Huber Starlight Distillery Private Reserve Brandy

Maker: Starlight Distillery, Borden, Indiana, USA (Huber’s Orchard & Winery)wpid-20151029_104412.jpg

Age: NAS

ABV: 40%

Price: $60 (website)

Note: My wife and I received a complimentary tasting and tour and a 10% discount at time of purchase.

Appearance: Medium copper with thick, sticky legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, golden raisins, toffee, pinch of clove.

Palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Dried figs, alcohol, vanilla, salted caramel, custard.

Finish: Back to raisins and oak. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not at all. Fades a little too quickly though.

Parting words: Starlight Distillery has been making brandy since 2001 and selling it since 2004. They sell two (grape) brandies, actually. There is the Private Reserve, and the cheaper Starlight Distillery Brandy which they didn’t let me taste.

Master distiller Lisa Wicker: “You don’t want that one, it’s only distilled once.”

Me: “That’s OK. Armagnac is too, right?”

Lisa: [laughs and pours me the reserve]

Having been in the business for so long (by micro distiller standards) means they have the reserves to make a consistently good product and that they do. I emailed Lisa about what sort of cooperage and grapes they use for this product, but I have had no reply as of press time. That’s OK, though. Lisa & Tim are two of the good guys and both very busy individuals.

I hosted a bourbon writer in my house recently and he picked this bottle out of my liquor cabinet as we were sitting down to an after dinner chat and sip. He was very impressed. Since we were on the topic of brandy, I asked him about a brandy micro-distillery that near him in Kentucky that had been getting a lot of press lately. “Their stuff is good,” he said, “but not as good as this.”

So there you have it. This is a very good American brandy at a decent price, one that more than holds its own with brandies big and small. Huber Starlight Distillery Private Reserve Brandy is recommended.

Chateau Aeronautique Passito Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013

Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-11-11-11.19.03.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Style: Straw wine (made with raisins)

ABV: 12%

Price: $45/375 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Notes from label: 38.0 brix at harvest, residual sugar 15% by weight.

Appearance: Rusty red, big heavy robe, thick slow legs.

Nose: Tawny port, cherry, other stone fruit.

Palate: Full bodied and fruity. Plum, cherry pie filling, vanilla, white pepper.

Finish: Big cherry flavor, like a cherry wine. Gets a litt

Parting words: The technique for making straw, or raisin, wine is an ancient one. The epic poet Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer) mentions a Cyprian straw wine called Manna in his poem Works and Days. Ancient Carthage produced a straw wine the Romans loved and called passum. The modern Italian term for raisin wine is passito, derived from the ancient wine. Amarone is probably the best known, but passito is made all over Italy, and in the Czech Republic (slámové víno), France (vin de paille), Greece (variety of local names), Austria and Germany (strohwein or schilfwein), among other places. Drying the grapes has a similar effect to “noble rot” (botrytis) or allowing the grapes to freeze, as in ice wine. The result is an intensely flavored, thick, sweet wine. As one might guess, the process also adds to the price of the wine.

The label describes this wine as “cherry pie in a glass” which is a bit of an overstatement, but it does have a wonderfully fruity aroma and flavor that makes for a delicious holiday dessert wine. It might also make a good gateway dessert wine with its easily discernable flavors. It pairs well with chocolate and it’s probably my favorite of the dessert wines currently on pour at Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room in Royal Oak. The label says to serve it chilled, but I’ve had it both chilled and at room temperature and it was good either way.

My only concern with this is the price. This is a good wine but for $45/375 ml I want it to be exceptional. I understand that a number of factors contribute to the high price of this wine, like being from a boutique producer, being made using a special technique and being made with a variety that can be hard to grow successfully in Michigan. After factoring that in, the price is still high, but it’s a unique product for Michigan and I think that unconventional thinking should be rewarded. It’s not like anyone’s going to be trying to chug this from an oversized balloon glass or a Solo cup after all. Chateau Aeronautique Passito Cabernet Sauvignon is recommended.

Tangle Ridge

Maker: Alberta Distillers, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Beam Suntory)wpid-2015-11-20-18.13.12.jpg.jpeg

Age: 10 y/o

Style: Double casked blended Canadian Rye

ABV: 40%

Michigan State minimum: $18

Appearance: Soft copper.

Nose: Grassy and pungent in a good way. Rye, black pepper, green cardamom, alcohol, cumin, ginger.

Palate: Characteristically mild, but with enough flavor to carry it. Tarragon, jalapeno, white pepper, roasted ginger.

Finish: Cola, alcohol, woodruff. Lasts for longer than expected.

Mixed: OK in an Old Fashioned, but I think I added too much sugar and bitters. Great in a Manhattan. Does very well on the rocks too.

Parting words: The last time I bought Tangle Ridge has to have been over five years ago. I didn’t really care for it then, because I got really big maple syrup notes out of it. Nauseatingly big. I don’t get that out of this at all. Either I misremembered, my palate was out of whack, or they changed their formula since then. They have changed the bottle since then, though. For the worse, I think. The old one was squat but with a long neck and ridges along the side. The current one is just a tall, dull, rectangular bottle.

So, what exactly is Tangle Ridge? The Beam Suntory website says it’s “made from 100% of the finest Canadian rye”, but the label just calls it a blended Canadian whisky, no mention of rye. Is this because the double casking process means they can’t call it rye? Or because “100% Canadian rye” refers to the flavoring whisky only, not the base whisky? Or is it of no significance?

Whatever it is, it’s good, especially for the price. At under $20, it’s a steal. Recommended.

Atwater Brewery Michelada

Maker: Atwater/McClure’s, Detroit, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-11-02-11.58.52.jpg.jpeg

Style: Lager with Bloody Mary mix.

ABV: 5.2%

Price: $7.50/4 Pint cans (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Moderately foamy, soapy looking head. Hazy orange.

Nose: Sweet and malty. Tomato, tabasco sauce, celery salt.

Palate: Full bodied and mildly effervescent. Spicy, sweet, tomato juice, pickle juice, pickled jalapenos, salt.

Finish: Sweet, then briny.

Parting words: A Michelada is a beer cocktail. It’s served all over Mexico in different local styles, but it usually includes tomato juice, lime juice and often Worcestershire Sauce, hot sauce and/or soy sauce. In the US it often takes the form of a Bloody Mary made with beer, which isn’t really too far off after all.

This is a joint project from Atwater Brewery and McClure’s pickle factory. After consolidating their operations in Detroit, they branched out to other non-pickle products. They have three varieties of pickle-flavored potato chips, they sell jars of their brine and they also have a Bloody Mary mix. The Bloody Mary mix has lots of fans, but I am not really one of them. There is way too much pickle juice in the mix, rendering it undrinkable (to me anyway) except when cut with V8.

The can describes this products as “the world’s first craft Michelada”. It also recommends that it be served in a salt-rimmed glass or sipped right out of the can. I drank three out of the four cans in a standard 12 oz glass. It did just fine that way. I tried the fourth one in a salt-rimmed glass. It tasted ok, but I’m not sure if the salt added anything.

I usually don’t purchase premade cocktails, but this one intrigued me and got a recommendation from a friend so I picked it up. I was not disappointed. The beer cuts the briny mix perfectly. It pairs nicely with greasy brunch food and Mexican food. The price is fair, and the cans are really cool looking. Atwater’s Michelada is recommended.

Bon Chrétien: An American Perry, 2013

Maker: Vander Mill, Spring Lake, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-11-10-21.22.43.jpg.jpeg

Style: Bartlett pear perry (pear cider).

ABV: 6.8%

Purchased for $11/750 ml (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Bright gold and effervescent. Even some crystals near the bottom.

Nose: Canned pears, apple juice, flint.

Palate: Fizzy and medium bodied. Fresh cut ripe pear, but without the sweetness. Semi-dry, with some mineral water on the back end.

Finish: Crisp and clean at first, but the pear creeps back to linger for a nice long time.

Parting words: Vander Mill is not a Johnny-come-lately winery or agricultural attraction that has decided to turn to cider to fill out its portfolio. It is about cider and has been since its beginning in 2006. As far as I can tell, this is their only perry. The name is from the original 15th century (my favorite century) French name for Bartlett pears. It’s a part of their Heritage series of specialty ciders in 750 ml bottles. The others in that series are the all heritage variety Chapman’s Blend (named for John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, early American apple evangelist and eccentric), Chapman’s Oak (self-explanatory) and Too Gold, a blend of three golden heirloom varieties.

I think this is the first perry I’ve reviewed since the blog started, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but this is a delicious product. It has all the flavor of a good, ripe Bartlett pear, but has an elegant dryness that takes it beyond what I expected. That and it’s great price makes this an easy buy. Bon Chrétien is highly recommended.

Jim Beam Rye (“Pre-Prohibition Style”)

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam-Suntory)wpid-2015-11-06-17.15.44.jpg.jpeg

Style: Kentucky style rye

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $22

Appearance: Pale copper with thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, caramel, sourdough, tarragon.

Palate: Medium bodied. Rock candy, salted caramels, cocoa powder, strawberry bubble gum.

Finish: Spearmint, amaretto, oak, alcohol.

Mixed: Made a Sazerac, old fashioned, hot toddy and put it in ginger ale with some orange bitters. Did well in everything I tried, but didn’t particularly distinguish itself in anything.

Parting words: This new “Prohibition style” rye is a replacement for the old yellow label Jim Beam rye. In the dark days of rye in the 1980s and 1990s, Jim Beam rye was one of the only brands of rye widely available. I first tasted rye in the late 90s and I believe Jim Beam was the first one I tried. I came away with the impression that rye whiskey’s defining characteristic was its mild sweetness and thus stayed away for several years after that. It wasn’t until I started exploring bourbon that I rediscovered rye and learned that it’s actually supposed to be spicy.

This Jim Beam rye reboot is definitely an improvement on the old yellow label. The proof is higher, for one thing, and it has more going on than just sweetness. It has pleasantly rye-ish herbal notes in the nose and finish and doesn’t get as lost in cocktails as its predecessor. Beam has also solved its Old Overholt problem. No longer are Overholt and Beam Rye the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat of the whiskey world. They are actually different products now. Old Overholt is 3 y/o and 80 proof, while this is at least 4 y/o (probably in the 4-6 range) and 90 proof. It is still too sweet for me, and the back label is an example of how not to fill up the back of a bottle.*

Bad copy aside, this rye whiskey does fine against its competition. It’s easier to find, more consistent and cheaper than the overrated Sazerac and Wild Turkey ryes. I don’t care for the current (DSP KY 1) Rittenhouse rye, but a lot of people do and it is 100 proof which means Rittenhouse is better able to stand up to mixers than Jim Beam Rye is, even at the new higher strength. I would have to give the edge to Rittenhouse as a mixer, but Beam is still recommended for that purpose. Not recommended as a sipper, though. For that, spring for a bottle of the excellent Knob Creek Rye.

*”Founded in 1795, Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye is made with the same exacting standards that have governed Jim Beam for over 200 years.” Considering that Jim Beam the man was born in 1864 and the company that bears his name was founded after prohibition, that doesn’t seem possible without time travel being involved. What the 1795 date really refers to is when Beam patriarch Jacob Beam (aka Jakob Boehm) began commercial distilling in Kentucky. He did not found the company that bears his great-grandson’s name, let alone come up with the rye recipe used to make what’s in this bottle.

Craigellachie 13

Maker: Craigellachie (Aberlour), Craigellachie, Moray, Scotland, UK (Bacardi)wpid-2015-10-30-20.16.53.jpg.jpeg

Region: Speyside (BenRinnes cluster)

Notes: Not chill filtered. The Last Great Malts series.

ABV: 46%

Michigan State Minimum: $55

Appearance: Dark straw with clingy evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Leather, apricot jam, alcohol, lavender, dried date.

Palate: Full-bodied and medium sweet. Ripe red peaches, oak, butterscotch, ground coriander seed.

Finish: Sweet malt, oak, then a light burn.

Parting words: Craigellachie named for a bluff overlooking the River Spey and there is a Craigellachie bridge (built in the early 19th century) and a Hotel Craigellachie that is often recommended as a good place to stay while exploring the Speyside area. The distillery itself has a remarkably boring history which I will not recount. It’s currently owned by Bacardi’s Dewars & Sons division and forms the heart of Dewar’s blends. It has been only rarely seen in independent or distillery bottlings over the years, but that may be changing with its two entries in Dewar’s The Last Great Malts series.

Craigellachie’s neighbors are more famous than it, like Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Aberlour. Unlike most of those, this is not a light and flowery malt. It’s got heft to it, like Balvenie and Mortlach. It’s often described as sulphury and waxy but I have trouble detecting either one here, though I have trouble detecting them anywhere, frankly. The heft and alleged sulphur come from the large stills (allowing for reflux), use of cast iron worm tubs to cool the spirit, and the relative dearth of copper in the worms, so I’m told.

Unlike Balvenie and Mortlach, there is no beef here. This is all thick custard, fruit and oak. Ex-bourbon casks take the lead here, but there may be a few sherry butts in the mix as well. If so, they are used judiciously. This is an exquisitely balanced, but flavorful and well-craft whisky. It pairs great with homemade shortbread too.

Considering all the garbage that is out there at twice the price, Craigellachie 13 is a steal. Considering how good this is has made me loose even more respect for Bacardi/Dewar’s. How can your blend taste so bad when your malt is so good? I don’t know, but I do know that Craigellachie 13 is great. Highly recommended.

Totally Roasted

Maker: Vander Mill, Spring Lake, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-10-26-12.18.27.jpg.jpeg

Style: Cider with pecans, vanilla and cinnamon (sugar added).

ABV: 6.9%

Purchased for $11/4 pint cans (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Pale gold with a little effervescence.

Nose: Toffee apples, toasted pecans.

Palate: Still effervescent. Light and semi-sweet. Candy apple with nuts, but never sticky or cloying.

Finish: Crisp and clean with a lingering nuttiness.

Parting words: This is the third Vander Mill cider I’ve reviewed and they’ve all been good. This one is no exception. It’s flavorful without being obnoxiously so. What keeps the flavor in check is a solid dry cider base. It’s so well balanced that it even drinks well with a meal, not just after one. I had it with everything from Pierogis and Kielbasa to rum-soused halibut and it held up well. The price is fair for an artisanal cider of this quality. I like the pint cans too. Vander Mill’s Totally Roasted is recommended.

A Midwinter Nights Dram

Maker: High West, Park City, Utah, USAwpid-2015-10-23-17.15.39.jpg.jpeg

Distillers: MGPI, some Kentucky distillery or distilleries.

Style: Blend of straight rye whiskeys finished in French oak and port barrels.

Age: NAS

Act 2.9, Scene 234

Proof: 98.6 (49.3% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $82

Appearance: Dark copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cut grass, prunes, dried figs, tawny Port.

Palate: Fruity and rich. Apple-mint jelly, cinnamon disks.

Finish: Hot and spicy, then shifts to big menthol and eucalyptus flavors.

Mixed: Makes for a good hot toddy and Manhattan.

Parting words: High West’s Rendezvous Rye is one of my favorite ryes, and this is a finished version of that. Port finished bourbons were all the rage a couple years ago when this product was introduced, ushered in by Angel’s Envy. I have liked the products generally, and I like this one. The minty character of the high rye MGPI tends to run roughshod over everything else here. There’s a little bit of Port that shines through, but not too much (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

A Midwinter Nights Dram is good by the fire and would probably be good with a cigar if I smoked. The sweetness complements smoky environs nicely. I can’t really say that I like it more than Rendezvous Rye but I should if I’m paying $30 more for it. A Midwinter Nights Dram is mildly recommended.

Heritage HSR, 2010

Maker: Huber, Starlight, Indiana, USA.wpid-2015-10-20-18.40.58.jpg.jpeg

Grapes: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot.

Place of origin: Indiana, USA.

ABV: 13.9%

Price: $40 (website)

Note: My wife and I received a complimentary tasting and tour and a 10% discount at time of purchase.

Appearance: Dark ruby red.

Nose: Oak, blueberries, black cherries, dark chocolate.

Palate: Blackberry juice, old oak, raspberry, blueberry juice, serrano ham, smoke.

Finish: Chewy and oaky with a faint background of fruit.

Parting words: Huber (not to be confused with Austrian winemaker Markus Huber) is one of Indiana’s oldest and most well regarded wineries. The have a couple stills too and make a variety of spirits, including excellent brandies and a good gin I reviewed here. Their strength is in their red wines, although their Chardonel and Traminette wines are also good. They produce varietal Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and in some years Tannat, among others. Their most expensive (and probably best) wines are their Meritage Heritage red blends. We were particularly impressed with the 2012 and this 2010. The wife liked this one better so we purchased it.

Heritage 2010 HSR a tasty, structured, well balanced wine that evokes the best in California blends of this type. We had it with a meal featuring NY strip steaks topped with wine cap mushrooms and it performed swimmingly. It’s drinking well now, obviously, but it will still be good in the next 5 or even 10 years if you’re feeling adventurous.

$40 is more than I like to pay for wine since it’s usually past the point of diminishing returns, but Huber’s Heritage 2010 HSR is close enough to being worth the money that I can recommend it.

The only thing I disliked about this wine was how the cork crumbled when I tried to open it. The cork forced me to strain the wine and then decant into another bottle. Get a new cork supplier, Ted.