Category Archives: Rated A-

Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Navy Style Rum

lost spirits rum 525x809 Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Navy Style Rum

We thought it had been unusually quiet from our friends at Lost Spirits in Monterey for a little too long. Turns out we had cause for alarm. Best known for their ultra-peated American single malt craft whiskey, Leviathan, Lost Spirits suffered a catastrophe that ended with the bulldozing of its unique wooden stills and, essentially, starting from scratch with copper (see pics below).

“$10,000 a solder” later, the new copper still is up and running again… and making… rum, not malt whiskey, which has been the hallmark of the Little Distillery That Could since its inception.

This week we got a first look at the brand-spanking-new Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum — which means it’s going to be an overproof monster, if you’re unfamiliar with either a) Lost Spirits’ house style or b) the implications of “navy proof.”

Made from Grade A molasses (vs. the Grade E blackstrap that most rum is forged from) in pot stills, then aged in Lost Spirits’ patented (literally) high-tech barrels, Lost Spirits Rum comes out dark, brooding, and funky as all get-out. Licorice, coffee bean, and powerful wood oil notes are what strike you at first on the nose. It takes several minutes opening up in the glass before more fruit-forward, tropical characteristics come to the forefront. Over time the rum takes more of a chocolate note, and fruit characteristics come to the forefront. Blood orange, lemons, some pineapple… all with a root beer kicker to punch you in the throat.

At 136 proof, Lost Spirits Rum is a slow burner, but it’s surprisingly easy to manage even without water. You can tell it’s overproof — and imbued with plenty of Lost Spirits’ almost hoary, funkified house style, copper still or not — but it’s far from the gasping-for-air scorcher that you might be expecting. Rum nuts should run, not walk, for a bottle or two while you can still get it.

A- / $45 / lostspirits.net

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Review: Tanduay Asian Rum

tanduay gold rum 513x1200 Review: Tanduay Asian Rum

A new rum? Nah. Tanduay’s been being made for 160 years… in that classical bastion of the rum world: The Philippines. Yeah, who knew? (The brand lays claim that it’s “one of Asia’s best-kept secrets,” which seems to be right on the nose.) But Tanduay is very likely new to you (as it is to me), as it’s at long last making its debut on the mainland stage.

Asian or no, the Tanduay production process is fairly typical of modern rum-making. Column-distilled from local, Philippine sugar cane and local water, Tanduay’s new-make spirit then goes into charred barrels for years (see below for details), though all of its rums are blends of barrels of a variety of ages. Both of these spirits are bottled at 80 proof. Thoughts on each, as always, follow.

Tanduay Silver Asian Rum – Spends up to 5 years in first- and second-fill oak barrels, then filtered to a light gold in color, almost like a young reposado tequila. Pungent on the nose, with an indistinct alcohol character. It’s not overwhelmingly sweet-smelling — a surprise — but rather veering toward a more brooding, burnt sugar character. The body is on the exotic side, starting with brown sugar and evolving with notes of cloves, ripe banana, and marzipan. The finish offers some bitter orange notes, all of which adds up to an unusual and a slightly unbalanced experience. Not at all bad — this is a rum designed for mixing, to be sure — but a little funky for everyday sipping. B+ / $20

Tanduay Gold Asian Rum - Spends up to 7 years in barrel before bottling, not filtered for color. Bold, more distinctive rum-focused nose, with brown sugar and some vanilla. A more exotic character evolves on the palate, including coconut and mango notes, licorice candy, and again with the dense marzipan notes — almost bordering on Amaretto character. More balanced on the whole, and all in all this is a more pleasurable rum than the Silver, offering a denser body with better integrated flavors. Fun for a change, and not a bad price. (Turns out “gold” and “silver” cost the same for once!) As with the above, this would be great in a tropical cocktail. A- / $20

tanduay.com

Review: KAH Tequila

KAH Reposado side 525x659 Review: KAH Tequila

KAH is a tequila brand you won’t quickly forget, whether you’ve tried it or not. Bottled in painted ceramic skulls with Day of the Dead motifs on them, these spirits stand out so much they’re almost too pretty to open.

But what’s inside? It’s lowlands tequila, 100% agave, bottled in the typical varieties — but with a twist on reposado, which is boosted up to a massive 110 proof. Why 110 proof? I’m not sure, but the bottle is designed in the image of “El Diablo,” a fitting moniker I’m sure among those who’ve had a shot too many.

KAH isn’t cheap, but there’s an easier way to try out this curious tequila: A sampler kit of three 50ml bottles (which are mini versions of the painted ceramic ones) is just $30.

KAH Tequila Blanco - Enticing, with intense agave on the nose, mixed with notes of creme brulee and spiced, roasted almonds. On the tongue, a powerful array of elements expected and otherwise emerge. It starts with creamy marzipan before delving into sultry spices — clove-studded oranges and cinnamon cream — while folding in plenty of well-roasted, herbal agave. It comes together marvelously in a creamy body with a moderate and engaging finish with nary a second of bite. Nearly everything a blanco should be. 80 proof. A / $45

KAH Tequila Reposado – Aged 10 months in French oak. Surprisingly divergent from the blanco. Initially hot, the nose is a bit distant and obscured by alcohol, of which there is plenty in this oddball repo. The body is a strange symphony of flavors, beginning with hard candy and toffee notes, then taking you into various notes of nougat, red wine, whisky barrel, and sharp agave herbaciousness at the end. Almost the opposite of the blanco’s creaminess, it’s a bit of a tough nut to crack and not half as enjoyable. 110 proof. B / $60

KAH Tequila Anejo – Spends two years in American oak. Big caramel and vanilla notes on the nose, typical of a well-aged, quality anejo. The body sticks close to the formula, keeping the sweetness heavy and layering on a bit of milk chocolate as the finish starts to roll over you. Agave is largely absent here… only a residual slug of herbs on the nose proves that you’re not drinking rum. Still, all in all it’s a solid dessert-like experience. 80 proof. A- / $60

kahtequila.com

Review: Crazy Steve’s Bloody Mary Mixes

ghostship 300x241 Review: Crazy Steves Bloody Mary MixesCrazy 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

Review: Russian Diamond Vodka

Russian Diamond Vodka 750ml Hi Res Image Nov. 2013 199x300 Review: Russian Diamond VodkaRussian Diamond would like to turn your attention to the Italian fabric labels (hey, it’s felty!) and the 57 filtrations it goes through before bottling. What I want to alert you to is that Russian Diamond is really Russian vodka. With Stoli made (at least in part) in Latvia and Smirnoff made primarily in the U.S., finding real Russian vodka isn’t the easiest thing to do any more.

Made in an old distillery (it’s been modernized) outside of Moscow, Russian Diamond is about as authentic as you can get. That said, Russian Diamond is a melding of Old World processes and New World sensibilities. After all, according to the company’s press release, the filtration system alone includes “multiple fabric filters that smoothen [sic] the taste, biological filters, such as needles of Siberian pine tree and larch tree, herbs and grains, which enrich the drink with the powers of the nature itself.” (The vodka itself is distilled from wheat and rye and incorporates local water from Moscow’s Mytischchi springs.)

What then does it taste like, you ask? Good question. The nose is a standout, offering crispness and a clean character, while not being harsh or overly medicinal. This is a tricky feat to pull off, as most vodkas either veer too far into hospital notes or drift wildly into the bakery with a strong, sugary character.

On the palate, it’s admittedly sweeter than I’d like, further evidence that very few spirits makers are immune to the increasing sweet tooth of the worldwide palate, particularly in the U.S. The vodka offers notes of chocolate, butterscotch, and touches of lemon/lime on the finish. The bracing character of the nose is largely absent on the tongue, but the sweetness does make for an interesting counterpoint to its racier nose.

Works for me.

80 proof.

A- / $25 / russiandiamond.com

Review: Vermont Ice Maple Creme Liqueur

vermont ice 134x300 Review: Vermont Ice Maple Creme LiqueurIf Vermont’s known for anything — besides the Trapp Family Lodge — it’s maple syrup. They make more of it here than in any other state in America — and literally no one lives in Vermont. (Did you know: It’s the 2nd least populous state in the nation?) But who can actually consume all that syrup as food? The natural solution: Turn some of it into booze, of course.

Vermont Ice Maple Creme is one of a small selection of maple liqueurs available, a creamy concoction blended from maple syrup and brandy made from Vermont-grown apples. (And cream, I presume.)

The results: Not at all bad. The syrup character is clearly evident on the nose, with a touch of vanilla caramel beneath it. There’s more where that came from on the palate — ample syrup notes (and not the cheap chemical pancake stuff, the real deal), sultry with a gentle earthiness and wood notes — even a tinge of apple character late in the finish. This all comes together surprisingly well. Spirits like Baileys can be overwhelming in their sweetness, but Vermont Ice, while plenty sweet, doesn’t make you feel like you’re about to lose your teeth from drinking it. The maple syrup component also gives it a unique spin that you don’t get from most cream liqueurs — and a recommendation, to boot.

30 proof.

A- / $28 / boydenvalley.com

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Organic Winter Schnapps HR 525x742 Tasting the Spirits of Swedens Spirit of Hven

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka - Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

backafallsbyn.se

Review: 2012 Martin Codax Albarino

martin codax albarino 2012 wine 124x300 Review: 2012 Martin Codax AlbarinoWidely available and incredibly affordable, Martin Codax’s 2012 Albarino from Spain’s Rias Baixas region is easy to like. Offering fresh lemon and pineapple notes, it has a modestly creamy body and a brisk acidity to the finish. A bit of vanilla adds a touch of the exotic.

A- / $12 / martincodax.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s White Rabbit Saloon Whiskey

jack daniels white rabbit saloon 525x602 Review: Jack Daniels White Rabbit Saloon Whiskey

A seasonally-available, limited edition version of JD, White Rabbit Saloon is bottled and named in honor of the 120th anniversary of the White Rabbit Saloon, a Lynchburg bar owned by Jack Daniel himself. There’s no specific information on how this blend differs from Old No. 7, but it is bottled at 86 proof instead of the standard 80.

A softer expression of Jack Daniel’s, White Rabbit has a distinct cookie-like character to it. Think chocolate wafer cookies and milk, with a healthy slug of vanilla to back it up. The higher proof gives the body a little more grip in the mouth, while pushing the sometimes scratchy coal notes of black label JD out of the picture. The finish is lingering and sultry-sweet, offering a marshmallow character in both sweetness and chewiness — with just the barest hint of popcorn on the back end. I like it better than standard Jack quite a bit.

A- / $25 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third Release

Two new expressions from Islay’s Kilchoman, still the youngest distillery in Scotland and arguably its most intriguing…

kilchoman 2007 Vintage 249x300 Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third ReleaseKilchoman 2007 Vintage – This is Kilchoman’s oldest bottling to date, a six-year-old single malt whiskey matured entirely in ex-Bourbon barrels. Here we see Kilchoman starting to mellow out, its aggressive peat subdued by some of the wood and vanilla notes emerging from the barrel. It’s still got plenty of phenol on its tongue, but now the spirit is locked tightly into a struggle with something sweeter, leading to a more refined and ambitious spirit. Beneath the peat, you’ll find notes of cinnamon, apple pie, and lemongrass. To be sure, it’s a whiskey that’s still developing — and will continue to do so for years or decades to come — but is already coming into its own. 10,000 bottles made. 92 proof. A- / $80

kilchoman 100 percent Islay 3rd Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman 2007 Vintage and 100% Islay Third ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Third Release - This is a new version of the single malt whiskey Kilchoman put out last year, made entirely with Islay products — most notably including the barley used in the mash. As it’s been a year since the Second Release, and the primary difference is that the stock in the bottle is about a year older, now a vatting of four- and five-year-old malts, aged in former Bourbon barrels. It’s quite a seductive bottling, restrained on the nose with floral and citrus notes, and surprisingly little peat. The body has more where that came from, adding in nougat notes, clove-studded oranges, butterscotch, and a lightly, lacily-smoked finish that begs for sip after sip. This one’s hard to put down, and is almost certainly Kilchoman’s best expression to date. 10,000 bottles made. 100 proof. A / $90

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Zwack, Unicum, and Unicum Plum Liqueur

Unicum Plum 198x300 Review: Zwack, Unicum, and Unicum Plum LiqueurFour years ago I covered a line extension from Hungary’s Zwack, which confusingly was launching for the first time a spirit called Zwack. Previously, Zwack’s sole product was the bitter Unicum, and “Zwack” was nowhere to be found on the label.

At some point Unicum left the U.S. market, leaving Zwack the company’s sole product in the line available on our shores. Now, Unicum is coming back, branded as “Zwack Unicum,” and a new spirit, Zwack Plum Liqueur, is also joining the group as a third wheel.

We first wrote about Zwack’s launch in 2009. Here’s a fresh look at the full lineup in 2013.

Zwack Unicum Liqueur - This spirit, originally crafted from more than 40 herbs and spices in 1790. Very bitter, it’s a digestif for the Fernet fan, with sweetness a distant afterthought. I compared a fresh sample with a bottle I have from 2001, and based on informal tasting, the formula does not seem to have changed. Pushing past the initial shock of bitterness, Unicum offers a heavy cinnamon note character, with orange peel beneath. Secondary notes include licorice, dark chocolate, dried herbs, and some wood, driven by the six months Unicum spends in oak barrels before bottling. This is a solid alternative to Fernet, offering its own take on the bitter liqueur without reinventing the category. 80 proof. A-

Zwack Liqueur - Alternately known as “Unicum Next” internationally, this is Unicum’s lighter-colored and far sweeter take on Unicum, clearly designed for a younger, more sweet-toothed audience. Slightly syrupy, Zwack is quite fruity, driven as I noted in my original review by cherry notes — though these are more of the cherry jelly variety than the fresh fruit. Tasting today, I also get strawberries, iced tea, and a strong, orange candy finish. It’s quite a different beast than Unicum, one which lends itself to drinking as a shot, using as a mixer, and generally appealing to a more novice drinker. That’s neither good nor bad… but it’s not Unicum. 80 proof. B+

Zwack Unicum Plum Liqueur (pictured) – Take Unicum and age it instead for six months in oak casks on a bed of dried plums (huge in Hungary) and you have Unicum Plum. The nose isn’t immediately distinguishable from Unicum, licorice and spice notes. The body is instantly familiar, but brings more fruit to the table — a Port-like prune character that helps to balance out some of Unicum’s overwhelming bitterness. If you’re looking for something somewhere in between Unicum and Zwack on the bitter to sweet spectrum, Unicum Plum may fit the bill, though I find the bitter Unicum more exciting. Note the lower alcohol level. 70 proof. B+

each $32 (1 liter bottle) / zwack.hu

Review: Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Barley and 12 Year Old Straight Wheat Whiskeys

MS Trio 525x601 Review: Mastersons 10 Year Old Straight Barley and 12 Year Old Straight Wheat Whiskeys

The folks at Masterson’s — made by California-based parent company 35 Maple Street — make what has already become a cult rye whiskey, Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Rye. Now the company is back with an even stranger pair of siblings: two well-aged whiskeys, one 100% wheat, one 100% barley.

Both are straight whiskeys made from 100% of their respective grains, sourced from Canada and bottled in the U.S. How do they measure up against the masterful Masterson’s Rye? Thoughts follow.

Masterson’s 12 Year Old Straight Wheat Whiskey - Modest straw in color, the unique nose is immediately hard to place. What comes across are notes of butterscotch, mint, woodsy cedar closet, and a touch of mothballs (not in a bad way). The body is sweeter than expected, with more of a sense of balance than you might expect from the quirky nose. There’s more of a graham cracker character on the palate, with notes of pear, cinnamon, and vanilla. It’s got quite a bit of bite — this is 100 proof stuff — but that masks the relative thinness of the body. This is a whiskey that is initially a little confusing because its flavors are so unexpected… but it grows on you quite a bit after you spend some time with it, which I recommend you do. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #3538. A- / $62

Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Barley Whiskey – 100% unmalted barley, an extreme rarity in the whiskey world. Well, I disliked this at WhiskyFest and I still dislike it now that I’ve had more time to spend with it. The nose offers an immature, bready character, weighted down with hospital notes. On the body, more of the same — but intense. The stock is rough, the palate leaden with the essence of wood oils, mashed grains, chimney soot, and burnt toast. Something hints at intrigue on the finish — a bit of honey and vanilla, perhaps — but it’s not nearly enough to elevate this beyond a misfiring curiosity. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #6045. C / $62

35maplestreet.com

Review: Liqueurs of Vietnam’s Son Tinh

sonh tinh box 300x224 Review: Liqueurs of Vietnams Son TinhAnd now for something completely different…

Son Tinh is a liqueur producer based in Vietnam. The company makes a wide range of spirits, including a shochu-style liqueur, bitters, and fruit-based liqueurs. At present the company makes 11 products, 6 of which we (miraculously) got to sample, delivered via an awesome, custom-made wooden crate straight from Vietnam!

Here’s a look at the nearly full lineup. Son Tinh’s liqueurs are slowly making their way to stores — the company did win Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2013 — with wholesale pricing of between $9 and $16 per 450ml bottle. Availability is expected in late 2014.

Meanwhile, thoughts follow.

Son Tinh Minh Mang 160x300 Review: Liqueurs of Vietnams Son TinhSon Tinh Nep Phu Loc – A clear sticky rice liqueur similar to shochu. Fragrant, grassy nose. Moderately sweet on the tongue, similar to a western-style vodka, with some marshmallow/nougat notes and a slightly earthy undertone. Simple and quite pleasing, could be used interchangeably with either shochu or vodka as a base spirit in cocktails. 76 proof. A-

Son Tinh Minh Mang -  A light amber herbal liqueur that boasts 19 ingredients, matured from 3 to 5 years before bottling. Intense and immediately pungent, with a nose of bitter roots, dirt, and Thai basil. The body hints at sweetness before delving back into a hefty bitter character, dense with licorice, burnt orange peel, and more tough root character. A bit of a tough slog, even for amaro lovers. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Nhat Da – A dark brown herbal bitters matured from 3 to 5 years, the name means “one night.” Complex nose of coffee grounds, licorice, tar, and burnt lemongrass. The body is overwhelmingly bitter (plus a touch of that unavoidable sour edge), offering intense licorice and absolutely blackened coffee character. Strong and punchy, it never lets up with even a hint of sweetness to even things out. I’d say you’d get used to it, but you won’t. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Chanh Leo - Passion fruit liqueur. Pale gold, some edgy sour fruit notes on the nose. The body is full of sour apple and pear notes, with candied lemons and dried mango character. It’s a bit scattered, falling back on a brewed tea character before a modestly bitter finish takes hold. 54 proof. B-

Son Tinh Mo Vang – Apricot liqueur. Deep amber, with musky perfume on the nose. A taste on the tongue arrives with a rush of sugar… before cascading into an intensely sour experience. The apricot is initially vivid, but leaves an aftertaste of bitter roots and fruit vinegar. 54 proof. B

Son Tinh Tao Meo – Rose apple liqueur, based on the rare fruit of the rose plant. On the nose, a mix of fruit and flowers, as the name would imply. More perfume than fruit, and blessedly dialed back on that sour character. What remains is a somewhat Madeira-like spirit with notes of raspberry and rose petals. 54 proof. B+

sontinh.com

Review: The 86 Co. Aylesbury Duck Vodka and Ford’s Gin

The 86 Co., based in New York, is a sort of negociant of the spirits world. crafting spirits in cahoots with other distillers and distilleries from around the world. The company launched a barrage of four spirits in 2012, including the two we’re profiling below.

aylesbury duck vodka 225x300 Review: The 86 Co. Aylesbury Duck Vodka and Fords GinAylesbury Duck Vodka - Distilled from Canadian winter wheat, bottled in California with a touch of Mendocino well water, then named after, yes, a duck. Modestly filtered only to remove particulate matter. I really like this vodka. The nose has earthy overtones, playing things safe. But the body’s quite a different animal. It’s sweet without being sugary, much in the way an fresh apple is sweet. The character is actually more akin to crisp pineapple, offering tartness and bite with each sip, with a finish that brings across notes of vanilla and milk chocolate. Medicinal hints creep up on the very back end of the finish. This is a fun and surprisingly modern vodka that exhibits that rarest of character traits in a world of overblown sugar bombs: restraint. 80 proof. A- / $26 (1 liter)

fords gin 226x300 Review: The 86 Co. Aylesbury Duck Vodka and Fords GinFords Gin – Named because it’s a collaboration of The 86 Co. with Simon Ford, but oddly lacking an apostrophe. Column-distilled from English wheat in London, this is the only gin in memory that doesn’t just outline its botanical bill, but tells you exact percentages of each ingredient in the infusion blend. Here, they are: Italian juniper (49.5%), Romanian coriander (30.5%), Haitian/Moroccan orange peel (3.2%), Turkish grapefruit peel (3.2%), Polish angelica (3.2%), Indonesian cassia (2.1%), Chinese jasmine (3.2%), and Italian/Moroccan orris root (2.1%). There’s only one real eyebrow-raiser there — the jasmine — but these otherwise typical ingredients come together quite well in Fords. Despite the hefty juniper component, this isn’t a particularly green-tasting gin. It’s readily evident on the nose, before offering notes of rose petal, sandalwood, and sage. The body pulls out the cinnamon (cassia) fairly quickly, and the palate grows with more lemony (or grapefruity) notes as the finish builds. Here, that earthiness comes back a bit, alongside straight-up juniper, before finishing clean. The gin is finished with that Mendocino water in California before bottling at 90 proof. A- / $31 (1 liter)

the86co.com

Review: Stumbras Vodka

Stumbras Vodka Centenary 113x300 Review: Stumbras VodkaStumbras hails from a large conglomerate in the Baltic region, one of its concerns being distilling. This Lithuanian vodka comes from a distillery that produces a whopping 13 million liters of 350 different beverages each year. The company is the largest producer of spirits in the region.

Stumbras produces a variety of vodkas, including many flavored varieties. These two are both unflavored versions, distilled from grain and heavily filtered through sand, charcoal, and silver filters. Both are bottled at 80 proof.

Stumbras Centenary Vodka – The picture doesn’t do it justice, but that’s an actual stalk of wheat inside the bottle, not part of a picture on the label. Meant to echo the grain base of the spirit within, I have to admit I don’t get a lot of bready grain character here but rather a wholly Old World experience that feels like the kind of spirit a Siberian ice farmer would knock back by the bottle after a long day. That means big medicinal notes up front, though they’re not particularly pungent or overwhelming. There’s a slight lemon character to both the nose and the body, which gives the finish more of an easiness than you get with burlier Eastern European vodkas, although it still packs an acidic bite. Overall it’s simple, a bit rustic, and straightforward — but in vodka, that can work surprisingly well. A- / $16

Stumbras Pure Vodka – Pure is made in a similar fashion to Centenary, but is additionally filtered through platinum filters and rested for three days before bottling. No wheat stalk, either. I was surprised to discover the differences between Pure and Centenary, figuring these were really just repackaged versions of the same stuff. But Pure is softer and creamier, with distinctly less bite than the Centenary. The lemon is virtually gone here, replaced with touches of vanilla. The overall impact, however, is about the same, with Pure offering somewhat less bracing power but more long-term sippability. A- / $18

stumbras.eu

Review: Breaker Bourbon

breaker bourbon 478x1200 Review: Breaker Bourbon

The town of Buellton, California is better known as part of the Sideways-famed Southern California wine road. But it turns out they’re making whiskey there, too.

Breaker Bourbon is sourced whiskey from our good friends in Indiana, crafted from barrels at least 5 years old. Each batch is a blend of just 8 barrels of whiskey, which makes this pretty small batch stuff, to be sure. There’s no word on the original mashbill, but it’s made from a clearly typical mix of corn/barley/rye, not wheat.

This is easy sippin’ Bourbon, with some surprising nuance to it. The nose is slightly corny, with quiet vanilla behind it. The palate is where this spirit shines. It starts with caramel corn, then takes off with notes of taffy, Sugar Babies, graham crackers, and some menthol. Lots going on here, but it’s all in the same microverse, and the balance is spot on. Fairly soft for most of the way, the finish brings the burlier wood component to the forefront along with a touch of licorice, and the higher proof ensures the whiskey stays with you for a long while. This is an excellent fireside sipper, and overall a solid example of what Bourbon can be, even when it’s bottled on the other side of the country.

Reviewed: Batch #3, bottle #242. 90 proof.

Update: Breaker offers some additional production information: “True we source barrels and they are corn, rye, and malted barley.  What happens when they arrive at our distillery is what we believe has the most impact on the bourbon before our skilled distiller creates his small-batch blends.  Being located in Buellton we have coastal humidity that rolls down the Santa Rita Hills through the evening and early morning. During the days the temperature increases daily between 40-50 degrees. The barrels breathe very heavy and our friends at Cal Poly tell us we age about 4 times faster than they do in Kentucky.  We blend and barrel each batch in Buellton.”

A- / $40 / ascendantspirits.com

Review: Infuse Flavored Vodkas

infuse vodka 525x700 Review: Infuse Flavored Vodkas

Oh man, I’m a sucker for a bottle of hooch with something floating around in it. Long shafts of herbs, whole pears… what doesn’t look amazing bobbing around inside a bottle of alcohol?

Infuse’s flavored vodkas all adhere to this conceit, each with something or other inside, proving, ostensibly, that natural elements are responsible for the flavors within the bottle and not chemical sludge out of a test tube.

Infuse Vodkas, made in California, are distilled from Kansas corn, then flavored with actual fruits and spices (everything goes in dried, so shelf life should be quite lengthy) instead of mysterious “natural flavorings.” There are at least six varieties on offer. We sampled four for review. All 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Infuse Lemon Vodka – Pale yellow color. Tart lemon notes on the nose, fresh and clear like Limoncello. The body sticks closer to the vodka formula, with bracing medicinal notes cut with a touch of lemon peel. That body feels like it could have more of a fruit element to it to balance out the booziness, but otherwise it’s a solid and authentic rendition of a mild lemon vodka. Of special note: The long strips of lemon peel lose their yellow color over time, leaving what looks like limpid white linguine floating in the bottle. B

Infuse Mango Vodka – Again, a super-fresh and authentically tropical nose on this vodka, a moderately pale yellow spirit with three slices of (dried?) mango in the bottom of the bottle. It’s so fragrant it’s hard to stop smelling it. Fortunately the body doesn’t disappoint. Here the fruit and punchy alcohol notes are in balance, the vodka offering silky mango sweetness with a dusting of bite to back it up. This is nice enough on its own but would be gorgeous in a Cosmo-esque cocktail. A

Infuse Cinnamon Apple Vodka – The most visually appealing of the bunch, a whiskey-brown spirit with numerous apple slices floating at the top of the bottle. The nose is pure apple, with touches of cinnamon, just like grandma used to bake. Smooth as silk on the body — the vodka is really only evident on the finish, as the sweet, dessert-like character of the product takes center stage. Not exactly a mainstream combination that you’ll turn to nightly, but a fun change of pace to be sure. A-

Infuse Chili Pepper Vodka – Three lonely chili peppers float at the top of this (again) pale yellow vodka, the only hint that something spicy’s going on. Even the nose is not particularly pungent, the most clearly vodka-like — medicinal, but tempered with some sweetness — of the bunch with just a hint of red pepper on the nose. The hospital notes hit you first on the tongue, then the pepper arrives. It’s a pleasant heat — moderate, a little more biting than gentle, particularly if you take an especially large sip, which gnaws a bit at the back of the throat. I’ve never been a huge fan of pepper vodkas, but Infuse’s rendition is as good as any. Spicy Bloody Mary? Sure. Beyond that, I’ve no idea how to use it. Grows on you, though. B

each $28 / infusevodkas.com

Review: Thatcher’s Prickly Pear Liqueur

 Review: Thatchers Prickly Pear LiqueurLet’s start with the obvious: What is a prickly pear, anyway? It’s the fruit of the paddle cactus, the iconic desert plant that sometimes grows little red bulbs on its ends.

Thatcher’s makes a wide variety of oddly-flavored liqueurs (yumberry, anyone?), all of which are organic and most of which are at least intriguing. The latest version turns to the prickly pear, filling out a gaping hole in the “pinkish-red” section of the rainbow-like collection of Thatcher’s liqueurs.

I couldn’t tell you what prickly pear is supposed to taste like, but Thatcher’s does a pretty good job with it either way. The nose is something of a cross between raspberry and sweet tea. The body is lightly sweet and fruity, a vague strawberry character. I’ve read that prickly pear is a said to taste like a cross between watermelon and bubble gum, and while that may be a stretch with this liqueur, I can see where they’re going with that description. What that doesn’t capture is the little kick of cayenne that you get on the finish… something that separates this from a strawberry liqueur, and in a fun way.

What to do with it, then? Not a lot of cocktail recipes call for prickly pear liqueur, but try subbing this in for just about any fruit liqueur (even triple sec) to see what you get… or sub for a fruit vodka to create a less potent but more flavorful version of something like a cosmopolitan.

Colored with organic carrot extract. 30 proof.

A- / $20 / thatchersorganic.com

Review: Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Rum Lineup

Cruzan Bottles Distillers Collection 2013 525x372 Review: Cruzan Distillers Collection Rum Lineup

Cruzan, based in St. Croix, is something of an underrated distillery in the world of rum. Now it’s moving ever so slightly upmarket, with the launch of three new premium rums, all part of the new Distiller’s Collection.

All three of these rums start with the same base stock — a blend of rums from barrels that are aged from 5 to 12 years old. They’re then treated in different ways, as we’ll discuss below. Each of these rums is a winner, and all are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Light Rum - This is the base 5-12 year old rum stock, charcoal filtered to white. There’s a massive amount of flavor here for a white rum, with a deep woodiness, and notes of raisins, brown sugar, caramels, and chocolate. There’s still a touch of funk to remind you it’s actually rum, with that big and burly body keeping things on a woody keel. It’s a unique rum with lots of depth; worth exploring. A- / $20

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Dark Rum - This is the same stock as the above, bottled as a dark rum without the filtration. Good color here, though not as dark as you’d expect given its age. This is a more well-rounded rum, with more prominent almond notes and a little coffee to even out some of the tannic wood character in the light rum. Plenty sweet, this rum has its edges smoothed out and presents itself as a refined and balanced sipping rum. An utter steal. A / $20

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Single Barrel Premium Extra Aged Rum - Again, this is from the same stock as the above, so how can a blend of rums spanning a seven year aging period be a “single barrel” rum? Because that rum is aged for a second time in new American oak barrels (for an indeterminate time), and then those barrels are bottled as single barrel rums. (Note that no barrel number is noted on the label.) The rum has an almost sherried, orange-peel character to it, along with ample wood character driven by that second stretch of aging in oak. The body offers a wealth of experiences, including a caramel core laced with cinnamon and cloves, plus brown butter and brown sugar crumble. Touches of coffee develop over time in the glass. The most whiskey-like rum of the bunch, it’s also the most satisfying, a deep and sultry rum with a long and soothing finish. Much to love at this price. A / $30

cruzanrum.com

Review: Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon

jim beam single barrel 525x1008 Review: Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon

It’s hard to believe Jim Beam doesn’t already have a single barrel offering under the Beam name, but I suppose the vast array of premium whiskeys the company makes (some of which are single barrel) — including Knob Creek, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and more — have fit that bill rather well over the years.

Now Beam is finally filling that hole, as the Jim Beam brand has moved upscale, by giving it its own Single Barrel edition. Drawn from hand-selected barrels of Beam stock (the company says less than 1% of barrels qualify for Single Barrel bottling), the bourbon is bottled with no age statement, presumably because it varies from bottle to bottle. Otherwise, what’s in Single Barrel, at least from a mashbill standpoint, is likely the same as you’d find in any bottle of white label Jim Beam, only bottled at a higher proof.

So on to the review. The nose of Jim Beam Single Barrel is ripe with dense wood (a bit sawdusty) and flecked with orange peel notes. The palate offers more traditional bourbon notes — lots of vanilla and caramel, modest wood notes, and plenty of popcorn character coming along later in the body. Here the wood element is well-integrated into the rest of the spirit, offering a distinct oakiness that isn’t overwhelming or hoary. The higher alcohol level isn’t particularly pushy, offering a slightly sharper character without an overwhelming amount of burn. I’d say it’s just about right, giving Single Barrel a somewhat rustic, frontier character, while still offering a refined drinking experience.

95 proof. Available March 2014. Reviewed from pre-release sample (no barrel number available).

A- / $35 / jimbeam.com