My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is about what is unique, standout, new or trending in spirits with my review ratings on a 1-5 rating scale. Small-batch distillers and drink producers need our aid. Please, support small businesses and quality drink. My 11 bottle picks + 4 RTDs of the month:
Chris Beyer — who comes from a winemaking family — just launched San Francisco-based Veso Inc. October 2021, debuting direct-to-consumer aperitifs. Both initial flavors ($35 per bottle) are low-proof, made with locally-sourced ingredients (all ingredients, including international items like cinnamon, listed with source), like California wines, spirits from Napa, organic fruits from Watsonville. Beyer’s vision is modern-day, unique aperitivos that stand on their own over ice or can be mixed, while pushing boundaries in vermouth/aperitif flavor profiles. Vanilla Nightfall was the biggest hit as I tasted friends/colleagues on these, a unique aperitif that speaks of winter with a 2020 Mendocino Chardonnay base, Napa Grape Spirits, vanilla, burnt caramel, dried and fresh orange peels, cacao, cinnamon, star anise and clove. Strawberry Solstice may be my favorite, its bold strawberry and citrus hit giving way to a subtle bitter, with a vibrant pink hue. A 2020 Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc white wine and Napa Grape Spirits base highlights organic strawberries and raspberries, organic Valencia orange and red grapefruit peels. If this is where we’re starting, I’m eager to see/taste what comes next in the Veso line.
Taste rating: 4.5 each
Corbin Cash Barrel Reserve Sweet Potato Liqueur
Inspired by founder David Souza’s mother’s sweet potato squares, Corbin Cash Barrel Reserve Sweet Potato Liqueur is the definitive sweet potato liqueur in a category that may never be major, but given the long history of Japanese shochu distilled from sweet potatoes and the like, the creation of such a quality product shows just what the sweet potato can be in a bottle. Distilled at lower proof (to retain flavor) from 100% estate-grown California sweet potatoes, then aged in custom-charred American white oak for up to four years, the spirit exudes all the brown sugar, oak, vanilla and spice sweetness one would expect — but with supreme balance and restrained sweetness. This is the kind of balance and true-to-the-source taste I wish for in all liqueurs.
Taste rating: 4.5
AGAVE SPIRITS: MEZCAL
Bosscal Mezcal Joven, Damiana and Conejo
Umberto Luchini of Wolf Spirit Distillery in Eugene, OR, added Bosscal® Mezcal to the company’s portfolio in May, bringing wider access to Bosscal’s Joven, Damiana and Pechuga de Conejo mezcals ($44.99, $49.99, $99.99, respectively), with other agave varietals to come. The family run, Durango-based distillery released their first mezcal in 2015 from certified organic, wild, mountain-grown agave hand-selected by fourth-generation Mezcalero Uriel Simental Enriquez, distilled using only artisanal methods. The Joven is particularly suited for cocktails with its citrus-forward palate, balanced peat and floral notes. Damiana, named after the aphrodisiac damiana herb which grows alongside agave, is more herbal with an earthy, chamomile-vibe. Pechuga de Conejo is a sipping mezcal, unfolding with mandarin, apricot, plum, with prized local apples actually being added to the distillate and vapors passed through a suspended rabbit, in true pechuga style.
Taste rating Joven: 4
Taste rating Damiana: 3.5
Taste rating Pechuga: 4.5
• Darnley’s London Dry Gin
Launched in 2010 and distilled in a cottage in coastal Kingsbarns, Scotland, with local botanicals, Darnley’s Original Gin is another quality Scottish gin, but inspired by elderflowers from the Elder trees growing nearby in the town of Fife. Botanicals are sustainably sourced, steeped in the base pre-distillation, including orris root, Spanish lemons, Moroccan coriander seeds, French angelica and local elderflowers. This is a gin that expresses Eastern Scotland’s coastal terroir. I appreciate the juniper-forward spirit with its strong floral undercurrent.
Taste rating: 4
• Gin Lane 1751 Pink Gin
Taking on the classic Victorian style of pink gin with Angostura bitters added for flavor complexity and a soft pink hue, Gin Lane 1751 Pink Gin is blended by 8th generation London distiller Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers, a legend in the gin world. Pink gins have trended in recent years and many are throwaway — I could do better at home with a high quality gin and adding a few drops of bitters myself. But given Maxwell’s expert balance, this is a tasty gin first, juniper-forward with hints of licorice and a bold citrus hit, and a pink gin second. Most of all, whether I made cocktails with cucumber and lemon, or tried Gin Lane 1751 in a gin and tonic, it showcased nicely in each direction.
Taste rating: 4
• Clonakilty Distillery’s Minke Irish Gin
I have fond memories of Ireland’s County Cork from my 2011 travels around the region. Clonakilty’s Minke Irish Gin reflects the region with its whey base sourced from local dairy farmers, including the distillery’s own dairy (dairy being a key output of the County). Botanicals reflect Clonakilty’s coastal setting, including hand-picked rock samphire (aka sea fennel), also reflected in the name after the Minke whale which swims along the Atlantic Ocean near the distillery coastline. I didn’t have enough of this sample to properly try it in cocktails to see how it holds up or plays in spirituous vs. diluted cocktails, so this review is simply for Minke gin neat. While I wish for more juniper and the gin runs a little hot for only 43.2% ABV, this is a citrus-forward gin for the many who prefer that style. It’s not overly complex but it is pleasing and drinkable, suggesting cocktail versatility.
Taste rating: 3.5
WHISKEY — Indian
Paul John Christmas Edition 2021
From Goa, India, Paul John Indian Single Malt Whisky continually produces excellent whiskies, ranging in peat levels and briny notes redolent of Goa’s coastal location. Paul John Christmas Edition 2021 just came out as the fourth in their annual series of Christmas whiskies ($84.99). Non chill-filtered, with no added colors or flavors, the base is distilled from six-row barley harvested across India, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, port and madeira casks. This latest is another balanced beauty where notes of raisins, cacao, caramel, butterscotch, spice, orange marmalade and coconut mingle with subtle peat and barley. Ideal for the winter and holiday gift-giving.
Taste Rating: 4.5
WHISKY — Scotch
Glenmorangie A Tale of Winter
Another holiday entrant and ideal winter dram, Glenmorangie’s new A Tale of Winter launched in the US on November 15, created by Scotch legend, Dr. Bill Lumsden. Finished in Sicilian Marsala wine casks, the 13-year-old single malt exudes a warm melange of nuts, ginger, clove, honey and toffee, exemplifying that now-signature Glenmorangie elegance and subtle balance we love the line for. It does, indeed, taste of winter.
Taste Rating: 4.5
WHISKEY — American
• Castle & Key Restoration Rye 2021
Releasing different hand-selected barrels each year for their Restoration Rye series, Castle & Key Distillery recently released Restoration Rye Batch 2 & 3 ($42.99), produced in the space that housed Kentucky’s historic Old Taylor Distillery. Restoration Rye Batch #2 goes the baking spice and brown sugar route with hints of orange and mint, while Rye Batch #3 veers a bit brighter with lemon and white pepper contrasting that allspice, toasty stone fruit. Both are aged 3.5 years from a mashbill of 63% rye, 20% malted barley, 17% yellow corn, producing just 75 and 70 barrels respectively. I appreciate Castle & Key’s play with rye and its various expressions in the barrel.
Taste Rating # 2: 3.5
Taste Rating #3: 4
• Peg Leg Porker Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey
The name didn’t exactly inspire confidence: it sounded like a gimmicky spirit I see far too many of in my line of work. Though I’m the kind of person who has taken four road trips through various parts of the South the past 15 years to study my BBQ styles, I was still skeptical of the quality a bourbon collab with a Nashville BBQ restaurant and QVC television star. Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker created this whiskey — purchased from an undisclosed distillery (word on the street is it’s Dickel) — which he filters through hickory charcoal in the same smoker he cooks whole hogs in. While the same 8-year-old whiskey has been out a few years, I tasted the recently-released 12-year old Peg Leg Porker. Though a bit hot for 90 proof, the smoky vibes evoke BBQ, lively with a peppery-vanilla hit, playful and food friendly — I immediately wanted to pair it with some pulled pork.
Taste Rating: 4
• Jack Daniel’s 2021 Single Barrel Special Release, Coy Hill High Proof
As another example of how major brands are differentiating these days, Jack Daniels just released their 2021 Single Barrel Special Release, Coy Hill High Proof ($70) this November. Aged on the top ricks of the oldest barrel houses #8 and #13 on Coy Hill (the highest hill on their property in Lynchburg, TN), the proof ranges from 137.4 to 148.3 (my bottle was the 148.3). Releasing roughly 4500-5000 cases, this is limited edition Jack, a fine example of cask strength with tight balance. Starting with the Jack Daniel’s classic mashbill/base of 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye grain, it’s aged (age not listed), then bottled uncut from single barrels. All the robustness expected of a whopping 74% ABV is there: the whiskey hits with cinnamon, baking spice, pear, leather, nuts, loads of oak and, most of all, cherry. The highest proof whiskey ever released from Jack Daniels, my recent virtual tasting with master distiller Chris Fletcher confirmed that though I’m not a drinker of standard Jack (I prefer their Sinatra Select or Gentleman Jack), this bold beauty is a welcome newcomer for cask strength whiskey lovers.
Taste Rating: 4.5
• Sunday’s Finest Gold Fashioned: Sure, Sunday’s Finest Gold Fashioned is a crazy, high-priced RTD/bottled cocktail at $150 from bartender/spirits producer Robert Haynes. But this newcomer, released October 2021, surprised me with its depth and quality in taste for those who can swing the cost. A blend of 8 year aged Kentucky bourbon and 5 year Indiana straight rye whiskey (I can only assume MGP?), the sugar is balanced, the added orange spritzer brings aromatics, and flavors unfold, from saffron bitters to vanilla, cacao, orange peel, gentian root and plenty of spice.
Taste Rating: 4.5
• WeSake: For longtime sake lovers like myself, WeSake is a little too easy-drinking, smooth and lacking in definition compared to many of the canned and mini-bottled sakes I’ve tasted over the years. But with the goal of making sake more approachable for the average person, I commend their hip packaging and easy intro to Junmai Ginjo sake, brewed in Kobe, Japan, from non-GMO rice grown in Tagocho. At 13% ABV, it’s $18.99 for a four-pack of 200ml cans.
Taste Rating: 3.5
• Licence IV 2018 Blanc: Already sold in 1 Liter bottles, Licence IV Wine (SRP: $5.99 for 250ml cans, $23.99 for a 4-pack) just became the first muscadet wine in cans. From France’s Loire Valley, this is an easy-sipping wine that is thankfully quality, produced by small, family-owned wineries from Melon de Bourgogne grapes and 30 year old vines, hand-harvested with organic practices. While not the most complex of the category, the age on the vines brings just enough depth, exuding citrus zest, fresh-cut grass and a dry, saline finish that begs for seafood pairings.
Taste Rating: 4
• Brauvus: Bravus is the U.S.’s first brewery dedicated solely to non-alcoholic craft beer, launched in 2015 by Philip Brandes. Also vegan and roughly 100 calories per 12-ounce can, the range from West Coast-inspired IPA and Oatmeal Stout to Blonde Ale, offer a little something for everyone, while I appreciate the refreshing-tart Blood Orange IPA.
Taste Rating: 3.5-4.5