A new limited edition expression from Islay’s Bowmore, the Devil’s Casks bottling is inspired by a local legend involving the devil being chased by the churchgoing folk of the area into Bowmore’s vaults, where he is said to have escaped by hiding inside a cask of hooch.
I can’t vouch for whether there is any otherworldy presence in Bowmore Devil’s Casks, but I do know that the whisky inside has spent its full 10 years in first-fill sherry casks rather than ex-bourbon barrels. That’s a lot of time to pick up sherry influence; Scotch nuts know that the typical sherry-finished whisky usually spends only a couple of months at the end of its aging time in sherry casks before it’s bottled.
A dark amber in color, this cask strength whisky offers hefty peat notes up front on the nose, backed up with some curious hints of allspice, pine forest, and tar. The body is where that sherry character comes to the forefront, a punchy clove-studded orange backed with cinnamon, grapefruit, black pepper, and a hint of chewy, roasted grains. Smoky peat comes back for an encore on the finish, lasting in the throat for minutes, if not hours, after a sip.
Peat fans will likely rejoice here, but it’s hard not to think that 10 years of sherry might be a bit much for this whisky, as finding balance between the sweet and savory here proves difficult. It’s quite a unique spirit, though, and one at least worth sampling should you encounter it at your local watering hole.
103.8 proof. 1302 bottles allocated for the U.S.
B+ / $90 / bowmore.com
The good folks at Ireland’s Powers don’t know when to quit. First they rebrand and relabel their classic Gold Label Irish whiskey in 2009, now they’re back at it again, redoing the bottle a second time while boosting the proof a bit. (And that doesn’t even include the launch of the masterful John’s Lane special edition bottling.)
Nothing has changed about the recipe to Gold Label — it’s still triple distilled at Midleton, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and non-chill filtered. The only change (aside from bottle cosmetics that now include a metallic neck hanger) is the increase in alcohol up to 43.2% — the product’s original export strength — from the standard 40%.
The change is a good one, giving a little more power (ahem) to the whiskey while maintaining the easy charm and gentle flavor profile that attracts so many people to Irish whiskey.
There’s lots of traditional Irish character here to explore, with a nose that’s full of ripe banana, butterscotch, cereal, and gentle honey notes. On the body, all of the above are met by orange notes, along with both coconut and pineapple on the back end. The finish is both fruity and malty, reminiscent of a frozen custard spiked with toppings. The slight bump in alcohol works well at boosting the body just a smidge, adding just a bit more creaminess to an already well-balanced spirit.
A- / $25 / powerswhiskey.com
Lowlands-based Auchentoshan, the only fully triple-distilled single malt in Scotland, has launched this “virgin oak” expression, aged in new oak barrels instead of ex-Bourbon barrels (or ex-sherry casks), which is the norm. No age statement is provided.
Huge wood on the nose here, oily, somewhat smoky, and punchy with lots of tar and tannin. The approach is quite off-putting, taking some real effort to delve into the spirit itself. Fortunately, the body is more forgiving, offering burnt caramel and butterscotch notes, backed with lots of dried herbs, licorice, and roasted grains. Balance is elusive, and the finish is dusty dry, and not all that compelling in the end.
92 proof. About 2100 bottles made.
C+ / $130 / auchentoshan.com
A craft distillery is reborn in Nashville, Tennessee… and they’re putting “the B word” on the label!
Belle Meade is, as the story goes, a relaunch of a pre-Prohibition bourbon brand that was owned by one Charles Nelson. Today, two of his great-great-great grandsons are bringing the brand back, with the goal of producing small batch whiskey that approximates their ancestor’s recipe.
That’s the idea, anyway. At present, this is high-rye, slightly overproof bourbon (no age statement) sourced from Indiana’s MGP, in advance of the Nelsons finishing up their own on-site distillery, hopefully sometime this year. Instead, Belle Meade is something of a first volley to get investors’ — and drinkers’ — palates wet.
As for the juice, it’s got a quite mild nose, offering notes of applesauce, cinnamon, and grapefruit skins alongside straightforward wood barrel character. On the palate, the body is moderate with that rye giving off a lot of baking spice, mint chocolate, and cedar wood planks. On the whole it’s pleasant and balanced but a little on the thin side, coming up just a little short in the power department.
B+ / $39 / greenbrierdistillery.com
Rekorderlig, Sweden’s hard cider, is available in myriad flavors, all clocking in at a low 4.5% abv alcohol level. Rekorderlig, popular in Europe and just now making its way to the States, isn’t made just for sipping straight. The creator also wants you to try it out in cocktails. A suggested recipe appears below. Meanwhile, we tried out the three varieties now available in the U.S.; thoughts follow.
Rekorderlig Premium Pear Hard Cider – Very sweet, with a long finish. The distinct taste of pears, bathed in a sort of vanilla cream, is especially heavy up front. As the cider fades it leaves behind a fizzy, more vaguely citrus finish. Refreshing, but the sweetness makes it a bit cloying. B
Rekorderlig Premium Strawberry-Lime Hard Cider – Very strawberry soda-like, with a little less sweetness and a bit less fizz than the Pear expression. The strawberry character is candylike, but in a tasteful way. The finish is actually more reminiscent of real strawberries than candy. Fragrant and fun. B+
Rekorderlig Premium Wild Berries Hard Cider – Predominantly raspberry on the tongue, with more of a club soda-style foaminess that tends to mute the fruit. This is the least sweet but also the least flavorful of the bunch. B-
Recipe: Winter Fire
250ml Rekorderlig Pear
5-6 thin slices of ginger
20ml lime juice
30ml honey water (3 parts honey 1 part hot water) or squeeze tube honey
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Heat it up and serve, keep the ginger floating in the glass.
about $5 per 500ml bottle / rekorderlig.com
It’s been three years since we tucked into a bottle of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery’s rare barrel-aged concoction. Time again then for a fresh look at this bold annual release, The Abyss, now in its 8th installment.
Sadly, I’m still two months before the 8/16/14 “drink after” date on this beer… but by that point, this will all be off the market, and you won’t be able to buy it.
This Imperial stout is brewed with black strap molasses, licorice, cherry bark and vanilla. 6% of the beer is aged in oak ex-bourbon barrels, 11% in oak ex-pinot noir barrels, and another 11% in new oak barrels. It all comes together in glorious fashion; I think this is one of the best Abyss bottlings I’ve tried to date.
On the nose, the coffee-brown brew offers beautiful licorice notes up front, with aromas of coffee bean and cocoa powder backing it up. The body is intense with dark coffee character, ultra-bitter chocolate, and a panoply of mild vegetal notes that include green bean and that olive character that’s a classic part of The Abyss’s finish. The denouement is like sipping on the last of a truly great espresso.
Great stuff, hard to put down.
11% abv. 70 IBUs.
2013 Edition: A / $12 per 22-oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com
Looking to boost its presence off the lower tier of tequilas (albeit the still-100% agave ones), venerable El Jimador, the #1 selling 100% agave tequila in Mexico, is revamping its image with a new bottle design. The new look is sleeker and considerably more upscale… but what of the tequila within?
2014-era El Jimador (we tasted only the blanco) is a Lowlands spirit, unaged and named in honor of the jimador, a Mexican agave harvester. There’s modest pepper on the nose, with red chiles, lemon, coconut, and roasted meats. The body is a little all over the place, with notes of chile oil, grilled pineapple, more lemon, and a sultry agave/herbal character on the finish. There’s quite a bit of that funky meat character on the finish, but it’s not overwhelming or pungent.
All told, El Jimador is pleasant enough for journeyman cocktail duty, but the spirit lacks finesse, and the body is decidedly on the thin side. That said, it is fortunate to be lacking the back-of-throat burn so common in cheaper tequilas. So that’s nice.
B- / $22 / eljimador.com
Oregon-based Hood River Distillers has recently rebranded Sinfire, a cinnamon whisky (no “e” on this one) that was launched only two years ago in February 2012. The highlight of the relaunch: “Best served as a 32-degree shot, Sinfire now features a thermochromic temperature-triggered color-changing label to help consumers know exactly when it reaches optimum temperature. The label also incorporates photochromic ink, which brightens the logo when exposed to UV lights.”
We’ve never sampled Sinfire (tagline: “an evil spirit”), so what better time than the present to give it a go?
Cinnamon-flavored whiskey doesn’t typically involve a ton of nuance, and Sinfire is pretty straightforward from the start. The nose is quite mild, more cinnamon toast than cinnamon straight from the jar. On the palate, it’s remarkably easygoing, with one of the lowest overall levels of spice I’ve encountered in this type of spirit. Oddly, it’s not as overwhelmingly sweet as you might expect but rather uses its buttery, creamy body to smooth out the roughness that’s typical of cinnamon whiskeys. The sweetness hits you mid-palate, more of a brown sugar, and the cinnamon pops up most presently on the moderately racy endgame.
Surprisingly well-made, Sinfire proves that you don’t have to blast out your customers’ sinuses with spices in order to craft a rich and soothing spirit. Hardly evil.
A- / $18 / hrdspirits.com
As we reported in December, the world of flavored vodka has delved into the full-on lunatic, with the launch of UV’s Sriracha-flavored vodka.
Officially notated as a “chili pepper flavored vodka” made with all-natural flavors, the spirit really looks the part, bottled in imitation of the iconic condiment, packaged in a red bottle with a green stopper. (That said, unlike actual sriracha, the vodka itself is clear. The bottle is what’s tinted red here.) Now, chili-flavored vodkas aren’t a new thing… but sriracha? Let’s see whether UV has managed to recreate a boozy version of the real deal.
The nose is surprisingly engaging — lightly spicy, with notes of tomato juice, olives, pickles, and — oddly — fresh lettuce. On the palate, sweetness arrives (much like in actual sriracha) to balance an initial rush of heat. The body retains a lot of that Bloody Mary character you get on the nose with peppery tomato juice up front, but the sweetness here is a little distracting, coming off as artificial, failing to integrate well with the hot side of things. That said, I think actual sriracha has a bit of the same problem, too.
Overall, UV Sriracha doesn’t exactly aim for the stars, and the vodka is a qualified success. I can’t say I’ve ever encountered quite this collection of flavors in a single product. It may not exactly be sriracha with a boozy base, but it’s probably as close as it comes if you’re one of the legions of fanatics who love the stuff. And since it’s not much more expensive than a real bottle of sriracha, anyway, it’s arguably worth the investment for novelty value alone.
B / $12 / uvvodka.com
Made in California and pronounced “One-O-One,” this new vodka is distilled from corn (to keep the spirit gluten-free) and filtered five times before bottling.
Billed as affordable alternative to $30-plus ultra-premium vodkas, 1.0.1 fits right in with its oversized, frosted bottle.
The spirit itself, however, is considerably different than most of those big brands. Here, big notes of marshmallow and chocolate-covered caramels waft out just from opening the bottle. Rich and dessert-like on the nose, I also get the slightest hint of quince or Asian pear in the nostrils too. The body is a rich dessert from the start. More marshmallow, more caramel, and a long, sweet finish with a slight smokiness on the back end. The end result is not at all unpleasant, but it lacks the punch and zip of more traditional vodkas, as 1.0.1.’s traditional medicinal character has been seemingly filtered away.
B / $20 / 101vodka.com
Consider the hazelnut.
Best known as a secondary ingredient in a popular chocolate-flavored spread, it’s also long been the only way to get hazelnuts into a cocktail (though newer options have recently availed themselves).
Frangelico is a classic spirit that reportedly dates back more than 300 years to a bunch of Italian monks who made the stuff — hence the distinctly monk-shaped bottle. The liqueur is indeed made from roasted hazelnuts, steeped in alcohol, distilled, then flavored with cocoa and vanilla (among other proprietary flavorings) before being sweetened with sugar. Caramel color is added.
Surprisingly light in color, the toasty character of freshly roasted hazelnut really comes through here. It’s particularly hefty on the nose, a bit dusty and smoky, like fresh-baked pecan sandies. As you sip through the liqueur, the hazelnut evolves into more of a peanut butter character, with the vanilla element growing and becoming distinctive on the finish.
Frangelico is easy to like but difficult to truly love, a relatively simple spirit that works fine in a handful of cocktails and thrives with coffee. For the record, the distiller’s serving suggestion: On the rocks, with a squeeze of lime. Curious.
B+ / $24 / frangelico.com
It should be noted at the start that “INTENSE” is by far the largest text on the label of this liqueur, but that’s to be expected from any ginger-flavored spirit. It simply comes with the territory.
Ginger liqueurs are a small category, for obvious reasons. The number of cocktails you can use it in is limited, and ginger beer does the trick in most cases. My bottle of Domaine de Canton — the most venerable product in this category — has been half-empty for years.
But Barrow’s, an artisanal product made in Brooklyn, NY, easily gives it a run for its money. This cloudy, intriguing liqueur (Canton is transparent) really does live up to its name. The nose is pungent without being overwhelming, offering legit ginger character plus a smattering of lemon and grapefruit notes. There’s more of the same on the body, which starts off with moderate sweetness — brown sugar melted into ginger ale — then jumps off a cliff into that classic, fresh-grated-ginger bite. The finish is spicy hot yet oddly refreshing, a spirit that’s both rustic and authentic. (The swing top bottle stopper completes the effect.)
Do I still like Canton? Absolutely, but it’s more perfumed, offering jasmine, incense, and vanilla notes up front, with all the ginger in the back. Barrow’s is a bolder and less distracted rendition of the spirit with, yes, a bit more intensity.
A / $31 / barrowsintense.com
The Netherlands-distilled Ketel One was one of the brands that drove vodka’s rise to super-premium status, and it’s been 6 years since we took a look at this iconic, venerable brand.
Recipes and production methods change, over time. So how has Ketel One fared in the last half-decade as its found itself attacked by competitors? We took a fresh look at a recent-vintage bottle.
I tasted Ketel One before reading my prior review. The vodka is cleaner than I remember, with distinct lemon notes on the nose backing up some hefty hospital character. The body is crisp and sharp with classic medicinal character, and also mildly lemony with a slight backbone of vanilla. Lovely balance on the whole, making it easy to enjoy straight or in any number of cocktails. A clear go-to that deserves its spot on the back bar.
I didn’t catch the menthol notes this time around, but more importantly that ashy charcoal character was wholly lacking in this 2014 bottle. All in all, Ketel One remains a top choice for a high-end vodka, and in fact may even be getting better.
A / $20 / ketelone.com
I guess when you climb past the $1000-a-bottle level for your whisky, you lose the “Johnnie” and just become “John.”
“John” Walker’s Odyssey is a very rare, limited-edition bottling from the Scotch juggernaut, a blend that has previously been sold in Asian and other global markets, but which is now coming to the United States.
There’s a story behind this one, of course. Per Johnnie Walker: “Inspired by Sir Alexander Walker’s passion for epic journeys, John Walker & Sons Odyssey is crafted from three rare, handpicked single malts to create the first triple malt Scotch whisky from the House of Walker.” After selection, the whisky has been married and blended in European oak casks. The rare whisky is packed into “an ultra-modern interpretation of Sir Alexander Walker’s legendary 1932 ‘nautical’ decanter bottle created for Johnnie Walker Swing Blended Scotch Whisky.” That includes a wild kind of gyroscopic chassis.
While no information about the trio of whiskeys — provenance or age — that make up this blend is offered, it’s clearly old stock. The nose offers classic Johnnie notes of malt and cereal, with mild sherry notes and a bit of coal fires. The palate is chewy with malt balls, oatmeal, toasted marshmallow, and ripe banana. Balanced, yes, but everything is shockingly dialed back — austere, modest, and surprisingly sedate. The whisky drinks easily, but this body comes at the price of not really saying a lot when it comes to character. I found myself wondering if this was a whisky that was simply too old, drawn from barrels a bit too far past their prime.
When sampling Odyssey, I was initially reminded of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label, but even that relatively restrained whisky (which I freshly tasted in comparison) has more going on than this one. Platinum’s bigger citrus notes are simply more engaging than Odyssey’s big bowl of grains. What is this, health whisky?
B / $1100 / johnniewalker.com
Evan Williams’ annual Single Barrel release is always a cause for celebration. It’s invariably a great whiskey, and it’s also incredibly affordable. While your typical vintage-dated single barrel bourbon will run you $75 or more, Evan Williams Single Barrel is currently priced at $27 a bottle. (Last year’s price: $26.) If you see this whiskey for sale — no matter what vintage it is — buy it.
Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam says he was taking a cue from the evolving national palate this year and was bottling a spirit that was “maybe a bit more assertive and bold than in years past,” choosing barrels aged high in the warehouse (where temperature fluctuates the most) for about 9 1/2 years.
Frankly, I don’t get assertive from this bourbon, though it is certainly a knockout. The nose offers plenty of wood, but it’s balanced and pretty, lightly perfumed with vanilla and cinnamon notes — a serious aroma, but a lively one. On the palate, plenty of spice — more cinnamon and cloves — is met by some orange oil, touches of licorice, ample vanilla caramel, and plenty of lumberyard on the back end.
All in all, the 2004 vintage of Evan Williams Single Barrel fits in with this long-running series’ house style, and it perhaps offers a ever-so-slightly burlier-than-usual character on the finish. Either way, it’s incredibly easy to enjoy, and well worth its embarrassingly reasonable investment.
86.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #1.
A- / $27 / evanwilliams.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Barenjager, Germany’s classic, beehive-stoppered honey liqueur, got its first line extension, Honey & Bourbon, two years ago. Now it’s launched two more extensions, as honey spirits continue their ascent in the marketplace. Here’s a dive into these new additions, all naturally-flavored, to the Barenjager hive. Both are 70 proof.
Barenjager Honey & Tea Liqueur - The nose is initially overwhelming, like walking into a Persian rug shop — all incense and wet wool. The honey character here is intense, deeply earthy, and moist, taking on clear influence from the tea component. But here, that tea comes across not as sweet, brewed tea but something completely different. It starts with overwhelming notes of dried, crushed black tea leaves (none more black), then digresses into notes of forest floor, licorice, menthol cigarettes, and camphor. Barenjager makes a highly enjoyable honey liqueur, but something has been lost in the tea mash-up. C
Barenjager Honey & Pear Liqueur - It never would have struck me to add pear flavor to a honey liqueur, but what do I know? This liqueur blends Barenjager with pear brandy, and the results are quite pleasant. The sweetness of the pear spirit is a natural companion to honey — like an apple pie baked with sliced pears — and the two work well together. The honey is the strongest element here (with pear almost indiscernible on the nose), but the finish brings the pears on strong. They’re crisp and clear and definitively not apple, offering that slightly more umami version of the fruit that’s unmistakably pear. The effect isn’t huge, but it’s noticeably different. All in all, it may not add a whole lot over the standard Barenjager bottling, but it works well enough in its own regard. B+
each $29 / barenjagerhoney.com
Made by Bodegas Sanviver in Spain, this budget sangria may not be overwhelming in its complexity, but it sure does go down easy. A basic, fruity red wine gets things started — think strawberries and raspberries — and copious sugar seals the deal. The finish offers a character not unlike a highly sweetened fruit tea, with only very mild “winey” notes on the finish. If you like your sangria with the fruitiness first and the wine a mere afterthought, look no further than Lolailo.
B+ / $6 / biagiocru.com
For the upcoming spring season, Sam Adams has bottled this experimental brew, originally rolled out at beer fests last October. It’s an unfiltered white ale, a golden wheat blended with ten fruits, flowers, and spices, including grains of paradise, anise, hibiscus, and orange peel. Tasting notes follow.
Cold Snap pours, as expected, a cloudy gold in color. It’s surprisingly woody and a bit piney on the nose, with big cereal notes underneath. Intensely musky, these characteristics — nothing I’d call fruity — obscure any hop character at least at first. On the palate, some lemony fruitiness manages to push through the earth tones, bringing on a malty mid-palate before a kind of tree bark character takes over on the finish. Altogether this beer is a bit muddy, though mega fans of wheat beers may find it more to their liking. I tried both the canned and bottled versions and felt the bottled version was a bit fresher.
C+ / $9 per six-pack / samueladams.com
Colloquially “open eyes,” this Lowlands tequila is the only 100% agave tequila you’ll find that features an enormous eye-meets-lobster drawing on the label.
Inside the frosted bottle you’ll find a standard blanco (reposado and anejo, not reviewed, are also available from Abreojos), made sans resting or aging.
The spirit’s nose is initially heavy on earth tones. These blow off with some time and aeration. What remains is a fairly racy, spicy, and nutty tequila, surprisingly agave-forward given today’s focus on generally sweeter, milder blancos. Some lemon peel notes add interest.
The body follows in kind. Agave, dried herbs, and wet earth come first, then a broad lemon and citrus character to even things out. Boldly peppery — with crushed black peppercorns and red chiles — on the finish. The overall effect is rustic and just shy of bruising, a burly tequila for those that like their blancos to wear their pinas on their sleeve.
B+ / $30 / abreojostequila.com
We’ve written an epic amount about Laphroaig over the years, but somehow one of its core bottlings has eluded a formal review. Laphroaig Triple Wood is officially a seasonal offering, but it’s pretty generally available, with 12,000 bottles produced for the U.S. market in 2012. (No figures were offered for 2013.) You’ll even find the Islay classic available for below list price if you hunt around.
Laphroaig Triple Wood refers to the three types of casks in which the spirit is aged: ex-Bourbon casks, miniature quarter casks, and ex-oloroso sherry casks. No age information is provided on the amount of time spent in each barrel, but the whisky is plenty mature and feels appropriately aged given its price tag.
The nose is distinctively Laphroaig, a salty, seaweedy peat bog of a spirit rich with sultry smokiness. The sherry element is evident, if only slightly, as you breathe it in, with a rich orange oil character that laces through the smoke. On the body, there’s plenty to enjoy. Plenty of peat, to be sure, but also fun vanilla nougat notes, butterscotch, maple syrup, and more of that orange character — here almost like orange candy. Fun, lots of depth, and as balanced as peated whiskys tend to get.
A- / $60 / laphroaig.com