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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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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) 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.

Both Yukon Winter Vodka and AuraGin are priced near $50, a pretty hefty price for these products. Yukon Shine has done a superb job with stunning packaging and creating quality craft spirits, but the price point still feels a little high. Also, 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. Price aside, 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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Apothecary Cocktails by Warren Bobrow

Apothecary Cocktails by Warren Bobrow

A good number of contemporary cocktail books are little more than curated compendiums of classic cocktail recipes. Since you can’t really copyright a classic cocktail, it’s easy  to pull from various recipe sources to make a nearly instant cocktail book (or have a ghost writer do it for you). How many copies of martini and margarita recipes does one person really need? To cover most of your basic cocktail bases, all one has to do is pick up the Savoy Cocktail Book, Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail, and David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks, and in three books you’ve pretty much got the basic cannon covered.

Amongst the sea of curated cocktail books is an important new voice, and at this point it’s a “whisper”: Warren Bobrow, the Cocktail Whisperer. While Warren may not have the star chef or star bar resume (he actually did a 20 year duty in finance before coming to cocktails), Warren understands cocktails and has generated an unprecedented number of completely original cocktails. Most of these drinks aren’t just riffs on the classics, but wholly original libations based on the same kind of flavor combination thinking that you’d find in a great chef (which, unbeknownst to most, Warren is).

In his first book, Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today, Warren Bobrow turns his focus to the original use of spirits and cocktails: as tonics and medicine to help cure a wide array of ailments and malaise.  The book is divided into seven different sections, including Digestives and Other Curatives, Winter Warmers, Hot-Weather Refreshers, Restoratives, Relaxants and Toddies, Painkilling Libations, and Mood Enhancers. Warren really covers the complete spectrum of medicinal cocktails with a drink for almost every ailment that alcohol traditionally addressed.

Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today is a beautifully constructed book. It’s a hardcover book but inside it’s spiral bound, which makes it easy to lie flat as a reference as you make a drink. The photography is top notch with drinks that simply jump off the page. The real star of the book, of course, is Warren’s cocktails. Warren brings together some essential historical tonics (some of them familiar) with clear context on how the drink evolved and exactly what it was used to treat.

One of the great things about Apothecary Cocktails is the range of complexity in preparation that Warren offers. Some drinks, like the Coconut Cooler or Doctor Livesey’s Cocktail, require just a few basic ingredients, while others, like the Nix Besser Cocktail or the Rhubarb Fizz with Charred Strawberries, require advanced kitchen preparation. All of the recipes in Apothecary Cocktails are listed both in imperial and metric measurements, and very few of the recipes call for specific brands.  Instead of saying something like Barr Hill Gin or Rhum JM, the recipes simply state “botanical gin” or “rhum agricole”. Each cocktail recipe in the book has clear and easy to follow instructions.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Warren Bobrow’s book is that the cocktails are superb. Daring drinks like the Thai Basil Fizz, which brings together basil, gin, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters, and ginger beer, sound intense, but the flavors combine into something slightly magical. Cocktails like The Harley Dodge, with peach, whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, feel like classics but are quite original. Some of our favorites come out of Warren’s Pain Killing section, including The Old Oak Tree Cocktail and Cocktail Whisperer’s Painkilling System #200, both smart flavor combinations and beautiful drinks. The book also has some fun oddballs like Roasted Beet Borscht with Sour Cream and Vodka, and a “Corrected” Scotch Broth, both nods to Warren’s time as a chef.

Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today is a real treasure trove with cocktails that span a wide range of flavors, styles, and complexity. Not only is it a cocktail book that you should add to your collection, it’s the debut of an important new voice in the cocktail world and the start of a very promising career.

You can buy Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today at Amazon. Hardback copies sells for around $17, and the Kindle Edition around $10.

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Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Whiskey

Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Whiskey

Jim Beam does a remarkable job of slicing and dicing the market with their brands. Their core brand, which includes Jim Beam White Label, Jacob’s Ghost, Devil’s Cut, Maple, Honey, and Jim Beam Black, does a superb job of providing a wide range of  spirited options for the everyman drinker. With Knob Creek, Jim Beam’s step-up brand, Jim Beam has presented a solid array of options for drinkers who are looking for a slightly more robust whiskey experience. Finally, three brands round off Jim Beam’s premium line: Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s, all designed for whiskey enthusiasts who enjoy stronger and higher proof whiskeys.

It’s a solid strategy for creating a wide range of products that appeal to a large cross section of consumers, all sourced from the same distillery, but with different brand promises.  Last year, Jim Beam began to blur these well-defined lines with the introduction of Jim Beam Signature Craft and Jim Beam Single Barrel, two premium offerings released under its everyman brand. This isn’t the first time Jim Beam has shifted their core brand into another adjunct brand’s territory – Red Stag used to be Jim Beam’s core flavored whiskey line, and while it still exists, Jim Beam has been quietly pulling flavors over to its core brand, including Jim Beam Maple, Honey, and the upcoming Jim Beam Kentucky Fire.

Jim Beam continues to look to breathe life into this new middle ground premium space with another entry in the Jim Beam Signature Craft series, Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey. It’s no surprise to see Jim Beam using quarter casks (smaller barrels) to finish their whiskey, as they saw amazing success using the technique with their Laphroaig whisky brand. Laphroaig Quarter Cask was one of the fastest grown product extensions of Laphroaig, and so it was probably just a matter of time before we’d see it pop up with another Beam product.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey (86 Proof / 43% ABV, $39.99) –  a blend of “normal” Jim Beam whiskey that’s been aged for at least five years and whiskey that’s been aged four to eight years in smaller, quarter cask barrels. When you put whiskey in a smaller barrel, you get more impact from the barrel much more quickly than in larger barrels, and that impact is clear on the nose of this whiskey. Oak is the lead note out of the glass, but it’s not overpowering. It’s slightly more pronounced than you’d expect from a four to eight year old bourbon, but not by much. Right behind oak is caramel, cinnamon, peanut, and coconut. There’s a good amount going on in this nose, which manages to walk the line of affability while still suggesting some stronger and bolder aromas.

The entry follows the nose very closely, moderately sweet and fairly tame with sweet caramel corn, cinnamon, peanut, coconut, and oak. The mouthfeel on the entry is pleasant, soft, round, and a little lush. In the midpalate the cinnamon spice and oak intensify as things begin to really dry out. Some of the sweet caramel corn and peanut from the entry sustain to the midpalate, but by the end of the midpalate they really begin to fade. Towards the end of the midpalate there’s also the addition of a little heat, and that drives a fairly abbreviated and dry finish.

There’s a lot of debate over the impact of using small barrels for aging whiskey. These small barrels have become popular, especially among craft distillers, because they create a greater amount of surface area contact for a whiskey, and therefore impart more wood characteristics more quickly. The downside is that small barrels tend to result in whiskey that is often overly dry and sometimes has pronounced unpleasant wood characteristics in the mix. For the most part, Jim Beam has done well with their uses of the quarter casks with the Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey. This whiskey doesn’t have any of the unpleasant notes you can get from smaller barrels, but it is a little too dry on the finish. This feels more like a style choice than anything else. The American whiskey market seems to be gravitating towards drier whiskey, although we hope it’s a trend that will ultimately change in favor of more balance.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey isn’t a bad whiskey by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just isn’t as strong an entry as Jim Beam’s Single Barrel whiskey that was launched this year (and inexplicably costs $5 less than Quarter Cask), or last year’s Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 year old whiskey. The 12 year old offering had much more character and flavor, and the Single Barrel is a higher proof, has better flavor integration, and a better finish. We are left kind of shrugging our shoulders on Quarter Cask. Jim Beam drinkers will surely enjoy it, especially those who like a dry finish, but there’s just not enough here to distinguish Quarter Cask from the sea of Jim Beam’s other offerings.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey will be available Nationwide starting in September of 2014.

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Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made the journey from the UK to Canada and in doing so became the first reigning monarchs to travel to North America. Crown Royal was created to commemorate this royal visit and was prepared as a gift for the royal family (which is why you’ll always find Crown Royal wrapped in some sort of regal color fabric bag). Flash forward seventy five years and Crown Royal has become the king of Canadian whiskies, and one of the top whiskies sold in North America. It’s quite a journey for one of Canada’s most iconic spirits.

To celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the brand (and the royal visit), Crown Royal is releasing Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend. This special blend of whiskies comes without an age statement and includes spirit produced by the company’s Coffey rye still in Gimli, Manitoba, Canada. Unlike the traditional Crown Royal release, Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend is enclosed in a special silver embroidered bag in a magnetically enclosed golden box. It’s nice packaging that fits right in with Crown Royal’s previous special releases.

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend Canadian Whisky (80 Proof / 40% ABV, $75) – although there’s no age statement on this blend, oak is predominant on the nose, the deep weathered kind of oak which is indicative of some of the whisky spending some serious time in barrel. The nose manages to balance this strong oak well with an undercurrent of lightly sweet caramel and a touch of rye spice. This presentation of old oak so expertly balanced is exceptional. The nose of this whisky is aromatic but light, dry, and wonderfully inviting.

The entry is light but flavorful – the oak is there and it’s solid but not overwhelming. Along with the oak is dried fruit, light caramel, cinnamon, and rye spice. All of these elements come together well with good flavor and a sense of delicacy. Things build slowly toward the midpalate as we get a ratcheting-up of the oak spice as well as black pepper, clove, and a touch of dark roasted coffee bean. Again, it’s all in balance and maintains a light, delicate, and dry mouthfeel. The finish is medium length and slightly dry, a signature Canadian clean finish which completes one of the best crafted spirits from Crown Royal we’ve had.

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend is everything we love about Canadian whisky. It shows that you can deliver a lot of flavor and character, including strong oak, in a whisky that’s light, delicate, and balanced. Crown Royal Monarch feels like a complete thought, a blend with a very specific character that wonderfully executes in a very specific direction. So many ultra premium whisky releases lately feel like they’re aimed more at collectors or age chasers than drinkers. Crown Royal Monarch is very clearly meant to be consumed, and it’s such a pleasant drinking experience that you’ll find your glass empty much sooner than you’d expect.

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Monkey 47 Gin

Monkey 47 Gin

Any time Sidney Frank brings on a new product, it’s significant – after all, this is the same company who made Grey Goose Vodka into the sensation it is and has helped continue to make Jaegermeister into the iron clad warship of a spirit that it is. The big question is, why in the world did they pick up Monkey 74 Gin? Even by Sidney Frank standards, Monkey 47 is an oddball pick. This German gin is an obscure Schwarzwald Dry Gin, made from a pure molasses base spirit with a botanical mix that includes many local German elements which are quite foreign to US consumers. With so many gins on the market, craft and commercially produced, what compelled Sidney Frank to pick up this one?

Monkey 47 Gin (47% ABV / 94 proof,  $44.99 per 375 ml) actually gets its name from the fact that it uses a whopping 47 botanicals, not because it’s released at 47% (although we found using the namesake ABV was cute).  From the first nosing, it’s clear that this is distinctly different from other gins on the market. Juniper can often read like pine tree on the nose, and here it’s supported by so many different evergreen notes that it smells like it’s distilled from a dense forest. There’s also a deep lemon citrus note, but it’s more like lemon balm or lemon myrtle than actual lemon. Beyond the pine and lemon there’s a chamomile floral note which also reads slightly bitter. All this is rounded out by lingonberry, which reads more sour and bitter than sweet. It’s hard to say that the nose of Monkey 47 is inviting, but there is a tremendous amount going on and an intense amount of complexity.

The entry of Monkey 47 Gin is softer than we’d expect, with light citrus and pine, but it’s only a short reprieve before the sheer force of this gin hits. The midpalate is a bombastic symphony of flavor with twelve different shades of pine, moss, birch, sage, cardamom, lemon balm, grains of paradise, black pepper, white pepper, ginger, sour lingonberry, and a dash of hot peppers. It’s too much, just way too much, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been slapped across the face with fir tree. At the end of the midpalate things get extremely spicy along with some pronounced heat from the underlining base spirit. This leads to a very long and slightly dry finish which captures the lemon balm, pine, cardamom, and pepper spice from the midpalate. The finish is actually quite solid and offers a much needed respite from the midpalate.

At this proof and with this intensity of flavor in the midpalate, Monkey 47 Gin demands to be mixed with, but the price point (nearly $100 per 750ml) makes it extremely difficult to justify in a cocktail. Unfortunately, Monkey 47 performed horribly in a gin and tonic. We mixed with with Fever Tree Indian Tonic and the result was so bitter and unpalatable that it was undrinkable. While it’s nice to see more entries in the super or ultra-premium space, we just don’t get why Sidney Frank picked Monkey 47 Gin and how exactly they think they’ll be able to succeed with it in the American market. Our only guess is that a very small number of craft bartenders will revel in being able to transform such a brutally assaultive gin into a drink that’s approachable and beautiful. While there’s no shortage of flavor notes to pull from in Monkey 47 Gin, getting a drink that is even remotely balanced would be an extreme challenge. Even if Monkey 47 were spectacular, which it isn’t, there’s just no getting past the price. Very few gins can pull off this kind of price tag and most of them are adjuncts to other brands, like Nolet’s Reserve, which serve to add premium luster to their entry level offerings. It’s impossible to see Monkey 47 Gin getting much traction and it certainly doesn’t have the makings of another Sidney Frank hit.

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