Review: American Juice Company Mixers

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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: McMenamins Devils Bit Whiskey

devils bit

The microdistillers at McMenamins specialize and young and unaged spirits, but once in a while they make more seriously aged stuff, too. Once a year, actually, in the case of Devils Bit, a five-year-old whiskey that is available for one day and one day only each year from a dozen McMenamins properties. That day happens next Tuesday: St. Patrick’s Day.

Devils Bit is a malt whisky made from the famous Maris Otter barley, then aged in ex-Syrah port barrels from the McMenamins winery. Five years later, it’s ready for bottling — only in 200ml flask-size decanters.

What’s the name mean? In the company’s own words: “Irish lore has it that the devil took a bite from a mountain in North Tipperary, Ireland, and spit it out. The small gap became the mountain’s defining characteristic and so the mountain is named Devil’s Bit. In honor of this landmass and its legend, McMenamins created Devils Bit.”

It’s an apt name for a gentle whiskey that drinks a lot like an Irish. Gently sweet and fruity on the nose, the port barrel influence is strong from the start, offering aromas that comprise a racy combination of plum, figs, and baking spice. The body is loaded with more dense fruit and spice notes, with touches of chocolate, butterscotch, toffee, and ample port-driven raisin character. It goes on and on, and like a chameleon, tends to shift in tone and color over the course of an evening with it. I started out with Devils Bit enjoying its powerful fruitiness, but ended the evening savoring sips alongside bites of caramel chocolate. Super versatile, delicious from start to finish, and an unbearably great bargain… presuming you can nab one of these precious bottles. Best get in line now.

92 proof. 312 bottles produced.

A / $17 (200ml) / mcmenamins.com

Review: Rosebank 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Rosebank 21YO Bottle & Box

It’s time for whisky #7 out of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, this one a 21 year old from Rosebank, a now-defunct distillery in the Lowlands. This whisky was distilled in 1992. Rosebank promptly shuttered in 1993 — which means there’s not much left to go around.

One of the more exotic and full-bodied expressions in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases, this malt offers an initial nose of fresh-baked brioche, touched with cinnamon. Huge on the palate, it kicks off with fresh malt, caramel, and light chocolate notes, then takes a deep dive into toasted marshmallow, light citrus, and a maritime character that builds as the finish takes hold. One of the most purely pleasurable malts in the 2014 releases, the through-line from cereal to fruit to seaside character in this whisky makes it a pure delight and one worth taking a deep dive into as you explore its charms.

One of my top picks — if not the top pick — among these 2014 releases.

110.6 proof. 4,530 bottles produced.

A / $500 / malts.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery The Abyss Aged Stout 2014 Edition

The Abyss 2014The 9th annual installment of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss is here.

The recipe for The Abyss doesn’t vary much from year to year. If you aren’t familiar with the formula, here’s what goes into it. (That’s three different types of barrels, into which 28% of the brew is aged… a bit going into each barrel type.)

Malt: Pale, Black, Chocolate, Black Barley, Roasted Barley, Wheat
Hops: Millennium, Nugget, Styrian, German Northern Brewer
Other: Blackstrap Molasses, Brewer’s Licorice, Vanilla Beans, Cherry Bark
Barrel-Aging: (28%) 6 Months in Bourbon, Oregon Oak, Pinot Noir

As always, it’s hard to complain about the beer. The nose is seductive with alternating notes of cherries, cocoa powder, coffee bean, and brown sugar. There’s lots of licorice on the body; initially the beer starts off quite bitter (it’s got a bit higher IBU rating than last year) before settling into a bittersweet groove, where cocoa bean, molasses, and a sizable hop character keep things lively.

On the whole, The Abyss 2014 is an outstanding example of this unique brew, still at the top of its game. If you can still find a bottle, snap a few up… some for drinking now, some for cellaring to drink later.

11% abv. 86 IBUs.

2014 Edition: A / $12 per 22-oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Cragganmore 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Cragganmore 25 Bottle

Onward to the 6th whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, a 25 year old from Cragganmore, a Speyside distillery best known for its younger single malts.

This 25 year old was distilled in 1988 and aged in a mix of refill European and American Oak casks.

Quite malty on the nose, the Cragganmore 25 opens up after a time to offer floral notes, dried fruit, and some nuts — perhaps a bit of orange peel, too. It’s nice for a time, but it soon threatens to be overpowered by a touch of raw, pungent alcohol character. The body continues the theme, starting off with dense grains mixed with chewy malt. On the palate it’s backed up with notes of baked apples, more raisin notes, and fresh citrus on the back end. There’s an alcoholic undercurrent here from time to time, but a little water helps to temper things, revealing a nice little vanilla caramel character as well.

102.8 proof. 3,372 bottles produced.

A- / $500 / malts.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: Strathmill 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Strathmill 25YO Bottle & Box

#5 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this rarity from Strathmill, located in Speyside. Strathmill is predominantly used in blended whisky, making this old expression exceedingly rare. The whisky has spent 25 years in ex-Bourbon barrels and is bottled at cask strength.

This is classic, beautiful Speyside at the perfect age. Liquid gold in color, its nose offers heavily spiced grains — almost gingerbread in character — touches of almond, honey, and hints of fresh mint. Elegant and restrained, it’s a pretty lead-in to a body that ranges far and wide. Fresh-cut grains, cut apples, and burnt sugar lead in to cinnamon and clove notes as the finish starts to build. The finish is drying and slightly aromatic, while echoing notes of honeyed biscuits, menthol, and more spice. Fantastic stuff.

104.8 proof. 2,700 bottles produced.

A / $475 / malts.com

Review: Alaskan Big Mountain Pale Ale

Alaska Big Mountain bottleDo you like fruit? Do you like pale ales? Have I got a brew for you: Alaskan’s new spring seasonal, Big Mountain Pale Ale.

Alaskan explains:

Big Mountain is a flavor departure for us, with a very new combination of hops that we have never used in our bottled beers before,” said David Wilson, Alaskan’s head of Quality Assurance. “The most distinct flavors and aroma come from Simcoe and Mosaic hops, which bring a stone fruit and berry taste and aroma, but also have a very complex nose and a flavor of tropical fruit and herbs.

That’s no flowery overstatement: Big Mountain starts off with big apple cider notes, then positively pours on notes of pineapple and peaches. Some hints of lemon and grapefuit — traditional in many IPAs — come around, but by then the rugged, bitter hops have come to the forefront, lingering and pushing towards a woody, earthy finish. This is fun for a while, but eventually the rollercoaster of fruit-bitter-fruit-bitter becomes a little overbearing. It’s just a bit too far in left field to be a big hit.

5.8% abv.

B / $8.50 per six-pack / alaskanbeer.com

Review: Caol Ila 30 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Coal Ila 30YO Bottle

Yesterday we experienced Caol Ila’s unpeated expression; today it’s the full monty, and bottled at a full 30 years of age — the oldest Caol Ila ever released by the distillery itself. #4 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is a peat bomb straight outta Islay, distilled in 1983.

After 20 years or so, peated whiskies tend to settle down, and this Caol Ila is no exception. The nose offers notes of sweet citrus, mesquite smoke, and dense toffee. The body continues the theme, with gentle smokiness settling over notes of rum raisin, quince, licorice, and bitter roots. When the smoke settles, it leaves behind a bittersweet character that is paradoxically at once racy and soothing, a maritime whisky that is starting to feel its age — and I mean that in a delightful way.

110.2 proof. 7,638 bottles produced.

A- / $700 / malts.com

Review: Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel and Chardonnay, 2015 Releases

frank family zinfandelNapa’s Frank Family has two of its flagship wines ready for their 2015 debut. Thoughts on the winery’s Chardonnay and Zinfandel follow.

2013 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros – Same aging regimen on this Carneros bottling — barrel fermented in 34% new, 33% once, and 33% twice-filled French oak barrels for 9 months. Moderately tropical on the nose, but it’s surprisingly mild on the whole. The big, oaky body is a clear Cali bomb — all brown butter, vanilla, and notes from the barrel. Desperate for some acidity, the finish is a bit flabby and uninspired for a wine at this price. B- / $35

2012 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley – Textbook Zin, pushing the fruit to within an inch of its life, but still just hanging on to some balance by the skin of its teeth. Raisin notes, some forest floor, and tea leaf all make an appearance, giving this an unusual but surprisingly lively construction. Quite food-friendly. 79% Zin, 18% Petite Sirah, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. B / $37

frankfamilyvineyards.com