Book Review: Drinks: A User’s Guide

With Drinks: A User’s Guide, writer Adam McDowell offers a primer on just about everything with alcohol in it. Highly skimmable but fairly surface-level from start to finish, the book is a melange of simple advice about drinking (don’t drink the wine at a wedding, go for spirits instead), angry instructions (don’t drink vodka), and (spanning most of the book) primers on every category of booze there is.

The expected areas are covered — explaining the different types of whiskey, a look at how gin is made, how various beer styles differ — as are some unexpected ones, including a primer on sake styles and a section on absinthe. The book is also littered with cocktail recipes, some classic, some newer, but all worthwhile additions to any repertoire.

That said, hardcore cocktail enthusiasts aren’t likely to find much new material to draw from in the book — and some of the sections (like the one on Scotch) barely skim the surface. That’s probably to be expected in a book that tries to wedge every category of booze into under 250 pages — in fact, we regularly see that kind of space devoted to a single type of spirit — but McDowell is to be commended for covering so much ground in such stylish — and opinionated — fashion. It is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint.

B / $13 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Hooker’s House Whiskey Experiments – Cohabitation 7/21, Epicenter, Wheat Whiskey, and Rye (2016)

Prohibition Spirits in Sonoma, California is the producer of Hooker’s House whiskey, a line which began with a bourbon and has exploded since then. Today we look at three new bottlings, plus take a fresh look at the company’s rye.

As always, Hooker’s House sources its product from MGP, but all expressions are finished in California, sometimes aggressively and for many years. Let’s dig in.

Hooker’s House Bourbon Cohabitation 7/21 – A solera-style blend of straight bourbon aged in American and French oak, with barrels ranging from 7 to 21 years old. Surprisingly, there’s lots of fruit here, both cherries and orange peel strong on a nose that otherwise offers a fair amount of toasty wood influence. Some mint emerges with a bit of time, as well. On the palate, things follow along as expected. The fruit remains impressive, particularly the cherry character that melds enticingly with notes of eucalyptus, more orange peel, and some cloves. The finish is fairly wood-heavy, a bit ashy at times, but nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it’s a reasonably gentle reminder of the hefty amount of time this bourbon (at least some of it) has spent in barrel, and a badge proving it has come through that ordeal for the better. 94 proof. A / $95

Hooker’s House Epicenter Magnitude 6.0 – This is bottled from high-rye bourbon barrels that were aging in Hooker’s House warehouses during a 6.0 earthquake that Sonoma experienced in 2014. The epicenter of the quake was just three miles away. “Micro-vibrated,” per the label, the whiskey experience 500 aftershocks in the months that followed. No age statement is offered, but the nose indicates mid-range maturity with lingering cereal notes and a significant wood profile. The palate surprises with a sugar bomb of a profile, taking your mind off of the lumberyard for a bit to showcase some tropical pineapple, peach, and brown sugar notes, though the finish is punchy with a resurgence of wood (which is enhanced by the whiskey’s racy 56% abv). I’m not sure what impact the earthquake and aftershocks truly had on this spirit, but I do know it could have stood a bit more time in barrel, tremors or no. 112 proof. B / $47

Hooker’s House Wheat Whiskey – A single barrel, 100% wheat whiskey, quite unusual in the market, but fitting for an avant garde producer like Prohibition. This bottling is youthful, offering loads of fresh cereal notes with a significant sweetness. There’s lumberyard here too, but it’s kept in check by a ton of grassy character, which comes across with the essence of fresh hay, with a touch of rosemary. The finish, much like the bulk of what’s come before it, is quite grainy and simplistic, but pleasant enough. 90 proof. / $33

Hooker’s House Rye (2016) – We’ve seen Hooker’s Rye before, on original release in 2013. As it was then, it remains a 95% rye that is finished in Zinfandel barrels, just like the older version. (The HH website mentions a 100% rye, but the bottle says otherwise.) As it did in 2013, this sounds like it’ll be a masterful mix of spice and sweet, but the balance between the two still isn’t quite right. The nose is lightly astringent and features heavy lumberyard notes with a strongly herbal, at times anise-like, influence. The body features a quick rush of raisiny sweetness before diving headlong back into heavy wood and dusky, earthy, herbal notes — think cloves, anise, and scorched grains. The back end offers a distant echo of raisiny sweetness, but it’s a long time coming. 94 proof. B / $45

prohibition-spirits.com

More Beers from Devils Backbone Reviewed: Kilt Flasher, Flor de Luna, Single Hop IPA, Smokehouse Porter, and Berliner Metro Weiss Sour

Virginia-based Devils Backbone cannot seemingly be stopped. We just checked out seven new beers from the company, now it’s dropping another five — a regular release (Kilt Flasher) and four new Rare Series Adventure Pack releases. Let’s dig in.

Devils Backbone Kilt Flasher Wee Heavy Scotch Ale – A bold wee heavy, with big malt notes backed by notes of coffee, roasted nuts, and a lightly brown-sugared finish. It’s a powerful beer, but it’s quite a familiar one that tastes a lot like any number of similar brews. I wouldn’t say anything about imitation and flattery, per se, but while this wee heavy is on point, it doesn’t distinguish itself entirely. 8% abv. B+

Devils Backbone Flor de Luna Belgium Style Blonde with Jasmine – A blonde ale made with Belgian yeast, with jasmine added. A curiosity, indeed! The jasmine is far from apparent; rather, the heavy malt character is powerful from the start, along with some a pungent, yeasty underpinning. The heavy farmhouse character makes this one lean a bit too closely toward the sour world, but your mileage may vary. Even on the finish, any sense of jasmine is fleeting. Not that I am clear on why you’d want that in your beer, anyway. 6.3% abv. C+

Devils Backbone Single Hop IPA – A west coast IPA from the east coast — brewed only with Equinox hops. Strong, bitter, and piney, with a bit of a mushroom kick. The finish is earthy and quite lasting, with notes of resin and slate. A solid but not wholly distinguished IPA. 7.9% abv. B+

Devils Backbone Smokehouse Porter Smoked Porter Ale – Two types of smoked malts plus three unsmoked malts give this beer a burly, nutty, and, yes, appropriately smoky character, where mushroom and lightly herbal notes add some pizzazz. Smoked ales can so easily become overblown and sticky with barbecue flavors, but Devils Backbone just about nails the classic German style with this one. 5.7% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Berliner Metro Weiss German-Style Sour Ale – Quite tart, with juicy citrus and a pungent sourness right from the start. Lemon, grapefruit, and orange notes are intense, giving this a heavily fruity — yet entirely sour — essence from start to finish. A simple example of the style. 3.9% abv. B

about $17 per 12-pack / dbbrewingcompany.com

Review: Loch Lomond Blended Scotch Reserve and Single Grain Scotch

Loch Lomond, an independent distiller and blender in Scotland, is finally bringing its wares to America. (Loch Lomond owns the Littlemill Distillery, which lays claim to being perhaps the oldest distillery in Scotland, if not the world.)

In all, 14 expressions of various brands of whisky are arriving. Today we start with two under the Loch Lomond label, a blend and a single grain whisky. (A variety of other expressions are available, including single malt varieties, but aren’t reviewed here.)

Loch Lomond Blended Scotch Whisky Reserve – Blended only from malt and grain whiskies made in-house, no external product is used. No age statement (note that the “Signature” bottling is higher up than the “Reserve” expression). The nose is interesting, kicking off with lots of cereal notes and spiced nuts (particularly almonds), but there’s also an undercurrent of more raw alcohol, common in relatively young blends, and just a hint of smoke. The body is fresher and livelier than the nose would indicate, tempering the malt with gentle notes of apple and banana, milk chocolate, and more almond. Some light cafe au lait notes bubble up on the finish, which is otherwise lightly sweet, modest in length, and relatively understated. 80 proof. B / $18

Loch Lomond Single Grain Scotch Whisky – A single grain bottling, with no other production information provided. Very light on the nose, with faint notes of peat, raw granary character, and some rubber cement notes. The body surprises immediately with a bold, tropical fruit-driven attack, with pineapple and coconut all up in there. It doesn’t last, though, with those raw alcohol and petrol notes pushing aside the fresh fruit, which tends to happen with young single grain. The finish is hot and heavy on the grain notes, ending on a bit of a rubbery character again. 92 proof. B / $28

lochlomondwhiskies.com

Review: Three Holiday Ales for 2016 – Bear Republic, The Bruery, St. Bernardus

Holidays always bring out the specialty brews to the delight of many beer and ale aficionados, including me. Most of these beers and ales are good for any fall holiday and work well into New Year’s Eve. Here are three ales are sure to please you as much as they did me. I recommend them all as nice sipping beverages.

First up is ‘Twas the Beer Before Christmas, a December 2016 release from Bear Republic. It is extremely rare, with only 384 bottles produced, and it is only available through Bear’s Wild Club. Its description: “Peanut butter roast malt character, dried apricot dustiness, clean tartness, cognac from Old Baba Yaga.”

This ale is barrel aged up to eighteen months. It consists of a combination of Bear Republic’s Old Baba Yaga, Tartare Noir, Tartare Apricot, and Epic. It is a light sour, though it has a thick, chocolaty head and dark brown body. When held up to light, a nice red sheen shines through.

The sour comes over lightly on the nose, bringing tart cherries to mind. However, it is not an overpowering sour but does make the mouth water with each sip. As the beer warms to room temperature, the sourness lightens to a nice tartness. The peanut is not immediately prevalent, but there are also hints of oak throughout. 8.7 % abv. B / $30 per 750ml bottle

Next we have 9 Ladies Dancing from The Bruery. It is a Belgian strong dark ale. Its description: “Inspired by flavors and ingredients found in tiramisu, including lady fingers, 9 Ladies Dancing mimics the Italian dessert by whipping together flavor combinations and layers of its own. This includes notes of vanilla, chocolate, and coffee.”

This ale has a dark, nutty brown body with a nice, creamy, ivory head. The scent has a light chocolate overtone. The taste is smooth with the cocoa nibs and vanilla flavors coming through, followed by soft spices. I left a glass in the refrigerator, exposed to air, for a half hour which brought out the chocolate and coffee notes with stronger clarity. This is a beverage to sip, with friends, in front of a warm fire on a cold night. 11.3% abv. A / $11 per 25.4 oz. bottle

My personal favorite is a Belgian Abbey from St. Bernardus: St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Its description: “St. Bernardus Christmas Ale offers a spicy, mint-like flavor profile exuding the tastes of warming alcohol, fermented molasses, apricots, licorice, and marzipan that are highlighted by the perfect balance of brewing sugars.”

This ale is bottle conditioned. It has a rich brown body with a red overtones. The sparkling ivory head is velvety and large.

Initially the sweet scent of malt come forth and warms as the ale gets to room temperature. Overtones of crisp apple intensify with the warming as well. There are no notes of wood or citrus. I noticed a light zing on the tip of my tongue at the back end of each sip. However, there are no lingering aftertastes.

This ale brings to mind pleasant images of watching holiday carolers. 10% abv. A / $11 per 25.4 oz. bottle

Book Review: Esquire’s Drink Like a Man

If Esquire had come up with something better than its carrot-juice-doctored bottled Manhattan for its first ready-to-drink cocktail, I might be more willing to go along with the subtitle that this is “the only cocktail guide anyone really needs.” But Esquire has always been long on hyperbole, so it’s hard to fault it here.

Drink Like a Man, edited by Ross McCammon and David Wondrich (a guy who knows what he’s talking about), is more of an anthology of vignettes on drinking reprinted from Esquire than it is a manual on how to make drinks, though it does finally get to its first recipe of the 90-some in the book when you reach page 36. That’s the beginning of the book’s 14 essential cocktails that “every man should know how to make.” Most are hard to debate, though I can’t fathom why anyone would have to have a recipe for eggnog at the ready, nor can I recall the last time I’ve been called upon to craft a gimlet for anyone. Perhaps at Esquire they’re still enjoying these with their sherry punch, which is another one of the questionable essential drinks that demonstrate your manliness.

From there the book segues into an alphabetical list of more classics, followed by a collection of “odd, inventive, or surprisingly good” concoctions. While these won’t be on the tip of any drinker’s tongue, they are all readily mixable at home. Few have more than four or five ingredients, all off the shelf stuff that any liquor store will carry. No need to make your own smoked pomegranate orgeat. If you can mix up some simple syrup, you’ll be fine.

It’s more than a little annoying that both English and metric units are specified for every single ingredient, so you’ll have to wade through a lot of visual clutter in the form of [60ml] of this and [15ml] of that. Would it have killed you to put out two versions of the book? The one thing every man really needs is the ability to use find and replace in his word processor.

B / $13 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Blue Nectar Tequila Complete Lineup (2016)

We first encountered Blue Nectar in 2014. The Lowlands tequila producer had an avant garde approach to production, which included a reposado-anejo blend and a flavored reposado in the mix. Since then, the company has done some rebranding (while keeping the perfume bottle profile), shuffled some labels and product names, and added a full anejo to the mix, while sticking with its “agave forward” flavor profile.

Here’s a fresh look at the full (and now complete) lineup of tequilas. All are 80 proof.

Blue Nectar Tequila Silver – A triple-distilled blanco, this tequila noses with notes of green pepper, some cinnamon, and ample, herbal agave. On the palate, the flavor of roasted agave dominates, with black pepper notes clinging to the back of the throat. Sweetness is present, but elusive, as hot vegetal notes tend to dominate. B / $43

Blue Nectar Tequila Reposado Extra Blend – Double-distilled. Aged six to eight months in charred North American oak barrels and blended with three-year extra añejo. This effectively corresponds to the 2014 Reposado bottling. Though the nose is restrained and agave-heavy, it drinks with more oomph, offering notes of vanilla, nutmeg, and ample orange peel. The finish is lingering with notes of cola and barrel char — almost whiskey-like at times with a dusty, coal-fired finish. B+ / $48

Blue Nectar Tequila Reposado Special Craft – Double-distilled. Aged six to eight months in charred North American oak barrels and infused with essential oils and a hint of agave nectar. This is the equivalent of the 2014 Special Reserve. This surprisingly noses more like a traditional reposado, with clear cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla aromas. The body is all kinds of crazy, though, very sweet, with notes of marzipan, banana, whipping cream, and saltwater taffy. The finish is gummy and lingering, impossibly sugar-rich. C+ / $53

Blue Nectar Tequila Anejo Founder’s Blend – A new addition. Double-distilled, and aged for one to two years in charred American oak barrels and blended with extra añejo, including a limited production five year old extra añejo. It offers a relatively traditional, old tequila nose, with deep vanilla, dusky barrel char, and sweet caramel notes at the fore. The palate is equally well-formed, offering more dark caramel, some chocolate, a touch of maple, and cinnamon. The agave hangs in there, showing its face on the finish as an afterimage of what’s come before. Nicely made. A- / $67

bluenectartequila.com

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