Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

For those of you landlubbers not in the know, today is International Talk Like a Pirate day. I've decided to take this day on in my own style by drinking like a Pirate. And what says "Pirate" like a good old bottle of rum?

I did some quick internet searching (Googled pirate, rum) and came up with just the right website specializing in rum reviews with a Pirate slant. It's ( and has some interesting reviews of a lot of rums. "A love of pirates is what this site is all about" reads the site's "about" page - 'nuff said.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the reviews, but I reviewed the rum selection vs. my current booty at home and came across a highly rated rum which I've selected for this post. It was the last line of the review which really got me:

"Share a bottle with your landsmen friends, and then bask in your own pirattitude as they find themselves well out of their depth."

..."pirattitude" - brilliant!

The rum, by the way is Barbancourt 15 year old from Haiti. A recent purchase, this gave me an opportunity to taste the rum and record some notes. Made from sugar cane juice and double-distilled using the Charentaise method, apparently used in cognac production according to the Barbancourt website. The rum is then aged in Limousin oak barrels and is predominantly marketed in an 8 year old and 15 year old version for rum buffs.

My tasting notes follow:

Color - medium-light amber
Nose - Strong alcohol. Underneath, some caramel, raisins. Very subtle acetone (fingernail polish remover) notes.
Taste - Peppery, strong alcohol. More raisins, caramel in the background.
Finish - Somewhat short, but spicy and spirity

This is a pretty spicy rum as the tasting notes on bilgemunky indicate, though I'm not entirely convinced of its merits. I do see some charms in the subtle caramel and raisin notes, but overall this is surprisingly rambunctious for a 15 year old.

Not the smooth, balanced dram I was expecting, but it just may be an appropriate quaff for a Pirate. And tharrrr's something to be said for that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tonic Water Taste Test

As a kid, I loved bitter and sour beverages. I can remember Sunday dinners at my parents' house - while my Dad and Grandpa had a "scotch and soda" (which to my Grandpa really meant scotch on the rocks) I would often be treated to a sour mix, OJ and grenadine drink. Tonic water was another treat that I would have occasionally. While many bristle at the thought of drinking tonic water straight, I actually rather enjoy the balance of citrus, sweetness and bitterness that can be found in a good bottle.

In the summer, a gin and tonic made with Beefeater gin (I prefer the crispness of Beefeater to the full-bodied character of Tanqueray) with a slice of lemon or lime (I vacillate between the two or sometimes even add a small squeeze of each) is a great thirst quencher and really sets the mood for a mid-late afternoon patio party.

For this post, I assembled a rather large group of tonic waters, ranging from my previous gold standard, Schweppes, to some pricey newcomers boasting artisanal ingredients and manufacturing methods, such as Fever Tree, Q tonic, Fentiman's and Stirrings. Below is a listing of the nine tonics selected.

1. Hansens
2. Schweppes
3. Whole Foods 365
4. Q Tonic
5. White Rock
6. Stirrings
7. Fentimans
8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
9. Fever Tree

Note: Canada Dry is intentionally absent. After much experimentation, I have determined that I have a strong preference Schweppes (domestic) to Canada Dry which has a sweet, cloying flavor and not enough bitterness. For that reason it didn't make it to the finals.

All tonics were packaged in small glass bottles except Hansen's and 365 which were served in a can. Schweppes (domestic) and White Rock had plastic screw-caps while all the other bottles had a classic crown-type bottle cap. Purists tend to like the small glass bottles and believe that they offer superior carbonation.

The tonics were tasted blind by Rob and me. Following are our tasting notes and scores. Where tonics were close in score, I attempted to differentiate by tasting back to back to confirm the ranking.

1. Hansen's
Matt - light citrus, not much bitterness, medium sweetness. Score - 88
Rob - Unctuous, full-bodied. Could be a little more carbonated. Medium bitterness, not very sweet. Score - 90

2. Schweppes
Matt - light flavors. Some bitterness. Sweeter than #1 but less flavorful. Score - 87
Rob - Not much on the opening taste, but then finishes with a bitter attack. Good carbonation. Score - 85

3. Whole Foods 365
Matt - Citrusy, sweet, not much bitterness, though. Nice flavors. Score 86
Rob - Sweeter with light bitterness. Not super flavorful, but pleasant. Score - 89

4. Q Tonic
Matt - Not much going on here - not sweet, some bitterness. Score - 85
Rob - Very little tonic flavor. Some astringent bitterness on the finish. Almost soda water. Score - 75

5. White Rock
Matt - Sweet with some bitterness. Not a lot of citrus, but a decent overall balance of flavors. Score - 89
Rob - Light opening with a pleasantly bitter finish. Score - 87

6. Stirrings
Matt - Light flavors, medium bitterness. Some soapiness. Light sweetness. Score - 86
Rob - Light. Not much flavor. Short finish. Score - 80

7. Fentiman's
Matt - Full-flavored, medium bitterness. Medium+ sweetness with a lot of pleasant citrus notes. Score - 90
Rob - Full-bodied. Definite citrus flavors. Finishes with bitterness. Complex. Could be a bit more carbonated. Score - 91

8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
Matt - Wow! Complex flavors, nice fizz, nice bitterness. Medium sweetness, good citrus and an almost herbal quality. Score - 94
Rob - Complex flavor with a mineral finish. Almost a mediciny, soda cracker-like flavor. Score - 89

9. Fever Tree
Matt - Lemon-lime soda, light bitterness. Simple, somewhat uninteresting. Some minor off-flavors. Score - 87
Rob - Simple but good tonic flavor. Won't get in the way of your gin. Score - 88

Final Rankings:

1. Schweppes Indian Tonic (94)
2. Fentiman's (90)
3. White Rock (89)
4. Hansen's (88)
5. Schweppes/Fever Tree (87, tie)
7. 365/Stirrings (86, tie)
9. Q Tonic (85)

1. Fentiman's (91)
2. Hansen's (90)
3. 365/Schweppes Indian Tonic (89, tie)
5. Fever Tree (88)
6. White Rock (87)
7. Schweppes (85)
8. Stirrings (80)
9. Q Tonic (75)

Conclusions: We both agreed that Fentiman's was an extremely fine product - Rob had it as his #1 and I had it at #2. It was the only product that scored in the 90's by both of us. At $3.50 for 125 ml, however I'm not sure how much of this I'll be buying in the future. The Lilliputian bottle is so cute though... Thanks to Rachel for picking this up at Galco's Soda Stop in LA.

The Schweppes Indian Tonic was a revelation for me. I loved the complex flavors and gave it extra points for character. Rob liked the complex flavors as well, but was somewhat put off by the mediciney finish. Unfortunately this product is mostly unavailable here in the US. Rarely seen in stores, I considered it a coup to find this at the Beverage Warehouse in Marina Del Rey. How long they will carry it is anyone's best guess. I may have to stock up.

Hansen's did surprisingly well. I usually do not care for it in a gin and tonic because it is not bitter enough. Which, by the way, brings up an interesting point with respect to this tasting; specifically, how will these tonics rate in a classic Gin & Tonic? To answer that, Rob and I have tentatively planned to conduct a comparison of our top picks of these tonics, mixed in a G&T, in the future.

White Rock was an interesting and tasty newcomer that turned out to be my #3 pick. Another rarity picked up at Beverage Warehouse.

Schweppes (domestic) was a disappointment to me. I have long respected its quinine bitterness as a superior ingredient to a proper G&T. In this tasting it did not shine. I will be very interested to compare it with some of the others when we try them mixed in a drink in the future.

365 was only o.k. to me. Rob liked it a bit more and had it tied for #3. It would definitely be worth trying for anyone near a Whole Foods.

Fever Tree had a mediocre showing despite my high hopes for it. It just didn't stand up to the more complex offerings and Rob and I agreed that it had a fairly simple lemon-soda flavor.

Stirrings was uninteresting and a general underperformer, and therefore would not be recommended due to its premium price.

Q Tonic was suprisingly flat in flavor. I found it lacking in character. Rob found it downright offensive. This was probably the second most expensive bottle in the tasting, so I will probably not be buying this in the future. That said, it is being heavily marketed and is probably worth a try for those wishing to try some of the exciting new tonics out there.

Final Notes: This was a long time coming and I had a really good time comparing flavors and ranking this broad range of tonics. I look forward to the "next phase" where we'll have the opportunity to rank these tonics based on their performance in a G&T.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tootin' Root's Horn

Blog friend Mikey sent me a note asking if I had heard of a new liqueur called Root. I hadn't, so I did a little research and discovered that it is an exciting liquid project from the folks at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I first heard about this company after receiving a cool T-shirt as a gift from Rachel and Jeremy, but did not fully appreciate how eclectic their product range was at the time.

According to the company: Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction firmly believes in empowering artists producing high quality work marked by fine craft and intellectual rigor. We do so by applying the fruits of such labors to the cultural forms of everyday life, granting those who wish to engage the opportunity to do so in his/her own environment. Rather than exist at a distance in the white cube of the gallery space, we weave our offerings into the collective surface of myriad personal contexts. In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital.

As far as Root is concerned, the company offers an interesting history of root-based beverages in the US. They don't really go into any detail as to who was the creative force behind the launch of this interesting new product which I, for one, would have found interesting.

The website as well as the bottle tag describe the history as follows:

In the 1700’s, it was called “Root Tea.” An herbal remedy made with sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch bark and other wild roots and herbs. Native Americans taught the recipe to colonial settlers. As it was passed it down from generation to generation, it grew in potency and complexity. Particularly in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, where the ingredients naturally grow in abundance.

At the close of the 19th century, as the Temperance movement conspired to take the fun out of everything, a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol from Root Tea and rechristened it (ironically) “Root Beer”. He did this so that hard drinking Pennsylvania coal miners and steelworkers could enjoy it in place of true alcoholic refreshment. He introduced his “Root Beer” in a big way at the still legendary 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The rest, as you know, is flaccid history.

Here at Art in the Age, we thought it would be interesting and fun to turn back the clock and recreate a true pre-temperance alcoholic Root Tea. We’ve even made it certified organic, since back then, everything was organic. This is the opposite of corporate culture. It’s a genuine experience rooted in history and our own landscape. It is a truly interesting and contemplative quaff. Certainly like nothing else we have ever tasted before. It is NOT Root Beer flavored vodka or a sickly sweet liqueur.

Root is packaged in an attractive bottle and includes a nice label on the back with an artist's rendition of the major consituents in the brew. See image, right.

In terms of flavors, it is definitely reminiscent of root beer - think of a craft brew like Virgil's, but not as sweet. It does have some sweetness, but it is not syrupy or cloying at all. Those who enjoy a good birch beer such as Boylan's will recognize the strong birch bark character. There is also wintergreen which forms another of the primary flavors. In the background and not individually distinguishable, are a bevy of spices such as allspice, nutmeg and anise.

I tried Root on its own, sipped from a shot glass for the first few experiences. It's good and this just may be my primary form of consumption in the future. On the other hand, a number of very creative Root-based cocktails are listed on the Art in the Age website. A few which caught my attention, whether sampled or not, are listed below:

Dr. Hadley's Root Restorative
0.5 oz. Demerara simple syrup
6 large mint leaves
1.25 oz. Lairds Bonded (100 proof) Applejack
1.0 oz. Root Liqueur
.5 oz. Benedictine
.5 oz. fresh lime juice
2 dashes Fee Brother’s Aztec Chocolate bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Garnish: Mint sprig Muddle mint in simple syrup. Add ice and other ingredients. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with a spanked mint sprig.
Created by Katie Loeb of Oyster House.

The Root cocktail competition winner, Dr. Hadley's Root Restorative sounds interesting and includes a lot of ingredients I like (Apple Bond, Benedictine, Demerara simple syrup) but I don't have the chocolate bitters (yet!) so I didn't make it and therefore cannot vouch for it. May be reason to order some bitters in the future though.

The Medicine Lodge Cocktail
1/2 oz. simple syrup (used turbinado)
1 1/2 oz. ROOT
2 oz.. Laird’s 71/2 Aged Apple Brandy (used 1.5 oz. Apple Bond)
1-2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
splash of ginger beer (used Bundaberg)

Stir ingredients and garnish with fresh ginger.
Created Christian Gaal of Noble American Cookery

This is pretty good. The ginger beer and Root is a nice combination. The Apple Bond is a little lost in this, though.

Dr. Root
2 oz ROOT
4 oz. Dr. Pepper (used Dublin Dr. Pepper with Imperial Cane sugar in a bottle)
A Splash of cream
Pour ROOT into a tall glass of chilled Dr. Pepper. Add a splash of cream & enjoy.

OK, I enjoyed... Definitely a dessert type of experience - creamy and rich.

Root 'n Ginger
2 oz ROOT
4 oz. ginger beer (used Bundaberg)
ginger slice (omitted)

Pour ROOT into a tall glass of chilled ginger beer. Garnish with sliced ginger.

This is GOOD. It delivers exactly what it says - it's Root and Ginger beer. No nonsense - nice combination.

Forbidden Root
3/4 oz. ROOT
3/4 oz. TRU vodka (used SKYY)
1 oz. fresh squeezed white grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/4 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
dash of Angostura

Shaken and strained into a cocktail glass.
Created by Nic Jarrett

This drink gets props for being a play on the obscure and now defunct liqueur, Forbidden Fruit, which came in a bottle similar to Chambord (from the same company) and was based on grapefruit - see image to the right. I can't say that I'm surprised to find this interesting. I really like the Root flavors next to the grapefruit and Maraschino. I ususally find Maraschino overpowering - but it works here at the level the recipe specifies. This cocktail does justice to its ingredients - each plays a distinct and pivotal role - the hallmark of a successful drink. Definitely worth a try.

To buy Root, which I'd recommend, you either need to live in Philadelphia where it is distributed locally or purchase online through Hi-Time. When Rachel called Hi-Time, they mentioned that there was a lot of interest in Root and was out of stock at that time. But we got on the list for a few bottles which we were fortunate to be able to get a few days later.

Final Notes: I'd definitely recommend Root to anyone looking to expand their liqueur horizons. Excellent on its own, it also makes for an interesting mixed drink - my favorites being the Root n' Ginger and Forbidden Root.