Review: VOCO Vodka Coconut Water

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The VO is for vodka. The CO is for coconut. Together they’re VOCO, the world’s first luxury beverage to blend pure coconut water with premium vodka, or so the label tells us.

Sold in single-serve 12 oz. aluminum bottles, it’s an alternative to Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade, I suppose.

The overall impact is about what you’d expect, I figure. Relatively dense, sweetened coconut water — somewhat milkier than the typical coconut waters on the market — with a slight punch to it. There’s some earthiness here, sliding toward a vegetal character as the beverage warms up. Hence the suggestion on the back to drink this ice cold, methinks… I couldn’t finish more than about a third of a bottle before my palate gave up on it.

5.5% abv.

C- / $4 per 12 oz. bottle / voco.net

Review: Q Soda, Q Ginger Beer, and Q Grapefruit

q grapefruitQ Drinks is well known for its tonic, but like Fever-Tree, the company makes a wide range of cocktail mixers, all high-end products made with legitimate ingredients and botanicals. (You’ll notice the solids settling out in the ginger and grapefruit products, so be sure to gently mix them up a bit before serving.)

Thoughts on three of Q’s mixers follow.

Q Soda – A classic club soda, heavy on the fizz, with no minerality to speak of, or any other overtones. Drinks like a solid sparkling water, with large, gently foamy bubbles rather than tiny, spicy ones. A fine product on all fronts — and enjoyable on its own. A-

Q Ginger Beer – Nicely sweet up front, then this ginger beer builds to a strong, authentic ginger bite with significant, growing heat. There’s a good balance between the two components, making this an easy go-to for Dark & Stormy cocktails and other ginger-fueled libations. A-

Q Grapefruit – Very mild, with a minimal citrus bite to it. Squirt is a much bolder grapefruit soda than this, which comes across like club soda with a modest squeeze of grapefruit in it. As such, it can’t hold its own in a cocktail and quickly finds itself overpowered. C+

each $7 per 4-pack of 8 oz. bottles / qdrinks.com

Review: Scales Sweet & Sour Mix and Margarita Mix

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We reviewed the Bloody Mary mix from Scales a few months ago. Today we are taking a belated look at its no carb/no sugar sweet cocktail mixers, including a Sweet & Sour and a Margarita mix.

Both are minimalist products flavored with sucralose. At 5 calories, it’s hard to come up with a less fattening way to sip a tall cocktail.

Some thoughts follow.

Scales Sweet & Sour Mix – Appropriately yellow-green, lemon-lime on the nose. The body’s quite tart, not overly sweetened, with a clear bite of raw citric acid (which is the second ingredient on the list). This actually helps to tame that sucralose aftertaste a bit, making this a surprisingly palatable mixer in the ultra-low-cal space. B

Scales Margarita Mix – Paler in color, slightly sweeter smelling. There’s more of a chalky texture here and the whole thing is quite a bit sweeter on the palate. It doesn’t offer clear lime notes like you’d want in a margarita mix, but it doesn’t overly offend. B-

both $5 per 32 oz. bottle / scalescocktails.com

Review: Pedras Salgadas Mineral Water

Pedras250mlUSASemFrescuraPedras Salgadas is mineral water from Portugal; naturally effervescent, it is born in the Pedras Valley, in the north interior of Portugal at Trás-Os-Montes. Very, very lightly sparkling, it has significant, weighty minerality to it, reminiscent of Perrier. The finish is on the metallic side, but otherwise comes across clean and refreshing. I like it.

B+ / $1 per 250ml bottle / pedras.com

Review: Liber & Co. Real Grenadine

LIBER001_12543Remember Liber & Co.’s nifty Spiced Tonic syrup? Now the company’s back with another offering: a real grenadine.

Grenadine is historically an intensely tart syrup made from pomegranates (making it deep red in color) and sugar. In recent years grenadine has turned into nothing more than red corn syrup, making it completely useless as a balancing agent in cocktails. That might be fine for a Shirley Temple, but for proper cocktails, grenadine should be both sweet and sour — in addition to adding a splash of color to the drink.

Liber’s Grenadine — much like other artisan grenadines on the market — is pungent on the nose with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. On the tongue, it comes across with some plum-like notes and a slight earthiness, almost floral at times (due, perhaps, to the use of orange flower water in the recipe) and vanilla-touched at others. The color is deep red, with an exotic violet or lavender hue to it, depending on the light, which does indeed an an element of mysticism to anything you pour it into.

B+ / $7 per 8.5 oz. bottle / liberandcompany.com

Head to Head with 4 Bloody Mary Mixes: Scales, Tabanero, Bloody Good, and Bloody Amazing

tabaneroSummer is hear, and that means brunch with bloodies is upon us.

Sure, it’d be great if you could always crush your own tomatoes and grate your own fresh horseradish, but really, who’s got the time. Recently we’ve been inundated with bottled bloody mary mixers, which we put head to head to head to head.

Thoughts follow.

Scales Bloody Mary Mix – For a so-called low-carb bloody mary mix (5 grams of carbs per 3 oz.), this sure tastes sweet. The very dark color is a bit misleading; the mixer is more tart than spicy or meaty, a densely acidic mixer with a heavy tomato paste character and a metallic aftertaste. Not at all spicy, despite the claims of being made with Texas Pete’s hot sauce. B- / $6 per 1 liter bottle

Tabanero Spicy Bloody Mary Mix – Definitely “Mexican style,” with a salsa-like character to it. Intensely spicy, with lasting, burning habanero notes, plus notes of green pepper, cilantro, and lots of onion. It’s a bit on the watery side, so don’t expect to try watering it down to temper its heat. That said — I really like it (and the Tabanero hot sauce.) Mixing half and half with a less racy mix might work, though. Oddly has less carbs than the Scales. A- / $10 per 1 liter bottle

Bloody Good Bloody Mary Mix – A local brand you won’t likely find outside of northern California. Very fresh, with ripe tomatoes, some green veggies, black pepper, and lots and lots of horseradish. Quite gentle in spice level, but it’s pungent thanks to the horseradish component. Nicely balanced; definitely a strong contender. Very difficult to pour (as it’s bottled in what is basically a spaghetti sauce jar). / $9 per 32 oz jar

Bloody Amazing Premium Mary Mix – While Tabanero approaches bloodies from a salsa standpoint, Bloody Amazing comes at it from the shrimp cocktail sauce arena. Very dense, with stewed tomato notes, black pepper, and horseradish — plus lots of Worcestershire to add a brooding character that Bloody Good doesn’t have. This one’s more a matter of taste, as the overall character is very much a “coastal” one. Only slightly spicy; easily manageable. B+ / $13 per 750ml bottle

Review: Pickett’s Ginger Beer Concentrated Syrup

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Pickett’s approach to ginger beer was a new one for me: Rather than bottle or can a finished product, Pickett’s makes ginger syrup, which you mix with sparkling water to make on-the-spot ginger beer. It’s a more efficient way to make a mixer if you need a lot of it (or don’t want to stock the pantry with tons of bottles). One 16 oz. bottle of syrup is the equivalent of eight 12 oz. bottles of ginger beer. (That said, you still need to stock sparkling water — though a SodaStream or similar would be just about perfect for this format.)

Pickett’s comes in two formats, both of which we tried. Thoughts follow.

Pickett’s Medium Spicy+ Ginger Beer Syrup (green label) – Mixed with sparkling water, this cuts a profile similar to a slightly racier ginger ale a la Canada Dry or Schweppes. I’d call it Medium Spicy without the plus, as the only “beer”ness to it is found in a slight kick that comes along on the finish. (If you have chapped lips you’ll feel it.) Otherwise, the ginger is solid, backed by a quite sweet body with lots of apple-like fruit overtones to it. Good, everyday-drinking stuff. Reviewed: Batch #9. B+

Pickett’s Hot N’ Spicy #3 Ginger Beer Syrup (red label) – Don’t be afraid. It’s not that hot. It is, however, less sweet, so if you want more of a ginger kick without a lot of sweetness, this should be your go-to version. The overall impact is slightly vegetal but the more warming finish is quite lasting and, ultimately, racier on the palate. A kissing cousin to the green label version, but more attuned to cocktailing. Reviewed: Batch #3. B+

each $25 per 16 oz. bottle / pickettbrothersbeverage.com [BUY IT HERE]

Canned Margarita “Showdown” – Bud Light Lime-A-Rita vs. Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water

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I’m a firm believer that a cocktail should decidedly not come out of a can, but even I can accept that in desperate circumstances — venues where hard alcohol or glass isn’t allowed, namely — drinkers are forced into solutions that are less than ideal.

Such is the case with the margarita, which has seen a massive uptick in ready-to-drink renditions in recent years. Today, these concoctions (which are technically “malt beverages,” not tequila-based drinks) are now waging a quality war. Which of these is best? Or rather, which is least bad? Parrot Bay recently attempted to sway us by putting on its own Pepsi Challenge, sending us a blind-tasting kit consisting of Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water and Bud Light’s Lime-A-Rita. Complete with little plastic margarita glasses, salt, and a lime… which one would we say was best? There is no irony in the name emblazoned on this kit: The Ultimate Margarita Challenge.

Well, I took the challenge and am pleased to report that Parrot Bay’s Margarita with Coconut Water is a considerably better product. How much better? Read on. (These were tasted and reviewed blind but considering one has coconut water in it and one does not, telling them apart wasn’t exactly difficult.)

Bud Light Lime-A-Rita – Put a little tequila flavoring in a Sprite and you’ve nailed this fizzy, lemon-limey concoction. Saccharine finish. Better with salt. 8% abv. D / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water – Put a little lime flavor in some coconut water and you’ve nailed this less fizzy, pina colada-like concoction. A bit less sweet, with heavily tropical overtones. 5.8% abv. C- / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

As you can see, Parrot Bay is the clear winner!

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

ESQ-BAM-Front

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]