Review: Owl’s Brew Tea-Infused Mixers

owls brewTea and booze? They mix, and surprisingly well — in fact, if you look at any number of classic punch recipes, you’ll see that tea is a popular ingredient.

Owl’s Brew is a line of various bottled teas designed as cocktail mixers, each with a flavor or sweetener added (sometimes minor, sometimes a lot). The mixers are designed to be used in a 2:1 ratio of mixer to booze. Which booze? Well, it depends — two that we reviewed (seven varieties are currently available) are designed for The Famous Grouse or The Black Grouse specifically. Others offer a wide variety of spirits you can pair with.

Either way, once you open them, you better drink up quick. They’re good for only two weeks in the fridge after that. Maybe using these for punch is a better idea than expected.

Thoughts on the three varieties tested follow.

Owl’s Brew The Famous Mint Tea – Peppermint tea with lemon; designed for The Famous Grouse Scotch. This is a surprisingly good combination. The malt and honey flavors of the whisky really come through, as does the lemon and gentle tea notes. What’s lacking, by and large, is oddly the peppermint. It’s a vague afterthought that barely peeks through but comes on a touch stronger on the finish, along with some light chocolate notes. B+

Owl’s Brew The Smoky Earl – Lapsang souchang and Earl Grey tea plus honey; designed for The Black Grouse Scotch. Distinctly smoky, with notes of cherries, some tropical fruit, and salted caramel. Again, some light chocolate character emerges as the cocktail fades. B

Owl’s Brew White and Vine – White tea, pomegranate, lemon peel, and watermelon; designed for vodka, gin, tequila, or wheat beer. My least favorite of this bunch, both intensely fruity and herbal at the same time, making for a bit of a cacophonous experience. It’s the watermelon that is the most jarring component here — not quite Jolly Rancher but simply too strange a component in this conflagration. No spirit combo worked well; vodka did nothing to cut the fruit and gin swayed things too herbal. Tequila is your best bet, but try just a splash of Owl’s Brew instead of the suggested 2:1 ratio. C

$17 per 32 oz. bottle /

Review: Vikre Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit Lineup

vikre spruce white bkgrdDuluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, is the home of Vikre Distillery, which takes a localvore approach to making a wide range of (mostly white) spirits, using local grains, herbs, and water from the lake next door to make its craft spirits. The six spirits below — 1 vodka, 3 gins, and 2 aquavits — represent the bulk (but not all) of Vikre’s production. Who’s ready to take the plunge into the production from this neighbor from the Great White North?

Join us.

Vikre Lake Superior Vodka – Distilled from malted barley. Very mild, clean, and fresh. The nose is gentle but hints at hospital notes. On the palate, light sweetness starts things off, but the overall impression is surprisingly clean and pure. Only on the finish do some secondary notes start to emerge… a dusting of bee pollen, some thyme and rosemary, and a pinch of cinnamon. Surprisingly well done and nearly perfect in its balance. 80 proof. A / $35

Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin – Purportedly a traditional dry gin, including standard (local) botanicals plus rhubarb. One whiff and this is anything but traditional — quite sweet on the nose, at offers heavily fruity notes and an intensely floral/rose petal undercarriage. The body hones in on that sweet-and-sour rhubarb, confectioner’s sugar, a mild slug of juniper, and chocolate notes on the finish. I know what you’re thinking: What a random collection of flavors. And so am I. Calling this a “Juniper Gin” leaves me a bit bewildered. 90 proof. C / $35

Vikre Boreal Spruce Gin – Spruce is the primary botanical here, as you might expect. The overall impact is a lot closer to a traditional gin than the Juniper Gin above, though again it carries with it a sweetness that is unexpected. Piney notes mingle with brown sugar and, again, more indistinct florals and perfume notes. Here, the balance is a bit more appropriate, as the spruce character is brought up to where it needs to be, and the sweeter elements are dialed back. Still, it’s an unconventional gin that will need the right audience. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin – This one was fun because I’m allergic to live cedar, so I was excited to see if I would break out in hives from drinking a gin flavored with cedar wood (along with wild sumac and currants). I didn’t, and I wasn’t in love with the gin, either. The nose is much different than the two above gins — musty and mushroomy on the nose, with a medicinal note and some evergreen beneath that. Again, the body is quite sweet — the currants are distinct — with a slurry of notes that include ripe banana, fresh rosemary, and some nutty characteristics. Pumped up evergreen on the body tends again to give this a more balanced structure, but the overall character is, again, a little out there. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Ovrevann Aquavit – It’s actually Øvrevann Aquavit, but I have no idea if that’s going to render properly online. Caraway, cardamom, and orange peel are infused into this traditionally-focused aquavit, which is a more savory, herbal meditation on gin. Appropriately Old World, it layers exotic, caraway-driven, Middle-Eastern-bazaar notes with touches of licorice, juicy citrus, seaweed, and light sandalwood notes. Credible on its own, but it probably works best as a substitute for gin, cutting a profile that was probably along the lines of what Bombay Sapphire East was going for. 88 proof. B / $35

Vikre Voyageur Aquavit Cognac Cask Finished – The above aquavit, finished (for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give the spirit a gentle yellow hue) in used Cognac casks. I like the combination a lot. The nose features a fruitiness that Ovrevann doesn’t have, plus a touch of barrel char that adds mystique. This leads to stronger licorice notes on the nose, plus notes of cloves, raisins (a clear Cognac contributor), menthol and spearmint, and a lingering, herbal finish. The Cognac balances out the sweet and savory notes in the spirit, giving this a well-rounded yet entirely unique character that’s worth exploring. 86 proof. A- / $57

Review: Domaine Dupont Calvados – Fine Reserve, Vieille Reserve, Hors d’Age

Calvados Dupont Hors d'ageThese Calvados bottlings hail from the Pays d’Auge, the primary production area for the classic apple brandy in France’s Normandy region.

The company produces over a dozen different expressions of Calvados (plus cider and other beverages). Today we look at three of the more common bottlings, all on the younger side of the company’s offerings. Let’s look at each in turn. (Note: Prices tend to vary widely, so shop around.)

Domaine Dupont Calvados Fine Reserve – Aged two years in barrel, half in new oak. A bright gold brandy, it features the classic mustiness you get with young apple brandies, followed by heavy notes of baked red apples. Light baking spices emerge on the end, then a lightly woody astringency takes hold. A very simplistic expression of Calvados, it is best regarded as a mixing alternative for vodka or even gin. 80 proof. C / $30

Domaine Dupont Calvados Vieille Reserve – Aged four years in barrel, 25% in new oak. Here the Calvados is settling down nicely, throwing off some of its medicinal and astringent notes and showcasing more of its apple core. A purer apple note — fruity and slightly sweet — is evident from the nose and follows as you work into the body. On the palate, it’s both surprisingly light and floral, with just a touch of nutmeg giving it a slightly wintry edge. The tougher, more industrial notes endure on the finish, but they aren’t as overpowering as in the Fine Reserve. 84 proof. B / $50

Domaine Dupont Calvados Hors d’Age – Aged six years in barrel, 25% in new oak. Further maturation gives this Calvados more austerity, though the upgrade isn’t as immediately evident as it is with the jump from Fine to Vieille. Again fresh apples dominate, with some baking spice and particularly nutmeg offering strong secondary notes. The finish feels hotter than both of the above, not due to industrial notes but more from the clearer presence of alcohol. This leads to more of a warming and cleaner finish that lets the more pure and fresh apple character shine through. B+ / $75

Review: Jim Beam Apple

jim beam Apple Bottle_highWe almost missed this release a few months back, but finally turned up a bottle in our to-review queue. Jim Beam Apple probably doesn’t need a whole lot of introduction: It’s Jim Beam whiskey flavored with apple liqueur (specifically green apple liqueur) — though the fine print on the bottle reads the other way around. Technically this is apple liqueur flavored with Jim Beam bourbon.

Either way, it’s essentially a heavily flavored whiskey, and Beam has not been shy with the apple flavor. Intense, fruity, and extremely sweet, it’s tart apple pushed to the breaking point — particularly on the uncomplicated nose. Subtle whiskey notes — vanilla and a touch of baking spice — emerge over time, but those are really understated. By and large this could sub in for Apple Pucker or any other super-sweet apple liqueur, provided you don’t mind sipping on a brown appletini.

70 proof.

C / $15 /

Review: Old York Cellars NV Merlot and 2013 Sweet Riesling

old york

Yes Virginia, they make wine in Virginia. Also New Jersey, where you’ll find Old York Cellars.

These wines make for an interesting introduction to the styles you’ll find on the other coast. We tasted along with the winery during a web-based event. Thoughts follow.

NV Old York Cellars Merlot – Nonvintage merlot, a distant cousin to anything you’d find coming from California. The curious nose seems vaguely eastern (or at least eastern European), with intense herbs, spearmint, and incense notes. The palate is fruitier than you’d expect, but very dry, its fresh fruits tempered with notes of bacon and barbecue. A bit of mothball comes along on the finish. Altogether, I can best describe it only as a very strange little wine. C / $18

2013 Old York Cellars Sweet Riesling – Some antiseptic notes kick things off in this semi-sweet riesling bottling, which eventually evokes some layers of orange blossoms and watery honey. The body is far less sweet than you might expect, coming across as herbal and sometimes vegetal. The very thin body cuts into what fruit is there — though the honey and apple notes at the core give it at least something to hold on to for a time. C / $17

Review: HoneyMaker Dry Mead

MMW_DryMeadIs mead going to be a thing again, for the first time since the 1200s?

Maine’s HoneyMaker is the latest company making a go at making honey-based wine, and this Dry Mead is just one of nearly a dozen offerings. “Dry” meaning exactly that: almost no residual sugar makes this a much different experience than you’re likely familiar with if you’ve tried mead in the past.

That said, it’s still not exactly to my tastes. The nose has vague honey notes that play over a damply earthy, mushroomy core. The body has just the lightest touch of honey sweetness, though it pairs nicely with some florals on the nose that emerge as the mead warms up. So far so good, but the finish leans strongly toward notes of spinach and canned green beans, which aren’t the most engaging tastes to have cling to the palate.

12% abv.

C / $15 /

Review: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Scotch Whisky

abhainn_dearg_70clAbhainn Dearg (pronounded: Aveen Jarræk) is located on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s the only distillery located out here, and the malt whisky it produces is young and pungent. A brand new operation, the first whisky (new make) was released in 2010. Reviewed here is a limited release of a 2011 single malt, bottled after just three years and now quite difficult to find (and quite expensive).

The nose features moderate smoke, heavily charred grains, and some hospital character — all hallmarks of young malt. On the palate, there’s plenty of youth, with ample astringency, Band-Aid notes, simplistic smoke elements (no underlying sweetness or unusual overtones), and a short finish that resonates with notes of furniture oil. On the whole, there’s just not much going on here yet — not enough to warrant much more than a passing glance, anyway.

As an example of a work in progress, it’s a mildly interesting experiment, but on its own it doesn’t have the interest or excitement, say, of an early Kilchoman release.

92 proof.

C / $NA /