Book Review: Spirit of Place – Scotland’s Great Whisky Distilleries

61iIjYFHx3L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Scotland is a magical place, and descriptions and tasting notes really don’t do it justice. If you’re a whisky fan and can’t visit in person, the next best thing is here: Charles MacLean’s Spirit of Place, with photos by Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald.

The book is a beautiful coffee table tome, with almost 300 pages of gorgeous pictures showcasing nearly 60 Scottish distilleries. The book is split up by region (distilleries are organized alphabetically within each region), and each gets a nice-sized writeup before moving on to the photos. Detailed captions explain not just what you’re seeing in each picture, but they also offer fun facts and interesting details about these places — many of which I had never heard before.

Platman and MacDonald have plenty of shots of copper pot stills, aluminum wash backs, and wooden casks, but they wisely choose to tell a broader story with photos than what you see only in the distillery and warehouse proper. From shots of barley fields to workers on the line, the photos really take you to the Scottish isles, whether that be through a telephoto view of the exterior of a distillery to a close-up view of whisky in a glass.

Pour a glass of whisky from one of these distilleries, then spend some time flipping through the relevant pages and see if it doesn’t enhance the experience.


Review: Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century


Jack Daniel’s is making a second stab at Sinatra’s legendary love of JD with another ultra high-end bottling of its signature Tennessee Whiskey. If you thought Sinatra Select was ostentatious, wait’ll you get a load of Sinatra Century, which arrives at more than twice the price.

Sinatra Century — bottled in honor of Frank’s 100th birthday — is made from the same type of alligator-charred barrels as Sinatra Select but otherwise offers no particular production information (including, as usual, any age statement). What JD has done, however, is work with the Sinatra family to taste and select the barrels that went into this bottling.

Bottles are individually numbered and come in elaborate gift packaging. They are bottled at 100 proof, perhaps another nod to the Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centennial.

You have time to consider this purchase — Frank’s birthday will be December 12, 2015 — but in the meantime, let’s give it a thorough tasting and review.

Sinatra Century is immediately appealing from the moment the bottle is cracked open. The nose is heady, with heavy baking spice notes — highly unusual for JD — loads of cinnamon and nutmeg, plus brown butter, some barrel char influence, and ample vanilla. There’s a fair amount of alcoholic burn given the proof, but it’s manageable and actually quite engaging, working well with the grandiose nose.

On the palate, Sinatra Century keeps it going. Big butterscotch, cinnamon, and a healthy slug of Mexican chocolate lead the way. Some charcoal notes make an entry later on, but the finish runs to bittersweet cocoa, a slight cherry influence, and smoldering molasses left on the fire overnight.

The balance of flavors here is nearly perfect, bouncing from spice to chocolate to char and back again. The higher proof helps keep it alive on the tongue for ages, but it never feels particularly hot and doesn’t need water. Engaging from start to finish, I’m not afraid to say this is the best product JD has ever put into a bottle.

That said, it’s a $400 product (or more) — so it better be good. Damn good.

A / $400 (one liter) /

Review: Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection Mortlach 1998 16 Years Old

signatoryThis beautiful indie bottling of Mortlach spent 33 months of its 16 years in an Oloroso Sherry butt, then was outturned and bottled at cask strength.

Gorgeous color here, with deep aromas of sherry, walnuts, oily leather, and some madeira character. At full strength, it’s quite a blazer. Though it’s barely over 110 proof, this bottling is positively scorching — and that’s coming from someone quite accustomed to high-test bourbons sans water.

A healthy splash of water brings out this whisky at its absolute finest. Malty and nougat-laden at the core, it offers notes of ripe banana and more of that walnut before segueing into the sherry finish. It’s a big one, showcasing the citrus-focused wine in all its glory, almost chocolatey at times as it offers flamed orange oil and spicy aromatics.

An amazing whisky. Don’t miss it.

111.6 proof. Reviewed: Cask #1, bottle 629 of 669, from K&L Wine Merchants. (Binny’s has cask #2, by the way.)

A / $100 /

Review: 2010 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour

1141109xBV’s top-end wine is still in its 2010 release, a key indicator of the amount of care that goes into the production of one of Napa’s most classic bottlings.

The 2010 BV Georges de Latour cuts an opulent and austere profile, in keeping with the general approach of this series. Strong cassis on the nose plus plum and raspberry give this wine an immediately engaging profile. On the palate, milky chocolate notes emerge, but they’re held in check by ample fruit and a well-balanced tannin structure. The finish is lengthy and sustained, offering a lightly bittersweet character that eventually showcases emerging vanilla and baking spice notes.

Most important in all of this is how well-integrated all of the various components are, making this a phenomenally easy-drinking wine that works as well on its own as it does with food. It’s not terribly complicated — which can often be a challenge with Napa Cabernet — but I’m happy to let this wine find its own footing.

A / $90 /

Review: StainRx Wine Stain Remover

stainrxI won’t rehash the details of the wine stain remover story I wrote for Wired earlier this year. Suffice it to say that StainRx is a late comer to the party, and they submitted a product to me well after that piece already ran.

Long story short, I put StainRx up against Chateau Spill, my hands-down winner in extensive testing, to see which was best. The results: With a shorter-term wine stain (setting for a few hours before treatment), StainRx was slightly ahead. On the tougher longer-term stain (which I let set for 24 hours), Chateau Spill was the marginal winner. All told, it was about a draw.

Now my hunch is that StainRx — which is marketed primarily as a “blood strain [sic] remover” — is basically the same chemical as Chateau Spill, which is a lab-grade solvent designed to get dye off of scientists’ skin. StainRx looks, smells, and behaves almost the same way, so I figure you’re really getting the same stuff here as in Chateau Spill.

The company says about its product: “We do sell our product in bulk for others to repackage under their label and we repackage for others as well. For over 50 years our product, Erado-Sol  has been sold to hospitals, labs and doctors’ offices to remove chemical and biological stains.  Approximately 10 years ago we made our laboratory tested product available to the consumer under the name Stain Rx.  The product is sold in Spring Fresh Scent and Fragrance & Dye Free solutions.”

Is Chateau Spill the same thing? It’s just a hunch, and there’s no real way to know for sure. I suspect the differences in performance were due to slight variations in the amount of wine that made it onto my test fabric, and the fact that you basically have to douse the product with a nozzle from the StainRx bottle rather than gently spray it on as you do with Chateau Spill. It’s a lot easier to control the amount of product you’re using with Chateau Spill, and you’ll much more quickly go through a bottle of StainRx because of the amount that comes out with each application. (StainRx also makes single-use wipes, which I didn’t test due to their generally limited size.)

At $18 for a 16 oz. bottle, StainRx is cheaper per oz. (by about half) than Chateau Spill, but you’ll use it faster. Which is ultimately a better value? Hell, ask Mathhacker.

A / $18 (16 oz.) /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Oppidan American Botanical Gin and Malted Rye Whiskey


Oppidan is a Chicago area-based microdistillery that is starting off with two products — a gin and an aged, malted rye. We tried them both. Thoughts follow.

Oppidan American Botanical Gin – A spin on London Dry, with grapefruit peel, hibiscus, cinnamon, elderflower, ginger, cardamom, and chamomile among the named botanicals. The nose is gentle and studded with mixed florals, moderate earth tones, and clear elderflower notes. On the palate, a wealth of flavors come forward — more floral notes, some chocolate, shaved licorice, some fennel, all with a seductive and lightly sweet finish. This is a feminine gin with a restrained and quiet body, a beautiful and delicate number that could pair well with just about anything. In a world where gin is an increasingly interesting category, it’s one of the best new bottlings you’ll find and I recommend it wholesale. 86 proof. A / $30

Oppidan Malted Rye Whiskey – A whiskey made from 100% malted rye, no age indicated. Clearly a young spirit, the whiskey is loaded with notes of grainy malt, smoke, and raw wood. The body offers some sweetness — vanilla, some baking spice, chewy wood, and beef jerky notes — but that youthful granary character is tough to shake. It’s hardly offensive, but you can find this same earthy and woody character in any number of young craft whiskeys on the market today. 92 proof. B / $45

Review: Blanton’s Single Barrel Select Private Selection from Quality Liquor Store

blantonsFour Roses and Jack Daniel’s aren’t the only single barrel private selection bottlings out there. Check out this bad boy from Quality Liquor Store, which is based in San Diego but which has a nice online selection of spirits.

Today we’re looking at QLS’s private bottling of Buffalo Trace’s highly regarded Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. This bottling was dumped on April 7, 2015 from Barrel #36, warehouse H, rick #10.

What an amazingly soft and incredibly drinkable bourbon this is. The nose is a bit restrained, showing pencil shavings, barrel char, brown sugar, and a touch of eucalyptus. That may sound like the intro to a huge whiskey, but the body turns out to be remarkably soft and seductive. The palate is filled with luscious vanilla ice cream, butterscotch, banana pudding, creme brulee… if you’re not picking up that this is a dessert-like confection in a glass by now, there’s something wrong with you. The finish is moderate, beautifully sweet with just a hint of lumber influence but also some lingering milk chocolate notes.

Entirely engaging but light as a feather, it’s one of the best bourbons I’ve encountered all year.

93 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #200/264.

Want a discount at QLS? Use code DRINKHACKER10% for 10 percent off!

A / $70 /

Review: Tippleman’s Not Quite Simple Syrups


Our friends at Bittermilk cocktail mixers have recently expanded to the world of syrups. Bottled under a new name, Tippleman’s, these are all sweet, non-alcoholic mixers designed to sub in for the “sweet” component in your drink. We tried them all on their own and in a cocktail. Each comes in 500ml bottles. Here’s what we thought.

Tippleman’s Syrup Burnt Sugar – An organic sugar/molasses-based syrup. Dense, molasses brown color. Port wine notes on the nose. Extremely sweet, with bitter coffee and berry overtones. It immediately dominates any cocktail it’s dropped into with both sweetness and a bitter edge. I like the bold direction it goes, but use it sparingly and with the appropriate spirits. A- / $12

Tippleman’s Syrup Lemon Oleo Saccharum – 2000 pounds of lemons go into each batch of this classic oily citrus concoction. Nice balance between lemon and sugar, with herbal overtones. There’s less lemon in cocktails made with it, as the sugar tends to wash the citrus out a bit. A solid, but understated syrup. B+ / $22

Tippleman’s Syrup Barrel Smoked Maple – Old Willett bourbon barrels are shaved, remoistened with bourbon, and smoldered under organic Grade B maple syrup. A dark brown oddity that smells like charred wood, but tastes like well-sweetened barbecue sauce. Clearly invented for whiskey cocktails, this is love-it or hate-it territory, a syrup that totally dominates its cocktails, but in a fun and unique way. A- / $29

Tippleman’s Syrup Falernum – A traditional tropical syrup, this is flavored with spices and lime peel, plus ginger juice (and lots of sugar). Quite intense with cardamom and some allspice, vanilla on the finish. An easy choice for any tropical drink you want to whip up, Very similar character when used as a mixer, creating that festively tropical yet brooding, Chinatown kinda vibe that really takes you someplace else. Well done. A / $17

Tippleman’s Syrup Ginger Honey – Ginger juice plus organic wildflower honey, diluted with water. This ought to be a no brainer, but it just doesn’t come together. A nose of fortified wine and citrus dominate, but the body is closer to sweet and sour sauce than anything the above would imply. The ginger is abruptly overwhelming in cocktails, with a kind of perfumy “grandma” character that is difficult to properly describe. Funky and old-fashioned. B- / $20

Tippleman’s Syrup Island Orxata – Cracked corn and toasted sesame are soaked to make a milk-like base, then bitter almond and jasmine is added. That doesn’t sound at all enticing, and the creamed-corn nose and marzipan-meets-cream-of-wheat texture aren’t exactly inspirational, either. Not offensive in cocktails, but it adds a layer of weirdness that is tough to shake. I’d rather not think this much about my mixed drinks. B / $16

Review: Flaviar “Eau de Vie! Oui!” Cognac Sampler & the Flaviar App

flaviar packs

We’ve been friends with Flaviar for quite a while, and we’re going to start looking more deeply into their sampler packs. These are available on a one-off basis or as a monthly subscription, featuring rum, whiskey, brandy, or just about anything else.

Today we’re looking at Flaviar’s Cognac sampler, a set of spirits packaged under the label of “Eau de Vie! Oui!” If you’re expecting a bunch of Remy Martin and Courvoisier, think again. With the exception of Hennessy and Martell, none of these are major-name Cogancs, and even the Hennessy is a Europe-only bottling. In other words, you’re getting stuff here you won’t likely find at your local watering hole.

Let’s take a look at the five Cognacs — each in 50ml quantities — in this pack.

Hennessy Fine de Cognac – Positioned between a VS and VSOP, not available in the U.S. (originally made for King George IV before he was crowned). It’s a junior Cognac, a little weedy and short, with some rough, wood-driven notes, but not without some charms. B-

Martell VSOP – Pretty nose, but a bit thin on the body. Solid caramel, vanilla, raisin, and baking spice notes. Well-integrated but not overwhelmingly complicated. An easy “house brandy” selection. A-

Baron Otard VSOP – Very mild nose, evoking cinnamon buns. Quite sweet on the tongue, more than the previous brandies, which really pushes the (raisin-studded) cinnamon roll character. Gentle, brown sugar finish… a well-made, mid-level brandy. B+

Dobbe Cognac XO – Lovely to see this XO taking on some rancio notes — fortified wine, coffee, dark chocolate. Lots of coffee on the nose, and a little tobacco and roasted nuts. A dense, almost pruny Cognac, but I liked its intensity quite a bit. Brooding and contemplative. A-

Gautier XO Gold & Blue – Nice, old Cognac here — well-developed golden raisins, baking spice, and lots of vanilla. While it doesn’t stray far from the path, it’s firing on all cylinders and drinking beautifully. A

Get a Flaviar Welcome Pack (including this one)

Flaviar’s also got a new app for iOS and Android, which lets you purchase bottles and tasting packs and see a “flavour spiral” for everything you’ve sampled. Kind of a neat spin on the flavor wheel, and fun to check out while you’re sampling spirits. Check it out on your relevant app store.

Review: Cocktail & Sons Cocktail Syrups


Cocktail & Sons is a brand new operation (we tasted the first draft of their four artisan syrups late last year) that is going national as we speak.

Here’s a look at the complete lineup from the fledgling company — all four of which are wholly worthwhile and clearly made with cocktailing knowhow. (Not into drinking? Drop a tablespoon into a glass with ice and soda and you’ve got a stellar non-alcoholic beverage.)

Thoughts follow.

Cocktail & Sons Spiced Demerara – Demerara syrup spiced with peppercorns and baking spices. A beautiful brown sugar syrup at its heart, it’s got a distinct gingerbread flavor to it, with a just the lightest touch of pepper on the back. I think it could use a little more of that peppery kick, but the baking spice character is spot on and really elevates standard sugar syrup. A-

Cocktail & Sons Oleo Saccharum – An unsexy name for a classic citrus-based syrup that got its start 150 or so years ago. C&S’s version adds lemongrass and ginger to the citrus. Brisk lemon/lime notes attack the palate right at the start, then that aggressive sweetness hits you. The citrus doesn’t quite hang in there for the long haul, letting the saccharum pick up the slack. I get hints of anise on the back end. A-

Cocktail & Sons Honeysuckle & Peppercorn – Floral and spice elements intermingle in this exotic concoction. That dusty honey character that always rides along with honeysuckle is unmistakable here, with a kind of nutmeg character that comes along after. Again, very light pepper notes on the finish, but it’s just a bit more than a nod in that direction than anything palate-busting. B+

Cocktail & Sons Mint & Lemon Verbena – Get your instant mint julep or mojito, right here. Nothing complicated about this one, just a slight touch of herbal character that nudges things closer to menthol than mint. Don’t worry, your Bourbon won’t mind. A

each $15 per 8 oz. bottle /