Friday, November 25, 2016

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve Whisky

In my post about Pike Creek Whisky, I explained why many Americans need to challenge their knowledge of, and prejudices against, Canadian whisky. And in my first post about the unrelated Forty Creek Whisky, I implied what I'm about to state explicitly:

Forty Creek has zero cachet whatsoever where I live. 

I am a native and lifelong resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Canadian whisky is clearly not big in Philly -- there's very little of it in alcohol-serving businesses, and most often, you see the usual suspects like Crown Royal and Seagram's VO. Even Canadian Club isn't served at some bars and restaurants which used to serve it. 

When it comes to Forty Creek, forget it. I almost never see it in alcohol-serving businesses. People I talk to have either never heard of it or never had it. And we must factor in Pennsylvania's state-level peculiarities: we have state-owned and operated liquor stores -- no, you cannot buy spirits at supermarkets -- and ass-backwards laws regulating alcoholic beverages. In 2016, some of these laws have been loosened considerably, but it is still illegal for me to do my liquor shopping in another state. Oh, I'm sorry; do you routinely buy a bottle of whisky in Delaware and bring it into Pennsylvania? Congratulations; you're a bootlegger. Do you get away with it? Good for you; knowing my luck, I wouldn't, so I don't try.

There seems to be a basic standard inventory across our state stores; no Forty Creek product falls into this category. Then there are items which appear in the official state store catalogue, but are only sold at certain locations; Forty Creek's deceptively-named standard expression Barrel Select is one of these. It's easy enough to find in Philadelphia if you know where to look; it's also easy enough to miss out on. Then there are items you won't find in the catalogue, and unless you stumble upon them at a state store with an adventurous inventory, they're only available online or through special order; Forty Creek Copper Pot and Double Barrel Reserve are both "special order" items, and they both come with a minimum purchase of 12 bottles. So obviously, most people (myself included) won't order them except for a business that serves alcohol. But most such businesses in Philadelphia don't serve Forty Creek!

Imagine my irritation when, on the Forty Creek Facebook page, I admitted that Barrel Select was the only expression I'd had, and someone told me that I NEEDED to try Copper Pot. I think she was trying to be helpful, but I explained to her in pedantic detail why I couldn't even though I wanted to. She did not respond.

In early October, I visited Bourbon and Branch, one of Philadelphia's more interesting whisky bars (also a music venue), and I was in disbelief: Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve was on the menu! Of course, I ordered it! I ordered it neat, and the bartender served it neat, but in a rocks glass. I went back a few weeks later with a pen and notepad so I could review it. Different bartender, and he served it in a Glencairn glass. My senses of smell and taste are pretty sensitive, so even though the Glencairn is widely considered the gold standard, I tend to feel that it over-concentrates the aromas and flavors. But for reviewing a whisky I can only get in a bar, it allowed me to isolate the whisky from other scents in the air. (For me, it goes without saying that if I can smell something, I can also taste it, but clearly, this is not a universal human experience!)

Don't judge a book by its cover: that Berenstain children's book is actually the whisky menu!

So why is this whisky called "Double Barrel Reserve"? From the product's webpage, Whisky Maker John K. Hall: "A few years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase some outstanding bourbon barrels from Kentucky. [...] After ageing my rye, barley and corn whiskies in their own special barrels, I decided to bring them together as a meritage, and placed the three whiskies into the bourbon barrels."

Meritage. You guessed it: he used to be a winemaker.

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
Blended Canadian Whisky
No Age Statement
40% ABV (80 Proof)

Color: Copper with golden and amber tinges.

Body: A solid medium. Nice depth, but also fleet in its movement around the glass.

Nose: Figs. Prunes. Tangy. Spicy. Citric. Woody. Caramel. The alcohol is subtle, but it dances inside my nostrils. Unmistakably Forty Creek, but more robust than Barrel Select. 

Palate: Smooth, creamy, corn-forward entry. Bold spiciness with cracked black pepper heat and nutmeg providing depth. Lemon zest. Rich breakfast cereal backbone. Assertive, tangy dark fruits. A sweet note pitched between fruitcake and panettone. Sugar-coated dates. Extremely well-synthesized grain flavors -- no clear delineation among the corn, barley, and rye. A bit of alcohol sharpness, which in this case gives the whisky a most welcome kick. A light coating of gooey caramel.

Besides Sipping Neat: I haven't tried it any other way and I doubt that I want to.

Overall: Outstanding! Not your father's Canadian whisky.

Thank you for reading and as always...Happy Drinking!

Forty Creek Barrel Select Whisky + a cautionary tale

If you are considering booking or hosting a house concert, or letting one happen in your home, I have one word of advice for you:


By "house concert," I mean a live show which takes place in a residential space instead of a traditional venue. By being responsible for a house concert, you are most likely breaking numerous laws without even realizing and creating a ton of needless liabilities, legal and non-legal. If people who have experience with house concerts are giving you advice, they're most likely giving you horrible advice. Pertinent to this blog, house concerts set you up for a whole other level of DRUNK DRAMA. Alcohol-free shows are generally less attractive, so you want to have alcohol at a house concert...except you really, really, REALLY don't. People you know and have never seen drunk or disruptive at a traditional venue will come to see or perform in your house concert, get more inebriated than you've ever seen them, and ruin the show...and possibly the house.

I first learned this lesson at a show I booked and hosted at a friend's house -- thank goodness I've never been able to host shows in MY home -- and since the show had hit a lot of snags before it even happened, I thought I'd bring something nice to celebrate making it to show day: Forty Creek Barrel Select, a whisky which had previously gone over well when I'd brought it to a backyard BBQ. But at this house concert, someone I never had to worry about before downed whisky, wine, and beer in excess until he repeatedly disrupted the show, made a mess of my friend's living room, and got his butt thrown out. And I should have seen the signs and tried to nip the situation in the bud. See, early in the show, he asked me, "Shaheen, mind if I have some of your whisky, man?" I thought that was a strange request because I'd already announced that it was for everyone in attendance, but I simply reminded him of that. He then poured a DOUBLE SHOT and downed it all IN ONE GULP. Unfortunately, I had allowed myself to become such a snob that instead of thinking, "I've never seen him drink like that! I'd better take him aside and talk to him," I was too busy being aghast that he had SHOT a double of what I considered a fine sipping whisky. And then he grabbed the bottle and exclaimed (sorry about the language), "Man, that is smooth as SHIT!!! What is that? Canadian? That is smooth as shit!!! You people have to try this whisky!!!" Instead of thinking, "That level of goofball exuberance is not typical of him. I'd better take him aside and talk to him," I was too busy being happy that he enjoyed Forty Creek and was getting other people to drink it.

If you have any snobbery at all, keep it in check.

But yes, Forty Creek is one of the better brands of Canadian whisky available in the United States, but it's not one of the better-known, especially here in Philadelphia. So I do love to turn people on to it as long as they, you know, enjoy it responsibly. Despite the product's name, Barrel Select is actually the standard expression of Forty Creek, and priced reasonably in Pennsylvania: $24 (+ tax) per 750 ml.

Barrel Select used to come with the tag on the right, depicting Whisky Maker John K. Hall and the whisky's accolades. Unfortunately, now it comes with the tag on the left, which lists a few accolades but is mostly devoted to woefully inadequate tasting notes.

Forty Creek Barrel Select
Blended Canadian Whisky
No Age Statement
40% ABV (80 Proof)

Color: Burnt umber.

Body: Rich like Warren Buffett. Or since it's Canadian, should I say rich like Kevin O'Leary? Unlike some Canadian whiskies sold in the US, this is NOT syrupy, and that's a good thing.

Nose: Sweet, nutty aromas fill the air. Bringing the glass to my nose, I get walnuts. Pecans. Toffee. Burnt sugar. A blend of baking spices. Caramel. Almond liqueur.

Palate: Walnuts. Hazelnuts. That signature spicy zing (coming from rye) cutting through the sweetness -- a common trait in blended Canadian whiskies, and in this case, not necessarily peppery, but hot and tingly. Tangy corn. Molasses. A faint bitterness in the finish. The aftertaste brings quince in the back of my mouth. I don't recall this in previous bottles (I have owned a few), but a product made from living things cannot be exactly the same every time, and I may also be picking this apart more now that I'm approaching it as a reviewer.

Besides Sipping Neat: Over the years, I've tried this in various ways. I used to enjoy a few drops of still (not sparkling) mineral water, which brought out different characteristics in the whisky depending on the characteristics of the mineral water. This whisky also makes a damn good Manhattan, and it's worth trying in an Old Fashioned at least once. It also mixes wonderfully with cola or root beer. Some people love it with ginger ale, but Forty Creek Barrel Select is possibly the only mixable Canadian whisky I don't like with ginger ale. I didn't like this in a whisky sour (too medicinal-tasting for me), and while this is certainly drinkable on the rocks, it also loses a lot of its depth. After watching the drunk at that house show shoot this whisky, and watching others follow suit, I tried shooting this. What a waste! I barely tasted any of its distinctive flavors! Which brings me back to my earlier point: even with all the ways I enjoy mixing this, I most enjoy sipping it neat.

Overall: Damn good.

Stick around. Another great Forty Creek product is next!

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Absolut Elyx

The sheer volume of posts in this blog's first week might have you thinking one of two things: (1) I live on a steady diet of alcohol, or (2) these initial posts are based on several months of preparation. The latter is the correct conclusion; if I drank as heavily as I seem to, I'd be dead.

As I mentioned in my first post, I originally conceived "Happy Drinking!" as a video series, which I planned to premiere over two months ago. Ah, Development Hell. I was looking forward to reviewing Absolut Elyx on camera so that when I tasted it, I could make all manner of over-the-top faces and sounds.

"Wait a minute, Shaheen...Absolut is a brand of vodka. Everyone knows that all vodka tastes like nothing and that's why you have to mix it with cranberry juice."

Anyone who truly believes this is either grossly misinformed or has an incredibly poor sense of taste. Indeed, Absolut Elyx is made specifically to have a distinctive profile; if your taste buds function at all, you're not likely to confuse Elyx with the standard Absolut. Neither is your wallet: here in Pennsylvania, the standard Absolut costs $20 (+ tax) per 750 ml bottle, while Elyx costs twice as much. It's a luxury product by design, but for the record, I bought my bottle on sale months ago and have been sitting on this review for a while.

Let's break down some of what we see on the bottle. "Single Estate" means the wheat used to make this vodka all comes from the same family-owned farm. (I'll pause for a moment in case you thought all vodka was made from potatoes; how many misconceptions do I have to dispel here?) "Handcrafted" is a much-abused word in the spirits industry, given that anything made in a still can't be entirely "handcrafted," but the word is clearly meant to indicate a more artisanal product than the Absolut my dad used to dump a shot of in his beer. (No wonder I have no father-son drinking buddy stories.) And yes, those copper stripes refer to the 1921 copper column still in which this vodka is (cough) handcrafted.

Absolut Elyx
Swedish Single Estate Vodka
42.3% ABV (84.6 Proof)

Body: Medium-light. Decent viscosity; interesting legs and tears give way to rain-like drops and dew-like specks.

Nose: Sour apple. Big notes of cracked black pepper. Sweet wheat with an earthy, smoky backbone. Vanilla yogurt. Cooked button mushrooms. Sauteed portabella mushrooms.

Palate: Robust and complex. A mouth-filling, soft, creamy, sweet entry, quickly invaded by a peppery heat which slices through the softness and sweetness. However, the sweetness soon reasserts itself and lingers nonstop. Doughy wheat. Shredded wheat. A savory note recalling the mushrooms on the nose. Some saltiness. Salt water taffy. A hint of tartness. Some bitterness in the finish, but joined with the other characteristics, this is not unpleasant. Assertive alcohol in the aftertaste.

Besides Sipping Neat: I most often enjoyed my bottle neat, but I did also like it on the rocks, and since the product’s website had numerous Martini recipes…yes, I shook it with ice and dry vermouth. Delicious! Skip the olives, though.

Overall: This is not a vodka for people who want something to shoot or mix with soft drinks. This is not a vodka for people who want the alcoholic strength of liquor without the taste. This is a vodka for people who like to sip on challenging spirits, spirits which demand time and attention to be appreciated, spirits with flavors that are contradictory in principle but complementary in practice. If that sounds like you, try this.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Pike Creek Whisky (U.S. Edition)

Last time, I reviewed Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, an excellent port barrel-finished single malt Scotch. This time, I have another great port barrel-finished whisky for you, and it comes from...Canada?

Despite what prejudiced people of all races, ethnicities, and colors assume about me based on my name and/or appearance, I am in fact American! Born and raised! No, really!!! Is my political soapbox caving in? Well, how about a whisky soapbox:

My fellow Americans, if you think Canadian whisky sucks, you probably haven't had the right Canadian whisky.

Research how much Canadian whisky sold in the United States is made primarily or exclusively for the US market. You might be surprised. And too much of it ranges from "okay" to "terrible." And sure, we have our stalwart Canadians like Crown Royal and Canadian Club, but just think how much great Scotch you're missing out on if you just stick with the Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal product lines. Some of the best Canadian whiskies available in the United States are not well-known outside of connoisseur circles. Pike Creek (not to be confused with Forty Creek) is one of them.

Pike Creek has a long, strange history, and I mean really strange, but even though I studied history and have worked as a historian, I won't attempt to be one here. Pike Creek is aged in a non-climate controlled warehouse in (drumroll, please) Pike Creek, Ontario, near Windsor. This area has dramatic temperature variations which cause dramatic expansion and contraction of the wood, which increases the interaction of the whisky with the wood and thus the wood's impact on the whisky. And yes, the whisky is finished in port barrels.

In Canada, Pike Creek carries an age statement of 10 years, but I'm reviewing the US edition with no age statement. If you want to know why we get a NAS edition, read the long, strange history linked above.

Pike Creek (U.S. Edition)
Blended Canadian Whisky
No Age Statement
40% ABV (80 Proof)

Color: Amber and crimson.

Body: Light, though the legs are persistent. Not much in the way of tears. After a brief while, dew-like spotting and specks inside the glass.

Nose: Twizzlers. Yes, Twizzlers! Spicy -- that rye kick. Sweet red berries, especially fresh strawberries. Peppery oak; white pepper in particular. Aged balsamic vinegar. A creamy grain foundation, calling to mind creamed corn. Some tanginess joining the creaminess; still a corn-dominated aspect of the nose. Honey. Molasses. Then something a tad minty. Pancake syrup. Sea breeze. A quick whiff of barley, sweet and a tad earthy. Medium-dry red wine. Sit with this one for a while!

Palate: A sweet, creamy corn entry. The peppery spice characteristic of rye in a blended Canadian whisky -- this also adds a touch of bitterness with a slightly floral quality. Rich, supple dark fruits and red berries, especially dates and strawberries. Smooth-yet-tingly on the tongue. An oaky backbone adds much-needed density. A nice tartness in the finish and a slightly vegetal aftertaste, both balanced by a lingering, round sweetness. Continued sipping (and moderate swishing) yields a beautiful honeyed streak. Some prunes appear on the palate over time, but are thoroughly integrated into the broader profile.

Besides Sipping Neat: Rocks if you must. Does not mix well in my opinion.

Overall: Damn good, but I think it would be even better at 43% ABV to give it a bit more kick and heft. Still...damn good.

Cooperage, a wine and whisky bar here in Philadelphia, has been offering this as the Canadian representative in a world whisky flight. Definitely one of the better choices for that purpose.

If you buy a bottle in Pennsylvania, the good news is that it now costs $25 (+tax) per 750 ml, which is $7 less than it used to cost in the Keystone State. And it occasionally goes on sale or comes with instant coupons attached.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Scotch

It was a dreary Tuesday afternoon during cold and flu season, and I had been quite sick and fallen behind on work. I distinctly remember being recovered enough to go visit a business associate, then take a seat at a nearby bar where I figured it would be quiet and I could sit with a pen, notepad, and cell phone and catch up on work. I also distinctly remember putting my coat on a chair next to nobody, using the restroom, and returning to the bar to find that someone had moved one seat over so he could sit next to me. This sad sack, who was getting himself drunk BEFORE GOING TO WORK, talked my ears off, even though I told him explicitly that I had work of my own to do. It didn't help that he had some experience in my field, the arts and entertainment, and flooded my brain with stories about how he tried his luck as an actor but gave up because it was too hard, then tried his luck as a musician but gave up because it was too hard. I showed him no sympathy whatsoever. I told him point blank that he kept giving up too easily, and he had the audacity to tell me I was right!

But perhaps most offensive of all was his icebreaker. I decided to try a couple of Glenmorangie expressions I'd never had before. When the bartender poured me one, the loser beside me took it upon himself to inform me that when drinking Scotch, I'd get more out of it if I added a bit of water. Visibly irritated, I informed him that I knew how to drink Scotch and that I preferred to taste it neat first.

One of the Glenmorangie expressions I tasted for the first time that day was the Quinta Ruban, which is aged in bourbon barrels for 10 years, then extra-matured for two years in ruby port casks. Having already tasted Angel's Envy Bourbon, I knew that port cask finishing could be extremely effective for whisky. I will have another fine port cask-finished whisky for you next time, but now...

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban
Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky
12 years old
46% ABV (92 Proof)

Color: Bronze with crimson overtones.

Body: Appreciable depth and viscosity when swirled around the glass. Leaves well-defined (but short-lived) legs. Not many tears.

Nose: Big charred oak from those bourbon barrels. Toasty. Red berries, especially fresh, ripe, juicy strawberries. Great spiciness. Rich dark fruits. Balsamic vinegar. The alcohol is assertive, but not kicking me in the nostrils. Robust.

Palate: Wow! Complex and bold with a looooong finish. The earthy, malty foundation anchors a range of diverse flavors. Red berries once again, with strawberries and sweetened dried cranberries. Big charred oak echoing the nose. Spicy and pleasingly tingly on the tongue. Velvety caramel. At 46% ABV, this has a definite kick.

Oh, but if I'm supposed to drink Scotch with a bit of water...

Nose, with a few drops of water: I don't recommend adding water to nose this whisky. The nose is wonderful neat; with water, it's less dense but also less expressive.

Palate, with a few drops of water: Pretty good. Less of a kick from the alcohol, of course, but the alcohol is still assertive. The fruit flavors are more direct, even resembling a sweet fruit punch. The charred oak is also more direct in intent, but not as punchy in effect. A subtle creaminess. Not quite as spicy. Basically, add water for a gentler, smoother Quinta Ruban. I prefer it neat now, but my moods do change.

Overall: Oh...hells...yes.

By the way, it's $60 (+ tax) per 750 ml bottle here in Pennsylvania. That seemed expensive until I was back at the bar where I first tried it and realized that a two-ounce glass costs $20. I opted to buy a bottle instead.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Casillero del Diablo -- Two Red Blends

Several months ago, a teetotaler friend of mine was considering taking up drinking because people had told her of the benefits of wine. I knew that she didn't want to spend a lot of money -- the very thought of spending ANY money on alcohol was strange enough for her -- so I recommended Casillero del Diablo, which had become my go-to brand for good, basic wines on a budget. Because I'd made the recommendation in face-to-face conversation, she didn't quite get the name; later, when I reiterated the recommendation in writing, she told me that up to that point, she'd hoped to find it if she searched for "devil wine."

Around that same time, I very much enjoyed the Winemaker's Red Blend, but this autumn, I couldn't remember whether I'd had the 2014 or the 2015. At the state store (where my Pennsylvanians at?), I spotted the 2015 Winemaker's Red Blend at $11 (+ tax) per 750 ml, but for three dollars more, there was the 2015 Devil's Collection red blend -- I'm not capitalizing that because I didn't see the words "red blend" anywhere on the bottle, but that's what it was. I decided to buy both to compare and contrast.

Casillero del Diablo Winemaker's Red Blend (2015)
Chilean Red Wine -- Central Valley
Unspecified Grapes/Component Wines
13.5% ABV

Color: Lovely reddish-purple with deep crimson hues.

Body: Rich and elegant.

Nose: Tart. Smoky. Breathing in places tobacco (at least what I imagine tobacco tastes like) and tannins in the back of my throat. A gentle sweetness brushes over a hefty, fermented grape underpinning. Concord grape juice. A zesty zing of alcohol pierces through.

Palate: Juicy with notes of red plums, black plums, and a leathery underpinning. More tobacco (again, what I imagine tobacco tastes like) and assertive tannins. Tart red grapes. Ashy aftertaste. After being open (but vacuum-stop sealed) for about a week, the flavor improved. Given the opportunity to breathe, albeit slightly, this wine developed nice, bright, sweet red grape notes. The tannins became less assertive, instead providing a decent foundation. A bit of black pepper sliced through. Some warm, toasty notes with faint hints of smoke and dark chocolate. Red grape skins did sneak in after a while, contributing a tad more bitterness than I would have liked, but what do you want from a cheap red blend? Still juicy and mouth-filling, but smoother, brighter, and (most surprising for a wine that’s been OPEN for a week) more flavorful.

Overall: At first, I thought, “It gets the job done if money’s tight, but I don’t like it as much as I remembered.” So I tried a Calimocho with this and I became hooked. I thought this might be good for other red wine cocktails, but I made a few Calimochos and then drank the rest of it straight. So I guess you’ll have to experiment with it!

(Winemaker's Red Blend on the left, Devil's Collection red blend on the right)

Casillero del Diablo Devil’s Collection Red Blend (2015)
Chilean Wine – Rapel Valley
65% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Carmenere
13.5% ABV

Color: Same as previous, but a bit deeper.

Body: Even richer and more elegant.

Nose: Assertive tartness and sweetness. Fresh black plums. Fresh apricots. A hint of fresh pineapple. Surprisingly bright for a red wine. Dark grape skins. Sweetened dried pineapple.

Palate: Smooth, but with a slight bite towards the finish. Red grape juice with a peppery heat sneaking in. Oddly enough, bright touches of fresh white grapes. Tangerines. Restrained tannins. Mild vegetal notes here and there. A fleeting smokiness in the aftertaste. After being open (but vacuum-stop sealed) for about a week, the profile became lighter and smoother overall, less citric and less spicy. Though dry overall, there was a subtle round sweetness. Dark chocolate became quite prominent, especially towards the finish.

Overall: A very sippable red wine on a budget.

But wait! There's more.

Just for the (ahem) hell of it, I tried blending the two in equal parts when they were both newly-opened.

Color: Deep purple with crimson tinges.

Body: Between silky and velvety.

Nose: Spicy. Tangy. Woody. Savory with a sweet top note.

Palate: Wow! Earthy. Citric. Smoky. Leathery. Mouth-filling red grape juice. Tangerines. Mild tannins providing balance and structure. Nice savory foundation with a sprinkling of fruit sugar. Begging to be paired with dark chocolate! Or so I thought until I paired it with dark chocolate…yuck.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!


In "Maxine's Dad," an episode of "The Carmichael Show," upwardly-mobile Jerrod and his working-class family are about to have dinner with Jerrod's girlfriend Maxine and her father, both upper-class. Of course, Jerrod is afraid that his family will embarrass him.

Jerrod, facing his parents: "This dinner is really important to Maxine, so when we get to the restaurant, don't talk about how expensive the menu is, and nobody's gonna split a steak to save money" -- turns to his brother Bobby -- "and NOBODY is gonna order a red wine with Coke in it!"

Bobby: "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey! Look here, Jerrod, it's called a Calimocho, and they drink it in Spain."

[Jerrod looks at Bobby disgustedly.]

Bobby: "Yeah. You think you better than the Spanish, Jerrod? Huh?"

Jerrod: "Yes."

Was this the first time I'd heard of Calimocho (also spelled "Kalimotxo" and "Calimotxo")? It couldn't have been. But it was the first time that a reference to the Spanish favorite made a lasting impression on me. And certainly, the idea of a red wine and cola cocktail sounded kind of crazy to me, like it deserved to be a sitcom joke. Yeah, well...

I found myself with some budget Chilean red wine and some Mexican Coca-Cola, and I decided, "What the hell?" I don't know just how Spanish the result was (!), but I mixed equal parts red wine and Coke over ice and took a sip.

It was like heaven in my mouth.

In fact, I was supposed to try the wine in other cocktails, but I kept making Calimochos.

I need to watch myself or I might become addicted. And that would certainly amount to way too much sugar.

Are there any crazy-sounding cocktails which got you hooked once you tried them?

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Brugal Especial Extra Dry Rum

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that we Americans love sweet rums. I think they certainly have their place, but I like having dry alternatives, and here is a rum so dry that I could spill it on myself and my clothes would not get wet! I had a bottle a year ago, and I'm nearing the end of my second bottle as I write this. So it's not a product I buy often, but when I have such diverse tastes and interests, I don't buy most spirits often for the home.

Brugal Especial Extra Dry
Dominican White Rum
No age statement on the bottle, but promotional material states 2-5 years in American White Oak
40% ABV (80 Proof)

Color: Some white rums do have a tiny bit of color to me, but this one is crystal clear. According to both the pamphlet which came with my first bottle and the product's webpage, that's a deliberate result of triple-filtration.

Body: Medium. Very impressive legs! Nice tears. Leaves great rain-like specks.

Nose: Pineapple. Papaya. Hint of mango. Hint of banana. Something piney. Floral. Woody. White sugar. Black pepper. Vanilla.

Palate: Clean! Crisp. A dusting of powdered white sugar. Tropical fruits -- more papaya than anything. A nice peppery bite. Some bitterness. Creamy and mouth-filling, but light. Rich oak backbone builds in eventually. Vague hints of dark chocolate and coffee in the background.

Besides Sipping Neat: With my first glass from my first bottle, I started neat, then added a little bit of water, then a little bit more, and so on, re-nosing and re-tasting all the way. I recommend that. I also recommend experimenting with this for mixing. My favorite combination of this rum is with Fever Tree tonic water (my first pick is the "Naturally Light," with its fruit sugar softness, but the "Indian" also works...boy, have I gotten bougie).

Overall: A rum for vodka drinkers! For me, it is a change of pace rather than a staple, but I do consider it worth trying if you haven't already. You can probably find it for a reasonable price -- $20 + tax here in Pennsylvania -- which makes it all the more attractive.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Cognac Salignac VS

Here in Pennsylvania, we have state-owned and operated liquor stores with some standardization of inventory and much standardization of pricing. In these stores, I routinely see four brands of cognac bearing the grade "VS." Let me note right now that for American brandies, grades like "VS" are applied loosely, but for cognac, they have specific meanings. VS is the young stuff, aged at least two years, and it's probably the first grade most people are exposed to. Now, as for the four brands which are standard in PA:

Hennessy -- $34 (+ tax)/750 ml bottle

Martell -- $30

Courvoisier -- $30

Salignac -- $22

I had to wonder whether Salignac was a great value or a case of getting what you pay for. Unfortunately, looking for reviews online didn't answer that question. When I checked this past summer, there were hardly any (there are a few more now, including mine). The most helpful review I found was over six years old and recommended Salignac VS for mixing but wasn't favorable otherwise. In the ensuing comment thread, many people disagreed strongly with the review, comparing Salignac favorably to Hennessy -- a couple of comments even stated that people can't tell the difference between the two. I rarely drink Hennessy VS, but given its cachet, I was amazed that something $12 cheaper could taste the same. And while I couldn't find a brand website, I did find multiple sites identifying Salignac as Courvoisier's budget brand. With all this mystery, intrigue, and controversy, I had to try Salignac. Mind you, I don't believe I've ever seen it in a bar, but then again, I don't see much cognac at all in bars in the Philadelphia area. So I bought a bottle.

First, let me give you my early impressions. Then, there's a twist to this story!

Salignac VS
At least 2 years old
40% ABV (80 Proof)

Color: Holy caramel coloring, Batman!

Body: Thin. Swirling around the glass leaves wiry legs and a lot of sheeting, with droopy tears following. All of this dissipates to rain-like specks.

Nose: Actually pretty attractive! Deep notes of dark raisins. Rich, toasty oak. Nougat. Bright, sweet wine notes with white grapes and red cherries. A sprinkling of sawdust, followed by salt water and hints of black pepper. The alcohol is surprisingly restrained for a young, cheap spirit, but grows stronger over time.

Palate: A HUGE disappointment following such an attractive nose. The dominant flavors are an alcohol sharpness and a bitterness suggestive of too damn many tannins! Underneath those harsh flavors is a thin, watery base of fruit flavors split evenly between dark raisins and pears. The finish is a bit smoky. Still, the sharp, bitter traits make me cringe upon sipping this, and even though I'm not a big Hennessy VS drinker, I do not understand how people can't tell the difference between the two. More on that in the next section.

Besides Sipping Neat: I tried several experiments with Salignac VS. I mixed it with cola, and with ginger ale. It was adequate with these mixers, but nothing more. I mixed it with tonic water and it fared better with that, but I still wasn't thrilled. I tried it on the rocks and actually felt that the ice dulled the sharpness and bitterness, making it smoother if nothing else. I figured that some of the people who can't tell the difference between Salignac and Hennessy like to shoot the latter, so I did a shot of Salignac, cleansed my palate, then did a shot of Hennessy. No comparison. The Hennessy was quite pleasant after the harsh Salignac.

But waaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiit just a minute.

Disappointed as I was, I put the rest of the bottle aside. By the time I revisited it, it had been open for about three months with quite a bit of air in the bottle. So...

Palate, three months after opening: Lo and behold, this cognac has mellowed considerably! Sipping it neat, I don't find it sharp at all. There is still some bitterness, but it is better integrated. The dark raisin and pear flavors are still light, but not as strikingly so, given the mellower overall profile. There is still a touch of smoke in the finish, but it's subtle. A sugary aftertaste reminiscent of dried tropical fruits; I definitely did not notice this in my previous tastings. It still doesn't taste like Hennessy VS to me; at this point, it tastes a lot more like what it is: a budget alternative to Courvoisier VS.

Overall: A strange one! I found it a waste at first, but decent for the price after letting it oxidize for three months. Never thought I'd make that recommendation! But I do have to wonder whether this cognac is inconsistent from bottle to bottle. Given the wildly differing opinions, and especially the preponderance of positive ratings measured against the few-but-biting negative ratings, it's a fair question to ask.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Saint Benjamin Inca (India Cream Ale)

This is a local interest review for people who live in, work in, or visit the Philadelphia area.

Those who know me particularly well can tell you that I used to be a big beer drinker, and that I took full advantage of living in Philadelphia, a great city for beer in a great region for beer. But those who know me particularly well can also tell you that I stopped drinking beer for a while because it's really not great for me physically. But then again, those who know me particularly well can tell you that I eventually resumed drinking beer in small amounts. Over the years, I've enjoyed offerings from many local breweries, but Saint Benjamin Brewing Company is one I'm not particularly familiar with.

A few stones' throws away from that brewery is Standard Tap, one of THE places to go for local beer in "The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection." At the Tap and its sister restaurant Johnny Brenda's (also a prominent music venue), all the beers and hard ciders are on draft and local. So I was at the Tap and saw Saint Benjamin's India Cream Ale listed on the blackboard. I thought, "What the hell is that?" After all, I'd heard of and had India Pale Ales, and I'd heard of and had Cream Ales. But India Cream Ale? I asked the bartender about it and he simply offered me a sample. After tasting it, I had to have a glass. And another. And then I stopped because in small amounts.

Things get a bit confusing with this one! Saint Benjamin's website mentions "India Cream Ale," but lists "Inca," which is identified as an "India Style Cream Ale." When I Google "India Cream Ale," I get numerous results for Inca. Saint Benjamin's "Flagship Beers" page lists Inca at 5.4 % ABV. My bartender at the Tap told me that what I was drinking was 6.7% ABV, which we both found surprising. Philly Tap Finder states explicitly that Inca (or the acronym-styled INCA) is the India Cream Ale, and lists it at 6.7% ABV. 

I'm certain that there is a miscommunication somewhere. Obviously, Inca/INCA and "India Cream Ale" are the same beer in Saint Benjamin's case, but I do not believe that the beer I drank at Standard Tap was 6.7% ABV. 5.4% is much more realistic.

Color: Bright gold with hints of Indian yellow and yellow ochre. 

Nose: Hop-forward, but otherwise not distinctive to me. However...

Palate: Nice! Crisp, hoppy bite. Creamy (yes, creamy) underpinning. The bitterness from the hops is assertive but kept in check by a light, smooth mouthfeel and profile. Tangerine back notes in the entry give way to faint lemon custard. Some malty notes in the finish and a fruity, bright aftertaste with ripe cantaloupe and more lemon custard. Impressively well-rounded for something so light!

Overall: Excellent. I need to visit the brewery and try some more of its offerings. In limited doses, of course. 

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking! 

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select

When I decided to review the 150th anniversary edition of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, I knew that I couldn't help referencing JD Single Barrel Select in the process. The funny thing was that I'd never owned a bottle of Single Barrel Select! Over the past couple of years, I've enjoyed several glasses at The Twisted Tail, one of Philadelphia's better whiskey bars (also a music venue). Single Barrel Select is reasonably priced there, and I'm more inclined to buy a bottle of a premium whiskey which I CAN'T find for a reasonable price at bars. But knowing that I should reacquaint myself with it and review it here, I finally bought a bottle.

Is that what people mean when they say they drink a bottle of whiskey every day?

Well, a 750 ml bottle of Single Barrel Select costs $48 (+ tax) here in Pennsylvania, and money was tight, so for $5 (+ tax), I bought a 50 ml bottle. As a single barrel whiskey, its characteristics will vary, but from my servings at the Tail and the glass I'm reviewing here, it's pretty damn consistent. By the way, I've seen claims online that this is as close as you'll get today to the Jack Daniel's of Frank Sinatra's heyday. At age 35, I'm too young to know, but on December 12th of last year -- what would have been Old Blue Eyes' 100th birthday -- I headed to the Tail just to have a glass of this.

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select
Tennessee Whiskey
No Age Statement
47% ABV (94 Proof)

Color: Gorgeous. Raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber, copper, and amber tones. I know this color is legit because Tennessee Whiskey is held to the same standard as Straight Bourbon -- no added coloring.

Body: Silky smooth. Not much in the way of legs or tears, but swirling around the glass leaves an impressive ridge that just won't quit!

Nose: As soon as I poured a glass, this whiskey filled the air with French Toast soaked in maple syrup. The maple note lingers over time as charcoal and earthy, vegetal corn reveal themselves. A slight medicinal note pierces through, leaving a touch of bitterness in the back of my mouth as I breathe it in. A dusting of pepper keeps things lively. Continued nosing yields dense bread-like qualities and vague rye. Those signature nutty Jack Daniel's notes follow. The ongoing maple and pepper fuse along with something vaguely fruity. Throughout the entire nose, the alcohol is impressively subdued and well-behaved.

Palate: Unmistakably Jack Daniel's, but deeper, bigger, bolder, spicier, and sweeter than today's Old No. 7. A lot of black pepper heat and maple-tinged sweetness from entry to finish. Notes of cornbread in the entry. Oak which is rich and round, yet subtle, suggesting patient aging despite the lack of an age statement. Mouth-filling creaminess with bright vanilla and that vague fruitiness echoing the nose. Roasted corn. Roasted mixed nuts. A grassy bite in the finish. Some hot cinnamon in the aftertaste, kept in check by sticky, soothing maple syrup. 

Besides Sipping Neat: Jack Daniel's publishes cocktail recipes for this. I ignore them. I'm not about to mix something this pricey when I can buy much cheaper high-quality American whiskeys for mixing. 

Overall: This is class, baby! If Single Barrel Select resembles the Jack Daniel's of Sinatra's heyday, no wonder Frank called his preferred whiskey "the nectar of the gods." Please do not reach for that shot glass or that Coca-Cola. This is a Jack to be sipped and savored.

I've yet to try the other offerings in Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Collection, but I intend to, especially the Rye. I recently heard a bartender (NOT at The Twisted Tail) tell a customer that it tastes like "sour mash sadness." With a description like that, I HAVE to experience it for myself.

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!

Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 150th Anniversary Edition

This past August, I was browsing through one of our (cough) beloved (cough) Pennsylvania state stores and spotted an eye-catching item. The bottle was the usual Jack Daniel's bottle, but the label was unlike any JD label I'd ever seen. A bit fancy, really. It explained that 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Jack Daniel Distillery and that this was a special edition of Old No. 7 to commemorate. The only distinguishing factor noted on the label was the bottling strength: this 150th anniversary edition was 86 proof, whereas the standard Old No. 7 is 80 proof. At least it is today...86 proof used to be Old No. 7's STANDARD bottling strength. Was this 150th anniversary edition more like a throwback edition? I didn't know, but at 28 bucks (+ tax) per 750 ml bottle, it was just a few dollars more than the standard Old No. 7, and the sign on the shelf read, "One Time Buy." So I bought it, thinking it would be a timely release to review when my "Happy Drinking!" video series debuted on YouTube in September. Development Hell has brought us to late November with no videos in the foreseeable future and this whiskey kicking off a blog. Fortunately, I still see a few bottles out there, so this review is not a work of history just yet!

Frankly, I did not expect much from this 150th anniversary edition. When I started exploring whiskey about four years ago, I hung out with a lot of Jack drinkers, and my work in the music business placed me in venues which had regular Jack specials. Old No. 7 was an obvious beginner's choice. But as I expanded my whiskey knowledge, I grew away from Old No. 7, though not Jack Daniel's altogether -- the superb Single Barrel Select will be my next review. For me these days, Old No. 7 is for rocks or highballs. I thought the 150th anniversary edition would serve the same purposes, just with a bit more kick.

But when I got it home, I noticed that the color was darker than today's standard Old No. 7. This is significant because Old No. 7 is Tennessee Whiskey, and in general, Tennessee Whiskey is Straight Bourbon filtered through (typically) sugar maple charcoal. By law, Straight Bourbon cannot contain added coloring. So I suspected that this 150th anniversary Old No. 7 was aged longer as well as being bottled at a higher strength. Sure, the darker color could have resulted from being less diluted, but my gut told me there was more to it than that.

Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 150th Anniversary Edition
Tennessee Whiskey
No Age Statement
43% ABV (86 Proof)

Color: Golden brown, led by raw sienna with dashes of burnt sienna and burnt umber.

Body: Medium viscosity when swirled around the glass, leading to well-defined legs and A LOT of impressive tears.

Nose: When I poured a glass, the air filled with maple syrup-drenched pancakes. Sticking my nose in the glass...this whiskey is very spicy! Great oaky backbone. Sweet corn with a nice level of development. Sweet cherries. Maple cream with a hint of vanilla. The alcohol is assertive but not overwhelming. A touch of that glue which some people detect on the nose of the standard Old No. 7.

Palate: A lot of deep nuttiness. Vegetal corn -- a big hit of fresh corn pierces through. A creamy mouth-coating sweetness with hints of black cherry. A bread-like note providing some depth and heft. Tickling, peppery heat. Not as good as Single Barrel Select, but a much better sipping whiskey than the standard Old No. 7.

Besides Sipping Neat: Well, during my first glass of this stuff, I knew I'd reserve it for sipping neat. I didn't mess with it at all except for one time when I was really craving a Jack and Ginger and this was the only Jack Daniel's I had. But actually, this was not as good with Ginger Ale as the standard Old No. 7. I recommend mixing that one and saving this one (if you can find it) for sipping.

Overall: Pleasantly surprising!

Thank you for reading, and as always...Happy Drinking!