Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Chocasmoke Whiskey

chocasmokeThe future of craft distilling may be in beer: So believes Clint Potter of The Seven Stills of San Francisco, a new craft distillery located, well, you know.

Seven Stills makes this unique whiskey — the first in its “Seven Hills” series — from actual beer (much like Charbay and a few others): a chocolate oatmeal stout to which they’ve added 20% peat-smoked malt. Hence the choca, and hence the smoke. The finished product is aged for 6 months before bottling. The driving idea: Make a whiskey that still contains the essence of the beer from which it was made.

This is really interesting, exotic stuff. The nose is youthful and grain-forward, typical of young craft whiskey, but the peat is unmistakable. I was immediately reminded of some of Lost Spirits’ whiskeys, namely the youngish Seascape. The hints of chocolate on the nose are immediately present on the tongue. Here the very essence of the chocolate oatmeal stout is vividly on display, offering notes of cocoa powder, salted caramel, gingerbread, and well roasted grains. The seaweed/sea salt notes come on strong in the mid-palate, leading to a finish that nods both to Islay and its American home. There’s so much going on, it’s almost too much to explore in one go-round. The clearly young nose aside, it’s tough to believe this whiskey is just six months old.

Can’t wait to see what these guys come up with next.

90 proof. 400 half-bottles produced (most are gone).

A- / $55 (375ml) /

Review: Prairie Organic Gin and Cucumber Vodka

Prairie_GinPrairie Organic Vodka, a clean, corn-based spirit from Minnesota, has been with us for the better part of a decade. At last the company is out with two line extensions, a gin and a cucumber-flavored version of the original spirit, both organic releases. Thoughts on both follow forthwith.

Prairie Organic Cucumber Flavored Vodka – Take Prairie’s corn-distilled vodka and add “garden-fresh cucumber flavor” and you have this spirit. Cucumber is becoming increasingly common as a vodka flavor, and this rendition is both straightforward and perfectly credible — largely authentic with almost nothing in the way of secondary flavor notes at all (aside from some subtle sweetness). Nothing shocking, just a quiet recreation of cucumber sandwiches, hold the sandwiches. 70 proof. B / $26

Prairie Organic Gin – Prairie doesn’t publish its botanical list, but alludes to mint, sage, and cherry (!) on its bottle hanger, along with the usual juniper. On the nose I get a lot of floral, almost perfumy notes, along with touches of cinnamon and mulled wine. The body is a bit more traditional: Juniper comes up first (barely), with citrus peel notes… but there’s also gingerbread and honey on the finish. Pleasant enough, but it doesn’t quite muster enough in the body department for my tastes. 80 proof. B / $26  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: 2012 Sequoia Grove Chardonnay Napa Valley

sequoia grove chardonnayA new release from Rutherford-based Sequoia Grove, right in the heart of Napa.

A modest wine, this Chardonnay is a dialed-back version of California’s classic style. Butter, wood, and vanilla are all present, but muted by some fresh apple and lemon notes that linger on the finish. Worthwhile, if not exactly earth-shattering, particularly with summer dinners at twilight.

B / $28 /

Book Review: The Signature Series

eric ossimina with the signature seriesTired of cocktails that include rhubarb-bacon bitters or crystallized foie gras garnishes? Well have I got a book for you.

The Signature Series isn’t really a book so much as a life experience. At least that’s the goal of New Jersey-based author Erik G. Ossimina (aka “EGO”), who has collected 100 of his own homegrown recipes and self-published them in this weighty, 8.5 x 11-inch tome. Ossimina’s recipes are, well, unique and … er … potent. Let’s just say you’ll need to stock up on Everclear if you hope to make many of these concoctions at home.

As for the other ingredients, they’re quite varied, as the beverages run the gamut from martinis to tall drinks on the rocks to punches to Tiki cocktails. At least one is designed to be set on fire, so take the appropriate precautions.

One cocktail, the first in the book, is composed of Jack Daniel’s, “Absolute Vodka,” and Pepsi. A straw is also ordered.

Another drink (#8) is actually a series of three shots: 1 1/2 oz. each of green creme de menthe, Jagermeister, and Everclear. “If you have to walk alone and do all three shots yourself then I applaud you,” writes Ossimina. (FYI: The first page of the book discusses alcohol poisoning and what to do if you suspect it.)

“The Train,” drink #34, consists of five shots followed by a Budweiser.

If I have to pick a favorite, and that is tough, I may have to go with The Widow Maker (#49), which is vodka, Southern Comfort, and gin, mixed with equal parts Sprite and “Bartles and James Strawberry Wine Cooler.”

I mention the order of the drinks because the name of the book, The Signature Series, suggests how it is supposed to be used. Each recipe page is abutted by a blank page — a page which you are supposed to sign when you complete the consumption of the adjacent cocktail. Then, when you’re all done (or have had enough), you are supposed to pass the book down to your son or daughter, so they can continue the tradition of the Signature Series, creating, per Ossimina, “an historical record that will recount on the times shared over the years with your family and friends.”

“It could be like a rite of passage.” Presuming, I guess, that you can still get Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers 40 or 50 years from now.


Review: BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 1 and Hop Czar Citra IPA

bridgeport trilogyPortland, Oregon-based BridgePort Brewing is celebrating 30 years in business, and it’s honoring the event by putting out three beers, all named “Trilogy something” over the course of the year ahead. Fans will vote on their favorite and the winner will be brought back in 2015.

The first of this trio is out now: Trilogy 1, which is dry-hopped with Oregon-grown Crystal hops. Review below.

We’re also doubling up this review with another look-see, of Bridgeport’s Hop Czar. Formerly a standard bottling, it too is becoming a series of subtly different beers with different hop varietals as the focus. The first release, nicknamed “Citra Czar,” uses (you guessed it) Citra hops in the mix.

Thoughts on both brews, now in limited release, follow.

BridgePort Brewing Trilogy 1 Crystal – A Crystal dry-hopped American pale ale. Solid stuff. Really fresh up front, with a minimal nose akin to a pilsner. The body is restrained on the bitterness, with some lemon peel and orange peel notes, plus a little nuttiness on the finish. A simple beer, unmuddied with distracting notes, but refreshing and well made. 5.2% abv. B+

BridgePort Brewing Hop Czar Citra – A Citra dry-hopped American pale ale. Lots of fruity citrus notes here, both on the fairly intense nose and the body. The strong fruit character is this close to being out of balance with the intense bitterness of the hops, and it’s the hops that win out in the end, leaving Hop Czar with a strong bitter finish. An unusual and satisfying IPA, but I think the Citra hops alone here aren’t enough to give the beer direction, balance, and a satisfying finish. 6.5% abv. B+

about $8 per six-pack /

Review: Kinky Blue Liqueur

Kinky-Blue-originalBarely a year ago, Kinky, a hot pink Alize knockoff, first crossed our desk. Now, the club-friendly concoction is out with a second version, Kinky Blue. Which is not pink, but blue.

Again, this is technically not a liqueur but a flavored vodka, 5x distilled and flavored with blue things — “tropical and wild berry flavors,” according to the bottle.

The nose, however, is not nearly so distinct. Deep whiffs reveal almost nothing — it could be any berry-flavored vodka… raspberry? Schnozzberry? The body is equally vague. Many a flavored vodka has this same bittersweet note of Kool-Aid powder and tonic water, though few are quite this blue. There is a hint of pineapple on the finish that brings on a touch of interest, but it’s a long way to go for flavors that are done better in other, less silly spirits.

34 proof.

C- / $20 /

Book Review: Liquid Vacation

Liquid VacationThe Tiki drink revival may not have really taken off the way that rum nuts had hoped, but fanatics intent on making fruity, high-proof drinks in the comfort of their own homes and hula skirts can find solace in Liquid Vacation, a large-size recipe book from P Moss, who runs Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas (reportedly the world’s only 24/7 Tiki bar).

While there are about a dozen Tiki classics to be found here — Mai Tai, Fog Cutter, Scorpion — you can find those schematics anywhere. Rather, it’s the 77 original concoctions, all from Frankie’s bartenders — that are the bigger draw.

There’s a science to mixing rum, sugar, and fruit juice, and Moss will get you to your destination in style, if a bit addled in the brains. Be warned: None of these drinks will be simple to make, and the ingredients list will challenge even the best home stocked bar… unless you keep Tuaca, jasmine liqueur, falernum, POG juice, guava nectar, and papaya nectar handy. Well, perhaps now you have a reason to stock up.

Bonus: Every drink gets a glorious full-page photo, and a handy “skulls” rating system clues you in to how potent each cocktail is: “More skulls equals more fun.” I don’t think there are any drinks in the book that clock in at fewer than three skulls.

A- / $28 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Godiva Dark Chocolate Liqueur

Godiva Dark Chocolate Bottle ShotThis dark chocolate liqueur is at least the 5th confectionary liqueur in the Godiva spirits lineup, which seemingly won’t be complete until it achieves complete chocolate dominance. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite measure up to some of Godiva’s previous, well-crafted concoctions.

It starts off quite strong: Amazing, authentic, rich cocoa on the nose, with just hints of vanilla. The body, tragically, is not nearly as successful, coming across as a bit thin, and much less full of flavor. It’s still got an authentic character, but it’s simply watery and weak, which is not what you want your dark chocolate to be. Bummer.

30 proof.

B / $28 /

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

Review: Neige Apple Ice Wine

neigeYou can make wine out of any fruit, including apples. So what about ice wine? From frozen apples? Why not.

Neige (which means “snow”) is made in Canada and imported by Boisset. It’s not really made from frozen winter apples but rather from apples picked in the fall which are then juiced, the juice frozen and concentrated into syrup, and then fermented into wine.

The nose of the wine is a bit on the hoary side — more apple seed than apple fruit. Underneath there’s a hint of fruit, but it needs time in the glass to develop. On the body, a rush of sweet fruit hits you first. The character then turns back toward a woody, cider-like character as the finish arrives, slightly sour but curiously interesting, at least for a wee glass.

13% abv.

B- / $35 (375ml bottle) /