Best Flask Features

Alcohol is one of those relatively unique items that you want to have with you everywhere but that people would really rather you not have with you anywhere but dark quiet places like bars or your house.  This has historically not stopped anyone who really wanted to drink.  To be honest it simply makes the serious Teetotalers look silly.  The lengths to which people will go to make the anti-drinking zealots feel better is somewhat absurd.  The number of crypto-flasks has exploded in the last few years.  The Wine-Bra, Wine-Purse, Booze Tampon, Sunscreen flask, Shampoo Flask and flip-flop flask all speak to the same desire, to keep a usable quantity of alcohol on your person or in your luggage.
So let us take a look at the tools of consumption for a moment and examine what makes for a good flask.

Item 1: Volume

The primary function of a flask is to provide enough alcohol to get you comfortably inebriated.  If that’s a single glass of wine you might not need more than a couple of ounces.  If you’re trying to keep shots for you and 4 of your closest friends you are going to need something a bit bigger.  A single shot is in the order of 1.5oz, a glass of wine 4-8oz, a beer 8-16oz.  Leaving carbonation aside as a factor a 16oz flask is going to be at best the size of a small book.  A 2oz flask can be about the thickness of a matchbook or the area of a credit card.  Given this need there is something for everyone out there from the simple metal 2oz to the comically large 64oz flask.  Which I would argue is actually more of a flask shaped growler than any kind of portable drinking solution.

Item 2: Size

The inverse of volume is size.  A key component of concealment is the ability to fit your flask inside something else that doesn’t look like a flask.  Because our contents are liquid their actual shape doesn’t matter but the size of the container can make a great deal of difference.  The classic metal flask styling has a gentle curve to it that allows for it to be placed against the body at hip, leg, or arm.  To increase the size of a flask one has to either increase the thickness of the flask, or increase the surface area of the sides.  This rapidly becomes a question of ratio, if something becomes as thick as it is wide you’ve got a cube which is not a functional shape for our purpose.
A second factor to size is that in general the flask itself serves as cup as well as bottle.  This means the flask needs a certain amount of thought given to how it fits in the hand.  Boxy or awkward flasks are going to be difficult to withdraw, use and remove without undue difficulty.

Item 3: Shape

Camera Flask

More than just size here we come into the second factor of concealment.  Natural camouflage is a helpful method of avoiding undue attention.  Some things are going to be better in this regard than others.  The cellphone, camera or Ipad flasks are all going to elicit some concern as they aren’t normally something you put to your mouth.  While they try hard, these flasks are only going to fool someone at an extreme distance.  The items in question are too ubiquitous to fool anyone with their cheap construction.   Similarly the sunscreen, shampoo or toothpaste flasks are going to raise an eyebrow, as seeing someone drink spf 50 isn’t terribly common.  In this case the normal flask shape is even less helpful as flasks look exactly like what you expect booze to come in, and are seldom used for anything that isn’t suspect.

Item 4: Cleanliness

As with any drinking vessel once you have used it the problem becomes how to clean it.  Peach brandy sounds great for a single outing, but left too long it’s entirely possible that everything you drink afterwards will taste like peaches whether you like it or not.  The only real solution here is to put the same thing into the flask every time.  Off flavors aren’t always going to show up, but in such a small volume you’re going to get flavors what whatever was there before with even a minor amount of residue.  Now it is important to note that you should not leave alcohol of any kind in a flask.  Alcohol is a solvent, it will strip just about anything that it is possible to strip and high proof things like whiskey and vodka operate more quickly than low proof liqueurs.  High sugar things like liqueurs and creams have the added problems of sugar and milk products.  Sugar eventually becomes gummy, or separates or settles which given the smaller size of the flask opening makes it almost impossible to remove.  Use your flask quickly, wash it as soon as possible and be sure to leave it open to dry.  Getting a small selection of bottle brushes or pipe cleaners is a good preparation for those times when you forget a flask of fireball in a coat pocket.

Do not use soap.  Liquid, powder or gel it doesn’t matter.  No matter how careful you are there is always going to be the potential for off flavors being left by whatever residue the soap imparts.  If you thought peach was a bad flavor for bourbon imagine what dawn is going to taste like.  Your best bet for cleaning a flask with some kind of residue is vinegar and baking soda.  Sure I hear you say, “vinegar? ” The potential residues aren’t toxic, the flavor doesn’t stick around long and the interaction will get even the gummiest rock candy nonsense out of your tiny hip flask.

Item 5: Temperature

The wine “rack” a bra flask

There is nothing in the world worse than hot booze.  At least hot straight booze.  This is doubly true of wine and beer.  Most of the better class of flasks are made of stainless steel, which while excellent for holding shape and keeping clean is a fair conductor and container of heat.  Lacking any real insulation a hip flask is going to very quickly heat your tipple to body temp which is at least 10-15 degrees higher than desirable.  Similar problems can be had with the bra flask and any other item where concealment puts the liquid in close proximity to your body.  Double walled vacuum insulation is possible in a pocket flask but this will almost double the size of the flask without increasing the actual volume.  Uninsulated flasks can be carried in a bag or backpack but this increases the necessity of camouflage.  Appearing lower on the list than any of these previous concerns means that focusing on temperature may result in problems elsewhere.

 

In the end the flask that works best is the flask you have at hand.  My desk is awash in flasks of varied sizes, construction and material.  None of them are perfect but each serves the purpose in a different way.

Fentiman’s Fermented Sodas

The realm of fancy craft beverages is not limited to beers and spirits.  Everything from coffee to soda has something going in the craft or artisanal arena. Brands such as Q drinks, Fever Tree and Fentimans have all stepped up to make non-alcoholic mixers to step up the cocktail game beyond the mainstays of Coke, Canada Dry and Schweppes. On a recent trip to the home-brew store, their cooler section, drew my eye and I picked up a smattering of interesting bottles to try.  My tasting panel includes myself, The TruantMuse (my photographer), and 2ndTinyestBear (Muse’s girl child age 5).  Despite being fermented beverages, these are all alcohol free.  They lack even the warning label that might be required if you have at least 0.01% possible alcohol that you might see on a bottle of raw kombucha.

All three of these drinks are built on a base of fermented ginger extract.  (Ginger, water, yeast)  The process of fermentation seems to divorce most of the ginger flavor from the brew as none of them have anything like the sharp flavor you might find from a ginger beer.  Each was a unique experience without any similar flavors.  Additionally because the drinks are naturally fermented they have their own carbonation which is much softer than something mechanically carbonated with CO2.

 

 

Curiosity Cola

Cola is a beverage with a long history and a number of fierce fans and detractors on all sides.  There are expectations here that can’t really be met without a blindfold.  Flavors in this drink were more complex than you might think at first, there were flavors on the front and back of the palette with some lingering elements of licorice in the aftertaste.  Not tart or acidic, like some others, but it did have some similar elements to Pepsi noted by at least 2 of us.  Displacing either of the big two colas is a tall order because they are both consistent, and ubiquitous.  This cola didn’t knock anything out of the park and lacking a soda gun option or the cost savings of a larger size I doubt you’ll see this in anything but a specialist venue.  If I did cola on a regular enough basis to need some handy I would likely select this over Mexican Coca-cola but both have their difficulties in buying any in quantity.

Mandarin and Seville Orange Jigger

Possibly the best of the three bottles.  Unlike any other orange soda you might have had this is almost more like fizzy orange juice than fountain orange soda.  Even the 5 year old could identify the Mandarin flavors in the soda, she called it good and finished her drink.  The complex orange flavors were excellent and had a lot of potential as both a soda and a mixer for any citrus cocktail.  I think a lot of what drew me to it is the lack of a syrupy consistency common to things like Orange Crush or Fanta.  The second thing is perhaps a bartender’s love for citrus of any stripe.  We have become inured to the flavor of the artificial orange and generally lack an appreciation for how diverse the citrus family can be.  Seeing something that wasn’t just artificial blood orange flavoring as an alternative was an experience.

Victorian Lemonade

The only loser of the bunch.  With a 1/3 rating, this drink was not well received by anyone except myself.  Comments included “Metallic”, “No Lemon”, “Too Lemony”.  Personally I found the drink tart and dry, which was in keeping with my expectation of lemonade in most cases.  I think the second round of sweetener might have something to do with the distaste.  All other drinks had only cane sugar.  I’m not entirely sure what the intent was here with the term Victorian.  I’m sure the story is long and involves ingredients common to the day but honestly if the drink wasn’t good there is probably a reason it’s not the kind of lemonade we make now.

This is only 3 of the 10 plus flavors that Fentiman’s offers.  If the rest are anything like what we tasted I think you’re in for a treat no matter what you select.

Nectar Creek Mead

I’m filing this under beer reviews rather than liquor because I don’t really feel like I’ll be doing enough mead/cider reviews for them to warrant their own category yet.

Nectar Creek appears to produce *only* carbonated session mead.  A Session (not Saison) for those not familiar with the term derives from a kind of low ABV beer intended for people who want to drink, but then need to actually get out and do something.  These are the kind of beers you can drink all day and not really get drunk because by the time you’ve had your second, the first one is almost out of your system.  (Note: You can get drunk on them, it would just take so many that you’d likely be full long before you got a comfortable buzz on).

Mead, traditionally, is pretty high ABV when compared to beer or cider, because the sugar content of honey is much higher than grains or apple juice.  Many meads are bottled at 12% ABV or higher. If ratebeer.com is any indicator of the type, they are seldom lower than 11%. All of the top 10 rated meads are 13.5% or higher.  That expectation colors a lot of my thinking going into this tasting.

Nectar Creek seems to have set their sails to filling the niche for drinkable, carbonated mead without the heavy alcohol kick.  With their strongest bottle clocking only 6.2% these meads are the little brothers of any other mead.  This threw the tasting for a bit of a curve.

The number of ingredients in mead is pretty small. If you’re tasting one of the more common styles it tops out around four.  In this case honey, water, yeast and unfortunately sulfites.  My tasting panel would normally consist of myself and TruantMuse but after one sip she acquired an instant headache that threatened to turn into a migraine and begged off of further tasting.  I was not personally aware of sulfite sensitivity prior to this evening or I might have read the label more closely.  Subsequent trips to the bottle shop and liquor store have shown sulfites in a good portion of the offerings in the beer/cider/mead category so this should not be taken as a problem unique to Nectar Creek.  It is actually quite hard to get a shelf stable product to market without adding some form of preservative.

Process established we tasted two flavors from Nectar Creek, Sting (Ginger) and Cluster (Cranberry/Strawberry).

Cluster

I want to start with the good points here.  The nose does give strawberry in abundance, you can really taste it through your teeth.  The drink is light, carbonation isn’t overwhelming and it doesn’t flatten out as quickly as some malt beverages or session beers.

The downsides however are many and manifold.  The sulfites are quite possibly the biggest hurdle, while they incapacitated my crew I was able to soldier onward and finish the tasting.  There is a definite mineral quality to the mead that I don’t usually get from my own attempts at making mead without preservatives.  The flavor was more reminiscent of a macrobrew than anything I have tasted in recent memory.  The berry flavors abandoned ship after the nose and what honey or sweetness you could expect from a mead followed soon after.  On the palette the brew was watery and lacked complexity or character.  The above mentioned metallic after-taste took any enjoyment out of the bottle pretty quickly.  I’m not going to accuse the bottle entirely, but after a single 500ml bottle, I felt like I had been gut punched and did not feel the need for another.

I want to be clear, I don’t think this was bad.  It was just not good.  There are many many offerings in this field.  Gluten free has gotten a huge ramp from cider so there is no lack of fine things to drink if that’s your limitation.  At $8 a bottle this is not something I would demand of my beer steward and getting any in quantity for a party seems a non-starter.

Sting

After allowing sufficient time to pass I ventured to the other bottle we had acquired.  TruantMuse wisely stayed out of the tasting and elected to spend the time taking photos of our bottles.

Again once opened, decanted and sampled the drink has a fine nose for Ginger.  The flavor is less pronounced that the berry flavors of Cluster but still ambient.  Once that clears however we are left with a less enjoyable product than before.  The astringent nature of ginger flavors that normally brings heat and a citrus bite is absent.  Similar in aspect to a weak store brand ginger-ale the flavor dies off quickly and doesn’t return.

Carbonation is good and maintains the lightly fizzy aspect that makes me suspect mechanical carbonation rather than bottle conditioning.

All in all, I think what happens during production makes a big difference.  Rather than finding a reasonable way to stop fermentation at 6% ABV and keeping the natural sweetness of the honey that remains, I think we have a product that is fermented to completion and then flavored and diluted to the desired level.  Similar to a liquor NDP who dilutes 95% rum and expects to retain some of the character of plantation or Agricole.

 

 

 

 

I leave you here with Dr. Ian Malcolm who has said it better than I could…

Glaser Butterscotch Liqueur

glaserbutterWhen your biggest competition are Dekuyper and Bols chances are pretty good that you’ve got a product worth looking at more than once.  It has been some time since my first visit to the Glaser tasting room and I’m still licking my lips over some of their offerings.  As a craft distillery it can be hard to compete on the more simple spirits.  White rum, vodka, tequila and even dark rum have numerous big names making excellent products.  With the much higher overheads that craft distillers face they can’t compete on price on those kinds of products.  Enter the flavors and liqueurs.  I have seldom found a major label that does liqueurs with any kind of aplomb.  Be it limoncello, creme de Cassis, or even just a simple flavored whiskey craft usually has the time and the attention to make a product worth drinking.    Such is definitely the case at Glaser Distilling.  This little offshoot of a Roseburg winery has 4 different liqueurs currently on offer and each of them is excellent.

In particular I want to focus on their butterscotch liqueur.  Limoncello is becoming a fad and can be found in a lot of new places, you can’t swing a growler without knocking over a display of a dozen local coffee liqueurs and chocolate is equally ubiquitous.  Butterscotch is something I have seldom seen outside of a college shot party.

What makes the difference here is Glaser’s attention to detail.  Your typical bottom shelf butterscotch “schnapps” is a wad of fake sugar, fake flavor and sometimes fake color.  A gut bomb of artificial ingredients at less than $10 a bottle.  Glaser distilling makes their own butterscotch which gives this liqueur an even brown sugar flavor and an inviting brown color that can only come from a real caramelization process.  The flavors are rich with the deep molasses tones and bright buttery notes.

If you’re planning a college party and someone wants to make buttery nipples a bottle of bols will do, if you need something classy to sweeten up a cocktail you can’t do any better than Glaser’s Butterscotch Liqueur.

Stone Barn Apricot Liqueur

apricot liquorQuite possibly one of the furthest flung points on the Portland Distillery Row, Stone Barn Brandyworks has a lot to offer.  Many of their products are seasonal, using fruit and grains from around the NW when they are at their freshest.  This can lead to a bit of a scarcity problem with some of their more popular bottles.

While looking for a good flavored brandy for use in some tiki cocktails I remembered their selection and made the trip over.  After an hour of samples in everything from Ouzo to quince liqueur I wrapped and bought my favorites.

Among them was this gem.  Using an Oat Whiskey base this liqueur pulls all the tart, sweet and tangy notes of fresh apricots into that earthy, bright base.  Far better choice than an artificially flavored apricot brandy.  This carries all of the color, weight and scent you could need for anything between spring and fall.  At $25 for a 375ml and $35 for a 750ml this is a bargain for anyone who needs apricot flavor in a cocktail.

The only downside is that Stone Barn doesn’t distribute very widely and production is often a limitation.  I checked listings and found bottles at only around 10 stores in Oregon, and only 1 outside of the Portland Metro area.  Some online sales are possible but appear complicated by state limitations.

Absolut Oak, or Absolutely Unnecessary?

aboakMajor brands are always looking for the next big thing.  In some cases it’s a novel flavor or a new expression of the latest barrel proof.  With the monstrous rise of popularity in whiskey, bourbon and other brown spirits clear spirits have started a decline.  Vodka in particular has started to slump (-0.3%) even in the face of an overall rise in the sale of hard liquor (1.3%).

This has hit the brand Absolut by Pernod Ricard particularly hard as they rely on vodka sales for a large portion of their portfolio.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the graph lines snaking both directions.  So what can you do?  Whiskey takes time to produce and the marketing turn from vodka to whiskey can likewise be a shift if you’re not already doing something similar.  Most of the major labels aren’t willing to sell in the face of such a boom so you can’t buy your way into popularity.

So someone, somewhere thought, “What if we made a whiskey flavored vodka?”.  Flavored vodkas have been a thing for a while now, and while they too are on the decline the idea isn’t without merit.

It runs into a number of difficulties at the outset.  You can’t make an *aged* vodka.  The regulations in the US and likely any number of other countries simply don’t allow for vodka to have an age statement.  Which is why you’ll often see non-whiskey products spending time “Resting” in a barrel.  Rested or Infused are the non-regulatory buzzwords that basically mean barrel aged without all the red tape.  Next, if you’re making a spirit from grain then putting it into a barrel, it’s really just whiskey.  Calling it a vodka means you spent the time on the still to take it all the way up to high proof before cutting it down with water.  You lose the “flavor, odor and character of whiskey” that you need for it to qualify under US regulations but you get a lot more mileage out of your spirit.

Something gets lost in the translation here.  People like whiskey for more reasons than just the smell of leather and the taste of cinnamon and vanilla.  There are subtle differences between vodka and whiskey that can’t really be explained by base ingredients.  It may be as simple as time and the x-factor present in a true barrel as opposed to a bag of toasted oak chips.  What you get with Oak by Absolut is really just what it says on the label.  Oak flavored vodka.

Whiskey snobs won’t be tempted, vodka drinkers won’t see the appeal, whiskey lovers won’t get anything out of this that they can’t get from a similarly priced bottle of whiskey.  At $27 a bottle here in Oregon this is way more than I’d pay for vodka and far less than I want to pay for bad whiskey.

 

Aval Pota

aval pota 2Mcmenamin’s operates two distilleries in the Portland area, one at Edgefield and another at Imbrie Hall.  Their products aren’t generally sold outside of their own operations but with dozens of small strip mall bars all over town it isn’t exactly hard to find their stuff if you want it.

Recently I went shopping for presents and found a number of new products on their shelf.  Among them was this tasty little number.  Aval is middle welsh for apple, Pota is old Irish for a pot still.  From the name you would expect an apple brandy but Aval Pota is basically apple pie.  Unlike a number of the other ones on the market this one isn’t a moonshine base it uses a single malt whiskey.

Blended with apple juice and spices down to a reasonable proof this is a pretty sweet liqueur.  It runs well hot or cold, the apple flavor in most things is normally too mild to notice but this holds up well.  Apple smell on top is a nice aroma followed by the cinnamon.  The flavors carry over into the first and second notes where you get the sweet and crisp kind of apple flavor you might get from a dried apple ring.  The whiskey has a nice bite on the end, being from single malt it doesn’t have the more spicy or rounded notes of a bourbon or rye.

A little spendy for something this low a proof, most flavored whiskey products aim a little lower since they know the whiskey flavor will be covered over and thus any imperfections will be less noticeable. Pick up a bottle when things get colder and drop a little into your tea or cider.  This doesn’t disappoint.

33% ABV and $29.95 for a 750ml bottle.

Camp 1805 Distillery

220A customer recommended that I take a trip down the gorge to try out a new distillery in Hood River.  Camp 1805 is parked in a little industrial complex just a stone’s throw from the HRD plant right on the Columbia river.  Position wise you would not think that there would be much in the way of restaurant or retail in that part of the town.  Most of the commerce seems to go on in the south bank side as the town rises up the hill.

Given their location I suppose it was no surprise that they didn’t actually open until 3pm.  So the girlfriend and I made a day of it, driving down the gorge taking photos and exploring hidden gems until afternoon rolled around.  The site is actually a bar, which is different than many of the tasting rooms in Portland but encouraging as it means the bartender is going to be well versed in what kinds of cocktails go well with their products.

They were open promptly at 3, which is refreshing in this business where things can sometimes be lax.  Things were quiet since we were effectively waiting for them to open and it was the middle of the week.

The decor is very nice looking and new.  Their selection behind the bar was heavy on major labels with a good selection of mixers but lacking in the depth of a Kask or oven & shaker.

Their tasting flight included four offerings.  From what I gather their small batch nature means that the proof on some of these varies from batch to batch with 80 being the baseline and the end product going up to at least 93.

Endurance White Whiskey

Whiskey is a curious duck, the legal requirements say that it must be barreled but not that it must be charred or aged for any length of time.  For this reason white dogs always feel like a cheat to me.  This one spends all of a minute in an unchared barrel before heading to bottling.  The result is clean and has the flavors of the heavy wheat in the grain bill without the oak to temper or tame the alcohol flavors.  It wasn’t a biter for all that the version I was drinking was 93 proof.  I can see this getting much better with time and oak.  I’m not a big fan of white dogs so take my opinion with a lot of salt.  4/10

Mt Hood Vodka

A french wheat vodka purchased elsewhere and then cut with local water and bottled.  This was similar to a grey goose in both flavor and character.  At 80 proof I wasn’t surprised with the content but neither was I really blown away.  5/10 – nothing much new to see here.

Backbone Rum

When I first tasted this I thought I was drinking whiskey.  The flavor is quite potent, which again might come from the higher proof nature of some of the offerings.  The flavor was good for a silver but not quite as soft as say Cpt. Morgan White. 6/10

Aged Rum

This is the true standout of the ones that I tried.  There wasn’t any information about it on their website so I’m stuck with what I learned while I was there.  Their backbone is aged in Yellow Rose Bourbon barrels until it is ready.  Barrel aging is a tricky process when you’re not using new barrels, the flavors in the wood already can play as much of a role as the size of the barrel in how long it needs to age to get the right flavor.  The batch I tasted was not really a dark rum but has some very good flavors to it.  8/10

McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt

McCarthysOne of my long time White Whales is a bottle of McCarthy’s.  This is partly from the small size of their yearly release and partly from laziness.  I know exactly when they release every year and I’m on their mailing list.  I can just never seem to get to a store in time to pick up a bottle before they’ve all been snapped up.

Color me surprised when I stumbled into my favorite liquor store on SW 1st and Lincoln and found a bottle innocently sitting on top of a barrel.  This was the 2014 release and it was at least six months since it had come out which made it incredibly unlikely that a bottle had mysteriously appeared.

McCarthy’s is one of the few Single Malts being produced in Oregon.  This is likely because grain to bottle whiskey is incredibly hard to do well and more than a few distillers have failed trying to do even a basic whiskey.  Single Malt, if done in the Scottish tradition, is aged in oak for three years.  That means my little bottle was started in 2011 at the very least.  McCarthy’s was one of the first craft single malts in the US and has been hailed by numerous whiskey books, magazines and authors and has been hailed as one of the world’s elite whiskeys.

Produced by Clear Creek Distilling this whiskey is done in the Islay tradition from 100% peat-malted barley.  It is smokey and clear with a light finish.  My fellow drinker the HopBoxer tasted only smoke but he’s an Irish drinker and not inclined to peat.

This is a bottle that will run you about $55 in Oregon, their next release should be spring of 2015 so keep your eyes open.

Update: Devils Bit Irish Whiskey

wpid-wp-1427222705400.jpegSt. Patrick’s day has come and gone and with it the green beer and drunken revelry of those who want to pretend they’re of Irish extraction for 24 hours.

As every year the distilleries of McMenamins release their small batch Devil’s Bit whiskey.

I wasn’t aware until I put the last three years side by side but each year the release is a little bit different.  The 2013 is a 12-year aged Irish, the 2014 is an 8 year four barrel and this year is a 5 year port barrel finish.

The bottles are all still 200ml and the price has stayed at $17.  I’ve run a side by side tasting on all three and I’m hard pressed to find the differences.  The aging process is pretty light and the finished product is still a little harsh even for the 12 year.

As an annual tradition I still enjoy heading out to Edgefield or CPR, taking the tour and getting my one or two bottles.