Spirited Reviews

I am finishing this week's reviews before leaving for Moscow, where I'm hoping to be shown around the city's bars by Diageo Reserve Brands, not least guided by the reviews we published recently here. Hence, it seems only fitting that I start with a bunch of their products before reviewing the new products which have crossed my desk over the past week.

Ron Zacapa 23 Sistema Solera Gran Reserva 5/5

40% alc./vol.
Producer: Añejos de Altura SA, Guatemala

Ron Zacapa is famously aged in warehouses one-and-a-half miles above sea level among soaring Guatemalan mountains and active volcanoes. The Ron Zacapa label was launched in 1976 and is a rum agricole, meaning it is distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses.

Ron Zacapa is produced from the first pressing of sugar cane juice. Referred to as 'virgin honey', this has 14% sugar (76-77 brix) and is heated to evaporate water and concentrate the sugary solution. The natural yeast culture used to ferment this sugary juice was originally taken from pineapples and batch fermentation occurs in closed tanks.

After distillation, the spirit (which comes off the still at 88% alc./vol.) is reduced to 60% before going into scraped and cleaned American oak ex-bourbon barrels for three years. After this first aging period the run is blended in a large vat where it is mixed with just over 10% of much older rum. It is then re-casked in recharged barrels and left for a further two years before again going into a blending vat where it is once again mixed with older rums. This process is repeated a third time but the rum is then placed in ex-sherry butts for another two years before again being blended with older rums. For the fourth and final aging process the rum spends two years in Pedro Ximénez sherry butts. Finally, the rum is blended and mixed with older rums then reduced to 46% alc./vol. before going into a large (17k-20k litres) American oak vat to marry for six months.

To recap Ron Zacapa 23 is aged three years in scraped and cleaned bourbon casks, blended with older rums, then aged two years in re-charred whiskey casks, blended with older rums, then aged two years in ex-sherry casks, blended with older rums, then aged two years in ex Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, blended with much older rums, and then married in a large American oak vat for six months. (That's 3+2+2+2 = 9 years plus the blending of older rums - we presume and hope as old as 23 years.) The bottle's back label more simply states: "...derived from a blend of aged rums of between 6 and 23 years old, originating from the 'Sistema Solera' aging process."

Note, this does not claim to be 23-year-old rum as some (including me) assumed from its somewhat misleading original (pre-Diageo) incarnation. What was then named 'Ron Zacapa Centenario Gran Reserva' stated "23 años" on the front label. The back label of an old bottle acquired in Italy says: "La sua vita comincia dopo 23 anni. Questo e'il motivo per il quale la produzioni di questo esclusivo rum e limitata." Which roughly translates as, "His life begins after 23 years. This is the reason why the production of rum is exclusive and limited."

This complex "Sistema Solera" maturation and blending process takes place in warehouses perched at 7,650 feet (2,332 meters) above sea level so unusual atmospheric conditions also have a significant effect on the maturation process. Finally, the rum is reduced to bottling strength and gently pad filtered at room temperature.

Given that sugar does not 'come over' during the distillation process, and the folk from Zacapa vehemently deny adding sugar to their rum, the source of Ron Zacapa's perceived sweetness remains a mystery. Some claim they paint fresh sugar cane juice onto the inside of the casks before recharging. Others, that it is from a combination of the continued scraping and re-charring of casks that brings natural sugars in the wood in contact with the maturing rum. Could it be a combination of the latter and the high altitude the rum is aged at? Alternatively, perhaps a little mystery is a good thing?

Ron Zacapa is produced in a small town in Guatemala named Zacapaneca where many of the residents make their income from making artisan products from 'Royal Palm' leaves. Ron Zacapa 23 used to be sold in a bottle completely wrapped in hand-woven palm but as this rum has grown in popularity, it's covering has shrunk to now be a mere 'bikini' of hand-woven palm modestly wrapped around the belly of each bottle.

Tasting: Clear, tawny brown amber. Toffee, caramel and tobacco nose with aromas of overripe banana maraschino cherry, caramelised fruit, espresso coffee and roast chestnut. Complex, slightly sweet, fruity, honeyed palate with rich vanilla, toffee, coffee, cherry, sweet molasses, cacao, smoky wood, tobacco and a chilli-chocolate and gentle nutmeg spice. Long toasted hazelnut and caramel finish with lingering spicy fudge. 5/5

Ron Zacapa 15 Sistema Solera Reserve 4/5

40% alc./vol.
Producer: Licorera Zacapaneca SA, Guatemala

To quote the back label of Ron Zacapa 15, "The balanced bouquet and unique flavours is derived from a blend of aged rums between 5 and 15 years old, originating from the 'Sistema Solera' aging process. Ron Zacapa 15 is matured at an altitude of 2300 meters in selected barrels that previously aged robust Bourbons, delicate Sherries and fine Pedro Ximenez wines."

Tasting: Clear, tawny brown amber. Nutty, tobacco nose with aromatic peachy fruit. Aromas of hazelnut, coffee and leather. Nutty, coffee and tobacco palate which while slightly sweet has underlying bitterness. Becomes slightly aggressive when held on the palate with sour fruit flavours emerging. (Very dry when compared to the better known 'Zacapa 23'.) Medium finish with lingering espresso and nut with tonka bean flavours.

Ron Zacapa XO Solera Grand Special Reserve 5+/5

40% alc./vol.
Producer: Licorera Zacapaneca SA, Guatemala
www. address.here

To quote the back label of Ron Zacapa XO, "The balanced bouquet and unique flavours is derived from an exclusive blend of aged rums between 6 and 23 years old, originating from the 'Sistema Solera' aging process. Ron Zacapa XO is matured at an altitude of 2300 meters in selected barrels that previously aged robust Bourbons, delicate Sherries and fine Pedro Ximenez wines. Ron Zacapa XO acquires its sophisticated and superior finish by resting the final blend in elegant French oak barrels."

Tasting: Clear but with fine white sediment in suspension, bronze amber. Unctuous coffee-led nose with mocha coffee, brazil nuts, overripe banana and Christmas spice. Sweet, fruity palate (fresh apricot and dried fruit) with muscovado sugar sweetened mocha coffee, cinnamon spice and oaky vanillins. Long, initially sweet fudge and chocolate finish turns chocolate covered nuts and mocha coffee before fading with espresso coffee, bitter chocolate and spice.

Don Julio 100% agave tequila

Producer: Tequila Tres Magueyes S.A. de C.V. (NOM: 1449), Jalisco, Mexico.

Pronounced 'don-hoo-lee-o', this tequila is named after Don Julio González (born 1925), who started working in his uncle's tequila distillery in 1932 aged just seven. He established his own distillery, Tres Magueyes, in 1942, when he was only 17.

In 1987 Don Julio's sons threw a party to commemorate his 45th anniversary in the tequila industry. Up to that time they had being producing mixto tequila but to celebrate the occasion they created a very special 100 per cent agave tequila as a gift for their father's friends and family. That original family reserve was what we now term 'reposado' and it is considered by many to be the original of the category. It was also presented in a square hand-blown bottle, as is still used for Don Julio Reposado today, and that too was the first of its type.

Don Julio Blanco 5/5

38% alc./vol.

Launched 1996, this blanco 100 per cent agave tequila is un-aged - merely rested for a short period in inert containers before bottling. It is presented in a round, squat, clear bottle with a creamy-white wooden screw cap.

Tasting: Crystal clear. Peppery, mineral nose with zesty lemon and pink grapefruit, subtle yeasty, pastry aromas. Clean, mineral palate with fudge, pastry, delicate herbal flavours and faint citrus/stewed vegetable. Long, dry, clean, fresh finish with vegetal notes and spicy black pepper finish.

Don Julio Reposado 5/5

38% alc./vol.

Launched in 1989, this 100 per cent agave reposado is aged for eight months in recharged American white oak casks previously used to age Tennessee whiskey. This is the tequila referred to in the introduction above. It is presented with a stopper made from native Mexican Chechen wood, as still used for Don Julio Reposado today, and that too was the first of its style.

Tasting: Clear, pale straw colour. Almondy coconut, white chocolate nose with subtle spice and vegetal aromas. Very slightly sweet, biscuity, vanilla nuts palate with pear, apple, cinnamon and white chocolate and butterscotch flavours. Long, white pepper spiced finish with lingering biscuity pastry.

Don Julio Anejo 5/5

38% & 40% alc./vol. (76 & 80 proof)

Launched in 1996, Don Julio Añejo is aged from 18 months to 2 years in recharged American white oak casks previously used to age Tennessee whiskey. It is presented in a round, squat, clear bottle with a white wooden screw cap.

Tasting: Clear, light golden. Zesty lime/grapefruit cordial nose with hints of marzipan, breakfast tea and toffee. Soft, lightly honeyed palate with peach, sweet lime, boiled sweet-like fruit flavours, bergamot tea and chargrilled red peppers. Long finish with vanilla and tea-like tannins.

Don Julio 1942 Anejo 4.5/5

38% alc./vol.

Launched in 2002 and positioned as super premium, this añejo tequila is aged for 24 to 32 months in recharged American white oak casks previously used to age Tennessee whiskey. This two-and-a-half year aging period is just six months short of qualifying to be termed an Extra Añejo but is judged by Don Julio's makers to be perfect at this age.

Don Julio 1942 is presented in a tall, green-brown bottle, the shape of which mimics that of an agave leaf. A black and white photograph of Don Julio himself graces the top of the cactus leaf label.

Tasting: Clear, pale golden. Spiced (cinnamon) boiled sweet (candy) nose with sweet agave, vanilla, toffee, turkish delight and faint gluey aromas. On the palate sweet crème brûlée, toffee and caramel agave flavours are balanced by oak, dry nuts, coffee, bitter chocolate and citrus with a kirsch eau de vie fruit garnish. Long, dry finish with a burst of toffee, citrus, wisps of smoke and lingering dry oak. 4.5/5

Don Julio Real Extra Anejo tequila 5+/5

38% alc./vol.

First released in 1996, this Extra Añejo was launched 10 years before the category was created and so seemingly takes pride in not actually proclaiming to be an Extra Añejo on the bottle. Real is blended from tequila aged between three and five years. And unlike all other aged tequilas in the Don Julio range, Real is blended from tequila aged in both American ex-whiskey casks and unusually also casks previously used to age Crown Royal Canadian whisky.

It is presented in a decanter-style bottle with three silvered agave plants clutching at its sides. This rather flashy bottle is topped with a piña-shaped silvered cork stopper.

Tasting: Clear, pale golden. Vanilla rich, stewed/dried fruit, salty nose with faint rum & raison ice-cream, fresh dill and cigar tobacco. Wonderfully complex palate with aged rum notes masking some of the agave character and a subtle dry oaky topping. Long, majestic finish with lingering agave and spicy oak.

While tasting great tequila I could not resist one of my other favourites, which so far has not appeared in CLASS magazine, Siete Leguas.

Casa Siete Leguas

Producer: Tequila Siete Leguas S.A. de C.V. (NOM: 1220), (two distilleries: Fabrica el Centenario and Fabrica La Vencedora), Atotonilco el Alto, Jalisco, Mexico

Siete Leguas tequila is named after the favourite horse of one of Mexico's revolutionary generals, Pancho Villa. The name literally translates as 'seven leagues', a reference to the distance a man could travel by horse in one day (42 miles).

Casa Siete Leguas famously operates two distilleries, both on the hill as you drive into the small Highland town of Atotonilco el Alto with the Rio Taretan river running down the hill beside the distilleries. (Both distilleries draw their water from a spring high above, not the river). When I visited in 2010, they had recently acquired a third distillery which lies between these two distilleries. This had been silent for 30 years and was semi-derelict but building work was then underway to restore it.

The original Fabrica el Centenario distillery was established in 1952 by Don Ignacio González Vargas and this museum-like distillery uses three brick ovens to supply cooked agave to its tahona wheel, still pulled by two mules, the only tequila distillery still to do so. Here they ferment with the plant fibres using only wild yeasts (no cultured yeast is used) in four 10,000 litre fermenters. Three copper pot stills are used for the first distillation and another two for the second. One of these is the original 1952 still, held together with clips instead of bolts. The other stills date from the 1970s.

The comparatively modern Fabrica La Vencedora distillery was built in 1984 and operates five brick ovens sensibly situated below the patio where the raw piña are received, the largest capable of containing 54 tonnes. Here a relatively modern mill (with a crusher plus four mills) is employed rather than the mules. Distillation is in five copper pot stills.

Siete Leguas uses 75-80 per cent agave from their own fields and the tequila produced is blended from the production of both el Centenario and la Vencedora distilleries. Filtration prior to bottling is at ambient temperature using simple cellulose pad filters.

7 (Siete) Leguas Blanco 5+/5

40% alc./vol.

An unaged, 100 per cent agave tequila from the highlands of Jalisco. Blended from the output of two distilleries, one using a mule-powered tahona wheel and fermentation with fibres, the other a modern roller mill. Both distilleries use tradition brick ovens.

Tasting: Crystal clear. Sweet tropical fruit candy nose with fresh dill, zesty of lemon, lime and grapefruit and faint yeasty, pastry, cement-like aromas. Fresh, fruity, zesty, slightly herbal, earthy (clay) palate with salty butter pastry. Cleansing acidity adds to the structure. Starts to turn sweet with stewed vegetable, cinnamon, green apple and pear. Long zesty finish with spiced pear, raw almond and lingering fresh dill flavours.

7 (Siete) Leguas Reposado 5+/5

40% alc./vol.

A 100 per cent agave highland tequila aged 8 to 10 months in American oak ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels which are refilled as many as 20 times.

Tasting: Clear, very slight green tinge straw gold with golden highlights. Subtle, fruity (peach and pear) nose with pine, fresh dill and agave aromas. Rounded and full, slightly sweet apply palate with vanilla, ripe mango, banana and peaches. Cleansing citrus notes. A tingle of cinnamon and black pepper spice adds character and balance. Long herbal finish with lingering agave flavours, delicately enlivening salt and pepper spice and citrus.

7 (Siete) Leguas Anejo 5+/5

40% alc./vol.

A 100 per cent agave Highland tequila aged 24 months in American oak ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels which are refilled as many as 20 times.

Tasting: Clear, pale golden yellow. Restrained nose with good earthy vegetable notes, mashed bananas and cream, salted almonds and a hint of malt vinegar. Delicately spiced, buttery palate with overripe banana, fresh mint, a touch of salt and vegetal flavours. Oak only really kicks in in the long spicy, vanilla, overripe banana finish with salt and cracked black pepper. 5+/5

Last week three extraordinary samples of Scotch single malt arrived in the post.

Highland Park Orcadian 1971 Vintage (40yo) 5+/5

47.6% alc./vol.
70cl bottle retail: £2,300
Producer: Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

A release of 657 bottles drawn from 17 Spanish oak casks. Released in October 2011, this is one of Highland Park's Orcadian Vintages Series, the packaging of which celebrates Orkney's Scandinavian heritage.

Tasting: Clear, golden amber. Unctuous moist fruit cake nose with plum dried fruit, almond, splash of rich sherry and marzipan. Faint but alluring floral aroma. Rich, fruity palate with gentle clove spice, buttery oak, apple juice reduction and toasted almonds and linseed oil impregnated leather. Long, gently spiced complex finish with lingering oaky vanillins and a gentle wisp of smoke.

Highland Park Orcadian 1976 Vintage (35yo) 5/5

49.1% alc./vol.
70cl bottle retail: £2,000
Producer: Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

Drawn from a mix of 13 American oak ex-bourbon butts and hogsheads to form a release of 893 bottles. Released in October 2011, this is another of Highland Park's Orcadian Vintages Series.

Tasting: Clear, light golden. Graceful, tropical fruity nose with buttery cut resinous wood and herbal aromas. Lightly peaty, herbal (thyme) palate with nutty flavours, enlivening spice and faint fudge. Rewarding, slightly smoky, dry finish with lingering pine resins.

Balblair Distilled 2001, Bottled 2011 (1st Release) 4/5

46% alc./vol.
Producer: Balblair Distillery (Inver House Distillers Ltd), Edderton, IV19 1LB, Scotland

Distilled in 2001 and matured in American oak ex-bourbon casks, this Balblair is non-chill-filtered and bottled without the addition of caramel colouring.

Founded in 1790 by John Ross, Balblair is the second oldest working distillery in Scotland. It lies in the Northern Highlands on the shores of the Dornoch Firth in the village of Edderton, which incidentally tales its name from the ancient settlement of Eadar Dun, meaning 'between the forts'. The distillery sources its water from the Allt Dearg burn which flows from the hills where the said forts stood.

Tasting: Clear, light golden. Honeyed leathery nose with aromas of fudge, pear and zesty orange and lemon. Spice flavours dominate the full-bodied, green apple skin and leather palate with vanilla, toffee and citrus flavours. Spicy, fudge finish with lingering red pepper heat.

And as always, I finish with a handful of beers, this week all from the UK.

Saint Lager 3/5

4.6% alc./vol.
Producer: The Saint Brewing Co., Manchester, England

Saint Lager is sold with the strapline, "brewed for easy drinking" and "no sugar & low carbs - you look great - let's keep it that way". It is brewed with malted barley, maize, saaz hops and water.

Tasting: Clear, bright light yellow with lasting medium white head. Zesty pink grapefruit nose with white bready aromas. Clean, light bland palate with mild citrusy bread flavours. Nothing really offensive but with little real character to offer. Lacklustre but refreshing finish.

Brains SA Gold ale 4/5

4.7% alc./vol.
Producer: The Cardiff Brewery (S.A. Brain & C. Ltd), Cardiff, Glamorgan, CF10 5DS, Wales.

Brains SA Gold is a golden ale brewed with Target hops and additional late-hopping with Cascade and Styrian Goldings. This is a review of the pasteurised bottled ale (worryingly bottled in clear glass) but a cask version is also available with a 4.3% alc./vol. SA Gold was launched in 2006 and is a development of Brains' renowned 'special ale' best bitter, popular since its launch in the 1950s.

Tasting: Clear, golden amber with lasting off white head and good lacing. Fruity, caramel nose with faint almond and grapefruit aromas. Famously balanced, medium-bodied malty palate with refreshing bitterness and tangy zesty grapefruit flavours. Dry grassy, aromatic hop finish with lingering citrus notes.

Brakspear Oxford Gold Organic Beer 3.5/5

4.6% alc./vol.
Producer: Brakspear Brewing Company, Witney, Oxfordshire, OX28 4DP, England.

Brakspear Oxford Gold is based on organic Plumage Archer pale ale malt with some organic crystal malt adding body. Brewed with organic Target hops and late hopped with organic Goldings. This review is of the pasteurised bottled beer but Oxford Gold Organic is also available as a cask conditioned draught with a 4.0% alc./vol.

Tasting: Clear, golden amber with medium white head which quickly subsides to leave a ring of foam. Malty caramel nose with herbal, grassy hops with faint pear fruit aromas. Medium bodied palate with liberal piney bitterness on a toasted malty base. Hop flavours linger on the dry, bitter finish.

St Peter's India Pale Ale 4/5

5.5% alc./vol.
Producer: St. Peter's Brewey, St. Peter's Hall, Nr Bungay, Suffolk, England.

A traditional English-styled IPA brewed with pale ale malt and first gold hops. Bottled with pasteurisation.

Tasting: Clear, dark amber with medium off white head. Alluring, pungent honey and toasted bread nose with clove spice and pink grapefruit zest aromas. Full-bodied palate with pronounced hoppyness and grapefruit citrus flavours rising above substantial maltyness, yet this big beer remains approachable. Long, bitter pine and grapefruit zest finish.

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