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

Review: Kahlua Salted Caramel Liqueur

kahlua salted caramelDon’t think caramel (particularly the salted variety) is still the It Flavor to contend with? Consider Kahlua’s latest limited edition expression: Salted Caramel.

This seasonal release is an extremely sweet one, but that’s not unusual for the brand. It all starts off with intense, brown-to-almost-burnt sugar on the nose. This vanilla-studded, caramel syrup character is gooey and thick, lingering for what seems to be days. The coffee doesn’t kick in until the finish arrives at long last, a heavily sugared dark roast that will have you begging for an espresso, black.

Is it ironic that a Salted Caramel liqueur has caramel color added? I can’t quite decide.

40 proof.

C- / $16 / kahlua.com

Review: Piper-Heidsieck Brut and 1995 Blanc des Millenaires

HeidsieckWe meant to review these two Heidsieck Champagne bottlings for the holidays but, you know, things got away from us…

NV Piper-Brut Champagne (red label) – Super crisp apple on the nose, with strong notes of lemongrass. The body is tart with just the right amount of sweetness to back it up, plenty more of those apples with a light, brioche-driven breadiness on the finish. Just about perfect. A / $39

1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires Champagne – 100% Chardonnay. Drinking old. Sour apple up front, then intense notes of mushroom and musty bread amidst some vinegary, old-apple character in the middle. The finish continues to push some old wine notes. Fans of well-aged vintage Champagne may find all of this charming, but I can’t get onboard. C- / $185

piper-heidsieck.com

Review: Samuel Adams Boston Lager plus Winter/Spring Seasonals

samadams-bostonlager--en--c2e3a813-e407-463c-bc95-efd9e8fda221The Boston Beer Company produces over 100 varieties of beer, but the biggest of them all is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Oddly, we’ve never reviewed it, but today we’re taking that opportunity, along with a look at three winter/spring seasonals now on the market. Thoughts follow.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager – The original (though surely it has changed considerably over the years as Sam Adams has grown). Technically a Vienna-style lager (along with many darker Mexican beers), this brew is malty and lightly hopped, making for a nicely balanced, yet slightly chewy brew. Bready with almost pretzel-like overtones, its long and savory yet quite simple finish makes it is surprisingly hard not to like. 4.9% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager – This winter wheat bock is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel, making for an appropriately festive winter brew that is nonetheless a touch overspiced. The cinnamon notes are a bit drying, the orange peel a bit too bitter. Lots of bready cereal character rumbles along on the finish, washing away much of the spice. Enjoyable enough in small doses, but not a favorite. 5.6% abv. B-

Samuel Adams Cold Snap – A spiced white ale (witbier) studded with orange peel, plum, and coriander. Jarring and heavily perfumed at the start, that strange, plum-driven sweetness keeps growing, compounding itself with the herbal character to reveal a flower petal character with a citrusy finish. Not a huge fan of this one. 5.3% abv. C-

Samuel Adams White Christmas – Another witbier, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel. More straightforwardly Christmasy than Cold Snap, White Christmas is easier-drinking, more full-bodied, and simply more enjoyable from start to finish. The citrus peel is understated and makes for a pleasant natural companion to the wheaty body, the baking spices just a mild dusting of sweetness that leaves behind a pleasant, frosty finish. 5.8% abv. B+

samueladams.com

Review: Glendalough Poitin

glendalough poitin

Poitin (po-cheen) pushers are trying their darnedest to bring this ancient Irish spirit back to the masses. A distillation of malt barley and sugar beets, the finished product is aged in virgin oak (but generally filtered back to white). Ireland’s Glendalough sent us a trilogy of poitins for us to sample. Our thoughts follow.

Glendalough Poitin – The curious marshmallow notes on the nose are no preparation for what comes next on the body — rubber at play with gasoline notes that immediately recalls both American moonshine and Brazilian cachaca. Unfortunately, there’s no fruit, no real interest on the palate to make this investment worthwhile, just a cacophony of raw flavors straight off the still that never quite makes it. All poitin tends to be something of an acquired taste, but this expression may require more acquiring than others. 80 proof. D+/ $31

Glendalough Mountain Strength – I guess they like it strong up there in the mountains. The extra alcohol of this high-proof expression actually helps to soften things up a bit, but the palate is still possessed by a moonshiny monster. A longer finish is simultaneously both a good and a bad thing, bringing out some hints of tart berry fruit, but also pumping up the petrol character. 120 proof. C- / $37

Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish – This is the only non-clear expression of Glendalough, which undergoes a secondary finishing in sherry casks. The citrusy wood influence sure doesn’t hurt, tempering that rubbery character a bit with some orange peel and incense, particularly on the nose. The finish doesn’t go nearly far enough, however. While there’s a little savory lumberyard character in the mix, that raw, almost saccharine character still manages to shine through. 80 proof. C- / $37

glendaloughdistillery.com

Review: Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka

Hanson

Hanson of Sonoma — based in, of course, Sonoma, California — distills its vodkas from the most abundant product around these parts: grapes. Using a massive 50-plate column still, it runs its spirits through seven filtering systems before bottling them in snazzy, artisan-looking bottles (all of which are signed and numbered).

Hanson of Sonoma is sold in six expressions (one straight, five flavored with organic infusions — no syrups or concentrates). We tried five of the six vodkas available — all but the boysenberry version.

All expressions are 80 proof, and all are from batch #0123.

Hanson of Sonoma Vodka – Shockingly fruity. I would have thought this was a flavored vodka, it’s so full of mixed berries — strawberry, blueberry, and hints of citrus. Super light bodied and refreshing, it’s like a distilled pink lemonade. An easy mixing vodka with fruit-centric cocktails. Not a martini vodka. A-

Hanson of Sonoma Mandarin Flavored Vodka – Sweet orange on the nose — the essence of orange Chuckles. The body’s got more grip to it, a medicinal character that overtakes the citrus notes quickly. As the orange fades into the background, a drying, neutral finish takes hold. Fine for your cosmos, I’m sure, but the original, unflavored expression would do the job just as well. B+

Hanson of Sonoma Ginger Flavored Vodka – Very mild ginger on the nose — it could easily be mistaken for lemon or maybe grapefruit. That said, it’s the berry notes of the straight expression of the vodka that come through the clearest, particularly on the palate, though this expression is much drier than the Original. B

Hanson of Sonoma Cucumber Vodka – Another sweeter vodka style, which is a little jarring next to the light cucumber notes here. In fact, the nose has more of a lime zest character to it, while the body is clearer on the vegetal cucumber notes. It eventually comes together on the finish with some crisp spa-water essence, but it’s never distinct enough to merit crafting a cocktail around it. B

Hanson of Sonoma Espresso Flavored Vodka – The big finish always goes to coffee. This is the only non-clear expression of Hanson of Sonoma. Notes of a very dark espresso roast on the nose. The body is pungent, almost bitter with heavily-charred espresso beans. Imagine the darkest, blackest cup of coffee you’ve ever had, then filter that through the lens of a fruity vodka. This one was by far my least favorite expression of the bunch, particularly thanks to its tannic, chalky finish. C-

hansonofsonoma.com

Review: Freedom Moonshine

freedom moonshine

This new unaged whiskey (a moonshine as they call it) — available in a straight version and four (heavily watered down) flavors — is distilled in Indiana from 95% rye and 5% malted barley and flavored and bottled in Tennessee. What, no corn? No neutral grain spirits? It’s true, believe it or not!

We tried all five expressions of this Skittles-colored spirit. Thoughts follow. (Some proceeds go to support military-focused charities.)

Freedom Moonshine White Rye – On the nose: mostly harmless. Slightly sweet-smelling, with some hints of grain and Band-Aid notes. The body is mild and punchy with fresh grain character and a very simple structure that pushes notes of twine and hay. Surprisingly, there’s almost no sweetness at all here — which is not at all in keeping with expectations, considering the candy-colored rainbow of flavors that lies ahead. 80 proof. C+

Freedom Moonshine Apple Pie Rye – OK, on to the flavors. Apple pie flavor tends to go hand in hand with moonshine, and while this expression is on the mild side, it’s still credible and quite drinkable. A bit more sugar (I hate to admit) would help the apple and cinnamon notes here taste a bit more authentic, but that might also rob it of some of its more savory, pie-crust-like character. 40 proof. B+

Freedom Moonshine Red Cherry Rye – Impossibly red, like maraschino cherry juice. Not quite cough syrup on the nose, but getting there. The body is sweeter and less focused, something akin to melted Jolly Ranchers. After a few sips, things take a turn toward a syrupy character, artificial and only vaguely tasting of cherry. 40 proof. C-

Freedom Moonshine Blueberry Rye – Certainly patriotic in color, but nothing like any blueberry I’ve ever seen. The overall impact is somewhere between blueberry schnapps and blueberry Pop-Tarts. 40 proof. C-

Freedom Moonshine Firecracker Rye – A cinnamon moonshine, naturally. Slightly less crimson than the cherry expression — more of a fuchsia. Quite watery on the whole — it must be tough to pull off a cinnamon spirit at 20% alcohol — with more sweetness than cinnamon to it. The color is off-putting, but the impact is mostly innocuous and far from anything describable as “firecracker.” 40 proof. C

each $20 / letfreedomshine.com

Tasting Report: 6 Spanish Garnacha Wines

Some say Garnacha, the Spanish inflection of Grenache, is the next “It Wine.” (It doesn’t hurt that most Garnachas are extremely inexpensive.) Is it so? We tasted six Garnachas (one of which is a Garnacha/Syrah blend), from 2009, 2012, and 2013 vintages, to see where this varietal is headed.

2009 Bodegas y Vinedos del Jalon Alto Las Pizarras Garnacha Vinas Viejas – Engaging, exotic, almost perfumed on the nose. Notes of violets and raspberry mingle with hints of black tea and coffee to create a surprisingly rousing and rounded whole. The finish heads toward more of a candied violet character, but there’s plenty of tannin here to keep things out of jam territory. A / $9

2009 Castillo de Maluenda Punto y Seguido Garnacha Vinas Viejas – The embarrassingly simple label wouldn’t cue you in to how impressive the wine in this bottle is, a showy, fruit-forward wine that simultaneously offers depth and balance. Notes of tea leaf, cola, and leather are layered atop blackberry and cherry forming a core that drinks with lushness but which features muted, well-smothered tannins. The finish is complex, echoing everything that’s come before with a fresh denouement. A / $15

2009 Vinas del Vero Secastilla Somontano - A little pruny and overcooked, almost stewed. Very dense fruit competes with balsamic notes and runs up against a finish that offers coffee bean and dense, oily leather notes. C- / $25

2012 Castillo de Monseran Carinena Garnacha – Very fruity, almost like a Gamay-based wine. Thick strawberry jam leads to a finish that’s almost sickly sweet and unbalanced. C- / $8

2012 Pagos del Moncayo Garnacha – A very easy-drinking garnacha, offering a refreshing mix of strawberry and currant notes, backed with light chocolate, some tea leaf, and gentle tannins. Though not entirely complex, it’s lovely from start to finish, and ready to go immediately. A- / $12

2013 Bodegas Paniza Agoston Garnacha & Syrah – A blend, as the name suggests, with a surprising amount of fruit from the start — it almost comes across as candied berries with a dusting of chocolate sprinkles. More herbal notes take hold as the wine develops on the palate — think thyme and rosemary on a Sunday roast — but that youthful spirit and dense fruit maintains the focus through to the finish. B+ / $8

Review: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Mixers

cascade iceMixers are getting a bad rap of late, what with all the added sugar and extra calories they add to your glass. Here’s a new brand of no-cal, flavored, sparkling waters: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Sparkling Water. They all contain pear juice — but not enough to give the drinks a single calorie, about 1% — and are sweetened with sucralose, sometimes to within an inch of their lives.

31 flavors are now available. We tasted five, all of which are some shade of pink or purple. Can you really mix with these? You be the judge. (Oddly, Cascade Ice didn’t send us their actual mixers like Margarita and Mojito flavors, so you’ll just have to read about these fruit-centric ones instead.

Cascade Ice Blueberry Watermelon – Impossibly sweet, with essence of watermelon Jolly Rancher. C-

Cascade Ice Strawberry Banana – Veers more toward the banana side of things, with a sweet-tart finish. Also impossibly sweet. C

Cascade Ice Cranberry Pomegranate – Incredibly sweet, but more of a classic cocktail mixer than the other flavors here. Tastes much like any cran-whatever mixer. Used sparingly, could be acceptable in a low-cal cosmo. C+

Cascade Ice McIntosh Apple – That’s a pretty specific type of apple, ain’t it, Cascade Ice? The resulting beverage is slightly caramelly, with a touch of crisp apple coming along on the finish. Less sweet than many of those above, but still overpowering. C+

Cascade Ice Huckleberry Blackberry – Who’s your huckleberry? This easy winner in the Cascade Ice lineup, which balances the sugar with tart berry notes — though which berries are a bit tough to place. This is the only one among the group that I could drink straight, and which, used sparingly, would make for the most interesting cocktail companion with its nodes toward creme de cassis. B

each about $2.50 (17.2 oz.) / cascadeicewater.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Bee d’Vine Honey Wine

BeeDvine_Brut_750_HIGHYou can make wine from just about anything, but honey wine has a long and rich history, dating back some 2000 years to Africa, where the honey seems to flow freely.

If you’ve ever had mead at a Renaissance festival (or your crazy uncle’s house), you basically know what you’re in for. Honey wine is essentially the same thing. Depending on who you ask, the addition of water to dilute the alcohol level is what separates mead from the lighter, gentler “honey wine.”

Bee d’Vine is a product made by The Honey Wine Company, based in San Francisco, California. The company’s fermented honey drink is blended in two varieties — a dry Brut and a sweeter Demi-Sec version. (Those terms are typically used with sparkling wines, but Dee d’Vine is still, not fizzy.) They were produced in 2013, but regulations prevent the inclusion of vintage dates on non-grape wines.

How you enjoy them will depend on your tolerance level for exotic oddities in your gullet. Thoughts follow.

Also of note: The company supports farming and environmental initiatives in California and in Ethiopia, the birthplace of honey wine.

(Updated 11/23 with factual corrections to The Honey Wine Co.’s location and its charitable initiatives.)

Bee d’Vine Brut Honey Wine – A dusty, earthy nose offers a dusting of familiar honey character but the overwhelming character is one of low-grade white wine, a muddy mix of old apples, earth, simple florals, and industrial elements. It’s pleasant enough at first — particularly when ice cold — but you have to be utterly nuts about honey to polish off a full glass once the more raw components take hold. D+ / $43

Bee d’Vine Demi-Sec Honey Wine – A semi-sweet expression of this wine, and probably more in keeping with what you’d be expecting of a product made out of honey. The nose is similar to the Brut — earthy and a bit musty, with honey overtones. The body blends its honey character with something akin to orangey Muscat wine, leading to a finish that is at first sweet but which quickly fades to an unwieldy combination of syrup and mud. C- / $43

beedvine.com