Bols Pumpkin Smash Fruit Liqueur Final Grade: F Price: $12 (1L)
If you're anything like me, the idea of a nice, spicy fall-like cocktail sounds delicious. And one of the most quintessentially fall flavors is pumpkin. A pumpkin cocktail sounds great, right?
So around this time last year I headed for the liquor store in search of pumpkin booze. I figured I could whip up a tasty cocktail using it without much trouble.
As you might expect, the pickings are pretty slim. But Bols makes one called Pumpkin Smash. Bols isn't the best producer of liqueurs around, but they're a lot better than most. As bottom-shelf stuff goes, they're usually pretty good.
But not the Pumpkin Smash. It is not pretty good. It is not even a little good. In fact, it can best be described as "foul." Or perhaps "rancid." Even better: "It tastes like something you should never put in your mouth."
I can't tell you exactly what it tastes like, because there's no way I'm trying it again. I recall a sweet chemical-like flavor, utterly lacking in anything resembling pumpkin. It's like the people at Bols declared war on the pumpkin — and royally kicked its ass.
A lot of Bols' other products are good. I use their ginger, banana, peach and some other flavors when I'm not using the more expensive stuff. And I think their Triple Sec is one of the better cheap orange liqueurs.
But if you're looking for an autumn-esque alcoholic treat, look elsewhere. Because this ain't it.
Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac Brandy/Cognac Final Grade: B+ Price: $45 (750ml)
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Orange Liqueur Final Grade: A- Price: $30 (750ml)
Cognac Ferrand is one of the hottest companies in the spirits world today. Mixologists, critics and connoisseurs have been following the French distillery with great interest as they introduce one excellent product after another. The force behind the fine line of Plantation Rums, in addition to their cognacs, Pierre Ferrand is noted for spirits that are especially well suited both for cocktails and for enjoying on their own.
As a result, I was excited to try two of the companies latest products: Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao. Both were developed by the experts at Cognac Ferrand, with assistance from the esteemed cocktail and spirits historian David Wondrich.
The 1840 Original Formula Cognac is what was referred to in the 19th century as a "three star" cognac — the equivalent today to what is typically called "VS." It's a younger brandy, lively and with lots of flavor. It was modeled after an extremely rare cognac that had been preserved from 1840, and is designed primarily to be mixed in cocktails.
This cognac has a grapey, slightly floral aroma. Pleasant, although without a lot of complexity. The flavor is rich and slightly sweet, with just enough oak to give it some nice, spicy notes. It is very smooth for a 90-proof brandy, with a medium-long finish. You could certainly sip this cognac if you wanted, and enjoy it quite well.
Like the cognac, the Dry Curaçao was developed to mirror the style of a 19th-century predecessor. It's blended from brandy and cognac, flavored with the peels of Curaçao oranges and various spices, and then barrel aged to smooth out the rough edges. This is what traditional curaçao is supposed to taste like.
This curaçao opens with a bright and authentic smell of sweet oranges. It has none of the artificial aroma of cheap orange liqueur — this is the real stuff. The flavor follows in the same fashion: sweet and rich, bursting with orange flavor and hints of vanilla. It's not quite as complex as I might have wished. A touch more spice would have really sent it over the moon. But it's undeniably very tasty and well balanced. (And also extremely smooth for its 80 proof.)
Good enough as they are on their own, these products were both developed to be mixed in cocktails, so that's where the true proof lies. One of the cocktails suggested by the distillery is a Brandy Crusta, and I thought that would be an ideal way to sample these two spirits in conjunction with each other.
Brandy Crusta from Julie Reiner, Clover Club (NYC)
2 oz Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac 1/2 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao 1/2 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur 1/2 oz Fresh Lemon Juice Dash of Angostura Bitters
Rim a snifter with sugar. Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into the snifter filled with ice cubes. Garnish with an orange peel.
What a delicious cocktail! The flavors blend together perfectly; the sweetness of the curaçao balancing with the lemon juice, the maraschino adding delightful floral notes, and the bitters adding some spice to bring it all together. I don't ordinarily drink brandy cocktails, but this one is definitely going in the repertoire.
As good as they are individually, the Pierre Ferrand cognac and curaçao mix up beautifully, especially when used together. They're definite winners.
Report Card: Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac
PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur Fruit Liqueur Final Grade: A- Price: $24 (750ml)
PAMA is the category leader in pomegranate liqueurs for a reason — it is by far the best one on the market. There are only a few of them out there, and none captures the pure flavor of pomegranate as well as PAMA does. In an area where the competitors taste, at best, merely like sweet, generic fruit, PAMA stands out for its authenticity and balanced flavor.
Its aroma and flavor resemble good quality pomegranate juice (like POM), with just the slightest hint of an alcoholic kick. (It's slight for a reason: PAMA is only 17% alcohol.)
I tried it straight first, chilled from the fridge, and was impressed. It's sweet, but not too sweet, with a satisfying, fruit flavor. It gives a mild warming feeling in the chest that one associates with drinking alcohol, but you probably wouldn't even notice if you weren't paying attention.
Although PAMA can be drunk neat, this liqueur is really designed to be mixed in cocktails, and its possibilities are almost endless. Its deep crimson color and balanced flavor (without a high sugar content) mean it makes a very nice addition to a wide range of cocktails. True grenadine — not the syrupy cherry-flavored stuff — is a pomegranate syrup, so the use of this fruit in cocktails is well established. (You could even substitute PAMA for grenadine in recipes.)
The PAMA website contains several recipes for using the liqueur in both cocktails and food. I actually whipped up something of my own, and then later discovered that they have a similar version already on their site. (I'll grant you — it's not the most original idea for a drink you'll ever come across.)
1.5 oz Vodka 1 oz PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur 3/4 oz Lime Juice 3/4 oz Simple Syrup
Shake with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
I find this variation on the Cosmopolitan to be a tastier drink. It's simple enough that the home bartender can easily whip one up, and it's especially appealing for female drinkers. Give it a try the next time you have friends over. (If the guys are being fussy, give 'em a Pabst Blue Ribbon or something.)
SNAP is an organic liqueur* produced by Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (AITA, for short), a Philadelphia-based design company. They previously launched the spirit ROOT, which has caught on with a lot of bartenders around the country.
Fresh out of the bottle, SNAP's aroma is warm and sweet like gingerbread, with a soft honey color. Sipped neap, SNAP's flavor is spicy and sweet, with a slightly syrupy texture and a strong bite. (This liqueur is 80 proof — 40 % alcohol — so it has some kick to it.)
You can taste the molasses in it, along with the cinnamon and, further back, the ginger. I was expecting the ginger to be a little more forward in the flavor profile, and while it's definitely there, it's just one part of the mix.
SNAP was formulated with the flavors of lebkuchen in mind, the traditional German Christmas cookie made with molasses, honey and spices (including cloves and nutmeg, in addition to cinnamon and ginger). Some have described lebkuchen as the ancestor of ginger snaps, thus the name of this spirit.
SNAP is fine to drink neat, but the flavor and sweetness soon overwhelmed my palate. (It's made with blackstrap molasses, which is powerful stuff.) I decided to mix it in a cocktail to see what it would do. The website for AITA lists several cocktail suggestions for their liqueurs, and I settled on a variation of one of them.
2 oz Rye Whiskey 1 oz SNAP 1/2 oz Lemon Juice 1/2 oz Simple Syrup 2 Dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
Shake the ingredients with ice, then strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
For the whiskey, I used High West Whiskey Double Rye, and for the syrup, I used homemade Demerara Sugar Syrup (2:1, sugar to water). The spiciness of the rye complements the flavors of SNAP nicely, and the lemon juice balanced well with the sweetness.
This is where SNAP has some very interesting potential, as it makes for an excellent cocktail ingredient. In addition to rye whiskey or bourbon, I can see SNAP mixing very well with an aged rum. This is a unique spirit — not the kind of thing you'd drink everyday. But it's definitely recommended as part of the mixologist's arsenal.
Quality Grade: B+ Value Grade: B Final Grade: B+
*There is some question of whether or not SNAP is technically a liqueur. I've chosen to list it as such for convenience sake, as that is what I think it most closely resembles.
Evan Williams Cherry Reserve Liqueur/Whiskey Final Grade: B+ Price: $15 (750ml)
One of the most popular new sectors of the spirits business is a somewhat unusual one. Building on the popularity of the ubiquitous flavored vodkas, several distillers have started introducing flavored whiskeys.
According to the production information, Evan Williams Cherry Reserve combines aged bourbon with "natural cherry flavor." The distiller can't legally call this bourbon, so you won't find that word anywhere on the bottle. But that's what it is, albeit with the addition of cherry and some other stuff as well, like caramel coloring. Presumably sugar, too, considering how sweet it is.
On the nose, it's all sweet cherries. Very nice if you like cherries — and I love them. So I enjoyed the aroma very much. The cherries come across strong in the taste as well, along with a little nutty bitterness and a modest alcohol kick. There's a hint of almonds, which made me think of Amaretto.
It's nice stuff. Sweet — you'll notice I keep mentioning that — but with a pleasing flavor. The cherry is more authentic than you usually find in spirits like this. It thankfully avoids that cough syrup taste that plagues a lot of the competitors.
This liqueur is 35% alcohol, making it almost as strong as standard spirits, which are generally 40%. So be careful. Even with the high alcohol content (for a liqueur), it still goes down pretty easily and could sneak up on you.
After drinking it on the rocks, which I liked, I tried Cherry Reserve with Diet Coke. That was too sweet and cloying, however. (It would probably be really bad with regular Coke.) So I tried out one of the recipes on the Evan Williams website to see how the spirit would taste in a cocktail.
1 1/2 oz Evan Williams Cherry Reserve 1/2 oz Dry White Rum 1/2 oz Triple Sec 2 oz Pineapple Juice 1 oz Orange Juice
Shake ingredients with ice. Strain into a Collins glass with ice.
A tasty, pseudo-Tiki cocktail. Sweet for sure, but I liked it. (If I were to make it again, I'd probably eliminate the OJ and replace it with 1/2 oz of Lime Juice to see if that balances it out a little better.) If you like fruity drinks, it's worth giving a try. Just don't have more than one, or the sugar will kill you.
Evan Williams Cherry Reserve is a spirit that will find most of its audience among younger drinkers, and others who enjoy things on the sweet side. It is not a sophisticated spirit, so those looking for complexity should look elsewhere.
It does, however, present a nice opportunity to introduce bourbon (in an "enhanced" form, of course) to those drinkers who aren't yet fans of whiskey's charms. I have not yet had the opportunity to taste Evan Williams' regular bourbon, but I look forward to doing so.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I have a bit of a sweet tooth. So when I picked up a bottle of Trader Vic's Macadamia Nut Liqueur, I was looking forward to sampling it right away.
Trader Vic, of course, was the nom de guerre of Victor Bergeron, founder of the Trader Vic's chain of restaurants and one of the pioneers of the Tiki craze. (I mentioned him in my essay on the Mai Tai.) Bergeron died in 1984, but his name lives on, branding both the restaurants and a variety of products.
The first thing you notice about this spirit is the bottle. It's a heavy glass decanter-style bottle with a sturdy stopper. A very nice presentation. I know that I'm going to keep the bottle once the contents are gone, even though I have no idea what I'm going to use it for.
Upon opening, the scent of toasted nuts is immediately apparent. It's a very pleasant aroma, like roasting chestnuts at Christmas time. I like this.
Taking a taste, it's exactly what I hoped for. Very smooth and buttery, with a prominent flavor of sweet nuts and a hint of vanilla. It has a silky texture that makes it go down very easily, despite an alcohol content of 26.5% (53 proof).
After enjoying it straight, I tried some on the rocks, mixed with a little rum and milk. It made for a very nice dessert drink. I don't drink coffee, but I can imagine a shot of this going very nicely in a cup of joe.
Some of the Trader Vic's brand products — specifically the mixers — aren't of the highest quality. It's hard to imagine Vic ever using them himself. But this liqueur is excellent and well deserving of the Trader Vic's name.
Obviously this is not going to be to everyone's taste. But it's an excellent version of what it sets out to be: sweet, nutty and delicious.
Pallini Limoncello Liqueur Final Grade: B+ Price: $26 (750ml)
Summer may be over, but who says that means you have to stop drinking summery drinks? Certainly not me. It could be the coldest day of winter and I'll still drink a well mixed Daiquiri or Gin and Tonic.
I realize this is a contrarian position, but cold drinks during the cold season put me in mind of warm summer days, lounging by the pool or enjoying the beach. (Granted, I don't actually do those things. But still.)
The classic summertime Italian liqueur is the Limoncello, a simple but delicious combination of grain alcohol (basically vodka), sugar and lemons. Sounds delicious, right? It is, assuming it's blended right. If not, it can taste like Lemonheads soaked in turpentine.
One of the brands that does it right is Pallini. This imported Limoncello is made from lemons grown on Italy's Amalfi coast. That right there makes me think of warm breezes, beautiful sunsets, and the smell of fresh citrus in the air.
It has a lovely bouquet of lemons — just smelling it puts you in mind of summertime, even if the weatherman says otherwise. The scent of lemons is one of my favorite aromas and the Pallini is wonderful.
Limoncello should be drunk very cold — either neat out of the freezer or on the rocks. The first sip is delicious. There's the taste of lemon candy, the sweetness combined with just the right amount of tart, and also a creamy sensation. It has a smooth, velvety mouthfeel that is quite pleasant. Unlike some limoncellos (limoncelli?), this one doesn't have that cloying sweetness that becomes unbearable after one sip.
There's no alcohol bite to Pallini Limoncello, but you can feel the warmth spread through your chest as you drink it. (This mild character is reflected in the relatively low alcohol volume; just 26%.) The flavor is strong, authentic lemon — the distillers have really done an excellent job of capturing the essence of the fruit in this liqueur.
I didn't try mixing it in any cocktails, although there are some recipes on the Pallini website. I'm sure there are some delicious combinations in which it could be used.
For now, though, I'm just enjoying it on its own. Given the sugar content, Pallini Limoncello isn't something you'd want to drink every day. But for those times when you're craving a little taste of summer, this is an excellent choice.