Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 3: Gin – Seagram’s, Dover Strait, New Amsterdam

Good liquor can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive gins. For those on a budget who want to drink well, the results are promising — at least, better than when we looked at whiskey (here and here)! Since gin is minimally aged, it typically is not as labor intensive as many whiskeys, which means producers can spend a little more on higher-quality raw materials.

Here are three bargain bottles we put through the paces.

Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin

Seagram’s is just approachable enough to drink straight, although I don’t really recommend it. Orange rind and pungent alcohol notes figure prominently in the nose and the palate, with juniper (gin’s most common component) appearing only very faintly in the finish. I am surprised by how hot this gin is considering it is only 80 proof. Tonic tames the alcohol, but the flavors don’t really blend well. One might do better to follow Snoop Dogg’s recommendation and use Seagram’s for “gin and juice.” 80 proof. C+ / $11 / seagramsgin.com

Dover Strait American Gin Extra Dry

This is my first experience with Dover Strait, and I’m not encouraged by the nose. Rather than notes of juniper, I detect nail polish remover and a little ginger ale with a touch of lemon rind. On the palate, Dover is less off-putting. The acetone notes are completely absent, and the gin comes across as an inexpensive, but not offensive, vodka. The lemon rind notes appear on the palate, but they are very subtle. Adding tonic makes me think I’m drinking a vodka tonic, which is not such a bad thing, but the smell of nail polish remover lingers. 80 proof. C- / $10

New Amsterdam Gin

The nose and palate of New Amsterdam (see prior review here as well) make it the most palatable of the three gins, and I had no qualms about drinking it straight. We have reviewed this gin before, and on a new tasting, the notes remain the same. Juniper appears on the nose, but orange and orange rind are far and away the dominant notes on the palate. This might annoy gin purists who want juniper to appear front and center, but I happen to like a lemon twist in my martinis, and I found this gin to be smooth enough to appear in one. For bargain hunters who agree, New Amsterdam is an affordable and enjoyable gin. In a gin and tonic, New Amsterdam is a vibrant, citrusy cocktail, ideal for a hot day. 80 proof. B / $12 / newamsterdamspirits.com

Review: St. Mayhem Craft Wine Cooler – Ginger Loves Company

It’s hard to hear “wine cooler” without thinking back to the 1980s when virtually every major liquor company mixed cheap wine with fruit juice to make a party alternative to inexpensive beer. St. Mayhem’s newest wine cooler bears virtually no relation to the earlier beverages with which it shares a name. Ginger Loves Company is made with quality wine, includes virtually no fruit juice, has a much higher alcohol content (14.1%), costs more, and tastes good. Ginger Loves Company begins with Chardonnay sourced from Napa and Clarksburg and then is aged with organic peaches and organic dried ginger root. The result is not a college party drink, but a glass of wine with an unusual profile.

The nose on Ginger Loves Company reveals typical chardonnay character as well as clear notes of ginger. The palate opens like a California chardonnay, with some buttery creaminess. The slightly sweet flavor of peaches follows, but it isn’t overpowering. Finally, ginger appears in the finish, which I think some may appreciate, but which I didn’t enjoy more than a good chardonnay.

I don’t know if I’m sold on Ginger Loves Company, but it’s enjoyable and worth trying. More importantly, I am impressed by St. Mayhem’s creative innovation as they take quality wine into bold new territory.

B / $25 / artfarmwine.com

Review: Stoli Crushed Ruby Red Grapefruit and Pineapple

It’s finally summer, and the temperature is rising. Luckily, Stoli came prepared for the sun and heat, offering a new flavored vodka beverage that boasts of “Real Fruit Juice” (along with “Natural Flavors and Certified Colors”). Stoli Crushed (at launch) comes in two flavors that are well suited to summertime: Ruby Red Grapefruit and Pineapple. Both recommend that they be enjoyed over ice or with a splash of club soda. Because they are already cocktails of a sort (a mix of vodka, juice, and flavoring), it makes sense to simply add bubbles or water.

Note that small print on the back of the bottles reads “Shake well before drinking.” This is good advice. Shake the bottle before serving or you will pour mostly vodka at the beginning of the bottle and mostly juice at the end.

Both are 60 proof. Thoughts follow.

Stoli Crushed Ruby Red Grapefruit – I was pleasantly surprised to find that the citrus flavor of real red grapefruit comes through in this beverage. I feared it would be overly sweet, but it isn’t. Rather, it is refreshing and dangerously easy to drink on a hot day. It isn’t as good as mixing Stoli vodka with freshly squeezed fruit juice, but Stoli Crushed is an ideal summer beverage for those who seek convenience and enjoy the flavor of red grapefruit juice mixed with a quality grain vodka. B / $18

Stoli Crushed Pineapple – Stoli Crushed Pineapple is also not too sweet and presents the fruit flavor of pineapple, but it lacks the acidic zing and some of the fruity sweetness of real pineapple. For this reason, it isn’t quite as good as the Ruby Red Grapefruit. On the other hand, the fact that it isn’t cloyingly sweet makes Stoli Crushed Pineapple easy to drink. Over ice with a straw, I found it to be refreshing on a hot summer day, and my glass disappeared very, very quickly. B- / $18

stoli.com

Review: The Beers of MadTree Brewing Company

MadTree Brewing Company opened in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2013 and has seen rapid growth ever since. They recently expanded their operation and partnered with Cavalier Distributing to bring their beers to the rest of Ohio as well as Kentucky. With their beers set to reach a broader audience and a promising track record, it was time for a review of their core line of beers.

MadTree Lift Kölsch – Lift is a pleasant surprise. Despite having the lowest alcohol of MadTree’s year-round offerings, it is real beer with real beer flavor. It is light and refreshing, presenting the welcoming smells of wheat and lemon. The palate shows the cereal flavor of toasted malt along with a gentle hop crispness at the end. Perfect for a hot summer day. 4.7% abv. B

MadTree Psychopathy India Pale Ale – The can describes this beer well, noting its “floral, grassy, and citrus hop flavors.” The citrus comes forward more on the nose and the floral and grassy notes come to the fore in the palate. There are lots of different IPAs on the market these days, and MadTree has created one that stakes a claim and does not try to please everyone. It is surprisingly and pleasantly bitter considering that it clocks in at only 60 IBU. 6.9% abv. A-

MadTree Happy Amber Ale – Happy Amber was the first beer MadTree brewed, and it is a very enjoyable amber ale, showing a nice malt presence along with 30 IBU, which is high for the style. The result is a well-balanced beer that exhibits bready notes and caramel in both the nose and the taste. It finishes with a bitter, hoppy crispness I really enjoyed. I rather wish the beer was a bit more assertive in its use of malt and hops, but if it was, I might not look forward to a second can so soon after I finished the first. A dangerously drinkable amber. 6.0% abv. B+

MadTree PSA Pale Ale – PSA (Proper Session Ale) has a lot of character for a session beer. The nose presents orange and notes of pineapple. The flavors are a mix of pine and citrus coupled with a crisp, hoppy bitterness. The carbonation, as is common with session beers, is a bit high. This is a fine session beer, and one that deserves serious attention, particularly from IPA fans who steer clear of overwhelming DIPAs. 4.5% abv. B+

MadTree Sol Drifter Blonde Ale – Sol Drifter is a summer-season session beer brewed with strawberries. The nose is light and presents strawberry as well as slight notes of malt. The same subdued notes of strawberry and malt appear again in the palate, along with a little lemon, and the beer finishes quickly and cleanly. This is a refreshing beer, but not really an exciting one. 4.3% abv. B-

madtreebrewing.com

Brewery Review: Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers

Jack’s Abby opened its doors in Framingham, Mass. in 2011 and has already had to expand its operation to meet demand as word spread about a brewery that only makes lagers, but ones that break the mold of what a lager is supposed to taste like. I have grown to appreciate Jack’s Abby’s beers and had a chance to visit the brewery and talk with their Master Brewer, Mike Gleason, who has been with the operation almost since it was opened by three brothers: Jack, Eric, and Sam Hendler.

Mike and I met to talk in the brewery’s new Beer Hall, a cavernous, bright, inviting space from which you can see the brewery through a wall of glass, and which includes a bar serving 24 different home-brewed lagers on tap. I tried their beers while eating one of their specialty pizzas: bacon and clams. I was impressed by the beer, enjoyed the food, and appreciated the ambiance. If I lived closer, I’d be here so much that the bartenders would know my name and my favorite lagers.

But on to the beers:

Core Beers

Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union IPL – The single beer most identified with Jack’s Abby is their India Pale Lager. Like an IPA, this beer relies on hops for its flavor, clocking in at 65 IBUs (International Bitter Units), a respectable, but not over-the-top number. But this beer is much more than just a super-bitter lager. On the nose, it shows bright grapefruit citrus, tropical notes, and resin. The flavor follows suit in beautiful fashion and introduces a malt backbone just strong enough to stand up to the hops. I can’t say for certain if I could blindly identify this beer as an IPL instead of an IPA, but I can say it is balanced and bold yet dangerously drinkable. 6.5% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger Black Lager – Without introduction, I would have guessed this pitch black beer was a porter. On the nose, it oozes sweet malt, coffee, and smoke. The taste follows, showing malt, coffee, chocolate, and sweetness, but not too much. The smoke is less intense in the flavor than in the smell. With so much going on, this beer somehow manages to be medium bodied. Without setting out to sample Jack’s Abby’s full line of available beers, I probably wouldn’t have tried this one, and that would be a shame, because it is surprisingly good. 5.6% abv. A-

Jack’s Abby Leisure Time Wheat Lager – As the name suggests, this is a light, summertime sipper. The can lists chamomile and orange peel, and both ingredients figure in the smell and the taste. Wheat also figures prominently, giving the beer a yeasty, bready quality. It doesn’t have as much character as some of the best witbiers, but it is worth a try. 4.8% abv. B

Jack’s Abby House Lager – This beer has the smell and taste of corn and yeasty bread. On their website, Jack’s Abby describes the House Lager as “sweet and golden with a full malty body.” I agree, but I found it to be too sweet, with a slightly cloying finish that detracts from a pleasant, everyday lager style. 5.2% abv. B-

Jack’s Abby Calyptra Session IPL – More heavily carbonated than Jack’s Abby’s other IPL offerings and showing a lower abv, Calyptra is an enjoyable session beer. The hops, which do not present as boldly as I typically like, grow fruitier (grapefruit citrus), more assertive, and more enjoyable as I worked my way through the can. The crispness on the finish is ideal to a hot summer day, and I finished the beer ready to start another. 4.9% abv. B+

Jack’s Abby Excess IPL – This beer lives up to its name and offers a serious challenge to the best double IPAs on the market in terms of assertive hoppiness. But this beer is more than a hop monster. It reveals bold, enticing aromas of pineapple, grapefruit, and pine. The palate follows suit, offering more fruit and citrus than bitterness. The malt component just stands up to the hops, offering a beer that is balanced but very hop forward. Love it. 7.2% abv. A

Seasonal Beers

Jack’s Abby Saxony Lager Vienna Style – In a blind taste test, I would guess this was an established German lager. The malt presence is dominant but is balanced by the hops to create a beer with great flavor, but one I could drink all day. Light grass and cereal grains show on both the nose and the palate along with the crisp finish that the style demands. 5% abv. B+

Rotating Beers

Jack’s Abby Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Nearly all popular porters are ales, but this beer proves that a lager can achieve an outstanding example of the style. Framinghammer is a rich, slightly sweet, full bodied porter that exudes dark chocolate, coffee, malt, enticing bitterness, and an impressively long, enjoyable finish. The high abv is entirely hidden by the bold flavor that goes on and on. 10% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mass Rising Double IPL – This used to be part of Jack’s Abby’s regular rotation but was ousted by Excess, which I like more. But Mass Rising gained a following and now shows up on the rotating list of brews. It is not inferior to Excess, just different. It has a massive 100 IBUs, which show up on the nose in pineapple, pine, and citrus. The flavor also shows serious bitterness with strong resin, which are balanced by nice malt. The beer is a bit hot, showing its high abv, but it is a powerful, dank, uninhibited IPL that demands respect. 8% abv. B+

Specialty Beers

Jack’s Abby Bourbon Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – I don’t know if I have tasted a better bourbon barrel aged stout or porter. Unlike so many other examples of the style, the porter and the bourbon barrel marry together seamlessly in this beer. The nose and the palate exhibit some sweetness (but not cloying), bourbon, and brown sugar along with chocolate and malt. The bourbon elements never overwhelm the beer, but work with it. This is worth hunting down. Wow. 11% abv. A+

Jack’s Abby Cordon Rouge Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This is the Framinghammer, aged in bourbon barrels with orange peel, which add a spicy kick to the otherwise silky porter. I don’t like it more than the regular Framinghammer, but it is very good. 12% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mole Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Flavors of chocolate and spice from the mole are prevalent but don’t mesh perfectly with the porter. I expect there are going to be people who love this beer, but it doesn’t come together for me. 11.9% abv. B

Jack’s Abby PB&J Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This was my least favorite of the barrel aged porters. The flavor of peanut butter comes first with just a hint of jelly, and together they hide the outstanding flavor of the porter. 11.8% B-

jacksabby.com

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 2: Canadian Whisky – Ellington, Black Velvet, LTD

bottom shelf

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive Canadian whiskies. (Cheap-ass American whiskey coverage can be found here.) Canadian whiskies are usually blends, as all three of these are.

Ellington Canadian Whisky

Note that the whisky reviewed here is the regular Ellington and not the Ellington Reserve, which lists itself as 8 years old. The age of this product is unstated, but to bear the label “Canadian Whisky,” all of the constituent whiskies must have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels (usually used barrels). The whisky’s light-yellow color suggests that coloring has been added to achieve an enticing hue in a blend that spent very little time in the barrel. The nose is gentle and presents a mix of nail polish remover, peanuts, and a touch of rye spice. The palate however is surprisingly supple and reminds me of cheap vodka. But I think it is better than cheap vodka. Slight wood notes and a touch of sweetness serve to round out the alcohol’s bite. The finish includes a touch of pepper and a slight bitterness. Ellington could serve as a promising mixer, particularly for people who aren’t huge fans of whisky (or alcohol) but still want to drink.

80 proof.

C / $11

Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky 3 Years Old

Like Ellington, this young whisky has an older sibling, Black Velvet Reserve, which is also aged 8 years. This younger, less expensive expression is light-gold in color, suggesting, as with Ellington, that color was used to achieve a pleasant hue in a very young whisky. The nose is virtually  nonexistent. I’m not sure I have ever smelled a whiskey (or another 80 proof product) that exhibited so light a nose. A light medicinal scent can be discerned when swirled in a glass. The taste is more pronounced than the aroma suggests, opening with some bitterness, followed by notes of cheap vanilla extract. A touch of pepper follows, which is nice, and then an alcohol burn. The finish is rather short but surprisingly clean. No bitter aftertaste.

80 proof.

C / $9 / blackvelvetwhisky.com

Canadian LTD

On the bottle, Canadian LTD states that it is “Canadian Whisky with Natural Flavors,” which means that some of the product is made up of whiskies aged for at least 3 years and some of it is a mystery. Most of the remaining product is likely neutral grain spirits (aka vodka). On the nose, LTD is presents faint aromas of nail polish remover with a little vanilla and just a whiff of peanut. The palate is much more assertive, opening with some pepper and then presenting strong flavors of cheap vanilla extract, which leads me to wonder if it is made with some of the same whisky as Black Velvet. The finish is fairly short and is followed by an unpleasant, but not overpowering, medicinal bitterness.

80 proof.

C- / $9

The Debate Over Whiskey Age Statements: A Drinkhacker Conversation

The age statement — the practice of putting the amount of time a spirit spends in the barrel — continues to be one of the most talked-about issues in the booze business. Long a staple of the whiskey world, where age statements have been a badge of honor and a matter of distillers’ pride for decades, the practice of putting a number on the label is rapidly falling out of favor. Why? Mainly because distilleries are short on old stock, so producing age-statemented whisky is harder and harder. This has led to the discontinuation of many longtime whiskeys with an age statement and their replacement with a No Age Statement (NAS) alternative… usually at a similar price.

Is the rise of NAS a good thing or a bad? Writer Robert Lublin and Editor in Chief Christopher Null engage in a debate over the issue as they attempt to suss out what’s really going on in the wild world of NAS, and whether or not “age matters” after all.

RL: Should whiskeys list their age on the bottle? I don’t think this is a simple question. When you pick up a single malt scotch, for instance, the age statement lets you know that the whisky you are about to drink spent at least that many years in the barrel after distillation. This might seem like a reasonable request to make of distilleries that are asking consumers to pay a high price for old scotch, but remember that age statements do not actually tell you the age of the whisky you are about to drink. They only tell you the minimum age of the whisky. An excellent Glendronach 15 Years Old includes older whisky inside.

The problem? Due to lack of stock, the whisky has been discontinued for the next three years until stocks can age appropriately. Will it be the same whisky when it is re-released? Not likely. The age statement on the new scotch will be identical to the old, but one can guess that the whisky in the bottle won’t have older stock in it and will ultimately taste very different. My conclusion? Age statements can be misleading.

CN: Age statements can be misleading, but not having an age statement can be even more misleading, can’t it? Taking your example even further, if we remove all age statements from that Glendronach, we don’t even have the safeguard of knowing the whisky in the bottle is at least 15 years old. NAS Glendronach would surely taste much different than whatever the new Glendronach 15 tastes like, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t the age statement provide some level of assurance that the consumer is getting what he expects?

RL: Yes, but sometimes having age statements would be even more misleading than excluding them. Consider some of the best NAS whiskies on the market today. One of my favorite peated drams is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, which blends Ardbeg aged in sherry casks for extended periods of time with Ardbeg 10 Years Old. With an age statement, this is simply 10 year old scotch, a detail that does no justice to the whisky’s complex, smoky, fruity flavor profile. If age statements were required on bottles, this excellent dram would simply, and confusingly, tout a 10 year old statement. Uigeadail costs more for good reason.

CN: That is actually my point. My biggest problem with the removal of age statements is less about flavor profiles and more about the way whisky is sold. Age statements originally came into vogue mainly as a marketing tool, to convince consumers that, in no uncertain terms, “older was better” and better was more expensive. Until recently, Ballentine’s slogan was “Age matters.”

Now the industry has done a 180. Age abruptly doesn’t matter any more. Taste matters. To some extent that’s true, but modern food science can make anything taste good, can’t it? “Age doesn’t matter” encourages shortcuts. It rejects tradition and chases after the lowest common denominator at the highest possible price, and it shrouds the whisky in the bottle in a veil of secrecy.

RL: It is frustrating to be reminded that for all of its history and artisan craftsmanship, scotch is an industry driven by a bottom line. The marketing slogan “Age matters” did more to drive up prices and demand for older stock than it did to make a statement regarding taste or quality. The whole issue is made more complicated by the amazing, high end whiskies that are being produced today in far less time than previously was needed. Bruichladdich’s Octomore series demonstrates that outstanding scotch can be made in roughly 6 years. As one who appreciates the time and artistry that goes into making great whisky, I want as much information as possible, but times are changing and age statements will probably never again carry the importance they once did.

CN: I think whiskies like Octomore are the exception, not the rule. In fact, one could argue that Octomore is a shining example of the gimmickry I mentioned: Ultra-peated whisky can be released young because the peat overpowers anything the barrel can do. The last thing I would hope for is that distilleries will start boosting the amount of peated malt they use simply because they know that if they do they can release an even younger spirit. Alas, I worry that is a calculus that is being carefully undertaken across Islay right now.

I am happy at least, as you allude, that Bruichladdich is at least somewhat transparent about what’s in the bottle. Octomore doesn’t have an age statement, but they aren’t hiding the fact that what’s inside is pretty young. I’m less thrilled about whiskies like Talisker Storm and Macallan Rare Cask, a $300 NAS whisky. What goes into these whiskies is not just unstated, it is purposefully opaque so as to make a consumer value calculation much more difficult. I like the way Macallan Rare tastes, but I just can’t justify spending $300 for it without knowing what’s inside. It would be like buying a car without knowing what kind of engine it has. I just want to know. I’m not alone in feeling that if that kind of information isn’t made available, then the whisky is less valuable to me.

RL: I find Talisker Storm to be very reasonably priced (roughly the same as Talisker 10 Years Old) and do not mind the absence of an age statement as the quality of the product speaks for itself. But I take your point regarding Macallan Rare Cask, which, I must admit, I have not yet tried specifically because it costs too much to purchase without some idea of what I am buying. One of the problems regarding age statements lies in EU regulations which state that a whisky must either (a) list the age of the youngest whiskey appearing in the bottle, or (b) post no age statement at all. There is good reason for these regulations. If distilleries were free to list the age of all of the whiskies appearing in a bottle, they could choose to include a negligible amount of very old whiskey and list it as an ingredient, thereby misleading the consumer. The downside is a pair of options that may be well intentioned but limit the information available to the consumer. In the current system, it makes sense to exclude an age statement if one of the components is considerably younger than the others.

A third choice has been recommended by the people at Compass Box who blend whiskies to create their scotch. They would like to be able to provide “Full Disclosure” — and have actually been penalized by regulators when they have provided it. This option, should it become law, would permit bottles and advertising to list the age of all of the whiskies included in a scotch, but would require that they list the exact percentage (to a decimal point!) of each and every component. I would like to see Full Disclosure become a legal option for scotch, but I am very curious to know how many distillers and blenders would choose it.

CN: Perhaps more than you’d think. “Transparency” as a business concept has legs, and companies that embrace it (whether in spirits or otherwise) are gaining traction. For example, when restaurants use open kitchen layouts, where cooks and customers can see each other, customer satisfaction is 17% higher. Look at the rise of companies making it easy to talk to the brand via social media, disclosing where they source their products, or even revealing everyone’s salary. All of these have been associated with higher satisfaction — and bigger sales. For its part, Compass Box sells out of seemingly everything!

My prediction is that eventually the market will swing back the other way, particularly as stocks of older whiskies become more available once again and age statements are less of a hardship. Consumers — particularly Millennials hitting their 30s in the next decade and who are branching out from bourbon to scotch — will want more information about their booze, and that in turn may get marketers thinking the same way they did decades ago: Put an age statement on the label and we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the market, which by then will probably be fully embracing NAS. Age statements will again become a point of differentiation. And suddenly, age might matter again. I mean, until it doesn’t anymore.

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