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 /

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.)

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

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]

Review: Magnum Exotics Coffee

magnum exoticsMagnum Exotics recently debuted its new line of coffees in California, with a national expansion on the way. The company behind these products is a major private label coffee supplier, but this is its first original brand being marketed directly to the public. Thoughts on two of these offerings follow.

Magnum Exotics Organic Fogcutter Dark Roast – Relatively mild, in fact I was surprised to see this described as a dark roast. Fruity, with a touch of cocoa bean on the back end. I enjoyed this brew quite a lot more than I expected. While I normally drink coffee with a touch of sugar, the fruity character in Fogcutter gives it enough balance for me to forgo any sweetener at all. A-

Magnum Exotics Kona Blend Medium Roast – A simple coffee, lightly nutty with a little cocoa bean element to it. Moderate bitterness and mild acidity offer interest to the palate, but the somewhat thin body seems to ask for cream. B+

each $10 per 10-12 oz. bag /

Review: Blue Crab Bay Co. Bloody Mary and Margarita Mixes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlue Crab Bay is an artisan food company on Virginia’s Chesapeake coast, and just a few of its products are non-alcoholic cocktail mixers. We tasted them all, both with and without spirits.

Blue Crab Bay Snug Harbor Bloody Mary Mix – Extremely thick. The nose is earthy, like a big beefsteak tomato, with mushroom notes. On the body, big and chewy tomato character, without vodka it’s almost pastelike. It starts without a whole lot of spice to note, just a hint of pepper and maybe some celery salt, with just the faintest touch of heat on the lips… but not on the tongue. This builds over time as you sip it to a decent level of burn — think a typical medium salsa. It’s a good choice for Bloody fans who find tomato to be the most important ingredient. B / $10

Blue Crab Bay Sting Ray Bloody Mary Mix – Adds clam juice to the Snug Harbor formula (this is often called a Clam Digger, Red Eye, or Caesar, depending on where you live), which strangely makes this mixer not more maritime in tone but rather sweeter and less savory. It’s not quite as thick, either. The mushroomy notes fade away as they leave behind a character that brings some lemony citrus notes and a bit more salt to bear. This is more evident when you add vodka to the mix. While overall you’ll find this to be similar to the Snug Harbor product, I think it does make for a slightly better finished product. B+ / $10

Blue Crab Bay Jalapeno Infused Margarita Mix – Coastal Virginia is not an area I typically associate with the margarita, but hey, who’s checking. This “jalapeno infused” mixer is quite easy on the spice, so heat-a-phobes needn’t be overly concerned. The mix itself is quite mild, with restrained but authentic lime notes, modest sweetness, and just a touch of heat. Fine if you’re making pitchers for a tailgate party, but not quite developed enough for your top shelf tequilas. B / $5

Review: Powell & Mahoney Blood Orange and Ginger Cocktail Mixes

powell and mahoney blood orangePowell & Mahoney makes high-end, non-alcoholic cocktail mixers, and recently it’s expanded its lineup to a full 10 different bottlings. Today we look at two of the latest expressions.

All of the company’s mixers are made with natural juices, cane sugar, and a smattering of natural flavors, making them a convenient yet high-quality shortcut to cocktaildom when you’re short on time. (It happens!)

Thoughts follow.

Powell & Mahoney Blood Orange – Made with blood orange, (regular) orange, and tangerine concentrates. Brisk and tangy, but not specifically “blood” orange in either taste or color. Standard Valencia orange is more the order of the day, with sub-notes of lemon and grapefruit. Still, this is a mixer that’s easy to drink and which makes for a mean screwdriver… or, dare we suggest, a Harvey Wallbanger? A-

Powell & Mahoney Old Ballycastle Ginger –  Ingredients include ginger, fennel, elderflower, and milk thistle. An odd idea. If I want ginger in my drink, I add ginger beer, or Canton, when punch is desired. P&M’s ginger provides that punch and bite of ginger, sans the alcohol or the fizz. Some earthiness starts this mixer out, then that heavy, authentic ginger bite grabs you. There’s a light lemon character on the finish that helps temper the ginger’s spice (perhaps from the elderflower), but otherwise this is both straightforward and authentic. Anyone looking to spike a cocktail with a touch of ginger — without adding alcohol — will find this a good option. A-

each $9 /

Review: Dry Sodas

DRY-Soda-5-can-lockupDry Soda is a company making a business out of soda with no high fructose corn syrup, less sweetness, lower carbonation, and an overall healthier approach to drinking the stuff. Its products all famously have just four ingredients — water sugar, natural flavors, and phosphoric acid. A 12 oz. can typically hits between 45 and 65 calories. Nine versions are available. We tasted five for review.

All take a little getting used to, but damn if you don’t feel like a better person for drinking on instead of popping open a Mountain Dew.

Thoughts follow.

Dry Vanilla Bean Soda – Mild, not really flavorful enough. Vanilla tastes authentic, but there’s just not enough of it. The overall impact is a slight cream soda character, though not nearly as mouth-filling. B-

Dry Blood Orange Soda – There’s enough fruit flavor here to give it a little more oomph over the comparably dulled Vanilla Bean Soda. It comes off a bit like an upscale orange crush that’s been left with ice to melt, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. B

Dry Apple Soda – A success. Solid apple on the nose and on the palate. Good carbonation level, which balances the apple, offering just a touch of vanilla on the back end. B+

Dry Ginger Soda – My favorite, a simpler spin on ginger ale, with a modest bite but clear ginger notes, touched with a little citrus character. I’d have no trouble mixing with this or drinking it straight. A-

Dry Cucumber Soda – An oddity, just as it sounds. Mild cuke notes, with a kind of lime kick to it. Relatively refreshing, but just not as enjoyable as some of the others in the series. B-

$15 per 12-pack of 12 oz. cans /

Review: Zone 8 Honey Lemon Tea

bottle_honey_bgZone 8 is an Illinois-based company looking to bring high-end bottled tea to the masses. It launched on Kickstarter this summer, and though it didn’t meet its funding goals, its future seems unclear.

The company is making one expression — Honey Lemon — at present, with seven potential ones to come.

This is a blend of black tea, white clover honey, and organic lemon juice. It’s a product that expresses itself piece by piece rather than all at once. The attack is very sweet, with distinct honey notes. The tea — dense and earthly — follows, then comes the lemon. The citrus has a bit of an orange character to it — almost like Meyer lemon. Sweetness returns, almost as a hint, for the finish. It’s easy to like, though I think it’s a bit over-flavored; I’d like the tea component to shine through a bit more clearly.

135 calories per 12 oz. bottle.

B / not yet available /