Review: Skyy Barcraft – White Sangria, Margarita Lime, and Watermelon Fresca

skyy stuff

“It’s time to hack the cocktail!” Now that’s a slogan I can get behind.

Unfortunately, Skyy Barcraft — essentially lower-proof flavored vodka designed to be mixed with your favorite mixer (soda, ginger, what-have-you) and consumed on the rocks — isn’t really hacking anything. Unless you consider water and those inimitable “natural flavors” to be a hack. Meh.

Each of the three expressions is 60 proof. All were tasted with a splash of club soda. (Skyy suggests a 2:1 mix of soda to spirit, which I don’t recommend at all.)

Skyy Barcraft White Sangria – Fresh, with lots of peach overtones, followed by citrus. Doesn’t exactly scream sangria — as there’s no wine element on the palate to speak of — but it does come off as a capable rendition of a lower-cal peach vodka. B

Skyy Barcraft Margarita Lime – Makes for an ugly margarita. Starts off with piney, evergreen notes, then segues into hospital overtones. The finish is drying and medicinal, not at all like any margarita I’ve ever had (possibly because you make a margarita with tequila, not vodka). D-

Skyy Barcraft Watermelon Fresca – About what you’re expecting — Jolly Ranchers dipped into vodka for a slightly astringent, slightly candied complexion. Some bitter notes emerge on the finish, likely driven by the vodka. Relatively harmless, but unless you’ve got a serious thing for watermelon, it’s probably not going to be your go-to beverage. C

each $x /

Review: Oak by Absolut

absolut oak by absolutTo quote Tom Cruise in Risky Business, sometimes you gotta say, What the fuck?

How big is whiskey? So big that the vodka guys are trying to muscle in on the business.

Oak by Absolut is Absolut vodka rested in oak barrels. Or, more accurately, it is “oak infused vodka, vodka, [and] vodka rested in barrels,” per the label. What any of that means I don’t really know. The mechanics of the oak infusion aren’t disclosed, nor is any information about the type of barrels or the length of time the vodka spends in them. Was the vodka rested at distillation proof or at Absolut’s standard 80 proof? I just don’t know.

The end product looks and tastes exactly as you think it will. As dark as any whiskey (well, almost any whiskey), it certainly looks the part. On the nose it’s tough to parse — notes of vanilla are at the forefront, then cinnamon, raspberry, root beer soda, and marshmallows. It doesn’t really smell like whiskey… but it doesn’t smell like anything else either. A very young brandy? Some kind of flavored Irish whiskey? It’s a chameleon.

The palate pushes on with abandon — sweet vanilla custard, a modest lashing of lumber, and some cherry notes hit first. The main event is a distinct A&W Root Beer character — not a dense amaro bitterness, but a highly sweetened version of the stuff that leaves a hint of rootiness behind for the finish. Here things slowly fade away, offering some notes of prune juice and brown sugar amidst the lingering root beer character.

What’s surprising about Oak by Absolut — besides the fact that it exists at all — is how harmless it is. Those expecting a rank lumber bomb — which often happens if you put rack vodka in a wood barrel — won’t find it here. Whatever Absolut has done to doctor this oddity — and that must be significant — it’s been able to avoid turning it into the disgusting monster you were expecting it to be. At the same time, there’s really no reason, absolutely no reason at all, for it to exist. No whiskey fan in their right mind would pick this even over a $12 bottle of bourbon, and no vodka drinker would ever set foot near it. So why does this exist? As a gateway to whiskey (which Absolut doesn’t make)? Someone lost a bet? You got me.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch B-14.01 (or B-19.01… bad handwriting).

B- / $25 /

Review: Cerveza Modelo Especial

Modelo Especial_ Bottle with GlassQuick: What’s the best-selling imported beer in the U.S.?

Too easy. What’s the #2 best-selling import?

No, not Heineken. Not any more. Now it’s Modelo Especial.

Celebrating its recent rise to the second from the top, Modelo sent out samples to see what all the fuss is about. I have to say, I don’t much see it. This is a classic, lower-end Mexican bottling, light as gold and loaded with malty notes up front. The body then turns somewhat skunky and mushroomy, with light citrus fruit and vegetal overtones. The finish is at first clean but ultimately turns a bit gummy and not entirely satisfying.

4.4% abv.

D+ / $15 per 12 pack /

Review: Voli Vodka

voli vodkaMade in Cognac, France, this vodka is crafted from French wheat, 5x distilled, blended with local water, and endorsed by Pitbull.

Voli (aka Voli Black) has a hyper-modern profile from start to finish. On the nose, it offers substantial sweetness, with caramel notes and a bit of citrus. The body is as sweet as you would expect, offering overtones of marshmallow, sweetened coconut, and vanilla. There’s none of the citrus hinted at from the nose on the palate, but the finish wraps things up with some baking spice and more brown sugar.

Did I mention the sweetness? Just checking.

80 proof.

B- / $20 /

Book Review: Spirit of Place – Scotland’s Great Whisky Distilleries

61iIjYFHx3L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Scotland is a magical place, and descriptions and tasting notes really don’t do it justice. If you’re a whisky fan and can’t visit in person, the next best thing is here: Charles MacLean’s Spirit of Place, with photos by Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald.

The book is a beautiful coffee table tome, with almost 300 pages of gorgeous pictures showcasing nearly 60 Scottish distilleries. The book is split up by region (distilleries are organized alphabetically within each region), and each gets a nice-sized writeup before moving on to the photos. Detailed captions explain not just what you’re seeing in each picture, but they also offer fun facts and interesting details about these places — many of which I had never heard before.

Platman and MacDonald have plenty of shots of copper pot stills, aluminum wash backs, and wooden casks, but they wisely choose to tell a broader story with photos than what you see only in the distillery and warehouse proper. From shots of barley fields to workers on the line, the photos really take you to the Scottish isles, whether that be through a telephoto view of the exterior of a distillery to a close-up view of whisky in a glass.

Pour a glass of whisky from one of these distilleries, then spend some time flipping through the relevant pages and see if it doesn’t enhance the experience.


Review: Far North Spirits Syva Vodka and Gustaf Navy Strength Gin

FNS_Gustaf_wTwo more white spirits from Minnesota-based Far North Spirits, both sporting the company’s exotic Nordic naming scheme. Thoughts follow.

Far North Spirits Syva Vodka – Distilled from rye. Immediately odd nose, with heavy, malty grain notes, some hospital notes, and a nutty, almond character that seems to come out of nowhere. On the palate, the hospital character wins out, but the body has a kind of fruit-driven sweetness to it that mutes what might otherwise offer a fresh and bracing character. Instead, Syva ultimately comes across more like a confused white whiskey instead of a clean and fresh vodka. 90 proof. C / $30

Far North Spirits Gustaf Navy Strength Gin – This is not merely a stronger version of Solveig, but is a different style of gin, particularly a higher-proof London Dry style gin. Distilled from rye, botanicals include Meyer lemon peel, grains of paradise, fennel, cucumber, and meadowsweet (among others). It’s more newfangled than the London Dry moniker would indicate, offering a nose that runs to citrus, some marshmallow, and fennel evident. The body has very little juniper to speak of, including some initial earthy notes that are backed up by sweet citrus, wintry florals, and a lingering perfume character. The finish is long and aromatic, again not at all London Dry in style but rather far more western. 114 proof. B / $40

Review: The Traveler Beer Co. Seasonal Shandies

illusive traveler grapefruit aleThree crafty shandies from Burlington, Vermont-based Traveler Beer Co., each using a wheat ale for a base and with a variety of fruity/sweet additives for spin. Each is fairly low alcohol and, of course, a bit different than your typical suds.

Thoughts follow.

The Traveler Beer Co. Curious Traveler Lemon Shandy – Slightly sweet, with juicy lemonade notes up front. The beer itself is rather innocuous, just a hint of malt and caramel, but it does pair fairly well with the citrus, at least at the start. 4.4% abv. B-

The Traveler Beer Co. Illusive Traveler Grapefruit Shandy – Considerably more bitter/sour than the lemon shandy, this bottling provides a somewhat muddy attack, but it does offer a better balance of fruit and malt. The finish is quite bitter, playing off both the grapefruit and the wheat ale elements. While the lemon shandy becomes a bit overwhelming, this one tends to grow on you. 4.4% abv. B

The Traveler Beer Co. Jack-o Traveler Pumpkin Shandy – Take your gingerbread/pumpkin spice latte and dunk it into your hefeweizen and you’ve got this concoction, which is better than you think it will be but not much. Quite sweet and overwhelming with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, this is a true seasonal in every sense of the word. 4.4% abv. C-

each $7 per six-pack /

Review: Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita – Key Lime and Strawberry

Sandra Lee is a celebrity chef (my wife knew who she was anyway) who’s branching out of cookbooks and into… margies!

These ready-to-drink margarita cocktails are targeted at the higher shelf consumer, as they’re made with real fruit, cane sugar, and “premium blue agave tequila and triple sec liqueur”? I’m not entirely sure if that means the tequila is 100% agave, but let’s assume maybe.

Two flavors exist — lime and strawberry — and we tried them both. Either way, you can’t argue with the price. At less than $3 a serving, it’s hard not to consider packing one of these for your next beach outing.

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Key Lime – A classic margarita. Not at all bad, a completely credible margarita, featuring moderate sweetness (not too sweet), tart lime (not too tart), and a touch of bite (though it could use quite a bit more). At 13% alcohol, this is a pretty tame margarita, but an extra ounce of your favorite silver tequila should bring it completely up to snuff. Straight from the bottle, however, it’s perfectly acceptable for an afternoon poolside. Once of the better margaritas-in-a-bottle out there. B+

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Strawberry – Naturally, this is the strawberry margarita version. Very, very fruity, first on the nose, then on the palate. Lots and lots of sweetness here dulls the rest of the cocktail with its melted Jolly Rancher character, and again an extra shot of blanco offers an improvement. Probably better as a frozen drink (though I didn’t try it that way). B-

each $16 per 750ml bottle /

Review: Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century


Jack Daniel’s is making a second stab at Sinatra’s legendary love of JD with another ultra high-end bottling of its signature Tennessee Whiskey. If you thought Sinatra Select was ostentatious, wait’ll you get a load of Sinatra Century, which arrives at more than twice the price.

Sinatra Century — bottled in honor of Frank’s 100th birthday — is made from the same type of alligator-charred barrels as Sinatra Select but otherwise offers no particular production information (including, as usual, any age statement). What JD has done, however, is work with the Sinatra family to taste and select the barrels that went into this bottling.

Bottles are individually numbered and come in elaborate gift packaging. They are bottled at 100 proof, perhaps another nod to the Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centennial.

You have time to consider this purchase — Frank’s birthday will be December 12, 2015 — but in the meantime, let’s give it a thorough tasting and review.

Sinatra Century is immediately appealing from the moment the bottle is cracked open. The nose is heady, with heavy baking spice notes — highly unusual for JD — loads of cinnamon and nutmeg, plus brown butter, some barrel char influence, and ample vanilla. There’s a fair amount of alcoholic burn given the proof, but it’s manageable and actually quite engaging, working well with the grandiose nose.

On the palate, Sinatra Century keeps it going. Big butterscotch, cinnamon, and a healthy slug of Mexican chocolate lead the way. Some charcoal notes make an entry later on, but the finish runs to bittersweet cocoa, a slight cherry influence, and smoldering molasses left on the fire overnight.

The balance of flavors here is nearly perfect, bouncing from spice to chocolate to char and back again. The higher proof helps keep it alive on the tongue for ages, but it never feels particularly hot and doesn’t need water. Engaging from start to finish, I’m not afraid to say this is the best product JD has ever put into a bottle.

That said, it’s a $400 product (or more) — so it better be good. Damn good.

A / $400 (one liter) /

Tasting Report: Rosso Montefalco and Montefalco Sagrantino, 2015 Releases

It’s been a year since we checked in with our friends in Montefalco, Umbria, and the time was nigh to revisit the wines of this storied region in Italy. Six wines were tasted as part of this live event broadcast from Italy — four 100% Sagrantino wines and two Rossos, which are only 10 to 15% Sagrantino but are mostly Sangiovese (60 to 70%). Other grape varieties make up the balance.

Let’s taste!

2011 Perticaia Montefalco Rosso DOC – Ample earth, dried herbs, and a lashing of currants. Restrained, this wine keeps the focus on the earth and its treasures — rosemary, sage, and some eucalyptus. B+ / $28

2011 Colpetrone Montefalco Rosso DOC – A much different, fruitier wine, with fresh strawberry and blackberry dominating the palate. Almost jarring at first, with its new(er) world approach and vanilla notes. Fresh and lively — and one of the few wines here that are approachable without food. B / $19

2008 Tenuta Castelbuono (Lunelli) “Carapace” Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG – Dense, wintry, with some smoky and coal dust notes on the nose. Aging well, the body exudes raisin and prune notes, old wood, and more charcoal notes. Thick and palate-coating with tannins and a lasting finish. B+ / $37

2009 Antonelli Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG – More balsamic character on this wine, its darker fruit notes tempered by spices and dried herbs. Earthy and mushroomy, with notes of truffles and cured meats. Give this one ample time in glass to show off the dense fruit at its core. A- / $45

2008 Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG – Lovely cherry starts things off on this expression of Sagrantino which has lightened up considerably since last year’s tasting of the same vintage. Watch for notes of dark chocolate and vanilla, and a finish that brings out blueberry notes. A really fun wine with a balanced but complex character. A- / $40

2009 Arnaldo Caprai “Collepiano” Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG – Tannic and still quite tight, this wine needs some air to pull fruit from the dusty coal and char notes that lie beneath the surface. This is a wine that will be ready to drink in another decade, but for now it showcases tightly bound earth and roots, licorice, and the essencce of a well-used fireplace in an ancient manor. Hints of blackberry and blueberry emerge on the finish… a taste of what’s to come (some day). A- / $60