Review: Luxardo Bitter Bianco

Imagine a glass of Campari. Now strip away all the color. That’s the essence of Luxardo’s Bitter Bianco, a product that dates back to the 1930s but which has been off the market for years. Now it’s back, imported by Anchor Distilling, and ready to bring some clarity back to the world of amari.

Some more details from Luxardo:

Luxardo Bitter Bianco is produced from a distilled infusion of bitter herbs and aromatic plants, such as rhubarb, thyme and bitter orange. The Luxardo family revived the product and improved the production techniques to create a clear expression of bitter with no artificial coloring, featuring the same herbs as the Luxardo Bitter Rosso. Unlike Luxardo’s traditional Rosso, which is produced through maceration at 50 proof, Luxardo Bitter Bianco is produced through distillation resulting at 60 proof. The higher proof, with the addition of wormwood, provides a lingering bitter finish.

As you’ll note in the above, this incorporates the same herbal recipe as Luxardo Bitter, sans the color. Luxardo Bitter is a similar product to Campari in both flavor and color. Luxardo Bitter Bianco is the nearly colorless rendition of the same, with just a hint of yellow. The nose is bold and bitter, with cinnamon and clove notes, bitter roots, and a bit of dark brown sugar. It’s an enticing aroma that’s hard not to sip on (assuming you’re an amaro fan), and the palate doesn’t disappoint. There’s a touch of honey sweetness that leads to notes of rhubarb and traditional bitter roots, a hint of anise, and ample orange peel. The finish is bittersweet but cleansing, with considerable length.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but stripping the color out of this amaro also strips out some of the heaviness, rendering it lighter on its feet than the typical, darker (or candy-colored) amaro that we’ve all become accustomed to. It’s hard to put down. I’m an instant fan.

60 proof.

A / $28 / luxardo.it

Review: Captain Morgan LocoNut

Captain Morgan Loconut
A new seasonal take on Captain Morgan’s Cannon Blast is this summer 2017 release, called LocoNut. When it arrived, the scent of coconut wafted up from the box. Yes, the familiar round bottle is dressed up like a cracked open coconut, and even the bottle is scented — but not in the way you typically smell coconut in sunscreen and hair products. This is a fragrant, mouthwatering tantalization of your senses. It actually makes you want to open it right up.

Caribbean rum, spices, and coconut liqueur make up this white spirit. The spicy flavors of cloves, cinnamon, and cassia bark are present, but they all take a back seat to the very sweet coconut. It may be too sweet for some people and could possibly negate the need for simple syrup when used in a cocktail.

Captain Morgan recommends serving LocoNut as a chilled shot, and we also found it works wonderfully on the rocks and in cocktails. Still, you can ramp it up with other spirits in your glass, and Captain Morgan’s recommended cocktails pair it with other alcohols like whiskey or, of course, regular Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum. All work well.

Bottom line: It may not be classy, but if you like coconut, you’ll find this liqueur a winner.

40 proof.

A / $15 / captainmorgan.com

Review: The Spirits of Sugarlands Shine

Don’t look now, but one of the busiest distilleries in the country — based on tourism visits — is Sugarlands Distilling, in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. A connection with the popular show Moonshiners doesn’t hurt, nor does the vast product lineup, which includes 21 varieties of moonshine, rum, and liqueurs, which range from a straight white rye to a peanut butter and jelly moonshine, all bottled in (incredibly messy) mason jars. Candy- and dessert-flavored ‘shines are a particularly specialty of the operation.

It’s impossible to keep on top of all of these flavors — there will be more by the time you read this — so consider this a representative sampling of what Sugarlands is up to. Thoughts follow.

Sugarlands Shine Silver Cloud Moonshine – This corn and cane sugar moonshine is the starting point for much of what Sugarlands makes, and it’s a fair enough ‘shine to get you going. Plenty popcorny at the start, particularly on the nose, the spirit offers hints of vanilla and cinnamon but otherwise drinks relatively flatly but cleanly, with a jet fuel-soaked finish — that classic moonshine pungency. 100 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Unaged Rye – Billed as a rye, though no mashbill information is available. This is a more classic white whiskey, loaded with popcorn and roasted grains, with a subtle undercoat of baking spice. Lacking the sugar of the moonshine, the finish is rougher and more rustic, with a mushroom and tobacco note, plus some hints of baked bread. 100 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Appalachian Apple Pie Moonshine – Less sweet than many an apple pie moonshine, the raw cereal character of the spirit comes through more clearly. The fruit takes on an apple cider character, somewhat oxidized with a kind of butterscotch note that isn’t completely on the pie spectrum. The finish is reminscent not of apples but of cherries, particularly the cough syrup variety. 50 proof. C / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Hazelnut Rum – Nicely nutty on the nose, those hazelnuts roll over anything that’s particularly rummy in the mix. Some brown sugar notes and cloves at least offer a nod toward a spiced rum, with a touch of that funky petrol layering itself in underneath. The finish is a sustained nuttiness, with notes of toasted marshmallow. Hazelnuts are a smart choice to give this spirit a strong and unique flavor, but it drinks almost like a liqueur rather than a rum. 80 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Root Beer Moonshine – Spot-on root beer aromas kick the nose off on this heavily flavored (and nearly opaque) ‘shine, which is heavy on the sassafras and baking spices. Alongside a healthy slug of sweet vanilla, the body sees more peppermint coming to the fore than I would like or expect, with surprisingly heavy clove character. These cloves endure for quite some time, eventually mellowing as the finish fades into a sort of charred wood character, which erases some of the excitement and nostalgia of what’s come before. 70 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Butter Pecan Cream Liqueur – Not dark brown as the bottle would indicate, but rather a gentle, creamy tan. Extremely sweet on the nose, with light brown sugar the clearest component. The buttery, nutty pecan notes are a bit slightly clearer on the palate, but there’s so much sugar that it overwhelms just about all of it, leading to a milky finish akin to melted vanilla ice cream. 40 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Dark Chocolate Coffee Cream Liqueur – The color of milk chocolate, with a nose that is a heavier blend of coffee with some chocolate syrup swirled in. Ample vanilla kicks off the palate, along with some butterscotch sweetness, before the relatively gentle coffee character arrives. There’s nothing really “dark” about the chocolate in this liqueur. As far as the cocoa goes, it’s about as milky as it gets. Nevertheless, it works fairly well. 40 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

sugarlandsdistilling.com

Review: Baileys Irish Cream

We’ve written about so many special editions of Baileys “The Original Irish Cream” in the past, but the original has remained elusive for all these years.

Today we remedy that, with a review of perhaps the most essential of all Irish creams: Baileys.

Baileys is described as “the perfect marriage of fresh, premium Irish dairy cream, the finest spirits, aged Irish whiskey, and a unique chocolate blend.” The devil’s in that second point: There are other spirits in Baileys aside from Irish whiskey, likely grain alcohol designed to give this a bit of a kick (and for less cash than whiskey would cost).

There’s not a hell of a lot of whiskey flavor in Baileys, but it’s there — a vanilla and oak-soaked character that works well as a foil to the light chocolate and caramel notes, all whipped together with the milkiness of the cream.

Hey, at this point Baileys offers few surprises to the experienced drinker. It’s a standby for a reason — it does what it does reliably and consistently. Baileys tastes just fine, but all of those flavors are on the lighter side, gentle and uncomplicated and perhaps a bit staid. The good news is that Baileys doesn’t overdo it with the sugar, so while the finish sticks to the insides of your cheeks for longer than you might like, what’s left behind is cocoa-dusted, with just a kiss of whiskey.

So cheers to that.

34 proof.

B+ / $19 / baileys.com

Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

Brad Thomas Parsons is no stranger to bitter herbal liqueurs. He took the craft cocktail scene by storm with his 2011 book Bitters: A Spirited History Of A Classic Cure All, and taught the common drinker how to properly use those little brown bottles behind the bar. Not happy with showing only one side of the spectrum, he now delves into drinkable bitters in his new book Amaro: A Spirited History Of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. It is a guide to the complex area of aperitifs, fernets, and herbal based spirits that explains how these once medicinal tonics have become some of the most consumed alcoholic beverages around the world.

Parsons first explores the origins of these pungent beverages, which can be traced back to the medieval age where monks and friars were experimenting with the restorative powers of herbs and other botanicals. In preparation for the large list of examples in the book,  a short course on how to appreciate the various styles goes over the many ways one can drink them. The list itself is broken into sub-categories for ease of reference, and includes plenty of tasting notes, exploratory histories, and information about ingredients and recipes.

A large section of the book focuses on the vast amount of cocktails being made with these restorative tonics around the world. The negroni and other classic amaro-based drinks are covered, as well as a whole series of modern-day concoctions that include spirits such as mezcal and single malt whisky. Parsons also injects his own musings and stories into the descriptions of the 91 individual recipes that explain the inspiration behind many of them.

The book ends with a do it yourself section that explains the finer points of making your own amaro at home, and a how to guide for using herbal liqueurs in the kitchen. The DIY portion offers four seasonally inspired recipes that are easy to follow, and mimic different styles of amari. Parsons walks the reader through some of the uncommon ingredients and the best way to acquire them, and discusses the materials you will need and some different techniques to use. The kitchen section offers several amaro-based recipes that focus on dessert items, which plays towards the digestif aspect of these liqueurs and shows the versatility their flavors have to offer. Many of the ingredients are easy to find, and the instructions are simple to follow, which allows the reader to play around with different styles of amari.

Overall, this book is a wonderful introduction to the world of herbal liqueurs. Parsons guides the reader through a dizzying amount of information that demystifies the complex world of amaro, and describes the best ways to enjoy them. He also provides a human element throughout the book that pulls the reader into the lives of those that make and enjoy these eclectic beverages, and sets it apart from a typical cocktail recipe guide.

A / $26 / BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON

Violet Liqueur Roundup: Creme Yvette, Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette, The Bitter Truth Violet Liqueur, and Marie Brizard Parfait Amour

Should you desire an Aviation, a Blue Moon cocktail, or a classically layered Pousse-Cafe, you’ll need one rarity in your bar: violet liqueur, a liqueur which is a lovely shade of purple and which is made, yes, from flower petals.

A staple spirit of, oh, the late 1800s, violet liqueur had long been off the market as these exotic cocktails fell out of favor — but the mixology surge of the last decade and change has brought violet liqueur back with a vengeance. Today you’ll find at least three brands vying for your attention, along with various forms of Parfait Amour, which are purple-blue in color but which mostly don’t contain violets. I have Marie Brizard’s on hand to compare to this field, though perhaps a full Parfait Amour roundup is in order down the road.

Let’s get violet!

Creme Yvette – Off the market for 40 years, this re-released expression of one of the most classic violet liqueurs is now made in France and imported by Cooper Spirits, which also owns St. Germain. It’s a blend of violets with blackberry, cassis, strawberry, and raspberry — and the only spirit in this group that does not contain artificial coloring. Port wine red in color. All that fruit does however give Yvette a heavy cough syrup character on the nose, although the body is less overpowering than the aroma would indicate. Strawberry and cassis are the dominant flavor notes, with the violets playing a secondary role. It’s a fun little collection of flavors, but if using this in a cocktail, keep in mind the extra fruit character you’ll be adding and dial down any other fruit liqueurs in the mix. 55.5 proof. B+ / $30

Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette – This is probably the most commonly encountered violet liqueur you’ll find, not just because the bottle is classy but because it is made only from violet petals and sugar, so you won’t find any fruit overtones here as you do with Creme Yvette. Brilliant purple in color. Intensely floral on the nose, with overtones of pine needles and funky dried potpourri. Gently sweet on the body, with some hospital overtones, driven perhaps by the underlying spirit, but overall it’s quite gentle but again, more focused on dried florals than fresh ones. 40 proof. B / $23

The Bitter Truth Violet Liqueur – Like Rothman’s this is a straight violet blossom liqueur, plus sugar. Similar in color to Rothman, but a bit closer to blue. Fresher, cleaner floral notes here, more distinctly violet than Rothman’s. The body again shows off that medicinal character, along with some earthiness, but the fresh violet notes manage to hang in until the end. Overall, roughly the same level of sweetness as Rothman & Winter’s, but a fresher, cleaner overall flavor. See full review here. 44 proof. A- / $30

Marie Brizard Parfait Amour – While blue-purple in color, Parfait Amour is often lumped into the violet liqueur category, but most expressions don’t contain violets at all. Rather, Parfait Amour is built on an orange-heavy base of curacao — Brizard’s is flavored with orange blossoms and vanilla. Again, a similar color to the two previous spirits, but another shade closer to blue. Aromas of fresh orange peel almost immediately take a different direction once you take a sip — toward overwhelming vanilla and almond notes, with triple sec-like orange character layering on after those more dessert-like characteristics fade. The finish finds floral elements finally emerging, and lingering on the palate for quite awhile, adding ample complexity. For a more nuanced drink, use this in lieu of blue curacao in just about anything that calls for it. 50 proof. A- / $20

Review: Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur

Hey, it’s something from Indiana that’s not whiskey from MGP! Bloomington, IN is the home to Cardinal Spirits, and Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur is one of the company’s most noteworthy products.

What’s in the bottle? Let me allow Cardinal to explain:

Most coffee liqueurs taste one dimensional – like sugar. But ours tastes like coffee, plus all of the complementary notes you get from freshly-roasted coffee, like caramel and chocolate. That’s because we make this spirit with a ton of freshly roasted coffee from our friends/neighbors at Hopscotch Coffee in Bloomington (for our Kentucky version of this spirit, we use coffee from Good Folks roastery in Louisville). Only coffee, Bourbon vanilla beans, cane sugar and our vodka are used to make our Songbird Coffee Liqueur – no flavor extracts or coloring, ever. Here’s a video of how we make our coffee liqueur.

If you like coffee — or coffee-flavored spirits — Songbird is one to seek out. The nose is pure coffee — a real fresh-ground character that feels like a freshly-opened bag of ground beans. Lightly nutty, with overtones of vanilla and sugar, it’s not an overblown espresso but something closer to a fresh, moderate roast. The palate is sweeter than expected — one feels Songbird might have dialed the sugar back a bit; get a drop on your hands and they’ll be so sticky you need to wash them immediately — but in the end the coffee becomes the centerpiece of the experience. With that much sugar, the impact can be a bit like a Vietnamese coffee (sans the milk), but finally the body manages to overpower the sweetness quickly enough with powerful notes of nutty, lightly smoky coffee beans and some burnt caramel character.

Great stuff, and highly versatile on its own or as a cocktail ingredient.

Note: The label doesn’t note this, but Songbird can settle out quite heavily, so shake well before pouring.

49 proof.

A / $25 / cardinalspirits.com

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