Book Review: Proof: The Science of Booze

proof boozeWired editor Adam Rogers is an acquaintance and a colleague (he was my wingman at the HP50 tasting a few weeks back), so it’s not totally fair for me to rave about his new book, Proof: The Science of Booze. I will anyway. If, like myself, you’re as interested in the chemistry and biology of beer, wine, and spirits as you are the way they taste, this book’s for you.

Rogers’ tome is part a historical work that discusses the origins of booze, part newsy analysis of how far science is pushing the industry we know and love so much in these parts. Proof is split up into a small number of logical, topically-centered chapters — sugar, distillation, hangovers, and so on — each a breezy journey to the past and back to the present. Rogers will take you back to the discovery of yeast — and then to a lab that is experimenting with how different yeast strains impact the taste of beer that is fermented with them.

It’s easy to get lost in some pretty obtuse weeds in science journalism, but Rogers is canny enough to keep things easily readable for a layperson (his impromptu “hangover cure” experiment is appropriately hysterical) while ensuring the book is rigorous enough for the experts. Well done.

A / $16 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Boathouse Distillery Colorado Bourbon Whiskey

boathouse bourbon

Boathouse Distillery is based in Salida, Colorado, from which Colorado Bourbon hails. The back label copy of this whiskey alone is worth the price of admission: “Colorado Bourbon is especially formulated for Western women and men. We like adventure and the great outdoors.”

And that’s it!

Colorado Bourbon is sourced whiskey from whereabouts unknown, aged four years. As Boathouse proudly proclaims, “Our craft is in the finishing of spirits.”

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working pretty well. Boathouse is slightly smoky, slightly sweet, with a nose that offers curious notes not of the expected vanilla and wood staves but rather of match heads, beef vegetable stew, and celery salt. I mean all of that positively, offering intensely savory possibilities.

The body offers a nice combination of smoke and baking spice, some butterscotch, and lingering notes of roasted meats. Touches of red pepper and pencil shavings come along on the finish. Ultimately it’s hard to put your finger on it exactly. Boathouse rolls round and round, mingling a surface-level frontier character with a surprising sophistication and complexity deep down. At this price, it’s undoubtedly worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $35 / boathousedistillery.com

Review: Oban Little Bay and Oban 14 Years Old

Oban Little Bay

Next up in the NASverse is Oban, which is releasing its mew Little Bay expression just in time for Burns Day (January 25).

This isn’t just another random collection of mysterious whiskies. Much like Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Little Bay is aged in part in smaller casks, giving it a distinct character.

Says the company: “Crafted by selecting small batches of our finest single malt whiskies, and marrying the whiskies in our smallest casks to allow more contact with the wood, Oban Little Bay delivers the signature rich, smooth Oban expression with its rich, fruity style but with a more pronounced maritime and citrus character.”

Based in the Western Highlands, Oban (pronounced OH-bun, with the stress on the “OH,” not OH-BANN), creates a distinct style of malt whisky that is one of the standbys of the whisky world. How does Little Bay compare to the ubiquitous Oban 14? We put them head to head…

Oban Little Bay – Immediately, it seems on the thin side. The nose is restrained, offering more citrus and sweetness, but less smoke. The body is quite malty, but the chewiness comes at the expense of a lot of that fruity character. What remains is a sense of oatmeal character, some light cinnamon notes, and a touch of lemon peel that grows on the finish. None of this seems particularly enlightening, almost like the standby Oban 14 has been muzzled a bit, then bottled as a special edition. It isn’t bad. It’s just… curious. 86 proof. B+ / $75

Oban 14-Year-Old… and for comparison’s sake…

Oban 14 Years Old – A classic. Lightly smoky, it offers tons of big, roasted grains up front, layered atop notes of toasted marshmallow and a hint of citrus. Oban is so easygoing it’s easy to guzzle by the glassful thanks to its big, rounded body, but if you did so you’d miss those wisps of incense, tropical guava, and just a touch of seaweed on the back end. Deserving of its reputation as one of the standbys of the whisky world. 86 proof. A- / $60

malts.com

Review: Guinness The 1759 Limited Edition Amber Ale

guinness 1759This limited edition Signature Series bottling from Guinness is an American Strong Ale brewed with both standard beer malts and peated whisky malts, making for a decidedly curious and intriguing beer.

Thick and malty from the start, The 1759 (named in honor of Guinness’s founding) kicks off with a woody, slightly maple-syrupy nose. I catch hints of rhubarb, licorice root, and amari. On the tongue, it’s a dense and richly syrupy beer, but surprisingly lively and flavorful. Big molasses notes tend to overpower things, but the Port-like notes bring with them hints of whisky, chimney smoke, and coffee beans. The long, semi-sweet finish recalls the licorice on the nose and adds in some chocolate.

On the whole: It’s quite a complicated monster, fitting of a “special occasion” beer, with an uncanny similarity to the barrel-aged craft brews that are becoming so common these days.

9% abv. 90,000 bottles made (and “never to be brewed again!”).

B+ / $43 (25.4 oz bottle) / guinness.com

Review: 2012 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Faust-bottle-shotnovintageWhen I first tasted Faust’s 2012 Cabernet I thought it might be off — densely tannic with vegetal flavors that were massively overwhelming at first attack. I corked the wine up and put it away for a day, hoping things would settle down. Fortunately, they did, revealing a wine that’s a burly as all get-out, but which has a charm of its own deep down. Even with air and time, you’ll need to push past a significant amount of dense leather and tar to reach some fruit — juicy currants and some blueberries — plus hints of fresh rosemary, spearmint, and cocoa powder. This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding wine — provided you have a couple of days to crack its code.

B+ / $40 / faustwine.com

Book Review: The 12 Bottle Bar

The 12 Bottle Bar is founded on a great idea: Build a home bar not by amassing hundreds of obscurities like Chartreuse and Punt e Mes (guilty!), but rather by focusing on the bare essentials. With just 12BottleBar_CVR_MechOut 03.indd12 bottles, authors David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson say you can make hundreds of cocktails without breaking the bank or having to devote a spare room to your hooch (also guilty!).

I won’t belabor the mystery. Here are the 12 bottles:

brandy
dry gin
genever
amber rum
white rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
dry vermouth
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
orange bitters

OK. So, yes, that’s one way to do it. That’s a fine first draft. But… two kinds of rum? Genever? Humbly, I submit my own curated list of 12 most essential bottles:

brandy
dry gin
amber rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
reposado tequila
bourbon
absinthe
maraschino liqueur

Now that’s a starter bar. And arguably you could replace the rye with a single malt scotch, letting a good, rye-heavy bourbon sub in for straight rye in any number of cocktails. I don’t think you need two kinds of rum; just use amber and live with darker (and more flavorful) Daiquiris and Mojitos. Absinthe may not sound like a big deal, but it does open up the Sazerac and Death in the Afternoon, and works wonders as a rinse in any number of avant garde concoctions. Even the book notes that the lack of tequila in their list is a tough one, but life with Margaritas may not be worth living. Maraschino — in lieu of seldomly used orange bitters and basically-used-in-martinis-only dry vermouth — is, I think, one of my little linchpins here. Try it with rum or in a Manhattan.

But I digress.

Let’s look at The 12 Bottle Bar on its merits, not my own conjecture and my own wild bar ideas.

This is a really thick tome — 412 pages — for a book that is about making do with less. That’s a testament to how far 12 bottles will get you… but bear in mind you will still need fruits, juices, syrups, sodas, mint, cream, eggs, and more to make nearly anything in the book. With few exceptions, you can’t make any of the cocktails in the book with just these bottles. The Mai Tai, for example, has 6 ingredients, only 2 of which are in the above list. The curious Green Snapper has 7, but you’ll need to source 6 on your own time.

What emerges after spending time with the book is not instructions on getting by with a small bar, but rather a primer on using a handful of base spirits in numerous classic and avant garde cocktails. There’s plenty here to choose from, including some delightful-sounding concoctions, but the little black-and-white icons don’t do much to cue you in to what the final product is going to be like. Every cocktail has a story attached — typically far longer than the recipe itself. Given that design, I would have put each cocktail on its own page (the typical length of a recipe, anyway) instead of running free form, which makes the book much harder to scan.

So, fun idea, but the second edition could use a little better presentation. If anyone out there ever makes a genever cocktail at home, do let me know.

B / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Baileys Chocolate Cherry

Baileys Cherry

A chocolate-cherry cordial in liquid form sure sounds nice, but Baileys’ latest flavor doesn’t quite hit the mark. The idea is self-explanatory, but the execution isn’t totally there.

The nose is alive with sweet cherry notes, but it’s the chocolate that — surprisingly — is lacking throughout in this liqueur. Instead Baileys Chocolate Cherry is muddled with that inimitable Irish Cream pungency, just a whiff of whiskey and a bit of vanilla to remind you not to try drinking the entire bottle. The body is chewy and sweet like a maraschino plucked straight from the jar, but it also offers a modest slug of woody notes and some hospital character. Some mint notes emerge over time, as well.

As the finish builds, Baileys Chocolate Cherry begins to suffer from a malady so common in cherry-flavored spirits — the Cough Syrup Flavor conundrum, a problem that sends the reveler’s mind reaching not back to thoughts of cherry-filled confections but to days in bed sucking on Sucrets. But hey, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

34 proof.

B / $19 / baileys.com

Review: Glencadam 10 Years Old, 15 Years Old, and 21 Years Old

glencadam

Glencadam can be found in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. It is the only working distillery in County Angus here, but thanks to CIL US Wine & Spirits (the company behind Camus Cognac), it’s now available in the U.S.

The distillery last changed hands in 2003, when it was acquired by a Scottish indie producer. If you’re looking to try some old guard Scotch that isn’t produced by a multinational conglomerate, well, this is a good place to start.

All of these are single malts bottled at 92 proof. Thoughts follow.

Glencadam 10 Years Old – Simple, rustic nose, with some notes of vegetation and a bit of hospital character. The light-as-gossamer body is more charming and more expressive than this simple beginning might indicate. While it leads off with some more base alcohol notes, it evolves to reveal notes of fresh-cut barley, heather, orange peel, nougat, a bit of baking spice, and sugary breakfast cereal. That’s meant as a compliment. Cinnamon toast, maybe? B+ / $55

Glencadam 15 Years Old – Evolving nicely at 15 years old, this expression of Glencadam offers a richer and more focused look at malt that takes things in the direction of chewy, dried apples and apricots, more intense baking spice, and stronger citrus notes on the finish. It’s very much a big brother to the lighter, more spry 10 year old — a bit more wise to the ways of the world but a bit cocky as well. B+ / $85

Glencadam 21 Years Old – All grown up, this expression features ample citrus to the point where it takes on a slightly bitter edge. Pure, well-roasted grain notes start the show before heading into notes of cocoa powder and some raisin character. Classic, racy, spicy malt finishes out the show, lending austerity to an otherwise sweet and sultry whisky. B+ / $199

glencadamwhisky.com

Review: Tequila Espolon Anejo

Espolon Anejo Hi-Res

Tequila Espolon was relaunched in 2010 as one of the first of a wave of high-quality, 100% agave tequilas that were far less expensive than most any other 100% agave tequilas on the market. But there was a hole in the lineup: No anejo.

Now Espolon is back with an anejo expression, at long last. Intriguingly the anejo tequila is aged for at least a year in unused white oak barrels, then finished for two to three months in ex-bourbon barrels, specifically Wild Turkey barrels. (Typically, tequila and most other spirits are fully matured in bourbon casks.)

The nose is rich without being aggressive, with big caramel and vanilla notes that hit the nose right at the start. The body engages right away, pushing that silky sweetness into some woody notes with a slight, agave-driven, vegetal edge. The finish is long and complex, hitting some racy red pepper notes as it begins, then punching up butterscotch and more vanilla syrup before a slow fade that brings the agave back to the forefront. None of this is particularly surprising, but it’s all on point and just about perfect for an anejo, proving again that, pound for pound, Espolon is one of the best bargains in the tequila business.

80 proof.

A / $35 / tequilaespolon.com

Review: Jenni Rivera La Gran Senora Tequila Reposado

jenni rivera

I had never heard of Jenni Rivera before her face showed up on my doorstep. Literally. That’s Rivera mugging from the label of her eponymous tequila — perhaps the most glorious and arguably inappropriate vanity spirit bottling I’ve ever seen. (The only way this could be topped is to imagine a Kardashian vodka, with Kim’s face on the front and her butt on the back label…)

Rivera was a Mexican-American performing artist who died tragically in a plane crash in 2012. While she is said to have approved of this product and personally tasted it, I presume her estate is what is actually lending her visage to a 100% agave line of tequilas. The three standard expressions are available. We received only the reposado, which is aged for 6 months in oak barrels. Thoughts follow.

This is a capable, but a fairly gentle reposado. On the lighter side, color-wise, it offers an immediate nose of roasted agave, burnt marshmallow, and caramel. The body follows in lockstep. Sweet up front, with those marshmallow notes the strongest, it builds to some notes of charcoal, some pencil shavings, and a bit of raisin. The finish is clean, sweet, and with a final salute to agave on the very back end. It isn’t a groundbreaking tequila, but it’s a fully credible and capable one that works well either alone or in mixed drinks.

80 proof.

B+ / $46 / 3crownsimports.com