Review: Oak by Absolut

absolut oak by absolutTo quote Tom Cruise in Risky Business, sometimes you gotta say, What the fuck?

How big is whiskey? So big that the vodka guys are trying to muscle in on the business.

Oak by Absolut is Absolut vodka rested in oak barrels. Or, more accurately, it is “oak infused vodka, vodka, [and] vodka rested in barrels,” per the label. What any of that means I don’t really know. The mechanics of the oak infusion aren’t disclosed, nor is any information about the type of barrels or the length of time the vodka spends in them. Was the vodka rested at distillation proof or at Absolut’s standard 80 proof? I just don’t know.

The end product looks and tastes exactly as you think it will. As dark as any whiskey (well, almost any whiskey), it certainly looks the part. On the nose it’s tough to parse — notes of vanilla are at the forefront, then cinnamon, raspberry, root beer soda, and marshmallows. It doesn’t really smell like whiskey… but it doesn’t smell like anything else either. A very young brandy? Some kind of flavored Irish whiskey? It’s a chameleon.

The palate pushes on with abandon — sweet vanilla custard, a modest lashing of lumber, and some cherry notes hit first. The main event is a distinct A&W Root Beer character — not a dense amaro bitterness, but a highly sweetened version of the stuff that leaves a hint of rootiness behind for the finish. Here things slowly fade away, offering some notes of prune juice and brown sugar amidst the lingering root beer character.

What’s surprising about Oak by Absolut — besides the fact that it exists at all — is how harmless it is. Those expecting a rank lumber bomb — which often happens if you put rack vodka in a wood barrel — won’t find it here. Whatever Absolut has done to doctor this oddity — and that must be significant — it’s been able to avoid turning it into the disgusting monster you were expecting it to be. At the same time, there’s really no reason, absolutely no reason at all, for it to exist. No whiskey fan in their right mind would pick this even over a $12 bottle of bourbon, and no vodka drinker would ever set foot near it. So why does this exist? As a gateway to whiskey (which Absolut doesn’t make)? Someone lost a bet? You got me.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch B-14.01 (or B-19.01… bad handwriting).

B- / $25 /

Review: Voli Vodka

voli vodkaMade in Cognac, France, this vodka is crafted from French wheat, 5x distilled, blended with local water, and endorsed by Pitbull.

Voli (aka Voli Black) has a hyper-modern profile from start to finish. On the nose, it offers substantial sweetness, with caramel notes and a bit of citrus. The body is as sweet as you would expect, offering overtones of marshmallow, sweetened coconut, and vanilla. There’s none of the citrus hinted at from the nose on the palate, but the finish wraps things up with some baking spice and more brown sugar.

Did I mention the sweetness? Just checking.

80 proof.

B- / $20 /

Review: The Traveler Beer Co. Seasonal Shandies

illusive traveler grapefruit aleThree crafty shandies from Burlington, Vermont-based Traveler Beer Co., each using a wheat ale for a base and with a variety of fruity/sweet additives for spin. Each is fairly low alcohol and, of course, a bit different than your typical suds.

Thoughts follow.

The Traveler Beer Co. Curious Traveler Lemon Shandy – Slightly sweet, with juicy lemonade notes up front. The beer itself is rather innocuous, just a hint of malt and caramel, but it does pair fairly well with the citrus, at least at the start. 4.4% abv. B-

The Traveler Beer Co. Illusive Traveler Grapefruit Shandy – Considerably more bitter/sour than the lemon shandy, this bottling provides a somewhat muddy attack, but it does offer a better balance of fruit and malt. The finish is quite bitter, playing off both the grapefruit and the wheat ale elements. While the lemon shandy becomes a bit overwhelming, this one tends to grow on you. 4.4% abv. B

The Traveler Beer Co. Jack-o Traveler Pumpkin Shandy – Take your gingerbread/pumpkin spice latte and dunk it into your hefeweizen and you’ve got this concoction, which is better than you think it will be but not much. Quite sweet and overwhelming with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, this is a true seasonal in every sense of the word. 4.4% abv. C-

each $7 per six-pack /

Review: Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita – Key Lime and Strawberry

Sandra Lee is a celebrity chef (my wife knew who she was anyway) who’s branching out of cookbooks and into… margies!

These ready-to-drink margarita cocktails are targeted at the higher shelf consumer, as they’re made with real fruit, cane sugar, and “premium blue agave tequila and triple sec liqueur”? I’m not entirely sure if that means the tequila is 100% agave, but let’s assume maybe.

Two flavors exist — lime and strawberry — and we tried them both. Either way, you can’t argue with the price. At less than $3 a serving, it’s hard not to consider packing one of these for your next beach outing.

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Key Lime – A classic margarita. Not at all bad, a completely credible margarita, featuring moderate sweetness (not too sweet), tart lime (not too tart), and a touch of bite (though it could use quite a bit more). At 13% alcohol, this is a pretty tame margarita, but an extra ounce of your favorite silver tequila should bring it completely up to snuff. Straight from the bottle, however, it’s perfectly acceptable for an afternoon poolside. Once of the better margaritas-in-a-bottle out there. B+

Sandra Lee Cocktail Time Margarita Strawberry – Naturally, this is the strawberry margarita version. Very, very fruity, first on the nose, then on the palate. Lots and lots of sweetness here dulls the rest of the cocktail with its melted Jolly Rancher character, and again an extra shot of blanco offers an improvement. Probably better as a frozen drink (though I didn’t try it that way). B-

each $16 per 750ml bottle /

Review: Four Sigma Foods Mushroom Drinks

four sigma

You’re reading that right: The newest superfood you’re about to start consuming is the good old mushroom — only this time powdered and served as a hot beverage.

This innovation is being brought to you by Four Sigma Foods, which has created no less than 12 different mushroom-infused drink packets, including flavored coffee, flavored cocoas, and more mushroom-forward concoctions. Different varieties of each are available, as are products made with different types of mushrooms.

Why mushrooms? Hell if I know. Health benefits (immunity, etc.), Four Sigma says. These beverage mixers are designed particularly for people who take mushroom supplements (who knew?) but want something more potent than off-the-rack pills.

I checked out a trio of products spanning the line. I can’t tell you if they’ll boost your immune system, but here’s a look at what you can expect from the taste department.

Four Sigma Instant Reishi Mushroom Drink is one of the company’s best-sellers, made with reishi mushrooms, star anise, mint leaf, licorice root, and stevia. Here it’s particularly hard to detect much mushroom at all, as the sweet stevia, licorice, and anise all make much more of an impact. It’s a pleasant enough beverage, though a bit sweet for my tastes — and not something I’d likely drink on a regular basis. B- / $35 for 20 packets

Mushroom is slightly more detectable in the Four Sigma XOCO Red Hot Cacao Drink Mix, which adds cordyceps mushrooms to a packet of cacao, coconut palm sugar, guarana, and cayenne pepper. The mushroom gives the hot chocolate an earthy underpinning and provides an herbal finish to the drink. If you like your hot cocoa with less sugar and more depth, it’s one to try. B / $20 for 10 packets

The Four Sigma Mushroom Coffee adds cordyceps and chaga mushrooms to coffee powder (remember this is instant, not something you brew). Bring your own sweetener. Here you’ll find the most mushroom flavor of them all, going head to head with the coffee character to create a pungent, earthy, and sultry spin on coffee. Sure, it isn’t cold pour-over, but as instant goes, it’s surprisingly palatable and intriguing. B / $15 for 10 packets

Review: Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon 6 Years Old

Bib-and-Tucker-BottleshotA newer part of the 35 Maple Street collection, Bib & Tucker is sourced bourbon from Bardstown, Kentucky (sorry, Indiana!), in barrel for 6 years. No mashbill information is available.

The whiskey cuts a frontier style on the nose, hot and loaded with lumber notes, cut with vanilla and some rye-driven spice. The body follows suit, kicking off with intense wood, then wandering into notes of burnt citrus peel, leather, toffee, some green hay, and toasted baking spices. The finish is lasting, hot, slightly astringent, and not overwhelmingly satisfying as it pinballs from one flavor to another.

Those who like their whiskey with a lot of push and punch may find B&T quite a delight, but I expect most bourbon aficionados will be put off by the lack of nuance and the over-exuberant youthfulness that Bib & Tucker exemplifies. While it has its moments and some charm, I think 50 bucks can go further elsewhere.

92 proof.

B- / $50 /

Review: 2013 Sequoia Grove Chardonnay Napa Valley

Sequoia Grove NV ChardonnayThis latest release from Napa’s Sequoia Grove is classic, buttery Chardonnay, offering an archetypal vanilla-apple core. It features an ample body with plenty of length, but there’s not much in the way of nuance from start to finish. The back end is a bit too lingering with sweetness, that vanilla component lingering for the long haul. You’ll know before the first sip if it’s something you’re going to enjoy.

B- / $20 /

Review: Wines of Tom Gore, 2015 Releases

Tom Gore Vineyards 2012 Field Blend_Bottle ShotTom Gore is a Sonoma County grape grower, nut farmer,chicken raiser, and olive oil maker — and now a winemaker with his first batch of wines hitting the market. Let’s tuck into this inaugural trio.

2013 Tom Gore Chardonnay California – Looks cheap, tastes great. Fresh and fruity, there’s buttery vanilla on the nose, but the body is all golden apples, fresh peaches, and nectarine notes. The finish is clean, with a rounded approach that lets the fruit shine through. Very easy to enjoy. A- / $15

2012 Tom Gore Cabernet Sauvignon California – A workmanlike cabernet, with simple jam structure, vanilla syrup, and a lacing of dried herbs. Relatively harmless, but nothing to write home about in the end. Plenty of fruit plus a modest tannic backbone — it helps that this wine is now three years old and has clearly matured a bit — give this an easy and uncomplicated drinkability. B- / $15

2012 Tom Gore Field Blend Alexander Valley – 35% petit verdot, 33% malbec, 21% merlot, 6% cabernet sauvignon, and 5% tempranillo. That’s a really odd blend — really odd — but as a wine this field blend works better than expected. The nose is moderately smoky with dense jam notes and some leather character. On the palate, plenty of tannin keeps things tight at first, but a strong current of fruit runs through it — plum and currants — to add balance. (Currant currents? OK.) Vegetal notes emerge on the finish, but this doesn’t really detract much, adding a curious nuance to the experience. Worth a try. B+ / $40

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: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Triticale and Six Row Barley

JB_SC_Harvest_TriticaleIt’s been over a year since Jim Beam announced the Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection (see here, here, and here), a series of six bourbons that include an unusual grain — or a standard grain in an unusual proportion — in the creation of the whiskey. Now, the last two whiskeys are here, which include triticale and six row barley in the mash, respectively.

Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye that is starting to show up in distillery products of late. Beam must have gotten a big jump on this trend considering, as with the other Harvest Bourbon Collection bottlings, the whiskey is bottled at 11 years old.

Six-row barley is a type of barley, of course. Unlike two-row barley, which is used primarily in malted barley components, six-row is said to produce a grainier note to the mash, particularly when used in beer.

Let’s dig into these last two releases and see how they turn out. As usual, both are 90 proof.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Triticale – Racy on the nose, very rye-like, with cloves, nutmeg, and some red pepper, plus ample vanilla underneath. On the palate, it’s surprisingly easygoing — perhaps this is the wheat component of the hybrid showing through — offering gentle notes of baked dessert pastries, apple pie, and a little mint chocolate on the finish. A simpler style up front, it reveals more charms as it opens up over time. Give it that time and see for yourself. B+

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Six Row Barley – The big question: Does more grain character come through with this experiment? I think it does, but so much time in barrel means it plenty tempered by wood. On the nose, it’s surprisingly heavy with alcoholic burn, then menthol and some fennel/licorice notes. The body is almost brutish — which is surprising, considering barley has the opposite reputation — tight and holding back, eventually giving up butterscotch, buttered popcorn, and some of those promised grainy notes, showing here in the form of buttered, toasted wheat bread. Despite all of this, the whole thing feels a bit undercooked, which is strange considering its age. Of all the HBC releases, this is the one whiskey that could probably stand another few years in the barrel. B-

each $50 (375ml) /