Review: Sugar Island Spiced Rum and Coconut Rum

Sugar island spiced Rum label 009Made from Caribbean cane sugar and bottled in California, Sugar Island is a new kid on the flavored and spiced rum block. (The company is not making an unflavored or aged variety.) Here’s how these new offerings measure up against the competition.

Sugar Island Spiced Rum – Very strong and pungent on the nose. The character is indistinct, with somewhat harsh, rubbery notes. On the palate, heavy burnt sugar notes overwhelm with unclear, clove-and-cinnamon character backing it up. A lengthy finish brings out not more sweetness but more of that rubbery, industrial character. Caramel added. 92 proof. C-

Sugar Island Coconut Rum – Tons of sweetness on the nose. Coconut is a secondary characteristic, overpowered by simple syrup. The body is heavy, full of gravity, with a powerfully sweet finish that offers a touch of mango character to it. Not at all difficult, but it’s a sugar bomb with few parallels in this category. 42 proof. B-

each $19 / sugarislandrum.com

Review: New Rioja from Zaco and Pomal

Vina Pomal Reserva_NV_HRTwo new Spanish Riojas — both quite young, a twist over the typical Rioja you’ll encounter, which can often be six to eight years old — or more — by the time they hit the shelf. How do these young guns measure up? Here we go…

2011 Vina Zaco Rioja Tempranillo – Especially young for Rioja, and it shows. Raw, almost pruny notes on the nose lead to a rather plain and unrefined body. Tar and stewy stone fruit notes are prominent, with a slightly sickly sweet finish. C- / $15

2009 Vina Pomal Rioja Reserva – Better, but still a clearly young and somewhat fruit-funky wine. Underripe fruit on the nose opens up over time, giving way to a strawberry/blueberry character laced with black tea and a touch of leather. Best with food, but fair enough on its own. B / $21

Review: Pasita and Rompope Liqueurs of Puebla, Mexico

rompope-santa-ines vainillaA friend of mine is an American expatriate living in Puebla, Mexico, and on a recent trip to the U.S. she brought me a few minis of Puebla’s unofficial liqueurs — Pasita and Rompope — the likes of which we don’t much see in these parts. I told her I’d review them, more for kicks and completionism than because I expect you to run to your nearest importer to try to track down bottles for yourselves. Thoughts follow. (Prices and website links are not available.)

Reljac Licor de Pasita – A very traditional, dark brown raisin-based liqueur. Originally I thought this might be a super-sweet coffee liqueur, but over time the raisin character evolves in the glass. While not particularly alcoholic, it’s incredibly dense, offering cappucino notes that give way to chocolate, licorice, prune, and of course raisin notes. The finish stays with you for, well, forever. In Mexico the liqueur is served with a cube of cheese as a garnish, which once you drink la pasita makes more sense than you’d think. 30 proof. B-

Santa Ines Rompope VainillaRompope is essentially an eggnog, tinted yellow due to the use of copious yolk in the recipe. This vanilla-flavored version of the liqueur is sweet and eggy and authentically mouth-coating, everything you’d want in an eggnog, and that’s coming from a guy who basically hates the stuff. 18 proof. B

Santa Ines Rompope Piñon – This version is flavored with pine nuts and colored Pepto pink. I don’t think the pine nuts add much here, giving the nose a somewhat sweaty, vegetal character to it, and the body is even sweeter, with more of a bubblegum character (though maybe that’s the off-putting color playing tricks on me) than a nutty one. 18 proof. C-

Review: Guinness Red Harvest Stout

guinness rhsNot quite a red ale and not quite a stout, the seasonal Guinness Red Harvest Stout looks far more enticing than it tastes. The reddish-coffee brown beer pours with a thick, Old World head, but from the start something is off. The nose is weak, with light roasted grain notes atop thin malt. The body fares worse, watery (canned at just 4.1% abv) and vegetal at times, with wispy malt and notes of decidedly weak coffee. This is a beer that looks like it’ll be a great fireside brew but drinks like a dull and watery mainstream beer. An unfortunate misfire.

C- / $8.50 per four-pack of 14.9-oz. nitrogenated cans / guinness.com

Review: Wines of Alto Adige, 2013 Releases

Nals Margreid Galea SchiavaThe Alto Adige region in the far north of Italy (how far north? two-thirds of its inhabitants speak German) is best known for its most famous son: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. But there’s a huge diversity of grape varietals grown in this mountainous area — over 20 of them, despite the fact that its size is a third that of Napa Valley.

Thoughts on three newly released Alto Adige wines — stylistically all over the map — follow.

2011 St. Paul’s Lagrein Alto Adige – A grape that’s vinified virtually nowhere but in Alto Adige, Lagrein can be very complex but is often a somewhat mushroomy, skunky wine  that is quickly forgotten. That’s largely the case here: St. Paul’s 2011 Lagrein has ample green pepper on the nose, with a muddy, tar-laden, and slightly prune-driven body. Gamy finish. C- / $25

2011 Nals Margreid Galea Schiava Alto Adige – Another odd grape, Schiava is indiginous to Italy and Germany. Very light and clear in color, this wine is simple but full of strawberry notes. The wine develops some mushroom notes on the nose as it aerates, but the body remains brisk and tart. The overall effect is unusual, but the wine remains fresh and easy to enjoy. B+ / $20

2012 Tiefenbrunner Gewurztraminer Alto Adige – A slightly tough number, this perfumy wine offers a bit of astringency on the nose, and some rubbing alcohol character as you sip on it. Fortunately, some Viognier-like fruit — peaches and apricots — balance things out, but the fruit character fades over time as its left to its own devices in the glass. B- / $17

Review: Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon Liqueur

baileys vanilla cinnamonThe newest addition to the Baileyverse doesn’t take many pains to hide what’s inside. As the name suggests, this is good old Baileys Irish Cream, plus vanilla, plus cinnamon.

Well, Baileys on its own is full of dessert-like flavor, so adding more stuff from the baking cabinet into the mix doesn’t seem entirely called for. Sure enough, Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon falls prey to that very issue. Adding vanilla and cinnamon to a liqueur that’s already very sugary pushes it almost into madness. One sip and a flood of flavors hit your palate, like eating a handful of random Halloween candy all at once. The finish — heavy on the vanilla — sticks with you for the better part of 10 minutes… and that’s just on a single sip.

I am happy to sip on a regular glass of Baileys Irish Cream if it’s offered to me — admittedly this is a rare occurrence — but with Baileys Vanilla Cinnamon, things have gone just a bit too far.

Stick with the classics.

34 proof.

C- / $21 / baileys.com

Review: 2012 Wines of Portugal’s Monte Velho

MV Red 2012This brand, from Portugal’s Esporao is now 40 years old. With a focus on ultra-cheap blends both red and white, Monte Velho’s packaging has been redesigned with a focus on environmentalism (the bottles are amazingly lightweight, at least when empty), while keeping costs to a bare minimum.

That said, quality remains uninspiring. Thoughts on the 2012 bottlings follow.

2012 Esporao Monte Velho Alentejano White – A white blend of 40% antao vaz, 40% roupeiro, and 20% perrum grapes. Exotic, honey-laden nose. The first notes on the palate are tropical, but things are less enticing later, followed by notes of cedar wood, canned peaches, and twine fiber. Somewhat astringent on the finish. C- / $10

2012 Esporao Monte Velho Alentejano Red –  A red blend of 40% aragonez, 35% trincadeira, 20% touriga nacional, and 5% syrah. A little dusty, surprisingly dry. The nose has a bit of barnyard on it, and some prunes. The body is more of the mushroom/leather variety, with a finish that offers modest currant character. B- / $10

esporao.com

Review: Ivanabitch Vodka Complete Lineup

ivanabitchMade in the Netherlands, the Ivanabitch people have gone out of their way — way out of their way — to simultaneously give Ivanabitch an Old World back story (it involves a “half-mad” Russian in the 1600s named Dmitri Ivanabitch) and a hip/fresh look with a modern (or at least ’80s) bottle design and a name, well, that has “bitch” in it. (It’s tough to believe, but some people actually think this mad Russian story is true.)

This “vodka with attitude,” as the slogan goes, is made from an unspecified mash, distilled five times, and charcoal filtered. The straight vodka is 80 proof. The flavored versions are 70 proof each. Thoughts follow.

Ivanabitch Vodka – Instant sugar rush on the nose. Sweet on the palate, too, with notes of caramels and butterscotch. Simple and uncomplicated, and, er, did I mention how sweet it is? I’m not sure I’d call this vodka with “attitude,” but I guess “vodka with sugar” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. An easy mixer. Skip it straight. B

Ivanabitch Cherry Vodka – Surprisingly easy and straight-up with a cherry candy nose and body. Almost a cherry cola kick to it, with some hints of strawberry. Not at all bad, this would be a decent mixer in any number of beach-tinis. Alt Singapore Sling, maybe? B+

Ivanabitch Blackberry Vodka – Harsh on the nose, medicinal. The body is vague and indistinct. Blackberry? Blueberry? Tastes more like a mixed cobbler dipped in rubbing alcohol. The finish finally brings along some blackberry character, but it’s a long time coming. C

Ivanabitch Dutch Apple Vodka – Apple Jolly Ranchers on the nose. Sweet and sour and easily identifiable. The body’s tailor-made for classic(?) Appletinis, but surprisingly it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, featuring a touch of Granny Smith tang to balance things out. I’d drink it. B+

Ivanabitch Coconut Vodka – Unlike the rest of the vodkas in the lineup, this one is slightly tinged a pale yellow. Smells like Malibu, sweet and coconutty and might-as-well-be-on-the-beach. Very sweet, which masks any sense of alcohol. But the coconut character is solid, infused with just a hint of peanut character. Not bad, but I’d rather have rum. B

Ivanabitch Peach Vodka – Bigger peach notes on the body than the nose, but both are reasonably authentic, though more in the vein of canned peaches in syrup than a fresh peach. SoCo fans will probably find this to their liking, but it’s one of those flavors where I struggle to figure out how to use it. B-

Ivanabitch Lemmon Vodka – A complicated story on the back of the bottle references “Lemmon Island,” which does not exist. What does exist: Sugar! There’s plenty of that here, along with intense lemon oil/lemon custard notes, with a long, sweet finish. Lemon drops, anyone? Just add ice, I guess. B

Ivanabitch Red Berry Vodka – Much like the Blackberry vodka, this one has less sweetness and more vaguery — though the strawberry and chocolate notes here are a little more easygoing. The finish heads into strawberry shortcake character, as that familiar sweetness comes on more strongly in the end. Harmless. B

Ivanabitch Orange Vodka – Not triple sec, but you’d never know it from the taste. Hefty Valencia oranges on the nose and palate, with a lightly bittersweet orange peel character on the finish. Surprisingly light and easygoing, it’s a quick Cosmo shortcut if you’re out of orange liqueur. B+

Ivanabitch Vanilla Vodka – Also translucent, a slightly darker brown than the Coconut flavor. Overwhelming birthday cake on the nose, a powerhouse that punches you in the gut on the palate. And yet, it manages to turn bitter on the finish. A weak entry. C-

Ivanabitch Tobacco Vodka – Already much maligned as “the end of flavored vodkas,” I figure if “Electricity Flavored Vodka” can exist, why not Tobacco? (Note: there’s no tobacco or nicotine in the vodka.) This is funky stuff. The nose is of fresh leaves, not burning ones or smoking cigarettes. The body, however, is something altogether different. Sort of vanilla, sort of cinnamon, very very sweet, and overwhelmingly off-putting with a funky, sweaty, indescribable finish. By the nose I thought I was in for a unique, even passable, treat. You don’t need to sip it for long to realize that’s not the case. D

Ivanabitch Menthol Tobacco Vodka – Of course there’s a menthol version! The nose is familiar, not terrible distinctive vs. the standard Tobacco version. It is, perhaps, even more powerful though. The body isn’t quite as bad. The addition of mint to the cauldron of flavors here improves things a bit, though that isn’t saying much. After the vanilla and Sweet-N-Low portion of the spirit wears off, you’re left with a vague peppermint character on the back of the throat. It’s hard to shake. In a bad way, I mean. D+

ivanabitch.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Double Malt Selections

Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Straight and Classic Malt

Every year around this time our friends at Woodford Reserve release a special, and sometimes experimental, whiskey release. And for 2013, Woodford is taking things to the Old World, bottling two single 100% malted barley whiskeys… made in Kentucky.

You’re reading that right: These are the first “fully matured whiskies crafted from malt in Kentucky since Prohibition.”

Woodford doesn’t offer any age information (or data on where the barley is from), but the two whiskeys are different in one respect: the aging regimen. The Woodford Classic Malt is aged in used Bourbon barrels (which would be typical of the way things are done in Scotland), and the Woodford Straight Malt is aged in new oak barrels (typical of the way Bourbon is aged). In other words, the Classic Malt should taste more like a Scotch, while the Straight Malt should have a unique, hybrid, more wood-driven Bourbon-like character to it. But do they?

Both are 90.4 proof. Thoughts follow.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Classic Malt Whiskey – A pale blonde in color, this can’t be more than four or five years old. The nose is mild and uninspiring, with a moderate wood character atop some big bread and cereal notes. The body is at first appealing, with a fun vanilla cookie character, but this very quickly fades into an overwhelming maltiness alongside some overcooked fruits, all studded with the brashness of white dog, which gives the whiskey a moderate bite. The overall impact is not compelling, and not terribly satisfying. I’ll be honest that this is far from my favorite thing that Woodford has ever done, and in Scotland this would be regarded as an immature spirit that’s not nearly ready for release, much less one which you could get someone to pay $100 for. C-

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Straight Malt Whiskey – A considerably darker, sherry-colored spirit. The new oak does this spirit a favor at first, but only to an extent. Here, you’ll find plenty of malt character on the nose, and the body backs that up. But again, it’s simply undercooked, with a mess of underdeveloped flavors that recall stewed prunes, charred marshmallows, dried apricots, and asparagus. As with the Classic Malt, it’s very malty, with that white dog burn coming on strong in the finsh. I’m not sure whether I like this more or less than the Classic Malt, but I know I don’t like it much. The bigger body offers some help in one sense by giving the whiskey more power, but on the other hand that only serves to amplify the fact that here you have a bunch of underdeveloped flavors that just don’t work well together. C-

Kudos to Woodford for thinking outside the box, but I think it’s safe to chalk this one up as an experiment that just didn’t work out — and evidence as to why corn is king in Kentucky, not barley.

On sale November 2013.

$100 each / woodfordreserve.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Mama Walker’s “Breakfast” Liqueurs

Mama Walker GroupBreakfast at the real Mama Walker’s house (presuming there is one), must have been quite an affair. Donuts, blueberry pancakes, bacon… all that’s missing is the scrambled eggs and OJ.

Presumably a scrambled egg liqueur is forthcoming from this brand, which exists exclusively to sell these “breakfast” themed liqueurs. At 70 proof, I’m not sure what makes them liqueurs vs. flavored vodkas, but that’s what’s on the label. Make your own call. You can surely use them interchangeably.

As for what’s inside, well, you’re in for something unique, to say the least. When we received our sample box, one of the bottles inside had broken and completely leaked out. The smell lingered in the house for days.

Thoughts follow.

Mama Walker’s Glazed Donut Liqueur – The nose is more like cotton candy or burnt marshmallows than donuts. I’ve smelled this before in Smirnoff’s Iced Cake vodka. They are probably spiked with the same stuff. This liqueur adds a maple syrup kick and more vanilla. The finish is ultra-sweet but also hard-edged, with a sharp, alcoholic kick. C-

Mama Walker’s Blueberry Pancake Liqueur – Extremely pungent, with a nose that is more blueberry muffin than blueberry pancake. It smells just like the muffins my mother used to make out of the Betty Crocker box, the one with the little tin of canned blueberries in it. (Do they still sell that?) Drinking this is like alcoholic nostalgia, filled with all the pros and cons that could come with a boozed-up version of your youth. My head’s spinning, but the taste — much like the nose; big, canned blueberries, bread, and a lingering, maple syrup (again) finish — isn’t half bad. B-

Mama Walker’s Maple Bacon Liqueur – Bacon flavor is always dicey in spirits, but here it kinda works. I guess the secret is to add plenty of sugary syrup to it. The bacon is (mercifully) understated next to the syrup, which Mama Walker must go through by the tanker load considering how prevalent it is in all of its products. Still, the bacon notes are distinctly there, a smoky/meaty character that has no real equal in the food world and which translates embarrassingly well to this spirit. I have zero idea how I’d use this in day to day cocktailcrafting (maple bacon margaritas, anyone?), but I’m curious to try. B

(There are recipes on the Mama Walker’s website (see below) for all of these. Tread at your own risk.)

each $13 / mamawalker.com