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

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: Wines of La Merika, 2015 Releases

La Merika Cab bottle 001All of a sudden these La Merika wines are everywhere I look. Bottled by Delicato, these are affordable, bulk wines produced primarily in the California Central Coast region. You probably won’t pick one up at Ruth’s Chris, but with a couple of these bottlings, you could do worse.

2013 La Merika Pinot Grigio Monterey – As pale a wine as I’ve ever seen, this Pinot Grigio offers a nose of canned pears, with a touch of ammonia. The body is lightly tropical with more old/canned fruit notes, and a heavily bittersweet finish that recalls dried, faded herbs that have been sitting in the cupboard for the last decade. Largely unpleasant. D+ / $13

2013 La Merika Chardonnay Central Coast – A standard-grade Chardonnay with reasonable fruit and modest oak, a perfectly acceptable everyday/party wine that will excite no one but offend none, either. Mild citrus and a touch of tropical character add at least some nuance. B- / $13

2012 La Merika Pinot Noir Central Coast – Traditional cherries on the nose, plus some vanilla — this leads to a slightly oversweet but also surprisingly smoky palate, which ultimately fades away to a bittersweet note on the finish. Notes of cola add something to the otherwise somewhat watery palate. C / $15

2012 La Merika Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast – Surprisingly not at all bad. Ample fruit, with currents and raspberries, with a little dusting of chocolate underneath. Vanilla notes emerge with time, but the wine manages to stay out of jam territory while still keeping the tannins very lean. There’s no real complexity, but there’s nothing offensive about it at all. Again, a surprisingly great value. B+ / $15

lamerika.com

Review: Gordon Biersch Maibock

GB Maibock_BottleGordon Biersch’s latest seasonal is this German-style Maibock, a beer that’s close to Dan Gordon’s heart and which translates to “bock beer of May.” Says GB: “The malty, German-style lager gets its flavor from heavy doses of dark roasted caramel malt. Originally brewed in the 14th century in the Lower Saxony town of Einbeck, it quickly became so popular in the South that Bavarian brewers actually enticed a brewer to relocate and ply his trade in their region.”

The caramel notes are what really define this beer, which balances some winey notes with the essence of salted caramel on the nose. There’s some sweetness on the palate along with a little Madeira character and a heavily malty, slightly mushroomy body. Notes of peanut shells on the finish.

Fun stuff, and a good choice for something “serious” to drink amidst the usual summertime fare.

7.3% abv.

B+ / $9 per six-pack / gordonbiersch.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: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Editions Six and Seven

ECBPThe barrel proof expressions of Elijah Craig have certainly cultivated a cult following in its own rite over the past few years. With proofs varying in all sorts of dimensions throughout the series, we figured it was time to take the most recent pair for a test drive.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Six – Each release in the series is 12 years of age, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by the heat of this monster. At 140.2 proof, we’re entering Stagg territories of alcohol content, and boy does it show. Mike Tyson-like punches of wood on the nose with a bit of mint, and the body is all oak, toffee, and pepper. Perfect winter snowstorm drinking, even taking it down a notch with a splash of water. A- / $65

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Seven – A sharp contrast to round six, this weighs in at 128 proof and is by far the runt of the proof litter (most have been firmly in the middle 130s). However, this cut in proof shows just how beautiful and versatile ECBP can get when the heat gets turned down a bit. Lots of vanilla sweetness balanced with some dark fruit and oak on the taste. A little bit of burnt char on the body and it finishes with a fruit and spice after taste and a nice lingering burn. Definitely not the best of the bunch, but far from the worst either. B+ / $65

heavenhill.com

Review: Chivas Regal Extra

Chivas Extra

Chivas? Yes, Chivas! And the brand is back with its first new blend in the U.S. in eight years: Chivas Extra.

Extra is made from Chivas’s collection of traditional malts and grain whiskies — including Strathisla single malt — that is finished in Oloroso sherry casks. The resulting spirit, positioned as a step up from the $25 Chivas 12 Year Old, is a surprisingly fun expression of Chivas Regal, distancing itself from the brand’s austere image through the use of the wine barrel finishing. (That said, Extra is bottled with no age statement.)

On the nose, it’s a bit hard to parse at first: It’s woody, with notes of brown butter, baked apples, tangerines, graham crackers, a little Mexican chocolate, and ample malt. The nose ultimately congeals all of this into a bit more cohesive experience, starting with huge cereal notes then layering on notes of sugary tinned fruit, (very) ripe banana, sandalwood, and a bit of cinnamon. The body isn’t heavy or oily, but it does have a chewiness that gives it an interesting grip on the palate. All told, it’s a solid blend, and something worth sipping on at least once if for no other reason than to remind yourself that Chivas is still hard at work.

Available now in major U.S. metros. Expanding to the rest of the U.S. later this year.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / chivas.com

Review: Beers Of West Sixth Brewing

When most drinkers think of Kentucky, bourbon is usually the first word to roll off the tongue. However, the Bluegrass state has quietly enjoyed the emergence of several quality microbreweries over the last few years. In the first of what I hope to be a series, I’ll be traveling through my old Kentucky home to sample what’s happening on the beer scene. First up is West Sixth. The subject of a somewhat comical lawsuit from Magic Hat, West Sixth Brewery has been making some interesting beers in its three years of existence, with several offerings in the development stage that could bring more national attention. Distribution has been limited regionally, but they’re looking to expand later this year. We figured it was a good time to check out the core lineup, as well as a special brew exclusive to its home base bar.

West Sixth Brewing India Pale Ale (IPA) – The inaugural offering from the brewery and the one that spawned the Magic Hat lawsuit, this earthy offering has hints of pine, grass, lemon and some citrus on the back end. A bit of malt comes through at the finish. 7% abv. B+ / $10 (per six-pack)

AmberWest Sixth Brewing Amber Ale –  This is a mildly malted Amber Ale that is big and crisp on rye with a bit of chewiness. A very sharp and savory finish makes it immediately enjoyable and tough to put down. 5.5% abv. A- / $10 (per six-pack)

West Sixth Brewing Lemongrass American Wheat – Like Bell’s Oberon this is a citrus-heavy wheat beer that is incredibly sharp on first taste, but mellows with subsequent sips. Not really sure where the lemongrass is, as the bitter lemon just dominates from start to finish. B- / $10 (per six-pack)

porter-8-300x200West Sixth Brewing Pay It Forward Cocoa Porter – Chocolate mania with a hints of coffee, and the deep winter sibling to Lemongrass American Wheat’s summer overtones. Marketing mythology says that the brewmasters add about 50 to 60 pounds of cocoa nibs per batch — each making around 35 to 40 barrels. After one sip I’m certainly inclined to take this assessment as truth. One of the best of the year round offerings, and a portion of each sale goes to benefit a local charity. 7% abv. B+ / $11 (per six-pack)

West Sixth Brewing Christmas Ale – A beautiful seasonal release, this is a brilliant mix of your typical Christmas beer fare: cinnamon, nutmeg, a dash of ginger all dancing around with some citrus and cloves for good measure. Incredibly well balanced, and I wish it was available year round. 9% abv. A- / $18 (per six-pack)

BelgianWest Sixth Brewing Belgian Style Blonde – This one was just released this past week, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover this while in the midst of sampling the other releases. Very much in the traditional Belgian form, this is quite crisp with lots of sweetness when compared to other options available, with much more emphasis on yeast than malt. A bit of pepper on the back end with an easy finish. Might be an ideal place for the newcomer to the brand to start and work their way inwards. A- / $11 (per six-pack)

Tasting: Chiantis of Ruffino, 2015 Releases

ruffinoRecently I had the chance to virtually sit down with Gabriele Tacconi, Ruffino’s chief winemaker, to hear about the launch of its “Gran Selezione,” a new, upper-echelon expression of Tuscany’s most famous wine, Chianti. Gran Selezione add’s a fourth tier to this wine region, from Chianti to Chianti Classico to Riserva to Gran Selezione.

Gran Selezione wines must spend at least 30 months aging (including 3 months in bottle), a 6 month increase over the legal standards that Riserva wines are subject to, and these wines must be sourced from 100% winery-owned vineyards.

How does Ruffino’s first “GS” stack up? We tried the full range of Ruffino’s Chianti lineup (well, all four categories of Chianti, anyway), to experience for ourselves. Thoughts follow.

2013 Ruffino Chianti DOCG – 70% sangiovese, plus a mix of other stuff. Bottled in a Burgundy-style bottle, evoking the old wicker basket bottlings. This is a simple wine but it’s far more pleasurable than you’d expect, offering a simple fruit structure (more strawberry than cherry), some touches of roasted meats, and hints of vanilla. Both lightly tannic and lightly jammy, but so simple and extremely light on its feet (and in color). B- / $6

2013 Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico DOCG – 80% sangiovese, 20% cabernet and merlot. Some pepper on the nose, then bright cherry fruit. Lush on the body, its cherry fruit balanced by notes of bacon, roasted meats, and touches of oak-driven vanilla. There’s a simplicity to this wine, but also a depth of character that makes the non-Classico wine look a bit undercooked. B+ / $12

2011 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG – 80% sangiovese, 20% cabernet and merlot. Somewhat jammy, with a clear cabernet influence on the tongue and some perfumed notes on the nose, driven by the merlot. Altogether it comes across quite a bit like a New World wine, fruit firmly forward, almost sweet thanks to significant oak influence, but nicely balanced and easy to enjoy. A- / $15

2010 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG – 80% sangiovese, 10% merlot, and 10% cabernet sauvignon. Lots of similarity with the Riserva Ducale above, with lots of bold fruit up front and a finish that fades to chocolate and vanilla. There’s a nice and intricate tannin structure here, supporting blackberries, tobacco, and leathery notes. The finish tries to dial back some impressive fruitiness, but it can barely stand up to the assault. Old World, welcome to the New World. A- / $30

ruffino.com