Thistle Finch Small Batch, Batch 09

Maker: Thistle Finch, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Style: Wheated (!) Straight Rye Whiskey

Age: 2 y/o

Bottle date: November 13, 2019.

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Purchased for $47 (PLCB Monroeville-Northern Pike)

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Sawdust, cut grass.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Allspice, hay.

Finish: Grass, dark chocolate, burn.

Parting words: I knew nothing about Thistle Finch before I saw this bottle on the shelf at the PLCB store I stopped at while coming home from a family vacation in Somerset Pennsylvania last summer. I’ve heard Pennsylvanians complain about the PLCB stores for years but I had never experienced one until then. Folks, it’s all true. They’re terrible. I went to that store to pick up some Dad’s Hat Rye and I had a list of Pennsylvanian wines I wanted to look for. They had none of those wines, and I was only able to find Dad’s Hat after wandering around the store for twenty minutes. It was in a special “made in Pennsylvania” section next to Pumpkin vodka, and several bottles of sickly sweet plonk. Bad selection, bad prices, poorly organized, it was awful. Like a LCBO store but much worse.

I picked up this bottle of Thistle Finch Rye from the bourbon section where it was lurking for some reason. I mostly picked it up because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find Dad’s Hat, but since they didn’t have any of the wine I was looking for I went ahead and bought Thistle Finch too. I’m glad I did. It has a lot of typical young rye flavors but has a roundedness that was nice, maybe due to the wheat in the recipe, highly unusual for American ryes.

It’s ok neat, but it really shines in cocktails, where it works well in drinks that might usually call for higher proof rye, on account of its aromatic nature. It did very well in a Manhattan, with ginger ale and orange bitters, and in a couple of cocktails I have named the Sterling Hayden (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz Aquavit), and a Skink (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz green Chartreuse). Both of the latter play up the rye’s herbaceousness.

I know next to nothing about the Thistle Finch folks, but this is a solid rye, that should only be getting better in later batches, if they let some rest, like they say they will. The distillery is located next to a brewery in an old tobacco warehouse in Lancaster. It’s one of these bar/distillery operations, and a pretty successful one by all appearances.

$47 isn’t cheap, but think of it as an investment in the future. Thistle Finch Small Batch Straight Rye Whiskey is recommended.

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 1

Back on March 30 of this year, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council produced its annual small fruit and hops inventory. What we’re going to focus on, unsurprisingly, will be the section of the report dealing with grapes. If you want to look it over yourself, you can find it by clicking the links above.

What I want to do is crunch some of these already crunched numbers and see what they can tell us about the state of grape-growing and wine production in Michigan in 2020. The authors of the report have very helpfully included historical data going back to 2011 for most of the tables, so readers can get a picture of the medium term trends as well. Now, my brain and numbers don’t always mix well, so I ask forgiveness in advance for any and all screw-ups in this post.

Politically and culturally, Michigan is a part of the upper Midwest, but agriculturally, it’s the westernmost third of the Great Lakes Fruit Belt that stretches from upstate New York, through Southern Ontario to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes, and the many other smaller lakes between them, have a moderating effect on the climate of the area, cooling the air in the summers and warming it in the winter. Michigan is among the leading producers of sugar beets, potatoes (for chips), asparagus, blueberries, cherries, apples and grapes in the US. It also does pretty well with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, raspberries, and blackberries.

The grape industry has been big in Michigan for a long time, but for most of its history, most of the vineyard space in the state has been dedicated to table and juice grapes. That has been changing, however. As the report shows, in 2011, 60% of the vineyard acreage of the state was growing Concord, with 23.4% growing other native varieties used for juice and table grapes like Catawba, Delaware, Fredonia, Niagara, and Norton. That’s a total of 83.4%, with 12.1% being used for vinifera, and 4.5% used for hybrids wine grapes. In 2020, Natives were down to 69.1% (Concord down to 50%), with vinifera at 21.3% and hybrids more than doubling to 9.6%. When we look at the raw acreage numbers we can see that the growth wasn’t only from new acres of vinifera and hybrid vineyards being planted, but fewer acres of the native juice and tables grapes being grown. In fact there were over 4,000 fewer acres of grapes being grown from 2011 to 2020. Very little of this can be attributed to the 2014/2015 polar vortex, since most of the losses occurred between 2016 and 2020.

There was talk a few years ago about Michigan possibly running out of vineyard space due to the rapid growth of demand for Michigan wine and the growth in the number of wineries. Now, not every site suitable for Concord will be suitable for wine grapes, but the overall decline in acreage dedicated to grapes along with the growth in the number of acres dedicated to wine grapes makes me think that we won’t be running out of vineyard space any time soon.

One particularly interesting aspect of the report is the section that has to do with the size of Michigan grape farms. They are broken up into four categories. 1-9 acre farms (I’ll be calling these small farms), 10-29 acre farms (medium), 30-99 acres (large), and 100 or more acres (very large). It’s hard to know what to make of the data, but between 2011 and 2020, the number of small farms went from 215 to 233, a moderate increase. The medium sized farms declined rather sharply during that period, going from 132 to only 73. The large farms stayed the same, more or less, going from 75 in 2011, to 70 in 2014, to 74 in 2020. So maybe over time more people have started new small farms while consolidation took place in the other categories. The same thing seems to have happened on a smaller scale to the farms dedicated to wine grape production, as seen in the table following that one.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the even jucier (no pun intended) parts of the report: The regional and varietal stats, and then I’ll have a few parting words. Stay tuned!

Fontan XO

Maker: Vignobles Fontan, Noulens, Gers, Gascony, France.

I had a better picture at one time, I promise.

Region: Bas Armagnac

Grape: Ugni Blanc (100%)

Age category: XO (6-10 y/o). Website lists age as 10 y/o.

ABV: 42%

Purchased for $43 at The Party Source

Appearance: Dark caramel.

Nose: Leather, anise, lavender, old oak, velvet, violets.

Palate: Full-bodied. Grape hard candy, leather, clove, burn.

Finish: Horehound, anise, eucalyptus, alcohol.

Parting words: I’m still very much a French brandy newbie, but I really enjoyed this Armagnac. It’s pretty complex with some very nice spice balanced with the perfect amount of oak and sweetness. Maybe a little too perfect. It seems too dark to be natural, even if it is an XO. If caramel was added, then I suspect sugar and other additives were used as well. In the end, though, this isn’t very expensive for an XO Armagnac and it tastes good. Although I prefer additive-free spirits, that’s what really matters. Fontan XO is recommended.

Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA with possible help from Brown-Forman distillery in Shively. (Brown-Forman)

Style: Kentucky straight wheat whiskey

Label: Batch 2

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $39

Appearance: Medium Copper.

Nose: Biscuits with cherry jam.

Palate: Medium bodied. Cherry wine, a little oak, then burn.

Finish: Drying with a little fruit, but mostly oak and alcohol.

Parting words: Since I reviewed Bernheim Wheat Whiskey back in 2012, wheat has become much more common than it was. It’s a staple of many micro-distillers and Heaven Hill even added an age statement to theirs! This Woodford edition is relatively new, a part of their series of non-bourbon line extensions, also including a rye and malt whiskey.

I was expecting a simple whiskey, like Bernheim, when I bought this bottle, but it’s actually pretty complex. Not Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch complex, but on par with bourbons in its price range. The cherry notes are really nice and make for a wonderful sipping experience. I’ve never been too hot on Woodford as a whole, but I could see myself making this one a regular in my cabinet. Woordford Reserve Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is recommended.