, that a good Sauternes -- most often sold in 375ml bottles -- is not an inexpensive wine. Chateau d'Yquem, the most popular and well-known label, runs in the $200 range for the 2011 vintage. But, the 2009 Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey Sauternes is a bargain at $33.

Obviously, you'll need to consult with a trusted wine merchant who has access to top-notch suppliers so you can select from a range of possibilities. You won't be sorry you did.


September 12, 2016

Corsair Grainiac

The ongoing expansion of distilleries across the country has become a catalyst for some imaginative products. From aging in different types of wood to flavoring additives, the variables are extensive. But, when it comes right down to it, perhaps the most telling part of the creation process is what goes into the grain mash from which all else emerges.

The Corsair distillery in Nashville, TN, has an eye-catcher, and one with a pleasing flavor. Founders/owners Darek Bell and Andrew Webber, who have grown from homemade brewers and distillers and also operate a fulltime brewery, have created a very wide range of products, some of them in regular production, others seasonally or on an experimental basis. One of particular interest is a pot still-distilled bourbon they call Corsair Grainiac.

The product, bottled at 47% abv (94 proof), carries no age statement. Instead of the somewhat standard mash bill composed of corn, rye, wheat and barley, they have added five other grains -- oats, quinoa, spelt, triticale, and buckwheat.

Corn still dominates because, by federal law, bourbon must be made from a mash containing at least 51% corn, but the additional unusual grains were specifically chosen to differentiate this spirit from competitors' products. The partners say they added the grains to achieve more flavor complexity. It works.

Besides the complex range of layered flavors one would expect from such a concoction, there is a certain nutty flavor from the quinoa and spelt -- maybe even from the triticale, but I can't vouch for that since I couldn't recognize triticale if it were labeled and the chef told me what it was.

Corsair Grainiac, bottled at 47% abv (94 proof), carries a suggested retail price of $49.99. 

January 3, 2015

This site going on hiatus

"Dowd's Tasting Notes" will temporarily be on hiatus to allow me sufficient time in 2015 to work on a variety of research and writing projects that are demanding attention.

However, from time to time I will be posting tasting notes on some of my other blogs, primarily on "Dowd On Drinks."

Until then, my thanks to all my readers. Please accept my best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2015, and look for this site to be back in the second half of 2016.

-- Bill Dowd

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 joy@troyandsons.com.

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 Amazon.com 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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.