Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

It was another unforgettable year at 2015’s WhiskyFest, with some of whiskydom’s most cherished icons on tap for tasting, and plenty of old friends to mingle and catch up with.

Of course, many of those old friends come in liquid form, and I had ample opportunity to revisit plenty of classic whiskies while spending time with a number of newer drams. Here’s a brief look at everything I tasted at the San Francisco installment of this essential spirits show.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015


Tullibardine 20 Years Old / A- / showing beautifully, a nice balance of vanilla and cereal notes (bourbon barrel aged)
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / A / a much different experience, with gorgeous nougat and honey notes (sherry barrel aged)
Balvenie 50 Years Old Cask 4567 / A+ / snuck out from behind a curtain, this is Balvenie shining at its brightest; not old and hoary but light on its feet and ready to dance; explosive, with dried berries, dense toffee, baking spices, and florals on the finish; 2 casks produced, the other cask is said to be very different
Balvenie 15 Years Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask / A- / very caramel heavy, racy but dense, with lots of brown sugar notes
William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old / A- / blended whiskey from three silent stills; restrained with toffee, nuts, and some kippered notes; comes out next year
Glengoyne 18 Years Old / A- / big body, notes of grain and fruitcake
Glengoyne 21 Years Old / B+ / traditional malt, with cocoa hints
Aberlour Scapa Skiren / B / lots of sweetness, with a malty backbone – plus melon, sweet mandarins
Highland Park Odin / B+ / dense and handsome, sherry with some smoky charcoal notes; not in love with this today
Dewar’s Scratched Cask / B+ / Dewar’s White with a little “scratched cask” aging; not readily distinguishable from the entry level blend, though quite powerful
Aultmore 12 Years Old / B+ / heavy vanilla and chocolate, dense with shortbread notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1964 / A- / heavy wood notes play with raisins and spice; this has seen wood for too long, though
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1984 / A / right where it’s at; vibrant and exotic, with tropical notes, plum pudding, and hints of grain; absolutely gorgeous
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend / B+ / well-balanced, malty with some smoky notes
Compass Box Hedonism 15 Years Old Anniversary Bottling / A- / a blend of single grains, all 20 years old or more; fun toffee and fruit trifle notes
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A- / rich, smoky, with a gentler fruit core
Compass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky / B / a blend of single malts and grain whisky, 19 to 40 years of age; Compass Box got into trouble over this one (more on that later); I got a little mustiness and mushroom notes here, with creosote bubbling up; not feeling it tonight


McKenzie Pure Potstill Whiskey / B- / American pure pot still? wacky! this one is very young, but that hint of classic Irish sweetness hits hard on the finish
Sonoma County Distilling Company Truffle Whiskey / B+ / 100% rye, with shaved truffles added to the barrel; not what you’re expecting, but with forest floor notes a-plenty
Stranahan’s Snowflake (Dec. 2014) / A- / easily my favorite Snowflake bottling to date, beautiful balance of sweet and spice, very pretty
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak / A- / lush and big with dried fruits, spices, and gentle granary notes; another winner from Colorado
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Years Old / A- / a classically structured bourbon, dense and stylish, with a spicy finish
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A+ / there’s a reason this whiskey is the most expensive bourbon made in America — it’s the best thing anyone is making in the country; dense raisin, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee… it just goes on and on with layer after layer of goodness
High West A Midwinter’s Night Dram Act 3 / A / my favorite AMND yet; cherry and herbs in balance (not blown out), with a licorice kick
High West Bourye Batch 15B03 / A / still gorgous; syrupy and fruity, unctuous at times
High West Single Malt 1 Month Old / NR / a work in progress, surprisingly gentle for single malt but a fun look at something coming down the pipeline… give it another 5 years at least


Forty Creek Confederation Oak / A / beautiful vanilla and maple notes, but dense and balanced
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve / A- / very enjoyable, candy corn and chocolate raisins at play
Forty Creek Evolution / A- / again, quite candylike and very sweet; 9000 bottles made
WhistlePig Straight Rye Old World Sauternes Finish 12 Years Old / A- / a very strong and sweet whisky (just one of the components of the new Old World bottling), with lemon curd notes


Diplomatico Blanco Rum 6 Years Old / B / solid, uninspired as a sipper though
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Vintage 2000 / A / vintage Diplomatico; gorgeous, sherry-finished rum, balanced perfectly

Drinkhacker’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

We at Drinkhacker have been busier than ever this year, and yet it seems impossible that it’s time for our eighth annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards.” As always, the list comprises some of the best-rated products we looked at over the last 12 months but is also focused on products that are 1) actually available, 2) worthwhile as gifts, and 3) not entirely out of the realm of affordability.

This year, by popular demand, we’re adding wine to the gift guide. It’s one of the busiest categories on the site, one of the most popular gift items on the market, and something we’ve overlooked for too many years.

As always, the offerings below are only a tiny selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, and we welcome both your suggestions for alternatives and questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle ShotBourbon – Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Years Old ($100) – So many amazing bourbons hit this year, and so many are already impossible to find. While Diageo took some early drubbing for its curious Orphan Barrel project, this year it really hit its stride. Rhetoric 21 is the best of the lot to date — and part of an ongoing project that will see older and older expressions of Rhetoric shipping every year. It’s still widely available at its original selling price, as is its near equal in the Orphan Barrel project, Forged Oak 15 Years Old ($75). I loved Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak ($75 on release), but you’ll be lucky to find it for $500 today. That makes the over-the-top (but delightful) Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century ($400/1 liter) seem like a downright bargain.

Scotch – The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old ($140) – I’m not going to break the bank this year with my malt whisky pick and rather send you hunting for the 17 year old Ben Nevis from The Exclusive Malts, an indie bottler that has been absolutely on fire with a string of amazing releases. The exotic fruit, sweetness, and cereal notes combine in an inimitable and very compelling way. A big hand is due to Diageo again in this list for its 2014 limited editions (which hit the U.S.) in March this year. If you have the cash, check out Rosebank 21 Years Old ($500), Strathmill 25 Years Old ($475), or Brora 35 Years Old ($1,250), all three from that series. Finally, peat fanatics should head directly for whatever Laphroaig 15 Years Old ($70) they can still find.

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Other Whiskey – Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt ($47) – Craft whiskey in the U.S. is finally, finally, arriving, and this year it’s landing a top spot on our best of the year list. Michigan-based Journeyman is showcasing how single malt should be made in America with this young but exuberant spirit that any whiskey fan owes it to himself to try. For another top craft pick, consider Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey ($75), a young wheat whiskey that is the best of this series so far. The Irish Yellow Spot ($95) maintains a special place in my heart next to its Green sibling — and don’t forget that rye is making leaps and bounds. One of the best is Woodford Reserve Rye ($38) — where it is actually made instead of trucked in from another state.

Gin – Oppidan American Botanical Gin ($30) – Our top gin pick this year comes from a Chicago microdistillery where a bounty of botanicals is used to spice up a London Dry style gin, giving it a delicate, floral character that should not be missed. Other great options include Tanqueray Bloomsbury ($33), Anchor Distilling Old Tom ($30), and the exotic Painted Stave South River Red Gin ($22/375ml), which really is red.

Vodka  Square One Bergamot Vodka ($35) – If you must give vodka this year, try this unusual, citrus-flavored vodka from Square One. Other good (and unflavored) options include Vodka Mariette ($30) and Tigre Blanc Vodka ($90), proceeds of which go in part to support large cats in the wild.

DP30yrs_white_USAhighresRum – Don Pancho Origenes Rare Rum 30 Years Old ($425) – New rum brands don’t pop up every day, and when they do rarely do they have a legend in the business attached. Don Pancho (aka Francisco Fernandez) is putting his name on a finished product for the first time, and it’s a doozy not to be missed. For less ritzy outlays, consider the well-aged offerings in the form of Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old ($50) or Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($40).

Brandy – Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare ($179) – A tough call from among these three stellar Cognacs, and really you can’t go wrong with any of them. My slight preference ultimately goes to Giraud and this well-priced rarity. Close runners-up: Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO ($110) and Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac ($100).

dulce vida extra anejoTequila – Dulce Vida Extra Anejo ($160) – Another solid year for tequila, this year with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff. My favorite of the bunch is from Dulce Vida, aged 5 1/2 years in used wine barrels. Great tequila with a great story behind it, too. Also worthwhile are Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2015 Rolling Stones Tour Pick ($150, also available for less sans the Stones imagery), El Mayor Reposado ($30, amazing bargain!), and the luxe Patron Extra Anejo 7 Anos ($299).

Liqueur – Spirit Works Sloe Gin ($40) – It’s a light year for quality liqueurs, but I have to give the nod to my hometown heroes Spirit Works and their killer sloe gin. Other top picks include Maraska Maraschino ($27) and Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao ($31), both of which should be home bar staples.

Wine As promised, this year we’re adding a smattering of ideas for some of the best wines we’ve seen this year that would be appropriate for gift-giving. It’s hard to pick a single “winner” (and probably not fair because availability will vary widely) but here are my top seven wines of the year, in no particular order:

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Grander Panama Rum 8 Years Old

grander rum

Grander (awkward name, admittedly) is a new brand column-distilled in Panama and bottled at 8 years old. Quite light in color, it may initially trick you into thinking this is an undercooked rum. Not so.

The nose is quite peppery, offering ample vanilla but backed up by lots of spice — both baking spices and racier black and red pepper notes. On the palate, the rum is more gentle than the nose would have you believe, with sweet butterscotch, chocolate, and lots of vanilla, all with some citrus overtones. The finish — this is slightly overproof rum — adds some alcoholic heat, but nothing you won’t be able to handle even if you’re sipping it straight. I catch some lemongrass notes from time to time here, but the overall denouement is one of flamed orange oil and a hint of bittersweet amaro.

Versatile, easygoing, and fun, this is a solid and well-rounded rum for just about any occasion.

90 proof.

A- / $37 / granderrum.com

Review: Plantation Rum Lineup (2015) – 3 Stars White, Original Dark, Barbados 5 Years Old, Extra Old 20th Anniversary, Old Reserve 2001, and Pineapple

Plantation 20 Anniv XO NEW - LOPlantation Rum is actually part of the French company Cognac Ferrand, and it produces over a dozen rums that are sourced from plantations all over the Caribbean and beyond. Some of these rums we’ve reviewed before, but today we’re taking a deep dive into six of the company’s offerings, including its first foray into a flavored product.

Let’s dive in!

Plantation 3 Stars White Rum (2015) – Made from a blend of various rums, filtered to clear. A clean white rum, it’s free of most of the petrol overtones that are endemic with so many whites. Here notes of banana and some coconut give this rum a lot of fruit and ample depth — which makes sense because some of the rum that makes up this expression is up to 12 years old. Very easygoing and highly mixable. 82.4 proof. A- / $17 (1 liter)

Plantation Original Dark Rum (2015) – Aged Trinidad stock. Funky on the nose — overly so — with bizarre hogo notes of green olives and feta cheese. A nutty, coffee-focused character emerges as the rum opens up on the palate, but it’s constrained by those herbal, bitter, funky flavors that really start to interfere with the big picture over time. 80 proof. B- / $17

Plantation Grande Reserve Rum Barbados 5 Years Old – Self-explanatory provenance here, in a rum that is light in color but long on character. A restrained nose offers hints of brown sugar, banana, and fresh apple, but keeps it in check. On the palate, huge coconut notes emerge, plus more banana and some pineapple notes. Fruit from start to finish: If you want the perfect rum for a pina colada, this is your guy. A huge bargain. 80 proof. A- / $16

Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary (2015) – The “XO” bottling of Plantation comprises old stock finished in ex-Cognac barrels. A brooding sophisticate next to the fruitier style of many of Plantation’s offerings, the XO features dense leather, tobacco, dark chocolate, and coffee notes before giving way to darker fruit notes — prune, plum, and blackberry. Some tropical emerge with time, but they struggle to get through the brooding, almost fireside character. That’s not a bad thing. This is complex, old, and quite enchanting rum at its finest. 80 proof. A / $43

Plantation Rum Old Reserve 2001 Jamaica – An update on the 2000 line, this single-vintage rum is pushy and funky, a cousin of the Original Dark above, writ small. It’s intense and funky, but light on its feet, folding fruit into a base that offers a heavily vegetal and pungent character. Slightly smoky, with hospital notes, it’s certainly not a rum for beginners, though one can see how it might find a home in a less fruit-forward cocktail like a Zombie or even a powerful update to a Hemingway Daiquiri. 84 proof. B / $40

Plantation Artisinal Infusion Original Dark Pineapple Rum – A pineapple-infused version of the Original Dark above. You’ll smell it right away from the second the bottle is cracked open — big, sugary pineapple notes that absolutely take over the whole affair. There’s an argument that perhaps the nose should do that — but for my money I’d rather take the more nuanced Barbados 5 Year Old (at half the price, mind you) and use that as the base for any fruity cocktails I was making. All in all, here we see juicy pineapple meet a dusting of brown sugar — and that’s really the end of the story. 80 proof. B / $43


Review: Rational Spirits Santeria Rum

santeriaRemember Lost Spirits, the guys making 20 year old rum in 8 days? Well, after my Wired article hit, the company got venture capital funding, commercialized its reactor, and made deals with pretty much every distillery you’ve ever heard of — either to make commercial products or to provide experimental services.

Now the first third-party rum to come from a Lost Spirits accelerated aging reactor is hitting the market: Santeria Rum. Bryan Davis, Lost Spirits’ head honcho, made Santeria batch #1 on behalf of Rational before turning the reactor over to them for the second go. The Charleston-based Rational provided new-make, unaged rum to Davis, who ran it through the system and turned out this inky, molasses-hued monster, which was bottled at “cask strength” — quotes, because there is no cask, really.

I tried both the new-make and the finished product. Santeria starts with a quite fruity (very ripe banana-heavy) spirit with overtones of almonds, hospital antiseptic, and the sticky-sweet dunder character of young, Jamaica-style rum. After processing, it’s dark as night and the profile comes across as you might expect: Intense coffee grounds, dark chocolate, walnuts, cloves, and ample molasses on the nose. On the tongue, there’s more of the same, plus that sweet banana from the new-make and plenty of rummy funk on the back end. The finish is long and bitter-savory, with some lightly smoky elements to it.

Ultimately this is an interesting comparison and companion to Lost Spirits Colonial Rum, which underwent the same process but has a different base spirit as an input. Colonial is more brooding, pungent, and smokier, broader in heft and more muscular on the finish. Santeria is a bit more accessible today but, as with Colonial, drinks like some really, really, old and funky stuff. Rum nuts need to try it.

115 proof.

A- / $NA / rationalspirits.com

Review: Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva

diplomatica reserva exc

If you see a cocktail on a menu with Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva in the ingredient list, buy it. Doesn’t much matter what else is in it. I guarantee you’re going to have a hell of a good drink.

Exclusiva is the top of Diplomatico’s “tradition” line — though there’s a pair of “prestige” rums above this, but those are crazy expensive. This Venezuela-born rum spends up to 12 years in oak casks. That’s not insanely old in the rum world, but the dense chocolate brown color of the rum sure makes it seem like it’s been in cask for considerably longer than that.

Exclusiva features heavy notes of coffee, licorice, and dark brown sugar — both on the nose and much more intensely in on the palate. Dark chocolate is heavy on the finish, with a touch of maple bar. The rum is extremely gentle and pleasant, no burn or bite at all — to the point of dangerousness. It’s simply far too easy to sip on glass after glass of this stuff without realizing quite how much you’re drinking.

Ultimately, there’s nothing much surprising about Exclusiva, but it hits all the right notes you want in a nicely aged rum — and the bottle looks like something Jack Sparrow would drink out of. Epic win.

80 proof.

A / $40 / rondiplomatico.com

Review: Cruzan Blueberry Lemonade Rum

I’m not gonna lie. It’s over 90 degrees outside as I write this, and nothing sounds better than a glass of cold blueberry lemonade. Cruzan’s latest flavor unfortunately won’t get you there — even with a ton of ice, it’s too sweet and saccharine to recreate a boozy lemonade on its own.

At a mere 42 proof, this concoction isn’t much stronger than a bottle of wine. The nose is indistinct with citrus notes, the body pushy with liquid sugar more than anything else. Both of the label-promised elements come to play in due time: First the blueberry, which has a candied/syrupy character like you might find in a box of breakfast cereal. Then the lemony notes on the finish. Lemonade? More like Lemonheads candy.

As a mixer (with real lemonade) this might be fun… but once you get to that level, well, what’s the point?

C / $12 / cruzanrum.com

Review: Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old and 23 Years Old


Kirk and Sweeney 12 Years Old, imported by Sonoma’s 35 Maple Street, is one of the best artisan rums on the market. And that’s just a babe at a mere 12 years old.

Today we’re looking at the older line extensions of Kirk and Sweeney, including the 18 year old and 23 year old expressions. All three are bottled in similar, urn-inspired decanters, so look for the digits etched onto the glass in order to help keep them straight.

Both are 80 proof.

Thoughts follow.

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 18 Years Old – Traditional, well-aged rum notes on the nose — brown sugar, vanilla, and some chocolate/coffee overtones. The body starts things off in that direction, then takes an interesting side street toward some curious red wine notes. The coffee character builds as the finish grows, along with some leather notes and a bit of dense sweetness, almost Port-like as it mingles with that wine-like character. Austere and worthwhile. A- / $40

Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old – At 23 years old, this rum is fully matured and ready for sipping on the beach, shoes off. Here you’ll find deep caramel, flecked with barrel char, toffee, intense vanilla, and a touch of baking spice — particularly cloves. They’re all here, from the nose, to the palate, to the rich, silky finish. This isn’t a particularly complicated rum, but it’s got a laser focus on the elements that make rum great. It’s one of the best rums on the market and, at just 50 bucks, quite a bargain. What’s a 23 year old bourbon going to cost you, eh? A / $50  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]


Review: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, and Appleton Rare Blend 12 Years Old Rum (2015)


It’s been six years since we last reviewed Appleton‘s Jamaican-born rums, and the company has recently done some label and nomenclature updates across the line. The distillery tells us that the recipes and the juice inside (nor the Rubenesque bottle design) haven’t changed, so let’s take a fresh look at one of the icons of the rum business and see how things are shaping up in 2015.

appleton1Appleton Estate Signature Blend – Formerly Appleton V/X. A blend of 15 rums, average age 4 years old. No age statement. The entry level Appleton is a bit rustic and punchy, with some sharp medicinal character to it. Clearly designed as a mixer, this nicely golden rum offers big molasses backed by barrel char notes and some burnt marshmallow. A touch of banana on the back end. It’s got more than a bit of a weedy finish due to its significant youth, but it does give this rum some funky character that’s fun to play with in a cocktail. 80 proof. B / $18

appleton3Appleton Estate Reserve Blend – Formerly Appleton Estate Reserve. A blend of 20 rums, average age 6 years old. No age statement. Quite a bit more refined than the Signature, with its rough edges filed down a bit. The Estate Reserve Blend offers a sherried note up front, full of citrus and cloves, that winds its way slowly into bold vanilla and Christmas spice character. Deftly balanced between the sharp attack and the festive finish, it manages to keep a foot in both the rustic and refined worlds. Great on its own or in cocktails. 80 proof. A- / $26

Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Years Old – Replaces Appleton Extra 12 Years Old. The youngest of Appleton’s age statement rums, this one (obviously) 12 years old. No blending information offered. This is top notch rum here, and easily the best of the bunch. Refined tropical notes — banana, coconut, brown sugar, vanilla-fueled barrel char — it’s all there, right on the nose. The body takes on a fruitier character, with chocolate lacing and more of a flame-kissed/charred fruit note, giving the rum a distinctly sweet, dessert-friendly character, yet it offers a little extra oomph thanks to the slightly higher proof. This one’s hard to put down — and so beautiful it’s a perfect candidate for straight sipping. 86 proof. A / $32


Recipes for National Rum Day, 2015

Of all of the marketing-designated holidays which have come and gone over the years, few have had the staying power National Rum Day (August 16) has managed to muster. Aside from a few other special days (the Super Bowl and St. Patty’s come to mind), our inbox rarely gets this full of suggestions from PR firms. Here are a few we’ve tested and give our stamp of approval.

SIHSugar Island Hurricane
2 parts Sugar Island Coconut Rum
2 parts Sugar Island Spiced Rum
2 parts passion fruit juice
1 part orange juice
Juice of half a lime
½ part Crown Medium Amber Maple Syrup
½ part grenadine
Orange slice and cherry for garnish

Combine all ingredients garnish with orange slice and cherry.

Old Cuban
(now featured at Eleven Madison Park, NYC)
1 1/2 oz Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
6 mint leaves
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Top with champagne

Add all ingredients, except Champagne, to a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain in to glass, top with Champagne.

fdvFlor de Violette
1 1/2 oz Bacardi Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz St. Germain
1 dash Crème de Violette
1 dash simple syrup

Shake all ingredients vigorously with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

hdHemingway Daiquiri
2 oz Caliche Rum
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz fresh grapefruit juice
3/4 oz lime juice

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a rocks glass.

Knuckle Dragger
1 oz. Shellback Silver Rum
1 oz. American whiskey
2 oz. pineapple juice
2 oz. ginger ale
Lime wedge (for garnish)

Build in a lowball glass, stir, add ice. The recipe didn’t specify which American whiskey to use, so we went with some Corsair Triple Smoke to add some heft to the drink.

Summer Rum Punch
1 bottle Afrohead Aged Dark Rum
1 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup simple syrup
1/2 cup Aperol
1 cup soda water

Add thin slices of orange, grapefruit, lemons, and some fresh tarragon for punch garnish.