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 / travelerbeer.com

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 / smalltownbrewery.com

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 / berghoffbeer.com

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

wickedtango.presspublisher.org

Review: VOCO Vodka Coconut Water

voco

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 / voco.net

Review: Woodchuck Lazy Hazy Lemon Crazy, Summer Time, and Pink Hard Cider

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Three new seasonal, rare, and “reserve” ciders from Woodchuck, all built with the summer in mind. Thoughts follow.

Woodchuck Lazy Hazy Lemon Crazy Summer Shandy Hard Cider – Not like any shandy I’ve ever had. The apple is quite sour and overbearing, not really letting any lemon character shine through at all. The initial palate is off-putting and it never really elevates beyond to anything more refined from there. 4.2% abv. C-

Woodchuck Summer Time Hint of Blueberry Hard Cider – The addition of blueberry gives this cider some obvious and welcome sweetness, and the overall impact is fresh, fruity, and — indeed — summery. A lovely little pairing in one of the better ciders you’ll find out there. 5% abv. B+

Woodchuck Pink Hard Cider – A breast cancer-themed bottling. Straight apple cider, but with a pink hue to it. Quite dry, with clear and tart apple notes, but otherwise a fairly straightforward cider. 5.5% abv. B

each $9 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Book Review: The Book of Wine

51ezKYD0l1L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re a rank novice when it comes to wine — I mean, you really know absolutely nothing — then Jackson Meyer’s primer, The Book of Wine, is as good a place as any to start — short of dropping in on your local wine bar, that is.

In a breezy 220 pages, Meyer covers, as the subtitle states, “an introduction to choosing, serving, and drinking the best wines.” Best may be overstating things a bit. The book devotes more space to South Africa than to Napa and Sonoma (which are lumped together in a spare section in the “Wine Regions” chapter).

Meyer dutifully covers the basics — grape varietals, identifying flaws, what to do with a wine list (and I don’t much agree with his advice here) — enough to get you at least to a $600 question in a Jeopardy! wine category. Less can be said for his often bizarre “recommended wines” which accompany the section explaining each major varietal. I’m unclear how recommending a bottle of Penfolds Grange 1998 (1998!) is going to benefit the novice wine drinker other than make him look like a rube at his local wine merchant.

C- / $14 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Captain Morgan Grapefruit, Pineapple, and Coconut Rum

captain morgan flavors

Is the world crying out for more flavored rum? Captain Morgan thinks so, and as such it’s released a trio of new tiki-friendly rums, each naturally flavored and beyond-intensely sugared.

All three are bottled at 70 proof. Thoughts on each follow.

Captain Morgan Grapefruit Rum – Strong grapefruit notes on the nose, with a slight medicinal character underneath. The body is very sweet, with strong caramel overtones. This tends to wash out the natural tartness of the grapefruit and imbues it with heavy candylike notes. As the sweetness fades on the lengthy finish, there’s a vegetal echo, offering some incongruous notes of rosemary and sage. C-

Captain Morgan Pineapple Rum – Pineapple candy (or at least canned pineapple) gets the nose going, but the body is (unsurprisingly) all sugar. Imagine steeping pineapple slices in molten sugar, then bottling it with a touch of water and you’re not far from what Captain Morgan has come up with here. It’s lacking that veggie funk that the Grapefruit expression has, but it’s still far from anything identifiable as rum. C

Captain Morgan Coconut Rum – After all of that, I was scared to death to crack into this one for fear of being immediately put into a diabetic coma. I shouldn’t have fretted so much. While Captain Morgan Coconut is as sweet and saccharine as you’d expect, it’s restrained in comparison to the two fruit-flavored spirits that come before. This doesn’t straw too far from the Malibu formula, though it’s less tropical than that old coconut standby. The finish is surprisingly clean for a coconut vodka, and the caramel notes present in all of these rums actually complements the coconut flavor in a way that it fails to do in the other rums. Definitely the best of the lot. B

each $16 / captainmorgan.com

Canned Margarita “Showdown” – Bud Light Lime-A-Rita vs. Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water

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I’m a firm believer that a cocktail should decidedly not come out of a can, but even I can accept that in desperate circumstances — venues where hard alcohol or glass isn’t allowed, namely — drinkers are forced into solutions that are less than ideal.

Such is the case with the margarita, which has seen a massive uptick in ready-to-drink renditions in recent years. Today, these concoctions (which are technically “malt beverages,” not tequila-based drinks) are now waging a quality war. Which of these is best? Or rather, which is least bad? Parrot Bay recently attempted to sway us by putting on its own Pepsi Challenge, sending us a blind-tasting kit consisting of Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water and Bud Light’s Lime-A-Rita. Complete with little plastic margarita glasses, salt, and a lime… which one would we say was best? There is no irony in the name emblazoned on this kit: The Ultimate Margarita Challenge.

Well, I took the challenge and am pleased to report that Parrot Bay’s Margarita with Coconut Water is a considerably better product. How much better? Read on. (These were tasted and reviewed blind but considering one has coconut water in it and one does not, telling them apart wasn’t exactly difficult.)

Bud Light Lime-A-Rita – Put a little tequila flavoring in a Sprite and you’ve nailed this fizzy, lemon-limey concoction. Saccharine finish. Better with salt. 8% abv. D / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water – Put a little lime flavor in some coconut water and you’ve nailed this less fizzy, pina colada-like concoction. A bit less sweet, with heavily tropical overtones. 5.8% abv. C- / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

As you can see, Parrot Bay is the clear winner!

Review: Wines of CrossHatch, 2015 Releases

10586853Santa Barbara’s Carr Winery recently launched this second label, CrossHatch, named in honor of antique winemaking equipment — and inspired by the “co-fermenting” system Carr uses in “harvesting multiple varietals on the same day then crushing and fermenting them together.” All of the CrossHatch wines are blends — though the wines have no individual names, so check the fine print on the label to see which one you’re getting.

All are very small production wines (under 300 cases). Thoughts follow.

2012 CrossHatch 60% Merlot 40% Cabernet Franc Santa Ynez Valley – The Cabernet Franc is having its way with this one, with some dense licorice, plums, and bittersweet chocolate dominating the blend. Some floral notes, with Merlot’s characteristic violets, bring up the rear, which is moderately sweet with raisins, milk chocolate notes, and some vanilla. A bit clumsy, but plenty drinkable. B- / $28

2012 CrossHatch 60% Grenache 40% Syrah Santa Ynez Valley – Intensely fruity, with chocolate notes on the nose. The body’s a mishmash of styles, offering jammy plums and cherries, more chocolate, red pepper, mint, and some raisiny, Port-like notes on the back end. A bit wide-ranging, but surprisingly drinkable (and food friendly). B / $25

2014 CrossHatch 70% Viognier 30% Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley – Intensely astringent and medicinal, with a skunkiness underneath. Some of the viognier’s peachy elements muscle through the muddiness, but the finish is all dirt and funk. Not entirely tenable. C- / $17

carrwinery.com