Maraschino Head to Head: Bols vs. Luxardo vs. Maraska

bols maraschinoMaraschino is an essential liqueur in many a classic cocktail — especially the Casino and the Hemingway Daiquiri — but it’s one of the few categories where only a small number of producers, typically wicker-clad European brands, hold sway. The biggest of these is Italy’s Luxardo. Croatia’s Maraska is another commonly-seen version of the liqueur.

Now comes a new entry in the form of mass-producer Bols, the Dutch liqueurists with a panoply of fruit-flavored concoctions on the market.

Can Bols Maraschino stand up to the icons of the category? I’d never formally reviewed Luxardo Maraschino or Maraska, so what better time than the present? I tasted these blind so as not to sway my opinion with fancy branding. The identifying — and surprising — details were added later.

Thoughts follow.

Bols Maraschino – There’s not so much cherry on the nose here as there are tropical lychee and flowery perfume notes, with a sort of medicinal cherry flavor on the back end. Quite sweet and syrupy, it’s got a gummy finish that smacks of added gelatin. 48 proof. C+ / $15

Luxardo Maraschino – This is a wildly different experience. It’s sharp and astringent on the nose, not sweet at all. Oddly, it offers primarily granary aromas — cereal and fresh hay — rather than the intense cherry character one expects. Fruit comes along, but it’s almost an afterthought, relegated to the background. Frankly, the combination is slightly off-putting. The palate brings more balance, but it’s still got that heavy grain maraskafocus that surprisingly reminds me of animal feed. The fruit is indistinct, but it finally comes around as an echo on the finish. The ultimate character is something closer to a fruit brandy than a liqueur — which is either a good thing or a bad, depending on what you want out of your maraschino. 64 proof. B / $29

Maraska Original Maraschino – A nice balance between the two styles above, with brandy-like aromatics and lots of floral notes on the nose, backed up by sweet cherries. On the palate, the cherries are clear and sweet, but not overpowering. Those floral elements play on the palate as well, adding a spicy distinctness and complexity to the mix. This is the only one of these three I’d consider drinking neat (and the only one in which I polished off the sample glass), but it seems tailor-made for adding round cherry notes plus exotic floral elements to a cocktail. 64 proof. A / $27

The winner? Maraska makes a surprising upset over the better-known Luxardo, by quite a wide margin.

Book Review: The Craft Cocktail Party

C51R0OOuzRKL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_ocktail party? OK. Craft cocktail party? Even better!

Julie Reiner’s big, hardbound book takes the now-popular seasonal approach to organization, dropping a couple dozen recipes into each of the four seasons. Reiner, owner of the Clover Club in Brooklyn and the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan, keeps things fairly simple — most of the cocktails only have three to five ingredients — but also very fresh. Most of the recipes have fresh produce, herbs, or juice in them, particularly those tied to the warmer months. The overall selection comprises both classics and freshened-up spins on them. It’s a concisely curated collection without a lot of fluff in it — which is both a good and a bad thing.

The Craft Cocktail Party features some full-color photography, but with a book like this — almost designed for the coffee table instead of the bookshelf — even more would be a nice feature. At the kind of craft cocktail soiree Reiner describes, I definitely want to see what I’m drinking before I run to the store for turbinado sugar.


Tasting Report: West of West Wine Festival 2015

The West of West Wine Festival is all about wine at its westernmost terminus in the United States: The Sonoma Coast, where dense fog and craggy conditions make growing conditions ripe only for a few prized varietals — chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah.

Recently I spent an afternoon at the WoW grand tasting, working through dozens of wines from the region. Many are dense and powerful, but a surprising number find elegance and grace in the Sonoma Coast, too. My clear favorites came from Peay, always a standout, DuMOL, and Failla — which showcased just how different pinots from this region can be (even when the vineyards are right next door).

Brief thoughts on all wines tasted follow.

Tasting Report: West of West Wine Festival 2015

2014 Baker Lane Vineyards Viognier / B+ / racy, engages with minerality to tame the heavy aromatics
2013 Baker Lane Vineyards Sonoma Coast Cuvee Pinot Noir / B+ / good balance, chocolate, earth, wood, some astringency
2012 Baker Lane Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Sonoma Coast / B+ / quite dense, dried herbs, cherries, licorice
2012 Baker Lane Vineyards Sonoma Coast Cuvee Syrah / B / quite dry, lots of meaty notes
2010 Baker Lane Vineyards Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah / B / rich, good balance, herbs and meat but lighter in style
2014 Baker Lane Vineyards Rose / A- / very fresh, light strawberry shortcake
2014 Charles Heintz Vineyards Rachael Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / nice balance, fresh, solid vanilla core
2014 Charles Heintz Vineyards Searby Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B / unoaked; bold, lots of rosemary notes
2014 Charles Heintz Vineyards Valentina Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / C+ / very weedy, some sweetness
2014 Charles Heintz Vineyards Roxy Syrah Sonoma Coast / C- / far out of balance
2012 Claypool Cellars Rice Spivak Vineyard Pachyderm CC Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / somewhat bolder and fresher
2012 Claypool Cellars Pachyderm CC Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / herbal, some meaty notes
2013 DuMOL Vineyard Connor Joy Road Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / more aromatic, thinner body
2012 DuMOL Vineyard Connor Joy Road Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / great balance, bittersweet notes, lovely
2013 DuMOL Vineyard Isobel Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A / beautiful, perfect balance of fruit and spice
2013 DuMOL Vineyard Isobel Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A- / more acid here, some greenery notes
2013 DuMOL Vineyard Aidan Wildrose Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / pretty fruit, with some meaty edges
2012 DuMOL Vineyard Jack Robert’s Run Gregori Vineyard Syrah Sonoma Coast / B+ / intense herbs with clear viognier notes, apricots; body lacks power
2013 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A- / gentle, nice balance, mild in style
2013 Failla Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / chewy, some dried cherry/raisin notes, a bit of citrus
2013 Failla Occidental Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / darker, stewier, with Burgundy character
2013 Failla Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / very fruity, citrus leads to a light tannin on the finish
2011 Flowers Sea View Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / herbal, a bit edgy
2012 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A- / nice fruit, tropical notes and caramel lacing
2012 Flowers Sea View Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Block 17 Sonoma Coast / A- / lots of depth, pretty
2012 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Block 15 Sonoma Coast / B+ / slightly thin and overly herbal
2012 Flowers Sea View Ridge Estate Pinot Meunier Block 19 Sonoma Coast / B+ / exotic, some stone fruit, baking spices
2011 Fort Ross Vineyard Symposium / B- / a pinot noir/pinotage blend; strong dried herbs, off finish
2013 Fort Ross Vineyard Sea Slopes Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview / B / gentle style; some herbs
2011 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview / B / lots of acid, some florals, slight cheesy element
2011 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve Fort Ross-Seaview / B / stronger herbs, Burgundy focus
2010 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Fort Ross-Seaview / B- / light fruit with olive notes, very dry
2012 Fort Ross Vineyard Stagecoach Road Pinot Noir / B / bolder body, pungent herbal character
2012 Furthermore Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard / B+ / delicate and floral
2012 Furthermore Alchemy Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / a cuvee; dense, a bit brooding, give this one some bottle age
2012 Furthermore Gloria Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / some sweetness, a bit of raisin and Christmas spices
2012 Furthermore Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / big and bold, bright fruit, some cocoa powder
2014 Furthermore Eden Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B / very young, florals and jam; needs time to develop
2006 Peay Vineyards Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / A / a bit salty, aging beautifully
2013 Peay Vineyards Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / classic structure, buttery and nutty
2013 Peay Vineyards Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / drinking young, herbal and perfumed
2013 Peay Vineyards Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / big and tough, chewy, cherries and dark fruits, lush, wonderful
2013 Peay Vineyards Ama Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / nice balance, fruit forward, emerging earth notes
2013 Peay Vineyards La Bruma Estate Syrah Sonoma Coast / B+ / drinking young also, very fruity and quite acidic
2009 Peay Vineyards Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A / gorgeous, dense fruit with a slight sweetness
2012 Sojourn Cellars Oakville Cabernet / B / a cheat (not from the Sonoma Coast); dusty and chewy, classic young cab
2013 Sojourn Cellars Campbell Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / huge aromatics, lots of rosemary
2013 Sojourn Cellars Silver Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / big and fruity, almost jammy; tea notes; edged with licorice
2013 Sojourn Cellars Ridgetop Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / much tougher, woody, lots of herbs
2013 Sojourn Cellars Campbell Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / nice balance, rich and lush
2013 Sojourn Cellars Sangiacamo Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / explodes with chocolate notes; earthy on the finish
2013 Sojourn Cellars Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / deep, big body; some dense fruits
2014 Soliste Soleil Rouge Rose of Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / very light style of wines; nice acid, lots of strawberry
2012 Soliste L’Esperance Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / very fresh berry, light herbs, delicate with big acidity
2012 Soliste Foret Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / quite floral, aromatic, quite delicate
2013 Soliste Narcisse Pinot Noir / B / citrus and lime notes, some candy character
2013 Zepaltas Wines Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B / traditional, lots of tropical notes, some caramel
2013 Zepaltas Wines Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B+ / easygoing, nice finish, herbal punctuation
2013 Zepaltas Wines Devoto Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / B / quite herbal, drying, ginger notes
2013 Zepaltas Wines Suacci Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast / A- / stronger in style; classic dark fruit

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: Every Barrel Reviewed on One Page

Looks like there’s still plenty of interest in the recently-completed Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Want to look up a barrel but can’t stand dealing with the search system (I don’t blame you) — then here ya go, every single barrel reviewed on one page, in numerical order. As a reminder, barrel #80 was named the winner when a dozen spirits writers (including both myself and Paul Pacult, the only two people to review every bottle in the series) visited with Buffalo Trace earlier this year.

I’ll be writing more about the SOP, including some in-depth analysis based on my own reviews and public ratings in the near future… stay tuned!

How about a spreadsheet with the whole series, including all the details of each bourbon, plus all the ratings? YOU GOT IT!

Continue reading

Review: Braulio Amaro Alpino

braulioBraulio’s an Italian amaro… alpino. Alpino? From the alpine mountains, which gives it a bit of a different spin than what you might be used to.

Braulio originated in 1875, and it’s created with a blend of 13 herbs. Only four are known to the public: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The rest of the ingredients remain secret.

Well there’s definitely spearmint here (or some kind of mint, anyway), and it’d be safe to bet on cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel, all of which seem to make an appearance on the palate. The nose keeps things heavy on the mint, and the body folds that into a moderate to intense bitterness that takes you to a quite lengthy and bittersweet finish.

All in all, Braulio drinks like a traditional amaro that adds in a big, minty punch. For after-dinner sipping, it hits the right spot.

42 proof.

A- / $32 /

Review: Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old and 23 Years Old


Kirk and Sweeney 12 Years Old, imported by Sonoma’s 35 Maple Street, is one of the best artisan rums on the market. And that’s just a babe at a mere 12 years old.

Today we’re looking at the older line extensions of Kirk and Sweeney, including the 18 year old and 23 year old expressions. All three are bottled in similar, urn-inspired decanters, so look for the digits etched onto the glass in order to help keep them straight.

Both are 80 proof.

Thoughts follow.

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old – Traditional, well-aged rum notes on the nose — brown sugar, vanilla, and some chocolate/coffee overtones. The body starts things off in that direction, then takes an interesting side street toward some curious red wine notes. The coffee character builds as the finish grows, along with some leather notes and a bit of dense sweetness, almost Port-like as it mingles with that wine-like character. Austere and worthwhile. A- / $40

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old – At 23 years old, this rum is fully matured and ready for sipping on the beach, shoes off. Here you’ll find deep caramel, flecked with barrel char, toffee, intense vanilla, and a touch of baking spice — particularly cloves. They’re all here, from the nose, to the palate, to the rich, silky finish. This isn’t a particularly complicated rum, but it’s got a laser focus on the elements that make rum great. It’s one of the best rums on the market and, at just 50 bucks, quite a bargain. What’s a 23 year old bourbon going to cost you, eh? A / $50  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Tanqueray Bloomsbury London Dry Gin

Tanqueray BloomsburyTanqueray continues to play with the good-ol’ green bottle with its latest limited edition gin, Tanqueray Bloomsbury.

Says the distillery:

For the newest limited edition release of Tanqueray, the juniper-forward Tanqueray Bloomsbury London Dry Gin, Master Distiller Tom Nichol drew inspiration from a recipe created by Charles Tanqueray’s son, Charles Waugh Tanqueray. In 1868, when Charles died, his son Charles Waugh Tanqueray took over his business. He was only 20 years at the time, but was a brilliant businessman and innovator just like his father.

His original recipe on which Tanqueray Bloomsbury was based dates back to around 1880, when the distillery was located in Bloomsbury, England. The new Tanqueray Bloomsbury gin will launch into the on-trade with limited availability at specialty retailers. The launch of Tanqueray Bloomsbury follows the successful release of Tanqueray Old Tom in 2014 and Tanqueray Malacca in 2013.

The recipe is written write on the front label, but it’s in old-timey writing and a bit difficult to make out. The botanical bill includes “Italian berries” (juniper), coriander, angelica, crushed cassia, and just a touch of savory. (Additional elements not on the label may also be present.)

The gin is designed to be juniper forward, but standard Tanqueray is already quite juniper-forward as it is. (That said, though it’s hardly my favorite gin, my 2010 rating now feels a bit low. I’d call it B+ today.)

That helps give Bloomsbury a softer entry, even though it’s built with juniper in mind. That juniper is present both on the nose and on the palate, which folds in clear cinnamon character and a little caramel, too. Is there a nod to the whiskey world here? The juniper is clear and strong, but it quickly fades to a quiet earthiness. The finish offers some dusty coriander character that lingers for a bit.

Bloomsbury is a simple gin, but it’s well crafted and balanced among its component parts. Young Charles Waugh Tanqueray may have just been a kid, but I guess he knew what he was doing.

94.6 proof.

A- / $33 /

Review: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Kentucky Straight Bourbon 17 Years Old

Master's Keep Bottle Box Hi-Res

Following up on last year’s Diamond Anniversary bourbon, Wild Turkey is releasing Master’s Keep, a 17 year old whiskey that is the oldest bourbon Wild Turkey has ever released in the U.S.

The spirit is the product of Eddie Russell, the son of the famed Jimmy Russell, who was recently appointed to the job of co-Master Distiller alongside his dad. (Jimmy famously doesn’t care for old bourbon, hence releases that rarely topped 10 or 12 years of age.) This is Eddie’s first official release, though he’s had a hand in a number of prior Wild Turkey special editions.

If you read the Master’s Keep box copy, you might be confused of the talk of “distance: 200 miles” and “No.1: Wood, No. 2: Stone, No. 3: Wood.” What does all that mean? Let’s let the Russells explain:

The story of Master’s Keep begins in 1997. Wild Turkey had a surplus of Bourbon and no warehouse space left, so Eddie needed a place to store and age the extra barrels. A friend at another distillery offered his empty stone warehouses, but Eddie knew these would age the Bourbon differently than the wooden warehouses at Wild Turkey. He decided to take a chance and experiment a little, and so the barrels spent several years in stone warehouses before eventually coming back to Wild Turkey’s wooden ones.  After 17 years and 200 miles, Eddie felt these traveling barrels had reached their peak flavor. It is fair to say that this Bourbon is a welcome innovation in long-aged whiskey. And, much to his surprise, when the barrels were dumped they were at a much lower proof than anticipated. Barreled at 107 proof, the whiskey was 89 proof when dumped and 86.8 proof (43.4% alc./vol.) when bottled – a result of the time these particular barrels spent aging in stone warehouses.

“Master’s Keep is the result of a lot of experimentation, patience and faith,” said Eddie Russell. “The sweet spot for Bourbon aging is usually between 8 – 12 years because older Bourbons tend to become too woody or spicy from sitting too long in the barrel. What I was able to do with Master’s Keep was retain the Bourbon’s rich caramel and vanilla flavors by aging the barrels in both stone and wood warehouses, sampling from them every few months to decide their next move.”

Well, all that preamble aside, Master’s Keep cuts a curious figure. The color is exotic with a deep orange/amber hue — it looks old, to be sure. The nose says something else: Rich vanilla and caramel notes, but with ample fruit, and not a ton of wood. The body is fat with butterscotch, brown butter, tons of baking spices, and a surprisingly mild dusting of sawdust. Perhaps Russell is right that significant aging in cooler stone warehouses has tempered Master’s Keep, enough to keep it going for 17 long years and still come out the other side as a youthful and exuberant spirit. The finish is sweet and mild, quite fruity and fresh.

This is a fun whiskey that you’d never guess had 17 years of barrel age on it, but which you’ll really enjoy from start to finish. Price becomes a bit of a concern at this level — at $150 I want my head to spin — but I don’t think anyone could sample Master’s Keep and not ask for a second glass.

86.8 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.

A- / $150 /

Review: Corbin Vodka

corbinYou can make vodka out of anything, they say. Potato’s a common base starch. How about the sweet potato, then?

Corbin Vodka, made in Atwater, California, is column distilled from the gold old sweet potato. (Don’t call it a yam!)

The nose is fairly neutral, sharp with a moderately medicinal character, but balanced by some notes of brown butter. Interesting undertones of unripened grapes, perhaps gooseberry. On the palate, it’s got a creamy texture that pairs well with a kick of brown sugar and a little baking spice. Just a hint of citrus up front. The finish is long and warming, dusted with light medicinal notes and a kick of sweetness. Nice way to go out.

80 proof.

A- / $30 /

Book Review: Beer for All Seasons

51OnBaUpZZL._SX380_BO1,204,203,200_A cynical beer drinker would say the concept of the new book Beer for All Seasons: A Through-the-Year Guide to What do Drink and When to Drink It is absurd. Beer should be drunk every day, amirite beer guys?

Well, author Randy Mosher of course has more sophisticated aims here: Pairing certain beer styles to certain seasons, holidays, festivals, and other occasions. Now this isn’t rocket science, really. You drink lighter beers in the summer on the beach and darker ones in the winter by the fire. And the only time you’d think of drinking a pumpkin beer is on Thanksgiving.

Well, not so fast, as Mosher reminds you that traditions and local customs may compel some surprising consumption. Black IPA for Easter dinner? Who knew?

Mosher’s got lots of general info about beer styles, production, glassware, and even pouring methods — and lots of color pictures to keep this all breezy and fun. This is also the first book I have seen that publicly called out the long-debunked “tongue map” as inaccurate and replaced it with more modern science. (It’s amazing how many people continue to hold on to this nutty idea that you only taste salt on the sides of your tongue and sweetness on the tip.)

Overall, this is a quick read that will make you instantly ready for a brew. Worth it for the putting all the information about all the “beer weeks” around the country in one place alone.