Review: Traverse City Premium Cocktail Cherries

Traverse City is a craft whisky distillery in the eponymous town in Michigan. Lately they’re also introduced cocktail cherries — of the “brandied” variety, not artificial maraschinos. Some details:

TCWC Co-founder Chris Fredrickson chose to use Northern Michigan Balaton Cherries,which are harvested exclusively from orchards in the Traverse City area. The large, plump, firm cherries, which are dark burgundy in color, are delivered to the distillery in five-gallon pails that also contain a natural syrup base that acts as a buffer to protect the fruit from smashing together. The syrup is mixed with Traverse City Straight Bourbon Whiskey and brought to a boil, while the Balaton Cherries are heated to a near-boil, in nearby copper pots, before jarring.

Once the premium cherries are jarred and weighed, they get backfilled with the boiling syrup, which has burned off all of the alcohol during its slow-cooking process. The TCWC team prides itself on traditional jarring methods, better known as the “hot-filled” process, which kills all possible bacteria.

We gave them a try in a couple of cocktails to see if they were worth adding to your garnish library.

These are big cherries, larger than your typical Luxardo, and considerably different in flavor, too. The texture difference is immediate: Traverse’s cherries have bite, almost crunchy, with a relative dryness at their core instead of a burst of juice. The flavor takes a spin away from the typical sweet/tart cherry character one finds with a Luxardo. Here, the cherry has a distinct chocolate character that acts as a foil to a modest earthiness beneath. There’s less sweetness here than in any other cocktail cherry I’ve encountered, but perhaps that’ll be to the liking of some drinkers? For me, however, while I enjoyed eating the cherries on their own, I found them a bit too savory for most recipes.

B / $16 per 16 oz jar / tcwhiskey.com

Review: King Floyd’s Bitters – Orange, Aromatic, and Cardamom – and Rim Salts

My sleepy burg of Novato, California is home to a surprising operation: King Floyd’s, which produces both artisanal bitters as well as a couple of tins of rimming salts. The company was kind enough to send all five of its products our way for review. Thoughts follow.

King Floyd’s Orange Bitters – Strong orange notes are instantly evident on the nose, almost like a triple sec, with floral elements at times. The palate is something else entirely, however — intensely bitter, almost to the breaking point. The orange peel element licks at the sides of the palate, while the center of the tongue gets a fully bitter blasting. The finish is pungent and lasting. Use sparingly. B / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Aromatic Bitters – Lots of anise and cinnamon on the nose here, but the palate is particularly hefty with cloves. The experience develops further on the tongue to reveal notes of dark chocolate and coffee beans, all filtered through that massive bitterness that’s part of the orange experience. Here, the overall experience is a bit more cohesive on the whole, the bitterness fitting more compactly with the intensity of the herbs. A- / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Cardamom Bitters – A unique expression of bitters, exotic and eastern on the nose, evocative of a Moroccan bazaar. That nutmeg-on-steroids character is pumped up further on the palate, which segues into something akin to a well-aged rug in the back of a hookah joint, slightly smoky, with notes of tobacco, sweat, and funk. Clearly built for tiki. B+ / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Sea Flake Rim Salt – This is straight-up, unadulterated sea salt in a tin. Nice granularity, and it works well as a rimmer. It’s hard to rate salt, but I’ll try. A- / $8 per 4 oz tin

King Floyd’s Sriracha Rim Salt – This brownish salt is pungent with spice, so much so that the aroma of sriracha fills the room when you first pour it into the tin. On the tongue, it doesn’t have as much heat as the aroma would initially lead you to believe, which is probably a good thing. Who needs a cocktail rimmer that’s so spicy they can’t taste the actual drink? A great bloody mary rimmer. A / $10 per 4 oz tin

kingfloyds.com

Review: The Spice Lab Special Touch Premium Mixology Case

Nothing’s more fun than ordering a high-end cocktail at a bar and receiving it with a wacky ingredient or garnish — maybe a flaming star anise or an edible flower, slowly leeching its color into your drink.

Well good news, campers: Now you can recreate some of these experiences at home, thanks to The Spice Lab’s “Special Touch” Premium Mixology Case.

It’s a very simple idea: This attache-style case contains a dozen rare or high-end garnishes, each provided whole and packaged in its own individual plastic case. The dozen includes the following: cardamom seeds, giant coffee beans, cocoa seed, allspice (whole), star anise, dried kumquat, juniper berries (whole), mini cinnamon cassia sticks, whole mace, and three dried (whole) flowers: hibiscus, Persian rose, and mallow blossom.

The case includes a deck of cards, one giving some basic usage ideas for each ingredient. The top lid includes five barware pieces: a jigger, bar spoon, tongs, peeler, and a cylindrical grater for dried spices.

What can you do with all of these? The Spanish-designed kit is designed for use with vermouth, rum, and gin, and just about all of these garnishes pair well with gin concoctions, particularly the Spanish staple of gin and tonic. Pick any of the flowers and drop one in your glass to open up new aromatics and give your drink a breathtaking color. Other ingredients, like kumquat and mace, present more of a challenge. And of course, items like star anise, cocoa bean, and cinnamon are all very versatile, well being the world of gin and tonic. From top to bottom, all the ingredients are extremely high end — but remember, dried spices and flowers will lose flavor and potency over time, so don’t be afraid to use them liberally.

At $200, this is an awfully luxe kit, but if you don’t need the full collection, Special Touch offers some simpler kits that are more targeted (and which cost quite a bit less), and individual botanicals can be purchased as well. My only complaint: The case itself is a bit flimsy, though it’s decked out in leather and metal trim.

That aside, I know I’m having fun with this kit. Order a drink at my house these days and who knows what kind of garnish you’ll get!

A- / $200 / thespicelab.com

How to Use Infused Ice to Upgrade Your Cocktails

Anise Infused Ice

Infused ice is a fun way to add flavor to your drinks and add an eye-pleasing touch. To make infused ice, start by using distilled water to mitigate cloudiness. Add any fruit or spice (such as whole star anise, cardamom pods, or cinnamon stick pieces) to water in a pan and boil for a few minutes. This will infuse the ice with the flavor of the additive and also blanch fruits like strawberries, pineapples, and cranberries enough for them to be safely frozen. It’s the same process for preparing fruit to be put into gelatin. Cool the water. Then place a piece of the boiled fruit or a chunk of the spice used to flavor the water in each section of an ice tray. Fill the tray with the cooled water and freeze. Be aware that some spices like cloves, cinnamon, and anise may turn the water brown. The flavor is still packed inside.

Next use the ice in any beverage—alcoholic or not—in which you want to add that fruit or spice flavoring. For example: Throw a few strawberry or raspberry infused ice cubes in an iced tea for a nice fruit flavor which intensifies as the ice melts. Consider using a cinnamon, nutmeg, or anise cube in a rocks glass with your favorite whiskey. The trick is to not overdo the number or intensity of the ice cubes or the spices can become overwhelming.

Want to give it a try? Here are two professional cocktails from Stoli’s Elit Vodka that use infused ice which will give you an idea of how to be creative with the stuff.

Frozen TerrainFrozen Terrain
Created by Whitney Morrow, Beverage Director at Drumbar, Chicago
1 part Elit Vodka
½ part St. George Terroir Gin
¾ part Lillet Blanc
¼ part pear liqueur
1 cinnamon ice cube

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a rocks glass over a 2” x 2” cinnamon ice cube. To make the cinnamon ice cube: place 7 sticks of cinnamon into 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Place into large format ice tray with one sprig of rosemary and a thinly sliced piece of pear. Freeze.

Tickled PinkTickled Pink
Created by Ashtin Berry, Bartender at Ace Hotel Nola, New Orleans
¾ part Elit Vodka
½ part cranberry syrup (equal parts cranberry juice and sugar, cooked on low to thicken into syrup)
¼ part lemon
2 dashes orange bitters
champagne or club soda

Shake all ingredients with cranberry infused ice (made from cranberry juice) and strain into a coupe or flute. Top with bubbles (either champagne or club soda) and add a couple of cranberries and an orange twist.

Review: Spiced Up Bourbon Barrel Chocolate Chili Sugar

Want to spice up a wintry cocktail? Try this new rimming powder from Spiced Up, which is made with a blend of Valrhona cocoa powder from France, Demerara pure cane sugar, and bourbon-barrel aged chili powder.

Spiced Up Bourbon Barrel Chocolate Chili Sugar offers fairly large granules that require significant liquid to adhere to the rim of a glass. Their impact is moderate but definitely present, with all three major components — cocoa, sugar, and spice — making their presence known, and in that order, with light chocolate leading quickly to brown-sugar sweetness, and a warming spice bringing up the back end. Lick a bunch off your glass and you can get quite a lasting heat from it.

There’s not much of an impact from the bourbon barrel treatment on the chili powder, but that might be asking for too much from a garnish that’s already putting in overtime. All in all, it’s a nice addition to the bartender’s arsenal.

B+ / $9 per 4 oz packet / spicedup.rocks

Review: Twang Beer Salt

It’s common to jam a wedge of lime into your beer when sipping on a Mexican lager. Others prefer a lick of salt instead of the sweet-and-sour kick of citrus, and that’s why Twang — “The Original Premium Beersalt” — exists.

Twang, which also makes a line of margarita salts, sells five different flavors of beer salt (none of which are just “salt”), in little bottles that you apply directly to the glass or the rim of your bottle as you drink. New to the game is its Clamato Chili-Lime Salt, which is sold in a small can and which is designed for Micheladas, Bloody Maries, and other tomato-centric beverages. The little bottles are resealable and portable… and should last for quite a while in normal use.

Ideally no beer you drink should need manipulating in order to be palatable, but I know you don’t always have a choice of what to sip on — or maybe you just want to try something new for a change. Either way, keep reading for reviews of all five beer salts, plus the Clamato version.

Twang Michelada Especial Beer Salt – There’s a nice and well-balanced mix of tomato, lime, chili pepper, and salt in this, and it pairs quite well with lager. You really can taste all the disparate elements, which is quite a surprise. It’s clearly a way to make a poor man’s michelada, you bet, but there’s nothing wrong with slumming it once in a while. A-

Twang Lemon-Lime Beer Salt – Leans heavily on the lime, but lemon gives it a stronger kick on the back end. I was less thrilled with it as a pairing companion for any beer, but perhaps experimenting with different beer styles would find a more natural mate. B-

Twang Lime Beer Salt – As the above, without the lemon kick on the back end. I really enjoy a lime in my Pacifico, but this just didn’t replicate the experience for me. Too salty perhaps? B-

Twang Orange Beer Salt – Extremely orange heavy — only a salty kick late in the game distracts from the idea of Pixy Stix — presumably designed for use with wheat beers. It’s not really to my taste, but again, this could be a question of finding the right beer to pair it with. Either way, it’s less versatile than I’d like. C+

Twang Hot Lime Beer Salt – Less fiery than I was expecting (and hoping for), but the addition of spice gives the lime flavor more versatility and intrigue. A reasonable pairing with lagers, but still quite tart and lingering beyond its welcome. B

Twang Clamato Chili-Lime Salt – Again, this is a slightly different product intended for more than just beer, but as with the Michelada salt above, it fights above the expected weight. The two products are actually quite similar, though this one has less salt, larger granules, and just a hint of that briny shellfish character. Definitely a keeper for bloodies, (real) micheladas, and other exotic drinks. B+

$2 per 1.4 oz bottle (Clamato version is 1 oz) / beersalt.com

The Spice Lab Brings Color to Cocktail Rims

Cocktail-SaltsSalt-rimmed margaritas (or salt-rimmed anything, really) may be currently out of favor, but here’s one idea if you want to bring the trend back at your home bar: Use colored salts instead of boring old white ones.

The Spice Lab, which markets over 180 types of sea salt alone, has recently launched three sea salts designed specifically for margies. Available in blue, yellow, orange, or magenta, these brightly colored salts have no added flavor (hence no review, it’s just straight salt), but are artificially and naturally colored to put some pigment on the rim. (Warn guests in advance that it isn’t sugar!)

$3 gets you a 4 oz. bag (which is plenty of salt for even a large party of margarita guzzling).

thespicelab.com

Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail Rimmers

Herb Crystals CilantroFresh Origins, the maker of a unique set of herb-flavored cocktail rimmer crystals, is back at it, with two new “MicroGreens” flavors that are on the rise in the cocktailverse: Hibiscus and Cilantro. As with its original four flavors, these are natural flowers and herbs mixed with cane sugar crystals, creating crunchy, edible garnishes for your cocktail glass rims. We put these two new versions to the tongue to see how they measure up as ingredients of your next cocktail creation.

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Hibiscus Crystals – Quite sweet, with the hibiscus notes understated. The flavor comes across as more of a cherry/strawberry mix than a floral one, though hibiscus is always a tricky flavor to work with. This would be exemplary on a Cosmo or other fruit-focused cocktail. A-

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Cilantro Crystals – Appropriately bittersweet, but the addition of sugar makes cilantro tough to pick out. The attack is more akin to celery or perhaps even artichoke, but even that is quite muted compared to the sugar component. The company suggests pairing this with a margarita, but rimming a shot of Cynar with it is also interesting. B+

each $10 per 4 oz. jar / freshorigins.com

Review: Crazy Steve’s Bloody Mary Mixes

ghostshipCrazy Steve is making Bloody Mary mixes, dry spices, salsas, and pickles in the heart of New Jersey. (He’s also trying to help out the damaged Jersey Shore, so give him a hand.)

Our focus today however is on his two Bloody mixes (made with fresh cucumber, celery, onion, and jalapeno) and their rimmer companion. Thoughts follow.

Crazy Steve’s Badass Barnacle Bloody Mary Mix – Thick, with enticingly meaty overtones. Almost a gazpacho in a glass, it offers notes of garlic, onion, bouillon, and a bit of mixed garden vegetables. Moderate heat — it burns the lips but not the belly. All in all, there’s a great balance of flavors here, all coming together in a viscous yet easily drinkable package. Good on its own or spiked with vodka. A / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s GhostShip Bloody Mary Mix – Spiked with ghost peppers, aka “the hottest pepper in the world,” hence the name. Smells great. Peppery, like black pepper, atop the garlicky tomato notes. The body at first comes off much like the Badass Barnacle, but the heat builds quickly and steadily as it settles into your gullet. GhostShip quickly rises to the level where it seems like you’re going to break into a sweat, and your tongue is starting to prickle with an uncomfortable level of heat… and then it breaks. A seasoned (ha!) heat-seeker can handle GhostShip without a beer or milk chaser, but it’s more comfortable with a little something on the side. A- / $9 per 32 oz. bottle [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Crazy Steve’s Shot Over the Rim Spicy Bloody Mary Salt – Made with salt, red wine vinegar powder, chili powder, jalepeno powder, onion powder, cider vinegar powder, cumin, garlic powder, and some other stuff. I really like it. Most Bloody Mary rim salt is too heavy on chili powder, too light on salt. Crazy Steve has the balance right — plenty of salt (though not too much), with a kind of smoky, chipotle kick behind it. Good heat, but not overdone. Who knew that vinegar powder would be a killer secret ingredient? A keeper. A / $6 per 6 oz. container [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

crazystevespickles.com

Review: Fresh Origins Herb Crystals and Flower Crystals

mini herb crystalsBacon salt rim? Boring. How about a basil rim on your cocktail? Or fennel?

Fresh Origins, a micro-greens and edible flowers creator, is launching Herb and Flower Crystals, a sort of freeze-dried herb-meets-sugar idea that results in colorful, exotic, and wholly unique crystals that can be used as cocktail garnishes. Two sizes of the crunchy crystals are available, a coarse grind that is mainly intended as a flavoring ingredient for culinary recipes, and a finer grain that can stick to the rim of a moistened cocktail glass.

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Review: Tillen Farms Garnishes

At long last high-quality Grenadine is widely available. (If you’re buying Rose’s — which is just red corn syrup — you’re missing out.)

But who mourns the death of the Maraschino cherry? Once a reference to a Croatian marasca cherry preserved in maraschino liqueur, Maraschino cherries are now chemical-laden monstrosities that remain a staple of even high-end bars.

Hey, you don’t have to have loads of FD&C Red #40 in your Maraschinos. Check out Washington-based Tillen Farms’ no-dye, no-corn syrup cherries, which we consider here alongside three other garnishes from these artisan producers. All of these products are alcohol-free.

UPDATE: Tillen Farms is offering all Drinkhacker readers 25% off on all purchases. Just use promo code “DRINKHACKER” at checkout on the tillenfarms.com website.

Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries – It’s hard to believe that these bright red orbs contain no red dye. Sweetened only with cane sugar, these are traditional Maraschinos: Very sugary (and sticky as hell) with just a dusting of fruit flavor underneath. There’s more depth here, though, than in the the typical Maraschino, and more importantly, no nasty, chemical aftertaste. A- / $7 per 14 oz. jar

Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherries – When you’re ready to upgrade your cherry, jump for these bad boys: Real (and large) Bing cherries in syrup. The effect is much like a brandied cherry, without the alcohol. Rich, earthy, and a bit sour, these cherries are still plenty sweet enough to give a Shirley Temple a bit more pop. Great for a Manhattan, even better for muddled cocktails when you really want to amp up the flavor. A / $7 per 13.5 oz. jar

Tillen Farms Hot & Spicy Crispy Beans – These pickled green beans are obviously of high quality, with nary a blemish. Long and authentic, these string beans are pickled with lots of dill, garlic, and red pepper flakes. They pack a spicy punch, but not overbearingly so. Decent green bean flavor, too, but there’s not too much of it — which is probably for the best. B+ / $7 per 12 oz. jar

Tillen Farms Crispy Asparagus – Again, very high-quality, thin, and crispy asparagus spears are pickled with plenty of garlic. These are mild, however — a spicy version is available, too — and there’s a good balance between the vegetal character and the pickling spices, but the overall results are distinctly asparagus. Not bad at all, assuming, as with the beans, you’re using these in a Bloody Mary. One of the company’s two original products, dating back to 1984. B+ / $7 per 12 oz. jar

tillenfarms.com

tillen farms Bada Bing cherries

Oddity of the Week: Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straw

You love beef. You love straws. Now you can get the two together, in the form of Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straw.

As the name implies, this unique “straw” is designed to accompany Bloodies, but enterprising cocktail types will likely find myriad uses for it — not the least of which is simply consuming them plain. Essentially a Slim Jim with a hole drilled through it lengthwise (and yes, I know Slim Jims are made from chicken, but you get the idea), this all-beef stick is perhaps the most eye-catching garnish I’ve ever seen.

I tried it as intended — to sip a Bloody Mary — and found it didn’t impart any significant flavor as it zipped through the straw, but the real fun is, of course, in noshing on the garnish. The Beef Straw is big: This is far more substantial than a stick of celery in your glass, and if you’re a carnivore you’ll doubtlessly finish off the straw well before you consume the drink. The straw itself tastes pretty good: Meaty, but with a sausage-like texture, not tough and chewy like a Slim Jim is. Once a pack is open, it will last up to a week in the fridge.

The look may not lend itself to sophistication — particularly once you start chewing on the end — but it’s one of the biggest (and beefiest) cocktail conversation starters I’ve yet to encounter.

$34 for three 10-packs / bennysbloodymarybeefstraw.com

benny's beef straw

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