Review: Bet Vodka

bet vodka

Bet, long E. Rhymes with “beet.” In fact, it sounds exactly like “beet.” And that is all because this new vodka is made with beets as its base.

Made in partnership with the distiller 45th Parallel, Bet Vodka is a Minnesota-born spirit that uses only locally grown sugar beets in its mash.

The results are perfectly fine, if not entirely earth-shaking. The nose starts off a bit musty, just hinting at the sweetness that a sugary base can provide. I catch a few gentle, winey notes here as well, unusual for a vodka.

On the palate things diverge considerably, with a rush of sugar hitting the tongue first, bringing along rapid-fire hits of marshmallow, cotton candy, and marzipan. The back end takes these flavors and offers them up in a gently scorched rendition, with more of a toasted marshmallow tone. Things are clean, though still lightly sweet, on the finish, after which a touch of charcoal emerges (and grows) as the primary elements of the vodka fade.

All told, Bet doesn’t strike a whole lot of new ground — except, of course, in the realm of creative pronunciation.

80 proof.

B / $35 / betvodka.com

Review: Lybations Signature Cocktails

lybations

Lybations is a new brand of ready to serve cocktails designed with premium drinking in mind. They’re produced using authentic ingredients and come bottled in frosted glass decanters with swing top closures. And yet, Lybations are quite low in calories thanks to a quite low alcohol level (about on par with wine, but of course consumed in much smaller quantities).

Three varieties are available, all reviewed below. Each is 32 proof and 55 to 60 calories per serving.

Lybations Pepino Diablo Margarita – Made with 100% blue agave tequila reposado, lime, cane sugar, cucumber, and serrano. It’s cucumber all over the place on this one, with lots of tart lime coming on strong after that. There’s not an overwhelming sense of agave here or, it must be said, the diablo serrano pepper. That said, it works well enough as a margarita, provided you don’t mind that slug of cucumber juice. Tastes a little healthy. B+

Lybations Flower Power Sour – Made with vodka, lime and lemon, cane sugar, and elderflower. Less pungent than the margarita, its lemon-lime character coming across more like a lemon-lime soda, with just a touch of floral element (though not particularly identifiable as elderflower) to it. Relatively harmless and unchallenging, though the finish has some vaguely vegetal funk to it… think carrot juice. B-

Lybations Lime In The Coconut – Made with vodka, coconut, lime, and cane sugar and a terrible, terrible name. It’s coconut-forward on the nose, but much heavier with lime on the palate — perhpas making this less badly named than I’d originally thought. This relatively simple construction offers few surprises but is reasonably refreshing. Try it blended with ice, pina colada style. B

each $18 / lybationscocktails.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice, Armory XPA, Big Rig, Down ‘N Dirty IPA, and Pinot Suave

deschutes armory

A whole bunch of stuff has come down the pike from Deschutes lately. Here’s a look at five new releases — two in 12 oz. bottles and three oversized offerings.

Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice Session IPA – Hey, it’s an IPA brewed not with grapefruit but with Meyer lemon! The unusual addition on this session brew ultimately adds quite a decent kick of citrus to the brew, but there’s a heavy earthiness that does a good job of masking it with burly, almost woody overtones. Nice body given the alcohol level, though. A solid effort. 4.5% abv. B+ / $8 per six-pack of 12 oz. bottles

Deschutes Brewery Armory Experimental Pale Ale (XPA) – The first beer brewed at Deschutes’ Portland-based pub, this “experimental” pale ale adds Northern Brewer and Nugget hops to give the beer a distinctly earthy character — just pure bitterness without either a lot of pine or citrus notes. Instead, a leathery, mushroomy character with coffee overtones rises up to greet the palate on the finish — which will likely divide drinkers looking for a more refreshing way out. 5.9% abv. B / $10 per six-pack of 12 oz. bottles

Deschutes Brewery Big Rig – Aka Big Rig Bitter, a “classic pub ale” per Deschutes, or an Extra Strong Bitter if you prefer more austere terminology. Big Rig offers refined, Ye Olde Pub Style drinking with an American twist. Think nutty earthiness at the start, moving quickly into a heavily piney character more in line with today’s IPAs. The finish strongly echoes the earthy-bitter beginning, with notes of mushroom and tanned leather clinging to the palate as the experience fades away. 6% abv. B+ / $5 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Down ‘N Dirty IPA – A bold American IPA with Bravo, Cascade, and Centennial hops. It’s the Bravo that gives this brew its name and its character, which is intensely earthy — indeed a bit “dirty” — and washes away all but the slightest hint of grapefruit peel notes. Watch instead for chewy tree bark notes that inform its heavy, resinous finish. 6.3% abv. B / $5 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Pinot Suave – The very latest from Deschutes in its Reserve Series (complete with wax-covered caps), this is a Belgian style ale that is aged in French oak and Pinot Noir barrels filled with pinot grape must. The results are nothing if not unique, intensely fruity with a mountain of malt to back it up. A little must goes an awfully long way, though, and this oddity takes its upfront malt into lightly sour territory, complete with funky, dusky overtones that cling heavily to the palate. Strikingly original, but probably more conversation piece than anything else. First topic for discussion: Is it pronounced “suave” or “sua-vay?” 11.8% abv. B / $17 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Redd’s Blueberry Ale

The latest in Redd’s flavored beer lineup is this “limited pick release,” Blueberry Ale.

It’s a surprisingly refreshing concoction, a little candylike but far from offensive, with mild (but clear) blueberry juice masking anything by way of the beer base beneath. The finish is a bit green and a touch bitter, but this works with the fruit up front. As with Redd’s original Apple Ales, the Blueberry Ale seems tailor-made for more casual consumption by folks who don’t like beer and for whom the concept of wine coolers seems hopelessly ’80s. Ensure it’s ice cold for best results.

5% abv.

B / $8 per six-pack / reddswickedapple.com

Review: Frey Ranch Vodka and Gin

Frey-Gin-Bottle (Jeff Dow)

Nevada-based Frey Ranch produces its spirits with an intense estate focus — just about everything that goes into the products is produced on the Frey Ranch estate. As the company likes to say, “When you purchase a bottle at our distillery, it is the first time any of these quality ingredients have ever left Frey Ranch.”

We tasted Frey Ranch’s home-grown vodka and gin. (A whiskey, not reviewed here, is also produced.) Thoughts on both of these follow.

Frey Ranch Vodka – Triple distilled from a blend of corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The nose is quite corny, almost like a white whiskey, with some unfortunate mothball notes. The palate is sweeter, the granary note fading into a sweet corn character that’s underpinned by some nutty brown rice notes, scorched sugar, and mushroom. On the whole, this is an atypical vodka that will likely be divisive to vodka lovers. It’s not entirely to my taste, but your mileage may vary. 80 proof. C+ / $40

Frey Ranch Gin – Presumably made with the same base as the vodka, this gin is flavored with estate-grown juniper and sagebrush (not the same thing as sage, by the way), plus a mix of imported (and unstated) botanicals. This comes together more effectively than the vodka, its heavy aromatics hitting on the nose with a combination of camphor, herbal sage, and juniper — in that order. The body is heavy with all things herbal — no citrus overtones on this one — pushing those green notes even further as it attacks the palate. The finish is all herbs, pungent with a touch of cucumber and a dusting of black pepper. If you like your gins with a heavy vegetal note (and I know some of you do), this one’s for you. 90 proof. B / $33

freyranch.com

Review: Havana Club Anejo Classico Puerto Rican Rum (Bacardi)

havana club (bacardi)

Havana Club is one of Cuba’s most noteworthy and famous rums. So how exactly does this bottle come from Puerto Rico?

Allow me to explain the best I can…

Like many things today, Havana Club isn’t a rum per se but a brand. The vast majority of the world knows Havana Club as a rum brand now produced in Cuba by Pernod Ricard. But the U.S. rights to the Havana Club brand name are owned by Bacardi, which a while back slapped it on one of its Puerto Rican products — though it is said to be produced using a recipe given to Bacardi by the original familial creators of Havana Club. (This split occurred about 20 years ago, and the history behind it is, like all things, quite complicated.)

For decades this has not really mattered, since Havana Club (Cuban) could not be sold in the U.S. anyway. Both Pernod Ricard and Bacardi have lived uneasily with the detente… the way the U.S. and Cuba have lived with one another in similarly uneasy peace.

Then comes Obama, who starts relaxing trade restrictions with Cuba. While you still can’t buy Cuban rum in the U.S., it’s starting to look like, maybe, you soon might be able to. In fact, the U.S. government recently granted the trademark back to Cuba… but Bacardi isn’t letting it go without a fight. Hence a big push of late for Bacardi’s Havana Club — primarily seen only in Florida but now aiming to head nationally in order to bolster its trademark claims.

Today there are two expressions of Bacardi’s Havana Club: a white rum and an anejo offering, the latter of which we review here.

Bacardi’s anejo rendition of Havana Club is just 1 to 3 years old, which makes it a rather young rum, and not anything I’d describe as “anejo.” I tasted it against Cuban Havana Club 3 Years Old, which is filtered to a near-white color but which should, in theory, retain the bulk of the flavor profile of a rum left without filtering. The Cuban 3 year old is clearly a richer and more fulfilling spirit, loaded with citrus and tropical notes, coconut, and banana.

The Puerto Rican/Bacardi Havana Club is thinner, with notes of vanilla and brown sugar backed up by vaguely Indian spices (think chai), barrel char, and some grainy notes on the finish. The fruitiness of the Cuban version is lacking here, with mild petrol notes picking up the slack where those herbal/granary-focused elements leave off. (It should go without saying that it’s nothing like the Cuban Havana Club 7 Year Old expression, which I also retasted for this, although it is at least similar in color.)

What then to do with Bacardi’s rendition of Havana Club? It’s worthwhile as a mixer — those odd chai notes are oddly engaging — but it simply doesn’t have enough power or depth to make you forget the real deal. Let’s call it Bacardi Club and open the doors for the Cuban stuff, already.

80 proof.

B / $28 / havanaclubus.com

Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

JBW_OLD_NEW

It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com