Review: VEEV 2.0 and VitaFrute Cocktails

VeeV_StraightOn_NewBottle-LogoFix_typefooter_NOshadow_webRemember, VeeV, the “acai spirit” that rode the superfruit craze in the late zeroes, launching in 2008 as “the only açai spirit on the market?” I figured you didn’t, and that’s probably why VeeV — now an even louder VEEV — is relaunching, reformulating, and re-hoping you will get on the bandwagon of endorsing a speciously healthier alternative to drinking straight vodka. No longer labeled “acai spirit,” it’s now “neutral spirit with a blend of acai and other natural flavors.” That makes it a flavored vodka in my book — particularly since the proof level has risen from 60 proof in 2008 to 70 proof today.

But wait, there’s more! VEEV, nee VeeV, is also launching a collection of pre-made, bottled cocktails, called VitaFrute, which are of course made with VEEV, natural fruit juices, and (sometimes) agave nectar — and they’re under 125 calories per 3 oz. serving. (At first glance, the front label looks like it says 12.5 calories… now that’d be a neat trick.) And we tried all of this stuff! Thoughts follow.

VEEV (2014 Edition) – The new tagline for VEEV is “Born in Brazil, handcrafted in America.” From the nose alone, you might think it was handcrafted in a candy factory. Punchy with the nose of a typical cherry or fruit punch-like vodka, the new VEEV is closer than ever before to a typical fruit-doctored hooch. The body melds cherry with notes of blueberry, with a candylike finish. VEEV manages to keep things just this side of super-saccharine cough syrup, but there’s no doubt it’s still a sugar bomb in vodka’s clothing. If this is good for you, well, good luck selling your significant other on that one. 70 proof. B / $25

vita fruteVitaFrute Cocktails Lemonade – The simplest of the VitaFrute collection – VEEV, lemon, agave — this spiked lemonade has pulpy bits floating in the mix, so you know you’re getting something legit here. The beverage is unfortunately heavy on the agave — sweet to the point of being almost syrupy — and light on the lemons. Some rebalancing is in order to bring the tartness level up to code. What’s there is pretty spot on, though. Not boozy at all, and with a little doctoring something you could even serve to guests. 30 proof. B / $12

VitaFrute Cocktails Margarita – Includes tequila, VEEV, lemon, lime, and agave. You can smell intense caramel notes up front. As this warms up in the glass those become stronger — almost taking on a burnt sugar character with touches of cinnamon. This isn’t so much a margarita as it is a wacky after-dinner drink that hints at lime notes from time to time. 30 proof. C- / $12

VitaFrute Cocktails Cosmopolitan – Includes VEEV, cranberry juice, and “a hint of citrus.” Tastes like VEEV and cranberry juice with a hint of citrus. Mercifully less sweet than the above, this straightforward blend is something you could easily whip up on your own, but the lazy might enjoy this pre-mixed version of any old cosmo you might otherwise spend 4 bucks on at your favorite Holiday Inn happy hour. Unremarkable but largely palatable, with tart cranberries, restrained sweetness, and a squeeze of naval orange — though its caramel hints on the finish give it a cloying finish. 30 proof. B- / $12

VitaFrute Cocktails Coconut Colada  – Includes VEEV, coconut water, and pineapple juice. Pina Colada-lite, this premixed cocktail sacrifices that agave sweetness for the tropical notes of pineapple and watery coconut. Not disagreeable — if you’re in a Hawaii mood, anyway — if you don’t mind it sticking around on the roof of your mouth for the better part of the next half hour. 30 proof. B / $12

veevlife.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixer No. 4

bittermilk 4It was only a few months ago when the first three of Bittermilk‘s ready-to-go, artisan mixers hit our desk. Now a fourth is already ready: New Orleans Style Old Fashioned Rouge.

This is a short mixer (one part mixer to four parts rye; I used Rittenhouse 100), with wormwood and gentian root the primary flavoring components. (Cane sugar, lemon peel, and unnamed spices are also in the mix.) Gentian root is a primary ingredient in Angostura bitters. Wormwood is of course the famous flavoring (and allegedly hallucinatory) compound in absinthe. Together they create a mixer that is bittersweet, loaded up front with flavors of cloves, licorice, burnt sugar, and anise. This works well with rye, not unlike a quickie Sazerac.

That said, it doesn’t have quite the nuance that a real Sazzy has. To remedy, I’d suggest slightly less mixer and more whiskey, but at that point you’re turning a bit into the guy that orders his martini “very, very, very dry.” On the whole, it’s a fully capable mixer, though it’s not my favorite thing that Bittermilk does.

B+ / $15 (8.5 oz.) / bittermilk.com

Review: Torani Sweet Heat Syrup

torani sweet heatTorani’s line of coffeehouse syrups now spans some 120-plus flavors, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The latest concoction is Sweet Heat, which has particular eyes on the world of mixology.

Sweet Heat is a concoction of pure cane sugar and … wait for it… ghost peppers, the now well-known “hottest chili pepper in the world.” Crystal clear, it gives up few hints based on the nose. Surprisingly fruity, it comes across more as an apple, grape, pineapple syrup — or some blend of the three.

On the palate, it starts off sweet (and similarly fruity as the nose would indicate), but the heat makes its presence known after five or ten seconds. Fiery throughout the mouth, it’s a big rush of spice that burns heavily, but which manages to stay on this side of overwhelming. The heat builds then fades of the course of about half a minute. The more you sip on it — or the cocktail you’ve built with it — the more you get used to it. I really like spicy cocktails and can appreciate how using this syrup in place of regular simple syrup could get you a nifty spin on any number of drinks, but I’m not in love with that fruity element, which I worry is more likely to mess up your cocktail than the spice element does.

B+ / $4 / torani.com [BUY IT HERE]

Three Days on the Juice with Urban Remedy

Behold: my fridge on day one.

Behold: my fridge (in part) on day one.

So my wife got us doing a juice cleanse. It’s all the rage, ain’t it? So why not? We can all use a little detox once in awhile. It’s not a trend I’m smitten with, but I’ll try just about anything once.

Urban Remedy, like many juice providers, offers a three-day cleanse kit that includes 18 pints of organic, cold-pressed juice, which you drink over the course of 72 hours, essentially every 2 hours during daylight time. Urban Remedy actually has a number of different cleanse kits; we opted for the Signature Cleanse, which the company says is its most popular product. Each day presents six different juices to drink, ranging from the veggie-heavy green Brainiac you get at 9am to the cashew milk-based Relax that comes along at 7pm.

For a few days before the cleanse, you’re supposed to wean yourself off of big meals, caffeine, alcohol, and everything else. Largely we ate small vegetarian dishes in the run-up to cleansing. The night before we started, dinner was a sweet potato and some kale.

The next morning, we had at it.

Across the board, the juices mostly taste fine. I even found the celery-laden Brainiac to be a pleasant mix of sweet and bitter, and the addition of considerable cayenne to the #2 Time Machine brightens up its exceedingly tart composition. #4, After Party, a pblend of carrot, apple, beets, ginger, and lemon, was my runaway favorite. My least favorite, oddly, was the chalky and somewhat bland #5 juice, Warrior, which looks smoothie-like only because of the addition of chia seeds. It’s supposed to be made with raspberries but strawberries were used due to a “shortage” — maybe the raspberry version tastes better.

Hunger is of course a big issue for many who juice, but Urban Cleanse has you downing so much juice that, while it was always on my mind, it wasn’t that big of a deal at the start. What I really missed, much to my surprise, was the ritual of eating. Not just sitting down at the table but physically putting food in my mouth and chewing it up. Sounds weird, but I’m starting to think the reason so many of us snack all day is just to chew on stuff. (I’m not alone here.)

That said, at various points in the cleanse I admit I was feeling quite hungry (though not “starving”) and not entirely clear headed. I found it harder to focus on work and just less motivated, both of which were exacerbated by all the running to the bathroom to pee. (You are drinking a lot of juice here. I swear I have never peed so much in my life.) That said, I did manage to get plenty of work done over those three days, maybe because I spent so much less time eating.

On day two I woke up not very hungry, but with a bit of a headache. Urban Cleanse says that’s common, and it’s usually due to caffeine withdrawal. I’ve been off caffeine for a full week, though, so with me the effect is something else. The company also warned of decreased mental clarity on day two, but I mainly just felt tired and low in energy.

By day three I was ready to be done with it all. I dutifully worked my way through the juices, wiped the headache away with a hot shower, and tried to keep my energy up, but sitting on the couch was how I spent most of the day. Before lunch I had to carry a heavy box up a flight of stairs and by the end of it I felt like I’d run a mile. With so few calories (just 1200 per day) and almost no protein, even mild activity becomes a huge strain. By the afternoon I’d plotted out with a bit of drool on my lips what my next 8 or 9 meals were going to be: nothing insane, because Urban Cleanse suggests “easing back in” to food, and, of course, I do want to try to keep eating healthy for the long term.

I lost quite a bit of weight on the cleanse, about 4 pounds in 3 days (and more if you include the pre-cleanse time). I missed eating but it was manageable, and I never “cheated” on the cleanse during its run. Part of the idea with the cleanse is to teach yourself about healthy eating habits and reset your diet. While I’m not going to start eating flax seeds and freekeh at every meal, I am more cognizant now of healthier dining choices and, especially, portion size.

That said, I’m totally getting a steak at the next opportunity.

urbanremedy.com

Review: Tattle Tea Tea & Wine Infusion Kit

tea infusion kitTea drinkers and wine drinkers can finally come together, thanks to Tattle Tea’s straightforwardly named Tea & Wine Infusion Kit. In case there’s any mystery: You’re infusing the wine with tea. Tattle Tea provides the bags of tea (premeasured to work with a single bottle of wine), you provide the wine. You can get the three-bags-of-Rooibos-tea kit along with a nice pitcher that has a built-in strainer to get the tea leaves out ($30) or with just three bags of tea and no pitcher ($8).

Directions are easy: Dump the tea and a bottle of white wine into the pitcher and refrigerate overnight.

How’s it taste? Awful! OK, I’m being harsh, but this mix of tea and wine is just not for me. The nose is interesting — very tea forward and alluring — but the body messes with your senses in an off-putting way. Maybe it’s the wine I chose (a sauvignon blanc), but I just did not like the mix of earthy tea and tart fruit flavors. Compounding the issue, in the course of a day in the fridge, the wine had clearly oxidized quite a bit, giving the concoction some vinegary notes. Maybe if this is done with very high end wine and only for a short time (or in a sealed container), results will be better.

But why risk it?

no rating / $8 to $30 / tattletea.coffeebeandirect.com

Review: Bittermilk Mixers No. 1, 2, and 3

bittermilk no 3

OK, yes, there are dozens of pre-packaged cocktail mixers on the market. And yes, most of them claim to be ultra-premium-better-than-you-can-make-yourself products. And — yes — most of them are passable at best, swill at worst.

Well, finally, here’s one that isn’t. Bittermilk is a Charleston, South Carolina operation that is making truly high-end mixers that even I would not hesitate to serve to my guests.

The secret is right there on the label and in the bottle: Very high-quality, mostly organic ingredients that take original spins on some classic recipes — the Old Fashioned, the Tom Collins, and the Whiskey Sour.

Bittermilk mixers have no alcohol, so bring your high-end hooch when you’re mixing something up. They may look small, but remember that each pint-sized bottle is good for about a dozen cocktails, depending on how tall you make ’em. At a little over a dollar per cocktail, that’s not a bad deal. Hell, you’ll spend more on a couple of limes these days!

Thoughts on each of the three current Bittermilk offerings follow.

Bittermilk No. 1 Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned – Made with burnt cane sugar, orange peel, gentian root, and cinchona bark, then aged in Willett Bourbon barrels. I made versions with Rittenhouse 100 Proof Rye and with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. This one comes in a significantly smaller vial than the others, since you mix it 1:4 with your spirit, vs. 1:1 with the others. Sweet up front, with ample sugar in the mix (I’d err toward 1:5 or 1:6 proportions on this one), the burnt-ness of the sugar becomes apparent only as the finish starts to build. It’s here that you start to pick up the bitter edge of the mixer, too — grated roots and bark and a quinine character — though the citrus character, essential to an Old Fashioned, never quite arrives in full. Ultimately, it’s the bitterness that sticks with you the longest, lasting long after the sweetness has faded. A completely capable Old Fashioned — though the barrel aging isn’t immediately evident, and it’s more fun to drink an Old Fashioned with actual fruit muddled into it. Much better with rye (as specified on the label). A- / $15 (8.5 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 2 Tom Collins with Elderflowers & Hops – Made with lemon juice, sugar, elderflower & elderberry, and Centennial hops. I made versions with Ketel One Vodka and Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin (the bottle specifies either spirit). The weirdest of the bunch. With vodka, the hops add a level of funkiness here, and lots of it. Up front there’s a solid sweet-and-sour character, but that initially light bitter hops element brings a bit of discord to the finish, growing as it develops on the palate. It finishes almost like a shandy. With gin, this is a much better combination, those aromatics firing just about perfectly with the citrus and the elderflower, which comes through more clearly alongside the brightness of the gin. Here the hops play a very muted role, adding just a hint of bitterness on the back end rather than the lingering power you get with vodka. On the whole it’s a success, but it’s my least favorite of the bunch. Use gin, and a bit more than is called for. B+ / $15 (17 oz.)

Bittermilk No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour – Made with lemon juice, Bourbon barrel-smoked honey, sugar, and orange peel. I made this one with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon. Shockingly delicious. It doesn’t reveal much on the nose, but the body is stuffed full of a melange of sweet and savory notes — bracing lemon, silky honey, and just a touch of smokiness on the back end. If you’re not a smoke fan, be not afraid. The effect here is subtle and well integrated into what reveals itself to be a lovely concoction. The lemon hangs along til the finish, where everything comes together into a fully realized whole. Sure, the whiskey sour is hardly the world’s most elevated cocktail, but in Bittermilk’s hands it’s one you’d have no problem gulping right down… maybe two. A / $15 (17 oz.)

bittermilk.com

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram and The Barreled Boulevardier

We’re finally getting around to reviewing High West’s latest products, a new rye and a second barrel-aged-and-bottled cocktail. These have both been around for a few months, so please forgive our tardiness!

High West Distillery and SaloonHigh West A Midwinter Nights Dram – Never mind the typo (it should be “Night’s,” no?) and never mind that I’m reviewing a clearly holiday-themed spirit in mid-June. Wow, this rye whiskey finished in French oak and ex-Port barrels is cherries cherries cherries from start to finish. The nose features macerated cherry fruit, steeped in vanilla and a touch of dusty wood. On the tongue, a powerful brandied cherry character emerges, with notes of ginger, vanilla cream, rhubarb, and fruitcake. OK, maybe I’m imagining the fruitcake, but the festive name of this spirit couldn’t be more appropriate. Initially a bit off-putting with its incredible fruitiness, the whiskey eventually settles down into something that’s quite enjoyable and wholly unique. Reviewed: “Act 1, Scene 1313″ of this “limited engagement.” 98.6 proof. A- / $80

High West Distillery and SaloonHigh West The Barreled Boulevardier – A Boulevardier cocktail is composed of 1/3 bourbon, 1/3 sweet vermouth, and 1/3 Campari. Here, High West uses Vya vermouth and Gran Classico in lieu of Campari, then ages the combination in ex Bourbon barrels. Here, some ice helps to bring this to proper cocktail temperatures and to add a little meltwater to the mix. The result is an interesting mix of cocoa powder, red cherries, honey syrup, and a bitter, spicy kick on the finish. It’s a strong drink, one which benefits from slow sips and lots of reflection, as the bitter aftertaste it leads can be hard to shake. For a segment of the populace in love with the Negroni, this will probably have them endlessly abuzz. 72 proof. B / $55

highwest.com

Review: Novo Fogo Cachaca

novo fogo Barrel-Aged Bottle F#B9C101

Most cachaca is barely palatable if you don’t dump a ton of lime and sugar into it to make a caipirinha, but Novo Fogo is clearly focused on quality. Using organic ingredients, the distillery produces both a silver and a barrel-aged version of its spirits (the latter is really the best way to experience this unique sugar-based spirit from Brazil). There’s even an extra-aged version called Barrel 105 (not reviewed here), the likes of which I’ve never seen from cachaca.

Thoughts on the two main releases — and a nifty cocktail kit — follow.

Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca – Rested for one year in stainless steel before bottling. Tropical notes overlay the traditional fuel-focused cachaca nose, heavy on the pineapple, with a bit of lemon underneath. The body is more traditional, but balanced, with some lemon/lime fruit notes, mushroom, cedar box, and a finish of young alcohol notes. Nothing you’re likely to sip on straight, but totally worth pouring into a caipirinha. 80 proof. B+ / $33  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Novo Fogo Barrel-Aged Cachaca – Aged two years in ex-bourbon barrels before bottling. Banana and citrus are evident on the nose, which melds the fuel notes into something more approximating the aroma of coal. The body is quite a different animal, bringing toffee and peanut butter notes to play alongside milder orange character. The finish hints at those heavier alcoholic overtones, but some chocolate touches at the end. Much like a younger, agricole-style rum. 80 proof. A- / $37

Novo Fogo Antiquado Cocktail Kit – This tiny box includes a mini of Novo Fogo’s aged cachaca, a packet of Sue Bee Clover Honey, and a tiny vial of Scrappy’s Chocolate Bitters. Mix ’em all up and add ice and you’re done (sans the fancy garnishes on the picture). This is a great little cocktail (and one you can easily make sans the kit), the chocolate playing off the cachaca well, and the honey adding a much-needed sweetness, but of a different type. Can’t find it for sale, alas. It’d make a great stocking stuffer. A- / $NA

novofogo.com

Review: Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy and Immunity

Hawaiian_Ola_Noni_Energy_Open_Display__53466.1367463494.1280.1280Ola! Yerba Mate! Green tea! Hawaiian Ola’s Noni energy and immunity shots sure do sound like they’re going to be good for you. Packed with organic, GMO-free juices from a bunch of crazy looking Hawaiian fruits, these now-familiar shots are a way to get your morning jolt and at least feel a little better about what you’re drinking. Brief thoughts on the two varieties follow.

Hawaiian Ola Noni Energy – A nose of canned peaches and over-ripe apples. Much of both on the palate, with an incredibly bittersweet aftertaste, likely caused by the addition of 150mg of caffeine. Better than most “energy shots.” Try it chilled. Made me jumpy, but I don’t drink anywhere near that much caffeine on a typical day. B-

Hawaiian Ola Noni Immunity – Essentially a caffeine-free version of the above, with double the sugar and some added vitamins in the mix. Much more palatable without the gritty bitterness in it, but this time it’s a bit too sweet on the finish. Again, best chilled. B+

each about $3 per 2.5 oz. bottle / website non-functional

Review: Crazy Steve’s Bloody Mary Mixes

ghostshipCrazy Steve is making Bloody Mary mixes, dry spices, salsas, and pickles in the heart of New Jersey. (He’s also trying to help out the damaged Jersey Shore, so give him a hand.)

Our focus today however is on his two Bloody mixes (made with fresh cucumber, celery, onion, and jalapeno) and their rimmer companion. Thoughts follow.

Crazy Steve’s Badass Barnacle Bloody Mary Mix – Thick, with enticingly meaty overtones. Almost a gazpacho in a glass, it offers notes of garlic, onion, bouillon, and a bit of mixed garden vegetables. Moderate heat — it burns the lips but not the belly. All in all, there’s a great balance of flavors here, all coming together in a viscous yet easily drinkable package. Good on its own or spiked with vodka. A / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s GhostShip Bloody Mary Mix – Spiked with ghost peppers, aka “the hottest pepper in the world,” hence the name. Smells great. Peppery, like black pepper, atop the garlicky tomato notes. The body at first comes off much like the Badass Barnacle, but the heat builds quickly and steadily as it settles into your gullet. GhostShip quickly rises to the level where it seems like you’re going to break into a sweat, and your tongue is starting to prickle with an uncomfortable level of heat… and then it breaks. A seasoned (ha!) heat-seeker can handle GhostShip without a beer or milk chaser, but it’s more comfortable with a little something on the side. A- / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s Shot Over the Rim Spicy Bloody Mary Salt – Made with salt, red wine vinegar powder, chili powder, jalepeno powder, onion powder, cider vinegar powder, cumin, garlic powder, and some other stuff. I really like it. Most Bloody Mary rim salt is too heavy on chili powder, too light on salt. Crazy Steve has the balance right — plenty of salt (though not too much), with a kind of smoky, chipotle kick behind it. Good heat, but not overdone. Who knew that vinegar powder would be a killer secret ingredient? A keeper. A / $6 per 6 oz. container [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

crazystevespickles.com