Category Archives: Rated B

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B / hardwaterbar.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

 Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

Everyone loves a good story, and to spin a good yarn around an original tale is becoming a talent synonymous with spirits industry. A brand simply can’t stand on its merits alone anymore. A successful product launch now requires no less than a multi-million dollar yacht, international release parties, the courtship of the tastemaker kings and queens, and a celebrity endorsement or five. However, nothing shines quite like a good lacquered coating of embellishment to make a product beam in the eyes of the unsuspecting and trustworthy. It is human nature and a constitutional right to amplify facts with the intent of impressing people. Once in high school, a certain writer once stretched a passing conversation with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye into a lunch of vegan tacos, Coca-Cola and a two-hour conversation about the future of his band Fugazi.

So it comes as no surprise that Diageo, dream weavers of the potentially-fictitious dream history of Bulleit, present the Orphan Barrel project: a new chapter in the company’s incredible alternate history of whiskey. If Diageo’s tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters — these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as the Stitzel-Weller distillery. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch this new whiskey series, with more planning on being “discovered” throughout the forthcoming seasons.

Now it appears this long-lost S-W juice was actually made at the Bernheim distillery. The barrels also weren’t “lost,” they just never got used for their original intent. What was the original home intended for these barrels? Either Diageo doesn’t know (unlikely) or simply isn’t saying, which seems more likely. Why let those traveling down the yellow brick road get a peek at how the Wizard makes the sausage?

Either way, the barrels were shipped from S-W and bottled at the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, a state enjoying the attention and courtship of Diageo as of late. How many barrels? Good question. No one knows the answer to that either, but the edition numbers on the back of the bottles posted on the internet have now reached the 40,000 mark. Given how little would be left in each orphaned barrel at 20+ years of age, the number of barrels involved would have to be in the thousands, hard to “lose” and hardly qualifying as “limited edition” — unless you’re comparing it to the voluminous output of something like… say… Jack Daniel’s?

This lack of confidence on provenance combined with a balance inquiry at a local ATM were big sticking points as to whether or not we should purchase samples for review. Neither eager nor willing to shell out the $225 required for both bottles, a local establishment was pouring small samples for ladies and gentlemen who would otherwise shop the aisles for Kentucky Gentleman. $10.50 was the safer investment of the two options, it made sense to minimize risk and see what the buzz was about. As Chris is wont to say: “Thoughts follow.”

Barterhouse 20 Years Old – With more text on the bottle than a Russian novel, Diageo seems hellbent on cramming as many typographical flourishes as possible per label to remind the consumer of the epic saga they’ve purchased for their mantle, possibly to distract you from what’s inside. (It’s worth noting that Barterhouse’s mascot is a rather sly looking fox.) It’s incredibly sweet, with vanilla and butter on the nose, and soft on the palate, making it hard to even believe this is 20 years of age (with very little oak or sulfur on the taste). The finish is even weaker. Very easygoing and inoffensive, it would be a great starter bourbon for the uninitiated and those with ample money to spend. 90.2 proof. B- / $75

Chris says: I get more of a burnt toffee and considerable heat on the nose, with cinnamon and brown butter on the body. Kind of a weird balance of flavors, but a lot going on. I found this fun to explore, but difficult enough on the finish to make things a bit strange. My rating: B+

Old Blowhard 26 Years Old – A 26-year-old bourbon bearing the name of a cantankerous old man. I might be reading too much into the glass with the brand names here, but if I’m right Diageo isn’t being very subtle. It has a very strong presence right from the moment it lands in the glass. A nose of spices, cinnamon, and a touch of campfire smoke blend with a strong taste of toffee, vanilla, cloves, and a plentiful punch of oak. By comparison to Barterhouse (below), it has a much stronger and present finish with a nice burn of oak and alcohol. At $150, though, it’s hard to get excited on the cost versus quality scale of things. There are way better bourbons at this price point worth considering. That said, this is definitely the better of the two “orphan barrels.” 90.7 proof.  B / $150

Chris says: Quite a different animal. Cloves and peppermint on the nose. The body shows off big vanilla and toffee notes, but the finish turns a bit brutish, with a kind of heavily-flamed orange peel character. Becomes increasingly woody as it opens up in the glass. Intriguing. B+

With this new armada of orphan barrels, Diageo is placing bets on the casual consumer who enjoys higher end premium stuff and places as much stock on the envelope, paper, and penmanship as they do the contents of the letter. The kind of person who would purchase a $150 bottle of bourbon in order to subtly out-compete at the court of the well-heeled Keeneland’s clubhouse on opening day, or a tailgating affair at Churchill Downs in May. Much to the company’s credit, it sort of works. They’ve managed to put the fox in some very nice sheep’s clothing for the flock. However, in the end, the best consumer is one that is as well-informed as possible. Or as the song goes: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.*”

Limited Edition of Ten Frillion, or whatever number Diageo wants.

diageo.com

*The author is well aware of the thick glaze of irony created by enlisting references to the traditionally sober, straight-edged and highly anti-corporate Fugazi in a whiskey review.

 [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer – BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Stock Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Bacon doughnuts, bacon gum, bacon mints, and now… bacon beer? One of the hottest crazes to sweep the nation lately has been bacon-flavored products, and not even beer seems to be able to escape its allure. In 2011, Oregon-based Rogue Ales teamed up with Voodoo Doughnut to release its Bacon Maple Ale, but now homebrewers can join in on the swine-inspired fun. (Which I did, for your reading pleasure.)

Northern Brewer’s BACON! Smoked Red Ale homebrew kit is available in both extract and all-grain varieties, featuring cherrywood smoked malt to cement the smoky, meaty character. However, what sets the Northern Brewer kit apart from crowd is the inclusion of liquid bacon extract. At first glance, this vial is intimidating; it appears thick, smells of a combination of brine and bacon, and doesn’t shy away from potency. Keep in mind, though, that this 30ml of extract is enough for 5 gallons of beer.

Bacon 3 Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Out of the box, the extract version of the kit contains specialty grains (chocolate malt, honey malt, Caramunich, and the aforementioned cherrywood smoked malt), dry malt extract (amber and wheat), dark malt syrup, an ounce of Willamette hops, 30ml of bacon extract, and your choice of dry or liquid yeast.

While steeping the specialty grains and during the boil, a strong smoke and barbecue aroma fills the air as the cherrywood malt works its magic. When I added the bacon extract after the boil, I could sense how meaty this beer was going to turn out.

Bacon 2 525x350 Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer   BACON! Smoked Red Ale

Disclaimer: Each homebrewer has different equipment, technique, and experience. Your results may vary.

Despite the aggressive pork notes that emerge while brewing the beer, BACON! cleans up nicely within the glass after a few weeks of conditioning in bottles. While Northern Brewer’s stock photo shows a radiant ruby color, my version was a little bit darker, bordering on mahogany. In the nose, the bacon still stands in the spotlight but isn’t overpowering. In fact, there’s a pleasant balance between the meatiness and a honey, caramel sweetness. This balance continues into the body, where a mild amount of chocolate contributes to the complexity.

Overall, my version of this beer had a bold but not overwhelming bacon characteristic; I went back and forth on questioning if I would’ve liked to see a more brash beer — without compromising the drinkability of how it is now. All told, I enjoyed what I ended up with and will probably explore this kit again in the future.

B / $50 (extract version) / northernbrewer.com

Review: Wines of Italy’s Stemmari, 2014 Releases

stemmari pinot noir 94x300 Review: Wines of Italys Stemmari, 2014 ReleasesStemmari is a major winemaker of Sicily, where it produces wines from both native and international varietals, with a ruthless focus on keeping costs down. Most of its wines are available for under $10 a bottle, and some of these are quite good.

The naming system may be a little tricky. The less-expensive, single varietal wines all have Stemmari on the label, and some list Feudo Arancio, an older/alternate name for the company, on the label as well. The blends — which are more expensive — do not use Stemmari on the label but only say Feudo Arancio. Confusing, sure, but either way, they all come from the same company, and the same island… Sicily.

Thoughts follow.

2011 Stemmari Pinot Grigio Sicilia IGT – Crisp. Light peach and pineapple on the nose. The body veers more toward lemon, with a touch of grapefruit. Almost candylike, it’s dangerously easy to drink. A- / $7

2012 Stemmari Feudo Arancio Nero D’Avola Terre Siciliane IGT – Tough and tannic at first, this wine settles down eventually and reveals a quite jammy, strawberry-laden core. Subtle tea and milk chocolate notes add nuance, but the somewhat sweet finish becomes tiresome after awhile. B / $8

2011 Stemmari Pinot Noir Sicilia IGT – Serviceable Pinot, but on the earthy/pruny side of things. Notes of cola and black cherry are also prominent, but the finish is on the tight side. B / $8

2012 Stemmari Feudo Arancio Moscato Sicilia IGT – Super-sweet moscato (just 8.5% alcohol), loaded with peaches, pineapple, and bananas foster. Simple, but it’s what sweet moscato should be. B+ / $9

2010 Feudo Arancio Cantodoro Sicilia IGT – 80% nero d’avola, 20% cabernet sauvignon. Easily the best wine in Stemmari’s lineup, a rich and balanced collection of currants, plums, tobacco, leather, and dark chocolate. It all comes together rather seamlessly, making for a seductive and luscious experience. A- / $18

2010 Feudo Arancio Dalila Sicilia IGT – A blend of 80% grillo (stainless steel fermented) and 20% viognier (aged 8 months in oak barrels). Weird and chardonnay-like up front, with big butter and vanilla notes up front. The body brings out meatlike characteristics that can be a bit at odds with the mild peach and lemon notes that come along on the finish. B / $20

feudoarancio.it

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

curious world of wine 187x300 Book Review: The Curious World of WineWine is indeed a curious world. Just drinking everyday bottles of the stuff is enough to vault you into a world of confusing terminology, exotic places, and strange people for the rest of your life.

Purdue University’s Richard Vine does the wine fanatic no favors with his book, The Curious World of Wine, which only serves to add to the mystery. A collection of loosely sorted and generally quite short “fun facts,” Vine devotes 210 pages, 10 chapters, and over 100 segments of only a few paragraphs each to one oddball tidbit or another about the world of wine.

Historical vignettes and etymology make up the lion’s share of the book. Some of this you’ll likely have heard before (toasting was born to exchange liquids between two glasses to ensure no one was being poisoned), some you likely haven’t (Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild conceived of Opus One while the Baron was lounging in bed). Most of the tidbits are at least interesting, even if they’re short on being actively educational.

Vine’s writing is typical of academics — straightforward and largely humorless aside from the overuse of wordplay — but breezy enough to make it easy to get into. If trivia’s your name and wine’s your game, give this book a look.

B / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Wine: A Tasting Course

wine tasting 01 thumb 620x445 74509 300x215 Book Review: Wine: A Tasting CourseUSA Today readers rejoice: There’s a book that takes the pedantic prose out of wine and turns it all into colorful infographics.

Marnie Old’s Wine: A Tasting Course cues you in from the start, with a cover festooned with cartoony illustrations and questions designed to pique your interest in the category (“Which are the most important grapes?”)

You’ll find answers to all of these and more within the 247 pages of the text, and you generally won’t have to do too much reading. Enormous graphics, heavy on iconic yellow-or-red bottles or glasses of wine cue you in to where to look on every page. Old is fond of the Venn diagram, often plotting grape varietals, winemaking styles, and even foods and flavors on one spectrum or another. In Wine: A Tasting Course, there’s nothing that can’t be rendered as a graphic.

That’s not a bad thing, and while it’s intended to simplify the subject matter, often it has the opposite effect. Will the average reader of this book really track down Argentian Malbec, Spanish Priorat, and Australian Tawny Port for a comparative tasting in “exploring heavier red styles?” What would be learned in the process of this tasting, other than to follow Old’s graph that plots “weight” vs. “flavor,” and agreeing that, yes, the Port does have more “flavor” to offer?

I don’t mean to make fun. It’s easier to learn through pictures than it is through words, and a segment of readers will probably find this approach an easier one to follow than others.

B / $20 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Stolen “Coffee & Cigarettes” Spiced Rum

stolen coffee and cigarettes 98x300 Review: Stolen Coffee & Cigarettes Spiced RumThe name alone gives one pause. Does one want to drink cigarettes? If they’re stolen, do they taste better? To clarify things a bit, look to the quotation marks. “Stolen” is the name of the brand. “Coffee & Cigarettes” is the flavor applied. Underneath, it’s spiced rum, making this the first flavored and spiced rum we’ve reviewed.

Now this isn’t our first run-in with tobacco flavoring agents, although Stolen is careful to note its flavorings are coffee and cigarettes, not tobacco. Important distinction? Let’s find out by sipping on this Caribbean-sourced, Florida-bottled, New Zealand-owned oddity.

I’m happy to report that the primary note on the nose is coffee. It’s a little dark and husky, but this comes across more as dark roast espresso with a touch of spice than, as feared, the flavor of old coffee with cigarette butts floating in it. The body is a touch less forgiving. The smokiness builds here, driving the character forward. At first, the spirit offers more of a light brandy character than a rum-like one, though the sweetness (particularly molasses-heavy) grows with time. The smoke flavor component is far more successful than in Ivanabitch’s vodka version, presumably because the coffee and spice elements balance things out a bit. The finish manages to pull all of this together better than you’d think.

Ultimately the spirit is far more of a success than I had feared, but for most it will likely remain a curiosity that generates more questions based on its avant garde label and unique recipe than interest in actually imbibing it.

84 proof.

B / $15 / stolenrum.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2014)

deschutes Hop Henge 22oz 76x300 Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2014)This year’s Hop Henge from Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes continues the company’s long-running experiment in “IBU escalation,” landing at 99 IBUs this time around. It doesn’t taste all that bitter. Sure, it’s got a nice slug of hops courtesy of the Cascade, Centennial, Millennium, Chinook, and one experimental variety of hops in the mix, which give it a bracing dried herb character. But it’s a curious chocolate — very dark and brooding — that turns this into something more than your usual IPA. The finish is drying and slightly fruity, with caramel apple notes.

Hop Henge has never been my favorite Deschutes bottling, but as always it proves itself to be worthy of exploration.

8.8% abv.

B / $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #3

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ImpEx Beverages imports The Exclusive Malts, a series of independently-bottled Scotch whiskys that are, well, pretty darn exclusive. Primarily cask strength bottlings produced in very limited editions (most have just a few hundred bottles drawn from a single cask available), these are rarities that single malt fans will definitely want to try and seek out.

Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Laphroaig 2005 8 Years Old – Everything you’re expecting from a cask-strength Laphroaig indie, all salty seaweed, cloves, orange oil, and iodine. The peat is restrained and kicks in mainly on the finish. This expression doesn’t reinvent Laphroaig’s well-worn wheel, but brings it home in style. 111.8 proof. A- / $85

The Exclusive Malts Speyside 2003 10 Years Old – Sourced from an unnamed distillery in Speyside. Who could it be, given this description? The nose is restrained, barely hinting at what’s inside. Crack things open and get ready for a punch to the throat: Shockingly sweet syrup, candied apples and pears, fresh honeycomb, and just hints of its underlying grain. A drop of water helps to tame the sugary finish, bringing out some malty notes. 112.6 proof. B+ / $90

The Exclusive Malts Craigellachie 2000 12 Years Old – Craigellachie is a small distillery that’s in the same village as Macallan in the north of Speyside. It makes very few official bottlings, so your best chance to try it is in independent bottlings like this. Hints of smoke on the nose, with menthol and some orange notes. The body is big and round, full of well-oaked grains, light citrus, even some tropical notes. Not overly complex, but a solid sipper at just 12 years old. Well balanced even at cask strength. 111.6 proof. A- /  $105

The Exclusive Malts Mortlach 18 Years Old – Classic Mortlach, sharp, well-oaked, and fruity with spiced pear notes on the nose. The body is austere and refined, with light mint notes, orange flower honey, and a grainy, malty back end. Relatively simple in composition, but engaging and easy to enjoy as is. 108.6 proof. B+ / $130

The Exclusive Malts Longmorn 1985 28 Years Old – Beautiful stuff. Almost bourbon-like on the nose, with heavy vanilla and caramel, toasted coconut, and some banana. The body ups the ante with sweet-and-silky honey, nougat, butterscotch, and dried fruits. Wonderful balance of sweet stuff, malty notes, and gentle spices, with a lush body and a long finish. 103.2 proof. A / $250

The Exclusive Malts The Exclusive Blend 1991 21 Years Old – A blend of single malts and single grain whiskys, all distilled in 1991 and matured in ex-sherry casks. What an oddity. Some funky, leathery, tobacco-laden, Band-Aid notes on the nose lead you into a body that hits you with sweet smoke, big malt character, heather, and tar. Kind of a mess, and sorely lacking in some much-needed fruitiness to give this odd blend some charm. 92 proof. B / $100

impexbev.com

Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon Region

HERITAGE DU TEMPS SINGLA 2005 115x300 Tasting the Sweet White Wines of the Roussillon RegionRoussillon is southern France’s answer to Sauternes. This small part of the Languedoc region, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains, specializes in sweet dessert wines, made much in the same style of the more famous — and much more expensive — brethren to the north.

These wines, known as Vins Doux Naturels in their sweetened state, come from a number of sub-districts and are made with a variety of grape varietals. (The most noteworthy wines from this area are the well-regarded wines from the tiny Banyuls region, though these are closer to Port.) You’ll note the “Ambre” designation on some of the wines below. “Ambre” means that a wine from this region has been aged for at least two years in an oxidative container (like a large oak vat) before bottling, similar to Tawny Port. This can give the wine a much deeper, golden color.

And by the way, the district isn’t just promoting their value as an alternative to pricier stickies — it’s also got cocktails you can check out using Roussillon as a base.

Today we look at three selections from the Roussillon region, all fortified whites. Thoughts follow.

2006 Chateau Les Pins Rivesaltes Ambre – A blend of 25% White Grenache, 25% Malvasia, and 50% Macabeu grapes. Aromatic and perfumy, almost like an Alsatian wine. The body initially hits you with honey, then spins into an orange/lemon character before finishing with notes of cereal, something that’s almost like a granola. Refreshing, and different enough to make experiencing worthwhile over other white dessert wines. 16% abv. B+ / $15

2011 Chateau Les Pins Muscat de Rivesaltes -  50% Muscat Petit Grains and 50% Muscat Alexandrie grapes. Typical of Muscat, with a nose of peaches and marshmallow cream. On the tongue, more aromatics develop, with a perfumed white flower character that balances the fruit. The result is fresh and fragrant, a more pure expression of the vine than the almost malty/bready character that comes along in the Ambre. 16% abv. A- / $15

2006 Domaine Singla Heritage du Temps Ambre – A much different experience than the Les Pins, this 100% Macabeu wine has the intensity of a lighter sherry, crossed with a Madeira. The nose offers the distinct, old-wine sharpness of Madeira, with hints of floral aromatics and some sweetness beneath. On the palate, you’ll find more of a honey character backed with chewy nougat, nuts, and that sour cherry finish that again recalls Madeira. Not bad, but hardly the crowd-pleaser that the (cheaper) Muscat de Riversaltes is. B / $56

winesofroussillon.com

Book Review: The New York Times Book of Wine

nyt book of wine 203x300 Book Review: The New York Times Book of WineIf you want to learn about wine… like really learn about wine, you might think a mammoth tome like The New York Times Book of Wine would be a good place to start. Sure sounds legit. Alas, TNYTBOW is not that kind of place. As with many a book of this ilk (the kind with a newspaper name in the title), it’s not a book written with any specific goal in mind, but rather a loosely cobbled-together collection of previously published stories wrapped around a single topic. In this case, wine.

If you want to learn about Gary Vaynerchuk’s past, or you want seafood recipes, or you’re interested in comments on pairing oysters with red wine, you’ve come to the right place: This is a seemingly random anthology of stories that all do get around to mentioning wine at least at some point.

There are plenty of the expected kinds of pieces you read about in newspaper wine columns these days: Don’t serve your wine too cold, don’t serve your wine too hot, drink more Lagrein, maybe boxed wine isn’t so bad, that kind of thing. There’s a whole chapter of missives on Port, Madeira, and grape-based spirits like Cognac. (Filling a daily newspaper column with wine coverage for 30 years must not be easy.)

Of course, it’s all a bit random. Alongside insightful but well-trodden pieces on stuff like the ancient history of wine you’ll find gag dispatches to giggle over. For every deep dive into why vine pruning is important you’ll find an inscrutable piece of self-love that begins along the lines of “I was sitting at my desk in Paris one day when…” And you’ll even find book reviews of other wine books! Now that’s meta.

Reading TNYTBOW is a lot like reading the paper: The individual pieces are very short (often just a couple of pages), and the whole affair is seemingly designed so you’ll keep this book beside the toilet. That’s not to say that the book is slight or useless. Given that this monster tome comprises 592 pages of old newspaper clippings, it’s perhaps to be expected that there is plenty of good material here, but plenty of chaff too. Just like the wine world, I suppose.

B / $17 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Taildragger Rums

taildragger rums 525x350 Review: Taildragger Rums

American rum is on the rise, and the latest expressions include this trio from Tailwinds Distilling in Plainfield, Illinois. Tailwind makes Taildragger from pricey first-boil molasses from Louisiana (rather than cheap 5th-boil blackstrap), which is distilled in a 100 gallon pot still with a six-plate column.

Taildragger is not carbon filtered nor chill filtered, which is why it retains a lot of its raw cane character. It’s a rum, as distiller Toby Beall puts it, which is “a truly American hand-crafted rum just like you would have found in our early colonies.”

Thoughts follow.

Taildragger Rum White – (Not “White Rum” mind you, but Rum White!) Unaged and “meant to stand out,” it is as promised a fairly agricole-style rum on the nose, with notes of oily tar and some light coconut character behind it. The body brings out more charm. Here, stronger vanilla notes play with some tropical character, although the rustic, fuel-like tones remain evident, just more in the back seat. A solid example of this style, though fans of more traditionally filtered and aged rums may find its more savory characteristics too overpowering. 80 proof. B / $30

Taildragger Rum Amber – Aged in ex-American rye barrels for one year. Banana and light vanilla notes temper the agricole base, but it’s still there, off in the distance. Despite the light gold color, the oak has done quite a number on the palate here, giving this rum more intense vanilla and caramel notes, with ripe banana and whipped cream coming through on the finish. The body feels creamier too, but maybe that’s just my brain messing with me. 80 proof. B+ / $35

Taildragger Coffee-Flavored Rum – Huge, bittersweet coffee character on the nose, it really overpowers almost any sense of rum here. Over time, this develops in the glass, giving the spirit’s coffee-ground core a slightly tropical, fruity back-end. There is a somewhat brooding, almost smoky quality to it, which doesn’t quite mesh perfectly well with the fruity notes. Coffee lovers will rejoice. 60 proof. B / $ 29

tailwindsdistilling.com

Review: Rekorderlig Swedish Hard Ciders

rekorderlig 3 Bottle Lock up USA Blended 525x525 Review: Rekorderlig Swedish Hard Ciders

Rekorderlig, Sweden’s hard cider, is available in myriad flavors, all clocking in at a low 4.5% abv alcohol level. Rekorderlig, popular in Europe and just now making its way to the States, isn’t made just for sipping straight. The creator also wants you to try it out in cocktails. A suggested recipe appears below. Meanwhile, we tried out the three varieties now available in the U.S.; thoughts follow.

Rekorderlig Premium Pear Hard Cider – Very sweet, with a long finish. The distinct taste of pears, bathed in a sort of vanilla cream, is especially heavy up front. As the cider fades it leaves behind a fizzy, more vaguely citrus finish. Refreshing, but the sweetness makes it a bit cloying. 

Rekorderlig Premium Strawberry-Lime Hard Cider – Very strawberry soda-like, with a little less sweetness and a bit less fizz than the Pear expression. The strawberry character is candylike, but in a tasteful way. The finish is actually more reminiscent of  real strawberries than candy. Fragrant and fun. B+

Rekorderlig Premium Wild Berries Hard Cider – Predominantly raspberry on the tongue, with more of a club soda-style foaminess that tends to mute the fruit. This is the least sweet but also the least flavorful of the bunch. B-

Recipe: Winter Fire
250ml Rekorderlig Pear
5-6 thin slices of ginger
20ml lime juice
30ml honey water (3 parts honey 1 part hot water) or squeeze tube honey
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Heat it up and serve, keep the ginger floating in the glass.

about $5 per 500ml bottle / rekorderlig.com

Review: UV Sriracha Vodka

UV Sriracha Bottle 294x1200 Review: UV Sriracha VodkaAs we reported in December, the world of flavored vodka has delved into the full-on lunatic, with the launch of UV’s Sriracha-flavored vodka.

Officially notated as a “chili pepper flavored vodka” made with all-natural flavors, the spirit really looks the part, bottled in imitation of the iconic condiment, packaged in a red bottle with a green stopper. (That said, unlike actual sriracha, the vodka itself is clear. The bottle is what’s tinted red here.) Now, chili-flavored vodkas aren’t a new thing… but sriracha? Let’s see whether UV has managed to recreate a boozy version of the real deal.

The nose is surprisingly engaging — lightly spicy, with notes of tomato juice, olives, pickles, and — oddly — fresh lettuce. On the palate, sweetness arrives (much like in actual sriracha) to balance an initial rush of heat. The body retains a lot of that Bloody Mary character you get on the nose with peppery tomato juice up front, but the sweetness here is a little distracting, coming off as artificial, failing to integrate well with the hot side of things. That said, I think actual sriracha has a bit of the same problem, too.

Overall, UV Sriracha doesn’t exactly aim for the stars, and the vodka is a qualified success. I can’t say I’ve ever encountered quite this collection of flavors in a single product. It may not exactly be sriracha with a boozy base, but it’s probably as close as it comes if you’re one of the legions of fanatics who love the stuff. And since it’s not much more expensive than a real bottle of sriracha, anyway, it’s arguably worth the investment for novelty value alone.

60 proof.

B / $12 / uvvodka.com

Review: 1.0.1 Vodka

1.0.1 vodka 300x300 Review: 1.0.1 VodkaMade in California and pronounced “One-O-One,” this new vodka is distilled from corn (to keep the spirit gluten-free) and filtered five times before bottling.

Billed as affordable alternative to $30-plus ultra-premium vodkas, 1.0.1 fits right in with its oversized, frosted bottle.

The spirit itself, however, is considerably different than most of those big brands. Here, big notes of marshmallow and chocolate-covered caramels waft out just from opening the bottle. Rich and dessert-like on the nose, I also get the slightest hint of quince or Asian pear in the nostrils too. The body is a rich dessert from the start. More marshmallow, more caramel, and a long, sweet finish with a slight smokiness on the back end. The end result is not at all unpleasant, but it lacks the punch and zip of more traditional vodkas, as 1.0.1.’s traditional medicinal character has been seemingly filtered away.

80 proof.

B / $20 / 101vodka.com

Review: John Walker & Sons Odyssey Blended Scotch Whisky

john walker odyssey 525x699 Review: John Walker & Sons Odyssey Blended Scotch Whisky

I guess when you climb past the $1000-a-bottle level for your whisky, you lose the “Johnnie” and just become “John.”

“John” Walker’s Odyssey is a very rare, limited-edition bottling from the Scotch juggernaut, a blend that has previously been sold in Asian and other global markets, but which is now coming to the United States.

There’s a story behind this one, of course. Per Johnnie Walker: “Inspired by Sir Alexander Walker’s passion for epic journeys, John Walker & Sons Odyssey is crafted from three rare, handpicked single malts to create the first triple malt Scotch whisky from the House of Walker.” After selection, the whisky has been married and blended in European oak casks. The rare whisky is packed into “an ultra-modern interpretation of Sir Alexander Walker’s legendary 1932 ‘nautical’ decanter bottle created for Johnnie Walker Swing Blended Scotch Whisky.” That includes a wild kind of gyroscopic chassis.

While no information about the trio of whiskeys — provenance or age — that make up this blend is offered, it’s clearly old stock. The nose offers classic Johnnie notes of malt and cereal, with mild sherry notes and a bit of coal fires. The palate is chewy with malt balls, oatmeal, toasted marshmallow, and ripe banana. Balanced, yes, but everything is shockingly dialed back — austere, modest, and surprisingly sedate. The whisky drinks easily, but this body comes at the price of not really saying a lot when it comes to character. I found myself wondering if this was a whisky that was simply too old, drawn from barrels a bit too far past their prime.

When sampling Odyssey, I was initially reminded of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label, but even that relatively restrained whisky (which I freshly tasted in comparison) has more going on than this one. Platinum’s bigger citrus notes are simply more engaging than Odyssey’s big bowl of grains. What is this, health whisky?

80 proof.

B / $1100 / johnniewalker.com

Review: KAH Tequila

KAH Reposado side 525x659 Review: KAH Tequila

KAH is a tequila brand you won’t quickly forget, whether you’ve tried it or not. Bottled in painted ceramic skulls with Day of the Dead motifs on them, these spirits stand out so much they’re almost too pretty to open.

But what’s inside? It’s lowlands tequila, 100% agave, bottled in the typical varieties — but with a twist on reposado, which is boosted up to a massive 110 proof. Why 110 proof? I’m not sure, but the bottle is designed in the image of “El Diablo,” a fitting moniker I’m sure among those who’ve had a shot too many.

KAH isn’t cheap, but there’s an easier way to try out this curious tequila: A sampler kit of three 50ml bottles (which are mini versions of the painted ceramic ones) is just $30.

KAH Tequila Blanco - Enticing, with intense agave on the nose, mixed with notes of creme brulee and spiced, roasted almonds. On the tongue, a powerful array of elements expected and otherwise emerge. It starts with creamy marzipan before delving into sultry spices — clove-studded oranges and cinnamon cream — while folding in plenty of well-roasted, herbal agave. It comes together marvelously in a creamy body with a moderate and engaging finish with nary a second of bite. Nearly everything a blanco should be. 80 proof. A / $45

KAH Tequila Reposado – Aged 10 months in French oak. Surprisingly divergent from the blanco. Initially hot, the nose is a bit distant and obscured by alcohol, of which there is plenty in this oddball repo. The body is a strange symphony of flavors, beginning with hard candy and toffee notes, then taking you into various notes of nougat, red wine, whisky barrel, and sharp agave herbaciousness at the end. Almost the opposite of the blanco’s creaminess, it’s a bit of a tough nut to crack and not half as enjoyable. 110 proof. B / $60

KAH Tequila Anejo – Spends two years in American oak. Big caramel and vanilla notes on the nose, typical of a well-aged, quality anejo. The body sticks close to the formula, keeping the sweetness heavy and layering on a bit of milk chocolate as the finish starts to roll over you. Agave is largely absent here… only a residual slug of herbs on the nose proves that you’re not drinking rum. Still, all in all it’s a solid dessert-like experience. 80 proof. A- / $60

kahtequila.com

Review: New Rioja from Zaco and Pomal

Vina Pomal Reserva NV HR 179x300 Review: New Rioja from Zaco and PomalTwo new Spanish Riojas — both quite young, a twist over the typical Rioja you’ll encounter, which can often be six to eight years old — or more — by the time they hit the shelf. How do these young guns measure up? Here we go…

2011 Vina Zaco Rioja Tempranillo – Especially young for Rioja, and it shows. Raw, almost pruny notes on the nose lead to a rather plain and unrefined body. Tar and stewy stone fruit notes are prominent, with a slightly sickly sweet finish. C- / $15

2009 Vina Pomal Rioja Reserva – Better, but still a clearly young and somewhat fruit-funky wine. Underripe fruit on the nose opens up over time, giving way to a strawberry/blueberry character laced with black tea and a touch of leather. Best with food, but fair enough on its own. B / $21

Review: Mezcal El Silencio

El Silencio Mezcal 240x300 Review: Mezcal El SilencioEl Silencio is a new brand of premium mezcal, produced in small batches in Oaxaca from, per the distillery notes, a “blend of 100% wild agave using 10- to 12-year-old plants.” It’s then double distilled and bottled, sans aging. The name is indeed a reference to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

The nose is bright and big: lemon odds with hefty smoke character. No wallflower like some more muted spirits, this is a mezcal that makes its presence known from the start. The body is even more powerful, offering more of that citrus character and touches of cinnamon and vanilla. But again the raw smokiness is palpable. It tastes the way you smell after coming back from a night-long campfire on the beach, all wet smoke and salty air clinging to you. The finish strains under its own weight, singing the throat

Beyond that, complexities are tough to find. The smoke character pushes them all aside. That’s not a bad thing — there are plenty of drinkers out there who enjoy this level of intensity (and I do as well from time to time)… but it does come at the cost of nuance.

80 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #0640.

B / $79 / mezcalelsilencio.com

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Organic Winter Schnapps HR 525x742 Tasting the Spirits of Swedens Spirit of Hven

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka – Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

backafallsbyn.se