Book Review: Speed Brewing

61vuoKZSeNL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Homebrew is a neat idea, but who has the time to make it?

That’s the thesis of Mary Izett’s Speed Brewing, a book which provides exactly the type of instruction that you think it’s going to offer.

While the back cover promises you can make a “session IPA” in just a few hours, Izett’s how-to has a lot more to it than just beer. In fact, beer is a relatively minor focus of the book, which also covers speedy techniques for brewing cider, mead, boozy sodas, and even kombucha.

How well these techniques really work vs. traditional ones I can’t exactly say without making a whole bunch of homebrew, but the ideas here are really just shortcuts, not radical rethinks of the way everything works. The book is well written, breezy, and full of helpful, full-color photography to get you where you need to go. So homebrewers, give Izett’s ideas a shot and see if you can’t whip up a new batch of gose in time for dinner!


Review: Flaviar “Eau de Vie! Oui!” Cognac Sampler & the Flaviar App

flaviar packs

We’ve been friends with Flaviar for quite a while, and we’re going to start looking more deeply into their sampler packs. These are available on a one-off basis or as a monthly subscription, featuring rum, whiskey, brandy, or just about anything else.

Today we’re looking at Flaviar’s Cognac sampler, a set of spirits packaged under the label of “Eau de Vie! Oui!” If you’re expecting a bunch of Remy Martin and Courvoisier, think again. With the exception of Hennessy and Martell, none of these are major-name Cogancs, and even the Hennessy is a Europe-only bottling. In other words, you’re getting stuff here you won’t likely find at your local watering hole.

Let’s take a look at the five Cognacs — each in 50ml quantities — in this pack.

Hennessy Fine de Cognac – Positioned between a VS and VSOP, not available in the U.S. (originally made for King George IV before he was crowned). It’s a junior Cognac, a little weedy and short, with some rough, wood-driven notes, but not without some charms. B-

Martell VSOP – Pretty nose, but a bit thin on the body. Solid caramel, vanilla, raisin, and baking spice notes. Well-integrated but not overwhelmingly complicated. An easy “house brandy” selection. A-

Baron Otard VSOP – Very mild nose, evoking cinnamon buns. Quite sweet on the tongue, more than the previous brandies, which really pushes the (raisin-studded) cinnamon roll character. Gentle, brown sugar finish… a well-made, mid-level brandy. B+

Dobbe Cognac XO – Lovely to see this XO taking on some rancio notes — fortified wine, coffee, dark chocolate. Lots of coffee on the nose, and a little tobacco and roasted nuts. A dense, almost pruny Cognac, but I liked its intensity quite a bit. Brooding and contemplative. A-

Gautier XO Gold & Blue – Nice, old Cognac here — well-developed golden raisins, baking spice, and lots of vanilla. While it doesn’t stray far from the path, it’s firing on all cylinders and drinking beautifully. A

Get a Flaviar Welcome Pack (including this one)

Flaviar’s also got a new app for iOS and Android, which lets you purchase bottles and tasting packs and see a “flavour spiral” for everything you’ve sampled. Kind of a neat spin on the flavor wheel, and fun to check out while you’re sampling spirits. Check it out on your relevant app store.

Review: Cocktail & Sons Cocktail Syrups


Cocktail & Sons is a brand new operation (we tasted the first draft of their four artisan syrups late last year) that is going national as we speak.

Here’s a look at the complete lineup from the fledgling company — all four of which are wholly worthwhile and clearly made with cocktailing knowhow. (Not into drinking? Drop a tablespoon into a glass with ice and soda and you’ve got a stellar non-alcoholic beverage.)

Thoughts follow.

Cocktail & Sons Spiced Demerara – Demerara syrup spiced with peppercorns and baking spices. A beautiful brown sugar syrup at its heart, it’s got a distinct gingerbread flavor to it, with a just the lightest touch of pepper on the back. I think it could use a little more of that peppery kick, but the baking spice character is spot on and really elevates standard sugar syrup. A-

Cocktail & Sons Oleo Saccharum – An unsexy name for a classic citrus-based syrup that got its start 150 or so years ago. C&S’s version adds lemongrass and ginger to the citrus. Brisk lemon/lime notes attack the palate right at the start, then that aggressive sweetness hits you. The citrus doesn’t quite hang in there for the long haul, letting the saccharum pick up the slack. I get hints of anise on the back end. A-

Cocktail & Sons Honeysuckle & Peppercorn – Floral and spice elements intermingle in this exotic concoction. That dusty honey character that always rides along with honeysuckle is unmistakable here, with a kind of nutmeg character that comes along after. Again, very light pepper notes on the finish, but it’s just a bit more than a nod in that direction than anything palate-busting. B+

Cocktail & Sons Mint & Lemon Verbena – Get your instant mint julep or mojito, right here. Nothing complicated about this one, just a slight touch of herbal character that nudges things closer to menthol than mint. Don’t worry, your Bourbon won’t mind. A

each $15 per 8 oz. bottle /

Review: Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky

hibiki harmonyA little of this and a little of that, Hibiki’s latest is a blended whisky, something we don’t see often represented from Japan on American shores. If you can’t find something to like in this dram, well, you shouldn’t be drinking whisky at all.

Let’s back up a bit, though, with some Suntory time background:

Hibiki Japanese Harmony pays tribute to the original Hibiki first launched in 1989 to commemorate the Suntory philosophy to live in Harmony with Nature and People. Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo challenged himself to design a quintessential Hibiki blend by meticulously refining it to capture the core of a true Hibiki as a no age statement blend. Hibiki Japanese Harmony leverages the exact same key malt and grain whiskies used in the first Hibiki blend. Here at least 10 malt and grain whiskies, aged up to approximately 20 years, blend together to create a luminous harmony of flavors and aromas.

This is an entry-level expression — the new “foundation of the Hibiki range” — and the nose is relatively youthful. There’s lots of grain influence here, with evident oak, smoke, and fruit mingling on the nose. On the palate, that grain is tempered quite a bit, with notes that offer a complex melange of toasted wood, tea leaf, crushed berries, orange/sherry character, and a finish that evokes tart green apple and a little sweetened tea. The denouement is fresh and clean — an enjoyable break from the rush of flavors that arrive when it first hits the tongue.

86 proof.

B+ / $65 /

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2015 Edition


As bourbon (and rye) mania continue to sweep the nation, this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is setting up to be one of the hottest releases ever. (Surely you’re heard about Stagg? If not, read on for the spoiler…) As always, these are all highly capable, unique, and for the most part worthwhile whiskeys. But here’s the particulars on how each one breaks down for me this year.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – As it has for many years, this is 18 year old rye distilled way back in 1985 that has been sitting in a big metal tank since it hit its 18th birthday in 2003. Sazerac 18 changes a little each year, but not much. But now pay attention: This is the final release from the old tank. Next year’s release will feature whiskey distilled in 1998, and going forward, Sazerac 18 will be drawn from barrels filled 18 years prior. So — if you like what Sazzy 18 has been like in the past, get it now, as this is your last chance. In 2015, the nose offers exotic notes of brandied cherries, graham crackers, and whipped cream. This beautiful dessert character leads to ample wood on the initial rush of the palate — but this quickly segues to Christmas spices, more gingerbread, mulled wine, marzipan, and spiced, baked apples. The finish is long, soothing, and festive with its hefty spice character — perfect for holiday tippling. All in all, it’s a similar Sazerac 18 to the whiskey we’ve seen before, but like an old friend it’s one you still want to spend time with from time to time. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – A 17 year old whiskey from the bottom three floors of Warehouses Q and I. Punchy with vanilla, caramel, and chocolate, this is a cocoa lover’s dream come true. A classic bourbon drinking at full maturity, it eventually reveals some allspice, barrel char, and a bit of menthol. This year’s whiskey is a fairly straightforward bourbon, one that even hints at its origins with some popcorn notes emerging on the finish — not something you often see in a whiskey of this age. Solid stuff on the whole, as it usually is. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – There’s quite a tale to go away with this one. Buffalo Trace says that it opened up 128 barrels of whiskey distilled in 2000 (making this 15 years old), but many of them only had 1 or 2 gallons of bourbon left in them. The shocking statistic: 84% of the original distillate evaporated! That’s quite an angel’s share… which means you are not going to find much Stagg on the market this year — one source I’ve seen estimates just 5000 bottles of this coveted whiskey will hit stores. 2015 is quite strong on the nose (this is 69% alcohol and dark as night, so prepare thy liver), but push through the alcohol to reveal intense vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves on the nose. The body is equally intense — lots of vanilla extract, cloves, and, surprisingly, licorice, plus a bit of barrel char on the back end. Give it water and it settles into a groove of burnt caramel and brown sugar with a little licorice kick. There’s not a lot of nuance this year — Stagg can often take on a dark coffee/chocolate tone — but it’s a very capable and highly enjoyable bourbon from start to finish. What else were you expecting? 138.2 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – 12 year old W.L. Weller, from the second and sixth floors of warehouses I, K, and L. Appealing nose, and approachable even at this hefty proof (just 2% abv less than Stagg). It’s got a distinctly lighter style, with a nose of distinct butterscotch notes, fruit salad, and vanilla. On the palate, the butterscotch comes on strong, along with some marzipan and orange oil. Add water and the whiskey takes on an evergreen edge, though it’s still tempered with that almond paste/butterscotch sweetness. Kind of an odd combination of flavors — each enjoyable enough on its own, but all together a little bit scattered. 134.6 proof. B+

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Six year old rye, as per the norm, from the fourth and seventh floors of warehouses I, K, and M. Slightly light in alcohol for Handy vs. previous years’ releases. Restrained on the nose, far more so than anything else in the collection. It’s just not altogether there, aside from some nutty and grainy overtones. On the palate, at full bottle strength, it features hot, toasty grain, some citrus/orange marmalade notes, and more than a bit of astringency. Water helps, bringing out more sweetness and some baking spice, but also tons of grain and some antiseptic notes that make the whole affair seem undercooked. There’s nothing wrong with young whiskey, but I question whether a rye that’s drinking so youthfully has a proper place in this collection. 126.9 proof. B-

$80 each /

Review: Wines of Planeta (Focus on Sicily’s Etna), 2015 Releases

002Planeta is one of the icons of Sicilian winemaking, and recently I had the pleasure of meeting Alessio Planeta (pictured below), head winemaker for this operation that sprawls across the island of Sicily. Over lunch at San Francisco’s SPQR, we tasted through a series of Planeta’s Etna-grown wines. (Etna is on the east coast of the island, near the famous volcano… and the rich soils it has created.)

Here are some thoughts on all wines tasted.

NV Planeta Metodo Classico Brut – A 100% carricante sparkler. One of my favorite wines of the day, a fresh citrus-fueled wine, not too fizzy, with crisp apple notes and a clean finish. A- / $40

2014 Planeta Etna Bianco DOC – 100% carricante. Fragrant and lemony, with notes of white flowers. Acidity is high, but the body’s a little thin. Interesting to see the same grape as a still wine vs. the sparkler above. B+ / $24

2014 Planeta Eruzione 1614 Carricante – 90% carricante, 10% riesling. A hint of white burgundy gets this blend going, and what a difference a touch of riesling makes. Quite floral, it builds on a buttery body to a nutty character as it warms up. Quite opulent. A- / $32

2011 Planeta Eruzione 1614 Carricante – 95% carricante, 5% riesling. The same wine with some age on it. More fragrant, despite the lower level of riesling in the blend. Notes of brown butter showcase some nice maturity here, but give it a little air before gulping it down. A- / $32

2014 Planeta Etna Rosso DOC – 100% nerello mascalese. A little thin, a rustic wine with dense berries and tart cherry notes. Some rosemary on the finish. B / $25

2014 Planeta Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese – 100% nerello mascalese. Intense herbs and vegetation here at first, very young, with some ethanol notes. Tight today, but showing promise. B+ / $35

2011 Planeta Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese – 100% nerello mascalese. Beautiful fruit showing on this slightly aged vintage, with maturity proceeding nicely. A little vanilla and a slight balsamic edge get along well; nice balance and fun to drink, but with ample complexity. A / $35

Review: Magic Hat Ale, Electric Peel, Miss Bliss, and Belgo Sutra

magic hat Electric Peel Bottle JPGA quartet of brews from Vermont’s Magic Hat, including two seasonals, a new full-time release, and limited edition available only on draft. Let’s go!

Magic Hat Ale – Seasonal for fall. A simple name for a simple beer, an Irish-style red ale with ample malt and a slightly fruity, caramel-heavy palate. Magic Hat Ale serves up some chocolate notes and a bit of caramel apple on the finish, but it’s nothing too get too excited about in the end. 4.6% abv. B- / $8 per six-pack

Magic Hat Electric Peel Grapefruit IPA – Year-round. Grapefruit is rapidly becoming the “it” beer ingredient, but it gets a bit lost in this chewy, resinous, and otherwise standard-bearing IPA. Lots of piney notes mixed with a strong but less distinct citrus character give this a pleasant balance without blowing you off your barstool with the hops. A slightly sour tang on the finish nods in the direction of the Ruby Red, but if you didn’t know what was in the bottle in advance, you’d probably never realize it was there. All in all, quite enjoyable on its merits. 6% abv. A- / $8 per six-pack

Magic Hat Miss Bliss – Seasonal for fall. This is a lightly spiced ale made with malted rye and dusted with coriander and orange peel. I’m normally not a fan of spiced beers, but Miss Bliss really surprised me. It’s delicate on the tongue with lightly floral notes, then kicks up ample caramel as the body picks up steam. As it develops, the sweetness remains in check while the herbal notes take over. The finish is soothing and nostalgic, reminding the drinker of dry autumn leaves, Halloween, and Thanksgiving baked goods all at once. Refreshing as hell, too. 4.5% abv. A / $8 per six-pack

Magic Hat Belgo Sutra – Very limited. A Belgian dark ale, available on tap only, made with six different malts and fermented over figs and dates. This could be a sugar bomb, but Magic Hat keeps it in check with a bit of Apollo hops to balance things out with some bitterness. That said, it’s still strong, dark, and teetering on the edge of being syrupy, but the malt is big and bold, silky with caramel notes, while the figgy fruity element manages to shine through. Drink one with your fez on. 8.2% abv. B+ / $NA (tap only)

Review: Left Coast Cellars 2013 Pinot Noir and 2014 White Pinot Noir

Willamette, Oregon-based Left Coast Cellars makes pinot noir — no surprise there — but it comes in two varieties: A standard red cuvee and a white wine. All grapes have white juice of course; the color comes making the wine with the skins. But white varieties of the major red wine grapes are quite rare. Let’s see this one pans out, alongside its standard pinot…

2013 Left Coast Cellars Cali’s Cuvee Pinot Noir Willamette Valley – Very light body, with fresh berries backed by light floral elements. Secondary character includes a hint of cinnamon, with just a little fresh thyme to back things up. Things turn slightly strange — a bit sweet with more baking spice than I’d like — as the finish builds. Quite drinkable, particularly with food. B+ / $24

2014 Left Coast Cellars White Pinot Noir Willamette Valley – There’s a reason they turn pinot noir grapes into red wine, it seems — this white offers some initial grassiness and minerality, but this evolves into a lightly vegetal overtone, with a hint of mushroom character. This evokes a relatively low-end white, but the unique varietal choice makes it more interesting than that simply on a novelty basis. B- / $24

Review: Copper & Kings Absinthe Complete Lineup

copper and kings absinthe

Recently we talked about Copper & Kings’ brandies. Today we look at the absinthes, a set of four blanche absinthes made in… Kentucky. All are based on the brandy distillate (so, made from Muscat grapes — though some sources claim French Colombard), vapor-distilled with grande wormwood, fennel, anise, and hyssop during the initial distillation.

Intriguingly, three “flavored” varieties are also available, though that’s quite a misnomer, as the extra ingredients — each is self-explanatory in the name of the product below — are added during that initial distillation run. In some cases, these are significant improvements to the original recipe!

Thoughts on all four follow. All are 130 proof.

005Copper & Kings Blanche Absinthe – Again, this is a blanche absinthe — so a clear absinthe, not green. It louches well with water and sugar to a pure, pale, milky white. The absinthe offers intense, candied licorice notes, both on the nose (straight) and even stronger with a traditional preparation of water and sugar. There’s a fruity undercurrent on the palate here, a slight note of apples and one of golden raisins, too. Dial back the sugar a tad to reveal some earthy qualities, perhaps a touch of cinnamon. A nice starter absinthe. B+

Copper & Kings Citrus Absinthe Superior – Adds a distinct orange element to the above, but in extreme moderation: just a grating or two of orange peel into that sweet candied licorice core. Very subtle. B+

Copper & Kings Lavender Absinthe Superior – Lavender’s a character that’s tough to disguise, and on the nose it’s clear as a bell — at least until you add water and sugar. From there on, the lavender takes a back seat. As with the citrus, it’s quite subtle (though not quite so difficult to detect), lending a floral note to the proceedings. I liked this a lot more than I expected — lavender in anything comestible is usually a horrible idea — and it turned out to be my favorite of the bunch by a very slight margin. A-

Copper & Kings Ginger Absinthe Superior – Another strong flavor that again makes its presence known more on the unadulterated nose than on the palate. Here, the finished concoction veers more toward a fuller-bodied cocktail, with just a touch of heat on the tip of the tongue as the finish develops. Again, this is a slight improvement on the undoctored version of the spirit, though it’s awfully tough to tell what’s specifically been added if you don’t already know. Another subtle yet well-crafted improvement. The ginger gets clearer with more water. Definitely a worthwhile addition. A-

each $55 /

Review: La Quintinye Vermouth Royal – Complete Lineup

la quintinye Vermouth Rouge JBLQ HQThis line of French artisanal vermouths is newly available in the United States. Fans of the aromatic wine, be it straight up or in cocktails, should definitely pick up a bottle or two or three.

This is a modern style of vermouth, complex and a bit avant garde in its production. La Quintinye is made with 18 to 28 aromatics (I’m not going to list them all here, check out their website for details) depending on the variety, plus a blend of white wines (yes, white is used for all three versions). Uniquely fortifying the mix is Pineau des Charentes (color varying depending on the variety), a fortified “wine” that blends unfermented grape juice with Cognac, which is then aged in oak barrels.

We tried all three varieties and present our reviews for your consideration.

La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Extra Dry – Vibrant yellow, with a nose of bittersweet herbs, some honey, various citrus peels, and a little Band-Aid note on the back. The body is sharp and, again, bittersweet, chewy with loads of green herbs and citrus-focused, plus a lively woody/brambly note on the finish that pairs well with a hint of crisp white wine and that distinct Pineau character. Has trouble holding its own with gin, but can overpower vodka if you’re not careful with it. 17% abv. B+

La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Blanc – Blanc or bianco vermouth is essentially intended to be “sweet” (aka rouge) vermouth, but without the color. La Quintinye’s rendition is quite sweet (but not too much) and about the same shade of gold as the Extra Dry, offering notes of fresh sugared grapefruit, lemonade, peaches, and hints of cinnamon. Some sage notes emerge on the nose, but this is a lush and summery experience that really strikes all the right chords. Use in cocktails as a substitute for Lillet, St. Germain, or in lieu of dry vermouth — but I like it best on its own. 16% abv. A

La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge – The classic sweet vermouth. Aromatic on the nose with florals, citrus peels, and some woody, slightly bitter notes evident. On the tongue, sweetness hits first — plums, raisins, and brown sugar then a touch of bitter root, tinged with notes of dark chocolate and vanilla. This is the most complex of the trio and probably my favorite of the bunch, likely because it is killer when used as a mixer with bourbon. An easy go-to for a sweet vermouth, any day. 16.5% abv. A

each $24 /