Bilberry Black Hearts

Maker: Journeyman, Three Oaks, Michigan, USA20170613_212324

Style: Dry gin made with bilberries (a European cousin to blueberries).

ABV: 45%

Michigan State Minimum: $35

Notes: MOSA certified organic. Made via maceration.

Appearance: Crystal clear.

Nose: Alcohol, juniper, vanilla bean, cocoa bean hulls, candied orange, fresh blueberries.

Palate: Sweet, full bodied, fruity.

Finish: Plum, orange hard candy, cherry juice.

Mixed: Fine with tonic and in a Tom Collins. Fruitiness took some getting used to but once I did I liked it. In snootier cocktails like martinis, perfect martinis, negronis and Princetons it did well and never got lost thanks to the titular bilberries.

Parting words: I went through a period of time when I had given up on “craft” gins because they all tasted the same. I’m glad I am over that, because this is a uniquely tasty gin. The reason is the bilberries, scientific name Vaccinium myrtillus (high bush blueberries are Vaccinium corymbosum). The taste is very similar to blueberries but maybe with a little cherry thrown in. Their influence makes this gin worth the relatively steep $35 price tag. Journeyman is doing some stuff. Bilberry Black Hearts is recommended.

 

Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin

Maker: Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, West Virginia, USA20170301_170705.jpg

Style: Barrel aged (3 months in ex-Old Scout bourbon barrels) dry gin.

Batch 4, bottled 12/13/2012

ABV: 49.5%

Price: $41 (The Party Source, Newport, Kentucky)

Appearance: Very pale gold, like a young white wine.

Nose: Juniper, cedar, bitter lemon, sweet cinnamon, wet earth.

Palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Candy orange slices, five spice powder, mace.

Finish: Sweet and citrusy.

Mixed: Did well in literally everything I put it into. Great in the cocktails in which barrel aged gin usually excels like perfect martinis, negronis and Princetons. Surprisingly, it’s every bit as good with tonic, juice and in a dry martini. Did very well in a McClary Bros. Ginger & Lemon shrub.

Parting words: Smooth Ambler is best known for their wonderful and popular Old Scout line of MGP-sourced bourbon and rye. They’re not just independent bottlers, though. They also distill spirits themselves. One of those spirits is their well-made Greenbriar Gin. It’s a juniper-heavy, but still full bodied gin good for just about anything. Unlike many gin producers, they use a mixed grain recipe that is similar but not identical to the mashbill used for their Yearling wheated bourbon. That gives it complexity and heft that many craft gins lack.

That heft serves it well when they put it into barrels. The result is a gin with the bitterness and spice one expects from a barrel aged, but with an added edge that allows it to work just as well with tonic and dry vermouth as it does with sweet vermouth and amaro. This is a one-stop gin. No need to keep a bottle of Seagram’s in the fridge  for G & T’s when you have this gin on your bar. That versatility goes a long way towards making it worth a purchase even at $41. It’s like that friend you have who is just as much fun to be around at a rock concert as she is at a house party or an art museum. Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin can go anywhere with flavor. Highly recommended.

 

Sipsmith London Dry Gin

Maker: Sipsmith, Hounslow (Chiswick), Greater London, England, UK. (Beam Suntory)20161220_085558.jpg

ABV: 41.6%

Michigan state minimum: $40

Appearance: Crystal clear.

Nose: Juniper, lime peel, navel orange, alcohol, horehound.

Palate: Full bodied, Orange peel, alcohol, juniper.

Finish: Licorice, alcohol, pepper jam.

Mixed: Out of balance in dry martinis and with tonic. Better with juice and in richer cocktails like Negronis or Princetons.

Parting words: Sipsmith is one of the few micro-distillers that has chosen to focus on gin specifically. Many make it (and make it well) but others are focused on whiskey and see gin and vodka as a way to bring in cash while their whiskey ages. I applaud how gin-focused Sipsmith is and how seriously they seem to take their craft. That care and focus has paid off in a big way for Sipsmith’s founder when they sold out to Beam Suntory for an undisclosed sum earlier this month (December 2016).

All that said, this gin is so unbalanced that I can’t recommend it. I enjoy dry, spicy gins, but Sipsmith London dry takes it too far. It’s all sharp juniper and citrus peel balanced with nothing but alcohol. It’s like a soprano singing a capella at the top of her range for ninety minutes. High notes are good, but absent a chorus with beefy altos and basses, they become noise.

At $40, this gin is on the top shelf, even for micros. That makes its lack of balance even less tolerable. There are dozens of other “craft” gins that manage to be dry without turning into the Mojave desert. Sipsmith London Dry Gin is not recommended.

Gin Head to Head: Kentucky Wild vs 269

KW= Kentucky Wildwp-1473976333900.jpg

269= 269

Makers

KW: New Riff, Newport, Kentucky, USA (The Party Source)

269: Round Barn, Baroda, Michigan, USA

Style

KW: Dry gin from rye spirit.

269: Dry gin from grape spirit.

ABV

KW: 47%

269: 40%

Price

KW: $16/375 ml ($30/750 ml)

269: $20/375 ml

Appearance: Clear (both).

Nose

KW: Varnish, roasted grain, then burn.

269: Plum eau de vie, varnish, alcohol.

Palate

KW: Identical to the nose.

269: Fruity gum, light burn, orange peel.

Finish

KW: Nail polish fumes, then burn.

269: Orange soda, then fades quickly.

Mixed

KW: Pretty good in all applications I tried: with tonic, dry Martini, Negroni, Princeton.

269: Pretty bad in all applications I tried except for the Negroni and Princeton in which it virtually disappeared. Fruity aroma clashed with the bitterness of the tonic and dry vermouth.

Parting words: New Riff is the distillery founded by The Party Source wine, beer, spirits, part supplies, etc superstore in the Cincinnati area. The distillery is a modern building located adjacent to the  TPS parking lot. They make Kentucky Wild, a barrel aged version of it, a rye and a bourbon, as well as bottling an MGPI sourced bourbon called OKI (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana).

I wrote about Round Barn’s distilling program here. 269 uses the same base as their successful DiVine grape vodka. This gin tasted fine at the distillery, but when I had the chance to spend more time with it at home, I liked it less and less. It is little more than a lightly infused version of their vodka. The distillate is firmly in the drivers seat with the only other passenger being an orange peel.

I didn’t care much for either of these, frankly. KW was virtually undrinkable neat but was adequate in cocktails. 269 was better neat, but was a cocktail killer at a wimpy proof and high price. Kentucky Wild is mildly recommended for cocktails and 269 is not recommended for anything.

 

 

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

wp-1470317645093.jpg
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.

wp-1470882804092.jpg
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

wp-1470317794305.jpg
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.

Railroad Gin

Maker: Detroit City Distillery, Detroit, Michigan, USAwp-1466106559159.jpg

Style: London Dry

ABV: 44%

Michigan State Minimum: $35

Appearance: Crystal clear.

Nose: Juniper, iris root, citrus peel.

Palate: Full bodied. Alcohol and sweetness. Nothing else.

Finish: Juniper, orange, burn.

Mixed: Did fine in everything.

Parting words: There are two distilleries in the City of Detroit: Two James and Detroit City. The best way to describe the differences between the two (other than having different names, ownership and locations) is that Two James is a distillery with a bar and Detroit City is a bar with a distillery. The bar seems to be the driving force for DCD. All their spirits are meant to be mixed and are at their best when consumed that way. It’s a fun concept for a bar, but there’s little going on there to excite spirits enthusiasts.

There’s little going on in this gin to excite me either. There’s nothing wrong with it. It bears a resemblance to Beefeater and other big brand gins and performs as well as they do in cocktails. The problem is that this costs $35 and Beefeater costs $19. At $35 Railroad Gin is up against products like St. George’s gins or Hendrick’s. It can’t compete with either of those, even after adding a few extra bucks for the pleasure of supporting a local business. It’s not bad enough to slap with a “not recommended” so Railroad Gin is only mildly recommended.

Liberator Barrel Rested Old Tom Gin

Maker: Valentine, Ferndale, Michigan, USA2016-03-10-16.36.44.jpg.jpeg

Batch 2

ABV: 45.2%

Michigan State Minimum: $49

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Lime zest, orange peel, juniper, earthy red wine.

Palate: Full bodied and semi-dry. Hot. Like eating lemonheads under a pine tree.

Finish: Raw ginger, fresh cut pine.

Mixed: Surprisingly good in Tom Collins and with tonic. Adds a pleasant gingery bite. Does as well as expected in a Negroni, Princeton, Aviation, Bronx and a perfect martini. Much better than expected in a dry martini. This gin was great every way I tried mixing it.

Parting words: I’ve had this gin in my liquor cabinet for quite some time now. I didn’t drink it much because I view barrel rested gins as good for Negronis, perfect martinis and not much else. I was wrong in this case. Liberator barrel rested gin is good for anything you want to do with it.

Like its unrested sibling, Valentine’s rested Old Tom gin is aggressive but still elegantly blanced. It’s like a tall, attractive exchange student who grinds on you at your senior prom. Yes, it may cost you a lot of money, but it’s well worth the experience. Liberator Barrel Rested Old Tom Gin is highly recommended.

Eighteen Forty-Three Gin

Maker: Starlight Distillery, Starlight, Indiana, USA (Huber Winery)wpid-2015-07-16-11.35.41.jpg.jpeg

Style: American dry gin.

ABV: 46.2%

Price: $30 (distillery)

Note: My wife and I received a complimentary tour, tasting and a discount at the time I purchased this product from the distillery

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Alcohol, coriander, brie cheese rind, citron peel, juniper.

Palate: Sweet and full bodied. Alcohol, juniper, cane sugar, candy orange slices.

Finish: Sweet and fruity. Citrus, coriander seed, cinnamon.

Mixed: Does well in a Dry Martini. Very good in drinks involving red vermouth like Negronis and perfect martinis. Not great with tonic or in a Tom Collins. The earthy elements clash with the mixers in those last two.

Parting words: The first Huber to farm at the site of Huber Farms in Southern Indiana was Simon. Born in Baden Baden, Germany, he started farming in 1843 and the family has continued farming on the same site, only forty miles from the hot springs in French Lick, Indiana. Then as now, wine making and fruit production were the mainstays. Now the (much expanded) farm is a destination for pumpkins and other U-Pick favorites and is home to one of Indiana’s biggest and best wineries. They started distilling in 2001. Brandies are their best known spirits, but they also have vodka and gin (obviously) and a variety of fruit liqueurs and infusions, including an excellent blueberry liqueur. They have two stills currently, operated by owner Ted Huber and master distiller Lisa Wicker (formerly of Limestone Creek).

This gin is similar other craft gins (Few and Corsair spring to mind) but it has a pronounced aroma that I can’t quite put my finger on. Cubeb, maybe? At any rate, like those gins, 1843 is best in quality cocktails but pretty good neat too. Keep a bottle of Seagram’s next to it in the cabinet if you plan on guzzling a lot of Tom Collinses or G & Ts.

For a craft gin of this quality and ABV, $30 is a very good price. Eighteen Forty-Three Gin is recommended.

Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA (Brand owned by Pernod-Ricard)wpid-2015-04-30-16.40.34.jpg.jpeg

Style: Dry American gin.

ABV: 40%

Michigan State Minimum: $10

Note: 1.75 ml bottle pictured ($22)

Appearance: Clear with a very faint tinge of color.

Nose: Neutral spirit, juniper, citrus peel.

Palate: Milder than the nose would lead on to believe. Neutral spirits and a faint earthiness.

Finish: Burn and crushed juniper berries.

Mixed: Perfectly acceptable in the standard applications, especially in a Tom Collins or with tonic. Even makes a decent martini or negroni. Gets lost in orange juice.

Parting Words: Seagram’s the gin is the best selling American-made gin in the world. Seagram’s the company no longer exists. It was sold off for parts in the late 1990s in order to raise money for Edgar Bronfman’s adventures in the entertainment industry. That began a long, strange trip for the distillery (actually distilleries) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. It’s now owned by agribusiness company Midwest Grain Products and is best known as the supplier of rye and bourbon whiskey for an endless parade of “micro-distillers” who are just selling it until their own product is ready, they swear. MGPI contains an entirely separate distillery for the manufacture of gin and vodka, though, and that’s where Seagram’s Gin (now owned by French giant Pernod-Ricard) continues to be made.

In days of yore, Seagram’s Gin was “rested” in oak barrels to take the edge off the spirit and give it a saffron tinge. The process was changed sometime before September 2013, , according to a source-friend of mine. The yellowish tinge (now barely there) is created by running the spirit through a juniper slurry under pressure. Barrel resting is a thing of the past. Just going by memory, it doesn’t seem to have altered the taste much. If anything, it’s a little less harsh than I remember.

At any rate, this is a perfectly serviceable well-gin. It’s barely palatable neat, but it does just fine for casual cocktails. Seagram’s is a fine gin for your Wednesday night G & T or your third martini on Saturday night. Recommended.

That said, I hate the bottle redesign. The cross-hatching thing is dopey. #BringBackTheBumpyBottle

Green Hat “Ginavit” (Fall/Winter edition) Gin

Maker: New Columbia, Washington D.C., USAwpid-2015-03-17-20.40.25.jpg.jpeg

ABV: 45%

Price: Unknown, $35 for standard edition gin at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill.

Thanks for Lee & Abby for the bottle.

Appearance: Mostly clear but with an amber tinge.

Nose: Grain alcohol, lime peel, caraway, pine sap.

Palate: Full and soft with some harshness on the back end. Citrus, angelica, licorice, caraway.

Finish: Big cough drop finish. Sap and alcohol linger for a very long time.

Mixed: Did very well in cocktails with vermouth (martinis, Negroni, etc), but overpowered in tonic and a Tom Collins.

Parting words: New Columbia was founded by two hobbyist couples (related I’m guessing) back in 2011. In spite of the corny prohibition-related marketing (The man with the green hat was apparently a DC bootlegger), this is an idiosyncratic but solid cocktail gin. It lacks the finesse of Miller’s, another caraway-forward gin, but if they’re going for something like Aquavit, as the name suggests, maybe the rougher character is in keeping with that tradition.

At any rate, Green Hat Fall/Winter edition is recommended.