Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

majeste xo cognac

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Cachaca 51

Cachaca-51Cachaca 51 is the best-selling brand of cachaca in Brazil, the home of this unique sugarcane-based spirit. That may not sound like a big deal, but according to the producer, they sell 240 million liters of the stuff annually, which makes it the second-biggest-selling spirits brand in the world. (Independent research does not seem to bear this out, but that’s largely irrelevant to our cause here — which is how it actually tastes.)

Cachaca 51 has the traditional fuel-like pungency of cachaca up front, but it’s folded in with some interesting notes of lime zest and lemongrass, tempering the petrol overtones considerably. The body is a bit sweeter than most cachacas, offering notes of light brown sugar, spearmint, and more citrus fruits — lime, especially — on the back end.

The palate is on the thin side and the finish is a bit saccharine, but mixed into a caipirinha or, well, anything else, that might actually work to its advantage.

80 proof.

B+ / $17 (1 liter) / geminispiritswine.com

Review: Ed Hardy “Most Wanted” Spiced Rum

edhardyrumbottle

Tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy was mentored by Sailor Jerry Collins… and some claim that Hardy has flown a bit too close to the sun, imitating Sailor Jerry’s style a bit too closely. Well, the detractors will have more to talk about with Ed Hardy rum, a spiced rum that looks on the surface, well, a whole lot like the rising star Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, which was released in 2008.

Rest assured that, uncannily similar label appearance aside, Ed Hardy Spiced Rum is not a mere repackaging of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum. For starters, Hardy — which does not indicate where it is made, how long it is aged, or what it is spiced with — is bottled at 70 proof vs. Jerry’s 92. That alone distinguishes these two rums, but the flavor profile is quite different, as well.

The spice feels drawn from orange peel, cloves, and cinnamon, but it’s a bit underdone and not really racy enough to stand out against a mixer. The rum is sweet enough — not on the scale of the densely caramel-focused Sailor Jerry — but the lower alcohol level makes it come off as a little watery on the finish.

Ed Hardy does have one thing on its side, though, and it’s that the low alcohol level means it’s relatively easy to sip on straight. Not that you’re likely to ever encounter this outside of a conjoining with a healthy slug of Coke and, probably, a red Solo cup, but in case you want the option…

70 proof.

B / $16 / edhardyrum.com

Review: The 86 Co. Cana Brava Rum and Tequila Cabeza

Previously we brought you reviews of The 86 Co.’s Ford’s Gin and Aylesbury Duck Vodka, two winning spirits from a New York-based importer that’s partial to one-liter bottles instead of 750ml ones. (Standard size bottles are seemingly available if you’re interested in hunting them down.) Now we’re back with 86’s next offerings, a Panamanian rum and a blanco tequila. Thoughts follow.

cana brava rumCana Brava Rum – Made in Las Cabras, Panama in a copper and brass column still, aged three years in new oak and ex-bourbon barrels, blended with older rums, and finally filtered back to white before being brought down to proof and bottled in Ukiah, California. Results: Totally solid white rum. Just the right amount of punchiness keeps things high and tight, letting the clear vanilla notes shine while keeping things on a rustic and almost simplistic level, particularly on the lightly medicinal finish. The slightly higher alcohol level pushes the rum’s firewater agenda but doesn’t do much to imbue it with secondary characteristics. Give it time in glass or water to bring out cocoa powder and graham cracker notes — or simply use it as is was likely intended: as a mixer. 86 proof. B+ / $28

Tequila Cabeza – A highland blanco from Arandas in Jalisco. Powerful, fresh agave notes hit the nose right at the start… and tequila cabezathen… more agave. Nothing if not straightforward, Tequila Cabeza fires up the agave and never lets up, offering only vague secondary notes of cardamom and some tropical fruit notes. The finish is drying and a bit on the plain side, offering simple red pepper spice to balance just a hint of sweetness — and plenty of that classic, herbal, agave character. Fans of big, green blancos will be instant fans. 86 proof. B+ / $38

the86co.com

Review: Lost Spirits Colonial American Inspired Rum

colonial bottle shot

Monterey, Calif.-based mad scientist Bryan Davis is back at work with a new rum called Colonial American Inspired.

Ultra-high in alcohol, it’s an iteration on the distillery’s Navy Style Rum that came out at the beginning of the year. Colonial American uses the same white rum as a base; the changes involve some production tweaks in the aging process that are highly technical and way over my head (distiller Bryan Davis says he has a white paper on the subject if you are so inclined to read it).

The overall impact of the spirit is much different. Navy Style is intensely drying and focused firmly on its wood, smoke, licorice, and wood tannin. In Colonial American, the fruit is still sucked out of the spirit, but here you get a kind of barbecue smoke on the nose, laced with fresh ground coffee beans and chocolate syrup. The body plays up dried fruits — figs and berries — more coffee, and a gentle smokiness on the finish. Water is your friend here, boosting the sweetness of the spirit while still retaining its natural power. The finish is long and complex, fading from dense sweetness to gentle smoke over quite some time lingering on the palate.

At 6% lower abv, Colonial has nowhere near the punch of Navy Style, and that’s probably for the best. Lost Spirits’ 136 proof rum was manageable, but just barely. With Colonial Inspired, the spirit is more playful but just as unique and exotic. If this sounds like it’s up your alley, best to grab a bottle extremely quickly, as this is a very limited edition. (Davis promises new rums based on Colonial in 2015, though, so stay tuned.)

240 bottles made. Exclusive to Bounty Hunter. 124 proof.

A / $100 / bountyhunterwine.com

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

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: Privateer Silver Reserve Rum

privateer rumAs I’ve noted before here, rum has a long history of being distilled in America, and now it’s on the upswing again thanks to craft distillers and the easy availability of high-quality sugar products. Privateer is made by Andrew Cabot, a distant descendant of the Revolutionary-era Andrew Cabot, who was a rum-maker in his own time.

Based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Privateer is made from Grade A molasses, crystallized sugar, and boiled brown sugar. Double column distilled, it is then rested in stainless steel before bottling. (An amber rum, not reviewed here, spends time in a variety of casks before bottling.)

Most white rums are aged in barrels for a time to mellow them out, then filtered back to white. Privateer Silver doesn’t have that luxury, and it’s surprising to see how the distillery has produced such a well-rounded and flavorful rum without taking this step.

The nose of Privateer rum offers classic notes of coconut husk, Brazil nuts, and a maltiness that mellows out some of the rougher alcohol character of the spirit. Nothing fancy, but on the palate, the rum starts to shine, offering notes of rich caramel, brown sugar, hazelnuts, and a dusting of cocoa powder. The finish is short but fresh, providing a pleasant rush of sweetness to finish things off. Fans of hogo will find just a touch of it here, but on the whole the body is gentle enough for easy sipping for most anyone, and it’s got plenty of utility in cocktailing applications, too.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #23.

B+ / $27 / privateerrum.com

Review: Blue Chair Bay Coconut Spiced Rum Cream

blue chair bay coconut cream

Somehow we never managed to review Blue Chair Bay Rum — a product rolled out by country star Kenny Chesney — when it launched last year, but today we did land a sample of a new limited edition line extension: Blue Chair Bay Coconut Spiced Rum Cream.

Now that sounds like a lot of pressure to put on a poor, defenseless rum, and this milky, eggnoggy-looking product doesn’t exactly shriek with high hopes when poured into a glass. For heaven’s sake at least dust it with some nutmeg so people don’t think you’re drinking milk, mmkay?

The nose is gooey and unctuous, somewhat off-putting in the way that only eggnog can be — a lot like the milk left in the bottom of a bowl of sugary cereal. Distinct banana notes are prevalent, with touches of cinnamon. The body has more where that came from. The powerful cotton candy sugar notes hit you first, then banana. Coconut is more of a hint on the finish, as is a vague indication of cinnamon. Until then, I would have assumed this was a banana cream rum if I didn’t already know any better. Either way, it’s the overwhelming sweetness that sticks with you, seemingly for hours, over any of the fruit or spice elements. Be ready for some serious toothbrushing lest the cavity creeps give you the once over later on.

That said, this is probably good enough to use for a quickie, down-and-dirty Pina Colada if you’re out of the other raw ingredients. I wouldn’t make a habit of it, though.

30 proof.

B- / $22 / bluechairbayrum.com

Rhum Clement Launches Graffiti-Strewn 125th Anniversary Vieux Agricole Bottling

Martinique’s Rhum Clement is arguably the best-known rhum agricole producer, producing some really austere and sumptious rums. What then does it do to celebrate its 125th anniversary (which, I guess, was back in 2012)? Release a special edition of its iconic VSOP bottling, covered front and back with street art by JonOne. 10,000 bottles were produced at a price of $45 each. We’ll let the bottle speak for itself from here.

rhum clement holiday bottling

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-