Another Tony Leonardini wine, Volunteer is a considerably higher-end offering than the Butternut Chardonnay we recently reviewed. Volunteer is a relatively light-bodied cabernet (blended with small amounts of merlot and cabernet franc), with simple notes of currants and cherries, backed with a bit of rosemary and mixed, dried herbs. The finish is easygoing, slightly sweet, with light notes of violets.
B+ / $30 / bnawinegroup.com
Cola brown in color and dense with flavor, the venerable Punt e Mes is pretty much at the end of the line in the world of sweet vermouth. As brand owner Branca puts it, “The story goes that back in 1870 a stock broker, caught up in a debate with a few colleagues at Bottega Carpano, ordered a vermouth laced with half a dose of quina liqueur using a Piedmont dialect expression: ‘Punt e Mes’ (roughly translatable as ‘one and a half’).”
Like the Alessio vermouths we recently reviewed, Punt e Mes blurs the line between a sweet vermouth and an amaro. The nose is intensely bitter, with just a trace of sweetness to it. On the body, bitter orange, cloves, and quinine dominate before giving way to a finish that’s loaded with coffee, cola, and ample prune notes. Hints of cinnamon, some sweeter citrus notes — both lemon and orange — and a touch of gingerbread also emerge from time to time. The finish is just about equally bitter and sweet, which is quite a remarkable feat, actually.
Not a vermouth to be trifled with, Punt e Mes is best experienced in moderation in cocktails that demand — or deserve — complexity.
B+ / $27 / branca.it
Spain’s Calatayud region is where this delightful, high-altitude Garnacha from Las Rocas is born, yet it comes to the U.S. at a remarkable price. This is a surprisingly gentle wine, mild in body but loaded with flavor. Gentle red plum and currant notes plus a bit of slightly sour cherry character attack the body, which is backed with some cinnamon and cloves. The finish is lightly touched with sweetness, but not overdone. Very easygoing, it works well as an aperitif but it also excels with food — even spicier items.
B+ / $10 / lasrocaswine.com
That bright red color and an Italian name can only mean one thing: Campari, right?
Wrong! Introducing Meletti 1870, a bit of a Campari lookalike that’s designed to be used in Negronis and Americanos and other strong/bittersweet cocktails.
Of course, you can sip it straight as an aperitivo, too, and in this fashion you will find this concoction of sweet and bitter orange plus infused herbs and spices (including gentian, coriander, cinnamon, and clove) quite a little delight. The nose is syrupy and brisk with orange notes along with maraschino cherry character. Lots of baking spice emerges on the palate, with a mild bitterness to add balance.
It may look a lot like Campari, but it’s quite a different spirit. Campari is punctuated by mammoth bitter notes that start on the nose and carry through to the lengthy, heavily bitter finish. In Meletti 1870, the bitterness comes across almost as an afterthought, making for a much different experience on the whole. Melitti is focused on fruit and spice. Campari lives to sear your throat and give you that unbending grimace — in a good way, though.
Either way, try it as an alternative in a cocktail to Campari — or, better yet, instead of .
B+ / $26 / opiciwines.com
A gin distilled from 100% Florida cane sugar? Flavored with just five botanicals — juniper, coriander, angelica, orange peel, and cassia bark — St. Augustine’s “New World Gin” is specifically designed to be citrus focused, in keeping with its Floridian heritage.
On the nose, the citrus isn’t as strong as you’d think — angelica and coriander notes, both earthier elements — make a very strong showing here, with some light pine needle notes picking up the rear. On the palate, don’t worry: Despite the cane base, it isn’t sweet. It’s a surprisingly dry gin, and the juniper is quite strong, balanced out with a slight squeeze of orange juice and a light hint of cinnamon on the back end. (This is particularly evident as the gin opens up with some air — or water, as it’s high-proof stuff.)
This is not at all a bad gin, and it grew on me over time. The balance is quite good, particularly when approaching it as a cocktail ingredient. That said, I think St. Augustine would do well to push the citrus agenda even further — a lot further — than it currently does, and really strike out into a territory that only Florida can call its own. And no, not gator flavor.
B+ / $33 / staugustinedistillery.com
Four 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
Well, 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.
B+ / $20 (1 liter) / ballsvodka.com
Skyy 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?
B+ / $15 / skyy.com
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.
B+ / $14 / ezrabrooks.com
About 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.
B+ / $65 / craftdistillers.com