98 Tanqueray No. Ten Gin (Schieffelin & Somerset, NY/Charles Tanqueray & Co., UK) 47.3% abv, $25. Initially the nose is softly perfumed with citrus zest and coriander, but then the juniper bursts through as if yelling, "Wait for me!" The juniper grows and grows in the nose, bringing with it the sharp notes that gin lovers crave. The body is big, round, and oily, and the palate—intensely dry—carries through from the nose, except for this time around, it’s the perfume/juniper notes that lead the way, with the softer citrus flavors, mingling with dark spices (orris root?), providing a complex backdrop. The gin disappears in the throat, but lingers on the palate for a long, long time. A gin drinker’s gin. So complex that, although we rarely recommend this: Forget the vermouth. This gin stands too well all on its own.
89 Jepson Old Stock Mendocino Alambic Brandy (Jepson Vineyards, Ltd., CA) 40% abv, $50. Pale gold in color; the nose is rich and fruity—cherries, blackberries—with a subtle oakiness providing a good counterpoint. The body is light but bordering on medium, and the palate comes as a complete surprise—dry, nutty, leathery, buttery, and completely the reverse of what the nose suggests. The finish is medium in length and dry. What an interesting brandy. This one gets high marks for showing the distiller’s skill in being able to produce a product with so many different aspects.
86 Jepson Signature Reserve Mendocino Alambic Brandy (Jepson Vineyards, Ltd., CA) 40% abv, $100. This medium-gold brandy bears an earthy nose that quickly becomes fruity/spicy, with a touch of old leather thrown in for good measure. The body is medium and buttery, and the palate is very spicy, with a backdrop of dried fruits—mainly raisins—mingling with some interesting notes of salt and fresh ginger. The finish is short and spicy.
80 Jepson Rare Mendocino Alambic Brandy (Jepson Vineyards, Ltd., CA) 40% abv, $34. Light amber in color; the nose is soft and fragrant with notes of honey, oak, and chamomile. The body is light, and the palate is simple, with oak notes predominating against a leathery backdrop that almost, but not quite, hides the chamomile flavor that lurks beneath. The finish is warm and long.
Spirits: Apertif Wines
94 Lillet Rouge Apéritif Wine (Premier Wine Merchants, NY/Lillet Frères, France ) 18% abv, $12. Crimson red in color, looking suspiciously like ruby port; the nose bears deep fruity aromas, with blackberries and orange zest at the forefront. The body is medium, leaning toward full, and the palate is surprisingly dry and herbal, with the fruit notes tucked into the pleasant background. The finish is warm and long-lasting. Although the Lillet Blanc works well in a martini, don’t use the Rouge bottling in a Manhattan —it just doesn’t work. Instead, sip this one over ice with a twist of orange.
93 Lillet Blanc Apéritif Wine (Premier Wine Merchants, NY/Lillet Frères, France ) 18% abv, $12. Pale straw in color; the nose is intensely winey, with distinct lilac notes rounding out the experience. The body is medium, and the palate presents notes of citrus—lemon, grapefruit, and orange—that blend wonderfully with herbal notes. The finish is warm, pleasant, and medium in length. This is the apéritif of choice when making James Bond’s Vesper Martini (gin, vodka, and Lillet—shaken, not stirred), but it also fares well when simply served on the rocks or over crushed ice with a twist of lemon.
90 Andrea Da Ponte Uve Bianche Grappa (Preiss Imports, CA) 38% abv, $50. The nose is soft and delicate, with hints of candied violets. The body is medium and very buttery, and the palate is sweetish, floral, and delightfully subtle. The finish is smooth and warm. This is an incredibly understated grappa that should delight lovers of this category.
87 Cuvée Ella Eau-de-Vie-de-Vin (Garretson Wine Company, CA) 40% abv, $120. The nose is soft and fragrant, with honeyed fruity notes mingling with a light peppery character. The body is big, rich, and creamy, and the palate is subtle, yet distinctly grapey, with an earthy backdrop. The finish is smooth and long. An interesting eau-de-vie. Although it isn’t overly complex, the balance in this bottling is perfect. Eau-de-vie lovers will enjoy Cuvée Ella, but it’s also a good bottling for newcomers to the category.
86 Andrea Da Ponte Grappa di Prosecco (Preiss Imports, CA) 42% abv, $45. The nose is sturdy, with big, sweet grape aromas leading the way, followed by citrus notes—mainly grapefruit. The body is big, and the palate follows the nose almost precisely, but here the spirit gets even bolder, charging into the mouth and making its presence known. The finish is long and smooth.
Spirits: American Whiskey
93 Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-year-old Rye Whiskey (Commonwealth Distilling Company, KY) 47.8% abv, $25. Deep red amber with flecks of dark brown; the nose is mainly floral, with some distinct lavender notes, a touch of butterscotch, and a hint of paraffin. The body is huge, and the delicate palate builds over time, showing a rich buttery-nutty spiciness, with hints of fresh mint and gum-tingling tobacco notes. The finish is warm and long, with minty spicy notes.
90 Old Rip Van Winkle 12-year-old Old Time Rye Whiskey, (Commonwealth Distilling Company, KY) 45% abv, $22. Rich walnut amber with flecks of dark brown; this straight rye whiskey bears a sweet, complex nose, with notes of brown sugar, maple syrup, caramel toffee, rich old leather, and a faint lavender note. The body is medium, leaning toward full, and the very spicy palate holds notes of cloves, cinnamon, old leather, a hint of crème brûlée, and a nice candied sweetness that’s reminiscent of dried fruits. The finish is very warm and spicy, almost verging on hot, but pleasantly so.
80 McKendric Western Style Whiskey (Inovatec Corp.,TX) 45.2% abv, $37. This walnut-colored whiskey bears a nose full of molasses, licorice, and lemon zest. The body is huge, and the palate is full of smoke, maple syrup, and molasses. The finish is long. You must be wondering what kind of whiskey tastes of smoke, maple syrup, and molasses. McKendrick is colored and flavored with oak and mesquite chips, and it must be the mesquite that gives it such a peculiar flavor. Having said that, we’re sure that there’s an audience for a whiskey such as this—perhaps in cowboy saloons?
Spirits: Tequila and Mezcal
94 El Tesoro de Don Felipe Silver Tequila, 100% Blue Agave (Robert Denton & Company, MI) 40% abv, $25. The nose is at once peppery and vegetal, with hints of mango and papaya lurking in the backdrop. The big, silky body bears a very complex palate that brings to mind damp forest floors. Then it explodes with butter, chile peppers, bananas, and even a touch of soy sauce. The finish is peppery, warm and very long. Quite simply, this is what tequila is all about. Sip it neat—and savor its intricacies.
92 Chinaco Añejo Tequila, 100% Blue Agave (Robert Denton & Company, MI) 40% abv, $40. This pale-gold tequila initially bears a round, fruity nose that quickly develops sharp peppery aromas. The body is rich and buttery, and the palate bears a spicy bite, with notes of sweet butter that quell the fire and a hint of cinnamon and green tomatoes in the backdrop. The finish is long and warm. We normally prefer silver tequilas over añejo bottlings, but this one has retained plenty of true tequila character rather than becoming subdued by aging. Sip it neat after dinner.
92 La Fogata Mezcal Añejo (Duggan’s Distiller’s Products Corporation, NY) 40% abv, $50. Very pale straw in color; the aromas are extremely vegetal, with a very faint smokiness that provides an interesting backdrop. The body is big and silky, and the palate, filled with wood-smoke flavors, is surprisingly understated. Some citrus notes also show themselves on the tongue, and the finish is warm and very long-lasting. If we hadn’t known we were tasting mezcal, we might have mistaken this bottling for scotch! It’s a very well put together spirit that gives us much hope for this category. Drink it neat.
Spirits: Blended Scotch
87 Duggan’s Dew Blended Scotch (Duggan’s Distiller’s Products Corporation, NY), 43% abv, $10. Pale gold in color; the nose is light and floral, with some subtle honey notes in the backdrop. The body is medium, and the palate, though simple in structure, is very well balanced, showing a hint of peat, a touch of honey, and even a little leather thrown in for good measure. The finish is medium, and nicely spiced. This is a wonderful "on-the-rocks" bottling, and just look at the price! Best Buy.
Spirits: Single Malt Scotch
85 Murray McDavid 1988 Highland Park Single Malt Scotch (Barrique Wine Company, IL), 46% abv, $60. Pale gold in color; the nose is initially soft and honeyed, but before long a peaty spiciness bursts through, with wonderful paraffin notes, a hint of cocoa, and even a dash of licorice. The big, robust body presents an unforgiving, bold, spicy palate with enough peat to keep a fire going for a couple of days or more, and a dash of soft leather provides a counterpoint. The finish is long, warm, and very spicy. Lovers of this distillery’s regular bottlings might not enjoy this one—it’s far bolder than we expected. But if guts is what you go for, this one’s for you.
83 Arran Single Island Malt Scotch, (Preiss Imports, CA/Arran Distillers, Ltd., Scotland) 43% abv., $48. Very pale straw in color; the aromas bounce back and forth between being light and floral to salty and peaty. The body is medium and very buttery, and the palate is spicy, with honey notes playing off a rather mild peatiness. The finish is fairly hot. This is the first offering from a new distillery on the Isle of Arran, and although it could use some extra time in the wood (there’s no age statement but, by law, it must be at least three years old), this malt shows much promise. We can hardly wait to see older bottlings in years to come.
Golan Heights Sparkling
88 Yarden Blanc de Blancs NV (Galilee); $22. Actually a 1992 vintage wine, but not so designated, this is a very commendable effort. Nice nose with vanilla, yeast, and doughy aromas. Apple and spice flavors and a full, buttery element on the palate. Good body and weight, a crisp mouthfeel, and a finish with good length and focused, mildly tart green-apple flavors.
86 Yarden Brut NV (Galilee); $20. Shows a toasty, nutty nose. Apple, lime and slate flavors follow. Medium weight in the mouth, with a fluffy mousse and a tangy, dry finish.
Golan Heights Reds
90 Yarden 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon (Galilee); $20. Very nice nose with deep cassis aromas, accented by oak and herbs. Berry and plum flavors, with smoke and chocolate-coffee nuances. Full finish of good length, showing blackberry fruit and tobacco, with well-dispersed tannins.
88 Yarden 1996 Merlot (Galilee); $20. Deep chocolate and orange aromas. Cherry flavors, and a very supple feel, with a nice acid backbone to hold the wine together. Cocoa and earth on the finish, which shows soft tannins.
87 Gamla 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon (Galilee); $12. More like Bordeaux than California Cabernet. Bouquet of medium red fruit, toast, plum and tobacco. Black fruit, spice, pepper and coffee flavors. Smooth finish with easy tannins and a cool streak through it. Not a dense wine, but a flavorful and good one. Best Buy.
87 Yarden 1998 Mt. Hermon Red (Galilee); $11. A fine affordable red, offering engaging, positive aromas and flavors on a fairly light frame. Easy drinking, with some medium red berry fruit and plummy aromas and flavors. Earthy notes add a touch of complexity. Juicy, yet balanced; cheerful and likable. Best Buy.