Head to head: Maraska Šljivovica vs Spirit of Plum.

SL= Maraska Šljivovica, SP= Spirit of Plum20180910_120626.jpg

Makers

SL: Maraska, Zadar, Dalmatia, Croatia.

SP: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay/Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style

SL: Slivovitz (traditional Damson plum brandy)

SP: Damson plum eau de vie “made in the traditional style”

ABV: 40%

Price

SL: $26 Michigan state minimum

SP: $27.50 (website)

Appearance: Clear

Nose

SL: Varnish, plum pits, oak.

SP: Underripe plum, varnished wood.

Palate

SL: Full-bodied and sweet. A little fruit then all burn.

SP: Light-bodied. Fruit then a little burn.

Finish

SL: Mild and sweet.

SP: Fruitier but less sweet. Long.

Parting words: The Maraska distillery is located in Zadar on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. It’s the oldest continually occupied city in Croatia, first mentioned on a Greek instription in 384 BCE, but is likely much older than that. It was refounded as a Roman colony in 48 BCE. I had trouble following the timeline on the Maraska website, but it seems that Maraska was founded in the 18th century by an Italian businessman (it was under Austrian rule at the time). Maraska produces a wide range of liqueurs including its flagship maraschino. Its Slivovitz is widely distributed in the US, or at least is in the US. It is certified Kosher.

Black Star Farms is no stranger to readers of this blog. Their spirits line includes an eau de vie of just about every fruit anybody distills. Their website invokes Slivovitz in the blurb on Spirit of Plum, but its unclear if they use ground up pits in the production of the spirit like slivovitz manufacturers do.

I didn’t do a lot of digging into the world of Slivovitz before I chose Maraska for this exercise. I just found one that was relatively cheap. Maraska is what it is. It doesn’t have much going on except sweetness and burn. What plum character exists is subtle.

Spirit of Plum is elegant and has much more fruit character. It works best as a pleasant, slightly rustic, summertime digestif. Although it’s nearly twice the price per ml, I’d rather have 375 ml of Spirit of Plum than 750 ml of Maraska Šljivovica. Spirit of Plum is recommended. Maraska Šljivovica is not.

 

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Domaine d’Ognoas XO

Maker: Domaine d’Ognoas, Arthez d’Armagnac, Landes, France.

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The Bottle

Grapes: Baco, Ugni Blanc, Folle Branche.

Place of origin: Bas-Armagnac

Age: XO (at least 10 y/o)

Purchased for $60 (Astor Wines)

Appearance: Oxidized blood.

Nose: Alcohol, old oak, raisins, cherry wine.

Palate: Burn, macerated raisins, oak, cherry vanilla ice cream.

Finish: Dates, walnuts, old leather.

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The Domaine in 2014

Parting words: The history of the Ognoas estate dates back to the viscounts of Marsan in the Central (aka High) Middle Ages but the estate as it exists now traces its history to the 18th & 19th century Lormand family. Etienne Lormand, born around 1701 to a bourgeois family in Bayonne, purchased the estate in 1770 and added a neighboring one in 1775. The last of the Lormands, Jacques-Taurin (b. 1762), died without heirs in 1842 and left the estate to the church. Armagnac was first made at the estate by the Lormands.

In 1905 the property (along with many others) was nationalized and it has remained in the hands of the French government since then. The over 1600 acre estate includes hiking trails, vineyards, forests (which supply the wood for the barrels), other agriculture, a fortified 13th century house, an 18th century mill, renovated tenant cottages available for rent, and more.

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The still

The wood-fired continuous still at Ognoas is said by the domaine to be the oldest working still in Gascony. It dates from 1804 with additions and improvements made to it throughout the 19th century.

The d’Ognoas line includes the usual suspects: VS, VSOP, XO, hors d’age, XO premium, and Millésime. Quality XO Armagnac can be hard to find around here, and harder to find at a reasonable price. When Liz had to be in NYC for work a few months ago, I asked her to pick up a bottle of this for me. At $60 (plus NYC taxes) d’Ognoas XO is an excellent value. It’s the sort of thing that’s right up my alley: affordable and easy-drinking but not boring. Domaine d’Orgnoas XO is highly recommended.

Photos: 1- mine. 2 & 3- from Domaine d’Ognoas media library.

Floodwall Apple Brandy

Maker: Copper & Kings, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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Age: 4 y/o

Cooperage: Bourbon & sherry casks

ABV: 50%

Michigan state minimum: $46.75

Appearance: Medium dark copper.

Nose: Alcohol, new leather, white chocolate.

Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Sweet sherry, old oak, toffee.

Finish: Rubber, oak, alcohol

Parting words: Copper & Kings is one of the few microdistillers that is taking brandy seriously. In fact, they do more than take it seriously, it’s the heart of their business. They have six brandies on Michigan shelves, including an unaged apple brandy and the aged Floodwall.

Floodwall has a lot of things going for it. It’s 100 proof, a rarity for brandy (although Laird’s does make a bonded apple brandy), is under $50 (a rarity for aged craft spirits), mixes well and tastes a little like an old Calvados.

That last item is also its greatest weakness, though. My favorite apple brandies are ones that are mature but still retain some apple character to balance out the cask characteristics. Old Calvados is usually all cask and Floodwall is too. In Floodwall’s case, the cause is not age, but heavy handed use of sherry cask. There are some interesting things in the nose and on the front end of the palate but it all quickly turns one dimensional. If you like big sherry finishes, you’ll probably like Floodwall, but I wasn’t very keen on it. Floodwall is not recommended.

Delpech Fougerat VS

Maker: Vinet-Delpech, Brie-sous Archaiac, Jonzac, Charente-Maritime, France.20180129_101844.jpg

Age: At least 2 y/o

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $58

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Grape soda, Sunny D, cola.

Palate: Light-bodied, Golden raisins, black currant jelly, oak.

Finish: Raisin-y with a little burn and chewy oak.

Parting words: There’s not a lot of information on this Cognac online or anywhere else for this matter. Vinet-Delpech is located in Brie-sous Archaic a tiny (<300 people) commune about 17 miles (27 km) south of Cognac. According to their family owns 100 hectares (247 acres) of vineyards in the Petite Champagne and Fins Bois regions of Cognac. They (presumably) produce Cognac from the family vineyards and also seem to do brisk business as a bottler and contract distiller (one wonders if they’re the source of Brenne).

Vinet-Delpech has two lines of Cognac, the Delpech Fougerat line with the standard VS, VSOP and XO expressions and the Vinet-Delpech line with those plus Hors d’âge with the names and faces of the family members that produced the expression on the label. They also produce a non-Cognac brandy called Hector Legrand Extra. As far as I can tell, none of them are widely distributed in the US. Why the Delpech line is available in Michigan is a mystery to me.

Delprect Fougerat VS is a fruity, refreshing, weeknight Cognac at a decent price. If you run across it, I recommend you buy it

Free Run Cellars XO

Maker: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)

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Grape: Vidal Blanc.

Age: 8 y/o

ABV: 50%

Price: I forgot.

Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.

Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.

Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.

Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.

At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.

Christian Drouin head to head: VSOP vs XO

Maker: Christian Drouin, Gonneville-le-Theil, Manche, Normandy, France (Drouin family).20171115_142041.jpg

Place of origin: Pays d’Auge AOC, Calvados, Normandy, France.

Age

VSOP: at least four years old

XO: at least six years old

Price

VSOP: $67(Party source)

XO: $80? (From memory. Not listed on the websites of Binny’s, TPS or anywhere else I looked.)

ABV: 40%

Thanks to Amy & Pete for picking the XO up for me!

Appearance

VSOP: Bright orange.

XO: A little darker, burnt orange.

Nose

VSOP: Cut apple, alcohol, leather.

XO: Oak, sweet apple cider.

Palate

VSOP: Full-bodied. Caramel apple (no nuts)

XO: Full-bodied. White chocolate-covered apple.

Finish

VSOP: Fruity and chewy. Pinch of celery leaf.

XO: Bitter oak, a little caramel.

Parting words: Christian Drouin (not to be confused with Joseph Drouhin, the Burgundian négociant) has not been in business very long for the producer of a spirit that’s been around for five hundred years or more. It was founded in 1960 when Rouen industrialist Christian Drouin (the elder) purchased a farm in Gonneville, Manche, near Cherbourg. Since then, the brand has expanded rapidly and is one of the most widely distributed lines of Calvados in the world. It is currently run by Christian Drouin the younger with the elder’s grandchildren also working at the family business. Drouin currently produces (in ascending order of age) an unaged apple/pear eau de vie (Blanche de Normandie), Sélection (reviewed back in April), Réserve, VSOP, XO, Hors d’Age, 25 y/o, and a range of vintage Calvados.

I purchased the VSOP in Indianapolis and when FotBs Pete and Amy stopped off at The Party Source last spring, I asked them to pick up a bottle of the Réserve. The Réserve was not in stock but the XO was, so they picked that one up instead. I was surprised but not disappointed.

Both of these brandies are delicious. If I had to pick one over the other, I would pick the VSOP. It retains more apple aroma and flavor than the XO does and makes a refreshing, but still somplex summertime sip. The XO does retain some spple character but it takes a back seat to the rich, dessert flavors that come with age and use of different types of cooperage, a point of emphasis for Drouin. It is said that as Calvados ages it slowly loses its apple character and moves closer the flavor of aged grape brandies like Cognac. The XO seems to exemplify that phenomenon.

Christian Drouin VSOP and XO are both recommended.

 

Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans

Maker: Domaine d’Espérance, Mauvezin-d’Armagnac, Landes, France.20171019_164323.jpg

Grape: Baco Blanc

Region: Bas-Armagnac

Age: 5 y/o

ABV: 40.2%

Michigan state minimum: $62

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Alcohol, raisin bread, toasted French oak.

Palate: Sugared raisins, alcohol, vanilla, clove, oak.

Finish: Rubbery, with more dried fruit and alcohol.

Parting words: Why am I reviewing a French brandy? First, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I like, man. Secondly, and more importantly, I review foreign brandies so that I can better know what I’m talking about when I review Michigan and other US brandies. The focus of this blog is now and always will be local (or at least North American) wine and spirits but I can’t place them in their proper context without understanding them globally.

Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans is, I think, the second least expensive Armagnac available in the state of Michigan. It’s definately the cheapest Espérance expression available with the XO at $86 and the 1998 vintage at $123. It’s brash and lacks complexity compared to older Armagnacs, but is still an enjoyable after dinner or afternoon sip, especially as the weather turns cold. The only thing unpleasant is the rubber in the finish, but it isn’t too obnoxious. Having cut my proverbial teeth on bourbon, I had a hard time bringing myself to mix a spirit that costs $62 but it does mix well, though I would stick to quality, classic cocktails. Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans is recommended.

 

 

Uncle John’s Fruit House Apple Brandy

Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery, St. John’s, Michigan, USA20170627_154846

Distiller: Red Cedar, East Lansing, Michigan, USA (From Uncle John’s own cider)

Age: NAS (2-6 y/o)

ABV: 45%

Price: Don’t remember/375 ml. Only available at the winery. Complimentary bottle.

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Apple cider, cola, caramel, leather.

Palate: Sweet and medium bodied. Salted caramel, candy apple, alcohol.

Finish: Lavender, raisins, toasted oak. Long.

Mixed: I tried this brandy in two cocktails, both of which put the brandy front and center. The first was the classic Jack Rose (with lime juice and grenadine). It was good. The second was the Marconi Wireless (basically an apple brandy Manhattan). It was just OK. The pungent sweet vermouth I used overwhelmed the brandy.

Parting words: From my “A Visit to Uncle John’s“: “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 [its] product has been aged in Michigan oak.”

Uncle John’s Apple Brandy was fine mixed, but it’s really a back porch neat sipping brandy. I don’t remember the price but I don’t remember it being unreasonable for a half sized bottle. It’s made in very limited quantities (currently sold out) so get some if you’re ever in the Lansing area. Uncle John’s Apple Brandy is recommended.

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.