Welcome to my bottle review column, which will be less about tasting notes and ratings — although I will rate flavor and balance on a 1–5 rating scale — but more about what is trending or unique in spirits now. I’ll begin by highlighting 10 of the standout spirits and notable trends of 2019:


  • Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin
    Agricole lovers and funk/hogo-chasers know that Haiti’s clairin, or sugarcane juice rum, exhibits some of those same beautifully funky, grassy, fresh, earthy notes as agricole rhum. With the release of Saint Benevolence (https://saintbenevolence.com/) in 2019, we have an organic rum clairin from a father-son duo who also give directly back to Haiti, and in fact, for decades have built an organization that funds medical services, educational programs and economic developments in Haiti. The rum also funds those services, a beautiful example of quality spirits giving back to the place and people it comes from. Taste rating: 4.5 
  • Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry
    As a bartender’s darling, Plantation continues to turn out well-priced, quality rums that I find heavily play in the best bars’ rum cocktails around the world. The Xaymaca Special Dry (https://www.plantationrum.com/plantation-xaymaca) release brings more Jamiacan hogo in bold, meaty, stewed banana glory, elegantly finished in Pierre Ferrand Cognac casks. Taste rating: 4.5


  • T.W. Hollister Oso de Oro Vermouth
    Thankfully, vermouth continues to gain momentum beyond its countries of origin, no longer just a cocktail modifier or even low proof cocktail base, but for sipping on its own. The big brands continue to diversify accordingly, with even the great sherry house Lustau (https://www.lustau.es/en/collection/collection-vermut/) releasing a vermut rosé in 2019. California pioneered New World vermouth in the 1990s (Quady Winery, https://quadywinery.com/) — and with its massive vineyard territories — vermouth continues to thrive there. T. W. Hollister (https://twhollister.co/shop/) released a white and red vermouth in 2019 with botanicals — like chamomile and hummingbird sage — grown on the family farm/ranch in Santa Barbara County in the family since 1866.
    Taste rating: 4.5


  • Gray Whale Gin
    Gins continue to be produced at such a rate its arguably the hardest spirit category to keep up with. While Gray Whale Gin (http://www.graywhalegin.com/) isn’t necessarily changing the game flavor profile-wise, its organic and wild foraged California botanicals (Big Sur juniper, Baja limes, lemons, oranges, Sonoma fir, Mendocino coastal sea kelp, Santa Cruz mint, Central Valley almonds) exhibit a crucial trend of locally-sourced and environmentally-focused (each bottle sold supports Oceana, which protects the world’s oceans, and thus gray whales the gin is named after). Taste rating: 4


  • Sonoma County Distilling Black Truffle Rye
    With its new, larger distillery debuting mid-2019, Sonoma County Distilling (https://www.sonomadistillingcompany.com/) is thankfully turning out more bourbons, ryes and wheat whiskeys than ever. Anomaly though it may be, their Black Truffle Rye, aged 3 years and infused for 6 months with French Perigord black truffles is small production and oh-so-subtle on the truffles. The latest version was released this fall. Taste rating: 4
  • Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye Whiskey
    The legendary Jimmy and Eddie Russell father-son distilling duo behind Wild Turkey release a Master’s Keep whiskey (https://wildturkeybourbon.com/product/masters-keep/) annually from barrels hand-picked by Eddie. But it’s historically always a bourbon. 2019’s Master’s Keep is a rye, aged 9–11 years, with only 16,000 bottles (small for a major brand). It’s a beauty of rye spice, oak and balanced corn sweetness, aged in alligator char barrels. It confirms that even the world’s most iconic bourbon houses know the importance of rye among American whiskey lovers. Taste rating: 5


  • Absinthia
    Small, female-run and award-winning Absinthia (http://www.absinthia.com/) is a wonderfully classic organic absinthe produced in Oakland with a base of organic, biodynamic grapes and Bay Area botanicals. A notable trend amid the thriving world of podcasts, founder Absinthia (Jennifer Vermut) has started a podcast on absinthe (https://absinthia.com/podcast/) to educate on the oft-misunderstood spirit. Taste rating: 4 


  • Long Road Distillers Amaro Pazzo
    I’ll be honest: since Kansas City’s J. Rieger & Co. (https://www.jriegerco.com/our-spirits/caffe-amaro) released their Caffe Amaro in 2016, I’ve yet to taste a coffee-amaro as balanced and beautiful as theirs, which defined a new category of bracing coffee with amari bitter. I’m a longtime fan of Michigan’s Long Road Distillers (https://longroaddistillers.com/), and especially adore their aquavits (https://www.liquor.com/slideshows/american-aquavit/), but their Amaro Pazzo, featuring Madcap Coffee (https://madcapcoffee.com/) and signature 100% red winter wheat base, isn’t my favorite of their line. It’s a solid entry in the growing trend — with fascinating botanicals like myrrh and turkey rhubarb — but lacking the restrained balance of J. Rieger’s coffee amaro. Taste rating: 3


  • Griffo Cold Brew Equator Coffee Liqueur
    Husband/wife duo Michael and Jenny Griffo have made Petaluma’s Griffo Distillery (http://www.griffodistillery.com/coffee-liqueur/) a local’s favorite from day one, using California-grown ingredients in their balanced gins and whiskies. Their robust, tastes-like-your-drinking-boozy-coffee Cold Brew Equator Coffee Liqueur  (https://www.griffodistillery.com/coffee-liqueur) features Marin’s pioneering Equator Coffees (https://www.equatorcoffees.com/). It’s one of the best new coffee liqueurs to come along in years. Taste rating: 4.5 


  • Legent Bourbon
    It’s important to call out Beam Suntory’s Legent (https://www.beamsuntory.com/en/news/beam-suntory-introduces-legent) release in 2019 because it represents a “fresh” bourbon trend, or rather a marriage between Japanese whisky and American whiskey at an affordable $35 a bottle. Beam family straight bourbon (distilled by the great Fred Noe) is aged in red wine and sherry casks, blended with more Kentucky Straight Bourbon, then blended by Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory’s chief blender, gaining a profile that is a bourbon first but with complex layers from its different casks.  Taste rating: 4.5