Ask SKU Anything

SKU of SKU’s Recent Eats recently had a fun post in which he answered any questions from any readers of his who wanted to ask. I thought this might be a fun thing to do for my blog too. On the other hand, I have fewer readers than he does, and when I’ve tried things like that in the past the response has been almost nonexistent. So to avoid embarrassment, I’m going to answer the questions that SKU’s readers asked him.

As I was writing this, I learned that SKU is unfortunately ending his long running blog, so I figured what better way to pay tribute to him than to rip him off? After all, I’ve been doing that for a very long time.

So without further ado,

Years ago, you wrote an article for one of the whiskey magazines titled “Craft Whiskey Sucks.” Now, many years later, would you write the same thing? Do you still think it mostly sucks? 

I didn’t write that article, SKU did, but I will answer the question. Yes, they still suck, almost all of them. The best ones have reached the level of “not bad” but they’re still almost entirely awful, overpriced garbage. Ones that have reached “not bad” include Union Horse Reunion Rye, most of Journeyman’s output, Grand Traverse Distillery’s bourbon and ryes and a handful of others whose names escape me right now.

Sku – at what point does a whisky that you own become too expensive that you don’t open the bottle? For instance, I have a 2012 FR Small Batch that I’m told now sells for over $700 – that seems a ludicrous amount to spend on a bottle, and I wouldn’t spend that amount on it and I’m happy I got it at retail back then. But now I find that decision to open is harder and harder, and I might not ever.

I understand the desire to cash out while one can, but the only whiskey I own that comes close to that is Four Roses 2009 Mariage (what I still think is the best bourbon ever made), but I will eventually open and drink it. It might be twenty or thirty years from now, but I am drinking it.

Do Armagnac houses/domaines have recognizable profiles? For example are there specific differences in notes between Chateau de Gaube and Domaine de Busquet that you could expect to find despite the vintage?

Sure, why not.

How many spirits bottles do you tend to have in your personal collection at any given time (more or less)? of that group, what percentage consists of whiskey v. brandy v. other spirits at this point? do you have any favorite spirits categories other than whiskey or brandy (e.g. mezcal or Jamaican rum)?

-JCR 

I don’t know. I’m guessing between 50-100. That’s a big range, I know. The total number is smaller than most people I know who have been in the hobby for as long as I have. I’m not really a hoarder when it comes to spirits. I like to always have certain things on hand and I like variety, but I’m not the guy buying a case of every BTAC every year for fifteen years or whatever.

I like every spirit, pretty much. Most (by a long shot) of my collection is bourbon but I have a growing stash of brandy and always make sure I have multiple bottles of rye, Canadian whisky, Tequila/Mezcal, rum, and Single Malt on hand.

  1. in your opinion are micro-distillers pricing their bourbons too high?
  2. is the bourbon renaissance a bubble? 2a. if it is a bubble how bad will the pop be
  3. are “tech” whiskies like cleveland viable? that is, in the long run, can a “whisky” that’s aged for an hour really compete on price/quality with a bourbon that’s aged for 10 years? in fact, i have seen cleveland priced higher than eagle rare and laughed all the way home.
    regards,
    -dan

1. Yes. 2. No, but there is a bubble on the high end being driven by the secondary market. 2a. I could see a 20-50% drop in price for top shelf tater bait. 3. No. No, that will never happen. If the bubble bursts these operations will be among the first to go under. They’re all examples of the idiocy of the cult of #innovation in late capitalism. “Tastes like shit” becomes “Disruption!” Need to make a better whiskey? No, we just need to “educate” consumers that they should believe our marketing and not their own lying tastebuds. The angels don’t like being cheated.

Simple: 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?

WTF

How does it feel to be the dean of American whiskey bloggers? How much longer do you think you’ll keep going? Do you think blogging about whiskey is still relevant?

I’m not going to lie, it feels really good. I’ll keep posting until they pull the laptop out of my cold dead hands. Whiskey Blogging is only relevant when Dave Driscoll does it.

  1. What is the next big thing in spirits and why is it Armagnac?
  2. Do you believe that dusty bourbon/rye has a familiar profile that you don’t find in today’s products, i.e. “dusty notes”? If so, do you believe that’s due to bottle conditioning or some other factor(s)?
  3. Given the current boom and scarcity of anything allocated or limited edition, are there bottles you regret passing on years ago that you wish you would have bought more of? -signde 

1. Rum is the next big thing in spirits and it always will be. Rum’s problem is also part of what makes it interesting. It isn’t a distinctive product of any one country. Despite what our libertarian friends often say (assuming libertarians have friends for the moment), good state regulation can be beneficial to a spirit. It ensures consistent quality and structures an industry in such a way that makes it easy for enthusiasts to explore and understand. The French wine and brandy regulations are good examples of this as are bourbon and Scotch regulations in the US and UK respectively. No regulatory regime is perfect, but those are mostly good. Example of bad or mediocre regulation are Canadian Whisky, which is governed by a patchwork of regulations on the provincial and national levels and American wine, which has at once too many and not enough appellations, among other problems. Ironically the Canadian VQA system is better than the American system for wine and much better than the Canadian system for whisky!

Rum’s diversity makes it hard to explore. The rewards are great for those with the patience to do so, but it requires time and focus that few people have. There are dozens of countries regulating the manufacture of Rum. Some are good and some are bad, but they’re all different. There’s little consistency from country to country or label to label, even with things as seemingly straightforward as age statements. It’s hard for a newbie to know what she or he is getting when grabbing an unfamiliar brand from the shelf.

Can this be overcome? Maybe. One way to address these problems would be for all the rum producing countries (or at least the big ones) to come together with reps from the countries that are big markets for rum (US, EU, etc) in some kind of rum summit and come to an agreement on consistent labeling and marketing of rum worldwide. In the meantime, writers like Fred Minnick and Josh Miller are doing a great job of educating consumers to help us get over the many obstacles to rum connoisseurship. So will rum ever arrive? I don’t know but I hope so!

I think brandy might be the next thing after rum or at least concurrent with it. Cognac is already ubiquitous and well positioned for a boom as are lower shelf American brandies like Christian Brothers or E & J. Where the biggest expansion may come is in Armagnac and craft American brandy. Too many craft distillers in the US are trying to ride the bourbon and rye wave right now just to stay afloat instead of looking to the future. Brandy is going to be a part of that future. Instead of seeing a crowded market and saying “me too!” distillers in places like Michigan, New York and Southern Ontario should be seizing the opportunities presented by the abundance of fruit in their areas and distilling brandy now so that when the brandy wave hits they will be ready with aged product. As it is, producers in Indiana and Kentucky are getting the better of the Northern fruit belt distillers, often with northern fruit! Brandy should be a part of the distilling identity of Northeastern North America.

Now what was I saying?

2. I do believe that bottle conditioning is a part of it, but never forget that most of these “dusties” were glut era whiskey that was much older than what the label said and older than what is being bottled today.

3. I once had the opportunity to buy half a case of Russell’s Reserve 101 for $35 a bottle. It seemed expensive to me at the time, so I just got two bottles. That was a mistake. I also feel like I had opportunities to stock up on Weller 12 and Pappy 15 that I should have taken but didn’t because, hey that’s really expensive and there’s always next year!

Why “Sku”?

SKU likes to pretend that his initials are S-K-U but he was actually nicknamed SKU after something that happened that happened when he was a toddler. His parents were shopping at a Target store when he wandered off and they couldn’t find him. They searched the store until they heard a squeaky voiced teen stocktaker shout out, “What’s the SKU for THIS?!” They ran over to the aisle, and there was baby SKU sitting on a shelf. Everyone laughed and laughed.

We often talk about the downsides of the bourbon boom? From your perspective, what are some of the positive aspects?

The positive aspecst are more knowledgeable consumers, Four Roses available stateside (I’ve been in it long enough to remember when it wasn’t!), more single barrel selections, more barrel proof iterations, less gas money spent traveling to Kentucky to buy my favorite bottles because Michigan carries almost everything I want, improvements and expansions at the Kentucky distilleries, the possibility of new, good medium sized distilleries coming online, Stitzel-Weller reopening to visitors, the restoration of the Old Taylor Castle, the list goes on. As annoying as things like dropped age statements and the secondary market are, this is a pretty good time to be a bourbon drinker, on the whole.

Does MAO still make you swoon? -Jealous in Jersey

More of a Trotsky guy myself.

 

SKU’s Recent Eats was one of the first independent bourbon blogs by an enthusiast who wasn’t also a whiskey writer or some guy pretending to be a journalist (we all know who I’m talking about). He’s always been a pretty laid back, honest and forthright guy whose work was a big inspiration to me. Cheers Steve!

Free Run Cellars Grappa

Maker: Round Barn, Baroda, Michigan, USA20170504_170405

Grapes: Gewürztraminer, Muscat.

Style: Pomace brandy.

ABV: 40%

Note: I received a 25% media discount on purchases and a free lunch when I purchased this brandy.

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Alcohol, lavender, antique rose, boxwood, woodruff, mango, pink peppercorns.

Palate: Sweet. Candied orange peel, alcohol.

Finish: Pungent and perfumed. Clears out sinuses and lingers.

Parting words: Free Run is a line of estate spirits and wines from Round Barn in southwestern Michigan. My wife and I (and our baby!) visited there last summer. An account of that, with details on Free Run is here. I reviewed Black Star Farms’ white grappa in 2013 and I loved it. This one is more rose pedals and musk than BSF’s fruity grappa. Some fruit, other than the faint mango note, would have been welcome for balance but this is good all the same. I forgot to write the price down but Free Run brandies are produced in limited runs and are priced accordingly (for a 375 ml bottle). Free Run Cellars Grappa Pomace Brandy is recommended.

Christian Drouin Sélection

Maker: Coeur de Lion distillery, Coudray-Rabut, Lisieux, Calvados, France.20170320_113028.jpg

Age: Under three years.

ABV: 40%

Price: $40 (Binny’s)

Note: Single distilled. Made from a combination of apples and pears.

Appearance: Shining copper with thick legs.

Nose: Celery leaves, dry cider, cut pear, toasted oak.

Palate: Medium sweet. Maple sugar, partially fermented apple cider.

Finish: Herbal and slightly oaky.

Mixed: Performed well in cocktails with lemon like the Deauville cocktail (brandy, apple brandy, triple sec, lemon juice) named for the seaside resort town down the road from Coudray-Rabut. It did poorly in cocktails containing Vermouth, clashing with the other ingredients.

Parting words: Like most distillers in Calvados, Christian Drouin’s Coeur de Lion distillery makes a range of apple brandies as well as producing cider and perry (poire). The Drouin brandy range includes (in ascending order of age) an unaged apple/pear eau de vie (Blanche de Normandie), Sélection, Réserve, VSOP, XO, Hors d’Age, 25 y/o, and a range of vintage Calvados (dates from 1939 to 1983 are listed on the outdated website).

The Sélection is fine for what it is, a bottom end casual drinking or mixing Calvados. I didn’t know it was made with pears in the mix along with apples. The source material represents itself well, as it should in a young whiskey or brandy. $40 is more than I would pay for a bourbon of this quality but given the inflation of non Cognac French brandy prices, that’s probably fair. I tasted from a 375 ml bottle. If you’re on the fence on this, that might be a good way to dip your toe in the proverbial water. Christian Drouin Sélection is recommended.

 

Larressingle VSOP

Maker: Larressingle, Condom, Gers, Occitanie (formerly Midi-Pyrénées), France.20161220_084818.jpg

Region: Armagnac (blend of Bas-Armagnac and Ténarèze).

Grapes: Ugli Blanc, Folle Branche (according to the internet).

Vintage: NV

Age grade: VSOP (at least 3 y/o, though the importer says this is 8 y/o).

Note: 20% of the blend was double distilled, as opposed to the customary single distillation.

ABV: 40%

Price: $50 (Party Source)

Appearance: Light caramel.

Nose: Apple juice, passito wine, stollen, old oak.

Palate: Light bodied and light in flavor. Caramel, prune juice, vanilla.

Finish: Alcohol, raisins, a little oak.

Parting words: My bottle of Larressingle VSOP is something of a mystery. I know I bought it locally but it is not on the state list and I can’t find any of sign it ever being on the list. I won’t say where I got it (snitches get stitches) but however it got here, I’m glad I was able to pick up a bottle.

Armagnac fans are fond of saying how much more flavorful and affordable Armagnac is vs. Cognac. I’m not sure where that is the case, but it isn’t here. Larressingle VSOP is affordable for an Armagnac, but it’s not very flavorful at all. The last brandy I reviewed, D’usse VSOP Cognac, was about the same price but with twice the flavor.

Despite the watery taste, Larressingle VSOP mixes pretty well. I tried it in an Old Fashioned, a Japanese Cocktail, a Continental Sour (sour plus red wine) and the quintessential Armagnac drink, the d’Artagnan (Arm + orange liqueur, oj, sugar and dry sparkling wine), named for the literary Gascon swashbuckler.

If you can find Larressingle VSOP for around $40, I recommend buying it. Otherwise, it is only mildly recommended for mixing or as an option for those just dipping their toe into the Armagnac pool.

 

Cognac D’Usse VSOP

Maker: Chateau de Cognac, Cognac, Charente, France. (Bacardi)20160929_162624.jpg

Region: Blend.

Age category: VSOP (at least 4 y/o).

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $51

Appearance: Brownish copper with long, elegant legs.

Nose: Alcohol, felt, old oak, prune juice.

Palate: Full bodied. Juicy and a little chewy with a bold burn throughout.

Finish: Raisins, oak, heat. Long.

Parting words: Cognac d’Ussé is best known for being developed (endorsed?) by Jay-Z. Don’t confuse it with other celebrity spirits like Conjure Cognac or Ciroc vodka. Those are garbage, this is not. D’Usse is a product of Chateau de Cognac, appropriately located   in a castle in central Cognac. Baron Otard is Chateau de Cognac’s primary product line with all the usual suspects. Unlike those, D’Usse (this and the $200+ XO) is made by blending brandies from all over CdC’s estates. It was intended to rope in a young, hip audience. How young and/or hip I am is up for debate, but I have been roped in.

There are no flavors or aromas here that are too far outside the norm for Cognacs, but they’re all amped up while remaining balanced. As a newcomer to good Cognac, I really enjoyed it. The price is in the same ballpark as other VSOPs from Cognac houses of comparable size. Not that it matters but the bottle is really cool looking too. D’Usse VSOP 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

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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-

wp-1470343803649.jpg
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.

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.

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.

Laird’s Rare Apple Brandy

Maker: Laird’s, Scobeyville, New Jersey, USA2016-02-11-16.53.20.jpg.jpeg

Style: Straight apple brandy

Age: 12 y/o

ABV: 44%

Other information: Batch 17, bottled March, 2013

Price: $70 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Dark copper with thin, even legs.

Nose: Mild. Alcohol, applesauce, cardamom, sweet cinnamon, leather

Palate: Medium bodied. Medium dry. Heavily spiced apple pie, dry cider.

Finish: Baked apple, brown sugar, ginger, oak, fades with a little burn carrying through.

Parting words: Founded in 1780 by a Scottish immigrant, Laird’s is one of the US’s oldest commercial distillers, if not the oldest. They are the big dogs of American apple brandy, producing 90% of it, according to their website. Their bottled-in-bond apple brandy was a favorite of mine for a long time. I’ve been actively hoarding it since it was changed to a 3 y/o.

Laird’s Rare is probably the oldest American apple brandy available. If there’s one older, I haven’t had it. It’s good, but the age seems to have stripped it of most of its apple character. Oak is there, but just in the background. I wanted to love this grand old brandy, but it’s too mild on the palate and lacks the complexity of 8-10 y/o apple brandies I’ve had. At $70, I need more. Laird’s Rare Old Apple Brandy is mildly recommended.

Camus VS Elegance

Maker: Camus, Cognac, Charente, France2016-01-06-14.57.54.jpg.jpeg

Age category: VS (at least 2 y/o)

ABV: 40%

Price: $26 (The Party Source)

Appearance: Bright copper with thick, slow moving legs

Nose: Raisins, old oak, fig, alcohol.

Palate: Soft and mild. Oatmeal raisin cookies.

Finish: Dried fig, dates, alcohol, vanilla.

Parting words: The Camus Cognac house dates back to 1863. Unlike its much bigger competitors it is family and French owned, and always has been. The current president is Cyril Camus (b. 1971), a descendent of founder Jean-Baptiste Camus (b. 1835). They also share similar facial hair. Cyril created the Elegance line of entry level, age category cognacs, and the Borderies XO, made with grapes from the family vineyards in the Borderies sub-region of Cognac. He also began a line of cognacs made entirely with grapes from Île de Ré, a small island (33 square miles or so) off the coast of western France. Frankly, Camus produces a bewildering number of products for such a small company.

The Elegance line, as mentioned above, seems to be intended as an entry level product line. It also includes Elegance VSOP, XO and Extra (in ascending order of age). The VS is the least expensive but the VSOP is affordable as well. Unfortunately, the state of Michigan does not carry the VS, but the VSOP retails for $39, which is not bad in the grand scheme of things. Michigan also carries Elegance XO ($157), Borderies XO ($177), Extra Elegance ($500) and Cuvee 5.150 ($14,000).

I expected this brandy to be mixing quality at best. I was pleasantly shocked. The fruity quality of the distillate clearly takes the lead here, but it’s very good on its own and is balanced with enough cask character to keep it from tasting like an unaged eau de vie. I tasted from a 50 ml bottle so I didn’t quite have enough to try it mixed, but I can see the assertive fruit getting in the way of some mixers. Or maybe it wouldn’t. What I can say with certainty is that Camus Elegance VS is very good. Recommended.