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:

AMARI

Brucato Amaro
www.brucatoamaro.com
This new trio of California amari, Brucato, has already been a big hit in CA, winning gold and double gold at San Francisco World Spirits Competition (one of many spirits awards in which I blind judge). Husband-and-wife James and Sierra Clark run the company, bottle and label in San Francisco, naming the line after John G. Brucato, founder of the SF Farmers Market in 1943. Calling on their food and drink background, they celebrate California’s abundant produce and native plants and herbs that continue to feed the country. They’ve launched three amaros: Chaparral, Orchards and Woodlands. I find myself particularly a fan of the bay leaf, mint, anise, cardamom and native Yerba Santa herb notes of Chaparral, as well as the more woody, cacao, dark fruit, pine and berry-driven Woodlands. Orchards runs nutty, warmed by candied orange, cinnamon and nutmeg. All have a balanced, subtle bitterness. Taste rating Chaparral & Woodlands: 4.5
Taste rating Orchards: 4

AGAVE SPIRITS: MEZCAL

Mezcal Dona Vega Espadin
https://mezcaldonavega.com

Produced in a small town outside the city of Oaxaca, Santiago Matatlán (known as the “World Capital Of Mezcal”), Mezcal Dona Vega was created by founder Sonya Vega, produced by women from a family who have passed down the tradition for five generations.
Vega and her team of women sifted through 73 recipes, 22 farms and countless tastings over two years and out of that came the Dona Vega blend. I have only tasted the Espadin and though triple-distilled (which to me can sometimes signify “smooth,” aka boring, bland or subtle), Dona Vega is thankfully not lacking in character. The smoke is in balance with nutty (almond, walnut), fruity (guava, dried fruits) notes, and a subtle cocoa earthiness. It’s utterly drinkable, beautiful in a cocktail… a lesson in balance and finesse. Taste rating: 5

GIN

Marconi 42 Poli Gin
www.winebow.com/our-brands/poli-distillery
Just arriving in the States via Winebow as importer, Marconi 42 Gin is a Mediterranean-style gin from none other than historic (since 1898) grappa master, Jacopo Poli. In keeping with grappa, the gin is bracing, but in signature Poli fashion, it’s elegant and streamlined. Juniper, rosemary, mint, basil, thyme, cardamom, coriander and fennel stand with commanding presence, yet are harmonious and integrated (it makes a beauty of a martini). Marconi 42 is distilled in Crysopea, a proprietary vacuum bain-marie pot still allowing a low temperature extraction of each botanical, intensifying the aromatics. Taste rating: 5


RUM

Dos Maderas Rums
Produced in Guyana & Barbados, Dos Maderas released rums finished in sherry casks at Bodegas Williams & Humbert in Spain. Dos Maderas 5+3 ($33.99) is a blend of 5-year Bajon and Guyanese rums rested an additional 3 years in 20-year-old Palo Cortado sherry casks. It exudes vanilla nuttiness with a smoky sherry whisper. Dos Maderas 5+5 ($44.99) is a blend of the same rums, rested in those sherry casks but with the addition of 2 years in 20-year-old Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry casks. The PX imparts darker notes of fig, raisin, even cola. Both run sweeter than I like my rums, especially the second, but 5+5 has added complexity layers, resulting in my slightly higher score. The price point is right and for those who prefer a sweeter-yet-still-layered rum, these will please. Taste rating 5+3: 3.5
Taste rating 5+5: 4

 

Denizen Rums
http://denizenrum.com
Denizen’s
line of rums appeal with their vibrant hogo/funk notes, balance and lower price point. As a standout cocktail rum, their 3 year aged white rum, 8 year Merchant’s Reserve and 100 proof vatted rum are all balanced, bringing the funk without overpowering, exuding robust character without running hot or harsh. They’ve dialed in this line with a lower cost that makes it cocktail and backbar-friendly yet all are pleasing to sip on their own. My favorite of the three is the 8 year.
Taste rating 100 Proof Vatted: 4
Taste rating 3 year and 8 year: 4.5

VODKA

Broken Shed Vodka
https://brokenshed.com
Hailing from New Zealand, Broken Shed Vodka goes with their new U.S.-centric tagline, The Vodka of Tomorrow, referring to their time zone difference where it’s already tomorrow and to their technique of sustainably distillation (three times distilled) using only NZ mountain mineral water, spring water and its base ingredient: whey. The result is certainly clean and silky if not robust in flavor, although it still isn’t lacking character. It’s subtle and adds texture to cocktails. Taste rating: 4.5

WHISKEY — Bourbon

Basil Hayden Toast
www.basilhaydenbourbon.com
Created in 1992 by Booker Noe as part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch collection, Basil Hayden quickly became a favorite of bourbon-lovers, especially those who seek high-rye mashbills. Out August 2, 2021, Basil Hayden Toast ($49.99) is the latest innovation in the line created by eighth generation Beam family distiller, Freddie Noe. Instead of rye grain, Basil Hayden Toast is distilled from US-grown brown rice, starting with a hint of sweetness, then entering a secondary toasted barrel finish for a deepening of caramelized sugar and toasted wood notes. Post-aging, the toasted, aged bourbon is blended back with more brown rice bourbon, rested in level four char barrels. This grounds the final product with balance and depth, yet at 80 proof, it still drinks silky and easy. Taste rating: 4.5

 
Daviess County Bourbon
https://luxrowdistillers.com/daviess-county-bourbon
Caveat: I only tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon finished bourbon from Daviess County Bourbon (DCB). DCB is part of the Lux Row Distillers line in Bardstown, Kentucky, a revived, historic Kentucky distillery dating back to 1874. Distilled from corn, wheat, rye, malt and water, Daviess County Bourbon is combination of two bourbon mashbills — a wheated and a rye — finished for six months in cabernet barrels and bottled at 48% ABV. The sweet wood-aged and corn elements of honey, vanilla and caramel come through initially, while the spice and tannins from the wine barrels unfold on the finish. Taste rating: 4

 

WHISKEY — Irish Whiskey

Waterford Single Farm Origin Irish Whiskies
waterfordwhisky.com
Not unlike the trend Tequila Ocho kicked off in 2008 of single estate tequilas, Waterford Whisky is centered around terroir with Single Farm Origin Irish whiskies. Founder Mark Reynier followed data from Teagasc (Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Food Development) showcasing nearly 100 major flavor compounds in barley spirits by launching single origin whiskies (currently €75.00) showcasing barley’s range. From all Irish-grown barley, Reynier worked with 97 Irish growers to date (some organic, biodynamic or heritage grains), “one farm, one terroir, at a time.” They monitor each farm’s harvest, then malt, mash, ferment, distill and mature the whiskies at Waterford Distillery on the banks of Ireland’s River Suir. I tried three: Dunbell Edition 1.1, Dunmore Edition 1.1,  Rathclogh Edition 1.1. Dunbell is a warm, porridge-esque mashbill exuding apple and fall notes, while Rathclogh comes off brighter, contrasting between black pepper and citrus. Favorites will vary so it’s a line best tried side-by-side to appreciate its scope and ascertain favorites.
Taste rating: 4 to 4.5
 

COCKTAIL MIXERS

Pasolivo Olive Oil
I’ve long been a fan of olive oil in cocktails since I first experienced it at SF bars a good 15 years ago — if you haven’t had an olive oil martini, please do yourself a favor and make one. Pasolivo is smart to not only operate as a tree-to-table, sustainable, Paso Robles-California-based extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) ranch, but to focus on cocktails. Their wide range of subtly flavored olive oils feel made for (bar or at-home) cocktails. Flavored with natural flavor infusions (fresh basil, rosemary, red jalapeno, cilantro lime, tangerine, etc.), their EVOOs enhance a range of cocktails — they offer recipes on their site, like this lovely, frothy Olive Oil Cocktail I tried at home. The restraint and freshness of each “flavor” plus a quality olive base make this a winning choice for cooking, dipping and drinks. Taste rating: 4 to 5

RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned)

Salt Point Canned Cocktail Co.: Salt Point was one of the first premium canned cocktail companies on the market since 2013, created by Heather Wyatt and inspired by a Northern California State Park of the same name, two hours north of San Francisco. They offer four canned cocktails ($4.99 each or $17.99 4-pack): Moscow Mule, Gin Highball, Margarita and Greyhound. While the mermaid drawing feels a bit cheesy on the Margarita, the overall seaport characters, animal drawings and clean, light packaging appeal. They do not use artificial preservatives and employ real blue weber agave tequila vs. flavorings in the Margarita, as one example, keeping the RTDs clean and crushable, even if the cocktails are common drinks in canned lines. The fizzy Gin Highball is my preference with a touch of cucumber and lemon. Taste rating: 3.5 to 4

Crafthouse Cocktails: Co-founded in 2013 by renowned bartender Charles Joly (from Chicago and “mixologist” for the Oscars and Emmys), Crafthouse Cocktails is a pioneering RTD brand, recently launching large format boxed cocktails ($27.99, serving 15 cocktails), in addition to their line of 750ml and convenient 200ml canned cocktails. The initial boxes are the Moscow Mule, Spicy Margarita, Pineapple Daiquiri and Smoky Margarita. While I appreciate that each does not go too sweet, Crafthouse’s cocktails vary, with some being fairly forgettable (Smoky Margarita, Rum Old Fashioned) to others (Moscow Mule, Southside, Pineapple Daiquiri, Paloma) working as an easy drinking, to-go cocktail. Taste rating: 3 to 4



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Virginia Miller has been San Francisco editor for Zagat, VP of Content/National Editor at Table8, SF Guardian food/drink critic, Time Out and writes about spirits, cocktails and bars around the world at Liquor.com. Miller also freelances for Food Republic, Thrillist, Whisky Magazine UK, Paste Magazine, Where Magazine, London Times and Eater, to name a few. Virginia has judged countless food and cocktail competitions and on spirits panels. She shares her favorites in food and drink on her own site, The Perfect Spot.