Note: Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of Russet cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy.
Appearance: Bright yellow with a big fizzy head.
Nose: Fresh cut pear, golden delicious apples, kiwi, papaya.
Palate: Dry and effervescent. Pear peel, Meyer lemon, leather mineral water.
Finish: Drying and slightly tart.
Parting words: Uncle John’s Perry is part of their line of premium ciders including Russet (blend of Russet varieties, with Golden Russet making up the majority), Melded (a blend of English, French and American heritage cider apples), and Baldwin (single variety cider from Lake Michigan Shore apples).
This perry is a source of pride for Uncle John’s co-owner and operator Mike Beck. It’s easy to see why. Many perries taste and smell like fermented syrup from a can of pears. This perry is beautifully dry and gently tannic, all made using Bartlett, the same variety of pears that end up in the can! Mike told me that there are heirloom pear varieties that are intended for use in perry but they are even harder to find than cider apples. If anybody reading this has more information about perry pears, please comment!
Anyway, this is the best perry I’ve ever had. It made me rethink the category as a whole. America needs more good perry! Uncle John’s Perry is highly recommended.
Nose: Caramel, lavender, alcohol, oak, butterscotch, pool chlorine. More light chlorine with water.
Palate: Sweet on entry, butterscotch then burn. Bubblegum comes out with water.
Finish: Hot, oaky, chocolatey. Muted with water added.
Parting words: Having reviewed pretty much every American whiskey on the market (and some not on the market) over the years, I’m going to start doing something I’ve resisted doing in the recent past: reviewing store picks of bourbon and rye. Given how quickly picks move off the shelves and how slowly I drink them, the goal is not to call attention to the picks themselves but to establish which retailers are good pickers and which aren’t. Gift shop selections are usually a safe bet and the selections from the Four Roses gift shops have been some of the best.
This one I wasn’t so sure about at first, though. With one judiciously applied ice crude, it was all oak. When I finally sat down with it neat, it started speaking to me. It has the beautiful interplay of candy and flowers we all expect from Four Roses. Now, the pool chlorine notes sound bad, I know, but it’s more of a whiff of summer swimming pools than bleach.
This was one of the last gift shop selections made during the tenure of 4R’s sainted former master distiller, Jim Rutledge. It’s a worthy farewell. This Four Roses gift shop selection is recommended.
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.
Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of Russet cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy, plus a discount on this bottle and others I purchased.
Appearance: Medium pink with moderately large bubbles. Big champagne-like head at first, but it dissipates quickly.
Nose: Sandalwood, ginger, apple.
Palate: Dry and medium bodied. Slightly tart but grows as it warms. Cardamom, ginger, papaya, watermelon, pomegranate, Granny Smith apples.
Finish: Applewood, big chewy tannins.
Parting words: This is a true rosé cider made from red fleshed apples, not turned pink by the addition of grape juice or something else. It’s firmly in the dry, structured, style of Uncle John’s specialty ciders. More tart than Uncle John’s Russet, it’s closer to Melded but the acid isn’t so much citrus as it is tart apples and pomegranates.
It’s fine with food, but Cider Rosé may clash with acidic salad dressings or cabbagey vegetables.
Uncle John’s Cider Rosé is recommended.
My visit to Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery & Cider Mill is chronicled here.
Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Manigold, Old Growth vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $17 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)
Appearance: Very pale gold with tiny stationary bubbles.
Nose: Peach, limestone dust, touch of oak.
Palate: No apparent effervescence. Medium bodied. Juicy on entry, then dries out. Bartlett pear, mineral water.
Finish: Drying continues. Oak then limestone dust.
Parting words: You’ll notice that the word “oak” appears a lot in this review. This struck me as odd, because when I when back to the MBTBTRRO tasting menu I have describing this wine, it said it was stainless steel fermented. This would tend to rule out oak, unless something unusual went on like adding oak chunks to the stainless steel fermentation vessel. Normally in such circumstances I would tgo back and retaste to figure out what’s going on, but this bottle is long gone. Due to illness and baby care, I have a backlog of tasting notes, and this is one of them.
All that to say that I don’t know what exactly I was tasting, but it was a little chewy and bitter. Whatever it was added a nice counterpoint to the fruit and minerality of this wine. Peninsula Cellars is one of OMP’s best wineries, a perfect match for the grapes of Manigold, one of OMP’s best vineyards. Delivers for the price, too. Not a lot of this vintage still around but other vintages are bound to be just as good. 2013 Peninsula Cellars Chardonnay is recommended.
Palate: Full bodied. Oak, then brown sugar, cassia, alcohol, vanilla bean.
Finish: Turbinado sugar, cognac, alcohol. Long lasting.
Parting words: New Holland’s Freshwater line is named in honor of three of the four great lakes that border Michigan. The line includes Huron White (hard to find, possibly discontinued), Michigan Amber and Superior Single Barrel. Superior is best and the most expensive of the line. It drinks dangerously easy for 52.5% ABV. I purchased it for a Michigan themed party and it went very fast. I even had guests come up to be and tell me how great it was and how could they get themselves a bottle!
I didn’t do much mixing with it because at $40 it falls into the sipping rum category for me.It does very well neat, on the rocks and/or with a squeeze of lime. It’s complex and balanced, sweet, spicy and vanilla-y. It’s everything you want in a micro-distilled sipping rum. Freshwater Superior Rum is highly recommended.
Apples: Golden Russet, Razor Russet, Knobby Russet and Baldwin.
Price: $13 (Binny’s)
Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of this and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy.
Appearance: Medium gold. Persistently effervescent.
Nose: Cut apple core, sweet cinnamon, old oak, green cardamom.
Palate: Medium dry and chewy. Apple juice, big tannin, tart cherry juice, seasoned lumber.
Finish: Dry, bitter tannins that linger in the cheeks.
Parting words: My visit to Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery & Cider Mill is chronicled here. This is the second of Uncle John’s premium ciders I’ve taken notes on for this blog. The first one I took notes on was Melded, a delicious blend of American, British and French cider apples. That one had tannins and minerals but on a bed of citrus. It was very food friendly and refreshing. I planned on highly recommending it, but I lost those notes due to poorly designed word processing software. I’ve begun handwriting notes so that doesn’t happen to me again.
Russet is different from Melded. There’s plenty of fruit here but it’s all apple and it’s wrapped in a chewy, tannic package. It works well with food too, but the tannins are leading the charge here with fruit and acid playing backup. It’s a very good cider and leaves me excited to try the rest of the premium line that I have haunting my cellar.Uncle John’s Russet Hard Apple Cider is highly recommended.
Maker: Buffalo Trace. Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)
Style: High corn bourbon.
Proof: 88.9 (44.45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $55
Appearance: Light auburn.
Nose: Alcohol, leather, corn syrup.
Palate: Full bodied. Alcohol, vanilla, creamed corn from the can.
Finish: Canned corn, alcohol. Fairly short.
Parting words: Hancock’s President’s Reserve was released in 1991 as a part of Ancient Age (now known as Buffalo Trace) distillery’s series of single barrel bourbons introduced by master distiller Gary Gayheart. That series also includes Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms and Blanton’s. All of them are made from what is now Buffalo Trace’s mashbill #2, also used for the lower shelf Ancient Age line. As far as I can tell, Hancock’s was created at that time, although Hancock and Hancock Club bourbons were produced in Cincinnati before prohibition.
I’ve never been able to figure out what Hancock’s Reserve was supposed to bring to the table. Blanton’s has big leathery oak, Rock Hill Farms is elegant and high proof and Elmer T. Lee has the best QPR of the four, or at least did until it started being hoarded by stooges. Hancock’s is more expensive than Elmer, rougher and lower proof than RHF and sappier than Blanton’s. At one time, it was often a good example of BT’s earthiness, but that time has passed. It tastes like it’s barely 5-6 years old now. I tasted it next to the current 36 m/o Ancient Age 10 star ($19), and it tasted better but not by much. It reminds me of what AA 10 star tasted like seven years ago. Best thing I can say for it is that the bottle is one of the best looking on the shelf.
Hancock’s is a sad illustration of how some brands have had to fall by the wayside as Buffalo Trace has struggled to keep up with high demand for its bourbon. Maybe it would be best just to kill this one all together. Hancock’s President’s Reserve is not recommended.
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
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.
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
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 monthly. 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.
The roof of the round barn
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.
The column on the still
After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-
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.
Deck at the other barn with hop vine
Black Walnut tree
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!
RB Public House & Brewery
Public House bar
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.
Style: Wheat beer with grapefruit peel and coriander seed
Appearance: Cloudy gold with a lasting foamy head.
Nose: Wheat bread dough, citrus peel.
Palate: Citrusy, slightly sour, with a little spice.
Finish: Sour and a little bitter.
Parting words: Griffin Claw is located in Birmingham, Michigan, the affluent suburb just north of Royal Oak, location of Sipology Blog HQ. Birmingham is a women with big hats and little dogs kinda place. Which makes the quote that appears at the top a little #problematic. It’s a quote from Elmore Leonard: “There are cities that get by on their good looks. Detroit has to work for a living.” I’m sure Leonard meant it as a tribute of sorts, but coming from a brewery in one of the wealthiest, whitest cities in the metro area, it sounds more like a dig than a compliment.
That aside, there’s nothing wrong with this beer. It’s something I would order at the brewpub or someone else if I was in the mood for a spiced wheat beer. This is Michigan, though, and the competition here is fierce. If a brewery is going to make a beer in the style of the most popular beer from the most popular brewery in the state, it needs to stand out. Bluesky doesn’t. It’s not worth seeking out if unavailable near you. Mildly recommended.