Round 2 Review: (Reformulated) LIQS Ready To Drink Cocktail Shots


Last year we saddled LIQS ready-to-drink shots — little single-serve plastic shot glasses sealed with foil — with a bunch of C grades and promptly forgot all about them. Recently the company said the product had been reformulated to use real fruit juice and was anxious to get a fresh review. A few of the products have actual names now, instead of just lists of ingredients.

So let’s oblige, and check out three of the four varieties on offer. (Note that at least one of the old LIQS, including the Cucumber Lime version, is no longer in production.)

LIQS Vodka Kamikaze – Vodka, triple sec, and lime juice. A kamikaze should be sweet, but there’s too much of it here, and the lime flavors don’t really make it through with enough citrus bite. There’s a touch of vanilla here, which comes across as a bit weird in the end. All told, it’s relatively harmless, but with a saccharine aftertaste. 45 proof. B-

LIQS Vodka Lemon Drop – Vodka, sugar, and lemon juice. Probably the best of the bunch, which is good because there’s just not much you can mess up here. The attack is a touch medicinal but moderately strong lemon notes hit along with an appropriate amount of sugar. Nothing too fancy here, but it’s good enough in a pinch. 45 proof. B

LIQS Tequila-Cinnamon-Orange – Well, this one never got a real name and is still known by its ingredients. It’s still the only non-vodka based shot in the lineup. The cinnamon is a touch strong here, and it also features a vanilla character that gives it a Creamsicle character. Easygoing despite the higher proof level, it has an overall gentler approach than the 2015 version, without the overbearing aftertaste. A vast improvement. 55 proof. B

$18 for six 1.5-oz. shots /

Review: Wines of Noble Vines, 2016 Releases

Like Cameron Hughes before it, Noble Vines eschews fun names in favor of a simple three-digit number to identify its various bottlings. (Unlike Hughes, however, Noble Vines’ numbers indicate rootstock, vineyard blocks, or both.)

Sourcing grapes largely from two vineyards, one in Lodi, one in Monterey, the company currently produces six low-cost wines. We review three below. Thoughts follow.

2014 Noble Vines 242 Sauvignon Blanc San Bernabe Monterey California – A bit odd for a sauvignon blanc, with clear notes of brown sugar and cinnamon. The finish dials back the sweetness and offers a squeeze of lemon, but lacks the acidity you want in a great sauvignon blanc. B- / $9

2014 Noble Vines 446 Chardonnay San Bernabe Monterey California – Oaked to within an inch of its life, this ultra-buttery Chardonnay almost feels retro in an era when wines are embracing acid over this kind of wood treatment. The end result is flabby, with notes of melon to offset the heavy vanilla and raw oak character. C / $9

2013 Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir Monterey California – Another flabby experience, the fruit here overshadowed by notes of marshmallow and vanilla ice cream. A sort of brambly blueberry note emerges in the finish, but the heavy sweetness endures. B- / $11

Review: Hard Frescos

hard frescos

Mexican sodas (aka frescas) are one of life’s little pleasures. Naturally someone had to try and improve on them by adding alcohol.

Hard Frescos are, as is common in this category, not really sodas but rather malt beverages with copious flavoring added. In other words, they’re heavily doctored and sweetened in order to attempt to drown out the malt liquor funk that is omnipresent in these kinds of drinks. To its credit, everything is natural in each of the four Hard Frescos expressions, and each includes 25% fruit ingredients in the bill. All of the expressions clock in at 5% abv, and all bottles are 11.5 oz. (16 oz cans are also available.)

Can you shortcut your way to a Tequila Sunrise with a Hard Fresco? (Strangely, a Paloma-esque grapefruit soda is not available.) Let’s find out.

Hard Frescos Cola Buena – Smells like cola (this is “brewed with real kola nut”), but the palate is sickly sweet with notes of cheap, Chinese candies and laden with an overripe fruit character that dominates any vanilla-cinnamon notes that one expects from a cola-flavored drink. The aftertaste is epic and, I should add, far from buenaD+

Hard Frescos Juicy Jamaica – A hibiscus flavored drink, again very sweet and fruity, but here the sweetness is more warranted, making the experience come across more like a boozy fruit punch. The malty funk found in the Cola Buena is largely absent here; if you can handle some heavy strawberry and cherry notes (and precious little floral character), this isn’t a bad spin on an, indeed, juicy punch. B

Hard Frescos Citrico – Flavored with “real citrus and guava” — but looks like orange soda. Tastes like it too (with a slight tropical edge), but again there’s a funky, medicinal character underneath that tends to dominate the experience. It’s more evened out than the cola, but more obviously “alcoholic” than the jamaica. If you imagine this to be a very cheap and abstract version of a margarita, it makes the experience a bit more worthwhile. B-

Hard Frescos Tangy Tamarind – Jarritos made me a tamarindo convert, but this Hard Frescos rendition is decidedly weird, offering notes of cocoa powder, walnuts, marzipan, and brewed tea — all of which are various shades of brown but none of which taste anything like tamarind. This concoction, whatever it is, doesn’t taste particularly offensive, but it pales in comparison to what a real tamarind soda is like. C+

each about $4 per 11.5 oz bottle /

Review: Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend

crown royal cornerstone blend

Crown Royal is embarking on a new collection of whisky releases called the Noble Collection. This will be a series of annual, limited releases (no time horizon has been announced), each designed to “showcase Crown Royal’s team of talented distillers and blenders and named for the whisky brand’s noble roots.” (Crown Royal reminds us that the brand originated as a gift for King George VI when he visited Canada in 1939.)

The first installment of the Noble Collection, Cornerstone Blend, is a blend of three whiskies, and Crown Royal has taken the interesting step of actually telling us a little bit about all three of them: a traditional Canadian rye, a rye made using Crown’s Coffey still, and a “bourbon-style Canadian whisky” that is matured in American oak. There’s no additional data on the three whiskies or their proportion in the blend, but that’s a nice start.

I take that back: It’s even better than that, because Crown Royal sent individual samples of all three of the component whiskies for us to check out as well as a sample of the finished blend. Before we move on to the review of the finished product, let’s take a quick look at the trio on their own to see what ingredients we’re working with. (Note: All three samples are cask strength, while the finished blend was brought down to 40.3% abv.)

The Cornerstone rye (111.4 proof) is quite gorgeous, a spicy, toffee-heavy whisky with a long finish of cloves and toasted wood. The Cornerstone Coffey rye (122.8 proof) has some similar characteristics, but is less polished and has a duller profile on the whole, with a heavy grainy character and some flabbiness on its finish. A lot of the character of the finished product clearly comes from this component, which is the least engaging of the trio. Finally, the Cornerstone “bourbon-style” whisky (136.4 proof) is engaging but is almost overloaded with sweetness, featuring butterscotch, cocoa powder, and ample barrel char.

Putting everything together, it’s a bit less than the sum of its parts. Crown Royal Cornerstone Blend is a bit of an odd whisky, punctuating a heavy barrel char character on the nose with briny notes, camphor, and some green olive notes. Sweetness is elusive at first, but shows its face on the restrained palate, which shows off notes of blonde wood, furniture polish, some raisins, and some rye-driven baking spices, including cloves and ginger. The finish is mild and short, in keeping with the greater experience: On the whole Cornerstone is dialed back, way back, a very model of restraint so effective that it’s difficult to get a proper handle on its essence. It’s not a bad whisky, but it comes across as a bit plain, almost to the point of boredom.

80.6 proof.

B- / $50 /

Review: Yuengling Traditional Lager and Summer Wheat


“America’s oldest brewery” gets minimal play out here on the west coast, but Yuengling (est. 1829) is nonetheless a well-known brand in these parts, even though we don’t often see its labels being peeled off of damp bottles. That’s because Yuengling is also a very large brewery — roughly the size of Sam Adams’ parent company, actually.

Today we look at Yuengling’s classic expression, a lager, and a more recent release, a wheat beer. Thoughts on both follow.

Yuengling Tradtional Lager – Traditional is right. This is a malty, robust, slightly nutty amber lager that exudes the old world from front to back. Grain lingers on the finish, with just a touch of gingerbread making a late appearance on the back end. Ball park beer at its best. 4.5% abv. B / $8 per six-pack

Yuengling Summer Wheat – A simple hefeweizen, Yuengling’s take on this brew offers lots of coriander and dried orange peel, giving the heavy wheat notes underpinning it a huge amount of spice. Initially off-putting, I eventually came around to the brew, though its boldly sweet and malty finish left me longing for some hops. 4.6% abv. B- / $8 per six-pack

Review: Wines of Terra d’Oro, 2016 Releases

Amador County is home to Terra d’Oro, the first winery to open in this region since the end of Prohibition. Formerly bottled under the Montevina label, the winery was established in 1973 with a focus on historic grape varietals — particularly those of the Italian persuasion.

We sampled a vast array of current releases from Terra d’Oro. Thoughts follow.

First, some white and rose…

2015 Terra d’Oro Chenin Blanc & Viognier Clarksburg – 87% chenin blanc, 13% viognier. Peaches and lemons arrive up front, with perfume-driven notes taking the lead in short order. The finish offers hints of vanilla and caramel. On the whole, the wine is tropical and a bit buzzy, and it offers a refreshing take on a style that can often be overwhelmingly fruity. B+ / $16

2015 Terra d’Oro Pinot Grigio Santa Barbara County – There’s a nice slug of mango on the front of this wine, an an otherwise standard pinot grigio from Santa Barbara, far from Amador. Light and quite fresh, it’s an uncomplicated crowd pleaser with a brisk and nicely acidic finish. A- / $16

2015 Terra d’Oro Rose Wine Amador County – Made mostly of nebbiolo grapes. Fruit forward, and loaded with strawberry notes. A surefire crowd pleaser, this is a lively and fragrant wine that showcases crisp acidity and a slight sweetness on the finish. Nothing too fancy going on, but it’s difficult not to enjoy in the moment. B+ / $13

And on to the reds…

2014 Terra d’Oro Barbera Amador County – A bit fruity for a barbera — in fact, it’s got so much bright plum and cherry notes that barbera would’ve been my last guess. That said, this barbeque sipper has plenty to like, including a healthy vanilla note, a dusting of black pepper, and some dried herbs on the back end. It’s a definitive “new world” example of this grape, however. B- / $18

2014 Terra d’Oro Aglianico Amador County – This obscure Italian varietal makes for an interesting alternative to zinfandel, showcasing chocolate and caramel notes along with a moderate slug of citrus. Not as sweet as you’re expecting — at least not after it opens up for a few minutes — and the finish offers restraint. B+ / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Sangiovese Amador County – A dense wine, with intense cherry and vanilla notes, plus a dusting of dark chocolate on the back end. The plummy finish and lack of herbal notes recall cabernet more than sangiovese, which isn’t entirely a bad thing — but which doesn’t ring authentic to the grape. B / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Teroldego Amador County – Made from a obscure Alto Adige grape, this is an inky, ultra-ripe wine with notes of anise, cloves, and loads of dark currants. Sweet up front with a lingering earthy, tannic, and herbal finish, it makes me think of a cross between zinfandel and amarone… with all the good and bad that that connotes. B- / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Petite Sirah Amador County – Ripe and juicy, with a ton of sweetness and residual notes of black tea, black pepper, and licorice. With time, this wine settles down enough to be approachable but the overwhelming sweetness otherwise makes the experience rather singular, culminating in a raisin- and cherry-heavy finish. B / $18

2013 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Amador County – Restrained for zinfandel, with plenty of sweet raisin notes but also notes of blackberry, sweet tea, and vanilla candies. The finish is, again, quite dialed back, bringing forth notes of chocolate and licorice. It’s not an overly serious wine, but it’s a fun one. A- / $18

Finally, a pair of single vineyard zinfandels…

2014 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Home Vineyard – Chocolate and intense Port notes — this is classic Amador County zinfandel, dusted with black pepper and notes of vanilla cake frosting. The finish offers notes of dried blueberry and a solid amount of baking spice and dried ginger notes. Though the body lacks structure (so common with zinfandel) and tends to fade away rather than go out with the bang I’d like to see, it’s still a fun and worthwhile zin. B+ / $24

2014 Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Deaver Vineyard – A somewhat vegetal expression of zin, with notes of coffee, sweet tea, and fruity, juicy plums throughout. Lots of tannin and a heavy wood influence muddy the waters, while the intense cherry jam notes come across as a bit cheap. B- / $22

Review: Wines of Mt. Beautiful, 2016 Releases

Mt Beautiful NC Pinot Noir

Mt. Beautiful is a fairly noteworthy New Zealand winery, which we most recently encountered in our tasting report on new NZ wines. Recently we received a quartet of expressions from the winery. Thoughts on each of these 2016 releases follow.

2014 Mt. Beautiful Pinot Gris North Canterbury – A simple wine, with moderate florals embedded into a mild tropical and citrus body. The short finish is more aromatic than fruit-focused, with a slight brown sugar edge. A quite pleasant but simplistic companion with lighter fare. B / $19

2015 Mt. Beautiful Riesling North Canterbury – Crisp and aromatic, with light notes of pineapple to give this wine a bit of a New World spin. The finish is loaded with acid and comes across as a bit peachy, with a solid and sophisticated balance between the two. A- / $21

2014 Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc North Canterbury – A straightforward sauvignon blanc, though far from the tropical bomb that you typically expect from New Zealand. Instead, here you find bracing acid, significant floral elements, and a dusting of candied pineapple on the slightly earthy back end. B+ / $16

2014 Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir North Canterbury – A fairly thin wine, with some vegetal and mushroom notes taking hold of the nose. The palate showcases more red cherry fruit character, though the finish reprises some of those leathery notes, with a surprisingly touch of gingerbread on the finish. B- / $26