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

Review: Jim Beam Black XA Extra Aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon

jim beam black extra agedWhile I wasn’t paying attention, Jim Beam quietly updated its venerable Black Label bottling. What was once bottled with an 8 Year Old (“Double Aged”) age statement now carries none. Beam assures me the product in the new bottle is the same as the old Jim Beam Black Label even if the exterior isn’t quite the same. Either way, we got a fresh bottle of XA to offer some 2015 perspective. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam XA is, as the name implies, a seemingly well aged spirit. A bit of sawdust on the nose leads into notes of fruity apple, cloves, and vanilla ice cream. The palate offers a rich and creamy body, loaded with caramel, vanilla, and some charcoal notes. That lumberyard character sustains here, and some popcorn notes come along as a reprise. The finish is lasting and warming and a bit dusty, for the most part offering a tour of some of bourbondom’s most classic flavors without piling on a whole lot of distracting nuance. In other words: There’s nothing you won’t enjoy here, but it’s short of a standout, too.

86 proof.

B+ / $20 / jimbeam.com

Review: Afrohead Original Rum

Afrohead Original - Front

You wouldn’t put out a rum called Afrohead and not put a line art drawing of a woman with a huge, stylized afro on the bottle, would you? Of course not. After years of hand bottling rum in an unnamed bottle featuring only the Afrohead logo, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler are bringing this Bahamanian rum to the U.S. market officially.

Two expressions are being released, the “Original” reviewed here, which is 7 years old, plus an XO expression, bottled in an opaque decanter, which is 15 years old. Both expressions are crafted from only sugarcane molasses sourced from various farms in the West Indies, using a proprietary Trinidad yeast, and made with neither added coloring nor raw sugar added to the distillate. The rum is aged in used bourbon barrels in the Bahamas and is bottled in Barbados.

Afrohead Original is a well-crafted rum with a somewhat rustic style. The nose is heavily molasses-focused, with ample but not overblown sweetness. Hints of sweet sherry add some nuance, along with notes of marzipan. On the palate, the rum offers a bit of chalkiness on the body, with a rush of sugar right up front. As it fades, the rum gets a bit tougher and shows off more of its skin. As the finish builds, watch for burnt caramel and sooty notes, Cracker Jack, brown butter, and scorched peanuts. These more brooding flavors add layers of complexity, but they also dial back the sweetness a bit. There’s also a bit of a winey aftertaste that lingers on the back of the palate for quite a while.

All told, this is a fine rum with an interesting and compelling character that’s worth sampling.

Available in the Bahamas, Tennessee, and South Florida for now.

80 proof.

B+ / $35 / afroheadrums.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Brown Rice

brown rice

Four our fourth review in Jim Beam’s 6-whiskey Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection we’re finally checking out the Brown Rice release. This was actually released last year, so we’re late to the game, but our completionist streak compels a review regardless.

As a reminder, these are all bourbons, each made with one unusual grain in the mashbill. As with the others, Brown Rice is at least 51% corn and includes some amount of malted barley in the mix. All Harvest Collection bourbons are aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

With the Brown Rice bottling, interesting tropical notes hit the nose immediately upon pouring, mingling nicely with well-rounded grain, burnt sugar, aged wine, and oak notes on the nose. The overall impression is one of significant age, with a lumberyard character eventually taking over duties on the nose. The body starts with sweetness — brown sugar, molasses, and crushed red berries — before handing some of the work off to the wood again. The finish takes things to a place of slight astringency, with the bourbon seeing a bit of sawdust and a lightly medicinal edge on the back end. I also get notes of brewed, sweet tea and some roasted meats as the finish eventually fades. Overall though, it’s got a light touch, and in the final analysis it comes across as a very pleasant — though oftentimes plain — bourbon.

For what it’s worth, Beam suggests looking out for notes of sweet potato on the nose.

90 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Pickett’s Ginger Beer Concentrated Syrup

PICKETTS

Pickett’s approach to ginger beer was a new one for me: Rather than bottle or can a finished product, Pickett’s makes ginger syrup, which you mix with sparkling water to make on-the-spot ginger beer. It’s a more efficient way to make a mixer if you need a lot of it (or don’t want to stock the pantry with tons of bottles). One 16 oz. bottle of syrup is the equivalent of eight 12 oz. bottles of ginger beer. (That said, you still need to stock sparkling water — though a SodaStream or similar would be just about perfect for this format.)

Pickett’s comes in two formats, both of which we tried. Thoughts follow.

Pickett’s Medium Spicy+ Ginger Beer Syrup (green label) – Mixed with sparkling water, this cuts a profile similar to a slightly racier ginger ale a la Canada Dry or Schweppes. I’d call it Medium Spicy without the plus, as the only “beer”ness to it is found in a slight kick that comes along on the finish. (If you have chapped lips you’ll feel it.) Otherwise, the ginger is solid, backed by a quite sweet body with lots of apple-like fruit overtones to it. Good, everyday-drinking stuff. Reviewed: Batch #9. B+

Pickett’s Hot N’ Spicy #3 Ginger Beer Syrup (red label) – Don’t be afraid. It’s not that hot. It is, however, less sweet, so if you want more of a ginger kick without a lot of sweetness, this should be your go-to version. The overall impact is slightly vegetal but the more warming finish is quite lasting and, ultimately, racier on the palate. A kissing cousin to the green label version, but more attuned to cocktailing. Reviewed: Batch #3. B+

each $25 per 16 oz. bottle / pickettbrothersbeverage.com [BUY IT HERE]