Category Archives: Rated C+

Review: Seraphine Chai Tea Vodka

seraphine chai tea vodkaChai tea is one of the “it” flavorings of the ’10s, and Yahara Bay, which produces the V Bourbon we reviewed a few days ago, takes a different tack than the various chai liqueurs on the market.

Instead, the company flavors vodka with chai to create a unique (and more powerful) spirit.

The color of whiskey, Seraphine smells big and chai-like, with that unmistakeable cinnamon/allspice+tea character on the nose. There’s raisins, cardamom, and nutty notes in there. It’s altogether a lot of fun. The body is a different animal, though, and wholly unexpected. Instead of that big, creamy rush, what comes along is a surprisingly thin, and not entirely flavorful animal.

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Italian Value Wines — Deep Value Wines — for Thanksgiving from Bolla

Thanksgiving on a budget? Six wines from Bolla arrived for our consideration for a spot on your Thanksgiving table, including one infamous classic. Thoughts (and a special video) follow. Continue reading

Review: Smirnoff Iced Cake and Kissed Caramel Vodkas

The company that brought us Fluffed Marshmallow vodka is back with more flavors that would have Rasputin rolling in his grave. Here’s what will be haunting beach bars in 2013.

For what it’s worth, my wife enthused about the dessert-drink worthiness of both of these concoctions, and in modest proportions, she might be right, although Smirnoff is really pushing the sugar to the point where I expected to see crystals of the stuff to settle out at the bottom of the bottle. Both are 60 proof.

Smirnoff Iced Cake Vodka – Imagine a child’s ultra-sugary birthday cake. Now imagine a child ate that cake and then threw up. The sweetness here is so strong it’s overpowering even to smell. One sip will coat your mouth for 15 minutes or more with the flavor of a white cake that’s been put through a blender and spiked with extra frosting (this is Iced Cake after all). You can’t taste a lick of alcohol. C+

Smirnoff Kissed Caramel Vodka – Caramel is the It Flavor of 2012, and the vodkas are coming out in droves. Equally overpowering on the nose and body, the caramel flavors here are so strong and sweet they will suck the fillings right out of your teeth and leave you quivering in a diabetic coma. As with the Iced Cake version, it’s both uncannily authentic and entirely synthetic. C

$14 each /

Review: Nahmias et Fils Mahia Liqueur

Figs are one of my favorite unsung cocktail ingredients, so I was delighted to see that someone was finally producing a fig liqueur.

Correction: Fig and aniseed liqueur. Hrmmmm.

Mahia actually is a general term for anise liqueur in (Algerian) French, and this spirit (produced in New York) is inspired by that traditional liqueur — distilled from fermented figs — which is made in Morocco.

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Review: Moet & Chandon Ice Imperial Champagne

What do we have here? The world’s first ever Champagne “created to be enjoyed over ice.” You read that right, and I’m still asking myself why someone would do such a thing to a drink as lovely as Champagne.

Moet Ice Imperial is a blend of nonvintage Champagne, and it doesn’t take long to catch on to what the winery is trying to do.

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Review: Kahlua Iced Coffee Grab & Go Cocktails

You can pour your Kahlua into coffee, or you can get it in one-stop format, thanks to Kahlua’s new “grab & go” canned cocktails. (I’m not sure where you’re supposed to be “going” with one of these in hand, but that’s another story.)

Each of these pre-mixed cocktails are fairly self-explanatory, and each includes 100% Arabica coffee from Veracruz, Mexico. Each can contains 200ml (6.8 oz.) of cocktail and a mere 5% alcohol. (150 calories each, if you’re curious.) Here’s how the three varieties come across. All three have the appearance of dark coffee, complete with a small layer of crema on top when poured into a glass.

Kahlua Iced Espresso – Mild coffee with mild Kahlua notes, but a reasonable expression of both the constituent components. Somewhat nutty, with burnt caramel notes on the finish. Drinkable, even the whole can. B+

Kahlua Iced Mocha – Sweet, with more chocolate than coffee character, but neither is exceptionally strong. Not bad, but the thick aftertaste starts to coat the tongue after a while. B

Kahlua Iced Coffee with Cinnamon Spice – Like a Starbucks concoction, which is a bit much for my tastes. Very strong cinnamon and sugar on the nose, and plenty more where that came from as you sip. Like the mocha in the cloying department, times three. C+

$2.50 per 200ml can /


Review: D’usse Cognac VSOP

This new Cognac is being launched by Bacardi and endorsed by Jay-Z. The package is one of the snazziest I’ve seen in a long time, and the name, pronounced “dew-say,” is exotic enough to pique anyone’s interest.

Produced by a 220-year-old Cognac house, Otard, D’usse is a premium-priced VSOP but is intended mainly as a mixer.

That’s a good idea, actually. There’s so much boozy alcohol on this that it takes quite a while to blow off. Once it does, D’usse’s VSOP leaves behind a relatively modest profile: Wood, raisins, orange, with a finish that recalls a few baking spices, particularly nutmeg.

That all sounds pretty tasty, but there’s just so much rawness in this spirit that the sweeter, more delicate notes have trouble muscling through. This is a brandy that needs much more time simmering down in cask to show its true promise. Until then, yeah, it’s a mixer.

80 proof.

C+ / $50 /

d'usse cognac

Review: Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery Grogs and Vodka

Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery (aka Ye Ole Grog Distillery) is a St. Helens, Oregon-based outfit specializing in, well, grog. Many enamored with the lives of pirates have probably invoked he word grog in some fashion or another… but don’t really know what it is. So, what is it?

In the old days, grog mainly meant rum watered down either with regular water or some form of beer. Served aboard ships, it was intended to make the rum last longer during those lengthy voyages… and keep the crew from getting completely sloshed. The term has of course evolved since then. There are grogs that are basically spiced rums, grogs that are mixes of juice and booze, and grogs that mean pretty much anything in the alcoholic spirits category. And now there is this “grog.”

Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery’s product begins with grain neutral spirit feed stock that is “treated with a weathered, time-proven, natural process” that comes out of Russia. This is distilled in a pot still and used as a base for the three products below. What are they? For purposes of classification, one is a vodka (and is called such), and the two grogs fly closest to flavored vodka by virtue of their process of creation. I don’t know if names really matter, though. Feel free to just call ‘em “grog!”

Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery Dog Watch Vodka – This is essentially a re-distilled version of the above described base spirit, unfiltered, unflavored, and bottled at 80 proof. Put simply, this is unlike any vodka you’ve ever had. Everything about it screams unaged rum or even pisco: Hard-edged with a bitter body, gasoline notes, and a tough finish. A thinner version of a rhum agricole in flavor, this didn’t thrill me on its own, but I could see it working as a substitute for white rum in a handful of coctails. C / $25

Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery Good Morning Glory Grog – This spirit is sweetened with blue agave nectar, flavored with four (unlisted) natural flavors, and bottled at 70 proof. Wow, this is a different experience than the above. The nose: cinnamon and buttered popcorn. On the palate, overwhelming sweetness, which makes that cinnamon and popcorn taste more like Hot Tamales and popcorn Jelly Belly candies. Ultra-sweet, it’s difficult to handle much of this straight. C- / $25

Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery Dutch Harbor Breeze – This spirit is flavored with six flavors, sweetened with agave nectar, aged in charred oak barrels and with cinnamon (sticks in the barrel, I presume) for an unspecified length of time, then bottled at 100 proof. There’s so much going on with this that one barely knows where to start. Intense cinnamon and licorice notes on the nose are just the start. On the tongue those flavors are ramped up massively, turning into a burn-heavy root beer with a smoky, woody kick to it. This intense fruitcake-in-a-glass has more charm than its compadres, but the body is so powerful that it puts everything else to shame, even something as intense as Fernet Branca. As a dash of flavor in a cocktail this could offer a splash of something exotic. On its own, however, it’s just too wild to be overly dangerous. C+ / $30

Review: Jailers Tennessee Whiskey, Breakout Rye, and Forbidden Secret Cream Liqueur

Today we look at three new whiskey products brought to us by  a new company, the Tennessee Spirits Company, a division of Capital Brands. Formed by a group of spirits industry veterans, the focus here is (obviously) on Tennessee whiskeys, with this trilogy the inaugural releases.

TSC doesn’t have its own distillery (yet) but plans to build one, including a visitor’s center. These three spirits are obviously private-label creations for now (one doesn’t just start a business and sell an 8-year-old rye the next day), and it will probably take a few stabs at this to hit the right groove while that distillery gets up and running.

Jailers Premium Tennessee Whiskey – A mashbill of 80% corn plus assorted rye and malted barley go into this whiskey, which is double distilled, steeped in maple chips, then aged for 4 to 5 years in charred white oak barrels. It is chill-filtered and bottled at 86 proof. Very fruity, it’s got distinct macerated Bing cherry character, then the wood — charred cherrywood — comes along after a bit. This is a hot whiskey with a moderate body, quite sharp, with a warming finish. It’s a Tennessee whiskey that’s hard to peg: It’s not the easy drinker of, say, Jack Daniel’s, but there’s so much fruit here it’s hard not to imagine it in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. B+ / $25

Breakout American Rye Whiskey – A mashbill of 51%-plus rye (plus corn and malted barley) goes into a double-distilled whiskey that is put into white oak barrels for eight years. Like Jailers, it’s bottled at 86 proof. This is a tricky and unexpected rye. Malty and dusty, this has the distinct character of a whiskey that’s spent too long in wood. Some buttery toffee character lives on the nose, but it’s quickly subsumed by all that wood, coming together with a bit of a sawdust character. In the end Breakout just doesn’t have a great rye body to it, and the whiskey doesn’t ever come together the way it should. C+ / $45

Forbidden Secret Dark Mocha American Cream – A Bailey’s clone, though the “artificial liqueur” label on the bottle doesn’t instill confidence. Essentially this is a blend of Jailers Whiskey, cream, chocolate, and espresso, and it tastes like you think it does: Sweet, creamy, and and much like a boozy version of something you’d order at Starbucks. All the elements listed above are here, in a pretty good balance. If you like whiskey/cream liqueurs, you’ll dig this one, “artificial” or no. 30 proof.  A- / $25

Review: Four SakeOne Sakes

We’ve got a sake primer, courtesy of SakeOne and Momokawa, for you right here — and this week the Oregon-based sake empire sent us four samples for our consideration, particularly as cocktail ingredients. There’s a whole bunch of recipes involving these sakes available here. We won’t reprint them all but encourage you to pick up a bottle of one of the below — they’re very affordable — and experiment all you’d like. Just remember: Sake is at its best when it’s very fresh.

Comments below are based on the unadulterated stuff.

Momokawa Organic Medium Rich Junmai Ginjo Sake (re-reviewed) – A sake with a moderate body, quite a tart and sweet little number, rich with malty notes, melons, pears, and an easy earthiness. Quite drinkable, but the finish fades too quickly. 14.5% abv. A- / $13

SakeOne G “joy” Junmai Ginjo Genshu Sake – As much as I like the Organic, this sake is immediately bigger and bolder, which creates a stronger and rather immediate impression. Filled with big, stewed fruit character, it comes with a powerfully sour finish that is almost overwhelming. Likeable, but less easy-drinking than the Organic. 18% abv. B+ / $20

Moonstone Asian Pear Sake – The pear is right there on the nose, almost candy-like. That continues into the body, where you’ll find a Starburst-like sweetness that plays, not entirely harmoniously, with the melon tones of the sake underneath. 12% abv. C+ / $12

Moonstone Plum Sake – Lightly pink, very bright fruit on the nose. Drinking this you’d have no idea this was sake at all. The sweetness is reminiscent of a white zinfandel or a fruit-based wine, with a thick, syrupy finish reminiscent of an (admittedly better-tasting) cough syrup. Not my favorite of this bunch. 7% abv. C- / $10

Review: Stolichnaya Stoli Hot and Stoli Sticki Vodkas

Stoli says it created the flavored vodka category 50 years ago, and I’ve got no way to argue with that. Stoli Pertsovka (Pepper) and Okhotnichya (Honey and Herb) came out in 1962, and to celebrate 50 years of flavored vodkas, the company is reintroducing these two flavors under new names. We tried them both.

It is unclear where the flavorings are derived from; neither indicates it is natural or otherwise on the label. Both are 75 proof.

Stoli Hot Jalapeno Flavored Vodka – Stoli Pertsovka is being reintroduced with a more Western-friendly name, “Hot.” As pepper vodkas go, it is distinctly different than, say, Absolut Peppar, with which I put it head to head. Initially light on the palate, the pepper notes grow along with the kind of bitterness you get from an Amaro, almost like a root beer character along with some heavy vegetal notes, like a Thai Basil. Not too spicy, I think it is more subtle with the pepper than the 80-proof Absolute Peppar (B+), which offers more sweetness up front and a longer burn, plus some flavors of onions and tomato salsa. Absolut is less exotic, but arguably hotter. You be the judge as to which you prefer. B+

Stoli Sticki Honey Flavored Vodka – After sipping pepper vodkas, this is a great antidote, a straightforward honey vodka that’s smoothly sweet. What then to make of the intense rose petal nose, a character that’s downright perfumy. And not good perfumy, old-lady perfumy. Get past that and the honey character isn’t bad: Lightly earthy, dusty, and more mildly sweet than many honey whiskeys come across as. The finish is clean and clear, almost refreshing. But I have immense trouble with that rose petal nose. C+

each $24 /

Review: VnC Pre-Mixed Cocktails

Pre-mixed cocktails continue to grow in popularity. VnC, which is based in New Zealand, takes it to the ultimate conclusion: The cocktails not only have the alcohol already in them (in addition to natural juices), they’re packaged both in party size bottlings and in single serve versions, which we reviewed.

Each 200ml cocktail comes in at 14% alcohol and includes a built-in cup so you look more sophisticated than drinking out of the bottle. Woo hoo! We tasted four of the six available varieties. All are 150 calories or less per serving. Thoughts follow.

VnC Pomegranate Cosmo – Vodka, triple sec, natural flavors, pomegranate, cranberry, and lime juices. Distinctly vodka-inflected, which lends this Cosmo a bit of a cough syrup character and makes it taste boozier than it really is. A decent amount of fruit helps salvage the mix, and you can actually taste the lime juice, a nice touch. (For what it’s worth, the lady thought this was far and away her favorite.) B

VnC Margarita – Tequila, triple sec, “natural margarita flavors,” lemon, and lime juices. Tastes authentic, and unlike the Cosmo it’s very easygoing on the booziness. Sweet, with a bit of tequila kick to it, a light and credible version of a classic margie. B+

VnC Vodka Mojito – Vodka with “natural mojito flavor” and lime juice. Why would you not use rum in a mojito? White rum is one of the cheapest spirits available. Not, perhaps, cheaper than vodka, I guess. Smells better than it tastes, full of minty promise on the nose… but chalky and a bit artificial on the tongue. Leaves a lingering aftertaste. C+

VnC Pacific Breeze – Vodka with “natural MaiTai flavor,” coconut, pineapple, and lime juices. This would be far better blended with ice than a simple liquid, but as it stands it’s got that tropical flavor that you really only want when you’re sitting on the beach. Again, this would be a much better drink with rum in it, but it’s credible enough for poolside consumption in a pinch. B

each $4 per 200ml bottle /

New Malbec Roundup – Trivento and Concha y Toro

These new Argentinean Malbecs come from Trivento and Concha y Toro, the latter of which is best known for its Chilean wines. Here’s how a bumper crop of the fruit of Mendoza shakes out.

2011 Concha y Toro Frontera Malbec Cuyo – Surprisingly tart and slightly sweet, jammy, with strawberry/raspberry jelly character muted by some lightly dusty notes. Finish heads into saccharine territory. C+ / $6

2011 Concha y Toro Xplorador Malbec Mendoza – Deeper and a bit richer, but still a simple wine. Thin body, with heavy and jammy plum/prune on the finish. B- / $8

2010 Trivento Amado Sur Malbec Mendoza – A blend: 80% Malbec, 10% Bonarda, 10% Syrah. A fairly innocuous blend, this is a simple wine with dominant black cherry character, licorice on the finish, and a fairly thin profile. Unassuming but easy to drink. B- / $15

2008 Trivento Golden Reserve Malbec Lujan de Cuyo Mendoza – A clear cut above the rest, something with heft and gravitas. Lush, Cabernet-like currants in the body, with a light touch of herbs gracing the palate. Moderate and pleasant finish. A winner. A- / $22

Review: Tequila Clase Azul

I’m never quite sure what to make of the ornate tequila bottles like this. They’re striking to look at, but I always feel like they’re trying to hide something behind a lot of glass, metal, and ceramic.

Perhaps my fears are founded in the case of Clase Azul, a very expensive and unique but ham-fisted tequila that stretched the boundaries of my tequila taste glossary. This brand is beloved by many a tequila fan, but the sweetness of the house style is just too overwhelming for me. This 100% agave Highlands tequila is made with 9 to 10 year old organic agave plants, double distilled in copper alembic stills.

We tasted both the Plata and Reposado. Both expressions are 80 proof.

Tequila Clase Azul Plata is a striking blanco, unlike any other I’ve tried. On the nose: Agave and peppers, a mere hint at what’s in the glass. Take a sip and Clase Azul’s Plata goes nuts: There is so much going on here I scarcely know where to start. First off: It’s bracingly sweet, not sugary, but like Nutrasweet. Powerful and palate-jarring. If you can push past that, you get some of that agave character, plenty of nutty notes, a bit of spice, and a finish that tastes like a candy bar. It’s long and lasting, more like a liqueur than a tequila. If any 100% agave tequila could use lime and salt to balance it out — not because it’s alcoholically heavy in the slightest, mind you — this is it. C+ / $75

Tequila Clase Azul Reposado is mellowed in deep char oak for at least 8 months, which gives this tequila more character, but it retains that funky sweetness that the Plata is imbued with. Here the sweetness veers into a vanilla character, more like a creme brulee than the candy bar of the Plata. That offers more nuance to play with the slight pepper notes, but not much: The sugary notes remain overwhelming — and I am normally a huge fan of sweeter tequilas — again leaving you with a finish that coats the mouth, making you reach for the salty bar mix. B- / $90

Review: Twist Essence Water

Is bottled water less heinous if it’s flavored? Twist is lightly sweetened with agave nectar and stevia, and flavored with natural extracts, yet still claims just 0 calories. We tasted two varieties.

Twist Pomegranate Blueberry is vague in its berry allegiance, almost strawberry-like in the way it comes across. Blueberries are a bit in the distance. It’s sweeter than you’d think, but neither cloying nor gummy, the way agave-infused stuff can be. B

Twist West Indies Lime sounds awfully exotic, but the flavor is more reminiscent of Rose’s Lime Juice, a bit saccharine and lightly bitter and herbal on the finish. The lime aroma is nice, but the flavor here doesn’t come across as fully authentic, the way a margarita mix can often be. Harmless enough. C+

about $1.25 per 19 oz. bottle /


Tasting the Wines of DiamAndes de Uco

Argentina’s Bodega DiamAndes is a project born of the Pessac-Leognan based Chateau Malartic Lagraviere. The winery is now releasing three new affordable varietals, which we looked at alongside its even less expensive Perlita bottling.

2010 DiamAndes de Uco Viognier Mendoza – Smells legit with peach and apricot notes, but there’s an overwhelming, vegetal bitterness in the body. Better with food. C / $19

2010 DiamAndes de Uco Chardonnay Mendoza – More body, with a solid buttery character, and some exotic, tropical fruit character in the finish. Avoids woodiness and weediness, mercifully. B+ / $19

2010 DiamAndes de Uco Malbec Mendoza – Thin and a bit weedy, not at all hearty like great Malbecs should be. A little more balance — along with some interesting chocolate and cinnamon notes — comes along with time in the glass, but I am unconvinced it’s worth the wait. C+ / $19

2010 Perlita by DiamAndes Malbec-Syrah Mendoza - A considerable improvement over the Malbec, surprisingly, with bright, jammy flavors and plenty of strawberry fruit. Simple, but easygoing. A fun alternative to Zinfandel. B / $15

Tasting Four Pinot Noirs from Benziger’s de Coelo and Signaterra Labels

Today’s live tasting with Benziger’s Rodrigo Soto covered two of the winery’s alternate labels, showcasing Pinot Noir from two very different areas: The Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. All wines are from the 2009 vintage. Thoughts follow.

2009 Signaterra Pinot Noir Russian River Valley San Remo Vineyard – Classic Russian River Pinot, with more of a jamminess than the coastal Pinots in this roundup offer. Definitely vibrant and easy-drinking, but not terribly complex. This is a Pinot that wears its fruit on its wine-stained sleeve. The long, juicy finish reveals little else in its playbook. B+ / $34

2009 Signaterra Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Bella Luna Vineyard – More tannin gives this Pinot more depth than the San Remo, but also more of a vegetal note, particularly on the front of the wine. Some tough bramble notes play well with the big cranberry-like character, but it’s more challenging, more interesting, somewhat less “fun” than its neighbor. B+ / $34

2009 de Coelho Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Terra Neuma Vineyard – While the nose is solid with cherry notes, the body is surprisingly — almost shockingly — thin. Sure, restraint is great, but this is way too pulled back. The finish turns green, unripe and unready. C+ / $69

2009 de Coelho Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Quintas Vineyard – Still a bit restrained, but it offers more pepper on the nose than the Terra Neuma, and represents a solid improvement. Fruit and body could be deeper, but the herbal notes on the finish give this one depth. In the end, it was my favorite of the bunch. A- / $69

Review: Van Gogh Vodka Cool Peach and Rich Dark Chocolate

Two new flavored vodkas from Van Gogh, both fully in the realm of sanity when it comes to exotic inspirations. Both are naturally infused and are bottled at 70 proof.

Van Gogh Cool Peach Vodka speaks for itself, evidently desiring to challenge Southern Comfort’s place in the peach-flavored pantheon. The nose is authentic and bright, promising great things within, but the body is sharp and biting. The peach character struggles to get through the raw alcohol notes, and the finish is hard and flat. Van Gogh has much more interesting flavors up its sleeve than this one. C+

Van Gogh Rich Dark Chocolate Vodka is intensely dark in color (thanks in part to caramel coloring added) and again the nose is promising and curious. Chocolate, yes, but lots of coffee character, too. This continues on to the palate. If I didn’t know any better I’d have thought this was a coffee liqueur, not a chocolate one, the flavors are that strong. Yes, chocolate appears here too, and it is clearly bittersweet in comparison to, say, a milk chocolate spirit, with a little wood char coming through in the end. More intense than most chocolate vodkas, for sure. B+

each $30 /

van gogh Rich Dark Chocolate and Cool Peach

Review: Two New Albarinos

Here’s a quick look at a couple of new, relatively inexpensive Albarinos from the Rias Baixas region of Spain.

2010 Serra da Estrela Albarino Rias Baixas – Crisp and tropical, but with a distinct undertone of vegetation. The light body, moderate acid, and lemongrass notes on the finish make it worthwhile. B / $18

2009 Mar de Frades Albarino Rias Baixes – Less enthralling. Again, tropical (think mangoes), but sweeter and more forward. The finish is again sugary, and it clashes a bit with food. C+ / $22

Review: 2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau

I don’t know where the rule is written that Beaujolais Nouveau labels have to be more garish each year, but Duboeuf is doing its best to follow that rule to the letter. 2011’s labels aren’t quite horrific, but they’re getting there. The good news, of course, is that they’ll be gone by the time New Year’s rolls around.

We tasted both of the 2011 releases, which are officially hitting the market tonight.

2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau – Exceptionally pruny, with a thin body. The finish is underwhelming, funky. Very similar to the candy-coated 2010. C+ / $10

2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau – A modest improvement, with a (very welcome) bigger body and more of a sense of balance. Still, it’s overwhelming in the jammy fruit department. This year it’s more cherry than strawberry, but it still has a ways to go toward hitting true drinkability. That said, it’s fun to try once a year, though. B- / $12

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2011