Review: Owl’s Brew Tea-Infused Mixers

owls brewTea and booze? They mix, and surprisingly well — in fact, if you look at any number of classic punch recipes, you’ll see that tea is a popular ingredient.

Owl’s Brew is a line of various bottled teas designed as cocktail mixers, each with a flavor or sweetener added (sometimes minor, sometimes a lot). The mixers are designed to be used in a 2:1 ratio of mixer to booze. Which booze? Well, it depends — two that we reviewed (seven varieties are currently available) are designed for The Famous Grouse or The Black Grouse specifically. Others offer a wide variety of spirits you can pair with.

Either way, once you open them, you better drink up quick. They’re good for only two weeks in the fridge after that. Maybe using these for punch is a better idea than expected.

Thoughts on the three varieties tested follow.

Owl’s Brew The Famous Mint Tea – Peppermint tea with lemon; designed for The Famous Grouse Scotch. This is a surprisingly good combination. The malt and honey flavors of the whisky really come through, as does the lemon and gentle tea notes. What’s lacking, by and large, is oddly the peppermint. It’s a vague afterthought that barely peeks through but comes on a touch stronger on the finish, along with some light chocolate notes. B+

Owl’s Brew The Smoky Earl – Lapsang souchang and Earl Grey tea plus honey; designed for The Black Grouse Scotch. Distinctly smoky, with notes of cherries, some tropical fruit, and salted caramel. Again, some light chocolate character emerges as the cocktail fades. B

Owl’s Brew White and Vine – White tea, pomegranate, lemon peel, and watermelon; designed for vodka, gin, tequila, or wheat beer. My least favorite of this bunch, both intensely fruity and herbal at the same time, making for a bit of a cacophonous experience. It’s the watermelon that is the most jarring component here — not quite Jolly Rancher but simply too strange a component in this conflagration. No spirit combo worked well; vodka did nothing to cut the fruit and gin swayed things too herbal. Tequila is your best bet, but try just a splash of Owl’s Brew instead of the suggested 2:1 ratio. C

$17 per 32 oz. bottle / theowlsbrew.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – Frosty Four Wood

WR_DDO_060415

The third edition of Woodford Reserve’s Distillery Series (which are available for the most part only onsite at the Woodford Reserve facility) is here: Frosty Four Wood. If you remember the 2012 Master’s Collection release, Four Wood (which had three different finishing barrels applied to it). You may also remember the infamous polar vortex, which hit around that time. These two events collided in early 2013, when said vortex blasted Woodford’s warehouses with record low temperatures.

How is Frosty Four Wood different from the original? Good question. Here’s what Woodford says:

The original Four Wood Master’s Collection (2012 release) bottles (so they were in glass as opposed to the barrels still) were exposed to those cold temperatures during the 2013 Polar Vortex. This resulted in flocking so Woodford Reserve used filtration techniques to remove the mineral precipitation. The result was a more fruit-forward whiskey with maple hints.

And so, on to the tasting…

There’s lots of wood to go around here — classic Woodford on the nose, but tempered with notes of almond, raisin, and menthol. The body is quite buttery for bourbon, well-sherried with an overwhelming character of orange-scented marzipan. Cloves are a distinct note that rise and fall over the course of a session, along with black tea leaf. Compared to the original Four Wood, there is significantly less spice here — those cloves are muted when put next to the original’s cinnamon-spiced raisins — all of which leads to a surprisingly sweeter finish, with a character akin to raw sugar cookie dough. The somewhat flabby body gives the finish some muddiness, a stark contrast against the more bracing, lively original Four Wood.

Ultimately, while this is a charming whiskey on its own, I had a distinct preference for the original Four Wood and its more rounded, spicier character. If you’ve got a bottle of the original, it’s particularly fun to compare the two.

90.4 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Pervak Vodka Homemade Rye and Homemade Wheat

pervak

Pervak hails from the Ukraine, and in its rustic-looking bottles with a swing-top-closure, it certainly feels very “Old World” from the get-go. Seriously, Old World: One of the core bottlings in the Pervak lineup is garlic-flavored vodka.

While the two vodkas reviewed below are both straight spirits — one made from rye, one from wheat — both carry on their labels a notice of “natural flavor added.” And yet, there appears to be no flavoring agent in either of these. Is that just an unfortunate spillover from the garlic (and horseradish!) vodka? Perhaps no one thought to change the fine print on the label? Who knows.

In any event, that may be what the label says, but I’m treating them both as unflavored spirits for the purposes of categorization. Thoughts follow.

Both are 80 proof.

Pervak Vodka Homemade Rye – The starter spirit, a single distillation of rye — which should in theory retain more of the residual flavor of the base grain. It’s surprisingly gentle for a single-distilled spirit, moderately medicinal on the nose but rounded on the body with a touch of cracked black pepper, rosemary, and a touch of burnt caramel on the finish. Fairly mild on the whole, it finishes with a lick of sweetness that doesn’t really offend. B+

Pervak Vodka Homemade Wheat – A double-distillation of wheat. Sweeter, with very mild medicinality on the palate. Quite neutral, with a touch of honey on the finish, along with a bit of a floral element. Otherwise it’s a very straightforward and almost simple vodka, a definitive mixer and quite a pleasure on its own, too. A-

each $22 per 1 liter bottle / pervak.com

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Lagavulin 12

A perennial part of the Diageo Special Releases, this is 15th time Lagavulin 12 has appeared in the collection.

At this point you probably know what you’re getting with the Lag 12 — a slightly younger, higher-proof version of the classic Lagavulin 16. Hot and peaty, with sweet smoke and lots of iodine, it’s a mammoth Islay with all the classic notes of the sea. Hints of overripe fruit, green banana, and oily petrol all mingle together in a classic expression of this heavily peated whisky. The finish is scorching and lengthy. Water tempers the beast and coaxes out the sweeter, more rounded notes.

As I said with last year’s review, nothing much changes with this 12 year old edition of Lagavulin, and perhaps that’s as it should be. “Special” or no, it’s a reliable standby if you’re looking for an overproof Islay.

113.6 proof. 2964 bottles produced.

B+ / $135 / malts.com

Book Review: Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari

51VHrm7ytCL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Mark Bitterman sure does like bitters, and if you want to learn how to make them, to craft cool cocktails with them, or even cook with them (bittered southern fried chicken, anyone?), this new book is for you.

A true field guide in appearance — softbound with a rubberized cover — the book feels a little backward, flow-wise, I mean. The “field guide” — wherein Bitterman catalogues some 500 bitters and 50 amari, is at the back of the book. Up front is where Bitterman teaches you how to make bitters at home (hint: stock up on Everclear) and craft cocktails and meals with them. Shouldn’t the reader get a solid understanding of bitters before embarking on home production? Minor quibble, but for many readers the analysis of commercial bitters will be the most worthwhile part of the book.

The cocktail recipes in the book are quite a delight, often heavily dosing classic drinks with a big slug of bitters and/or an amaro — frequently to dramatic effect. I may even make that chicken someday, too.

Given the exhaustive amount of content here, what then to make of some curious omissions in the text — such as the appearance of only one form of Chartreuse in the amaro lineup or the absence of Barrel-Aged Peychaud’s Bitters from the field guide? I figure if it’s something I actually have in my bar, Bitterman for damn sure ought to have it on hand.

B+ / $19 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2016 Releases

2013-rodney-strong-chardonnay-sonoma-bottle-72dpiThree new affordable releases from Rodney Strong, all from the Sonoma County range. Let’s give them a spin.

2014 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Bright and fruity, this is an apple- and pear-focused wine that laces modest (but not overwhelming) vanilla and caramel notes into an otherwise fruit-forward experience. Uncomplicated, but super friendly for everyday drinking. B+ / $10

2013 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – A workmanlike merlot, with cocoa powder and cassis notes, plus a somewhat herbal finish. Densely fruity at first, it settles into a groove after a bit to pair at least reasonably well with heartier dishes. On its own, a somewhat bittersweet note tends to dull the finish. B- / $13

2013 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A very young cab, with notes of blueberry and chocolate. While unabashed in its sweetness, it is tempered by a touch of baking spice and a pinch of bitter herbs that give it a cleaner finish than you’d expect. B / $14

rodneystrong.com

Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 17 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Caol Ila 17

Last year’s unpeated Caol Ila has been stretched from 15 to 17 years of age. Distilled in 1997, this second review in the 2015 Diageo Special Releases showcases the heart of Islay, sans the peat.

The nose is quite salty and laden with iodine, slightly smoky — secondhand peat, perhaps. Hints of citrus waft up beneath. On the palate, the Caol Ila is a little closed off, lightly herbal and malty, but heady with alcohol. Water brings out the smoky elements more than anything else, along with substantial herbal notes — cinnamon and nutmeg, plus some mint. Nougat is big on the body, plus some curious notes of caramelized carrots and orange blossoms.

There’s no shortage of activity and excitement in this whisky, but I still feel like it’s trying to find a way to completely gel. How many more years that will take is anyone’s guess.

111.8 proof.

B+ / $140 / malts.com