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


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


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: 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


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.)