Review: Soltado Picante Tequila


Why would you take a perfectly good tequila and dope it up with a bunch of cinnamon and hot peppers? I can’t speak to the logic, although it’s hardly the first time anyone has tried to impregnate tequila with added flavoring agents. That said, flavored tequilas rarely have any serious pedigree. Not so with Soltado, which starts with 100% agave anejo tequila, aged 28 long months in American oak. It’s then flavored with cinnamon and local, organic serrano peppers. (No sugar is added to this mix, by the way.)

The results are, somewhat surprisingly, exactly what you’d expect. The nose has all the hallmarks of a good anejo — dense vanilla, creme brulee, and a bit of agave… plus an undercurrent of spicy peppers. On the palate, the tequila kicks off with the same elements, in the same sequence: First, gentle sweetness, then a touch of herbal agave, then the heat. This builds slowly but powerfully — those with chapped lips will suffer greatly at the hands of Soltado — an authentic and all-encompassing spiciness that feels like you’ve downed a solid slug of Tabasco. (The cinnamon doesn’t come through at all, however.) As it fades, the caramel of the tequila comes back to the fore, though it remains tempered by racy serrano notes that linger for several minutes.

Soltado is clearly designed for mixing, but nonetheless it remains a bit of an oddity.

80 proof.

B / $33 /

Review: Yellow Rose Straight Rye Whiskey

Yellow Rose Distilling - Straight Rye Whiskey

We last encountered Houston, Texas-based Yellow Rose Distillery in 2013. Today we pick up the thread with Yellow Rose’s straight rye, an Indiana-sourced product made from 95% rye grain (in keeping with a number of other MGP ryes on the market). Yellow Rose says this product was recently reformulated, but I don’t have any information on how this version differs from what was available in the past other than that the current version is at least four years old.

I’ve encountered plenty of MGP 95% rye over the years, but this expression isn’t my favorite by far. The nose comes across as hot, youthful, and over-wooded, folding in notes of eucalyptus with a significant amount of petrol and furniture polish character. The palate is initially a little thin, at first offering fresh grain notes tempered by vanilla, brown sugar, and notes of orange blossoms. Some walnut character emerges in time, but it is sadly overshadowed by those heavy, rough-hewn notes of raw wood and, again, oily furniture polish notes. The finish is pungent and lasting, again echoing a heavy lumberyard character before a reprise of sweetness makes a brief reappearance.

All told, it’s passable rye at best, but it remains significantly flawed.

90 proof.

B- / $38 /

Review: Stolichnaya Gluten Free Vodka

Stoli Gluten Free

At the risk of angering my gluten-free readership even further, I’m about to review another gluten-free beverage that’s arriving in the form of Stoli Gluten Free.

It’s becoming increasingly popular for manufacturers to claim that various liquor products are gluten free, but it’s commonly known that gluten does not survive the distillation process. By and large (so they say), all distilled spirits are gluten free, unless they are flavored with some kind of gluten-containing product.

The catch: That fact doesn’t actually matter. Per the TTB, you can’t put “gluten free” on your label unless the product was made from start to finish with gluten-free ingredients. Distill from wheat and you can’t claim the product is gluten-free… even if it actually is gluten-free due to the processing.

For Stolichnaya, that’s a problem, because its standard bottling is made from a mash of wheat and rye. Rather than reformulate the original product just to please a few anti-glutenites, it’s launched a whole new version of Stoli: Stolichnaya Gluten Free. Made from a mash of 88% corn and 12% buckwheat, it’s gluten-free right from the start.

Nosing Stoli GF doesn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary. It’s sharp and moderately medicinal, classically Old World in its aroma, with hints of black pepper and pine needles. On the palate, the vodka doesn’t depart much from the expected profile: Hospital notes first, followed by very mild sweetness, a hint of cracked grains, and a bit of a charcoal note on the back end. It’s a very neutral vodka without much in the way of secondary aromas or flavors, its quite crisp finish further ensuring than any additional flavor notes that did survive distillation and filtering are quickly whisked away.

The bottom line: Whether or not you buy in to the gluten-free craze, Stoli’s figured out how to make a “completely” gluten-free vodka that tastes just as good as the “real” stuff. Feel free to sub it in freely for any other top shelf vodka.

80 proof.

A- / $17 /

Drinking the Costa del Sol – A Trip from Barcelona, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal


Spend any amount of time in Spain and the subject of the Spanish paradox eventually comes up. As a nationality, the Spanish, it turns out, have one of the longest average lifespans in the world. According to the WHO, Japan is the longest-lived, with an average longevity of 83.7 years. Curiously, Spain is in 4th place worldwide, with an average longevity of 82.8 years.

Japan is clean, modern, and features a diet heavy in fish and vegetables. Spain, on the other hand, is another kind of animal.

134The stereotypes are almost entirely true. Spaniards commonly eat dinner at 10 or 11pm, go to bed (or go clubbing) at 2 or 3am, sleep very little and go to work at 9 or 10am. Siestas are still common in smaller towns, but those follow a typically two-hour lunch that starts with two or three glasses of beer and wine. After work, Spaniards continue drinking and eating food that is largely based on cured meats and bread (the “Mediterranean diet” is a complete joke, at least as it relates to Spain), with frequent breaks to smoke cigarettes (often inside). They also spend too much time in the sun, all of which seems like it should add up to a recipe for an early grave – but which somehow does not.

The paradox is often explained in terms of stress. The Spanish live a seemingly carefree life unencumbered by the worries that plague many of us in the West – and while that has saddled Spain with its share of economic woes, those woes don’t seem much to have rubbed off on its fun-loving citizens.

Aboard the Star Breeze

171And so it was into this world that I, a typically uptight American, was thrown, spending some 12 days venturing from Barcelona to Lisbon, courtesy of Windstar Cruises and its Star Breeze ship, which dutifully ferried myself and 200 other passengers along the fabled Mediterranean Costa del Sol. (Full disclosure: Windstar provided the room and all beverages on this journey; all other expenses were my own.)

The trip, dubbed “Spanish Serenade” by Windstar, began in Barcelona and culminated in Lisbon. Stops along the way — the cruise is 8 days total at sea; we spent extra time on either end — include Palma de Mallorca, Almeria, Malaga, Gibraltar, Seville, and Portimao. Before we visit the ports, though, let me talk a bit about the ship. With under 100 staterooms, the Star Breeze is a far cry from the mega-cruise ships I’d been on in the past. When we boarded in Barcelona, there were no crowds or lines — in fact there was no fuss at all. Just hand over your passport and credit card, then head to your room. We might as well have been staying at a B&B, only this one could float.

The 200 passengers are backed up by 150 crew members, and as with any cruise experience they are constantly scurrying about, cleaning, delivering items, or (of course) preparing food, which was in abundance to the extent you would expect on any ship. The vast majority of the passengers on our ship were American couples in their 60s (give or take). The number of kids onboard could be counted on one hand. Only one group of about six passengers in their early 30s — self-described “naughty children” from South Africa — added much variety (or rowdiness) to the onboard demographic.

Room service was available pretty much around the clock, and public meals were always top-notch. While the menu is largely “continental,” with the usual steaks, seafood dishes, and salads, Windstar does make an effort to incorporate local cuisine when possible. Several lunches featured local honey and a smattering of jamon, and some of the dinner specials had at least a touch of regional flair. A particular standout was the on-deck barbecue near the end of the cruise, an over-the-top picnic in lieu of the typical dining room service that featured a veritable mountain of international and local cuisine options. Had I known how opulent that meal would be, I might have skipped lunch that day. But in general, we opted of course to dine in port as much as possible, which typically meant lunch (or day-long tapas crawls) on land and dinner on the ship (since departure times were often late in the afternoon).

E_Mallorca_11All told, travel on the Star Breeze was incredibly comfortable — the staterooms are gigantic compared to a typical cruise ship cabin — and you can’t ask for smoother waters than the Mediterranean Sea. (Once past Gibraltar and into the Atlantic, though, it’s a whole new ballgame of rocking waves and Dramamine gobbling. Pro tip: Wine and spirits prices in Gibraltar are ridiculously cheap, made even better because there are no taxes here. I saw rare bottlings here that would fetch $150 in the U.S. for £50… so allow plenty of time to shop,!) With such a small ship, the focus is definitely on the ports, so entertainment options are limited — although Windstar arranged two cultural events, one a dance exhibition and museum tour on land in Mallorca (see photo at right), and one on the ship, a short flamenco performance. Two musical duets performed cover songs nightly, and a casino with two tables and a dozen slot machines offered evening diversions. The occasional trivia game or show put on by the crew helped to pass the time, particularly on the lone at-sea day on the itinerary — but by and large the trip was very quiet.

Drinking Your Way Through Spain

Of course, this isn’t a website about cruising of course but about drinking, and your beverage options in Spain and southern Portugal are extensive though, in some cases, not at all what I expected. Let’s break it all down, drink by drink.


239Spain is a phenomenal wine country, with numerous, impressive wine regions, but none of them are in the south of the country. The only major type of wine that is produced in the Costa del Sol is sherry, not including some of the area around Barcelona, which is the home of sparkling cava. In port, it was easy to find wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, depending on how fancy the restaurant or bar was. Even in upscale restaurants, it was hard to find a glass of wine priced at more than 4 or 5 euros, a far cry from the massive markups you endure in the U.S. But what you gain in affordability you give up in selection. Most restaurants have only a handful of offerings — maybe 5 or 6 wines, if you’re lucky.

On the Star Breeze, I was pleased to see that the otherwise California-heavy wine list was supplemented by over a dozen Spanish bottlings, which we ordered from exclusively during the cruise. Wines hailing from all over Spain were represented, but I found myself particularly drawn to La Montesa, a woody Rioja, and Casa Castillo’s El Molar, a chewy but fruit-forward garnacha-based wine from Jumilla, a bit north of the Costa del Sol. For whites, I particularly liked the albarino from Pazo Senorans which hailed from Spain’s well-regarded Rias Baixas; I found that the crisp wine offered lively minerality and fresh floral notes — a great choice for the ultra-hot climate of Spain. Most of the wines on the ship sold for under $50 per bottle, with only a handful of luxe exceptions. If I have one complaint, it’s that the staff on the ship seemed to have almost no knowledge about the wine program — and only a few staffers knew about the addition of the Spanish supplement (which was a separate list).

What didn’t I encounter during my trip to Spain? The much talked-about “blue wine.” I never saw it once, nor heard a word about it throughout the journey.



You might think that a country as hot as Spain would be rife with beer, and you’d be right. But beer consumption here is not like we’re used to in the States, where you can pick and choose from a dozen or more brands at even the smallest watering hole. Rather, in Spain (and large parts of Europe), you invariably get one choice. Both the Portuguese and Spaniards have a sort of local pride that ensures only a single brand of beer is served everywhere. In Portugal, it’s largely a lager called Super Bock. In most of southern Spain: Cruzcampo (with the occasional holdout serving San Miguel). I drank plenty of these beers on the trip — you have to, for hydration! — and couldn’t tell you a thing distinguishing any of them from each other. All are light lagers, very lightly hopped and designed to drink quickly before they get too warm. The bottom line: It’s not a part of the world to visit for the beer.

Gin and Tonic

This is going to sound strange, but Spain is in love with gin, particularly gin and tonic. Gin bars are common, especially in Barcelona, and it is common to see sidewalk signs touting “Sapphire and Tonic” (Bombay Sapphire is especially popular here, as is, strangely, Bulldog) for 5 euros or so. It’s said that Spain has “perfected the garnish” of the G&T, but in reality this usually just means a few slivers of fruit or something slightly more exotic, like a slice of fresh ginger. Beats a squeeze of lime, I guess.

In Barcelona, the current mecca of all things gin is Bar Martini, where, if you order the namesake cocktail, you get a certificate that enumerates how many martinis have been served. Mine: Martini #1,006,887,


Another odd Spanish trend: Sweet vermouth, on the rocks. That’s the whole drink. The Spanish seem to have as much of a love for vermouth as they do for gin, and bottlings range from standard Martini & Rossi fare to Carpano Antica to, surprisingly, numerous local vermouths. I had a couple of vermouths on the trip and was surprised to like them as much as I did. It’s still not going to become a go-to cocktail for me (the vermouth in your local watering hole has probably been open for months), but it’s more refreshing and intricate than I expected. To the Groundhog!


034Often just “Ginja,” this is a Portuguese liqueur made from sour (very sour) cherries called ginja berries. Essentially a sour cherry liqueur, it is served neat in numerous Lisbon locations, for a bit more than a euro per shot. Having a shot of ginja is a rite of passage for visitors. Do not try to eat the berries if you find a few floating in your plastic cup.


Of course, they make sherry in these parts, though surprisingly few places actually seem to serve it. The most noteworthy exception in the region is Antigua Casa de Guardia in Malaga, said to be the oldest wine bar in this lively little town. It’s not hard to believe. Sherry (and a few other fortified wines) are served from one of a couple dozen casks, directly into your glass. In lieu of a bill, the barkeep scribbles what you owe directly on the bar, in chalk. There are no barstools, and no one speaks English — but this is one of the few places you can get by completely by merely pointing at what you want.


Other Oddities

Looking for other fun stuff to drink? In Portugal try a Port and tonic, which is made with white Port, tonic, and a little mint. It’s a nice counterpart to Spain’s G&T. Be sure to ask for dry white Port, which is how the locals drink it. Sweeter styles of Port are said to take the drink a bit out of balance.

336In Seville, a cocktail called tinto de verano is popular. It’s red wine plus sparkling lemonade, served on the rocks. Sounds bizarre but, much like a vermouth on the rocks, it works far better than you’d think and is a great way to drink red wine in the blistering summer heat. Note: It’s better when it’s mixed fresh; some establishments have the beverage premixed, on tap, which pales in comparison.

Orange wine is another popular item in Seville, but it’s not the same thing as the orange wine that’s currently shaking up the table wine market. Rather, here, vino de naranja is white wine, aromatized and flavored with Seville’s famous oranges and aged in a manner akin to sherry. You’ll see signs around town in the few bars that offer it, or you can look for the hard-to-miss bottles themselves.


Up Next…

Stay tuned next week for the next step in this travelogue, a detour to Porto, the home of Port wine. Until then, Salud!

Many thanks again to Windstar for making this trip possible.

Review: Booker’s Bourbon “Toogie’s Invitation” 2016-03


bookers 2016-03 toogies invitationBooker’s special editions keep rolling out — this one the third limited edition to hit in 2016.

Here’s some production information to chew on.

This batch is named in honor of Marilyn “Toogie” Dick, a lifelong friend of founding distiller Booker Noe. Toogie was part of the “original roundtable,” gathering at Booker’s kitchen table with family and friends to help select some of the first Booker’s batches. She had a standing invitation from the Noe family and even traveled around the world with Booker and his wife, Annis, on behalf of Booker’s Bourbon. Aged 6 years, 4 months and 4 days, “Toogie’s Invitation” is culled from barrels located in six different rack houses.

This is a rather young expression of Booker’s, and it’s evident from the start. The nose is hot — hotter than usual — showcasing notes of popcorn, cracked grains, and burnt hazelnuts — at least if you can muddle through the heavy alcohol aromas.

On the palate, the bourbon feels slightly thin and a bit underdone. Notes of caramel and butterscotch are easy to pick up, as is more of that (thankfully unscorched) hazelnut character. But this is all folded into a body that is redolent of rubber and motor oil and wood that’s been left out in the rain. Booker’s has always been a brash whiskey, but here it never gets beyond its most basic characteristics. Where’s the chocolate and fruit? The baking spice? The finish instead offers has its focus on rougher notes of gravel and tar, with just a light sprinkle of brown sugar crystals to give it some life.

This clearly isn’t my favorite expression of Booker’s, but at least it’s instructive in showcasing how wildly different these different batches of this bourbon can be. (Compare to three other recent Booker’s releases, 2016-01, 2015-06, and 2015-04.)

129 proof.

B / $60 /

Review: 2015 Love & Hope Rose


Here’s a fresh rose from Hope Family Wines production (hence the name) made from grenache, mourvedre, and syrah grapes grown in Paso Robles, California.

Immediately a curious note takes hold — orange blossoms in lieu of the usual red berries, along with notes of Meyer lemon and some papaya character. The body could be more acidic and offer a bit more balance among its melange of flavors, but as a departure from the usual berries-and-flowers approach of the typical rose, it merits a look.

B / $20 /

The Experts Speak: My Wine Is a Winner


Some eight years ago I received the craziest gadget I’ve yet to review: The WinePod, a giant urn that helps home winemakers craft their own vino. I ended up spending six months fermenting grapes, aging the wine in oak, and bottling it, and chronicled the process in a six-part series for Wired.

For years the wine (four cases were produced) has sat in my cellar, occasionally cracked open for kicks or given away as a gift. This year I finally got the idea to see what the pros thought about it, and I entered the wine into my local Marin County Fair.

The results: A blue ribbon, first place for winemaking in the “Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 or older” category. The big ribbon came complete with tasting notes: “Great balance of fruit, acid and tannin. Very well made. I really like it. Commercial quality.” Another critic said: “Very nice. Smooth, balanced, nice fruit to tannin ratio. Slight eucalyptus.”

Eucalyptus, folks!

Anyway, that’s a long way around of patting myself on the back, and giving serious praise to the WinePod. The WinePod never became a massive success, but it is still being sold — I’d love to see more folks experiment with it. Here’s a toast to the WinePod and a strong vote for its revival!