Review: Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog and Besamim Liqueurs

etrog bottleSukkah Hill Spirits is a new, artisan producer of eastern-inspired liqueurs that is based in southern California. These spirits are both sweet liqueurs, with no corn syrup added, all natural ingredients, no preservatives, and all the other good stuff that you’d expect from a company with a name like Sukkah Hill.

We checked out both of the company’s offerings for review. Thoughts follow.

Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog Liqueur – A citrus liqueur, pale yellow in color. The nose offers both lemon-lime and floral elements in a heady mix. The body however is more specific, loaded with key lime notes, a healthy slug of cane sugar syrup, and a flowery note that evokes orange blossoms. The balance takes things a bit closer to sweet than sour — making this more evocative of a triple sec than you might expect. Use in lieu of that liqueur, Cointreau, or even Grand Marnier in your favorite cocktails. Or try straight as an alternative to Limoncello. 76 proof. A- / $24 (375ml)

Sukkah Hill Spirits Besamim Aromatic Spice Liqueur – A glass of chai, without the cream. Cinnamon and cloves dominate the nose, taking it well beyond the level of “Christmas spices.” As the body builds, it takes those spices and folds in a touch of vanilla and some dark brown sugar. Initially a bit overwhelming, it eventually settles into its own. Besamim isn’t as sweet as Etrog, but it can still hold its own solo or as a component in a more exotic cocktail. Consider coffee, cream, and/or whiskey in your mix. 74 proof. B+ / $28 (375ml)

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Head-to-Head

JD NH Single Barrel 2Headlines were made earlier this year when the largest ever single barrel purchase of Jack Daniel’s — 15 barrels’ worth — was completed. Big liquor store? Weathly billionaire? Not exactly. The purchase was made by none other than the state of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is a “control” state, which means it operates its own liquor stores. As such, it has plenty of money to drop on wacky ideas like this — 15 whole barrels of JD Single Barrel Select.

The Granite State folks sent us samples from two of the 15 barrels so we could see what kind of goodies New Hampshirans (that’s what they’re called) now have in their backyard. Here’s a look at the duo.

Both are 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-6 Barrel 15-1778 – Very fruity, not a term I often associate with JD, featuring minimal wood influence, some cherry, and some cinnamon on the nose. On the palate, the fruit comes through the strongest, but ample vanilla and barrel char still shine through. The finish is all super-ripe bananas — almost tropical at times and not at all like any JD you’re likely accustomed to. A-

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-8 Barrel 15-1933 – Much more intense with alcohol and stronger wood char notes, a touch of that banana, plus burnt marshmallow, and supple vanilla notes. All in all, it’s classic Jack Daniel’s, with more of an alcoholic kick. Very good, but awfully familiar. B+

each $45 /

Review: Wines of Barton & Guestier, 2015 Releases

barton g_cotesdurhone_passeport_NVBarton & Guestier is France’s oldest wine merchant company, but it’s also a wine producer, too. B&G makes a wide range of wine varieties, including wines from Bordeaux, the Loire, Provence, and the Rhone Valley under a number of labels. Today we look at a couple of new wines and a couple of older labels. Thoughts follow.

2014 Barton & Guestier Vouvray – This low-alcohol, 100% chenin blanc wine has quite a bit of sweetness to it, so arrive with your palate forewarned. Crisp apple is backed with notes of peaches, lychee, and pineapple, with some restrained florals particularly evident on the nose. Simple all around, but easy to enjoy. Summer wine. B / $10

2014 La Villa Barton Cotes de Provence Rose – 45% grenache, 30% syrah, 25% cinsault. Surprisingly dry, this wine cuts a profile of gentle florals, some melon notes, and some tart grapefruit on the finish. Simple and featuring a short finish, this one’s best ice cold. B / $20

2014 Barton & Guestier Cotes-du-Rhone – 50% grenache, 30% syrah, 20% carignan. This is a meaty, traditionally styled wine from the Rhone Valley that offers an earthy, leathery core that complements some simple but lively, strawberry-focused fruit elements. Simple and easy-drinking, but well structured and balanced between its two primary elements; particularly appealing at this price. B+ / $11

NV Barton & Guestier 290th Heritage Rhone Blend – Technically a non-vintage wine. 80% syrah, 20% grenache. Surprisingly restrained, with a leathery, tobacco-laden core that is dotted with some light fruit notes, cigar smoke, and a touch of sea salt. Dried blueberries and some chocolate on the finish add some nuance, but overall this wine is dialed way back. B / $20

Review: Svedka Vodka, Svedka 100, and Svedka Grapefuit Jalapeno

SVEDKA GrapefruitJalapeno Bottle

Sweden’s Svedka is one of the top global vodka brands, driven by an affordable price point and some amazingly successful marketing. 5x distilled from Swedish winter wheat, it’s widely available to the point of ubiquity. Let’s look at three of the company’s expressions, including a couple of new monsters.

Svedka Vodka – This is the standard Svedka bottling — presumably the one that that robot lady likes so much. The nose melds marshmallow notes with hospital overtones, but ultimately it’s the sweeter notes that carry the spirit. The palate is quite simplified, with a modest sugar component and just a wisp of astringency that attempts to provide some balance. It never quite gets there, though, leaving this best suited as a mixer. 80 proof. B- / $14

Svedka 100 Vodka – This is the 100 proof version of Svedka, but otherwise unflavored and made the same way. The nose is strikingly similar — offering that same mix of sweetness and medicinal character. Where things diverge is on the tongue, with Svedka 100 building up to a rather pungent and punchy character that is, primarily, driven by its alcohol content. This has the welcome side effect of tempering the sugar in the vodka and giving the spirit some much needed gravitas. A considerable improvement and only a buck more expensive. B+ / $15

Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno Vodka – Svedka makes 14 varieties of vodka, including 12 flavors. This new one is arguably the strangest, unless Swedes are munching jalapenos and swilling Squirt left and right without my knowledge. This flavored expression is all fruit on the nose — but more grapefruit candy than sour grapefruit juice. On the tongue it’s more of the same — remarkably sweet and sugary, offering citrus but nothing that’s particularly grapefruit focused. But what about that jalapeno, Drinkhacker? Well, the finish offers a little but distinct burn, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. That said, I couldn’t tell you whether it came from a pepper or a vat of mysteriously spicy chemicals, and you don’t care anyway. 70 proof. C- / $12

Review: Wines of Francis Ford Coppola, 2015 Releases

VendettaIt’s a bumper crop of new releases from Coppola. Here’s a look at something old and something new from this always-busy operation.

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Sauvignon Blanc Diamond Collection Yellow Label – A workmanlike, even gentlemanly, sauvignon blanc. Quite sweet, with marshmallow notes, lemon juice, and creamy orange Dreamsicle notes. Simple but with a lightly herbal edge to the finish, it’s classic yet cheap summer wine (if the bright yellow label didn’t cue you in). B / $16

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Grigio Diamond Collection Emerald Label – A rather tropical pinot grigio, melding mango and banana notes into a festive shell. Simple, lightweight, lightly sweet, and rather refreshing, but better as an aperitif than with food. B+ / $12

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Claret Diamond Collection Black Label – Surprisingly on point, the 2013 claret — a Bordeaux style blend that nonetheless reads “California Cabernet Sauvignon” on the back label — has youth and austerity, both in moderation. Bright red strawberries and raspberries seize the day — there’s not too much currant character here — with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and tea leaf (sweet tea, maybe?) lingering on the finish. Mostly dry but with a short, quick finish, this is as gentle an entry to this style of wine. B+ / $21

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Rose Monterey County – Pleasant, summery, and refreshing, this rose of syrah and pinot noir is an easy sipper with strawberry and blackberry notes, atop a fresh apple juice core. Probably the best thing you’ll find under the Sofia sub-label. A- / $19

2014 Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Noir Director’s Sonoma Coast – (Not the same as “Director’s Cut.”) Not a bad effort here, and it evolves to show more charm in the glass as it gets some air. Cherry up front, with some dusky brewed tea and cracked pepper notes. Nice balance, with a lightly bitter kick on the finish. B+ / $21

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Zinfandel Director’s Cut Dry Creek Valley – A reserved and quite tannic zinfandel, this wine features muted bramble notes, leather, and mild currants. Quite drying on the finish, with a licorice kick. B- / $17

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Vendetta – The new kid on the block. A cab-merlot blend, packaged in the oh-so-trendy paper-wrapped bottle. An often horrifying wine, doctored and pumped up (IMHO) with artificial sweeteners. Chocolate and cinnamon notes mingle with a cloying sweetness that positively coats the palate. Was the vendetta against me? D / $21

Review: Glenfiddich 14 Years Old Bourbon Barrel Reserve

glenfiddich 14Welcome to the latest addition to the Glenfiddich permanent lineup. Matured exclusively in bourbon casks for 14 years, it is finished in heavy charred new American oak barrels (finishing time unstated).

No question, this is classic, unsherried Glenfiddich through and through. Glen-fiddie loves to play with new oak here and there, and it does quite a number on this whisky, imbuing the nose with notes of ripe cherries, big vanilla caramels, and lots of scorched-wood barrel char influence.

Fans of American whiskey styles will find plenty to like here, as the Western flavors play nicely with the heady notes of malty grains, some toffee, and a bit more candied fruit. The finish has a touch of an incense character to it, with touches of twine.

All told: A classic, bourbon-barrel-heavy rendition of one of Speyside’s most classic single malts.

86 proof.


Review: Amaro di Angostura

Amaro di Angostura

Bored with Fernet? Hardcore bartenders — and few other people — take things one step further: They drink Angostura bitters as a shot. (Never mind that they are not classified as a potable beverage.)

Now you needn’t be that insane to get the flavor of pure Angostura in a proper beverage, as the Trinidad-based distiller (which also makes tons of rum, of which reviews are coming soon) has released Amaro di Angostura, which adds some sugar and spice to temper the bitters’ classic pungency into something more palatable. Per the House of Angostura: “The blenders combined Angostura aromatic bitters with some neutral spirit and added more spices… until a magnificent herbal liqueur was created – the spirit, spices and bitter herbs were mixed and then left to marry for 3 months.”

Classic Angostura notes on the nose — dark cherries, root beer, cloves, and licorice. The body is far sweeter than you expect it will be (and a much different experience than tippling on Ango straight). Sweet cinnamon candies are at the forefront of the palate, then some of that licorice and root beer come along a bit later. Cherry-infused caramel sauce encompasses the finish, with a lingering, though far from overwhelming, bitterness.

Ultimately this is a far different experience than I was expecting, neither Angostura-light nor a Fernet clone, but rather a surprisingly sweet confection that makes for quite pleasant after-dinner — or anytime — sipping.

70 proof.

B+ / $27 /

Review: Wines of Liberated, 2015 Releases

Liberated_Pinot Noir 2013I’m not sold on the Hitchcock-meets-James Bond labels (or the name), but the prices of Liberated’s wines are hard to beat. One doesn’t often find wines of this quality at the $20 or lower level, but these guys are putting together a solid product. Thoughts follow.

2014 Liberated Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County – Lightly tropical, with big mineral notes and plenty of acidity. Some coconut notes add an exotic touch to an otherwise straightforward, New World sauvignon blanc. Refreshing and easy-drinking, without some of the ammonia notes that California sauv blancs typically exhibit. A- / $13

2012 Liberated Pinot Noir Monterey – A classically structured pinot, with dark cherry tempered by black pepper and a touch of tobacco. Gentle acidity leads to a relatively lengthy finish that echoes pepper and a touch of balsamic. Surprisingly complicated for a Monterey pinot, and worthwhile. A- / $15

2012 Liberated Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A well-crafted but milder expression of cabernet, with currant notes, some black tea, vanilla, and a bit of dusty wood that builds over time. Relatively drying, it still keeps the fruitier components alive on the palate, finishing with some baking spice. B+ / $20

Review: Cognac Paul Giraud – VSOP, Napoleon, and Tres Rare

Cognac Paul Giraud

Paul Giraud is a small Cognac producer that has been harvesting its own vineyards to make brandy since the 17th century. While not commonly available in the U.S., you can find a bottle or two of the eight expressions the company makes if you look hard enough. Today we take a spin through three expressions, all of which are bottled at 80 proof.

Thoughts follow.

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne VSOP – Bright gold in color. On the nose, fresh fruit — baked apples and a touch of golden raisins — and caramels. It’s fresh and sweet, but largely uncomplicated. On the body, things evolve with a considerable level of baking spices, which make for a natural and quite beautiful companion to the sweet and fruity notes on the nose. Some notes of incense and that classically, lightly bittersweet astringency on the finish give this a classic Cognac showing. Pretty, young, vibrant, and quite a nice start to this collection. A- / $40

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Napoleon – It’s one step up from the VSOP bottling, but this Napoleon bottling shows just a shade lighter than the VSOP. The nose is considerably different — almost leathery at times, the fruit elements veering more toward dried apples and brandied prunes rather than the fresher notes of the VSOP. The body heads more into sultry notes of cloves, freshly cut wood, and a finish that plays up the more bitter elements in the brandy — bordering on astringent at times. All told it’s a rather straightforward Cognac with its sweetness dialed back — which may be a more preferable experience to some drinkers who find some bottlings on the sugary side. Let your palate be the judge. (That said, I prefer the VSOP.) B+ / $50

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare – How rare? Tres rare. Darker, richer, and clearly older, this is Cognac drinking at a solid degree of maturity. While it hasn’t developed quite into the stratosphere, Tres Rare is a showcase of Cognac as a study in contrasts — rich, vibrant, and almost jammy fruit (apple, plum, cherry, banana), melded with notes of exotic woods, almonds & marzipan, leather, and a dense layer of toasted spices. Complex and sometimes challenging, Tres Rare is firing on multiple levels that create a cohesive and intricate experience that is tough to find in mainstream brandies. Taken all together it shows why premium Cognac commands the prices it does — while this bottling still keeps things relatively affordable. Well done. A / $179

Review: RedTerra Vodka

redterra vodkaQuick: What’s a spirit made from agave? Tequila? Yes. Mezcal? Yes. Vodka? Yes!

RedTerra is an agave-based vodka, which is made especially discordant due to the heavy Russian imagery — red, black, and an eagle — used on the bottle label. But RedTerra starts with 100% real blue agave harvested in the Jalisco Highlands. It’s then traditionally (for vodka, anyway) column distilled and bottled in Portland, Oregon. (The reason it comes out as vodka and not tequila is largely the proof to which the liquid is distilled; it’s the same reason you can turn rye or wheat into either vodka or whiskey.)

The traces of agave in the finished product are fleeting, but they are there: On the nose this comes across with modest but spicy herbal overtones — a bit of eucalyptus and cayenne, then a rush of ethyl alcohol heat. On the palate, it’s gently sweet, showing a little brown sugar at first, then some more herbal hints as the body evolves on the tongue. This ends up showing itself as a dusting of nutmeg and some brown butter. Again, a hint of cayenne heat on the back — and a finish that definitely recalls the vodka’s agave origins.

If nothing else, it’s different — and accessible to both the casual vodka drinker and the tequila fan looking for something that pairs a little better with vermouth.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 /