Labor Day has come and gone. The white linen pants have been put away until Memorial Day. The football season is kicking off in earnest. For kids, it's back-to-school time. And for a lot of us over-21s, it's back to the liquor store, to stock up on some liquid courage as the nights get longer, the temperatures get colder, and a long winter approaches.
But wait a minute, I hear you say as you trawl the aisles of your local emporium of booze. What's that clear stuff in the Remy Martin bottle? That violet liqueur looks pretty and purple, but what does it taste like? And why on earth is there a rum named after a porn star? To answer these questions and many others, I took on the task of sampling a great many of the new spirits that have been released over the last few months (and a couple that are about to hit the shelves), and writing about the more interesting and noteworthy brands. Hey, it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it. So now, without further ado, I bring you the "boozy newbies" for Fall 2011:
RON DE JEREMY RUM (Panama; aged 7 years, 40% alcohol by volume [ABV], $36). A rum named after a porn star is a great marketing idea. Such a great idea, in fact, that the rum in the bottle could easily be deemed secondary to the label bearing Ron Jeremy's visage on the bottle. Frat boys by the thousand would line up to buy it no matter what it tastes like, right? Thankfully, the folks who distilled and bottled Ron de Jeremy didn't agree. This is really a fantastic rum -- dry and elegant, with notes of green apple, vanilla, honey and butterscotch. It's, pardon the expression, well-endowed with flavor, very woody and spicy, which leads me to think of aged whiskey almost as much as rum. Mr. Jeremy suggests drinking his rum in cocktails like the Rona Colada and Ron & Coke, but I think it tastes best with a couple of drops of water or neat -- naked, if you will.
WILD TURKEY 81 (Kentucky; aged 6-8 years, 40.5% ABV, $20). Wild Turkey's latest creation, from associate distiller Eddie Russell, is a bourbon that's lower proof than its classic 101 brand (hence the name). It's intended to be used as a mixer and as a sort of "starter" whiskey for novices who might be bowled over by a higher-proof cocktail. In that context, 81 succeeds. Wild Turkey also claims that it retains the bold, spicy flavor of 101, which I simply don't taste. To my palate, it's a very mild, smooth bourbon, perfect for those who prefer lighter brands (think Basil Hayden).
DON JULIO 70 AñEJO CLARO TEQUILA (Jalisco, Mexico; aged 18 months, 40% ABV, $70). In the wake of the surprising popularity of "white dog" or clear, unaged bourbons, spirits makers everywhere are trying to come up with their own clear variations. For the 70th anniversary of Don Julio (whose "1942" brand is one of the best tequilas you can buy), they've come up with a tequila that's aged in wood for 18 months like an añejo, then filtered using a unique process so it's clear like a blanco, while somehow retaining flavor characteristics of both blanco and añejo, without tasting quite like either. Don Julio 70 takes a few sips to get used to, but it's worth the effort -- this is fascinating and delicious. Like a blanco, it starts off sweet and floral, with strong vanilla and agave notes. Like an añejo, it's dry, almost vegetal, with chocolate and toffee flavors coming to the fore, as well as hints of the wood in which it was aged. Definitely a must-try.
REMY MARTIN V (France; 40% ABV, $40). Also hopping on the clear spirits bandwagon is Remy Martin, with this new clear, unaged Cognac. But don't Cognacs have to be aged in wood for at least 2 1/2 years to be called Cognac? Damn straight. And that's why Remy Martin V is not actually a Cognac, but a "distilled grape spirit," as it says on the bottle -- think eau-de-vie, or a milder grappa. Taken neat, it's certainly less refined and more medicinal than an aged brandy, although it's pleasantly sweet and floral on the rocks. It's really intended to be used in mixed drinks as an alternative to vodka, and as such I have no complaints with it. Does Remy Martin V need to exist? Not really. Will it taste good when you're quaffing cocktails made with it at the club or a trendy party? Absolutely.
BRUGAL 1888 RUM (Dominican Republic; aged 5-14 years, 40% ABV, $50). For years, I've only known Brugal for two things -- its signature "fishnet" bottle and its Ron Añejo, which makes for a good, inexpensive mixer. Only recently did I discover that they also make a very fine sipping rum, the Extra Viejo. And now they've gone really upscale (for them, at least) with their limited edition (14,000 bottles) 1888 brand. The specially selected rums are twice distilled and then twice aged, first in new American white oak casks and then in European oak casks previously used for aging Sherry. 1888 makes a beautiful sipping rum, quite dry and woody with hints of wine and raisins from the Sherry casks, as well as notes of cinnamon and vanilla. If you think of rum in terms of Bacardi and Captain Morgan, think again -- this is as complex and refined a sipping spirit as a great whiskey. And at $50 a bottle, it's quite the bargain as well.
NOLET'S SILVER DRY GIN (Holland; 47.6% ABV, $50). Around the turn of the millennium, distillers started to figure out that the way to get more people to drink gin was to get it to taste, well, less like gin. Ever since then, we've gotten "New Western Dry" gins that moderate their juniper flavors with notes of lime, orange, cucumber, you name it. Introduced over the summer, Nolet's jumps into the "gin" fray with a taste that's more floral and fruity (raspberry in particular) and non-ginny than any gin I've tasted. Bartenders I've spoken with have wildly varying opinions of it -- some dislike its quasi-Turkish delight flavor, while others feel it opens new and exciting doors in gin mixology. Personally, I enjoy it. It may not be the first thing I reach for when I'm in the mood for a standard London Dry martini, but it's a worthy addition to the New Western Dry family.
GRAND MARNIER QUINTESSENCE (France; aged up to 60 years, 40% ABV, $800). There are plenty of superb orange liqueurs and triple secs out there, most of which are used in cocktails like margaritas. And then there's Grand Marnier. A blend of orange essence and aged Cognacs, it tastes and even looks different than virtually every orange liqueur I've ever tried. It may make a great margarita, but it's practically begging to be sipped slowly from a snifter. Now, Grand Marnier have upped the ante with Quintessence, a limited edition (2,000 bottles worldwide) expression using a blend of Cognacs dating back to 1906 (!), along with a unique double distillation of macerated oranges. Once the orange and the Cognacs have been blended, the liqueur is then aged in oak casks for a further 12 months. The result is like "regular" Grand Marnier, only more so -- all the flavors are bigger, rounder, fuller. The orange flavor is a little sweeter and deeper, and the Cognac provides a little more bite. It's also harder to separate individual components on the tongue, because the ingredients are blended together so harmoniously. Whether it's worth the hefty price tag is a matter of personal taste and finances, but as far as I'm concerned, there are many worse ways to blow $800.
THE BITTER TRUTH VIOLET LIQUEUR (Germany; 22% ABV, $30). This small Germany-based company has never put out a product I didn't like, and they've done plenty that I love. They started out making bitters and have since branched out into spirits and liqueurs as well. They've unleashed a few new items Stateside in the last couple of months, and my favorite of the bunch is their violet liqueur, also known as creme de violette. It really does taste the way you'd think a violet would taste if it was turned into a liqueur -- delicate, sweet but not too sweet, and impossibly smooth with just a hint of alcoholic tang on the finish. It's also one of those rare liqueurs that doesn't leave you feeling like you've ingested a ton of sugar. I like to use violet liqueur in cocktails like the Aviation and Moonlight Cocktail, but it's also stunning taken neat or with an ice cube. The Bitter Truth's new apricot liqueur is superb as well.
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