Monday, September 26, 2011

Top Ten United States Craft Distilleries

For this post we're switching gears a bit. As a Certified Sommlier I'm classically trained in all things wine, but most don't realize this education also includes beer, spirits, cigars, and come no one ever asks me about tea? After a monster couple of weeks of tasting domestic craft distillates, I just had to highlight some of my favorites. Even the most avid wine drinker needs a change of pace now and then, right?

1. Hangar One - Alameda, CA

Let's start off with a bang: Hangar One. Until two weeks ago I had only read about it, but with just one sip of their Straight vodka I already knew it would be one of the best I would taste all year. Hangar One vodka is made by St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, a brand owned and distributed by Proximo Spirits of New Jersey City in New Jersey. The Straight label is produced from a blend of pot distilled Viognier grapes and column distilled wheat. The name pays tribute to the distilleries history. When founder Jorg Ropf founded St. George Spirits as an eau de vie style distillery in 1982, he new he needed a large facility to house the operation, so the company set up in an old airplane hangar on the Alameda Naval Air Station. Although founded in the early 1980's, it wasn't until 2001 that St. George Spirits began producing Hangar One vodka.

After tasting Hangar One's clean, smooth Straight vodka, I moved on to their infused vodka line, which includes Spiced Pear, Fraser River Raspberry, Kaffir Lime, Mandarin Blossom, and Buddha's Hand Citron. What I like about this line is that, rather than syrups or artificial ingredients, they use real fruit sourced from all over the US to flavor their vodkas. With just enough fruit influence in smooth-as-silk vodka, these tasty treats are a symphony for your palate. Since it was out of stock, I didn't get a chance to try their Chipotle-infused vodka, but I am told it is equally delicious. Really though, the best part about this product is the price, Hangar One hits the shelves at about $30 retail. Two GIANT thumbs up Hangar One!

2. Death's Door Spirits - Madison, WI

For number two on this top ten list we head to my homeland, the Midwest. And while the football rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota is fierce, there's none when it comes to spirits. According to the producer's website Death's Door takes its name from the body of water between Door County peninsula and Washington Island, the 22 square mile island from which the producer sources organic hard red winter wheat to make their vodka, gin and white whisky.

I first discovered Death's Door vodka, about year ago when I visited Bradstreet Craftshouse Restaurant in Minneapolis. The moment it hit my lips I knew it had to be on the spirit's list at the Veranda Lounge, one of our accounts in Central MN. Then about two weeks ago I tasted through the rest of the line. Let me begin by admitting that I'm not not the biggest fan of gin; but the Death's Door gin is outstanding. Line priced with the vodka at about $30 retail, this gin wasn't too "pine needle-y." Some of the juniper berries in the blend are even sourced from prestigious Washington Island. The final product in the line, the white whisky, isn't my favorite, but then again I'm not big on white whisky. I'm more of a barrel aged whisky kind of guy. And speaking of...keep your eyes open for a barrel aged whisky from Death's Door. I have it on good authority that something may be brewing, or should I say distilling.

3. Great Lakes Distillery - Milwaukee, WI

A little further east in Wisconsin, Great Lakes Distillery is a small-batch facility located in Milwaukee. They are credited as being the first Wisconsin distillery to open up shop since prohibition. According to their site they "hand-craft award winning distilled spirits in limited quantities using old world methods and traditions which [they] believe results in a superior product." Amen.

I had a chance to taste this line at Rare Steak and Sushi in Minneapolis last week where I met Guy Rehorst, the founder and distiller. After tasting the Rehorst Vodka I asked a really dumb question: "How many times do you distill your vodka?" Guy quickly replied, "Until it's good." With that I was hooked. He went on to explain that their goal is to produce the best spirit with each batch. Their line includes Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, Kinnickinnic: [KIN-I-KUH-NIK] Whiskey, Roaring Dan's Rum, Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit, Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin, Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Citrus & Honey Vodka, a line of Artisan Brandies, and Absinthe, all hovering around $30. Great Lakes Distillery boasts some value packed craft spirits as well as a few medals from the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including a double gold for gin and a silver for vodka, the highlights of the portfolio. Again, I'm not a huge fan of gin but the Rehorst is stunning.

4. 45th Parallel - New Richmond, WI

For this last Wisconsin distillery we head to a little town just 50 miles east of downtown Minneapolis, MN called New Richmond. 45th Parallel Spirits is a small, family owned distillery founded by Paul Werni. The name, as you may have guessed, pays tribute to the 45th parallel, a geographic line half-way between the equator and the North Pole on which the distillery sits.

Paul, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Minneapolis, MN chose the site almost by default. Werni had envisioned putting his distillery in an abandoned warehouse in downtown Minneapolis, but after researching Minnesota's policy and fee structure, he quickly realized that Wisconsin was a better fit for the operation. Paul, along with Toast Wine Bar and Cafe co-owner Scott Davis and a few others, have embarked on a quest to produce premium, no additive, corn-based vodka from the Midwest. In fact, all of their corn comes from a local Wisconsin farm. In addition to award-winning vodka, the distillery has recently released a gin and they are said to be working on a number of whiskeys to include rye, bourbon, and wheat styles. Keep your eyes out for these guys. They produce great stuff and have one helluva passion and hand for distilling.

5. Dry Fly Distillery - Spokane, WA

On to the Pacific Northwest for inspiration. Dry Fly Distillery was founded by two avid fly fishermen, Don Poffenroth and Ken Fleischmann. One day, knee deep in the Gallatin River, the two realized how lucky they were to be able enjoy the the beauty of Washington State everyday. So on a mission to bottle the mystical allure and purity of the Pacific Northwest, the two set up a small-batch distillery in Spokane and became Washington State's first licensed micro-distiller.

Today Dry Fly Distilling produces craft-distilled wheat vodka, a London Dry style gin and their newly released single malt whiskey, all using only locally grown grains and botanicals. I'm a big fan of their wheat vodka, and, again, for a guy who doesn't like the stuff much, they sure make a tasty gin. All hovering around the $30 retail price I think the clear liquids are the best in the portfolio.

6. North Shore Distillery - Lake Bluff, IL

Founded in 2004 and located in Lake Bluff, North Shore Distillery was Illinois' first boutique distillery. Today the still produces a range of products from vodka and gin to absinthe and aquavit.

The two best products in their portfolio in my humble opinion are their distinctly differnt gins. They offer two styles: Distiller's Gin No. 6 and Distiller's Gin No. 11. While they are both tasty, and for completely different reasons, I personally prefer the Distiller's Gin No. 6 which is a modern dry gin. They use botanicals from all over the world to create a complex, layered gin. They also offer a grain based North Shore Vodka and a citrus infused North Shore Sol vodka. Both are pretty good, but edged out by Death's Door and Hangar One. Their portfolio also rocks an absinthe they call Sirène Absinthe Verte and a US made Aquavit. The Aquavit was good...for Aquavit. I'm not crazy about this Scandinavia spirit, but cheers for attempting to produce a domestic version.

7. RoughStock Distillery - Bozeman, MT

Onward and upward to Bozeman Montana and the RoughStock Distillery, where fine American single malt whiskeys are being produced using local ingredients. The distillery offers a line of five whiskeys to include a barley mash Montana Whiskey, wheat-based Spring Wheat Whiskey, their cask strength barley Black Label, a white whiskey they call Sweet Corn Whiskey, and Straight Rye, you guessed it, a rye whisky.

The Spring Wheat was good...for a spring wheat. The rye won't be available until this winter, but I am anxiously awaiting it. And I've already expressed that I'm not overly interested in white whiskeys. That leaves the Montana and Black Label Whiskeys. The Montana Whiskey is RoughStock's flagship brand, made from barley mash, distilled twice, aged in virgin American oak barrels and released as small batch. It has great complexity and flavor, but if you really want complexity and flavor, check out the Black Label. It's a single barrel, non-chill filtered, cask strength version of the Montana Whiskey. Because they don't cut it with water, it's higher in alcohol (62.8% ABV versus the Montana Whiskey's 45%) and higher in intensity, but you'll pay for it. This is truly an artisan American whiskey to enjoy with good conversation and great friends. But only whisky-loving friends. Don't waste it on the rest.

8. Prichard's Distillery - Kelso, TN

The Prichard family has a deep history of distilling, both legal and...well...not. Today Prichard's Distillery is most famous for their line of American Rums, their award winning whiskey called Benjamin Prichard’s Double Barrel Bourbon, and their bourbon-based liqueur, Sweet Lucy.

As I mentioned, Prichard's produces a range of rums from Key Lime and Cranberry to Private Stock and Fine Rum. While I didn't much care for the flavored rums, I found the Fine Rum to be very interesting. The good kind of interesting. It's a cool domestic example of an aged rum. In addition to the Double Barrel Bourbon they also make a single malt whiskey, a Tennessee whiskey, and a white whiskey they call Lincoln City White Lightning. But what really interests me from their portfolio is their Sweet Lucy, a Duck's Unlimited-endorsed, bourbon-based liqueur. According to the producer: "Born in a duck blind and a frequent companion on duck hunts, variations of Sweet Lucy were generally homemade elixirs of peaches, oranges and apricots with lots of sugar and whiskey." I could never bring it hunting, because every time that sweet love hits my lips I scream out "Swwweeeeet Lucy!"

9. Noah's Mill - Bardstown, KY

Here we are in Bourbon country with the winner of a Double Gold Medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Noah's Mill Small Batch Bourbon is bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers in Bardstown Kentucky. To keep this list from consisting of ten bourbons, I had to make some cuts. It was like picking favorites with my children (which, let's be honest, is more tempting some days than others). But when the smoke cleared I ultimately kept the Noah's Mill by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers for its quality and character.

Like many bourbon producers, the story of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers is rich. The company was founded in the mid 1930's as the Willett Distilling Company, which it remained until the mid 1980's when Even G. Kulsveen (pronounced Evan), a native of Hamar, Norway and son-in-law to Thompson Willett, purchased the property from the Willett’s and formed Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. It's said that, to this day, Even continues to operate the facility, making a range of award-winning bourbons, including Rowan's Creek. Noah's Mill is the quintessential small batch bourbon, aged in wooden barrels, bottled by hand at 57.15% ABV, and bottle aged for a minimum of 10 years. Grab a glass and pour yourself a sniff, you'll see.

10. Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery - Frankfort, KY

Last, but certainly not least, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery at the Buffalo Trace Distillery facility, traces its history back four generations to pre-Prohibition whiskey distilled by family patriarch Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Senior. Today thanks to Pappy's grandson, Julian III, and his son Preston, the family owned and operated business continues to craft premium quality small-batch Bourbon in the classic Van Winkle style.

Ranging from straight bourbon to rye whiskies, all Van Winkle bourbons are aged a minimum of 10 years in charred mountain oak barrels. A double gold medalist in the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits competition, the Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon could be one of the finest mash whiskeys made. But at $250 a bottle, it better be! Check out the whole line. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Like what you read or hate it, leave a comment or harass me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ (handle if you want to tell me about your favorite craft distillery that didn't make the list. And like Cru Wine Online on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for more wine-related fun. Also, for spectacular food and wine pairing entertainment, please visit us at

Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Top Ten Vintages of the New Millennium

With the the fall season comes cooler weather, beautiful colors, and of course grape harvest. This wonderful seasonal change inspired me to focus this post on the great harvests of the new millennium.

1. Bordeaux, France: 2009
We start out this top ten list with a bullet, Bordeaux. Arguably the most controversial region in the world when it comes to the subject of great vintages, Bordeaux often blurs the line between great marketing and great wine. Take the turn of the 21st century for example. The 2000, 2003, 2005, and 2009 vintages were all touted as the best vintage of the decade. In the words of J.D. from Saving Silverman, "Isn't one-and-only supposed to be, like, one? And only? "

The reason I selected 2009 over the others of the decade was for its success on both sides of the river, or should I say estuary. A wet spring season, followed by hail in some places (reducing yields) and a dry summer resulted in rich, powerful wine with balance, structure, and great aging potential. Even a shitty winemaker couldn't messed up the 2009 vintage. Although believe me, plenty tried. Other great vintages of note in Bordeaux are the infamous 1945 and 1989, and the legendary 1900.

2. Burgundy, France: 2005
East of Bordeaux is Burgundy, a region with huge vintage variations due to its climate and its affinity for the finicky Pinot Noir grape. This region was a tough one, with 2002 producing such fresh wines. But my decision to highlight 2005 came from its success in both Burgundy and France as a whole.

2005 touted a dry summer in Burgundy, and September gave way to beautiful conditions for the final ripening process. The end result was ripe, dense wine showcasing great aging potential. There are so many great vintages of note in Burgundy (that don't even include sleeper vintages like 2008), so I'm just going to mention the most recent: 1985, 1990, and 1996.

3. Piedmont, Italy: 2000
Leaving France, which was hard to do, and heading to Italy, 2000 marked a great vintage in Piedmont for all wines from Barbera to Barolo. Vintages of note from the decade include 2001 and 2006, but it was 2000 that produced high-quality wines all over the region.

The year 2000 in Piedmont was loaded with extremes. It began with a warm spring that lead into a well-distributed rainy summer. July was damp and August was just downright weird, with hail coming at the end of the month (reducing yields in places like Alba). Most producers increased their grey hair count by 200% this vintage, but when the smoke cleared, 2000 became the iconic vintage for the region. Amazing, powerful Nebbiolo based wines, racy reds from Barbera, and so much more. Other vintages of note are 1996 and 1997.

4. Tuscany, Italy: 2001
South of Piedmont to Tuscany, where it takes a little more consideration and justification because there were four really good vintages at the turn of the century. The year 2004 produced great wines in Brunello di Montalcino, but fell short in Chianti. And while 2006 and 2007 are both looking outstanding and may best the 2001 vintage highlighted here, it was hot, so alcohol levels are a bit high, especially in 2007. Overall 2001 showed more balance in the wines produced (the few that were) and yielded great wines from Bolgheri to Brunello.

Like many great vintages across the globe, 2001 was full of extremes for Tuscany. A wet winter led straight into an even damper spring that was brought to a halt in April with a late, dangerously detrimental frost. June and July were mostly dry but August and September brought the region a roller coaster of weather, filled with conditions that ranged from hot to cold and humid to dry . These extremes thinned crops and created concentrated, complex fruit worthy of this top ten list. Other recent vintages of note are 1990, 1997, and 1999. Like every other region on this list there are plenty of sleeper vintages, like 2005, which is a great wine for early drinking.

5. Douro Valley, Portugal: 2007
To Portugal and the Douro Valley, home of the country's infamous port wine production. Like any "great" vintage it is our job as the consumer to decide whether a certain year yielded better wine or better marketing. While 2007 has been touted by many as possibly the greatest vintage of all time, producing 100-point wines from certain trade magazines, 2003 has had more time to develop. This was a tricky pick for me, but ultimately 2007 shows so much greatness I had to go with my gut, or should I say palate.

Most vintage-declared years in the Douro are pretty predictable: hot and arid. But 2007 brought about strange weather with plenty of rain in the spring and a cool summer that delayed harvest by up to two weeks in some places. Yields were lower, quality was higher, and the vintage prevailed as one of the best since 2003 - the last declared vintage before 2007. Other vintages of note include 1948, 1963, 1994, 1997, 2000, and 2003. Oh, and the legendary wines of 1927. If you get your hands on a bottle call me, I'd love to join you for a taste.

6. Spain: 2005
I'm not going to sugarcoat this, Spain has had some great vintages, including some really good ones in the last decade, and I LOVE Spanish wines. But this was the hardest pill for me to swallow on this list due to a lack of consistency across the country and even within regions. With that said it was a toss up between 2001 and 2005, with 2004 getting a brief thought. And since my heart wasn't really in this one, I pretty much flipped a coin and came up with some bullshit to defend the winner (tails). So here goes.

The year 2005 in Spain yielded quality wines in the country's major regions: Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero (which also produced great wines in 2004). The vintage was very dry, but not too hot. Still, yields were down as much as 40% in some areas. This resulted in a small crop full of concentrated fruit that produced balance, yet power. Other vintages of note region.

7. Germany: 2001
For our last Old Worlder on the list, we head to Germany, where there have been a string of really good vintages since the mid 1980's (excluding 2000). Germany was a toss up between 2001, 2005, and 2009, but in the end 2001 prevailed with its countrywide balance and finesse that came out of exceptionally ripe grapes at harvest.

A wet winter and spring in 2001 was followed by a heat spike in May. June was unusually cool, and July and August bounced back and forth between hot and humid and hot and dry. August, September and October were cool, but provided plenty of sunshine and very little rain, which resulted in ripe grapes that became balanced wines. Let me be clear, this one was very close. And I encourage you to keep your eye on 2009. It's going to be a doozy, especially for dry Rieslings.

8. California, United States: 2007
California has produced a number of quality vintages over the last 20 years. For this top ten spot I considered most of the decade, excluding 2003. But in the end, the textbook conditions the 2007 vintage allowed for great-quality wine to come from across the state. This progressive season yielded some of the finest wines ever produced in the US. And like 2009 in Bordeaux, the 2007 vintage in California allowed even novice winemakers to bottle quality wine. Other vintages of note include the mid 1980's and 90's, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon.

9. Willamette Valley: 2008
Like Burgundy France, the Willamette Valley prides itself on producing reds from the finicky Pinot Noir grape. And while I think there are plenty of great wines produced in off vintages, it just so happened that in 2008 the heavens opened up and blessed the Willamette Valley with perfect fruit.

I absolutely love this quote from the Wine Spectator as it sums up the vintage perfectly: "Sam Tannahill, partner and winemaker at Rex Hill Vineyards in Newberg, employed a baseball analogy to express the nail-biting atmosphere of the 2008 vintage in Oregon. 'We were down five runs in the bottom of the ninth and pulled it out,' he said. 'Then we looked up and realized it was the seventh game of the World Series, and we had won. At least that's how it felt.'"

2008 yielded the best fruit ever in Oregon, which isn't saying a whole lot because the industry is really quite young by even American, let alone international, standards. However, mark my words, great wines were produced even in vintages that were deemed "terrible" by trade magazines, to include the whites of 2007 and 2009. Other vintages of note are 2002 and 2004.

10. Australia: 2005
Last, and to be honest, least, is Australia. Now I thought and thought and thought about how I could include the 1998 vintage into this top ten list, specifically thinking about the Penfold's Grange. But to be fair I had to select a millennial vintage that was good and helped build a quality wine reputation in Australia. Ergo I will highlight the 2005 vintage.

Not much justifying here, this wasn't a hard choice. Clearly the best vintage of the decade, 2005 produced balanced wines in South Australia. Unlike any other vintage on this list, this was a year that yielded bumper crops. What separated 2005 from say 2004 or 2006 was the natural acidity and low pH levels in the grapes. The best wines from this vintage come from Coonawarra and Barossa. Other vintages to look out for are...well...let's be honest, just go find some '98 Grange.

Like all of my posts and any wine rank or rating, these selections are debatable. But that's why I write, to keep you talking. Leave a comment or harass me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ (handle if you want to tell me about a region or vintage that didn't make the list. Or write me a letter, I feel like nobody writes letters anymore.

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Until next time I'm Nick Barth with Cru Wine Online saying: It's your glass, fill it with what you like.


Certified Sommelier
Wine Director