Authors Posts by Geoff Kleinman

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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Q Drinks Mixers
Q Drinks Mixers

It makes no sense: imbibers often spend a great deal of time and money to acquire quality spirits, and then throw them into a glass with a commercial mixer that’s full of crap (i.e. high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings). Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Drinks, recognized the opportunity to deliver higher quality mixers made from natural ingredients and sweetened with agave. His line includes core cocktail mixers Q Club Soda, Q Tonic, Q Ginger Ale, Q Ginger Beer, and Q Kola.

The Q Drinks line was designed to be mixed in cocktails, so they aren’t generally meant to be consumed on their own. Q Ginger Ale, however, is so good and such a stand out, it works quite well both mixed and on its own.

Q Club Soda (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water and Himalayan salt) – You don’t realize how harsh and salty most soda waters are until you sip the wonderfully balanced and flavorful Q Club. Balanced and flavorful aren’t words that are typically associated with a mixer that’s often unpalatable on its own. By using Himalayan salt, the saltines is softer, sweeter, and much less chokingly sharp than most other commercial soda waters.  As with all of the Q Drinks line, Q Club is jam packed with carbonation. The carbonation is a rushing effervescence with small bubbles. Carbonation is what Q Drinks does best, consistently, across the entire line of mixers.

We mixed Q Club Soda with Reyka Vodka (our go-to mid-range vodka). Q Club helped draw out some of the sweeter, softer elements of the Reyka while complementing its minerality. Using a slightly softer and sweeter salt really helps make Q Club Soda a very affable mixer, and with the level of carbonation it really is a stand-out among the other options available.

Q Tonic (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, natural bitters, handpicked quinine, citric acid. 12g of sugar) – For all Q Drinks Mixers that contain a sweetener, Q Drinks uses agave. Agave is much sweeter than sugar and much higher in fructose. While agave can be a good sweetener (especially for tequila drinks), it does have a habit of reading slightly syrupy and very sweet. That’s the case here with Q Tonic.

Q Tonic’s carbonation level is on par with the Q Club Soda and that’s a huge advantage – the light, bubbly character helps balance the underlining sweet agave along with the citrusy lime peel. Q Tonic isn’t as bitter as some of the other tonics, and so may be preferred by drinkers looking for something softer and sweeter. Mixed with our benchmark gin, Tanqueray, Q Tonic did okay – the sweet agave did stand out when mixed, making it a little sweeter and rounder than we prefer. The bitterness of Q Tonic is light and doesn’t overwhelm the mix, although a slight increase would have balanced things out better.

Ultimately Q Tonic is hampered by the choice to use agave. Q Drinks has done a fairly good job managing it, but it’s simply the wrong sweetener for the task. This tonic with sugar and more bitterness combined with Q Drinks fantastic carbonation would be a rock star. As it stands it’s only a slight step up from the other options out there.

Q Ginger (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, ginger extract, extracts of coriander, cardamom, cayenne, orange peel and rose oil, citric acid. 15g of sugar) – By far the best of the Q Drinks mixers, Q Ginger Ale pulls together some great flavor from the ginger and spices, a dash of heat, great carbonation, and then balances it out with the right amount of sweetness.

With the Q Tonic the choice to use agave really hampered the mix, but here in Q Ginger it’s precisely the right tool for the job. Q Ginger manages to create a superb balance between the spice and the sweet while still finishing fairly clean and crisp. As with the other Q Drink offerings, the carbonation for Q Ginger is spot on.

We mixed Q Ginger with a variety of spirits including Reyka Vodka, Belvedere Intense Unfiltered, Goslings Dark Rum, and Bulleit Rye, and it mixed with each one perfectly.  Q Ginger is a clear upgrade over most of the other ginger ales on the market. It’s crisp, balanced, and clean enough to convert even the most obstinate vodka soda drinker.

Of all the Q Drinks, we found that Q Ginger worked best on its own as well as mixed. It’s a great product and by far Q Drinks’ best.

Q Ginger Beer (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, ginger extract, extracts of lime, coriander and cardamom, citric acid. 22g of sugar) – On the first sip of Q Ginger Beer, you’re really hit by strong ginger root. It’s much more earthy and sharp than in the Q Ginger Ale. Right behind the spice is a much stronger agave, making it much sweeter and less balanced than Q Ginger Ale. The ginger spice does linger on the palate a lot longer than with Q Ginger Ale, but it lacks any sort of balance.

We mixed Q Ginger Beer with Goslings Dark Rum and lime for a Dark and Stormy, as well as with Belvedere Intense Unfiltered and lime for a Moscow Mule.  In both cases the Ginger Beer tasted too sweet and unbalanced. Whereas Q Ginger Ale really intertwined with what we threw at it, Q Ginger Beer never seemed to really get along. The carbonation level with Q Ginger Beer is great, but it really lacks the overall mixability that the other Q Drinks have.

Q Kola (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, phosphoric acid, extracts of cinnamon, cloves, coriander, kola nut, lemon, lime, orange, and nutmeg, caramel and caffeine. 20g of sugar) – Trying to put out an alternative cola is like tilting at windmills – it’s an impossible task and you’d be crazy to do it. Most people aren’t just looking for cola, they’re looking for a specific cola (either Coke or Pepsi). Q Kola does a good job of blazing its own trail with an interesting mix of sweet, familiar cola notes along with a slightly spicy and citrusy finish.

As with the other Q Drinks mixers, Q Kola has very nice carbonation, much better than the harsher carbonation of conventional commercial sodas. Again, Q Drinks has turned to agave as a sweetener which gives it a slightly syrupy quality. We’re torn on this point: the agave does balance with the citrus and spice, but again we’re wondering if sugar would have been a better and more mixable choice.

Still, when we put Q Kola to the test, mixing it with Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey 101, Bulleit Rye, and Bacardi 8, it performed very well. As with the Q Ginger Ale, Q Kola did a good job of actually mixing with and complementing the flavors of the spirit.

On its own, Q Kola is a little bit of an oddball and the delivery of sweet and spicy don’t make as much sense as it does when mixed.

Overall, Q Drinks delivers on the promise of upgraded mixers. The two standouts are clearly Q Ginger Ale and Q Club Soda. These two represent the absolute best of what Q Drinks has to offer.

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The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler
The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Perhaps one of the most vital ingredients in the Craft Cocktail Revival has been the open sharing of information.  It’s well known that you can’t really copyright a cocktail (although the names of a few dictate specific ingredients), but the techniques you use to create complex and innovative drinks can very much be kept secret and used to a competitive advantage.

Fortunately for fans of cocktails and the craft industry, the culture of craft hasn’t been to keep these things under wraps, but to share them with others. This has helped make modern bartending one of the more collaborative industries and helped the spread of complex and innovative cocktails to areas of the country which would otherwise be trapped in the liquid dark ages. A bartender in a small town with no real mentors now has the ability to go online, read detailed descriptions, watch videos of complex techniques, and replicate them.

One of the pioneers in the open sourcing of craft cocktails is Jeffrey Morgenthaler. His blog was an important launching off point for the craft industry. What made Jeffrey Morgenthaler important was that he’d visit someone like Tony Conigliaro and witness his mad and wonderful experiments, and then document them on his blog.  Ironically, even though Jeff Morgenthaler became “famous” for barrel aged cocktails, it was his documentation and sharing techniques (not innovating or creating) that he really deserves credit for.

In that spirit, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, along with writer Martha Holmberg and photographer Alanna Hale, have brought together a complete guide for the craft bartender (or craft enthusiast).

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique ($30) begins with an important nod to the fact that the techniques and recipes in the book aren’t all from Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

“This book is dedicated to the countless men and women all over the world whose bars I’ve sat at over the years, asking questions, borrowing ideas, and stealing recipes.”

It’s important to note that the genesis of many of the ideas in this book came out of an important gathering of bar professionals in Portland, Oregon which was called the Oregon Bartender’s Guild (aka OBG). This guild was launched in 2008 and included such key spirit folks as Daniel ShoemakerKevin Ludwig, Kelley Swenson, and Lance Mayhew, who along with Morgenthaler would spend hours figuring out how many times a negroni should be stirred or the best way to carve up citrus. This group was so passionate about ‘getting it right’ that ultimately arguments and infighting lead to the group disbanding (before it was reformed by other, young bartenders).

The Bar Book is laid out in three parts: prep, assembling the drink, and then garnishing and serving it. There’s a good mix of basic, fundamental techniques and more advanced techniques.  Although the book is clearly aimed at the bar professional, many of the tips and techniques are quite applicable to the home bar enthusiast, like shaking cream in a mason jar as the best way to make whipped cream, how to separate an egg, or how to use a salad spinner to juice a pineapple.

There are a spattering of cocktail recipes in the book (although not Morgenthaler’s famous Amaretto Sour), and they are there more to illustrate the application of the techniques shown in each chapter rather than anything else. The recipes are also wonderfully un-branded, a refreshing change from most cocktail-related books out there.

There’s also a fair amount in The Bar Book exclusively focused on the working bartender, including tables detailing yields of juice from differently stored citrus (including the average yields of certain types of citrus), discussions about speed pouring vs. jiggering, and conversions to help batch drinks. More experienced craft bartenders might find some of the information slightly rudimentary.

Ironically, Morgenthaler dedicates only a single page in the book to barrel aging cocktails, which he labels as “Wood Infusions, A.K.A. Barrel Aging” and it lacks much depth. His section on carbonation focuses more on making tonic than any real mention of carbonating cocktails, something that Morgenthaler is widely known for and has written extensively on.

Overall, Morgenthaler’s writing is fairly folksy and pretty closely matches the tone of his blog. There are sections that clearly show the touch of Martha Holmberg (especially in some of the more detailed breakdowns of techniques), which is great as these are well crafted and very clear. Alanna Hale’s stunning photography is a real stand out. Not only are the photographs themselves good, but she manages to capture the key breakdown steps without making the book feel too paint-by-numbers.

While The Bar Book isn’t the groundbreaking tome of Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book,  and doesn’t even come close to the painstaking detail of Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence, it’s a well crafted book that’s perfect for the cocktail enthusiast or bartender looking to bring their craft to the next level. The Bar Book has a lot of really good nuggets of information and tips, certainly more than enough to justify the purchase.

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique is available at Amazon.

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Casamigos Anejo Tequila
Casamigos Anejo Tequila

The spirits industry is a lot less glamorous and a lot more difficult than many celebrities anticipate. With high profile celebrity-backed spirits like P. Diddy’s Ciroc selling massive volumes, and Sammy Hagar making a mint for selling Cabo Wabo Tequila, celebrities are often lured in with the hope of making a quick buck, doing something fun, and extending their brand. Unfortunately, most celebrities find out very quickly that the spirits industry can be a lot less profitable or fun than they ever imagined. For every Ciroc or Cabo Wabo Tequila, there are a hundred other celebrity-backed messes – just ask Bruce Willis, Shaquille O’Neal, Ludacris, and Toby Keith, to name a few.

A handful of celebrities have been quite smart about their investments in the spirits space. Dan Aykroyd has proven that good, solid, hard work and salesmanship can help create and grow a brand, and his Crystal Head Vodka does well because of his on the ground efforts. Justin Timberlake, who struggled on his own with 901 Tequila, proved that it’s much better to have a strong, established partner and has relaunched his tequila with Jim Beam as a joint venture as Sauza 901.

George Clooney has also been quite savvy with Casamigos Tequila, partnering with real estate mogul Michael Meldman (Discovery Land Company) who not only has immense capital (something extremely important in the spirits biz), but also had a built-in audience for the product. Clooney has also partnered with friend Rande Gerber, who has tremendous experience in the spirits space with the successful Caliche Rum.

To source their tequila, the team went to Productos Finos de Agave (NOM 1416), who has proven that it understands the mainstream tequila palate, producing Clase Azul and working with buzz brand Tequila Avion. Finally the team brought on Sidney Frank Importing, the powerhouse distributor behind the success of mega brands Grey Goose Vodka and Jägermeister.

With Casamigos Tequila, Clooney has been extremely patient, steadily and deliberately growing the brand and establishing the core blanco and reposado offerings before bringing out an anejo offering.

Casamigos Anejo Tequila (40% ABV / 80 Proof, NOM 1416, $54.99) – from the first nosing of this tequila, it’s clear that the Casamigos team has a very specific style and character target for their spirits. The Casamigos Anejo is as soft and understated on the nose as the Casamigos Blanco and Reposado. Here, the anejo has roasted agave combined with caramel, cocoa powder, salt, white pepper, bell pepper, and a touch of oak. The aromas aren’t effusive, and so you really have to dig to get them. The impact from the oak is very light given it’s an anejo, and it’s nicely balanced with the other aromas.

As with the other Casamigos tequilas, the entry for the Casamigos Anejo is light and delicate with soft, sweet roasted agave combined with light white pepper. The midpalate adds toffee, chocolate, salt, and a touch of oak to the mix. As with the nose, the oak here is fairly restrained and it adds more of a tannic, drying quality to this tequila over spice. Towards the end of the midpalate the white pepper increases in intensity, but it never gets too spicy or aggressive. The white pepper spice drives the finish which is medium, light, and ends clean.

As with their other offerings, Casamigos has delivered an anejo which is very clearly best consumed neat or over ice. Casamigos Anejo is a light, delicate, and remarkably easy tequila. It has a nice balance of sweet and spicy and uses the oak to dry things out rather than amp up the spice. Our only gripe is that the finish is a touch too dry, but that’s not enough to hamper the enjoyment of this tequila.

Dangerously drinkable, Casamigos Anejo Tequila is very much a gateway tequila, a perfect spot for folks who many never have considered sipping their tequila straight to start. Diehard tequila aficionados will surely scoff at Casamigos’ light and delicate style, but we think it will strongly resonate with the larger population of drinkers. 86 points.

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Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet Whiskey
Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet Whiskey

When it comes to the super premium American Whiskey space, Diageo is in an interesting position. While Bulleit does amazing business for them, it’s contract distilled at Four Roses and MGP, making it difficult to pull old, rare, barrels from the back of the warehouse and release them as a limited editions. Diageo’s George Dickel does produce their own whiskey (and excellent whiskey at that), but the market for super premium American Whiskey seems to be much more interested in bourbon or Kentucky Whiskey than Tennessee Whiskey.

It would be an exceptionally difficult position to be in were it not for Diageo’s whiskey stocks, which it has acquired along the way through buying and selling other companies. For the most part, Diageo has stored these whiskeys at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery,  which it now uses to showcase their “Bulleit Experience“.  The problem, though, is that these whiskeys come from a variety of sources including distilleries that now produce whiskey for competing brands. So how do you market an old, rare, whiskey from a brand you don’t really own? The answer for Diageo is to create a line of whiskeys where the rareness is the focus and not where they were produced.

On many levels Diageo’s Orphan Barrel project has been a huge success. Internally, getting these limited releases out the door at a company so focused on volume and growth has been significant. In the marketplace, these whiskeys have been snatched up (especially Old Blowhard) with the same level of fervor that other rare, super premium whiskeys have seen.  The biggest problem with the Orphan Barrel line is that most of the whiskeys released to date have been too old. Depending on its mash bill and where it was aged, most bourbon loses its balance and gives way to the barrel somewhere between the 9 and 12 year mark. Because where a barrel is aged can have a significant impact on the aging process, some barrels of bourbon continue to age gracefully, even though they technically should have begun their descent.

Most consumers aren’t aware that American whiskey passes its prime so early, much earlier than their Scotch Whisky counterparts, whose prime age really begins as American Whiskey’s ends (in the 10-12 year space). To date, most of the releases in the Orphan Barrel line have been consistently over-oaked, a symptom of the victory of the barrel over the core whiskey that’s aged inside it. Consumers seem to be okay with this fact, overlooking balance issues in favor of the satisfaction of owning and consuming something old and rare.

Lost Prophet 22 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45.05% / 90.1 proof, $120) – the latest installment in the Orphan Barrel series was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Ky at the old George T. Stagg Distillery and then further aged in the Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville, Ky. Dark gold in color, as you’d expect the nose on the Lost Prophet leads with strong oak. Here it’s a sharp, varnishy note that isn’t very inviting. The oak is accompanied by leather and cinnamon with a hint of caramel and coconut underneath.

The entry is a lot more pleasant, affable, and balanced than the nose as it leads with a well integrated combination of oak, cinnamon, and caramel. The mouthfeel helps enhance this whiskey’s affability – it’s soft and round without being overly heavy. Even with an increase of oak and the addition of clove, cinnamon, and leather, the midpalate maintains Lost Prophet’s accessible and affable character. Under the spice in the midpalate is the caramel from the opening along with a touch of coconut and dried apricot.

It’s not really until the end of the midpalate where the age of this bourbon really shows itself and things transition from soft and slightly sweet to tannic and very dry. Like the nose, the finish for Lost Prophet isn’t very pleasant or inviting. While oak kicks off the finish, it’s actually much shorter of a finish from a flavor perspective than we’d expect. Instead, Lost Prophet ends tannic and puckeringly dry.

It’s hard to penalize a 22 year old whiskey for being old, as there are simply aspects of the taste experience that you’re going to have to accept if you buy this kind of whiskey. Of the releases in the Orphan Barrel series, Lost Prophet does the best job of mitigating some of those qualities. It’s easier to overlook an abrasive nose and puckering finish when the core of the whiskey is so enjoyable. 90 points.

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What To Drink for Thanksgiving
What To Drink For Thanksgiving

Long before we turned to alcohol to fuel our fun-filled nights, it served a far more essential purpose: to save our lives. The process of distillation is synonymous with purification, and distillation had the magical power to help transform something that was unclean or unsuitable for consumption (like rotten or fermented grain) into a beverage safe for consumption. Distilled spirits could also be added to water to kill bacteria, making it safe to drink – a revelation at a time when people died from their drinking water. This life-saving quality of alcohol is why many of the terms for distilled spirits literally translate to “water of life”, including the Latin aqua vitae, Irish uisce beatha, and the Scotch uisge beatha (from which we get the word whisky).

In addition to purification, spirits have great preservative properties: you take a large amount of perishable grain and transform it into a liquid that wouldn’t spoil, and when you mix herbs or botanicals into that spirit, they also don’t rot or spoil. Alcohol not only can preserve herbs, it also has the ability to extract many of their essential elements, making them much easier to dispense as medicine. Juniper is a lot easier to consume in its distilled form as gin than as a hard and abrasively bitter berry.

Many of the drinks we consume today were once seen more as medicine than libation. The gin and tonic may be one of the best examples of this. Tonic water is an effective way of delivering the otherwise unpalatably bitter quinine (especially mixed with gin), and quinine is a key medicinal botanical used to help prevent and treat the ill effects of malaria (namely the fever). The juniper in gin also helps aid kidney and liver functions. Together they were a powerful medicine which was key for the British Empire as it advanced into malaria-ridden countries.

With the advent of modern medicine, the importance of spirits as medicine declined. Now most people turn to spirits solely for their intoxicating properties and tend to pay very little attention to their medicinal properties, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still there. Spirits can actually do a lot more for you than get you drunk, and this Thanksgiving they can play a key role in stirring your appetite for the big meal and helping you digest it after you’re done.

The class of spirits and beverages dealing with appetite stimulation and digestion are referred to as Apéritif and digestif. Apéritif is the term given to a spirit or cocktail designed to be consumed at the beginning of a meal to open up your palate and stimulate your appetite, whereas a digestif is a spirit or cocktail designed to be consumed at the end of a meal to help aid digestion.

The good news is, despite the fact that this category sounds foreign and complex, these spirits are extremely easy to work with, and odds are you’ve consumed them without realizing it. If you’ve ever had a Martini or Negroni before a meal and found yourself wonderfully hungry, you’ve felt the effect of an aperitif. If you’ve had a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned after a big meal and it settled your stomach, you’ve had a digestif.

The problem during Thanksgiving is that, with all the prep time spent in the kitchen, it’s difficult to then step behind the bar and mix cocktails, so we’ve come up some suggestions for an extremely easy Thanksgiving Aperitif and Digestif which require almost no preparation.

Cocchi Americano Aperitif
Cocchi Americano Aperitif

Classico

Pour equal parts (we suggest 2 ounces) Cocchi Americano (you can find both of these at fine wine stores) and soda water into glass with ice. Stir. Add an orange twist or orange slice and you’ve got an extremely easy aperitif.

For a more robust opening drink, try the Americano (which is also easily built in a glass).

Americano
1 1/2 ounces Campari
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
Top with club soda ~2oz
Garnish: orange peel or orange slice

Of course we also recommend these great opening cocktails: Aperol Spritz, Negroni, and of course, The Martini.

When it comes to digestifs, the work is even easier. Instead of a cocktail, you can serve small glasses (or shots) of one of several great Amari (which are traditionally Italian made digestive liqueurs) that are easy to sip and will give your stomach the digestive support it needs to tackle a monster Thanksgiving feast.

Here’s a breakdown of some of our favorite Amari for you to use this Thanksgiving:

Amaro Cio Charo
Amaro Cio Ciaro

Amaro Cio Ciaro (30% ABV, 60 Proof – $20) – you may have to do a little searching for this one as it can be a little hard to find, but Amaro Cio Ciaro is one of the best Amaro to start your digestif journey. Amaro Cio Ciaro is light, orangey, not too bitter, and not overly sweet. It’s delicious on its own, but it also mixes extremely well. Amaro Cio Ciaro is a good stand-in for Amer Picon (which you can’t buy in the United States because it contains calamus which is banned by the FDA), so it’s great in the Brooklyn Cocktail or mixed in with a light lager (1 1/2 oz of Amaro Cio Ciaro to 1 pint of beer) aka “Picon Bière”. It’s hard to think of a more affable, balanced, and easy amaro.

Averna Amaro
Averna Amaro

Averna Amaro (32% ABV, 64 Proof – $29) – If your dessert for Thanksgiving is more savory than sweet, or you are serving a group who likes sweeter drinks, then Averna Amaro is the perfect pick. Averna is significantly sweeter than the other amari on our list, and so it’s a good one to introduce people to the concept of drinking an amaro. Wonderfully thick and rich, Averna’s underlining bitter notes are well tempered and shouldn’t scare anyone off (the bitter herbs are key to its digestive properties). Averna has very wide distribution so it’s one of the more common amari you’ll find at your local liqueur store.

Cynar
Cynar

Cynar (16.5% ABV, 34 proof – $30 per 1 Liter) is a lower proof amaro made from artichokes. Because it’s low in alcohol, Cynar is very approachable and easy to drink straight. Although it’s bitter, Cynar leads with light sweet notes, easing you into the bitterness (like lowering yourself slowly into a hot bath). The flavor delivery is perfect to introduce people to the amaro experience. Because it’s light and unassertive, Cynar is one of our favorite picks for when our stomachs have gone sideways, and it’s gotten us through our fair share of queasy nights and hangover mornings. By far our favorite of the low alcohol amaro.

Fernet Branca Amaro
Fernet Branca Amaro

Fernet-Branca (80 Proof – $30) – If you ever ask a bartender which amaro they drink, odds are Fernet will be the first word out of their mouth. Spirit industry insiders consume Fernet Branca at an unbelievable rate, so much so that it often borders on obsession. Sweet and bitter, Fernet’s centerpiece is a minty pine taste that is initially a little disarming and then becomes something you crave. Fernet isn’t the best starter amaro, but if you want to really get people talking after Thanksgiving (or you just want to stir things up a bit), serve Fernet. We also adore Fernet Brancamenta, a softer, sweeter, mintier version of Fernet. We like to mix 1/2 Fernet Branca with 1/2 Fernet Brancamenta for an easier and sweeter blend. (Read more about Fernet in our piece: The Fuss About Fernet)

Other Recommended Amaro:

Nardini Amaro (31% ABV, 62 Proof – $55 per Liter) –  The Nardini Amaro is sweet, but not too sweet, herbal without hitting you over the head, and the bitter mid notes are soft enough for even the most sensitive palate. Nardini Amaro has beautiful cinnamon notes in the heart of the mid palate and is one of the most pleasing digestifs we’ve had.  At $55 a bottle, it’s a little expensive, but for a special occasion like Thanksgiving, it’s worth every penny. Not only will you wow your Thanksgiving guests with Nardini, it’s the ultimate cap to a big meal.

Amaro Nonino (35% ABV, 70 Proof – $40) – we simply adore Amaro Nonino. Priced at $40 a bottle, Amaro Nonino isn’t inexpensive, but it’s well worth every single penny. Perfectly balancing bitter and sweet, Amaro Nonino is a well-tuned symphony of flavors which all work together in perfect harmony. There’s so much going on with the Amaro Nonino that it’s best enjoyed straight up and sipped slowly. Amaro Nonino is the kind of amaro that will make you fall in love with Amaro, and serving it at Thanksgiving is an exceptional treat for your guests.

Amaro Montenegro Liqueur Italia (23% ABV, 46 proof – $26) – a wonderfully floral and nicely balanced Amaro. Amaro Montenegro is currently very popular among craft bartenders who are increasingly turning to it over Fernet for their original cocktails. Amaro Montenegro does a good job of easing you into its bitterness, and its exceptionally floral aroma makes it distinct in the amaro space. (Read our full Amaro Montenegro review with complete tasting notes)

Whichever amaro you pick, you’ll be surprised at just how well it helps settle your stomach after a huge meal like Thanksgiving.  Sitting and sipping an amaro is also a really nice way to linger at the table after the meal, and it’s a easy way to leave a great impression and introduce your guests to a category of spirits that they may be completely unfamiliar with.

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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.

2
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.

 

1
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.

12
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

2
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.

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