Made 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.
A- / $27 / totalbeveragesolution.com
Don’t think caramel (particularly the salted variety) is still the It Flavor to contend with? Consider Kahlua’s latest limited edition expression: Salted Caramel.
This seasonal release is an extremely sweet one, but that’s not unusual for the brand. It all starts off with intense, brown-to-almost-burnt sugar on the nose. This vanilla-studded, caramel syrup character is gooey and thick, lingering for what seems to be days. The coffee doesn’t kick in until the finish arrives at long last, a heavily sugared dark roast that will have you begging for an espresso, black.
Is it ironic that a Salted Caramel liqueur has caramel color added? I can’t quite decide.
C- / $16 / kahlua.com
SomPriya is a curious company. The organization has an app for finding Indian restaurants and it makes an alcoholic beverage with one capital letter too many. SomruS is “the original Indian cream liqueur,” made in Chicago from Wisconsin dairy cream, Caribbean rum, and natural flavors that include cardamom, pistachios, saffron, almonds, and rose petals.
The balsa-wood colored liqueur is a different animal than any other cream liqueur on the market, including others in this wheelhouse, like Voyant Chai Cream Liqueur. One whiff of the nose and the rose element becomes extremely clear. The cardamom and pistachios contribute some vague Asian-ness to the nose, but the floral character is what’s wholly unavoidable. On the palate, this evolves into an intense perfume character, muddling the rose petals with notes of strawberry, jellybeans, marzipan, and Turkish delight.
It’s a funky product, but the finish is so heavy with that flowery perfume it’s like stepping back in time to another era. That finish sticks with you for a long time, too — and it gets a bit too familiar, if you ask me.
C+ / $28 / somrus.com
After aromatic bitters, orange bitters are easily the most commonly called-for bittering agents in cocktails today. There’s also a huge variety of bitters available on the market. Are they any different? Which is best? I put three big bitters brands — there are plenty more, but these are all I had on hand — to the test to see which ones really made the cut.
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 – A 1990s recreation of Charles Baker’s orange bitters recipe, brought to you by Gary Regan and the Sazerac Company. Tangerine notes on the nose, with clear notes of cardamom and clove-like character on the back end. Orange enough, but with a bracing, Fernet-like bitterness that really lingers. The choice for drinkers looking primarily for a big, bitter punch. 45% abv. A- / $16 per 5 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]
Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters – Lighter in color, much sweeter, but more orange-focused than Regan’s, offering sweet tangerine notes up front that fade into cinnamon and clove notes. Quite a bit sweeter than other brands, with an almost candylike edge to them — but I like the way they impart a clear orange character (along with mild bitterness to a cocktail). I like these in punches and other party drinks and probably use them the most. Abv not disclosed. A- / $12 per 4 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]
The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters – Interesting nose — light on orange and heavy on notes of coffee, roasted/smoked meat, ginger, and other savory elements. The body is a nice mix of citrus and more savory elements, but they aren’t overwhelmingly bitter. The smoky element is curious, but a bit at odds with the typical usage of orange bitters. 39% abv. B+ / $27 per 200ml bottle [BUY IT NOW]
Bottom line: I prefer Regans’ in more savory cocktails (as in Manhattan variants and other whiskey cocktails) and Fee Brothers in sweeter, fruitier, and simpler ones (like the Casino or an old-school Martini).
Patron is no longer content to rule only the tequila world. Now it wants to take over the liqueur market as well. Two newish releases in this space recently launched. Thoughts follow.
Patron Citronge Lime Liqueur – Patron’s rendition of triple sec, Citronge Orange, was a big enough hit that it has begotten a sequel, Citronge Lime. Sure, the need for lime-flavored liqueurs is considerably smaller than the one for orange-flavored ones, but one appreciates having options, right? Again, while Citronge Lime smells strongly of vegetal, agave notes, it is strictly a lime liqueur, not a flavored tequila. Sharp chili pepper notes mingle with authentic, rich lime character — perhaps with a hint of mint — but the body is overwhelmingly sweet and unctuous (perhaps the lower abv is part of the reason for that), almost syrupy in its composition. With its tequila-like character, the overall impression of Citronge Lime is something akin to the sweetest margarita you’ve ever tasted… and I’ve tasted a lot of them. Try it in moderation. 70 proof. B / $22
Patron XO Cafe Incendio – The burgeoning XO Cafe line now has a third member: XO Cafe Indendio. Unlike Citronge, the XO Cafe line does include tequila in the mix (Patron Silver, specifically), plus Criollo chocolate and Mexican chile de arbol for the incendio. That may sound like a bit of a hot mess (pun intended) and it is. The nose is primarily chocolate, just with an edge of racy spice. The body is something else altogether, kicking off with a pleasant cinnamon-infused Mexican chocolate. But you’re in for a swift kick in the pants in short order as that chili pepper hits and hits hard. This is an intense and biting heat that rapidly washes away all that candylike sweetness very quickly. What’s left behind is a scorching sensation in the back of the throat, a touch of chalky cocoa powder, and a hint of orange peel. But above all there is the heat — long, lasting, and ultimately a little off-putting. 60 proof. B- / $25
Craft Frangelico? You better believe it. Our pals at the Northwest brewpub/restaurant/microdistillers McMenamins churn out a small amount of this hazelnut spirit, called Phil. (Filbert? Get it?)
Phil is made from unaged wheat whiskey that’s infused with Oregon hazelnuts. Bottled at 60 proof, it’s considerably stronger than both Frangelico and Fratello, both of which are bottled at 40 proof.
And what’s not to like here? Phil has big, authentic hazelnut notes, with subtle notes of vanilla and milk chocolate. Almost any essence of the base spirit is completely overpowered by the hazelnut character, just the mildest hint of cereal amid the notes of pure hazelnut. The slightly higher alcohol level helps to clarify the nutty notes and saves Phil from delving too deeply into sugary sweetness.
Feel free to drop this in your coffee, your kicked-up White Russian, or your Nutty Irishman. You don’t have to tell anyone what the spirit is called.
A- / $18 (375ml) / mcmenamins.com
Molinari produces this limoncello on the island of Capri using local lemons as well as those from Sorrento. I can’t verify whether this is, as the bottle claims, “the original limoncello,” though there’s a story that dates to the early 1900s that says it was invented by one Vincenza Canale, an ancestor of the Molinari clan. The brand does at least own limoncello.com, so that’s something, too.
As limoncello goes, it’s heavy on sweetness, but a little thin on the body. The nose offers a brisk lemon peel flavor, but it just doesn’t carry through to the finish. It barely makes it to the palate, really. The sugar overpowers the fruity element, limiting the lemon to more of a Life Savers character. That’s not really such a bad thing, but that acidic sourness of lemon isn’t as bracing here as it is in other limoncellos, which means the finish isn’t nearly as clean as it should be. A great limoncello leaves behind a fresh, springtime character. This one feels like a summer ice cream social. Dial back the sugar a bit and we just might have something special here.
B / $23 / limoncello.com