Distillery: New Midleton, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland (Pernod Ricard)
Style: Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Cooperage: Bourbon with a little Oloroso sherry
Age: 12 y/o
Michigan State Minimum: $70
Appearance: Burnt orange.
Nose: Oak, leather.
Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Toffee, overaged bourbon, maybe a tiny bit of plum.
Finish: New oak, burn.
Parting words: Powers John’s Lane release was created as a tribute to the old John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin where Powers was originally distilled. It has received many accolades over the years, including a whiskey of the year designation from pennenial internet punching bag Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
After writing up my notes, I consulted a couple other blogs (My Annoying Opinions and Diving for Pearls) to make sure I wasn’t completely off base. I wasn’t. I love Powers (though maybe not as much as Mr. Kravitz) but I don’t love this whiskey. It’s unbalanced with an overbearing raw oak note similar to the small barrel flavors in Tuthilltown’s dreck. Aside from a hit of toffee in the front of the palate that’s all I can really taste and it’s bad. I don’t know what the hell happened here but $70 is $65 too much. Powers John’s Lane is not reccomended.
Parting words: Moletto is a producer of wine and grappa (among other things) in Veneto, in Northeast Italy. I’m not sure when or why they decided to produce this gin, but it is one of the weirdest ones I’ve ever tasted.
I bought it on a whim, looking for something different from the American micro-gins I had been drinking. It’s different all right. Once I realized it was made with tomato I was eager to try it in just about every cocktail I could think of. How would it possibly work in traditional gin cocktails? The tomato would surely clash. Arguably the weirdest thing about this gin is how little it clashed at all. It didn’t do well with tonic or orange juice but it did well with everything else I could think of. Tomato is a natural fit with lemon and the sort of things that go into vermouth, so those cocktails were a good fit. The tomato added a counterpoint of sweetness and acidity to bitter cocktails too. I didn’t try it in a bloody mary. Too obvious.
While it’s never going to be a go-to, I really enjoyed this gin with one caveat: my wife didn’t like it. She’s mostly a G & T drinker, though, so that may have been the reason. The price is high, but it’s unique as far as I know, so that makes it worth a little more to me. Moletto Gin is recommended.
Style: Low rye rye whiskey finished in sherry casks.
Age: 2 y/o
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $50
Thanks to Eric for the sample!
Appearance: Medium copper.
Nose: Alcohol, black tea, cayenne, cut grass.
Palate: Ghost pepper, caramel, sugared dates.
Finish: Peppermint, serrano chili.
Parting words: There are a lot of micro-distilled products around with weird names. Minor Case Rye get its weird name honestly, though. Minor Case Beam was a Kentucky distiller active in the early twentieth century and first cousin to Jim Beam of Jim Beam fame. M.C. Beam as he was better known was partner and later sole owner of the T. J. Pottinger distillery in Gethsemane Station, Kentucky, near the famous Trappist monastery that was once home to writer and theologian Thomas Merton. M.C.’s son Guy was grandfather to Stephen and Paul Beam, the owners of Limestone Branch.
I try not to read a lot of reviews of products I’m planning on reviewing in the near future so I did my best to stay away from the gobs of reviews of Minor Case Rye that have come out recently. I tasted it semi-blind, not knowing the age, proof, or that it was finished although I suspect I knew that at one point. When I (re)learned that it was sherry-finished, I was surprised. I thought it had an interesting array of aromas, some of which are outside the usual stable of rye whiskey descriptors. The sherry influence didn’t come through at first. Nothing in the way of raisins or rancio flavors , only a rounded fruitiness providing structure for chilies and herbs. Once I knew to look for it, I found it, but I would not have guessed it.
I was also surprised by its age, two years old. This explains the capsacin flavors, but again, I would not have guessed that it was that young. The sherry finish is used deftly to mask the harsh flavors of young whiskey while still more or less incognito. That’s an impressive feat. I can say without reservation that Minor Case Rye is the best two year old rye whiskey I’ve had, finished or not.
The $50 price tag is what really gives me pause. My inner cheapskate strongly resists paying that much for a whiskey so young, but I gotta say it tastes like a $50 whiskey. That said, I do hope it gets older. Minor Case Rye is recommended.
Palate: Juicy on entry. Medium bodied. Cherry, red currant, blueberry, pink peppercorn, strawberry.
Finish: Juicy with growing oak.
Parting words: Bel Lago winery lives up to its name, Italian for “beautiful lake”, with one of the most beautiful views on the Leelanau Peninsula. It overlooks Lake Leelanau, which is named after the peninsula & county which was itself named by Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft in honor of his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft who wrote under the name Leelinau, a neologism created by her or Henry. Henry used the name for Native American women in some of the stories he wrote. Henry created several other pseudo-indigenous place names in Michigan, including Lenawee, Alpena, Kalkaska and Oscoda, combining native words with Latin or Arabic elements.
Pinot Noir was one of the varieties hardest hit during the disasterous 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex vintages. I recently spoke to a Northern Michigan winemaker who told me that he was burnt out on the grape. This winemaker said that Pinot Noir is not worth growing in Michigan because it’s a pain in the ass to grow and it’s rarely any good (my paraphrase).
Bel Lago’s Moreno Vineyard Pinot Noir is a brilliant counterpoint to that view. Oak and spice provide the right amount of contrast to highlight the fruit that drives this wine. This wine is an excellent example of how good Pinot can be in Northern Michigan, at least in a long, hot year like 2012. $45 puts it at the top end of Michigan reds, but I think it’s worth the money. It’s as good as Pinto gets in Michigan. Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is highly recommended.
I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.
Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.
Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.
In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?
Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.
As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.
Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.
Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.
We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.
For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.
Maker: Blake’s, Armada (ar-MAY-duh), Michigan, USA
Style: Dry apple cider with cherries & orange peel
Price: $10/six pack of cans (Binny’s)
Appearance: Orange light bubbles.
Nose: Apple juice with a squirt of black cherry.
Palate: Medium bodied. Crisp apple, hint of cherry juice and citrus.
Finish: Biggest cherry flavor is here. A little citrus identifiable as orange peel when I look at the can.
Parting words: I bought Wakefire to have a flavored cider option at my annual Michigan-themed party in June. It was the more popular cider, even over a high quality dry cider also in a can. I didn’t get a chance to taste it that day, but I did later and I understood why. It’s easy drinking, but with enough flavor to avoid being dull. The cherry and orange peel are barely there, but I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. If the can says it has certain flavors, I expect those flavors to be present, but I also don’t enjoy ciders with too much flavor. If I ever resolve that conundrum, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, Wakefire is recommened.
Palate: Medium bodied and spicy. Peanut brittle, black pepper, clove, serrano chilies, butterscotch hard candy, caramels.
Finish: Creamy and a little fruity. Vanilla cream, dried dates, brown sugar.
Mixed: Did well mixed but hampered a bit by the proof. Tried it in a Manhattan, 8e Arrondissement, Frontenac and Mammamattawa.
Parting words: Highwood Distillers is a relatively new distillery, founded in 1974 in High River, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies. They’re Canada’s largest privately owned distillery. Centennial also comes in a variety of flavored iterations including spiced, maple, coffee bean and dark chocolate. In addition to the Centennial line, Highwood also makes the White Owl white rye whisky, Ninety, Century, Highwood, and Potters whiskies among others. They also produce vodka, gin, liquers and import rum.
I picked this one up during my last trip to the Windsor, Ontario LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores. The old ten-year-old expression of Centennial was a popular favorite with Canadian whisky lovers. The new NAS version is still popular from what I understand. I had heard good things, but never tried it. I was reluctant because of the low proof, but Centennial packs a lot of flavor into 40% ABV. It’s full of classic Canadian rye aromas with the wheat contributing just enough sweetness to pull it all together. It’s a well balanced but full flavored Canadian rye. Pick one up at your next opportunity. Centennial Limited edition is recommended.
I always seem to run into Sean O’Keefe when he’s busy. One time I ran into him was at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase in Detroit. He invited me out to see his new place of employment, Villa Mari (now Mari Vineyards) on Old Mission Peninsula. The winery was still being built then but he was eager to show me around anyway. I took him up on his offer over two years later, on July 7, 2017. In my defense, my wife and I did have a new baby in that time period. That baby tagged along with us.
Anyhow, when we walked up to the tasting room and asked for Sean, we learned he was in his office filling spreadsheets and he would be up in a few minutes. Mari’s tasting room and winery is in a beautiful stone building perched on top of a hill, The building (and the whole enterprise) is a tribute to the owner’s family origins in northeast Italy. It’s intended to resemble a Romanesque Italian monastery.
The tasting room has an airy Mediterranean feel with a decorating theme that could be described as “DaVinci Code”. Energy mogul and Upper Peninsula native Marty Lagina is the owner and founder of Mari Vineyards. He’s best known as co-star of the Canadian-produced reality show The Curse of Oak Island, in which Marty and his brother Rick search for treasure on an island in Nova Scotia. In the course of the show they consult with a number of self-described experts on “mysteries in history” type topics who link the yet-to-be-found treasure to Aztecs, Africans, pre-Colombian European mariners and the like. As playwright Anton Chekov once said, “Money, like vodka, turns a person into an eccentric.”
After Sean arrived and said a few words, he took us down the next level to the winery. There we tasted some of the white wines being fermented in the stainless steel tanks at the time.
We tasted samples of Pinto Grigio , Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. The Grüner was bound for Troglodyte Bianco, a white Pinot Blanc-heavy white blend Sean compared to his own Ship of Fools. There was one white Grigio (closer to an Alsatian Gris than an Italian Grigio) but also an “orange” version. If a rosé is a red wine treated like a white, then an orange wine is a white wine treated like a red. As is usually done with red wines the skins are left in contact with the juice for an extended period of time to add tannins, color and other things.
This style has become trendy recently, so much so that Sean prefaced pouring us some of this wine said he has resisted making hipster wines but this one is actually good. And I agree.
We also had three Rieslings each from a different vineyard. Sean likes to segregate wines by vineyard in the winery and the cellar so that they can develop their own character. It’s easier to then blend the wines together to produce the profile he wants for the expression. Or bottle as a single vineyard offering of course. The first one we tasted was dry (Sean made a point of pointing out that it was truly dry, not semi-dry like many Michigan Rieslings labeled as dry), the second was described as more of a semi-sweet feinherb style and the third was fruity like the second but even sweeter. About releasing the third one as a varietal Sean said, “People like this one [the most] but..”
After tasting the whites, it was down to the cave for the reds. The extensive cave/cellar was dug specifically for the winery though there were some utility trenches under where the winery is now.
The variety of reds in the cellar was staggering. The usual suspects were there, Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah but also estate grown Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Malbec and a number of obscure Northern Italian like Refosco, Teroldego, and Scuppatino. How can they grow these, you may ask? It’s due to their nellaserra system, aka hoop houses. They’re similar to cold frames, only they don’t go all the way to the ground, they just warm the soil under them more quickly. One the biggest surprises for Sean was how well some varieties did in this system, Nebbiolo in particular. On the other hand, others like Merlot don’t seem to do any better under the hoops than not.
Most of these wines will be blended, but some may be released as off-beat varietals on sub-labels.
We then went back up to the tasting room. They were officially sold out of white wines but we were able to sample some of Mari’s Malvasia Bianca. The grape is grown in Croatia, Friuli and California and a few other places. Mari’s Malvasia Bianca vines are the only ones in Michigan. The clone they planted is virtually extinct in Italy, according to Sean, but is widely grown in California. Unfortunately, it was not available for purchase at that time because Sean was still waiting on label approval from the TTB.
There were three reds available. Bel Tramonto (below), Row 7 (Cab Franc & Merlot field blend) and Ultima Thule (Cab Sauv, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah). All were very good. We came home with a bottle of Ultima Thule and a bottle of Row 7 at an 18% media discount. Both retail for $60 at the tasting room.
Sean started at Mari Vineyards as a consultant charged with hiring a winemaker for the new winery. As is often the case in these situations he ended up recommending and hiring himself. As the winery was being built, he made the wines at his family winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, of which he is still co-owner along with his father and brother. He was responsible for many of the “special” labels put out by CGT over the years like Ship of Fools, Whole Cluster Riesling and the acclaimed Lot 49 Riesling. Sean described his approach to winemaking as one that seeks to use as few interventions and additions as possible. He does add yeast to Mari’s wines, but he has experimented with wild fermentation. While he seeks to intervene as little as possible, he said he didn’t want to be like some natural winemakers who make mistakes and then take an “I meant to do that” attitude when their wine turns out funky.
As I was writing this review I sipped on wine from a 2010 bottle from Mari I found at A & L Wine Castle in Ann Arbor a year or so ago. It’s more of a Bordeaux Blend with a little Syrah thrown in than a straight up Cab Franc. Juicy but well structured. I recommend it, although there are very few bottles of anything from Mari Vineyards kicking around outside the tasting room anymore.
Look for an icewine in the near future, as well as more bottlings of Mari’s standard blends and a few oddball varietals.
Mari is still relatively new, but Sean has a brain that is constantly thinking about his wines and what he’s going to do with them. He didn’t ask me, but I’d like to see more dessert wines and maybe a passito from Mari Vineyards in the future. Even more fun might be planting some Trebbiano and hooking up with Black Star Farms or Red Cedar and producing an aged brandy. I’d love to see what spirits do in that cellar. Whatever is actually coming down the pike, I’m looking forward to it. Next time you’re in Traverse City, stop into Mari Vineyards tasting room!
Last week, I posted part 1 of my photos of the Castle & Key distillery, FKA The Old Taylor Distillery. The photos were of the World’s Longest Rickhouse and some other buildings on the site that were not yet restored. This week, the photos will be of the distillery itself (and associated buildings), the springhouse and the the dam.
For further reading on this building and Castle & Key check out what friend-of-the-blog Chuck Cowdery has had to say about Old Taylor/Castle & Key here, and posts on Old Taylor’s sister distillery, Old Crow here and here.
Other friend-of-the-blog Fred Minnick takes better pictures than I do. He’s been to OT/C&K several times. Here’s his visits from 2015, and 2013, just before the current owners purchased the property.
Also check out the Lipmans’ piece about Old Taylor and Old Crow from 1999 (with a 2015 update).
Palate: Fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh red pear, meyer lemon.
Finish: Mineral with a squirt of citrus.
Parting words: The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t think that’s true in most cases, but I think it does happen to St. Julian sometimes. St. Julian’s Heron series of sweet, plonky wines are best sellers in Michigan and elsewhere. Their tasting rooms are located in touristy areas and interstate exits. This could lead a person to dismiss St. Julian as an unserious winemaker only interested in trapping tourists or resting on its laurels as Michigian’s oldest and biggest winery.
Who thinks like this? Well, sometimes I do and that’s led to me unfairly ignore St. Julian’s wines. I’m hoping to rectify that with this review and some that will be coming later this year.
2013 St. Julian Riesling is a very enjoyable semi dry wine at a wonderful price. It does a nice job of representing both the grape and LMS terroir. It’s crisp, as a Riesling of this style should be, but as it warms a tropical fruit and a hint of petroleum appear. Nothing unpleasant, though. It pairs well with just about anything. $12 is a steal for a tasty, single vineyard Riesling from a good producer. St. Julian Riesling 2013 is recommended.