Review: Aervana Wine Aerator

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Aervana is yet another wine aeration system, and this one has a twist: It has batteries. Rather than pour wine through the device, the Aervana sits on top of the bottle and pumps wine up through a tube, and sends the air-infused wine out through a spigot, into your waiting glass.

Aervana (rightly) claims a lot of “firsts” with this device: It offers a constant flow rate, it leaves sediments at the bottom of the bottle, and it’s a bit less dramatic than what often happens when you try to hold a traditional aerator between bottle and glass.

Those are all good plusses — and the sediment factor alone merits Aervana serious consideration — but the device isn’t without its drawbacks. First, I simply don’t like putting stuff (namely plastic stuff) in my wine. It’s probably just my own conceited snobbery, but dipping these plastic tubes into bottles (and later cleaning them) strikes me the wrong way. If you don’t finish the bottle in one sitting, that means multiple cleanups if you want to close the bottle with a Vacuvin device or other stopper, too.

Since Aervana is a pump (6 AAA batteries, included, are required), it makes noise, and certainly becomes the center of attention whenever it is activated. The wine flow is slow to start and slow to finish, dribbling out for quite a while after you release the button up top. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to drip after the flow finally stops, which would have been a deal killer.

As for its results, it works well, really airing-up wine to the point where it is positively frothy when it hits the glass. All told it works as well as other aerators; if you have a tight or closed wine, it can really help some of the more engaging flavors come to the fore.

For $100, the Aervana is decidedly pricey, so you’ll need to think carefully as to whether it’s for you. I’ll probably keep it on hand mainly for use with older, sediment-heavy bottles that I’m just too lazy to decant.

B / $100 / aervana.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Experimenting with Beyond Barrels Bottle Aging Staves

cherry_1024x1024Beyond Barrels doesn’t exactly have a new idea: Take whiskey you don’t quite like as is, add a small piece of wood to the bottle, wait a few weeks, then presto, you’ve got extra-aged whiskey for just a few extra bucks. So-called “whiskey sticks” are everywhere these days.

Sounds good, but does this all work quite that easy in the real world?

To find out, I tested a wide range of bourbons with both of Beyond Barrels’ whiskey aging staves, and I’m here to tell you the blunt truth about how well it went.

For starters, the staves arrived without a whole lot of instruction. There are two varieties: French oak and cherry oak. They are remarkably different products that have a much different impact on your whiskey, so purchase very carefully.

I charged ahead with only a bit of guidance from the company, starting with a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey, a spirit that I felt could have used a bit of extra time in barrel when I first reviewed it. Experiment #1 involved trying out this whiskey with a French oak stave and a month of bottle time. (All experiments were tasted against a control; details follow.)

Wyoming Whiskey @ 1 month French oak stave – This was a bit of a disaster. The oak is extracted to the hilt, giving a youthful whiskey that is already redolent with wood so much more of it it has no idea what to do with itself. The oak stave handily also destroyed any nuance left in the spirit, washing away the fruit and grain notes in short order. In Beyond Barrels’ defense, I was (later) told that the French oak staves are best used to age bottles for only 1 to 2 weeks and that a month is likely too long. C-

Whoops. OK, back to the drawing board. This time I took a bottle of Amador Double Barrel and tried the French oak stave for just one week, then sampled it again at the two-week mark.

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 1 week French oak stave – After a mere 7 days, the whiskey is immediately lumber-heavy on the nose, with a huge note of raw wood and sawdust, significantly overpowering anything else on the palate. The delicate cinnamon character in standard Amador DB (which is already wood-forward) is washed away here, replaced by a dusky clove note and, of course an epic amount of wood. C

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 2 weeks French oak stave – Still on a steep decline, with overpowering wood notes that taste like chewing on freshly cut lumber. No fruit left at all except for a hint right on the tip of the first sip. D+

OK, those didn’t go so well, so what about the cherry staves? These rods have a more subtle influence on your whiskey, imbuing it less with raw wood and more with fruity overtones. Beyond Barrels was kind enough to supply me with five samples of cherry stave-aged bourbons that it had doctored itself. I tasted all five of these blind, then compared them to the closest analogue I had by way of a control. I didn’t always have a perfect match, but you can check out my comparatives in each writeup below.

Blanton’s @ 3 months cherry stave – Quite fruity on the nose, very sweet on the tongue. Cherry notes are prominent, along with some bubblegum notes and baking spice. A bit sweet for my tastes, but not a bad sipper. B

Vs. Blanton’s Single Barrel Private Selection – I had no rack version of Blanton’s available but pitted it against a private selection we recently reviewed. I had a pronounced and dramatic preference for the standard bottling, which was less hot, more balanced, and much less candylike on the finish.

Four Roses Single Barrel @ 3 months cherry stave – Strong wood influence on the nose gives this the first impression of age. As it develops on the palate it reveals significant spice (cloves and allspice), some caramel corn notes, and a sweeter side. A bit out of balance, but also worthwhile. B

Vs. Four Roses Single Barrel (Distillery Bottling) – The wood is much too harsh on the doctored bottling, which throws this delicate whiskey out of balance, numbing its spice profile.

Four Roses Small Batch @ 3 months cherry stave – Restrained on the nose, with only some rough alcohol notes to show. On the palate it feels youthful and dialed back, without a lot going on. A slight chocolate and barrel char influence are about all I get from this one. Mostly harmless. B

Vs. Four Roses Small Batch (Distillery Bottling) – I have a standard bottling of this that we dip into from time to time for comparative purposes, though oddly we’ve never formally reviewed it (hence no link). 4R Small Batch has always been “entry level” Four Roses for me, and here I found the two samples closer than any of the others in this experiment. I nonetheless prefer the undoctored version, which has more prominent (and fun) chocolate notes. The stave deadens those a bit in the doctored sample.

Evan Williams Black Label @ 4 months cherry stave – Popcorn is heavy on the nose (perhaps it’s quite young?), with burnt caramel and significant barrel influence underlying it. A touch vegetal on the tongue, it opens up with time to reveal a mingling of cotton candy and cloves. Caramel is huge, but there’s lots of wood influence on this one. B+

No comparison bottle – I had no EW Black Label on hand to compare to here, and pitting this against one of the Single Barrels would be unfair to the point of cruelty. Surprising though that this cheap bottling was my favorite of the bunch. Or, perhaps not surprising.

Maker’s Mark @ 2.5 months cherry stave – Initially rough on the nose, heavy with alcohol influence and a big punch of wood. The palate is milder and moderately sweet, with notes of tobacco, spearmint, and cloves. The finish is a bit of an unfortunate letdown, though. B

Vs. Maker’s Mark – Again, the standard Maker’s is considerably better, its spice elements are more present and the various flavors are more in alignment and better balanced. Maker’s is a soft whiskey and while Maker’s 46 is a fine product, Maker’s is not a whisky that I would normally think additional wood influence would improve. Seems to be the case here.

So, what did I learn in all of this? Well, the quick and dirty takeaway is that in every comparative review I undertook, I preferred the original, non-doctored version of the spirit to the stave-aged one. Now, perhaps I never struck on the perfect combination — and some of my preferences were only slight. That said, it seems to me that if I were to continue down this road, doctoring a relatively cheap (mass-produced, not craft) bourbon with a cherry stave for a few months might very well be the best way to go. After all, there’s no point trying to touch the sun and improve a whiskey that’s already at the top of its game. However, when faced with a budget bottling and a low level of investment, I wouldn’t mind dropping a few cherry staves into bottles just to see what comes out the other end. (Note: These can also be used to make barrel-aged cocktails.)

Have you played with aging staves? Sound off in the comments!

$11 each (staves are reusable) / beyondbarrels.com

Review: Fizzics Beer Tap

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The Fizzics Beer Tap is not a complicated idea: It’s basically a svelte pump that takes beer out of one container and spits it into your glass. Basically a keg tap, only you don’t need a keg. It can pour from a bottle, can, growler, or even a pitcher or another glass. Just pop it open and stick the rubber hose into your beer and it’s ready to go.

Why do you need this? Sometimes this might be a matter of simple convenience, as when pouring from an oversized growler or large format bottle which is difficult to manage. Other times you might use Fizzics just to heighten the flavors of the beer. Just like your beer will taste better if you drink it from a glass instead of a bottle, it is likely to taste better if you drink it from a Fizzics system rather than simply poured directly into a glass.

In my testing, the Fizzics system was quite effective at aerating a beer, working much like a wine or spirits aerator does, coaxing out more of the beer’s flavors while giving it a bolder head. That said, use caution: If you love a beer, Fizzics will improve its presentation. But if you don’t like a beer, Fizzics will only make those flavors that disagree with you come across even stronger. That said, Fizzics doesn’t introduce as dramatic a flavor shift as you might think — the added carbonation is much more impressive — but it does have an impact. (Note: It’s absolutely not designed for use with anything at all except beer.)

The device is simple, easy to operate and clean, and is powered by two AA batteries, which makes it convenient for positioning the system anywhere. It’s great for parties when you want to serve big bottles (and show off a little) — as long as you’re willing to pay the rather steep price of admission.

B+ / $170 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Magic Opener Extreme

magic openerThis electric yellow gadget is more than a bottle opener. Well, it’s three bottle openers and one can opener, all in one device. A standard crown cap opener is just the start. Flip it over and you’ll find two tooth-ringed circles of slightly different sizes, designed to help you open plastic water bottles and other similarly-sized containers with plastic screw-on lids. Finally, the can opener isn’t for standard tin food cans but rather features a metal jaw that can help you lift up the pull tabs on stubborn soda or beer cans. Think of it as virtual fingernails.

All in all, Magic Opener Extreme works great, but keep in mind its limitations: It won’t help with any other kind of bottle, particularly metal screwcaps, cork or rubber spirit bottle enclosures, or anything else that doesn’t fit into the description above. If it did, well, that would really be magic…

B+ / $18 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: StoneCask Shot Flask

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Flasks are convenient for on-the-go mixology, but drinking directly from a flask is both uncouth and unpleasant. Flask-drinking always ends up forcing the spirit straight down your throat, burning the tonsils and robbing it of any actual flavor or nuance.

Solution: StoneCasks’s Shot Flask, an innovative product that pairs a standard 8 oz. flask with a collapsible shot-glass-sized camping-style cup. The cup stows away conveniently in a depression build into the center of the leatherette-clad flask. If you were none the wiser, you’d probably assume it was just part of the design.

As a container, the Shot Flask works as well as anything else out there — depending on the model you purchase you may need to provide your own mini-funnel — and the design is utilitarian and decidedly non-flashy. If you want a curvy, hip-shaped flask to look cool down at the Elk’s Club, this one won’t do — but once you pop out that cup and sip away like the sophisticate you are, heads are likely to turn.

I don’t often find myself in need of the services of a flask, but I can assure you the next time I do, the Shot Flask is the one I’ll choose.

A / $20 / stonecask.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: StainRx Wine Stain Remover

stainrxI won’t rehash the details of the wine stain remover story I wrote for Wired earlier this year. Suffice it to say that StainRx is a late comer to the party, and they submitted a product to me well after that piece already ran.

Long story short, I put StainRx up against Chateau Spill, my hands-down winner in extensive testing, to see which was best. The results: With a shorter-term wine stain (setting for a few hours before treatment), StainRx was slightly ahead. On the tougher longer-term stain (which I let set for 24 hours), Chateau Spill was the marginal winner. All told, it was about a draw.

Now my hunch is that StainRx — which is marketed primarily as a “blood strain [sic] remover” — is basically the same chemical as Chateau Spill, which is a lab-grade solvent designed to get dye off of scientists’ skin. StainRx looks, smells, and behaves almost the same way, so I figure you’re really getting the same stuff here as in Chateau Spill.

The company says about its product: “We do sell our product in bulk for others to repackage under their label and we repackage for others as well. For over 50 years our product, Erado-Sol  has been sold to hospitals, labs and doctors’ offices to remove chemical and biological stains.  Approximately 10 years ago we made our laboratory tested product available to the consumer under the name Stain Rx.  The product is sold in Spring Fresh Scent and Fragrance & Dye Free solutions.”

Is Chateau Spill the same thing? It’s just a hunch, and there’s no real way to know for sure. I suspect the differences in performance were due to slight variations in the amount of wine that made it onto my test fabric, and the fact that you basically have to douse the product with a nozzle from the StainRx bottle rather than gently spray it on as you do with Chateau Spill. It’s a lot easier to control the amount of product you’re using with Chateau Spill, and you’ll much more quickly go through a bottle of StainRx because of the amount that comes out with each application. (StainRx also makes single-use wipes, which I didn’t test due to their generally limited size.)

At $18 for a 16 oz. bottle, StainRx is cheaper per oz. (by about half) than Chateau Spill, but you’ll use it faster. Which is ultimately a better value? Hell, ask Mathhacker.

A / $18 (16 oz.) /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Rabbit Electric Corkscrew

Opening a bottle of wine by pulling the cork is part of a longstanding ritual, but everything evolves with the times. (Hello, screw cap!) For some, working a manual corkscrew — even a fancy one like a Rabbit — just isn’t a possibility. Enter alternatives like the Rabbit Electric, which are designed to make the process a lot easier, through the power of electricity.

Rabbit Rechargable Electric CorkscrewThe Rabbit Electric is a long tube of a device, about a foot long. You charge it through an AC adapter (included, along with a manual foil cutter), and a full charge is said to be good for 30 bottles of wine. (20 seems closer to reality, though.)

To use it, just plop the Rabbit on top of a bottle — after the foil has been removed — then press the “down” button. A screw descends into the cork and then extracts it from the bottle in one smooth motion. I timed the process at about 8 seconds with each bottle I tried. Add another 6 or 7 seconds to extract the cork from the device.

Online reviews for the Rabbit Electric are savage, but I didn’t have any real problems with the device. Some complain that it won’t fit atop bottles with wide necks, but I didn’t encounter this issue. Others complained that the screw doesn’t go in straight, but again I never had an issue. It even handled bottles that had a layer of wax on top of the corks without much trouble. Corks came out clean and easy, though, yes, you do have to use a second hand to hold the bottle.

That said, using the Rabbit Electric is hardly the most romantic way to open a bottle of wine. The plaintive wheeze of the motor is probably not the mood setter you’re looking for when you’re preparing a fancy dinner for your wife on date night — but then again, she probably doesn’t want to see you writhing on the floor with a hernia from trying to pull out a cork by hand, either.

B+ / $45 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]