SP: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay/Traverse City, Michigan, USA
SL: Slivovitz (traditional Damson plum brandy)
SP: Damson plum eau de vie “made in the traditional style”
SL: $26 Michigan state minimum
SP: $27.50 (website)
SL: Varnish, plum pits, oak.
SP: Underripe plum, varnished wood.
SL: Full-bodied and sweet. A little fruit then all burn.
SP: Light-bodied. Fruit then a little burn.
SL: Mild and sweet.
SP: Fruitier but less sweet. Long.
Parting words: The Maraska distillery is located in Zadar on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. It’s the oldest continually occupied city in Croatia, first mentioned on a Greek instription in 384 BCE, but is likely much older than that. It was refounded as a Roman colony in 48 BCE. I had trouble following the timeline on the Maraska website, but it seems that Maraska was founded in the 18th century by an Italian businessman (it was under Austrian rule at the time). Maraska produces a wide range of liqueurs including its flagship maraschino. Its Slivovitz is widely distributed in the US, or at least is in the US. It is certified Kosher.
Black Star Farms is no stranger to readers of this blog. Their spirits line includes an eau de vie of just about every fruit anybody distills. Their website invokes Slivovitz in the blurb on Spirit of Plum, but its unclear if they use ground up pits in the production of the spirit like slivovitz manufacturers do.
I didn’t do a lot of digging into the world of Slivovitz before I chose Maraska for this exercise. I just found one that was relatively cheap. Maraska is what it is. It doesn’t have much going on except sweetness and burn. What plum character exists is subtle.
Spirit of Plum is elegant and has much more fruit character. It works best as a pleasant, slightly rustic, summertime digestif. Although it’s nearly twice the price per ml, I’d rather have 375 ml of Spirit of Plum than 750 ml of Maraska Šljivovica. Spirit of Plum is recommended. Maraska Šljivovica is not.
The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.
We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”
I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.
That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”
Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.
The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.
Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:
Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31, Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval.
More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.
Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.
What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.
Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.
It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.
What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.
As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.
Palate: Medium bodied. Corn whiskey with a bit of rye spice with creamy malt on the back-end. Green cardamom, milk chocolate, oak.
Finish: Drying, chocolate covered pretzels.
Mixed: Stalk & Barrel Red did very well in all cocktails I tried: Old Fashioned, high ball with ginger ale, Manhattan, Trois Rivières, and a couple of others I don’t remember.
Parting words: Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein (actual names of two different people) founded Stillwaters Distillery, makers of Stalk & Barrel, in 2009. Their first blend was 11+1. It was entirely sourced. It has since been replaced by the Stalk & Barrel Blue (40% ABV) and Red blends which contain a combination of sourced and Stillwaters distillate. Stillwaters may be best known for their highly regarded Stalk & Barrel 100% Malt whisky which sells for $70 at the LCBO ($54 US). They also have a new (I think) 100% Rye whisky which sells for about the same price. Both are entirely made from spirit distilled by Stillwaters.
Red blend’s price is a great one in Canada. Not so much in the US. This is a good weeknight or mixing blend, but it’s not $42 US good. If you can get a bottle at LCBO prices, Stalk & Barrel Red Blend is recommended.
Mixed: OK in a Martini and Negroni. Very nice with tonic and in a Tom Collins.
Parting words: The Petoskey stone is the state stone of Michigan. It’s common around lakeshores in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, especially near Charlevoix and, you guessed it, Petoskey. Polished Petoskey stones are a popular souvenir from summer vacations in the area. They’re chunks of fossilized coral formed in the Devonian period roughly 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. Loads of Petoskey Stones were deposited in northern Michigan by glaciers at some period in the past, unknown to Wikipedia. As real midwestern heads remember from school, large, shallow inland seas covered much of the central US in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. As a result, fossils of sea life are common throughout the region.
High Five is a start-up micro-distillery in Petoskey with a tasting room. It’s owned by brothers Adam and Mike Kazanowski along with someone named Mike Kolkmeyer. As far as I can tell, their only products so far are Gypsy Vodka and this. They say that a rum (unaged one assumes) is on the way next.
Petoskey Gin is a drinkable, juniper-forward gin that excels with tonic and in a Tom Collins. It’s a summertime-at-the-lake gin. Not too weird, not too demanding, not too expensive. Well, two outta three. $30 is too much for this, but with the standard micro-distillery mark up, it’s not too far out to sea, or out to lake, as it were. Petoskey Stone Gin is mildly recommended.
Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Sweet sherry, old oak, toffee.
Finish: Rubber, oak, alcohol
Parting words: Copper & Kings is one of the few microdistillers that is taking brandy seriously. In fact, they do more than take it seriously, it’s the heart of their business. They have six brandies on Michigan shelves, including an unaged apple brandy and the aged Floodwall.
Floodwall has a lot of things going for it. It’s 100 proof, a rarity for brandy (although Laird’s does make a bonded apple brandy), is under $50 (a rarity for aged craft spirits), mixes well and tastes a little like an old Calvados.
That last item is also its greatest weakness, though. My favorite apple brandies are ones that are mature but still retain some apple character to balance out the cask characteristics. Old Calvados is usually all cask and Floodwall is too. In Floodwall’s case, the cause is not age, but heavy handed use of sherry cask. There are some interesting things in the nose and on the front end of the palate but it all quickly turns one dimensional. If you like big sherry finishes, you’ll probably like Floodwall, but I wasn’t very keen on it. Floodwall is not recommended.
Mixed: Gives a nice, clean Pine-sol® aroma to classic gin cocktails.
Parting words: This gin is wildly unbalanced. Its sibling, Old Cockney, teeters on the edge of enjoyability, but the barrel-aged version falls right off the cliff. Most barrel-aged gins bring a creamy sweetness to cocktails, but that’s entirely absent here. No mixer can really stand up to the agressive piney-ness of this gin. It leaves all cocktails in ruins, no matter how good or potent the mixers. For $2 less, you can get Valentine’s barrel rested Liberator gin which is superior in every way. Barrel Reserve Old Cockney Gin is not recommended.
Maker: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)
Grape: Vidal Blanc.
Age: 8 y/o
Price: I forgot.
Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.
Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.
At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.
Mixed: Added a fruity note to most of the classic cocktails I tried, but does ok with tonic too. Not great in a dry martini, though.
Parting words: I had several questions about the gin and I sent the fine folks at New Holland a message with those questions a few months ago and they never responded, as usual. As a result, I have no idea what variety of wine the barrels held or if they were sourced from a Michigan winery or somewhere else. It would be cool if they were from Michigan, though.
This will probably be the last New Holland spirit I review because I’m sick of reviewing their stuff and not having my existance acknowledged even in the most basic ways. That said, Brixx is pretty good and the price isn’t awful for a barrel finished craft gin. Brixx 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.
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).