Review: Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon

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Let’s be clear: We’re drinking the bottom shelf with Ezra Brooks, a sub-$15 bourbon that got its start in the 1950s (not quite 1800 as the label would have you believe) and became part of what’s now the Missouri-based Luxco Corporation in 1993. In keeping with many ultra-cheap bespoke bourbons, Heaven Hill makes Ezra Brooks on Luxco’s behalf. This expression, colloquially known as “Ezra Brooks Black Label,” carries no age statement, but it is bottled at a slightly higher proof.

It’s not a bad whiskey. On the nose, there’s plenty of vanilla, butterscotch, and some gentle lumberyard notes. Basic and uncomplicated, but not unpleasurable. The body is soft and quite mild, with some initial notes of apple cider and a stronger vanilla character than the nose offers at first. As it develops, the apple notes fade into a more general citrus character, with a backing of baking spices, particularly cinnamon. A hint of chocolate on the back end takes things out on a slightly sweet note.

Bottom shelf it may be, but Ezra Brooks is nonetheless a well-made (if uncomplicated) bourbon that acquits itself admirably. While it may be designed for dumping into punch bowls or mixing liberally with Coke, it actually drinks just fine on its own. No shame there, folks.

90 proof.

B+ / $14 / ezrabrooks.com

Review: Russell Henry Dark Gin

RH_DarkGinAbout a year ago, the mad scientists at Craft Distillers took the last 100 cases’ worth of Russell Henry London Dry Gin they had and did a funny thing. Rather than bottle it and sell it, they put it in oak barrels (what type/provenance is unclear). After a year, the aged gin is bottled and branded as “Dark Gin.” Other than the aging, this is the same London Dry that we previously reviewed.

Barrel aging gives Russell Henry Dark Gin an exotic character all around, for better and for worse. Notes of peppermint, roses, citrus oil, and evergreen notes provide plenty of perfume on the nose. On the body, first there’s an attack of pine and juniper, followed by a surprising apple cider character. Vanilla and some marshmallow emerge, but the finish brings out wood oil and some green, slightly vegetal notes. The spirit offers lots of complexity, but the balance just doesn’t seem quite right, as if the barrel has had its way with the relatively delicate nature of the unaged gin.

91.4 proof.

B+ / $65 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Steel Reserve Alloy Series Margarita and Hard Pineapple

steel reserveI won’t belabor the introduction of these two new flavored malt beverages from Steel Reserve with a lot of bloviating. So here we go … with Steel Reserve Margarita and Steel Reserve Hard Pineapple.

Steel Reserve Alloy Series Margarita – Kryptonite green in color and, I have to presume, in flavor. Vaguely lime flavored, then blended with crushed up cough drops and topped off with rubbing alcohol. The slight fizz helps to mask some of its roughness, but that’s only marginally effective. D+

Steel Reserve Alloy Series Hard Pineapple – Gatorade yellow in color and every bit as horrifying as you’re expecting. I actually did a spit take on my first sip, and subsequent attempts to consume this monstrosity weren’t much better. Pineapple candy is the character at the start, sure, but from there it’s a combination of lemon-lime zest and what I can only describe as the flavor expired, off-brand mouthwash. No me gusta! F

8% abv.

about $2 per 24 oz. can / steelreserve.com

Review: 2013 Bridlewood Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon

Bridlewood 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso RoblesThis Gallo-owned winery focuses on very affordable bottlings primarily from central California vineyards. Thoughts on two wines from the newly-released 2013 vintage follow.

2013 Bridlewood Pinot Noir Monterey County – Rather dense, with some pruny notes on the nose. Quite fruit-forward, this pinot offers notes of intense jam, roasted meat, some root beer character, and some lumberyard underpinnings. Surprisingly tough, it drinks more like a syrah — bit with a slightly bitter edge on the finish. B- / $13

2013 Bridlewood Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles – Inky and dense, with licorice overtones on the nose. Lots of wood on the body make this an imposing wine from the get-go, but it does manage to settle down with time to reveal more nuanced fruit — at least in the form of dried plums, raisins, and other firmer, grippier berries. Sweeter, with cocoa notes, on the finish. B / $14

bridlewoodwinery.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – French Oak Bourbons

French Oak Experiment 2015

In Bourbon country, American oak reigns. It’s long been tradition that America’s greatest whiskey is aged in American wood. Anything else and you’re lookin’ for trouble.

In keeping with its long history of experimentation, Buffalo Trace kicked tradition out of the rickhouse for this latest round of its experimental whiskeys. As the names imply, these Bourbons are aged not in American oak but in French oak. More specifically, one whiskey was aged in a full barrel made entirely of French oak. A second whiskey was aged in a hybrid barrel made with American oak staves and French oak heads.

Both are ten years old, made with BT’s low-rye recipe. Here’s some additional production information:

Ten years ago, Buffalo Trace embarked on another French oak experiment, but this time endeavoring one step further – creating two different barrel types, one made entirely of French oak, and another using French oak heads, but American white oak staves. The barrels were both constructed with Buffalo Trace’s exact specifications as far as size, stave drying, and charring. The barrel staves were air-dried for six months and the barrels were charred for 55 seconds. Both of these experimental barrels were filled with the same bourbon recipe, known as Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1. After 10 years of aging, these two bourbons have been bottled as part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection, and referred to as 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon and French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon.

Both are 90 proof. Here’s what you can expect if you try them…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon – Soft and very fruity on the nose, with notes of peaches, apricot, and citrus. Rather buttery on the body, with plenty of fruit — namely apple and apricot — to back it up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler bourbon anywhere; this expression is all kid gloves and a quiet stroll through the orchard. Punchy lumberyard is wholly absent; there’s really just a bare hint of oak’s telltale vanilla here to remind you of its wood regimen at all. B+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon – Clearly punchier and more traditional in structure — and actually a quite good whiskey all around. A nice level of baking spice hits the nose, which melds well with its sweet apple pie aromas. On the body, the fruit is still there, but it’s well tempered by more traditional notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, and a little raisin character. This all works wonderfully (and unsurprisingly) well together, making for a bourbon that has grip and presence alongside uniqueness and restraint. A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Liber & Co. Real Grenadine

LIBER001_12543Remember Liber & Co.’s nifty Spiced Tonic syrup? Now the company’s back with another offering: a real grenadine.

Grenadine is historically an intensely tart syrup made from pomegranates (making it deep red in color) and sugar. In recent years grenadine has turned into nothing more than red corn syrup, making it completely useless as a balancing agent in cocktails. That might be fine for a Shirley Temple, but for proper cocktails, grenadine should be both sweet and sour — in addition to adding a splash of color to the drink.

Liber’s Grenadine — much like other artisan grenadines on the market — is pungent on the nose with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. On the tongue, it comes across with some plum-like notes and a slight earthiness, almost floral at times (due, perhaps, to the use of orange flower water in the recipe) and vanilla-touched at others. The color is deep red, with an exotic violet or lavender hue to it, depending on the light, which does indeed an an element of mysticism to anything you pour it into.

B+ / $7 per 8.5 oz. bottle / liberandcompany.com

Review: Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream Liqueur

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Saint Brendan was a 5th century Irish apostle (later a saint, of course) who was best known for a seven-year-long fantastical voyage that has gone down as a bit of high Catholic mythology. No telling if he was into Irish cream, but I have my doubts.

Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream (motto: “Simple by Design”) is another in a long line of lower-cost alternatives to Baileys. It’s Irish whiskey and cream, and that’s it. Pretty simple, indeed.

This Irish cream features a nice balance between the whiskeylike punch up front and the creamy, vanilla-and-marshmallow notes that build on the body. There’s a little heat on the back end, but overall it’s a quite gentle Irish cream, offering modest sweetness with a just a little bit of spice. Chocolate and chewy nougat notes hang around for a while on the finish.

Altogether it drinks quite well, but it could use a bit more power to separate it from what sometimes comes across like a glass of chocolate milk. Compare to Brady’s.

34 proof.

B+ / $12 / stbrendans.com

Review: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

RR_Single Barrel Rye_Bottle Shot

Wild Turkey is expanding the Russell’s Reserve line this year with a Single Barrel Rye expression. There’s already a Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye (much more expensive these days than the $25 it cost in 2007), but as with the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, this is a higher-end expression that plays some of its details close to the vest. There’s no age statement and no mashbill information, but it’s drawn from a single barrel and bottled at a higher proof.

This rye features a quite fruity nose, offering notes of banana, almonds, mint, and vanilla. Racy and heady from the hefty alcohol level, it doesn’t let up at all. On the palate the flavor profile is also quite fruity, mixing some apple and rhubarb in with notes of banana cream and vanilla custard. The spirit comes across as surprisingly young, with some grain notes making it through to the finish, but I also get touches of coconut and chocolate late in the game as well, keeping things fairly sweet. It isn’t a particularly peppery rye, but it does have some astringency to it — pronounced on the nose but just as detectable on the finish — that might be mistaken for some kind of “spice” character.

All told this is a credible rye, but as with Crown Royal’s latest, the fruit is pushed too far. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye has a better balance to it, but frankly I think the standard Russell’s Reserve Rye is more representative of what a solid rye should taste like.

104 proof. Available September 2015.

B+ / $60 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

crown royal rye

A Crown Royal Rye? Wait, isn’t all Canadian whisky “rye”? Hang on a sec.

There’s a lot of confusion about rye and Canadian whisky, and rightly so: By law in Canada, a whisky only has to have some rye in it to be called a rye, part of an outgrowth of hundreds of years of shorthand and tradition there. Today, most Canadian whiskies have quite a small amount of rye in the mash — like Bourbon, they tend to mostly be made from corn — yet the myth that Canadian whisky is largely rye remains.

Well, Crown Royal is going to confuse things even further with the release of Northern Harvest Rye, its first-ever legitimate rye in 75 years of operation. The mash for this whisky is a whopping 90% rye. By Canadian law, the other 10% is poutine. (Just kidding! Crown doesn’t specify.)

On first nosing, I thought perhaps Crown mistakenly filled this with its Regal Apple flavored whisky. Very strong apple notes on the nose are backed by a little caramel, giving it a distinct apple pie character. The body is again distinctly apple-fueled, but here more of the spice shows itself. Cloves and allspice are strongest, with some molasses-like sweetness sugaring things up a bit. The finish is slightly drying, and a bit of roasted grain character comes to the fore before fading out.

This is a truly strange whisky, unlike any other rye I’ve encountered in recent memory. The intense fruit character isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not what I’m looking for a quality rye. This whisky will likely resonate with many fans — but may well turn off just as many drinkers.

90 proof.

B / $30 / crownroyal.com

Review: El Mayor Tequila Complete Lineup (2015)

El-Mayor-Tequila-2

It’s been seven long years since we encountered one of the oddly shaped bottles of El Mayor Tequila, and even then it was just the blanco expression. Today we’re taking a fresh look at El Mayor — and covering the complete lineup of three expressions of this highlands-born, 100% agave spirit. (There’s an extra anejo too, not reviewed here.)

All are 80 proof. Read on for more.

El Mayor Tequila Blanco – Very gentle, it’s one of the lightest-bodied tequilas I’ve encountered in recent years. The nose is moderately sweet, with some honeysuckle notes and a bit of spicy black pepper leading to a punchy but balanced agave backbone. The body has some citrus notes, cloves, and a modest agave, which together with the citrus character gives it a bit of the flavor of pickled jalapeno on the finish — though not much of the heat. The tequila wraps up clean and fairly soft, just about perfect for a blanco sipper or as a premium mixer. Reviewed: Batch 1478. A- / $27

El Mayor Tequila Reposado – Aged up to nine months. Again, very gentle on the nose, though this time it’s got notes of cola, some vanilla, and emerging agave spice. The body features some cinnamon and gingerbread, more vanilla custard, and even butterscotch notes. Herbal agave notes are present, but fleeting, as the sweeter components do more of the heavy lifting. Some pepper on the finish keeps things grounded in the world of reposado. Reviewed: Batch 883. A / $30

El Mayor Tequila Anejo – Aged 18 months. The nose isn’t dramatically different from the reposado except for the addition of some lumberyard aromas — a few tannic notes that give the anejo more of a brooding character. The body starts off somewhat sharp, which is a surprise, before venturing into sweet, dessert notes — chocolate, toffee, caramel — that build and build on the lush finish. The agave takes a back seat here, but that’s typical in many anejos, as the barrel makes its influence known. El Mayor’s gentle blanco is a good match for that, leaving behind just enough herbal agave to make things worth exploring again and again. Reviewed: Batch 878. A- / $48

elmayor.com