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.
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.
As a US-based rum wonk. I’m constantly pining over all the interesting rum lines coming out of Europe, and especially England – a hotbed of rum going back to the 1600s. One brand I’d heard of numerous times was Elements Eight, primarily in reference to their spiced rum. So on a cold December day in late 2014 at The Vintage House in London, I found myself staring down a treasure trove of rums I couldn’t ordinarily get, and the Elements Eight Gold was one rum that went on my short list straightaway.
The Element Eights Rum Company is London-based, formed in 2005. It’s run by two spirit industry vets, Carl Stephenson and Andreas Redlefsen, both previously at J. Wray & Nephew, the company behind the well-known Appleton brand. Element’s primary market is the UK, although distribution to other counties (such as Spain, Germany and Canada) is growing, although sadly, they’re not in the US yet. Continue reading “Suitcase Rum: Elements Eight Gold Rum”
Mrs. Wonk and I spend more than our fair share of time in bars, where one of our pastimes is scanning the backbar and picking out most interesting and worst looking bottle, based solely on appearance. The Afrohead rum is one such bottle that grabs your attention. A recent arrival on US shores, the Afrohead rum line is produced by the Harbor Island Rum Co., out of the Bahamas. There are two bottlings, a seven year as well as a fifteen year “Grand Reserve” edition. The Afrohead rum line first came to my attention when I was provided a bottle of the seven year for review by their PR firm. The Afrohead rums are truly a multi-island affair: In addition to being based in the Bahamas, it incorporates molasses from the Dominican Republic, is distilled in Trinidad, and bottled in Barbados.
Even non-cocktailians are aware of Angostura bitters, the ubiquitous bottle in bars everywhere with the oversized white label, which bartenders use like salt and pepper in all sorts of drinks. Recently, the Trinidad-based company took a bold step and released a new spirit — Amaro di Angostura. Unlike the brand’s well known orange and namesake Angostura bitters, the Amaro Di Angostura isn’t intended to be used just few dashes at a time. I was intrigued enough to contact Angostura USA’s PR firm and they graciously sent me a bottle to review.
Although rum is most frequently associated with the Caribbean and Central America, its production has a long history on the eastern seaboard of the United States, going back to the colonial era. Using molasses imported from the Caribbean, rum was produced in distilleries in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. Eventually, nearly all the Northeast’s rum distilleries went under, victims of economic forces, prohibition, and a swing to other spirits such as bourbon, which could be produced from locally grown grains rather than imported goods. With the recent upswing in craft spirits, distilleries such as Boston’s Bully Boy and Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, have revived the east coast rum tradition. Lyon Distilling has three different rums for sale, and here I’ll take a look at their most popular version, Lyon Dark Rum.