Book Review: The Manhattan Cocktail

41enOr6ZSRL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters. Sub in dry vermouth for some of the sweet if you want to be fancy. As most of us know it, this is the Manhattan Cocktail, one of the absolute classics of the industry and the base upon which legions of other drinks have been built.

To Albert W. A. Schmid, the above is just a starting point. There are dozens — perhaps a hundred — variations on the Manhattan, along with reams of history of the drink that require consideration from the cocktail completist.

This tiny tome, pocket-sized in dimensions and under 100 pages in length — looks like something you could digest in full during a slightly above-average visit to the bathroom. But the truth is Schmid has crafted a barside companion that Manhattan fans will want to keep near their bar setup for the long haul. The history of the drink aside, the variations that Schmid has turned up are fascinating and sometimes mouth-watering. Got celery bitters, absinthe, and fernet? Get ready to have some fun spinning your Manhattans in different directions.

At a mere 12 bucks, it’s hard not to recommend this book as a fun addition to a serious barman’s shelf or even as a little gift to the kind host who constantly lets you raid his bar.

A- / $12 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Big Bottom Pear Brandy and Oregon Gin Collection

big bottom PearBrandy-10-NEWIf you know Big Bottom, you probably know the company for its bourbons, most of which feature exotic finishes and impressive levels of quality.

Big Bottom also makes white spirits, though, including fruit brandies (pear now, apple is coming) and a collection of gins. Today we take a look at four of BB’s latest white offerings… well, three white spirits and one with a touch of age on it.

Thoughts follow.

Big Bottom Oregon Pear Brandy – Made from a blend of Oregon-grown Asian pears. Rather musty up front, the nose offers fruit restrained by astringent notes, a commonality of young fruit brandies. On the palate, significant earthy notes interplay with modest pear character — and you can indeed pick out that slightly citrus Asian character vs. the more traditional flavor of domestic pears. The finish, however, is a bit hot and indistinct. This is clearly a labor of love, but as with many pear brandies, it’s one that could benefit from some tempering by wood. 80 proof. B- / $45

Big Bottom Oregon Gin – 16 botanicals (none named) are used in the production of this New Western gin. It’s got a significant floral character, with a touch of black pepper adding spice. Juniper is present, but modest and restrained, as sweeter notes dominate. On the palate, it’s a gentle gin with ample sweetness enveloping the palate, those floral notes — honeysuckle and some white flowers — quite dominant. Citrus elements come on strong as well, with just a little kick of that pepper hitting on the back end. Fun stuff, and a nice change of pace from juniper-forward bruisers. 91 proof. A- / $30

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Navy Strength – Same gin as the above, but higher in proof. It offers similar notes to the lower-proof product, but it’s plenty racier if that’s your bag. As with many an overproof product, the higher-proof version will immediately fire up the palate, but it also offers a few surprises: a slightly fruitier character, and juniper that’s more immediately evident. Slight caramel notes offer a silky sweetness on the back end. All in all, it’s a solid Navy version of a juniper-restrained gin. 114 proof. A- / $46

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels – Same gin as the first, aged (for 12 months in a new solera system) in used whiskey barrels outfit with new heads made from a mix of Oregon oak and Hungarian oak. The gin takes on a more dessert-like note here, with clear cinnamon notes and some mulled apple cider character. Sweet caramel on the finish takes this gin on a ride between a white spirit and a light, spiced whiskey, with notes of cloves and vanilla in lieu of any significant juniper or floral elements, which are washed away by the wood. Aged gins can be hit and miss, but this is surprisingly fun stuff, perfect for winter cocktails or even sipping straight with dessert. 91 proof. A / $38

bigbottomdistilling.com

Review: 2013 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast

main_variation_na_view_01_204x400Smith & Hook is a Central Coast producer that focuses exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes are sourced from four Central Coast appellations: Arroyo Seco, San Antonio Valley, Hames Valley, and Paso Robles.

As Cab goes, the 2013 offers easy approachability, though it’s short on complexity. Early notes of cocoa powder, vanilla, and blackberry give way to some light citrus candy — think jellied oranges — plus a spray of fresh herbs. While the body is appropriately huge and alcohol-loaded, the finish comes on quickly and fades out with notes of blackberry jam, toasted marshmallow, and a light tobacco character.

B / $20 / smithandhook.com

Review: Barrell Bourbon Batch 5 and Barrell Whiskey Batch 1

barrell whiskey

Turns out Barrell Bourbon, first released in 2014, wasn’t a one-off. To date the company has released six small batch Bourbon offerings, all  of which are significantly different from one another. As a trend goes, they’re getting older — significantly so, considering Batch 1 was a mere five year old baby. The last two releases have both topped eight years of age (and the labels now include a clear age statement, front and center).

In addition to Barrell Bourbon, the company has also produced its first release of Barrell Whiskey, which is a blend of 7- to 8-year-old whiskeys aged in oak, including corn, rye, and malted barley whiskeys, in unspecified proportions — with no grain whiskey added. Like all Barrell releases, this first batch of Barrell Whiskey arrives at full cask strength.

Below we take a look at two recent barrels of Barrell: Batch 5 of the Bourbon, and Batch 1 of the Whiskey. Thoughts follow.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 005 – Made from a mash of 70% corn, 26% rye, and 4% malted barley. 8 years and 3 months old. Rich and traditional on the nose, it’s a caramel-fueled, wood-heavy, and a bit of a blazer of a whiskey when nosed and sampled at cask strength. Notes of fresh herbs and a smoldering finish redolent with barrel char are prominent. Water is a major aid with this one, really helping to clarify the spicier elements that emerge as the palate takes shape. Fresh rosemary and dried sage both come into focus, making for some interesting interplay with the charred wood elements. Some eucalyptus develops with time in glass, giving it a minty finish, with chocolate overtones. Compared to Batch 1 (again, a mere five years old), it’s a considerably more austere and well-rounded bourbon, with plenty of depth to investigate. 124.7 proof. Bottle #4446. A- / $80

Barrell Whiskey Batch 001 – A blend of 7- to 8-year-old whiskeys, as noted above. Lighter in color than the Bourbon, it has a freshness to it that belies its age — lots of floral elements on an otherwise clean and lithe nose. The palate offers a similarly clean entry, a bit fruity — apples and pears — with more of those white flower notes emerging with just a bit of time. The body is light and airy, almost Canadian in structure at times with just a light smattering of flavors influencing an otherwise gentle, lightly-sweetened core. Though it’s got nearly the same alcohol level, the whiskey isn’t nearly as fiery and off-putting as the Bourbon above. It drinks quite easily at full strength and without water. In the end, the finish (finally) hints at more traditional notes of vanilla and butterscotch, but it’s a fleeting impression as the spirit fades out as rapidly as it comes on. Primarily I see this as something to consider as an alternative to white spirits in cocktailing. 122.5 proof. Bottle #3765. B+ / $62

barrellbourbon.com

Review: 2013 Concannon Vineyard Chardonnay Monterey County

concannonLivermore-based Concannon moves a tad upmarket with this Monterey County bottling of chardonnay from the 2013 vintage.

Immediate notes of burnt butter and baking spice are prominent, with a bit of tropical character on the back end. The body is somewhat flabby, with a caramel note on the finish followed by a light astringency. It doesn’t gel perfectly, but it’s a step up from Concannon’s lower-end production.

B- / $18 / concannonvineyard.com

Review: Fizzics Beer Tap

fizzics

The Fizzics Beer Tap is not a complicated idea: It’s basically a svelte pump that takes beer out of one container and spits it into your glass. Basically a keg tap, only you don’t need a keg. It can pour from a bottle, can, growler, or even a pitcher or another glass. Just pop it open and stick the rubber hose into your beer and it’s ready to go.

Why do you need this? Sometimes this might be a matter of simple convenience, as when pouring from an oversized growler or large format bottle which is difficult to manage. Other times you might use Fizzics just to heighten the flavors of the beer. Just like your beer will taste better if you drink it from a glass instead of a bottle, it is likely to taste better if you drink it from a Fizzics system rather than simply poured directly into a glass.

In my testing, the Fizzics system was quite effective at aerating a beer, working much like a wine or spirits aerator does, coaxing out more of the beer’s flavors while giving it a bolder head. That said, use caution: If you love a beer, Fizzics will improve its presentation. But if you don’t like a beer, Fizzics will only make those flavors that disagree with you come across even stronger. That said, Fizzics doesn’t introduce as dramatic a flavor shift as you might think — the added carbonation is much more impressive — but it does have an impact. (Note: It’s absolutely not designed for use with anything at all except beer.)

The device is simple, easy to operate and clean, and is powered by two AA batteries, which makes it convenient for positioning the system anywhere. It’s great for parties when you want to serve big bottles (and show off a little) — as long as you’re willing to pay the rather steep price of admission.

B+ / $170 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Cookies & Beer

51skyGuw28L._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_Cookies and beer? Yes, beer. And cookies!

Jonathan Bender says they go great together, and who are we to argue?

The title aside, this slim cookbook is really all about the cookies. Bender offers suggestions for pairing beer with each of the sweet treats he teaches you to make (including key sidebars, like pairing beers with Girl Scout Cookies), so don’t come in thinking you’ve got a homebrew manual in your hands. In fact, only a small handful of recipes in the back even include beer in the ingredient list, so for the most part, this is standard baking (with lots of familiar cookies), with booze relegated to the side.

There’s no cookie I’ve ever met that I didn’t like, and the recipes in Cookies & Beer certainly look delightful — even the section on savory cookies has my tastebuds going. There’s lots of great photography here to get you hungry, too.

The only trouble, as is often the case with novelty cookbooks, is the length. 122 pages seems like a lot of cookies, but it’s a wee little book that, most likely, you’ll either return to frequently to guide you in making a few favorites over and over, or exhaust quickly as you head to greener pastures.

B / $16 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 20 Years Old 2015

michters 20 years old

Michter’s 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon is an amply enchanting whiskey. What then if we double up and go for 20? Michter’s 20 Year Old is one of those ultra-cult whiskeys right up there with Pappy Van Winkle, with a list price of $600. $1200 is the best you’re likely to do, and $1800 isn’t uncommon.

For a bottle, yes. Not a barrel.

With prices like that, Michter’s 20 better be damn good whiskey, and I’m happy to report that it is.

While Michter’s 10 Year Old is a soft and well-crafted but largely traditional whiskey, Michter’s 20 pushes its flavor profile to some serious extremes. Initially a blazer — this has 10% more alcohol than the 10 Year Old — the nose is fiery with oak and spice, and the body is punchy with Red Hots and a huge punch of barrel char. A small splash of water does wonders here to coax out more nuance, and hey, it’ll make the previous liquid go farther.

Brought down in proof a bit, the bourbon is quite a delight. Bold butterscotch hits first, then more of that previously-mentioned cinnamon takes hold. There’s lots of vanilla and caramel here; the whiskey just oozes from start to finish with dark, dark sugar notes — with only a hint of the fruit that’s a core part of the Michter’s 10 DNA. Over time, some dried and macerated fruit notes emerge, particularly apricot. Finally, some interesting amaro notes bring up the rear, offering a gentle root beer character that takes things out on an exotic, and quite racy, note — the strongest indication that Michter’s is pushing things just a bit too far with the barrel regime and some oddball flavors are at risk of developing.

While Michter’s 10 is a fruity, nutty, confectionary delight, Michter’s 20 is a wholly different animal, and the bourbon enthusiast is well served by sampling them side by side (though, that said, there is no suggestion that these whiskies were sourced from the same still or even the same distillery).

To be sure, Michter’s 20 is no Pappy 23, but finding a bourbon of this age that still has this much going on isn’t an easy feat. With its 20 Year Old Single Barrel, Michter’s is flying awfully close to the sun, but it still hangs on to its wings.

114.2 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #15Z738. Bottle 193 of 267.

A- / $1200 / michters.com

Review: 2012 Calista Pinot Noir The Coast Range

calistaCalista’s latest Pinot hails from the “Coast Range,” which comprises three distinct regions: Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey counties. All of which are great places for pinot noir!

Engaging notes of cola and tea start things off, then layered cherry, vanilla, and red berry notes take over. The finish is lightly bittersweet and complex, just a touch smoky and herbal together.

Excellent value.

A- / $25 / calistawines.com

Review: Monkey Spiced Rum

monkey rum spicedIt must happen to all of us. Zane Lamprey got so tired of drinking spirits that he figured he should just make his own. The result of that ennui with the drinking world is Monkey Rum (named for Lamprey’s stuffed monkey that is omnipresent on his televised boozing adventures), which is available in both Spiced and Coconut expressions.

We got the Spiced. The Coconut broke during shipping to Drinkhacker HQ.

Monkey gets its rum from Angostura in Trinidad, aged two to three years. It is then blended with cinnamon, vanilla, a hint of coconut, and “buttery caramelized flavors,” which I would take to mean caramel except that Monkey says that no caramel color is added to the product.

That said, Lamprey sure doesn’t lie about that buttery tasting note — right from the start, this is oily, gooey, unctuous buttered popcorn, injected with the essence of pure vanilla. Cinnamon is almost nonexistent, as the essence of melted caramels blended with pure, softened butter really takes center stage. That toasted coconut does make itself known on the finish, but otherwise stays hidden in the background.

Fans of deeply cinnamon- and clove-flavored spiced rums will find Monkey to be quite far afield. In fact, it’s a lot closer to a standard gold or aged rum than it is to Captain Morgan. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, that depends on your perspective. If you elect to drink spiced rum because of the spice, Monkey is a letdown. If you elect to drink it because of the rum, you might just be enchanted by this oddball novelty.

70 proof. No monkeys added.

B+ / $22 / monkeyrum.com