Maraschino Head to Head: Bols vs. Luxardo vs. Maraska

bols maraschinoMaraschino is an essential liqueur in many a classic cocktail — especially the Casino and the Hemingway Daiquiri — but it’s one of the few categories where only a small number of producers, typically wicker-clad European brands, hold sway. The biggest of these is Italy’s Luxardo. Croatia’s Maraska is another commonly-seen version of the liqueur.

Now comes a new entry in the form of mass-producer Bols, the Dutch liqueurists with a panoply of fruit-flavored concoctions on the market.

Can Bols Maraschino stand up to the icons of the category? I’d never formally reviewed Luxardo Maraschino or Maraska, so what better time than the present? I tasted these blind so as not to sway my opinion with fancy branding. The identifying — and surprising — details were added later.

Thoughts follow.

Bols Maraschino – There’s not so much cherry on the nose here as there are tropical lychee and flowery perfume notes, with a sort of medicinal cherry flavor on the back end. Quite sweet and syrupy, it’s got a gummy finish that smacks of added gelatin. 48 proof. C+ / $15

Luxardo Maraschino – This is a wildly different experience. It’s sharp and astringent on the nose, not sweet at all. Oddly, it offers primarily granary aromas — cereal and fresh hay — rather than the intense cherry character one expects. Fruit comes along, but it’s almost an afterthought, relegated to the background. Frankly, the combination is slightly off-putting. The palate brings more balance, but it’s still got that heavy grain maraskafocus that surprisingly reminds me of animal feed. The fruit is indistinct, but it finally comes around as an echo on the finish. The ultimate character is something closer to a fruit brandy than a liqueur — which is either a good thing or a bad, depending on what you want out of your maraschino. 64 proof. B / $29

Maraska Original Maraschino – A nice balance between the two styles above, with brandy-like aromatics and lots of floral notes on the nose, backed up by sweet cherries. On the palate, the cherries are clear and sweet, but not overpowering. Those floral elements play on the palate as well, adding a spicy distinctness and complexity to the mix. This is the only one of these three I’d consider drinking neat (and the only one in which I polished off the sample glass), but it seems tailor-made for adding round cherry notes plus exotic floral elements to a cocktail. 64 proof. A / $27

The winner? Maraska makes a surprising upset over the better-known Luxardo, by quite a wide margin.

Review: Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old and 23 Years Old

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Kirk and Sweeney 12 Years Old, imported by Sonoma’s 35 Maple Street, is one of the best artisan rums on the market. And that’s just a babe at a mere 12 years old.

Today we’re looking at the older line extensions of Kirk and Sweeney, including the 18 year old and 23 year old expressions. All three are bottled in similar, urn-inspired decanters, so look for the digits etched onto the glass in order to help keep them straight.

Both are 80 proof.

Thoughts follow.

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old – Traditional, well-aged rum notes on the nose — brown sugar, vanilla, and some chocolate/coffee overtones. The body starts things off in that direction, then takes an interesting side street toward some curious red wine notes. The coffee character builds as the finish grows, along with some leather notes and a bit of dense sweetness, almost Port-like as it mingles with that wine-like character. Austere and worthwhile. A- / $40

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old – At 23 years old, this rum is fully matured and ready for sipping on the beach, shoes off. Here you’ll find deep caramel, flecked with barrel char, toffee, intense vanilla, and a touch of baking spice — particularly cloves. They’re all here, from the nose, to the palate, to the rich, silky finish. This isn’t a particularly complicated rum, but it’s got a laser focus on the elements that make rum great. It’s one of the best rums on the market and, at just 50 bucks, quite a bargain. What’s a 23 year old bourbon going to cost you, eh? A / $50  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

35maplestreet.com

Review: High West Bourye (2015) and American Prairie Whiskey (2015)

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Utah-based High West is a fun distillery to try to keep up with. Blink and they’ve got a new product. Blink again and it’s gone, replaced with something else.

It’s been a year since we last visited with High West and already things are evolving. Bourye — the bourbon and rye blend — was off the market and now is back, with an older collection of whiskeys comprising it. American Prairie Reserve — a blend of bourbons — is gone, replaced by American Prairie, which has some younger MGP bourbon in it.

Today we look at both of these newer releases. Thoughts follow.

High West Whiskey Bourye (2015) – Sourced from multiple distilleries, all whiskeys are at least 9 years old. These include a 9 year old bourbon (21% rye, 4% barley) from Indiana; a 10 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; a 16 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; and another 16 year old rye (10% corn, 10% barley) from Barton Distillery. Proportions are not disclosed. It’s got a gorgeous nose right out of the gate as the bottle is opened — almost like a heavily spiced apple pie is baking in the next room. Nosing the glass brings out notes of scorched caramel, cloves, and some toasted cereal — though alcohol is a bit heavy on the nostrils. The body is gorgeous and so easy to fall in love with. Nice notes of cinnamon toast, mixed dried fruits, some orange peel, and lots of added baking spice (especially cloves) come rushing at you all at once. The balance between spice and sweetness is just perfect here, with just a touch of wood on the back end to provide a nod at the not unsubstantial age this whiskey has seen. While hot on the nose, the body drinks just perfectly — silky with just the right amount of power to back things up. Reviewed: Batch 15B04. 92 proof. A / $63

High West Whiskey American Prairie (2015) – A blend of bourbons: 2 year old MGP (20% rye, 5% barley), 6 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon, and 13 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon. Again, the proportions are not disclosed. Significant barrel char, lumberyard, and granary notes on the nose. Butterscotch builds on the body, with some astringency quickly taking over. The finish is rustic and pushy, echoing a strong cereal (though not quite corny) character. That 2 year old bourbon makes an impact here, one which the older stock can’t quite undo. Tough to follow up the amazing Bourye with this one. Reviewed: Batch 9. 92 proof. B / $33

highwest.com

Review: Wines of Ehlers Estate, 2015 Releases

ehlers ESt. Helena-based Ehlers is a high-end Napa winery producing a modest number of red-centric wines. Today we’re looking at a total of four 2015 releases, including 2014 whites/roses and 2012 reds. The fun starts below…

2014 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc St. Helena – Crisp and loaded with citrus, florals, and mineral notes, all wrapped up in a nicely acidic package. Fresh lemon and grapefruit, white flowers, and a touch of honeysuckle all come and go through the course of sipping on this extremely deft, balanced, and masterfully crafted sauvignon blanc. It’s exactly what this varietal should taste like. A / $28

2014 Ehlers Estate Sylviane Rose St. Helena – A rose of 100% cabernet franc, pink and dry and pretty as can be. Notes of dried flowers, fresh raspberry, some citrus, a bit of vanilla creme brulee, and a touch of balsamic give this a dazzling complexity — but it’s the dry and cleansing finish that makes it exceptionally memorable (and food friendly). A rose to try even if you’re an avowed rose hater. A / $28

2012 Ehlers Estate Merlot St. Helena – 92% merlot, 8% cabernet franc. Light violet notes offer an entry into a well-crafted but ultimately somewhat boring merlot, which yields flavors of blueberry and rhubarb and overtones of chocolate. An herbal edge on the finish cuts some of the sweetness a bit, elevating the experience with some aromatics that come into play late in the game. Give it time and use a large glass for the best experience. B+ / $55

2012 Ehlers Estate “E” 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon – 95% cabernet sauvignon, 2% cabernet franc, 2% merlot, 1% petit verdot. Dense. Give it time upon opening, maybe with a decanter. As it opens up, it reveals all the gorgeous opulence you’d expect from a Napa cab — intense cassis, fresh rosemary, lengthy vanilla, and subtle lumber notes. Paired with a sizable steak, what’s not to like here? Subtle chocolate, woody bramble, and touches of root beer merge with time. Everything’s operating on all cylinders here. Beautiful, beautiful cabernet. A / $110

ehlersestate.com

Review: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, and Appleton Rare Blend 12 Years Old Rum (2015)

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It’s been six years since we last reviewed Appleton‘s Jamaican-born rums, and the company has recently done some label and nomenclature updates across the line. The distillery tells us that the recipes and the juice inside (nor the Rubenesque bottle design) haven’t changed, so let’s take a fresh look at one of the icons of the rum business and see how things are shaping up in 2015.

appleton1Appleton Estate Signature Blend – Formerly Appleton V/X. A blend of 15 rums, average age 4 years old. No age statement. The entry level Appleton is a bit rustic and punchy, with some sharp medicinal character to it. Clearly designed as a mixer, this nicely golden rum offers big molasses backed by barrel char notes and some burnt marshmallow. A touch of banana on the back end. It’s got more than a bit of a weedy finish due to its significant youth, but it does give this rum some funky character that’s fun to play with in a cocktail. 80 proof. B / $18

appleton3Appleton Estate Reserve Blend – Formerly Appleton Estate Reserve. A blend of 20 rums, average age 6 years old. No age statement. Quite a bit more refined than the Signature, with its rough edges filed down a bit. The Estate Reserve Blend offers a sherried note up front, full of citrus and cloves, that winds its way slowly into bold vanilla and Christmas spice character. Deftly balanced between the sharp attack and the festive finish, it manages to keep a foot in both the rustic and refined worlds. Great on its own or in cocktails. 80 proof. A- / $26

Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Years Old – Replaces Appleton Extra 12 Years Old. The youngest of Appleton’s age statement rums, this one (obviously) 12 years old. No blending information offered. This is top notch rum here, and easily the best of the bunch. Refined tropical notes — banana, coconut, brown sugar, vanilla-fueled barrel char — it’s all there, right on the nose. The body takes on a fruitier character, with chocolate lacing and more of a flame-kissed/charred fruit note, giving the rum a distinctly sweet, dessert-friendly character, yet it offers a little extra oomph thanks to the slightly higher proof. This one’s hard to put down — and so beautiful it’s a perfect candidate for straight sipping. 86 proof. A / $32

appletonestate.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 21 Years Old

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

Last year, Rhetoric 20 Years Old launched and found a foothold as one of the best releases of its Orphan Barrel project to date. But Rhetoric 20 was just the beginning. That was the first volley in a series of Rhetorics that will launch every year, each a year old, culminating with Rhetoric 25 in 2019.

All the whiskeys are made from the same mashbill, at the same distillery (Bernheim), and are likely to be bottled around the same 90 proof. The only difference here is age: Each year, one year older. Just like you, actually.

Comparing Rhetoric 21 Year Old side by side with the Rhetoric 20 Year Old, it is immediately less sharp and less citrusy on the nose. Rhetoric 20 offers some pungent alcohol notes at the start, while Rhetoric 21 is remarkably smoother around the edges and more “ready to go” out of the gate.

On the palate, Rhetoric 21 offers a bit more dusky spice, and offers a more leathery palate with a woody edge, featuring clear black and red pepper notes on the tongue. That woody element is clear, but it’s not overwhelming in the least, giving the whiskey a bolder vanilla profile with some banana and coconut notes thrown in for good measure.

I enjoyed Rhetoric 20 but have to say that Rhetoric 21 is an incremental and quite delightful improvement — and a considerably different experience. Now in very limited release.

A / $100 / diageo.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof

Here’s what’s hard to believe: Jack Daniel’s has never released a barrel strength whiskey. That’s changing, with the release of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof, the company’s first-ever cask strength offering.

The whiskey isn’t a terribly complicated idea: Take the JD Single Barrel Select (which we only just reviewed a few weeks ago) and don’t water it down. Single Barrel is a consistent 94 proof, but these are bottled at whatever the cask gives you, ranging from 125 to 140 proof, depending on the bottle you get.

Naturally, we can only review the sample we received, and individual bottles are going to vary widely. As for this bottling, it’s an easy winner. The nose offers maple syrup, caramel sauce, and a little barrel char. On the body, it doesn’t drink like something that is 2/3rds alcohol. In fact, it really needs no water at all to be approachable, though less seasoned whiskey drinkers may want to add a splash. The palate is rich with more of that caramel, butterscotch, a touch of cloves and a lengthy, vanilla-fueled finish. Big, bold body — but it’s not overpowering in the slightest. The char isn’t overly evident here, which lets the sweetness really shine. All told, it’s a fantastic whiskey that stands as arguably the best thing ever to come out of the JD empire.

Reviewed: Warehouse 2-45, 4th floor. 133.7 proof.

A / $65 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Journeyman Kissing Cousins and Three Oaks Single Malt

journeyman kissing cousinsMichigan’s Journeyman Distillery continues to crank out the whiskey, and recently we received two new offerings for review. Thoughts follow.

Journeyman Distillery Kissing Cousins Whiskey – This is a selection of Featherbone bourbon that is finished in a Wyncroft Winery 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel. An annual release, this is the third edition of Kissing Cousins. The finished product is a blend of sweet, bourbon-driven vanilla notes, mushroomy earth, and a bit of popcorn on the finish. The wine barrel finishing tempers the rustic character of Featherbone quite a bit, but still leaves behind plenty of chewy grains and coal-dust notes, ensuring you don’t mistake this for the mass produced stuff. 90 proof. B+ / $33 (375ml)

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt – This one’s a real surprise. This is the second batch of Three Oaks (the first was in 2013), a 100% organic malted barley whiskey with an exotic aging regimen. As the distillery writes, “The spirit spends its first year and a half in used Featherbone Bourbon barrels. From there it is moved into used Road’s End Rum barrels for nearly a year and then is finished for two months in used port casks imported from northern Portugal. The whiskey spends a total of 32 months in the barrels.” The resulting spirit is mahogany brown, with an aroma of coffee, dark chocolate, coconut, and cloves. On the palate, it’s intensely rich, with clear port wine notes, a sweet backbone of caramel and Bananas Foster, and some roasted grain notes on the finish. There’s plenty of complexity here, with echoes of toasted coconut, rum raisin, and hints of amari. Hard to put down and engaging through and through, I have no trouble stating that this is one of the best single malts being produced in America today. 90 proof. A / $47

journeymandistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig 15 Years Old Scotch Whisky

Laphroaig_15YO_BottleImageThough it was introduced 30 years ago, Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a bottling that has come and gone over the years. For a short while, however, it’s back, with this expression being re-released in honor of the company’s 200th anniversary. That said, nothing has technically changed with the production of the spirit vs. older bottlings, but this one does at least come with bonus sentimental value.

Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a quieter expression of the spirit, where it’s just finding its balance between the peat blast it offers at 10 years old and the more fruity notes that emerge at 18 and 25 years old.

At this point in its maturity, the whisky offers a smoky nose that also showcases gentle honey alongside notes of yellow flowers. The peat however is dialed back significantly, creating the essence of a branch of mesquite that’s been thrown atop a barbecue pit. Citrus notes are present on the palate but they’re understated — a squeeze of lemon and a shaving of grapefruit peel — with some simple syrup adding a layer of sweetness atop the delicate layer of smoke.

At just 86 proof the whisky is remarkably easy-drinking, almost overly so — it sips almost like a mezcal-based Paloma, mixing citrus and smoke into a beautiful, satisfying whole.

Really lovely. Snap it up if you see it.

A / $70 / laphroaig.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Forged Oak Bourbon 15 Years Old

Orphan Barrel_Forged Oak Bottle Shot

The fifth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series is one of the best in the lineup. “Found by foraging the Stitzel-Weller warehouses,” it was produced at Bernheim in 1997-1998 from a mash of 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye. Barrel age is 15 years.

I’m not sure what “Forged Oak” is supposed to refer to, but the whiskey that bears its name doesn’t really evoke either of the words. On the nose, there’s lots going on: dense vanilla, gingerbread, and then some exotic stuff: namely distinct lemongrass and coconut notes (I start craving Thai food immediately). The body includes that vanilla punch plus some tropical notes, then a sweet butterscotch push as it builds on the palate. The finish takes the bourbon into darker territory — more lumber and a touch of Madeira. That may sound like a bummer after all the ephemeral fun that’s come before, but it’s actually a nice counterbalance to what’s come before — and what follows in the next sip.

90.5 proof.

A / $75 / orphanbarrel.com