Make It a Boozy Christmas with Secret Spirits’ Advent Calendars

There’s no shortage of booze-centric Christmas gifts out there, but short of giving your loved ones a bottle of Pappy, one of the most exciting presents is an Advent calendar full of miniature bottles. The idea, in case you’re not in the know, is to open one little package on each day leading up to December 25th (typically starting on December 1st), after which you’ve enjoyed a full month of holiday fun. It really lets you enjoy the holiday in full.

Quite a few spirits-oriented Advent calendars are on the market, and the folks at Secret Spirits offers a variety of options, with a heavy focus on whiskey and rum.

The company sent us a sample from its two latest collections. Here’s some information on both:

Secret Spirits Scotch Whisky Advent Calendars ($600) feature 25 Scotch whiskies personally selected and sourced from some of the top independent bottlers in Scotland. The regions of Islay, Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Islands and Campbelltown are all represented. With a focus in Single Malt the Advent Calendars also offer a chance to explore the entire range of Scotch Whisky styles including, Blended malts, Single Grain and Blended Scotch. Half the whiskies are generally 18 years and above with day 25 topping 30 years old.

The Rums Revenge 1st edition ($350) showcases 12 premium limited edition rums including Molasses and Agricole styles from Grenada, Canada, USA, Barbados, Trinidad, Martinique, Reunion, Fiji, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Guyana and Jamaica. The collection is housed in a Rum’s Revenge Pirate chest, along with a skull glass, a wax sealed treasure map which will lead consumers on a hunt for hidden rums using the Rum’s Revenge ship in a bottle.

The packaging (see above) is pretty cool, and while Secret Spirits didn’t send us the whole shebang (so I can’t comment on the overall quality of what’s in the mix), we did get one sample from each of those lineups. Here are some specific thoughts on the two samples.

From the Scotch Whisky Calendar – Day 20 is a fun Samaroli bottling of a Glentauchers 1996 17 Years Old, this is a vibrant and lively whisky that offers a classic SPEYSIDE nose of caramel, vanilla, and spice, with a palate infused with milk chocolate, pipe tobacco, and lingering coconut notes. A lush and fun bottle from one of my favorite indie bottlers of all time. 90 proof. A-

From the Rums Revenge Calendar – Note that this collection comprises just 12 rums, not 25. The Jamaican Rhapsody Rum (day unknown) is also a Samaroli bottling, and it’s a young spirit that drinks with the funk of a pot still and the vibrancy of youth, but is tempered by enough time in the barrel to give it some vanilla-dusted gravity. This is a surprisingly fun and lively rum which I wouldn’t have pegged based on its relatively light color. 90 proof. A- 

secretspirits.com

Review: Winc Wine Club

Winc subscription box wines
Winc is a monthly wine club from Northern California that, like most, works via an online subscription service. We had the opportunity to give them a try and were fairly impressed with the offering.

First, a bit about Winc. When you first sign up, you are asked several questions to determine your “Palate Profile.” They ask about how you like your coffee; your salt and citrus preferences; how much you like berry and earthy flavors; and how adventurous you are with trying new foods. The wine recommendations sent are based upon these questions. Most of their wines are around $13 a bottle but can be as much as $35. Rate the wines you get and you’ll improve the next set of recommendations. If you don’t want any wine this month, you can skip it.

A basic subscription includes three bottles plus a flat rate shipping. We received four bottles and a copy of the Winc Journal. The journal is particularly interesting. This one contained articles on terroir and an interview with winemaker Markus Bokisch. The journal talks about their featured wines with food pairing suggestions and rates the wines with regards to body, fruit, woodiness, earthiness, and sweetness.

Inside the journal are also cocktail recipes, using wines from your subscription box. Of our four, two were featured in cocktails in the journal and so we gave them a try as well. (See below.)

But first, on with the wines.

First up is 2015 Forma di Vida Graciano, a Spanish style red wine. Light on the sweetness, this wine has fruit flavors like dark cherry and plum. If you like your wine with lots of body, you’ll want to try this one, though it may be too heavy for people who don’t like strong flavors like we do. A / $13Summer Water cocktails

Next, we have 2016 Summer Water Rosé, which is aptly named as it is so light the alcohol content is barely noticeable. The cocktail included using Summer Water would be nice for the warmest summer days ahead. It gives the impression it would be right at home poolside. B / $15

Summer Water Shim
½ oz. fresh tangerine juice
1 ½ oz. Jardesca or Lillet Blanc
3 oz. Summer Water
1 fresh Bay Leaf

Chill the cocktail glass. Fill a shaker with ice and pour in the tangerine juice and Jardesca. Shake until the shaker feels frosty to the touch. Then strain into the glass and top with Summer water. Garnish with a Bay Leaf before serving.

Our third wine is 2015 Field Theory Abariño, a white wine from Andrus Island Vineyard. This one is extremely fruity and a touch sweet, but not overly so. It might be a favorite of the ladies. B /$18Finkes Widow cocktails

The fourth wine is 2016 Finke’s Widow Sparkling White Blend. A little sweeter than the Field Theory, it has a slight earthy undertone (like mushrooms) which gives way to the fizziness. B- / $13

Avocado-Do Slushy
¼ avocado
1 oz. shiso syrup
1 oz. fresh lime juice
¼ oz. fresh cucumber juice
4 oz. Finke’s Widow
2 shiso leaves

Shiso is Japanese basil but has a mixture of basil, anise, and mint flavors with grassy elements. You can substitute fresh mint if need be.

This recipe called for cucumber juice in the ingredients but coconut juice in the instructions. We chose to make it with the cucumber and adjusted the instructions. You could probably substitute coconut instead.

Puree a cucumber in a blender and then strain to extract the juice. Then combine all the other ingredients, except the shiso leaves, with the juice and stir. Pour into a medium sized glass and garnish with the leaves.

Negroni Spritz
3 oz. Finke’s Widow
2 oz. Campari
splash of soda
1 orange slice

Fill a rocks glass with ice, along with the orange slice. Pour the Campari and sparkling wine into the glass and top with a dash of soda. Mix gently before serving.

Winc’s website includes a recipes section for great food to serve with your wine. Here’s one example:

Garganelli with Lobster and Caramelized Fennel PureeGarganelli with Lobster and Caramelized Fennel Purée
serves 4
1 lb Garganelli pasta
1 1/2 pounds of lobster meat
salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ tsp. red chili flakes
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 bulbs fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup white wine
¼ cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
¾ cup toasted slivered almonds
4 Tbsp. butter
½ cup torn basil leaves
lemon zest

Find a pot that is large enough to fit two live lobsters and fill it with water. Set the pot over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Lightly salt the water. Add the lobsters to the pot, reduce the heat so that the water is gently simmering, and cook for 7 minutes.

Remove the lobsters and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Extract the meat from the lobsters—kitchen shears work great for this task. Cut the meat into bite-size pieces. Store the lobster meat in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it.

In a large skillet, over medium heat, add the olive oil and the red chili flakes. Wait one minute while the skillet gets hot, and then add the onions. When the onions are soft and translucent, add the fennel. Season with salt. When the fennel begins to soften, turn the heat down to low.

Slowly caramelize the fennel and onion, transforming them into something very soft and sweet. When the vegetables are sufficiently caramelized, add the garlic and the white wine; increase the heat, and cook until the wine has almost entirely evaporated. Add the heavy cream and cook until the cream has partially reduced.

Transfer the contents of the skillet to a blender and add the lemon juice. Puree until smooth. Add scant amounts of water if the puree is too thick. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If you want, you can store this puree in the refrigerator for a day or two ahead of time before completing this dish.

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package, except under cook the pasta by one or two minutes. While the pasta is cooking, set a large skillet over medium heat and add the fennel puree, stirring occasionally.

When the pasta is cooked, transfer it to the skillet with the fennel puree, making sure to reserve a cup of the pasta water. Add a little of the pasta water to the skillet and stir. Add the butter and the lobster. If you know how to flip the pasta in skillet with your wrist, do that now. Otherwise, keep stirring. Add the almonds and basil. If the pasta looks too dry, add more of the pasta water.

Taste the pasta while it is still in the skillet and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Before serving, garnish the pasta with lemon zest.

winc.com

Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

mashbox

Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples, which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+

mashandgrape.com

Blend Your Own Rum with Rum Blender

rum blender

Remember Whisky Blender? Which lets you whip up your own bespoke vatted malt?

Now the company behind that operation is doing the same thing with another big spirit category: Rum.

Same idea as before: Rum Blender has seven rums to choose from. You select the proportion of each that you want, in 10ml increments, until your 700ml bottle is full. Give your rum a name and wait for it to arrive via the mail. Voila! You now have a unique rum that no one else can lay claim to.

The challenge here is the same as with Whisky Blender: Picking rums based solely on one-sentence descriptions isn’t easy. How much Buttered Strumpet do you want? How much Candy Cane? Blending is tough when you have the base spirits right in front of you, and sight unseen, well, it’s near impossible. Rum Blender doesn’t reveal much about either age or even country of origin, which is a bit frustrating. (Business idea: Let folks buy a set of mini bottles to play with at home so they can tinker before they buy!)

I mixed up my own rum — Ron de Nada, get it!? — and the results are about as I thought they would be. The rum is palatable and a good mixer, but it’s a bit workmanlike and isn’t my favorite straight sipper. It’s got nice chocolate and vanilla notes, but the petrol overtones make it come across as relatively immature — although I have no actual way of knowing how old it is. Stylistically, it’s mostly reminiscent of younger Jamaican stock.

A typical blend will likely run you $70 and up, with shipping on top of that. That’s a huge amount to pay for rum, where $30 will get you an amazing top shelf bottle. But then again, those won’t have your name on them.

In other words: Come for the rum, but stay for the experience and fun of blending.

rumblender.nl

How Much Is That Wine in the Window?

Ever look at a wine list and wonder if you’re getting ripped off? Well, now there’s an app for that. Corkscrew (free) just launched and it’s a fun new app that lets you search thousands of restaurant wine lists based on location and/or for a specific wine. Want a 1982 Mouton? Corkscrew can find it — and tell you where it’s cheapest. That may sound silly, but when the price difference is over $2000 from one restaurant to another, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Corkscrew just came out of beta, and for fun the company sent me a look at some specific wine prices at various restaurants in the Bay Area. Pretty crazy stuff, eh?

1996 Moet & Chandon Champagne Cuvee Dom Perignon Oenotheque
$430 at Pastis (Palo Alto)
$550 at Boulevard
$600 at AQ Restaurant & Bar
$650 at Hakkasan SF
$750 at The Hidden Vine
$923 at Coi Restaurant

2007 Paola Bea Sagrantino di Motefalco Secco Pagliare
$139 at Prospect
$150 at 54 Mint Restaurant
$165 at Flour + Water
$172 at A16
$192 at Gary Danko

2006 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Super Tuscan 
$550 at Boulevard
$1650 at The French Laundry

1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild
$2300 at Spruce
$2896 at Benu
$3999 at Michael Mina
$4750 at Casanova Restaurant (Carmel)

2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco 
$68 at Frantoio Ristorante (Mill Valley)
$147 at Jardiniere

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