Review: Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice

Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice

Southern Comfort seems unstoppable, now that it’s adopted the same playbook as Kahlua, Malibu, Baileys, and any number of other liqueur producers intent on releasing a new flavor every year, typically around the holiday season.

This year it’s an obvious one: Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice, the go-to crowd pleaser of a flavor that eventually finds its way into just about everything.

The results could have been much worse. The peachy character of SoCo seems to blend pretty well with the gingerbread flavoring, flipping the overall experience into something akin to drinking a peach pie. It’s gingerbread-heavy up front, with overtones of cinnamon, then sweeter as it develops on the palate, those characteristic tinned peaches of SoCo coming through clearly. The finish isn’t particularly lasting; in fact it’s almost watery.

The good news is all of this works together in a surprisingly natural way, lacking the chemical overtones of many a SoCo specialty bottling. That fact that it is bottled at a mere 30 proof — most of the other flavored SoCo’s hit 70 proof — helps to temper things quite a bit. At just 15% alcohol, this liqueur is no more potent than a glass of wine. But at least this you can use to spike the eggnog with.

SoCo Gingerbread Spice (SoCoGiSpi?) is hardly something I’d drink on a regular basis, but if your tastes run toward Southern Comfort’s inimitable charms, you may very well find this expression worth trying this holiday season.

30 proof.

C+ / $12 / southerncomfort.com

Review: Aperol Aperitivo

APEROLThe Aperol Spritz is a perennial favorite cocktail — but I can’t say that I’ve ever actually drank much Aperol on its own. Until now!

An aperitif that is often shelved alongside Campari (the same company now makes both), this liqueur’s most noteworthy ingredient (not including sugar) is bitter orange, though a host of other bitter roots are also used to give it its flavor. Lighter in color and much less bitter than Campari, the spirit is a bittersweet beauty. The up-front sweetness can be a little cloying, with a viscous body and spun sugar character that approaches cough syrup, but once that passes, its complexities take hold. Aperol offers gentle bitterness on the back end, with notes of chocolate and root beer leading to a pleasant, dessert-like finish. Not too lasting, the sweet and bitter eventually meld into a cohesive whole as the liqueur finally fades away.

Aperol can be used as an alternative to Campari in almost any cocktail — particularly if you’re not looking for the bitter wallop to the senses that Campari provides. For even more fun, use it as an alternative to Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or any other triple sec and see what the slug of bitterness does to your favorite cocktail.

22 proof. (The rating is for solo sipping…)

A- / $25 / aperol.com

Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

refind Gin-Vodka

Distilled from grapes in Paso Robles, California, Re:Find is a boutique distillery that turns its “neutral brandies” into a variety of straight and flavored spirits. Distilled “from grapes” has certain connotations, but Re:Find is careful to note its vodka is not grappa, a specific type of brandy that is distilled from a by-product of winemaking. Re:Find is rather made from “free run” juice called saignee that is bled off during pressing, before red wine grapes are fermented — so it’s closer to an unaged brandy in composition. These are high-end grapes, which just so happen to be used to make wine at Villicana Winery — which is under the same ownership.

Mostly available only in California, we got a look at four of the spirits in Re:Find’s lineup. All four spirits reviewed below are 80 proof.

Re:Find Vodka – A bit grappa-like on the nose, with some of that funky, twig-‘n’-stem character you see on this spirit, but it’s undercut with the lightest aromas of honey and marshmallow. The body offers more in the way of hazelnuts, banana, and vanilla cookies, which makes for an interesting counterpart to the funkier nose (again, much like a good grappa). There’s a lot going on in this spirit and while it’s initially a bit much when sipping straight, it does show lots of nuance and character, and it merits exploration both on the rocks and in more complex cocktails. A- / $35

Re:Find Cucumber Vodka – Interesting choice for your first flavor, but damn if a nose full of Re:find Cucumber doesn’t smell like you’re headed to a day at the spa. Crisp and authentic, this vodka offers pure and refreshing cucumber flavor through and through, with just the lightest dusting of sweetness on the finish to offer some balance against the vegetal notes up front. You get none of the earthy grappa character in the unflavored vodka here, just fresh cukes from start to finish. Impressive considering this is legitimately flavored with fresh cucumbers. Seasonally available. A / $25 (375ml)

Re:Find Gin – Triple distilled and infused with (mostly local) juniper berry, coriander, orris root, lemon & orange peel, grains of paradise, and lavender. This is an engaging gin, juniper-forward on the nose, with hints of lavender underpinning it. On the palate, things get a bit switched up. Here the lavender picks up the ball and runs, with the citrus notes coming on strong. It’s quite a trick, as the nose sets you up for a big evergreen bomb, then the body lets you down easy with a more sedate character suitable for the tropics. Re:Find Gin could benefit from a bit more complexity — maybe grapefruit peel or black pepper, or both — but as it stands it’s an engaging and quite drinkable little spirit. A- / $43

Re:Find Limoncello – Pale in color in comparison to many commercial limoncellos and translucent, Re:Find’s Limoncello looks and smells more like pure, fresh lemon juice — much more so than the stuff you typically see from Italy. Heavy on sour juice and bitter zest, this is intense stuff. If you’re looking for a sweet and lightly sour limoncello that will pair well with your berries-and-whipped-cream dessert, this isn’t the liqueur for you. If intense, almost raw, lemon character is your bag, give it a go… though you’ll have to visit Re:Find’s distillery to get some. B+ / $NA (375ml)

refinddistillery.com

Review: Wild Turkey American Honey Sting

stingIs the honey-flavored whiskey thing coming to an end? Now, Wild Turkey is releasing a limited edition flavored flavored whiskey: American Honey Sting, a crazy expression of the classic American Honey that is spiked with the infamous ghost pepper, the hottest chili pepper in the world. No relation to this guy.

Honey-flavored whiskies have rapidly become the most boring category of spirits on earth. Dump some honey into cheap bourbon, Canadian, Scotch, or Irish whiskey — all of these have honey expressions on the market now — and it sweetens things up while smoothing out the harsher elements of a lesser spirit. Sure, not all honey whiskies are made equal — a few are quite good, some are truly awful — but for the most part they are hard to distinguish from one another.

And so, with Sting, at least we’re getting something different. While it might foretell the end of the honey whiskey market, it might be the beginning of something entirely new in this space. Honey-plus whiskies. God help us.

As for Sting itself, there’s little up front to cue you in to anything out of the ordinary with this product. Even the name “Sting” on the bottle is understated. I expect many purchasers of this spirit won’t have any idea what they’re buying because there’s no picture of a cartoon chili pepper on the bottle.

That may not be such a problem, though. Despite the spooky threat of the ghost pepper, Sting is surprisingly understated. I’ve had far hotter spirits in the past, and some of those were flavored with little more than cayenne or jalapenos. The nose starts out with pure honey liqueur — and with just a touch of woody bourbon to it — with just a hint of heat if you breathe it in deep. Give it some time and it starts to singe the nostrils a bit, but it’s fully manageable. But that takes time. A cursory sniff reveals nothing out of the ordinary.

The body starts of with that well-oiled, thick honey sweetness — and then you figure you’ll wait for the heat to hit. You might be waiting for quite a while. In my experience with Sting, that heat was hit and miss. Some sips would offer none at all. Some would end with a pleasant warmth coating the back of the throat for about a minute. There’s nothing scorching or quick-give-me-some-milk burning, really, just a nice balance of sweet and hot — at least most of the time.

While the absence of heat in some encounters with Sting are a little strange, they don’t really impact the enjoyment of the spirit in a negative. In fact, they kind of make things fun. Will this round be simple honey… or will it come with a kick? I had fun with it, anyway.

71 proof.

A- / $23 / americanhoney.com

Review: GM Titanium

GMTitanium - Final Hi Res

You’re the maker of one of the most prestigious orange liqueurs on the market. For your next trick, what do you do? Release a heavily spiced, orange-flavored Cognac in a Terminator-hued, club-friendly bottle!

“Red ribbon” Grand Marnier is distinguished from most orange liqueurs because it uses Cognac as the base spirit instead of grain neutral spirits. Caribbean oranges are blended into this base, giving Grand Marnier an intense flavor that’s driven as much by the Cognac as it is by the oranges.

Titanium is a bit of a different animal, featuring, per the company, “a bold combination of Calamansi citrus, black pepper, anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon spices combined with wild tropical oranges and Cognac.” So, sort of the Captain Morgan version of Grand Marnier, I guess — but, critically, there is no sugar added in Titanium. This is all intended to make the product attractive to men.

GM Titanium seems to be based on a younger Cognac than the red ribbon standby. There’s no reason to use old stock, after all, when you’re dumping a bunch of cloves and pepper into it. The nose is full of spice: cinnamon and licorice notes attempting to push the orange character aside. That’s well and good, I suppose — if you know what you’re getting into. The body, though, is where Titanium falls apart. There’s just no life here, none of the power of Grand Marnier and definitely not enough punchy orange character. Titanium is limp, hobbled by its utter lack of sweetness as it attempts to let its spice bill do the heavy lifting, and it just doesn’t keep up. A good spiced rum know that you have to really pour on the herbs and spices but it needs a full-bodied rum to match it. GM Titanium doesn’t have either: The spices are too understated, and the Cognac is too young and watery to assist in the matter. Anyone that’s ever tried cinnamon toast with just cinnamon — no sugar — realizes the predicament here. It’s not bad. It’s just boring.

Surprisingly, Titanium is bottled at 80 proof, just like standard Grand Marnier. Compared to Grand Marnier, at about $34, it’s also more expensive. GM Titanium may be geared toward men, but I’m going to have to stick with the girly stuff.

C+ / $40 / gmtitanium.com

Review: Rivulet Artisan Pecan Liqueur

Rivulet03B

Rivulet isn’t exactly a boozy praline in a glass, but it’s gettin’ there. As an enthusiast of all things Cajun, I mean that as a compiment.

Made from barrel-aged brandy, pecans, and other secret ingredients (sugar, methinks!), Rivulet offers a rich, toasty pecan nose with undercurrents of cinnamon, cloves, and brown sugar. The body is unctuous and deep, full of nutty flavor and backed with a ton of sweetness. The sweetness is what sticks with you, just like that slowly melting sugar of a good praline, coating the back of the mouth while the nuts take on a more glazed, dessert-like quality.

Nut-oriented liqueurs are often a simple experience along these lines, and Rivulet is no exception, bringing just about the right amount of sweetness to bear on one of my favorite nuts. It sips well on its own, excels in dessert cocktails in lieu of amaretto and its ilk, and undoubtedly has lots of utility in the world of baked goods.

60 proof.

A- / $24 / rivulet.com

Review: Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur

ancho reyes

The ancho chile is a dried poblano pepper. A popular element in both traditional Mexican cuisine and upscale cooking, ancho chiles have a gentle, smoky flavor with hints of chocolate and cinnamon. I use ancho a lot in the kitchen, but never thought about how it would fare in a cocktail.

Ancho Reyes is a new liqueur made in Mexico, reportedly made from a recipe created in Puebla in 1927. You can use it as a cocktail ingredient or drink it straight as an aperitif — neat or on the rocks.

This is fun stuff. Initially it offers an amaro-like character on the nose, with a root beer and licorice character to it. Spice emerges after a few seconds, a surprisingly racy, chili pepper heat that really tickles the nostrils. The body’s full of complexity and interest, immediately filling the mouth with heat, tempering that spice with vanilla, cinnamon, and dark chocolate. Exotic notes of incense, bitter roots, and orange peel emerge over time, particularly on the finish.

This is a versatile spirit with all kinds of applications, from adding it by the drop in a margarita to drinking it by the shot glass after a hefty meal. It may sound like a niche product, but it’s got a truly surprising level of flexibility.

80 proof.

A / $33 / anchoreyes.com

Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

berentzen

Founded in 1758 in Haselünne, Germany, Berentzen is known for its eponymous apple liqueur, as well as some other fruit liqueurs. The company is expanding — hey, 250 years is long enough to wait — recently adding two new products to its lineup. We got ‘em both, and put them to the Drinkhacker test.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel is “straight bourbon whiskey, neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors.” Made with the apple juice-based Berentzen liqueur, this is a credible apple-pie-in-a-glass beverage, featuring silky-sweet apple juice notes balanced by a healthy slug of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and with just hints of those “neutral spirits” that provide a bit of a chemical character by way of aftertaste. Perfectly serviceable for those in love with apple cocktails, but you can approximate the same thing by splashing some standard bourbon into a glass of Berentzen if you don’t need a short cut. 60 proof. B / $22

Berentzen Icemint Schnapps is a “supermint” schnapps according to the company, and I’d say that’s fairly on point. I’m hardly an aficionado of peppermint schnapps, but Berentzen’s offering is surprisingly intriguing. The nose offers a light eucalyptus menthol note, and it’s surprisingly gentle. I couldn’t detect any real alcohol burn in it at all. On the palate it’s equally easygoing. The body is icy cool and appropriately minty, with wispy hints of chocolate, altogether coming across much like an after-dinner mint. It doesn’t drink at all like it’s overproof, which makes it a bit dangerous. Try sipping on a half-shot as a digestif. No more. No shooters. 100 proof. A / $25

berentzenusa.com

Review: McAfee’s Benchmark Peach Liqueur

Benchmark No 8 Bourbon Peach 70prf 750ml Glass

This has been sitting on the shelf of a local store for a bit and at a price of $13, I thought it was worth dropping the coin to give it a spin. Benchmark Peach is marketed as an offshoot of the venerable Benchmark whiskey brand, but it’s not a flavored whiskey: It’s a liqueur.

To borrow a phrase: It’s just peachy. Very peachy. It certainly lives up to tasting like a peach liqueur with a hint of whiskey rather than the other way around. This could be quite handy for mixers and cocktail recipes: perhaps for a peach-mint julep, fuzzy navel (we still have those, right?), or a bellini. However, as a standalone product it’s almost too overpowering. There are other varietals in the series (Brown Sugar and Egg Nog were also on the shelves), and reviews of these will be coming in due time.

The packaging might cause a bit of confusion and high expectations for Benchmark loyalists expecting the usual Benchmark juice with a hint of peach. It may be unfair to compare, but the association is inevitable, and bourbon drinkers may find themselves a bit disappointed. As flavored whiskeyish products go, it’s not the best available on the market, but it is certainly far from the worst.

70 proof.

B / $13 / greatbourbon.com

Review: 79 Caramel Spirit

79 gold caramel spirit

79 is the atomic number for gold. It’s also the proof level for the spirit that bears the numerical name of 79. Perhaps, it’s also a veiled reference to its owner, rapper Rich Dollaz.

The spirit begins by distilling a mash from Idaho wheat and then flavoring it with caramel and vanilla. Bearing a whole gaggle of alternative names, you might find this liqueur listed under 79, 79 Gold, 79Gold, Au 79, 79 Gold Au Wheat, or some combination of the above. Frankly I’m not sure what to call the stuff, or even whether it’s a flavored vodka or a liqueur. I’m going to hedge and call it both.

Light gold in color with visible cloudiness swirling in the bottle, 79 offers a nose of caramel candies and cake frosting. The body is sweet as expected, offering a moderately rich spirit, offering the expected notes of pancake syrup, sugar cookie batter, and melted caramels. There’s an undercurrent of smokiness here, though not really enough to give 79 any kind of special nuance. 79 offers interesting possibilities as a dessert drink mixer, but at 79 proof it’s probably a bit on the powerful side for most drinkers looking for something to splash into their coffee. Use with appropriate levels of caution.

Now available in Atlanta.

B / $NA / 79caramel.com