Review: GourmetGiftBaskets “Happy Hour” Cheesecake Sampler

Happy-Hour-Sampler-Whole-Cheesecake_largeBooze and dessert have always had a special relationship, and the folks at GourmetGiftBaskets are taking it one step further by baking bar delights straight into their “Happy Hour” Cheesecake Sampler. It’s a little off the beaten path for Drinkhacker to review cheesecake, but I feel the cocktail connection is strong enough for a discriminating drinker to appreciate.

We recently received a sampler with a variety of cheesecake flavors, including Amaretto, Irish Coffee, Margarita, and Strawberry Margarita varieties — at least in the version I received. All were good, though the lime character of the two Margarita flavors is quite understated. I wouldn’t have thought they were particularly citrus if I wasn’t told they were supposed to be. The Irish coffee flavor has a bit of a peanut butter character (and consistency) to it, but the Amaretto is pure almond from start to finish. All told, they’re all very good (though perhaps a touch dry) — but if I had to pick one, I’d go for the flavor-packed Amaretto.

Note: While there is alcohol in the recipes for the cheesecakes, the cooked and finished products contain virtually none (if any at all), so be sure to bring your own.

B+ / $35 to $50 (depending on size) /

Review: Alaskan Brewing Company Heritage Coffee Brown and Smoked Porter 2015


It’s cold outside! Don’t stop drinking beer. Drink winter beer.

Try these two from our friends up at Alaskan…

Alaskan Brewing Company Heritage Coffee Brown Ale – Brown ale brewed with coffee from Heritage Coffee Roasting Co. Part of the Alaskan Pilot Series. Less dense and enveloping than you’d think, this beer offers quite mild coffee notes folded into a lightly spicy brown ale. Notes of brown sugar and ample malt make up the bulk of the experience, with some gentle nutmeg notes coming up the rear. 7% abv. B+ / $9 (22 oz. bottle)

Alaskan Brewing Company Smoked Porter 2015 – Alaskan’s take on rauchbier, which is made with smoked malt to give the beer a distinctly smoky flavor. I first had rauchbier in Bamberg, Germany, crowded into a tiny room full of drunken locals. German rauchbier was far, far more alcohol-laden than this (a mere 6.5% abv) but that’s no matter; for a fun dive into a really wild and unique type of beer, give this one a spin: Intense wood smoke — somehow it comes across as evergreen smoke, not sure why — dominates, but underneath you’ll find chocolate malt notes, cocoa nibs, crumbly charcoal, and modest bitterness to help break up the finish. There’s a picture of caribou at sunset on the label of Alaskan Smoked Porter — but if you look away while sipping this beer, you can still see them. 6.5% abv. A- / $10 (22 oz. bottle)

Review: BiVi Sicilian Vodka

biviAh, Sicily: Renowned for its Italian food, mafia culture, and, of course, vodka.

Wait, vodka?

BiVi is made from Sicilian semolina wheat and bottled with local water and promoted by Sicilian actor Chazz Palminteri, so if you’re looking for a spirit that’s more Sicilian, you won’t likely find it. Still, it’s vodka, not grappa, so let’s see what our friends from off the Italian mainland can do.

On the nose it’s a traditional vodka, medicinal but tempered with some vanilla-focused sweetness. The body kicks things off with a lemon peel note before diving into a pile of fresh herbs. Strong hospital notes take over from there before, as with the nose, a sweeter character takes hold and cuts into the racy character with some notes of cocoa powder and caramel apples. The finish is clean, with an echo of the initial citrus notes.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 /

Review: Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye Whiskey and Cherrywood Rye Whiskey

SCD_CherrywoodRye_RTRemember 1512 Spirits? This tiny Rohnert Park, California operation has grown by leaps and bounds — and recently changed its name to Sonoma County Distilling Company. SCDC is pumping out products, mostly young whiskeys, including bourbon, wheat whiskey, and at least two ryes, both of which we’re reviewing today.

Let’s take a look at what this humble operation north of San Francisco is pumping out.

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Sonoma Rye Whiskey – 100% California rye, primarily unmalted rye with malted rye as a secondary grain. Double distilled and aged in new charred American oak, finished in used barrels. It’s young stuff (likely only a year or two old, though there’s no age statement), and on the nose it’s full of youthful roasted cereal notes, raw lumber, and some hospital notes. The body is more well-rounded, adding ample baking spice notes driven by the rye, some cherry fruit, and gentle vanilla. The finish is quite lumber-driven, with an echo of cereal. 108.8 proof. Reviewed: Batch #8. B- / $50

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Cherrywood Rye Whiskey – This is a more complicated product, made from (primarily) unmalted Canadian rye, cherrywood smoked malted barley, and unmalted Canadian wheat. It’s double distilled, then aged in new oak and finished in used barrels. And this one carries an age statement: A minimum of one year in oak. The results: Not at all what I was expecting, in a good way. The nose is youthful and lightly grainy, but more breakfast cereal than toasted bread, with hints of butterscotch. The body is where this whiskey really shines, offering gentle sweetness, with plenty of vanilla, cake frosting, and dried fruits. There is a slight smokiness on the back end, compounded with toasted nuts and — finally — some heavier grain elements. The finish isn’t a standout, but the palate offers plenty to enjoy. I’d use this freely as a cocktail base. 96 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B+ / $50

Review: Samuel Adams Late 2015 Seasonals – Octoberfest, Hoppy Red, Rebel Grapefruit IPA, Winter Lager, and Pumpkin Batch

SAM_HopRed_12oz_Bottle (1)Nearly a half-dozen new offerings from Sam Adams, mostly winter/fall seasonals designed to make the most of the cold weather. Let’s bundle up and dig in!

Samuel Adams Octoberfest (2015) – Very old world, with plenty of spice and some citrus to be a companion to loads of caramel-soaked malt. The finish is on the sweet side, maybe a bit too far for my tastes. It only takes one whiff and an oompa band starts playing somewhere. 5.3% abv. B

Samuel Adams Hoppy Red – A red ale with added Australian hops, moderately malty but with a big slug of piney bitterness bringing up the rear. The up-front character is almost toffee-like in its sweetness, with a healthy dosing of walnuts, but the moderately hoppy back end provides near-immediate respite and balance. A nice diversion. 5.7% abv. B+

Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA – An extension of the Rebel IPA line, this beer adds grapefruit (peel and juice) — grapefruit being the “it” additive in beermaking this year — to kick up the bitter/sour element. This is a fine IPA, but the one thing I don’t get… is grapefruit. Piney and resinous, it has a slightly sweet element to it — a bit fruity but also almost chocolaty at times, with overtones of spiced nuts. Not common flavors for either IPA or anything that’s been near a grapefruit, but pleasurable nonetheless. 6.3% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager (2015) – A spiced wheat bock made with orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. Mainly what you’re expecting, a winter warmer with a touch of spice. I find it more palatable this year than 2014’s release, though perhaps that’s just the suddenly cold weather talking. Though it can be a little strange, the spice isn’t overdone — and it pairs well with food, particularly sweets. I’m not a fanatic, but it’s more pleasant than I remembered. 5.6% abv. B

Samuel Adams Pumpkin Batch – Ale brewed with pumpkin and spices, of course. Lots of vegetal character here — nothing distinctly pumpkin (or pumpkin spice) — with a heavily malty body to keep pushing those flavors around. Eventually some cinnamon/nutmeg notes come to the forefront, but it’s cold comfort for a pumpkin brew that is pushed too far into the realm of wet earth and mushrooms for easy consumption. 5.6% abv. C-

each about $9 per six-pack /

Test-Driving Thanksgiving Wines from Lodi

Old Vine Zinfandel, Wegat Vineyard, Lodi AVA. Photography by Randy Caparoso.

There’s no more American holiday than Thanksgiving (well, except one, but that’s a beer-and-whiskey day) and if you’re ever looking for an excuse to try an American wine, this is it. Not just for nostalgia; many American heritage varietals pair beautifully with traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Fun fact: More wine is consumed in the U.S. on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year.

Our friends in Lodi, California recently sent a selection of local wines — including some unusual, “outside the box” varietals — designed to pair with hearty Thanksgiving meals. While I didn’t make the recipes they suggested (who has 10 pounds of short ribs handy on a Wednesday night?), you can check them all out for yourself here.

Here are some thoughts on each of the wines tasted during this live event.

2014 Acquiesce Viognier – Not at all your father’s (mother’s?) viognier. The typical peach/apricot notes are dialed way back and some uncharacteristic mushroom, slate, and dried herb notes come to the fore. This works far better with food than it does standing alone, the funkier, earthy elements helping to stand up well as part of a bigger meal. B- / $23

2013 m2 Wines Alicante Bouchet – Sweet and spicy, you could be easily forgiven for assuming this is Zinfandel. Bright, crushed strawberry and cherry notes mingle with cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a bit of tobacco on the finish. The sweetness rises up again as the wine fades out, though, a bit cloying for an otherwise highly drinkable red. B / $26

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah – A heavy wine, dense with prunes, dark chocolate, leather, and mushroom. A little of this goes a long way, the wine’s intensity taking it to a place of dusky, leathery tannins as it evolves in the glass. Challenging, but not without some charm. B- / $26

2014 Michael David Winery Symphony – 100% Symphony grapes go into this lightly sweetened wine that lands somewhere between a chardonnay and a muscat. Lots of honey, applesauce, and citrus notes fire atop a lacing of sugar — though note it is far from a Sauternes-like blowout. You could serve this in lieu of, say, a Riesling if you were so inclined, but it is easily a solid companion for a fruit-heavy dessert. B+ / $15

Review: La Caravedo Pisco Puro Quebranta

La Caravedo btlLa Caravedo is a new pisco from Pisco Porton, a puro bottling made only from quebranta grapes.

The nose is classic pisco, offering a restrained take on the spirit that brings forth notes of quince, evergreen, and modest underpinnings of rubber and petrol (again, classic pisco stuff).

The palate offers a nice balance of flavors — strong floral notes (perhaps inspiring the graphic etched on the bottle), pear notes, more of that evergreen/pine character (later on in the experience), and a finish evoking lightly sweet butterscotch character — alongside an herbal, almost tar-like edge. There’s ample complexity here, but also a nice balance of flavors and aromas that come together to form a nicely realized package.

On the whole, it’s rather gentle as far as pisco goes, a spirit category that is rarely known for its restraint and nuance. I wouldn’t hesitate to try to work it into a pisco sour, a cuzco, or any other classic pisco cocktail.

80 proof.

B+ / $25 / via Facebook

Review: Available 2013 Red Blend and 2014 Pinot Grigio

Available 2013 Red Blend Bottle ShotNapa-based Taken Wine Co. imports these wines from Italy — and I have to say, “Available” is one of the worst brand names I’ve come across for any wine, much less an import.

These two wines both hail from Puglia, “the heel” of Italy. Thoughts follow.

2014 Available Pinot Grigio Puglia IGT – Somewhat bland for Pinot Grigio, there’s a mushroom quality to the wine that dulls the impact of the fruit. Otherwise, relatively traditional but simple tropical notes mingle with some mixed citrus — with grapefruit particularly notable here. A slight floral edge hits the finish. B- / $13

2013 Available Red Blend Puglia IGT – A blend of mystery grapes, this wine initially evokes vegetal, leathery notes on the nose, but in the glass this opens up a bit, and the fruit at its core makes for an interesting companion to the greener characters that are more upfront. What emerges is surprisingly balanced wine that offers sweet and savory components, with a playfully bitter finish. A pleasant surprise. B+ / $13

Review: Benromach 10 Years Old

benromach-10-year-oldWe’ve written a lot about the limited edition expressions of Speyside’s Benromach, but the expression you’re most likely to encounter is this entry level bottling, which is fairly easy to find.

Benromach is part of the Gordon & MacPhail empire, a very small operation in the north of Speyside that is unique for using a small amount of peated malt in its mash. Otherwise this 10 year old is a traditional blend of 80% bourbon casks, 20% sherry casks. The final blend is finished for a year in first-fill oloroso sherry barrels.

Benromach 10 is a gentle dram, surprisingly balanced for a whisky just a decade in cask. The nose offers ample notes of roasted grains, sweet sugar cane, and wisps of smoke. On the palate, the spirit is far more enveloping than this simple introduction might indicate, offering notes of fresh apple, banana, sugary cereal, honeycomb, and lavender. The smoke character is somewhat stronger here, leading the whisky to a powerful, almost pungent finish. A few petrol notes add a lightly industrial element to the mix — think the sweat and tears of industry, not bulk chemicals, that is.

86 proof.

B+ / $55 /

Review: Sons of Liberty True Born Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” and Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015)

sons of liberty 2015 Pumpkin Whiskey_8

Sons of Liberty distillery is doing some exciting work in the tiny state of Rhode Island. Today we look at two new offerings — an innovative gin and an update to its pumpkin-flavored whiskey. Thoughts follow.

Sons of Liberty True Born Genever Style Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” – How’s this for obsessive. With this genever-style gin, Sons of Liberty started by taking the botanicals that are traditional in gin — coriander, lemongrass, orange peel, and vanilla (well, some of those are traditional in gin, but anyway) — and using them to brew their own beer. SoL then distilled the Belgian Wheat beer (hence the name) and turned it into gin. Instead of taking neutral spirit and flavoring it, they’re flavoring the liquid that goes into the distillate to begin with.

Now, that’s been done before, but the end product has always been whiskey, not gin. SoL actually sent us the beer they started with — it’s not being sold, so it’s just for reference — and it’s really intriguing to put this side by side with the gin that was made out of it. While it’s got a malty backbone — enough to make you think much more of white whiskey than of gin — the spices that are so readily apparent in the beer are definitively present in the gin. Orange peel is the strongest, with vanilla a close second. The gin also has a nutty/almond character which adds some creaminess, plus a racy finish that brings out cinnamon and black pepper notes. The hops on the beer are just about the only element that doesn’t shine through clearly — though they likely contribute to what is a sort of muddy character on the finish. That said, all in all, it’s a really fun experiment. 90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B / $33

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015) – I first encountered this whiskey last year with its inaugural release. Now Sons of Liberty is back with its second annual pumpkin-flavored whiskey, single malt flavored with 32,000 pounds of roasted pumpkin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sweet orange peel, and vanilla. Unlike last year’s version, the 2015 rendition is markedly sweeter, with good reason — pumpkin for pumpkin’s sake is never a winning game. Pumpkin with sugar and spice? Well, there’s an idea. In this whiskey — still young and heavy with malty notes — those spices are really punched up to the right level. Beautiful allspice notes make for a welcome entree to lightly-sweetened pumpkin, definitively roasted and slightly smoky on the back end. Unlike my experience with last year’s version, the 2014 SoL Pumpkin Spice Whiskey is not just a novelty but a smooth operator in its own regard, smoothing out the harshly bitter notes that stuck with me in last year’s release. Give it a go. 80 proof. B+ / $48