Review: Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters

Unveiled for Tales of the Cocktail 2015, Jameson released its first-ever bitters, taking them to an unexpected and exotic place: the sloe berry.

The sloe berry is primarily known — OK, exclusively known — for its use in sloe gin. Here, Jameson blends up sloe berry distillate, Jameson whiskey, a mix of bittering agents that includes wormwood, gentian, and ginseng, plus a bit of caramel color to produce a distinctive new bitters.

The nose is distinctively tart and fruity, backed with an appropriately root beer overtone. On the tongue, it’s (of course) quite bitter, but not as tough as you might think, with the tart sloe berries offering some balance. The finish sticks closely to the gentian/wormwood playbook, which is really just what you want from a bottle of bitters.

Of course this is not meant for solo consumption, and the sloe berry element is a surprisingly perfect foil for whiskey. While I know this is intended as a complement for Irish, give it a go with bourbon to coax out some lovely cherry notes.

92 proof.

A- / $NA /

Review: Mystic Bourbon Liqueur

mystic liqueurBottled by a company called Barrister & Brewer in Durham, North Carolina, Mystic Liqueur is a sweet concoction combining bourbon and “exotic spices.” Based on a “centuries-old Scottish recipe” (presumably not one involving Bourbon), it’s a New World spin on Drambuie that deserves a look.

The nose hints at both the honey and cinnamon of today’s popular, flavored whiskeys — such as Fireball and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. Both elements are very mild — just a touch of extra sweetness and a slightly greater dusting of Red Hots. The body largely follows suit, with the cinnamon and honey backed up with some notes of ginger, lemon peel, and brewed tea elements (the latter is particularly . The finish is warming and soothing — a hot toddy served at room temperature.

All told it’s a mild experience that plays well as an after-dinner sipper. Those looking for more intensity of flavor — the whiskey character is the least present of the various components — may find Mystic a little underbaked, but as a gentler example of the flavored whiskey/liqueur trend, a few glasses of this don’t make for a bad way to spend an evening.

60 proof.

B+ / $26 /

Maraschino Head to Head: Bols vs. Luxardo vs. Maraska

bols maraschinoMaraschino is an essential liqueur in many a classic cocktail — especially the Casino and the Hemingway Daiquiri — but it’s one of the few categories where only a small number of producers, typically wicker-clad European brands, hold sway. The biggest of these is Italy’s Luxardo. Croatia’s Maraska is another commonly-seen version of the liqueur.

Now comes a new entry in the form of mass-producer Bols, the Dutch liqueurists with a panoply of fruit-flavored concoctions on the market.

Can Bols Maraschino stand up to the icons of the category? I’d never formally reviewed Luxardo Maraschino or Maraska, so what better time than the present? I tasted these blind so as not to sway my opinion with fancy branding. The identifying — and surprising — details were added later.

Thoughts follow.

Bols Maraschino – There’s not so much cherry on the nose here as there are tropical lychee and flowery perfume notes, with a sort of medicinal cherry flavor on the back end. Quite sweet and syrupy, it’s got a gummy finish that smacks of added gelatin. 48 proof. C+ / $15

Luxardo Maraschino – This is a wildly different experience. It’s sharp and astringent on the nose, not sweet at all. Oddly, it offers primarily granary aromas — cereal and fresh hay — rather than the intense cherry character one expects. Fruit comes along, but it’s almost an afterthought, relegated to the background. Frankly, the combination is slightly off-putting. The palate brings more balance, but it’s still got that heavy grain maraskafocus that surprisingly reminds me of animal feed. The fruit is indistinct, but it finally comes around as an echo on the finish. The ultimate character is something closer to a fruit brandy than a liqueur — which is either a good thing or a bad, depending on what you want out of your maraschino. 64 proof. B / $29

Maraska Original Maraschino – A nice balance between the two styles above, with brandy-like aromatics and lots of floral notes on the nose, backed up by sweet cherries. On the palate, the cherries are clear and sweet, but not overpowering. Those floral elements play on the palate as well, adding a spicy distinctness and complexity to the mix. This is the only one of these three I’d consider drinking neat (and the only one in which I polished off the sample glass), but it seems tailor-made for adding round cherry notes plus exotic floral elements to a cocktail. 64 proof. A / $27

The winner? Maraska makes a surprising upset over the better-known Luxardo, by quite a wide margin.

Review: Braulio Amaro Alpino

braulioBraulio’s an Italian amaro… alpino. Alpino? From the alpine mountains, which gives it a bit of a different spin than what you might be used to.

Braulio originated in 1875, and it’s created with a blend of 13 herbs. Only four are known to the public: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The rest of the ingredients remain secret.

Well there’s definitely spearmint here (or some kind of mint, anyway), and it’d be safe to bet on cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel, all of which seem to make an appearance on the palate. The nose keeps things heavy on the mint, and the body folds that into a moderate to intense bitterness that takes you to a quite lengthy and bittersweet finish.

All in all, Braulio drinks like a traditional amaro that adds in a big, minty punch. For after-dinner sipping, it hits the right spot.

42 proof.

A- / $32 /

Review: Vov Zabajone Cream Liqueur

vovPrimary colors on the label. A name in quotes — “VOV” — and all caps, at that. Opaque, white bottle. What the hell is Vov?

Vov looks like something a clown would have to nurse to get through his next birthday party, but in reality, it’s an exotic Italian cream liqueur. This “traditional Italian Zabajone Cream Liqueur is made from egg yolks, sugar, and the highest quality, aged Sicilian Marsala Superiore,” per the Molinari family, which imports it to the U.S. Here’s more backstory on the stuff:

Italy’s #1 selling liqueur, VOV was created in 1845 by Gian Battista Pezziol, a confectioner and nougat specialist from Padua. Looking for a way to use the leftover egg yolks from his nougat-making process, Pezziol mixed them with Marsala wine, alcohol and sugar to make an energy drink, a popular trend at the time. He named the beverage VOV, short for “vovi,” the Venetian word for eggs. An immediate success, the drink won a silver medal in 1856. That same year, the Archduke of the Court of Vienna issued a patent with the royal double headed eagle. The spirit remained prevalent into the 20th century and was consumed by the troops during World War II for its energizing properties. VOV is the perfect substitute for modern and classic cocktails that call for a fresh egg.

How do you drink it? Warm or cold, neat or on the rocks, or in cocktails, the bottle tells us. Some people put it in coffee, I’m told. As it’s similar to an advocaat, try it in a Bombardino cocktail — half brandy or rum, half Vov. (You can add whipped cream and/or coffee if you like.)

Well, it sure does look disgusting. An opaque and milky off-white in color, the mind reels at all the negative connotations one can draw with reality and this stuff. It’s intensely sticky. Get one drop on your hands and you’ll need to scrub them. Don’t be afraid of the soap.

On the nose, it’s mainly driven by intense sugar — like a creme brulee plus some cinnamon notes — but with a sharp/sour citrus edge reminiscent of baby vomit. Notes of licorice and burnt butter bubble up in time. The body is where the egg yolk starts to really show, gooey and, indeed, intensely eggy, adding in notes of sticky sugar syrup and marshmallow, lemon peel, and a winey influence driven by the Madeira. The body isn’t as thick as you’d think, and the slight wateriness adds to an overall weak impression when served neat. The finish is absolutely mouth-coating, sickly sweet-and-sour and simply impossible to shake for a solid five to ten minutes after taking a sip.

Few people probably drink Vov like this, so I tried it with rum and ice. It’s a considerable improvement, but the funky nose seems somehow stronger and the sour aftertaste still lingers. Now I’m not a guy who’s ever enjoyed a cup of eggnog, so I can see how Vov would not exactly be my cup of tea. But still, Vov has got to be the very definition of an acquired taste.

Eggnog fans, dig right in — and let the hating begin.

35.6 proof.

D- / $27 (1 liter) /

Update 9/6/2015: Unthrilled with this review, the Vov folks sent me a shopping list and a number of cocktail recipes that would showcase how well Vov worked as a mixer. I made all four of the following with a fresh bottle of Vov and can absolutely attest that cocktails like this are a marked improvement over Vov on its own. That said, some of these are more successful than others, particularly the Orange Julius-like Arancia Fizz and the surprising, foamy, sweet-and-sour-infused Fluffy Vov. If you’ve got some Vov sitting around and don’t know what to do with it, give one of these a try tonight.

Arancia Fizz
2 oz. VOV
2 oz. Orange juice
3 oz. Sparkling orange soda or ginger ale

Add ingredients to a highball glass filled with ice and roll (empty contents back and forth between a shaker tin and the highball glass until well mixed). Garnish with an orange slice.

Madagascar Spritz
Created by Tim Cooper
1.5 oz VOV
2 Orange half wheels
4 oz Club Soda

Mash the orange slices with a muddler or bar spoon in the bottom of a Collins glass.  Add Vov, ice and club soda. Stir. Garnish with an orange half wheel.

Created by Tim Cooper
1.5 oz VOV
1.5 oz Pineapple juice
1.75 oz Unsweetened Almond Milk
2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)
Freshly grated cinnamon

Place all ingredients into a mixing glass and shake with ice. Strain over new ice into a wine glass. Garnish with a pineapple leaf & freshly grated cinnamon. This drink can also be blended.

Fluffy VOV
Created by Lucinda Sterling
2 oz gin
1 oz VOV
1 oz heavy cream
3/4 oz fresh lemon/lime juice
Few drops orange blossom water

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a fizz glass, without ice, and top with club soda.

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 /

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 /

Review: Meletti 1870 Bitter Aperitivo

That meletti_1870_hi1bright red color and an Italian name can only mean one thing: Campari, right?

Wrong! Introducing Meletti 1870, a bit of a Campari lookalike that’s designed to be used in Negronis and Americanos and other strong/bittersweet cocktails.

Of course, you can sip it straight as an aperitivo, too, and in this fashion you will find this concoction of sweet and bitter orange plus infused herbs and spices (including gentian, coriander, cinnamon, and clove) quite a little delight. The nose is syrupy and brisk with orange notes along with maraschino cherry character. Lots of baking spice emerges on the palate, with a mild bitterness to add balance.

It may look a lot like Campari, but it’s quite a different spirit. Campari is punctuated by mammoth bitter notes that start on the nose and carry through to the lengthy, heavily bitter finish. In Meletti 1870, the bitterness comes across almost as an afterthought, making for a much different experience on the whole. Melitti is focused on fruit and spice. Campari lives to sear your throat and give you that unbending grimace — in a good way, though.

Either way, try it as an alternative in a cocktail to Campari — or, better yet, instead of .

50 proof.

B+ / $26 /

Review: Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream Liqueur


Saint Brendan was a 5th century Irish apostle (later a saint, of course) who was best known for a seven-year-long fantastical voyage that has gone down as a bit of high Catholic mythology. No telling if he was into Irish cream, but I have my doubts.

Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream (motto: “Simple by Design”) is another in a long line of lower-cost alternatives to Baileys. It’s Irish whiskey and cream, and that’s it. Pretty simple, indeed.

This Irish cream features a nice balance between the whiskeylike punch up front and the creamy, vanilla-and-marshmallow notes that build on the body. There’s a little heat on the back end, but overall it’s a quite gentle Irish cream, offering modest sweetness with a just a little bit of spice. Chocolate and chewy nougat notes hang around for a while on the finish.

Altogether it drinks quite well, but it could use a bit more power to separate it from what sometimes comes across like a glass of chocolate milk. Compare to Brady’s.

34 proof.

B+ / $12 /

Review: Amaro Montenegro

montenegroMade in Bologna, Italy, Montenegro (“the liquor of the virtues”) dates back to 1885. Amaro Montenegro is on the sweeter side of amari, with a character that folds lots of citrus, spearmint, honey, and licorice into its classic, bittersweet body. Light on its feet, it offers lightly salted caramel up front, then moves toward some subtle Madeira notes and a bit of root beer character on the finish.

Montenegro is widely considered one of the gentlest amari, and its light color and up-front sweetness bear that out. But Montenegro does have a bracing edge that showcases its bitterness well, making for a classic, cohesive amaro.

46 proof.

A- / $27 /