Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: Woodchuck Winter & the Amber Stonewall

A popular alternative to beer in the United States is hard apple cider. Simply put, hard cider is beer that's been made with apple juice as a source of fermentation instead of beer's barley mash, but don't be fooled... cider isn't simply an alternative to beer, but a great drink in it's own right. (For a way to make a simple cider at home, check out my review of Spike Your Juice.)

As I understand it, cider is a much more popular drink in the UK than it is in the US. Truth be told, cider is rarely drunk by American beer drinkers as an alternative, but instead usually drunk by small cadres of cider fans. There are various kinds of cider around certain regions of the US, but Woodchuck is a brand that you’ll find almost nationwide. Luckily for us Americans, it’s a great brand, and they make great products.

Woodchuck's flagship is their Amber variety, a simple cider made from red apples. It's sweet and delicious. They make a Granny Smith cider, and one called 802 Dark & Dry, which is mixed with caramelized sugar. They also have Raspberry and Pear ciders, though consumer be warned: these are simply flavored apple ciders, not ciders of a different fruit.

Recently I learned that Woodchuck makes limited release seasonal ciders. While most websites pertaining to beer and spirits are dreadfully out-of-date when it comes to documenting their products, is different. It tells me (albeit in marketing-speak) that they sell barrel-aged Winter, honeyed Spring, blueberry Summer, spiced Fall, and even Private Reserve Pumpkin cider!

But depending on where you live, they may be quite difficult to find. Even wine and beer authorities in my area such as Ace Beverage and Total Wine were unable to handily make a special order for me. But, for some reason, Harris Teeter has always had a superior Woodchuck selection, and that is where I haphazardly found a pack of Woodchuck Winter.

The Review
Woodchuck Winter

From the website:
"Somewhere between a delicate snowflake drifting down to your tongue and a hard-packed snowball to the teeth, the power of this winter Cider is a balanced culmination of Premium French and Traditional American Oak, giving the cider great complexity and broad characteristics that neither style could produce on its own."

I don't mean to give anything away, but I really had to compare side-by-side the Winter cider to Woodchuck's Amber cider in order to be able to discern some of the former's characteristics.

In the Glass

Like any cider, when poured into the glass, the Winter developed nowhere near the head that beer fans are used to. Once settled, the cider's color is a few shades darker than the Amber.


The smell of the Winter is delightfully apply, as expected, though its aroma is less powerful than the Amber.


This is the point where I realized that I needed to bring in the Amber cider for comparison and start over. The flavor of the Winter cider seemed undetectably different than the Amber, if perhaps a little less sweet. Disappointed, I cracked open some cold Amber and took a few sips. When I revisited the Winter, the differences finally arose.

The flavor is definitely less sweet, probably more on par with the Woodchuck 802 Dark & Dry. I finally taste the woodiness of the cider's extra aging... it's a very faint dry flavor much like the characteristics I taste in my own Cask-series spirits. I'm also able to detect a little bit of vanilla in the mix.

But alas, after a few sips, I can no longer taste the unique character of Winter. But when I switch back to Amber for a few sips and return to Winter once more, I can taste it again.


I guess I see what Woodchuck is doing here. They make a varietal of their cider whose flavor doesn't appreciably stray from their "core" ciders. That way, their loyal fans are able to drink their varietals without having to adapt their tastes or think too hard. But when someone like myself can barely taste the difference between your core and varietal ciders, then you have a problem.

I dearly wish that beverage and spirit companies would take more chances in issuing unique variations of their products. It really comes down to money versus innovation: you can either ensure that a new product is close enough to the old to keep consumption the same on average, or you can take a leap that may fall on its ass, but it may also advance the industry.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh or hyperbolic, but I'm quite disappointed with Woodchuck Winter. I wouldn't go out of my way again to obtain it. I'd buy it again only to impress my cider-drinking friends at a party. I'd recommend it only to those who could obtain it easily. As for the other Woodchuck limited releases, I'd still love to try them, but knowing how nebulous it is to get my hands on them, I don't know if I ever will.

While we're on the subject of cider, let me share with you a great drink: the Stonewall cocktail.

You won't find too much information on the Stonewall for some reason, but some quick research makes it clear that the drink consists of whiskey and apple cider, hot or cold. I've found that Woodchuck Amber and bourbon make a fine Stonewall, and its flavors really hit the spot in fall or winter, for whatever reason. The bourbon manages to bring out the yeastiness of the cider, and the cider manages to highlight the pungent corn flavors of the bourbon. Do yourself a favor and pick up a pack of Woodchuck for this year's New Year celebration, and do yourself a second favor by making an Amber Stonewall.

Amber Stonewall

2oz Woodchuck Amber hard cider
1oz bourbon

Pour ingredients into a tumbler filled with ice. Optional cinnamon stick for a stirrer/garnish.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: Spike Your Juice

One of my favorite blogs is the Drinkhacker. Primarily a booze review blog, it constantly reviews anything alcoholic with a discerning palate and thoughtful notes. My favorite is when some of the more rare or unusual products are reviewed.

A while back, I saw that the Drinkhacker had reviewed a curious product called Spike Your Juice. I was so excited by it that I emailed their Customer Service on the product's website to see if they would send me a free sample to review, and they did. Because of their kindness and their great product, I will be ordering more soon with my own hard-earned money.

Spike Your Juice is a small kit that contains all you need in order to begin making your own cider or wine at home. The kit comes with a bubbler airlock that will fit on most large commercial 64oz juice bottles, six packets of yeast, and a bunch of quaint labels to put on your homemade hooch once it's done.

The process to make your own booze with this kit is simple and fun. You take a bottle of your favorite kind of juice, pour in a packet of yeast, plug the bottle with your bubbler airlock filled slightly with water, and wait! The yeast immediately begin consuming the sugar in the juice and begin emitting alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste... delicious, delicious waste. Within 8 hours you can see many tiny bubbles rising to your juice's surface while your airlock lets out excess gas and keeps out bacteria. If you didn't have an airlock, your capped bottle would explode in a matter of hours.

As a side note, it turns out the the Spike Your Juice yeast packets are in fact yeast and a bit of sugar mixed in. It may be the added sugar or that it's a particularly fast kind of brewing yeast, but the effects of the yeast's consumption can be seen hours quicker than if you used a simple run-of-the-mill yeast from your grocery store... I experimented and confirmed it.

The fermenting will stop when either 1) you put the bottle in the fridge to chill and kill the yeast (but cap it loosely if your airlock doesn't fit in the fridge!), 2) you drink it, 3) there is no sugar left for the yeast to consume, or 4) when the alcohol-by-volume of the juice reaches about 14%, which is an environment that naturally kills off the yeast. But watch out, if you let it ferment much past 48 hours, most of the juice's sugar will be consumed by the yeast, and your juice/hooch will no longer be very sweet.

This stuff is great fun. The first thing I fermented was Welch's Concord Grape juice, a product on Spike Your Juice's recommended juice list(pictured right). After 48 hours, the juice was carbonated, still sweet, and slightly boozy. The yeast lend a pungent flavor to the juice, which is tolerable, but not ideal. I found that running the juice through a coffee filter can remove most of the yeast (taste)... also another way to slow down the fermentation.

After I tested a recommended juice, I set out to try it on my own favorites... and I learned a valuable lesson: carefully check your juice's ingredients list before you try to ferment. It goes without saying that yeast will only consume natural sugar and not artificial sweetener, but another aspect to consider is preservatives. I wanted nothing more than Hawaiian Punch wine, but it is not to be; after the yeast floated in the punch for a day, I realized that (with the help of my friend who's a doctoral biology student) the culprit is the punch's Potassium Sorbate, a preservative which is specifically used for killing yeasts and molds. Whoops.

So far I've fermented grape juice, apple juice, cranberry cocktail, fruit punch, (bottled, non-refridgerated) orange juice, and a big jug of apple cider. I brought the fermented cider to Thanksgiving, and it was a hit (pictured below).

Herein lies, in my opinion, Spike Your Juice's best application: parties. The life of your fermented juice will be short; like soda, the hooch's carbonation quickly dissapates, and further, the yeast's consumption doesn't stop on a dime. What tastes delicious and sweet today might be dry and sugarless tomorrow, even if you put it in the fridge. Further still, Spike Your Juice recommends throwing away your juice's cap once you begin to ferment it, because you can essentially never safely cap the bottle again without it exploding, which doesn't exactly encourage you to keep it long before drinking it. All this volatile nature means rapid juice drinking is best, and that is best done among friends or family.

I highly recommend this product. It's cheap($10), simple, educational, and a lot of fun. You can turn your favorite juice into a wine or cider and enjoy it in a different and novel way.

Experiment responsibly!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

theSpeakista reviews the DJ's experiments

There is a chap named Keith who lives in New York City, and he runs a booze blog called theSpeakista. You should read his blog, because it details the coming-of-age of a novice cocktailian, and if you like drinking Manhattans in Manhattan bars, then you should really read his blog, because that is a subject in which he's quickly becoming an authority.

And now you have yet another reason to read it, because he has recently crafted a in-depth and detailed review of both my home-aged Composite Grape Spirit and my homemade Coffee Bitters, of which I sent him samples.

Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful analysis, Keith. I'm dedicating my next Manhattan to you, sir.