Review: Azzurre Gin

AzzurreGin_Bottle_PRESSBased in Las Vegas and produced in Mountain View, California, Azzurre Gin is a spirit unlike any other — and this is coming from a guy that’s seen an awful lot of spirits. The brainchild of corporate finance veteran Dan Pettit, the gin is made from a distillate that is bizarre to say the least: It’s made from 33% apple, 33% grape, and 34% sugar cane. Let’s call it a third of each.

Botanicals aren’t fully revealed, but the bill does include tangerine, grapefruit, ginger, basil and rose petals — all of which are designed, per Azzurre, to tame the juniper character.

Despite all that, the nose is surprisingly traditional, with dominant juniper notes along with notes of licorice and some nutty elements. Over time, a sweetness emerges on the nose, once the juniper has time to fade a bit. Given this introduction, the body comes across as sweeter than expected, fruity with a melange of peach, blood orange, grapefruit, and apricot notes up front. The finish however turns somewhat herbal and occasionally vegetal, with echoes of evergreen. As a gin, what I find definitively missing are the earthy characters that really round out a solid gin. I was excited about the tangerine/grapefruit idea — but they don’t really come through cleanly and clearly enough.

80 proof.

B- / $NA / azzurrespirits.com

Review: Vikre Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit Lineup

vikre spruce white bkgrdDuluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, is the home of Vikre Distillery, which takes a localvore approach to making a wide range of (mostly white) spirits, using local grains, herbs, and water from the lake next door to make its craft spirits. The six spirits below — 1 vodka, 3 gins, and 2 aquavits — represent the bulk (but not all) of Vikre’s production. Who’s ready to take the plunge into the production from this neighbor from the Great White North?

Join us.

Vikre Lake Superior Vodka – Distilled from malted barley. Very mild, clean, and fresh. The nose is gentle but hints at hospital notes. On the palate, light sweetness starts things off, but the overall impression is surprisingly clean and pure. Only on the finish do some secondary notes start to emerge… a dusting of bee pollen, some thyme and rosemary, and a pinch of cinnamon. Surprisingly well done and nearly perfect in its balance. 80 proof. A / $35

Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin – Purportedly a traditional dry gin, including standard (local) botanicals plus rhubarb. One whiff and this is anything but traditional — quite sweet on the nose, at offers heavily fruity notes and an intensely floral/rose petal undercarriage. The body hones in on that sweet-and-sour rhubarb, confectioner’s sugar, a mild slug of juniper, and chocolate notes on the finish. I know what you’re thinking: What a random collection of flavors. And so am I. Calling this a “Juniper Gin” leaves me a bit bewildered. 90 proof. C / $35

Vikre Boreal Spruce Gin – Spruce is the primary botanical here, as you might expect. The overall impact is a lot closer to a traditional gin than the Juniper Gin above, though again it carries with it a sweetness that is unexpected. Piney notes mingle with brown sugar and, again, more indistinct florals and perfume notes. Here, the balance is a bit more appropriate, as the spruce character is brought up to where it needs to be, and the sweeter elements are dialed back. Still, it’s an unconventional gin that will need the right audience. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin – This one was fun because I’m allergic to live cedar, so I was excited to see if I would break out in hives from drinking a gin flavored with cedar wood (along with wild sumac and currants). I didn’t, and I wasn’t in love with the gin, either. The nose is much different than the two above gins — musty and mushroomy on the nose, with a medicinal note and some evergreen beneath that. Again, the body is quite sweet — the currants are distinct — with a slurry of notes that include ripe banana, fresh rosemary, and some nutty characteristics. Pumped up evergreen on the body tends again to give this a more balanced structure, but the overall character is, again, a little out there. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Ovrevann Aquavit – It’s actually Øvrevann Aquavit, but I have no idea if that’s going to render properly online. Caraway, cardamom, and orange peel are infused into this traditionally-focused aquavit, which is a more savory, herbal meditation on gin. Appropriately Old World, it layers exotic, caraway-driven, Middle-Eastern-bazaar notes with touches of licorice, juicy citrus, seaweed, and light sandalwood notes. Credible on its own, but it probably works best as a substitute for gin, cutting a profile that was probably along the lines of what Bombay Sapphire East was going for. 88 proof. B / $35

Vikre Voyageur Aquavit Cognac Cask Finished – The above aquavit, finished (for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give the spirit a gentle yellow hue) in used Cognac casks. I like the combination a lot. The nose features a fruitiness that Ovrevann doesn’t have, plus a touch of barrel char that adds mystique. This leads to stronger licorice notes on the nose, plus notes of cloves, raisins (a clear Cognac contributor), menthol and spearmint, and a lingering, herbal finish. The Cognac balances out the sweet and savory notes in the spirit, giving this a well-rounded yet entirely unique character that’s worth exploring. 86 proof. A- / $57

vikredistillery.com

Review: Sipsmith V.J.O.P. Gin and Sloe Gin

sipsmith (2)

Sipsmith isn’t content to just make a single gin in its garage of an operation in London, England. It actually produces a range of artisan spirits and fortified wines — including the two reviewed below, which are exported to the U.S.

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy (pictured) was recently in my neck of the woods, and we sat down with the Sipsmith portfolio for tasting and exploration. (After the meeting he sent me home with the two below bottles, which I reviewed later on my own.)

sipsmith (1)The highlight of the meeting had nothing to do with the company’s commercially available products, though. Rather, it was a trio of samples that Galsworthy had brought in unmarked bottles. These bottles represented in-progress Sipsmith London Dry gin at three different stages off the still. After the heads portion is cut, it takes about three hours for the gin to complete its distillation (until the tails arrive). Galsworthy presented the evolution of Sipsmith London Dry, one hour at a time. After the first hour, the gin showcases clear citrus notes, almost like an orange vodka. It isn’t until the second hour that the juniper really starts to show, with earthier notes coming to the fore during hour three. I didn’t write up any significant notes on these samples since they aren’t actual products for sale, but it was a lot of fun to see how a spirit evolves over a short amount of time during the distillation process. (Click on the chart above for a little more detail.)

Fun stuff, but let’s look at two commercially available Sipsmith bottlings.

Sipsmith Signature Edition Series V.J.O.P. Gin – This is the same botanical mix as standard Sipsmith London Dry — but with three times the juniper and a three day maceration instead of one day. The results are as expected — palpably piney. Juniper is overwhelming on the nose, to the exclusion of nearly anything else in the botanical bill. On the palate, it’s crushingly juniper-forward and very hot (just look at that proof). Water coaxes out more notes — though the juniper dominates from front to back, it features fresh orange, some brown sugar, licorice, and a touch of cinnamon. While it’s an overwhelming experience, it’s not an unsatisfying one — the juniper finishing on a clean and refreshing note. While I’m not normally fond of juniper-heavy gins, Sipsmith’s V.J.O.P. (“Very Junipery Over Proof”) is quite a compelling beast that lets you know from the get-go what its intentions are, and follows through with style. 115.4 proof. A- / $52

Sipsmith Sloe Gin Special Edition 2013 – Sipsmith only makes a sloe gin on an occasional basis (the photo on its website is a 2010 bottling), so I have no idea if this is the current edition. Why vintage? Because sloe berries are an annual harvest, and these are picked in the wild of West Country, UK, in the autumn. The London Dry gin is rested on these berries for 3 to 4 months before bottling. The company says each vintage does indeed taste different, but 2013 is “noteworthy.” Sloe gin often has a cough syrup character to it — it’s really not meant for straight sipping — and Sipsmith’s offers a powerful and pungent character that grabs you by the throat right away. The nose features aromas of dense raspberry and melted Jolly Ranchers, but the body is extremely tart, the hallmark of sloe gin. It comes on strong with an intense herbal overtone, notes of bitter chocolate, and orange rind. All in all, it’s pretty much exactly what you want a good sloe gin to be — sweet and sour in solid balance, with a distinct weirdness you can’t quite place. 58 proof. A- / $43

sipsmith.com

Review: Big Bottom Pear Brandy and Oregon Gin Collection

big bottom PearBrandy-10-NEWIf you know Big Bottom, you probably know the company for its bourbons, most of which feature exotic finishes and impressive levels of quality.

Big Bottom also makes white spirits, though, including fruit brandies (pear now, apple is coming) and a collection of gins. Today we take a look at four of BB’s latest white offerings… well, three white spirits and one with a touch of age on it.

Thoughts follow.

Big Bottom Oregon Pear Brandy – Made from a blend of Oregon-grown Asian pears. Rather musty up front, the nose offers fruit restrained by astringent notes, a commonality of young fruit brandies. On the palate, significant earthy notes interplay with modest pear character — and you can indeed pick out that slightly citrus Asian character vs. the more traditional flavor of domestic pears. The finish, however, is a bit hot and indistinct. This is clearly a labor of love, but as with many pear brandies, it’s one that could benefit from some tempering by wood. 80 proof. B- / $45

Big Bottom Oregon Gin – 16 botanicals (none named) are used in the production of this New Western gin. It’s got a significant floral character, with a touch of black pepper adding spice. Juniper is present, but modest and restrained, as sweeter notes dominate. On the palate, it’s a gentle gin with ample sweetness enveloping the palate, those floral notes — honeysuckle and some white flowers — quite dominant. Citrus elements come on strong as well, with just a little kick of that pepper hitting on the back end. Fun stuff, and a nice change of pace from juniper-forward bruisers. 91 proof. A- / $30

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Navy Strength – Same gin as the above, but higher in proof. It offers similar notes to the lower-proof product, but it’s plenty racier if that’s your bag. As with many an overproof product, the higher-proof version will immediately fire up the palate, but it also offers a few surprises: a slightly fruitier character, and juniper that’s more immediately evident. Slight caramel notes offer a silky sweetness on the back end. All in all, it’s a solid Navy version of a juniper-restrained gin. 114 proof. A- / $46

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels – Same gin as the first, aged (for 12 months in a new solera system) in used whiskey barrels outfit with new heads made from a mix of Oregon oak and Hungarian oak. The gin takes on a more dessert-like note here, with clear cinnamon notes and some mulled apple cider character. Sweet caramel on the finish takes this gin on a ride between a white spirit and a light, spiced whiskey, with notes of cloves and vanilla in lieu of any significant juniper or floral elements, which are washed away by the wood. Aged gins can be hit and miss, but this is surprisingly fun stuff, perfect for winter cocktails or even sipping straight with dessert. 91 proof. A / $38

bigbottomdistilling.com

Review: Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin

UVPG_BottleshotThe third gin in the collection from 35 Maple Street’s Uncle Val’s line, Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin starts with a juniper infusion… and diverges from there. Three kinds of peppers round out the rest of the bill — black pepper, red bell pepper, and pimento.

The name doesn’t lie. As gin goes, this is a racy, spicy, and indeed peppery spirit. The nose features some woody notes alongside the pepper — mainly of the black variety. It isn’t particularly hot a la Tabasco, but rather crackling with the punch of fresh pepper. The body has some sweetness and juniper-driven evergreen notes up front. The back end is where just a touch of heat comes to the fore, but it’s mild and fades quickly, leaving behind an echo of juniper and some hints of cinnamon.

Exotic and unusual, it’s a solid bottle to have for when you want to mix with a gin that’s slightly off the beaten path.

90 proof.

B+ / $40 / 35maplestreet.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Ke Gin

ke ginFort Worth, Texas-based Ke Spirits’ Ke Gin “is going to change how people think about gin,” at least according to the company. Made from a purported 500-year-old recipe, the goal is to make a gin with softer juniper notes and less evergreen character — “a rich, smooth, and refreshing experience,” as the founder puts it.

The complete botanical bill isn’t disclosed, but in addition to juniper, Sicilian lemon, bitter orange, cardamom, and coriander, there are four other ingredients in the mix.

Sure enough, it is a citrus-forward spirit, and as soft as Ke promises. The nose offers bergamot notes and a dusting of marshmallow, very gentle and almost innocuous. The body takes that citrus and runs full bore with it. Orange and lemon notes hit hard and build; after a time, some lightly earthy/herbal notes come into the fold and offer some added nuance. The finish is clean and rather short.

What’s missing here? Juniper is all but absent in this gin, but that shouldn’t be surprising, really — Ke tells you at the start that it’s trying to temper the arboreal notes in this gin, and that’s where they’ve succeeded admirably.

If your tastes run to oranges over evergreens, give Ke a shot.

80 proof.

B+ / $28 / mysteriouske.com

Drinkhacker’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

We at Drinkhacker have been busier than ever this year, and yet it seems impossible that it’s time for our eighth annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards.” As always, the list comprises some of the best-rated products we looked at over the last 12 months but is also focused on products that are 1) actually available, 2) worthwhile as gifts, and 3) not entirely out of the realm of affordability.

This year, by popular demand, we’re adding wine to the gift guide. It’s one of the busiest categories on the site, one of the most popular gift items on the market, and something we’ve overlooked for too many years.

As always, the offerings below are only a tiny selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, and we welcome both your suggestions for alternatives and questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle ShotBourbon – Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Years Old ($100) – So many amazing bourbons hit this year, and so many are already impossible to find. While Diageo took some early drubbing for its curious Orphan Barrel project, this year it really hit its stride. Rhetoric 21 is the best of the lot to date — and part of an ongoing project that will see older and older expressions of Rhetoric shipping every year. It’s still widely available at its original selling price, as is its near equal in the Orphan Barrel project, Forged Oak 15 Years Old ($75). I loved Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak ($75 on release), but you’ll be lucky to find it for $500 today. That makes the over-the-top (but delightful) Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century ($400/1 liter) seem like a downright bargain.

Scotch – The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old ($140) – I’m not going to break the bank this year with my malt whisky pick and rather send you hunting for the 17 year old Ben Nevis from The Exclusive Malts, an indie bottler that has been absolutely on fire with a string of amazing releases. The exotic fruit, sweetness, and cereal notes combine in an inimitable and very compelling way. A big hand is due to Diageo again in this list for its 2014 limited editions (which hit the U.S.) in March this year. If you have the cash, check out Rosebank 21 Years Old ($500), Strathmill 25 Years Old ($475), or Brora 35 Years Old ($1,250), all three from that series. Finally, peat fanatics should head directly for whatever Laphroaig 15 Years Old ($70) they can still find.

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Other Whiskey – Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt ($47) – Craft whiskey in the U.S. is finally, finally, arriving, and this year it’s landing a top spot on our best of the year list. Michigan-based Journeyman is showcasing how single malt should be made in America with this young but exuberant spirit that any whiskey fan owes it to himself to try. For another top craft pick, consider Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey ($75), a young wheat whiskey that is the best of this series so far. The Irish Yellow Spot ($95) maintains a special place in my heart next to its Green sibling — and don’t forget that rye is making leaps and bounds. One of the best is Woodford Reserve Rye ($38) — where it is actually made instead of trucked in from another state.

Gin – Oppidan American Botanical Gin ($30) – Our top gin pick this year comes from a Chicago microdistillery where a bounty of botanicals is used to spice up a London Dry style gin, giving it a delicate, floral character that should not be missed. Other great options include Tanqueray Bloomsbury ($33), Anchor Distilling Old Tom ($30), and the exotic Painted Stave South River Red Gin ($22/375ml), which really is red.

Vodka  Square One Bergamot Vodka ($35) – If you must give vodka this year, try this unusual, citrus-flavored vodka from Square One. Other good (and unflavored) options include Vodka Mariette ($30) and Tigre Blanc Vodka ($90), proceeds of which go in part to support large cats in the wild.

DP30yrs_white_USAhighresRum – Don Pancho Origenes Rare Rum 30 Years Old ($425) – New rum brands don’t pop up every day, and when they do rarely do they have a legend in the business attached. Don Pancho (aka Francisco Fernandez) is putting his name on a finished product for the first time, and it’s a doozy not to be missed. For less ritzy outlays, consider the well-aged offerings in the form of Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old ($50) or Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($40).

Brandy – Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare ($179) – A tough call from among these three stellar Cognacs, and really you can’t go wrong with any of them. My slight preference ultimately goes to Giraud and this well-priced rarity. Close runners-up: Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO ($110) and Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac ($100).

dulce vida extra anejoTequila – Dulce Vida Extra Anejo ($160) – Another solid year for tequila, with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff in 2015. My favorite of the bunch is from Dulce Vida, aged 5 1/2 years in used wine barrels. Great tequila with a great story behind it, too. Also worthwhile are Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2015 Rolling Stones Tour Pick ($150, also available for less sans the Stones imagery), El Mayor Reposado ($30, amazing bargain!), and the luxe Patron Extra Anejo 7 Anos ($299).

Liqueur – Spirit Works Sloe Gin ($40) – It’s a light year for quality liqueurs, but I have to give the nod to my hometown heroes Spirit Works and their killer sloe gin. Other top picks include Maraska Maraschino ($27) and Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao ($31), both of which should be home bar staples.

Wine As promised, this year we’re adding a smattering of ideas for some of the best wines we’ve seen this year that would be appropriate for gift-giving. It’s hard to pick a single “winner” (and probably not fair because availability will vary widely) but here are my top seven wines of the year, in no particular order:

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: Sons of Liberty True Born Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” and Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015)

sons of liberty 2015 Pumpkin Whiskey_8

Sons of Liberty distillery is doing some exciting work in the tiny state of Rhode Island. Today we look at two new offerings — an innovative gin and an update to its pumpkin-flavored whiskey. Thoughts follow.

Sons of Liberty True Born Genever Style Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” – How’s this for obsessive. With this genever-style gin, Sons of Liberty started by taking the botanicals that are traditional in gin — coriander, lemongrass, orange peel, and vanilla (well, some of those are traditional in gin, but anyway) — and using them to brew their own beer. SoL then distilled the Belgian Wheat beer (hence the name) and turned it into gin. Instead of taking neutral spirit and flavoring it, they’re flavoring the liquid that goes into the distillate to begin with.

Now, that’s been done before, but the end product has always been whiskey, not gin. SoL actually sent us the beer they started with — it’s not being sold, so it’s just for reference — and it’s really intriguing to put this side by side with the gin that was made out of it. While it’s got a malty backbone — enough to make you think much more of white whiskey than of gin — the spices that are so readily apparent in the beer are definitively present in the gin. Orange peel is the strongest, with vanilla a close second. The gin also has a nutty/almond character which adds some creaminess, plus a racy finish that brings out cinnamon and black pepper notes. The hops on the beer are just about the only element that doesn’t shine through clearly — though they likely contribute to what is a sort of muddy character on the finish. That said, all in all, it’s a really fun experiment. 90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B / $33

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015) – I first encountered this whiskey last year with its inaugural release. Now Sons of Liberty is back with its second annual pumpkin-flavored whiskey, single malt flavored with 32,000 pounds of roasted pumpkin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sweet orange peel, and vanilla. Unlike last year’s version, the 2015 rendition is markedly sweeter, with good reason — pumpkin for pumpkin’s sake is never a winning game. Pumpkin with sugar and spice? Well, there’s an idea. In this whiskey — still young and heavy with malty notes — those spices are really punched up to the right level. Beautiful allspice notes make for a welcome entree to lightly-sweetened pumpkin, definitively roasted and slightly smoky on the back end. Unlike my experience with last year’s version, the 2014 SoL Pumpkin Spice Whiskey is not just a novelty but a smooth operator in its own regard, smoothing out the harshly bitter notes that stuck with me in last year’s release. Give it a go. 80 proof. B+ / $48

solspirits.com

Review: Euphrosine Gin #9

euphrosine gin

New Orleans’ Atelier Vie is the company behind this gin (there’s also a barrel-aged version), a classic juniper-heavy style that won’t offend any gin lover.

The gin is crafted from grain neutral spirits, and aside from juniper, bay leaf is the only other listed botanical here — the rest are not disclosed.

What Euphrosine — surely the greatest name ever to come to the world of gin — offers is a fairly traditional spirit considering its unusual place of distillation. On the nose, juniper is backed by some sweeter notes, plus lemon peel, vanilla, and fresh herbs — surely that bay leaf in action.

On the palate, it’s got sweetness up front, then distinct lavender notes. More of that oily lemon character present on the nose builds as the floral notes fade, with an herbal, mainly rosemary-like, character coming along on the finish. The overall impression is somewhat muted, a bit dusty, and quick to depart the palate as it drops off rapidly. I like the gin just fine on the whole, but ultimately it doesn’t offer much in the way of major tricks to separate it from an increasingly vast pack of well-crafted but not dissimilar artisan gins.

90 proof.

B / $30 / ateliervie.com

Review: Far North Spirits Syva Vodka and Gustaf Navy Strength Gin

FNS_Gustaf_wTwo more white spirits from Minnesota-based Far North Spirits, both sporting the company’s exotic Nordic naming scheme. Thoughts follow.

Far North Spirits Syva Vodka – Distilled from rye. Immediately odd nose, with heavy, malty grain notes, some hospital notes, and a nutty, almond character that seems to come out of nowhere. On the palate, the hospital character wins out, but the body has a kind of fruit-driven sweetness to it that mutes what might otherwise offer a fresh and bracing character. Instead, Syva ultimately comes across more like a confused white whiskey instead of a clean and fresh vodka. 90 proof. C / $30

Far North Spirits Gustaf Navy Strength Gin – This is not merely a stronger version of Solveig, but is a different style of gin, particularly a higher-proof London Dry style gin. Distilled from rye, botanicals include Meyer lemon peel, grains of paradise, fennel, cucumber, and meadowsweet (among others). It’s more newfangled than the London Dry moniker would indicate, offering a nose that runs to citrus, some marshmallow, and fennel evident. The body has very little juniper to speak of, including some initial earthy notes that are backed up by sweet citrus, wintry florals, and a lingering perfume character. The finish is long and aromatic, again not at all London Dry in style but rather far more western. 114 proof. B / $40

farnorthspirits.com