Category Archives: Liqueurs

Review: Chambord French Black Raspberry Liqueur

ChambordDrinkhacker finally takes a look at one of the classics, a staple of the back bar and an inimitable ingredient in any number of amazing cocktails. Need a dash of color and a kick of jammy fruit in your drink? A drop of Chambord (actually made from both raspberries and blackberries, along with currants, vanilla bean, Cognac, and some other additives) from its iconic Holy Hand Grenade bottle will do the trick.

The nose of this liqueur features big, burly, well, raspberry notes. Not so much bright, fresh fruit but rather raspberry jam, dense and well-sugared. Sipped straight, the body is more dessert-like than you might expect, offering an almost candylike character that mixes darker raspberry notes with clear vanilla and somewhat lighter chocolate notes. Ultimately, the berry fruit is what sticks with you. Not quite Jolly Ranchers, but not quite fresh berries, either. Chambord lands somewhere in between, which might be what makes it perfect for cocktailing.

31 proof.

A- / $30 / chambordonline.com

Review: St. Elder Elderflower Liqueur

st_elder__hires_btElderflower, the flower that makes that inimitably peachy-lychee-pineapply flavor, has had a huge run lately, largely thanks to the premium liqueur St. Germain. Naturally, competition has followed from indie upstarts, including this liqueur from St. Elder. It’s made not in France but in Massachusetts and bottled not in a Deco masterpiece but in something that looks like it was designed for malt liquor. It’s also almost half the price… so is it worthwhile as a budget alternative to St. G? Read on…

The color is bright gold, as expected, and the nose is loaded with tropicality. It’s particularly heavy on pineapple, with sharper, lychee notes coming along behind. The body is creamier, almost like a pineapple upside-down cake, with caramel notes in the mid-palate. The finish is sharp and vaguely floral, with those tropical notes coming on strong again. It’s quite similar to St. Germain in the end, the most notable difference being the addition of 5% more alcohol to St. Elder, which makes this expression slightly punchier.

Good thing or bad thing? It doesn’t seem to matter much: St. Elder may not be as refined on the outside, but what’s in the bottle is a big winner.

40 proof.

A / $18 / st-elder.com

Review: Frangelico Liqueur

frangelicoConsider the hazelnut.

Best known as a secondary ingredient in a popular chocolate-flavored spread, it’s also long been the only way to get hazelnuts into a cocktail (though newer options have recently availed themselves).

Frangelico is a classic spirit that reportedly dates back more than 300 years to a bunch of Italian monks who made the stuff — hence the distinctly monk-shaped bottle. The liqueur is indeed made from roasted hazelnuts, steeped in alcohol, distilled, then flavored with cocoa and vanilla (among other proprietary flavorings) before being sweetened with sugar. Caramel color is added.

Surprisingly light in color, the toasty character of freshly roasted hazelnut really comes through here. It’s particularly hefty on the nose, a bit dusty and smoky, like fresh-baked pecan sandies. As you sip through the liqueur, the hazelnut evolves into more of a peanut butter character, with the vanilla element growing and becoming distinctive on the finish.

Frangelico is easy to like but difficult to truly love, a relatively simple spirit that works fine in a handful of cocktails and thrives with coffee. For the record, the distiller’s serving suggestion: On the rocks, with a squeeze of lime. Curious.

40 proof.

B+ / $24 / frangelico.com

Review: Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur

barrow's intense gingerIt should be noted at the start that “INTENSE” is by far the largest text on the label of this liqueur, but that’s to be expected from any ginger-flavored spirit. It simply comes with the territory.

Ginger liqueurs are a small category, for obvious reasons. The number of cocktails you can use it in is limited, and ginger beer does the trick in most cases. My bottle of Domaine de Canton — the most venerable product in this category — has been half-empty for years.

But Barrow’s, an artisanal product made in Brooklyn, NY, easily gives it a run for its money. This cloudy, intriguing liqueur (Canton is transparent) really does live up to its name. The nose is pungent without being overwhelming, offering legit ginger character plus a smattering of lemon and grapefruit notes. There’s more of the same on the body, which starts off with moderate sweetness — brown sugar melted into ginger ale — then jumps off a cliff into that classic, fresh-grated-ginger bite. The finish is spicy hot yet oddly refreshing, a spirit that’s both rustic and authentic. (The swing top bottle stopper completes the effect.)

Do I still like Canton? Absolutely, but it’s more perfumed, offering jasmine, incense, and vanilla notes up front, with all the ginger in the back. Barrow’s is a bolder and less distracted rendition of the spirit with, yes, a bit more intensity.

44 proof.

A / $31 / barrowsintense.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Barenjager Honey & Tea and Honey & Pear Liqueurs

Barenjager pear and tea

Barenjager, Germany’s classic, beehive-stoppered honey liqueur, got its first line extension, Honey & Bourbon, two years ago. Now it’s launched two more extensions, as honey spirits continue their ascent in the marketplace. Here’s a dive into these new additions, all naturally-flavored, to the Barenjager hive. Both are 70 proof.

Barenjager Honey & Tea Liqueur – The nose is initially overwhelming, like walking into a Persian rug shop — all incense and wet wool. The honey character here is intense, deeply earthy, and moist, taking on clear influence from the tea component. But here, that tea comes across not as sweet, brewed tea but something completely different. It starts with overwhelming notes of dried, crushed black tea leaves (none more black), then digresses into notes of forest floor, licorice, menthol cigarettes, and camphor. Barenjager makes a highly enjoyable honey liqueur, but something has been lost in the tea mash-up. C

Barenjager Honey & Pear Liqueur – It never would have struck me to add pear flavor to a honey liqueur, but what do I know? This liqueur blends Barenjager with pear brandy, and the results are quite pleasant. The sweetness of the pear spirit is a natural companion to honey — like an apple pie baked with sliced pears — and the two work well together. The honey is the strongest element here (with pear almost indiscernible on the nose), but the finish brings the pears on strong. They’re crisp and clear and definitively not apple, offering that slightly more umami version of the fruit that’s unmistakably pear. The effect isn’t huge, but it’s noticeably different. All in all, it may not add a whole lot over the standard Barenjager bottling, but it works well enough in its own regard. B+

each $29 / barenjagerhoney.com

Review: Vermont Ice Maple Creme Liqueur

vermont iceIf Vermont’s known for anything — besides the Trapp Family Lodge — it’s maple syrup. They make more of it here than in any other state in America — and literally no one lives in Vermont. (Did you know: It’s the 2nd least populous state in the nation?) But who can actually consume all that syrup as food? The natural solution: Turn some of it into booze, of course.

Vermont Ice Maple Creme is one of a small selection of maple liqueurs available, a creamy concoction blended from maple syrup and brandy made from Vermont-grown apples. (And cream, I presume.)

The results: Not at all bad. The syrup character is clearly evident on the nose, with a touch of vanilla caramel beneath it. There’s more where that came from on the palate — ample syrup notes (and not the cheap chemical pancake stuff, the real deal), sultry with a gentle earthiness and wood notes — even a tinge of apple character late in the finish. This all comes together surprisingly well. Spirits like Baileys can be overwhelming in their sweetness, but Vermont Ice, while plenty sweet, doesn’t make you feel like you’re about to lose your teeth from drinking it. The maple syrup component also gives it a unique spin that you don’t get from most cream liqueurs — and a recommendation, to boot.

30 proof.

A- / $28 / boydenvalley.com

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Hven Organic Winter Schnapps HR

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka – Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

backafallsbyn.se

Review: Zwack, Unicum, and Unicum Plum Liqueur

Unicum PlumFour years ago I covered a line extension from Hungary’s Zwack, which confusingly was launching for the first time a spirit called Zwack. Previously, Zwack’s sole product was the bitter Unicum, and “Zwack” was nowhere to be found on the label.

At some point Unicum left the U.S. market, leaving Zwack the company’s sole product in the line available on our shores. Now, Unicum is coming back, branded as “Zwack Unicum,” and a new spirit, Zwack Plum Liqueur, is also joining the group as a third wheel.

We first wrote about Zwack’s launch in 2009. Here’s a fresh look at the full lineup in 2013.

Zwack Unicum Liqueur – This spirit, originally crafted from more than 40 herbs and spices in 1790. Very bitter, it’s a digestif for the Fernet fan, with sweetness a distant afterthought. I compared a fresh sample with a bottle I have from 2001, and based on informal tasting, the formula does not seem to have changed. Pushing past the initial shock of bitterness, Unicum offers a heavy cinnamon note character, with orange peel beneath. Secondary notes include licorice, dark chocolate, dried herbs, and some wood, driven by the six months Unicum spends in oak barrels before bottling. This is a solid alternative to Fernet, offering its own take on the bitter liqueur without reinventing the category. 80 proof. A-

Zwack Liqueur – Alternately known as “Unicum Next” internationally, this is Unicum’s lighter-colored and far sweeter take on Unicum, clearly designed for a younger, more sweet-toothed audience. Slightly syrupy, Zwack is quite fruity, driven as I noted in my original review by cherry notes — though these are more of the cherry jelly variety than the fresh fruit. Tasting today, I also get strawberries, iced tea, and a strong, orange candy finish. It’s quite a different beast than Unicum, one which lends itself to drinking as a shot, using as a mixer, and generally appealing to a more novice drinker. That’s neither good nor bad… but it’s not Unicum. 80 proof. B+

Zwack Unicum Plum Liqueur (pictured) – Take Unicum and age it instead for six months in oak casks on a bed of dried plums (huge in Hungary) and you have Unicum Plum. The nose isn’t immediately distinguishable from Unicum, licorice and spice notes. The body is instantly familiar, but brings more fruit to the table — a Port-like prune character that helps to balance out some of Unicum’s overwhelming bitterness. If you’re looking for something somewhere in between Unicum and Zwack on the bitter to sweet spectrum, Unicum Plum may fit the bill, though I find the bitter Unicum more exciting. Note the lower alcohol level. 70 proof. B+

each $32 (1 liter bottle) / zwack.hu

Review: Cabo Wabo Diablo Coffee Liqueur

cabo wabo diabloIt seems like just about every premium tequila producer is expanding into coffee liqueurs, and the latest comes from Cabo Wabo, the Sammy Hagar-founded  tequila company. Called Cabo Wabo Diablo, this liqueur includes 100% agave tequila laced into an Arabica-based coffee liqueur.

A tiger-eye brown spirit, Diablo is less dark in color than you might expect, particular around the edges of the glass. There’s also less tequila character here than in many other similarly crafted spirits. The nose offers deep coffee notes, slightly nutty, with just a hint of agave and a touch of lemon. The body mostly follows suit, offering a milder coffee character with ample sweetness, some chocolate notes, and a finish that grips the back of the throat with herbal character and spice. A nice combination of flavors, all in all, but not particularly “diablo.”

70 proof.

B+ / $23 / cabowabo.com

Review: Liqueurs of Vietnam’s Son Tinh

son tinh boxAnd now for something completely different…

Son Tinh is a liqueur producer based in Vietnam. The company makes a wide range of spirits, including a shochu-style liqueur, bitters, and fruit-based liqueurs. At present the company makes 11 products, 6 of which we (miraculously) got to sample, delivered via an awesome, custom-made wooden crate straight from Vietnam!

Here’s a look at the nearly full lineup. Son Tinh’s liqueurs are slowly making their way to stores — the company did win Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2013 — with wholesale pricing of between $9 and $16 per 450ml bottle. Availability is expected in late 2014.

Meanwhile, thoughts follow.

son tinh minh mangSon Tinh Nep Phu Loc – A clear sticky rice liqueur similar to shochu. Fragrant, grassy nose. Moderately sweet on the tongue, similar to a western-style vodka, with some marshmallow/nougat notes and a slightly earthy undertone. Simple and quite pleasing, could be used interchangeably with either shochu or vodka as a base spirit in cocktails. 76 proof. A-

Son Tinh Minh Mang –  A light amber herbal liqueur that boasts 19 ingredients, matured from 3 to 5 years before bottling. Intense and immediately pungent, with a nose of bitter roots, dirt, and Thai basil. The body hints at sweetness before delving back into a hefty bitter character, dense with licorice, burnt orange peel, and more tough root character. A bit of a tough slog, even for amaro lovers. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Nhat Da – A dark brown herbal bitters matured from 3 to 5 years, the name means “one night.” Complex nose of coffee grounds, licorice, tar, and burnt lemongrass. The body is overwhelmingly bitter (plus a touch of that unavoidable sour edge), offering intense licorice and absolutely blackened coffee character. Strong and punchy, it never lets up with even a hint of sweetness to even things out. I’d say you’d get used to it, but you won’t. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Chanh Leo – Passion fruit liqueur. Pale gold, some edgy sour fruit notes on the nose. The body is full of sour apple and pear notes, with candied lemons and dried mango character. It’s a bit scattered, falling back on a brewed tea character before a modestly bitter finish takes hold. 54 proof. B-

Son Tinh Mo Vang – Apricot liqueur. Deep amber, with musky perfume on the nose. A taste on the tongue arrives with a rush of sugar… before cascading into an intensely sour experience. The apricot is initially vivid, but leaves an aftertaste of bitter roots and fruit vinegar. 54 proof. B

Son Tinh Tao Meo – Rose apple liqueur, based on the rare fruit of the rose plant. On the nose, a mix of fruit and flowers, as the name would imply. More perfume than fruit, and blessedly dialed back on that sour character. What remains is a somewhat Madeira-like spirit with notes of raspberry and rose petals. 54 proof. B+

sontinh.com

Review: Pasita and Rompope Liqueurs of Puebla, Mexico

rompope-santa-ines vainillaA friend of mine is an American expatriate living in Puebla, Mexico, and on a recent trip to the U.S. she brought me a few minis of Puebla’s unofficial liqueurs — Pasita and Rompope — the likes of which we don’t much see in these parts. I told her I’d review them, more for kicks and completionism than because I expect you to run to your nearest importer to try to track down bottles for yourselves. Thoughts follow. (Prices and website links are not available.)

Reljac Licor de Pasita – A very traditional, dark brown raisin-based liqueur. Originally I thought this might be a super-sweet coffee liqueur, but over time the raisin character evolves in the glass. While not particularly alcoholic, it’s incredibly dense, offering cappucino notes that give way to chocolate, licorice, prune, and of course raisin notes. The finish stays with you for, well, forever. In Mexico the liqueur is served with a cube of cheese as a garnish, which once you drink la pasita makes more sense than you’d think. 30 proof. B-

Santa Ines Rompope VainillaRompope is essentially an eggnog, tinted yellow due to the use of copious yolk in the recipe. This vanilla-flavored version of the liqueur is sweet and eggy and authentically mouth-coating, everything you’d want in an eggnog, and that’s coming from a guy who basically hates the stuff. 18 proof. B

Santa Ines Rompope Piñon – This version is flavored with pine nuts and colored Pepto pink. I don’t think the pine nuts add much here, giving the nose a somewhat sweaty, vegetal character to it, and the body is even sweeter, with more of a bubblegum character (though maybe that’s the off-putting color playing tricks on me) than a nutty one. 18 proof. C-

Review: Thatcher’s Prickly Pear Liqueur

thatcher's Prickly PearLet’s start with the obvious: What is a prickly pear, anyway? It’s the fruit of the paddle cactus, the iconic desert plant that sometimes grows little red bulbs on its ends.

Thatcher’s makes a wide variety of oddly-flavored liqueurs (yumberry, anyone?), all of which are organic and most of which are at least intriguing. The latest version turns to the prickly pear, filling out a gaping hole in the “pinkish-red” section of the rainbow-like collection of Thatcher’s liqueurs.

I couldn’t tell you what prickly pear is supposed to taste like, but Thatcher’s does a pretty good job with it either way. The nose is something of a cross between raspberry and sweet tea. The body is lightly sweet and fruity, a vague strawberry character. I’ve read that prickly pear is a said to taste like a cross between watermelon and bubble gum, and while that may be a stretch with this liqueur, I can see where they’re going with that description. What that doesn’t capture is the little kick of cayenne that you get on the finish… something that separates this from a strawberry liqueur, and in a fun way.

What to do with it, then? Not a lot of cocktail recipes call for prickly pear liqueur, but try subbing this in for just about any fruit liqueur (even triple sec) to see what you get… or sub for a fruit vodka to create a less potent but more flavorful version of something like a cosmopolitan.

Colored with organic carrot extract. 30 proof.

A- / $20 / thatchersorganic.com

Re-Review: Cynar Liqueur

cynarDon’t like bitter amari? Well, you’ll hate Cynar, which isn’t just bitter, it features a picture of an artichoke on its label. You like drinking artichokes, don’t you?

We last reviewed Cynar in January 2011. This is a fresh look at the classic spirit.

Meant to be consumed either with soda or straight but “always on ice,” Cynar is unique in the spirits world. As I previously reported in my coverage of Jagermeister, Cynar is perfectly drinkable at room temperature, where its various components are more detectable and nuanced.

The artichoke component is more of an indistinct vegetal earthiness, tempered by cinnamon notes, bitter roots/bark, and some bitter orange peel. The 13 components of Cynar come together well — particularly surprising since on of those components is artichokes. The bitter finish is bracing and lasting and Cynar works exceptionally well as a digestif. On the whole, I have to double down on everything I said about it in 2011, reaffirming my rating.

33 proof.

A- / $22 / camparigroup.com

Review: Caffe Borghetti di Vero Espresso Liqueur

Borghetti BottleCaffe Borghetti — or just “Borghetti” if you’re hip — is an espresso liqueur made in Italy — you know, where espresso was invented. Made from real, brewed espresso, the base beverage is made from “a blend of 70% Arabica beans grown at a high altitude in South America and 30% Robusto beans from Africa is placed into a large-scale ‘moka’ machine.” It’s then blended with distillate (unspecified) to create the final liqueur.

It’s a deep, dark liqueur, with considerably chocolate notes on the otherwise coffee-thick nose. The body is rich and authentic, with some fruitiness and a surprising nuttiness that develops atop the mocha notes you get in the nose. An easy sipper, it’s got a pleasant balance of sweetness and a touch of bitterness — the latter of which sticks with you after the rest of the liqueur fades.

Nice body — dense without being mouth-coating — and definitely a worthwhile alternative to Kahlua.

50 proof. (Kahlua is 40 proof, just FYI.)

A- / $20 / branca.it

Review: Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon Liqueur

baileys vanilla cinnamonThe newest addition to the Baileyverse doesn’t take many pains to hide what’s inside. As the name suggests, this is good old Baileys Irish Cream, plus vanilla, plus cinnamon.

Well, Baileys on its own is full of dessert-like flavor, so adding more stuff from the baking cabinet into the mix doesn’t seem entirely called for. Sure enough, Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon falls prey to that very issue. Adding vanilla and cinnamon to a liqueur that’s already very sugary pushes it almost into madness. One sip and a flood of flavors hit your palate, like eating a handful of random Halloween candy all at once. The finish — heavy on the vanilla — sticks with you for the better part of 10 minutes… and that’s just on a single sip.

I am happy to sip on a regular glass of Baileys Irish Cream if it’s offered to me — admittedly this is a rare occurrence — but with Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon, things have gone just a bit too far.

Stick with the classics.

34 proof.

C- / $21 / baileys.com

Review: Cruzan Velvet Cinn Horchata and Rum Liqueur

Cruzan Velvet CinnWould you believe there is more than one horchata-plus-rum liqueur on the market? It’s true.

Velvet Cinn is Cruzan’s spin on a spiked version of the classic Mexican rice-meets-almond-meets-cinnamon beverage. The almondy nuttiness comes through clearly on the nose here, along with cinnamon notes. The body is very sweet and cinnamon-fueled, with an authentic-feeling sweet cream finish. The texture isn’t particularly viscous, but it does coat the mouth and leave a lingering impression for some time after you sip it.

What’s missing? The rum. I really don’t get any of it. But perhaps that’s ultimately not necessary. As a spirit based on horchata goes, Velvet Cinn comes across as authentic and engaging, and fans of this sweet treat will probably swoon over Cruzan’s lightly alcoholic rendition. If you need more of a kick, I suppose you can always just add more rum.

Produced in Deerfield, Illinois. Naturally and artificially flavored. 30 proof.

B+ / $18 / cruzanrum.com

Drinkhacker’s 2013 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Back again by popular demand, it’s the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — or our “best stuff of the year awards” if you want to go that route. As usual, this list is filtered through the lens of the holidays, designed to help you decide what you might buy for the loved ones on your shopping list, should they be whiskey, rum, tequila, or other spirits fans.

The offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, with an eye toward things you might actually be able to find on the market (no Pappy on this list… what would be the point?). 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!

Also check out our 2012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotBourbon – Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope ($90) – Hard to go wrong with Bourbon this year, with so many good bottlings to pick from. But for its sheer holiday appropriateness (and quality), I have to go with the new Parker’s Heritage release, bottled in honor of Parker Beam. If you buy a bottle, a full $20 will go to ALS research, which Beam was recently diagnosed with. Other ideas? Where to start: Hillrock Solera ($90, an utter knockout), both Four Roses releases — Single Barrel ($80) and Small Batch ($90) — and Wild Turkey’s new Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Small Batch ($50). On a budget? Try Rough Rider ($33), Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Year Old ($40), Burnside Double Barrel ($44), or even the controversial Stagg Jr. ($50). But one of my favorite bourbons of the year is also one of its cheapest: The Hooker’s House single-barrel monster of a bourbon, finished in Pinot Noir barrels ($36).

Scotch – Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013 ($75) – Slimmer pickins in the world of Scotch this year, as prices have gone and quality has noticeably begun to decline. But this gem from Laphroaig, which is almost pink in color and is exquisite in its balance, is easily my top pick — and still widely available. Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9 ($250) and Ardbeg Ardbog ($120) are also still on the market, as is Isle of Jura “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old, which can be had for significantly less than its $950 list price. Budget shoppers (well, as “budget” as Scotch gets these days) should not overlook Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve ($87), a new limited edition blend that looks as good as it tastes.

Other Whiskey – WhistlePig “The Boss Hog” Rye 12 Years Old ($150) – I’m adding this new category this year because there are so many other worthy whiskeys on the market that don’t fit into the Bourbon or Scotch mold. It’s hard to pick a favorite here, as Collingwood 21 Year Old Canadian Rye ($70) and Powers John’s Lane 12 Years Old Irish ($65) are neck and neck in quality. But the seductive Boss Hog gets my slight nod for 2013’s most memorable alternative whiskey. Budget-minded shoppers needn’t look beyond Pike Creek Canadian ($37).

master of malt cream ginGin – Master of Malt Worship Street Whistling Shop Cream Gin ($68) – You won’t find a more unique gin for sale this year, or perhaps ever. I’m shocked it’s still on the market. Also worth a look for the juniper fan in the fam: The Russell Henry lineup (3 different gins, $38 each) and the German Monkey 47 ($61, 500ml).

Vodka – Pau Maui Vodka ($30) – An enjoyable vodka distilled from pineapples, giving it added conversation value. Also enjoyable (and giftable) are Absolut Elyx ($50), and 666 Vodka ($28).

Rum – Ron Barceló Imperial Premium Blend 30 Aniversario Rum ($120) – It’s been a rather quiet year for rum, but this rarity is easily on top of my list (and still buyable). Also hunt for Gosling’s Old Rum ($70) and Kirk & Sweeney 12 Years Old ($40).

Brandy – Louis Royer Cognac XO ($140) – Amazing stuff, and my only top-shelf Cognac pick for the year. For something more exotic (and inexpensive) try Encanto’s Acholado Pisco ($35).

50594 Brown FormanHerradura Coleccion ImagesTequila – Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Port Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2012 ($90) – Tons of great tequila releases to choose from this year, but my top pick has to go to this unique Herradura bottling, finished in Port casks. This came out in early 2013 but has a 2012 date on it… mind you don’t accidentally pick up the less masterful 2013 release. Also worth considering: Qui Platinum (“white”) Extra Anejo ($60), Tapatio 110 Blanco ($42, 1 liter), and 901 Anejo ($50).

Liqueur – Art in the Age Sage Liqueur ($30) – Try out this unique liqueur as an alternative to juniper-focused spirits for the gin lover on your list; it really switches up a martini or G&T. Also worth a look are Jack from Brooklyn Sorel Liqueur ($40) and the new Luxardo Aperitivo ($20).

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!

AND: Get the gift guide in high-res printable PDF format, ready to take to the store!

Review: Merlet Trois Citrus Triple Sec

merlet trois citrusRecently we took an exhaustive spin through Merlet’s fruit liqueurs… and then the company released one more.

The new Trois Citrus is a triple sec with a twist: It’s made from oranges, blood oranges, and lemon peel — triple the citrus for, perhaps, triple the flavor.

This turns out to be quite a good idea. While this is foremost an orange-based spirit, the lemon comes through surprisingly clearly. The mix of lemon and orange takes this spirit to a slightly elevated level. It might get a bit lost in a complex cocktail, but putting it side by side with standard triple sec, I find myself gravitating to the Trois Citrus.

Now, might I recommend adding for a Quatre Citrus: Grapefruit.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / merlet.fr

Review: Smoke Liqueur

smoke liqueurFirst things first: Smoke does not smell or taste like smoke. Expecting otherwise from this spirit — which is bottled complete with wisps of vapor on the label — will set you up for disaster.

In fact, Smoke is about as far away from soke as you could get. Made from “top-shelf” vodka that is flavored with pineapple, coconut, and moscato, this is a fruity, super-sweet club drink, ready for gulp-‘em-back cocktails or sipping over ice.

The name is clearly drawn from the cloudy nature of the spirit. Poured straight, it’s a hazy white, not transparent, and it does indeed look “smoky.” If you’re a fan of Alize or Hpnotiq, you know what you’re in for here, minus the neon color scheme. Smoke offers ample pineapple and coconut on the nose, but on the body the fruitier elements are more pronounced: First pineapple, then a vague citrus sweetness that is likely driven by the moscato. The finish is long and quite sugary, though not saccharine. It’s very easy to drink — just like Alize and Hpno — but far from complex. It’s very much a pina colada without the cream, which some will thrill to and some will accuse of outright heresy.

52 proof.

B / $30 / smokedrinks.com

Review: Jagermeister Spice (+ Jagermeister “Classic”)

Jägermeister Spice Bottle Image High-res

Few spirits are as misunderstood and mis-consumed as Jagermeister. A classic of every dive bar (and upscale ones always have a bottle behind the bar, too), this “Krauter-Liqueur,” essentially Germany’s answer to Italy’s amaro, is a digestive, bittersweet liqueur with lots to recommend. And yet it is served primarily in shot form, and frequently ice cold from wild contraptions that chill it down while advertising the classic green-and-orange bottles, which are installed into the machine three at a time. (Yes, a home version is now available for $199.)

But Jagermeister is now out with its first ever spirits line extension. And why not? Jager is, as its importer notes, “the #1 selling imported liqueur in the United States and the 7th largest selling premium spirit in the world.” Whoa.

How does the new spirit measure up to the original? And how does the original measure up against the competition in an honest-to-god tasting? I took the plunge. My revisionist thoughts follow. No Red Bull was harmed in the making of this review.

Jagermeister – The “master hunter,” launched in 1935, is a complex thing , flavored with cinnamon, star anise, ginger and cardamom — the full recipe covers 56 herbs, roots, blossoms and fruits — and aged in oak casks for one year. But it’s a surprisingly easygoing liqueur when you’re not downing it next to a PBR at sub-zero temperatures. At room temp, it reveals its charms: light anise notes, plenty of cinnamon, prunes, orange peel, almonds, and dried ginger. A chocolate and gingerbread character rumbles along on the finish, bringing with it thoughts of Christmas and warm fires. It’s altogether well balanced, yet complex. Sure, you can drink this ice cold, but that dulls most of the flavors aside from licorice and prune. Give “Jager” a try straight off the shelf instead of “ice cold” as instructed on the bottle and you might be pleasantly surprised with how complex yet balanced it is. 70 proof. A- / $17

Jagermeister Spice – The bottle says this is a “Cinnamon and Vanilla Blend,” which are clearly two of the major components of standard Jagermeister, so what’s the difference between the two? In addition to those two components being pumped up in the mix, the biggest difference is right on the label: At 50 proof, this is a dramatically less alcohol-laden product. This is clear from start to finish. The color of the poured spirit is substantially lighter, the body considerably less powerful. Cinnamon, allspice, and a buttery vanilla cookie character are very strong on the nose, which starts it off as a very holiday-focused spirit which is quite inviting. But the body, while it offers those same notes on the tongue along with touches of anise (the only real taste of the original Jagermeister to be found), is quite flat. It tastes a little watery, not nearly as rich and warming as the classic version of the spirit. The finish fades rather quickly. The end result is not at all unpleasant, but it just doesn’t take the Jagermeister brand to anywhere unexpected and new. (Curiously, the label invites you to drink Jagermeister spice at room temperature. Told ya I was on to something.) B / $23

jager.com