Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers


Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples. which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+


Blend Your Own Rum with Rum Blender

rum blender

Remember Whisky Blender? Which lets you whip up your own bespoke vatted malt?

Now the company behind that operation is doing the same thing with another big spirit category: Rum.

Same idea as before: Rum Blender has seven rums to choose from. You select the proportion of each that you want, in 10ml increments, until your 700ml bottle is full. Give your rum a name and wait for it to arrive via the mail. Voila! You now have a unique rum that no one else can lay claim to.

The challenge here is the same as with Whisky Blender: Picking rums based solely on one-sentence descriptions isn’t easy. How much Buttered Strumpet do you want? How much Candy Cane? Blending is tough when you have the base spirits right in front of you, and sight unseen, well, it’s near impossible. Rum Blender doesn’t reveal much about either age or even country of origin, which is a bit frustrating. (Business idea: Let folks buy a set of mini bottles to play with at home so they can tinker before they buy!)

I mixed up my own rum — Ron de Nada, get it!? — and the results are about as I thought they would be. The rum is palatable and a good mixer, but it’s a bit workmanlike and isn’t my favorite straight sipper. It’s got nice chocolate and vanilla notes, but the petrol overtones make it come across as relatively immature — although I have no actual way of knowing how old it is. Stylistically, it’s mostly reminiscent of younger Jamaican stock.

A typical blend will likely run you $70 and up, with shipping on top of that. That’s a huge amount to pay for rum, where $30 will get you an amazing top shelf bottle. But then again, those won’t have your name on them.

In other words: Come for the rum, but stay for the experience and fun of blending.


How Much Is That Wine in the Window?

Ever look at a wine list and wonder if you’re getting ripped off? Well, now there’s an app for that. Corkscrew (free) just launched and it’s a fun new app that lets you search thousands of restaurant wine lists based on location and/or for a specific wine. Want a 1982 Mouton? Corkscrew can find it — and tell you where it’s cheapest. That may sound silly, but when the price difference is over $2000 from one restaurant to another, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Corkscrew just came out of beta, and for fun the company sent me a look at some specific wine prices at various restaurants in the Bay Area. Pretty crazy stuff, eh?

1996 Moet & Chandon Champagne Cuvee Dom Perignon Oenotheque
$430 at Pastis (Palo Alto)
$550 at Boulevard
$600 at AQ Restaurant & Bar
$650 at Hakkasan SF
$750 at The Hidden Vine
$923 at Coi Restaurant

2007 Paola Bea Sagrantino di Motefalco Secco Pagliare
$139 at Prospect
$150 at 54 Mint Restaurant
$165 at Flour + Water
$172 at A16
$192 at Gary Danko

2006 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Super Tuscan 
$550 at Boulevard
$1650 at The French Laundry

1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild
$2300 at Spruce
$2896 at Benu
$3999 at Michael Mina
$4750 at Casanova Restaurant (Carmel)

2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco 
$68 at Frantoio Ristorante (Mill Valley)
$147 at Jardiniere

Get Your Irish on with Flaviar’s Irish Whiskey Sample Pack

flaviarSt. Patrick’s Day is just a few weeks away, and that means the Jameson and Bushmills will be flowing freely. But there’s no need to stop there. There are dozens of high-quality Irish whiskey brands available, and St. Patty’s is the perfect excuse to try them all.

Enter Flaviar, a company that specializes in sampler packs of whiskeys, often aligned with a them. Here’s one worth checking out today: an all Irish bundle of ten different spirits from the Emerald Isle, including Redbreast 15, Uisce Beatha, Knappogue Castle 1995, and our much-beloved Green Spot. Each comes in a sampler vial — and when you’re done with the ten, you still have a whole bottle of Jameson to work your way through for the rest of the week. (Or night, we don’t judge you.)

$98 gets you the setup. Sure beats shelling out for green beer!

Ezra’s: A New Place to Shop for Spirits and Learn a Little Somethin’

Spirits are proliferating madly these days, which means liquor stores are getting increasingly crowded and more confusing — while some favorites are getting even tougher to find on shelves.

Ezra’s, a new online spirits store, thinks it has a solution: Curation. Proprietor Parker Newman explains.

We try to use content as a way to educate consumers on the distilleries and the people behind them. We don’t want people to make buying decisions by the design of the bottle and we know how intimidating a giant wall of spirits can look. So to counteract this, we work with distilleries that we think are putting out great products, have passionate founders and are doing all they can to push their respective spirits category forward. We like to think of ourselves as a curated marketplace with an ever growing product selection.

The Ezra’s online shop is spare but intriguing, full of unusual offerings you won’t find at Costco. (Akashi White Oak for $38/500ml? Sign me up!) Lots of extra content and video material makes this more of a fun little visit with a spirits expert than the hard sell you get at a traditional merchant. Check ’em out for your holiday shopping!

Merchants of Beverage Offers Instant Cocktail Kits, Party Wine Selections

dogpatchNeat little service here from a new company called Merchants of Beverage. The idea: Don’t (necessarily) buy your wine or spirits one by one. Rather pick up everything you need to make, say, a martini — or a collection of interrelated Scotches — or a nine-pack of wines to get you all the way through a massive Thanksgiving feast, from Champagne to Port.

MoB’s prices are not out of line and when we tried out the service, shipping was blazing fast. We had our kit to make the Dogpatch — Old Overholt Rye, Averna, Dolin Rouge, and Regan’s Orange Bitters — all full bottles, mind you — in less than 24 hours. The only problem: We can’t seem to find the complete recipe anywhere!

Drinkhacker recommended!

Cool Goodies from HomeWetBar.com

port sippersJust a brief interruption to your holiday weekend to shout-out HomeWetBar.com, which sent us a sampling of its wares so we could let our readers know about their product line. Specifically, we’re checking out a couple of items from the store’s online catalog.

These Port sippers are incredibly cute (pictured), if not entirely functional. I’m still not sure if I enjoy sipping Port through a glass straw, but they do make for a nice conversation piece. By the by, they’re much smaller than you think, not much bigger than a large shot glass. At $30 for a set of four, they’re a great gift item.

We’re also checking out this three-quart copper ice bucket, which offers some old-world styling but still has plenty of functionality build in. A plastic insert is easy to clean (though it gives it a slightly cheap feeling) and the decorative tongs are a nice touch. $60, and you can get an engraving on the tongs if you’re so inclined. Looks good on my bar!

Lots of fun stuff in their catalog at reasonable prices. Consider me a fan!

Lot 18 Relaunches as a Customized Wine Club

lot18Lot 18 was once one of many in a sea of “flash sale” websites focused on deep wine discounts. That business model didn’t pan out, so Lot 18 went back to the drawing board. The result was a new plan and a partnership with TastingRoom.com (which we’ve covered here a few times), which was also experiencing some growing pains. Lot 18 ended up acquiring the company and combining the two into a unique kind of wine club.

Here’s how it works: Sign up for a $9.95 introductory tasting kit and Lot 18 sends you a six-pack of 50ml minis which you use to “calibrate” your palate. In the kit (at present): A Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, two Pinot Noirs, a Merlot, and a Zinfandel. Using Lot 18’s website, you walk through the wines and tell the site which ones you like best. A little tech voodoo puts you into a category with the company uses to select which wines it will send you in its quarterly shipments — $85/case for your first one, then $149/case (plus $20 shipping) thereafter.

Interesting stuff, and Editorial Director Eric Arnold walked me through the setup at Drinkhacker HQ. I thought the overall approach was solid and certainly better than the usual “I like whites” or “I like reds” questionnaire… although it’s terribly difficult to distill someone’s entire palate in just two whites and four reds. The description of my palate was only about half right (there are only a handful to choose from, after all), but when my wife walked through the same setup, hers was way off. Still, it’s an interesting way to get started — and Lot 18 says you’ll be able to sub wines in and out of your case to fine-tune your shipments over time.

The service went live on May 1. Give it a whirl, wine guys!


Rewinery: 3 Wines, Delivered in One Hour, $40

Ever been in a pinch for vino? Here’s a novel concept from a company called Rewinery: Give them a call, and you’ll get three “amazing, boutique” wines delivered to you, anywhere in San Francisco (home, office, beach, park, whatever), for 40 bucks flat. You can call or use your iPhone app, but either way the wines are there in an hour, so the party can keep on keepin’ on.

Rewinery sent me its three-pack — 2009 “Fall” Chardonnay California, 2007 “Cozy” Barbera Amador County, and 2007 “Bacon” Syrah California. All three are bottled by Bada Bing Cellars in San Carlos, California, and the labels are festooned with what looks like stock photography (the names will tip you off), plus an aphorism of sorts. One thing to note: These wines change regularly (at least once a month), so you won’t actually get the wines we tasted. The ones shown below are from a different month.

We tried the wines and found them to be of hit-and-miss quality. The Chardonnay was a bit skunky and vegetal, the Barbera had no body to speak of, and the Syrah was overly jammy and cloying. Of the three, only the Syrah was something worth drinking a glass of, and even that left a lingering aftertaste of strawberry candy in the mouth.

Sure, for 40 bucks all included, Rewinery can’t be bringing Screaming Eagle to every resident in the San Francisco (sorry, Tennessee!), but I’d far rather pay $60 for 3 really good wines than $40 for 3 crummy ones. Although the company says it will bring different wines if you don’t like something you receive, my guess is that at this price level Rewinery is targeting customers that it figures aren’t likely to notice…


Whisky Explorers Club Relaunches

Throughout 2010 I was digging the Whiskey Explorers Club, which sent you four 50ml bottles of whiskey, six times a year, and invited you to guess what was inside. It was lots of fun (and not just because I dominated the leaderboard for most of the run), but imperfect: The little bags made it too easy to “cheat,” and more importantly being tied to the 50ml format meant the Club had a very small subset of the whiskey world to work with. Not a lot of high-end whiskey is bottled in the 50ml format, after all.

Now the WEC has been rejiggered and upgraded, and it’s lost an “e,” thanks to a partnership with Master of Malt. The key is that MoM can re-bottle just about anything for the WEC, putting spirits into non-bagged, miniature bottles (about 30ml each), unmarked aside from the code you use with the Explorers Club website printed on the label. The Club is still designed to expose drinkers to entry-level whiskys, but the variety should be greatly enhanced.

You can still find the Whiskey IQ Game here. Just plug in the code on the bottle and start guessing descriptors for color, nose, body, taste, and finish, then guessing what you’re actually drinking. The game mechanism is about the same as before, though the descriptive and scoring system still seems a bit wonky. Not only do I disagree with some of Ian Buxton’s tasting notes, but several of my picks simply didn’t register when they were graded. (As well, I would love nothing more than to have my chosen descriptives appear alongside the “official” ones so I could compare them at the end.) I was really pleased to go 4 for 4 in picking out the identity of each of these whiskeys blind.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but the first four whiskeys I received were all surprisingly high quality and high priced — not what I would term “entry level” at all! The focus, by the way, has overwhelmingly moved to the Old World. No more cheap Canadian whisky or widely available Bourbon in the mix. (Hence the change to “Whisky.”)

$160 gets you four sets of five whiskeys over the course of the year. That’s a slight hike over the old $120/year for 24 whiskeys, but the vast improvement in quality merits it.

On the whole, the “fun” aspect of the Whiskey IQ Game is still the same, but WEC has really upped the ante on the quality of the stuff being offered. Go for it.


Sample Wine at Home with TastingRoom.com

Why hasn’t this been done before?

The idea is absurdly simple:

1. Pick a winery and buy samples for as little as $10.
2. Wait for your box of 50ml bottles of wine to arrive.
3. Drink up at home. If you like some of them, buy the full bottles of wine online.

Anyone who’s trudged through the California wine country knows how much of a pain wine tasting can be… so why not bring the experience home instead? For the price of a single tasting fee at your typical Napa winery, you can get samples of Trefethen, Grgich, De Loach, or a few other wineries for you to taste in the comfort of your own home. A 50ml bottle is plenty of wine for two people to taste.

I tried the kit from Patz & Hall ($25 for six wines; regular bottles are each $55 to $80 retail), and really enjoyed the experience. The screwcapped minis are fun to work your way through, and a card included offers tasting notes and other information about each wine you’re drinking. Putting wines side by side is the most fun, an experience you don’t often get at a commercial tasting room. And best of all: No pressure to join the “wine club,” a standby at every Napa winery in existence today.

TastingRoom.com is currently working with just six wineries so it’ll be interesting to see if this idea takes off. But even with a limited selection, consider me a fan.


Whisky Explorers Club’s First Mystery Whiskies Arrive

Intriguing, no? Four mini bottles encased in black velvet and each a sticker with a serial number on it (one upside down, just to mix it up).

What are you drinking? Who knows. You’ll have to play the Whisky Explorers Club IQ Game to try to figure it out, using your membership code and the product code on the bottle to walk through questions about the nose, the body, and the palate of the whiskey. Eventually you get to guess what exactly it is (out of five choices). I’m happy to report that on round one I actually got it right (though I won’t give it away here in case you’re drinking the same thing).

Still, looking forward to the other three mystery bottles that For Scotch Lovers sends out (one shipment arrives every two months), and seeing if I can keep my record solid!

Read more about the Whisky Explorers Club here.