Category Archives: 5 Things I’ve Learned About…

5 things I’ve learned about…Liqueurs and Cordials

The October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine included my review column on Liqueurs and Cordials!  The issue is currently on the newsstand, or you can view the digital format (subscribers only).  Here’s what I learned:

1. This is one freaking huge category. In retrospect, I was foolish in flinging the door wide open. But since I’d already done a review column on orange liqueurs and another on coffee/tea liqueurs and still another on the pleasantly bitter/herbal liqueurs that fall within the Aperitif spirits category, I figured there couldn’t be all that much left to try.

Boy, was I wrong:  the grand total on my tasting shelf? 99 bottles of liqueurs on the wall (nope, not 100)!

2. In fact, there were so many, I had to divvy them into categories in order to attack them with some efficiency and meet my deadline. In the end, it was a useful exercise. I decided the basic liqueur categories included  Fruit & Floral (subcategory for limoncello); Whiskey-based; “Dessert-like” (subcategory for cream liqueurs); and Herbal. Of course, plenty more categories exist, but this system got me through.

3. What’s the difference between a liqueur and a cordial? Apparently, nothing. According to Gaz Regan’s “The Bartender’s Bible,” it’s a matter of geography:  “In America, a cordial, usually served as an after-dinner drink, is what the rest of the world calls a liqueur — a sweetened liquor.” I did notice that the sweeter, dessert-like bottles (chocolate, coffee, cream liqueurs) were slightly more likely to be labeled “cordials” compared to fruity or herbal counterparts.

4. Krauterliqueur. This category — apparently an old German name for herbal liqueurs, many of which date back to the 1800s, 1600s, even the 1500s– was new to me, and a delightful surprise. They seem like Germany’s answer to Italy’s amaro category. My favorites included the fruity-spiced digestif Killepitsch, the lightly herbal Schwartzhog, and the refreshingly berry-sweet/bitter mix of The Bitter Truth E*X*R.

5. Bright pink drinks. These were a less pleasant surprise:  the wide range of variations on “French vodka, blood orange liqueur, and passion fruit,” each marked with a similarly lurid neon pink hue and mildly racy name (Intrigue Pink; Kinky Liqueur; X-Rated Fusion Liqueur).  What I object to is not the liqueurs — the grapefruit-cocktail flavor was fine — but the sameness. If a dozen “Krauterliqueurs” can be so complex and diverse, so can bottled pink fruit drinks.

If you have a favorite liqueur, I’d love to hear about it! I invite you to comment below.

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4 things I’ve learned about…Reposado Tequila

Though I’m a little late with this one, the May 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine included my review column on Reposado Tequila!  If you missed the issue on the newsstand, you can still view the digital format (subscribers only).  Here’s what I learned:

1. “I don’t drink reposado.” Can I tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence? Not just from other cocktail enthusiasts, but also from bartenders and even from a tequila representative at a spirits conference. That last one in particular floored me. I fail to understand why reposado is falling through the cracks in the tequila floor. Sure, blanco is the least expensive, and therefore tends to be the default for Margaritas and other cocktails….but repo makes even better cocktails.

 2. Tequila makers are putting some amazingly beautiful bottles out there. (The stuff inside was pretty good too.)

3. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. The tequila category is HUGE. The 70+ tequilas that I reviewed last year weren’t eligible for re-review just yet. And yet…I STILL received over 30 repo tequila bottlings, almost all new to me.

4. I don’t quite know how to couch this last observation. This category seemed to yield the most…shall we say…homespun entries. Maybe I’ve just become too accustomed to dealing with PR reps and large spirits conglomerates. But it was eye-opening to receive an old-school box – not made out of cardboard and wrapped with packing tape—but fashioned from wood and secured with screws. Another box arrived that clearly had been re-used, as was the envelope inside with the former recipient’s name crossed off and mine scribbled on. There’s nothing wrong with this — but it was humbling reminder that tequila distilleries still include many small, family-run operations. And many of these yield wonderful tequilas. One of my favorites wasDon Roberto, one of the few 100% Mexican- and family-run tequila producers. Their 6-month-old repo seemed to burst with rich butterscotch flavors. ending with a lilt of fresh apples, pears, and light brush of black pepper.

Do you drink reposado? If you do, I’d love to hear about your favorite bottle, or your favorite cocktail made with repo tequila. And if not…I’d love to hear why not.  Since apparently, you’re not alone.

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Three things I’ve learned about…Non-London Dry Gin

Ready for Gin & Tonic season?  The April 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine will include (among other things) my review column on Non London Dry Style Gin!  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. New gins are coming to market in leaps and bounds. Long after I’d filed my review copy, I still continued to hear about new and intriguing gins, and eventually persuaded WE’s editors to run a story on “New Generation Gins.” Now…will we find enough drinkers to consume all of these gins? I’m skeptical, since the gin market runs far behind vodka, whiskey, and many other spirits in terms of market share. But its devotees are passionate, including the mixology community, so I’m hopeful.

2. Those damn botanicals again. As with other gin categories, botanicals (those natural “flavorings” like herbs and spices) figured into the mix. My favorite finding: Edinburgh Gin includes milk thistle among its botanicals. This is the same botanical that Elana Effrat, aka @theboozemuse, advised me to take before Tales of the Cocktail last year. As a hangover preventative! Nothing like having a hangover cure in your booze, is there?

3. There’s a fine line between gins considered “London Dry” and not. When I covered London Dry style gin last year, the first order of business was to figure out what the heck “London Dry style” meant. Essentially, it boiled down to juniper as the dominant botanical — and that was what differentiated it from the sweeter Old Tom style, the stronger-flavored Plymouth style, flavored/infused gins, aged “golden gins,” and Dutch genevers/jenevers.  

But really, where is the line of demarcation? A number of the Non London Dry gins still had a good dose of juniper, though overall they were more full-bodied, robust, and in some cases sweeter than traditional London Drys.

If you have a favorite gin (or gin cocktail!) I’d love to hear about it. Personally, I made a lot of Fitty-Fitty martinis (half gin, half dry vermouth…”50/50,” get it?) after the gin review sessions.

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5 things I’ve learned about…Irish Whiskey

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the March 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine will include (among other things) my review column on Irish Whiskey!  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. Compared to just about every other whiskey, Irish whiskies are lighter and smoother. In general, they don’t have intense peat, intense caramel from barrel aging, or deep dark colors (golden vs. amber). At their best, they have a gentle finesse. Many are honeyed (vs. burnt toffee flavors) or have floral or even light tropical fruit flavors.

2.  Irish whiskeys are building quite a fan base on American shores — the category racked up an astonishing 25% increase in U.S. sales between June 2010 and 2011, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Damn!! What other spirits category can claim that…beyond candy-flavored vodka?

3.  So what’s the appeal? Frankly, Irish whiskey is approachable and affordable, but still complex enough to be interesting.

4. But it appears that no one has told the Irish whiskey distillers that they’re hot stuff.  Scotch tends to be accompanied by reams of marketing materials and boastful claims on the back of the bottle; American whiskey is pretty macho in its claims too, and tends to have flashier packaging. Marketing materials and bottle labels for Irish whiskey don’t tell you much, and the bottles generally are plain. Attention PR and marketing pros!

5. Ironically, just as bartenders are rediscovering Irish whiskey, they’re finding that very few are used in classic cocktails. No worries, they’re happy to create new ones. The Redbreast 12-year is called for in a handful of new craft cocktail recipes, but Jameson seems to be called for most of all. This time of year in particular, look for the cheerful abomination known as “The Pickleback”:  a shot of the Jameson basic blend, served with a “back” of pickle juice.

If you have a favorite Irish whiskey or cocktail featuring Irish whiskey, please add a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Four things I’ve learned about…Orange Liqueurs

The February 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Orange Liqueurs.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. It’s the “Bartender’s Ketchup.” At least, that’s what one wise-acre bartender I know calls it.  In other words, it’s sweet, versatile, and gets dashed into everything to sweeten and round out drinks.

2. Orange liqueur sweetens roughly 1 in 4 drinks. That’s not an official statistic; that’s my estimate after leafing through I-don’t-know-how-many cocktail menus. In craft cocktail havens, it sweetens fewer, as bartenders diversify with simple syrup, agave nectar, fruit juices and other sweeteners. In sports bars or other less mixological joints, orange liqueur might be dashed into drinks more frequently.

3. I didn’t realize (but should have) that the base of these liqueurs can be anything – brandy, particularly Cognac, is most common, but I also tried tequila/agave and rum based orange liqueurs. It probably makes sense to complement, say, a tequila-based drink with a tequila-based orange liqueur.

4. Most orange liqueurs on the market are Curacaos. It turns out, Curacao is a generic term used when the bitter oranges are grown on the Caribbean island of Curacao. That family includes a number of brand names you’ve likely heard before:  triple sec and Cointreau, for example. The infamous blue curacao also is part of this family. (As an aside – I tried a new “dry curacao” from Ferrand, which I really dug.) 

PS – How do you pronounce it, anyhow?  CURE-a-sow. Though I’ve also heard some more pretentious types add a mysterious “l” on to the end to pronounce it more like “cure-a-cell.” Hmm. I have absolutely no idea where that “l” sound comes from.

If you know — or if you have a favorite orange liqueur or drink that features the Bartender’s Ketchup, I’d love to hear about it, please post a comment!

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Five things I’ve learned about…American Brandy

The December 31, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Brandy.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. American Brandy is an underappreciated, or at least under-publicized, category. A handful are every bit as good as French Cognacs – but the prices are much, much gentler. (I also just received a press release for an intriguing-sounding oak-aged Canadian brandy….could this be yet another nascent category? UPDATE 5/7/12:  Apparently, not a new category, at least not yet. Went back to the release – and it’s for an American brandy with a French-Canadian name.)

2. Many of these brandies are made from interesting wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Semillon. But not all brandies are grape – in particular, there are some amazing American apple brandies, such as Laird’s. And although I didn’t sample any for this review, the category also includes a number of good peach and other fruit brandies.

3. Unaged fruit brandy = eau-de-vie.

 4. Some brandies (such as those from Paul Masson) are produced in California, but are then transported to Kentucky, where they age in former Bourbon barrels. As a result, many have lovely Bourbon-like caramel and vanilla notes.

 5. It turns out that Americans have a long history of brandy innovation, dating all the way back to the original maverick:  George Washington. Though better known as a general and statesman, he also distilled his own rye whiskey and brandy. In fact, according to the Mt. Vernon Museum, the year Washington died, in 1799, his plantation account book shows he had 60 gallons of peach brandy and 67 gallons of apple brandy sent to his main house from the distillery.

Got a favorite American brandy, or brandy cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.

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Five things I’ve Learned About…Single-Malt Scotch

The December 15, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Single Malt Scotch.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. I now understand why people go bananas over the whiskey category, and Scotch in particular. It’s mind-blowing what can be accomplished with grain, water, and barrel wood…and nothing else.

2. This was the category that finally got me to spit during tastings. SO many of these are uber-aged, and have such high alcohol levels, that it became a necessity. It was a survival technique; otherwise I’d have been sozzled during every tasting session.

3. The scoring range was totally different from say, flavored vodkas — significantly more in the 90+ area, and very very few below 85. Although I think what I was sent generally was top of the line (in some cases I know it was), the takeaway is that there’s a surplus of excellence in the single-malt Scotch category.

4. I also had the opportunity to sample the most expensive spirit I’ve ever reviewed: $1300. It was a highly limited edition, but based purely on the blind tastings, much more reasonably-priced spirits were just as good or better. (sorry!)

5. The biggest surprise of all to me – I don’t hate peat!  It turns out, I just hate heavy-handed peat — that overpowering smokiness that I imagine must be like licking an ashtray.

Got a favorite single malt Scotch? I’d love to hear about it. Comment away…

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