Review: American Star Vodka

AmericanStarVodkaCroppedLook closely at the label — “Star Vodka” is a totally different product — and you’ll see a small “American” in the etching above the “Star” on this exceptionally hard-to-read vodka bottle from Ascendant Spirits (makers of Breaker Bourbon).

American Star is distilled (at least) five times from corn (the bottle just reads “grain”) in Santa Barbara County. A straight expression and three flavors are available. All are 80 proof, and all are reviewed below.

American Star Vodka – Pungent on the nose, with notes melding medicinal notes with some marshmallow character. The body’s a bit muddy, its distinct vanilla character enhancing the vodka’s creaminess on the palate. The finish isn’t sharp or cleansing but rather fades away with a lengthy (but not unpleasant) fade away. Best as a mixer. B

American Star Caviar Lime Vodka – At first I thought this was some kind of terrible typo for Kaffir Lime, but it turns out caviar lime is its own wacky thing. This vodka uses these finger-shaped limes for flavoring, resulting in a quite successful spirit. The nose is distinctively lime — very fresh and not at all artificial smelling, with some floral undertones. On the palate, the citrus sustains, with a touch of vanilla — driven perhaps by the base spirit — to add some nuance. Much cleaner than the straight version. A-

American Star Strawberry Vodka – Tinted pink, flavored only with organic strawberries. Along with fresh berries, the nose offers floral notes and hints of whipped cream. It’s an enchanting lead-up, but the body is less successful. Here we find the vibrant fruit overwhelmed by astringency, sour elements, and a finish that comes across as artificial and unpleasant. Unfortunate. C-

American Star Ghost Chili Vodka – The infamous ghost pepper (hardwood smoked here) finds a home in this lightly yellow-colored vodka. The nose doesn’t offer many hints, but the body is hot as all get-out. Searing red pepper attacks the palate almost immediately, but later on the smokier elements, and just a touch of sweetness, offer some relief from the heat. Not much, though. Tread with caution. B

each about $33 / ascendantspirits.com

Review: 1883 Syrups

1883 - Sea Salt Caramel1883 Maison Routin is a French operation that mainly just makes syrup. Strawberry syrup. Vanilla syrup. Caramelized peanut syrup. Even cucumber syrup. I tried to count the total number of syrups — or sirops in 1883’s parlance — but lost count in the dozens. The bottom line, these are more artisanal creations than your typical Torani, all made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, and flavored with authentic botanicals. (Artificial flavors are used in the more dessert-focused syrups.)

We got four of 1883’s syrups,  representing a range of flavors and styles that could be used in all manner of cocktails. Thoughts follow.

1883 Yuzu Citron Syrup – Flavored with 4% yuzu, 3% lemon. Largely lemon in overall tone, clean and sweet. Not overdone; works well as a mixer. A classic citrus syrup, uncomplicated. A-

1883 Pomme Verte Syrup – 10% apple juice. Green apple flavored… and colored intensely green, to match. It’s hard to get past the heavy coloration here; the flavor is less authentic and more candylike than the Yuzu Citron — but that’s what anyone drinking an Appletini is probably looking for, anyway. B-

1883 Nougat Syrup – Artificially flavored. Smells a bit funky, not exactly nougat and closer to Amaretto. The body kicks off with brown sugar and cotton candy notes, then fades into something akin to candied almonds and burnt peanuts. Quite cloying. C-

1883 Caramel Beurre Sale – Primarily sugar, water, and salt, plus some natural flavors. Salted caramel flavor — and it’s reasonably authentic. A little of this goes a long way — it’s incredibly sweet — and the nose is quite expressive of caramel (if not salt). The body emphasizes sugar over salt, but that component is there, lurking in the background. I could see using it for a dessert cocktail concoction… or with coffee. B-

each $15 to $30 (1 liter) / 1883.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM AMAZON]

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: 2013 Kalfu Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

kalfuKalfu is a new Chilean wine brand hailing from the Leyda Yalley on the country’s coast. Here’s a look at two of the winery’s inaugural releases.

2013 Kalfu “Kuda” Chardonnay Unoaked Leyda Valley Chile – Engaging, tastes expensive. Quite neutral, apple notes on the nose, with light creme brulee, kumquat, and some light tropical character on the back end. Really easy to enjoy. A- / $19

2013 Kalfu “Sumpai” Pinot Noir Leyda Valley Chile – Meaty, with notes of figs and prunes, touched with notes of tobacco, pencil lead, and leather oil. Not much Pinot varietal character here, but fans of flavors that run to sour cherry and spiced meat may find something here. C- / $24

no website

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