Review: 1883 Syrups

1883 - Sea Salt Caramel1883 Maison Routin is a French operation that mainly just makes syrup. Strawberry syrup. Vanilla syrup. Caramelized peanut syrup. Even cucumber syrup. I tried to count the total number of syrups — or sirops in 1883’s parlance — but lost count in the dozens. The bottom line, these are more artisanal creations than your typical Torani, all made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, and flavored with authentic botanicals. (Artificial flavors are used in the more dessert-focused syrups.)

We got four of 1883’s syrups,  representing a range of flavors and styles that could be used in all manner of cocktails. Thoughts follow.

1883 Yuzu Citron Syrup – Flavored with 4% yuzu, 3% lemon. Largely lemon in overall tone, clean and sweet. Not overdone; works well as a mixer. A classic citrus syrup, uncomplicated. A-

1883 Pomme Verte Syrup – 10% apple juice. Green apple flavored… and colored intensely green, to match. It’s hard to get past the heavy coloration here; the flavor is less authentic and more candylike than the Yuzu Citron — but that’s what anyone drinking an Appletini is probably looking for, anyway. B-

1883 Nougat Syrup – Artificially flavored. Smells a bit funky, not exactly nougat and closer to Amaretto. The body kicks off with brown sugar and cotton candy notes, then fades into something akin to candied almonds and burnt peanuts. Quite cloying. C-

1883 Caramel Beurre Sale – Primarily sugar, water, and salt, plus some natural flavors. Salted caramel flavor — and it’s reasonably authentic. A little of this goes a long way — it’s incredibly sweet — and the nose is quite expressive of caramel (if not salt). The body emphasizes sugar over salt, but that component is there, lurking in the background. I could see using it for a dessert cocktail concoction… or with coffee. B-

each $15 to $30 (1 liter) / 1883.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail from Jefferson’s and Esquire

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I don’t necessarily think bottled, fully-made cocktails are lazy. I use them a lot when entertaining or when I’m short on fresh ingredients. Some of them are really well made, too.

The jury is out on whether The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail is taking things a bit too far afield. This collaboration between Jefferson’s Bourbon and Esquire magazine — complete with silkscreened signatures from Trey Zoeller and David Granger on the back along with a ton of other, hard-to-read, typographically messy text — couldn’t be more pandering in its upscale aspirations. From the dark glass bottle to the wood stopper to the metal band around the neck, this is a drink that’s designed to look really, really expensive. Which it is.

So what’s inside? Jefferson’s Bourbon, of course, plus dry and sweet vermouth (making it a Perfect Manhattan) and barrel-aged bitters. The resulting concoction is barrel aged for 90 days before bottling. (This reportedly took two years of experimentation to get right.) There’s also the not-so-small matter of this, which is printed in all caps at the bottom of the back label copy: COLORED WITH CARROT EXTRACT.

Now that statement gives me some pause. This is a 68 proof cocktail made with basically just bourbon and vermouth, so why would extra coloring be needed? (And why the carrot, by God?) A typical Manhattan recipe would hit around 65 proof or lower, so this isn’t a case where the drink is watered down and Jefferson’s/Esquire is trying to pull one over on us. This is a fairly high-proof cocktail that’s mostly bourbon… so why with the carrots, guys?

I’ll leave that question for the commenters to wrestle over and simply get on to the tasting, which I sampled both straight and on the rocks. (It’s better shaken with ice and strained, served very cold.) The nose is heavy on winey notes, almost a madeirized character that overpowers the whiskey surprisingly handily. On the palate the dry vermouth is surprisingly clear, with bitter herbs muscling past the bourbon’s gentler vanilla notes. That classic whiskey sweetness is quite fleeting here, replaced with pungent notes of licorice, overripe citrus, and a touch of lumberyard character. I liked this well enough at first, but over time the vermouth became so dominant that I found myself left with a vegetal, slightly medicinal aftertaste that got considerably less appealing over time.

And yeah, it is pretty orange.

68 proof.

B- / $40 / esquire.com

Review: Red Jacket Orchards Joe’s Half & Half

joes half_half - NEWHere’s an Arnold Palmer with a twist: Guayusa tea mixed with Red Jacket’s custom lemonade, one that’s made with New York apple juice instead of sugar. So half and half and half? This is a pleasant enough concoction, with the apple and tea components the clearest part of the beverage. The tea has a green tea-like herbaciousness that complements the lemonade well. Overall, the half and half could definitely use a little more lemon to give it a bit more of that classic, zingy tartness, but if you don’t mind a strong punch of apples in your drink — complete with the flashbacks to your youth — it’s a fun diversion from the usual Arnold Palmer.

B / $18 per three 32 oz. bottles / redjacketorchards.com

Tasting Comparison: Orange Bitters

regans bitters

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).

Review: Sipp Sparkling Organics

sipp organics

What’s a Sipp? These new “eco beverages” are organic, sweetened with agave nectar, and designed to compete with those bad-for-you artificial sodas. Each 12 oz. bottle has about 100 calories. Four flavors are available. We tasted them all and present our notes for your consideration.

Sipp Summer Pear – Flavorings include pear, green tea, and honey. Starts off crisp and refreshing, but the pear character eventually becomes a bit overwhelming as that unmistakable “pearness” starts to dominate the back end. Otherwise the honey and green tea elements are fun and make the soda worth exploring. B

Sipp Lemon Flower – Lemon, elderflower, and tarragon. Not nearly enough lemon here, and the elderflower is indistinct. Vaguely sweet and touched with citrus — plus just a hint of that curious herbal character on the finish — it’s harmless but on the whole quite pleasant. B

Sipp Ginger Blossom – Ginger, vanilla, and lime. Emphasis on the vanilla. This sounds great but it comes across more like a cream soda than a ginger beer, so heavily vanilla-scented it gets to the point where it’s got a kind of candy-melted-in-your-pocket character to it. My kids would probably like this a lot more than I do. B-

Sipp Mojo Berry – Blackberry, mint, and lime. This one also sounds great just from the description, and it’s easily the best of the Sipp lineup. Intensely fruity up front — though more strawberry than blackberry — the mint notes rise on the finish to evoke a kind of wacky mojito alternative. Surprisingly easy to, well, sip. A-

each about $3.50 / haveasipp.com [BUY IT HERE]

Review: American Juice Company Mixers

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With their goofy names, one wouldn’t expect the fruit juice mixes from the American Juice Company to be upscale products designed for the back bar. These are all-natural products but, they’re designed to last for the long haul. Shelf-stable, they’re good for six months (before opening) without refrigeration.

AJC produces offerings on a rotating, seasonal basis, and you can get a (pricy) sampler of four of them through the company’s website. The company sent us its current offerings to tinker with. Here’s what we thought about them all.

Winter Blend (Louis Applestrong) – Golden delicious apples, citrus zests, and winter spices – Chunky, almost like a watery applesauce. Zesty with baking spices, and quite exotic in a beverage. The citrus peel on the back end adds some nice acidity, but ultimately this is more breakfasty than wintry. In a good way. B+

Chuck Blueberry – Blueberry and apple puree. A little overwhelming. The combo of blueberry and apple makes this come across a bit like cough syrup — which is surprising, because blueberry is never a flavor that medicine manufacturers are going for. It grows on you, but ultimately comes across as a bit artificial-tasting (though I know it’s not!), with a bit of a cloying finish. B

Lady Lychee – Lychee, rose infusion, and strawberries. Moderately thick, but not to the level of the Louis Applestrong. Don’t let the “rose infusion” scare you. Here, a light floral note is a lovely foil to the lychee and strawberry character that dominates, giving this a sweet yet lightly aromatic character. Probably my favorite of the bunch and something I’d definitely mix with. A

Ginger Gershwin – Spicy ginger, orange, and lemon. Spicy ginger, to be sure. This is extremely racy stuff, highlighting ginger, ginger, and more ginger. The citrus shines through for just a brief moment somewhere in the middle of the spice. Throw a little rum in this and you’re golden. A-

$55 for the sample box (four 4 oz samplers) / americanjuicecompany.com

Review: Counting Sheep Coffee

counting sheep

Once you reach a certain age, the idea of drinking coffee after dinner starts to sound insane. And yet it still sounds appealing to kick back with a cup of Java after a delightful meal while you share the molten lava cake.

Enter Counting Sheep, a novelty coffee producer that actually wants that late night cup of coffee to make it easier for you to go to sleep. The trick? It’s decaf that’s spiked with Valerian root, a widely regarded natural sleep aid.

The coffee’s available in two varieties. I gave the “40 Winks” version a try, which packs 176mg of Valerian into each serving, right before hitting the hay. (A stronger version, “Lights Out,” has 235mg and is a darker roasted coffee.)

The aroma is sharp, slightly nutty, and seemingly bitter. The body is lighter than I was expecting based on the punchy nose, with only a mild bitterness and a strong almond flavor on the tongue. I felt like I made a relatively strong pot, but the body was still slightly watery to me. Maybe that’s OK for a coffee intended to be sipped right before bed. Who wants a thick coffee taste in their mouth right before they brush their teeth? Ultimately, this is a simple blend with a modest flavor profile. Enjoyable enough but nothing that would compare with your favorite single-village blend.

That said, if you’re drinking Counting Sheep it’s probably not entirely for the taste. After my cup-o-Sheep, I fell asleep quickly but tossed around quite a bit while I was asleep, waking frequently, but only briefly. Your mileage may vary; herbal sleep-aids tend to effect people differently. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt; for what this product is — an herbal sedative in the form of a cup of coffee — it acquits itself amiably.

B / $12 per 12 oz. bag / countingsheepcoffee.com [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 5 and 6

bittermilk 5

Two new Bittermilk mixers for your approval. As always, these are non-alcoholic syrups and tonics that make high-end mixology embarassingly easy. Thoughts follow.

Bittermilk No. 5 Charred Grapefruit Tonic – Made with lemon and lime juice, cane sugar, charred grapefruit peel, cinchona bark, and Bulla Bay sea salt. Designed as a mixer with vodka and soda water (all three in even proportions). This has a nice mix of sweet, sour, salt, and bitter, all in one package. The sweet is what comes through the strongest, though — I might use this in somewhat lower proportions than the packaging advises. Better yet, skip the vodka and mix this with rum or even whiskey. I used it to make a cocktail with aged rum, mango lemonade, and the tonic (roughly 1:2:1) and it was a huge, punch-like hit. A- / $15 (17 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 6 Oaxacan Old Fashioned – Quite a departure from Bittermilk’s other products. Made with can sugar, raisins, lemon peel, cocoa, chiles, spices, and cinchona bark. Designed to be mixed with mezcal, 1 part mixer to 4 parts spirit, it’s dark and chunky, with solids floating in it. This is an intriguing one, but probably as an acquired taste as straight mezcal is. Sweet and chocolaty with a distinct raisin punch, the mixer adds a complexity to mezcal without masking its unmistakable smokiness. It’s not a cocktail I’d drink every day — and the solids settle out much too quickly — but it’s a fun diversion on a Friday night. B / $15 (8.5 oz.)

bittermilk.com

Review: Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Cocktail Bitters

PeychaudsBarrelAged5ozXThe original Peychaud’s Bitters date back to about 1830. In New Orleans cocktailing, they’re an indispensable part of numerous drinks, including the classic Sazerac Cocktail. Now owner Sazerac (parent company of Buffalo Trace) is launching a version of Peychaud’s with a twist, aging the classic bitters in Sazerac Rye whiskey barrels for 140 days.

I tasted the new barrel-aged Peychaud’s against the classic version, side by side, to see how the duo stack up against one another.

They’re remarkably different products. Classic Peychaud’s offers complex notes of earth, charred nuts, cloves, watermelon rind, licorice root, and charred vegetables, with a distinct, semisweet rhubarb character — particularly on the nose. In contrast, the new Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters are less complicated and initiatially, and somewhat counterintuitively, a bit sweeter. They don’t take on the charry woodiness of the wood but rather some of the vanilla and baking spices of the rye. As the bitters hit the palate, that rhubarb turns much more toward cherry fruit, with notes of gingerbread and Christmas spices on the back end.

Of course, despite all the secondary characteristics described above, both expressions are still bitters, and the finish of each is lasting and powerfully representative of the term. Both pair beautifully with whiskey but I have to say that the new whiskey-barrel aged expression lends more of an intense, fruity liveliness to a cocktail. The cherry components particularly stand out, even against the punch of bourbon or rye. No, it won’t ever replace the original, but its presence does make the cocktailer’s arsenal all the more interesting.

35% abv.

A / $17 (5 oz.) / thesazeracgiftshop.com

Review: Koma Unwind Relaxation Beverage

koma unwind

Koma Unwind is another one of these newfangled beverages designed not to turn you into a bon vivant but rather into a slumbering snoozer. This canned, sparkling beverage includes mostly familiar active ingredients: B12, milk thistle, valerian root, rose hips, and melatonin. These goodies are dropped into a rather familiar soda format — sweet and (mostly) grape juice flavored — technically labeled “Berrylicious.”

I tried Koma before bed and went to sleep with no trouble. I slept straight through the night until about 6am, when wild and lucid dreams roused me. I’m not sure if Koma aided my sleep quality, but it didn’t seem to have damaged it at all.

Koma tastes fine for what it is — spiked purple stuff — but I have to wonder about the wisdom of adding 45 grams of sugar to a beverage that’s called “koma” and is designed to get you to go to sleep. (The 12 oz. can’s ingredients label is misleading, as a “serving size” is only 8 oz.) There’s a sugar free version but it suffers from the same bitter edge that most diet sodas do… though it’s nonetheless probably a smarter choice before bedtime. A shot-based version (not reviewed here) is also available.

B / $2 per 12 oz. can / komaunwind.com