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

Review: Mulberry Club Fruit Brandies

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Regions like Albania and Azerbaijan are known primarily for their brandies — though few of these bottles ever make it to our shores. Two that did come from Mulberry Club, and Azerbaijani producer of fruit brandies. The company sent us two to sample, one made from local cherries and another, of course, from mulberries.

Both are 100 proof. Thoughts follow.

Mulberry Club Mulberry Brandy – Intense and funky on the nose, with notes of raw alcohol, fruit pits, and petrol. Give it some time to let the more astringent elements blow off — think pisco — and gentle fruit notes emerge. It’s slightly citrusy, with heavy herbal overtones, featuring notes of black tea, nutmeg, and cloves. The finish remains a bit rubbery, with hospital overtones. Heavy stuff. C-

Mulberry Club Cornelian Cherry Brandy – Similar aromas as described above — with young brandy there’s not much way around it — but the body offers significantly more fruit and less funk, right from the start. It isn’t particularly identifiable as cherry, but more as a vague berry salad by way of some hot, hot heat. Relatively clean on the finish with just a touch of cereal notes, though quite warming. B

prices $NA / website NA

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

liqs

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 / liqsshot.com

Review: Hard Frescos

hard frescos

Mexican sodas 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 / hardfrescos.com