Category Archives: Rated A-

Book Review: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course

windows on the world 273x300 Book Review: Kevin Zralys Windows on the World Complete Wine CourseSituated at the top of One World Trade Center, Windows on the World was a restaurant-bar-entertainment venue that was beloved by just about everyone until the tower’s tragic destruction. Its resident cellar master was the equally beloved Kevin Zraly, and for the last 25-plus years he’s been publishing his own book on wine. Actually, it’s a “course,” designed to teach newcomers on wine everything they need to know to get comfortable with wine in a relatively slim volume.

Annually updated, the book combines timeless information with current events. Here you’ll find a page on how weather impacts the grape harvest, along with a sidebar digesting recent storms around the world. This contextualizes Zraly’s lessons while giving the dedicated fodder they can conjure up at cocktail parties.

It’s a breezy book, often presented in Q&A format and with lots of headings followed by a quick paragraph or two of detail. There are plenty of pictures and maps, but Zraly keeps things simple and easy to digest. (The book’s errors — Napa doesn’t have an “Atlas Creek,” but rather an “Atlas Peak,” last time I checked — are curious, but not deal killers.)

One of my favorite things about the book are the nuggets you simply don’t get anywhere else — and would be hard-pressed to dig up online, even. A map of the U.S. with the number of wineries and AVAs in each state? It’s here. A list of the major wine conglomerates and all the brands they own? Got it. The wine grapes native to Hungary? Perhaps less useful, but it’s here too.

Zraly deserves his reputation and should be praised for condensing a complex subject into just over 300 pages (plus online extras) while covering far more than “just the basics.” You may not need to buy it every year, but one copy will get you a long way.

A- / $30 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: The BenRiach Horizons, Septendecim, Solstice 2ed, and Authenticus

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It’s been over 5 years since our last serious look at BenRiach’s distillery bottlings, and things have been afoot. This Speyside distillery has recently launched four new expressions, retiring a few and updating a couple with older versions.

Let’s not delay. Thoughts follow.

The BenRiach Horizons 12 Years Old Triple Distilled – Most Scotch whisky is distilled twice, but Horizons was born in the ’90s of an experimental run that toyed with triple distilling. Afterward, the finished product was aged in standard ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years. The results are delightful. Though the overproof entry is racy, offering notes of honey, brown sugar, fresh-baked bread, and modest vanilla. All in all, the nose of a classic Scotch whisky. The body offers more of the same, with an orange peel note on the finish. It’s hard to tell if that third distillation has done any magic here, but the finished product is crisp, clean, and satisfying beyond its 12 years of age. 100 proof. A- / $80

The BenRiach Septendecim Peated 17 Years Old – A new addition to BenRiach’s peated range, 17 years old and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Heavy peat and barbecue smoke on the nose, with modest apple notes. The body is unique, starting with that smoky peat before quickly building distinct cantaloupe notes, something that’s quite rare for malt whisky. Spiced nuts and a melange of raisins, cloves, and Madeira wine notes bring up the rear. 92 proof. B+ / $80

The BenRiach Solstice 2nd Edition 17 Years Old – This 17 year old bottling is heavily peated, then aged in bourbon barrels before finishing in Tawny Port casks. It succeeds a 15 year version of the spirit that used the same overall technique. The nose brings peat at first, though less pungent than in Septendecim. On the tongue, things are considerably different: Smoked meats play with plums, ripe raisins, applesauce, and touches of caramel and toffee. This whisky is a true delight, and it improves as you sip it, opening up to reveal more and more fruit, while leaving the smoke to play in the background like a roaring fire in the living room on Christmas Eve. A winner. 100 proof. A / $100

The BenRiach Authenticus Peated 25 Years Old – Formerly available as a 21 year old, Authenticus is back at a full 25 years of age. Peated and bourbon barrel aged. Unique nose, with more fruit and less peat than all of the above (including Horizons) — with a chocolate-covered apple slice, orange peel, and currant character to it. On the palate the spirit builds to offer distinct raisin and chocolate notes, burnt caramel, and a touch of mint. The finish is a bit woodier than expected, which leaves a bit of tannin on the back of the throat. Hardly a deal-killer, though. This is amazing stuff on the whole. 92 proof. A / $250

benriachdistillery.co.uk

Review: 2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and 2011 Trilogy

flora springs trilogy 70x300 Review: 2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and 2011 TrilogyMore new releases from our friends at Napa Valley’s Flora Springs, including the 2011 vintage of its flagship wine, Trilogy, a Bordeaux style blend.

2012 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay - Initially quite oaky, this barrel-fermented Chardonnay opens up with notes of figs, peaches, vanilla, and creme brulee. Time in glass is the friend of this wine, which starts out quite dense — you might even decant it! — as the brooding body eventually reveals more of its fruit over an hour or so. B+ / $35

2011 Flora Springs Trilogy Napa Valley - 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Petite Verdot, 5% Malbec. A pretty and restrained Trilogy this year offers modest currants and dried cherry notes, plus tobacco, tea leaf, and cocoa bean notes. Quite a bit of tannin is hanging out on the back end, where a bit of touch of blackberry jam awaits. Good stuff. A- / $75

florasprings.com

Book Review: Bitter Brew

bitter brew 197x300 Book Review: Bitter BrewI really had no idea that the Busch family had gone through such a turbulent century, with the fortunes of Budweiser careening up and down. But then again, like most readers of this blog, I don’t give Budweiser a whole lot of thought, anyway.

But with Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, author William Knoedelseder grabs you right from the start (with the ultimate fall — the company’s foreign takeover in 2008), before backtracking to 1857 when Adolphus Busch took over a small, bankrupt brewery and launched the A-B empire. While some tales, like the Busch’s obsession with and purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals, may not carry much weight with readers who are more interested in the sudsier side of things, but Knoedelseder’s gifts with the pen will keep you flipping the pages nonetheless.

One tragic oversight: No mention of Spuds MacKenzie.

A- / $13 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Camus VSOP Elegance and VSOP Borderies Cognac

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A Borderies Cognac… that’s a youngish VSOP. Borderies, for those not in the know, is a small, very renowned grape-growing subregion of Cognac. Normally, Borderies bottlings are old XO expressions — which command even higher prices due to their regional pedigree. vsop camus borderies Review: Camus VSOP Elegance and VSOP Borderies CognacAnd while Camus does offer an XO Borderies, it has recently (and quietly) put out this VSOP Borderies expression, a rarity I’ve never seen before now.

It just so happens I had a fresh bottle of Camus VSOP (now known as Camus VSOP Elegance) to compare against this limited-edition Camus VSOP Borderies. Here’s how they shake out.

Camus VSOP Elegance – Recently cleaned up with strong “Elegance” labeling and more modern styling, the off-the-rack Camus VSOP bottling offers classic younger Cognac notes: oak, Christmas cake, and lingering citrus notes, tinged with cinnamon. It’s an easygoing sipper that doesn’t overly complicate things. B+ / $40

Camus VSOP Borderies – More fruit up front here, growing considerably as it gets some air to it. Cinnamon apple, apricots, even coconut and pineapple notes come across. You don’t get much of that with the standard VSOP, which keeps its cards closer to its vest. The finish only builds up the fruit component. 15,000 bottles made. A- / $57

camus.fr

Review: 5 Whiskies from Japan’s Nikka Distillery

Nikka Coffey Grain 750ml 300 389x1200 Review: 5 Whiskies from Japans Nikka Distillery

An old part of the Asahi empire, Nikka (est. 1934) suddenly finds itself part of the new guard of Japanese whiskys positively flooding into the U.S. Nikka makes a massive number of whiskys in a wide variety of styles and ages. What we present here is but a small selection of Nikka’s world, reflecting the most common Nikka expressions you’ll find in our shores today.

Thoughts follow.

Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12 Years Old – A classic single malt (100% malted barley from Nikka’s newer distillery) with tons to love. The nose is pretty and modern, offering well-integrated grain, oak, and nougat elements. The subtle smokiness starts to develop primarily on the palate, which offers crisp citrus notes, butterscotch, and some floral notes. Beautiful integration here, on a creamy, sexy body. Vanilla custard sticks with you for ages after a few sips. Feels far more accomplished than its 12 years of age would dictate. 90 proof. A / $120

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15 Years Old – Single malt, older distillery than Miyagikyo, which explains how this 15 year old whisky can be priced the same as its little brother. Quite a different spirit, the Yoichi brings a bit more smokiness, and a more rustic composition, with a racier nose and a considerably bigger smoke profile. The body offers big citrus notes, applesauce, cloves, and a chewiness driven by the barbecue-like smokiness. A fun and flavorful whisky, but it pales next to the refinement of the Miyagikyo. 90 proof. B+ / $130

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old – I’m an avowed fan of the Taketsuru 12 Years Old, a pure malt (a blend of single malts from multiple distilleries), so this 17 year old expression sounds delightful right off the bat. The smoke-and-sweetness of this malt’s nose remind me of the Yoichi 15, but the body is a different animal. Here, that rusticness has faded away to reveal a satin body, mouth-filling with thick caramel, vanilla custard, and just wisps of smoke. There’s an almost lemon candy-like character around the edges that’s hard to pin down… but is quite delicious. 86 proof. A- / $150

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old – Lots of grain on this older expression of Taketsuru, which is surprising. The nose initially feels hot, heavy with old wood character. The body is equally laden with heavy woodiness, a tannic and tough spirit that just feels “too old” — almost sour at times with past-its-prime cherry, burnt cocoa beans, and charcoal notes. Not at all my favorite of this lineup. 86 proof. B- / $180

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – This is a huge departure from the above, a grain whisky (corn, barley, wheat) made in a continuous still instead of a pot still. It’s what blended whisky is blended with, but this is a 100% grain whisky, with no single malt added. Sharp on the nose, with lemon notes, vanilla, and strong menthol character. The body is surprisingly easygoing, a fruity whiskey with notes of hazelnuts, coffee bean, sea salt, and modest smokiness. There’s a lot going on here, that menthol character bringing it all into (for the most part) balance. Worth exploring, and it’s a bargain compared to the rest of the Nikka stable. 90 proof. B+ / $70

nikka.com

Review: The Arran Malt 12 Years Old Cask Strength Batch #2

Arran 12 cask strength 140x300 Review: The Arran Malt 12 Years Old Cask Strength Batch #2Batch #2 of  this rarity, a cask strength bottling of Arran 12 Years Old, was crafted from 17 first-fill sherry butts and 4 second-fill sherry hogsheads. There can’t be much of this to go around. In fact, as I type this, Arran is already on Batch #3 according to its website.

The nose is hot, but pretty. Nougat, malty — almost bread-like — with dense orange and spiced apple notes after. On the palate, the orange character takes on some raisin, marshmallow, and marzipan. Though it’s only 107.2 proof — many cask strength bottlings are far higher in alcohol — it really benefits from a few drops of water, soothing the heat and bringing out the more enchanting, dessert-like components of the malt — with even a touch of chocolate that you don’t find when sipping it sans water.

Fun stuff from the only distillery on the Isle of Arran.

107.2 proof.

A- / $68 / arranwhisky.com

Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon Region

HERITAGE DU TEMPS SINGLA 2005 115x300 Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon RegionRoussillon is southern France’s answer to Sauternes. This small part of the Languedoc region, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains, specializes in sweet dessert wines, made much in the same style of the more famous — and much more expensive — brethren to the north.

These wines, known as Vins Doux Naturels in their sweetened state, come from a number of sub-districts and are made with a variety of grape varietals. (The most noteworthy wines from this area are the well-regarded wines from the tiny Banyuls region, though these are closer to Port.) You’ll note the “Ambre” designation on some of the wines below. “Ambre” means that a wine from this region has been aged for at least two years in an oxidative container (like a large oak vat) before bottling, similar to Tawny Port. This can give the wine a much deeper, golden color.

And by the way, the district isn’t just promoting their value as an alternative to pricier stickies — it’s also got cocktails you can check out using Roussillon as a base.

Today we look at three selections from the Roussillon region, all fortified whites. Thoughts follow.

2006 Chateau Les Pins Rivesaltes Ambre – A blend of 25% White Grenache, 25% Malvasia, and 50% Macabeu grapes. Aromatic and perfumy, almost like an Alsatian wine. The body initially hits you with honey, then spins into an orange/lemon character before finishing with notes of cereal, something that’s almost like a granola. Refreshing, and different enough to make experiencing worthwhile over other white dessert wines. 16% abv. B+ / $15

2011 Chateau Les Pins Muscat de Rivesaltes -  50% Muscat Petit Grains and 50% Muscat Alexandrie grapes. Typical of Muscat, with a nose of peaches and marshmallow cream. On the tongue, more aromatics develop, with a perfumed white flower character that balances the fruit. The result is fresh and fragrant, a more pure expression of the vine than the almost malty/bready character that comes along in the Ambre. 16% abv. A- / $15

2006 Domaine Singla Heritage du Temps Ambre – A much different experience than the Les Pins, this 100% Macabeu wine has the intensity of a lighter sherry, crossed with a Madeira. The nose offers the distinct, old-wine sharpness of Madeira, with hints of floral aromatics and some sweetness beneath. On the palate, you’ll find more of a honey character backed with chewy nougat, nuts, and that sour cherry finish that again recalls Madeira. Not bad, but hardly the crowd-pleaser that the (cheaper) Muscat de Riversaltes is. B / $56

winesofroussillon.com

Review: Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 03 Pugacehev’s Cobra

hangar 24 barrel roll Pagachevs cobra 265x300 Review: Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 03 Pugacehevs CobraA Russian Imperial Stout brewed with maple syrup and aged in bourbon barrels for eight months, Hangar 24′s latest barrel-aged brew is indeed, as promised, “an assault on your senses.”

They mean that in a good way, but at first, Pugachev’s Cobra, now in its third release (it comes out every December), is a little jarring. Of course, at 13.8% alcohol, a beer will do that to you.

Give it time to settle down a bit and this Barrel Roll bottling becomes quite the charmer. Smooth coffee notes (not ultra-bitter), rounded out by just a touch of that maple flavor, give this a delightful dessert-like feeling at the start. Cocoa notes come along in short order, as the malty core starts to build. On the finish, it’s fruitier than you’d think, with notes of raisin, plum, and blackberry, all shrouded in vanilla syrup driven by the bourbon barrel (and that monumental body).

This isn’t a beer you’re going to crack open and guzzle, but by the fireside — which is where I’m enjoying it — it’s quite a little delight.

A- / $20 per 750ml bottle / hangar24brewery.com

Tasting Chopin Vodka: Potato vs. Rye vs. Wheat

chopinkit 525x930 Tasting Chopin Vodka: Potato vs. Rye vs. Wheat

Curious how the base carbohydrate impacts the way a straight vodka tastes? Well, Poland-based Chopin is here to illustrate. It’s one of the few companies that make a multitude of straight vodkas from different base products. In fact, it now makes three: one from potato, one from rye, and one from wheat.

While I’ve tasted (and reviewed) both the potato and rye versions before, this is the first time I’ve sampled all three side by side (and the first time I’ve had any of them in many years). I sampled the trio blind, so as not to be tainted by preconceived notions, with thoughts below. But never mind my thoughts — this is a great little experiment to try for yourself at your favorite watering hole.

Each is 80 proof.

Chopin Potato Vodka – Similar nose to #1, with just a hint more power. On the body, it offers a punchier mouthfeel with a more savory character, and a somewhat earthy, mushroomy component on the finish. Still on the light side, but with more heft. The most “old world” vodka in the lineup. My favorite here, by a slight margin (and a significant departure from my opinion of it back in 2008). A-

Chopin Rye Vodka - Clean, slightly sweet nose, with a breezy, almost tropical nuance. Very clean, light body, with a slight astringency on the finish. Flavor profile includes very mild tropical character, and a kind of doughy finish. Easily the lightest spirit, in both body and character, in this lineup. B+

Chopin Wheat Vodka – Sharper nose, with more of a lemon curd character to it. The body hints at orange juice, adds more sweetness in the form of a nougat, almost chocolate character. Stylistically it’s the most “modern” of the bunch, with the cleanest finish. B+

each about $28 / chopinvodka.com

Review: Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey (2014)

Powers Gold Label Bottle Image 2014 420x1200 Review: Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey (2014)

The good folks at Ireland’s Powers don’t know when to quit. First they rebrand and relabel their classic Gold Label Irish whiskey in 2009, now they’re back at it again, redoing the bottle a second time while boosting the proof a bit. (And that doesn’t even include the launch of the masterful John’s Lane special edition bottling.)

Nothing has changed about the recipe to Gold Label — it’s still triple distilled at Midleton, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and non-chill filtered. The only change (aside from bottle cosmetics that now include a metallic neck hanger) is the increase in alcohol up to 43.2% — the product’s original export strength — from the standard 40%.

The change is a good one, giving a little more power (ahem) to the whiskey while maintaining the easy charm and gentle flavor profile that attracts so many people to Irish whiskey.

There’s lots of traditional Irish character here to explore, with a nose that’s full of ripe banana, butterscotch, cereal, and gentle honey notes. On the body, all of the above are met by orange notes, along with both coconut and pineapple on the back end. The finish is both fruity and malty, reminiscent of a frozen custard spiked with toppings. The slight bump in alcohol works well at boosting the body just a smidge, adding just a bit more creaminess to an already well-balanced spirit.

86.4 proof.

A- / $25 / powerswhiskey.com

Review: Sinfire Cinnamon Whisky

SinFire  New Bottle 122x300 Review: Sinfire Cinnamon WhiskyOregon-based Hood River Distillers has recently rebranded Sinfire, a cinnamon whisky (no “e” on this one) that was launched only two years ago in February 2012. The highlight of the relaunch: “Best served as a 32-degree shot, Sinfire now features a thermochromic temperature-triggered color-changing label to help consumers know exactly when it reaches optimum temperature. The label also incorporates photochromic ink, which brightens the logo when exposed to UV lights.”

Well, then!

We’ve never sampled Sinfire (tagline: “an evil spirit”), so what better time than the present to give it a go?

Cinnamon-flavored whiskey doesn’t typically involve a ton of nuance, and Sinfire is pretty straightforward from the start. The nose is quite mild, more cinnamon toast than cinnamon straight from the jar. On the palate, it’s remarkably easygoing, with one of the lowest overall levels of spice I’ve encountered in this type of spirit. Oddly, it’s not as overwhelmingly sweet as you might expect but rather uses its buttery, creamy body to smooth out the roughness that’s typical of cinnamon whiskeys. The sweetness hits you mid-palate, more of a brown sugar, and the cinnamon pops up most presently on the moderately racy endgame.

Surprisingly well-made, Sinfire proves that you don’t have to blast out your customers’ sinuses with spices in order to craft a rich and soothing spirit. Hardly evil.

70 proof.

A- / $18 / hrdspirits.com

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 2004 Vintage

evan williams single barrel 2004 446x1200 Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 2004 Vintage

Evan Williams’ annual Single Barrel release is always a cause for celebration. It’s invariably a great whiskey, and it’s also incredibly affordable. While your typical vintage-dated single barrel bourbon will run you $75 or more, Evan Williams Single Barrel is currently priced at $27 a bottle. (Last year’s price: $26.) If you see this whiskey for sale — no matter what vintage it is — buy it.

Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam says he was taking a cue from the evolving national palate this year and was bottling a spirit that was “maybe a bit more assertive and bold than in years past,” choosing barrels aged high in the warehouse (where temperature fluctuates the most) for about 9 1/2 years.

Frankly, I don’t get assertive from this bourbon, though it is certainly a knockout. The nose offers plenty of wood, but it’s balanced and pretty, lightly perfumed with vanilla and cinnamon notes — a serious aroma, but a lively one. On the palate, plenty of spice — more cinnamon and cloves — is met by some orange oil, touches of licorice, ample vanilla caramel, and plenty of lumberyard on the back end.

All in all, the 2004 vintage of Evan Williams Single Barrel fits in with this long-running series’ house style, and it perhaps offers a ever-so-slightly burlier-than-usual character on the finish. Either way, it’s incredibly easy to enjoy, and well worth its embarrassingly reasonable investment.

86.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #1.

A- / $27 / evanwilliams.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Laphroaig Triple Wood Single Malt Whisky

LP TripleWood WithTube 159x300 Review: Laphroaig Triple Wood Single Malt WhiskyWe’ve written an epic amount about Laphroaig over the years, but somehow one of its core bottlings has eluded a formal review. Laphroaig Triple Wood is officially a seasonal offering, but it’s pretty generally available, with 12,000 bottles produced for the U.S. market in 2012. (No figures were offered for 2013.) You’ll even find the Islay classic available for below list price if you hunt around.

Laphroaig Triple Wood refers to the three types of casks in which the spirit is aged: ex-Bourbon casks, miniature quarter casks, and ex-oloroso sherry casks. No age information is provided on the amount of time spent in each barrel, but the whisky is plenty mature and feels appropriately aged given its price tag.

The nose is distinctively Laphroaig, a salty, seaweedy peat bog of a spirit rich with sultry smokiness. The sherry element is evident, if only slightly, as you breathe it in, with a rich orange oil character that laces through the smoke. On the body, there’s plenty to enjoy. Plenty of peat, to be sure, but also fun vanilla nougat notes, butterscotch, maple syrup, and more of that orange character — here almost like orange candy. Fun, lots of depth, and as balanced as peated whiskys tend to get.

96 proof.

A- / $60 / laphroaig.com

Review: Charbay Brandy No. 89

BrandyNo89300dpi 324x1200 Review: Charbay Brandy No. 89Ukiah, California-based Charbay turned its alembic pot stills to crafting this brandy in the winter of 1989. The grapes used are 74% pinot noir and 26% sauvignon blanc. The distillate has since been mellowing in barrels made of oak from France’s Limousin and Nevers regions for 24 years. 22 of those barrels were bottled to make Charbay’s Brandy No. 89, 1000 cases of it.

This slightly overproof brandy has developed nicely, balancing gentle wood character with notes of caramel, banana, coconut, almonds, incense, and cloves on the nose. The body is modest and far from overblown, offering  notes of caramel sauce and cigar box, roasted apples, and touches of dark chocolate. There’s quite a bit going on throughout all of this, and while it’s more restrained and nuanced than many powerhouse brandies on the market, No. 89 is well-balanced and refined, growing on you with its easy sweetness and sultry finish as you continue to experience it.

Fun stuff, and proof that America can crank out a brandy just as sophisticated as the French.

92 proof.

A- / $92 / charbay.com

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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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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