Review: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com

Review: Sugar Skull Rum

sugar skull rum

Here’s a new batch of rums, comprising five flavored expressions. Sugar Skull is made from can sourced throughout the Caribbean and South America and distilled in the Caribbean (the company doesn’t say where) in a column still. The final product is blended and flavored in the U.S. before bottling in dia de los muertes inspired decanters.

Five expressions are being produced, all of which are flavored to some degree (even the silver rum, see below). We checked out three of them for review. Thoughts follow.

Sugar Skull Rum Tribal Silver – Flavored with “a slight essence of cocoa and vanilla.” The flavoring agents mainly serve to soften this rum a bit, giving it a clearer vanilla spin, particularly on the palate. Hints of coconut (more so than chocolate) emerge on the back end. The nose is less distinct and hotter than the above might indicate, with more traditional rum funk throughout. The body seems tailor-made for mixing, however, and would excel with a simple cola or in a tropical concoction. 80 proof. 

Sugar Skull Rum Mystic Vanilla – This rum features “natural vanilla overtones” … but “overtones” is a bit light for the vanilla bomb in store for drinkers of this ultra-punchy spirit. Very sugary on the nose, with marshmallow overtones. These carry through to the palate, which doesn’t so much come across as vanilla as it does liquified rock candy. It ventures way too far into candyland for my palate… but hey, at least it has “sugar” in the name. 80 proof.

Sugar Skull Rum Native Coconut Blend – At first I thought the back label — “infused with a slight aroma of wild blueberries” — was a typo, but this seems to be on point: This coconut rum also has a touch of blueberry in it, too, making for a weirdly unexpected fruit kick atop a base of traditionally sweetened coconut “party rum”. The berries hit the nose more than the palate, which is heavily sugared and clearly designed to be used as something like half of your pina colada. The berry notes make a return appearance on the finish, which they impact in a strangely unctuous and lingering way. 42 proof. 

each $28 / sugarskullrum.com

Tasting the Brunellos of Col d’Orcia with Count Francesco Marone Cinzano

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I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day I get to have lunch with an honest to god Count. Frenceso Marone Cinzano runs the show at Col d’Orcia, where he has produced Brunello di Montalcino (amongst a number of other wines) since 1992. (His family has owned the estate since 1973.)

Cinzano visited San Francisco for a classically Italian lunch recently and he brought along a number of his wines, all made with estate fruit, dating back to 2001. Thoughts follow.

2012 Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino DOC – Very herbal on the nose, fresh cherries and some balsamic notes. Dense tannins emerge with woody notes. Rosemary and some bitter edges hit the finish. B / $25

2010 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Just released. This is much more lush and fruity, with a light body and a nice structure. Some black pepper notes amidst all the red berries. A- / $55

0222006 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Densely earthy with cassis and bay leaf notes. Long finish provides florals and rocky, earthy elements. Slight muddiness in the body with time in glass. A- / $150

2004 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – Sweeter and fruitier on the nose, with some tropical and even coconut notes showing. Tart raspberry character is matched by smoky, leathery notes on the finish. A- / $150

2001 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio al Vento” DOCG – An exceptional wine. Perfect balance of fruit and earth, with dense cassis and blueberry really enveloping the wine. The finish is epic, with light herbs, blackberries, and no end in sight to the opulence. Fantastic from start to finish. A+ / $160

2010 Col d’Orcia “Nearco” Sant’Antimo DOC – A blend of 50% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, and 5% petit verdot. Lots of density here, with chocolate, licorice, and a woody finish. B+ / $45

2009 Col d’Orcia “Olmaia” Sant’Antimo DOC – 100% cabernet sauvignon. Fresh herbs — sage and thyme — with lots of dark fruit notes. Currants and vanilla galore nudge this toward a California style. A- / $77

 

coldorcia.com

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Review: Makar Glasgow Gin

makar glasgow gin

As the full name suggests, Makar is produced in Glasgow, the first gin made in this Scottish city. Makar is focused on the number seven (lucky, I guess?). It is (curiously) pot distilled seven times, bottled in a heptagonal shaped decanter, and infused with seven botanicals — angelica root, liquorice, coriander seeds, lemon peel, cassia bark, black peppercorns, and rosemary. Of course, it’s also infused with juniper, but for some reason Makar doesn’t include that key ingredient in the botanical list. The other ingredients are all “pillars supporting the heart of the recipe.” By the way, if you’re wondering, the name Makar is a Scots word for poet.

It’s a funky and unique little gin not without some amount of charm. The nose first comes off a bit musty — traces of that pot-distilled spirit, I’m sure — with mushroom, tree bark, licorice, and gunpowder aromas. I catch hints of bitter apple, too. The body is a little more familiar, but still quite dusty, that angelica and coriander making a major impact. Even the juniper is dialed back, with the peppercorns and rosemary making the most lasting impression on the finish.

Interesting stuff, but more citrus elements — and maybe some florals — would add some balance that would make this a bit friendlier.

86 proof. Available only in Scotland for now.

B / $53 / glasgowdistillery.com

Review: Thump Keg Rye IPA and Agave Amber Ale

thump keg Rye 6pk w-Bot

Diageo recently came up with a nutter of an idea: Brew beers using some of the ingredients in its spirits. These aren’t aged in spirit barrels — they aren’t aged at all — nor do they contain any actual spirits. They are just, the story goes, made using some of the raw components that go into the company’s whiskey and tequila.

And so this pair of Thump Keg beers was born in Latrobe, Penn. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is made by City Brewing Company, where Rolling Rock and other brands are made.)

I tried them both, and some comments follow.

Thump Keg Rye IPA – “Brewed with George Dickel Sour Mash Bill” (so… corn, rye, and barley), this hybrid IPA offers a malty, nutty and slightly sweet attack — loaded with sugared almonds and a honeycomb character — that fades to a chewy, bitter brew on the back end. Lots of racy grain character comes to the forefront as the finish kicks in, offering a spicy conclusion backed by lots of hops. It’s not entirely balanced nor overwhelmingly “rye” like, but it’s an enjoyable diversion. 8.2% abv. B

Thump Keg Agave Amber Ale – “Brewed with the essence of Peligroso Select Mexican Agave.” I’m not entirely sure what that means — it actually has raw agave in the mash? — but this beer does offer a slightly honey-focused character that rounds out a decent amount of malt and some cocoa notes. If there’s any agave character here it comes through as a light herbal note on the front of the palate. Otherwise it’s fairly straightforward in structure. 5.8% abv. B

each $9.50 per six-pack / thumpkeg.com

Review: Far North Spirits Solveig Gin and Alander Spiced Rum

solveig ginYou’re a Minnesota-based craft distiller that names its products after Scandinavian words. For your first two products, what do you release? You nailed it: Gin and spiced rum, just what our friends from the north are known for!

Kidding aside, Far North produces craft spirits in some really beautiful, minimalist, Scanditastic packaging. While the company now boasts five spirits in its stable, here’s a look at the first two out of the gate.

Far North Spirits Solveig Gin – [UPDATE: This review has been temporarily redacted. Far North’s Mike Swanson says we were mistakenly sent a bottle from a bad batch of Solveig that had problems from a bad water purifier. A new bottle (and a new review) are on the way. -Ed.]

Far North Spirits Alander Spiced Rum – (oh-lander) Louisiana sugar cane spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves — plus a hint of espresso(!). This is a much more capable spirit, but it’s incredibly exotic for this category. Things start out with gentle sweetness before diving into some exceptionally sultry, savory spice notes. That espresso hits you immediately — more cocoa nib than ground coffee — while the cloves and allspice play a strong supporting role. The body is far more bitter than you might expect from a spiced rum, almost to the point of astringency at times. It takes some doing, but the finish manages to dial it back a bit. Here, gentle notes of sweetness finally re-emerge, the way a bite of too much cinnamon can initially be overwhelming but eventually settle down into something nostalgic and soothing. 86 proof. B / $30

farnorthspirits.com

Review: Red Jacket Orchards Joe’s Half & Half

joes half_half - NEWHere’s an Arnold Palmer with a twist: Guayusa tea mixed with Red Jacket’s custom lemonade, one that’s made with New York apple juice instead of sugar. So half and half and half? This is a pleasant enough concoction, with the apple and tea components the clearest part of the beverage. The tea has a green tea-like herbaciousness that complements the lemonade well. Overall, the half and half could definitely use a little more lemon to give it a bit more of that classic, zingy tartness, but if you don’t mind a strong punch of apples in your drink — complete with the flashbacks to your youth — it’s a fun diversion from the usual Arnold Palmer.

B / $18 per three 32 oz. bottles / redjacketorchards.com

Tasting the Wines of Gerard Bertrand, 2015 Releases

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Gerard Bertrand is a producer in the Roussillon region of France… just next door to the Languedoc, nestled between the Pyrennes mountains (and Spain) and the Mediterranean Sea. But Gerard Bertrand is also a man, an imposing Frenchman who was eye to eye with me at a solid 6’4″ and with the uncanny resemblance of Vincent Cassel. But rather than screaming at ballerinas to “Attack it!” Bertrand makes a number of highly regarded wines (dozens of them) in his mountain commune. He’s also written a book about it: Wine, Moon and Stars, where he talks about biodynamics and a life in winemaking in the south of France. We recently had lunch in San Francisco to talk about the book and taste his wines, both new and (very) old. Thoughts on Betrand’s latest wines follow.

NV Gerard Bertrand Code Rouge Cremant de Limoux AOP – A stellar sparkler that is not rouge at all but rather blanc, very fresh, lively, and bright, with notes of apples, some pears, and toffee. A- / $27

2012 Gerard Bertrand Cigalus Blanc Aude Hauterive IGP – A blend of chardonnay/viognier/sauvignon blanc. Bold and gold in color, it offers honey and mint notes with some almost bready notes on the palate. Food friendly, with an herbal kick and some notes of furniture polish on the nose. B / $36

2014 Gerard Bertrand Chateau La Sauvageonne GMVV Rose Coteaux du Languedoc AOP – Grenache/mourvedre/viognier/vermentino. An interesting rose, with a mild nose and notes of grapefruit, lime zest, and candied flower petals. Some herbal character emerges alongside the slightly chalky finish. B+ / $20

2012 Gerard Bertrand Clos d’Ora Minervois La Liviniere AOP – A new release. A Rhone-ish blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and carignan. A wine designed to “deliver a mission of peace, love, and harmony.” That’s effective, given this wine’s lovely nose of violets and caramel, and youthful body that exhibits floral notes, and some coconut and chocolate in the finish. Mineral notes perk up with air, too. A- / $NA

0121951 Gerard Bertrand Legend Vintage Banyuls Rivesaltes AOP – Gorgeous old Banyuls, dessert wine made of 100% grenache. Lovely port notes have mellowed into a glorious blend of raisin and fig, chocolate and nuts in perfect harmony. At once gentle, elegent, and rich with dense dessert flavors. A knockout. A+ / $165

I also brought some wines home for tasting later…

2014 Gerard Bertrand Cote des Roses – A grenache/cinsault/syrah rose blend. Very fresh and, indeed, floral, with notes of strawberries, peaches, rose petals, and a significant tropical influence. Significant acidity keeps things lively on the palate, but also fruit forward. Brisk and fragrant, quite summery. Note the bottle, the base of which is cast into the impression of a full rose flower. Cute. B+ / $15

2014 Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc – A rose blend of grenache gris and grenache noir, a very pale, light-bodied wine with overtones of fresh herbs, white flowers, and light tropical elements. Very fresh and fragrant, it’s a classic summer rose through and through. B+ / $16

2011 Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Tautavel – A blend of grenache/syrah/carignan. Herbal, with overtones of roasted meats on the nose, with touches of licorice and raspberry jam. The body gets going with restrained fruit and some fresh thyme and rosemary, but the fruit becomes more prominent as it gets some air. Ultimately it’s quite lively, with touches of vanilla and coconut, more of that thyme, and a slightly smoky, leathery back end. Let this one breathe a bit and its depth will surprise you. A- / $15

gerard-bertrand.com

Review: West Cork Irish Whiskey Classic Blend and Single Malt 10 Years Old

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West Cork is an Irish whiskey brand that’s now making its way to the U.S.. It’s actually made in West Cork (by West Cork Distillers), where Kennedy and a variety of other products are also produced. Unlike Kennedy, these are legit whiskeys, one blended and one a single malt. We tried them both. Thoughts follow.

West Cork Original Irish Whiskey Classic Blend – A standard blend of grain and malt whiskeys, aged in Bourbon barrels. It’s a light and breezy blend, largely in keeping with the gentle “house style” of Irish whiskey. There’s a citrus edge on the nose, but the body features plenty of malt, with solid nougat, vanilla, and a mild echo of citrus — lemon meringue, perhaps — as the finish takes hold. It’s a whiskey that initially comes across as simple but which grows on you quite a bit as you work through that first glass. Irish fans, give it a spin. 80 proof. B+ / $27

West Cork Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Old – Big (and surprising) green apple notes on the nose, drowning out everything else. The body is very malty, rich with notes of sweetened breakfast cereal, with lingering notes of toffee and molasses — and perhaps some coconut on the back end. The palate cuts a traditional Irish malt character, but it’s ultimately hard to reconcile with the fruity nose — those apple characteristics growing in strength as the whiskey gets some air in the glass. 80 proof. B / $40

westcorkdistillers.com

Review: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

old overholtOld Overholt’s been making rye since well before rye was cool. Part of the Beam Suntory empire, the brand claims heritage back to 1810 and was reputedly the whiskey of choice of Doc Holliday himself.

Old Overholt is commonly used as a mixer — and is a frequent denizen of the Sazerac cocktail — but let’s take a look at how well it stands on its own two feet. While there is no official production information available (including the mashbill), some say Overholt’s trimmed its barrel time down to 4 years while simultaneously raising prices.

True or not, as of 2015 Old Overholt drinks a lot like a young, rye-heavy, mainstream bourbon. On the nose, menthol notes and some hints of leather and cloves. The body is lightly sweet, heavy on notes of cinnamon and clove, bitter roots, and some simple, sawdusty wood character. Sampled neat, Old Overholt drinks as a simple spirit, light on the tongue, a bit bitter, and with a touch of red pepper on the finish. Pleasant and cordial enough, but best as a mixer, where, true to form, it proves quite versatile.

80 proof.

B / $17 / beamsuntory.com