Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

mashbox

Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples. which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+

mashandgrape.com

Review: Copper & Kings Absinthe Complete Lineup

copper and kings absinthe

Recently we talked about Copper & Kings’ brandies. Today we look at the absinthes, a set of four blanche absinthes made in… Kentucky. All are based on the brandy distillate (so, made from Muscat grapes — though some sources claim French Colombard), vapor-distilled with grande wormwood, fennel, anise, and hyssop during the initial distillation.

Intriguingly, three “flavored” varieties are also available, though that’s quite a misnomer, as the extra ingredients — each is self-explanatory in the name of the product below — are added during that initial distillation run. In some cases, these are significant improvements to the original recipe!

Thoughts on all four follow. All are 130 proof.

005Copper & Kings Blanche Absinthe – Again, this is a blanche absinthe — so a clear absinthe, not green. It louches well with water and sugar to a pure, pale, milky white. The absinthe offers intense, candied licorice notes, both on the nose (straight) and even stronger with a traditional preparation of water and sugar. There’s a fruity undercurrent on the palate here, a slight note of apples and one of golden raisins, too. Dial back the sugar a tad to reveal some earthy qualities, perhaps a touch of cinnamon. A nice starter absinthe. B+

Copper & Kings Citrus Absinthe Superior – Adds a distinct orange element to the above, but in extreme moderation: just a grating or two of orange peel into that sweet candied licorice core. Very subtle. B+

Copper & Kings Lavender Absinthe Superior – Lavender’s a character that’s tough to disguise, and on the nose it’s clear as a bell — at least until you add water and sugar. From there on, the lavender takes a back seat. As with the citrus, it’s quite subtle (though not quite so difficult to detect), lending a floral note to the proceedings. I liked this a lot more than I expected — lavender in anything comestible is usually a horrible idea — and it turned out to be my favorite of the bunch by a very slight margin. A-

Copper & Kings Ginger Absinthe Superior – Another strong flavor that again makes its presence known more on the unadulterated nose than on the palate. Here, the finished concoction veers more toward a fuller-bodied cocktail, with just a touch of heat on the tip of the tongue as the finish develops. Again, this is a slight improvement on the undoctored version of the spirit, though it’s awfully tough to tell what’s specifically been added if you don’t already know. Another subtle yet well-crafted improvement. The ginger gets clearer with more water. Definitely a worthwhile addition. A-

each $55 / copperandkings.com

Review: Wild Card Pacific Northwest Absinthe

WILDCARD PNGBend, Oregon-based Oregon Spirit Distillers makes Wild Card Absinthe with locally-grown wormwood, fennel, and anise, the re-distills the resulting concoction and steeps it with petite wormwood, cardamom, hyssop, and melissa. The finished product is a light-bodied absinthe that is nonetheless a punchy and highly alcoholic nod to the past. Thoughts follow.

Wild Card is pale yellow-green in color, with an immediate aroma of lemon. This dissipates to reveal straightforward licorice candy notes on the nose. Without water, the body is pure anise and quite hot, almost lip-burningly so. Prepared with sugar and water, you get a pretty, light-yellow louche, and the body takes on a more traditional absinthian character, with shades of anise and fennel atop a granular, sugary body. No need to overdo the water here. About 2:1 will do nicely and help to bring out some tertiary notes of citrus, cinnamon, and apple cider. Overall it’s a very pleasant expression of absinthe — simple, delicate, and enjoyable… but a bit of a “starter absinthe” for those looking to dip a toe in the water.

125 proof.

B+ / $50 / wildcardabsinthe.com

Review: Pernod Absinthe “Original Recipe” (2014)

pernod original recipe

It wasn’t long ago that Pernod re-entered the market with an authentic absinthe (i.e. one with wormwood in it). But purists complained: Why would Pernod, whose absinthe cred dates back to 1792 and which was the market leader for over a century, release an absinthe with a wholly new recipe? Does not compute.

Following a minor outcry (absinthe nerds are a loud bunch, they’ll be the first to admit), Pernod recently announced some big news: It is returning to its original formula, having spent the last two years researching remaining records from the 1800s to determine how Pernod was made back then.

According to the company, there are three main differences. First, the base spirit has changed from grain alcohol to a grape-based spirit, or brandy. In fact, Languedoc grapes are used for the brandy in keeping with the original recipe. Second, the grande wormwood in the spirit is sourced from Pontarlier, France, Pernod’s historic home. Finally, the new spirit is colored through macerated green nettles, not added dyes or artificial colors. While the eschewing of colorants is a nice touch, it’s the move to a brandy base that is really the biggest shift here. That adds considerable complexity and cost to the production… but what does it do to the final product?

I just so happened to have a bottle of Pernod from its prior recipe (unopened, circa 2012) as well as a sample of the new “Original Recipe” Pernod. Let’s compare.

Pernod “Original Recipe” is slightly different in color. Slightly closer to a solid green, less yellow/chartreuse. On the nose it’s tougher to pick out differences. The prior recipe seems to offer just a hint of added sweetness — like licorice candy — on the nose, but this is also a slight change. Finally, to the body. I’m happy to report that “Original Recipe” Pernod is a standout absinthe… but I thought the prior recipe version was exceptional, as well. The brandy base likely has made the biggest impact here, giving the spirit a somewhat sour edge at first, but also providing a bigger, more robust body than the sharper and somewhat cleaner prior bottling. Otherwise, the botanicals struck me about the same way. Maybe a touch more lemon verbena in the mix on this new absinthe, but otherwise, a fresh, anise-driven body with clean citrusy, licorice-twisted notes behind it.

So, the bottom line: Is Original Recipe better? I’m truly on the fence. The differences are not great, and Pernod should be credited for putting out a classy bottling in its first stab at a post-ban absinthe. The lack of chemical dyes in the new version is to be commended, but the freshness and slight sweetness of the former version also resonate with me. Call it a tie?

136 proof (same as before).

A / $68 / pernodabsinthe.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Preview: Butterfly Absinthe

butterfly absinthe (2)Based in Switzerland, Alan Moss is the kind of guy who lives and breathes absinthe. He writes about absinthe prodigiously on his blog, and he also makes the stuff (well, his partners do): La Clandestine is easily the best blanche absinthe on the market.

Moss has other tricks up his sleeve, it seems, and recently he dropped by Drinkhacker HQ to show off his latest: Butterfly. This is an absinthe that’s been on sale in Europe for a few years but is now coming to the U.S. As well it should: It’s actually an American-born absinthe, the recipe having originated in Boston, Mass., in 1902. As the story goes, an old bottle of an absinthe called Butterfly was unearthed on eBay — only the buyer ended up pouring it out when she was denied the ability to board a plane with it. The label survived, and the spirit was later recreated with a book was uncovered in Boston’s archives, and the original handwritten recipe (or at least one of the recipes) for Butterfly was found.

The label was recreated — with a few minor tweaks — when the absinthe was formally launched in 2011. Today it is produced in Switzerland alongside La Clandestine.

This is the new U.S. label; European label shown above.

This is the new U.S. label; European label shown above.

I was fortunate enough to taste the new release, a quite sweet absinthe (which needs no sugar added) that includes some unusual botanicals, namely peppermint and citrus. The color is a beautiful chartreuse and the flavors run to lemon oil, fresh cut ginger, green onion, and of course some licorice candy. It’s a really top-notch product that will hit in the fall of this year for $85 to $90 a bottle. 130 proof. A

Moss also showed off a product which is not coming to the U.S. In fact, it’s only available if you visit the distillery where La Clandestine and Butterfly are made. Absinthe Aux Oeufs (pictured below) is, as the name implies, an eggnog liqueur that’s spiked with absinthe. A bizarre and unlikely spirit, you don’t really detect the absinthe. Instead, this big, eggy, vanilla-and-caramel cream liqueur drinks like a traditional ‘nog… until, after a while, a hint of licorice comes out. It’s super strange, yet surprisingly compelling. Too bad the six month shelf life means it will never be exported. 30 proof.

oeufs

Review: Obsello II Absinthe Verte

Obsello IIWe’ve long since noted Obsello as one of our favorite absinthes on the market. Unfortunately, the American-born, Spanish-made product went off the market a few years ago. But now it’s back, in a slightly revised form.

Obsello II looks almost identical to its original rendition, with a few little twists. For starters, instead of being based on grape neutral spirits, Obsello II starts with Caribbean rum as the base. It is then infused with wormwood, anise, fennel, star anise, coriander, lemon balm, and hyssop flowers (the same recipe) before bottling at 110 proof (instead of 100 proof in the original). It’s also made in the U.S. now (and on sale only in California).

Continue reading

Review: Master of Malt Professor Cornelius Ampleforth’s Cold-Distilled Absinthe 91.2%

One of Master of Malt’s completely hare-brained sub-brands, Professor Cornelius Ampleforth is the producer of a line of unusual spirits, including this ultra-oddity, an “absinthe” distilled to 182.4 proof.

Not a typo.

Made in the UK from English wheat and traditional absinthe botanicals (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, licorice) and a number of non-traditional ones drawn from the world of gin (coriander, lemon peel, orange peel), this spirit is distilled in a vacuum such that boiling point is at room temperature… and alcohol level is sky high. Continue reading