Looking for unique and exciting spirits hitting your local bar or bottle shop? Dining/drink writer & judge Virginia Miller is regularly tasting and reviewing the wealth of new releases entering the marketplace for you. The top dozen bottle picks of the month are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 and are as follows… 

AQUAVIT

Batch 22 Classic Gold New American Aquavit

www.drinkbatch22.com

Just out July 2022, Batch 22 Classic Gold American Aquavit ($39.99) has SoCal roots, produced in a town and area I partly grew up in (Fullerton in Orange County), co-founded by actor Matthew Arkin, son of famed actor Alan Arkin. Arkin tasted a similar spirit on his travels years back, then tried to replicate the recipe in his Los Angeles kitchen as he couldn’t find a similar aquavit out there. He then partnered and honed the recipe with his “two best friends,” co-founders Bruce Glassman and Marc Marosi, and they landed on Batch 22. As a longtime aquavit lover who has studied and experienced its various styles around Scandinavia and from countless producers around the U.S. and world, Arkin has landed on something. It’s savory, just the way I most love aquavit, a more dill-forward-style, unfolding with bold caraway. It’s dry and not as rounded or silky as some aquavits I also love and tried it side-by-side with. That’s the only thing keeping it from 5 stars as the flavor profile is sheer joy, turning out beautiful cocktails. Taste Rating: 4.5

 

MEZCAL

Catedral Mezcal Espadin

catedralmezcal.com

With San Francisco connections, Catedral de mi Padre Mezcal was founded by 20-something SF native Sydney Block with her father Jeff, working with mezcaleros around Oaxaca to create mezcals sourcing only sustainably grown wild agaves. I’ve only tried the Espadin (there are six varieties and ensambles/blends here), but it’s a lovely expression of the most common agave plant. The nose hits with ripe, cooked agave sweetness and green vegetal notes, then unfolds on the palate with balanced earth and smokiness.  Taste Rating: 4.5

 

Mezcal Campante

https://mezcalcampante.com

Wrapped in paper with a modern, clean look, Mezcal Campante ($64.99) is a female-led, small-batch premium mezcal made from a unique cold ensemble (blend) of Espadin and Barril agave grown in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s also Mezcal Artesanal, so produced with at least partial Old World methods (categories of mezcal production broken down here). Master Mezcalero Raúl Rodríguez Reyes uses a traditional tahona to grind the agave and cooks them in a conical stone oven, then double distills in copper. It’s rich and full, robustly smoky — even with a hint of welcome petrol — without being overpowering. It has character. Taste Rating: 4.5

 

GENEPI

Forthave Genepi

https://forthavespirits.com/yellow-genepi

Co-founders writer/producer Daniel de la Nuez and painter Aaron Fox launched small batch Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn with a gin, aperitivo and French-style amaro (more on the gin in an upcoming column). Named after botanist Richard Forthave, who created a protective herbal tonic as the Plague ravaged Europe in the 15th Century, their focus is on botanical spirits. They’ve gone on to make nocino, coffee liqueur and genepi, using only plant-based ingredients in their spirits with a botanical library of over 200 different types of herbs. Their Yellow bottle (each spirit has a different colored wax seal) is a génépi aperitif produced in collaboration with NY’s Liten Buffel winery. It is fortified and aromatized wine with the right amount of sweetness (they use raw, organic turbinado sugar and Upstate NY raw honey). Almost all their ingredients are USDA organic certified, with the few that aren’t grown by non-certified small farmers or wild foraged. While the nose initially hits with an estery whiff of ethyl acetate, that’s also subtle on the palate (the element keeping the rating from being higher). The herbs are integrated, while that honeyed sweetness rolls over the tongue.  Taste Rating: 3.5

 

RUM

Ron Serrano Destilado De Caña Oaxacan Mountain Rum

The more we Mexican rums imported to the States, the happier I am. These often funky, rustic rums feel in line with the hogo of Martinique, the clean funk of Haiti, the depth of Jamaican rums — and they make gorgeous cocktails. At a robust 49% ABV, Ron Serrano Destilado De Cana’s Oaxacan Mountain Rum is still tough to find, but I had the privilege of tasting it after blind judging in a spirits competition and can only find it at Old Town Tequila. It’s properly funky, yes, bracing and rustic, with a silky texture… everything I want from a Mexican rum.  Taste Rating: 4.5

 

BRANDY — Cognac

Normandin-Mercier Petite Champagne VSOP

https://normandin-mercier.fr/en

Audrey Normandin runs Cognac Normandin-Mercier with her brother, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2022. The chestnut and hundred-year-old oak tree-lined property is home to a former 17th-century hunting lodge near the port town La Rochelle. The VSOP makes a lovely cocktail Cognac with its subtly floral and spiced body, and a touch of anise. The siblings source eaux de vie from the Petite and Grand Champagne regions, specifically Petite Champagne in this VSOP bottling. Taste Rating: 4

 

GIN

Burwood Distillery “Garden Party Small Batch Gin Series Cool”: Cucumber Gin

https://burwooddistillery.ca

Burwood Distillery in Calgary, Alberta, produces a “Garden Party” gin series, including Triple Berry Gin and Grapefruit Lemongrass. I was more drawn to the herbaceous, vegetal sound of Cool Cucumber Gin made with cucumbers and baby dill. While it’s happily cucumber-forward, there is a strong tannic, almost tea-like note that dominates, overpowering cocktails and making it taste much stronger than its low 39.2% ABV would suggest. But there are welcome “bones” here and a concept I’d love to see dialed in, as the Garden Party gin series concept is an ideal showcase of the range possible in gin botanicals.  Taste Rating: 3

 

TEQUILA

Teremana Tequila

https://teremana.com

I tend to skip celebrity-backed spirits, which often pale in quality and taste, rarely appealing to spirits geeks and professionals like myself. But Teremana Tequila from Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson is damn good tequila, I must admit. Sustainably produced in the highlands of Jalisco at a family-owned distillery now with a separate space for Destilería Teremana de Agave, I only tried the copper pot distilled blanco. With balanced vanillans, it’s bright and fresh, rolling out with all you hope for in a blanco: roasted agave, saline, citrus, green-vegetal notes, even tropical fruit. It drinks easy and stands out in cocktails.  Taste Rating: 4.5

 

Inspiro Tequila

https://inspirotequila.com

Mara Smith founded Inspiro Tequila, bringing on maestra tequilera Ana Maria Romero Mena to create the tequilas with her. They admirably launched The Purple Bicycle Project to support other women wanting to get into the industry. The blanco is clean, with vanilla spice and green notes just sharp enough to be interesting, rounded out enough to be mellow. The reposado exudes a welcome nutting, rusticity and layers of flavor. My samples were too small to try it in more than half a cocktail, but the blanco showcased stood up in a classic margarita, while the reposado lost some if its more pleasing characteristics.  Taste Rating Blanco: 4; Taste Rating Reposado: 4.5

 

WHISKEY – American

Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey — 6 Years

SF’s pioneering small batch distillery Hotaling & Co. (formerly Anchor Distilling Co.) just relaunched their Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey (SRP $64.99) with new packaging and design, credited as the first American craft whiskey to hit the market post-prohibition. While I can’t say I love the redesign of their also pioneering (and very special) Junipero Gin, I do appreciate the Old Potrero rebrand. The classic label and design nods to SF’s historic cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge and the same copper pot still used at the distillery since it opened. Legendary Anchor Brewery founder in the 1960s, Fritz Maytag, began distilling this whiskey in 1994 with Bruce Joseph, who became master distiller and took over fully in 2010. This 6-year Rye tastes as heartwarming as ever, its 100% malted rye mashbill exuding earth, spice, cherry, smoke and chocolate, but with a warm, nutty finish. This modern-day SF classic feels fresh but (thankfully) just like itself the past nearly 30 years. Taste Rating: 5

 

RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned Cocktails/Drinks)

• Seven Stills Canned Cocktails:

San Francisco’s Seven Stills brewery/distillery just launched a canned cocktail line with Seven Stills’ spirits as the base. From a Vodka Mule to a Whiskey Highball, made with their beloved Chocasmoke Whiskey and soda water, each is refreshing and easy drinking, with earthy chocolate notes coming through on the Highball. The Watermelon Spritz doesn’t taste like natural watermelon and was my least favorite of the lineup, though light, while the Margarita (which they partnered with a Mexican distillery to create) manages well despite the difficulty of keeping lime shelf-stable and fresh-tasting in a can: it’s bright and boozy. Taste Ratings: 3.5-4.5

Straightaway Ready-to-Drink Cocktails:

Straightaway Ready-to-Drink Cocktails is based in Portland, OR, launching their line in 2018 with herbaceous, bitter and spirit forward drinks in a bottle, intended to pour on ice, but also mixable in cocktails, with recipes on the bottles. While I was intrigued by Blue Dorris’ orris root and pink peppercorn botanicals, its botanicals ended up almost soapy, while the Lintik (gin aged with lemon, simple syrup, housemade bitters) tastes a bit like candied lemonade without much gin. However, Crimson Snap is appropriately bitter with cinchona bark and gentian root, rosy and spiced with rhubarb root, Seville orange, clove and rosemary: it works well in a Negroni variation or with a high quality sweet/red vermouth. Taste Ratings: 3-4.5

Click here for last month’s edition.