Review: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Mixers

cascade iceMixers are getting a bad rap of late, what with all the added sugar and extra calories they add to your glass. Here’s a new brand of no-cal, flavored, sparkling waters: Cascade Ice Zero-Calorie Sparkling Water. They all contain pear juice — but not enough to give the drinks a single calorie, about 1% — and are sweetened with sucralose, sometimes to within an inch of their lives.

31 flavors are now available. We tasted five, all of which are some shade of pink or purple. Can you really mix with these? You be the judge. (Oddly, Cascade Ice didn’t send us their actual mixers like Margarita and Mojito flavors, so you’ll just have to read about these fruit-centric ones instead.

Cascade Ice Blueberry Watermelon – Impossibly sweet, with essence of watermelon Jolly Rancher. C-

Cascade Ice Strawberry Banana – Veers more toward the banana side of things, with a sweet-tart finish. Also impossibly sweet. C

Cascade Ice Cranberry Pomegranate – Incredibly sweet, but more of a classic cocktail mixer than the other flavors here. Tastes much like any cran-whatever mixer. Used sparingly, could be acceptable in a low-cal cosmo. C+

Cascade Ice McIntosh Apple – That’s a pretty specific type of apple, ain’t it, Cascade Ice? The resulting beverage is slightly caramelly, with a touch of crisp apple coming along on the finish. Less sweet than many of those above, but still overpowering. C+

Cascade Ice Huckleberry Blackberry – Who’s your huckleberry? This easy winner in the Cascade Ice lineup, which balances the sugar with tart berry notes — though which berries are a bit tough to place. This is the only one among the group that I could drink straight, and which, used sparingly, would make for the most interesting cocktail companion with its nodes toward creme de cassis. B

each about $2.50 (17.2 oz.) / cascadeicewater.com [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice

Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice

Southern Comfort seems unstoppable, now that it’s adopted the same playbook as Kahlua, Malibu, Baileys, and any number of other liqueur producers intent on releasing a new flavor every year, typically around the holiday season.

This year it’s an obvious one: Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice, the go-to crowd pleaser of a flavor that eventually finds its way into just about everything.

The results could have been much worse. The peachy character of SoCo seems to blend pretty well with the gingerbread flavoring, flipping the overall experience into something akin to drinking a peach pie. It’s gingerbread-heavy up front, with overtones of cinnamon, then sweeter as it develops on the palate, those characteristic tinned peaches of SoCo coming through clearly. The finish isn’t particularly lasting; in fact it’s almost watery.

The good news is all of this works together in a surprisingly natural way, lacking the chemical overtones of many a SoCo specialty bottling. That fact that it is bottled at a mere 30 proof — most of the other flavored SoCo’s hit 70 proof — helps to temper things quite a bit. At just 15% alcohol, this liqueur is no more potent than a glass of wine. But at least this you can use to spike the eggnog with.

SoCo Gingerbread Spice (SoCoGiSpi?) is hardly something I’d drink on a regular basis, but if your tastes run toward Southern Comfort’s inimitable charms, you may very well find this expression worth trying this holiday season.

30 proof.

C+ / $12 / southerncomfort.com

Tasting the Wines of Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent

An icon of the Beaujolais, Moulin-a-Vent’s estate began producing wines as early as the 1700s. Today the estate has 30 hectares of land under vine, separated into 91 different plots — many of which are used to make single-plot releases showcasing a specific terroir. Ownership changed with the 2009 vintage — and some of these wines are just now hitting the market.

Beaujolais is of course the home of Gamay (red wines) and Chardonnay (whites, which are comparatively rare). Moulin-a-Vent only grows Gamay. Its Pouilly-Fuisse is made with non-estate fruit.

We recently looked at eight different wines from this famed chateau, in three different categories:

First are the CMV wines, which feature a much different art deco-style label and are made from non-estate fruit.

CMV Couvent Des Thorins Brand2012 CMV Moulin-a-Vent Pouilly-Fuisse Vielle Vignes - A rather vegetal white wine, it shows lemony notes at first before delving into a rather intense green vegetable note that builds on the finish. This eases up a bit with some warmth, but the slightly bitter character is sustained for quite awhile. B / $15

2012 CMV Moulin-a-Vent Couvent des Thorins – Classically Old World on the nose, with lots of vinegary acid, rhubarb, and licorice root notes. The body is equally heavy on the acid, brash and mouth-searing with its simplistic cherry-like construction and fiery finish. C- / $15

Up next, these are blends from all many of Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent’s plots. They comprise the most common expressions from the chateau. Here’s a look at a vertical of three recent vintages of the wine.

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – Engaging nose, with gentle fruit, some smoke, some mint. The body is ripe without being overly fruity or lush, a gentler expression of gamay with a core of simple plums, touches of vanilla, and notes of pumpkin spice on the back end. Easy to enjoy. B+ / $20

2010 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – More earth here, particularly on the dusty, mushroomy nose. The body offers balance between the savory earth elements and fruit, presenting a significantly different profile than the fruitier 2011. Fans of bigger, more wintry, and more food-appropriate wines will probably prefer this style. B+ / $20

2009 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent – Well past its prime. Again, showing lots of oxidation and acidity like the Thorins reviewed above, with a somewhat skunky, burnt nose and a body that attacks the tongue with vinegar notes. This was an exemplary vintage in Beaujolais, so it appears time has really had its way with this wine. C- / $20

Finally come the terroir-driven, plot-specific releases from Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent. Each is released with its specific plot noted on the label.

2009 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Clos de Londres - It fares better than the standard 2009 bottling above, but not by much. Again, it’s well past its prime, showing strong vinegar chateau du moulin-a-vent 11 Croix des Verillats Bottlenotes, but offering pleasant enough cranberry, raspberry, and blackberry character after the intense acid starts to fade. C+ / $NA

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Champ de Cour – Ample earth and licorice notes, backed by restrained, austere fruit — raspberries and blackberries. The finish features tobacco notes, blackberry jam, and a return to some of that woody, earthy funk. An interesting wine with shades of the 2010 standard bottling. B+ / $34

2011 Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent Croix des Verillats – Notes of ripe cheese on the nose start things off in a weird way, but the highly fruity, almost jelly-like body, pairs with it in an unexpected way. This is an austere wine that drinks like an older expression of Moulin-a-Vent, but offers a worthwhile complexity and depth to it. B+ / $32

chateaudumoulinavent.com

Review: Blue Heron Vodka

blue heron vodka

As we reviewed earlier, Wilderness Trail Distillery produces Harvest Rum — “the Bourbon drinker’s rum” — in the heart of Kentucky. But did you know they also make a vodka? Naturally, “the Bourbon drinker’s vodka,” Blue Heron.

Made from a 50-50 corn/wheat mash and bottled unfiltered, this is a vodka with a clearly different focus. It’s far from “neutral,” but whether that’s a positive is open for discussion. Thoughts follow.

The nose is immediately woody, almost with a character of twine or hay. Over time, a corny character develops akin to a white whiskey (which, arguably, is what this is). But despite this pastoral setup, the palate initially throws you for a loop. A surprising contrast, it offers a sweet and slightly citrus-focused attack, before settling into a body that blends chewy nougat with a cornmeal mash. It’s interesting up until the end: The finish is a bit astringent, a funky fade-out that melds saccharine sweetness with those initial woody/earthy notes in a most unusual way. Sadly, this juxtaposition doesn’t grow on you over time, but rather becomes less and less engaging as you work your way through it.

100% heron free. 80 proof.

C+ / $28 / wildernesstracedistillery.com

Review: 2013 Charles & Charles Chardonnay Washington State

Charles Chard bottle 003Rather watery, this Columbia Valley-sourced wine offers vague apple notes and a modest slug of wood that punches a bit of vanilla into what is an otherwise workmanlike wine. Touches of lemon and nougat add a bit of curiosity as the wine develops in the glass, but the bitter edges on the finish reveal some character flaws that are ultimately tough to love.

C+ / $10 / charlessmithwines.com

Book Review: Cocktails for Book Lovers

51fRwA6cjzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Meals inspired by literary works and their authors are popular among home chefs. Now author Tessa Smith McGovern is bringing the notion to cocktails.

Cocktails for Book Lovers is a slim volume of 50 original and classic recipes, each paired with an author and a book they’ve written. Some of these are natural matches — Hemingway and a mojito, Fitzgerald and a gin rickey — while some are a little more structurally modern, like Jane Austen’s concoction of gin, Madeira, and orange juice.

I have to say, a number of the recipes in the book simply do not inspire a lot of passion or interest. Poor Dani Shapiro is saddled with a drink that pairs butterscotch schnapps with Sour Apple Pucker. Matthew Quick, author of Silver Linings Playbook, gets a beer margarita for his troubles. While the history lessons provided on each author provide fun, bathroom-friendly snippets of curiosity, there’s not much of a connection between these biographical tidbits and their respective cocktail recipe. It all adds up to a genial enough diversion, but nothing either a book fiend or a cocktail nut will likely slaver over.

C+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Kennedy Irish Whiskey “Spirit Drink” Complete Lineup

kennedy irish

Irish whiskey is all the rage right now — it’s the fastest growing spirit category there is — and there’s a mad rush going on in Ireland to build stills, increase production, and otherwise squeeze every dollar out of this market before everyone moves on to something else, probably rum.

Kennedy is a new launch of Irish Whiskey — er, “Spirit Drink.” I’m still trying to sort all this out, so bear with me. Here’s how the Kennedy label breaks out.

Upon a sticker stylized like an old Celtic helmet it reads KENNEDY in big letters, then ORIGINAL underneath. In delicate italics beneath that: Spirit Drink. Then in even smaller italics: “Oak Filtered & Hand Crafted using.” Then, larger block letters: “Whiskey with natural flavor & caramel.”

OK, so points for truth in labeling, I think, but points off for confusing the hell out of your consumer along the way. What is “oak filtered,” exactly? Check the back label and you’ll see that “Kennedy’s Spirit is a delicate fusion of the finest Celtic whiskies and malt to insure a unique, challenging and august drinking experience. Kennedy’s Spirit, handcrafted in West Cord, Ireland, is infused with Irish and Bourbon oak using a proprietary infusion process and steeped in malt through an artisan and near-forgotten technique.”

So, yeah.

Your guess is as good as mind about what all that means, but basically my deduction is this is a mix of various Irish whiskeys and grain spirits, somehow pressure treated with oak to artificially age it more quickly. Caramel is added liberally, based on the color, though your guess is as good as mine as to what the natural flavors referenced here are.

And that’s just the “original.” There are four flavored versions of the spirit available, too. Or, rather, more flavored.

So, with that out of the way, let’s taste them all!

Kennedy Original – A slight sugar character on the nose, with a malty, cereal character to it. Touches of honey and cinnamon dust the body, which is otherwise a soft caramel, lightly woody, mostly watery character to it. The overall impact is one of Irish whiskey that’s already been liberally doused with water. It goes down easy enough, but the finish is weak and a touch astringent, leaving behind a touch of hospital character as it fades. 80 proof. C+

Kennedy Spiced – Infused with visible, solid spices (including anise and cinnamon) floating around in the bottle. Tons of cinnamon on the nose. The body has an essence more akin to vanilla blended with dried apples — with that anise making a strong showing as a somewhat weird secondary note. I would have dropped the licorice components and pumped up the cloves, but that’s just me. At least there’s more going on here, even if it doesn’t come together the way you might hope. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Honeyed – Infused with vanilla and honey. Contains visible, fine sediment (but not big chunks like in the Spiced expression). It’s more hazelnut than honey on the nose, but the finish builds to more of an earthy honey character. Minimal whiskey character, though. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Limed – Green, lime whiskey? Why not. Again, light sediment from flavoring involving vanilla and lime juice. Not as bad as you are expecting, but a bit like drinking a slug of Rose’s Lime Juice straight. Sweeter than most of the other whiskeys in this lineup, a necessity to offset the sour lime flavors. The color is beyond off-putting. Clearly this is designed exclusively as a mixer… but with what? When the label copy calls the product “intiguing,” you know something ain’t right. C-

Kennedy Chilied – Bright red, it is flavored with chili pepper and paprika(!). Wow, this is intensely hot — far hotter than your typical “pepper vodka.” I can see this doing brisk business as frat kids make bets with each other and buy shots to dare each other to drink. It’s a fiery, habanero-style burn that singes the lips and sticks in the throat for minutes. A hint of honey sweetness helps temper the burn. Discriminating it ain’t, but daredevils should go for it. B

each about $17 / westcorkdistillers.com

Review: GM Titanium

GMTitanium - Final Hi Res

You’re the maker of one of the most prestigious orange liqueurs on the market. For your next trick, what do you do? Release a heavily spiced, orange-flavored Cognac in a Terminator-hued, club-friendly bottle!

“Red ribbon” Grand Marnier is distinguished from most orange liqueurs because it uses Cognac as the base spirit instead of grain neutral spirits. Caribbean oranges are blended into this base, giving Grand Marnier an intense flavor that’s driven as much by the Cognac as it is by the oranges.

Titanium is a bit of a different animal, featuring, per the company, “a bold combination of Calamansi citrus, black pepper, anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon spices combined with wild tropical oranges and Cognac.” So, sort of the Captain Morgan version of Grand Marnier, I guess — but, critically, there is no sugar added in Titanium. This is all intended to make the product attractive to men.

GM Titanium seems to be based on a younger Cognac than the red ribbon standby. There’s no reason to use old stock, after all, when you’re dumping a bunch of cloves and pepper into it. The nose is full of spice: cinnamon and licorice notes attempting to push the orange character aside. That’s well and good, I suppose — if you know what you’re getting into. The body, though, is where Titanium falls apart. There’s just no life here, none of the power of Grand Marnier and definitely not enough punchy orange character. Titanium is limp, hobbled by its utter lack of sweetness as it attempts to let its spice bill do the heavy lifting, and it just doesn’t keep up. A good spiced rum know that you have to really pour on the herbs and spices but it needs a full-bodied rum to match it. GM Titanium doesn’t have either: The spices are too understated, and the Cognac is too young and watery to assist in the matter. Anyone that’s ever tried cinnamon toast with just cinnamon — no sugar — realizes the predicament here. It’s not bad. It’s just boring.

Surprisingly, Titanium is bottled at 80 proof, just like standard Grand Marnier. Compared to Grand Marnier, at about $34, it’s also more expensive. GM Titanium may be geared toward men, but I’m going to have to stick with the girly stuff.

C+ / $40 / gmtitanium.com

Review: Fall 2014 Pumpkin Beer Blowout

  • magic hat wilhelm scream
  • red hook pumpkin porter
  • alaskan Pumpkin Porter 12oz_Bottle_WET
  • 21a pumpkin spiced

October is here, and that means everyone and his sister is putting pumpkin into beer in honor of the arrival of autumn. For some, pumpkin brews are something they wait for urgently all year long. For others, a pumpkin beer is something you enjoy precisely once and quietly wait for the season to pass. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle… mainly because it depends on what’s inside the specific bottle.

Here’s a look at four new pumpkin beers vying for your gourdly attention this fall.

Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream Pumpkin Ale – If you aren’t familiar with the Wilhelm Scream, you can read all about it here. I expect that will not alter your enjoyment of Magic Hat’s first ever pumpkin beer in any way, though. This ale drinks with burly, brown, fall-friendly flavors, only one of which is a dusting of pumpkin. Cloves and cinnamon, ginger, and some earthier notes tend to dominate. Overall it’s quite dry, with chewy, nougaty maltiness pushing through to the finish. 5.4% abv. B / $9 per 6-pack

Redhook Brewery Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter – A spiced dark ale made with maple syrup, this is a very dark and brooding brew, quite the opposite of the relatively light bodied Wilhelm Scream. Deeply malty, the maple syrup adds a viscosity to the beer that coats the mouth like a barrel-aged porter. The clove character is on point here, but any sense of pumpkin is pushed well into the background. For fans of traditional, British-style dark brews. 5.8% abv. B / $10 per 6-pack

Alaskan Brewing Co. Pumpkin Porter – Quite bitter, but almost gooey with raw malt syrup notes. The malt overpowers anything else in the beer — including brown sugar and burnt pumpkin notes that don’t quite integrate with the rest of the beer. Difficult balance, with a finish that is not at all refreshing. Save for winter. 7% abv. C+ / $1.60 per bottle

21st Amendment/Elysian He Said Baltic-Style Porter – Collaborative brew project. An epic alco-bomb (and a lager, by the way) with a nose further from anything autumnal than the rest of the lineup here. Lots of malt, wood and cardboard notes, wet earth, mushroom, and some green vegetable notes. No pumpkin character to speak of. 8.2% abv. C / $9 per 4-pack (cans)

Tasting the White Wines of Lodi, California

Lodi is located up and east from Napa/Sonoma. The source of some of California’s less expensive wines, it’s nonetheless and “up and coming” region that has more of a pedigree than, say, California’s industrial Central Valley. Known for its heavy Zinfandel production, Lodi is also home to a prodigious amount of white wine. In a recent live tasting event, which was led by Camron King, Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and Susan Tipton of Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, we focused exclusively on those whites, sampling five wines made from different varietals, all from Lodi grapes.

Thoughts on all five wines tasted follow.

2013 Borra Vineyards Artist Series Nuvola Gewürztraminer – A very fruity example of Gewurztraminer, with lemon and peaches up front, revealing a light honey sweetness as it starts to evolve in the glass. The finish is crisp and clean, with more fruit than the fragrant perfume notes that are typical of Gewurz. A fave here. B+ / $19

2013 Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha Blanca Vista Luna Vineyard – A bit on the weedy side, this white offers tropical notes up front before fading into a strongly grassy character, along with a somewhat meaty edge on the finish. Strange balance, not my favorite. C+ / $18

2013 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards Viognier – Made by Lodi’s only all-white-wine winery. This Viognier is restrained in a way that many Viogniers are not, with more mild apricot and peach notes and an earthiness backing them up. Again, that big, chewy body takes over and fades into some funkier, meatier notes on the finish. Better balance on the whole, though, and something to try even if you don’t consider yourself a Viognier fan. B- / $23

2013 Heritage Oak Winery Sauvignon Blanc – Very perfumy on the nose, with notes of lemongrass and pepe du chat… and also an edge of tree bark atypical of Sauvignon Blanc. Clean on the body, with lots of fresh lemon character and a grassy, herbal finish. B+ / $18

2012 Uvaggio Moscato Secco – Not overwhelmingly sweet as you might have feared, this Moscato is plenty fragrant and perfumed, but dials back that unctuous juicy orange character almost to an afterthought. Dry and clean, this is the rare moscato that you might consider drinking with your main course rather than dessert. B / $14

lodiwine.com

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