Because it’s doppelbock season, last week I stopped by Binny’s in River North on the way home from work to pick up a bottle of Weihenstephaner Korbinian. (I was already working through three six-packs of Metropolitan Generator, which seemed like enough at the time.) Just a few feet away, I spied something calling itself Dragon Lady Doppelbock—it cost less, it was stronger, and it had an awesomely tacky label. So I bought both.
Dragon Lady is brewed in Biržai, Lithuania, by Rinkuškiai Alaus Darykloje—hereafter referred to as Rinkuškiai, because that’s what the back of the bottle says and I don’t know what those other words mean.
Rinkuškiai may very well be respectable at home, but in the States it seems content to operate largely as an anonymous novelty brewer: its portfolio also includes Werewolf, Before-After, Lobster Lovers Beer, and Hell on High Quad Bock. All these bottles have silly attention-getting artwork (with no Rinkuškiai branding), and many wear red paper collars announcing their alcohol content in big, bold numbers. And of course, as a further enticement to drinkers shopping by ABV, they’re cheap. Dragon Lady was $1.99 for 16.9 ounces.
I knew at the time that I might be setting myself up for a repeat of the Super Brew 15 debacle. But I managed to hang onto a thread of hope—there weren’t nearly as many online reviews of Dragon Lady, which suggested that it hadn’t achieved the notoriety of that vile Romanian “Barley Wine.” And none of the reviews I did find used language as salty as “if genocide could be fermented and bottled.” Dragon Lady even scored a 77 (“okay”) at Beer Advocate.
Dragon Lady is distributed widely in America—its ratings at Beer Advocate and RateBeer come from as far afield as California, Florida, and Delaware—but I can’t find any mentions of it older than spring 2013. Super Brew 15, by comparison, has had since at least early 2011 to accumulate online invective.
In August, Jacob Yarbrough at the Flagpole in Athens, Georgia, called Dragon Lady a “monstrosity” and described its flavor as “rubbing alcohol wrapped in a thin veneer of beer.” But he also made references to Conan the Barbarian and Daenerys Targaryen—definitely the low-hanging fruit here—so I wasn’t sure how seriously to take his opinion. I mean, look at the label. That’s Ghita of Alizarr if it’s anybody.
I’d say I was surprised by Dragon Lady’s deep gold color—nothing like a doppelbock’s usual rich chestnut—except that simply holding the bottle up to the light had already made it clear something was amiss. At least this beer has a head, which is more than I can say for Super Brew 15. Generous but loose and fleeting, it barely sticks to the glass at all.
Dragon Lady’s smell is powerful but raw, like boiled malt and not much else—it reminded me of the Dumpster full of spent grain that I stuck my hand in at Metropolitan’s brewery a few weeks ago. It’s actually sort of pleasant, albeit unlike any aroma I’m used to in a finished beer (and nothing at all like any doppelbock I’ve ever had).
It also smells slightly of cooked corn, but not in the terrible “unheated can of Del Monte” way that you’re probably imagining. I know it’ll sound like I’m laboring mightily to make this nonsense beer seem interesting, but have you ever tried atole? (No, the little lizard with the throat thing is an anole.) It’s a sweet Central American masa-based hot drink often made with vanilla, piloncillo, and canela—so in this case you’d have to swap in flavors of caramel and butterscotch, plus a clean whiff of grassy, herbal hops.
So! That’s encouraging. How about the taste?
Mr. Yarbrough may not be the guy to consult about warrior women in armored bikinis, but as far as this beer is concerned, he has a point. Caramel and butterscotch recur in the flavor, alongside porridgelike grains, burnt toffee, and dry grass. That might sound tolerable, but it’s spoiled by a cloying sweetness that tries and fails to mask the hot, astringent alcohol. Dragon Lady tastes for all the world like the fine folks at Rinkuškiai got it to 9.7 percent by dropping in a shot of vodka—and not good vodka either, but the kind that comes in a big plastic handle and gives you a hangover where you can’t see until midafternoon. The finish leaves a bitter solvent aftertaste—maybe acetone? I don’t know. I’m not in the habit of drinking anything that can dissolve Styrofoam.
At first I thought I might have let the beer warm up for too long while I was farting around with my camera. In my experience cheap, strong beers are more tolerable cold, and this one had been out of the fridge for almost 40 minutes before I took my first sip. So I put my glass in the freezer for half an hour partway through this review—that’s how hard I was trying to give Dragon Lady a fair shake. Alas, all that did was tamp down the flavors that seemed like they might’ve come from something edible.
I finished the bottle, so on that score Dragon Lady beats Super Brew 15 handily. But the Korbinian costs just $1.30 more, which makes me feel like a proper twit for drinking this garbage. I also got a strange, constricting headache, like somebody slowly tightening a leather strap around my temples. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
One of these days I’ll find some cheap eastern European rocket fuel that isn’t too nasty to recommend in good conscience, and then you’ll all thank me. But I’d better not get some weird brain cancer from looking.
At least a beer with the word “dragon” in its name makes it easy to segue into metal. “Dragon Lady” comes from a self-titled 1986 album by Crimson Glory, an American power-metal band that’s been around since 1979 (though it was called Pierced Arrow till 1982, then Beowulf till ’83). RIP to front man Midnight, aka John Patrick McDonald Jr., who died in 2009—he delivers a supremely campy vocal performance here, squirting up into his astonishing upper register so arbitrarily that I suspect someone was crouching next to him in the booth and jabbing him with a knitting needle.
“Watch out now she’s breathing fire / She’s a dragon lady,” Midnight sings in the chorus. “Look into her crimson eyes / Say good-bye!” I’d say it sounds like he’s tried this beer, but Rinkuškiai wasn’t even established until 1991.
I also chose a song I actually like: “Dragonaut,” the lead track from Sleep’s 1993 album Holy Mountain.
Get it? Sure, the lyrics are about a guy riding a dragon into space or something. But “Dragonaut” also sounds like “dragon” and “not,” right?
Oh, fuck it.