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.
St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, which means many drinkers will be turning to Irish whiskey for their drink of choice. The Irish whiskey category is hotter than it's ever been, so there are more choices than ever before.
Here at Professor Cocktail we do the heavy lifting so that you don't have to. ("Heavy lifting" sounds better than "heavy drinking.") We sampled a variety of Irish whiskeys so that we could decide which to recommend to you.
For this taste, we focused on blended Irish whiskey. This is by far the most popular type of Irish whiskey available in the U.S., as well as the most widely available.
A blended whiskey is a combination of different whiskeys, including both single malt and neutral (or near-neutral) grain whiskey. Blending the whiskey gives it a lighter, less flavorful character that many drinkers find more pleasant. (It turns out that more flavor isn't always better.)
For our line-up we selected a variety of the most common blended Irish whiskeys, several submitted by the spirits companies themselves, and a few from our own stash. We also included one extra-aged whiskey for comparison. (All Irish whiskey is aged for at least three years — but often no longer than that.)
This group of whiskeys was defined more by their similarities than by their differences. As expected, all of them were fairly light in flavor and without a lot of complexity. The colors, tastes, and aromas didn't vary as widely as with many spirits. Even so, there were still some differences that allowed us to pick our favorites.
Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey ($24) — Straight-ahead blended Irish whiskey: a little sharp, a little sweet, with a malty flavor that reminds you of breakfast cereal. This is light and easy, and very drinkable. (Recommended)
Michael Collins Blended Irish Whiskey ($23) — The stand-out of the entry-level whiskeys. This spirit has a rich, honeyed flavor, with just a touch of smoke, that was very appealing. Vanilla notes contribute to the mild sweetness, but everything stays in balance. Overall, a very nice whiskey. (Highly Recommended)
Concannon Irish Whiskey ($25) — This whiskey, distilled by Cooley in Ireland, is aged in petite sirah casks at the Concannon Winery in Livermore, California. That gives it the expected "winey" notes, which aren't uncommon with Irish and Scotch whiskey. What was a surprise was the aroma and flavor of smoke. It was definitely the strongest char of the group, reminding us more of Scotch than the usual Irish. That could be an advantage for some drinkers, but the flavors didn't balance for us, making this one a disappointment. (Not Recommended)
Bushmills Blended Irish Whiskey ($24) — A raw, grainy flavor on first sip gives this whiskey plenty of bite. It mellows out after that, though, and ends up more astringent and spicier than most of the others. Reactions were mixed, but the floral/vegetal accents were popular with some. (Recommended)
Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($38) — The only whiskey in the tasting with an age statement, this is a blend of whiskeys from 12 to 15 years old. The extra time in the barrel gives this whiskey the darkest color or any in the sample. It also gives it the most complex flavor. Less sweet than the others, it has a tart, fruity taste with elements of caramel and spice. Although one taster found it bitter, overall this got high marks. (Highly Recommended)
Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey ($25) — The expected grainy, sweet character, but little else to distinguish it flavor-wise. This whiskey seemed hotter than the rest, and consequently seemed even lighter in taste. (You can taste the alcohol, but the malt flavor is overmatched.) I prefer Jameson in cocktails, but if you're searching for that Irish whiskey "kick," this is the way to go. If you're looking for a subtle sipper, look elsewhere. (Recommended)
Tullamore Dew Blended Irish Whiskey ($21) — A typical Irish whiskey, produced at an untypically fine level. Medium sweet, slightly honeyed, slightly malty. This made us think of breakfast: cereal and toast. An excellent everyday whiskey and a nice finish to the tasting. (Highly Recommended)
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008 Riesling Columbia Valley (Washington State) Price: $12 Highly recommended
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling is produced in Washington's Columbia Valley, a region growing in regard for its fine Rieslings. Ninety percent of the wine made by Pacific Rim is Riesling of one type or another, so it's no surprise they know what they're doing.
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008 is off-dry, even slightly tart, with prominent citrusy fruit and subtler floral flavors. It has a moderate level of alcohol (13.5%), so it's easy to drink a few glasses if you're having it with dinner. And you should, as it goes very well with food.
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling is aged in stainless steel tanks and never sees oak. That gives it a light, refreshing taste that will especially appeal to those who are looking to try a white wine, but aren't fans of Chardonnay. This is not an overly complicated wine, but it has enough flavor and crispness to please most crowds.
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.
Pierre Gimmonet is far from a household name in the Champagne business. But even though they don't get the headlines, they produce some of the best wines in the region. A great example is the Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome Brut Blanc de Blanc 2006.
A "Blanc de Blanc" Champagne is a white wine made from white grapes — in this case, Chardonnay. It's also billed as a "gastronome" Champagne, which basically means it's intended to be drunk with food. It has smaller bubbles and less added sugar, so as not to overly interfere with the palate.
We enjoyed this with a "surf and turf" meal of ribeye steaks and crab cakes. As promised, this wine was an excellent accompaniment to our dinner. It's fresh and lively, with a crisp flavor that cuts through your meal without overpowering it.
With delicious fruity flavors and a slight floral character, this is also a fine Champagne to drink on its own. I'd be happy to open a bottle of this any time.
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.