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. More than ever, small-batch distillers and drink producers need our aid. Please, support small business and quality drink. My 12 bottle picks of the month:

Photo courtesy of The Producer Mezcal


AGAVE SPIRITS: MEZCAL

The Producer Mezcal
www.producermezcal.com

The Producer Mezcal
hit the U.S. September 2021 with two expressions: Ensamble ($46.99; 2000 bottles per batch) and Tepeztate ($97.99 SRP; 666 bottles). Launched in partnership with producer/rapper Swizz Beatz (hence the Producer name) to help draw attention to agave, palenques and artesanal producers, the line funds community growth programs, educational resources and mentorship opportunities for the mezcal industry in Mexico. Third-generation mezcalero, Erasto Martinez Hernandez, distills the Ensamble in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula de Matamoros from 7 year Espadin and roughly 9 year old Cuishe agaves. The Ensamble is fresh, green and citrus-driven. Also a third-generation mezcalero, Celestino Sernas Lopez specializes in wild agave fermentations, producing the Tepeztate with Juan Pacheco Santos in Santiago Matatlan. The wild agave is grown from 16 up to 25 years, sourced from the coastal Sierra Sur, imparting a subtle salinity and fruity minerality, thanks to its 13-day open air fermentation. With more expressions set to come out in 2022, I look forward to what this intriguing new line releases next.
Taste rating Ensamble: 4.5, Taste rating Tepeztate: 5

SCOTCH WHISKY

Highland Park Cask Strength
www.highlandparkwhisky.com/en-us/cask-strength
It’s tough to top the great Highland Park Scotch — and their new Cask Strength Release No. 1 is another keeper. Matured predominantly in sherry-seasoned American oak casks, the non-chill-filtered single malt whisky balances subtle smoke with floral, vanilla, toffee, honey, citrus and spice notes. Being bottled at 63.3% ABV means full, robust flavor comes through, but it’s blessedly not too hot and not at all harsh. It unfold with almond, pears, licorice, black pepper and that lovely, balanced peat. A must for cask strength Scotch lovers. Taste rating: 4.5

LIQUEUR

 

Luxardo Maraschino Perla Dry
www.luxardo.it/liqueurs-and-distillates/maraschino-perla-dry
Celebrating its 200th Anniversary in 2021, the great Luxardo has released a limited edition (only 4,999 numbered bottles) Maraschino Perla Dry from a recipe last produced in the 1970s. Its considerably reduced sugar content still finishes sweet, but is more robustly floral, letting the clear marasca cherry distillate base shine. Besides its limited edition nature, the higher price point (online I’m seeing $99.99- $150) is due to an over 50 years old base and flask-shaped, antique blue glass bottle in an eco-leather gift box. It tastes like the ultimate kirsch eau-de-vie, layered, complex, sweet, nutty and vibrant with cherry and black pepper spice. It’s worth seeking out for maraschino and eaux de vie fans.
Taste rating: 5

AGAVE SPIRITS: TEQUILA

Tequila Fortaleza Reposado Winter Blend 2021
With my first unforgettable week in Tequila, Mexico, being spent with Tequila Fortaleza (labeled Los Abuelos in Mexico) back in 2010, I will forever have fond feelings towards the brand — and years prior to that trip, their blanco and anejo were among my favorite tequilas overall. Their new, limited edition Tequila Fortaleza Reposado Winter Blend 2021 reminds me why they were an early agave love of mine. Open-air fermentation in wood tanks lends character, while the ancient tahona wheel crushing process is a rarity in tequila. Twice distilled in a copper pot still, then aged 6 months in American oak barrels, 10 months in French oak and finished in previously used marsala wine casks, lends a marsala, baking spices, butter, vanilla, clove vibe, while a nutty, citrus-forward brightness still comes through in that long, dry finish. Taste rating: 4.5

 

GIN

• Scapegrace Black Gin
https://scapegracedistillery.com
This New Zealand export is another in the butterfly pea flower-colored gin realm, but with the unique botanicals that bring a distinctly floral, sweet, robust flavor profile. Scapegrace Black Gin ($79.99) took NZ by storm, selling out on its first day of sale and winning Gold medals. Distillers Mark Neal and Daniel McLaughlin’s Scapegrace Black is dubbed “the world’s first naturally black gin,” which I don’t fully understand given the clarity distillation brings, but there must be post-distillation elements added. The 12 botanicals include aronia berry, saffron, pineapple, butterfly pea flower and sweet potato, the latter coming through in a candied way with a lush mouthfeel and interplay of tart aronia berry, pineapple and earthy-floral pea flower. The butterfly pea flower works its usual visual magic, shifting the gin from shades of purple to blue. Taste rating: 4

• 1220 Origin Gin
Founded in 2018 out of 4 Hands Brewing Co. in St. Louis, MO, 1220 Artisan Spirits produces vodkas, amaro, an aperitif and RTDs (canned cocktails) alongside their gin and barrel aged gin. 1220’s flagship Origin Gin was created with gin & tonics in mind and is just such a gin: easy drinking, not overly complex but pleasant and at 85 proof, holds up in a G&T or other cocktails. The base is neutral brandy from Napa Valley (75% grape-based, 25% corn base) and the gin’s more uncommon, New Western style botanicals include neroli blossom from bitter orange trees and bergamot. Taste rating: 3.5

 

WHISKEY — Japanese

Kikori Japanese Whisky
www.kikoriwhiskey.com
Though I’ve been drinking Kikori Japanese Whisky for years, I’ve not officially reviewed it, but have written about it in cocktails, at bars, etc. Kikori predated the trend towards Japanese rice-based whiskies, in keeping with the shortage of grain-based Japanese whiskies (and massive price rise) in recent years. Soh Spirits co-founder, Ann Soh Woods, released Kikori Whiskey in 2015, made entirely from rice, distilled, aged and bottled on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan. As Japanese rice whiskies keep hitting the market, Kikori remains a standard-bearer of the balance and ease possible in a rice whisky. While it remains lighter in body than many grain-based whiskies — thus requiring its own cocktail recipes — its delicate notes of grass, orange blossom and wood is ideal for cocktails.
Taste rating: 4

RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned)

Sincere Cider: Starting as a hobby out of an Oakland garage, Bex Pezzullo launched Sincere Cider (with a standout modern, colorful can design by Molly Russell) in 2020 in pandemic. Sourcing organic culinary apples from Washington’s Yakima Valley and French wine yeast, the cider is produced and canned in Napa. Flagship Bonafide Dry cider is everything I want an American cider to be (as opposed to Normandy/French-style, etc.): bright, dry yet back-sweetened with a whisper of fresh-pressed apple juice, imparting a lively freshness. She releases seasonal ciders like a current tart, tannic beauty of a pomegranate cider. Taste rating: 5

Photo © Virginia Miller

Soku Soju-Based Seltzer: Soku is a new (and the first) soju-based seltzer line from in initial tangerine, strawberry and pineapple, each made with a clean mix of triple-filtered soju, real fruit juice and sparkling water and a mild 6% ABV. From the creators of excellent Makku Makgeolli, these canned seltzers are beautifully effervescent, with a malty, grainy finish, calling on the wheat or barley soju is often distilled from. While the strawberry is the unexpected winner — tart and bright — the pineapple runs saccharine and unnatural tasting, hence the rating difference. Taste rating: 3 to 4

St. Hildie’s Botonica Spiked Tincture Tonics: Made in Mill Valley in the SF Bay Area, St. Hildie’s Botonica spiked tincture tonics was just launched in August 2021 by Alexi Cashen, CEO of Elenteny Imports, Christine Peck and Meghan Deroma, an all-female co-founder team. This line of low ABV (5%) botanical and real fruit-driven tonics features adaptogenic and nootropic tinctures and no added sugar. The initial three sparkling flavors are guava ginger, lemon turmeric and elderberry hibiscus. The flavors are subtle with a nice dryness but the Elderberry Hibiscus (with lime juices) runs more balanced thanks to the addition of sea salt, while the Lemon Turmeric could use more ginger, lemon and even effervescence, falling a bit flat as it sits. Taste rating: 3 to 4

 

VODKA

Hope Town Vodka & Lime
“Made in South Carolina. Inspired by the Bahamas.” King Spirits’ founder Steven Busch (from the multi-generational, Anheuser-Busch beer family) just launched three spirits in the U.S.: Walker’s Cay Bourbon, Hope Town Vodka and Hope Town Lime, with a portion of profits donated to three organizations helping the Bahamas rebuild from destructive hurricanes. Produced in Charleston, South Carolina, the vodka is clean and silky, if not particularly distinctive or memorable. The Hope Town Lime, however, is a surprise. Essentially a lime vodka, the lime tastes fresh with an almost peel and pith-type brightness, silky texture that adds body and brightness to a cocktail. In addition, Walker’s Cay Bourbon Whiskey, aged in new Missouri oak barrels and finished on sherry cask staves at Green River Distillery in Kentucky, is corn-heavy, balanced by rye, a bit rough-and-tumble, but works well as a cocktail base. Taste rating Vodka: 3.5, Taste rating Lime: 4.5, Taste rating Whiskey: 3.5

WHISKEY — American

Misunderstood Ginger Spiced Whiskey
https://misunderstoodwhiskey.com
Though I’ll judge quality highly no matter my personal preference, I must admit I don’t understand the category of flavored whiskey in general — that’s what well-crafted cocktails are for. But if it’s going to be done and if there is an audience for it (there is), it should be done well. Created by two childhood friends who grew up a block from each other in Montclair, NJ, Misunderstood Whiskey ($30) was created to appeal to their friends and beyond who find whiskey too harsh or unapproachable. So though flavored whiskies are not for people like me, this is a balanced version, blended and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, with two types of ginger. It runs too sweet  for me, but the whiskey comes through, and the sweetness isn’t cloying or heavy. The ginger tastes natural and the orange, gingerbread, spice notes make a good base for cocktails. Taste rating: 4