High Wire Distilling, South Carolina Rum and Watermelon Brandy

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

Whenever I see ratings from magazines like Whisky Advocate on spirits that are basically impossible to find, I impulsively groan. Why do they bother telling us how great these things are that 99.999% of us will never get to taste? It just further fuels the imbalance in supply and demand. But, you know what, I’m about to do the same thing they do – tell you about two spirits that are almost impossible to find. Why? Because they are unique and interesting, and because hearing about them might lead you to check out the very cool craft distillery that is making them.

I’m talking about High Wire Distilling Company in Charleston, South Carolina. I tasted their lineup last year and came away impressed, especially with their sorghum whiskey. Not long after, I saw that High Wire was¬†doing their annual¬†limited holiday release of a couple spirits – a rum they dubbed “Lowcountry Agricole” made with South Carolina sugar cane, and a watermelon brandy made from one particular type of¬†heirloom watermelon grown on one single farm. The¬†limited releases¬†were pricey ($79.99 each), but I had heard and experienced enough about High Wire to give me confidence in the purchase. And¬†I have to admit, the¬†minuscule amount of each that was made (only 164 bottles! of the rum, and 259 bottles of brandy) simply added to the allure.

You’re not going to find these on a liquor store shelf, nor are you likely to find them in a bar, but hearing about them will hopefully pique your interest in the cool things one little distillery is doing on the¬†“drink local” front in Charleston. And, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to secure a bottle of whatever they turn out¬†later this year as their new limited releases. Co-founder Ann Marshall tells me the next release of the South Carolina rum is in barrel, made¬†from sugar cane that was harvested in November in Darlington, South Carolina (a different farm than last year). And on the watermelon brandy front, they will be using the same variety/farm this coming year, though¬†those watermelons are still just dirt and seed at this point. The other big news from High Wire is that their Jimmy Red Corn straight bourbon, which has been resting in barrel, will also be coming out as a limited release just in time for¬†the holidays.

Back to the two bottles I procured this past holiday season, here are my tasting notes, along with a brief description from the distillery:

High Wire Distilling Company Watermelon Brandy
80 Proof
Distilled July 23, 2015, rested 4 months (not in barrel)
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: A storied spirit with a cult following, this Watermelon Brandy is distilled from the fermented juice of almost 300 Charleston Gray watermelons. The Charleston Gray varietal is the direct descendant of the famed Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon and was originally cultivated right here in Charleston. Sweet and distinctive, this brandy boasts a light and fruit forward flavor with soft, vegetal undertones. We recommend serving slightly chilled and neat. Only 259 bottles produced!

My notes: It’s funny, looking at this water-clear spirit and then sniffing it, my first impression was that it reminded me an awful lot of an unaged corn whiskey. The first notes that hit me were corn silk and a malty, grainy note. But right underneath that, especially towards the end of a good long whiff, there was indeed a subtle hint (OK, maybe a nudge) of watermelon. It does not whack you in the hand with watermelon (thank goodness, that would hurt), but once you look for it, it’s clearly there.

Sipping neat, the brandy is indeed light and subtle. You wouldn’t confuse it for vodka, but it does have kind of a pure, clarity to it that defies definitive description in terms of particular fruits (the watermelon is more present on the nose). The malty note becomes a bit more yeasty here, in a nice way. And the finish is long, warm, tingles the tongue.

Over ice, the nose doesn’t change much vs. neat, though the malt/grain note is a bit stronger. Sipping, the body is a bit more lush, as is typical with brandy over ice,¬†and the biggest distinction is that a green vine note (rind?) comes in stronger

Intriguing stuff and totally unique, though I do wish the watermelon fruit were a bit more present in the final product.

High Wire Distilling¬†Company “Lowcountry¬†Agricole” Rum
80 Proof
Distilled December 5, 2014, barrel rested 12 months
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: Our Lowcountry Agricole is developed in the true style of the famous French West Indies rhum makers. Distilled at a very low proof from the juice of fresh-pressed sugar cane grown in St. George, SC by farmer, Manning Bair, and barrel rested for 12 months, our rhum agricole has a complex, earthy flavor with an incredibly long, sweet finish. A true terroir spirit, our rhum agricole is only the second true agricole made in the United States. Serve neat or with a single ice cube. Only 164 bottles produced!

My notes:¬†The color of rich hay, this rum has an elegant nose that’s easy on the sugar – light vanilla, light caramel, a whiff of banana bread baking off in the distance, and some soft floral grassy-ness. It’s really quite lovely, and shapeshifting over time, with the time in the barrel providing a fleeting¬†mellow bourbon character.

Sipping neat, again the sweetness is subdued compared to typical rums, and the herbal aspects of the sugar cane comes out more prominently (as with rhum agricoles) over the top of a funky (almost barnyardy) bass note. The year of aging has given this a nice balance of sharp, young assertiveness and smooth, vanilla depth. It’s not nearly as grassy-green as most¬†Caribbean rhum auricles, but you certainly get the family resemblance. It makes me wonder how different South Carolina sugarcane is from what you’d find in the fields of Martinique.

Over ice, the earthy grassy elements dial up, and the sugar sweetness remains in check. In the hands of a good bartender, this could make some really interesting cocktails, though it doesn’t quite fit the mold of what you’d typically do with either a young rum or a traditional rhum agricole.

Fascinating spirit, and, like the watermelon brandy, one you’re not going to duplicate anywhere other than South Carolina.

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

More info on High Wire’s limited releases at¬†Charleston’s The Post & Courier.

Battle Aperitivo: Peychaud’s Aperitivo vs. Aperol

Peychaud Aperitivo

Peychauds Aperitivo Aperol

The other day, the fine folks at Sazerac Company sent me a bottle of the new Peychaud’s Aperitivo (hitting shelves this spring). Like many cocktail enthusiasts, I dig Peychaud’s bitters, especially for making Sazeracs, and I also dig Italian aperitivi like Aperol and Campari. So this new offering certainly intrigued me. Sazerac sent along a press release that was surprisingly light on details, other than stating that their new product was made with “quality, simplicity and mixability¬†in mind.” It also noted that the Peychaud’s Aperitivo is 22 proof, which happens to be the same as Aperol (Campari clocks in at a much more robust 48 proof). The color of Peychaud’s Aperitivo in the bottle also happens to be¬†a dead ringer for Aperol. So I started asking around as to the provenance of Peychaud’s,¬†wondering how similar the two might be.

Sazerac’s rep replied to my questions by stating that¬†their¬†“recipe and production are kept proprietary.” Their bottle, though, at least confirmed – “Product of¬†Italy” – so we at least know that much. The two biggest Italian aperitivo producers that could possibly be working with Peychaud’s are Campari and Luxardo.¬†Luxardo, whose aperitivo also rings in at 22 proof but sports a much brighter Jolly Rancher cherry red color, quickly¬†replied to my question on if they were making it, stating “It‚Äôs definitely not us. :).”¬†I also asked Campari USA (who markets both Campari and Aperol), but got no response (update: Campari responded saying that they do not make the Peychaud’s). So, no telling who the actual producer is.

Peychaud Aperitivo Aperol

Before I opened the bottle, I had the inevitable thought…¬†could it be that Peychaud’s Aperitivo is really just Aperol in a different bottle with a different label? More importantly, I suppose – would it really matter?¬†It’s safe to say there are vodkas, whiskey, and tequilas out there that are the same juice under different brands (tequila is a particularly interesting story – since every bottle is labeled with a code indicating which of the 139 legal¬†distilleries produced the tequila, and since there are roughly ten brands for every single tequila distillery out there). I have no beef with distilleries (or NDPs – non-distiller producers) sourcing product and marketing it – as long as they are honest¬†about what’s inside¬†(do a search for¬†Michter’s,¬†Templeton, and Whistle Pig as examples of a few whiskey brands that have gotten into some trouble on this front in the past couple years).

My suspicions were shot down, though, as soon as I poured out these two Italian beauties side by side (neat, room temperature). Once out of the bottle, the Aperol was clearly¬†a touch darker, one tiny step towards red and away from orange.¬†And smelling the two, there was an even more significant difference –¬†with the Peychaud’s carrying a substantially¬†sharper bitter/herbal base note, and the Aperol being more pleasantly fruity (citrus) and floral. Sipping¬†them side by side, the Aperol is more lush on the tongue, with a nice viscosity. The Peychaud’s, meanwhile, is somewhat thinner, with a shorter (though still substantial) finish. If you want a more assertive profile that starts to move in the direction of Campari, the Peychaud’s will float your boat – but Aperol is generally more balanced and harmonious, more easy-drinking.

Over ice, it’s a similar story, though the ice brings out the sweetness in the Aperol. In a spritz (with club soda and/or sparkling wine), the distinctions are understandably harder to pinpoint, but the conclusion remains the same – if you’re after a pleasant walk through Italian¬†orange groves, go with the Aperol; and if you want a (mild) slap in the face to wake you up a bit, go for the Peychaud’s. Peychaud’s Aperitivo should be hitting shelves this spring, and is priced similarly to Aperol, around $20.

I should point out – the Peychaud’s Aperitivo is nothing like the complex spice bomb that their bitters provide. Sure, there¬†are¬†cinnamon and clove notes in there, but those are¬†a minor note¬†in the Aperitivo rather than the booming crash that the bitters provide (speaking of which, make yourself a Bitter Southerner¬†No. 2¬†for an amazing use of Peychaud’s Bitters).

I appreciate that Peychaud’s want to keep an air of mystery about their new product, but I’d still love to know who is making this stuff, or at least a bit more on the formula. And if indeed it is the same folks behind Aperol or Casoni that are making this, I’d love to know a few hints as to how their formulations differ. Is that too much to ask? Maybe so. I’ll just go back to my spritzes and Americanos and Negronis and try not think too hard about what’s in the glass.

Peychaud Aperitivo

Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

Hochstädters Vatted Rye Whiskey

Let’s hit this. Five facts about Hohchstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey, followed by a review and tasting notes.

  1. This rye hails from Cooper Spirits Co. Рthe company that unleashed St. Germain upon the world. It should also be noted that these are the folks behind the eclectic portfolio that includes:
    1. Lock Stock & Barrel, the well-regarded (sourced Canadian) 13 year old straight rye whiskey
    2. Slow and Low, the bottled “Rock and Rye” cocktail that clocks in at 84 proof and is made with sourced rye, orange¬†peel, and raw Pennsylvania honey
    3. Creme Yvette, the super-geeky liqueur from France with a long history of being used in super-geeky cocktails (which of these three is not like the others?)
  2. It’s the first rye officially designated as “vatted” (eh, marketing speak, but I dig the fact that they are relatively open that this is a blend of several sourced ryes)
  3. It is composed of five ryes ranging from 4 to 15 year old, from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alberta, Canada, all “hand selected” by distiller Robert Cooper. At least we know that much.
  4. It’s 100 proof. Great for cocktails.
  5. It’s only $35. Which amounts to a darn good price point for rye these days.

So, interesting right? Blended rye, 100 proof, good price. Let’s give it a shot.

Hochstadter's Rye Whiskey VattedHochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey
100 Proof, Approx. $35 retail
Tasting Dates: Feb 12 – 15, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

Digging in to the nose here, a¬†dark cherry sweetness jumps out, almost like you’ve thrown a Luxardo cherry into an Old Fashioned. I’d say it leans a bit more bourbon than rye – a mellow sweetness, warm spices, a bit of toasty wood – but there is a subtle rye spice buzzing in the background. It’s mellower and sweeter than a Rittenhouse Rye, for example (another well-priced 100 proofer).

Sipping neat, the heat comes out quickly. There’s a red hot cinnamon-y burst that comes on strong and stays through a very long finish. The dry spice of the rye comes through as well, but frankly this begs for water, ice, or some vermouth.

With a touch of water, the nose lightens up, some orange peel¬†notes come out – sandalwood? Is that too obvious? In any case, it’s less dark cherry and more blood orange with the water under its belt. And it’s much improved for sipping, too, as the heat and cinnamon comes in check, and the rye bread character emerges a bit more. Not bad at all, but I wouldn’t put this in the same league as a Rendezvous Rye (from High West, around $50) where the older rye in the blend (which is 16 years old and 6 years old) has a more obvious and distinctive presence. The vatting approach here definitely produces a harmonious result, but not one with the depth of character that I was hoping for.

As for the standard test¬†of any rye for cocktail-making – it does great in a Manhattan. Not too sweet, not too spicy, not too strong (but sweet, spicy, and strong enough alongside the sweet vermouth). I’m kinda digging this more than Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (though I must admit that I’m not as thrilled with current-day Rittenhouse as much as I was with the Brown-Forman-produced version that was around until early 2015).

Hochstadter’s Vatted is a¬†good rye, an interesting approach to blending, a well-priced rye, and a good rye¬†for cocktails. But don’t expect it to knock your socks off sipping neat.

By the way, Hochstadter’s rye has distribution in 17 states, though is still jumping through the regulatory hoops of actually getting it onto shelves in some of those – including Georgia. In the meantime, try your maybe-not-favorite online reseller.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow ‚Äď among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent ‚Äď exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff ‚Äď solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair ‚Äď fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid ‚Äď move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Cooper Spirits Co.


Crown Royal? Yes, Crown Royal. Northern Harvest Rye and Monarch Whisky

Crown Royal Rye and Monarch

I’ll admit it. I wrote off Crown Royal long ago. I wouldn’t quite turn the stuff down, but seek it out? No chance. That cheesy purple velvet bag? That ostentatious golden crown? The fact that they have a “Regal Apple” apple flavored whisky? The fact that they’re from Canada!? But I also have to admit… Jim Murray’s absurd proclamation caught my eye.

What proclamation you may ask? (unless you’re a hardcore whisky geek, in which case you already know where this is going.) Well, Jim Murray is pretty widely regarded as a leading expert in the world of whisky. He is also well-known for making attention-mongering proclamations. And this year, it was his surely-intentionally-shocking singling out of¬†Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as “World Whisky of the Year” that mongered attention. That’s right. A Canadian rye. From Crown Royal. World Whisky of the Year. Beating out Scotland and America and every other country that is not the home of poutine. Now, I had no expectation that this¬†particular Canadian whisky was really the world’s best anything, but I was intrigued enough that I had to try it. Jim Murray’s shenanigans got my attention.

Being Crown Royal, the Northern Harvest Rye is widely available, and if not quite jumping¬†off the shelves, selling at a pretty good clip thanks to the publicity. Its understated beige velvet bag is a nicely subdued alternative to the regal purple found wrapping up regular Crown Royal. And Murray’s proclamation wasn’t totally undeserved based on other industry insiders’ reviews – the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye also recently¬†earned¬†a¬†Gold Medal and an Award of Excellence¬†(no idea what that means) at the Canadian Whisky Awards. (The competition’s overall winner was Lot 40¬†Rye Whisky, of which I’m a fan.)

I also¬†started digging a bit more into what Crown Royal was up to, and – amid the furor over Murray’s news¬†– found several folks in-the-know¬†singling out Crown Royal’s limited 75th Anniversary release called Monarch as an even better whisky. Sure enough, come December (yes, I’m behind on writing this up), Whisky Advocate named the Crown Royal Monarch as their Canadian¬†Whisky of the Year. The Monarch, which actually first came out back in 2014, also¬†won a Gold Medal at that year’s Canadian Whisky Awards. The only problem was – the Monarch (unlike the Northern Harvest Rye) was in very low supply and hard to track down. Luckily, I stumbled upon some bottles while I was on vacation – at a bargain price ($40) to boot.

So, how are they? Is the Northern Harvest Rye really a world-beater? Is the Monarch enough to change your perceptions of Crown Royal forever? On to the review and tasting notes…

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Blended Canadian Whisky
90 Proof,¬†Approx. $30 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $25 – $50)
Tasting Dates: Dec. 2015¬†‚Äď Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff 

OK, Jim Murray. This is a fine rye. A fine example of Canadian rye. But “World Whiskey of the Year”? Give me a break.

First off – what exactly is this? Crown Royal says it is 90% rye. Canadian winter rye at that. The same rye that is a blending component in regular Crown Royal. How long is it aged? I have no idea. They’re not saying.

Now to the nose Рwhich has a touch of wood, a bit of trademark rye sharpness, a touch of minty wintergreen, a bit of clove, and then a very prominent fruity note that reminds me of strawberries that have been sitting in balsamic Рboth bright and deep. In a similar vein, hints of Beaujolais-like notes pop in and out Рfruity, juicy stuff. This is definitely not bourbon, and definitely not a typical (MGP) American rye, either.

On the palate – this Crown Royal stands apart from the regular stuff, though it does carry a similar thick and smooth mouthfeel. As some Canadian ryes tend to be, it is quite fruity, though the wood and cinnamon notes are more pronounced now than they were on the nose, as the mint fades to the background. The finish, to me, is a bit shorter and sharper than I’d like to see, especially given the Crown Royal pedigree. That said, it doesn’t feel either too young or too old, managing to convey a good bit of depth without going overboard.

A touch of water does nicely, bringing out some caramel and pulling the disjointed sharpness back into check. Ice makes it smoother and sweeter still, though interestingly brings out some dill notes on the nose, too, that some may find bothersome. Personally, I’d skip the¬†ice – as it manages to call¬†out the sharpness in the finish in an unpleasant way, and amps up that balsamic sweetness at the same time.

As for its use in cocktails, I find the Northern Harvest Rye to be a bit too… peculiar, in a distracting way. The fruitiness in particular detracts in a Manhattan, though I’m sure a good bartender could figure out a better use for this Canadian rye. And, if you can find this for $30, I do think it’s¬†worth giving a shot to experience¬†an interesting (if not world’s-best) Canadian rye.

Crown Royal MonarchCrown Royal Monarch, 75th Anniversary Blended Canadian Whiskey
80 Proof,¬†Approx. $60 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $40 – $70)
Tasting Dates: Jan. 1 –¬†Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent

This limited release was meant to harken back to some of the early versions of Crown Royal. Crown Royal pulled from their stocks of aged whisky – “including a special whisky from the historic Coffey rye still, residing in¬†Gimli, Manitoba.”

Again, no age statement or particulars. So it’s up to the tasting. On the nose, this is clearly an older, more elegant expression of what Crown Royal can be. There’s a bit of dark oak, and a prominent nutty character¬†mixed with baking spaces – think pecan and nutmeg -with a hint of burnt orange peel. Lovely stuff.

On the palate, now this is getting really good – layers and layers of flavor, rolling over and over on the tongue. The nutty notes are dialed down from the nose, the dark brown sugar is there but very much in the background, and a toasty grain character (less rye than barley or even wheat to me) comes through, especially in the warm, long finish. There’s certainly rye in there, but it pops up in spots rather than dominating the taste. And there’s a dark berry fruitiness as well, but not¬†nearly as prominent as in the Northern Harvest Rye. This is blended whisky done right.

Water? No. Doesn’t need it. Ice? Well, now this is interesting. Add a cube or two of ice and this starts to really loosen up, reminiscent of an orange blossom sweet tea on a hot day – smooth and refreshing. If you want to be contemplative, stick with a neat pour. If you want something deeply enjoyable, add some ice¬†to make for¬†a guilty pleasure. This is, to my tastes, leagues above that “world whisky of the year” – so if you can find a bottle, grab it. I wish I had taken more than the one bottle I did. But I bet Crown Royal will continue to offer some similarly interesting expressions over the years to come. I’ll be watching.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow ‚Äď among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent ‚Äď exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff ‚Äď solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair ‚Äď fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid ‚Äď move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample of the Northern Harvest Rye was provided by Crown Royal.

Atlanta Coffee Hunting (the outtakes)