Book Review: Cocktail Noir

81WLf9Dx3OLNovelty cocktail books are a dime a dozen, but Scott Deitche’s focus on the drinks of private eyes, gangsters, and other “in the shadows” types at least offers the promise of something new — of cocktail stories that we haven’t heard many times before.

Alas, this slim tome unfortunately is a bit of a random walk through the world of noir. What did Al Capone like to drink? Where did gangsters hang out in Dallas, Texas? It’s all here, sort of, in ultra-digestible bite-sized chunks, bouncing from one topic to the next without a whole lot of logic involved.

So much of the book is written in abrupt jags that it’s hard to see what Deitche’s point is with any of this. A few paragraphs on GoodFellas comes across like a drunken friend chatting you up with, “Hey, hey… remember in that movie, when they walk through the restaurant and sit down in the lounge? That was cool.”

Deitche isn’t a cocktail/spirits writer — he mainly covers organized crime — but numerous noir-inspired recipes are included as sidebars, though none are anything you won’t likely have seen before. If you want to figure out how to stock your home bar like a gangster, well, Deitche has you covered there, too. Turns out it looks a lot like the back bar of my local dive. Who knew?

C- / $16 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Wines of Avant, 2016 Releases

 

avant wines

Avant is a new budget label from the folks at Kendall-Jackson, with a trio of basic California-sourced wines comprising the initial production run. While a lot of this comes across exactly as you expect it will, there’s at least one modest surprise in the bunch.

Thoughts follow.

2014 Avant Sauvignon Blanc California – Undistinguished and a bit boring, this plain jane sauv blanc offers notes of canned peaches and pineapple, brown sugar, and fruit leather. It works passably with a food, where the more saccharine notes are lost, but on its own it’s a study in plainness. C- / $13

2014 Avant Chardonnay California – A surprisingly fresh and drinkable chardonnay. The muted oak isn’t exactly refined, but the notes of butter-sauteed apples and a touch of citrus give this wine more complexity than you would expect given its price tag. The marshmallow notes on the finish aren’t a surprise, but they aren’t a bad complement, either. B / $13

2013 Avant Red Blend California – Mystery grapes from a mysterious place — what could go wrong? While you might expect a jammy fruit bomb, Avant’s red is more restrained than most wines of this pedigree, though the simple notes of maraschino cherry, strawberry, and brown sugar don’t cry out for in-depth analysis. Probably perfect for making sangria. B- / $17

avant.kj.com

Review: Nero D’Avola Wines of Sicilia DOC – Mandarossa and Morgante

ManrarossaSicily is heavily pushing the newly-launched “Sicilia DOC” label, and rightly so — it’s the place to go for wines made from Nero D’Avola grapes, as close to a official wine for this region as you’ll find.

The official group behind the Sicilia DOC sent us two current releases bearing the new AVA on the label. Thoughts follow.

2014 Mandrarossa Nero D’Avola Sicilia DOC – Heavy earth and tobacco on the nose gives one the expectation of a dark and brooding wine, but the body on this oddity is tart cherries, Jolly Ranchers, and red rope licorice. Complex in all the wrong ways, it smells exotic but drinks cheaply. C- / $10

2013 Morgante Nero D’Avola Vendemmia Sicilia DOC – Far better realized than the Mandarossa, this is a classic Nero, with dense tannins, dried herbs, and black cherry notes. As it opens up it reveals notes of cola, and the tannin on the finish smooths out with touches of chocolate. A nice and complicated little wine. B+ / $14

siciliadoc-continentedelvino.com

Tasting SakeOne Imports: Hakutsuru Draft, Tanrei Junmai, Superior Junmai Ginjo, and Sho-Une Junmai Dai Ginjo

Hakutsuru Sho-Une Junmai Dai GinjoSakeOne doesn’t just make interesting sakes in its Oregon home base, it also imports them — lots of them, in fact. In May 2014, SakeOne began importing the Hakutsuru line, which is Japan’s biggest export sake. All four of these sakes come from Hakutsuru collection. Let’s dive in, reader-san!

Hakutsuru Draft Sake – Draft sake is aged for 1 month at 41 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling and is unpasteurized. Dry, fresh, and uncomplicated, this is a basic, crystal clear sake with light notes of melon and (heavier) solvent character. Overall, its uninspired entry-level stuff that I’d recommend primarily for use as a mixer. C- / $3 per 180ml bottle

Hakutsuru Tanrei Junmai – A basic junmai sake but nonetheless a step up from the Draft, featuring clearer and stronger melon character, a creamier body, and mild hospital notes on the finish. Definitely easier to sip on, this is your basic sushi bar sake, dry with just a bare hint of sweetness. B- / $4 per 180ml bottle

Hakutsuru Superior Jumnai Ginjo – Stepping up the quality ladder is this junmai ginjo, which is made with more of the rice grain polished away before it hits the brewery. Big, fresh melon notes are punchy on the nose, but the body is oddly more astringent than the Tanrei bottling. Enjoyable at first, it ultimately gets a bit hoary on the finish, with a slightly sour milk character. B- / $8 per 300ml bottle

Hakutsuru Sho-Une Junmai Dai GinjoJunmai daiginjo is one of the highest levels of sake production, with considerably more of the rice grain polished away before it is brewed, but otherwise made in the same style as all junmai sake. Here the melon notes take on a deeper and much more brooding character, featuring some mushroom notes plus various herbs. B+ / $11 per 300ml bottle

hakutsuru-sake.com

Review: Guinness Nitro IPA

guinness nitro ipa

I can’t blame ’em for trying. The secret of Guinness’s success has long been the nitrogen that is pumped into the beer as it is poured, giving the brew a rich, creamy, and unmistakable body that is beloved the world over.

While Guinness has been innovating with other beer styles, it hasn’t done much with nitrogen — until now. The big idea: Why not nitrogenate a west-coast style IPA and see what happens? Sealed in cans with a nitro-ball widget the way canned Guinness Stout is, the result is Guinness Nitro IPA.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a bit. This is somewhat off-putting at first… and at the end, for that matter. The nose doesn’t really scream IPA but rather lager, with more malt than hops influencing the aroma. The body is of course something altogether different, a creamy mouth-filling experience that recalls Dublin far more immediately than it does California. The flavor elements aren’t quite right, either. Rather than bracing hops and piney resins, there’s apples, strong cereal notes, and muddy mushroom notes that linger on the finish. Yes, some hops have been thrown in to add bitterness, but not much — or rather, not nearly enough.

Guinness has been doing some really neat stuff lately, but this experiment is really just a noble failure. I doubt that fans of either IPAs or Guinness proper will enjoy this much.

5.8% abv.

C- / $8 per six pack of 11.2 oz cans / guinness.com

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 / samueladams.com

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 / terra.ie

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

svedka.com

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

madronavineyards.com / goldmedalwineclub.com

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.

C- / $21 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]