Liqueur Reviews Liqueurs Spirits Reviews

Liqueur Review: Pallini Limoncello

Pallini LimoncelloPallini
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.

Report Card

Quality Grade: A-
Value Grade: B-
Final Grade: B+

Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Redemption Rye Whiskey

RedemptionryeRedemption Rye
Straight American Rye Whiskey
Final Grade: B+
Price: $27 (750ml)

Reviewed by Bob Montgomery 

No category of spirit has benefitted more from the cocktail revolution than rye. This whiskey, which formed the backbone of pre-Prohibition drinking, had become nearly extinct by the 1980s. Today rye is to be found in every bar worthy of the name, and no fewer than 40 different ryes are now being distilled in the US. It is almost indispensible in the Manhattan, my favorite cocktail.

Redemption Rye is a recent entrant in this growing market. Sporting a distinctive bottle and a generous 92 proof, Redemption is made from 95% premium rye and aged at least two years in new charred oak barrels. It's distilled in Indiana and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, where Redemption also produces a High-Rye Bourbon.

Two years is on the young end for any whiskey, although rye tends to be bottled younger than Scotch, for example. Some of that brash character is evident in Redemption, but there are also some signs of a developing maturity as well. It would be very interesting to see what would happen with a few more years in the barrel.

What we have today is still quite smooth, a bit sweet on the palate with some spice notes (think Christmas spices like ginger or clove.) As a sipping whiskey, it is a little hot at 92 proof and benefits from a splash of water or a few cubes of ice. I think its true potential is best realized as a mixing whiskey — it makes a fine Manhattan. At around $27 a bottle, it’s a very good value and well worth adding to your whiskey arsenal.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B+
Value Grade: B+
Final Grade: B+

Bob Montgomery is the older, occasionally wiser brother of the Professor. He's a gifted cook and an old hand when it comes to whiskeys.

Spirits Reviews Vodka Vodka Reviews

Vodka Review: Sobieski Vodka

Polish Vodka
Final Grade: A-
Price: $11 (750ml)

Reviewing vodka can be a challenging task. How does one praise a vodka? "This tastes even less than the last one I tried!" But while vodka is often described as being tasteless, odorless, colorless, etc. — rather like the perfect poison gas, now that I think about it — it's not true. To put the lie to this old saw, just place a glass of vodka next to a glass of water and see if you can't tell the difference.

Even beyond that, there are differences amongst different brands of vodka. The differences are not as profound as with other spirits, but they do exist. Vodka is a challenging spirit, though, even more so than with most of the liquor industry, because vodka is 75% marketing and hype. (Witness Grey Goose, a rather ordinary vodka that sells for $30 a bottle.)

So while it's easy to overpay for vodka, in essence making a charitable donation to the company's marketing budget, you don't want to underpay either. If you do, you'll end up with something like Popov that's better suited to stripping paint or polishing silverware than actual human consumption. What you're looking for is something in the middle, the sweet spot where drinkability and price are maximized.

That sweet spot is inhabited by Sobieski. There are others in the neighborhood that I've enjoyed as well. (Svedka and Burnett's come to mind.) But the best one I've found yet is Sobieski.

Sobieski is a Polish vodka distilled from rye. Nothing fancy or unusual, just a typical grain and a typical distillation process. The result is a smooth spirit that still has a nice bite to it.

Angus Winchester told me recently that, "We [Americans and Brits] don't drink vodka properly." He made the point that it's best consumed in the manner that the Russians do: very cold, neat, and in relatively small quantities at a time. (The Russians drink a lot, but they do so in small shots each time.) They also accompany their vodka with food, often lots of it.

So for this tasting I sampled Sobieski à la Russe. I put the bottle in the freezer for a couple hours to get it nice and cold, and poured myself a shot (about an ounce and a half in a tall shot glass).

The aroma is pure alcohol, understated and pleasant. It doesn't smell like something you'd use to clean out a cut.

The taste — well, it tastes like vodka. Like vodka's supposed to taste, I should say. Clean, slightly viscous, with a hint of grain. It has just enough burn going down to let you know you're drinking alcohol, but not enough to be unpleasant. The finish lingers on the tongue in a pleasant way. Simple, smooth and elegant.

As you'd expect, this vodka also works well in all the usual cocktails. I particularly like it with just a splash of cranberry juice. Again: simple.

Sobieski doesn't rank as highly for me as Stolichnaya – probably my favorite vodka — but it's loads better than Absolut. And much cheaper than both.

I'm always on the lookout for spirits that are inexpensive, yet demonstrate real quality. Sobieski definitely falls into that category.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B+
Value Grade: A
Final Grade: A-

Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Little Pink Book of Cocktails” by Madeline Teachett

A somewhat curious book to review today: The Little Pink Book of Cocktails, an oh-so-pretty-in-pink cocktail recipe book masquerading as a planner. I realize I'm not the intended audience for this book — presumably the publisher is going after a slightly more feminine demographic. However, I do like my share of "girlie" drinks, and the book is definitely cute, colorful and nicely designed.

But how are the recipes?

On that score, The Little Pink Book of Cocktails comes up short. Sorry to say, but this seems like a cocktail book put together by someone who doesn't know a whole lot about cocktails.

It's not that the recipes are bad. Well, some of them are bad. The Tom Collins recipe is to mix gin with Tom Collins mix. (Bleh.) The recipe for the Piña Colada calls for blending together rum and, you guessed it, Piña Colada mix. (Double bleh.)

Most of the recipes are okay, but there's an odd selection of them, with too many simple highballs thrown together with too many complex cocktails calling for unusual ingredients.

So we have pages devoted to the Screwdriver (vodka & OJ), Cape Cod (vodka & cranberry), Greyhound (vodka & grapefruit), Godmother (vodka & Amaretto), Vodka Gimlet (vodka & lime juice, which is not how you make a Gimlet), etc. And there aren't that many recipes in the book, so these simple variations take up a lot of the content.

Contrasting that are some very interesting recipes from noted bars like PDT, Death and Company and The Bourgeois Pig. I experimented with some of these and there are a couple of great recipes. They're almost enough to make the book worth recommending. (I especially like The Ramble, an elegant mixture of Plymouth Gin, lemon juice, and raspberry simple syrup.)

The problem is that most of the proprietary recipes call for ingredients (Sloe Gin, St. Germain Liqueur, Lillet Blanc, Chartreuse, Pear Eau-de-Vie) that most people don't have on hand. Even worse, some of them call for the home bartender to make her own infusions and spiced rum.

I could forgive all of those things. I could forgive calling Cachaça a rum. I could forgive instructing people to make a Martini with "2 drops" of vermouth. I could forgive the useless recipe for a Mai Tai that calls for using a type of rum that costs $50,000. I could even forgive the fact that her recipe for the Cosmopolitan stinks. (You'd think a book like this would at least get that one right.)

I could forgive everything, if only it weren't for the inclusion of recipes for drinks called "Blue Veiny Monster," "Panty Dropper," "Buttery Nipple #1," "Red-Headed Slut," and "Pink Vagina." For that, there is simply no forgiveness.

Rum Rum Reviews Spirits Reviews

Rum Review: Appleton Estate V/X Rum

AppletonAppleton Estate V/X
Jamaican Rum
Final Grade: B+
Price: $18 (750ml)

For my first spirits review I've chosen one of my old stand-by rums. The entry-level product from Appleton Estate, the V/X bottling is a full-bodied Jamaican rum, golden both in color and in taste. I've singled it out because it's one of the best mixing rums I've found, and also one of the most affordable.

Jamaican rums are distilled from molasses and are known for their dark, rich taste, with elements of caramel and spice. Two of the best known brands of Jamaican rum are Myer's and Coruba, but I prefer the various Appleton Estate bottlings.

Appleton Estate V/X is a blend of 15 different rums that have been aged in oak barrels (reportedly ones that were previously used to hold Jack Daniels whiskey). In this sense, it is similar to a blended Scotch, like Johnnie Walker.

The rum has a mild, sweet aroma with whiffs of brown sugar and vanilla. The brown sugar comes through in the flavor as well, along with a fairly strong alcohol bite. There's maybe a hint of orange in there, too.*

This isn't a rum you're probably going to want to sip. The alcohol is a little too hot for that. For drinking neat, you'd be better off with one of the more expensive Appleton rums, like the Extra (12 Year Old). It does, however, mix beautifully.

The V/X works very well in a Mai Tai, along with other classic cocktails such as a Rum and Coke (Cuba Libre) or Pina Colada. You probably don't want to use this in a Daiquiri because of the amber color. You might mix it in an El President, though.

Considering how reasonably priced Appleton Estate V/X is, this makes a solid choice as a go-to rum for most occasions. My liquor cabinet is never without it.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B
Value Grade: A
Final Grade: B+

*I'll let you know upfront that I don't have a very sophisticated palate when it comes to picking out individual flavors from the complicated taste of spirits. My goal with these reviews is to give more of an overall sense of the spirit, not to deconstruct it as some critics are able to do. I admire their ability — I just don't have it.

Book Reviews Drink Recipes Mixology

Book Review: “Cocktails, Cocktails & More Cocktails” by Kester Thompson

I love reading books filled with cocktail recipes. Some of them are fun because they're so bad — every other drink calls for sweet and sour or pina colada mix or some other vile bottled substance. But the good ones are good because they contain real recipes for delicious drinks that a person with a little knowledge and enthusiasm can make at home.

Cocktails, Cocktails & More Cocktails, I'm happy to say, falls into the latter category. Kester Thompson is a brand ambassador for an Israeli winery and a consultant to bars and restaurants. It's clear from the recipes and commentary in this book that he's a man who knows his stuff.

As the title would suggest, Cocktails, Cocktails & More Cocktails is composed mostly of recipes. There's a little bit about bar tools and technique, but not much. The book also isn't heavy on photographs, so if you want to see pictures of all the drinks, this isn't the book for you. (Note: the book does have some photos. But not of each drink.)

There are recipes for a hundred or so cocktails, including all the classics (Martini, Manhattan, Daiquiri), along with some nice Tiki drinks (Zombie, Planter's Punch), and even a handful of drinks using cachaça, which was nice to see. (I still haven't mixed up any cachaça drinks, but I'll get around to it one of these days.) He also has a solid recipe for the Mai Tai, a drink that most people butcher.

I didn't find anything that was new or exciting in this. But to be fair, I've read a lot of cocktail books. For those with less experience, there are plenty of good recipes contained in Cocktails, Cocktails & More Cocktails that you will enjoy making.

Here's one I whipped up last night:


Shake with ice:

2 oz Dark or Navy Rum
2 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Orange Juice
1 oz Coconut Cream

Strain into a collins glass filled with crushed ice. Sprinkle grated nutmeg on top. 

A solid recipe for a delicious drink. I did change it a little, upping the rum a touch and using two different types of rum in order to get a more complex flavor. I also added a little cinnamon on top along with the nutmeg. But as written, this is an excellent cocktail.

The main drawback to this book is its size and format. This isn't a book that you want sitting on your counter so you can flip through it and mix up a cocktail. It's too big and too nice for that. This is a book that sits on your shelf. So if you want to make one of the recipes, you're probably going to have to copy it down first.

Other than that, this is a useful, well made volume that deserves a place in your collection.

Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Cocktailian Chronicles: Life with the Professor” by Gary Regan

Gary Regan (aka Gaz) is one of the world's most acclaimed cocktail craftsmen. (I'd call him an artist, but he might be offended — he's a working bartender, after all, not given much to pretensions.) Through his books like The Joy of Mixology and The Bartenders Bible, Regan has educated scores of bartenders and cocktailians, both amateur and professional alike. 

The Cocktailian Chronicles: Life with the Professor is, despite its title, not a book about Gaz and I cohabitating. It is instead a collection of his columns that originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, supplemented with notes and afterthoughts. They are told from the point-of-view of "The Professor" (not me), a bartender at a cozy (fictional) tavern in San Francisco who bares a slight resemblance to Regan himself.

Each of the columns is organized around a specific cocktail (e.g., the Floridita Daiquiri, the Aviation) and tells a story or anecdote about the drink, featuring a cast of quirky characters drawn from Gaz's own life. The columns all end with a recipe for the drink, along with the author's "A Final Word at The End of the Bar," a behind-the-scenes note about the reality behind the column, and sometimes an updated recipe or two.

The Cocktailian Chronicles is a fun, witty read that also gives some useful advice about cocktails and spirits, along with some excellent recipes that you can try out yourself. (Or request on your next trip to the local saloon.) It's one of the most entertaining books I've read in quite a while.

There are few people in the world of cocktails as knowledgeable as Regan, and fewer still that can write with his panache. Here's hoping that The Professor returns for another go-around soon.

Note: The link above is to the Kindle version of the book. There is also a paperback edition available, although it's rather expensive. Even if you don't have a Kindle, you can download a free app that will allow you to read Kindle books on your computer, iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc.