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Geoff Kleinman

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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist, a reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine and has contributed to Playboy Magazine. Geoff is Bar Certified with the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, has judged many major spirits and cocktail competitions and is a Kentucky Colonel.

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Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey

Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey

It’s hard not to respect the work that the Garrison Brothers are doing out in Hye, Texas. In an era where so many micro-distillers are using merchant whiskey from other states for their initial releases, it’s refreshing to see a distillery take a true artisan approach to their products. On each bottle of whiskey, Garrison Brothers proudly trumpet that it’s “cooked, distilled, barreled and bottled by Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas.” The Garrison Brothers are also excellent about disclosing what’s in the bottle. Our bottle of Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey states that it’s made from #1 panhandle white corn, harvested in 2010 from farms in Dallam County, distilled and barreled in 2010 and released in Spring of 2014, bottle number 18953. Aside from disclosing their exact mashbill (which, in addition to the corn, contains Winter Wheat grown on the Garrison Brother’s distillery ranch, as well as barley), that’s about as much information as you’re going to get on a bottle of whiskey.

In addition to providing so much information on the bottle, Garrison Brothers are quite savvy with their packaging. The Garrison Brothers Whisky bottle features the Texas lone star front and center on the bottle as well as embossed on the wax-covered top. Garrison Brothers have managed to skirt the Maker’s Mark “dripping wax” trademark by expertly squaring off the base of the wax on the bottle. Again, it’s a smart move from a distiller who seems to have a very clear vision of what they are doing.

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (47% ABV / 94 Proof, $70-$90) – dark amber in color, this two year old whiskey seems to have been aged in smaller barrels to give it more surface exposure and therefore more color in a shorter period of time. Using small barrels is also apparent on the nose, which leads off  with young wood, with an aroma like walking into one of those unfinished furniture stores. Underneath this wood is caramel, coconut, pecan, cornmeal, and a touch of cinnamon spice. Two years is pretty young for a whiskey and that youth is apparent on the nose, which has some nice aromas, but they’re not very well integrated. You also have to dig pretty hard past the young wood and sawdust to get to them.

The entry for Garrison Brothers whiskey follows on with the nose pretty closely, bringing together the sawdusty raw wood with dry cornmeal. The opening would be too dusty and dry were it not for the support of caramel, which helps give it some balance and rounds thing out for a pleasant mouthfeel. The midpalate shows some promise as it seems to blow off some of the sawdust notes from the entry in favor of some spice with clove, black pepper, and cinnamon. There’s also a slightly bitter note underneath which reads like dark chocolate or coffee grounds. It’s here where the alcohol rears its head with a dash of heat that gives the whiskey some solid structure, which further benefits the whole taste equation. The finish is medium length, driven by the heat in the midpalate, and features that slightly bitter and subtle dark chocolate note from the midpalate.

While there is some promise in the mix with this Garrison Brothers’ whiskey, it’s greatly hampered by the same things that tend to hamper most craft whiskeys: it’s too young and it’s been aged in too small barrels. There’s simply no replacing time when it comes to whiskey, and while Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey has nice elements, it’s just not ready. If Garrison Brothers put this whiskey in 55 gallon casks and let it age 4-6 years, blending those casks to a unified taste, they might have something really special. Unfortunately, this isn’t that whiskey. The price is also absolutely astronomical compared to the taste experience. Tasted side by side with another wheated bourbon, Larceny (which is less than half the price of Garrison Brothers), and it’s clear that while Garrison Brothers is an interesting whiskey, it’s just not nearly as actualized, integrated, balanced or delicious.

We respect the hard work of craft distillers, but Garrison Brothers Whiskey is another example of the need for craft distillers to be patient with their whiskey. When it comes to whiskey, there are simply no short cuts. Garrison Brothers has gone to great lengths to use quality, organic, locally sourced ingredients for their whiskey, and lovingly and painstakingly “cooked, distilled and barreled” them. Now they need to have what’s impossible to ask of a small, independently run distillery: patience, lots and lots of patience.

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Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky

Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky

Non-age stated, single malt whisky releases are on the rise, and so far, consumers have shown that they have a good level of comfort buying Scotch Whisky that doesn’t disclose the age of the whisky inside. Highland Park has had some success in this space, and was an early mover with their Highland Park Warrior Series. The Highland Park Warrior Series features six non-age stated whiskies, ranging in price from $53 to $1300, available only through travel retail/duty free. Selling a whisky for over $1000 that doesn’t disclose age is a pretty amazing feat, and that success most likely emboldened Highland Park to add a non-age stated whisky to their core line. Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky isn’t a special or limited release – it’s meant to be a new and permanent park of Highland Park’s offerings.

The name for Highland Park Dark Origins refers to the sordid history of the Highland Park Distillery, which was started by a bootlegger named Magnus Eunson, famous for hiding whisky in the pews of his church to try to evade tax collection. It’s a nice nod to the origin story of the distillery, but a slight departure from the Norse imagery and mythology that has proven so successful for Highland Park over the past few years. Packed in a dark black bottle, Dark Origins looks distinctly different from the other releases in the core Highland Park portfolio. The bottle may be familiar to fans of the Warrior releases, as the jet black bottle is similar to those used for the Ragnvald and Thorfinn releases (although both of those are much more ornate).

Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky (46.8% ABV / 93.6 proof, $79.99) – trumpeting “double first fill sherry casks”, Dark Origins uses double the amount of malt whisky from first fill sherry casks than Highland Park 12 Year. Although there’s “double” the amount of sherry cask finished whisky here, the color is very much in line with Highland Park 12. One reason is Highland Park doesn’t add any coloring to their whiskies, or chill filter them. This increase in sherry cask finished whisky is very apparent on the nose, whose sherry influence is unmistakable. Dark chocolate covered dried cherries literally leap out of the glass, while underneath there is fig, date, honeyed malt, a soft nuttiness, and a touch of smoke. Highland Park Dark Origins’ sweet chocolate cherry and honeyed malt entry is well in line with the soft and lush openings of Highland Park 12 and 15, but that’s where the similarities end. The opening is actually a little bit of a head fake, and the soft, sweet entry is quickly replaced by a bold, spicy, and smoky midpalate. In the midpalate the honeyed malt moves to a supporting note and the chocolate begins to dissipate. In its place a more acidic and spicy character emerges with green apple, black pepper, and allspice. There’s also a fair amount of heat  added to the equation, far more than with Highland Park 12 and 15.

It’s also in the midpalate where Dark Origins’ peat smoky character is most pronounced. You’d never guess from the nose that Dark Origins would get so peaty, but here in the midpalate it’s the peak smoke that’s the star. One of the things that a non-age statement release allows a company to do is use young malt. In the midpalate we get both sides of the young malt equation. On one side we have a level of heat you don’t see with old malt, but on the other you get a nice young peat smoke which is more earthy, floral, and wilder than older peat malt. How much you enjoy this flavor will greatly determine how much you enjoy Dark Origins. The younger malt, combined with so much sherry cask whisky, also creates a much drier flavor experience than the other releases in the core line. Highland Park has experimented with a much drier flavor profile with their last Valhalla Collection release, Freya, and that experimentation has clearly impacted the approach for Dark Origins. The head fake in the opening is also reminiscent of another of the Valhalla releases, Loki, which changed directions in a similar, although more sophisticated, manner.

The finish for Highland Park Dark Origins is fairly dry and a showcase for the peat smoke introduced in the midpalate. Dark Origins seems to do very well with a few drops of water, which especially helps the finish, but also helps with the overall integration. Priced at $80, Highland Park Dark Origins sits in the Highland Park line between Highland Park 12 and Highland Park 15, but stylewise it’s a completely different animal. Highland Park Dark Origins is a bold attempt to reach out beyond Highland Park’s core audience to reach whisky drinkers who may otherwise gravitate towards some of the peat smoky Islay malts as well as perhaps appeal to the American whiskey drinker’s palate with a drier flavor experience. With Dark Origins, Highland Park has sacrificed its pitch perfect balance and integration for bolder flavors and a slightly wilder flavor experience. It’s an interesting move that might not appeal to all Highland Park fans. Although we generally prefer balance in Single Malt Whisky, it’s hard not to appreciate what Highland Park is doing with Dark Origins, which could represent a bold new direction for the company.

Want to learn more about Highland Park Whisky? Watch our Behind The Scenes of Highland Park Video.

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Jim Beam Kentucky Fire

Jim Beam Kentucky Fire

The flavored whiskey category is a very tough nut for spirit companies to crack. There’s a significant amount of velocity and enthusiasm over the category, but only a handful of products have really been able to capture the lion’s share of the business. Three standout products have really been able to dominate this space: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Crown Royal Maple and Sazerac’s Fireball. The problem is that the success of these products doesn’t necessarily seem to be tied to their flavor. Many other major companies have given a solid effort at cracking the honey, maple, and cinnamon flavored whiskey space with lackluster results, including Jack Daniel’s, whose Tennessee Fire, although in limited release, isn’t garnering nearly the buzz that their Tennessee Honey did. Jim Beam has also made significant efforts to crack the flavored whiskey code with Jim Beam Honey and Jim Beam Maple, and although they’ve been well received, neither of them have been able to touch Fireball.

For Jim Beam, getting a better foothold in the flavored whiskey space is extremely important. Prior to Fireball’s smash hit, Jim Beam’s Red Stag flavored whiskey was enjoying a king of the hill status in the category.  Red Stag isn’t going anywhere, but the buzz has clearly shifted over to Fireball. In an effort to help reclaim some of that space, Jim Beam is releasing Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, following a similar track that Jack Daniel’s did with their Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire by releasing the product in a few select markets quietly before doing any major national roll out.

This style of releasing spirits is very millennial friendly, as it helps give them the opportunity to feel like they’ve “discovered” something new on their own, and champion it to their social networks who hopefully like, share, snapchat, etc. This kind of understated, millennial-focused marketing is sure to become a much more common method of rolling certain spirits out, especially ones targeted to the 21-25 age range. The problem with trying to take on Fireball is that it’s a brand that has superseded its own category. Fireball isn’t necessarily seen as “flavored whiskey”, it’s just Fireball, in many of the same ways that Crown Royal isn’t always seen as Canadian whisky, it’s just Crown Royal.

Jim Beam Kentucky Fire (35% ABV / 70 proof, $15.99)  - as with many of their recent flavored whiskey releases, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire isn’t under the Red Stag brand, which aside from the core Red Stag seems to be quietly phasing out. Instead, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is clearly part of the core Jim Beam family and trumpets its base as “genuine Jim Beam Whiskey”. This shift towards reinforcing Jim Beam’s core brand is a smart one, and while Red Stag has served Jim Beam well over the years, this more centralized and core brand-focused strategy is a good one. As with most cinnamon flavored whiskey, the “Fire” in Jim Beam Kentucky Fire refers to fireball candy, the space where most of the cinnamon flavored whiskeys play.

The nose of Jim Beam Kentucky Fire indeed smells exactly like a fireball candy, with candied cinnamon as the primary note out of the glass. Beyond that, there are some subtle aromas from the base Jim Beam whiskey, including vanilla, caramel, light oak, and cinnamon (the non-candied kind). At 70 proof the nose isn’t very fiery, but it still manages to do a good job of delivering on the promise of a fireball themed whiskey. The entry of Jim Beam’s Kentucky Fire follows on the nose almost exactly with solid candied cinnamon spice. The entry is sweet, but not unbearably so, and it has an unexpectedly pleasant mouth feel. In addition to the candied cinnamon spice, there is a subtle sense of the base whiskey, but again it’s more vanilla and caramel than anything else. It’s really in the midpalate is where you get the fire of the cinnamon spice, and it’s entirely spot on. The spice level, balanced with the underlining sweetness, and addition of subtle whiskey notes are all exactly where they need to be for this kind of product. The finish is medium length and a showcase for the cinnamon spice which gradually peters off.

At 70 proof, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire seems designed to be consumed as a shot, but there is enough flavor and structure (with the midpalate spice) to mix with it. As with Jim Beam Maple, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire shows just how good Jim Beam is with flavor innovation. Jim Beam has absolutely nailed the red hot/fireball flavored whiskey in a way that’s superior to Fireball. The big question is, does building a better mousetrap in this space equal success? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Fireball is a phenomenon, and even though Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is a better product, consumers in this segment of the spirits market aren’t looking for something better, they’re happy with what’s popular.

For as seemingly adventurous as millennials are and how much they pride themselves on being “unmarketable” and “unique”, there hasn’t been a more conformist generation in recent history. The truth is Fireball is popular, so millennials drink Fireball. They Instagram it, hashtag it, and post it to Facebook. It’s extraordinarily difficult to compete with that.  Although they are conformists, millennials are also very brand promiscuous, so Fireball’s fury might quickly come to an end, but what takes its place probably won’t be another cinnamon flavored whiskey. That being said, Jim Beam has done an exceptional job with Jim Beam Kentucky Fire – flavored perfectly, priced perfectly, packed perfectly, so now the questions is: is that enough?

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Grey Goose VX

Grey Goose VX

The vodka category is beginning to go through a real identity crisis. Now that the flavored vodka boom is clearly ending, vodka companies are scrambling to figure out ways to hold on to their growth and remain relevant in a marketplace that is increasingly shifting towards whiskey. Bacardi’s Grey Goose is one of those brands that’s really trying to navigate these changing vodka waters. In 2013, Grey Goose saw a sharp drop in sales, with a whopping 5% decline (source: Impact Databank). Part of this sharp decline is attributed to Grey Goose’s decision to not chase the flavor trend too hard, but a more significant factor was unexpected competition from non-premium brands like Tito’s Vodka and Deep Eddy’s Vodka, which took significant share away from premium players like Grey Goose.

The problem with the vodka category, and its players, is that the category has enjoyed such effortless success for decades with very little need for innovation (aside from coming up with wild and crazy flavors to release, and then discontinuing them). While we don’t think vodka is going to lose its dominance any time soon, the landscape is clearly changing, and brands have no maps to navigate the road ahead. This changing landscape is what makes the new Grey Goose VX so important. Although Bacardi is testing the waters for this product in Travel Retail first, it’s clearly a peek at how one premium vodka brand is responding to the competition.

Oddly enough, Grey Goose VX isn’t technically a vodka: the TTB has slapped a ridiculous “Spirit Drink” classification on the brand and bottle, which goes hand in hand with their outdated classification for the vodka category itself. Grey Goose VX is essentially Grey Goose vodka “finished with a hint of precious cognac”. While there’s no specification on which cognac is in the mix, it would be reasonable to assume that it comes from Château de Cognac (a.k.a. Otard), the same cognac house that Bacardi uses for their D’ussé Cognac. The Grey Goose VX bottle does disclose that it’s a blend of 95% Vodka and 5% Cognac, the same ratio that’s common with spirit whiskey. There’s also some sort of filtering process, as the final Grey Goose VX is crystal clear.

Grey Goose VX is packaged in a bottle that very much looks like a fusion of the classic Grey Goose Vodka bottle with the traditional bottles often used for XO Cognac (very similar to Chateau de Montifaud Cognac). While the bottle looks stunning, it’s a hefty bottle and completely unyielding to pour from, making spills almost a guaranteed occurrence.

Grey Goose VX (80 proof / 40% ABV,$74.99) – the nose is clearly different from the base Grey Goose Vodka, with soft cognac notes including honey, raisin, milk chocolate, and shortbread cookie. As with the base Grey Goose Vodka, the nose on Grey Goose VX is soft and unassertive without any vapors.

The entry for Grey Goose VX follows the nose pretty closely with cognac flavors of raisin, milk chocolate, shortbread cookie, iris, dried apricot, and white grape. It’s a nice grouping of flavors and they are presented well and solidly integrated. The midpalate is a continuation of many of the flavors introduced in the opening, with raisin and dried apricot most pronounced. There’s a bit of pepper spice and a touch of ginger, and as with the traditional Grey Goose Vodka it is a fairly restrained and mellow midpalate. The finish for Grey Goose VX is the most vodka-like part of the taste experience and most representative of the traditional Grey Goose Vodka, with light wheat notes tapering to a dry finish.

Grey Goose VX does an excellent job of infusing some of the delicious flavors that cognac offers without fundamentally disrupting the vodka experience. The integration and balance, while preserving the core Grey Goose character, is masterfully done and light years beyond Twenty Grand, one of the other vodka/cognac blends on the market. The big problem with Grey Goose VX is the price. Given that Grey Goose Vodka typically sells for around $30, the leap to $75 a bottle for Grey Goose VX is pretty dramatic. Grey Goose VX at $75 also really begs the question, “Why not spend the money on a good cognac instead?” Once ultra-premium vodka leaves the $40-$50 price point, there’s a real question over what you’re really paying for. With Grey Goose VX, it’s the cache of owning an ultra-premium Grey Goose product along with an expensive bottle, but is that really enough to justify $75?

We can understand Bacardi’s interest in re-elevating the Grey Goose brand to try to pull it out of a head-to-head battle with brands like Tito’s, but they’ve gone too far with their pricing for VX. Perhaps the bigger challenge for VX may be in how it’s consumed. Will vodka drinkers will be open to consuming a vodka neat or on the rocks? We’re not sure, but if Grey Goose can convince them to think of vodka as something that can be sipped, it could greatly impact the entire high end category of vodka.

Grey Goose VX debuts this month in European Travel Retail starting with Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and then expands to Canada and the US in September of 2014.

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Laphroaig Select Single Malt Whisky

Laphroaig Select Single Malt Whisky

With stocks of older whisky becoming more scarce and valuable, many whisky producers in Scotland have begun to supplement their offerings with non-age statement releases that are less focused on the age of whisky in the bottle and more on a specific flavor profile or character. Laphroaig has been a leader in this space, first with their extremely popular Laphroaig Quarter Cask release and then with a series of whiskies that explore the impact of different finishing casks on single malt whisky, including Laphroaig PX CaskLaphroaig QA Cask, and Laphroaig Triple Wood. Now, Laphroaig has made the next logical step with Laphroaig Select Whisky.

Laphroaig Select Single Malt Whisky is a non-age statement release that brings together many of Laphroaig’s popular releases like Quarter Cask, PX Cask, Triple Wood, and Laphroaig 10 Year into a blend that’s finished in new American oak casks. Select may have the distinction of using the most finishing barrels in a single malt release and feels a lot like a “greatest hits” mix on paper.

Laphroaig Select Single Malt Whisky (80 Proof / 40% ABV, $55) – with all of those finishing barrels in the mix, you’d expect the nose of Laphroaig Select to be heavy oak, but it’s actually Laphroaig’s signature peat that’s the first thing out of the glass. Underneath the peat is indeed oak, but it’s accompanied by honey, vanilla, salt, and iodine. There’s also a hint of dried dark fruit in the mix. The nose of Laphroaig Select is highly aromatic with some really nice complexity and surprising balance. By all accounts this should be an oak-forward nose, but it isn’t.

All the oak in the equation is much more apparent on the entry, which is an odd, muddled mix of flavors with vanilla, caramel, honey, peat, oak, blackberry, peanut, ginger, salt, and pepper all there from the start. There’s absolutely no real integration here, no sequencing of flavors, no balance – you just get it all, at once, a complete cacophony. The midpalate sees an increase of peat, oak, black pepper, and ginger spice. The midpalate still suffers from poor integration of flavors but it’s slightly less messy than the entry. The finish is fairly long and slightly dry with black pepper and peat lingering on the palate. It’s in the finish that the younger malt shows itself with some heat and dryness, but even with all the wood in the mix, the finish isn’t painfully dry.

While we appreciate what Laphroaig is trying to do with this release, Laphroaig Select Single Malt Whisky is a rare strike out for a brand that rarely misses. Each piece of this blend – the PX, Quarter Cask, and 10 year – are really strong products, but together they just don’t work. Laphroaig did such an amazing job with last year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas Release – Port Wood Edition with a whisky that truly brought the brand’s signature flavor profile into a new space, it would have been a better move to elevate that to a permanent offering than try to force an odd “greatest hits” release.

 

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Patron Roca

Patron Roca

When it comes to premium tequila, there’s no brand more dominant than Patron. The brand singlehandedly revolutionized the tequila segment, converting American drinkers from cheap, fiery mixto tequila to premium tequila made from 100% agave. Now, with literally hundreds of offerings in the premium tequila space, it’s hard to imagine a time when a liquor store might carry just a handful of brands. In the intervening years, Patron has expanded their offerings through innovation. At the lower end they’ve introduced a line of tequila-based coffee and chocolate liqueurs under the Patron XO Cafe brand, which has been effective at attracting new drinkers to the brand. At the same time, Patron has explored the upper reaches of the ultra-premium market with their Gran Patron line, which has helped attract high end consumers in search for luxury spirits.

Now Patron is gunning for (or perhaps trailblazing) a new segment of the tequila market with a new line of tequilas which will be marketed under the Roca Patron brand name. Roca, which translates from Spanish to “rock”, refers to the stone wheel (or tahona) which was traditionally used to crush cooked agave in the production of tequila. Patron payed homage to this process earlier this year with their Gran Patron Piedra ultra-premium release.

Traditionally, Patron hasn’t been big on discussing how they produce their tequila. In 2010, Drink Spirits was the first to report of Patron’s Green Initiatives, one the most progressive in Mexico. Even though they are a leader in sustainable tequila production, Patron rarely trumpets it. A spirit company being understated about how they make their products might have been fine in 2010, but with more information-hungry Millennials reaching drinking age in 2014, the marketplace has shifted and so has the demand for information.

Responding to this shift, Patron has begun to more openly discuss how they make their tequila, and part of that conversation is Roca Patron. Since its inception, Patron Tequila has been made from a blend of agave that is crushed by the traditional Tahona process (which includes the agave fibers in both the fermentation and distillation) and agave which has been crushed through a roller mill (a more industrialized process where the agave fibers are not included in the fermentation and distillation). Each of these styles of crushing, fermentation, and distillation yields a tequila with distinct character. The traditional Patron tequila represents a marriage of these two styles.

Roca Patron takes the tequila produced by the Tahona process and isolates it into its own product. While it may not sound very daring, it is, as Roca Patron is distinctly different in character from the traditional Patron tequila, so much so that it would be difficult to pick it out as “Patron” in a blind tasting. Roca Patron, released in bottles which closely resemble Patron’s classic line, are available in the same classic expression styles: Roca Patron Silver, Roca Patron Reposado, and Roca Patron Anejo. In addition to being 100% Tahona agave, these new Patron tequilas are all released at a higher proof than the traditional Patron tequilas (traditional Patron is 80 proof or 40% ABV, while the Roca Patron range from 84 proof or 42% ABV all the way up to 90 proof or 45% ABV). The Roca Patron line also carries a much higher price tag, starting at $69 and going all the way up to $89.

Roca Patron Silver Tequila (45% ABV / 90 Proof, $69) – while a 5% increase in ABV over the traditional Patron Silver might not seem like a lot, in the spirits world it’s considerable. From the nose on the Roca Silver, you’d never guess that it’s a higher of a proof tequila as it’s actually considerably less “in your face” than the traditional Patron Silver. One of the things that makes the traditional Patron Silver so distinct is its nose, which showcases rich cooked agave, distinct citrus, and strong white pepper. Roca Patron Silver is absent of many of these signature aromas. Roca Patron Silver is primarily a showcase for agave, with both fresh and cooked agave with a slight earthy undertone. There’s a light pepper but it’s a lot softer and lighter than traditional silver. Patron’s signature citrus isn’t there on the nose, which is overall lighter and more delicate.

The entry for Roca Silver is also significantly different from the traditional Patron. While there are sweet notes at the opening, including cooked agave and subtle vanilla, they are lighter and presented drier in Roca. In the midpalate, things continue to dry out with the addition of a light pepper spice and the slight earthy tone that was on the nose. A notable absence in the midpalate is Patron’s signature pepper kick – it’s simply not there. The finish for Roca Patron Silver is medium length and dry, with light pepper spice and fresh agave. After tasting Roca Silver, it’s easier to identify the qualities that the tahona produced tequila brings to the equation in Patron Silver, but when presented on its own it’s a dramatically different tequila.

Roca Silver is ultimately a fairly subtle and understated tequila. While it’s not very complex, it doesn’t seem to be designed to be. Roca Silver Tequila is all about presenting agave in a way that’s decidedly light, dry, and delicate. It’s a radical departure from Patron’s classic Silver, but that’s not a bad thing. With Roca Silver, Patron has produced something that is clearly designed to be sipped neat or over ice and exist in a similar space as Casamigos and perhaps even Casa Dragones Tequila.

Roca Patron Reposado Tequila (42% ABV / 84 Proof, $79) – aged for 4-5 months in ex-bourbon barrels (the traditional is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon, French, and Hungarian Oak) and bottled at a slightly higher proof than traditional Patron Reposado (but lower than the Roca Silver). The nose on Roca Reposado has a similar restrained quality as the Roca Silver, and while there’s definite impact from the ex-bourbon barrel with caramel, vanilla, and oak, it’s much more subdued than the traditional Patron Reposado. In addition to barrel impact, there’s the cooked agave note which we saw with Roca Silver as well as a very slight peppery spice. There’s also a distinct Milk Dud note that we get from the nose which comes from a slight milk chocolate mingling with the caramel and agave.

The entry for Roca Patron Reposado is much lighter than the traditional Reposado and less complex. The opening has the sweet caramel, vanilla, and agave mixed with light pepper and oak spice. In the midpalate there’s a slight ramping up of the spice along with an increase in pepper. Things never get very spicy and there’s an overall light, delicate quality to the Roca Reposado. The finish for Roca Reposado is medium length and dry with light oak and pepper lingering on the palate.

We get what Patron is trying to do with Roca Reposado and the result is quite affable, but the lack of complexity which worked in Roca Silver just doesn’t seem to have the same impact with the Reposado. While we enjoyed the taste of Roca Reposado, it left us wanting more. Of the Roca line, the Roca Reposado was the most likely to disappear when mixed (although at these prices, the Roca line isn’t really ideal for mixing).

Roca Patron Anejo Tequila (44% ABV / 88 proof, $89) – of all the Roca releases, the Anejo is perhaps the closest cousin to Patron’s Gran Piedra release, although Roca Anejo was aged for only 14 months (versus 3 years for Piedra) and only in ex-bourbon barrels (Piedra added French oak to the mix). With Roca Anejo the time in barrel is clear with oak spice as one of the leading top notes in the nose. Other barrel notes including caramel, vanilla, and a touch of cinnamon are here on the nose and they are well integrated with the fresh and roasted agave notes which are a signature part of the Roca line. There’s a touch of pepper spice in the mix, but it’s the oak that’s much more dominant.

The entry of Roca Anejo follows the other entries in the Roca line with light, sweet notes of caramel, vanilla, and roasted agave but here the oak spice is strong enough to get some nice complexity right out of the gate. Things intensify in the midpalate where the oak spice is joined by cinnamon, ginger, and pepper. The finish is superb and brings the oak, pepper, and agave notes through to a long, enjoyable conclusion.

We expect the Roca Anejo to be the biggest hit of the three: it manages to provide an ultra-premium anejo tequila experience that’s balanced, approachable, and delicious. It’s also priced at a point where consumers aren’t unaccustomed to paying a premium (at the price, the Roca Reposado is a very tough sell).

Of the three Roca offerings, the Roca Silver and Roca Anejo are the strongest. Roca Silver manages to be a good showcase for agave while Roca Anejo has the most complexity and possible appeal to the traditional Patron drinker. All three Roca’s are really too delicate and subtle to really mix with, and at the price point they aren’t the best choice for cocktails.

With the Roca Patron line, Patron has done something really interesting: they’ve released a line of tequilas that are completely absent of the flavor characteristics which have helped make Patron a massive success. Patron made a big bet at the start of the tequila boom that American consumers would be interested in premium 100% agave tequila. Now they’re making a measured bet that the tequila market that they’ve helped establish has grown and matured enough to support not only ultra-premium offerings, but higher end premium offers that offer a distinctly different riff on what agave can bring to the equation.

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UV Sugar Crush Flavored Vodka

UV Sugar Crush Flavored Vodka

Late last year, we at Drink Spirits heralded the end of the flavored vodka boom, saying that Ivanabitch Tobacco Flavored Vodka was the “canary in the coal mine” for the category. Since that time we’ve seen flavored vodka lose much of its gusto in the marketplace with brands desperately scrambling to capture growth. The general desperation in the flavored vodka space couldn’t be more clear than the release from Phillips Distilling Company of UV Sugar Crush Vodka.

UV Sugar CrushVodka is being billed as:

The first and only tropical fruit candy-flavored vodka available

There’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of candy-themed spirits on the market: alcohol is supposed to be consumed by adults and marketed to adults, not children. UV Candy Crush, with its cartoon-like pastel candy on the label, is clearly meant as a nod to the extremely popular and addictive mobile game Candy Crush Saga (again, something that’s widely played by kids). UV Sugar Crush Vodka isn’t the first to use candy imagery in their products – Pinnacle Vodka quietly changed their label and packaging for Pinnacle Gummy to Pinnacle Red Licorice after concerns were raised to parent company Jim Beam. Three Olives has also been a repeat offender with flavors like Loopy, Applejack, Bubble, and Dude all released in cartoony pastel designed bottles.

The issue of marketing to under-age drinkers is a very serious one, and it’s one of the reasons that the Distilled Spirits Council Of The United States (DISCUS) exists. DISCUS is a voluntary membership organization that both lobbies on behalf of the alcohol industry (like getting more places to be able to sell alcohol on Sunday) and also helps self police it. Think of DISCUS very much like the MPAA, where movie producers look to police themselves with unified ratings rather than having the government come in and do it. Unlike the film industry where an un-rated movie has a tough task of finding theaters that will actually book un-rated films, companies that exist outside of DISCUS have no problem getting their products onto store shelves.

The problem is, a company like Phillips Distilling Company is not a member of DISCUS, so DISCUS does nothing when they release something like UV Sugar Crush. Another stopgap in this whole process is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). It’s the TTB’s job to approve labels and enforce the myriad alcohol related laws, rules, and regulations that exist in the United States. The TTB has been known to throw down with small distillers over what they can call their products (saying things like Ginger Rum must be “Rum with Ginger Flavor” and Cachaca must be called Brazilian Rum). It’s beyond perplexing why the TTB has rubber-stamped these vodkas that are so clearly appealing to under-age drinkers.

Candy or Vodka?

Candy or Vodka?

In the case of UV Sugar Crush Vodka, the argument against approving it is so bonehead clear even a child could understand it. Children under the age of 21 are the biggest consumers of confectionary sweets in the US and approximately 35% of Candy Crush Saga’s players are between the ages of 13-25. Even if the TTB couldn’t stop something so clearly aimed at young drinkers, DISCUS should have used the power of their consortium of brands to advocate against non-member brands releasing spirits which are so clearly youth focused (instead of just piping up when there’s a study that says binge drinking is bad).

Compare this to the UK, which has the alcohol standards agency The Portman Group. The Portman Group recently took Pernod to task because the text on the back of the bottle says “spiritueux anise”, and they didn’t feel it was clear enough labeling for UK consumers. The Portman Group issued a Retailer Alert instructing retailers not to order stock of this Pernod after September, and even though they disagreed, Pernod Ricard is changing their packaging for Pernod to comply. 

This very tight control over alcohol marketing in the UK is what is supposed to exist in the US, but between the TTB’s inconsistent and quixotic enforcement of the rules and DISCUS’s laissez faire attitude to non-member infractions we get things on the market like UV Sugar Crush, which is inarguably a clear violation of responsible alcohol marketing rules.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is the marketplace: over the past few years, consumers have turned to flavored vodka in droves. When so many adults are flocking to cupcake, chocolate, whipped cream, salted caramel, and other liquid confectionary flavors, it’s hard for brands not to try to cover every corner of the sweets’ space. Instead of trying to chase the customer, liquor brands have an incredible opportunity to lead and educate them. Alcohol is an adult beverage, and with a little education and empowerment even the most inexperienced adult drinker can transform a base spirit like vodka into something that’s lovely, easy, and delicious, like the Moscow Mule.

By standing up and saying things like UV Sugar Crush Vodka are not okay, DISCUS and the member brands send a message to consumers that perhaps all these kid-friendly flavored vodkas aren’t something that should be on store shelves. If adults stop buying them, liquor companies will stop making them. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these candy flavored vodkas is the fact that younger children don’t realize that these beverages aren’t for them. There’s a clear danger that children will mistake a bottle with cartoon candy labeled “Sugar Crush” on the home bar or in the refrigerator as something they can safely consume.

If the TTB and DISCUS won’t do their job, we will. UV Sugar Crush Vodka is not okay. You shouldn’t buy it, and you should tell your friends not to buy it. You should ask your local liquor store not to carry it or other candy flavored vodkas. You should ask your local bar why they chose to carry it and ask them not to.I f you own a liquor store or a bar, you shouldn’t stock it.  Enough people making even the smallest noise here will make a major impact in a space where change is sorely needed.

If you want your voice to be heard, here’s the contact info for the TTB and you can contact DISCUS via this form. Your voice matters, so be heard.

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Yukon Shine Winter Vodka & AuraGin

Yukon Shine Winter Vodka & AuraGin

Yukon Shine Distillery is a small craft distillery located in Whitehorse, the capitol and largest city in Yukon, Canada. Yukon Shine probably would have been one of many small distilleries in Canada (including the Pemberton Distillery) that few people in the United States really know about, were it not for its appearance on Canada’s version of Shark Tank, CBC Dragon’s Den. Distillery owner and Distiller Karlos Krauzig struck a deal with Jim Treliving on the show, but it was ultimately Arlene Dickinson, a self-made millionaire and CEO of Venture Communications who sealed the deal (after the show was aired).

Yukon Winter Vodka (80 proof / 40% ABV, $50 CAD/ $35) is made from a blend of two separately distilled spirits, the first from Yukon Gold potatoes, and the second, Canadian rye and barley. Yukon Winter Vodka is then filtered both through charcoal and gold (although we’re not sure how much reactivity gold really has in the mix).

The nose is slightly sweet and rich with clear raw sliced potato, vanilla frosting, butter cream, and soft cereal grains. The entry carries the rich, sweet character from the nose with vanilla frosting and butter cream followed by potato chips and Wheaties. All the sweet lushness in the opening balances out well in the midpalate, which features fresh ground black pepper, caraway, and a touch of lemon rind. Yukon Winter Vodka’s finish is long and slightly dry with just the right amount of spice.

There are a lot of nice flavor notes at work in the Yukon Winter Vodka and they fit quite nicely together. We like the sweet and lush approachability of this vodka and like how it manages to continue to be affable while not abandoning the classic structure of vodka. There’s enough spice and a solid enough finish to give Yukon Winter Vodka a great deal of mixability, while still being crafted well enough to enjoy over ice or with a splash of soda water.

AuraGin (80 proof / 40% ABV, $50) uses the same spirit base as Yukon Winter Vodka and macerates it with fresh grapefruit, lemon, and lime directly before re-distilling the mix using a botanical basket that has 12 botanicals including juniper. The result is a fairly sweet and citrus-forward nose that’s in the universe of a lemon-lime soda like 7Up or Sprite. The juniper is there, but it quickly dissipates, and after sitting for a bit the nose becomes all citrus. The entry for AuraGin is as soft and lightly sweet as the nose and tastes more like a citrus vodka than a gin. It isn’t until the midpalate that the botanicals really emerge, and when they do, the juniper takes front stage along with white pepper, grains of paradise, cardamon, and cinnamon bark. The midpalate is unexpectedly spicy and really helps balance what we thought would be a greatly lopsided flavor experience. The finish is long and dry, and does a solid job of combining the citrus from the entry, now reading clearly as citrus peel with the spice in the midpalate.

Using potato in the base spirit for a gin is a challenging move, as the soft and round elements which are nice in the mix for a potato vodka become a hindrance in making a balanced and clean gin, but Yukon Shine Distillery has managed to defy convention and balance the potato’s rich and soft characters with the right blend of rye spice and botanicals. As with Yukon Shine’s Vodka, AuraGin manages to be approachable and extremely affable without abandoning the job it needs to do for the spirit category.

Yukon Shine has done a superb job with stunning packaging and creating quality craft spirits, although the distillery needs to abandon using real cork for their enclosures – after time, both the vodka and the gin had small bits of cork floating in them. Cork issue asside, Yukon Shine has demonstrated great craft with both of these excellent products.

 

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Solbeso Cacao Spirit

Solbeso Cacao Spirit

Here at Drink Spirits we get a dizzying array of new products. Most of them fit neatly into fairly established spirit categories, but once in a while we get something that doesn’t really fit anywhere. This is the case with Solbeso, a new spirit that’s made from cacao fruit. Solbeso’s formal classification is “Cacao Spirit with natural flavor” (we imagine that the TTB had absolutely no idea what to do with this one).

It would be a complete misnomer to say that because Solbeso is made from cacao fruit that it’s a chocolate spirit. Solbeso isn’t actually made from the bean part of the cacao plant (which is used to make chocolate), but rather from the fruit that surrounds the bean in the cacao pod. The fruit in the cacao pod is extremely perishable and only has a shelf life of around 6-8 hours after a cacao pod is opened, so it’s not a product that is often seen outside the cacao harvesting regions.

Seeing the opportunity for a unique product, Solbeso works with cacao farmers in Ecuador and Peru to process this cacao fruit on site where it’s both juiced and set out in the sun to dry. Solbeso gets its name from this sun drying process, as it’s the fusion of the two Spanish words, “Sol” which means sun, and “Beso” which means kiss. Although it’s exposed to natural wild yeast during the drying process, Solbeso uses a Champagne yeast for the bulk of its fermentation. Solbeso is distilled locally near the South American cacao farms in specially designed hybrid column-style and cognac-style copper alembic stills. The raw cacao spirit is then shipped back to Bardstown, Kentucky where it’s blended, proofed, and bottled.

Solbeso Cacao Spirit (80 Proof / 40% ABV, $39.99) is crystal clear in color and bottled in a fairly stunning gold-kissed bottle. From the first nosing it’s clear that Solbeso has absolutely no chocolate aromas; instead, the nose is much closer to pisco, with a light, fruity (pineapple), and floral quality. There’s a little bit of funk and a steminess to the nose which has a slight edge to it, the way that some single distilled spirits do (although there’s no information on how many times this has been distilled). The entry for Solbeso is a lot lighter and less edgy than the nose would suggest. The initial flavors are light goji berry and roasted pineapple, with the light floral qualities from the nose and a subtle earthy tone. In the midpalate we get a lot more of the steminess that was an undercurrent in the nose. We also get a touch of pepper spice and a dash of heat. The finish is fairly long and is a nice combination of the light goji berry note, slight steminess, slight spice, and a bit of earthiness.

The mouthfeel of Solbeso is really pleasant, starting very soft and slightly lush, and then slowly drying out to the finish. It’s a solid linear progression. The quality in craftsmanship at work here is no surprise, since the process was overseen by legendary Master Distiller Dave Pickerell (who was the Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark, helped make Whistle Pig what it is today, and has played a key roll in Hillrock Estate Distilleries).

While Solbeso can be enjoyed neat or over ice, the main intent for Solbeso seems to be as a mixing spirit.  When you add it to a sweet iced tea, it takes on a little bit of a chocolatey character, which is ironic because this spirit specifically doesn’t have the elements used made to chocolate. Iced tea also brings out Solbeso’s earthy quality, which holds it back from being as easy and affable as other things you can toss into your tea. It fairs better as a sour, but again the stem flavor shines through. The toughest thing about Solbeso is that, no matter how good or bad it is, it’s an absolute oddball of a spirit.

The mountain this spirit has to climb is insurmountable. There’s an expectation among consumers that cacao means chocolate, so the disconnect when folks get Solbeso home and realize that it doesn’t taste anything like chocolate is going to be pretty extreme. This puts Solbeso between a rock and a hard place – how the heck do you market a cacao spirit while making it clear that it’s not a chocolate spirit? Also, how do you get Western palates to accept an earthy, stemmy, and goji-like flavor palate? The answer unfortunately is, you don’t. The harsh reality is that major categories like Cachaca and Pisco barely move the needle in the US, even though they have a massive following in South America. Trying to add an oddball spirit to the mix that clashes with consumer’s expectations just won’t work, and even though it’s clear that the folks at Solbeso are well intentioned (working with a sustainable product and farmers), the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment

Image Courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment

As a spirits publication, we get a lot of pitches from PR agencies asking us to feature their product for a never-ending series of “Official XYZ Drinking Day”. For July, aside from the generally recognized National holiday, July 4th / Independence Day, we were pitched on National Mojito Day (July 11), Bastille Day (July 14), National Daiquiri Day (July 18), and National Tequila Day (July 24). That’s a lot of drinking days packed into just a few weeks.

The thing is, most of these holidays (aside from Bastille Day) are completely made up. To be fair, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were once made up holidays, created by the greeting card industry to help sell more of their products. These days caught on and are now ACTUALLY observed.

Now almost every major spirit and cocktail has its own “National Day”, and it’s so easy for just about anyone to create their own “National Day” that it no one really observes any of these fictional drinking occasions. For example, let’s just say that we love Game of Thrones (which we do) and think that it would be fun to create a day where people sit and watch episodes of the popular HBO show and play a drinking game, knocking one back after every time the character Hodor says “Hodor“. Sounds fun right? Well, all we’d need to do is submit this day with Chase’s Calendar of Events. You have to pay McGraw-Hill (the publisher) a fee as well as a renewal fee for each year you want the event to appear in the book. The deadline for the following year’s publication is always Tax Day (another real reason to drink).

Beyond the extreme saturation of these fictional holidays, there’s the issue of the concept of drinking holidays all together. Many of the OBSERVED drinking holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Derby Day, Cinco De Mayo, Independence Day, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve are generally marked by over consumption. St. Patrick’s Day is known unaffectionately among bartenders as “Amateur Night” and is often marked by gratuitous intoxication, violence, and illness. Ask any bartender about their  last St. Patrick’s Day and the way they’ll describe it sounds a lot more like terrorist bombing in the Middle East than a celebration.

Now, we know that the intent of liquor companies isn’t any of this. The reasons for all of these made-up holidays isn’t to get people to drink themselves silly, it’s to create awareness of spirits and cocktails that perhaps they haven’t tried, or have forgotten about. Is National Martini Day a good reason to have a martini? Perhaps, but with so many “national” spirit days that go virtually un-observed, there really isn’t room for a true spirit-related holiday. A better way to go about all of this is to perhaps look at the holidays that we do all actually observe and explore how we can use these holidays as an opportunity to drink differently (and by that, we don’t mean more).

We live in a time with more choices in spirits than there have ever been. When I was first old enough to go into a liquor store, there were three options in tequila, now there are rows and rows. The same goes for gin. Explore Cachaca because the World Cup is in Brazil? Great. Have a bourbon drink to celebrate the Kentucky Derby? Absolutely (we suggest a well-made mint julep). But the flood of these fake XYZ Drinking Days needs to end. Spirit companies need to tell their PR agencies to stop trying to push them, and consumers should scoff at them. They’re diluting the message and distracting brands from the job they need to really do: explain to consumers why they should be venturing out of their “safe and familiar zone” to try something new. You don’t need a “national day” to do this, you just need to understand consumers, who are willing and interested to try something new, but they need to know how best to drink it, and why.

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