End of year catching up: Beer and spirits

My work desk looks a little different than most people’s. There’s the usual clutter — pens, papers, a spare hard drive, a scanner — but also a whole lot of liquor. That’s not to fuel the writing process. It usually sits untouched, waiting for me to get around to reviewing it. Most of these reviews end up on Distiller, an app/website I’ve been contributing to for the past year. But others, for whatever reason, I don’t always have a place for, and they tend to accumulate. The ones worth writing about I try to round up every once in a while.

Since it’s the end of the year, here are beers and spirits that have been on my to-cover list. Some of these were samples from the producers or their PR reps, while others I picked up on my own. And these are only the ones that stood out for some reason; the others get given away or enjoyed without note.

Alaskan Perseverance

Alaskan Brewing Heritage Coffee Brown Ale and Perseverance — One of the highlights of the year for me was visiting Alaska for the first time. My tour included 18 breweries ranging from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula. (You can read about that trip in the piece I wrote for Mixology.) Since I was on the northern leg of the trip, I didn’t make it to the most well known brewery in the state, Alaskan Brewing in Juneau.

Luckily they sent me a few beers to try back home in Portland. First up is their Heritage Coffee Brown, replacing their seasonal pumpkin ale this year. This brown ale was made not only with cold-brewed Brazilian coffee, but also with pale malts roasted along with coffee beans, which is a process I haven’t seen attempted before. Malt-driven beers were what I loved most about Alaskan brewing, and this fits that mold: not too dark, but with a nice bitter roastiness and an upfront coffee note. Available in six packs, it’s a very solid winter beer.

The second beer was Perseverance, their Russian Imperial Stout made in celebration of the brewery’s 30th anniversary. This stout is accented by Alaskan birch syrup, wildflower honey, and a touch of alder smoke. Very rich and not at all bitter, I would have liked a little more smoke on this one, especially given Alaskan’s history with smoked porter (one of my consistent favorites). Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up if you find a bottle, especially if you like beers on the darker, sweeter side.

pFriem Pumpkin Bier — Speaking of pumpkin beers, this is the year that the backlash to the style seemed to reach its peak. I found pFriem’s rendition on the shelf and figured that if anyone could redeem the style, it was this Hood River brewer. Made with roasted pumpkin, pumpkin puree, seasonally appropriate spices, and Belgian yeasts, this was a fantastic seasonal offering. If you’re around Oregon you might still find this on shelves, and I highly recommend picking it up if you do.

Stark Spirits Sunshine Orange Brandy — Stark Spirits from Pasadena, California caught my eye because of their aquavit, but they also sent me a sample of this orange brandy, which I foolishly left unopened on my desk for a few months. When I finally cracked it open, I was blown away by the aroma of fresh orange peel. This is an eau-de-vie of California oranges, made of their peels and juice, and bottled at 100 proof without any added sugar. It’s everything you like about a good triple sec, but without the sweetness. It’s a really cool spirit, and I bet it has great potential in cocktails.

Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye — I wish I’d had an opportunity to review this rye before now, because it’s fantastic. Entered into barrel at 103 proof, my bottle ended up at 111.8 after maturation. (The bottles come from single barrels, and this year’s batches came in a little higher than last year’s release). It sips really well for its high proof, with notes of honey, pecan, and a touch of orange peel. Listing around $75, it would make a great last minute gift for an American whiskey lover if you can find a bottle.

Lagavulin 8 (200th Anniversary Edition) — I’ve described the standard Lagavulin 16 as one of my desert island whiskies, the kind of dram I can turn to again and again and always be happy (never mind the sensibility of drinking Islay Scotch on a tropical island). For the distillery’s 200th anniversary, Lagavulin released an affordable 8 year version (about $60) and an unaffordable 25 year version (about $1,000). You can guess which one they sent me a bottle of. As one would expect, the younger eight year is paler in color and lighter in oak and vanilla than the standard 16. This allows the brine and peat to stand out even more, without hitting you over the head with smoke. If you like peaty, maritime style Scotches, this one’s worth picking up while it lasts.

Arvesølvet Juleakevitt — I’m going to be annoying and include one spirit that you’re unlikely to see in the United States anytime soon. This Norwegian aquavit was part of my bounty from the Oslo duty free shop. A holiday aquavit with strong spice character, the 2015 edition that I picked up is aged in oloroso sherry and port casks for at least three years. For my friends who’ve never had the opportunity to try an aquavit like this, it’s been a game changer. If you’re passing through Norway, try to pick up a couple bottles (one for me, one for yourself).

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