Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Clay Risen’s “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit”

Clay Risen’s new book, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, calls bourbon “the nation’s favorite spirit.” And although it may not be the most popular — based on sales, vodka is by far the champion — a fair case can be made that he is correct and it is indeed the “favorite.” Given the recent boom in whiskey production, consumption, attention, and obsession, no spirit is hotter in the United States today.

American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye provides a useful and interesting primer on what whiskey is and how it’s made. (For Professor Cocktail’s short-hand version, check out Bourbon 101.) It also recounts the history of whiskey in the United States in fairly comprehensive details, along with discussion on the contemporary state of bourbon and rye.

In short, it conveys everything that the beginning or intermediate level tippler would likely need to know about American whiskey. (For those looking for advanced level knowledge, Charles Cowdery’s Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey remains the gold standard.)

The above content consumes only about the first quarter of the book. But the rest of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is where things really get interesting. Risen catalogs the various producers of bourbon and rye, both major and minor, and provides tasting notes and ratings for their products.

More than 200 whiskeys are described and rated in this way, a Herculean effort that makes this guide invaluable.

Here is a sample listing, of one of my favorite whiskeys.

Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 18 Years Old
Age: 18 years old
Proof: 90

Nose: Corn, oak, butter, sourdough, leather, and red wine
Color: Russet
Body: Medium to full
Palate: Corn, oak, fresh bread, and dried fruit, lingering spice on finish

General: An excellent whiskey by all measures: smooth and richly flavorful it lives gloriously in the place where the perfect bourbon nose and taste converge. Though it’s out of production for the moment, chances are that demand will make Heaven Hill bring it back. Hurry up, please.

Price: $$$
Rating: ****

Risen has similar write-ups for all the whiskeys he discusses, providing comprehensive and opinionated notes for each. He doesn’t hesitate to say when he finds a whiskey to be sub-par — there are several that receive the score of “NR” for “no rating.” (Most of these are the so-called craft whiskeys, few of which impress Risen.)

Spirits guidebooks aren’t intended to be the final word on any particular brand or product. If you don’t disagree with at least some of an expert’s opinions, you might need to broaden your thinking a little. Instead, these books are road maps that help introduce readers to the breadth and depth of a spirit, giving suggestions for what you might drink and what you might avoid. They also provide guidance on what kinds of flavors to look for, and point the way towards a particular style of spirit you might enjoy best. On that score, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye succeeds admirably.

Note: The content of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is five-star, but I’m taking one star off its rating for the very small font the book was printed in. Books like this that are intended to be reference guides need print that is easy to read, for quick flipping through and scanning the text. Unfortunately, this volume lacks that and is consequently a challenge at times to read.

Categories
Reviews Rum Rum Reviews

Rum Review: Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum

Overproof spirits have been gaining in popularity over the past few years. Barrel-proof bourbons, Navy-strength gins, even 110-proof tequila are entering the market with regularity. But high octane rums have long been a staple on the liquor store shelves — with Bacardi 151 being the most notorious example — and are regularly drunk by the Caribbean locals.

Now Barbados-based Cockspur has entered the American market with their own version: Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum. How does it match up?

This rum is crystal clear, bottled straight off the still with no aging. Not surprisingly, it smells like ethanol — 130 proof is 65% alcohol — but not overpoweringly so. You can still smell a lot of sweetness, along with tropical fruits like bananas.

When you sip it, you notice right away that it’s strong, but you also notice that it’s full of flavor. Sweet with just a little spice, and lots of marshmallow and banana. Unlike some overproof spirits, Cockspur 130 doesn’t blow you away with its potency.

Whether or not you want to drink this straight depends on how sensitive you are to the fire of alcohol on your tongue. But you certainly can drink it that way if you want, and enjoy the taste a lot. It also has a great deal of potential in cocktails that I look forward to exploring further.

The most obvious competitor to Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum is Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum. They’re comparable in most ways, and while I haven’t tasted them head-to-head, I’m inclined to give the nod to Cockspur. A very nice, very strong rum.

Cockspur Overproof Rum Label

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey

Whiskey Review: Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky

Hakushu japanese whiskyHakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt
Japanese Whisky
Grade:four stars(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.

Categories
Rum Rum Reviews Spirits Reviews Taste Test

Taste Test: Spiced Rum

Spiced rum

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: two stars(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: four stars(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: two stars(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: two stars(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.

Bacardi Oakheart
Score: three stars(Recommended)
Price: $15 (750ml)

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: one star(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.

Categories
Gin Gin Reviews Spirits Reviews

Gin Review: Aviation Gin


Aviation ginAviation Gin

American Gin
Grade:four stars(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.

Categories
Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Blended Irish Whiskey

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.

Irish whiskey
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.
three stars(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.
four stars(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. 
two stars(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.
three stars(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.
four stars(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.
three stars(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.
four stars(Highly Recommended)

Categories
Wine Wine Reviews

Wine Wednesday: Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008


Pacific rim dry rieslingPacific 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.

Categories
Rum Rum Reviews Spirits Reviews

Rum Review: Shellback Silver Rum


Shellback silver rumShellback Caribbean Silver Rum

Bajan Rum
Grade: two stars(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.

Categories
Wine Wine Reviews

Wine Wednesday: Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome Brut Blanc de Blanc 2006

ChampagnePierre 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.

Categories
Uncategorized

Grading

 

Professor Cocktail’s Grading Scale

one starDisappointing: Not recommended

two starsAverage: Not recommended

three starsAbove Average: Recommended

four starsSuperb: Highly Recommended

five starsClassic: Highest Recommendation

 

Read some of the Professor’s thoughts on grading.