Review: Old Forester Signature 100 Proof and Perfect Old Fashioned Syrup

Old Forester, “America’s First Bottled Bourbon” has partnered with Bourbon Barrel Foods to launch its line of Cocktail Provisions, a collection of three bitters, two syrups and one tincture, all designed to elevate (but simplify) the home cocktail experience.

Created by Louisville-based Bourbon Barrel Foods and Old Forester Master Taster and Bourbon Specialist Jackie Zykan, Cocktail Provisions are inspired by the unique and robust flavor profiles of Old Forester. Taking the guesswork out of creating high-end cocktails, Zykan and Bourbon Barrel Foods have developed a cocktail line allowing consumers and trade to craft the perfect Old Fashioned, take the hassle out of Oleo-Saccharum syrup and elevate cocktails to new dimensions of flavor.

I’d like to say we’re going to taste all six of the items in the Cocktail Provisions lineup, but we actually only received one — the Old Fashioned syrup — which sounds decidedly simplistic next to something like a salt & pepper tincture. That sadness aside, we’ll dig into the syrup after we kick things off by correcting a longstanding oversight by reviewing Old Forester Signature, the 100 proof version of OldFo that is a standby of (affordable) cocktailing.

Thoughts follow.

Old Forester Signature 100 Proof – Lots of dark chocolate on the nose, with hints of vanilla extract, graham crackers, and toasty cloves. A bit of heat is evident, but less than the typical bonded whiskey. The palate sees more of that chocolate, some baking spice, cherry notes, and a hint of barrel char — but none of that heavy-duty wood influence that you tend to see with OldFo’s annual Birthday Bourbon releases. In fact, I was surprised to see that I liked this much better than most of those, and I see a common thread between this whiskey and Old Forester 1920, though the latter is a bit fruitier. With its bold attack but silky finish, Signature is engaging from start to finish. Put it another way: It’s much better than it needs to be at this price. Best value. 100 proof. A / $22

Old Forester Cocktail Provisions Perfect Old Fashioned Syrup – Rich demerara syrup spiked with proprietary blend of three Old Forester bitters (ultimately giving it a 2% alcohol level). I have to say, this made for an amazing Old Fashioned (2 oz. Old Forester Signature, 1/2 oz. syrup), and it needed no doctoring at all, just whiskey and this syrup. Tasting the syrup straight reveals lots of cinnamon and nutmeg notes, and while those shine in the cocktail, here it melds with the whiskey to reveal chocolate and vanilla, clear complements to the Old Forester but bumped up a notch here. There’s a touch of orange peel, but if you like your Old Fashioned loaded with fruit, you’ll want to toss a slice of orange and a cherry in there before mixing. For my part, I like it just the way it is. A / $8.50 per 2 fl. oz bottle

Review: Cruzan Light Rum 5 Years Old, Dark Rum 5 Years Old, Black Strap Rum, and Single Barrel Rum (2018)

We’ve been covering Cruzan Rum pretty much since the beginning of Drinkhacker, to the point where its products have been a reliable constant on the site. Now Cruzan — following some nasty devastation on the island of St. Croix last fall — is rebuilding not only its operation, but its brand, revamping the entire Cruzan Distiller’s Collection, including its Single Barrel Rum. (The new bottles are definitely a step up from the old ones.) We last reviewed this collection in 2013.

As the distillery notes:

With an embossed-glass logo (a nod to the Nelthropp family crest) and a real wood and cork closure, these new bottles make it easier for bartenders to accurately measure parts and have a stand-out look that will make a statement on any bar or bar cart. Though the bottles are new, the liquid inside is the same clean-tasting, award-winning rum that fans of the brand have come to expect.

While reportedly these rums haven’t changed, perhaps my palate hasToday we take a fresh look at four essential Cruzan bottlings. Let’s dive in.

All bottlings are 80 proof.

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Light Rum 5 Years Old (2018) – Well-aged stock, filtered to clear. It’s kind of a funky rum for a spirit of this advanced age, with a nose of raisins, banana, coconut, and some cinnamon. Air opens things up, the palate showing ample fruit, but also plenty of heat. That banana is particularly evident, alongside a vanilla kick driven from its time in wood. B+ / $22

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Dark Rum 5 Years Old (2018) – Essentially the same rum as the Light Rum, but unfiltered. There’s a stronger fruit character on the nose here, along with some floral notes thrown into the mix. The palate is bold with coffee notes, some chocolate, and an almondy nut character that leads to a slightly sherried conclusion. Much bolder and sharper than the light rum, the finish is lingering and evocative of red berries and spice. A- / $22

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Estate Diamond Black Strap Rum – While the mysterious name evokes a luxury product, black strap (or blackstrap) molasses are essentially the final step in the sugar production process, a dark black and viscous goo that is the ultimate by-product of sugar refining. You can make rum out of it, too, and Cruzan’s version is black as night. It’s also full of character — on the nose, a molasses-heavy funk that starts with dense fig, raisin, and date character and then segues into coffee bean and dark chocolate notes, given some time. The palate is quite viscous and very sweet, with notes of licorice candy, more raisins, and cloves. There’s a ton going on here, but it works together quite well. A definitive go-to rum for tiki drinking or for floating on your favorite cocktail. A / $16

Cruzan Distiller’s Collection Single Barrel Premium Extra Aged Rum 5-12 Years Old (2018) – All of the rums in this collection claim to be 5 to 12 years old on the back label, but the Single Barrel now indicates that on the front of the bottle. Otherwise the rum hasn’t changed. The nose is similar to the Dark Rum, though perhaps a bit more pungent with cloves and gingerbread along with hints of orange peel. The palate is intense and rich, a monster with loads of coffee character, some hickory wood, and hints of molasses. The finish is very lengthy and bold, heavy with gravitas but filtered through hogoA- / $30

Review: 2015 Oyster Bay Pinot Noir Marlborough

This new pinot release from New Zealand’s Oyster Bay offers a surprising creaminess, with rounded berry notes — blueberry and strawberry — leading to a late palate that’s more fueled by classic black cherry character. With virtually no tannin to speak of, the wine lets some spicier notes do the talking, fading slowly to a modest, rounded finish.

Great value.

A- / $15 /

Review: 2015 Santa Ema Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Maipo Valley

This affordable Chilean cabernet offers a credible, fruit-forward construction, with tart, red berries on the nose and hints of cinnamon. The palate follows suit, layering in some orange peel alongside a grippy, tannic character. There’s nothing fancy here, and the wine’s wood profile feels underdeveloped, but for a ten-spot you can do far, far worse.

B+ / $10 /

Review: Wines of Cycles Gladiator, 2016 Releases (Plus Canned Pinot)

Cycles Gladiator (we last covered its 2014 vintage) is known as a solid budget brand — and now it’s adding to that notoriety its first canned wine. Today we’re looking at the full cycle of Cycles, so to speak, in bottles, plus taking a peek at its pinot noir in a can. We’re including thoughts on that wine in both bottled and canned formats.

2016 Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay Central Coast – Workmanlike but fully workable, this is a California chardonnay in its native form, full of (but not overloaded with) vanilla, oak, and brown butter. Lemon and apricot give the wine its fruit core, with lingering spiced apple notes. Not at all bad. A- / $12

2016 Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir Central Coast (bottle) – Budget pinot is never a major thrill, but Cycles gets it close enough here, with a bottling that is heavy on raspberry and strawberry notes, with a light undercurrent of beefsteak. Short finish, with some light florals on the finish. B+ / $12

NV Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir California (can) – Technically there is no vintage information on this expression, and it carries a California designate instead of a Central Coast one, so it’s probable not actually the same wine. It’s a sweeter expression of pinot than the above, lacking almost all of those meaty tones, replaced instead with pure strawberry jam. It’s nonetheless still approachable and drinkable, provided you pour it into a glass (or, to be honest, a Solo cup) first: Straight from the can it tastes like pure, sugary fruit juice. B- / $6 per 375ml can

2014 Cycles Gladiator Merlot Central Coast – OK, back to bottles. This merlot is a bit of a surprise, slightly peppery, with ample blueberry and blackberry notes. Notes of pencil lead and tobacco give the finish a more savory kick, which seems uncharacteristic for this varietal. One of the most balanced wines in this collection, and one which flirts with elegance. A- / $12

2015 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah Central Coast – The 2014 petite sirah was a bust, and this one’s no better. Again it’s a combo of pruny, jammy fruit and leathery, vegetal funk — overripe plums meet the compost heap in a pungent, overwhelmingly earthy way. The finish lingers on the palate for an eternity. C / $12

Review: 2015 Kaiken Ultra Malbec Mendoza Las Rocas

Initially overpowering with that unmistakable malbec funk — tobacco, graphite, leather, tar, and a fistful of dried spices — but Kaiken settles down quickly enough into a groove that showcases a richly fruity core, layers of blackberry and baking spice adding more body and nuance that cuts through the otherwise massive amount of tannins, revealing a surprisingly fleet-footed finish.

A great value, too.

A- / $15 /

Review: NV Chandon Sweet Star California

A definitive crowd-pleaser, Chandon’s Sweet Star is a lightly sweet sparkler, fresh and fruit-forward, with notes of pineapple, mango, and orange blossoms pervasive from start to finish. Mildly fizzy, the wine has a lovely creaminess that translates into a rich, velvety body — but also a zippy (though, again, somewhat sweet) finish. Easy to love, it’s a party wine through and through that you won’t be ashamed of giving to your host.

A- / $20 /

Review: Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition Irish Whiskey

It seems like just yesterday that Jameson’s first Caskmates release — an Irish whiskey finished in stout barrels — hit our desk. Now the second of the Caskmates line has arrived: Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition.

Before you get too carried away, know that IPA stands for Irish Pale Ale, though to be honest there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between that and a more typical India Pale Ale. And structurally, the whiskey is crafted in much the same way as the original Caskmates Stout Edition.

Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition is created using the same process established with Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition, the original whiskey and beer collaboration. Starting with barrels from the Midleton distillery, the local Irish brewery receives the propriety oak whiskey barrels to be filled with their local craft IPA. Once the IPA has imparted its crisp citrus notes, the barrels are sent back to Jameson to be reused to finish Jameson Original, creating Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition. As a result of time spent in the IPA barrels, Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition enhances the smooth taste of Jameson with a crisp, hoppy finish.

While the original Caskmates was perhaps a bit of a letdown, without much of a clear stout character to differentiate it from rack Jameson, Caskmates IPA is a completely different animal. The nose alone is a wildly different experience: Immediately, notes of pine needles are just the start, as elements of bitter dark chocolate, grapefruit peel, raspberry syrup, and torched creme brulee all emerge from the glass. In time, some more floral elements percolate from this melange. None of this is typical of Irish whiskey, of course, and it’s indicative of the impact that time in the IPA barrel has had on the spirit.

The palate is actually less unique than the nose, with notes of rich honey syrup, lemon peel, and a straightforward hoppiness hitting first. As the body develops, so does a silky salted caramel character that folds a soothing element into an otherwise spicy attack. The finish is lightly hoppy, with notes of spicy black pepper, but also a supple vanilla caramel note that endures beyond them all.

Wow, what to make of this wild whiskey? It is incredibly, surprisingly complex, unexpected, and original — and yet it there’s a balance to all that indicates an impressive level of astuteness that went into planning and executing this unique barrel treatment.

Beer and a shot? Now you can get them both in one bottle. Well done.

80 proof.

A / $30 /

Review: 2015 Flechas de los Andes Gran Malbec

Argentina malbec can be so hit or miss. Here’s one that knocks it out of the park for less than a 20-spot.

A spicy nose of black pepper gives way to a lush, gorgeous core of blackberries and baking spice, dark chocolate and vanilla. The lengthy palate is strong on cinnamon, with hints of elderflower as a slight sweetness emerges late in the game. All told, it’s one of the more powerful — yet also elegant — Argentine malbecs I’ve seen in years.

A / $17 /

Review: 2015 Rocca di Montemassi Le Focaie Maremma Toscana DOC

Want all the power of great Chianti without the price tag? Check out this 100% sangiovese bottling from Rocca di Montemassi called Le Focaie (“flint” in Italian), which will barely set you back a ten-spot.

A nose of pencil lead and dried cherries leads to an effusive body. It starts of sweet but with a bit of air it settles into a groove where you find fresh cherry fruit, a dusting of baking spice, and a subtle but enduring earthiness that really adds to the soul of the wine. While it may not be overwhelming in its complexity, it is impressive in its drinkability, showcasing both a beautiful balance and a tart, sophisticated finish.

One of the best value wines of the year.

A- / $12 /

Review: Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut

Jim Beam never seems to get tired of putting out new products. Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut (not to be confused with Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, Jim Beam Distillers Series, or Jim Beam Devil’s Cut) is a new, limited-edition bourbon that actually does carry an age statement of “5-6 years” and, while it’s not bonded, it’s bottled at 50% abv. There’s a weird emphasis here on the fact that this is not chill-filtered… but let’s let Fred Noe do some of the talking now:

Distiller’s Cut is a limited time offering that was personally selected by Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s seventh generation Master Distiller, and is available nationwide.

“We skipped the chill filtration process, so the liquid gets from barrel to bottle a little differently,” said Noe. “The result is unique to other Jim Beam offerings, with a fuller taste and longer finish compared to your typical bourbon.”

Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey aged five to six years that features a medium body and combines caramel sweetness with charred oak, enriched with light fruit notes. The premium expression offers a smooth and complex mouthfeel with a warm, lightly charred oak finish – the perfect gift for a bourbon lover looking to try something different this holiday season. It has a dark amber color with aromas of soft charred oak, sweet caramel, vanilla and hints of dried fruit.

“At Jim Beam, we are consistently innovating to offer our consumers a wide range of products. Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut is different from our other products because of the post-aging process,” said Rob Mason, Vice President of North American Whiskey at Beam Suntory. “Our Master Distiller has decided to release this batch at a time when bourbon drinkers, more than ever, are anxious to discover something unique.”

After aging, bourbon typically goes through a chill filtration process, which involves forcing the liquid through a dense filter to remove fatty acids formed during distillation. Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut skips this step, which results in a fuller taste and palate feel. This can also cause the liquid to look cloudier compared to filtered bourbons, especially on the rocks.

This is a solid product from Beam, bold on the nose with classic bourbon notes — caramel corn, vanilla, toffee, and ample baking spice. Peppery and a bit gritty at times, the bourbon’s heat is amplified by the alcohol level, giving it a punchiness and raciness that one wouldn’t typically expect from an otherwise fairly mainstream product. The palate is just as much fun, a bold bourbon with a slightly salty but corny punch, elevated by notes of cinnamon red hots, cola, chocolate sauce, and nutmeg. The finish is warming (thanks in part again to that 50% abv) and lush, mouth-filling and robust — everything an everyday bourbon should be.

Best of all, this is a whiskey that barely costs $20 a bottle. As values in the whiskey space become increasingly hard to come by, Beam is doing you a solid that you would be an utter fool to pass up. You heard it here first.

100 proof.

A / $23 /

Review: A. Smith Bowman Isaac Bowman Port-Barrel Finished Bourbon

Virginia’s A. Smith Bowman seems to have no shortage of relatives under whom it can bottle whiskey. Abraham, John, “Bowman Brothers”… they all have spirits made in their honor. Now it’s Isaac’s turn, with a bourbon finished in Port casks.

Officially known as Isaac Bowman Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Barrels, this is a NAS bourbon (the same base spirit used in its core line) that spends between three to six months in Port-style casks brought in from Portugal and “from across Virginia.” The finishing time is dependent on the particular cask.

The whiskey joins a prior Port-finished bottling (though quite a bit different in production) that was released under the Abraham Bowman line and which hit the market in 2013.

Let’s give this new expression a shot.

The nose is quite a delight, chocolatey and raisin-heavy, without the dominating wood profile of the 2013 Abraham Bowman bottling referenced above. The traditional popcorn notes of bourbon take on more of a caramel corn character, with some mint overtones evident. The palate is largely in line with what’s come before the mint and chocolate really taking the full focus of the experience, with a melange of character picking up on the back end — cloves, honey, and an amaro-like bitterness that takes the finish into a surprising (and welcome) slightly brooding territory.

Fun stuff, and at just $40 a bottle, it’s an excellent value worth picking up immediately.

92 proof.

A / $40 /