Crispin Hard Apple Cider Artisanal Reserve: The Saint

Maker: Crispin Cider Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Notes: Made with Belgian Trappist yeasts and flavored with maple syrup

ABV: 6.9%

Appearance: cloudy gold, especially when served in ice as recommended.

Nose: A little yeasty funk and then some bright apple tartness.

On the palate: Medium-bodied, but rich. The sweetness and woodiness the syrup brings to the table are a nice counterpoint to the funky, slightly floral notes of the yeast and the tartness of the apple. Balanced but complex.

Finish: Clean but the funk lives on in a very pleasant way and the sweetness lingers in the cheeks for a good long while with a nice banana flavor.

Parting words: This is a very nice drink. This is not a table cider, but one for contemplation as befitting its Trappist heritage. Not much else to say really. Crispin does good things with cider. I recommend The Saint.

Double Down Brewer’s Whiskey

Maker: New Holland, Michigan, USA

Type: Straight Malt Whiskey

Age: 6 mos. (in “small” barrels)

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Appearance: Dark copper with thick legs.

Nose: A faint hint of leather up front, like walking into a furniture showroom. Sweet black licorice, caramel, a bit of alcohol.

On the palate: Full, voluptuous body. Like a porter on the palate. Lots of licorice, some more caramel and hard candy, maybe a little horehound.

Finish: same notes as on the palate, but with some slightly bitter clove and Chinese five-spice.

Parting words: This was the first entry into New Holland’s Brewer’s Whiskey series of small barrel, small bottle releases. Some of the acrid nastiness that very small barrels can throw into the nose is absent here. Instead, it’s like drinking a very spicy porter or sucking on black anise candy. A lovely whiskey, and one that is good sippin’ for the holidays. Highly Recommended.

Wild Turkey 101

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Gruppo Campari)

Age: NAS (­about 6-8 y/o)

Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)

Note: The labeling was recently changed, but a lot of the old is still on the shelf. Both old and new are pictured.

Appearance: Copper penny with thick clingy legs.

Nose: leather, caramel, peanut brittle, oak.

On the palate: Thick and rich, very full-bodied. Caramel, spice, barrel char, then heat, a lot of it.

Finish: Sweet corn, wood, char then big burn. Fades out with a hot, sweet tingle.

Parting words: Wild Turkey is a walking, strutting contradiction. On the one hand, it has a very, um, rustic reputation. A rite of passage in some college fraternities involves enduring a succession of shots of Wild Turkey 101 as a test of masculinity. On the other, older one-offs or Travel Retail offerings from Wild Turkey, like the recent Tradition release, are among the most sought after in connoisseur circles.

What makes Wild Turkey distinct is not its mashbill. I used to think Turkey was high-rye bourbon but it’s about average in that regard. What gives this Turkey its bite and body is the very heavy level of char used on the inside of their barrels and the very low (by industry standards) barrel entry proof.

In my own experience, I’ve encountered a good deal of variation in the standard Wild Turkey 101. A bottle I bought a few years ago was so young and hot it was almost undrinkable. This one is much better. Hopefully any consistency problems have now been worked out. Wild Turkey built a completely new distillery building in Lawrenceburg this year and the new still has at least twice the capacity as the old one that was built in the 1930s. New warehouses are also currently under construction, so Wild Turkey 101 should be getting better and better as the supply of aged whiskey increases.

As it stands now, Wild Turkey 101 is a classic bourbon profile any true bourbon lover should be familiar with. It’s not one of my go-to bourbons, but sometimes it hits the spot. It also works well in cocktails especially ones in which its aggression is an asset. Recommended.

Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc

Maker: Joel Gott, Napa, California, USA

Grape: Sauvignon Blanc

Region: California, USA

Vintage: 2010

ABV: 13%

Appearance: Pale gold with slow, thick legs.

Nose: Tangerine, Clementine, apricot, basil.

On the palate: Medium-bodied. Slightly sweet, grapefruit, peach, orange, delicately dry.

Finish: Orange, lemon, dry, fading into pleasant grapefruit bitterness.

Parting words: I bought this wine because it was the cheapest one on a list a of great California Sauvignon Blanc. I was a bit reluctant, since I generally only drink New Zealand Sauv Blanc. This one did not disappoint, and has all the citrus notes I love in New Zealanders. That said, the Joel Gott Sauv Blanc is no transplanted Marlbourgh. The herbal notes are much more subdued here and the grapefruit is more present in the finish than in the mouth. Lots of orange (and relatives) and apricot. An all around delicious wine with or without food. This would also be a good turkey (or tofurky) wine. Highly recommended.

Dragon’s Milk

Maker: New Holland, Holland, Michigan, USA

Style: Barrel-aged stout

Vintage: 2011

ABV: 10%

Appearance: Dark chocolate with a mildly frothy tan head.

Nose: Sweet, cereal milk, milk chocolate.

On the palate: Full-bodied, bitter at first, then sweeter. Café mocha, vanilla and amaretto, with a bit of bite from the alcohol and carbonation.

Finish: Sweet and pleasantly sticky fading very slowly to a smoky bitterness. The sticky sweetness continues to linger on the lips for a long time.

Parting words: This is a delicious beer. Unlike some other barrel-aged beers, Dragon’s Milk strikes a balance between barrel character and beer character. This is a quality stout first. Instead of being covered up, those stout characteristics are complemented by the wood tannins and the sweet vanilla and liquer flavors coming from the barrel. Dragon’s Milk is a flawlessly executed barrel-aged stout. Highly recommended.

McAfee’s Benchmark, Old No. 8

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA

Age: NAS (4 y/o?)

Style: High-corn bourbon

Proof: 80 (40% ABV)

Appearance: Light copper with thin-medium, fast legs.

Nose: Cool Ranch Doritos, caramel, alcohol

On the palate: Thin, a bit of sweetness and that weird cool ranch note again. Not much else going on.

Finish: Very light, slightly sweet with a fruitiness coming through in the end.

Mixed: When Benchmark is mixed, the results are themselves mixed. It’s invisible in manhattans, sours and cola. For whatever reason, it does pretty well in hot drinks like coffee and hot toddies. I have also found it adequate for Bourbon cream pies and soaking woodchips.

Parting words: It’s hard to believe this is the same recipe as George T. Stagg. No one is quite sure who McAfee is, but Benchmark is a relatively new brand. It was introduced in the 1960s and was produced by Seagram’s, along with its stablemate Eagle Rare, at what is now the Four Roses Distillery. When Seagram’s was dismantled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Benchmark and Eagle Rare both came into the possession of Sazerac Co., present owner of Buffalo Trace Distillery. They are both currently made in there. Benchmark has always been lower-shelf bourbon, but Saz did experiment with a Single Barrel version which was actually quite good. It’s no longer available but still lingers on shelves (including one of mine) around the country.

Benchmark does what it sets out to do. It is cheap, well bourbon. At under $10 for a 750 ml bottle, it’s hard to expect too much, but $2-$3 more opens up many better possibilities. Even the mediocre Ancient Age shows up better. In light of all that, I cannot recommend Benchmark.

Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir

Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Region: Old Mission AVA, Michigan, USA

Grape: Gamay

Vintage: 2009 (2008 vintage pictured)

ABV: 12.5%

Appearance: Light burgundy with long, fairly thick legs

Nose: Plums, leather, black pepper, cherry. For once a back label is dead on.

On the palate: Light mouth feel, fruity tart cherry up front. As it sits in the glass, the leather and black pepper notes come to the fore. There’s still plenty of fruit, though. A delightful dichotomy of deliciousness. Yes, I just wrote that.

Finish: Clean finish with some lingering tastes of cherry juice and the ubiquitous black pepper.

Parting words: The name Gamay isn’t well known, but many people do know the name of its most famous product, Beaujolais. It has always had its detractors. Two different Dukes of Burgundy outlawed the cultivation of “disloyal Gaamez in the 15th century. For the record, I am a fan of Gamay, especially in Beaujolais. I was surprised by the peppery nose but it gives it depth and interest that I wasn’t expecting. The pepper moves it closer to estate or cru Beaujolais (according to the internet anyway) than the Beaujolais-Village I drink to wash down my pork chops. This is a very good, food-friendly, but not dumbed down, wine. Recommended.

My Two Ounces: My Favorite Bourbons Under…

I’ve had some requests from friends of the blog for lists of my favorite bourbons in certain price ranges. This sounded like a fun exercise, but there are some challenges. First, not all bourbons are available everywhere. Second, not all bourbons are the same price everywhere. Third, there are some bourbons I don’t usually care for, but I like some of the specially selected retailer bottlings. Finally, some bourbons are only released in limited quantities once a year. Some of them, like the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and the Four Roses annual releases, vary quite a bit from year to year. Others, like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), are pretty consistent.

For my recommendations I have decided to include bourbons available in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky or Chicago, i.e. places where I shop. For all bourbons available in Michigan, the price I will be using is the state minimum retail price. Bourbons not available in Michigan will be marked with an asterisk and I will use the price listed at The Party Source in Covington, Kentucky. All prices are rounded to the nearest dollar before sales tax. I will note retailer bottlings I like in each category at the end of each list. For the purposes of this list, I have included Tennessee Whiskeys. Rye whiskeys are not included, but get their own very short list at the bottom.

Whew. So without any further ado, and without comment (mostly)…

Favorite bourbons under $25

*Heaven Hill Old Style, 6 y/o,  Bottled-in-Bond (White Label) $9

*Very Old Barton, Bottled-in-Bond $13 (the 90 proof version is available in Michigan for the same price)

Old Ezra 101 $16

*Ancient Ancient Age 10 y/o (not to be confused with 10 star) $18

Geo. Dickel Old #12 $22

Elijah Craig 12 y/o $22

Old Forester Signature $22

Old Grand Dad 114 proof $23 (Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond is also a great value)

Retailer bottlings of Buffalo Trace and Old Weller Antique are also worth seeking out.

Favorite bourbons $25-$49

*W.L. Weller 12 y/o $25

Evan Williams Single Barrel (I like the 1994, 1997-2000 vintages) $29

Wild Turkey Rare Breed $35

Four Roses Single Barrel $40

Old Rip Van Winkle 107 $40

Retailer bottlings of Elijah Craig 18 y/o and Four Roses Single Barrel, Barrel Strength (OBSK, OBSV, OESO, or OESQ recipes) can be stellar.

Favorite Bourbons $50 and up

Pappy Van Winkle 15 y/o $65

Four Roses Ltd. Ed. Single Barrel $70

Four Roses Ltd Ed. Small Batch $70

Geo. T. Stagg $71

Parker’s Heritage Collection (Wheated or Cognac finish) $80

Favorite ryes

Under $25: *Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond $22

$25-$50: Bulleit Rye $25, Sazerac Rye $28

Over $50: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye $60

Triple Smoke American Malt Whiskey

Maker: Corsair, Bowling Green, Kentucky/Nashville, Tennesee, USA

Style: Smoked American Malt

Age: NAS

Proof: 80 (40% ABV)

Appearance: Copper with slow legs.

Nose: Young, sharp, small barrel, woodsy notes with a little bit of hardwood smoke and sweetness.

On the palate: Medium-bodied and sweet. With a bit of water, the sweet smokey wood flavors come through. A little cassia and nutmeg lurking somewhere in the background too.

Finish: This finish is where the smoking process pays off. The beech and cherry wood smoke give Triple Smoke a sensual, dare I say hedonistic finish. The peat, which only shows up in the finish, provides a pleasant, floral counterpoint to the other woods. The smoke lingers in the mouth for a very long time, taking on some tobacco notes before gently fading.

Parting Words: This is a very well-executed whiskey. The chocolate nougat notes of a typical American Malt are there, but they’re the O-line to the QB/TE/WR combo of the beech, cherry and peat smoke. Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of football recently.

My only disappointment with Triple Smoke is the nose, which has a definite case of Small Barrel Syndrome. It’s sharp and unappealing, but the taste and finish more than make up for it. Triple Smoke is not widely available, so next time you’re in Chicago, Kentucky or Tennesee, pick one up. I thought about trying it in some cocktails but it’s so tasty neat I couldn’t bear to. This is exceptional American malt in every sense of the word. Highly recommended.

B. Nektar Wildflower Mead

Maker: B. Nektar, Ferndale, Michigan, USA

Varietal: Wildflower

ABV: 14%

Appearance: Pale straw, like young chardonnay.

Nose: Honey (duh), pear, wild herbs, sweet hay.

On the palate: Full-bodied, lightly sweet, Riesling-like with a bit of citrus, but still lots of wildflower honey character, especially as the glass warms.

Finish: Lightly bittersweet and clingy. Slowly fades to a pleasant sweetness.

Parting words:  I’ve long been eager to review B. Nektar’s Wildflower mead if for no other reason than to establish a baseline for tasting their other, funkier, offerings, and also becuase the meadery is about 2 1/2 miles from my house. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s more elegant and delicate than Oliver’s Camelot mead, but still delivers plenty of varietal character as I said above. It’s a good deal more expensive than Camelot, but Camelot is probably underpriced and B. Nektar’s wildflower honey is better so it all evens out. This is mead to be savored, not slammed. Recommended.