The first time I heard the Ramones, I was barely into my teens, and was immediately captivated by their simple, straightforward sound and mutant lyrics. It was punk, and something anyone could do if they knew three guitar chords, a basic beat and cultivated enough attitude. The group’s first four albums would lead me down a tunnel into the wild and wonderful world of punk rock that would become a staple of my teenage years. It was immediate, accessible and led to spending hours in my bedroom learning chords and playing along to dubbed cassettes of endless songs on a half busted Sony Walkman.
My point is that everyone has to start somewhere, and Heather Greene’s Whiskey Distilled is the perfect first book for newcomers to acquire. Quite simply: In the last two years of reading and reviewing books about spirits, I do believe this is might be the most accessible and informative introductory guide I’ve come across.
Versatile enough to welcome everyone with easy to follow language and great anecdotes, Greene leaves no stone unturned in covering the basics. But she also takes the reader through advanced concepts such as chemistry and flavor profiles, distinctions between the various whiskies of the world, necessary hardware for cocktail construction, suggested food pairings, and so much more. She takes time to explain, rather than assume or boast about drinking the rarest whiskies in the world, and her writing style brings a warmth and inclusion often missing from books similar in scope.
This is an outstanding, essential guide for anyone getting his or her feet wet on the big whiskey wave, and is worthy of space on anyone’s bookshelf. Plus on top of all of this? Greene gets kudos from actor/woodsmith/sage Nick Offerman on the jacket sleeve. And if it’s good enough for Ron Swanson, it’s good enough for you.
A+ / $19 / [BUY IT HERE]
Tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy was mentored by Sailor Jerry Collins… and some claim that Hardy has flown a bit too close to the sun, imitating Sailor Jerry’s style a bit too closely. Well, the detractors will have more to talk about with Ed Hardy rum, a spiced rum that looks on the surface, well, a whole lot like the rising star Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, which was released in 2008.
Rest assured that, uncannily similar label appearance aside, Ed Hardy Spiced Rum is not a mere repackaging of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum. For starters, Hardy — which does not indicate where it is made, how long it is aged, or what it is spiced with — is bottled at 70 proof vs. Jerry’s 92. That alone distinguishes these two rums, but the flavor profile is quite different, as well.
The spice feels drawn from orange peel, cloves, and cinnamon, but it’s a bit underdone and not really racy enough to stand out against a mixer. The rum is sweet enough — not on the scale of the densely caramel-focused Sailor Jerry — but the lower alcohol level makes it come off as a little watery on the finish.
Ed Hardy does have one thing on its side, though, and it’s that the low alcohol level means it’s relatively easy to sip on straight. Not that you’re likely to ever encounter this outside of a conjoining with a healthy slug of Coke and, probably, a red Solo cup, but in case you want the option…
B / $16 / edhardyrum.com
To say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.
John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic; each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)
Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.
B+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]
We encountered Infuse Vodkas about a year ago, reviewing four members of this unique flavored vodka lineup, each featuring solid botanicals suspended inside the bottle. Today we check out the remaining two vodkas in the lineup — though, unfortunately, they are not my overwhelming favorites of the bunch.
Again, all Infuse Vodkas are flavored not with mystery essences but with dried fruits and spices. Both are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.
Infuse Peach Vodka – The big slices of dried peaches look enticing, but this spirit is just way too medicinal. Suffering from much the same problem as Southern Comfort, Infuse Peach has a raw alcohol overtone to it that the peach notes only serve to enhance, not detract from. Even the peach notes are indistinct and a bit off-putting, more like a vaguely-flavored cough syrup than anything that came from the orchard. C-
Infuse Orange Clove Vodka – Gentle on the nose, almost lemonade-like, with just a hint of baking spice. The body is equally restrained, a layering of easy citrus fruit with clove and some evergreen notes, lending this vodka a quality on the palate that approaches that of many modern gins. The flavor isn’t altogether intense, and the finish is short. It’s pleasant enough as a simple mixer, but it doesn’t really push its component flavors far enough to replace either a solid, citrus-flavored vodka or a fruity gin. B
each $28 / infusevodkas.com
This fresh Rosso di Montipulciano offers a gentle approach, offering perfumy floral notes atop simple red berries on the nose. The body dips from there into more simple cherry and raspberry character, melding acid with tannin in a balanced body, with some subtle notes of tea leaf and dried herbs. The finish is short, but pleasant and savory, fading out with some lightly jammy notes and a modest slug of wood. Nicely done at this price.
See also our review of the 2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile.
B+ / $19 / avignonesi.it
This Napa Chardonnay is classically styled, with a bit of a twist. The buttery vanilla notes are relatively restrained. In their place you’ll find notes of lemon curd, clover honey, whipped cream, and light lavender that bubble up to the surface, particularly evident as the wine warms up a bit. Refreshing on the finish, but loaded with character that’s worth exploring.
A- / $26 / rutherfordhill.com
Seattle-based Redhook Brewery has been around for 30 years now, and its 30th expression of its seasonal Winterhook brew is now on the market. Redhook tweaks the recipe for Winterhook every year, and this year it comes forward with a burly, slightly smoky winter ale. Decked with molasses from the get-go, this malt-heavy beer offers notes of coal fires, bitter greens, cloves, and forest floor. It tastes stronger than it is — just 6% abv — which makes it a better choice for sipping on in this post-holiday-meal aftermath. All in all, a burly, but not overpowering, little number that dark beer fans should enjoy quite a bit.
B+ / $NA / redhook.com
Hush is a new brand that now encompasses a half dozen flavors of moonshine, hailing from the realm of North Charleston, South Carolina. These are corn-based products (grain neutral spirits) that undergo a secret, “patented refining process called TerraPURE” before bottling. (Technically it can’t be both secret and patented, but this is flavored moonshine, so who’s counting?)
Anyhoo, Hush sent us one of its many flavors — spiced apple — for us to put to the test. Which we did.
Pure apple cider attacks the nose. That unmistakable cinnamon/clove/baked apple mix permeates the room and, soon enough, your palate as it takes hold once you begin sipping. Well-sugared but not quite over the top, Hush rumbles along, content to hold forth its autumnal agenda until, eventually, some of the more bitter elements start to hit more squarely on the finish. Things start to gum up at the back of the palate at this point, but that isn’t much of a surprise. This is a simple spirit with modest goals, and by and large it achieves them.
B / $19 / hushmoonshine.com
This vodka hails from Poland, where it is six-times distilled from spelt. The beast on the label isn’t just for show: 15 percent of all profits are given directly to snow leopard conservation projects through the Snow Leopard Trust.
I immediately enjoyed this vodka right from the start. The nose is crisp and fresh, bracing with medicinal notes and hinting at dense lemon oil and vanilla extract. The body is racy, alive with punchy astringency but rounded, balanced, and far from gasp-inducing. Some light sweetness — citrus focused — emerges in time, along with a distinct walnut character later on in the game. The finish is almost buttery and brings on more sweetness, but with the appropriate edge — a shining, sparkling spirit that any vodka fan will find just about perfect as a straight sipper. Works well in cocktails also.
A- / $30 / snowleopardvodka.co.uk
Fragrant on the nose with peach and apricot notes lead to a buttery body more reminiscent of Chardonnay than Pinot Grigio. The palate is long, lush, and loaded with vanilla and caramel flan, before exiting on a crisper, baked-apple finish. This isn’t a complicated wine, but guests at your next dinner party aren’t likely to mind it one bit as an aperitif.
B / $19 / terlatowines.com