Knappogue Castle 14 y/o: Twin Wood

Maker: Castle Brands, New York, New York, USA (Pernod-Ricard)

Distiller: Cooley, County Louth

Style: Triple distilled Irish single malt, aged in sherry and bourbon casks.

Age: 14 y/o

ABV: 46%

Michigan State Minimum: $60

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Wood varnish, sawdust.

Palate: Full-bodied and mildly sweet, then big oak.

Finish: Apricot custard under a mountain of sawdust.

Parting words: I love Irish Whiskey and I especially love Knappogue Castle. I’ve gushed over their whiskeys before so when I saw this 14 y/o version on the shelf I was nearly giddy with excitement.

So imagine my surprise when I tasted my first sip of this sawdust bomb. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this disappointed in a whiskey, especially an Irish one. There’s a solid custard base here, but it’s nearly completely overwhelmed by the heavy-handed (to say the least) use of oak. It’s reminiscent of the sharp, shop class floor aromas in young micro-distilled bourbons that have been aged in small barrels as a shortcut. There’s no excuse for an Irish whiskey of this age to be this oaky, and there’s no excuse for it to be so poorly integrated either. I could continue to rant about this but in the spirit of mercy I will end my review here. Krappogue Castle 14 Twin Oak is not recommended.

Ultima Thule, 2013

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 45% Nebbiolo, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot

Place of origin: Mari Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for $60 at winery (minus 18% [IIRC] media discount)

Thanks to Sean O’Keefe and everyone else at Mari for the generous media discount.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, black currant jam, blackberry, white pepper, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and tart. Raspberry, black currant, mulberry, tart cherry, oak.

Finish: Acidic and relatively short. Chewy on the back end.

Parting words: The islands of Thule were first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (died c. 285 BCE). It was as six days sail north of Great Britain and was the most northern point known to people of the ancient Mediterranean. It’s unclear what, if any, real place Thule was. Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, or some island off Norway have all been suggested. One later geographer suggestions the name may come from an old name refering to the Polar night, the sun never sets for weeks or months on end in high latitudes. When we were in Orkney, locals refered to it as the “simmer (summer) dim” when the sun never completely sets but just hangs around the horizon all night. We actually experienced a bit of this ourselves during our brief time there. I remember waking up around 2 am or so to see sunlight peaking through the blinds in our B & B.

On ancient and Medieval European maps, Ultima Thule became a fixture in the northwest, representing the northernmost inhabited bit of land. While the Old Mission Peninsula is much closer in latitude to Bordeaux or Torino than to Orkney or Iceland, Mari’s vineyards are at the northernmost point of Old Mission and this wine represents the ultimate expression of their nellaserra (hoop-house) system. Northern Michigan has enough sun to ripen Nebbiolo, but the cold springs present a big problem for the grape, which needs a relatively long time to ripen. The hoop-houses act as large cold frames and enable Nebbiolo to get the head start it needs to ripen.

As for the wine itself, it’s complex but not busy. It’s more acidic than I expected, but 2013 was a very cool vintage that saw pretty tart and but very long-lived wines. It’s not bracing or pucker-inducing by any stretch, though. The acid is firmly grounded in the fruit, and rounded off with judicious oak and spice.

$60 is a lot of money for a Michigan wine, or any wine period, really. I think it’s worth the money, however, and I think there’s three reasons why. First is rarity. To my knowledge there are no other Nebbiolo vines in Michigan besides those belonging to Mari Vineyards. Second is longevity. Cab Sauv and Nebbiolo are known for their ability to age for long periods of time so I originally planed to open this wine in the fall of 2023 but I just couldn’t wait that long. I have no regrets about opening it when I did but I think it could have gone for two or three more years at least. This is born out by how good it still tasted one and even two days after open.

Finally, this wine is worth at least $60 because it’s just so good. It’s good with food, by itself, in a box, with a fox, however you want to drink it. Mari Vineyards Ultima Thule, 2013 is recommended!

Wyoming Whiskey Private Stock, Red Wagon selection

Maker: Wyoming Whiskey, Kirby, Wyoming, USA.

Style: Wheat recipe bourbon.

Age: 5 y/o (according to paragraph on back label)

Proof: 107.72 (53.86% ABV)

Selected for Red Wagon stores, Troy & Rochester, Michigan, USA.

Barrel #4743

Michigan state minimum: $60

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Oak, alcohol, custard.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Caramel, brown sugar, candy cake decorations, then burn. With water: Even sweeter with more oak, but with less burn, obviously.

Finish: Clean and hot. With water: blondies, oak.

Mixed: Outstanding in classic cocktails, Kentucky mule, and even with cola or ginger ale.

Parting words: During the first wave of micro-distillers there were a lot of distilleries making bourbon who were trying to find shortcuts to get product on the market as soon as possible. They resorted to gimmicks like weird grains, small barrels, magical cave water, historical fiction, overpowering finishes, ill-conceived technologies (eg TerrePure®) and flat-out lies to try to ride the bourbon wave to profitability. I grew very tired of these cheesy “craft” distilleries very quickly.

There were a few micro-distilleries that seemed to be committed to doing things the “right” way, though. They used full-sized barrels, planned on aging the whiskey properly, used unique but not gimmicky recipes, and, most importantly, they hired people who knew that they were doing. It was clear from the beginning that Wyoming Whiskey is in that second category, so I made a mental note to watch for their bourbon on shelves. A few months ago, I was perusing Red Wagon’s Rochester location and to my delight I saw a Wyoming Whiskey selection in an in-store display! I grabbed it and brought it home.

I have to admit that I was disappointed at first sip. There was a strong wood varnish note that was very off-putting neat, so I laid off the bottle for a while after that. The next time I poured from it I used it in a Manhattan and it was great. Next I tried an Old Fashioned and it was even better. By the time I tried it neat again, it had blossomed into a beautiful, classic, but still distinctive, wheater. Now I can’t wait to try some more selections and I’m fantasizing about possible future releases with ages in the double digits.

Anyway, I like this bourbon a lot, obviously. I’m less of a fan of the price, but factoring in the high proof, wheat recipe, age and the usual micro-mark-up, I think $60 is a fair, though more than that might be pushing it. Wyoming Whiskey Private Stock, Red Wagon selection is recommended.

Claque Pépin Vieille Réserve Organic

Maker: Claque Pépin, Écouché-les-Vallées (formery Serans), Orne, France. (Benoit Louvet, owner)

Region: Calvados AOC, Normandy, France.

Age: NAS (around 6 y/o according to the Heavenly Spirits website)

ABV: 40%

Purchased for $41 (Vine & Table)

Michigan state minimum: $47

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Caramel apple, bouquet garni.

Palate: Full bodied and silky. Caramel, apple juice, wood, cassia.

Finish: Spicy and juicy.

Parting words: Claque Pépin Vieille Réserve is, according to the aforementioned Heavenly Spirits website, the first certified organic Calvados available in the US. Claque Pépin, named after a French heirloom apple variety, is not a very old company by Calvados standards, but owner Benoit Louvet worked in the industry for many years before starting his own cidery and distillery in 2005, and his family has roots in the area.

Overall this is a very pleasant Calvados. It’s simultaneously full-bodied and delicate, bold and elegant. It lacks the depth of older brandies, but there’s more than enough flavor to make up for that. It stands out vs the big VSOPs like Bushnel and Coquerel and the price is competitive. The fact that it’s organic and from a small producer are added bonuses. I really like this Calavados.

Claque Pépin Vieille Réserve Organic is recommended.

Aberfeldy 12 y/o

Maker: Aberfeldy, Aberfeldy, Perth & Kinross, Scotland, UK (Dewars/Bacardi)

Region: Highlands, Central.

Age: 12 y/o

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $40

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Sweet malt, old oak, apricot.

Palate: Full-bodied, lightly sweet. Butterscotch, peach, apricot, lemon meringue pie.

Finish: Medium hot. Creme brulee, oak, burn.

Parting words: Aberfeldy is Dewar’s flagship distillery, and as one might expect, Aberfeldy is one of the backbone malts of Dewar’s blend. It’s full-bodied and fruity, but it relies on malt for sweetness rather than strong sherry, as befits a Highland (as opposed to Speyside) malts.

Aberfeldy 12 is easy drinking and affordable but not boring. It has a spicy edge that makes it more fun to sip than many other big corporate malts which sacrifice flavor for accessibility. You know which ones I’m talking about. Aberfeldy 12 is recommended.

Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA.

Grapes: 73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc

Place of origin: Leorie Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $46 (Holiday Market)

Note: for more information on this wine and vineyard, read this post on Black Star Farms’ Blog.

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Cedar, black currant jam, clove, smoke.

Palate: Juicy but structured. Full bodied. Black currant, cherry juice, blueberry pie.

Finish: A little chewy, with some acid.

Parting words: Leorie Vineyard is in an old gravel pit on Old Mission Peninsula that has become one of Black Star Farms’ finest vineyards, especially for reds. It consistently produces ripe (a challenge for Merlot in Northern Michigan), disease-free Merlot that finds its home under this label year after year.

I’m afraid my notes don’t really do this wine justice. It’s fruity for sure but nicely balanced with spice and tannins producing an elegant but not austere red worthy of the Right Bank of the Gironde. It cellars well too, obviously. I’m looking forward to cracking my other bottle of Leorie in 2022 or sometime after that. $46 is expensive by Michigan standards, but that’s a good price for a quality Merlot blend from one of Michigan’s finest vineyards made by one of Michigan’s finest wineries. 2012 Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc is recommended.

Wiser’s 23 year old Cask Strength Blend

Maker: Wiser’s/Corby, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Pernod-Ricard)

Distillery: Hiram Walker, Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Style: Canadian blend

Age: 23 y/o

ABV: 64.3%

Michigan state minimum: $90

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Christmas spices, caramel, leather.

Palate: Very full bodied. Sweet custard and caramel, then burn. More spice comes out with water. Chinese five spice, brown sugar.

Finish: Horehound cough drops, eucalyptus.

Parting words: This is a brand new offering from Wiser’s in the US. I’m very glad this and the 35 year old Wiser’s are now available in Michigan, since the Canadian border is more or less closed to booze shoppers like myself.

I’m even gladder that these offerings are at a high ABV. It makes the premium price more palatable, and helps overcome the dull palate and finish that plagues many Canadian Whiskeys, at least the ones that make it to the states.

Bourbon may be overblown and Scotch prices tariffed out of control, but we are living in the golden age of Wiser’s. I can’t think of very many better ways to ring in a new year than with an elegant, perfectly balanced, and relatively affordable aged Canadian whisky like this. Wiser’s 23 is highly recommended.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc, 2019

Maker: Verterra, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA

Grape: Pinot Blanc (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA (100%), Leelanau County, Michigan, USA

Style: Semi-dry sparkling wine.

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Light gold with moderate, steady bubbles.

Nose: Ripe mango, pear, custard, Meyer lemon.

Palate: Moderately effervescent with medium body. Off dry with lots of tropical fruit and just enough acid.

Finish: Semi-dry and fruity.

Parting words: The last time I spoke to Verterra Winery owner Paul Hamelin he was extremely excited about making his first sparkling wines. That was several years ago, and now the winery has a full line of blended sparkling wines, all of which are delicious. As far as I know, this wine is the only varietally bottled sparkling Pinot Blanc being produced in Michigan, although it is used frequently in blends.

I really enjoyed this wine, but unfortunately it is currently out of stock at Michigan by the Bottle’s Royal Oak tasting room. MBTBTR owner Cortney told me that they may get some more in soon, so watch for it! In the meantime, go buy some other Pinot Blanc, Verterra, sparkling wine or something else at your local MBTBTR! They are open for wine purchases on NYE & NYD, fyi.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc 2019 is recommended.

Rare Breed

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA

Style: Standard recipe straight bourbon.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 116.8 (58.4% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $45

Appearance: Dark copper.

Nose: Leather, black pepper, grape soda.

Palate: Full-bodied and sweet, then hot chile, caramel, grape jelly. Similar with water, but more corn syrup than caramel.

Finish: Hot with leather, chipotle powder. Sweeter with water.

Parting words: Oddly enough, it seems like I have never reviewed Rare Breed for this blog! I’m as shocked as you are.

For many years, Rare Breed was one of my favorite barrel proof bourbons. Then the quality at Wild Turkey began to slip and I nearly stopped buying Wild Turkey products altogether. Thankfully, the distillery has rebounded (getting a bigger, more productive distillery helped) and I’ve starting buying Wild Turkey again.

I’m glad I did, too. While this Rare Breed is not as good as the bottles from the mid and late 1990s, it’s well-balanced and powerful with the classic Wild Turkey profile. Prices on NAS barrel proof selections are absurdly high these days, often outweighing any value to be gained from buying less water, with spirit acquired from who knows where. With Rare Breed, you can rest assured that you’re not buying crap and you’re getting more than just a less watered down version of the flagship product.

Rare Breed is a classic bourbon that has returned to form. It is recommended.

Jean-Luc Pasquet Cognac, Lot 62, Serious Brandy selection, cask #2

Maker: Sarl Domaine Pasquet, Bellevigne, Cognac, Charente, France.

Distiller: Undisclosed small distiller in Petite Champagne.

Region: Petite Champagne, Cognac, Charente, France.

Grape: Ugni Blanc (100%)

Vintage: 1962

Age: 58 y/o (100% in oak)

Note: No chill filtering or additives.

Purchased for $244/700 ml (200€) via Cognatheque.

Appearance: Bright oxblood.

Nose: Dried figs, dates, old oak, lavender, chamomile.

Palate: Full-bodied and dry, but with a little fruit. Dried cherry, oak, walnut.

Finish: Big. Anise candy, horehound, oak.

Parting words: I think is bottle is both the most expensive and oldest (longest time in oak) spirit I’ve ever purchased. I’ve tasted bourbons distilled in the 1960s and earlier (I even tried one from the 1860s once), and 30+ y/o Scotch, but never a brandy this old. Truth be told, I’m not generally not a fan of ultra-aged spirits. I find most of them unbalanced and overpriced. Why should I pay three or four figures for a whiskey that is so woody, only a beaver would enjoy it.

Despite all that, I was very excited when the administrator of a Facebook group I’m a member of, Serious Brandy, decided to do a group buy of two casks of Cognac from the cellars of Jean-Luc Pasquet. Domaine Pasquet is currently owned by Jean-Luc’s son Jean and his wife Amy, who is a frequent poster in the group. Serious Brandy’s founder, Steve (aka retired whiskey blogger Sku) is someone whose palate and knowledge of brandy I trust, and in the grand scheme of things $244 is not a huge sum for a 58 year old spirit. Single Malt Scotch in that age range sells for 5 figures or more. Be that as it may, I only bought one bottle from the second cask selected due to budgetary constraints (i.e. my wife’s strong desire to pay off all our student loans at the end of this year).

So when I opened it for the first time, I was a little disappointed. It was very intense, and the experience of drinking it was like having old fashioned licorice shoved up every orifice. I was a little sad after that so I let it sit in my cabinet for a couple weeks. Then I tried it again, and it was better. Then a tried it again after another week or two and it was even better. Now, a few months after I opened it, it’s become very good.

The finish is still intense, but the nose and palate are much more balanced. It’s still clearly an old spirit, but it’s now more spry than senile. After a few months of enjoying it I’m putting it back into my cellar and I will put it back into rotation after I finish the next French brandy I have waiting in the wings, as it were.

Anyway, big thanks to Steve and the Pasquets for giving me the opportunity to own such a rare and interesting Cognac! Jean-Luc Pasquet Cognac, Lot 62, First Serious Brandy selection, cask #2 is recommended.