Category Archives: Rated D/F

Review: 2008 & 2009 Mouton Cadet and Cadet d’Oc Wines

Now on its 80th year, Mouton Cadet is a venerable budget label from the venerable Baron Philippe de Rothschild. (If your supermarket carries any French wine, it’s probably this.)

The brand is now extending the line but instead of blending a selection of grapes, traditional with all Bordeaux wines, the new Cadet d’Oc wines (pictured) are 100% varietal wines sourced not from Bordeaux but from the Languedoc region.

All feature rock-bottom pricing: $9.99 a bottle.

2009 Mouton Cadet Blanc White Bordeaux – 65% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Semillon, and 5% Muscadelle. Lemony, with clear, unripened melon notes. A little fuzzy on the finish, but perfectly palatable and easygoing. B+

2008 Mouton Cadet Rouge Red Bordeaux – 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Cabernet Franc. Bitter and rough, as difficult as the Mouton Cadet Blanc is simple and easy. Not a winner. D+

2009 Cadet d’Oc Chardonnay - An efficient Chardonnay, lightly oaked and crisp with apple notes. The finish is a bit off but for the price it’s certainly good enough for a weekday dinner. B+

2009 Cadet d’Oc Cabernet Sauvignon - Exactly what you’d expect from a $10 imported Cab, jammy and smoky with wood notes — probably some shortcuts in the aging here. Some fine plum character at its core, but there’s too much greenery and vegetable notes to make it anything more than not unpleasant. C+

each $10 /

Review: 2008 and 2009 Monthaven Boxed Wines

Monthaven’s 2008 Chardonnay didn’t exactly impress us.

Today the company is back to try again with its 2009 release, plus two new reds from the 2008 vintage, all served up in convenient 3 liter boxes.

Yes, that’s 9 liters of wine. No, we did not drink it all. (Not possible.)

2009 Monthaven Chardonnay Central Coast is at least better than the 2008. Young and with minimal oaking, it’s pretty easy-drinking, and not overly imbued with any particular character. Apple notes are light and fruity, with a little hint of pineapple and some wood in the finish. Passable. B-

2008 Monthaven Merlot Central Coast is undistinguished in nearly any way. Watery and thin, it tastes unbelievably young and without any body or character beyond very simple cherry fruit. Harmless. C

2008 Monthaven Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast is the worst of the lot. Incredibly green, it is embarassingly young, racy with the paradox of both unripe berry and raw raspberry juice notes. Tastes extremely cheap. A hard sell, to say the least. D+

$20 per 3L box /

Review: Southern Comfort Lime

It says on the bottle: “The classic reinvented.”

I suppose Southern Comfort is a classic. It’s got its own well-established nickname — SoCo — and the peach liqueur is called for in more cocktail recipes than you’d think.

What then to make of Southern Comfort Lime? Take some sweetened lime juice (like Rose’s) and add it to SoCo and you’ve got SoCo Lime. Imagine that SoCo sweetness plus the overwhelming tartness of lime juice.

It tastes like it sounds: Not really pleasant at all.

OK, I’m being charitable. The aroma alone is nauseating, and in your mouth it tastes like jet fuel. The lime is over-the-top, and that saccharine SoCo burn is overwhelming, redolent of menthol and gasoline. SoCo suggests drinking this on the rocks, but that’s a fool’s errand. Perhaps with lots of soda or ginger ale this could be palatable, but even that sounds like madness when much better mixing spirits are available. SoCo Lime is simply a bad idea. I don’t want to heap insult atop injury, but, seriously, if you need lime-flavored SoCo, I’m begging you: Buy a lime.

55 proof.

D- / $18 /

Southern Comfort Lime Review: Southern Comfort Lime

Review: Conway Family Deep Sea Wines

Under its Deep Sea label, Conway Family Wines produces a passel of products. In our sampling, quality was all over the map, with a couple certainly worth a try.

2009 Deep Sea Sea Flower Dry Rose – Strawberries and perfume in this rose of Grenache (68%) and Syrah (38%), though the finish is a bit thin. As modern roses go, this one is refreshing but on the simple side.  B / $25

2008 Deep Sea Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley – 15 months in oak give this Chardonnay an incredible amount of wood character. It’s like drinking the residue from a wood chipper, it’s so overdone. If you can get past it, you’ll find intense honey and heather notes in there, but the balance is all wrong. It’s too sweet, too smoky, and far too heavy. Not at all for me. D+ / $34

2008 Deep Sea Red Central Coast – A bizarre blend: Syrah 74.3%, Petite Sirah 13.5%, Lagrein 5.8%, Merlot 3.7%, and Mourvèdre 2.6%. Whoa. Ultra-jammy, this is distinctly Syrah-focused with an overwhelming fruitiness and sweetness that it’s a little difficult to really get a handle on. Tastes young and quite simple, but the vegetal notes on the nose — from the Lagrein, perhaps? — don’t serve it well. C / $28

2008 Deep Sea Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills – The best wine in the bunch reviewed here, a classic and almost elegant Pinot Noir, though not as big as most Santa Barbara Pinots tend to be. Light cherry notes on a moderate to light body, with mild earth notes playing backup. Easy to like, though uncomplicated. B+ / $36

deep sea red wine 2008 Review: Conway Family Deep Sea Wines

Review: Ursus Vodka

Everyone needs a gimmick, but the vodka industry, where product is legion, needs it more than anyone.

Ursus Vodka, which hails from the Netherlands and is distilled “from grain,” is a budget brand with a trick: Like Coors Light’s newer bottles, the bears on the label turn from white to blue when it’s chilled. (It does take a bit of chilling: The label turns blue in the freezer, but not in the refrigerator.)

In addition to a standard vodka, there are three flavored versions, two of which I sampled for review.

Ursus Vodka (unflavored) is a standard 80 proof, basically unremarkable in any way. Strongly medicinal on the nose and moderately harsh on the palate, it’s lightly sweet but with a lot of bite and a rough finish. Probably suited only for mixing bulk drinks. C-

Ursus Blue Raspberry Vodka is the color of that stuff they disinfect combs in at the cleaners, which is probably how it will be used: To add blueness to a cocktail when no blue curacao is available. Sweet but not horribly so, it’s a cross between real raspberry and cough syrup that may be satisfying to ultra sweet tooths. The finish coats the mouth in a slightly disturbing way. 60 proof. C-

Ursus Green Apple Vodka is the Scope to Blue Raspberry’s comb disinfecting liquid, color-wise anyway. Scope flavor would be an improvement, actually. The nose has no apple character at all; it’s more akin to some kind of industrial cleaning fluid. A touch of Apple-flavored Kool-Aid in the body does very little for this spirit, which is almost unbearable to actually drink, harsh and offensive. I hate to be quite  blunt, but it’s one of the worst products I’ve sampled in the history of this blog. 60 proof. F

each $11 / no website

Review: El Jimador “New Mix” Tequila Cocktails

“New Mix” is not a slogan stuck on the can of El Jimador’s ready-to-drink tequila cocktails. It’s the actual name of the product: New Mix.

Hugely popular in Mexico, New Mix now comes in five flavors. We’ve had the first three flavors sitting in the fridge literally for months, and finally we are getting around to cracking them open to see what all the fuss is about. (We’re still not sure.)

Each is 5 percent alcohol and is made with actual tequila. The drinks are lightly carbonated.

Thoughts in each follow.

El Jimador New Mix Margarita looks like a lemon-lime soda, and frankly tastes like it too. The fizzy concoction is solid soft drink up front, then you get that tequila bite in the finish. There’s not much of it, but it’s noticeable. That said, this tastes almost nothing like a margarita (with none of the flavor of triple sec that it claims to have), but a lot more like a Seven-and-Tequila, but I guess that wouldn’t look as good on the label. C

El Jimador New Mix Paloma – A paloma is traditionally a grapefruit juice and tequila cocktail, and this rendition does at least smell like grapefruit when you crack open the can. The flavor is a little funkier than that, though — less grapefruit and more of a canned fruit salad. Less tequila bite than the margarita New Mix, which in this case is not a great thing. C-

El Jimador New Mix Spicy Mango Margarita – It’s not an orange crush in that can, it’s a spicy mango margarita! El Jimador radically overreaches here, pulling off something that is more reminiscent of Red Bull than anything that bears resemblance to spice, mango, or margarita. No idea where this one came from or why it exists. D

Review: CalNaturale Wines

Get rid of glass and you can jam much more wine into the same amount of space.

CalNaturale uses Tetra Pak cartons to put one liter of wine into a compact and sturdy package — essentially a boxed wine, just in a much smaller box than the usual 3-liter container.

For good measure, both of  the wines out of CalNaturale are made with organic grapes. Here’s how they taste.

2009 CalNaturale Chardonnay hails from Mendocino and is quite drinkable, if plain. Modestly oaked, it offers some unusual character, including banana and tart guava notes atop a pear-like core. A little metallic on the finish. B- / $13 (one-liter package)

2008 CalNaturale Cabernet Sauvignon, as many inexpensive cabs go, is not nearly as easygoing. A very young and brash cab, this Paso Robles wine needs far more time in wood to soften its strawberry-flavored jamminess, which makes it so fruity it almost comes across like children’s punch. D / $13 (one-liter package)

Both are also available in 500ml packages.

Review: Crunk!!! Energy Drink and Energy Stix

We have Drank, why not have Crunk!!! too?

While “crunk” is technically a combination of “crazy” and “drunk,” Crunk!!! (yes, three exclamation points) contains no alcohol. It is rather another energy drink loaded with caffeine, inositol, green tea leaf, damiana, licorice, guarana, l-tyrosine, horny goat weed, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, grape seed extract, skull cap, white willow, and (whew) ashwaganda (which is specifically touted on the can).

While the folks behind Crunk!!! don’t make any medical claims, the ingredients in each can promise to aid memory, well-being, virility, calmness, aches, pain, and more. Not exactly anything we’d consider “crunk-like,” but no matter… it’s just a name, right?

crunk energy stix 176x300 Review: Crunk!!! Energy Drink and Energy StixAvailable in five flavors, each 16 oz. can is lightly carbonated and has 240 calories and 96mg of caffeine. (There’s also Energy Stix… more on that later.)

Crunk!!! Original is flavored with pomegranate but has a distinct overly sweetened and cloying cough syrup character to it. Perhaps it’s just what the average Crunk!!! fan desires? Not terribly enticing. D+

Crunk!!! Grape-Acai is better but quite sour, and fans of grape-flavored drink will likely find it not sweet enough for regular consumption. Tolerable, though. C+

Crunk!!! Mango-Peach is a fairly winning combination of flavors. The taste is light and reasonably fruity. I could see finishing this whole can if I had to. B

Crunk!!! Citrus is the lemon-lime version, but it’s closer to Mountain Dew than 7-Up. Powerful bitterness on the finish; the fruit juice in this one just can’t overpower the herbs and additives. C

Crunk!!! Low Carb Sugar Free is the diet version of Crunk!!! Original, with just 10 calories instead of 240. Sadly, it smells altogether awful (think a football field after a long rainstorm) and tastes only marginally better. D-

Crunk!!! Energy Stix is another beast altogether. These Pixie Stix-like packs are designed to be ripped open and dropped right on your tongue. I tried one (10 calories) and found it to be only mildly unpleasant, though the powder is easy to inhale and can give you a bit of a headache. C+ / $3 for pack of two sticks

As for the “rush,” I’d say all forms of Crunk!!! have a pretty standard caffeine hit, and contrary to the company’s claims there is a crash some hours later.

$44 for case of 24 16-oz. cans /

crunk energy drink Review: Crunk!!! Energy Drink and Energy Stix

Review: Super Sake Smackdown

Is sake making a comeback?

For whatever reason, Drinkhacker HQ has been flooded with the stuff of late. The intricacies of sake styles are too involved and complex to go into here, so if you’re interested in the differences between, say, junmai and ginjo, I’ll refer you to this Wikipedia article.

Here’s our look at six new and classic sakes on the market — and one plum wine just for kicks. Because, seriously, when are we going to want to drink plum wine by itself?

All sakes were tasted chilled.

Samurai Love Sake (Japan) – Surprisingly fresh, with crisp cantaloupe notes and a dry, medium body. The finish is lackluster, but otherwise it’s a solid sake, despite the gimmicky packaging (red bottle with intertwined “male” and “female” symbols on it) and the silly name. 15% alcohol by volume. B+ / $32 (720ml)

Gekkeikan (California) – Commonly available at restaurants and grocery stores, and nothing special. Sharp on the tongue, very mild melon character, and a flat finish. Made in Folsom, perhaps better known for its prison than its sake. 15.6% alcohol by volume. C+ / $8 (750ml)

Gekkeikan Haiku (California) – Gekeikkan’s premium bottling. Quite a different character. Spicy attack, bolder body, and a warming finish. Bit of a fishy nose, though, and not entirely balanced. Considerably sweeter than most other sakes sampled. 15% alcohol by volume. B- / $13 (750ml)

Momokawa Diamond Junmai Ginjo Sake (Oregon) – Harsh on first sip, despite a lower alcohol level. Not much going on here, flavor-wise, though you’ll get cantaloupe notes if you leave it on the tongue for a long while. Finish is dry and mild. Disappointing. Widely available in Japanese restaurants. 14% alcohol by volume. C / $13 (750ml)

Konteki Tears of Dawn Daiginjo (Japan) – Complex, with huge melon character and a sharp, almost acidic body. Slight briny character, long and slightly sweet finish. Interesting but not fully balanced. 15.5% alcohol by volume. B+ / $39 (720ml)

Konteki Pearls of Simplicity Junmai Daiginjo (Japan) – Good balance, freshly fruity with crisp melon and a moderately long finish. Good hints of sweetness make it easy drinking, yet with a bit of complexity, too. Favorite sake of the tasting. 15.5% alcohol by volume. A- / $39 (720ml)

Japanese Plum Gekkeikan (Japan) – Despite the same name, this Gekkeikan is actually from Japan, while Gekkeikan sake is from the United States. No matter. This plum wine is medicinal, almost sickly sweet, and difficult to choke down in any but the smallest of sips. Yeah, tastes like plum juice mixed in with red wine that’s gone off. Not a fan. 13% alcohol by volume. D+ / $13 (750ml)

Review: HobNob Wines

Can the French go toe to toe with the Australians at their own game: Putting out cheap and simple varietally-focused wines that consumers will lap up? All that’s missing is the animal on the label.

Here’s how the five wines of the HobNob label — sometimes seen as Hob Nob and all hailing from “the sunny hills of southern France” — stack up.

hobnob wines Review: HobNob Wines2007 HobNob Chardonnay – Not drinkable, heavily perfumed with mint and incense. Like licking a belly dancer, and not in a good way. D

2008 HobNob Pinot Noir – Smoky and meaty, this is more harmless than the chardonnay, but a bitter green finish mucks things up. C

2006 HobNob Merlot – Jammy, somewhat easydrinking, but with a big green olive kick. Bizarre, but not horrible. C+

2007 HobNob Cabernet Sauvignon – Extremely light but clearly cabernet, at least — rare for these wines which defy varietal classification. A lot like the merlot, but with less abrasive components. Harmless. B-

2006 HobNob Shiraz – Plummy but mild. A little chewy, but easy to deal with. Curiously uses the Aussie “Shiraz” name instead of the Francophilic “Syrah.” B

$11 each /

Review: Agwa de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur

Made from coca leaves. Wow, OK. Not quite sure how to even begin with this one.

Agwa de Bolivia (“crafted in Amsterdam”) is one hell of a liqueur, a mouthwash green monster that’s pungent with menthol character and greener than Scope — and, yes, made with real coca leaf. (Hey, don’t get too excited. So is Coca-Cola.)

Powerfully minty, I imagine this is what you’d get if you dissolved a bunch of Hall’s menthol cough drops in 60 proof alcohol, and added in plenty of artificial coloring to make it look psychedelic.

Agwa suggests you drink no more than three shots of this stuff in one sitting. I think that actual number might be somewhat lower.

D+ / $35 /

agwa de bolivia coca leaf liqueur Review: Agwa de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur

Review: Master of Malt Single Cask Scotch Whisky Collection

Master of Malt is a whisky and spirits merchant, and it’s also making its own line of spirits from privately bottled single malt scotches from all over Scotland — including at least one I’d never even heard of before. We sampled a solid five of these offerings, with results all over the proverbial map.

Master of Malt M’Orkney 11 Years Old – Good honey character, with strong sherry notes laced throughout and a touch of smokiness, too. There’s a touch of bitterness in the mix that makes things a little unbalanced, but a vanilla note that comes back in the end makes it all worthwhile. 80 proof. B+ / $58

Master of Malt Arran 12 Years Old – Something funky about this one, and not in a good way. Ultra-briny, with a kind of citrus peel (grapefruit?) overtone. Diesel fuel in the nose and the body, with a hard finish. This is a wild experience that you’ll either love or hate. I’m not a big fan. 80 proof. C- / $75

Master of Malt Tamnavulin 16 Years Old – Good lord, this is something unusual and totally off the wall, and not in a good way, with a kind of burnt wood-meets-raw alcohol body. Deadly finish with a distinct unpleasantness. Not a fan. 110.2 proof. D / $100

Master of Malt Tomantin Cask Strength 19 Years Old – Something more traditional, though not expected, with a huge briny character, peat smoke, and, curiously, a little cocoa powder on the back end. A connoisseur’s whisky, it’s complicated and big, with a huge finish. Worth a try, but be prepared to be a bit flummoxed by its intricacies. 115.2 proof.  B+ / $115

Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Years Old – Huge with smoke and wood character, it needs water to make it accessible. 26 years in oak have given this whisky a big honey backbone, with some flowery notes in there, too. The finish is surprisingly short, but it’s definitely worthwhile. 106.8 proof. B+ / $165

master of malt collection Review: Master of Malt Single Cask Scotch Whisky Collection

Review: Purista Instant Mojito Mixes

Premixed cocktails are always a dicey proposition, and Purista’s two new mixers probably aren’t going to win any overnight fans.

Offering two spins on a theme — a traditional Mojito and a Blackberry Mojito — these mixes promise they are “hand-crafted” creations made with premium ingredients: In the case of the former, all-natural ingredients including sugar cane juice, mint leaves, key lime juice, and natural flavors.

Surprise then that, when mixed in the proportions recommended by the bottle (1 part mix, 1 part white rum, 2 parts club soda), a Purista Mojito doesn’t taste like much. In my experiments, it mostly tasted like club soda, maybe with the lightest touch of rum and lime. Really no mint at all. Doubling up on Purista mix helped, but quickly caused me to overdo it, turning the normally refreshing mojito cocktail into something far too sweet — and again, lacking in mintiness. C+

The Blackberry Mojito mix (a deep purple which adds blackberry juice as its only additional ingredient) is even less forgiving, sour in small proportions and worse in larger ones. While the standard Purista can be doctored, this one doesn’t work no matter what you do to it. D+

$10 per 750ml bottle /

Review: Mini Chill and iChill “Relaxation Shots”

Energy is for sissies. The future is all about the chillax.

Little two-ounce plastic shots filled with caffeine, taurine, and other ‘ines are all the rage, but the newer phenomenon is shots designed not to pump you up but to cool you down.

Two boxes of these things arrived on virtually the same day, both with “Chill” in the name. It’s probably recklessly irresponsible to down this much chilling power all at once, but that’s why we’re here: So you don’t have to. Here’s what it’s like to be this “chill.”

mini chill shot Review: Mini Chill and iChill Relaxation ShotsMini Chill Relaxation “Natural Stress Relief” includes Valerian Root, GABA, L-Theanine, and 5-HTP. I don’t know what most of that stuff is, but I do know it’s purple. The flavor is berry-like but mild, very lightly sweet via a light touch of sucralose, and actually pretty easy to drink. Do I feel relaxed after polishing one off? Yes, but I’m barely awake enough to finish typing this as it is. Nothing to do with the beer, I’m sure. B+ / $36 for twelve 2-oz. bottles /

iChill Relaxation Shot “Blissful Berry” is a much different formulation, including Vitamins B3, B6, B12, B5, Valerian Root, Rose Hips, and Melatonin. While Mini Chill purports to be non-drowsy in its formulation, iChill specifically suggests it might knock you out. That’s if you can finish it off. The taste of iChill is horrible, to be honest, oversweetened to oblivion with a Stevia-based additive, with a bitter finish and a phony berry character. Tastes like medicine. Chilling medicine. D+ / $37.50 for twelve 2-oz. bottles /

Does this stuff work? Maybe. But frankly a Melatonin or Valerian Root tablet might do you just as much good if you’re feeling a little too wired.

Review: Tribeca Light Pre-Mixed Cocktails

Pre-mixed, bottled cocktails that include alcohol continue to make a splash. Tribeca Light’s tactic: Do it all with a low-calorie approach; the label promises that a glass of a Tribeca-tail packs just half the calories of a standard cocktail.

Naturally, some sacrifices may be in order… the promise of a “sophisticated taste in a natural juice malt cocktail” is certainly not the most enticing come-on I’ve ever received, and Tribeca’s faux-deco, ’80s-styled packaging doesn’t really prepare one for the top shelf, either.

Tribeca Light premix cocktails Review: Tribeca Light Pre Mixed CocktailsUltimately what we have here is a malt beverage in the Smirnoff Ice mode, one created with natural juices… plus artificial colors and artificial sweetener. Tribeca Light mixes proudly proclaim they contain alcohol, but at 10.2% alcohol each, they don’t contain much…

Three flavors are now being introduced. Here are thoughts on the full lineup.

Tribeca Light Mojito packs a lot of lime in, and just a little mint kick. The malt-bev base isn’t easy to miss, with that boozy kind of finish that comes off as bulkish. The sweetener, though, is the problem. It’s probably sucralose, with that overpowering saccharine aftertaste that the stuff always leaves in your mouth. B-

Tribeca Light Margarita tastes little like a freshly-made margarita. If you’re a fan of super-sweet margarita mix with a little splash of booze in it, well, you’ll love Tribeca Light’s rendition. C-

Tribeca Light Pomegranate Martini is a close approximation of what you’d get if you mixed cough syrup and Zima together and let it go flat. Mmmmm…. D

pricing TBD /

Review: FrostShot “The Frozen Liquor Shot”

Great googly moogly, how does one approach discussion of FrostShot? Put simply, it’s an Otter Pop with booze in it: A plastic tube filled with sugary goo which, when frozen, becomes like slushy ice. You squeeze it out directly into your mouth.

Only Otter Pops can’t get you drunk.

They also taste a lot better than FrostShots, which are, to put it extremely mildly, an acquired taste. At just 10 percent alcohol, one goes in feeling FrostShots will be very mild, but that’s not the case at all. These things are overpowering with wild artificial flavors, and those seeking refinement and subtlety would be better served by mixing up a batch of Jello shots. One presumes the club kids will have a different response.

I will say that not all the flavors are created equally — the cherry (Cherry Bomb) is the least offensive, followed by lime (Extreme Mojito). But the passion fruit (Caribbean Passion), pineapple (Tropical Explosion), and raspberry (XXX Martini — yeah, I don’t get that one either) flavors I found wholly unconsumable, their chemical/fruit flavors nearly knocking me down right in my kitchen. As such, I can’t offer much in the way of a meaningful rating, but I’d have to put them all on varying parts of the (distant) lower half of the bell curve.

$1.49 per serving /

frostshot Review: FrostShot The Frozen Liquor Shot

Review: Fish Eye and Pinot Evil Boxed Wines

More and more producers are turning to boxes to move lots of product (they typically hold three liters vs. just 750ml of wine in a standard bottle) at rock-bottom prices.

Here’s a look at two more offerings that use cardboard and plastic in lieu of glass and cork.

Fish Eye 2008 California Pinot Grigio is a pleasant, if wholly unchallenging white. Served very cold, it’s crisp, with grassy lemon notes and a moderately clean finish. There’s not a whole lot of fruit in the glass — though that’s common with pinot grigio — but overall this is a pleasant enough wine considering the rock-bottom price. B- / $15 for 3-liter box /

Pinot Evil Non-Vintage Pinot Noir Vin de Pays de l’ile de Beaute is proof that the box wine business is better left to the less tempermental white wine world, despite it’s impressive-sounding French roots. Like a very light and young (and very cheap) Beaujolais, this wine offers prune-like fruit and a skunky finish that, quite frankly, I can’t find much charm in at all. D+ / $15 for 3-liter box /

fish eye 2008 california pinot grigio Review: Fish Eye and Pinot Evil Boxed Wines

Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending

idiot bartending Book Review: The Complete Idiots Guide to BartendingWhile I was pleasantly surprised to find that the recent Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics was a credible and well-written introductory guide to the world of wine, another book from the Idiot’s series unfortunately bears little similarity.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending, by Amy Zavatto, boasts 1,500 recipes on its cover, but sheer volume is the only thing it has going for it. The problems begin with the excruciating first four chapters (wedged into 48 pages), wherein Zavatto tries to explain how to stir a drink with ice, that you shouldn’t drink and drive, and — most painfully — explains via table that some booze is more expensive than other booze, but fails to offer an opinion on whether it’s worth it to upgrade. To see the entire wine world crammed into a third of a page (and a mere quarter page for beer) is so laughable one wonders why it wasn’t excised by a shrewd editor.

But eventually we move on to the bulk of the tome, and that is recipes. They are helpfully split up by main liquor type, but that’s about all I can agreeably say about them. Surely no one has ever ordered a bouzo — bourbon and ouzo on ice — but obscurities like this are no reason to hate the book. Rather, it’s that some of the recipes are just plain wrong. The absolute worst offender: The caipirinha recipe, which calls for the juice of an entire lime, twice as much (or more) than you’d need and likely to kill both the drink and the drinker.

Other issues are less heinous but still eyebrow-raising. The type of vermouth in most recipes is often unspecified. The martini’s vermouth is, but the recipe calls for three whopping, brutish ounces of gin and a “dash of dry vermouth.” And the recipe for sangrita included is a more obscure, alternate version, which includes no tomato juice.

Sigh. Maybe “idiots” can drink wine, but they surely shouldn’t tend bar.

D / $13

Review: Hook & Ladder Brewing Company Beers

Across the northeastern U.S. you’ll find bars serving Hook & Ladder beer, products brewed by a company with roots in the firefighting biz: The founders are two brothers, one of whom is a volunteer fireman. The beers aren’t widely distributed west of Virginia, but if you should find one, you’re in for a treat. I got my hands on all three of H&L’s brews (including its newest one, Lighter). Some thoughts below.

Golden Ale – This is H&L’s signature brew, a classic American ale that is nicely polished, rich with flavor but not too bitter. It’s a beer that fills your mouth and comes across as almost heavy, but it goes down so smoothly that it ultimately reveals itself as a real thirst-quencher that will leave you wanting another one immediately. A

Backdraft Brown – A lot like the Golden Ale, but (obviously) brown in color and more bitter, more full of hops. It’s a deep brown ale, but not nearly as bitter as the color would indicate. The roots are clearly in the Golden Ale with this one, but if you want something a little meatier it’s a good choice. I prefer the Golden, but this one works just fine. I’d take it over Newcastle any day. A-

Lighter – H&L’s entry into the light beer business won’t send the Silver Bullet marketing team into a panic. At 94 calories, it’s as watery and tasteless as any light beer I’ve tried. I couldn’t tell the difference between this and Miller Lite if you put a gun to my head. (Please don’t. I’ll drink the beer if it comes to that.) D+

Each $7 per six-pack /

hook and ladder Review: Hook & Ladder Brewing Company Beers

Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007

As previously promised, here is your coverage of the flipside of the Jones Soda Christmas Pack: The Jones Soda Chanukah Pack, loaded with four bottles of pop: Apple Sauce Soda, Latke Soda, Jelly Doughnut Soda, and Chocolate Coins Soda, plus a plastic dreidel. Here’s how they stack up against the gentiles.

happychanukahpak med Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007

Apple Sauce: I eased into things with an easy one. Surprisingly like apple sauce (and not just apple juice), quite authentic, like someone somehow carbonated and liquified apple sauce. B

Latke: Yes, I’d been warned. The smell wasn’t heinous, and quite a bit like potato pancake. It didn’t smell all that bad, unlike the Christmas Ham soda from the Xmas pack. But one taste and your mind is changed. It tastes not like potatoes but potato juice, like that stuff on the plate after you microwave a baking potato for 12 minutes. And it looks like potato juice, too. Rancid, oh-so-disgusting. D-

Jelly Doughnut: Is this really a key component of Chanukah? Anyway, the soda really does taste like jelly, not so much like doughnuts. What kind of jelly is hard to describe. Maybe strawberry, but mostly just chemical goo that’s been fermented a bit, perhaps. Not bad, but the electric pink color is off-putting. B

Chocolate Coins: Actually tastes better than those waxy, low-grade chocolate coins you get. Not bad, a lot like a pumped-up (and strong) chocolate soda or a carbonated Yoo-Hoo. Not that I want to finish off the bottle, mind you. B+

So there you have it. Chanukah edges out Christmas by a narrow margin, though both have their ups and downs. What the hell, I heartily recommend you give them both a try. Save the Latke and Ham sodas for whatever adult parlor games you have planned for after everyone’s done with dinner.

applesauce.thumbnail Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007 latke.thumbnail Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007 jelly donut.thumbnail Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007 chocolate coins.thumbnail Review: Jones Soda Chanukah Pack 2007

$12 per mixed four-pack /