Old Elk Wheated Bourbon

Maker: Old Elk Distillery, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: High wheat straight bourbon (51% corn, 45% wheat, 4% malt)

Age: 5 y/o

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $67

Appearance: Medium copper

Nose: Cassia, star anise, powdered ginger, oak, alcohol.

Palate: Sweet and spicy. Cinnamon, allspice.

Finish: Cola, cinnamon rolls.

Parting words: Old Elk is an NDP/Micro-distillery located in Fort Collins, CO run by Master Distiller Greg Metze, who was chief distiller at MGPI for 38 years. Those years included the ones that saw it rise from an obscure industrial distillery to a famous (and somewhat infamous) bulk and custom whiskey producer that fueled the explosive growth in independent bottlers in the US, and the rye boom.

The big wheaters on the market, currently, those made by Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark all trace their recipes back to the bourbons made at the legendary Stizel-Weller distillery in Louisville. While there are differences betweeen them, they have more in common than not.

This wheater is different. It’s the first high wheat bourbon I’ve ever purchased, and boy is it high. It’s 6 percentage points away from being a wheat whiskey. It has a bit of the “biscuity” quality of wheat whiskeys, but its primary characteristic is spice. Specifically what is often called baking or Christmas spice. It’s truly a unique product in the world of bourbon.

Old Elk has a few sharp points, but at 5 years old, that’s to be expected. $67 is too expensive for a 5 y/o, 92 proof bottling from a major distillery, but I’m willing to give it a pass, given how unique and well-crafted it is. I would really like to see the age go up and the price go down, but even as it is, Old Elk Wheated Bourbon is recommended.

A brief word on the bottle itself. The label and shape of the bottle is elegant, but I don’t like how heavy it is. We’re in the midst of a global climate crisis. Heavy bottles=more fuel needed to move them=higher carbon emissions. It’s (past) time to dump the heavy bottles.

Head to head: Left Foot Charley Dry Riesling 2016 vs 2017

Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

16= 2016 vintage

17= 2017 vinatge

Places of origin

16: Terminal Moraine (43%), Seventh Hill Farm original block (32%), Longcore (13%), and Cork’s Vineyard (12%) vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

16: Seventh Hill Farm (44%), Terminal Moraine (28%), Bird’s Perch (20%), Rosi Vineyards (5%), Longcore (2%), and Chown (1%) vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style: Dry Riesling.

ABV

16: 12.1%

17: 12%

Purchased for

16: $19 (Red Wagon, Rochester Hills)

17: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Nose

16: Fruity, a little musty at first, lemon thyme.

17: Lychee, dry peach, lemon thyme.

Palate

16: Tart. Lemonheads, pear, grapefruit.

17: Drier. Mineral water.

Finish

16: Gravely, somewhat tart, but sweetens as it warms.

17: Similar. Gravel, slightly tart, but gets lemony as it warms.

Parting words: This was another head to head tasting Liz & I had with friends of the blog Amy and Pete. They’re old hat at this now so they went in with the focus of experienced wine tasters.

The overall winner was the 2017, although Amy and I liked both. Liz thought the 2016 was much too tart and Pete wasn’t too hot on it either. The 2017 had an austere elegance that the 2016 (at this point anyway) lacked. They both went very well with our snacks.

Left Foot Charley is known for its single vineyard Rieslings, one of the most famous of which is named for one of the vineyards well represented in these blends, Seventh Hill Farm. It’s the largest of the vineyards represented at a whopping 5 acres and goes back to the late 1990s. It’s owned by Tom and Linda Scheuerman and is known for its sunny southern exposure and sandy loam soil.

The second best represented of these vineyards is Terminal Moraine. It’s farmed by Lisa Reeshorst, and is 1.8 acres large. It will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year. The others are mostly smaller. For more information on these wines and the vineyards they come from, click here for the 2016 vintage and here for 2017.

I’m not sure if the differences in these wines are terroir or vintage drive (although it’s probably a little of both) but it’s an interesting contrast. 2016 was a good vintage in Michigan, but maybe a little too hot (yes, that’s possible here). 2017 was a more balanced vintage and produced some very elegant, well-balanced wines, so our preference was not surprising. The 2016 may be a little over the hill (no pun intended) as well, although it’s still drinking just fine, in my opinion, anyway. In general, I think 2016 Michigan wines are not as age-worthy as the 2017s (although there are always exceptions).

At under $20, LFC Dry Riesling is a real bargain, especially compared to its German cousins. Both vintages are recommended, but unless you have a very expensive, climate controlled cellar, 2016 is a wine to drink now. The 2017 will probably be fine for another year or two, but why wait? It’s great now.

Engle’s Ransom Michigan Hard Cider

Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Place of origin: Engle Ridge Farm, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, USA

Apples: Various European heritage varieties.

ABV: 7.8%

Price: $8/500 ml (LFC website)

Appearance: Gold with steady bubbles.

Nose: Strawberry, caramel, cut apple.

Palate: Tingly, medium light bodied, and dry. Granny smith.

Finish: Clean, apple butter.

Parting words: Left Foot Charley is best known for making some of the best single vineyard wines in Northern Michigan, but they also make some of the best single orchard ciders in Northern Michigan!

This is a great example. Engle’s Ransom isn’t a brash, funky Iberian or Norman cider. It’s a crisp, clean expression of the apples that went into it and the stony vineyard they came from. There’s a little sweetness and bitterness that keep it from turning into Pellegrino, but it’s still dry and refreshing on a hot summer afternoon.

At $8 for half a liter, this is an easy buy. Engle’s Ransom is recommended.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish

Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Style: Rye-recipe bourbon finished in Cabernet Sauvignon casks.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 95.3 (47.65% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $70

Appearance: Ruddy brown.

Nose: Overdone cherry pie, particle board, alcohol, anise.

Palate: Full bodied. Cherry juice, oak, then burn.

Finish: Cherry vanilla ice cream, alcohol.

Parting words: Sazerac has done a lot with the Barton distillery in Bardstown since they purchased the distillery from Constellation in 2009. The latest thing is the Thomas S. Moore line of wine barrel finished bourbons.

I’m not a purist when it comes to finished bourbon. I think a finish can be a nice addition to bourbon when applied judiciously and when the underlying bourbon is good quality. Fortified wine finishes are pretty common with whiskeys of all kinds, so I thought I’d try the Cab Sauv finish first. The finish adds some fun, fruity notes, but they’re quickly overcome by an underlying unrefined harshness. Water reduces the heat, but the harshness remains. It reminds me of going to my senior prom. I was wearing a tux and a sporting a fresh haircut, but underneath I was the same crude, rude teen.

If this were $20 cheaper, this harshness might be easier to overlook or I could write it off as an interesting mixer, but $70 is serious money for a bourbon from a major distiller. Sazerac can do better than this.

While I’m at it, I might as well mention the bottle and label, which are worse than what’s inside. The two tone horse picture, disjointed graphic design, and ugly, generic bottle, makes Thomas S. Moore look more like a prop from a mid-century movie set than a 21st century high-end bourbon.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish is not recommended.

Shady Lane Cabernet Franc, 2016

Maker: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Grape: Cabernet Franc (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Shady Lane estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $27 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Fruit of the forest pie, a little leather and lavender.

Palate: Black raspberry, a little oak, blueberry, pink and white pepper.

Finish: Lightly chewy, with tang.

Parting words: Cabernet Franc can get overlooked in Michigan because of its workhorse status here, and because it often forms the backbone of Bordeaux-style blends that are usually sold by name, not variety. The grape has a bad reputation in some places, for sometimes developing bell pepper aromas in the nose. I don’t necessarily find that aroma objectionable in red wine. That said, it is almost never found in varietal bottlings of Cab Franc from Michigan’s best winemakers.

As far as this Cab Franc goes, if I really set out to find green pepper in this wine, I could maybe taste a little, but that vegetable* never once popped into my overactive brain while writing these notes. I did have a lot of tart berries pop in there though, along with leather representing light tannins. That combination of acid and tannin makes this a great wine for the table. We had some with homemade tagliatelle and meatballs. In a hot, ripe vintage like 2016, it’s a credit to the skill of the viticulturalists and winemakers that they were still able to achieve that balance in the finished product.

This wine could easily hold up for a few more years but with all those delicious 2017s already in my cellar and the 2020 reds coming soon, there’s no reason to hold on to wines like this, especially at a price like $27. Shady Lane Cabernet Franc is recommended.

*A note to pedants. Yes, I’m aware that botanically speaking it’s a fruit. Culinarily, it’s a vegetable, though. Wine is something that goes on the table with food, so green pepper is a vegetable as far as wine is concerned.

Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2012

Maker: Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, Scotland, UK (Rémy Cointreau)

Region: Islay

Style: Peated Single Malt

Age: 6 y/o

ABV: 50%

Note: Made with barley grown on Islay.

Michigan state minimum: $65

Appearance: Pale straw.

Nose: Hardwood ash, peat, dark chocolate, toasted oak, vanilla.

Palate: Full bodied. Smoky dark chocolate, burn.

Finish: Cigarettes, chocolate pudding.

Parting words: Port Charlotte is Bruichladdich’s heavily peated range of single malts, not to be confused with their Octomore range of super-heavily peated malt. This is the first Port Charlotte I’ve purchased and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

I like young, fiery, Islay malts, but I was skeptical that 6 y/o was going to be too young. It’s not. Port Charlotte 2012 is wise beyond its years. It somehow tasted more mature than some bottles of Laphroaig 10 I’ve purchased. There’s a lot of chocolate and smoke and it pairs very well with the former.

I’d have to do some kind of side-by-side tasting to determine if using local barley makes a difference in the finished product, and I’m generally skeptical of the impact of terroir, especially in spirits. Whether it makes a difference in the glass or not, it’s a very cool thing to use local grain for a product like this. More distilleries should do this.

$65 is a good price for a quality, vintage dated, high ABV single malt like this. Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2012 is recommended.

Laird’s Single Cask, Comrade Brandy selection #2, Shelter in Place

Maker: Laird’s, Scobeyville, New Jersey/North Garden, Virginia, USA.

Age: 7 y/o (84 mos)

Barrel: 13J24-30

Notes: Bottled Oct 29, 2020, bottle 81(80?)/144.

ABV: 65%

Purchased for $65 (Comrade Brandy selection).

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Big dessert apple aroma. Apple sauce, cut crimson crisp. Water brings out vanilla.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Cider, then burn. With water: White chocolate candy apple.

Finish: Long. Hot apple pie. With water: cleaner with a little heat.

Parting words: Comrade Brandy is one of two private barrel selection groups I’m a part of. I joined for the inaugural selection (reviewed here) back in 2019. Coming right at the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, this second selection took a while to come out, but it finally arrived in members’ hands early this spring. It’s not quite as good as the first edition, but it’s close and still a very strong selection that I have no complaints about. It’s made in a classic American apple brandy style, but it does start to take on some Calvados characteristics when watered down.

$65 is a fair price for a cask strength private selection, so no complaints there either! Want to get in on the next selection? Hop onto Facebook and join the club! Laird’s Single Cask, Comrade Brandy selection #2, Shelter in Place is recommended.

Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019

Maker: Verterra Winery, Leland, Michigan, USA

Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)

Style: Dry rosé.

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Orangey pink.

Nose: Cedar, white cherry, crushed mulberry.

Palate: Medium bodied. Strawberry, watermelon, pink raspberry.

Finish: Dry and Tangy.

Parting words: Verterra’s walk-in tasting room in downtown (such as it is) Leland, Michigan might give the impression of a tourist trap at first impression, but this is a serious winery whose founder, Paul Hamelin, has a passion for pushing the limits of what Northwestern Michigan wine can be. In recently years, he has embarked on a project to make high quality dry varietal rosé (the Polar Vortex years of 2014 and 2015 gave him a bit of a push in this direction too).

He started with rosés of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and then added a rosé of Merlot for the first time in 2019. They’re all delicious. This Merlot is as good as the Cab Franc, and probably even better. Riesling will always be king to me, but I think rosés like this are going to be a big part of the future of Michigan wine.

This ’20s are out already but there may still be some ’19s still hiding on the backs of shelves around the state. They’re worth seeking out. Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019 is recommended.

New Riff Single Barrel, Red Wagon selection

Maker: New Riff, Newport, Kentucky, USA

Style: High rye bourbon.

Age: 4 y/o

Proof: 102.2 (51.1% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $55

Appearance: Medium dark copper.

Nose: Smoke, cut lumber, basil, bay leaf.

Palate: Full-bodied. Caramel, leather, jalapeno.

Finish: Expensive cigarettes, tarragon.

Parting words: New Riff is the newish micro-distillery associated with The Party Source liquor store in Newport/Bellevue, Kentucky. It was founded in 2014, and I had tasted a few samples here and there over the years, but none of them impressed me, and I even actively disliked one of them (the gin).

By the time retailer selections started showing up on Michigan shelves, word on the street was that the new stuff was very good and I should give it a chance. So I did. My first impression was that it was weird. My third and fourth impression was it was still kinda weird, but I liked it.

We are now in the put up or shut up phase of the micro- (“craft”) distilling phenomenon. New Riff is putting up and you love to see it. I’m excited to explore the rest of their line now and post reviews for you, my beloved readers. Regarding the price, yes, it’s only 4 y/o but it’s barrel proof and tasty. Hopefully it will go up in age or go down in price (ha!) at some future point and become a better value, but as it is $55 is a fair price for a truly micro-distilled bourbon like this. New Riff Single Barrel, Red Wagon selection is recommended.

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 2.

First off, I want to apologize for two things, 1. that this post is in two parts and 2. that I didn’t get it done during Michigan Wine Month, which is May. The excuse for both items is: No time. The school year is winding down and all the summer things are winding up and you know how it goes. I will later merge both posts together, just so it’s all in one spot for ease of later reading.

Last time, I took a broad, statewide look at Michigan’s vineyards. For this part 2, I will look at grape growing by region and by variety, the things this blog (and many others) talk about the most. I will again be using the 2020 Small Fruit and Hops Inventory published by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council.

Michigan’s grape producing regions are divided up into four regions: The Northwest (essentially Leelanau & Old Mission), North (Tip of the Mitt), Southwest (Lake Michigan Shore & Fennville), and everywhere else. For each region (further broken down by county), the number of farms and total vineyard acreage are both give for the years 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2020, with the exception of the North, which only has data for 2016 and 2020.

For the Northwest and North, there is a steady increase in the number of farms and total acreage during the period in question. The Southwest is a different story, though. In 2011, the region contained 288 farms and over 13,000 acres of vineyards. In 2020, those numbers were down to 166 and 8,600 respectively. In the other counties, the number of vineyards shows a strange bell curve, but shows a modest net growth from 2011 to 2020. The number of farms, however, steadily declines during the same period.

What do we make of these differing trends? First, since the vineyards of the Northwest and North regions are almost all dedicated to wine grapes, I think that growth represents the steady growth in the Michigan wine industry over the past ten years. The substantial losses in the Southwest, can be attributed to the decline of the grape juice industry in Michigan. While wine’s growth is good news for Michigan’s economy, the bottom dropping out of the grape juice market is not.

The picture doesn’t change much when broken down county by county, but the growth in the number of farms in Grand Traverse county (Old Mission Peninsula AVA and neighboring areas) is striking, going from 54 farms in 2011, to 60 in 2014 and 2016 (likely due to the Polar Vortex) and then to 66 in 2020. Both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties added around the same number of farms during the period (220 vs 210) with Leelanau adding the higher percentage (I think).

As of 2020, the top county in terms of farms and acreage was Berrien (SW), followed by Van Buren (SW), then Grand Traverse (NW), Leelanau (NW), and Emmett (N) counties. If the other counties of the Southwest region were their own county, they would replace Emmett in fourth place.

Next up, we have the juiciest category (apologies for the pun), grape varieties. To no one’s surprise, friend of the blog Riesling came in at #1 for the most commonly grown wine grape variety by a wide margin. Here’s the top ten vinifera, and top ten hybrid wine grape varieties grown in Michigan, as of 2020, in acreage.

Vinifera

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Gewurtztraminer 77
  8. Sauvignon Blanc 64
  9. Pinot Blanc 62
  10. Cabernet Sauvignon 56

Hybrids

  1. Vidal Blanc* 105
  2. Chambourcin* 100
  3. Marquette** 97
  4. Traminette* 81
  5. Vignoles 76
  6. Seyval 64
  7. [Marechal] Foch 63
  8. Frontenac ** 34
  9. Petite Pearl** 33
  10. Cayuga White 31

Combined Top Ten

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Vidal Blanc* 105
  8. Chambourcin* 100
  9. Marquette** 97
  10. Traminette* 81

*”Noble hybrid” variety, something I made up

**University of Minnesota cold-hardy variety

Apologies for the formatting, WordPress’s block editing system is very bad. Aside from the asterisks, there are a couple things that should be noted. First, some wine is made out of Concord and other juice varieties like Niagara and Catawba. Second are the “others”: There are 95 acres of other (outside the top 20) vinifera varieties, 110 (!) acres of other hybrid varieties, and over 2,000 acres of non-Concord native grape varieties.

There are not a lot of surprises in the top five vinifera varieties, There is a big drop off, though, between 1 & 2 in the vinifera and combined lists, though. I was surprised that there is as much Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc grown in the state as there is, though neither made the combined list. The biggest surprise to me is the other meteoric rise of a grape that came in at 11 on the vinifera list: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch. Despite the lack of a catchy, elegant-sounding name, the grape is very popular with Michigan growers, and is finding its way into more and more blends and varietal bottlings across the state, but especially in the Northwest. I’ve reviewed a few. I think this one is my favorite so far.

Marquette’s meteoric rise to become one of the most commonly planted varieties in the state at a mere fifteen years of age, was the biggest surprise to me in the hybrid category. I was a little surprised that Vidal Blanc was the number one hybrid, but pleasantly so. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for years that Michigan should be producing more brandy. Now I can add the knowledge that Vidal Blanc, descendent of the great Cognac grape Ugli Blanc, is the most widely planted hybrid grape in the state! One weird thing I learned is that there is a grape variety called Himrod and that there are 14 acres of it in the state. It’s apparently a table grape, but the name sounds like some sort of male dance review.

Anyway, the next table looks at bearing and non-bearing grape vines by category and color. There are over twice as many acres of vinifera grapes as there are of hybrids in Michigan and a little less than twice as many acres of white wine grapes as there are red (and pink) wine grapes. That’s to be expected when Riesling and Chardonnay are at one and two in the standings. Our climate is kinder to white wine grapes as well.

The next table examines acres of grapes by district and use. As other tables implied, table and juice grapes are king in Southwest Michigan. A whopping 7,425/8600 acres of Southwestern vineyards are deicated to them. So while the Southwest and four times as many acres of vineyards as the Northwest and North combined, the North and Northwest have nearly twice as many acres of wine grapes.

Finally, we get a brief glimpse into the future of Michigan vineyards in the Acres planted by variety 2017-2020 table. At least think we do. Since the numbers don’t correlate to any of the other data in the report, I assume that planted is the operative word in this description. These are, I believe, referring to varieties that were planted during that period. Riesling and Chard were the top two, but Lemberger was third, Marquette was fourth, and Pinot Gris/Grigio was fifth. Lemberger and Marquette seem like they are more than a passing fad at this point and they’re here to stay. One surprise is the University of Minnesota hybrid Itasca, which appears at number eight on the list. Could we be seeing that grape a lot more in the next few years? Stay tuned my friends!