Looking for a new flavor? Need a little help making your next choice at your local bar or bottle shop? Dining and drinks writer and judge Virginia Miller combs through new craft spirits releases to taste, review, and recommend. Here are her top 12 picks of the month, rated on a scale of one to five.
My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is about what is unique, standout, new and/or trending in spirits with my review ratings on a 1-5 rating scale. My 13 bottle picks of the month:
Renegade Cane Rum Pre-Cask: Lake Antoine Upper Crater Lake South
Renegade Rum is on the Caribbean island of Grenada making agricole-style r(h)ums with fresh sugar cane juice, each r(h)um expressing different terroirs and farms where the cane is grown. Rhum agricole is my first love in rum for nearly 20 years, its often grassy funk a flavor profile I crave neat or in cocktails like a classic Daiquiri. Renegade Rum Single Farm Origin: Lake Antoine Upper Crater Lake South (Pre-Cask) ($69) is a joy at first sip and glorious in cocktails as it is on its own. It’s made from Purple Tallboy cane grown on a single farm in Grenada’s Upper Crater Lake South. Yes, it’s grassy, while the volcanic crater’s seaward-facing slopes and granular Woburn clay loam soil add earthy depth and minerality to this fresh, bright beauty. I so want to try more from this producer.
Taste Rating: 5
Brandy Sainte Louise
Released in 2018 from Jennifer Querbes, president of Ricou Spirits, Brandy Sainte Louise (43% ABV; $35 SRP) is named in honor of the many forgotten women in spirits production and cocktail history. The elegant label looks like a vintage Armagnac from France, while the spirit is your ideal Cognac or Armagnac-style cocktail brandy that fits the bill for many classic cocktails. Distilled in France by a Cognac cellarmaster, the 90% Ugni Blanc, 10% Armagnac grapes are grown just outside Cognac’s AOC, aged in French oak in Cognac for roughly 3 and 10 years. They describe it somewhere between a VS and XO: it has the affordability of a good VS, with some complex XO layers. It runs robust like an Armagnac, but with a warm, apple body that recalls Calvados French brandy. It unfolds with floral fruit, leather, caramel, nuts and baking spices. A great value brandy.
Taste Rating: 4.5
Dos Gabachos Mezcal
Dos Gabachos Mezcal ($70 SRP) was launched by Los Angeles bartenders David Martin (from NorCal) and Richard Policastro (from NY) with Mexico City-based bar patron Victor Castillo. They all met at a bar in DTLA over a decade ago. Policastro and Martin fell in love with mezcal as they began visiting Castillo first in MX, then in Oaxaca where they met mezcaleros across the state. Over the decade and much research, they formed Dos Gabachos Mezcal, producing a 100% Espadín agave mezcal made in a small pueblo in Santo Domingo Albarradas, Oaxaca. Certainly, this cocktail-friendly mezcal nods to their bartending roots, but it’s lovely on its own, its slate-y minerality and citrus playing with earthy spice and ripe tropical fruit.
Taste Rating: 4
• Four Corners American Gin
Four Corners American Gin ($39.99 SRP) just launched July 2023, using only American botanicals sourced nationwide, representing various regions of the U.S. The Four Corners team is behind Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin, and asked Portland distiller Christian Krogstad (creator of hit brands Aviation Gin and Westward Whiskey), who worked with herbalist Dr. Elizabeth McElligott for over a year to source botanicals and flavors representing varying American regions. While I certainly get subtle floral citrus and sweet notes, juniper is much less present with an astringency on the finish. From the “four corners” of the U.S., cascara, yerba santa, cranberry and wild cherry bark are among the unique botanicals here. I wish I could taste more of them. Especially tasting next to a number of newer gin releases, Four Corners tasted like a more neutral gin, which will certainly appeal to vodka lovers and those who have yet to be converted to gin, if it feels less for gin lovers like myself.
Taste Rating: 3
• AWAYUKI Japanese Strawberry Gin
From Los Angeles-based ICONIC Spirits, AWAYUKI Japanese Gin (44% ABV) is infused with pink and rare white Awayuki strawberries grown in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, harvested at the peak of their ripeness, with 300 lbs. of strawberries per distillation. In keeping with the current trend towards strawberry gins (see this review last month) and vodkas (see below). But in keeping with Japanese perfection, this is the best version I’ve ever had, so fresh and bright with sweet, creamy strawberry on the nose and palate. But this is still a gin first, with lively juniper and a happy blend of green and fruity notes.
Taste Rating: 5
Calirosa Rosa Blanco & Reposado
Calirosa Rosa Blanco and Reposado may look a bit low budget with those cheap-looking, off center labels and bare simplicity in packaging. Unexpectedly, both are pleasing, crushable tequilas standing out when I tasted them side-by-side next to other increasingly trendy rosa tequilas. Rosa tequilas are often laden with vanilla and other “ruining it” flavors. Calirosa actually tastes like tequila, running blessedly dry, whether the light, bright, grapefruit notes of the Rosa Blanco (just born for a Paloma) or the orange-amber, gently woody, but still agave-forward Reposado. Made by sons Don Roberto and Don Fernando of Dom Dionislo “Nicho” Real, a tequila producer since 1942, they claim Nicho first created rosa tequila back then when he mistakenly received red wine barrels instead of whiskey barrels to age his tequilas. The brand is quietly backed by Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine and his wife Behati Prinsloo, already a hipster cult favorite in LA and beyond. I want to hate on it, but both Calirosas are delightful in cocktails and unexpectedly balanced.
Taste Rating: Rosa Blanco 4.5, Reposado 4
TEITESSA Japanese Whiskies (15, 20, 25, 27 and 30 year aged)
Los Angeles-based ICONIC Spirits (founded in 2019) debuted TEITESSA Single-Grain Aged Japanese Whisky early this year. It’s not just one whisky, but a line of five superb whiskies brought from Japan by ICONIC co-founders Julious Grant and Taichi Seki. Aged between 15 and 30 years in different oaks, what’s surprising is that these are distilled from Japan’s highest-quality rice, Koshihikari, though they taste like barley-based whiskies. TEITESSA is the only distillery thus far using the ancient Japanese Sato still, a beehive-shaped still that allows for earlier “tails” cuts and thus smoother finish. The over 200 year-old-brewery is also at the base of Mt. Fuji, where they source its pure water.
Though producing sake since inception, TEITESSA started making whisky in recent decades (the distiller came from Yamazaki). They’ve been aging back to 30 years. Each is a winner: the golden honey, fruity sweetness of the 15 year, to the added spice and white pepper of the 25 year, both aged in Japanese white oak. The 20 year whisky is aged in limousin, American and sherry oak (20 years each), exuding caramelized brown sugar and umami spice. My favorites are the warmer, elegant 27 year, same as the 25 year but with more age, and the nutty, dried raisin, umami, savory 30 year. It’s a stunner.
Taste Rating: 4.5 to 5 each
RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned or Bottled Drinks)
• Tepache Sazon Pina y Canela
Tepache Sazón ($29.99 per 4 pack) keeps the spirit of this Aztec-era Mexican tradition alive. Distilled and produced in San Pancho, Nayarit (on Mexico’s Pacific coast), this fermented pineapple rind and peel drink is made with locally sourced, sustainably produced pineapples, piloncillo (raw sugar cane) and canela (cinnamon). Supporting local farmers and their partnership with EntreAmigos (which provides educational opportunities for the San Pancho community) are good reasons to support this new product. Thankfully, it’s also delicious tepache. Not as funky and fermented as some of the natural ones I love at bars and in Mexico, but a more crowd-pleasing version with a little funk and round, sweet depth.
Taste Rating: 4.5
• Something & Nothing Spritzes
Launched May 2023, Something & Nothing (six-can tasting pack: two of each flavor; $20 for sodas; $34.99 for spritzes) is a U.K.-based RTD soda line of wine and sake spritzes using only natural grape and lemon juices at very low ABV (4%). The French rosé wine-based Hibiscus + Rose spritz is quite floral and dry, but a little too floral for me. The Sauvignon Blanc-based Cucumber spritz is nicely balanced, dry yet refreshing. But it’s the Junmai Saké + Yuzu expression that stands out, with its aromatic, floral citrus and rounded, silky sake base.
Taste Rating: 4.5 for sake yuzu; 3.5 for hibiscus rose, 4 for cucumber
Glenmorangie The Cadboll Estate 15 year Scotch
Glenmorangie’s has long been a Highlands Scotch favorite for its fruity elegance and nuance. Their latest Cadboll Estate Scotch was released in the U.S. July 15, 2023. Aged for 15 years, it exudes rounded fruit and spice from bourbon casks and nutty, toffee depths from Amontillado casks. It tastes like pure Glenmorangie, centered around creamy peaches and hazelnut-coconut spice but with dry, balanced tannins from the wood casks. It makes a fine after-dinner dram.
Taste Rating: 4.5
Kopke Quinta S. Luiz Vintage 2021 Port
The 2021 Douro harvest came after the coolest temperatures in years, with both a dry and cold winter and a summer of high temp days and cold nights, compared to extreme heat of prior summers. My journeys through the enchanting Douro region in 2016 were unforgettable, and Kopke’s 2021 Quinta de São Luiz vintage transports me back. I taste the berry earth and even subtly smoky mint complexity from that cooler year. It’s a welcome vintage from Porto’s oldest port house established in 1638.
Taste Rating: 4
Frey Ranch Farm Strength Uncut Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Near Lake Tahoe in Fallon, Nevada, 2500 acre Frey Ranch has existed since 1854 but was launched as a sustainably farmed, “ground-to-glass” distillery by Colby and Ashley Frey in 2006. I reviewed their flagship bourbon in 2021, and am pleased to say the new June 2023 release of their uncut, cask strength (124.3 proof) whiskey is one I find more striking than the original. It’s the same mashbill (66.6% Dent Corn, 10% Winter Wheat, 11.4% Winter Rye, 12% Two Row Barley), aged an average of five years. The uncut cask strength robustness allows me to more fully taste the flavor and glory of this whiskey in its unique grain blend farmed and distilled by Colby himself.
Taste Rating: 4.5
Beattie’s Distillers Potato Vodka, Sweet Potato-Flavored Potato Vodka & Strawberry-Flavored Potato Vodka
Based in Alliston, Ontario, Beattie’s Distillers is recently available in 22 U.S. states. Impressively, Beattie Farms is a fifth generation family-owned and operated potato farm. Beattie’s Distillers was more recently founded by Ken Beattie, whose niece Sarah Coyle heads up operations and production. At 30% ABV each, these are lower proof than U.S. vodkas and thus subject to getting lost in some cocktails. But the flavor profiles are so fine-tuned on these vodkas, they’re impressive neat. The classic potato vodka is the most neutral and clean, the least interesting but the most classic with no harsh notes, in part thanks to its lower ABV. The buttery, nutty Sweet Potato vodka is my favorite of the line. You actually can detect cooked sweet potato on the nose, while the palate likewise is clean but bold. The creamy Strawberry-Flavored Potato Vodka tastes fresh and bright, fitting in the dearth of ultra-fresh strawberry flavored gins out lately.
Taste Rating: Strawberry and Potato Vodkas 4.5; Sweet Potato Vodka 5
Ready for another round? Visit Virginia’s website http://www.theperfectspotsf.com/wp02/ for last month’s edition, plus personal recommendations on the best spots in cities around the world.