Grizzly Pear

Maker: Blake’s Hard Cider, Armada, Michigan, USA20171112_165117.jpg

Style: Apple cider flavored with apple juice, prickly pear extract, pear juice concentrate and elderflower.

ABV: 5%

Price: $10/6 12 oz cans

Appearance: Light gold with tiny bubbles.

Nose: Barlett Pear, elderflower, nutmeg.

Palate: Medium dry. Effervescence, elderflower liquer, drop of canned pear syrup.

Finish: Clean & juicy. Slightly tart.

Parting words: As far as I can tell, this is the closest thing to a perry that Blake’s makes , which is a shame. Craft perry makers have an even harder time than craft cider-makers at finding heritage varieties traditionally used for their product. As a result, most perry is made from Bartlett or other table varieties. As a result of that, most American perries taste like watered down, slightly boozy versions of the syrup one finds canned pears swimming in. This leads creative producers like Blake’s to get, uh, creative. While technically apple cider, Grizzly Pear tastes like a quality perry. The elderflower infusion is a nice, floral counterpoint to the strong pear flavor and results in a more balanced product than standard, one dimensional perry. The prickly pear extract is undetectable, at least by me.Grizzly Pear pairs well with pork and spicy chicken dishes, but is best for casual weekend sipping. The price is reasonable.

My only complaint (a big one, actually) is that the packaging is deceptive, perhaps intentionally so. A pear is featured front and center and no mention of this product being flavored apple cider appears outside the ingredient list. The label describes it as “hard cider” but since perry is often lumped together with apple cider, a reasonable person could still assume that this is a perry after reading that description.

I have no problem with funky, Franken-ciders like this but Blake’s should be up front about what this is instead of “stealing valor” from the poor neglected pears of the world. I want to give this a recommendation, but I’m going to have to ding it for deceptive packaging. Grizzly Pear is mildly recommended. Fix this, Blake’s.

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Crown Royal, Tippins Hand Selected Barrel

Maker: Crown Royal Distillery, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada (Diageo).20171110_194508.jpg

Style: Canadian rye.

Age: NAS

ABV: 51.5%

Michigan state minimum: $55

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Alcohol, roast corn on the cob, bubble gum.

Palate: Grape bubble gum, alcohol, touch of oak.

Finish: Aniseed candy, burn.

Mixed: Adds a fruity undertone to Manhattans, perfect Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds. Was also able to stand up to Benedictine when I used it in a Monte Carlo. Be sure to account for high proof if mixing this. It can sneak up on you.

Parting words: Crown Royal gets trashed a lot by whisky enthusiasts, and I think rightly. Crown Royal and Crown Royal Reserve are both garbage. I did like the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, though. It is a solid value, if you enjoy Canadian style rye.

This whisky is closer to Northern Harvest Rye than the standard Crown Royal or the Reserve. The barrels used for these retailer/hand selected barrel CRs are flavoring whiskies. Like Scotch and Irish blends, Canadian blended whiskies are blends of relatively flavorless base whisky with bold flavoring whisky, often but not always made with rye.

Tippins is located on Saline road, on the outskirts of Ann Arbor Michigan. They’re known for good service, good whiskey selections and owner Dominic Aprea’s, uh, let’s say “eccentric” online persona. Aside from an irritating snub on FB, I haven’t had any negative experiences with him, although I have witnessed some strange online behavior from him. At any rate, the man knows how to pick a barrel. As with all CR offerings, the price is high, but $55 isn’t too bad for over 50% ABV. Crown Royal, Tippins Hand Selected Barrel is recommened.

Arcturos Cabernet Franc, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Sutton’s Bay/Traverse City, Michigan, USA20171107_164857.jpg

Grape: Cabernet Franc (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Michigan (56% Leelanau Co, 44% Grand Traverse Co), USA

ABV: 13%

Price: $28.50 (website, 2013 vintage)

Appearance: Dark burgundy. Opaque.

Nose: Roasted red pepper, sautéed mushrooms, raisins, crushed blueberry.

Palate: Medium-bodied and dry. Chicken jambalaya, oak.

Finish: Tangy and oaky.

Parting words: Chicken jambalaya is a weird tasting note, I know, but I think it’s apt for the combination of vegetal (bell pepper, celery), sweet (tomato, onion), tart (tomato), toasty (toasted rice) spicy (bell pepper, black pepper) and earthy (tomato, celery, chicken) flavors I got in this wine.

I reviewed the 2004 Arcturos Three Black Lot Old Mission Peninsula Cab Franc back in 2011 in the early, halcyon days of this blog. It was more subtle and refined than this wine, but it was also two years older. At the time I thought it was too old, but my palate has shifted toward lighter, fruitier reds so it sounds really good to me right now. The 2012 Cab Franc is good right now but I think it will continue to improve into the first couple years of the next decade. $28.50 is a fair price, especially if one holds on to it for a few more years. There are probably a few 2012s still kicking around, but 2016 and 2017 should be as delicious as this vintage and as age-worthy. Goes well with beef, pork, turkey and spicy Latin chicken dishes. 2012 Arcturos Cabernet Franc is recommended.

 

 

 

Sandhill Crane Syrah, 2012

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA20171027_174701.jpg

Grape: Syrah (at least 75% by law)

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13.9%

Purchased for: $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Dark burgundy.

Nose: Plum, blueberry, cedar, mace.

Palate: Medium-bodied, medium sweet. Blackberry, cherry juice, French oak, nutmeg, clove.

Finish: Juicy, then oaky with a little tang.

Parting words: Sandhill Crane’s home is in Jackson, Michigan, in a small cluster of wineries including Chateau Aeronautique and Sleeping Bear Winery. They make wine from a mix of estate grown grapes and grapes from other areas of Michigan. They’re known, at least to me, for their reds which are consistantly some of the best in the state. They have a large, swinging tasting room with a restaurant and frequent events. It’s less than ninety minutes from most places in the Detroit Metro area and not far from Ann Arbor and Lansing either, making it a popular destination for those interested in a relaxing Saturday afternoon away.

Syrah’s home is in the Rhöne valley, but tasting this wine left me wondering if its second home could be in southern Michigan. This is cool climate Syrah to be sure, fruity and slightly acidic, but still with the grape’s spicy calling card. The Rhöne vallery isn’t as hot and dry as many people assume anyway. Syrah doesn’t seem to do well in northern Michigan, but in the south and southwest it seems to do better and in the hands of a skilled winemaker like Holly Balansag it can be delicious. We had this wine with chicken tacos and it paired very well. Sandhill Crane Syrah also pairs well with beef and pork. 2012s are going to be hard to find now, but 2016 and 2017 are looking as good as 2012 was or even better. Make sure you give it a good four or five years in the cellar to enjoy it at its best! 2012 Sandhill Crane Syrah is highly recommended.

 

Early Times Bottled-in-Bond

Maker: Brown-Forman, Shively, Kentucky, USA20171027_174632.jpg

Style: High corn bonded bourbon

Age: At least four years old

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $21/ 1 liter

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, cayenne, Mexican oregano, leather.

Palate: Jalapeño, caramel. Gets a little fruity with water. Blueberry, blackberry, watermelon.

Finish: Grape soda, alcohol. Caramel comes out with water.

Mixed: I tried it in an old-fashioned, Manhattan, boulevardier, with Benedictine and with amaretto. Worked well in all of them, even though it didn’t really stand out. That’s not necessarily bad, though. Sometimes the base spirit is best as a, uh, base.

Parting words: Early Times is one of the oldest American whiskey brands still in existence. It was founded in 1860 by Jack Beam (uncle to Jim). Despite the name (an early example of marketing by nostalgia), Jack’s distillery was a throughly modern operation strategically located next to a rail line (the Louisville & Nashville railroad) near Bardstown. After Jack’s death in 1915, his nephew John Shaunty took over. After John’s death in 1922, a man named S.L. Guthrie bought the distillery and sold the Early Times brand to Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman has owned it since then. They even built a new distillery dedicated to the brand (their best seller at the time) in 1955. It’s still in operation today and is home to ET, Old Forester and Cooper’s Craft.

Jack had a colorful family. His final wife, Anna Figg Brown, was much younger than he and lived into the 1960s. After John Shaunty’s death, his widow took up with a con man who robbed her and left her stranded in Atlantic City. S.L. Guthrie had to drive there to pick her up and take her home. All this according to Sam Cecil’s The Evolution of the Bourbon Industry in Kentucky (1999).

At any rate, Early Times spent several years as America’s best-selling bourbon in the mid twentieth century and hung around at number two even after it was overaken tby Jim Beam. Early Times’ slide began when in 1983, as a cost cutting measure, B-F changed ET from a bourbon to “Kentucky Whisky”, a mix of bourbon with whiskey aged in used barrels, in the US. It remained a straight bourbon overseas. The brand still sells with “price sensitive” consumers, but has not regained its former widespread popularity. Back in 2011 Brown-Forman tried to jumpstart Early Times by releasing a new straight bourbon version called Early Times 354. It was not good. My video (!) review of it is here.

Luckily, B-F decided to give ET another chance and released this new bonded version with a beautiful retro label earlier this year. It’s a hit, with me, anyway. It’s sweet, as it and other high corn bourbons tend to be (e.g. Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee) but it has enough oak and spice to keep it from becoming boring. It mixes well, but I think it is at its best with one or two ice cubes and maybe a dash or two of bitters.

Price-wise, ET BiB is in a great place. If it were a standard 750 ml bottle, it would be $15.75. That would make it the cheapest bonded bourbon available in Michigan, less than Old Grand Dad ($28), sibling Old Forester Signature ($25, not technically a BiB, but close), Jim Beam ($22), and Evan Williams White Label ($18). All are fine products but Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is as good as any of those and none of them can deliver the same value. Brown-Forman has hit it out of the park again. Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is highly recommended.

What’s next for B-F? I’m hoping an ET with a double digit age statement. Get on it, George.

Peninsula Cellars Lemberger, 2013

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20171019_172611.jpg

Grape: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch

Place of origin: Old Mission AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $22.50 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Blueberry pie, tomato, black pepper. “grapes when you eat them” -nosing note from my 7 y/o daughter.

Palate: Blackberry juice, wild mushroom, pink peppercorn, a little tartness.

Finish: Tannin, then acid.

Parting words: What do Pinot Blanc and Lemberger have in common? They’re both popular grapes that I just haven’t been able to get excited about. Both grow well in Up North, West Michigan and southern Michigan wine countries and both have been floated as “signature grapes” for the state. I’m not a fan of the concept of regions promoting one “signature grape” in general, but if I had to pick, neither Lemberger or Pinot Blanc would be in my top five.

As I do with a lot of things, I’ve been questioning myself over my disinterest in Lemberger and Pinot Blanc and wondering if it meant that my palate was flawed or I’m some kind of moron. So I’ve been trying to drink more of both kinds of wine. This bottle is a part of that effort.

Austria is considered Lemberger’s home turf, although it probably originated farther south and east. It’s known as Blaufränkisch in Austria where it is the second most planted red wine grape. The first is Lemberger’s offspring, Zweigelt.

While I may have had a breakthrough regarding Pinot Blanc, Lemberger’s appeal remains elusive. This is a well made wine, better than the last Lemberger I tried, but I still find myself wondering why it’s such a favorite of some Michigan wine drinkers. For me it’s too rough around the edges. In the past year or two I’ve been moving into sweeter, fruitier wines (Gamay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, cool climate Cab Franc and Merlot) and this wine’s tannic finish and unbalanced earthiness were an unpleasant surprise to my palate. Chilling it did eliminate much of that roughness but I would rather not have to chill a red wine at this price.

I think much of Lemberger’s popularity in Michigan is being driven by how well it grows here (which is a good thing!) but as for me, I still prefer it in blends rather than bottled as a varietal. Austrian Blaufränkisch often improves with extended cellar time, so maybe this one needs more time. Luckily I have another bottle of this in my cellar so I can test that theory in a couple years. Anyway, as it is now 2013 Peninsula Cellars Lemberger is mildly recommended.

Talisker Distiller’s Edition (2013 release)

Maker: Talisker, Carbost, Isle of Skye, Highland, Scotland, UK (Diageo)20171013_121622.jpg

Region: Island

Style: Peated single malt, finished in amorosa (cream) sherry casks

Age: 10-11 y/o (distilled 2002, bottled 2013)

ABV: 45.8%

Michigan state minimum: $81

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Peat, old oak, roasted almond, vanilla, lemon meringue.

Palate: Medium-bodied, medium sweet, creamy. Custard, toffee, apricot.

Finish: Big and ashy. Fireplace with a nibble of toffee.

Parting words: Back in 2014 I reviewed Talisker Storm and I liked it a lot, but I thought it was “by the numbers” with little in the way of surprises. The Distiller’s Edition does have some surprises up its sleeve. I’m not a fan of sweetened cream sherries as beverages but their casks do good things to peaty whisky! Talisker DE is complex and rounded in a way that Storm and the 10 y/o aren’t. It’s more than worth the extra $3 over the Storm (which I still do enjoy). It’s a Talisker suitable for after-dinner sipping in the living room, while Storm and the 10 are post-snow-shoveling malts, if that makes sense. This is an older vintage but I don’t think much has changed since 2013. Talisker Distiller’s Edition is 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.

 

 

Blackbird Blackberry

Maker: Walloon Lake Winery, Petosky, Michigan, USA20171018_094013.jpg

Purchased August of 2016

Variety: Marionberry

ABV: 12%

Price: $19 (winery)

Appearance: Dark purple, almost opaque.

Nose: Crushed blackberries.

Palate: Sweet with a tang. Blackberry jam.

Finish: Tangy. Fills the cheeks.

Parting words: Walloon Lake is a medium sized lake (6.67 square miles), oddly shaped, spring-fed lake in northern Michigan east of the much larger Lake Charlevoix (27.88 square miles) and south of the much much larger Lake Michigan (22,404 square miles). It’s one of northern Michigan’s prime locations for vacation homes, including one owned by the Hiltons and Windemere, the Hemmingway family cottage . It is also home to more modest cottages including Greentree, co-owned by friends of the blog Amy and Pete.

panoramic walloon lake
Walloon Lake, as viewed from Greentree cottage.

Walloon Lake Winery is located east of the North Arm of the lake, outside of Petosky. They’re a part of the Bayview Wine Trail and the Tip of the Mitt AVA. For my thoughts on that AVA, see here. Walloon Lake pulled out a surprise win earlier this year when their North Arm Red (made from hybrid Marquette grapes) won best dry red at the state-sponsored Michigan Wine Competition. The name Blackbird comes from Blackbird Road which runs from the North Arm of Walloon up to Lake Michigan just west of the winery.

screenshot_20161103-104818.jpg
The tasting room at Walloon Lake Winery

Taking notes on fruit wines is difficult because most of them just taste like an alcoholic version of fruit juice. There are some differences between cherry wines, but even those are more subtle than in wine grapes, even across different cherry varieties. That said, Blackberries are my favorite type of berries and its fairly rare to see a blackberry wine so I thought it was worth a review. Walloon Lake also makes cherry, blueberry and sparkling peach wines.

Blackbird Blackberry does great service to a great berry. It’s full-bodied and balances the sweetness, tartness and that earthy musk that makes blackberries so distinct. $19 is expensive for a fruit wine but I think it delivers. Blackbird Blackberry is recommended.

Kroupa Orchards Apple Wine

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.20171008_113908.jpg

Varieites: Macintosh, Spy, Empire, Rhode Island Greening.

Harvest: 2016(?)

Style: Sweet apple wine.

ABV: 10%

Price: $16/750 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Light gold.

Nose: Cut table apple, swimming pool.

Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Apple juice, Gala apple.

Finish: A faint glimmer of tannin but still sweet. Long.

Parting words: Kroupa Orchards Apple Wine falls into the weird category of products that are good but disappointing. Peninsula cellars is one of the best wineries in Michigan’s best wine region. I love almost every wine they produce, so maybe my expectations were too high for this product. It’s not bad by any stretch. It has a lucious sweetness that is pleasant, but I expected something more thoughtful from this winery.

I think much of my disappointment stems from the choice of fruit all of which are baking apples. It’s the equivalent of making wine from Concord or Niagara grapes. Concord wine can be enjoyable, but it will never be as good as a well-made Pinot Noir or Riesling. It’s the same with apple wine or cider made from baking or table apples. Kroupa Orchard Apple wine is easy drinking with lots of apple flavor, but it lacks the complexity of a finely crafted hard cider that tannic or acidic apples would bring to the mix. Even accounting for the larger bottle and higher ABV, $16 is pricy for a product like this. Kroupa Orchard Apple Wine is mildly recommended.