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

Review: Kahlua Pumpkin Spice Liqueur

Kahlua_Pumpkin_Spice_750-US_Bottle‘Tis the season for two things: A seasonal Kahlua mash-up and pumpkin everything. Here those two trends crash together with the inevitable: Kahlua Pumpkin Spice.

Kahlua’s twists on its classic coffee liqueur can be hit or miss, but this one manages to work fairly well. The secret is that the “pumpkin spice” element is dialed back, quite a bit. The coffee remains on the forefront both on the nose and the attack — perhaps with a bit of nutmeg to offer. The spice element is more evident on the back end, but it’s muted, a sort of zippy finish that recalls cinnamon and allspice, but not in a heavy-handed way. The denouement is a bit chocolaty.

Unlike last year’s mess, Kahlua Gingerbread, this year’s spirit seems to have its proportions in check. I’m not sure anyone will be knocking over their fellow shoppers to grab the last bottle of Kahlua Pumpkin Spice off the shelves, but you could do worse when looking for something with which to spike your coffee.

40 proof.

B+ / $16 / kahlua.com

Review: Fratello Hazelnut Liqueur

Fratello Liqueur PhotoHazelnut doesn’t get a lot of love in the cocktailverse (Frangelico is pretty much your only choice), or in the world at large, outside of Nutella, anyway.

The Italian Fratello Liqueur is created at the Francoli Distillery in Piedmont. It’s made from toasted Piemonte hazelnuts that are infused with cocoa, vanilla berries, and elderflowers. Local acacia honey is added as a sweetener. The nose is huge — surprisingly authentic toasted hazelnut character, with a touch of chocolate cookie sweetness underneath. The honey comes across on the finish, something in the vein of a Nutella and honey sandwich. The body is big and powerful, despite the relatively low proof level, and the impact of the flavor is long and lasting.

On its own, it’s a bit much. As a shot to add in a coffee or cocoa drink, I’d say go for it. But my guess is its true calling is a different one, one that involves baked goods. Report back with your findings.

40 proof.

B+ / $24 / ahardyusa.com

Review: Peligroso Cinnamon Tequila Liqueur

peligroso cinnamon tequila

Bottled at the same 84 proof as its standard tequila lineup, Peligroso curiously markets this cinnamon-flavored variety as a “liqueur.” But what’s in the bottle is 100% agave blanco tequila infused with “100% pure cinnamon and a blend of secret ingredients, creating a distinct juice with a kick that leaves some sweet heat on the palate.”

The effect is surprisingly mild.

The color bestowed on this silver tequila by the spice infusion brings it into the world of anejo, and those spices push it that direction on the nose and body, too. The nose is a curiosity — earthy agave takes the front seat, with sultry cinnamon notes underneath. There are hints of red berries and a distinct floral character there too, something you wouldn’t expect to find in either unflavored tequila or a cinnamon spirit.

The body is a bit more straightforward. The cinnamon and baking spice notes are easily evident, with a strong, vegetal agave underpinning. The overall effect is something like caramel corn meets jalapeno peppers meets Cinnabon (sans the cloying sweetness). The finish is surprisingly easygoing and palatable, not nearly the bite you’d expect.

I’m still unsure what the point of flavored tequila is — a shot of tequila with a little cinnamon liqueur would let you mix things up to your own tastes — but I think what Peligroso is trying to do here is at least an intriguing and worthy experiment.

B+ / $36 / peligrosotequila.com

Review: Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Gin Liqueur

GreenPoint GunWho knew they grew plums on the beach? This is the first commercial “beach plum gin” liqueur, and I have to imagine the reason for that is that making a liqueur out of beach plum gins didn’t occur to anyone. The beach plums in question hail from Long Island, and their juice is blended with Greenhook’s dry gin and organic turbinado sugar to create this strange curiosity.

I’m reminded immediately of sloe gin with this spirit, which Greenhook calls an inspiration. The color, a shade of cranberry cocktail, is a touch lighter than most sloe gin, but otherwise it’s a close approximation.

On the nose, things start to shift. If you didn’t know it was plum-based, you might guess at any number of ingredients based on the aromas coming forth from the glass. Watermelon, cassis, and cherry all have a home here, atop a gently sweet core. On the tongue, there’s sweet and sour in equal proportions. The initial rush is intensely cherry-like, almost akin to a kirsch. Sweet and tangy at first, you’re expecting things to stay sweet, but they quickly veer off-course. The finish is funky, almost with a cough syrup sourness to it, and a bitter edge. Mix away, but sipping straight probably isn’t in the cards.

What a curious little liqueur this is. While the balance seems off, there’s plenty going on that’s worth exploring. Try it in lieu of sloe gin, or any cherry flavored liqueur in your favorite cocktail recipe.

60 proof.

B / $50 / greenhookgin.com

Review: Mama Walker’s “Breakfast” Liqueurs

Mama Walker GroupBreakfast at the real Mama Walker’s house (presuming there is one), must have been quite an affair. Donuts, blueberry pancakes, bacon… all that’s missing is the scrambled eggs and OJ.

Presumably a scrambled egg liqueur is forthcoming from this brand, which exists exclusively to sell these “breakfast” themed liqueurs. At 70 proof, I’m not sure what makes them liqueurs vs. flavored vodkas, but that’s what’s on the label. Make your own call. You can surely use them interchangeably.

As for what’s inside, well, you’re in for something unique, to say the least. When we received our sample box, one of the bottles inside had broken and completely leaked out. The smell lingered in the house for days.

Thoughts follow.

Mama Walker’s Glazed Donut Liqueur – The nose is more like cotton candy or burnt marshmallows than donuts. I’ve smelled this before in Smirnoff’s Iced Cake vodka. They are probably spiked with the same stuff. This liqueur adds a maple syrup kick and more vanilla. The finish is ultra-sweet but also hard-edged, with a sharp, alcoholic kick. C-

Mama Walker’s Blueberry Pancake Liqueur – Extremely pungent, with a nose that is more blueberry muffin than blueberry pancake. It smells just like the muffins my mother used to make out of the Betty Crocker box, the one with the little tin of canned blueberries in it. (Do they still sell that?) Drinking this is like alcoholic nostalgia, filled with all the pros and cons that could come with a boozed-up version of your youth. My head’s spinning, but the taste — much like the nose; big, canned blueberries, bread, and a lingering, maple syrup (again) finish — isn’t half bad. B-

Mama Walker’s Maple Bacon Liqueur – Bacon flavor is always dicey in spirits, but here it kinda works. I guess the secret is to add plenty of sugary syrup to it. The bacon is (mercifully) understated next to the syrup, which Mama Walker must go through by the tanker load considering how prevalent it is in all of its products. Still, the bacon notes are distinctly there, a smoky/meaty character that has no real equal in the food world and which translates embarrassingly well to this spirit. I have zero idea how I’d use this in day to day cocktailcrafting (maple bacon margaritas, anyone?), but I’m curious to try. B

(There are recipes on the Mama Walker’s website (see below) for all of these. Tread at your own risk.)

each $13 / mamawalker.com