Review: Sugar Skull Rum

sugar skull rum

Here’s a new batch of rums, comprising five flavored expressions. Sugar Skull is made from can sourced throughout the Caribbean and South America and distilled in the Caribbean (the company doesn’t say where) in a column still. The final product is blended and flavored in the U.S. before bottling in dia de los muertes inspired decanters.

Five expressions are being produced, all of which are flavored to some degree (even the silver rum, see below). We checked out three of them for review. Thoughts follow.

Sugar Skull Rum Tribal Silver – Flavored with “a slight essence of cocoa and vanilla.” The flavoring agents mainly serve to soften this rum a bit, giving it a clearer vanilla spin, particularly on the palate. Hints of coconut (more so than chocolate) emerge on the back end. The nose is less distinct and hotter than the above might indicate, with more traditional rum funk throughout. The body seems tailor-made for mixing, however, and would excel with a simple cola or in a tropical concoction. 80 proof. 

Sugar Skull Rum Mystic Vanilla – This rum features “natural vanilla overtones” … but “overtones” is a bit light for the vanilla bomb in store for drinkers of this ultra-punchy spirit. Very sugary on the nose, with marshmallow overtones. These carry through to the palate, which doesn’t so much come across as vanilla as it does liquified rock candy. It ventures way too far into candyland for my palate… but hey, at least it has “sugar” in the name. 80 proof.

Sugar Skull Rum Native Coconut Blend – At first I thought the back label — “infused with a slight aroma of wild blueberries” — was a typo, but this seems to be on point: This coconut rum also has a touch of blueberry in it, too, making for a weirdly unexpected fruit kick atop a base of traditionally sweetened coconut “party rum”. The berries hit the nose more than the palate, which is heavily sugared and clearly designed to be used as something like half of your pina colada. The berry notes make a return appearance on the finish, which they impact in a strangely unctuous and lingering way. 42 proof. 

each $28 /

Tasting Report: Wines of Howell Mountain 2015

The annual “Above the Fog” tasting of wines from Napa’s decidedly inhospitable Howell Mountain region is a showcase for some of the most luxurious — and expensive — wines produced in California. This year producers showed off a wide range of bottlings ranging from 2009 to 2012 releases — with some library wines thrown in for good measure. While most are cabernets — in general, showing a little on the over-extracted side this year — a few other varietals can be found, including the first Howell Mountain pinot noir I’ve ever experienced. (And it was surprisingly good!)

Brief thoughts on all wines tasted at the event follow.

Tasting Report: Wines of Howell Mountain 2015

2010 Arkenstone Vineyards Obsidian / $135 / B+ / pushy, some spice and jam notes
2011 Black Sears Estate Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $95 / B / not quite ripe; surprisingly tart
2009 Bravante Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Howell Mountain / $75 / B / lots of oak and silky tannins with a chalky, earthy finish
2009 Bremer Family Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $90 / B / a bit thin, lots of chocolate, licorice, tart berries
2011 CADE Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain / $80 / B / complex, herbal notes and some wet earth
2012 CADE Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Reserve / $180 / A- / mushrooms, then leather and a touch of vanilla; very long tannic structure
2011 Cimarossa Rive Di Cimarossa Vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $70 / B / some floral character, a bit of balsamic
2011 Cimarossa Riva Di Ponente Vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $90 / B+ / broader berry and wood-heavy structure
2012 Clif Family Winery Howell Mountain Kit’s Killer Cab / $75 / B- / heavy earth, lots of tannin
2012 Clif Family Winery Croquet Vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $110 / B+ / more lush and pretty, some violets
2011 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon White Label / $80 / B / lots of fruit on the nose, strawberry especially; very light body
2001 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon White Label / $300 / A / amazing right now, soft as a pillow with florals and fruit in harmony
2012 Cresta Velia Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $65 / B+ / chocolate and caramel notes, dark black fruit jam, some flabbiness on the body
2011 Haber Family Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $120 / B+ / big fruit profile, lightly tart; easy drinking with modest tannin
2012 Hindsight Wines Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Vetta Vineyards / $65 / B / some vegetal notes on the nose; caramel sauce on a slightly sweet body
2011 Howell at the Moon Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $85 / B- / intensely vegetal, tawny Port character
2009 Howell at the Moon Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Knoll Vineyard / $125 / B- / similar to above
2011 Howell Mountain Vineyards Howell Mountain Petite Verdot / $65 / A- / fresh and fragrant; lots of florals
2011 Howell Mountain Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $75 / B+ / chewy cedar box notes; leather oil
2011 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $75 / A- / licorice notes; chocolate; still drinking young
2003 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $95 / A- / still fresh, well softened, some sweetness
2011 La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot W.S. Keyes / $150 / B+ / hugely floral with right fruit; a bit tart (24% cabernet)
2011 Lamborn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $100 / A- / lush and almost sweet with tons of fruit; silky and developing nicely
2010 Neal Family Vineyards Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / $150 / B+ / densely earthy nose; lots of tannin, slight herbal edge
2012 Outpost Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $75 / B / overbearing chocolate notes, big vanilla finish
2011 Pestoni Family Rutherford Grove Winery Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $75 / A- / lively fruit, some perfume notes; soft back end
2011 Pina Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Buckeye Vineyard / $85 / A- / chewy with chocolate notes, big currants, tobacco leaf
2010 Press Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $60 / B- / some earth and funk here; licorice, coffee bean
2012 Prim Family Vineyard Howell Mountain Pinot Noir / $60 / A- / a real surprise; dense chocolate, exotic, baking spices and vanilla
2010 Prim Family Vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $80 / A- / somewhat softer than the ’09, nice balance
2009 Prim Family Vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $80 / B+ / lots of fresh fruit notes, big jam, overpowered on the finish though
2010 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah / $45 / B / menthol, some citrus notes; very fragrant
2012 Roberts + Rogers Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $100 / B+ / primarily a grape grower, not a winemaker (prices have been skyrocketing); intense, with deep tannins… give this one time
2010 SPENCE Howell Mountain 100% Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / $80 / A- / currants, cocoa powder; deep char notes
2010 Summit Lake Emily Kestrel Howell Mountain Cabernet / $60 / B / blue and blackberry notes; a little portlike; develops in time
2011 W.H. Smith Bronze Label Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $48 / B / quite herbal; slight Madeira notes
2011 W.H. Smith Purple Label Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / $64 / B+ / softer, with blueberry fruit developing; some fig notes

Tasting the Brunellos of Col d’Orcia with Count Francesco Marone Cinzano


I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day I get to have lunch with an honest to god Count. Frenceso Marone Cinzano runs the show at Col d’Orcia, where he has produced Brunello di Montalcino (amongst a number of other wines) since 1992. (His family has owned the estate since 1973.)

Cinzano visited San Francisco for a classically Italian lunch recently and he brought along a number of his wines, all made with estate fruit, dating back to 2001. Thoughts follow.

2012 Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino DOC – Very herbal on the nose, fresh cherries and some balsamic notes. Dense tannins emerge with woody notes. Rosemary and some bitter edges hit the finish. B / $25

2010 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Just released. This is much more lush and fruity, with a light body and a nice structure. Some black pepper notes amidst all the red berries. A- / $55

0222006 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Densely earthy with cassis and bay leaf notes. Long finish provides florals and rocky, earthy elements. Slight muddiness in the body with time in glass. A- / $150

2004 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Sweeter and fruitier on the nose, with some tropical and even coconut notes showing. Tart raspberry character is matched by smoky, leathery notes on the finish. A- / $150

2001 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – An exceptional wine. Perfect balance of fruit and earth, with dense cassis and blueberry really enveloping the wine. The finish is epic, with light herbs, blackberries, and no end in sight to the opulence. Fantastic from start to finish. A+ / $160

2010 Col d’Orcia “Nearco” Sant’Antimo DOC – A blend of 50% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, and 5% petit verdot. Lots of density here, with chocolate, licorice, and a woody finish. B+ / $45

2009 Col d’Orcia “Olmaia” Sant’Antimo DOC – 100% cabernet sauvignon. Fresh herbs — sage and thyme — with lots of dark fruit notes. Currants and vanilla galore nudge this toward a California style. A- / $77


Review: Wines of La Merika, 2015 Releases

La Merika Cab bottle 001All of a sudden these La Merika wines are everywhere I look. Bottled by Delicato, these are affordable, bulk wines produced primarily in the California Central Coast region. You probably won’t pick one up at Ruth’s Chris, but with a couple of these bottlings, you could do worse.

2013 La Merika Pinot Grigio Monterey – As pale a wine as I’ve ever seen, this Pinot Grigio offers a nose of canned pears, with a touch of ammonia. The body is lightly tropical with more old/canned fruit notes, and a heavily bittersweet finish that recalls dried, faded herbs that have been sitting in the cupboard for the last decade. Largely unpleasant. D+ / $13

2013 La Merika Chardonnay Central Coast – A standard-grade Chardonnay with reasonable fruit and modest oak, a perfectly acceptable everyday/party wine that will excite no one but offend none, either. Mild citrus and a touch of tropical character add at least some nuance. B- / $13

2012 La Merika Pinot Noir Central Coast – Traditional cherries on the nose, plus some vanilla — this leads to a slightly oversweet but also surprisingly smoky palate, which ultimately fades away to a bittersweet note on the finish. Notes of cola add something to the otherwise somewhat watery palate. C / $15

2012 La Merika Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast – Surprisingly not at all bad. Ample fruit, with currents and raspberries, with a little dusting of chocolate underneath. Vanilla notes emerge with time, but the wine manages to stay out of jam territory while still keeping the tannins very lean. There’s no real complexity, but there’s nothing offensive about it at all. Again, a surprisingly great value. B+ / $15

Review: Makar Glasgow Gin

makar glasgow gin

As the full name suggests, Makar is produced in Glasgow, the first gin made in this Scottish city. Makar is focused on the number seven (lucky, I guess?). It is (curiously) pot distilled seven times, bottled in a heptagonal shaped decanter, and infused with seven botanicals — angelica root, liquorice, coriander seeds, lemon peel, cassia bark, black peppercorns, and rosemary. Of course, it’s also infused with juniper, but for some reason Makar doesn’t include that key ingredient in the botanical list. The other ingredients are all “pillars supporting the heart of the recipe.” By the way, if you’re wondering, the name Makar is a Scots word for poet.

It’s a funky and unique little gin not without some amount of charm. The nose first comes off a bit musty — traces of that pot-distilled spirit, I’m sure — with mushroom, tree bark, licorice, and gunpowder aromas. I catch hints of bitter apple, too. The body is a little more familiar, but still quite dusty, that angelica and coriander making a major impact. Even the juniper is dialed back, with the peppercorns and rosemary making the most lasting impression on the finish.

Interesting stuff, but more citrus elements — and maybe some florals — would add some balance that would make this a bit friendlier.

86 proof. Available only in Scotland for now.

B / $53 /

Review: Gordon Biersch Maibock

GB Maibock_BottleGordon Biersch’s latest seasonal is this German-style Maibock, a beer that’s close to Dan Gordon’s heart and which translates to “bock beer of May.” Says GB: “The malty, German-style lager gets its flavor from heavy doses of dark roasted caramel malt. Originally brewed in the 14th century in the Lower Saxony town of Einbeck, it quickly became so popular in the South that Bavarian brewers actually enticed a brewer to relocate and ply his trade in their region.”

The caramel notes are what really define this beer, which balances some winey notes with the essence of salted caramel on the nose. There’s some sweetness on the palate along with a little Madeira character and a heavily malty, slightly mushroomy body. Notes of peanut shells on the finish.

Fun stuff, and a good choice for something “serious” to drink amidst the usual summertime fare.

7.3% abv.

B+ / $9 per six-pack /

Review: Thump Keg Rye IPA and Agave Amber Ale

thump keg Rye 6pk w-Bot

Diageo recently came up with a nutter of an idea: Brew beers using some of the ingredients in its spirits. These aren’t aged in spirit barrels — they aren’t aged at all — nor do they contain any actual spirits. They are just, the story goes, made using some of the raw components that go into the company’s whiskey and tequila.

And so this pair of Thump Keg beers was born in Latrobe, Penn. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is made by City Brewing Company, where Rolling Rock and other brands are made.)

I tried them both, and some comments follow.

Thump Keg Rye IPA – “Brewed with George Dickel Sour Mash Bill” (so… corn, rye, and barley), this hybrid IPA offers a malty, nutty and slightly sweet attack — loaded with sugared almonds and a honeycomb character — that fades to a chewy, bitter brew on the back end. Lots of racy grain character comes to the forefront as the finish kicks in, offering a spicy conclusion backed by lots of hops. It’s not entirely balanced nor overwhelmingly “rye” like, but it’s an enjoyable diversion. 8.2% abv. B

Thump Keg Agave Amber Ale – “Brewed with the essence of Peligroso Select Mexican Agave.” I’m not entirely sure what that means — it actually has raw agave in the mash? — but this beer does offer a slightly honey-focused character that rounds out a decent amount of malt and some cocoa notes. If there’s any agave character here it comes through as a light herbal note on the front of the palate. Otherwise it’s fairly straightforward in structure. 5.8% abv. B

each $9.50 per six-pack /

Review: Far North Spirits Solveig Gin and Alander Spiced Rum

solveig ginYou’re a Minnesota-based craft distiller that names its products after Scandinavian words. For your first two products, what do you release? You nailed it: Gin and spiced rum, just what our friends from the north are known for!

Kidding aside, Far North produces craft spirits in some really beautiful, minimalist, Scanditastic packaging. While the company now boasts five spirits in its stable, here’s a look at the first two out of the gate.

Far North Spirits Solveig Gin – [UPDATE: This review has been temporarily redacted. Far North’s Mike Swanson says we were mistakenly sent a bottle from a bad batch of Solveig that had problems from a bad water purifier. A new bottle (and a new review) are on the way. -Ed.]

Far North Spirits Alander Spiced Rum – (oh-lander) Louisiana sugar cane spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves — plus a hint of espresso(!). This is a much more capable spirit, but it’s incredibly exotic for this category. Things start out with gentle sweetness before diving into some exceptionally sultry, savory spice notes. That espresso hits you immediately — more cocoa nib than ground coffee — while the cloves and allspice play a strong supporting role. The body is far more bitter than you might expect from a spiced rum, almost to the point of astringency at times. It takes some doing, but the finish manages to dial it back a bit. Here, gentle notes of sweetness finally re-emerge, the way a bite of too much cinnamon can initially be overwhelming but eventually settle down into something nostalgic and soothing. 86 proof. B / $30

Review: Amaro Montenegro

montenegroMade in Bologna, Italy, Montenegro (“the liquor of the virtues”) dates back to 1885. Amaro Montenegro is on the sweeter side of amari, with a character that folds lots of citrus, spearmint, honey, and licorice into its classic, bittersweet body. Light on its feet, it offers lightly salted caramel up front, then moves toward some subtle Madeira notes and a bit of root beer character on the finish.

Montenegro is widely considered one of the gentlest amari, and its light color and up-front sweetness bear that out. But Montenegro does have a bracing edge that showcases its bitterness well, making for a classic, cohesive amaro.

46 proof.

A- / $27 /

Review: Clif Organic Trail Mix Bars


Sure, trail mix bars are a little out of our domain, but Clif really wanted to send these new bars made from organic ingredients for us to review, so we figured, why not? Think of them as bar snacks when you’re camping or are at the beach. They’ve got lots of nuts in them, just like that bowl on the bartop.

I guess it’s not that weird. We do write have a whole section devoted to bars after all, right?

Some quick thoughts on 7 flavors follow.

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Cherry Almond – A bit high on the cherry component, but it’s got a nice gooey chocolate backing that makes it fun to nosh on. B+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Raspberry – A drier bar with a heavier nut element than you’d expect from the ingredient list, but still easy to munch. B

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Wild Blueberry Almond – The name says it all. Juicy blueberry paired with crisp, nutty almond. Good combo, with clear blueberry notes in a slightly drier, slightly sticky bar. Very nutty finish. B+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter – Not as delightful as you’re expecting, a very firm and crumbly bar that’s more peanut brittle than peanut butter. Even the chocolate isn’t as compelling here. Bummer. B-

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Cranberry Almond – Quite boring. Very tough to gnaw through, with an overwhelming focus on tough almonds. C+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Coconut Almond Peanut – An indistinctly nutty bar, with musty coconut overtones. Distinctly lacking in flavor, it’s the only bar in the bunch I didn’t finish. C-

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Almond Sea Salt – Saving my favorite for last, which shouldn’t be a surprise since this is the most candy bar-like of the bunch. Plenty of chocolate here, and the nuts take on a nougat character, which is fun. You get a nice bite from the salt, too. A-

each about $2 / [BUY THEM HERE]