Review: Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano Bottle ShotAmaro Lucano recently returned to U.S. shores and broader distribution here. Hailing from the small town of Pisticci in Lucania, Italy, the amaro is made from a secret blend of 30-plus herbs and essential oils.

As amari goes, Lucano has a traditional and relatively centrist profile, aptly riding the line between bitter and sweet. On the nose: raisin and prune, cloves, sour cherry, and some wine-like notes to give it a sharper edge. Quite fruity for an amaro, but with a touch of cola note. On the palate, it’s considerably deeper and more complex. More of those cola notes start things off, then comes licorice, notes of drip coffee, bitter chocolate, orange peel, and a melange of macerated and dried fruits — raisin, some fig, and a touch of rhubarb. Floral notes emerge with time and consideration — a bit of violet and lilac, both of which push you through to the moderately bitter but very lasting finish.

Lucano has plenty of complexity but manages to remain modest in sweetness as well as restrained on the bitter front. It’s a well done product, and stands as an amaro that I will certainly return to time and time again.

56 proof.

A- / $30 / amarolucano.it

Review: Don Q 151 Rum

DON_Q_151_750MLWhether you truly need to set a cocktail on fire or just want a little ultra-high-octane in your glass, 151 proof rum is a mixing ingredient without a peer. (Mention Everclear and I’ll barf on you.)

Make no mistake: 151 is dangerous. Don Q knows it and with this new bottling it even includes a flame arrester on the top of the bottle so adventurous mixologists don’t accidentally blow themselves up.

Don Q 151 is Puerto Rican rum aged for up to three years in oak barrels and bottled blazingly hot. Surprisingly, it’s still got a solid rum character — and plenty of it.

On the nose, vanilla, creme brulee, and gentle oak notes dominate. It isn’t at all the firebrand that many overproof spirits are. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume it was a standard-proof product.

The palate is another matter. It scorches to start, but there’s a surprising amount of flavor trapped in between all those ethanol molecules. Even at bottle strength, you’ll find complex notes of banana, dark caramel, coffee, and baking spices. Essentially, it’s got all the character you want in a regular-strength, aged rum — but with double the alcohol.

Now I’m not suggesting you guzzle Don Q 151 for your evening constitutional, but for floats, flames, and other fancy cocktailing effects, this is a tough 151 to beat.

151 proof. Aka DonQ.

A / $22 / donq.com

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1897 Bottled in Bond Bourbon

Old Forester 1897 Bottle Shot

Last year Old Forester got started with its new Whiskey Row Series of Bourbons with its 1870 Original Batch Bourbon, meant to recreate the company’s batching process that it introduced in that year. Now comes OldFo’s 1897 Bottled in Bond, the next in the series, is bottled in honor of the 1987 Bottled-in-Bond Act and a recreation of Old Forester’s production at the time. Lightly filtered and stored in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, it is bottled at 100 proof (as specified by the BiB regulations).

This is a blazer of a bourbon, with an instantly, notably hot nose. Push through the raw alcohol notes and you get lumberyard, gingerbread, and butter cookie notes, all in a row. On the palate, the heavy alcohol character takes a while to dissipate, but eventually it opens with either time or a bit of water. Here you’ll catch notes of (more) gingerbread, buttered toast, cloves, and plenty of wood notes. Over time, banana notes and some raw cereal character emerge. The classic Bourbon vanilla notes are a bit dulled here, giving this whiskey a more rustic composition, but that may just be what Old Forester had in mind in whipping this whiskey up.

It’s (already) not my favorite in the lineup, but as a look back to the past, it’s a worthwhile experiment.

100 proof.

B+ / $50 / oldforester.com 

Bar Review: The Franklin, Philadelphia

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Philadelphia isn’t exactly known as a hotspot for craft cocktails, but those of discriminating tastes do know at least one spot to go for elevated libations: The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a cheeky name for an underground bar and seemingly one of the only drinking establishments in Philly that doesn’t have a TV.

I’ve had craft cocktails all over the country, but I have to say the tasting menu at The Franklin is one of the most interesting and avant-garde cocktail experiences I’ve ever encountered. Head bartender Sara Justice (at left, above) keeps things unique and fascinating — yet she avoids the trap of turning your cocktail into, say, a puff of smoke that you inhale.

Recently I had the pleasure to enjoy Justice’s “Thaw” menu, which had been created as a nod toward winter’s turning to spring. I was catching Thaw on the tail end of its seasonality — summer was in full effect in Philly as the temperature outside hit 93 during my visit — and The Franklin noted that a new summer menu was in the works (and probably available by the time you read this).

Thaw is a five-course tasting menu of cocktails, not including various amuses and surprises sent out from the bar. For example, we started off with a homemade cucumber soda — slightly sweet, slightly green — before diving into a spin on the hot toddy called It Begins With a Seed: tequila, mezcal, malva flower, and a sunflower seed syrup… quite a smoky/herbal/warming experience and welcome even on a hot day.

One big highlight of the menu came with drink #2, Sweater Weather, a complex concoction comprising Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, a ton of Peychaud’s Bitters, fennel, and a grapefruit syrup which is topped off with a whipped Earl Grey tea honey. The presentation alone is dazzling, but the layers of flavor in the drink really elevate it into something special.

A clear crowd-pleaser comes with the fourth drink, Berry Patch, which adds Barbados rum, strawberry syrup, wheat berry syrup, cream, and egg white, plus a sprinkle of nutmeg. The drink is meant to recreate all the flavors in a strawberry shortcake — and it does, perfectly, right down to the cake. As a “dealer’s choice” cocktail, Justice sent out a drink called What Life Hands You — a liquid version of lemon meringue pie that included a graham cracker syrup made from the real thing.

All the drinks served at this establishment were worthwhile, and it was hard to believe that the bar has only been around for six years — making it the oldest craft cocktail joint in town. At $65, the price may sound steep, but considering the time and ingredients (and ingenuity) that goes into some of these libations, I am sure any true cocktail fan will find that to be money well spent. Go now!

thefranklinbar.com

Review: Baron Cooper 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

baron cooperBaron Cooper isn’t a winemaker. He’s a dog and as the namesake of this series of wines he’s leading the charge toward the raising of funds for Best Friends Animal Shelter. Five percent of all sales of these wines — about a buck a bottle — will go toward ending the killing of dogs and cats in animal shelters nationwide.

There are a number of Baron Cooper wines, but we got a couple to try out. Thoughts follow.

2013 Baron Cooper Chardonnay California – A relatively unadorned chardonnay, lightly buttery with notes of vanilla and lychee. As the body takes hold, solid fruit emerges — golden apples and a touch of lemon — and the lightly sweet finish ties everything together. For a wine without much of a pedigree (and a “California” designation), it’s surprising how successful it is. A- / $24

2012 Baron Cooper Cabernet Sauvignon California – A less impressive wine, a more typically workmanlike example of a widely-blended, youthful cabernet. This expression offers some pruny notes, light astringency, and a woody character that ultimately makes for a fairly lifeless experience. Ho hum. B- / $25

baroncooperwines.com

Review: Deschutes Pinedrops, Foray, Twilight 2015, and The Stoic 2015

foray deschutes

We’ve been falling behind on Deschutes’ beer releases, so here’s a look at four new/seasonal/reissued bottlings hitting in time for summer sipping!

Deschutes Brewery Pinedrops IPA – Formerly an experimental brew served only on tap (and amde with Chinook, Centennial, and Equinox hops), this year Pinedrops goes into year-round rotation in bottles. A burly IPA with resin a plenty and ample, earthy undertones. More forest floor than canopy, there’s some mushroomy notes and a bit of stewed prune character to balance the gentler citrus peel and pine needle elements. A more brooding, less cleansing (but plenty bitter) expression of IPA. 6.5% abv. B+ / $10 (six-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

Deschutes Brewery Foray IPA – This new addition to the Deschutes Bond Street series of seasonals takes classic IPA hops (Nugget, Amarillo, Mosiac, CTZ, and Galaxy), and pairs them up with a Belgian yeast strain for the fermentation. The results: A bitter beer with more fruit, including some tart apple notes, some lemon, and slightly sour apricots. It’s a fun little change of pace from the usual pine and citrus focus, though not necessarily “better.” 6.5% abv. A- / $6 (22 oz. bottle)

Deschutes Brewery Twilight Summer Ale (2015) – This season’s Twilight offers a nice balance of piney bitterness and some dried citrus peel notes along with a little baked apple character. On the finish, notes of clove and nutmeg. It’s never been an overwhelmingly complex beer, but it’s a nice distraction from other blonde ales that are often a bit more biscuity. 5% abv. B+ / $10 (six-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

Deschutes Brewery The Stoic (2015) – Deschutes launched the original Stoic in 2011, and it generated a surprising backlash because drinkers felt it “didn’t taste like a Belgian Quad” — which the bear is styled after. Deschutes basically said it didn’t care and released a darker version called Not The Stoic in 20114. Now The Stoic is back with the original’s recipe, which balances Pilsner malt with Hallertauer Mittelfruh, Czech Saaz, and Northern Brewer hops plus Belgian candi sugars and pomegranate molasses. Pinot noir and rye whiskey barrels are used to gently age the finished beer. I don’t get much barrel influence here; instead the malt and molasses do most of the talking, giving this a very sweet approach and a powerful, juicy impact on the palate. The alcohol level (significant) isn’t readily noticeable, as the fruitier elements — figs, apricots, peaches, and a lacing of molasses — tend to mask it. The finish is clean but sticky with caramel notes making for a decadent — but a bit gooey — finish. 10.9% abv. B+ / $16 (22 oz. bottle)

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Southern Comfort Caramel

Southern Comfort - Caramel Comfort Hi ResSoCo’s latest flavor is Caramel — “Caramel Comfort” being the alternate name for this sticky concoction. As flavorings go, caramel can be an overpowering one, and it does quite a number on the otherwise pungent SoCo core.

Here, syrupy caramel notes — burnt sugar and marshmallow — dominate the nose, with just a hint of fruit peeking through. The palate sticks with the caramel theme, although it also has a bit of a chemical overtone alongside it. As the finish builds, some of SoCo’s characteristic peachiness starts to emerge, but it isn’t long before things turn saccharine, coating the palate with something that I can only describe as how it feels after you’ve overdone things on Halloween.

55 proof.

C / $10 / southerncomfort.com

Review: 2012 Volunteer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Volunteer_BNAAnother Tony Leonardini wine, Volunteer is a considerably higher-end offering than the Butternut Chardonnay we recently reviewed. Volunteer is a relatively light-bodied cabernet (blended with small amounts of merlot and cabernet franc), with simple notes of currants and cherries, backed with a bit of rosemary and mixed, dried herbs. The finish is easygoing, slightly sweet, with light notes of violets.

B+ / $30 / bnawinegroup.com

Review: Punt e Mes Vermouth

wb73gus-Bg2MTHlEjHJGmFSHXZTgtph_yLhOsxrJ7voCola brown in color and dense with flavor, the venerable Punt e Mes is pretty much at the end of the line in the world of sweet vermouth. As brand owner Branca puts it, “The story goes that back in 1870 a stock broker, caught up in a debate with a few colleagues at Bottega Carpano, ordered a vermouth laced with half a dose of quina liqueur using a Piedmont dialect expression: ‘Punt e Mes’ (roughly translatable as ‘one and a half’).”

Like the Alessio vermouths we recently reviewed, Punt e Mes blurs the line between a sweet vermouth and an amaro. The nose is intensely bitter, with just a trace of sweetness to it. On the body, bitter orange, cloves, and quinine dominate before giving way to a finish that’s loaded with coffee, cola, and ample prune notes. Hints of cinnamon, some sweeter citrus notes — both lemon and orange — and a touch of gingerbread also emerge from time to time. The finish is just about equally bitter and sweet, which is quite a remarkable feat, actually.

Not a vermouth to be trifled with, Punt e Mes is best experienced in moderation in cocktails that demand — or deserve — complexity.

16% abv.

B+ / $27 / branca.it

How Much Is That Wine in the Window?

Ever look at a wine list and wonder if you’re getting ripped off? Well, now there’s an app for that. Corkscrew (free) just launched and it’s a fun new app that lets you search thousands of restaurant wine lists based on location and/or for a specific wine. Want a 1982 Mouton? Corkscrew can find it — and tell you where it’s cheapest. That may sound silly, but when the price difference is over $2000 from one restaurant to another, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Corkscrew just came out of beta, and for fun the company sent me a look at some specific wine prices at various restaurants in the Bay Area. Pretty crazy stuff, eh?

1996 Moet & Chandon Champagne Cuvee Dom Perignon Oenotheque
$430 at Pastis (Palo Alto)
$550 at Boulevard
$600 at AQ Restaurant & Bar
$650 at Hakkasan SF
$750 at The Hidden Vine
$923 at Coi Restaurant

2007 Paola Bea Sagrantino di Motefalco Secco Pagliare
$139 at Prospect
$150 at 54 Mint Restaurant
$165 at Flour + Water
$172 at A16
$192 at Gary Danko

2006 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Super Tuscan 
$550 at Boulevard
$1650 at The French Laundry

1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild
$2300 at Spruce
$2896 at Benu
$3999 at Michael Mina
$4750 at Casanova Restaurant (Carmel)

2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco 
$68 at Frantoio Ristorante (Mill Valley)
$147 at Jardiniere