Unless you’re a spirits aficionado, you might not know about blending and the role of the “master blender.” And it might be a surprise to you that, say, a seven year bourbon isn’t simply liquor that sat in a barrel for seven years before it was bottled, straight from the barrel. It’s also not generally known that the identical spirit, when placed in different barrels and stored in different locations, may end up tasting radically different. The role of the master blender is twofold: To either create a new flavor profile, or work to create a consistent taste, year after year. In the second case, a master blender must be so familiar with an existing product that, working from the available barrels that a distillery has at hand, he or she can determine the precise amounts and ratios of spirit from various barrels to create the flavors that a brand’s supporters have come to know and love. Very few people–with exceptional palates–can do this exacting work. Toby Tyler of Afrohead Rums is one such practitioner.
A few months back I received a bottle of the new Afrohead Premium Aged Dark Rum (“seven-year”) for review. I put it through its paces, wrote my review, and figured that was the end of the story – on to the next rum. In my review of the Afrohead seven-year, I compared it to Angostura’s seven-year rum and found them very similar in flavor profile. After posting my review, the Afrohead PR firm asked if I was interested in trying out the fifteen-year X0. But of course! As luck had it, Miami Rum Renaissance was coming up very soon, and Afrohead was exhibiting. Perfect timing for me to dig in and learn more.
Afrohead booth at Rum Renaissance 2015 in Miami
I won’t repeat the entire Afrohead backstory from my previous review, but here are the essentials: A few years back, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler, co-owners of The Landing, a hotel on Harbor Island, Bahamas, created a house-rum blend using rum from Angostura Distillers in Trinidad. More recently, an investment group set up the Harbour Island Rum Company in Nokomis, Florida, to import the rum into the US. Currently Afrohead offers two rums: The seven-year and the XO, aged for fifteen years.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015
Immediately upon entering the Rum Renaissance show the first day, the large Afrohead booth jumped out and demanded attention. I immediately spotted Joe and Toby (I’d seen photos) and headed over for what would be a lengthy conversation, where I got answers to all sorts of questions I’d had after my review of the seven-year, as well as learning more in advance of this review of the XO.
Toby Tyler at Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Blending room at the Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
First and foremost on my mind was the similarity between the Afrohead seven and Angostura seven. Toby (Afrohead’s master blender) told me of his experiences at the Angostura blending laboratory where he worked side-by-side with Angostura’s master blender to create both the seven-year and the X0 blend. At one point he grabbed his iPhone to show me pictures of his more recent trip (a few of which he has generously supplied for inclusion in this post); Toby was at Angostura last July and will go back again soon. Once he develops his exact flavor profile, the blenders at Angostura will replicate it, but Toby still visits the blending house to confirm that each batch is consistent with what he believes the Afrohead expressions should taste like. One thing Toby emphasized several times during our meeting is that the Afrohead rums have a very “clean” finish, with no added sugar and very little palate fatigue after repeated tastings. I have to agree with Toby in that regard – the finish is very clean.
Sample bottle at the Angostura Distiller (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Another thing I learned in my meeting with Toby and Joe Farrell is that the Afrohead line is well-funded and positioned for growth. Joe told me that many beverage executives visit The Landing and have wanted to take the Afrohead rum to the US market in the past. Eventually, a deal was struck with a group of investors with extensive beverage industry experience. A little internet searching turns up that two of the three Harbour Island Rum Company executives have worked as high-level executives for Bacardi and are now working with “beverage alcohol startups” like Afrohead. One of the investors in the Harbour Island had previously invested in the company behind Angel’s Envy whiskey, which was recently acquired by Bacardi. It was quite evident from the Afrohead booth events at Rum Renaissance that Harbour Island Rum Company has the backing to spend a significant amount of money to make a splash in the US market.
Afrohead seven-year and Afrohead XO
With the company preliminaries behind, let’s take a look at the Afrohead XO, with callouts to the differences between it and the seven-year.
The XO bottle’s glass is identical to the seven-year. However, while the seven-year bottle is clear, showcasing the contents, the X0 bottle is opaque from a matte black paint (or similar) covering. The stopper fits the bottle, creating somewhat of a challenge to remove – I noticed this with the seven-year as well. The striking Afrohead logo (a woman with a very large head of air intermeshed with visual symbols) is, at a distance, visually the same on both the seven-year and XO, but up close the XO’s label is a nicer, heavily embossed foil. Whereas the seven-year bottle’s front label has latitude/longitude coordinates for The Landing on Harbour Island, on the XO bottles is an “X” overlaid with a “’15.” The backs of both bottles show the identical “Universally inspired, authentically crafted” Afrohead origin story.
The X0 weighs in at 43 percent ABV (86 proof), a tad higher than the seven-year’s 40 percent ABV. Pouring a bit into a glass, I noted that the color is very similar to the seven-year: medium to dark copper. The nose is inviting – it smells of “serious rum” with woody tones. The taste immediately brings to mind many years in heavily charred barrels, caramel, and a slight hint of smoke. Tasting the seven-year and XO side by side, the seven-year starts out lighter, fruitier, and slightly ephemeral, while the X0 dives down to darker wood and caramel tones. After the X0 fades away, my tongue still feels fresh, ready to go again immediately. The viscosity of the XO doesn’t suggest to me that sugar was added, as some rums do.
The Afrohead seven-year and X0 are obviously cut from similar cloth, but there are clear differences. As a sipper, the X0 is much more interesting. At about $60 retail, this is a bit on the more expensive side (there are plenty of good sipping rums in the $40-$60 range). In fairness, the closest obvious comparison to the Afrohead XO is Angostura 1824, a 12-year from the same distillery that retails for around $80, so suddenly the 15-year Afrohead seems reasonably priced. If you’re a fan of Trinidad style of rum with a lot of aging, and that doesn’t break the bank, the Afrohead XO is a solid choice.
As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring
After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.
I have a (bad) habit of conjuring up spirit flavor combinations that sound great in my head, then inflicting those ideas as off-menu request to my favorite Seattle bartenders. An entirely drinkable concoction always arrives, but every so often I hit the jackpot – a killer drink that I need to experiment more with at home. Recently I hit up Erik Hakkinen, bar maestro at Seattle’s legendary Zig Zag Café, with “Something lush… sherry… maybe some spice… and smoke!” Erik smiled, as he’s prone to do, and said, “I got this.”
What Erik created with my loosely defined request knocked my socks off, and he graciously provided the recipe, handwritten on a coaster, sans name. While incorporating all my ideas (sherry, Ancho Reyes for the spice, Islay scotch for the smoke), Erik saw what I was missing – a base flavor to bring together the flavors I’d requested. I had an “Of course!” moment when he mentioned that an apple brandy (Laird’s Bottled in Bond) was his starting point. In Erik’s creation, no one flavor dominates, and the apple, sherry, pepper spice, and smoke flavors harmonize well together.
Naming drinks is always the hard part, and Erik left that to me. Thinking about the ingredients–Spanish sherry, smoky scotch, Mexican pepper (from the Ancho Reyes) and robust apple–it seemed to me like something Ernest Hemingway would drink – robust and manly! (If I do say so myself…) All are bold flavors, strongly associated with their respective countries. Hemingway was born in the US, and traveled in Spain and Mexico, but I couldn’t find a solid reference to him traveling to Scotland. I like to think that if he’d visited, he’d have gone to Islay, home of smoky scotch, which is part of the Hebrides isles, and when he arrived at the bar, he’d have had something like this:
Hemingway in the Hebrides
1.5 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy (100 proof, bottled in bond)
0.75 oz Ancho Reyes
0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso or PX sherry in a pinch)
0.5 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.
Bar coaster with recipe from Erik Hakkinen, Zig Zag Cafe, Seattle
Depending on your preference for spice versus smoke, adjust the Ancho Reyes and Laphroaig ratios. A variation on the above that I found enjoyable (and a bit punchier) drops the apple brandy component down, brings up the smoke, and reduces the spice a tad. I like to think Papa would approve.
1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
0.5 oz Ancho Reyes
0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso, or PX sherry in a pinch)
0.75 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.
Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.
This Friday, 5/15, is the Seattle Uncorked “Meet Your Makers” event. A number of local and nearby distilleries (including 3 Howls, Captive Spirits, Oregon Spirits Distillers, Westland, and Oola) will be there.
Part of the event is a cocktail competition featuring local bartenders creating original drinks while utilizing “The Barbarian” from Barbarian Bar Tools, a multi-function bar tool which I’ve written about recently. I’ll be a judge along with Natalie Migliarini from Beautiful Booze. It should be a ton of fun and I wouldn’t miss it even if I weren’t judging!
With the rise of upscale artisanal tequilas like Partida, Fortaleza, and Suerte, the big tequila heavyweights like Jose Cuervo and Sauza have seen an opportunity (or threat) and released new products targeting an upmarket niche. A notable recent example is Patron, already considered upscale in some circles, with their release of the Roca line. Sauza, one of the big players, has gone the celebrity partner route, teaming up with Justin Timberlake as co-owners of Sauza 901. I was provided a bottle of Sauza 901 to review, so let’s take a wonky look at it.
Sauza is owned by Beam Suntory, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Cruzan rum, and Pinnacle vodka. The Sauza subsidiary comprises several well-known tequila brands, including Hornitos and Tres Generaciones, in addition to the base Sauza line.
Let’s address the obvious question first: 901 what? Apparently it references the telephone area code for Memphis, TN, Justin’s home town.
The Sauza 901 bottle shape is visually striking – tall and slender with a sharp angled-face and curved back. Viewed from above you’ll find that the front half of the bottle is hexagonal (six-sided) while the back is circular. Fueled by enough Sauza 901, it starts to resemble a squashed cartoon rendition of the Millennium Falcon. Sauza’s rooster, a company symbol, makes two bottle appearances –on the front as a dime-sized image, and a much larger rendition dominating the reverse.
Inside the bottle is blanco (“silver”) tequila at the usual 80 proof. Unlike many tequila lines which offer blanco, reposado, and anejo versions, the Sauza 901 has a single blanco expression. The story starts with blue agave that’s reached at least seven years of age prior to harvest. A short fermentation process “prevents the development of off-notes and promotes more agave flavor.” Following fermentation, Sauza triple distills it, first in a column still and then twice through a pot still. (By regulation, tequila must be distilled at least twice.) The fermentation and distillation choices are somewhat surprising — I’ll come back to these later. Tequila regulations say a blanco tequila can be unaged or aged up to two months, but I wasn’t able to determine if the Sauza 901 spends any time in wood.
Pouring a bit into a tasting glass, the nose is subtle – a moderate hint of agave and not much more. Sipping reveals a very smooth, almost demure agave flavor. I struggled to pick out any flavors of significance beyond the base agave and slight floral note. I could easily imagine casual tequila drinkers sipping this over ice, as it doesn’t overwhelm, even sipped neat at room temperature. It’s very clean, smooth and subtle with a moderately short finish.
If you’re looking for pronounced flavors in your blanco tequila, the Sauza 901 isn’t the first bottle I’d point you toward. For comparison purposes I tasted it side-by-side with Cabeza and Partida Blanco expressions. Both were significantly more intense in flavor: The Cabeza is more brash and peppery, and the Partida has a lush creaminess. While you can certainly mix with the Sauza 901, I can see bolder tastes such as lime, ginger, and bitters overwhelming its delicate flavor. It would play well in something like this Negroni variation, featuring only light-colored spirits:
El Negroni Amarillo
2 oz Sauza 901
1 oz sweet white vermouth (such as Dolin Blanc)
0.5 oz Suze
Stir over ice, serve in chilled coupe, express orange peel, then drop in.
Having gone several rounds with the Sauza 901 and its marketing material, it seems the target market is not so much the spirits connoisseur looking for an intense, defining character. Instead, the promotional imagery focuses on Sauza 901 over ice in a fancy glass, rather than just another tequila for frozen margaritas. It also pumps up the #nolimesneeded hashtag, a reference to people using limes and salt to mask the rough-tasting, bottom shelf, rotgut tequila flavors you all remember from your college drinking days. For Cinco de Mayo this year, Sauza put out a humorous video (I laughed more than once) called “No limes needed,” starring Justin Timberlake himself as Rick “Sour” Vane, his head encased in a giant lime, bemoaning how the Sauza 901 has killed off the demand for limes after decades of being the number one cocktail condiment. Never let it be said that Justin Timberlake won’t go all the way for a laugh. (See also, “Dick in a Box.”)
From the perspective of a casual consumer, the Sauza 901’s production choices make sense: A short distillation process produces fewer of the organic compounds that make up the flavors we perceive of as “fruity” or “creamy,” but those same compounds are also responsible for some of the more challenging flavors as well. Likewise, each additional distillation pass makes a spirit more pure and “smooth,” but also reduces their distinctive flavor. Distill enough times and you’ll end up with perfectly pure vodka–and literally no taste. The Sauza 901 tequila tilts toward the subtle and smooth, rather than brash and bold – it’s a pleasant lifestyle tequila designed for folks who perhaps want an alternative to vodka, with a moderate agave flavor without being overly assertive.
*You can blame Mrs. Wonk for the bad title pun. Though she wants it to be known that she has never, ever been an ’N Sync fan and only dances to “SexyBack” at the company Christmas party after she’s had a few craft cocktails.