Review: Boulard Calvados Pays d’Auge VSOP

Boulard VSOP 70 CL-1Boulard is one of the pre-eminent producers of Calvados. This VSOP is just one step up from Boulard’s entry-level bottling, composed of a blend of brandies aged 4 to 10 years old, but it shows nonetheless how one company can do wonders with the simple apple.

Crisp, classic apple notes are fresh on the nose, touched with lively menthol, cocoa powder, and gentle astringency. The body is lush with the essence of a boozy apple pie — fresh and baked apples, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon, and a gingery finish. Straightforward but sophisticated and well-crafted, it’s a near-perfect expression of a younger apple brandy.

80 proof.

A- / $50 /

Recipe: National Pisco Sour Day 2015

Did you know that America has a national day dedicated to the national cocktail of… Peru? We do, and it’s this Saturday (February 7)! For anyone here not Pisco savvy or Peruvian, we’ve got a whole backlog of Pisco profiles for your perusal, but here’s a recipe to get you started on your way to celebrating. Got a favorite Pisco cocktail? Share it with us!

PiscoPorton Pisco Sour
2 oz. Pisco Portón
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. egg whites
Dash of Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients in a blender. Blend on high for 15 seconds, add 5 cubes of ice, and then pulse in the blender 5 times. Strain up into a glass. Garnish with 3 drops of Angostura bitters.

Review: Chateau du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac VS Classique

Tariquet VS Classique avec Etui

Armagnac, in the Gascony region of France near Bordeaux, has long played second fiddle to the better-known and more prestigious Cognac. Subtle production differences exist between the two. Cognac uses up to three grape varieties. Armangac can include four (Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Baco). Cognac is distilled twice, Armangac only once.

Bas-Armangac is the largest of the three subregions within Armangac, and it’s where this bottling from Domaine du Tariquet hails from (the spirits are now denoted Chateau du Tariquet, while the wines carry the Domaine name).

VS is the youngest grade of Armangacs, indicating barrel time of a minimum of three years. Composed of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Baco, Tariquet VS is an outstanding introduction to how well-made a young brandy can be.

Youthful and full of punchiness, Tariquet XO Classique offers a nose full of nuts, dried figs, and oak. On the palate, the fruit shines brighter than expected, intermingling notes of citrus with rum raisin, incense, vanilla, mixed dried fruits, and cocoa. The finish is nutty and a bit rustic, but not rough, and the brandy’s not insignificant sweetness carries the day. I wasn’t expecting much from this Armagnac, but I was converted thanks to a surprisingly complicated spirit that really earns its stripes.

Those put off by the VS indicator should give this a taste. The price is comparable to run-of-the-mill Cognacs like Hennessy and Courvosier, but the flavor is more intense and much more intriguing. Consider me a fan!

80 proof.

A- / $35 /

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect gift for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP Cognac


Most Cognac is bottled at the usual 80 proof, but Louis Royer’s Force 53 says screw that, let’s take a cue from the fellas in the whiskey world and go megaproof.

The choice of 53% abv (106 proof) isn’t accidental. The House of Royer got its start in 1853. Lucky for them, I guess, that the business didn’t launch in 1799. Or 1801.

From a spec standpoint, the higher alcohol level is the major distinguishing feature of Louis Royer Force 53. Otherwise it’s a standard VSOP Cognac in composition, which means that technically the spirit’s been aged a minimum of just four years in cask.

Turns out the extra alcohol (and some smart knowhow) makes quite a difference. Many VSOPs are perfectly drinkable and full of life, but few have the punch and power of Force 53. What could have come across as almost watery in an 80 proof Cognac is instead, well, forceful and lively in this bottling. Here, notes of caramel apple take on more apple pie-like overtones on the nose. The body is delightfully rich, dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder, offering fig and raisin notes on the back end. That classic Cognac sweetness is unmistakable throughout, all those fresh citrus, apple pie, banana cream, and molten caramel notes building to an expressive and delightful — yet still youthful — whole.

For barely 40 bucks, you will be hard pressed to find a brandy of any ilk that is as well-balanced and downright enjoyable as Force 53, and Royer may very well find it has launched a big trend with this “high strength” idea in a world where 80 proof has long ruled the roost.

A / $43 /

Review: Pisco Waqar

waqar pisco

Waqar! Waqoff!


Pisco, essentially an unaged brandy, has been fueled by the revival of the Pisco Sour and a few other piscoriffic cocktails. But Chilean pisco is something of a rarity in a day and age where Peruvian pisco rules the market. Waqar is produced from muscat grapes grown at the foot of the Andes in Tulahuen, in northern Chile; in Peru that would make this an aromaticas-style pisco.

Muscat makes for a distinctive brandy, and Pisco Waqar is no exception. The nose is heavily perfumed and infused with aromas of rose petals, honeysuckle, lemongrass, and some hospital notes. The body is typical of pisco — a pungent, exuberant spirit with notes of lemon oil, crushed flowers, a touch of pears, and more perfume (or rather, what I imagine it would be like to drink perfume). The finish is a bit spicy — not just racy the way white brandies can be, but fiery on the tongue.

Initially a bit daunting, Waqar grew on me over time, winning me over in the end.

80 proof.

B+ / $50 /

Review: The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac

last drop 1950 cognac

The Last Drop is a company with an amazingly fun story: It sources its spirits from shuttered, abandoned, or “lost” distilleries. When you buy the company’s product, that’s it. They’re gone and no one is going to make them again.

That’s a powerful promise of rarity. The Last Drop says it “found these casks in a tiny distillery lost in the woods near Cognac.” So, yeah, you aren’t getting any more of this stuff.

The Last Drop 1950 starts with a classic Cognac nose of old fruit, raisins, incense, and well-aged wood. It’s got a bit of a funky, almost burning undercurrent to it — like an old rhum agricole — offering notes of coconut husk and fuel oil. The body is immediately austere, with sherried stone fruits, balsamic, and oiled leather. With a salted caramel/cocoa powder back end, things start to go out on a lightly sweet high note, but the finish is so drying and woody that it sucks all the fruit away completely, ending on an almost astringent overtone.

That said, it’s a unique Cognac and an excellent example of what very old brandy is like. At this price, though, you might want something that’s still firing on all cylinders, and which is more balanced from start to finish.

83.6 proof. 478 bottles made (each includes a 50ml miniature as a bonus).

B+ / $2,600 /

Preview: Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 and 1974 Vintage


Cuvee Lheraud (lerr-oh) is a family-owned Cognac producer that makes a million bottles of brandy every year all from its estate vineyards. And you’ve never heard of them, because until now they have not sold products in the United States.

This fall, Lheraud arrives on U.S. shores, bringing its unique spin on Cognac to our esteemed shores. While it makes single-vintage editions much like many other high-end producers, it also takes the same approach to its higher-end non-vintage dated blends. As Export Manager Francois Rebel explained to me on a recent visit to San Francisco to introduce the brand, the various cuvee bottlings, including the 20 year old Cuvee 20, are made from casks of exactly that age. This year’s Cuvee 20 was made from casks distilled in 1994. Next year it’ll be 1995 casks, and so on. Doesn’t this cause a problem with consistency from year to 013year, if you can’t blend from other vintages to achieve a flavor profile that doesn’t vary from year to year? Yes. But that’s the way we do it, says Rebel. Some years customers may not like the changes, but “Lheraud does not blend.”

Neat idea, though I could never get a clear explanation of why the Cuvee 20 doesn’t indicate it’s a Cuvee 20 distilled in 1994 — which would seem to boost sales. Ah, the French!

Rebel tasted me on two of the distillery’s upcoming releases, and my thoughts are below. Note: Our sampling was quite limited to small tastes, so these should be considered preview descriptions and ratings and not canonical reviews. Prices are estimated based on overseas pricing. Will update with official pricing when it is available.

Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 (2014 Bottling) – Made from grapes from the Petite Champagne region. Classic style for a Cognac this age, light incense and raisin notes atop a sweet core that offers oaky, almond, and honey notes on the palate. Easy to like. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Cognac Lheraud 1974 Vintage – Made from Grand Champagne-grown grapes. A 40 year old bottling, bottled at cask strength — unusual for any Cognac. More exotic on the nose than the Cuvee 20, it offers darker chocolate and nut character, dark raisins, dried figs, and drying, resinous oak on the finish. Less sweet than the Cuvee, but it still has plenty of sugar to go around. Complex and worthwhile. 98 proof. A / $500+

Review: Germain-Robin Old & Rare Brandy Barrel 351

craft distillers barrel 351

Craft Distillers has made just 120 bottles of this brandy under the Germain-Robin label, all from a single cask of 26 year old spirit of 100% pinot noir — grown in a Mendocino vineyard that no longer exists. In its online notes, Germain-Robin calls this perhaps its “finest distillate” and notes its “almost feral intensity.”

That’s a completely apt description of this complicated spirit, a brandy that drinks with impressive complexity and depth. The nose is restrained fruit — apricots, peaches, and plums — tempered with austere oak and notes of what might pass for apple cider vinegar. Things rachet up as you tuck into actually drinking the thing. The body is downright beastly with intense notes of wood planks, caramel sauce, baked apples, and flamed orange peels. Dark chocolate and some nutty notes emerge as the finish develops, with this brandy’s intense, old fruit character ultimately taking another complex turn toward the dark and brooding.

A small sample will never get to the complexities of this spirit, and it can initially be so daunting that it’s off-putting to really dig into. Give it the time to show you it’s charms. After all, you will have paid dearly to see them.

90.6 proof.

A- / $600 /

Review: Cognac Claude Chatelier XO


I recently encountered this Cognac for the first time on a trip. I wasn’t familiar with the brand at all, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the bottle of its XO release. No age statement is provided.

Perfectly fruity nose, with notes of cherry, apricot, and a bit of ruby Port. Some woody notes give it an incense character, too. On the palate, again the fruit dominates, offering pretty citrus, touches of plum, vanilla, and more of that woodsy incense character. A touch of heat makes the finish a bit racy, just enough to give this Cognac some curiosity, keeping it from devolving into an an utter fruit bomb. An all-around excellent effort at a very affordable price level.

80 proof.

A- / $50 /