Review: 4 Albarinos from Rias Baixas, 2013 Vintage

Pazo SeñoránsFour new albarinos from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, each showcasing that classic acid-meets-the-tropics character… but each with a unique little spin on the theme. Thoughts follow.

2013 Paco & Lola Abarino Rias Baixas – A perfectly serviceable albarino, creamy with notes of peaches and tropical fruits, and a caramel-dusted finish. A juicy party wine, with a nice balance of fruit and acid, but not entirely nuanced. B+ / $17

2013 Albarino de Fefinanes Rias Baixas – Very dry, with notes of white peach and restrained tropical character, with lots of acidity on the back end. The dryness demands food rather than a beach chair, but the mineral notes are intriguing in their own right. B+ / $26

2013 Namorio Albarino Rias Baixas – Initially quite dry, with some peachy notes. As it opens up, it reveals a nice balance between mineral notes and a growing tropical character that hits fairly hard on the finish. As the bargain bottling in this lineup, it’s worth a strong look as your new everyday white. A- / $15

2013 Pazo Senorans Albarino Rias Baixas – A slight herbal edge sets this apart on the nose immediately, with notes of sweet peaches, apricot, and lemon bubbling up on the palate. A tart, acidic body that oozes with touches of light marshmallow cream seals it as the winner in this lineup. A / $25

Review: Balls Vodka

ballsWell, at least Balls vodka isn’t trying to take the vodka category too seriously. There’s no story of frost-kissed grapes, diamond-filtration, or crystal decanters to contend with. This is bulk vodka with a pinup model on the label, and, in case you missed it, it’s called BALLS, which appears in great big letters. Even my sample bottle was no little mini but a full 1.75-liter handle of the stuff. How am I going to fit all this Balls in my mouth?

OK, enough of that. Let’s taste this vodka, which is made from non-GMO corn and is 4x distilled, per the label.

The nose is moderately intense: Medicinal, but shy of coming across as industrial, with a touch of sweetness underneath it. The palate is a bit on the sweeter side, offering some marshmallow and vanilla notes on a moderately creamy body. The finish fades quickly, leaving a strong note of vanilla ice cream on the back of the palate. The touch of sweetness isn’t overdone though, and it doesn’t detract from what is an otherwise straightforward, workable spirit that should work just fine as a mixer in sweeter cocktails.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 (1 liter) / ballsvodka.com

Review: Skyy Infusions Texas Grapefruit

SKYY Infusions Texas GrapefruitSkyy turns to the south for this latest flavored vodka: Texas Grapefruit.

It’s very brisk on the nose with fresh grapefruit notes. It’s not overly candied or sweet, but appropriately tart. That carries through to the palate, a modestly sweet vodka that balances its sugar with dauthentic grapefruit notes, appropriately sour and tangy with a touch of lemon-orange character. The finish is lasting and somewhat sugary, but it’s far from overwhelming.

On the whole: Uncomplicated. Which is probably the best praise you can give a flavored vodka, no?

70 proof.

B+ / $15 / skyy.com

Review: Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon

EZRA_BROOKS_90_PROOF_750EB.-p19m9sups9t4v25t13qcn8efeu

Let’s be clear: We’re drinking the bottom shelf with Ezra Brooks, a sub-$15 bourbon that got its start in the 1950s (not quite 1800 as the label would have you believe) and became part of what’s now the Missouri-based Luxco Corporation in 1993. In keeping with many ultra-cheap bespoke bourbons, Heaven Hill makes Ezra Brooks on Luxco’s behalf. This expression, colloquially known as “Ezra Brooks Black Label,” carries no age statement, but it is bottled at a slightly higher proof.

It’s not a bad whiskey. On the nose, there’s plenty of vanilla, butterscotch, and some gentle lumberyard notes. Basic and uncomplicated, but not unpleasurable. The body is soft and quite mild, with some initial notes of apple cider and a stronger vanilla character than the nose offers at first. As it develops, the apple notes fade into a more general citrus character, with a backing of baking spices, particularly cinnamon. A hint of chocolate on the back end takes things out on a slightly sweet note.

Bottom shelf it may be, but Ezra Brooks is nonetheless a well-made (if uncomplicated) bourbon that acquits itself admirably. While it may be designed for dumping into punch bowls or mixing liberally with Coke, it actually drinks just fine on its own. No shame there, folks.

90 proof.

B+ / $14 / ezrabrooks.com

Review: Russell Henry Dark Gin

RH_DarkGinAbout a year ago, the mad scientists at Craft Distillers took the last 100 cases’ worth of Russell Henry London Dry Gin they had and did a funny thing. Rather than bottle it and sell it, they put it in oak barrels (what type/provenance is unclear). After a year, the aged gin is bottled and branded as “Dark Gin.” Other than the aging, this is the same London Dry that we previously reviewed.

Barrel aging gives Russell Henry Dark Gin an exotic character all around, for better and for worse. Notes of peppermint, roses, citrus oil, and evergreen notes provide plenty of perfume on the nose. On the body, first there’s an attack of pine and juniper, followed by a surprising apple cider character. Vanilla and some marshmallow emerge, but the finish brings out wood oil and some green, slightly vegetal notes. The spirit offers lots of complexity, but the balance just doesn’t seem quite right, as if the barrel has had its way with the relatively delicate nature of the unaged gin.

91.4 proof.

B+ / $65 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – French Oak Bourbons

French Oak Experiment 2015

In Bourbon country, American oak reigns. It’s long been tradition that America’s greatest whiskey is aged in American wood. Anything else and you’re lookin’ for trouble.

In keeping with its long history of experimentation, Buffalo Trace kicked tradition out of the rickhouse for this latest round of its experimental whiskeys. As the names imply, these Bourbons are aged not in American oak but in French oak. More specifically, one whiskey was aged in a full barrel made entirely of French oak. A second whiskey was aged in a hybrid barrel made with American oak staves and French oak heads.

Both are ten years old, made with BT’s low-rye recipe. Here’s some additional production information:

Ten years ago, Buffalo Trace embarked on another French oak experiment, but this time endeavoring one step further – creating two different barrel types, one made entirely of French oak, and another using French oak heads, but American white oak staves. The barrels were both constructed with Buffalo Trace’s exact specifications as far as size, stave drying, and charring. The barrel staves were air-dried for six months and the barrels were charred for 55 seconds. Both of these experimental barrels were filled with the same bourbon recipe, known as Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1. After 10 years of aging, these two bourbons have been bottled as part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection, and referred to as 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon and French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon.

Both are 90 proof. Here’s what you can expect if you try them…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon – Soft and very fruity on the nose, with notes of peaches, apricot, and citrus. Rather buttery on the body, with plenty of fruit — namely apple and apricot — to back it up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler bourbon anywhere; this expression is all kid gloves and a quiet stroll through the orchard. Punchy lumberyard is wholly absent; there’s really just a bare hint of oak’s telltale vanilla here to remind you of its wood regimen at all. B+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon – Clearly punchier and more traditional in structure — and actually a quite good whiskey all around. A nice level of baking spice hits the nose, which melds well with its sweet apple pie aromas. On the body, the fruit is still there, but it’s well tempered by more traditional notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, and a little raisin character. This all works wonderfully (and unsurprisingly) well together, making for a bourbon that has grip and presence alongside uniqueness and restraint. A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Liber & Co. Real Grenadine

LIBER001_12543Remember Liber & Co.’s nifty Spiced Tonic syrup? Now the company’s back with another offering: a real grenadine.

Grenadine is historically an intensely tart syrup made from pomegranates (making it deep red in color) and sugar. In recent years grenadine has turned into nothing more than red corn syrup, making it completely useless as a balancing agent in cocktails. That might be fine for a Shirley Temple, but for proper cocktails, grenadine should be both sweet and sour — in addition to adding a splash of color to the drink.

Liber’s Grenadine — much like other artisan grenadines on the market — is pungent on the nose with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. On the tongue, it comes across with some plum-like notes and a slight earthiness, almost floral at times (due, perhaps, to the use of orange flower water in the recipe) and vanilla-touched at others. The color is deep red, with an exotic violet or lavender hue to it, depending on the light, which does indeed an an element of mysticism to anything you pour it into.

B+ / $7 per 8.5 oz. bottle / liberandcompany.com

Review: Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream Liqueur

ST-BRENDANS-IRISH-CREAM-750ML-34-PROOF-65F16-750ML

Saint Brendan was a 5th century Irish apostle (later a saint, of course) who was best known for a seven-year-long fantastical voyage that has gone down as a bit of high Catholic mythology. No telling if he was into Irish cream, but I have my doubts.

Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream (motto: “Simple by Design”) is another in a long line of lower-cost alternatives to Baileys. It’s Irish whiskey and cream, and that’s it. Pretty simple, indeed.

This Irish cream features a nice balance between the whiskeylike punch up front and the creamy, vanilla-and-marshmallow notes that build on the body. There’s a little heat on the back end, but overall it’s a quite gentle Irish cream, offering modest sweetness with a just a little bit of spice. Chocolate and chewy nougat notes hang around for a while on the finish.

Altogether it drinks quite well, but it could use a bit more power to separate it from what sometimes comes across like a glass of chocolate milk. Compare to Brady’s.

34 proof.

B+ / $12 / stbrendans.com

Review: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

RR_Single Barrel Rye_Bottle Shot

Wild Turkey is expanding the Russell’s Reserve line this year with a Single Barrel Rye expression. There’s already a Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye (much more expensive these days than the $25 it cost in 2007), but as with the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, this is a higher-end expression that plays some of its details close to the vest. There’s no age statement and no mashbill information, but it’s drawn from a single barrel and bottled at a higher proof.

This rye features a quite fruity nose, offering notes of banana, almonds, mint, and vanilla. Racy and heady from the hefty alcohol level, it doesn’t let up at all. On the palate the flavor profile is also quite fruity, mixing some apple and rhubarb in with notes of banana cream and vanilla custard. The spirit comes across as surprisingly young, with some grain notes making it through to the finish, but I also get touches of coconut and chocolate late in the game as well, keeping things fairly sweet. It isn’t a particularly peppery rye, but it does have some astringency to it — pronounced on the nose but just as detectable on the finish — that might be mistaken for some kind of “spice” character.

All told this is a credible rye, but as with Crown Royal’s latest, the fruit is pushed too far. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye has a better balance to it, but frankly I think the standard Russell’s Reserve Rye is more representative of what a solid rye should taste like.

104 proof. Available September 2015.

B+ / $60 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Head to Head with 4 Bloody Mary Mixes: Scales, Tabanero, Bloody Good, and Bloody Amazing

tabaneroSummer is hear, and that means brunch with bloodies is upon us.

Sure, it’d be great if you could always crush your own tomatoes and grate your own fresh horseradish, but really, who’s got the time. Recently we’ve been inundated with bottled bloody mary mixers, which we put head to head to head to head.

Thoughts follow.

Scales Bloody Mary Mix – For a so-called low-carb bloody mary mix (5 grams of carbs per 3 oz.), this sure tastes sweet. The very dark color is a bit misleading; the mixer is more tart than spicy or meaty, a densely acidic mixer with a heavy tomato paste character and a metallic aftertaste. Not at all spicy, despite the claims of being made with Texas Pete’s hot sauce. B- / $6 per 1 liter bottle

Tabanero Spicy Bloody Mary Mix – Definitely “Mexican style,” with a salsa-like character to it. Intensely spicy, with lasting, burning habanero notes, plus notes of green pepper, cilantro, and lots of onion. It’s a bit on the watery side, so don’t expect to try watering it down to temper its heat. That said — I really like it (and the Tabanero hot sauce.) Mixing half and half with a less racy mix might work, though. Oddly has less carbs than the Scales. A- / $10 per 1 liter bottle

Bloody Good Bloody Mary Mix – A local brand you won’t likely find outside of northern California. Very fresh, with ripe tomatoes, some green veggies, black pepper, and lots and lots of horseradish. Quite gentle in spice level, but it’s pungent thanks to the horseradish component. Nicely balanced; definitely a strong contender. Very difficult to pour (as it’s bottled in what is basically a spaghetti sauce jar). / $9 per 32 oz jar

Bloody Amazing Premium Mary Mix – While Tabanero approaches bloodies from a salsa standpoint, Bloody Amazing comes at it from the shrimp cocktail sauce arena. Very dense, with stewed tomato notes, black pepper, and horseradish — plus lots of Worcestershire to add a brooding character that Bloody Good doesn’t have. This one’s more a matter of taste, as the overall character is very much a “coastal” one. Only slightly spicy; easily manageable. B+ / $13 per 750ml bottle