Authors Posts by Geoff Kleinman

Geoff Kleinman

+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of 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.

Tequila Herradura Scotch Cask Finish
Tequila Herradura Scotch Cask Finish

When you are dealing with a highly controlled spirit like Scotch Whisky or Tequila, there are only so many things you can do to really impact flavor and character. One of the biggest tools in the proverbial tool belt is the barrel. The longer you leave a spirit in a barrel, the more of that barrel character comes through, and the more impact it has on the final flavor. Because barrels are made of wood, they are naturally porous, and when you age something in a barrel, the barrel soaks up a portion of that liquid. Fill that barrel back up with something new and it will leech out that soaked-up liquid, bringing some of its flavor, aroma, color, and character into the mix.

Scotch Whisky companies have been experimenting with different cask finishes for years, with one company, Laphroaig going so far as to making the cask the star of a portion of their offerings. While there has been some experimentation in the Tequila space, it has been fairly limited. It’s really Tequila Herradura who has been the trailblazer with their Colección de la Casa series, with releases of reposado tequila finished in port casks and cognac barrels.

For their 2014 Tequila Herradura Colección de la Casa release,  Herradura decided to go in an unconventional direction, finishing their tequila in a combination of Scotch whisky barrels. While this isn’t the first time someone has combined tequila and scotch, it’s the most high profile marriage of the two to date.

Tequila Herradura Colección de la Casa, Reserva 2014 – Scotch Cask Finish Reposado Tequila (40% ABV / 80 proof, $89.99) is a blend of tequila that’s been conventionally aged for eleven months in American oak with a part aged for an additional three months in Highland Whisky casks, and a part aged an additional three months in Islay Whisky casks.

Pale gold in color, this Herradura looks like what you’d expect a reposado should look like. On the nose it leads with fairly conventional reposado tequila aromas including cooked agave and black pepper along with caramel, dill, and oak. Underneath the classic tequila aromas, there’s a slight sense of the Scotch Whisky with a faint hint of malt, dried apricot, and a touch of smoke.

The entry for Herradura’s Scotch Cask Finish Reposado leads with spice with black pepper, white pepper, and oak. After that initial spice kick, the sweeter roasted agave notes emerge along with caramel and vanilla. It’s in the midpalate where the influence from the Scotch whisky casks are most present. While we know that there’s Highland whisky in the mix, the malt and apricot which were clearer on the nose get lost in the spicy pepper and pronounced citrus notes of the tequila. What does shine through much stronger on the palate is the ashy smoke from the Islay whisky. This smoke combines with white pepper at the end of the midpalate to drive a dry, spicy, and slightly ashy finish.

As an experiment, the Herradura’s Scotch Cask Finish Reposado is a success. Indeed, the sweet and spicy agave-based tequila integrates and balances well with the sweet and smoky qualities of the Scotch whisky, but is that really much of a surprise? After all, mezcal is an agave-based spirit that often incorporates a smoky Islay-like character in the mix. While intellectually interesting as an experiment, what’s in the bottle is difficult to recommend, especially at this price point. $90 puts you in a space to hit some pretty spectacular tequilas, and while interesting, this isn’t spectacular.

We probably won’t see a flood of Scotch Whisky cask finished tequilas on the market for the simple reason that used Scotch whisky barrels are much harder and more expensive to come by than bourbon barrels. Because bourbon requires a new barrel for each batch, there’s a high volume of used (or ex-bourbon) barrels out there. Scotch whisky producers tend to keep their barrels as long as possible and value the fact that after many re-fills they begin to become more neutral in their impact on the whisky aging inside.

Ultimately, for the fusion of smoke with agave, we’re much more inclined to turn to a good mezcal. Why go through all the trouble of importing ex-whisky casks from Scotland when you’ve got a vibrant and prized spirit with a compatible flavor profile in your back yard? 80 points.

Hudson Maple Cask Rye Whiskey
Hudson Maple Cask Rye Whiskey

Maple flavored whiskey has become a fast growing segment of the flavored whiskey market and we’ve seen some solid entries from Crown Royal, Jim Beam, Tap 357, and Knob Creek. There are a number of ways a spirit company can go about adding maple flavor into the whiskey, including maple chips, maple flavoring, or finishing in a maple wood barrel. Hudson Whiskey has followed a different path to adding a maple flavor to their rye whiskey by finishing it in used whiskey casks that previously held fresh maple syrup. It’s an interesting way of going about it and perhaps could work for a whiskey that wasn’t already so heavily oaked. Tuthilltown Spirits, makers of Hudson Whiskey, are known for using smaller barrels to push the aging of their spirits. The pitfalls of this are well documented, and it takes tremendous craft to be able to avoid the negative impact of small barrels.

Hudson Maple Cask Rye Whiskey (46% ABV / 92 proof, $55.99 per 375ml) – from the nose it’s clear that this whiskey has too much oak, with dried cedar plank, dusty cigar box, and conventional oak spice all dominating the nose. Yes, there is maple in the mix and some rye spice, but both get fairly lost under the wood.  The entry for the Hudson Maple Cask Rye is solid young oak. The oak is overly tannic, and eclipses both the rye spice, cinnamon, and even the maple notes underneath. The midpalate is like trying to lick maple syrup off a broken chair – there’s just no pleasure in it. The Hudson Maple Cask Rye then gets hot at the end of the midpalate and goes for a long, oaky and tannic, dry finish. There is also a lingering and unpleasant tannic wood note that sustains on the palate for a very long time after this whiskey has finished. Small barrel aging not only tends to over-oak a whiskey, it can sometimes impart wood compounds and chemicals you just don’t see with properly seasoned and coopered full size barrels. Small barrels are a short cut, not only for the distiller but for the cooper who makes them, and it’s clear in some of the final product that small barrels don’t get the same kind of care and seasoning that full 55 gallon barrels get. 

Aside from being over-oaked, Hudson Maple Cask Rye just isn’t a very good showcase for maple. Perhaps in this case there simply isn’t enough sweet maple to be able to do battle with the oak and rye spice. There’s absolutely no balance here – you’re getting oak, oak, and more oak.  We thought that Knob Creek was pushing at the pricing boundaries of a maple flavored whiskey with their Knob Creek Smoked Maple, which is sold at $30.99. The Hudson Maple Cask Rye Whiskey is $55 per 375ml (half bottle) which nets out to a jaw dropping $110 per 750 ml. Even if this was the best tasting maple whiskey we’d ever had, $110 per full bottle is so beyond the scope of reasonable, it’s just plain crazy. Unfortunately, Hudson Maple Cask Rye is the worst of the maple flavored whiskeys we’ve tried and another cautionary tale about the pitfalls of using small barrels. 

Update November 2014:  Tuthilltown Spirits is making this whiskey an annual release. We got a sample of 2014, Batch 1, Bottle 2338. Indeed this year’s whiskey is different from the previous year. The nose is still oak forward with unseasoned tannic oak and you have to dig quite considerably to find the maple. The nose is notably sharper this year. In the entry it would seem like we were in for something improved from the 2013 batch, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The initial light maple and caramel opening is hit again with that broken chair note and an unleashed fury of oak. There’s rye and cinnamon spice in the mix, but combined with the cornucopia of oak, it’s all just too much.  Just when you’re ready to cry “uncle”, there’s a heat blast that dries out the oak and makes the taste experience even more unpleasant. The finish is downright awful with clear distillation errors which read as scorching on the roof of the mouth and gums.

What is Tuthilltown thinking? We thought they put a bullet through this expression last year; if they were going to resurrect it, it should have been after addressing the release’s glaring issues, not making it worse. 66 points.


Hail Mary
Hail Mary

The response to our articles Drink, Eat, Live – Belvedere Vodka Advocates Mindful Drinking and It’s Time For Nutritional Information on Alcohol Labels has been overwhelming. We’ve received a lot of requests to post cocktails which are lower in sugar and more conducive to someone trying to balance their health with their drinking.

Here are the drink recipes from Belvedere’s Drink, Eat, Live program:

The first two drinks contain no additional sugar and have only an ounce of alcohol per serving.

Hail Mary
0.8 oz/25ml Belvedere Vodka
1.2oz/ 35ml Fresh Cucumber juice (cold pressed)
3.4oz/ 100ml freshly blended tomato juice (cold pressed with one whole chili per btl)
0.3oz/ 10ml Worcestershire sauce
0.7oz/20ml cold-pressed beetroot juice
0.08oz/ 2.5ml Malt Vinegar
2 dashes Green & Red Tabasco
Salt & Pepper to taste
pinch paprika
0.3oz/ 10ml fresh lemon juice
Roll to dilute, strain over ice, garnish with a celery stalk, lemon, and cucumber.

Piña Kale-Ada
1.2 oz/ 35 ml Belvedere Vodka
2.5 oz/ 75 ml Pressed Pineapple Juice
0.2oz/ 5ml Cold-Pressed Kale Juice
0.33oz/ 10ml Lemon Juice
1.2 oz/ 35ml Coco-Face Coconut Water
5 Fresh Basil leaves
Shaken, strained and served on the rocks.
Garnish with a slice of pineapple, pineapple leaf.

These next two drinks use dextrose as a sweetener. Dextrose is pure glucose, and so it’s absorbed by the body rather than being processed by the liver.

Lemongrass Collins
Lemongrass Collins

Lemongrass Collins
1.7 oz/ 50ml – Lemon Tea Belvedere
0.8 oz/ 25ml – Dextrose Lemongrass Cordial
0.7 oz/ 20ml – Lemon Juice
1.3 oz/ 40ml – Chilled Soda Water
Shake, Highball, top up. Lemongrass garnish.

Thyme for Change
1.7 oz/ 50ml – Belvedere Citrus
0.8 oz 25ml – Thyme Dextrose Citrus Sherbet
0.7 oz 20ml – Lemon Juice
2 dashes of Bitter Truth Grapefruit Bitters
Shake, coupe, thyme garnish.

The final three drinks use rice malt syrup, another alternative sweetener that doesn’t contain any fructose.

Matcha Milkshake
Matcha Milkshake

Matcha Milkshake
0.8 oz/ 25ml Belvedere (coconut fat washed)
4.2 oz/ 125ml almond milk (unsweetened)
0.5 oz/ 15ml vanilla rice malt syrup
3 wedges pineapple
½ bar spoon matcha tea
Blend all ingredients with a few ice cubes. Pour over fresh ice.

Spiced Sour
Spiced Sour

Spiced Sour
1.3 oz/ 40ml Belvedere Pink Grapefruit
1.2 oz/ 35ml vanilla & almond rice malt syrup
0.6 oz/ 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
Shake, strain into a chilled coupette glass.

Coffee Cocktail
Coffee Cocktail

Coffee Cocktail
1.3 oz/ 40ml Belvedere Citrus
0.8 oz/ 25ml vanilla rice malt syrup
1 espresso coffee (citrusy & fresh roast)
2 green cardamom pods
Gently press the cardamom, shake and strain into a chilled coupette glass.

If you haven’t had a chance, be sure to read our article Drink, Eat, Live – Belvedere Vodka Advocates Mindful Drinking for more insights into how you can better balance a healthy lifestyle with occasional drinking of alcohol.

Crown Royal Regal Apple
Crown Royal Regal Apple

Given the amazing boom in the flavored vodka space, it’s no surprise to see spirit companies dive head first into flavored whisk(e)y. After all, early movers in this space, especially Fireball Cinnamon Flavored “Whiskey”Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, and Crown Royal Maple Finished Canadian Whisky have seen immense success in a relatively short amount of time. As a company, Diageo seems to be fully committed to releasing a torrent of flavored whiskies onto the market, including Jeremiah Weed (Spiced, Sarsaparilla, and Cinnamon) , Piehole (Pecan, Cherry, and Apple), Seagram’s 7 (Crown Orchard Apple and American Spiced), and the latest flavor from Crown Royal, Regal Apple.  It’s an unprecedented amount of flavored whiskey product, all hitting the market at the same time.

There are problems with Diageo’s newfound flavored whiskey strategy, however. Although flavored vodka did indeed create strong growth in the vodka space, that growth often came at the expense of the core unflavored product. Now that the flavored vodka craze has peaked and is clearly in decline, brands are finding that they have a nice size bite taken out of their core vodka business. For a large company like Diageo, flavored whiskey represents growth and that seems to be more important than the long term health of a brand.

Before you even get it in the glass, the big problem with Diageo putting out a “Regal” Apple flavored whiskey is that it immediately takes a premium brand and puts it in the class of their budget offerings like Piehole and Seagram’s 7. Crown Royal Apple is a bad idea no matter how you slice it. It’s odd that Diageo didn’t look to the more upscale and savory end of the flavor spectrum with ginger or clove spice. Diageo would have been even better to follow the strategy that they’ve deployed with Captain Morgan and experiment with other finishes. Unfortunately, it’s more like that the answer comes down to “apple tested well” without any real depth of thought on what Crown Royal represents as a brand.

As with everything here at Drink Spirits, it ultimately comes down to what’s in the glass:

Crown Royal Regal Apple Flavored Canadian Whisky (35% ABV / 70 proof, $24.99) – the nose is an immediate blast of apple. Although the apple note isn’t horribly artificial, it’s reads more like a candy apple than a fresh one, and it’s got a fairly sour core. Overall the apple aroma is way too much – as strong and pungent as the maple was for Crown Royal Maple Finished, but far less pleasant. The apple on the nose is so strong that it’s extremely difficult to get beyond it to the aromas of the base whiskey. The base whiskey is there, with a hint of cinnamon and oak, but you have to dig like hell through the overbearing apple to get to it.

The entry for Crown Royal Regal Apple is very sweet with the strong apple from the nose. As with the nose, the apple flavor is candied apple, far amplified, sweetened, and exaggerated from real apple flavor. Maybe dialed back to about 50% this apple would be enjoyable, but here it’s like having a candy apple shoved in your mouth.

As we get to the midpalate there’s a building level of spice, including cinnamon, clove, and oak, that tries to balance and counterpoint the apple. In the midpalate these spices come together for a nice peak, but the strong apple flavor just sits on top of all that, like a house guest who has long overstayed their welcome. The finish is strong sugar and light spice with the apple flavor that just won’t quit. It’s surprising just how long the sugar flavor lingers on the palate. It’s a real indication of just how much sugar is in this flavored whiskey.

Ultimately, there’s just no getting past the apple flavoring. It’s too strong, too sweet, and way out of balance. Crown Royal had the right idea in the midpalate with the spice level, but no amount of spice can create balance when you’ve got this much flavoring and sugar in the mix.

Unfortunately, the overblown apple flavor combined with the extreme amount of sugar make Crown Royal Regal Apple taste like the kind of spirit you’d find in a brand like Piehole, not a premium Canadian Whisky. It’s a uncommon misstep from a brand that’s been on roll. 76 points

Joe Stokoe Making Smarter Cocktails  (photo: Addie Chinn)
Joe Stokoe Making Smarter Cocktails (photo: Addie Chinn)

Being a spirits writer isn’t the most healthy profession. A fair part of my job involves travel, which often includes a lot of unhealthy food, too little sleep, too many cocktails, and very little exercise. This doesn’t even take into account that, as a writer, I spend many of my hours sitting at a desk, something that by itself is horribly unhealthy. Balancing what I do professionally and what I need to do personally to be healthy is a constant struggle. When Belvedere Vodka invited me to be involved with their health-based initiative Drink, Eat Live, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was frankly surprised to see a spirits company tackle the issue of health and alcohol so head on.  The issue of alcohol consumption and health is a sticky one. Alcohol consumption isn’t generally considered to be part of a healthy lifestyle, and yet there are people who strive for balance and wellness who drink. Most spirits brands simply use the “Drink Responsibly” moniker and leave it at that.

Ibiza - A Health Retreat?!?
Ibiza – A Health Retreat?!

I was equally surprised that Belvedere had chosen Ibiza as the location for their Industry health and wellness bootcamp. Ibiza. REALLY?! IBIZA?! Isn’t Ibiza the greatest personification of excess, over indulgence, and unhealthiness?

The Other Ibiza
The Other Ibiza

As it turns out, while Ibiza is indeed one of the party capitals of the world, there is also a very different side to the island. In mid-October, most of the mega-clubs close and Ibiza transforms from one non-stop party into a charming, quiet, and remote Mediterranean island, an ironically ideal place for a health-focused retreat. This dichotomy between the non-stop party and the remote retreat in Ibiza is a very fitting metaphor for the challenge of balancing alcohol and a healthy lifestyle.

The Drink, Eat, Live program was created by Claire Smith, Head of Spirit Creation at Belvedere, along with fitness pro Georgia Van Tiel. Both Claire and Georgia are married to prominent spirits ambassadors and have experienced first hand the challenges of trying to be healthy in an industry that tends to promote overconsumption over moderation.

The premise of Belvedere’s Drink, Eat, Live program is a fairly straightforward one: bring a group of influential bartenders and media together for a four-day retreat to discuss and promote a “more mindful way of drinking,” along with “techniques and strategies to help minimize the effect of a spirited lifestyle on your health,” with the only caveat being that the participants commit to pay it forward and help others.

Claire Smith's Sugar Lecture
Claire Smith’s Sugar Lecture

The retreat was a combination of lecture, whole foods, meditation, exercise, and yes, drinking. One of the big “aha!” moments for me came from a lecture that Claire Smith presented about sugar and its impact on the body. It turns out that when you consume cocktails with a lot of sugar (a classic daiquiri has at least 11 grams of sugar per serving), especially fructose, the body gives that sugar an express trip right to the liver. Drinking something “healthy” sounding like a Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice), Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice) or a Sea Breeze (vodka, cranberry, and grapefruit juice) actually aren’t all that healthy. Instead, these cocktails are little perfect storms of liver irritation and can make a night of drinking even more difficult on the body (especially the next day).

So how exactly can you drink mindfully and avoid this perfect storm of liver angst?

Claire Smith along with mixologists Liam Cotter and Joe Stokoe (from Head Hearts and Tails) helped answer this question with a collection of cocktails that are lower in alcohol, use non-fructose based sweeteners, and contain ingredients which help support good liver health, including drinks like Matcha Milkshake, Thyme for Change, and the Pina Kale-Ada.

Of course there’s a brand message that goes along with this, and that’s a reminder that Belvedere Vodka is governed in Poland by an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) prohibiting them from adding any additives to their spirit (including sugar).

In addition to reducing the amount of sugar that you consume along with your alcohol, there are a number of fairly simple things you can do to help support “mindful drinking,” like:

  • Take a 2-3 day break a week from all alcohol. This gives your liver an opportunity to detox and regenerate.
  • Eat before you drink.
  • When you do drink, match every alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
  • Start late – hold off on drinking a few hours into your night if you can.
  • Finish your night with lemon and lime juice in lukewarm water; it will stimulate your liver and help the morning after.
  • Re-hydrate and replace lost electrolytes with coconut water and sugar-free electrolyte tablets like Nuun.

Of course mindful drinking isn’t enough to really foster a healthy and balanced lifestyle.  To do that, you also need to pay attention to diet and integrate in exercise.

Exercise Is Essential (photo: Addie Chinn)
Exercise Is Essential (photo: Addie Chinn)

Throughout the week, we mountain biked, hiked, walked, swam, did yoga, and did some martial arts. The point was pretty clear: there’s a wide range of options to get up and get moving, and it’s important to pick one that fits.

On the diet front, Drink, Eat, Live emphasized the importance of eating whole foods, including consuming foods high in chlorophyll, mainly green leafy vegetables which help rebuild and replenish red blood cells, boost energy and increase overall wellbeing.

Key foods recommended to help overall wellness include beans/legumes, eggs, nuts, garlic, onions, grapefruit, green leafy veggies, avocados, apples, and pears. Claire made a special point to emphasize the importance of eating fruits whole and skipping fruit juices and dried fruit, which are extremely high in concentrated sugars / fructose that can tax the liver. Apparently when you juice fruits, you break down and remove the associate fiber which helps the body buffer the fructose better. Juicing fruits also helps concentrate the fructose and makes it even easier for your body to express it right to your liver.

Balance is Important (photo: Addie Chinn)
Balance is Important (photo: Addie Chinn)

The final part of the whole wellness equation involved managing stress, getting a break, relaxing, and getting good sleep. The importance of good sleep, something that can be extremely challenging  to get when working in the spirits industry, can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, consuming alcohol, especially over consuming, can negatively impact sleep. This is one of the many reasons why having a few nights a week completely free from alcohol can greatly help your overall wellness.

A key tool in relaxing, managing stress, and getting a break is meditation. Meditation can seem a little intimidating until you realize that it’s essentially sitting and deeply breathing. During the course of the Drink, Eat, Live program we were introduced to a number of different styles of meditation, from the Tibetan 5 Rites to guided meditations (which requires very little knowledge or experience). Meditation is something I’ve done in the past and has always been helpful, but when things get crazy and hectic, it seems to be the first thing to go. The Drink, Eat, Live program was a nice reminder of just how simple taking a breath and getting a moment can be.

The Drink, Eat, Live program features a lot of common sense, but it’s the kind of common sense that the drinks industry sorely needs. If bartenders, and journalists like myself, aren’t able to figure out how to create balance around alcohol, how can we expect to help our customers and readers to?

With the cocktail revolution and now the whiskey boom, the spirits industry has unprecedented influence on our society. The opportunity for the spirits industry, and those of us who work in it, to productively use that influence and be leaders is vast.

By providing a wider range of options to consumers, including lower proof and lower sugar options, as well as providing solid education and guidance, we can help people have a better and more healthy relationship with something that is intrinsically unhealthy.

“Drink Responsibly” shouldn’t just be a platitude slapped on labels and printed in small type at the end of alcohol ads; it’s more than just responsibility, it’s mindfulness and balance. It’s possible for alcohol to be part of a happy and healthy life. Happy and healthy customers are good for business, and at least one brand, Belvedere, understands that.

Haig Club Single Grain Whisky
Haig Club Single Grain Whisky

It may sound odd to talk about vodka when reviewing a Scotch Whisky, but the newest member of the Diageo Whisky family, Haig Club, is as relevant to what’s going on in the vodka space as it is whisky. Haig Club arrives at a time of great change in the spirits industry, one where ever-dominant vodka has started to give its top spot to whisky.

How did it happen? Part of the answer is hubris. Vodka never thought it would be anything less than king, so during the recent vodka flavor boom, vodka makers got greedy. Instead of focusing on their customers, they thought about cashing in, and the result was a flood of ridiculously flavored vodkas. At the same time, vodka companies did little to remind consumers to continue drinking their unflavored options – why would they, they were kings. Now the vodka flavor boom has gone bust, the dust has started to settle, and all that growth that vodka was enjoying with flavors turns out to have been at the expense of its core unflavored business.

At the same time, whiskey has been advancing on all fronts. Lead by American whiskey, the whiskey boom has tempted consumers with flavor. Why drink a caramel-flavored vodka when an American whiskey gives you caramel, cinnamon, and oak, and all without adding anything artificial to the mix? Want flavors? Whiskey can do that, too, and when you add sugar and some cinnamon, you get products like Fireball. With whiskey (even technically flavored whiskey liqueurs like Fireball), consumers felt they were getting more for their money. The value proposition between a $20 bottle of whiskey that’s patiently aged for 3-6 years or $20 for a bottle of liquid that came right off the still into the bottle is pretty clear.

Diageo has major horses in both races. On the vodka front, Diageo has enjoyed great success with their flagship brand Smirnoff Vodka, as well as their co-operative vodka relationships with Ketel One and P-Diddy’s Ciroc. Diageo’s bet on the whisky front is mammoth with their monolithic Johnnie Walker Whisky line.  During the shift in dominance, Diageo has been savvy about creating compelling crossover options with their brands, most notably with Captain Morgan, whose Captain Morgan Black and Captain Morgan Limited Edition Sherry Oak Finish straddle the line between whiskey and rum.

Now with the new Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky, Diageo is making a leveraged bet that they can attract a segment of the high-end vodka consumer who enjoys a little flavor in their drink, but not too much. While whiskey has become extremely popular, it still suffers from the perception that it’s a strong spirit, and for the most part it is. Compared to the generally neutral, sweet, and affable vodka, whisk(e)y can come off as edgy (with its tannic oak), intense (with a depth and complexity of flavor), and challenging (especially if it’s over oaked or smokey).  To address these concerns and build a bridge for vodka drinkers, Diageo has turned to something that is an essential part of almost all their blends: grain whisky.

In blended whisky, like Johnnie Walker, grain whisky is a tool that’s used to help even things out, create equilibrium, and often add softness, sweetness, and levity. For the Haig Club release, Diageo decided to go with 100% grain whisky. It’s important to distinguish here between neutral grain spirits and grain whisky. As with Single Malt Whisky, there are very specific rules regarding what can be called a Single Grain Whisky, including that it must be aged at least three years in oak. While grain whisky can be made from many different ratios of grain (typically barley, wheat, and corn), the Haig Club is made from 10% barley and 90% wheat.

Haig Club is a blend of whiskies that have been aged in a combination of casks, including refill hogshead casks, refill ex-bourbon barrels, first fill bourbon barrels, and rejuvenated casks.  It’s a fairly sophisticated wood program, especially the rejuvenated casks, which are made by stripping and re-charring previously used casks.

Building on their history of success working with personalities, for Haig Club Diageo has partnered with two British mega-stars, football/soccer star David Beckham and entertainment mogul Simon Fuller. This dual partnership is smart and shows that Diageo has learned the lessons from Ciroc about not putting too many of their eggs in one basket. The Haig Club partnership also mirrors the kind of pairing which has made Casamigos Tequila a success, namely one star and one mogul. Bringing both David Beckham and Simon Fuller on board with Haig Club puts the whisky in an immediate spotlight and helps establish it as a luxury brand.

Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky (40% ABV / 80 proof, $75) – The first thing to note about Haig Club is the distinct blue bottle. In the Scotch whisky world there’s fairly uniform packaging, and so the Haig Club’s unique bottle really stands out. The stylish blue bottle also helps obfuscate the whisky’s color which is light gold. The nose on the Haig Club has some nice light, sweet notes like coconut, vanilla, and butterscotch. Underneath those sweet notes is spicy black pepper along with an odd waxy charred pineapple note. There’s also a very subtle diesel note in the mix that dissipates after a short while.

The entry is much more pleasant than the nose and leads with butterscotch, vanilla, and coconut.  This sweet and affable opening transitions fairly quickly to spicy on the way to the midpalate with the introduction of strong black pepper. The midpalate is spicy and is defined by black pepper along with oak. The oak notes here are nice and combine well with the black pepper spice and lingering butterscotch from the opening to create a sense of balance and complexity. Towards the end of the midpalate Haig Club picks up a sour undertone which follows through onto the finish. Haig Club’s finish is short and slightly sour with black pepper and a dash of butterscotch. It’s a slightly dry finish but not as dry as we’d expect, especially for a spirit courting vodka drinkers.

While Diageo is clearly on to something with a luxury focused, crossover, single grain whisky, they’ve missed the most important element of good whisky: it has to be delicious, and Haig Club just isn’t. Haig Club does hit some of the notes it’s trying to hit well. The butterscotch and coconut notes are nicely presented and the black pepper and oak combine with them to create some nice complexity, but it’s lacking in character and, for lack of a better word, yumminess. Fortunately for Diageo, the success of Haig Club may be more dictated by image-based exposure, and that stunning bottle should be able to do the job that the liquid inside falls just short of. 83 points.

Bacardi Triangle
Bacardi Triangle

The proposition for The Bacardi Triangle was enough to make a Millennial tweet, Snapchat or Facebook with glee (and envy): a three night island music festival where regular consumers could win a chance to be flown out on a private jumbo jet, hosted at a 5 star resort, and have a non-stop party with three top level musicians: Ellie Goulding, Kendrick Lamar, and Calvin Harris.

The extremely well constructed sizzle trailer for Bacardi Triangle made it seem like the event of a life time, and that’s the point.

“People in the new generation don’t want all these kind of possessions, they just want something like an experience, and do something which is very special, very different to normal goods, normal stuff, normal everything. That was the starting point when we started to think ‘what’s next, what’s the next chapter that we’re building on?”,  explained Dmitry Ivanov, Senior Global Category Director of Rums for Bacardi.

Dmitry Ivanov Explains Bacardi Triangle
Dmitry Ivanov Explains Bacardi Triangle

The Bacardi Triangle is a very expensive Millennial marketing experiment for Bacardi: instead of buying ads on popular Millennial-friendly TV shows like The Walking Dead, or run audio ads on Spotify or Pandora, Bacardi put a considerable budget (rumored to be around 5 million dollars) into throwing a gigantic party with the hopes that the attendees would tweet, Instagram, and Facebook the event. It’s an interesting way of positioning the brand with the target audience – instead of telling them that Bacardi rum is an integral part of music and nightlife, it’s shown to them by other consumers via social media.

For this first event, Bacardi flew in a handful of winners from giveaways on Millennial-focused sites (like Paste Magazine and NME), but an even larger percentage of the attendees were key influencers, including bloggers and tastemakers like Tatiana Sy from Pretty Much Amazing, Prairie Rose from Bit By A Fox, Joe from Joe’s Daily, and Hungry Editor Benjamin Liong Setiawan. Many of these invitees have vast social networks spanning across many social media platforms.

Two Days of DJs
Two Days of DJs

So how did Bacardi do with Bacardi Triangle? The answer is mixed. By “cutting out the middle man” in the music festival space and trying to do it all themselves, Bacardi clearly ventured outside its core competency. The Bacardi Triangle music festival was plagued by logistical nightmares and a line-up that was so backloaded that two of the three days had no headliners or performers aside from buzzy DJs who often struggled to engage the crowd.


#BacardiTriangle Hashtag Stats
#BacardiTriangle Hashtag Stats

Beyond the production of the event, Bacardi seemed to get a fairly solid response on social media. According to the social monitoring site Keyhole, between October 27th and November 3rd the #BacardiTriangle hashtag was used in 540 posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, reaching over 10 million unique people and 15 million impressions – a fairly expensive cost per reach compared to other media, but this doesn’t include the value from the media given in exchange for hosting giveaways or advertorials, like in this month’s Chilled Magazine.

Aside from the social media generated from the event, Bacardi had an army of videographers capturing every aspect of the Bacardi Triangle event using every kind of digital capturing device you could imagine, including large format Red HD Cams, GoPro clusters, and even drones. This content was used for daily video updates on Bacardi’s Facebook page, but we expect much more of it to roll out on a variety of digital platforms in the near future.

The big question is: can brands really create experiences that will appeal to millennials and is the cost of these experiences worth it? Bacardi indicated that the Bacardi Triangle is the first in what may become a long line of experiential, event-based marketing efforts. Whether they work or not, Bacardi Triangle is a major and important step for spirit brands as they attempt to crack the code on how to market and appeal to the next generation.

We Should Know What's In Our Alcohol
We Should Know What’s In Our Alcohol

This week the state run liquor stores in Finland pulled Fireball Cinnamon Whisky because it contains levels of propylene glycol that are “out of compliance with European regulations”. Both Sweden and Norway followed suit asking for the batches of of Fireball with propylene glycol to be recalled.

Since Fireball is such a hot product, there was an immediate firestorm on the Internet, enough to cause Sazerac president Mark Brown to issue a statement about the recall. Truth be told, the EU has much stricter regulations on food and beverage than the US (which is why tonic in the EU has sugar and not high fructose corn syrup, and is consequently so much better). The US Food and Drug Administration considers propylene glycol safe “up to 50 grams per KG” (Fireball has less than 1/8th of that) and it’s a common additive that’s found in thousands of products in the US. 

It’s not uncommon for alcohol companies to make different versions of their products for different regions because of varying food laws and requirements.  Martini makes a special version of their vermouth in the United States that doesn’t contain any calamus, a botanical that’s banned by the FDA but considered safe in the EU. (Calamus is also the reason you can’t get Amer Picone in the US, as it’s one of the ingredients).

The big issue that this Scandinavian recall raises is that, whether or not it’s considered safe, consumers should have the information on what they’re consuming so they can make their own decisions. Go to any grocery store and almost every packaged product lists its ingredients as well as calories, sugar, and a host of other important details. Why is hard alcohol exempt from this?

Most spirit companies will state (as Sazerac did when asked) that “the exact recipe is proprietary”. It’s a thin argument, as some of the most iconic beverages in the world, like Coca Cola, list most of their major ingredients on the package. Of course they sum up their flavorings under the term “natural flavorings”, but the list of what’s inside the bottle, for the most part, is on the bottle.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky

To their credit, Sazerac is one of the few spirit companies to list the nutritional information for their products, but most other spirit companies don’t disclose even the most basic information on their spirits. We did a search to try to find the nutritional information on the corporate sites for many of the major consumed liquors, including Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, and Jägermeister, and came up empty. They don’t even disclose calories and sugar!

It’s understandable why these companies don’t want to have to disclose what they put in the bottle. Would you buy a honey liqueur if you saw that it had more high fructose corn syrup than honey? Would you buy a bottle of vodka if you found out it had glycerine, sugar, or other additives? Having the basic information on the label would also mean that some brands would have to change their stories. There are a number of rums that claim that they “don’t add any sugar” and yet, they do:

Rums That Add Sugar
Source: Alko Finland / Refined Vices

The issue of sugar in spirits isn’t trivial. Sugar is an accepted additive for several spirits that are tightly controlled by an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) including Cognac and Tequila.  Wouldn’t it be important to know if the bottle of tequila you bought has added sugar? Beyond “hidden sugar”, the amount of sugar in many liqueurs is staggering. By definition, a liqueur is defined by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) as having “not less than 2.5% by weight sugar, dextrose, levulose or a combination”. That’s the minimum. We did some research (including the information from Sazerac’s nutritional information site) and the level of sugar in some popular liqueurs is pretty mind blowing.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (66 proof, 33% ABV, 1.5 oz serving 108 calories and 11 grams of sugar per serving) – Doesn’t sound horrid until you start doing the math:  at 1.5 oz, 11 grams of sugar (which is 2.2 teaspoons or .73 Tablespoons), this converts to 0.38 oz. which is a full 25.33% of the shot. That’s right – 1/4 of that shot of Fireball is sugar! At 33% ABV there’s almost as much sugar in each shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky as there is alcohol.

Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Since Brown Forman/Jack Daniels doesn’t disclose the nutritional information, we can only go with what’s been reported online: 108 calories, 6 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 6 grams of sugar is 1.2 teaspoons or .4 Tablespoons, which converts to .21 oz which is 14% of the shot. Not as bad as Fireball, but still a healthy percentage.

Jägermeister (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Neither Jägermeister nor Sidney Frank (the distributor) officially discloses the nutritional information for Jägermeister, but given what we’ve been able to find online (and it must be considered a best guess), Jägermeister has 150 calories and 16.4 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 16.4 grams of sugar is a shocking 1 full Tablespoon of sugar! That is .58 oz, a shocking 38.5% of the shot. That’s right, there’s apparently more sugar in a shot of Jägermeister than alcohol!

1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot
1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot

Would you buy a bottle of alcohol if you knew that it had more sugar than alcohol in it? This is information that consumers deserve to have and there’s no excuse why the TTB doesn’t require it. There’s an obesity epidemic in the US and it’s irresponsible for liquor companies not to let their customers know that they may be consuming as much as 1 Tablespoon of sugar per shot!

It’s time for the TTB to stop letting liquor companies hide what they’re putting in their bottles and give customers the information they need to make educated decisions about what they buy. There’s simply no excuse.

The upside of nutritional information on spirit bottles is that quality spirits that don’t actually add anything extra to their spirits will be rewarded by consumers. Shouldn’t the companies who do what they do without relying on sugar, flavorings, emulsifiers, and anti-freezing agents have the benefit of their customers knowing it?

Mott and Mulberry Cocktail
Mott and Mulberry Cocktail

Not too long ago we published the story Today is National Game of Thrones Drinking Game Day (or It Could Be), which slammed the all too common practice of liquor companies making up “official” drinking holidays for the sole purpose of selling their products. The truth is, there are a number of legitimate and established drinking holidays, and Halloween is one of them.

Halloween has long been considered a party holiday, a time when people come together to celebrate and often drink. With the craft cocktail revolution, Halloween is increasingly becoming a time for folks to bring out their jiggers and cocktail shakers and serve up interesting cocktails. Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas where there’s the task of a heavy meal to attend to, Halloween is slightly less encumbered and a perfect time to roll out cocktails that are slightly more involved than your average spirit and a mixer or three ingredient drink. For this year’s Halloween celebration we’ve tapped some top bartenders and mixologists to bring you a handful of unique drinks, perfect for a Halloween celebration.

Our first Halloween cocktail recipe comes from Leo Robitschek, Bar Director at Eleven Madison Park & The NoMad. We’re huge fans of Leo’s work and have previously featured two of his drinks, All Betz Are Off  (a.k.a. Gin Old Fashioned) and Verrazano Cocktail. For Halloween, Leo brings us a riff on the classic fall cocktail The Stone Fence [2 oz Bourbon, 4 oz apple cider, 1/2 lemon juice, 3 dashes of simple] using Rye whiskey and adding the unique Luxardo Amaro Abano to the mix. On its own the Amaro Abano is pretty bitter, but in this drink it imparts a beautiful woodsy floor for the lemon, cider, and rye to build on.

As with almost every Leo Robitschek drink, the Mott and Mulberry is a flavorful, robust but balanced drink that is unique and delicious.

Mott and Mulberry
by Leo Robitschek

½ oz Demerara Simple Syrup (1:1)
½ oz Lemon Juice
¾ oz Fuji Apple Cider
1 oz Luxardo Amaro Abano
1 oz Old Overholt Rye
Shaker and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with an Apple Fan.

Our next cocktail comes from author and mixologist Warren Bobrow. Like Leo, Warren is very much a drinks savant, well versed in the classics, but known for his inventive and delicious original cocktails. We fell in love with his first book, Apothecary Cocktails, and are happy to have a drink from his next book, Whiskey Cocktails.  Warren’s Where’s the Dog Star? is a simple 3 ingredient drink that takes a little prep time but is well worth it.

The combination of frozen hot chocolate, white whiskey, and Root Liqueur is divine, sweet enough to be a dessert cocktail, but balanced enough to drink any time.  This is one of those “wow” drinks that, if you were to serve it at a Halloween party, would have everyone asking you for the recipe.

Where's The Dog Star
Where’s the Dog Star

Where’s the Dog Star?
by Warren Bobrow
3 oz Hot Chocolate, frozen and crushed into pebbles
2 oz White (unaged) Whiskey
1 oz Art in the Age Spirits “Root” Organic Liqueur

Prepare the Hot Chocolate, and let it cool a little. Pour into an ice-cube tray, and freeze 8 hours or overnight.
Pop the hot chocolate ice cubes into a blender and crush, or place them into a Lewis bag—a canvas bag especially made for crushing ice—and crush by hand by banging them with a wooden mallet.
Spoon the crushed, frozen hot chocolate into a parfait glass, and then add the white whiskey and the root tea liqueur. Mix gently. Serve with both a straw and a long-handled spoon.

Sometimes individual cocktails are too labor intensive for a bigger party, and to help solve that problem, Junior Ryan from Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon has a perfect solution: a fall themed punch that you can make in advance and serve to a good number of people all at once.

Clyde Common has received a lot of accolades and awards, and it’s really Junior Ryan who is behind all that success. Junior’s Harvest Punch is smart and delicious, the kind of punch that you’ll wish you had made two batches of.

Junior Ryan and Harvest Punch
Junior Ryan and Harvest Punch

Harvest Punch
by Junior Ryan

1 bottle (750 ml) Old Grand-Dad Bourbon
500 ml (16.9 oz) Korbel Brandy
200 ml (6.75 oz) Apricot Brandy
200 ml(6.75 oz) Jamaican Rum (Appleton Estate)
2 Large Tea Bags (used to make 1 pitcher each) steeped for 5-10 mins in 8 oz of water
500 ml (6.75 oz) Apple Cider
250 ml (8.45 oz) Lemon Juice
4 oz of 1:1 Honey Syrup
1 Liter Ginger Ale
500 ml(16.9 oz) Pelligrino Sparkling Water
3 Crisp Apples (McIntosh or Liberty work well) sliced, soaked in lemon juice and apple cider
4 Cinnamon Sticks

Think of this punch a lot like a soup. Start with the spirits and work your way down. The sparkling water is there to dilute, so taste as you add to get it to your preference. This recipe is designed to be pre-chilled. You can serve it with ice and omit the sparkling water or you can put ice in a zip lock bag to keep it cold without further dilution. Be sure to let it sit for a number of hours before serving. Spoon the punch along with the apples into punch glasses and top with grated nutmeg.

Instead of serving God awful candy vodka or sugarbomb ‘tini’s, these three cocktails help you elevate your game with delicious, balanced, and unique drinks that are perfect for celebrating this major fall holiday.

Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish
Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish Whiskey

Chris Morris’ Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection has always been a sandbox of experimentation for the brand. Each year, Morris riffs on the core Woodford whiskey by altering one of their “five sources of flavor“, including changing up the grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and aging.

Some years the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection is a grand slam home run (i.e. Maple Wood Finish and 4 Grain) while others miss the mark (Woodford’s Classic Malt). Hit or miss, the Master’s Collection provides a feedback loop for the brand, press, and Woodford’s most loyal consumers, which has been invaluable to the brand and has served as the foundation for Woodford’s biggest innovation, Woodford Double Oaked.

When Woodford announced this year’s Master’s Collection release, we did a little bit of a double take. One of Chris Morris’ more controversial releases in the Master’s Collection was a whiskey finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay barrels. Although initially slammed by the media and rejected by the whiskey faithful, Woodford’s Sonoma-Cutrer, according to Morris, has become one of the most requested releases in the history of the collection.

Since Morris has a long standing policy of not repeating his experiments, this year’s Master’s Collection release uses a Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrel instead of Chardonnay to finish this Woodford Reserve whiskey. The brand points out that this year’s Master’s Collection isn’t technically a bourbon, as it doesn’t meet the requirement that bourbon be aged in “new, charred, oak barrels”.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Finish (45.2% ABV / 90.4 Proof, $99.99 for 750ml) –  dark amber in color,  the nose on this year’s Master’s Collection leads with solid oak. Beyond the oak is marzipan, tart black cherry, cinnamon, and strong black pepper.

The entry is bursting with flavor and leads with unmistakable pinot noir wine notes, including tart cherry, slightly sour grape, and blackberry. Although the impact of the pinot noir finishing barrel is strong, the flavor notes are very well balanced by Woodford’s core notes of cinnamon, caramel, marzipan, and oak.

As we move towards the midpalate the character shifts from fruity towards spicy with clove, allspice, strong cinnamon, and black pepper. Underneath this spice is a strong tartness from the pinot noir finish that reads as tart cherry. The finish for this year’s Master’s Collection is long, slightly sour, and dry with oak and spice lingering on the palate.

Like Chris Morris’ last adventures with wine barrel finishing, the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish whiskey is unique. The combination between Woodford’s Reserve Whiskey and Pinot Noir wine is an interesting one, and honestly one that we didn’t love right out of the gate. Unlike last year’s Classic Malt release, which was nothing short of a train wreck, the craftsmanship here is unmistakable with fantastic balance and integration of flavors. This release is absolutely the kind of whiskey that grows on you, and after spending a good hour with the spirit, it did finally win us over. 87 points.