Thistle Finch Small Batch, Batch 09

Maker: Thistle Finch, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Style: Wheated (!) Straight Rye Whiskey

Age: 2 y/o

Bottle date: November 13, 2019.

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Purchased for $47 (PLCB Monroeville-Northern Pike)

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Sawdust, cut grass.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Allspice, hay.

Finish: Grass, dark chocolate, burn.

Parting words: I knew nothing about Thistle Finch before I saw this bottle on the shelf at the PLCB store I stopped at while coming home from a family vacation in Somerset Pennsylvania last summer. I’ve heard Pennsylvanians complain about the PLCB stores for years but I had never experienced one until then. Folks, it’s all true. They’re terrible. I went to that store to pick up some Dad’s Hat Rye and I had a list of Pennsylvanian wines I wanted to look for. They had none of those wines, and I was only able to find Dad’s Hat after wandering around the store for twenty minutes. It was in a special “made in Pennsylvania” section next to Pumpkin vodka, and several bottles of sickly sweet plonk. Bad selection, bad prices, poorly organized, it was awful. Like a LCBO store but much worse.

I picked up this bottle of Thistle Finch Rye from the bourbon section where it was lurking for some reason. I mostly picked it up because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find Dad’s Hat, but since they didn’t have any of the wine I was looking for I went ahead and bought Thistle Finch too. I’m glad I did. It has a lot of typical young rye flavors but has a roundedness that was nice, maybe due to the wheat in the recipe, highly unusual for American ryes.

It’s ok neat, but it really shines in cocktails, where it works well in drinks that might usually call for higher proof rye, on account of its aromatic nature. It did very well in a Manhattan, with ginger ale and orange bitters, and in a couple of cocktails I have named the Sterling Hayden (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz Aquavit), and a Skink (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz green Chartreuse). Both of the latter play up the rye’s herbaceousness.

I know next to nothing about the Thistle Finch folks, but this is a solid rye, that should only be getting better in later batches, if they let some rest, like they say they will. The distillery is located next to a brewery in an old tobacco warehouse in Lancaster. It’s one of these bar/distillery operations, and a pretty successful one by all appearances.

$47 isn’t cheap, but think of it as an investment in the future. Thistle Finch Small Batch Straight Rye Whiskey is recommended.

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 1

Back on March 30 of this year, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council produced its annual small fruit and hops inventory. What we’re going to focus on, unsurprisingly, will be the section of the report dealing with grapes. If you want to look it over yourself, you can find it by clicking the links above.

What I want to do is crunch some of these already crunched numbers and see what they can tell us about the state of grape-growing and wine production in Michigan in 2020. The authors of the report have very helpfully included historical data going back to 2011 for most of the tables, so readers can get a picture of the medium term trends as well. Now, my brain and numbers don’t always mix well, so I ask forgiveness in advance for any and all screw-ups in this post.

Politically and culturally, Michigan is a part of the upper Midwest, but agriculturally, it’s the westernmost third of the Great Lakes Fruit Belt that stretches from upstate New York, through Southern Ontario to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes, and the many other smaller lakes between them, have a moderating effect on the climate of the area, cooling the air in the summers and warming it in the winter. Michigan is among the leading producers of sugar beets, potatoes (for chips), asparagus, blueberries, cherries, apples and grapes in the US. It also does pretty well with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, raspberries, and blackberries.

The grape industry has been big in Michigan for a long time, but for most of its history, most of the vineyard space in the state has been dedicated to table and juice grapes. That has been changing, however. As the report shows, in 2011, 60% of the vineyard acreage of the state was growing Concord, with 23.4% growing other native varieties used for juice and table grapes like Catawba, Delaware, Fredonia, Niagara, and Norton. That’s a total of 83.4%, with 12.1% being used for vinifera, and 4.5% used for hybrids wine grapes. In 2020, Natives were down to 69.1% (Concord down to 50%), with vinifera at 21.3% and hybrids more than doubling to 9.6%. When we look at the raw acreage numbers we can see that the growth wasn’t only from new acres of vinifera and hybrid vineyards being planted, but fewer acres of the native juice and tables grapes being grown. In fact there were over 4,000 fewer acres of grapes being grown from 2011 to 2020. Very little of this can be attributed to the 2014/2015 polar vortex, since most of the losses occurred between 2016 and 2020.

There was talk a few years ago about Michigan possibly running out of vineyard space due to the rapid growth of demand for Michigan wine and the growth in the number of wineries. Now, not every site suitable for Concord will be suitable for wine grapes, but the overall decline in acreage dedicated to grapes along with the growth in the number of acres dedicated to wine grapes makes me think that we won’t be running out of vineyard space any time soon.

One particularly interesting aspect of the report is the section that has to do with the size of Michigan grape farms. They are broken up into four categories. 1-9 acre farms (I’ll be calling these small farms), 10-29 acre farms (medium), 30-99 acres (large), and 100 or more acres (very large). It’s hard to know what to make of the data, but between 2011 and 2020, the number of small farms went from 215 to 233, a moderate increase. The medium sized farms declined rather sharply during that period, going from 132 to only 73. The large farms stayed the same, more or less, going from 75 in 2011, to 70 in 2014, to 74 in 2020. So maybe over time more people have started new small farms while consolidation took place in the other categories. The same thing seems to have happened on a smaller scale to the farms dedicated to wine grape production, as seen in the table following that one.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the even jucier (no pun intended) parts of the report: The regional and varietal stats, and then I’ll have a few parting words. Stay tuned!

Fontan XO

Maker: Vignobles Fontan, Noulens, Gers, Gascony, France.

I had a better picture at one time, I promise.

Region: Bas Armagnac

Grape: Ugni Blanc (100%)

Age category: XO (6-10 y/o). Website lists age as 10 y/o.

ABV: 42%

Purchased for $43 at The Party Source

Appearance: Dark caramel.

Nose: Leather, anise, lavender, old oak, velvet, violets.

Palate: Full-bodied. Grape hard candy, leather, clove, burn.

Finish: Horehound, anise, eucalyptus, alcohol.

Parting words: I’m still very much a French brandy newbie, but I really enjoyed this Armagnac. It’s pretty complex with some very nice spice balanced with the perfect amount of oak and sweetness. Maybe a little too perfect. It seems too dark to be natural, even if it is an XO. If caramel was added, then I suspect sugar and other additives were used as well. In the end, though, this isn’t very expensive for an XO Armagnac and it tastes good. Although I prefer additive-free spirits, that’s what really matters. Fontan XO is recommended.

Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA with possible help from Brown-Forman distillery in Shively. (Brown-Forman)

Style: Kentucky straight wheat whiskey

Label: Batch 2

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $39

Appearance: Medium Copper.

Nose: Biscuits with cherry jam.

Palate: Medium bodied. Cherry wine, a little oak, then burn.

Finish: Drying with a little fruit, but mostly oak and alcohol.

Parting words: Since I reviewed Bernheim Wheat Whiskey back in 2012, wheat has become much more common than it was. It’s a staple of many micro-distillers and Heaven Hill even added an age statement to theirs! This Woodford edition is relatively new, a part of their series of non-bourbon line extensions, also including a rye and malt whiskey.

I was expecting a simple whiskey, like Bernheim, when I bought this bottle, but it’s actually pretty complex. Not Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch complex, but on par with bourbons in its price range. The cherry notes are really nice and make for a wonderful sipping experience. I’ve never been too hot on Woodford as a whole, but I could see myself making this one a regular in my cabinet. Woordford Reserve Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is recommended.

Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Domain Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: Undisclosed (“table wine”)

Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Oak, sautéed mushrooms, mulberry, white pepper, nutmeg.

Palate: Tart blueberry, oak, clove, mace.

Finish: Mild, but a little spice and oak on the back end.

Parting words: I reviewed the 2011 vintage of DB’s Syrah back in 2016. It had spent a little longer in the bottle than this wine, but only by a few months. 2016 was a very warm vintage so I expected the 2016 to be fruitier than the 2011 was. While it can be hard to remember what I was thinking four and a half years ago, that does not seem to be the case. The notes are similar enough to be nearly identical. The only difference seems to be the earthy mushroom aroma I got in the nose. Earthiness is a Domaine Berrien trait, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the 2011 didn’t seem to have much in the way of earth at all.

Anyway, Syrah does well in Southwest Michigan when it can get ripe enough, and 2016 was one of those years. $22 is a steal for a relatively rare, high quality wine like this. Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016 is recommended.

Mayador Natural Cider

Maker:  Amandi, Villaviciosa, Asturias, Spain.

Style: Natural, still, Asturian sidra.

Vinatage: 2014

ABV: 6%

Purchased for $9/750 ml (Vine & Table)

Appearance: Cloudy, pale gold with floaties and slight effervescence.

Nose: Lemon meringue, honeyed dessert apples, good cider vinegar.

Palate: Light bodied. Tangy and a little chewy. Apple wood, lemon peel, Lemonheads.

Finish: Tangy, and cheek-filling, with a little burn in the throat.

Parting words: Mayador is produced by the large, family-owned Manuel Busto Amandi cidery in the Spanish autonomous region of Asturias in northwestern Spain, east of the more famous region of Galicia. The region has a long history, going back to the seventh century when an exiled Visigothic aristocrat named Pelagius rebelled against his Umayyad rulers and founded the Kingdom of Asturias , which would become the first independent Christian kingdom in Iberia after the Muslim conquest. Going even further back, the region is also home to many caves containing paleolithic art. At any rate, the Amandi family has been producing cider since 1939. They make a large line of natural and sparkling ciders, as well as vinegar and juice.

My experience with Spanish ciders is not extensive, but I have tasted a few from the Basque regions and this is in a different style from those. Mayador has the same dryness the Basque ciders have but lacks their tannin and funk. Acid is what drives this cider, and it runs the gamut from lemon juice to apple cider vinegar. As a result, it’s a little more accessible than its Basque neighbors but still a far cry from Woodchuck. It’s also more food-friendly than those, at least to my palate. Pair it as you would a dry Riesling or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

$9 is a great price for a cider of this quality and this much interest. Mayador Natural Cider is recommended.

Glen Scotia 15

Maker: Glen Scotia, Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland, UK (Loch Lomond Group).

Style: Single malt Scotch whisky.

Region: Campbeltown

Cooperage: Ex-bourbon casks.

Age: 15 y/o

ABV: 46%

Michigan state minimum: $70

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Sweet malt, dried flowers, lemon custard, butterscotch.

Palate: Medium bodied and light. Crème brûlée, Meyer lemon, butter toffee, seaspray.

Finish: Vanilla, light oak, burn.

Parting words: For years, Glen Scotia was the “other” Campbeltown distillery. Springbank was (and remains to be honest) the better known distillery in town. Even when Glengyle returned to the land of the living, it was still the other. In 2015 Scotia’s owners decided to try to do something about this. They remade their product line and expanded distribution. This 15 y/o iteration was one of the products of that rebooting (as was the Double Oak). It’s not too far out of the ordinary for a middle aged single malt aged in bourbon barrels, but it is a very good example of one. Its 46% ABV gives it a nice punch as well.

Glen Scotia may never entirely escape from Springbank’s shadow but this is a solid malt, one I’d buy again without hesitastion. Glen Scotia 15 is recommended.

Domain du Tertre, PM Spirits/Seelbach’s selection

Maker: Domaine du Terte, Mahéru, Orne, Normandy, France.

Apples: 30 or so different French cider apple varieties, possibly pear as well.

Place of origin: Calvados AOC, Normandy, France.

Age: 16 y/o (distilled 2004, bottled 2020, XO status)

ABV: 55% (cask strength)

Notes: No additives or chill filtering. Estate grown apples. 80 bottles produced. Fermented using native yeast. For more information see the Seelbach’s website.

Price: $250 (Seelbach’s exclusive)

Thanks to Blake from Seelbach’s for the complementary bottle I used for this review!

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Oak, Norman cider, apple cores, cut Granny Smith apples.

Palate: Light bodied and delicate. Session cider, apple tannin, maple sugar candy. A little sweeter with water, but a lot of the other flavors are lost.

Finish: Swimming pool (this is not a bad note!), oak, dessert apple, burn, maple syrup.

Parting words: I will never doubt the power of whining again. When friend of the blog Sku posted tasting notes to this Calvados in the Serious Brandy Facebook group and thanked Blake Riber of Bourbonr and Seelbach’s for the sample, I commented that I also accepted samples. Blake took my jokey whine seriously and got me my own bottle so I could pass along my thoughts on it. I am very thankful that he did too.

Domaine du Tertre is a small operation in a small village in Orne. The closest city (such as it is) is Alenço(u)n, the capital of the department. The majority of the Domaine’s production is cider, perry, and juice, but it does make a small amount of Calvados every year. It’s been operated by the Havard family since the 19th century, and has been making Calvados since the 1870s. It is currently owned and operated by brothers Michel and Oliver. The farm is currently 50 hectares in area and the current orchards date from 1991.

I haven’t tasted a lot of old Calvados, but many of the ones I have tasted had lost their distinctive character in the barrel and tasted more like a Cognac of the same age than an apple brandy. This Domaine du Tertre does not have that problem. It took me a little time to wrap my head around it, but it tastes what it actually is: a kicked up Norman cider. There’s a lot of tannin and a little funk with some delicious cut apple aromas and flavors. It works very well as a special occasion aperitif or summer patio sipper for when old friends come to visit. A little water cools off some of the burn but too much kills all the interesting things going on here. Go easy.

I am so glad I was able to taste this wonderful brandy, and big thanks again to Blake for sending it my way. $250 is a lot of money, to be sure, but if it’s in your budget, Seelbach’s Domaine du Tertre 2004 selection is recommended!

Troglodyte Rosso

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Teroldego, 10% Merlot

Place of origin: Mari Vineyards Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style: Dry red blend.

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $26 (Red Wagon, Rochester Hills)

Appearance: Slightly overdone fruit of the forest pie.

Palate: Medium bodied. Wild blackberry, black currant, clove, a little smoke.

Finish: Medium chewy, a little acid, a little fruit.

Parting words: Teroldego is a grape grown mostly in the Alpine vineyard areas of Northern Italy. It produces wines that are sometimes compared to Zinfindel, but it also bears more than a passing resemblance to its nephew Syrah. I don’t know how much Teroldego is grown in Michigan, but I’m guessing that it’s not a lot. I don’t know enough to say whether it should be grown more widely in Michigan, but I do like it in this blend. It brings a spicy, tarry (in a good way) punch to this wine that makes it food-friendly and well-rounded. For a grape this rare, and a wine this good, $26 is more than fair. Troglodyte Rosso is recommended.

1792 Bottled in Bond

Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Style: High malt (?) bonded bourbon.

Age: At least four years old (all from one distilling season).

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $38

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, sweet malt, cayenne powder.

Palate: Cola, alcohol. With water. Caramel, cola, less burn.

Finish: Sweet and custardy. Sweet cola (yes again) with melted ice cubes.

Parting words: For many years, the Bottled-in-Bond category was a guarantee of quality among American whiskeys. Then, when I was getting into the hobby, it was most common as a sign of a good value. The pendulum has swung back a bit these days and premium bonds are making a comeback. The new, pricey Old Fitzgerald and Heaven Hill BiBs, Henry McKenna, and now 1792.

I like the standard expression well enough, and I have really enjoyed the single barrel and barrel strength editions I’ve had. Sadly, the Bottled-in-Bond doesn’t live up to those. It’s not bad, it’s just not enough of an improvement on the Small Batch to warrant $8 more dollars and the hard work of trying to locate a bottle. Ironically, it may be hampered by being bonded and restricted to one distilling season. There’s a lack of complexity that the addition of older bourbon might be able to fix.

1792 Bottled-in-Bond is only mildly recommended.