Book Review: Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans

Chris McMillian is one of the proprietors of New Orleans’ Museum of the American Cocktail, and with this book, he and writer Elizabeth M. Williams take a walking tour through the city and through time, to showcase where New Orleans’ essential libations came from.

The book pulls no punches because it doesn’t throw any. It’s a straightforward, textbook-like history of NoLa cocktailing that places all its classic libations and establishments at the head of the class. The history of the Ramos gin fizz, the Sazerac, and the Hurricane are all laid out with the excitement of an encyclopedia entry. (Though there’s no love for — or mention of — the Grasshopper.)

What’s worse is that the sad current state of cocktails like the Hurricane is never even hinted at, and an excited New Orleans first-timer could be completely forgiven if he went to Pat O’Brien’s with the expectation that he would be drinking something akin to one of the two recipes for the Hurricane provided in the book. (He would actually be drinking little more than a sort of alcoholic Kool-Aid.)

The Hurricane aside, Lift Your Spirits lacks any real excitement — excitement which you’ll find on every corner in this storied city. I can’t fault Williams and McMillian on the facts — they’ve unearthed them all — it’s the writing that just lands with a thud, perhaps because the subject they are covering is simply too near and dear.

I’ve long heard stories that for New Orleans natives, pride runs exceptionally deep, to the point where a negative word is never uttered about local establishments no matter what — particularly the major landmarks. I had dismissed that as conjecture and rumor, but Life Your Spirits doesn’t really do anything to dispel that theory. I guess it’s right there in the title, after all: This is meant to be a celebratory history of NoLa cocktails, not a particularly insightful one.

B- / $20 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Breckenridge Brewery Pumpkin Spice Latte Stout

One late arrival from Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery, a festive, nitrogen-charged seasonal inspired by the classic pumpkin spice latte. Breckenridge Brewery’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Stout is “stout made with dark roasted malts and carefully roasted, cold pressed coffee beans. Vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves delicately complement the taste of rich pumpkin.”

Results: Coffee dominates the malty, roasted nut-heavy experience, but the rather thin stout is also moderately fruity at times, and just lightly scented with cinnamon and clove notes. Any serious “pumpkin spice” character is relegated to the back end, which offers a smattering of spices, but also heads sideways into a lingering aftertaste of overripe apple and banana.

5.5% abv.

B- / $12 per four-pack of 15.2 oz cans / breckbrew.com

Review: Twang Beer Salt

It’s common to jam a wedge of lime into your beer when sipping on a Mexican lager. Others prefer a lick of salt instead of the sweet-and-sour kick of citrus, and that’s why Twang — “The Original Premium Beersalt” — exists.

Twang, which also makes a line of margarita salts, sells five different flavors of beer salt (none of which are just “salt”), in little bottles that you apply directly to the glass or the rim of your bottle as you drink. New to the game is its Clamato Chili-Lime Salt, which is sold in a small can and which is designed for Micheladas, Bloody Maries, and other tomato-centric beverages. The little bottles are resealable and portable… and should last for quite a while in normal use.

Ideally no beer you drink should need manipulating in order to be palatable, but I know you don’t always have a choice of what to sip on — or maybe you just want to try something new for a change. Either way, keep reading for reviews of all five beer salts, plus the Clamato version.

Twang Michelada Especial Beer Salt – There’s a nice and well-balanced mix of tomato, lime, chili pepper, and salt in this, and it pairs quite well with lager. You really can taste all the disparate elements, which is quite a surprise. It’s clearly a way to make a poor man’s michelada, you bet, but there’s nothing wrong with slumming it once in a while. A-

Twang Lemon-Lime Beer Salt – Leans heavily on the lime, but lemon gives it a stronger kick on the back end. I was less thrilled with it as a pairing companion for any beer, but perhaps experimenting with different beer styles would find a more natural mate. B-

Twang Lime Beer Salt – As the above, without the lemon kick on the back end. I really enjoy a lime in my Pacifico, but this just didn’t replicate the experience for me. Too salty perhaps? B-

Twang Orange Beer Salt – Extremely orange heavy — only a salty kick late in the game distracts from the idea of Pixy Stix — presumably designed for use with wheat beers. It’s not really to my taste, but again, this could be a question of finding the right beer to pair it with. Either way, it’s less versatile than I’d like. C+

Twang Hot Lime Beer Salt – Less fiery than I was expecting (and hoping for), but the addition of spice gives the lime flavor more versatility and intrigue. A reasonable pairing with lagers, but still quite tart and lingering beyond its welcome. B

Twang Clamato Chili-Lime Salt – Again, this is a slightly different product intended for more than just beer, but as with the Michelada salt above, it fights above the expected weight. The two products are actually quite similar, though this one has less salt, larger granules, and just a hint of that briny shellfish character. Definitely a keeper for bloodies, (real) micheladas, and other exotic drinks. B+

$2 per 1.4 oz bottle (Clamato version is 1 oz) / beersalt.com

Review: CooranBong and Bombora Australian Vodka (2016)

Bombora and CooranBong, both Australian vodkas distilled from grapes, hit the scene in 2011. We dutifully reviewed them at the time, but lately both have been reportedly reformulated (details have not been released) and repriced, though oddly no label or bottle changes have taken place.

Fresh reviews follow (it turns out much has changed on both spirits), based on 2016 bottlings.

Both remain at 80 proof.

CooranBong Australian Vodka – (Aborigine for “water over rocks.”) Distilled 10 times from Barossa Valley grapes. The nose is relatively modern and moderately sweet, with cotton candy and vanilla overtones. The aroma is thin, though, quickly fading to nothing. On the palate, flavor is fleeting. A relatively gummy body develops fairly quickly, however, which offers very little character aside from some roasted vegetable notes that linger on the finish. All told, while it’s a poor choice for sipping straight, its relatively neutral profile makes it a reasonable mixing ingredient. B- / $25 / cooranbong.com

Bombora Vodka – (Aborigine for “reef.”) Distilled 7 times from grapes. Fresh on the nose, with mild lemon notes and a moderate herbal character, it offers an astringency on the nose familiar to any old world vodka drinker. The palate takes things in a different direction, immediately hitting with strong herbal and grassy aromatics that come across like a heady gewurztraminer wine. As the vodka develops, along come stronger lemon peel notes, white flowers, and a lightly bitter finish. It’s not a perfect spirit, but it’s a considerable improvement over the release from five years ago. B+ / $20 / bomboravodka.com

Review: The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Bitters Lineup

For its tenth anniversary, Germany’s The Bitter Truth has released a series of four limited-edition bitters, each packaged in novelty bottles and including a removable dropper attachment. (Of note: I had a significant issue with stoppers spontaneously popping out of the bottles, so pay attention.) The bitters are themed around the core components of Bitter Truth’s bitters lineup — roots, wood, blossom (flowers), and nut — the idea being that each bottle gives you the essence of that particular element.

How do they fare? Let’s take a spin through the full lineup.

Each is bottled at 42% abv.

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Roots Bitters – Heavy anise notes from start to finish, with overtones of cloves and traditional bitter gentian character. The heavy Port notes on the nose don’t translate to the body, however. Overall the experience is relatively mild, so feel free to use in quantity. B+

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Wood Bitters – Another mild bittering agent, with notes of dark chocolate and very gentle wood overtones. Some raisiny sweetness lingers on the back end. Overall it’s less distinctive than I’d like and doesn’t have as big an impact as it could. B-

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Blossom Bitters – Heavy, heavy florals, as you might expect, are the main event here, with ample cherry fruit underneath. It’s flowery to the point of being overwhelmingly perfumy, with a focus on lavender. There’s an ample bitter finish that lingers after the florals have faded. A tough one to pair. C+

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Nut Bitters – Big almond and hazelnut notes — it drinks almost like a Frangelico. It’s less bitter than many of the other bitters in this lineup, though its cinnamon notes add some character. B-

each $25 per 100ml bottle / the-bitter-truth.com

Review: 2015 Pighin Pinot Grigio Friuli

This Friuli-sourced pinot grigio offers some of the usual tropical fruit notes, with ample acidity, but it is weighed down by a significant vegetal character that is particularly present on the nose. The finish winds things up with a brisk, almost sour, finish — but also a touch of mushroom. It’s a nice value, but still a wine with some compromises attached.

B- / $15 / pighin.com

Three 2013 Red Wines from Portugal: Passa, Assobio, and Titular

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Best known for dense Ports and crisp whites, Portugal is also home to a bustling red table wine production. Today we sample three reds from Portugal, including selections from both the Douro and the Dao regions.

2013 Quinto do Passadouro Passa Douro Red Wine – A traditional blend of touriga franca, tinta roriz, and touriga nacional. Notes of dark cherry and licorice find a curious companion in some sweet almond character, with the wine lightening up on the palate as it evolves to show off strawberry, some cloves, and a bit of vanilla. Short on the finish, but lively and pleasant. B+ / $15

2013 Esporao Assobio Douro – Another blend of touriga franca (40%), tinta roriz (40%), and touriga nacional (20%). Fresh blueberry notes fade into a licorice and clove character, adding body to an otherwise quite fruity attack. It’s a relatively straightforward wine, all told, but a versatile one that works in a variety of dining scenarios. B+ / $15

2013 Caminhos Cruzdos Titular: Dao Red – This blend from the Dao region comprises touriga nacional (45%), tinta roriz (15%), jaen (10%), and alfrocheiro (30%). Youthful, heavy on blackberries and brambly notes, with heavy tobacco, leather, and licorice notes bursting forth on the rustic finish. B- / $9

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