Review: Domestik Adjustable Wine and Spirits Aerator

domestik wine aeratorWine aerators — little gizmos which suck in air and mix with wine or spirits that you pour through them — aren’t a new idea. But Domestik is trying to teach this aging dog some new tricks by letting you adjust the amount air the liquid gets.

Just twist the dial on the Domestik and you can set the amount of aeration to your specifications. It’s an analog system with seven basic settings. The idea is to use less aeration with white wines and lighter reds and more with heavier reds and spirits. The mechanics are all visible since the whole thing is largely transparent, but in numerous tests it was difficult to actually see any variation in the amount of air that came through at the lowest setting of 0 vs. the highest setting of 6.

Vinturi, the market leader, sells three different primary aeration systems, one for red wine, one for whites, and one for spirits. I didn’t notice a bit of difference in testing the Vinturi’s red vs. white systems (the spirit aerator has a built-in shot measuring system, so it’s a bit of an outlier), and I didn’t find any noticeable change in drinking wine or spirits aerated with the 0 setting vs. a 6.

That said, aeration does have noticeable effects, namely in hastening the dissipation of heavy alcohol vapors and the stimulation of fruitier elements on the nose. Basically, these gadgets shortcut the natural and often time-consuming process of getting air into your drink of choice, and as with the Vinturi line, the Domestik Aerator can be handy in a pinch.

Bonus! For the next two weeks, use the promo code HACKER25 on the domestikgoods.com website below to get 25% off the purchase price of an aerator.

B+ / $30 / domestikgoods.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Painted Stave Distilling Candy Manor Gin and South River (Red) Gin

candy manor ginBased in Smyrna, Delaware and founded only four years ago, Painted Stave Distilling is an artisan craft distiller that is dipping its toe into all manner of spirits. For now Painted Stave has a collection of white spirits in production, with aged offerings en route. Today we’re looking at two products, Candy Manor Gin — the company’s year-round release — and South River (Red) Gin — part of its experimental, avant garde spirit collection.

Available only in Delaware. Thoughts follow.

Painted Stave Distilling Candy Manor Gin – Described by Painted Stave as a “Western style dry gin with strong noted of lavender, sweet goldenrod and lemon-balm to compliment traditional flavors from juniper, coriander, angelica, and orris root.” The nose is a blend of something old and something new — fresh juniper and some earthier coriander, but also floral notes that approximate honeysuckle, iris, and jasmine. I’m not altogether familiar with goldenrod, but I would have expected more of a lavender note than I could sniff out here. The body plays up those florals quite a bit, coming off as almost perfumed with all the delicate botanical elements. Up front it’s a candied, mixed bouquet of flowers, then behind that builds more sweetness — almost chalky in texture. The finish hints at citrus, pine needles, mushroom, and a touch of baking spice. Initially a little scattered, I came to quite enjoy its bracing complexity in the end. 80 proof. B+ / $30

south river red ginPainted Stave South River (Red) Gin – This is a limited-edition “juniper-forward” gin that is aged for 5 months in former red wine barrels. (There’s also a South River (White).) It’s closer to pink than red, but who’s fact-checking? The nose is quite sharp, loaded with notes of pine tar, vanilla, and Vicks VapoRub. The body is initially fiery, with more of that menthol note, but it slowly settles into a more seductive groove. Intriguing notes of chocolate and caramel, licorice, and some slight rhubarb notes all bubble up as it develops. Really quite unexpected and enchanting, and the reddish hue makes it quite a conversation piece. 80 proof. Bottled 5/16/14. A- / $22 (375ml)

paintedstave.com

Tasting the Wines of Round Pond, 2015 Releases

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The brother-sister team of Miles and Ryan MacDonnell have grown grapes at their Rutherford property in Napa as part of their family’s business since 1983 and began running the Round Pond Estate together in 2003. In 2002, Round Pond branched out from growing grapes into making its own wine, and today the family continues to expand its winemaking operation as well as selling grapes to some of the region’s blue chip wineries.

Round Pond grows primarily Cabernet Sauvignon but also cultivates a smattering of other wines, a number of which we tried at a recent lunch at the Gotham Clubhouse, a private club located in the outfield of San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Round Pond also offers a lunch called Il Pranzo at its winery, where you can experience its wines paired with a meal as well as its estate-made olive oils and vinegars.

Miles led us through the afternoon, with Gotham’s chef pairing each of these wines with a small plate. The food was uniformly excellent. More detailed thoughts on the wines tasted follow.

2014 Round Pond Rosato di Nebbiolo – One doesn’t find a lot of Nebbiolo in Napa, much less Nebbiolo rose. This wine is so pretty and lush, with fresh berries, peaches, and floral notes, that I wish you could get it somewhere besides Round Pond’s winery. A-

2014 Round Pond Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc – A crisp and herbal Sauvignon Blanc, nice acidity and a bracing finish; great pairing with a smoked salmon dish. A-

2012 Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon – Round Pond’s entry level Cabernet (priced at $30), powerful and dense with notes of chocolate and tons of jam. A straightforward wine, but quite a delight. A-

2012 Round Pond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon – This mid-level wine offers more nuance, with some pepper notes amidst the currants. Silky and lush. A-

2012 Round Pond Proprietary Red – A red blend, and surprisingly light on its feet, with its silky tannins pairing nicely with a small filet of beef. Raspberry on the finish. A-

2010 Round Pond Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – The top of the line, but this was the only wine in the lineup that wasn’t quite on fire for me. Dense with lots of tannin and menthol notes, it offers opulence but needs several more years in the bottle before it hits prime time. B+

roundpond.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Review: 8 Poliakov Flavored Vodkas

poliakov

Poliakov may look and sound Russian, but this is a French product (from the same company that distributes Label 5 Scotch), and it’s a big, low-cost seller in that country. Little is known about its production except for a vague “triple distilled” label. While there is a straight, unflavored version, we only received a passel of flavors — excuse me, “flavours” — to review.

Some are completely clear, some are slightly tinted in color, and some are quite colorful — as the photo above will demonstrate. Thoughts on eight varieties follow.

All are bottled at 75 proof.

Poliakov Lemon Vodka – Pretty citrus nose, with a little mint. There’s less going on on the palate, though, which offers a vaguely bitter/sour profile with some cleaning fluid notes on the back end. B-

Poliakov Peach Vodka – The nose has chemical overtones, and the body is quite astringent. Peach by way of disinfectant. C-

Poliakov Mandarin Vodka – Clear orange, veering toward mandarins, on the nose — with some woody notes underneath it. The body is punchier with orange character than the lemon version is with its citrus. Perfectly pleasant, with an uncomplicated finish. B+

Poliakov Green Apple Vodka – Overly sweet on the nose, with distinctly artificial apple notes. The body is sweet and sour, with a chewy, woody back end. Undistinguished. C

Poliakov Strawberry Vodka – Bright red/pink in color. Very, very sweet up front. The nose is easily mistaken for cherry, and the body could just as well be melted hard candies. Inoffensive, but usable mainly as a sweetener rather than a flavoring agent. C+

Poliakov Cranberry Vodka – Cranberry is a very difficult flavor to work with, and this one has clearly been doctored up the way most cranberry juice has, too. That’s not such a bad thing, as what’s in the bottle is a curious and compelling blend of tart cranberry and slightly sweet cherry/red berry notes, which together create a balanced and compelling little mixer. B+

Poliakov Vanilla Vodka – This one’s pushed right to the edge of the dessert cart, and just about falls over. Smells and tastes like a bakery confection, with chocolate and coconut notes backing up the vanilla. Some charred wood elements infect the nose, but that actually helps to add a little balance to the concoction. B-

Poliakov Caramel Vodka – Another colored vodka, this one an amber brown. As expected, it’s pushy with sweetness on the nose, but the palate is gentler than you’d expect, offering some touches of sweet tea, coffee, licorice, and other unexpected nuances. Again that characteristic char is here, giving a bottle of erstwhile panty peeler a little something extra. B-

each about $10 (likely) / vodka-poliakov.com

Review: Manhattan Moonshine

manhattan moonshineMoonshine connotes hillbillies cooking up corn in a crude oil drum still tucked away in the woods, high-test hooch bottled in a ceramic jug.

And then there’s Manhattan Moonshine, made “using a unique blend of four premium New York grains [including rye, spelt, and oats — but not corn] and innovative, modern production methods,” bottled in an art deco decanter, and on the shelves for 45 bucks. Decried already in a piece entitled “End times: Hipsters drinking craft moonshine,” this is white whiskey at its terminus, a product that offers an unaged spirit at four times the price of a bottle of Jim Beam. How does it stand up?

On the nose, Manhattan Moonshine offers some classic cereal character and plenty of raw alcohol, backed with notes of lemongrass and some oily sandalwood. On the palate, it’s surprisingly sweet — and gentle, considering the higher alcohol level. It doesn’t take long for the hallmarks of moonshine to come to the fore — intense cereal notes, some petrol character, and a pungent pepperiness. Some pet-like overtones — think about the smell when you walk into a veterinarian’s office, and I don’t mean that negatively — emerge with time. (Now, as I wrap up this tasting, it’s all I can think of.)

Overall, this is not a bad expression of moonshine (and a credible cocktail ingredient) in a market that is rife with overpriced rotgut. That said, at nearly $50 a bottle, it remains a tough sell no matter how fancy it looks.

95 proof.

B+ / $45 / manhattan-moonshine.com

Review: Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition Batch 15-3

balcones 1

Distiller Chip Tate may now be gone from Balcones, but they’re still turning out whiskey (er, “whisky,” here) at the Waco-based operation.

Balcones 1 — one of the distillery’s best-known spirits and a product that’s widely considered the best American-made single malt — is still being produced, and we got our hands on a post-Tate bottling which saw its way into glass only a month ago. Yes, Tate certainly had a heavy hand in the distillation and other facets of the creation of the spirit, but here’s a peek at the direction things are headed from here, a few months after Tate’s departure.

And that direction is… well, pretty much the same as it was during Tate’s reign, it seems.

I’ve had Balcones 1 on several occasions and this 2015 bottling doesn’t stray far from the course the spirit has been on for the last few years. Balcones 1 is officially released without an age statement, but it starts off in smallish 5-gallon new oak barrels before finding its way into larger tuns for marrying and blending. Finishing woods and ex-bourbon casks are sometimes used, I’ve read, but batches have evolved over the years and have varied widely in production methods, proof, and other details.

The most dominant part of Balcones 1 — this batch or any other — involves the influence of wood. The nose starts off with some butterscotch, raisin, and mint, but sniff on it for more than a few seconds and huge sawdust and lumberyard notes come to the fore. On the palate, Balcones 1 takes some time to settle down as the woody notes blow off a bit, ultimately revealing a toffee and treacle core, very dark chocolate notes, a touch of campfire ashes, and dried figs. The back end of the whisky is a big return to the lumberyard, where a monstrous, tannic, and brooding finish adds a touch of coffee grounds to the mix.

As far as American malt whiskeys — which have to be aged in new oak to be called straight malt or single malt due to TTB rules — go, Balcones 1 is near the top of the heap. But that’s a small heap and one that is stacked largely with whiskeys that aren’t terribly drinkable. New oak and malted barley simply aren’t easy companions, and it’s amazing that Balcones is able to do so much with two odd bedfellows like these. Consider me a fan — but a cautious one.

Reviewed: Batch 15-3; bottled 3-10-15. 106 proof.

B+ / $80 / balconesdistilling.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: DeLeon Tequila Reposado

Deleon ReposadoHey, remember P. Diddy’s blanco tequila, DeLeon? Well, now we’ve got the next step — DeLeon Reposado. This expression spends eight months in ex-bourbon and former French oak wine casks before bottling.

It’s a bit darker than most reposados due to the somewhat longer aging cycle, and the nose offers a light smoky character that you don’t often see in reposado tequilas. There’s lots more going on in that nose, which layers in notes of citrus, green banana, and lumberyard, with some tart and a bit off-balance vinegar character.

The body adds more complexity, but again it’s a touch out of balance. Notes of vanilla and oak are countered by some petrol overtones and an awful lot of acidity, again with notes of white wine vinegar. The overall character is peppery and punchy, which isn’t typically what I like to see in a reposado, where the wood should be holding its own against the agave.

It’s a curious and unique tequila that fans of the Mexican spirit should try, but the Platinum bottling is more assured.

80 proof.

B+ / $70 / deleontequila.com

Review: Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry and Gumption Hard Cider

Gumption six pack

It’s time for two new ciders from Vermont-based Woodchuck. Here they are.

Woodchuck Cheeky Cherry Hard Cider – Fresh apple melds with tart, sour cherry notes in this surprisingly balanced cider, which offers nothing unexpected aside from those two simple notes — apple to start, cherry to finish — but which drinks more like a grown-up soda than a typical cider. That said, it’s one of the better ciders I’ve experienced in recent memory thanks to its vibrant fruitiness. 5.5% abv. B+

Woodchuck Gumption Hard Cider – This cider, named in honor of an old-timey drink that P.T. Barnum pushed on his crowds, pairs dry and bittersweet cider apples with fresh apple juice from common “snack apples.” The result is a sweeter cider than most, a fresh-tasting brew that starts with some sweet caramel notes, moves into classic, tart cider character, then finishes with a touch crisp Granny Smith bite. Again, this has a nice balance — but of a much different sort than Cheeky Cherry — offering a kind of tour of the apple universe and a pleasantly summery finish. 5.5% abv. A-

each $9 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Review: Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey 8 Years Old

greenore

This single-grain whiskey is distilled at Cooley from a mash of 95% corn and 5% malted barley. Sound familiar? It’s the same whiskey as Teeling Single Grain, only Teeling is aged in wine barrels, while Greenore spends its eight years in bourbon casks.

The difference is striking. The richness and sweet vanilla of Teeling is harder to peg in the Greenore, which lets the grain do more of the talking here. Ripe banana starts things off, then more intense oatmeal/cereal notes rise to the top. The nose is especially redolent of corn meal and tortillas, with a dusting of marshmallow sweetness. Frosted Flakes? The finish is warm but soothing, with some peppery notes to balance out an echo of grain character.

Bottom line: This is the starting point for Irish single grain… or probably any single grain for that matter. Compare and contrast.

80 proof.

B+ / $45 / greenorewhiskey.com

Review: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com