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.

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)

Spirits Reviews Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Bourbons from $25 to $50

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!

Spirits Reviews Tequila Tequila/Mezcal Reviews

Tequila Review: Z Tequila (Blanco, Reposado and Añejo)

TequillaI first became aware of Z Tequila when they won two Double Gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year — an impressive feat for a small distillery with very limited distribution (currently only in Texas and California). This was a tequila I had to find out more about.

Z Tequila is produced in the lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico under the direction of Master Distiller Pepe Zevada, a veteran of the spirits business for four decades.

In the past, Zevada developed and nurtured brands for several of the big companies, including introducing Tequila Espolon to the American market. When he was offered the opportunity to create his own craft tequila, he jumped at the chance.

All three tequilas are made from seven to nine year-old Blue Agave plants — older than the norm — and are bottled at 80 proof. The Reposado and Añejo are both aged in Canadian white oak barrels rather than the more typical ex-bourbon barrels. Zevada is trying some unique things with his tequilas, a refreshing alternative to the mass-market brands.

Z Blanco Tequila ($30) – I started with the crystal clear silver tequila, a spirit bottled straight from the still. A lively, vegetal smell is followed by a burst of flavor and heat on the tongue. This blanco has a lot of rich, tequila taste, but not a lot of subtlety. It was a little too much for me to enjoy on its own, but it was smoother with a little dilution, and mixed up very nicely in a Margarita. (Some people say you shouldn't make cocktails with tequila like this. To them, I say: it was delicious!) Final Grade: B

Z Reposado Tequila ($33) – The Reposado has a more welcoming presence. The color of light straw, this expression spends at least nine months resting in barrels. The aging has smoothed out some of the rougher edges, lending it a crisp, woody and dry taste. It has the floral aroma of agave, with a nice, spicy presence on the palate. A fine sipping tequila. Final Grade: B+

Z Añejo Tequila ($35) – The Añejo was my favorite of all. A lovely golden hue, this tequila is aged for nearly two years in oak, and it's all the better for it. All of the harshness that I found in the blanco is gone. Simultaneously more flavorful and yet subtler as well, the Añejo demonstrates the mastery of Zevada. It has a lovely balance between spicy and sweet, and a finish that keeps you thinking of this tequila for a long time. Very well done. Final Grade: A

My only complaint with these tequilas is a small one. I found the bottle tops to be annoying. They look like wood stoppers, but are really just decorated screw caps. The Anejo top broke off in my hand when I opened it, and the Reposado has a frustrating pour restrictor on it, causing the spirit to dribble into the glass. Not a big deal, but such fine tequilas deserve better.

Spirits Reviews Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Bourbons Under $25

We had three friends over last weekend to taste some bourbons. For this first group, the theme was "bourbons under $25." A few of the bottles were submitted by the distilleries, and the rest were from my own cabinet.

We conducted the tasting 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 they were in, but I wasn't sure exactly which was which when we were tasting them.)

The results were surprising in some cases, and expected in others. All of the bourbons were judged to be at least okay — even the lowest scoring spirits were still okay.

We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 100. The prices ranged from $12 to $25, although most of them can be had for less if you shop around. 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, along with selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.

McAfee's Benchmark Old No. 8
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B+
A pleasing vanilla aroma, followed by the taste of caramel. "Medium smooth" and "not sweet." "Middle of the road," but with a nice flavor. A very solid bourbon.

Zackariah Harris
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Slightly "bitter" and "oaky," but otherwise not a lot of flavor. A very brief finish. With slight dilution it all but disappeared.

Four Roses Yellow Label
Price: $18
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Divergent scores, but some found it "harsh" and without a lot of flavor. Everyone thought it smelled of vanilla, but no one could taste it. A long finish, but "not complex."

Wild Turkey 81
Price: $20
81 Proof
Final Grade: B
"Tangy" and "sour" and even "tastes like apple." Spicy and fruity with a medium finish, this was well-liked by most.

Maker's Mark
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: A-
"Complex" and with a "lot of flavor," this was the highest-scoring bourbon of the night. Several of us noted how the flavor "blossomed" on the tongue, "full of corn," with a long, enjoyable finish. Ranked #1 by three tasters, and #2 by the other.

Buffalo Trace
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: B
Sweet on the nose, but spicy on the palate. "Smooth" yet "bold," this was a crowd pleaser, but not a standout for anyone. The brief, spicy finish was noted by almost everyone.

Elijah Craig 12 Year
Price: $21
94 Proof
Final Grade: B-
A surprise last-place finish for a bourbon I've enjoyed on many occasions. A "sweet aroma" of toffee was followed by a "harsh bite" on the tongue. Warm and spicy, this one didn't earn much praise from anyone.

Old Forester Signature
Price: $20
100 Proof
Final Grade: B+
"Spicy," "fruity" flavors of corn, peach and oak combined with a smooth taste and a medium-long finish to make this one a popular choice. The strongest whiskey and the last of the night, it was our second favorite overall.

The most surprising result was Maker's Mark, which was the clear favorite of the night. A lot of people expect Maker's to be uncomplicated and even boring, but nobody felt that way. Maybe it was the extended time to open up, maybe it was that it was different from everything else — or maybe it's just damn good bourbon.

The best value choice was definitely Benchmark Old No. 8. I'd never even heard of this bourbon before, but it impressed everyone. Any bourbon you can buy on sale for under $10 that tastes this good gets the Professor Cocktail Seal of Approval.

Stay tuned for our next whiskey taste test: bourbons from $25 to $50. That should be coming next month.

Drink Recipes Spirits Reviews Taste Test Tequila Tequila/Mezcal Reviews

Taste Test: Silver Tequilas

Last weekend we had family visiting from California, which could only mean one thing: I was mixing up cocktails. We were making Mexican food for dinner, so we decided to spice it up a little by having a tequila tasting to kick things off.

I brought out five varieties of silver (or blanco) tequilas to taste. We started off by sipping all of them neat to compare the flavors, and then we tried them in Margaritas. The shots of tequila were accompanied by shots of Sangrita, a Mexican aperitif that is traditionally served along with tequila. (It's kind of like a tangy Bloody Mary mix.)

Here are the brands we tried:

TequilaFrom left to right:

Milagro Silver
Price: $25 (750ml)

Avión Silver
Price: $40 (750ml)

Corazón Blanco
Price: $30 (750ml)

Familia Camarena Silver
Price: $20 (750ml)

Cazadores Blanco
Price: $27 (750ml)

All five of these tequilas are made from 100% Blue Agave, and all of them are the unaged expressions from their distillers. They each come in at 40% abv (80 proof).

As a general rule, silver/blanco tequilas are usually used for mixing, while the aged varieties (reposado and añejo) are saved for sipping. However, only by tasting it straight can you enjoy the pure flavor of the tequila, and a few of these made very respectable sippers.

Here are the results, compiled from the reactions that the three of us had. The grades are based on the flavor/quality of the tequila, without regard to price.

Milagro Silver (Final Grade: B)

A solid, herbal aroma of agave. Very zesty flavor, but slightly bitter and citrusy. Came in on the hotter side of the "smooth" scale — it had more of a burn than some of the tequilas we tasted. Not as balanced. Made a delicious Margrita.

Avión Silver (Final Grade: A)

A wonderful grassy aroma. Pure agave on the tongue; spicy, floral and bursting in flavor. Very smooth and balanced. Easily the best of the night. I didn't mix this one in a Margarita — I wanted to save it to enjoy neat.

Corazón Blanco (Final Grade: B+)

Another tequila with a plesant, vegetal smell of agave that carried over into the flavor, along with hints of fruit. This one was a little sweeter than the other tequilas, with a moderate, welcome heat on the finish. A very nice flavor overall. I didn't mix this one in a cocktail, but I'm confident it would work quite well.

Familia Camarena Silver (Final Grade: B-)

Good agave aroma and a peppery flavor, but not as smooth as the others. This one definitely had the most heat of the brands we tasted. This tequila was solid all around, but didn't leap out as a sipper. It did make an excellent Margarita, however, so use this one for mixing.

Cazadores Blanco (Final Grade: B)

The strongest aroma of the five tequilas — it was almost pungent on the nose — but the lightest flavor. Very smooth, with the only heat coming on the brief finish. Certainly not bad, but not much point in sipping it. Clearly designed for mixing, and it made delicious Margaritas.

Final Thoughts

The Avión Silver was easily the winner of the taste test — it stood out from the pack with its delicious taste and smooth character. It's the one I would go to first for a sipping tequila. It was also the most expensive, so this is an example of getting what you pay for.

I wouldn't hesitate to use any of these five tequilas in a cocktail. All of them have the agave flavor that you want from a tequila and are very mixable. At its price point – I've seen it on sale for around $16 – the Camarena Silver would be hard to beat. I would recommend the Cazadores Blanco to those drinkers who aren't "tequila fans" and are looking for something lighter in their drinks.

Here's my Margarita recipe, so you can try some of your own:


1 1/2 oz Tequila
1 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz Lime Juice

Shake with ice, then strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.

Make sure you use a good quality Triple Sec. Cointreau is the gold standard, although I used Patrón Citrónge this time around and it worked very well.