Review: Samuel Adams Late 2015 Seasonals – Octoberfest, Hoppy Red, Rebel Grapefruit IPA, Winter Lager, and Pumpkin Batch

SAM_HopRed_12oz_Bottle (1)Nearly a half-dozen new offerings from Sam Adams, mostly winter/fall seasonals designed to make the most of the cold weather. Let’s bundle up and dig in!

Samuel Adams Octoberfest (2015) – Very old world, with plenty of spice and some citrus to be a companion to loads of caramel-soaked malt. The finish is on the sweet side, maybe a bit too far for my tastes. It only takes one whiff and an oompa band starts playing somewhere. 5.3% abv. B

Samuel Adams Hoppy Red – A red ale with added Australian hops, moderately malty but with a big slug of piney bitterness bringing up the rear. The up-front character is almost toffee-like in its sweetness, with a healthy dosing of walnuts, but the moderately hoppy back end provides near-immediate respite and balance. A nice diversion. 5.7% abv. B+

Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA – An extension of the Rebel IPA line, this beer adds grapefruit (peel and juice) — grapefruit being the “it” additive in beermaking this year — to kick up the bitter/sour element. This is a fine IPA, but the one thing I don’t get… is grapefruit. Piney and resinous, it has a slightly sweet element to it — a bit fruity but also almost chocolaty at times, with overtones of spiced nuts. Not common flavors for either IPA or anything that’s been near a grapefruit, but pleasurable nonetheless. 6.3% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager (2015) – A spiced wheat bock made with orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. Mainly what you’re expecting, a winter warmer with a touch of spice. I find it more palatable this year than 2014’s release, though perhaps that’s just the suddenly cold weather talking. Though it can be a little strange, the spice isn’t overdone — and it pairs well with food, particularly sweets. I’m not a fanatic, but it’s more pleasant than I remembered. 5.6% abv. B

Samuel Adams Pumpkin Batch – Ale brewed with pumpkin and spices, of course. Lots of vegetal character here — nothing distinctly pumpkin (or pumpkin spice) — with a heavily malty body to keep pushing those flavors around. Eventually some cinnamon/nutmeg notes come to the forefront, but it’s cold comfort for a pumpkin brew that is pushed too far into the realm of wet earth and mushrooms for easy consumption. 5.6% abv. C-

each about $9 per six-pack /

Review: Maloney’s Irish Country Cream

Maloneys-Irish country cream (1)Like your Irish Cream with a double helping of sugar? You’ll love Maloney’s, another entry into the incredibly popular dessert liqueur category.

Something’s immediately off with Maloney’s from the moment you sip it. First there’s the heavy butterscotch notes, then the lengthy brown sugar and creamy, light whiskey character. The butterscotch is a little odd, but the body is more or less on target.

Then comes the finish, and something ain’t right. It’s hard to place — a little bitter, slightly metallic, with a sour edge as it fades away. An aftertaste starts to build after a minute or so, and Maloney’s takes on the unmistakable funk of oxidized white wine. The kind of flavor of a bottle of white half-drank, then recorked and left for a few days. This is what my aunt would serve us with the warning, “Watch out, it’ll bite ya back!”

Maloney’s doesn’t quite bit you back, but I kind of wish it did. Instead that pungent finish wipes out most of what came before, ruining any goodwill it might have had.

Why does Maloney’s taste like old wine? Because it is made from wine! No joke: This is a grape wine flavored with Irish cream additives. That keeps the alcohol low — at 13.9% it’s lower than most table wines (Bailey’s is 17%) — so the bridge club can down a whole bottle with no ill effects. To the liver, anyway.

C- / $8 /

Review: Svedka Vodka, Svedka 100, and Svedka Grapefuit Jalapeno

SVEDKA GrapefruitJalapeno Bottle

Sweden’s Svedka is one of the top global vodka brands, driven by an affordable price point and some amazingly successful marketing. 5x distilled from Swedish winter wheat, it’s widely available to the point of ubiquity. Let’s look at three of the company’s expressions, including a couple of new monsters.

Svedka Vodka – This is the standard Svedka bottling — presumably the one that that robot lady likes so much. The nose melds marshmallow notes with hospital overtones, but ultimately it’s the sweeter notes that carry the spirit. The palate is quite simplified, with a modest sugar component and just a wisp of astringency that attempts to provide some balance. It never quite gets there, though, leaving this best suited as a mixer. 80 proof. B- / $14

Svedka 100 Vodka – This is the 100 proof version of Svedka, but otherwise unflavored and made the same way. The nose is strikingly similar — offering that same mix of sweetness and medicinal character. Where things diverge is on the tongue, with Svedka 100 building up to a rather pungent and punchy character that is, primarily, driven by its alcohol content. This has the welcome side effect of tempering the sugar in the vodka and giving the spirit some much needed gravitas. A considerable improvement and only a buck more expensive. B+ / $15

Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno Vodka – Svedka makes 14 varieties of vodka, including 12 flavors. This new one is arguably the strangest, unless Swedes are munching jalapenos and swilling Squirt left and right without my knowledge. This flavored expression is all fruit on the nose — but more grapefruit candy than sour grapefruit juice. On the tongue it’s more of the same — remarkably sweet and sugary, offering citrus but nothing that’s particularly grapefruit focused. But what about that jalapeno, Drinkhacker? Well, the finish offers a little but distinct burn, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. That said, I couldn’t tell you whether it came from a pepper or a vat of mysteriously spicy chemicals, and you don’t care anyway. 70 proof. C- / $12

Review: 2013 Madrona Chardonnay and Zinfandel

Madrona_Zin_Four-Blocks_201El Dorado County, just southwest of Lake Tahoe, is home to Madroña Vineyards (mind the tilde), a boutique winery with a wide range of offerings. Zinfandel, of course, is a focus, and today we look at its 2013 zin as well as its chardonnay.

Madroña is brought to us today by Gold Medal Wine Club, which sent these wines as exemplars of the kind of wines you can expect with your membership. Prices start at $37 a month for two bottles. Check them out and see what you think!

Prices below are for standalone bottles.

2013 Madrona Chardonnay El Dorado – Lots of fruity tropical notes on the nose raise expectations, but the body doesn’t follow through. Instead, on the palate it’s studded with astringent hospital character, stale nuts, and notes of earthy gravel. Some sweetness on the finish comes across more in the form of canned fruit than fresh juice. C- / $24

2013 Madrona Zinfandel Four Blocks El Dorado – A full-bodied zin, loaded with currants and cocoa and infused with strawberry jam. Surprisingly dense and not overly fruity, this zin offers secondary notes of tea leaf and blackberry, all coming together as a cohesive whole. The finish is a little short and muddy, but otherwise it’s a knockout zinfandel. A- / $26 /

Book Review: Beer: The Ultimate World Tour

beerThis coffee table book takes you on a worldwide adventure of beer drinking, from Ireland to Germany to Japan to the U.S., author Bill Yenne aims to give us the lowdown about what it’s like to make beer and drink beer in various nations around the globe.

That’s really it. The prose is straightforward and the pictures are almost exclusively stock art, with most sections taking on a standard lineup of a) pictures of beer bottles, b) pictures of breweries, and c) pictures of bars. These are occasionally interspersed with d) pictures of ladies drinking beer.

As a historian, Yenne knows what he’s talking about — or at least he’s done his research — but what’s here is pretty close to the surface. Yenne offers a few specific brands — both majors and craft brews — to try when you’re in-country, and a few beerhalls and bars to visit, but any traveler hoping to use this for anything more than simple idea generation or inspiration will quickly be lost. There are no directions, maps, contact information, or other data required to actually make your own “world tour” out of the info in the book.

That makes sense given the format of the tome — an oversized hardcover — but the content inside just doesn’t seem to fit.


Review: The Traveler Beer Co. Seasonal Shandies

illusive traveler grapefruit aleThree crafty shandies from Burlington, Vermont-based Traveler Beer Co., each using a wheat ale for a base and with a variety of fruity/sweet additives for spin. Each is fairly low alcohol and, of course, a bit different than your typical suds.

Thoughts follow.

The Traveler Beer Co. Curious Traveler Lemon Shandy – Slightly sweet, with juicy lemonade notes up front. The beer itself is rather innocuous, just a hint of malt and caramel, but it does pair fairly well with the citrus, at least at the start. 4.4% abv. B-

The Traveler Beer Co. Illusive Traveler Grapefruit Shandy – Considerably more bitter/sour than the lemon shandy, this bottling provides a somewhat muddy attack, but it does offer a better balance of fruit and malt. The finish is quite bitter, playing off both the grapefruit and the wheat ale elements. While the lemon shandy becomes a bit overwhelming, this one tends to grow on you. 4.4% abv. B

The Traveler Beer Co. Jack-o Traveler Pumpkin Shandy – Take your gingerbread/pumpkin spice latte and dunk it into your hefeweizen and you’ve got this concoction, which is better than you think it will be but not much. Quite sweet and overwhelming with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, this is a true seasonal in every sense of the word. 4.4% abv. C-

each $7 per six-pack /

Review: A Trio of Portuguese Wines – Grous, Ravasqueira, Esporao

Herdade do Esporao Duas Castas 2013Tis the season for Portugeuse vino, with affordable bottlings arriving from all over the small yet vineyard-covered country. Here’s a threesome that represents a range of blended styles common to Portugal.

2012 Herdade dos Grous Vinho Regional Alentejano Tinto – A red blend of aragonez, syrah, alicante bouschet, and touriga nacional from the Alentejano region. Well rounded, this is an earthy and herbal wine with a restrained fruitiness and notes of chocolate on the finish. Surprisingly balanced and nuanced for such an affordable bottling. A- / $14

2013 Monte da Ravasqueira Vinho Regional Alentejano Tinto – The same four grapes as the Grous make up this wine, a rather brutish, young, and ham-fisted bottling. Quite sweet, and tough to really get into, this wine exudes notes of strawberry candies and sugar cookies. A massive letdown compared to the prior bottling. C- / $10

2013 Herdade do Esporao Duas Castas 2 – A white blend of antão vaz and gouveio grapes. Tastes a lot like an Italian wine, heavy on pear notes, lightly sweet and a bit floral. The finish takes things to a slightly herbal place — particularly as it gets warmer — but on the whole it’s a simple sipper. B / $15

Head to Head: Alcoholic Root Beer! Not Your Father’s vs. Rowdy

nyfTwo makes a trend for us today, with a duo of alcoholic root beers hitting the market at the same time, one from La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Small Town Brewery, the other from Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based Berghoff. Both are not root beer soda with alcohol added but rather flavored beers/malt liquors with the spices integrated into the production process. Here’s how they stack up!

Small Town Brewery Not Your Father’s Root Beer – Per the label, a flavored beer. My father doesn’t drink root beer, but he would probably find this concoction palatable. The palate offers a classic root beer structure, but with a muddier, earthier body that tends to linger on the finish. On the whole, tastes like a glass of root beer should, just with a kick! 5.9% abv.  B+ / $11 per six pack of 12 oz. bottles /

rowdy-root-beer-canBerghoff Rowdy Root Beer – Per the label, a malt beverage with artificial flavor added. Doesn’t immediately come across like a root beer, including some bitter, traditional beer-like elements on the nose, with some herbal notes dusted on top, particularly cloves and burnt sugar. These flavors integrate relatively poorly on the palate, which is a bit too sweet and a bit too thin, again letting some of those raw beer notes seep through. The finish loads up indistinct caramel and a sharp, saccharine conclusion. A major letdown next to Small Town’s rendition. 6.6% abv. C- / $10 per six pack of 12 oz. cans /

Review: Wicked Spirits Wicked 87 American Light Whiskey, Wicked 84 1/2 Whiskey, and Wicked Lightning Moonshine

wicked tangoOh, how I’ve procrastinated on these reviews, a collection of light whiskeys and moonshines bottled by a Kansas company called Wicked Spirits, aka Wicked Tango. With their mascot, Dirty Darcy (ahem), Wicked wants to rule the college shot market with this collection of minimally aged spirits made from 100% corn. Before I lose my nerve, let’s dive in.

Wicked 87 American Light Whiskey – Light whiskey isn’t like light beer. Rather, it’s a type of whiskey that is distilled at higher proofs and aged in used barrels, rather than new ones. The impossibly dark in color Wicked 87 is an off-putting experience, starting things off with a gumball and cotton candy scented nose. On the tongue, an enormous butterscotch candy character overwhelms, lingering until it fades into something closer to a pink bubblegum character. Vanilla lingers on the finish — but it’s more like vanilla ice cream… melted, with lots of sprinkles. Clearly packaged as an alternative to Fireball and other “party whiskeys,” this one just goes too far into sugar land for more than a few sips. A shot would probably kill you from the sugar shock. 87 proof. C / $NA

Wicked 84 1/2 Premium Reserve American Light Whiskey – This tastes almost exactly the same as Wicked 87 though, surprisingly, the slight downtick in proof is noticeable. That slightly lower alcohol translates to slightly more sugar, though, so any “premium reserve” translates into “extra sweetness.” It’s hard to tell much of a difference vs. the 87 though, and this bottling doesn’t appear on the Wicked website, so it’s unclear if it’s even on the market any more. 84.5 proof. C / $NA

Wicked Lightning Moonshine – Slight popcorn on the nose. Buttered. Classic, lightly corny on the body, but quite mild thanks to it being watered down considerably. Who’s looking for underproof moonshine today? I’m unclear. Harmless, but a bit pointless. 60 proof. 60 proof. C+ / $24

Wicked Lightning Peach Pie Moonshine – Strong chemical flavoring notes on the nose, unlike any peach pie I’ve ever had. Imagine melted peach-flavored Jolly Ranchers, muddled with that popcorn character outlined above and you’ve got this oddity. 60 proof. C- / $24

Wicked Lightning Pumpkin Spice Moonshine – Pungent with cloves on the nose, and even more on the body. Earthy and spicy, it eventually evokes a character more akin to a a cinnamon roll than a pumpkin pie, but it’s close enough to merit at least some attention. 60 proof. C / $24

Review: VOCO Vodka Coconut Water


The VO is for vodka. The CO is for coconut. Together they’re VOCO, the world’s first luxury beverage to blend pure coconut water with premium vodka, or so the label tells us.

Sold in single-serve 12 oz. aluminum bottles, it’s an alternative to Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade, I suppose.

The overall impact is about what you’d expect, I figure. Relatively dense, sweetened coconut water — somewhat milkier than the typical coconut waters on the market — with a slight punch to it. There’s some earthiness here, sliding toward a vegetal character as the beverage warms up. Hence the suggestion on the back to drink this ice cold, methinks… I couldn’t finish more than about a third of a bottle before my palate gave up on it.

5.5% abv.

C- / $4 per 12 oz. bottle /