Review: Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao and Creme de Menthe

menthe

Quick, when’s the last time you had a Grasshopper? Pink Squirrel? Brandy Alexander?

While some things never come back into vogue, for classics like these, it seems inevitable that hipsters will once again be guzzling these things by the gallon — and probably in hollowed-out coconuts and pineapples.

Creme de Cacao and Creme de Menthe are typically purchased — if they’re purchased at all — in the cheapest form available. But Petaluma, Calif.-based Tempus Fugit Spirits is dead-set on elevating the category with this pair of artisan liqueurs, recreated from well-researched historical recipes and high-end, natural ingredients (no oils or essences… or, yech, chemical flavorings here).

Thoughts follow.

Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao – Crafted from distilled raw cocoa, then flavored with additional cocoa and whole vanilla beans. A shade of light brown in color, the nose offers rich cocoa powder character, touched with the essence of barbecue spices — and other spice rack staples, including rosemary and thyme. Dark chocolate notes win out on the palate, as a dessert-friendly amalgam of cinnamon and vanilla wash over the body. By taking the focus off of pure sugar and keeping it locked in the baking cabinet and the chocolate bar, this creme de cacao is an easy winner in a maligned category. 48 proof. A / $31

Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe – An even more maligned category, demolished by the downfall of peppermint schnapps. But Tempus Fugit is undaunted. This liqueur distilled from winter wheat, then flavored with real peppermint and spearmint, plus added botanicals (in keeping with historical recipes). The result is both traditionally minty and surprisingly piney on the nose, leading into gentle peppermint candy notes with touches of vanilla extract and citrus peel emerging late in the game. An excellent digestif, but a bit syrupy for continued sipping. 56 proof. A- / $31

tempusfugitspirits.com

Review: Solbeso No. 1 Fresh Distilled Cacao

Solbeso Bottle 2

First: Solbeso is not a creme de cacao, and it is not a cocoa-flavored anything. Solbeso is a new type of spirit that is distilled directly from cacao fruit, the first and only spirit of its kind (at least that I’m aware of).

How does this work? Cacao pods are picked at various South American farms, the fruit surrounding the pods (not the pods themselves) is juiced, and fermented with a combination of local yeast and Champagne yeast. Distillation is completed in hybrid column/pot stills on a regional basis, then the various regional distillates are finally brought together and blended in the United States before bottling.

So, to recap: This is a distillate of fermented cacao fruit juice.

Almost clear in color, Solbeso is closest in character to a white rum. The nose is not chocolaty, but rather indistinctly sweet. As you exhale, there are touches of light cocoa powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar — notes that grow in intensity as they develop in the glass. There’s also a moderate burn on the nose, but it’s nothing too overwhelming.

The body  is more citrus-focused at first, offering a sourness that mingles with dusky floral elements. Solbeso’s tasting notes identify (rightly, I think) this as honeysuckle. Again, my mind turns to hints of chocolate — cinnamon-infused Mexican chocolate is a better analogy — but maybe that’s just my mind playing with me? The finish is a bit rustic, but continues to showcase both citrus/floral notes as well as a dusky, cocoa-hinting character that sticks in the back of the throat.

All in all this is quite the odd duck and doesn’t show its greatest strengths on its own, but it is something which would fare well as a substitute for white rum in any number of cocktails — even something as mundane as a rum & Coke. Others have compared Solbeso favorably to pisco, and Solbeso Sours are also worth exploring.

80 proof.

B / $35 / solbeso.com

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 give 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: 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