Ballentine’s 12 y/o

Maker: Ballentine’s, Dumbarton, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, USA (Pernod-Ricard)wp-1470744396154.jpg

Age: 12 y/o

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $30

Appearance: Shiny caramel, thick, widely spread legs

Nose: Wood varnish, honey, vanilla buttercream, old oak.

Palate: Medium bodied and light in flavor. Butterscotch, salted caramel.

Finish: Werther’s Original candy, alcohol, grape soda, puff of smoke.

Parting words: This review was supposed to be a head to head with Ballentine’s Finest, the entry level NAS blend, but I lost my notes to that. As a friend said to me on Twitter, “Jesus saves and so should you.” True words, but MS should also make it so that autosaved versions of one document doesn’t pop up when you open a different document and give you the opportunity to delete the autosaved versions of the one document.

Anyhoo, not much was lost because there isn’t too much going on with Ballentine’s Finest. It’s inoffensive, but $25 should buy you more than that (though the mid-century style bottle is pretty cool). For $5 more, you can buy the 12 y/o Ballentine’s which is better. This is a Speyside-centered blend with sweet malt and sherry as the leading aromas with some oak and smoke thrown in to round it out. It’s mildly interesting and priced in the same neighborhood as its competition like Dewar’s. That whole neighborhood is overpriced, though. Get yourself a 1.75 liter bottle of Grant’s instead. Ballentine’s 12 y/o is mildly recommended.

Sandhill Crane Strawberry

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USAwp-1471463533730.jpg

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Vintage: NV

ABV: 11%

Price: $16/375 ml

Appearance: Dark, brassy pink.

Nose: Strawberry jam.

Palate: Full bodied. Strawberry pie filling.

Finish: Fruit salad with ripe in-season strawberries, as opposed to those pale, tasteless Florida or California ones you get in the fall or winter.

Parting words: Of all the summer berries, strawberries are probably my least favorite. Years of being forced to make due with crap, imported strawberries (see above) took their toll and I now view strawberries as the opening act to blueberries and cherries.This wine is changing my mind though. It captures the essence of strawberries at their very best in late May or early June, perfectly ripe and sweet, but not sticky or cloying. Perfect chilled on the patio after dinner on a humid summer evening.

The price is admittedly high for a fruit wine, but this and the raspberry dessert wine are Sandhill’s best in the dessert category. It’s limited edition so this year’s iteration may be sold out already, but if you can find it Sandhill Crane Strawberry wine is recommended.

Vander Mill Ginger Peach

Maker: Vander Mill, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USAwp-1471352720002.jpg

Style: Apple cider with peach juice, ginger juice and sugar.

ABV: 6.9%

Price: $11/4 pack of pint cans (Binny’s)

Appearance: Bright gold.

Nose: Light ginger, golden apple, peach nectar.

Palate: Medium bodied, medium dry and well-integrated. Tart with a little tannin. Fresh cut peach and a pinch of ground ginger.

Finish: Much bigger peach in the finish. Dry, underripe peach. Lightly lingers.

Parting words: At the annual early June party my wife and I host, I went with an all Michigan theme. I wanted to make sure there was cider there since I like it and like variety. I also bought a six pack of Beard Bender dry cider from Blake’s. I assumed the Blake’s would go quicker, but Ginger Peach did. After tasting it, it’s easy to see why.

When making a fruit flavored cider it is critical that the cider base is of good quality. When it’s not the fruit element has to be increased to hide the flavor and the whole thing ends up being cloying and gross. The best flavored ciders, like this one, let the tannins and apple character come through while harmonizing with the flavorings. Ginger Peach goes well with food, too, especially grilled meats and South or Central Asian food. Ginger Peach is recommended.

A Visit to Round Barn

Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.

Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.

I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round

wp-1470317645093.jpg
The round barn

Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.

Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.

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Tasting bar

We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar

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Bottles

and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.

Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes wp-1470317891964.jpgmonthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of  Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.

According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.

We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.

Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.

After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-

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Beer Menu

roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.

The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.

The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!

The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.

Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.

Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.

Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.

*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.

Sumatra Mountain

Maker: Founders, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USAwp-1469491924785.jpg

Style: Coffee flavored Imperial Brown Ale

ABV: 9%

MSRP: $12 (4 pack)

Appearance: Light coffee brown with a big foamy head.

Nose: Roasted coffee, chocolate syrup, brown sugar.

Palate: Dark roast coffee with 3-4 packets of sugar in the raw, a little malt and bitterness, dark chocolate.

Finish: Sticky but not really sweet. Almost exactly like dark roast Sumatra but without the smoke I often get in that coffee.

Parting words: From the folks who brought the world Breakfast Stout, now we have another coffee beer. I like that it’s more than just that, though. They’re using Sumatran coffee (working my way through a bag of Sumatra Mandheling from Chazzano right now, actually) provided by Ferris & Co. roasters of Grand Rapids (details on their Sumatra are here). They also used two types of malt, Aromatic and Munich, and two types of hops, German and Perle. In sum, Founders put a lot of effort and care into this, as they do with everything.

That said, I think this beer missed the mark. There’s too much sweetness here for my taste. It comes off closer to a fudge or milkshake stout than a coffee-flavored brown ale. $12 isn’t crazy for an imperial seasonal offering but it’s too much for something I’m not particularly fond of. Sumatra Mountain is mildly recommended.

Three way head to head micro-rye tasting: Journeyman vs Few vs Union Horse

J= Journeyman Last Feather Rye, batch 17wp-1468093192015.jpg

F= FEW Rye, batch 15

UH= Union Horse Reunion Straight Rye, batch 1

Maker

J: Journeyman, Three Oaks, Michigan, USA

F: FEW, Evanston, Illinois, USA

UH: Union Horse, Lenexa, Kansas, USA

Age

J: NAS

F: “At least one year”*

UH: “Over two years”*

*Age statements like these are not in line with regulatory standards

Proof

J: 90 (45% ABV)

F: 93 (46.5% ABV)

UH: 93 (46.5% ABV)

Price

J: $50 (Michigan State Minimum)

F: $60 (Michigan State Minimum)

UH: $39 (MSRP)

Note: Received a complimentary bottle of UH from FleischmanHillard PR for review purposes.

Appearance

J: Medium copper.

F: A little lighter but still copper.

UH: Quite a bit darker. Shiny auburn.

Nose

J: Bananas, cherry bubble gum, alcohol, oak.

F: Christmas tree scented candle, orange peel.

UH: Cut grass, toasted grain. Similar to Canandian Club.

Palate

J: Banana, black licorice, alcohol.

F: Mild. Peppermint.

UH: Full bodied and sweet. Brown sugar, oak, alcohol.

Finish

J: Big licorice that lingers.

F: Spearmint gum.

UH: Grassy and sweet, then Grape-Nuts cereal.

Mixed: With ginger ale, in a Manhattan and a Sazerac

J: Brought big licorice to all three. Excelled in the manhattan.

F: Did fine in everything. Nothing offensive.

UH: Same as F above.

Parting words: This is one of those head to head tastings that ends up making me mad. The overall winner was Last Feather Rye, but with a couple concerns. I loved the licorice and banana flavors but those are flavors I don’t expect out of rye whiskey. Nothing wrong with that on its own, but those flavors combined with the absence of the word “straight” on the front label makes me wonder if Journeyman is flavoring its rye, a la Templeton. This is legal, but should be disclosed to consumers. If I had my act together, I would have emailed or called them to ask, but I didn’t think of that possibility until now. I’ll try to get that information in the near future. To be fair, FEW isn’t straight either, but with FEW there’s nothing in the glass outside of the typical range of flavors for American ryes.

FEW Rye was ok, but nothing too extraordinary. It drank like a less refined version of Bulleit rye. The mintiness does fine in cocktails but it was overwhelming neat. Reunion was a horse of a different color. Its profile was closer to a Canadian blended rye than any American rye I’ve had recently. It’s better balanced than FEW, but not as flavorful as Last Feather.

The elephant in the room with all of these is the price. Journeyman is $50, which is too high for a whiskey that isn’t a straight. FEW is $60, which is just plain dumb. Reunion is priced better and is a straight, but is still pushing it when it comes to price.

Journeyman is mildly recommended, FEW is not recommended and Reunion is recommended (at or near MRSP)

Chateau du Tariquet, 8 years old.

Maker: Chateau du Tarquiet, Éauze, Condom, Gers, France.wp-1468538722885.jpg

Grape: Folle Blanche (100%)

Place of origin: Tariquet estate, Bas-Armagnac.

Age: 8 y/o (distilled Nov 1999, bottled July 2010)

ABV: 51.1%

Purchased for $64 (Vine & Table, Carmel, Indiana)

Appearance: Dark auburn with lots of closely spaced legs.

Nose: Overdone oatmeal raisin cookies: Vanilla, toasted cookie, raisins.

Palate: Alcohol, dried figs, old oak.

Finish: Hot, fading into macerated raisins.

Parting words: Armagnac is a type of French brandy produced in the Armagnac region of southwestern France. It differs from Cognac in a few ways. First, it’s made in a different region altogether. Second, Armagnac is made in Alembic continuous stills unlike Cognac, and it is only distilled once, also unlike Cognac which is distilled twice. This can give Armagnac a bold, rustic character that sets it apart from its mild, easy drinking cousin.

There’s not a lot of information on this Armagnac house to be found on the internet. What I was able to discover was that Tarquiet produces a fairly wide assortment of Armagnacs as well as Cote de Gascogne wines. The vineyards were purchased by the Arnaud family (bear-trainers by trade) in 1912. Hélène Arnaud married a young hairdresser named Pierre Grassa after World War II and the estate passed into the hands of the Grassa family. Armin and Rémy Grassa, grandsons of Hélène and Pierre, are now chief winemakers at the estate.

I don’t review a lot of Armagnacs, but I would like to review more. The biggest obstacle to that is the extremely limited select of them in Michigan. So I try to pick some up when I can when traveling. This one appealed to me because it is relatively affordable and available at cask strength. It’s not the most flavorful one I’ve had, but it has some very nice oak characteristics and rich raisin flavors that make it fun to drink. I like it. Chateau du Tariquet, 8 years old (100% Folle Blanche, cask strength) is recommended.

NOTE: Factual error about method of distillation has been corrected.

Bel Lago Auxerrois, 2013

Maker: Bel Lago, Cedar, Leelanau County, Michigan, USAwp-1468093271317.jpg

Place of origin: Bel Lago estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.9%

Price: $19 (website price for 2012 vintage)

Nose: Cut golden apple, peach, pear, leather.

Palate: Full bodied, dry. Subtle pear, cantaloupe, a drop of brown butter.

Finish: A little tangy and a little sweet, then a touch of smoke as it fades.

Parting words: Auxerrois is not a grape that finds its way onto labels very much. It’s a member of the Pinot family grapes. According to geneticists, Auxerrois shares the same parentage as Chardonnay, making it something of a fraternal twin. It’s primarily grown in Alsace in eastern France, where it is one of the most commonly grown varieties (in 2008, it was grown on twice the acreage of Pinot Blanc). Alsace is between Burgundy and Germany geographically and wino-graphically. It is best known for its white wines which include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling. Where does that leave Auxerrois? There’s a strange quirk in French wine laws that allows Alsatian wines labeled Pinot Blanc to contain any white wine from the Pinot family. Auxerrois is one of the most popular choices for Pinot Blanc, whether blended with Blanc and Gris or even all by itself(!). It brings Chard-like mouthfeel and fruit to the blend as a counterpoint Pinot Blanc’s crispness.

Bel Lago became the first winery to plant Auxerrois in Michigan in 1987. They’ve treated it with care and made a great wine out of it, year after year. Pinot Blanc has been raised as a possible signature grape for Michigan but maybe its old pal Auxerrois is a better choice. Bel Lago Auxerrois is highly recommended.

Alberta Premium

Maker: Alberta Distillers, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Beam Suntory)wp-1467151542331.jpg

Style: Canadian Rye

Age: NAS

ABV: 40%

LCBO price: C$26 ($20 US)

Appearance: Pale copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, cut grass, leather, lavender, alcohol.

Palate: Semi-dry. Woodruff, jalapeno, butterscotch.

Finish: Hot and grassy. Hangs around a long time.

Mixed: Didn’t get a chance to try it in many drinks. It very well in an Old Fashioned and excellent in a Sazerac. OK in a Manhattan, but I that may have been the weird vermouth I used.

Parting words: Alberta Distillers is a unique distillery. Unlike most Canadian distillers, Alberta doesn’t produce a multi-grain blend, but whiskies from 100% rye. This made it very attractive at the beginning of the rye boom when rye was hard to come by. A few companies like Whistle Pig and Jefferson’s took to bottling Alberta rye and charging a premium for it. It was good stuff to be sure, but it’s hard to beat the original for the price. It’s not available on US shelves, but those of us fortunate to live near the border have no excuse not to grab a few bottles when we can. Canadian Club (also owned by Beam Suntory) has been using Alberta rye to fill its new Chairman’s Select label (Now available in the US for about the same price as Alberta Premium), so if this sounds like your cup of tea, it might be worth trying that one out. Needless to say I’ll be reviewing CC Chariman’s Select in the near future.

At any rate, Alberta Premium is a good solid whisky at a good price. Equally good mixed and neat. It’s recommended.

A Visit to Uncle John’s Cider Mill

wp-1467152228478.jpgUncle John’s Cider Mill/Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery is in St. John’s, Michigan 31 miles north of Lansing, about a one and a half to two-hour drive from Metro Detroit.  The Cider Mill has been open to the public since 1971 but the Beck family has owned a farm in that location for five generations, growing fruit and vegetables. Their current business is typical of many destination-type cider mills around the Midwest. Cider, doughnuts, pies, jam, farm stands, kids recreational area, local bands, car shows, bicycle races and the like. They have also made wine for many years as Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery. A red and white blends are made but most of the wines are fruit-flavored or 100% fruit wines. They make Concord grape, cherry, cranberry and sparkling peach wines, Cyser, and Pyment.

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The bouncing area.

Apples have always been grown by the Becks on their farm and according to Mike Beck, current co-owner and operator, apples are where their hearts are. They started selling hard cider to the public in 2002, back when cider was small. They were already focusing more on fruit wine, so moving to hard cider was an easy transition. They were one of the first commercial hard cider producers in Michigan so they got a solid head start on the cider boom. They are also one of the few producers nationwide to grown their own fruit. According to Mike, many of the cideries in the Pacific Northwest don’t grow any of their fruit and know little to nothing about growing apples. Uncle John’s takes pride in their long standing “relationship with the apple”. They have 80 acres of apples on site and own another 80 acres of orchards in West Michigan. Uncle John’s also sources fruit from as far north as Leelanau and as far south as St. Joseph’s. There are subtle differences between northern and southern fruit, Mike explained. The northern apples tend to be more acidic (and prettier) and the southern tend to be sweeter. Mid-Michigan apples are the perfect balance of the two (of course).

Mike’s training was almost entirely on the job. He was operating the cider press by the time he was nine years old. He has also studied at Michigan State University and spent time at Black Star Farms, Fenn Valley, and St. Julien, which he praises for their commitment to helping anybody involved in producing wine, cider or spirits in Michigan.

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A glass of Atomic Cinnamon

When I arrived, Mike took me through the highlights of their canned ciders and then their premium line. We started with the semi-dry flagship cider (reviewed here in its former can design), a favorite of mine. We then moved onto the cherry which was good, and then the apricot which was very good. The Cherries for the former are estate grown, but the apricots are not (although they are from Michigan). Blueberry, cranberry and pear fill out the rest of the line of fruit flavored ciders. If I recall correctly, the blueberries are Uncle John’s own. The pears are Michigan grown as are some of the cranberries. Getting all Michigan cranberries is harder than it may seem. Michigan is a major producer, but they belong to the big interstate cranberry co-op as soon as they are harvested and are all pooled together.The co-op assures Mike that there are some Michigan berries in the mix. The odd ball (no pun intended) of the canned cider line is Atomic Cinnamon. It’s the standard apple cider infused with Atomic Fireball candies. A review of that one will be coming in the near future. In addition to those, they have cider cocktails available at the tasting bar. When I was there, they had their own version of a spiced Spanish cider punch. It was tasty.

The canned ciders are good family fun (if your family is all over 21) but the premium ciders

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Canning cider

seem to be what Mike’s most proud of. They’re all on the dry end of the scale and are all excellent. He said he doesn’t have any particular regional style (English, Norman, etc) in mind when he makes these, he just lets the fruit lead the way. I tasted Melded (a blend of

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The ones I took home

English, French and American heritage cider apples), Russet (blend of Russet varieties, with Golden Russet making up the majority), Baldwin (single variety cider from Lake Michigan Shore apples), and the award winning perry (from Bartlett pears; they’re especially proud of this one). Look for reviews of the first two and the perry in the next few months. The two I didn’t taste were American 150 (blend from 150 y/o+ cider apples) and Cider Rosé (made from all red fleshed apples). I did pick up a bottle of Cider Rosé, though so expect a review of that one too!

I asked about whether they had plans to make an ice cider, like the one made by Blake’s wp-1467151916789.jpg(reviewed here). Mike didn’t seem to be interested in the idea. He poured me some of their apple dessert wine and said he was fine with that one occupying the sweet end of their range. It’s a fortified wine made using spirits distilled from Uncle John’s own fruit. It was cloying and unrefined but drinkable. I hope Mike reconsiders. I would love to see his considerable skill applied to an ice cider.

Uncle John’s produces spirits too. Mike informed me that their pot still used to be at their facility in St. John’s, but when they expanded it was moved to Red Cedar distillery down the road in East Lansing. When I asked if Uncle John’s spirits were contract distilled, Mike replied, “We don’t actually have a contract, but they do it for us.” Mike oversees the spirits production, but doesn’t distill any of it himself, allowing the expert staff at Red Cedar to do that.

wp-1467151958933.jpgThey are currently selling two spirits, an apple vodka and an aged apple brandy. The apple vodka is surprisingly flavorful, tasting more like apple eau de vie than vodka. “I know it’s supposed to be flavorless but…” It made a good sipping vodka, but I didn’t try it in any cocktails. The vodka is made in the big column still at Red Cedar.

We then moved on to the really good stuff, apple brandy. They have twelve barrels aging at the Cider Mill. They have two different types of barrels to age their brandy. Some is aged in toasted French oak (in barrels intended for Calvados) and some in Michigan oak barrels, also toasted. The Michigan oak barrels were sourced by St. Julien’s to be distributed to wineries across the state. Mike prefers the French oak barrels but again credits St. Julien’s with doing a good thing for wineries in the state by facilitating the use of home grown wood in wine and spirits production. It’s a cool thing for a Michigan producer to be able to say that your product has been aged in Michigan oak. Uncle John’s has barrels of brandy as old as 12 y/o but what gets bottled is 2-6 years old. It’s only sold at the tasting room and at a couple restaurants in Chicago. It’s sold in 375 ml bottles. I received a complimentary bottle of the brandy, so watch this space for that review too.

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Mike and his barrels

Uncle John’s has more spirits in the works. They are currently working with Red Cedar to develop a gin using their apple vodka as a base. Mike also said they have two barrels of whiskey aging. When I asked him what style they were he said, “I don’t know.” The whiskey originally belonged to Michigan Brewing Company. Uncle John’s was forced to take possession of it in MBC’s notorious bankruptcy. If it turns out to be any good, it will be released.

They have a cozy tasting room with bar for tasting or just buying a drink. As is usually the case, the tasting room also contains a shop. All their ciders and spirits are sold there along with apparel and locally made snacks and other products. A pleasant-looking patio is outside. Uncle John’s is a bit of a hike to be a regular hangout for me, but it looks like it would be well worth the drive from Lansing to spend a warm summer evening relaxing with a glass of cider. Even if you aren’t close, a visit is recommended. Big thanks to Mike Beck and all the other staff for their patience and hospitality.

 

All photos by me.