Everybody knows Scotland makes great whiskey. The distillers of Caledonia have been crafting exquisite spirits for generations, becoming the envy of the distilling world. But now my ancestral homeland is starting to earn a reputation for quality gin as well.
It makes sense. Making a good gin requires distilling knowhow, quality botanicals, and pure water — and Scotland certainly has all three of those.
The best known Scottish gin is Hendrick's. Infused with cucumber and rose petals, the unique flavor of Hendrick's Gin has made it one of the most popular of the new wave of gins that have hit the market in recent years.
Now a new Scottish import is starting to get attention. Caorunn (pronounced "ka-roon") Gin is made by Inver House Distillers at their Balmenach whisky distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland. It's infused with five Celtic botanicals — including rowan berry, which is called "caorunn" in Gaelic — and six traditional botanicals.
Caorunn has a definite aroma of juniper, just as you'd expect from a gin made in the London Dry style, which this is. But there's also an undercurrent of sweet fruit, along with a little brine. A very pleasant scent overall.
The taste is a bit of a surprise. There's not much juniper there at all. Instead the sweet fruit from the nose is redoubled on the palate. In addition to the rowan berry, the botanical mix includes heather and apple, and that's what I think is jumping out here. It also has a touch of brine and some citrus notes to balance out the sweetness.
Caorunn is a tasty and satisfying gin, with lots of crisp flavor. It meets the classification of a London Dry Gin, but it quite different from the standard Tanqueray and Beefeater. Because of its sweetness, I can see using it in cocktails that originally called for Old Tom Gin (like a Tom Collins) and also drinks that have an herbal character (like a Martini).
And yes, it makes a delicious Gin and Tonic (which the distiller recommends garnishing with a slice of apple).
Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky Grade:(Superb) Price: $60 (750ml)
Japanese whisky has been steadily growing in popularity in the United States, but I hadn't had the opportunity to try any until recently. After enjoying a glass of Hakushu 12 Year Old, it's clear to see why this whisky is winning so many fans.
Similar in style to Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky is distilled from malted barley, and is available in both single malt varieties and blends. (This is the former, meaning the contents were all made by a single distillery.)
Hakushu is Suntory's lesser-known distillery — Yamazaki is the one that is more familiar to most whisky drinkers. Located in the forests near Japan's Southern Alps, the Hakushu distillery makes what Suntory calls "the fresh Japanese whisky."
Like all Japanese whiskies, Hakushu is generally intended to be drank over ice or in Highballs. You certainly can drink it neat — that's how I tasted it — but the flavor is designed to stand-up to mixing and dilution.
As the Hakushu moniker promises, this whisky is fresh and crisp in aroma, slightly sweet, and with a hint of smoke. (Hakushu 12 Year Old is lightly peated.)
The flavor is light, bright and fruity, with just a touch of oak and sweetness. There are wisps of peat there, but they're fleeting. This whisky finishes a little spicy and fairly briefly. A very satisfying dram all around.
With this being my first experience with Japanese whisky, I don't have anything to compare it to. (Other than different styles of whiskey, of course.) But I can say this is a tasty whisky, very approachable, and definitely worth trying.
Buffalo Trace Distillery has long been one of the most aggressive whiskey outfits when it comes to experimenting with and producing new bourbons. Their latest is one that's already generating a great deal of interest: Stagg Jr.
A younger version of the highly sought-after George T. Stagg Bourbon, this new bottling is, like its Dad, barrel-proof, uncut and unfiltered; clearly a whiskey designed to appeal to the bourbon connoisseur.
The first batch of Stagg Jr. comes from barrels aged for eight or nine years. (The regular Stagg is aged for at least 15 years.) So it's not a young bourbon by any means. It's coming in at a whopping 134.4 proof (67.2% ABV).
The aroma of the Stagg, Jr. bursts out of the glass. Rich, candied fruit, with moderate ethanol fumes. You can tell it's going to be a strong one.
Taking a few sips, I immediately tasted a burst of caramel sweetness, followed by a delicious grain flavor, and finally closing with a lingering spicy finish. It has quite a kick, but it's a welcome one. This is definitely a hot spirit, but not an overpowering one.
A splash of water brought out even more of the unctuous, almost honeyed sweetness. Stagg is made from Buffalo Trace's "Mash Bill #1," which is their low-rye version, containing a higher percentage of corn. Even so, you can taste the rye influence. There are some pumpkin pie spice hints of cinnamon and clove that help balance out the sweetness.
Interestingly enough, just a little more water overpowered the spirit. You'd think that a bourbon this strong could handle a lot of dilution, but I found that the flavor started to drown very quickly. So add water with a very strict hand.
I have not had the pleasure of tasting the original George T. Stagg, nor many of the other highly acclaimed bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle. But I am quite confident when I say that this is the best bourbon I've ever tasted.
Expect this whiskey to be almost impossible to find. Once it hits the shelves, people are going to swarm on it like locusts. Stagg Jr. will be available in select markets beginning in August of this year — but not for long.
Spiced rum is a category of spirits that often gets no respect. And for good reason, too: it's usually pretty gross. But there are times when spiced rum can be useful. Mixing up a punch or grog, for example, or giving a little extra zing to a Rum and Coke. What should you do in those cases?
We sampled six popular spiced rums to find which ones you can safely use, and which you should avoid. Here are the results.
Coruba Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
Jamaican rums are probably my favorite overall, so I was looking forward to this one. Sadly, it didn't match up to the quality and taste of Coruba's dark rum. It has the typical spiced rum flavor profile of vanilla, cinnamon and caramel. But that's about it. This isn't a bad rum, but it's slightly harsh and much lighter than regular Coruba. Nothing much to recommend it.
Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum Score: (Highly Recommended) Price: $17 (750ml)
This is by far the highest octane rum in the bunch, clocking in at a whopping 92 proof. You can smell the ethanol when you lift the glass to your mouth. This stuff doesn't mess around. It's also very strong tasting — this isn't a subtle spirit. But the flavor works very well. Lots of cherry and vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, maybe even a little almonds in there. It has just the right amount of sweetness, giving it a nice balance. My favorite of the bunch.
Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $20 (750ml)
The ubiquitous privateer Captain Morgan makes a foray into the finished rum category with this new offering, which rests in Sherry casks after aging. It starts out well, with a sweet and fruity aroma that's appealing. The taste is also sweet and fruity, and the Sherry flavor is there — but so is a chemically aftertaste. I could have recommended this as a sweeter spiced rum if not for that odd, off-putting note.
Shellback Caribbean Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
I had good things to say about Shellbacks Silver Rum when I reviewed it a while back. Unfortunately, their spiced rum doesn't earn the same praise. It has the same overpowering aroma of vanilla extract — which is not a deal breaker; this is spiced rum, after all — and the vanilla continues onto the palate. But that's all there was. Lots of sweet, artificial vanilla, with little other spice.
I'm not usually a fan of Bacardi's offerings — their mainstay rums are just too flavorless to be of any interest — but their spiced rum brings something nice to the table. Oakheart has a rich, fruity smell — lots of plum and vanilla. The taste is pleasantly spiced (cinnamon) and fruity, with some caramel-like sweetness. There's a little bit of oak, but not as much as the name would imply. A solid spiced rum and one of the two best overall.
Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
I love Cruzan rums in general, but this was a bomb. It reeks of brine and medicine, and the taste is the same. An overload of spice with salt and pepper, allspice and juniper assaulting the senses. It ends up all running together and tasting pungent. A spiced rum shouldn't be sweet, necessarily, but it should have some sweetness. This was too dry. A disappointment.
The Bottom Line:
Sailor Jerry and Bacardi Oakheart were the best spiced rums of this batch. Both are recommended, but Sailor Jerry is better, and its higher proof means it will stand up in cocktails especially well.
Aviation Gin American Gin Grade:(Superb) Price: $28 (750ml)
First launched in 2006 as one of the pioneers of the new trend in American gins, Aviation has been repackaged with a striking new look that classes up the bottle to match the contents.
Aviation tastes like gin, but not the gin we're used to. It has the requisite juniper flavor, but it's much more subtle than in London dry gin. (That makes this a nice alternative for those who find gin too piney.) It has pronounced notes of citrus and spice, and an almost briny character that would probably go great in a Martini.
Aviation is softer than most gins. A little more inviting. It's designed to be used in cocktails, especially those from the pre-Prohibition era. But you can certainly drink it straight if you want to, and won't be disappointed.
I didn't make a Martini (or an Aviation, this gin's namesake cocktail), but I did mix it in a Gin and Tonic. I was concerned that the less assertive character of this spirit would get lost in the mix. But no fear. It balanced quite nicely, making for a tasty, refreshing cocktail that is dangerously easy to drink.
Aviation Gin is 84-proof, but never harsh. It's a different style of gin than the norm, but that's a good thing. Tasty alternatives are always welcome, and Aviation Gin matches up quite nicely on that score.
Shellback Caribbean Silver Rum Bajan Rum Grade: (Average) Price: $16 (750ml)
Shellback Caribbean Rum, currently available in silver and spiced varieties, represents another bold move into the spirits world by E.&J. Gallo, the ubiquitous California winemakers. It’s produced in Barbados by the West Indies Rum Distillery, the company that also make the rum that goes into Cockspur and Malibu.
Shellback Silver Rum is reportedly aged for at least one year in once-used American bourbon barrels, which are the most popular barrels for aging rum. It must be heavily filtered after that aging, because it’s completely clear in appearance. There’s a little bit of spice on the nose, but mostly vanilla. Lots and lots of vanilla. You could easily mistake this for vanilla extract. (This could be from the aging, although a year in wood isn’t very long, but more likely it means the distiller gave it a little help.)
The vanilla also hits you on the first sip. It’s not as strong as the aroma, but it’s definitely there. This rum is sweet, with a fruity, molasses-y flavor. There’s just a little spice and acidity that hits you at the end, but mostly it’s sweet vanilla. It also has an appealing creamy texture. This is the standard 40% ABV, but it goes down very easily.
Shellback Silver Rum is acceptable to drink neat, but it’s obviously designed to use in cocktails, and it works well there. It’s good in a Cherry Daiquiri or Cuba Libre. Any rum drink that works well with a hint of vanilla would likely taste good with Shellback.
This isn’t an especially sophisticated rum. But it’s a useful one, and the low price — I’ve seen it on sale for $11 — can’t be beat.
John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey Grade: (Above Average) Price: $50 (750ml)
I've been a resident of the Old Dominion for the past ten years, so I have a particular interest in Virginia spirits. This is especially true when it comes to the products made by A. Smith Bowman, since I lived just a few miles from the site of their old distillery for a big chunk of that decade.
The Bowman distillery was founded shortly after the end of Prohibition in a part of Northern Virginia that at the time was still very rural. Despite being less than twenty miles from Washington, DC, the area consisted mostly of farms and forestland.
Abraham Bowman and his sons began making whiskey there in 1934, and the company continued doing so for over fifty years, most of it sold under the Virginia Gentleman label. Although it is commonly believed that bourbon must be made in the state of Kentucky, this is not true. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. In fact, when settlers first started making bourbon in Kentucky, it was still part of Virginia.
As Northern Virginia became increasingly developed, and property taxes climbed, the Bowman distillery had to move sixty miles south to Fredericksburg. Eventually it was sold to the Sazerac company, owners of Buffalo Trace and many other brands of fine whiskey.
John J. Bowman bourbon is triple-distilled — the first two times at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky and the last time in a copper pot still at Bowman. It is then aged in barrels in the Bowman rickhouse in Fredericksburg. The climate of Northern Virginia is similar to that of Kentucky, but more variable, which has an effect on the aging of the whiskey. (Although I couldn't tell you what that is.)
This bourbon has a sweet, lively aroma of caramel and chocolate. The taste is dry and bold, more spicy than sweet. It's moderately hot at 100 proof, but not unpleasantly so. John J. Bowman has lots of flavor and a kick that will warm you down to your cockles. The finish is long and oaky with hints of vanilla. The bottle doesn't have an age statement, but it definitely has some years on it, probably north of ten.
I tend to prefer my whiskey a little less dry, but this is a very interesting spirit. It has a big, bourbon taste that I think a lot of whiskey drinkers are going to love, along with elements that remind me of aged Barbados rum like Mount Gay Extra Old. It's great to see the tradition of fine Virginia bourbon continuing, over two centuries after the colonists first began making it.
When I started Professor Cocktail it seemed natural to assign letter grades when reviewing spirits. It just makes sense: the professor gives grades. But as I've written a bunch of reviews over the past year, I've grown to question the usefulness of a grading scale for booze that mirrors the familiar classroom model. I've asked myself more and more about the differences between a B and a B- spirit, and how they differ from a C+.
Are these differences discernible and meaningful? And, even more importantly, are they useful? Do they give the reader valuable information? I'm not so sure — and if they're not aiding the consumer, what's the point of doing it?
When I write book reviews, something I've done professionally for almost a decade now, I don't assign letter grades or give scores. I just write the review and allow the critique to stand for itself. I don't think it's ever unclear what I think of the book, because the review tells you.
Spirits are a little different, however, because we have to use words to convey flavors and aromas. We're trying to give the reader some guidance on what to expect from a spirit in terms of taste, etc., which is more nebulous than what they can expect from a book or film.
Because of this, I think it makes sense to assign some type of score along with the verbal review for spirits. But I also think it makes sense to use a more streamlined grading scale than what we have been. I think most consumers look to spirits reviews for two kinds of guidance: what to expect, and whether or not they should buy it. A grade can help make the picture clearer.
Out of all the scoring systems I've seen, I like the one used by F. Paul Pacult the best. He awards stars ranging from one to five with no fractional increments. How many stars the spirit receives indicates both its relative quality, and whether or not he recommends it. I like both the simplicity and the utility of this method. So I'm stealing it.
Here is the grading scale that we'll be using from this point on:
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.
We conducted the second round of our bourbon taste test last weekend. The whiskeys this time all had a suggested retail price of between $25 and $50. (Our first Bourbon Taste Test featured bourbons under $25.) As was the case last time, some of the samples were provided by the distilleries and some were from my own cabinet.
The whiskeys were all tasted blind, so the participants didn't know which bourbon they were drinking. (I poured the glasses, so I had a vague idea of which order a couple of them were in, but I was very close to unaware.)
We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 120. The prices ranged from $29 to $40. The whiskeys were all drunk neat. With the exception of one, all of them were better than average, and the overall quality was higher than in the first tasting.
You can see the line-up in the photo below.
The bourbons were split into two groups of four, with a short break in between the two groups. Each whiskey was tasted in a 1/2 ounce serving, and then notes were made. We discussed each of the bourbons as we drank, and then discussed them all together once we were finished.
Here they are in the order tasted, with the grades we gave them and selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.
Basil Hayden's 8 Year-Old Price: $37 80 Proof Final Grade: B- The "sweet smell of vanilla" and toffee isn't matched by the flavor, which is "oaky" and rather plain. Starts off "sharp," but "fades quickly." It has some complexity and some spicy notes, but more would have been welcome. A decent bourbon, but nobody's favorite.
Jefferson's 8 Year-Old Very Small Batch Price: $30 83 Proof Final Grade: B- A faint "slightly fruity" aroma leads to a smooth taste that "uncurls in your mouth." The flavor ends up woody and oily, more reminiscent of Scotch than bourbon. Better than average, but a little too one-note.
Four Roses Small Batch Price: $29 90 Proof Final Grade: C A strong, "antiseptic" smell is followed by a dry, "bitter" flavor. More wood taste than anyone on the panel cared for. Complex and "assertive," but too rancio-like for our tastes. [This was a disappointment, as I've drunk this bourbon in cocktails before and enjoyed it. I suppose it's possible we got a bad bottle this time.]
Eagle Rare 10-Year Old Single Barrel Price: $30 90 Proof Final Grade: A- Now we're talking! A delicious aroma of toffee leads to a sweet and spicy flavor. It's "nutty" and "warm" with a sensuous finish. A near-perfect balance of sweet and spice. This was the stand-out of the first round of four. A delicious bourbon. I could drink this every day.
Elijah Craig 18-Year Old Single Barrel Price: $36 90 Proof Final Grade: A Wow! Eighteen years in the barrel have worked magic on this whiskey. It begins with a fruity, spicy smell and then gets even better on the tongue. The flavor is a mix of sweet caramel and vanilla, with enough oak — but not too much — to give it complexity. It closes with a finish that is warm and succulent. This bourbon is so good it's practically decadent.
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Price: $33 90.4 Proof Final Grade: B+ Opens up to a gorgeous, sweet, "fruity" aroma — this is a wonderful smelling bourbon. The taste is "oaky" and "nutty," well rounded and dry rather than sweet. It starts off smooth, but then kicks in with a long, spicy finish. A very interesting bourbon. Definitely worth exploring further.
Baker's 7 Year-Old Price: $37 107 Proof Final Grade: B+ "Earthy" and "nutty" (peanut brittle and toffee?) on the nose. The taste is likewise nutty and spicy, with enough heat to make you wake up and pay attention. There's some vanilla sweetness in there, but mostly dry overall. A complex, distinctive bourbon that demands to be sampled again.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Price: $40 120 Proof Final Grade: B Whoa! This is powerful stuff. A sweet, "candied" smell paves the way for a sweet and "bold" taste. (Did I mention this is strong?) It "dances around your mouth" with flavors of grain and fruit, and has a robust, spicy finish. [Editor's note: If I were to taste this again, I would dilute it so that more of the flavor would be revealed. I think it would score higher than.]
The Four Roses Small Batch didn't find favor with the panel, but all of the rest of the bourbons were greeted with open arms. The two that ranked the highest — Elijah Craig 18 Year-Old and Eagle Rare 10 Year-Old — were superb. But the bourbons that scored just under those were likewise outstanding.
This collection of whiskeys shows more than anything else how skilled and sophisticated the experts at the country's major bourbon distilleries are. Their mastery of crafting fine spirits is nothing short of outstanding. Bravo!