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Hank Birdwell’s Vodka

Hank Birdwell's Vodka

In my unending quest to be both a booze snob and a cheapskate I can never resist trying a new, reasonably priced vodka. With craft distilleries popping up every week it is hard to resist the fantasy of discovering a new product that is half the price and twice the quality of the big names. Of course this is usually a fool’s errand. It is true that with names like Grey Goose or Crystal Head you are paying a considerable amount for advertising and the perceived value but with alcohol as with so many things, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

But when I was at The Party Source debating which vodka to purchase, my prior experience didn’t stop me from being hopeful when I spotted a new and distinctive label sitting on the shelf. It was brightly colored, folksy, and claimed to be the product of seven generations of family distilling. At just about $11 a bottle the price was right for me to take it home and give it a try.

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First the back ground. There is no real information about Hank Birdwell’s Vodka on the web. No flashy websites bragging about their column stills or organic ingredients. No corporate website listing the vodka as one of dozens of holdings either. The label says the vodka is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana so I am going to have to assume that this is a new product out of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana LLC. You may not have heard of LDI but you may have heard of Bulleit, Smooth Ambler, or High West. These are just a few of the craft distilleries that source their bourbon and other whiskies from LDI and bottle them under their own name. There is nothing wrong with sourcing your whiskey, especially while you are getting your distillery started. I point this out to illustrate that just because something says it is ‘crafted’ or has ‘seven generations’ of history behind doesn’t mean that is the whole story. The LDI distillery has indeed been around since 1847 but during that time it has been sold many times over, most recently to Kansas-based MGP Ingredients Inc in 2011. So I am not sure if Hank Birdwell’s is being bottled by someone else who is purchasing it from LDI or if they are selling it directly, but I do feel confident in saying that this is not a product that has been in anyone’s family for one generation, let alone seven.

vodka gimlet

All sounds pretty harsh and cynical but the real question is, how does the vodka taste? Charlie and I tried it for our podcast this week and I will say that while it wasn’t exactly good, it was not bad either. I can’t say for sure but my money is on this being a 100% corn vodka. The nose was strongly astringent; you can smell the alcohol and not much else. We tried it ice cold, neat and on first sip it had a surprisingly sweet taste with a strong vanilla flavor. But before you can even appreciate what you are tasting the alcohol comes in and burns away any flavor notes that might have been coming into focus. It wasn’t a hot burn but the ethyl flavor did take over the tongue and then lingered awhile after you swallowed. So not a sipping vodka for sure. Or course I can’t see why anyone would want to sip vodka in the first place, so I always follow up the tasting by making a cocktail with it. Vodka’s beauty comes from it’s ability to add alcohol to other flavors so to really test it you have to mix with it. In this case I made a vodka gimlet and here the Hank Birdwell’s performed much better. Mixed with fresh lime juice and simple syrup the ethyl flavor faded to the background but surprisingly the vanilla flavor came forward. It ended up being a much more enjoyable cocktail than I expected and lead me to upgrade my opinion of the vodka just a bit.

So should you give Hank Birdwell’s a shot? Like I said at the beginning, this is an $11 bottle of vodka and compared to other vodkas at that same price point it is perhaps slightly ahead of the curve. But if you have the money to spend, go ahead and spend a few dollars more to get some Tito’s.

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El Arco Tequila

 

El Arco bottles

 

“I love my unpaid job” was my facebook status last Thursday afternoon. The reason for this love? I had just come from a lunch time tequila tasting that was provided to me because El Arco Tequila reached out to Queen City Drinks to ask if one of their writers would be interested in sampling their tequila and writing a review. Never one to shirk my duty, I bravely stepped forward.

 

el arco blanco and anejo

El Arco is a newcomer to the craft tequila market. Arco Ventures LLC, a Cincinnati-based tequila distribution company bought Arco del Cabo Tequila, renamed it El Arco and began selling bottles in 2011 I believe. The change in marketing, branding, and investment seems to have them taking off quickly. When you think Cincinnati you don’t normally think tequila. So when we sat down with the owners, former NFL lineman and St. Xavier graduate, Rocky Boiman and Greg Meyer who is vice chairman of the Commercial Real Estate Council of Greater Cincinnati, we were curious as to how this brand would compare to other tequilas. Despite the owner’s connections to Cincinnati, it is clear that El Arco is a true tequila in every sense of the word. El Arco is produced by the Tres Mujeres Distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. It is made from 100% organic blue agave that grows for at least eight years before it is harvested to be made into the tequila. But how does the final product compare to other tequilas? El Arco advertises its taste rating on tequila.net right on the label, an excellent marketing strategy since both the blanco and the añejo are currently rated higher than other well known craft brands like Patron and Cabo Wabo.

I learned about all of this while sitting at a table with the two pours of tequila sitting in front of me waiting to be tasted so my expectations were pretty high by the time I got to actually try the tequila. I have to admit I was not disappointed. The blanco was smooth and really enjoyable to sip. It had a sweet, grassy flavor on the initial tasting with a spicy, spearmint-like finish. Hints of citrus can also be tasted in the flavor. The añejo is aged for a full two years in an oak barrel before being bottled but other than that it is the same product as the blanco and tasting them side by side was fascinating. If you have ever compared white-dog whiskey to bourbon you will know that the aging process radically changes the flavor of the initial product. With this tequila, you can taste a lot of the same flavors between the two different products. The grass is still there, as well as some lighter citrus but the oak transform the spearmint into more of a cinnamon with a hint of dark chocolate.

el arco margarita

 

Rocky and Greg were also kind enough to make us a margarita using El Arco Blanco. Fresh squeezed lime juice, top shelf ingredients, organic agave nectar; it had to be good right? Unfortunately the one thing they didn’t have was a jigger and the result was not optimal. While I am sure that the blanco makes a delicious margarita the one I got was too heavy on the lime for me to evaluate how well the tequila worked in the cocktail. However, if you want to try one yourself I recommend going to Bakersfield where the blanco is the tequila in the premium margarita, or if you are at the Western and Southern Open this week you will see that El Arco is the chief sponsor of the bar were you can order a pitcher of the El Arco ‘Ace’ Margarita. Either way I am sure you won’t be disappointed.

If you want more detail on El Arco you can listen to the whole tasting and hear Greg and Rocky explain their company philosophy on Episode 26 of Bottoms Up With Ginny and Charlie.

 

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Handcrafted Cocktails Cincinnati Book Launch

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After months of buzz and anticipation Cincinnati was finally able get their hands on Handcrafted Cocktails: The Mixologist’s Guide to Classic Drinks for Morning, Noon & Night by mixologist and local alcohol-celebrity Molly Wellmann. The book’s Cincinnati launch was held last Thursday at Molly’s bar Japp’s Since 1879 so of course I was there to get my autographed copy and to check out a few of the cocktails that Molly was demonstrating from the book. Here are some of the highlights of the evening.

Molly Wellmann

Molly signing books and looking fabulous.

 

She likes us. She really likes us!

She likes us, she really likes us!

 

Molly Wellmann making a "sweet heat" cocktail.

Molly making a “sweet heat” cocktail.

I haven’t gotten a chance to dig into the book too much yet but it looks great so far. I really like that she divided the chapters into times of day, “Drinks for the Morning” and so on, and then in each chapter categorized them by the main spirit used in the cocktail. The recipes are a mix of classic cocktails with the stories to go along with them, as well as original creations. We tried two of the original recipe cocktails featured in the book, Little Boy Blue and the Sweet Heat.

Bourbon, blueberry simple syrup, and a stout floater

Little Boy Blue: bourbon, blueberry simple syrup, and a stout floater.

 

Sweet Heat: vodka, jalapeno simple syrup, and salt & pepper.

Sweet Heat: vodka, jalapeno simple syrup, and salt & pepper.

It was a great night out. Charlie and I really enjoyed the food, drinks, and atmosphere of the event as well as running into other local writers like Sharon Rudd and Anne Mitchell who were checking out the books as well. Of course the dangerous thing about starting to drink in Over the Rhine is that there are so many places to continue drinking once you’ve gotten a few under your belt. We ended up at friend’s birthday party being held at Neon’s once we were done and the next thing you know we are having a drink at Arnold’s with a guy dressed up like Marie Antoinette.

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Yeah, it was that kind of night.

 

 

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Tito’s Handmade Vodka

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With so many micro-distilleries popping up around the country I thought it would be nice to review a vodka from one of the early success stories from the micro-distilling movement. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is celebrating its 16th year in business. Tito’s was stared by a guy named Tito Beveridge (with a name like that how do you know go into the alcohol business) who started out making vodka infusions as gifts and somehow ended up founding the first legal distillery in Texas. Since winning a double gold medal in the World Spirits Competition they have come to be known as one of the go-to brands of vodka for people who are serious about cocktails but also aware of price. I have even heard of some up-scale bars and restaurants who are using Tito’s as their well vodka so that the taste of their carefully crafted cocktails don’t get ruined by sub-par vodka. This really is the path that every micro-distiller around the country is hoping to follow, although few of them look ready to compete at this point.

Despite having been aware of the brand for many years I had not actually gotten around to buying a bottle until now. Tito’s is a 100% corn vodka and it does have the characteristic sweet and creamy taste that most of the corn vodka’s I’ve tried also have. But the other corn vodka’s I’ve tried also have a lot more of a flavor to them. And when it comes to vodka that is not necessarily a good thing. Tito’s is incredibly smooth, with a creamy mouthfeel and just a hint of sweetness before you do taste the alcohol at the end. But it is not a burning alcohol and you can drink it without making cheap vodka face and coughing. One reason for the difference is that Tito’s microdistilled in an old-fashioned pot stills and so they have more control over the process than with column stills. I would say it is very similar in character and quality to Buckeye Vodka but is a few dollars cheaper per bottle and, in my opinion,  slightly better. Don’t be put off by the cheap looking bottle and plastic cap. Part of Tito’s mission statement is keeping their product as affordable as possible and they are clearly not investing too much in bottle. Instead they use quality ingredients, a careful distillation process, and then distill it just enough (six times) to get out the impurities and strong corn flavors but not so much that all that is left is the ethanol flavor. So there you have it. If you want to support local vodka at an affordable price go with Buckeye but if you want a bottom line better vodka for an even better price, go with Tito’s.

If you want to listen to a tasting and review of Tito’s you can hear it on this week’s episode of Bottom Up.

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Beer Review: Brooklyn Sorachi Ace

Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace is a rather unique and special beer. Many brews are made with a combination of hop varieties this beer is very different as it uses 1 single hop from which it takes it’s name, the sorachi ace. While many hops are hundreds of years old and were found growing wild, not so for the sorachi ace. It was custom engineered by Sapporo in Japan in the late 70s from a combination of brewer’s gold and saaz hops, both classic varieties. Sorachi ace also shows off one final unique characteristic by having a flavor of lemon and dill, different then the citrus/grapefruit/grass action of many hops.

So Brooklyn Brewery took this unique hop and used it in the somewhat special style of saison. Saisons are a complex style with a wide range of possible profiles, however, most are dry, moderate strength beers that are refreshing on hot summer days. They’re the second runner up for summer beers next to wheat beers like Bell’s Oberon and Sam Adam’s Summer Ale. Per the Brooklyn Brewery website Sorachi Ace is “a cracklingly dry, hoppy unfiltered golden farmhouse ale, but made entirely with now-rare Sorachi Ace hops grown by a single farm in Washington.”

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Beer Review: Rockmill Tripel

Rockmill is a semi-local brewery from Lancaster, Ohio. Lancaster is about 2 hours from here and slightly south-east of Columbus. They make the somewhat lofty claim that their local water ” is nearly identical in mineral content to that of Wallonia, Belgium, where Belgian ale originated.” They also use all organic ingredients in their beers. I’ve seen the Triple, Dubbel, and Witbier at various locations around town for a while now but have resisted trying them due to the $15 price. I drink a lot of beer and that gets expensive fast so when I’ve always opted for the $10 bomber/750 over the $15 one. I’m not sure why I changed my mind and finally picked this up but I’m glad I did!

Sorry for the poor quality

Brewery: Rockmill Brewery
Beer: Tripel
Style: Belgian Tripl
ABV: 9%
Calories: ~270 per glass

Super dense and cloudy orange brown with skim of white head.

Oh man, ultra pungent flowery aroma jumps out as soon as you pop the cork. Lots of spices, banana, cloves, loads of yeast, bit of bread.

Nice classic tripel flavors showing off some floral hops, much more banana taste, some other fruits like lemon and citrus stuff. Really nice and complex flavor.

Medium body with a pretty smooth feeling and a fair bit of carbonation.

No real sense of the 9% which is nice that you can enjoy this without it being in your face. Super awesomely complex aroma and taste are both very enjoyable. I strongly regret waiting so long to have this. $15 is kinda steep and is why I held off so long but honestly for a very small brewery making beers like this it’s not an unfair price. One thing to note was how hard it was to get the cork out. I’m not sure what that means but I had to get out the wine opener and fight with it a bit. Also kinda accidentally poured the yeast in and didn’t keep it separated too well.

This review was just on their tripel but coincidentally and unbeknownst to me  fellow Cinci beer blogger Queen City Beer Nerd has just posted a review of the dubbel. I picked this bottle up at Jungle Jim’s Eastgate and you can check the Rockmill website for other locations around town as there are a few too many to list here.

I enjoyed this so much that I’m going to find some time this summer to get out to the brewery and try their other beers. I will, of course, let everyone know what I discover out in the rural Ohio countryside!

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Patron Margaritas Available at Chipotle

margaritas chipotle

While lining up for lunch at your local Chipotle you may have noticed that they offer margaritas as one of your beverage choices but if you are like me, you’ve probably never really thought much about them or even considered ordering them. Chipotle is looking to change that. The fast casual mexican restaurant has established its brand as the fresh, caring, Michael Pollan-approved fast food restaurant and they are trying to bring some of that mystique to their margaritas. I was invited to head to the Chipotle on Fountain Square to try one with their marketing director and see what I thought.

patron margarita chipotle

So the first thing I have to admit right away is that I am a huge fan girl of Chipotle. If I have one of those too-busy-to-cook-no-food-in-the-fridge kind of nights and I just need something fast kind of nights it is my number one choice. There is really no other restaurants offering food that tastes that good, at that price point and convenience level. Plus I don’t feel guilty for eating their carnitas because it comes from happy little piggies who were probably so grateful for their loving farmer that they were only too glad to lay down their life to support him financially. So yeah, this is probably not going to be an unbiased review

making margaritas chiptole

So what is different about these margaritas? First of all they are ditching the pre-made sour mix and are using fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice instead. This is really what makes a big difference. Just using fresh juice takes the taste out of the bar standard hum ho cocktail and creates something that catches your attention. The next thing they have changed is allowing guests to choose to have their drink made with Patron for a few dollars extra. Patron may not be the absolute best tequila out there but it is probably the most well known brand and  it is incredibly smooth. They use an ounce and half in their margaritas and the one I tried had minimal alcohol flavor. It was nice, heavy on the citrus, and very tasty. I would very much enjoy sipping on one of those while eating chips and guacamole after work.

mixing margaritas chipotle

Which gets to the problem that I think Chipotle will continue to have with their margaritas. Nobody I know goes to Chipotle for happy hour. We go there for a quick, delicious, and reasonably priced lunch or dinner. On the piece I recorded for Bottoms Up, Laura from Cincinnati Nomerati and I both agreed that $7 for a Patron margarita made with fresh squeezed juice was a good deal. But it is also the same price as a burrito and ordering one with my dinner will mean doubling my bill. When I head out for a nice dinner or to have drinks with friends I am prepared for that but on my Chipotle nights not so much. So as much as I love Chipotle, (I will be eating there tomorrow night for their Teacher Appreciation, buy one get one free special) I don’t think I will be ordering their Patron margaritas nearly as often as I might like.

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Stoli Hot Vodka Review

stoli hot

 

In the world of flavored vodkas, there seems to be an arms race between the different vodka companies to see who can take the craziest, sweetest junk food and turn it into a 70 proof mixer for cocktails. Not that there is anything wrong with the novelty of having a donut, fruit loop, or gummy bear flavored drink but I am surprised there haven’t been more vodkas trying to fill the niche in the other direction. Stoli Hot is a jalapeño-flavored vodka that seems to be attempting to do just that. As far as I can tell it is one of only a few non-sweet flavored vodkas out there and the only one with a significant heat.

Stolichnaya is a Russian vodka that has been around since 1948. It is a wheat vodka and has a nice mouth feel with a slightly sweet taste and I think this actually makes the jalapeño flavor work even better. The level of heat is a good one. It is a heat that is present but won’t be overpowering to most people. I found it far less hot than actual  jalapeño and it quickly cools when mixed with something else. If you can take a little tabasco sauce this won’t be challenging at all.

The flavor is basically jalapeño but with a sweet finish. It has Stoli’s thicker mouth feel and is very smooth. The burn comes from the pepper, not the alcohol. I found that a bloody mary works really well with Stoli Hot. For the show we used Mr. and Mrs. T’s Hot Bloody Mary mix and the added Stoli Hot gave it quite a kick. If you like extra heat with your bloody mary this is a great choice for you.

In mixed drinks and cocktails a lot of the flavors that work well with jalapeño will work well here. Fruity drinks work better than I would have thought. I made a “Stoli Red” which is just the Stoli Hot mixed with cranberry juice and it was pretty nice. I think pineapple and lime would be particularly nice. I made a jalapeño martini by just using gin and the Stoli Hot in a 2:1 ratio and it was actually too bland. A dash of bitters helped but I would recommend mixing it at a higher proportion of Stoli and maybe not leaving out the vermouth. I’ve also though that using it in a chocolate drink might be nice. Sort of an Aztec-chocolate flavored drink. I will have to work on that and get back to you.

Overall, I think that this is a good bottle to have in your mixing toolkit. Jalapeño is a great flavor to add to a drink and it has not been over done. Just about every hot shot or cocktail uses a cinnamon-base like Hot Damn or Fireball Whiskey. Bringing the heat without the sweet is a good way to make your cocktail stand out.

You can listen as I try Stoli Hot and see the cocktails I made with it in Episode 9 of Bottoms Up.

 

In case you are wondering, I’ve been playing around with a variety of spirits lately because I am working on making some custom cocktails for Hellapalooza, an ungodly combination of rock n’ roll, burlesque, freakshows, and drinking that is coming to The Southgate House Revival on May 11th. Tonic Tours will have a booth set up so come to the show and say hello.

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Beer Review: Fantôme/Hill Farmstead 5 Sciences Beer

A new, limited collaboration beer from two intriguing breweries just dropped in the area and I decided to give it a go.  Brasserie Fantôme is well known for their saisons, which, when right, are delicious.  Hill Farmstead was recently voted upon as the #1 Brewery in the world by ratebeer.  They make fantastic saisons, amongst other things.  So in Novemeber when Hill Farmstead posted on their Facebook page 133 pictures in an album called  “Belgium Trip 2012 – Fantôme Brew Day!” there was a lot to be excited about.

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5 Sciences Beer pops open and pours dead flat.  Uh oh.  The color isn’t well captured in this photo, in that it seemed even brighter and opaque in person.  It has a consistent color that reminds one of a commercial product that I will identify momentarily.

The smell on this beer is slightly smoky, which seems out of place and then big blasts of citrus fruit.  It’s hard to describe in comparison to other beers, however it has a very clear comparable, which I will again leave for the taste breakdown.

It doesn’t taste quite as smoky as it smells.  What it does taste like is slightly watered down artificial flavored fruit juice.  In fact, it brings out a powerful taste memory for me: Gatorade AM Orange Strawberry.  In fact, it looks like Gatorade AM, and if you omit the smokiness which seems quite out of place, it smells and tastes like Gatorade AM.  Even the completely uncarbonated body goes down like a Gatorade.

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Let me put it all together here – this beer is not bad, it just is not something that really is all that identifiable as beer.  There is not alcohol heat, nor is the flavor offensive, however I doubt that anyone spending some good coin on a Fantôme/Hill Farmstead collaboration saison is expecting to be treated to something most comparable to an obscure Gatorade flavor.  I cannot recommend this as a beer.  Further, I am not really sure how they accomplished such a strange beer.  This was a real letdown from two brewers who have the ability to make the best of the best.  Oh well – there’s always the next beer.

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Quaff Bros.’ Manhattan Project

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Sometimes craft beer is weird. Brewers of beer (or at least craft beer) are an inherently creative bunch. With brewers, like bakers, chefs, and pretty much anyone else who uses their noggins to turn a concept into a finished product, you’ll find that the concept itself is often as important as the process that leads to the finish product. And boy, oh boy, do the Quaff Bros. have some concepts. Strong – sour – barrel aged – stout- wheat – IPA, their creations run the gamut. I thought Sour Grapes (check out my review) was weird, but apparently I had seen nothing yet.

Obviously, following a sour brown ale aged in bourbon barrels with wine grapes (yep), they release a beer that attempts to mimic a classic cocktail. Manhattan Project is a rye beer, aged in rye whiskey barrels with maraschino cherries and bitters. Like I said, craft beer is weird.

Anyways, on to the good stuff. Continue reading

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