Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

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Non-beer drinking continues with a weekend full of wine, but since my wine knowledge is minimal, I looked around for recommendations. This particular selection has its origins in a Beer Lover's Guide to Wine that was posted by a friend of mine right after last year's Philly Beer Week. It seems to be a great overview of wine from a beery perspective. When he recommended a bunch of wines based on local beers, and one of the options was "Whatever's on draft at Tired Hands", I knew I had to check it out. The particular bottle recommended was, of course, no longer available, but when I spoke with the author, he mentioned that it was really about the grape: Sagrantino.

It's a pretty rare grape, only cultivated in the village of Montefalco and its surrounding areas, and is little known outside of the region of Umbria in Central Italy. It seems to be a somewhat common component in blends, but wines like this particular bottle are produced exclusively from Sagrantino grapes and feature a DOCG status designation (basically noting that the wine is produced within a specified region using defined methods and meeting a certain degree of quality). The vineyards are located in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and the soil is primarily comprised of clay with limestone and sand. The weather tends towards extremes, heat in the summer and cold in the winter, but the hardy soil protects the grapes from extreme heat and the mountains provide a cool breeze at night. The grape fell into obscurity for a while, but has received a renewed interest in the past few decades.

Sagrantino is known as an exceedingly tannic, astringent red grape. For the uninitiated, tannins in wine are derived from the grape skin and provide a certain amount of bitterness and mouth-drying feeling (similar to how hops provide bitterness to beer, though in this case the tannins are built right into the grape itself). This generally yields a very dry wine with a full body that matches well with hearty meals.

Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

2008 Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino - Pours a deep, dark red color, beautiful highlights when held up to light, moderate legs. Smells fantastic. Sweet, dark fruit, plums and the like are certainly present, but there's something earthy and rustic that really sets it apart. Leather, tobacco, oak, maybe even chocolate. Taste starts with all those earthy notes, quickly movies into dark fruit territory, plums, cherries, blackberries and the like, then a wall of tannins hit in the dry finish along with the return of those earthy flavors. Mouthfeel is full bodied, extremely dry, and a little astringent. It goes fantastic with rich foods, but is a bit too much to handle on its own. Overall, this is indeed quite funky and the Tired Hands comparison is not entirely unwarranted. Rustic, funky, robust, and complex, I quite enjoyed it. A- I guess, though I don't know where I get off rating wines. I'm the worst.

Wine Nerd Details: 14.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/13/15. Vintage: 2008.

Food Pairing: I didn't quite realize how important the food pairing would be with this wine, but I did have two separate things that went reasonably well. The first was a stromboli with Italian sausage, green peppers, and basil (along with the typical red sauce and mozzarella) that was quite hearty and matched well with the wine. Later, I had some charcuterie of wild boar that actually worked well too (supposedly, wild boar is a regional pairing, so it seems I chose well on this particular occasion). From what I can understand, this wine would go very well with various grilled red meats, so that's also an option.

Beer Nerd Musings: I don't know of any beers aged in Sagrantino barrels, though I'd be really curious about the result of such an endeavor. What effect would the high tannins have on the finished beer? I could see these barrels working for both sours and non-sour beers (though given the relatively exclusive nature of the grape, I imagine access to the barrels would be somewhat limited - perhaps there's some enterprising Italian brewers taking advantage of the situation). Obviously there's a parallel between tannins and hops, though it's not really a one to one comparison. Still, the earthy, funky components of this wine do really demonstrate just how extreme the differences in red wine can actually be (it wasn't quite so clear until Saturday, when I opened a Merlot that was exceedingly different from this wine - more details on Thursday).

So there you have it, a very interesting wine. I've already snagged a couple bottles for my cellar and plan on aging them a while (supposedly the high tannin content is actually very conducive to this sort of thing).

Charbay R5

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We continue our temporary tour through other realms of boozy glory with a rather unusual whiskey. Charbay is a small distillery and winery located in Napa Valley, and amongst whiskey nerds, they are most famous for distilling beer. Now, technically all whiskey is distilled from something called beer and the process for making that beer is similar, but it's usually not hopped beer. With Charbay we're talking about finished, commercial beer, hops and all. In this case, the R5 is distilled from Bear Republic's flagship IPA, Racer 5, then aged in French Oak barrels for 29 months.

The process used by Charbay is apparently mildly controversial in that it's not entirely clear if the whiskey is just pure distillate or if they've actually added hops later in the distillation process. Hops are certainly a volatile ingredient, one that does not respond favorably to heat or time very well. I would not be surprised at all if they did some form of dry hopping after the distillation process is complete (i.e. after the heat is applied), but the details are not actually known.

Racer 5 is made with copious amounts of American C hops (Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial), which would leave me to believe the result would be citrusy and floral, with a little bit of hop spice and maybe some herbal character as well. A pretty standard American IPA profile. If it turns out that Charbay is dry hopping (or using some other technique), I would be doubly curious as to what varieties they're using. Not to give away the review, but I really enjoyed this whiskey. While very hoppy, I probably would not have guessed American C hops from what I get out of this whiskey. Could be due to the distillation and aging process, or it could be that they're dry hopping with noble hops or something (possibly all of the above). Not that this means anything, because my hop detection skills aren't that finely tuned. Whatever the case, they're doing something right, as this is some unique and tasty hooch.

This is naturally right up my alley. When I first learned of this concept and saw, for example, Sku's general enthusiasm, I was determined to track down a bottle of this stuff. It's a bit pricey, but I'm glad I took the plunge. Let's take a closer look:

Charbay R5

Charbay R5 - Pours a light golden yellow color with moderate legs. Smell has that distinctive new make character to it, but the hops come through strong. More floral up front than I would expect from all the American C hops in Racer 5, but that citrus is peeking in as well. And truth be told, I tend to think of Centennial and Columbus as being more floral than citrusy anyway, so perhaps that's not too surprising. Taste again features new make booze, but the hops save the day. Like the nose, the hops are floral and almost spicy up front, but provide a more citrusy honey-like note towards the finish. Mouthfeel has a nice spiciness to it, a little heat too. Maybe that's just may baby palate talking though, as all whiskey has a little harsh heat for me. Overall, this is a fascinating dram of whiskey here. The hops come through, but not quite in exactly the way I expected. Nevertheless, I enjoy drinking this and am quite happy with the purchase (despite the relatively high price tag). B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 99 proof, 49.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/8/15. Lot: R5 511A (this was the 2014 release).

Beer Nerd Musings: Aside from several other Charbay variants on the theme, there are a bunch of other spirits that are distilled from drinking beer. There's one called Son's of Liberty that claims it starts as an IPA (not specified whether it's a commercial version or one they make themselves) that is distilled, aged, and then dry hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace (which are some pretty fantastic choices). This seems to mostly be a small distillery thing, and I do have to wonder how more mature whiskey would react. Sku mentions a 12 year old version of distilled pilsner that was made for the LA Whiskey Society, and according to some reviews, the hop character has faded somewhat (or been overtaken by the oak, or both), even if it's still described as excellent whiskey.

I would be curious to see what other beers would make a good base for this sort of treatment. In terms of hoppy beer, I'd look at something like a Tired Hands or Hill Farmstead IPA. They both have super citrusy, juicy takes on the style (which I suspect is due partially to the yeast they use as well as the use of newer aroma hops). Would that character survive distillation? Or would that bright citrus turn into dank pine in time (nothing wrong with that either, to my mind)? Anchor made a spirit out of their vaunted Christmas beer called White Christmas, where I assume the spices would come through in the finished product.

I suspect the barrels used for this whiskey would not be the best to use for beer. The subtle hop character would get blown away by big, assertive stouts, or would get lost in the mix of a hoppy barleywine and new make whiskey doesn't quite integrate with beer as well as moderately aged stuff. That being said, there's really only one way to find out. I'm clearly not an expert on this stuff.

Well there you have it. Stay tuned for some wine reviews next week... and a couple weeks after that, a triumphant return to beer.

Orphan Barrels

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Beer nerds are familiar with all sorts of marketing hooey, mostly from the Bud/Miller/Coors behemoths (Triple Hops Brewed? Wow!), so it's not surprising to see it in other realms of boozy glory. The whiskey world seems particularly susceptible, as the high costs in producing well-aged juice mean most of the best stuff is produced at distilleries owned by multi-national corporate entities.

Enter Diageo's Orphan Barrel project, a series of high-age bourbons they said had been sitting "lost" in one of their warehouses and only recently rediscovered, a claim that lasted about as long as it took Chuck Cowdery to write a blog entry (I'm going to guess somewhere on the order of 20 minutes). The marketing and faux claims of "limited" availability clearly cheesed off folks who take this thing seriously (and marketing in general seems to strike a bad chord no matter what we're talking about; even craft breweries get slammed for marketing when it works a little too well, like Brew Dogs, etc...), but as I always say, it's what's in the bottle that counts. I'll let others recount the history in more detail, but while the marketing gives people hives, most people seem to be agreeable when it comes to the juice itself.

The two Orphan Barrel bourbons that I've had are very similar on paper. Both are 20 years old, 90 proof, and they use the same mashbill (75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley - Though I've seen conflicting reports). The whiskey newbie will invariably glom onto some poorly informed heuristics in choosing a whiskey, and one of the most common refrains is that "older is better", a sentiment that I admit I find somewhat appealing myself. Intellectually, I can understand the tradeoffs at play here. Older is certainly older and usually rarer and more expensive, but not necessarily better. Thanks to the Angel's Share, there's going to be a lot less older bourbon than younger bourbon (even in the same number of barrels).

I've read lots of bourbon nerds who claim that old bourbon is over oaked and undrinkable and, like, those bottles of Pappy 23 they have in their bunker are really nothing special. That's great, but I've found that the best way to tell what I like is to go out and try a bunch of stuff, and most 20+ year old bourbons are either prohibitively expensive (I could spring for a $215 bottle of Elijah Craig 23, I guess) or impossible to get a hold of. And look, I get it. I jump through incredible hoops and pay absurd premiums to get a taste of beers that are sometimes not worth the effort, so I can understand the impulse to impart such wisdom. Still, I like that these Orphan Barrel bourbons are extra-aged, readily available, and while expensive, not nearly as costly as other comparably aged bottles (Barterhouse cost about a third of that EC23 bottle... though who knows how the quality compares).

And now I know what over-oaked bourbon tastes like. As someone obsessed with barrel aged beer, the notion of "over-oaked" wasn't quite a turnoff, but now that I've had some, I can say I'm a little more mixed than I thought I would be. So last Saturday, I poured myself a dram of each and compared and contrasted:

Orphan Barrel Bourbons, Barterhouse and Rhetoric
(Click to Embiggen)

Barterhouse - Pours a golden orange color with moderate legs. Smells of oak (almost sawdust), a little vanilla and corn, lots and lots of spice. Taste also hits those spicebox notes pretty hard but it's really quite oaky and dry. Mouthfeel is minerally and dry. Very, very dry (not like red wine dry, but for bourbon, it's very dry). A little spicy kick in the finish along with the booze. Overall, a pretty solid little number, lots of oak and very dry. I can finally see what people talk about when they say that older whiskey is "over oaked", even if I feel like this comports itself well, even if the oak is the dominant character. It's not particularly well integrated, but I'm enjoying it well enough. B

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 3/7/15. 20 years old.

Rhetoric - On paper, very similar stats, but the plan for Rhetoric is to release an older version every year (i.e. 2015 will see 21 year old Rhetoric, 2016 will be 22 years old, etc... on to 25 year old). Looks about the same and shares a lot of the same characteristics. Nose is woody and dry, a little lighter on the spicebox, not as corny either, though it has a nice almost caramelly aroma. There's something lighter playing around the edges here too, not quite fruity (though it may have been like that when this was, say, 15 years old or something - now I think the oak is really trying to overtake that). Taste follows along. Less spice than Barterhouse, just as much if not more of that dry oak. Does not feel quite as complex as Barterhouse, reliant more on the oak here. Overall, unbalanced but still a decent dram, cut from the same cloth as Barterhouse, but with subtle differences. I like Barterhouse better, but would be really curious to try the 21 year old (or 22 year old, when that comes to pass). B

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 3/7/15. 20 years old.

Beer Nerd Musings: My scientifically wild ass guess is that older barrels aren't necessarily the best to use for aging beer. The oak seems to be spent, so the only thing the barrel imparts in the beer is a whole lot of bourbon. Unless, that is, you age the beer for a very, very long time (Bourbon County Rare spent 2 years in Pappy 23 barrels and is a prized brew, though I've never had the opportunity to try it). That being said, I have to wonder how well these bourbons would work in a homebrew that used fresh oak chips/cubes... something that's probably not realistic at this price point. Also, I'd totally hit up some more beers aged in very old barrels, just to be able to confirm my hypothesis.

So there you have it. These are far from my favorite bourbons, but they are not bad at all and I have to admit that I'm pretty curious about the other Orphan Barrel entries (Particularly the 15 year old Forged Oak, which maybe won't be so insanely oaky, despite its name?) And there is something romantic about really old whiskey that's worth considering as well. If I've learned anything from beer, it's that rare tastes so much better than not-rare. /sarcasm

In the meantime, look for another whiskey review on Thursday (this one will be of particular interest to beer nerds). This weekend is looking like wine, so expect a couple posts next week. Then there's Pliny the Younger day and Fat Weekend to contend with, followed by some more bourbon, at least one Scotch, and whatever else I feel like drumming up during my temporary detour away from the glorious world of beer.

Around this time of the year, I'm normally brewing up a batch of Fat Weekend IPA, a beer brewed for a specific gathering of portly individuals from across the country. Well, it looks like Fat Weekend will be scaled down a bit this year due to an inability to align schedules. A quorum of chubby friends will be traveling to New York, but we'll be spending most of our time at bars or restaurants, so no brew needed.

But just because it's not strictly needed doesn't mean I shouldn't make anything, right? I've actually been woefully inactive on the homebrewing front. My last brew, a barleywine that I ended up calling Trystero, turned out ok, though it never carbonated in the bottle and I had to dump it into a keg, where I was able to force that carbonation, at which point it was rather great. Well, it's kicked and I need something else to put in there, so here goes nothing.

I started from the base Fat Weekend IPA recipe and amped it up a bit, now hitting DIPA territory (though still on the lower end of that scale):

Beer #16: Double IPA
Full-Batch (5 gallons)
March 7, 2015

12 oz. CaraPils (specialty grain)
8 oz. Crystal 20 (specialty grain)
6 lb. Muntons Extra Light DME
1 lb. Muntons Wheat DME
8 oz. Turbinado Sugar
1 oz. Simcoe (bittering @12.3 AA)
1 oz. Amarillo (flavor)
1 oz. Amarillo (aroma)
1 oz. Citra (aroma)
1 oz. Amarillo (dry hop)
1 oz. Citra (dry hop)
GigaYeast GY054 Vermont IPA Yeast

Ingredients for my homebrewed DIPA
(Click to embiggen)

Several tweaks to the Fat Weekend IPA recipe are worth mentioning. First, the inclusion of wheat in the grain bill. Nothing fancy, just a pound of basic wheat DME (which is actually only 55% wheat). So this isn't going to be a white IPA or anything, but it will hopefully soften things up a little and provide a nice platform for the hops. Second, the hop schedule is tweaked a bit as well. Last year's brew turned out a bit too bitter, so I'm just sticking with 1 ounce of Simcoe this year. As with last year, Amarillo pulls flavoring duty and a blend of Amarillo and Citra will serve as the aroma and dry hop additions. I may actually grab some more hops for that dry hop addition, depending on what's available and when I can get to the shop...

Finally, the biggest change of all, the use of GigaYeast GY054 Vermont IPA Yeast. This is the infamous "Conan" strain of yeast that is used in Heady Topper (and seems similar to the yeast used by other Vermont heroes as well), and is finally available to homebrewers (albeit in limited, hard to find quantities). The general description sounds perfect. It's a mostly clean fermenting yeast that yields some slightly fruity, citrusy esters that are "amazing with aromatic hops" (like, hopefully, Amarillo and Citra). There are a few reasons I think Heady Topper enjoys the popularity it has, and one of the major ones is the yeast. The yeast costs a little more than your typical Wyeast smack pack, but it seems worth the stretch.

So the target here is an aromatic 8% ABV Double IPA. With attenuation in the 75-80% range, it won't be too thin, and with the adjustment to bittering hops, it shouldn't be too bitter. One of the things I've noticed from drinking so many Tired Hands IPAs is that they tend to be on the lower range of bitterness. Anecdotal observations indicate that their IPAs rarely exceed 60 IBUs (for reference, last year's IPA was somewhere on the order of 90-100 IBUs). This year's should be around 50 IBUs, which is actually a little lower than the style guidelines (which has a minimum of 60 for a DIPA). I'm hoping this will come out to be bright and citrusy rather than bitter and dank.

Original Gravity: 17.8 Bx, or 1.074 (exactly on target).

I have high hopes for this batch. It should be ready to drink right around the time my little break from beer ends, which is good timing. Up next, I'm thinking an easy drinking summer saison. Perhaps something of the more funky variety (I have some ideas about that, having learned from my previous attempt). All in good time. For now, I'm just trying to figure out what to call this batch. Going with the Conan theme, I was thinking Crom, but that might be too simplistic. "The Enigma of Steel" sounds like something Tired Hands would brew, a not entirely unwarranted comparison. Or perhaps I could combine the two and call it Crom: The Engima of Steel. But that sounds too ornate. This will bear some deep thought.

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Weblog)

Maker's Mark Double Feature

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For the unwashed masses (like folks who read and write beer blogs like this), Maker's Mark is probably the most common wheater out there. In bourbon nerd parlance, a wheater is bourbon where the secondary grain (after the defining corn) is wheat instead of the more typical rye. Other examples include the Weller line and the vaunted Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.

Speaking of ol' Pappy, he apparently helped out Maker's founder Bill Samuels Sr. with recipes and general advice. Unsure which recipe to use and (wisely) unwilling to make batches of each and wait a few years to find out which he liked best, Samuels simply baked a loaf of bread with each mash bill. Of the seven loaves, the one without rye was deemed the best (the mash bill is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% barley), and thus Maker's Mark was born. Or so the urban legend goes, as I'm almost certain this is apocryphal or at least a tongue in cheek reminiscence. Whatever the case, Samuels made the decision to use wheat because he liked it better than rye. The iconic branding, on the other hand, was the work of Samuels' wife Margie. She named it, drew the label, and devised the distinctive red wax dipped look. Not an insignificant contribution, if you ask me.

For the longest time, Maker's Mark was a pretty straightforward brand, with only one major expression (there was a limited release of a Mint Julep variant, and some export bourbons at different ages and/or proofs as well). Maker's was basically just that ubiquitous red waxed bottle stuff. In 2010 they introduced Maker's 46, which is basically regular Maker's finished on French Oak and bottled at a slightly higher proof. Then, in 2013, they famously announced that they'd be lowering the proof of standard Maker's from 90 to 84 (the notion being that this move would increase yields and thus ease some of the supply issues they were facing in this bourbon boom we're currently enduring). They quickly backtracked due to a very swift and vocal outburst from fans. And now it appears they've completely reversed course and released a cask strength expression (basically, this is undiluted juice, straight from the barrel). It's a limited release, but it's been surprisingly well stocked (at least, in PA stores), perhaps because of the small packaging mixed with high(ish) price.

I have, of course, had a few drams (er, shots) of Maker's over the years, but have never really sat down and sipped it, so I made sure to grab a sample bottle of regular Maker's to compare to the cask strength version. Standard tasting note disclaimers apply: I'm a beer nerd and thus these baby palate tasting notes are almost certainly not going to please whiskey aficionados. Cut me some slack guys, I'm giving up my preferred drink for a few weeks. Also, check out my forced perspective skills. It's not perfect Lord of the Rings style forced perspective, but I was pretty happy I managed this given my meager cameraphone and about a minute of preparation:

Makers Mark Forced Perspective
(Click to embiggen)

Maker's Mark - Pours a golden color with just a hint of orange and loose legs. Smells sweet, lots of soft corn, some candy, light on the spice, booze. Taste has a nice, mellow corn character, some sweet candy, again very light on the spicebox (there's something there, but not much at all, I'm guessing it's coming from the oak). Mouthfeel is light, sticky, soft but with a little boozy heat (sorry guys, my baby palate is used to beer, so all whiskey feels hot to me). Feels pretty thin when tasted side by side with the cask strength, as you might expect. Overall, this is pretty standard stuff. It's not my favorite of the slightly above entry level bourbons that I've had, but it's nice enough and I have to admit that I generally seem to gravitate towards high rye recipes. B-

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (50 ml sample size). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 2/27/15.

And what the hey, since the Cask Strength label was somewhat obscured by my lame forced perspective attempt, here's a closer look:

Makers Mark Cask Strength

Cask Strength Maker's Mark - Pours a slightly darker golden orange color (not as big as the difference between Four Roses and Cask Strength Four Roses, my only other comparison) with thicker legs that hang around a while. Smells richer, with a more caramelized corn aspect than the regular though it's also got a sorta floral component to it, more spice (but still not a lot), some oak and vanilla come out to play too. I really like the nose after it sits for a while; caramelized corn, oak, and vanilla seem to open up and harmonize into something quite beautiful. Can definitely see the resemblance between the two, but the cask strength is more complex and powerful (as you would expect). Taste is oddly not any more sweet than the regular (maybe even less sweet), but the flavors are certainly more complex. That caramel corn, lots of floral character, almost herbal or earthy notes, heavier on the spice box, but still not especially spicy. Mouthfeel is definitely bigger and bolder, heavier, thicker, and much hotter (again, take into account my baby palate). Adding some water softens it up some, makes it easier to drink, but also mellows out some of the complexity in the nose. Overall, certainly an improvement on the standard expression, richer and more complex. Still not my favorite, but nice. B

Whiskey Nerd Details: 113.3 proof, 56.7% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 2/27/15. Batch No. 14-02

Beer Nerd Musings: Beer is typically a straight up barley malt affair, but both wheat and rye are sometimes used as secondary grains as well (corn is generally derided as a cheap adjunct as it ferments almost completely through and provides little to no flavor in beer - like rice, it is often used in light beer to increase the alcohol without adding any residual sugars...) As with bourbon, rye can add a nice spice component to beer (often used in conjunction with hops in a rye IPA or even barleywine style) and if used in large enough doses, can have a twangy fruit character. Wheat, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more mellow, though it does provide a great platform for weizen yeasts (as in Hefeweizen, etc...) In recent years, wheat has also enjoyed increased usage in small amounts in IPAs and saisons (along with oats and more obscure grains, like spelt), as its mellow nature provides a nice platform and complexity for the other ingredients of beer (like hops or yeast). Of course, wheat has always been around beer and, for example, lambics, dating back hundreds of years. Sometimes wheat and rye even end up in the same brew. It's a crazy world.

In terms of barrel aging, I can only think of one example that I've actually had that was explicitly aged in Maker's Mark barrels. It was Cigar City Capricho Oscuro - Batch 3, which turned out to be a bit overwhelmed by the bourbon (it was not as well regarded as the other batches of that beer). Cigar City also made a variant of Marshal Zhukov's Imperial Stout aged in Maker's barrels that was much better received (albeit super limited). Of course FiftyFifty has made an Eclipse variant using Maker's (though not this year). Oskar Blues finally made a bourbon barrel version of Ten Fidy, and yes, they used Maker's barrels (this is a current release, but I have no idea how common it will be). Of course, I'm sure their barrels are put to use in larger beer barrel programs, like Firestone Walker's or Goose Island's, but those are generally blends of all sorts of barrels...

I seem to have come down on the rye side of bourbon, though obviously I'll need to try some more wheaters to see what's up (perhaps I'll take a flier on a Weller). Still, even amongst the rye recipes that I've seen, I feel like I tend to prefer higher rye recipes. Well, only one way to test that hypothesis. Onwards and upwards, twirling, twirling towards freedom.

Stone Southern Charred

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I was pleasantly surprised and quite impressed with Stone's phenomenal barrel aged imperial stout, Fyodor's Classic, so I jumped at the opportunity to snag more from their barrel aging program. Then again, not long ago, I tried the Bourbon Barrel Aged Arrogant Bastard and found it to be rather disappointing. It was fine, I guess, but the hops and the barrel treatment sorta clashed and almost canceled each other out.

So I was a little anxious about this beer, which is Double Bastard aged in Bourbon Barrels for 5 months. They call them first-use barrels, though that's probably more accurately referred to as first use for beer, as the actual first use was obviously for bourbon. It's called Southern Charred because bourbon is always aged in charred new oak, and previous iterations of this beer actually incorporated a small proportion of beer aged in charred new oak as well (the 2013 vintage was 51% bourbon barrel, 8% charred American oak barrel, and 41% second-use bourbon barrel, and the aging times were 10-13 months). The 2014 release that I have here is 100% bourbon barrel aged, so I guess that whole blending thing was more trouble than it was worth (or maybe the 2013 batch was just a lot different). Whatever the case, I'm happy to report that these Quingenti Millilitre (500 ml) series of barrel aged Stone beers are legit:

Stone Southern Charred

Stone Southern Charred - Pours a murky amber brown color (rich mahogany) with half a finger of quickly disappearing light tan head. Smells of rich, caramelized dark fruits, raisins, plums, molasses, bourbon, oak, and vanilla. Taste follows the nose, very sweet up front, those fruits coming to the fore, rich caramel, vanilla, and oak in the middle, with a boozy bourbon finish where the hop bitterness also hits like a hammer to balance out the sweetness. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, lowish and appropriate carbonation. A sipper, but quite nice and well balanced for the intensity level. Overall, it's rock solid, barleywinish stuff. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 13.2% ABV bottled (500 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 2/14/15. Vintage: 2014. Batch No.: 6. Brewed: May 10, 2014. Bottled: October 2014.

The 2015 batch of Fyodor's Classic was just bottled, so rev up your FedEx accounts. That one is worth seeking out. Otherwise, I'll most certainly be keeping my eyes open for more Quingenti Millilitre beers (would really like to try the BA Old Guardian, but given the quality so far, I'd try just about anything) and keeping my fingers crossed that Stone will really ramp up their barrel aging program so these aren't quite so difficult to find...

Feuerheerd's Ruby Porto Reserva

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As the latest round of privatization talks ramp up in Harrisburg (don't hold your breath), it's worth noting that occasionally the PLCB does something decent. I mean, it's still a archaic system filled with draconian rules, the selection is generally unreliable, and the state stores are basically devoid of any personality whatsoever, but sometimes the combined purchasing power of the state does lead to a good deal or two. In particular, the Chairman's Selection program seems to offer some pretty deep discounts on select bottles of wine. On the whole, I'd much rather be able to find what I'm looking for than be at the mercy of the Chairman's whims (he says, as if he buys a lot of wine), but sometimes that guy selects something fun.

Enter Feuerheerd's Ruby Porto Reserva. I've seen this bottle around before (at least, I think this is what it was), the military stencils on the bottle are quite eye catching, but the price (around $30) was a bit too high for a reserve port (I went over the various port designations last year). Thanks to the Chairman, we've got a nice 50% discount going on here, with the bottle now selling for $14.99. I won't leave you in suspense, if you like port and live near PA, it's worth stocking up.

It's a little hard to come by info on Feuerheerd (no official website I can find, not even a Wikipedia page). Founded in 1815 as part of a series of businesses for Dietrich Feuerheerd, it's changed hands a few times since then, and came to be focused on port. These days, they appear to be a mid-list shipper when it comes to Vintage port, but this reserva is quite good. I'm not going to proclaim myself an expert, but it's probably my favorite expression of reserve yet (with close competition from Graham's Six Grapes). Thanks to the chairman, I can't imagine a better deal on port ever coming to pass. Let's take a closer look:

Feuerheerds Ruby Porto Reserva

Feuerheerd's Ruby Porto Reserva - Pours a very dark red color, purple around the edges, a little glint when held to light, nice legs. Smells fabulous, lots of fruits, plums, berries, and the like, with some oak, and maybe something more earthy, like leather or tobacco. Taste is very sweet, rich, tons of dark fruits, plums, cherries, berries, and the like, a hint of oak, spice, and booze. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, chewy, very sticky, a bit of boozy warming character, but very soft for a port. Overall, well balanced and very well crafted, certainly one of the better ruby reserves I've had, though it lacks the true complexity of a vintage porto. On the lower end of A-, a true competitor to Six Grapes (my current go-to), if not a superior option.

Wine Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (750 ml, about a week after opening). Drank out of a copita glass on 1/1/15. 2014 vintage.

Beer Nerd Musings: I wonder if anyone's ever tried to make fortified beer. I know there are a number of techniques that will yield super-high alcohol in beer, but nothing that uses a similar process to Port or Sherry. I suppose you could argue that a big, barrel aged stout or barleywine is a close approximation. After all, you're basically adding a small proportion of spirit to the beer (and for the most part, fermentation has stopped once it hits the barrel). Not quite fortified in the manner of Port, but along those lines perhaps. A quick googling reveals the practice of Needled Beer, basically beer spiked with spirits of some kind. Apparently the drink of choice for only the lowest sorts. And hey, looky, Great Divide made something called Needled Beer, a 20% ABV barleywine. That sounds rather more like it. Of course, there's only one checkin, and it doesn't seem to appear anywhere else (even Ratebeer or Beeradvocate), but hey, it's something.

I've been considering an oak aged homebrew that used port instead of bourbon (I'm thinking Wee Heavy as the style, but may resort back to barleywine or stout again), and given the price point on Feuerheerd's, it might be worth picking up an extra bottle for that purpose.

So there you have it, my first non-beer review of the year. Not sure if I'll be tackling any more Port this year, but maybe I'll grab a Tawny before the 40 days are up (Since I haven't really written about them before and I honestly haven't drank that many of them, that would probably work). I'll be keeping the lid on any Vintage ports I own for a while, but maybe next year... In the meantime, there will be some bourbon reviews next week, and at least one beer review while I'm at it. Stay tuned.

We Interrupt This Program (Again)

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Around this time last year, I took a wee break from beer:

In the 1930s, folks became very worried when their favorite radio programs were interrupted by special news bulletins. News back then tended to include things like Depressions and Nazis, so that was a pretty reasonable reaction. These days, the phrase "We interrupt this program..." is a pretty harmless declaration used half ironically to state things like how I'm not going to drink that much beer for the next six weeks or so.

See how I slipped that in there?

Well it's that time of year again, and I'm taking another break from beer, for largely the same reasons elaborated in that post. Believe it or not, last year's experience was a lot of fun. I had fun with some other beverages and my waistband was pretty happy with the experience too.

One thing I wasn't expecting last year was that I almost ended up blogging more than normal. I've been writing about beer for over 4 years, so all the writerly low-hanging fruit is pretty well exhausted. But I've barely scratched the surface of wine, whiskey, or tea. Not to mention whatever else I'll get up to this year. Plus, I find that writing about other booze from the perspective of a beer nerd can be interesting. So while the blog may slow down slightly, there should still be plenty to keep you busy (even if you're not a whiskey/wine/whatever type of person).

Plus, as with last year, there are a few instances when I still plan to drink beer. And I have a couple of reviews saved in the hopper that will keep us busy on the blog too. So stay in touch, it's going to be a bumpy fun ride.

Beer Club February

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Beer club was last Thursday! I started to write this recap when I got home, but I didn't get very far. As has been established frequently, I am the worst. But I'm here now to make amends. For the uninitiated, beer club is a monthly gathering of like-minded coworkers at a local BYOB for good food, optional libations, and general merriment. This time we checked out the newly opened West Chester branch of The Couch Tomato, a rather fine pizza establishment (in a sea of pizza places, this has immediately established itself in the local upper tier with America's Pie). I had a rather fine stromboli (called the "Italian Stallion") whilst imbibing the usual beery wares:

Beer Club for February 2015
(Click to embiggen)

For the sake of posterity, some thoughts on each are below. Since it's been a few days, these thoughts will be even more unreliable than normal, so take them with a giant, asteroid-sized lump of salt. In order of drinking (not necessarily the order in the pic):

  • Evil Genius Stacy's Mom - Has moderate amounts of goin' on. Citra hops come through a little, but it's not particularly accomplished compared to its Citra-based brethren. B
  • Jailbreak Welcome To Scoville Jalepeno IPA - Definitely a peppery beer, but not a ton of heat, which is nice. On the other hand, I feel like whatever hops it has going on are sorta canceled out by the pepper character. B-
  • Flying Dog Mexican Hot Chocolate Stout - Now this one has some heat to it, but it's a very well matched heat that matches better with the roasty chocolate notes of the base stout than an IPA. That being said, it wasn't exactly blowing me away. B
  • Alaskan Smoked Porter - I get the impression that sometimes people bring beers they bought but realized they don't actually want to drink a whole bottle of. I'm as guilty as anyone, and this is one such example. I don't mind the occasional smoked beer, but really haven't been in much of the mood for this sort of thing lately. As Smoked Porters go, this is a pretty great example. Still not exactly my thing though, and I'm glad I shared. B
  • Stone Enjoy By 02.14.15 IPA - Tastes about 5 days too old. Oh snap, breaking the law! Just kidding, it was fine, despite not following the rules on the bottle. It's a decent beer, and it's definitely grown on me, but I've never gotten the absolute love some folks show for this (and yes, I've had it fresh before too). B
  • Ballast Point Dorado Double IPA - Ah now this is the stuff. One of my contributions and a rock solid citrus and pine bomb, well balanced and tasty. B+
  • Armstrong Ales Bold Thady Quill - A pretty nice take on an Irish Dry Stout, roasty and light bodied. Not going to melt your face, but it'd make for a nice session. Also, probably not the best setting for this kind of beer. Would still love to try more from this local upstart. B
  • Kaedrin Trystero Barleywine - I feel like my keg should be empty right now, but it appears to be bottomless. The keg feels nearly empty, but I just filled up this 1 liter growler with no problem. Need to finish off that keg so I have somewhere to put an IPA! The beer itself is doing well enough. I do feel like I perhaps dosed it with a bit too much in the way of bourbon, which cuts down on some of the fruitier malt characters in the beer. Still good though. B+
  • Prairie Bomb! - Another of my contributions, I have to admit that I didn't realize this was a coffee dosed beer. I was really excited to try it, then initially disappointed by the coffee character. Still, I ended up drinking more of this than usual, and it grew on me. Rock solid and I can see why it's so popular, but it doesn't really approach my top tier. B+
  • Victory Moving Parts 03 - Technically, we'd left beer club and moved the party over to a local bar, which was having a Victory event. This was our initial pour, a Belgian IPA. Nice enough on its own, but nothing particularly eventful here. B
  • Victory Deep Cocoa - On cask with vanilla and something else that I don't remember. It could have been that I was just drunk at the time, but I kinda loved this. Deep, rich chocolate, vanilla, full body, really delicious stuff. Have not tried the regular version but this cask was hitting the spot, so let's give it an A-
And there you have it. Attendance was a little low, so I probably drank more than normal this time. Also, we didn't get to the Nugget Nectar, mostly because we've all had it several times already this year (even out of the can, which is, yes, very nice) but also because there were less of us there that night than normal. Crazily enough, some people didn't come because it was just super cold out (not snowing or anything, just really cold, low-single digits). I don't know what their problem is. Maybe I'm not the worst after all.

Imperial Eclipse Stout - Woodford Reserve

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At this point, I shouldn't be so surprised when another Eclipse variant does something unexpected, but here we are. The different expressions of whiskey really bring out distinct flavors from the base beer. Some leave a lot of roast from the base beer, others contribute huge bourbon, oak, and vanilla notes of their own. A couple fall somewhere in the middle of those poles. Then you've got the bourbon forward take. This time, we've got Woodford Reserve barrels that really bring out a chocolatey character in the beer (it reminded me of Huge Arker, but with more bourbon and oak retained in the finished product.)

Woodford Reserve seems to be a sorta mid-level bourbon. A step up from the standard labels and readily available, but not a face melter. I've had it before, but it honestly didn't make much of an impression (I've never bought a bottle, so I only had a single taste once). This particular variant of Eclipse seems to be rather well received though, so let's take a closer look:

Imperial Eclipse Stout - Woodford Reserve

FiftyFifty Imperial Eclipse Stout - Woodford Reserve - Pours a very dark brown, almost black with a finger of light brown head. Smells great, bourbon, oak, vanilla, caramel, maybe even faint hints of fruit. As it warms, an interesting (and uncommon for Eclipse beers) chocolate fudge aroma emerges. Taste is full of rich caramel up front, with the bourbon, oak, and vanilla emerging in the middle, finishing with hints of roast and char and a boozy bourbon bite. Again, as it warms, that chocolate fudge character comes out to play, really interesting. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated, some pleasant booze. Overall, this is a great barrel aged stout and one of the more distinct variants of Eclipse A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.9% ABV bottled (22 ounce blue pearl waxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 2/13/15. Vintage: 2014. Bottle Run: BR 1.

At this point, I've amassed a large enough collection of other Eclipse variants that I'm going to try and put together a comparative tasting. If all goes well, it will probably be in a month or so, so keep an eye out. In the meantime, I'm planning on trying a Four Roses variant next to some Four Roses bourbon, which should be fun!


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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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