My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is less about tasting notes and more 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! My 10 bottle picks of the month:
TAMWORTH DISTILLING Aquavit
I’ve reviewed Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile‘s beautiful apple brandy before, and in a total style flip, the New Hampshire distillery is also known for Skiklubben Aquavit, featuring a base of their whiskey (a blend of bourbon, barley and wheat whiskeys) and water from the local Ossipee Aquifer. There is never enough aquavit for me, long one of my favorite spiritss. This release is inspired by America’s oldest ski club, Nansen Ski Club, also in NH, with an alpine-meets-Scandinavia vibe. Though I equally love a bold, bracing aquavit, this is a more balanced one, making it a welcome intro to the category but still interesting enough for aquavit fans, featuring, yes, dill, cardamom and caraway, but also ginger, star anise and pink peppercorn, imbuing a rounded sweetness and approachability. Sold via Tamworth Distilling, Art in the Age in Philly and nationally at Seelbachs.com.
Taste rating: 4.5
Bresca Dorado Mirto Vermouth
Showcasing wild myrtle bushes growing around the Italian island of Sardinia, the fruity, spicy, bitter body and finish of Bresca Dorada Mirto is balanced by a sweet, honeyed lightness, given its heavier dose of wild myrtle leaves. Bresca Dorada was launched in 1986 Paolo Melis and Enrico Diana, who use all local ingredients in their citrus liqueurs, amaro and vermouth. While I’m particularly a fan of their Mirto Verde herbal liqueur, trying their mirto vermouth — laden with myrtle berries, gentian, artemisia, orange, lemon, mint, with a base of organically grown and native Sardinian Nasco and Malvasia del Capidano grapes — I find a vermouth for hardcore vermouth lovers and amari fans who cherish a balanced but ever-present bitter.
Taste rating: 4.5
Cinco/5 Sentidos Pechuga y Papalote
Tasting this little gem at Viridian in Oakland, CA, Cinco/5 Sentidos Pechuga y Papalote is rustic as hell and just the kind of small-batch, “real deal” gem mezcal geeks (like me) love. As part of La Colección Mixteca, and at 49.6% ABV, this mezcal series celebrates each maestro mezcalero’s historic, regional style, while supporting palenque improvement projects with a portion of the sales. Mezcalero Delfino Tobón’s pechuga is made with papalote (potatorum) agave and distilled in a three-plate copper and stainless steel still in the mountainous valley of San Pablo Ameyaltepec in the state of Puebla. This pechuga is infused with chicken, fruits, anise and cinnamon. Wild, funky, minty, yet light and easy, baking spices and green apple keep it warm yet bright.
Taste rating: 4.5
Tears of Llorona Extra Anejo Tequila
I’ve often expressed my preference for unaged or lightly aged (reposado) tequilas over aged, as it often takes longer for agave plants to grow than to age many whiskies and the agave is what we should be celebrating in tequila, whereas whiskies and brandies are more about wood/aging. Of course, there are gorgeous anejos and extra anejos, namely those that allow the agave to shine. Tears of Llorona is just such an extra añejo. Master distiller Germán Gonzalez’ family history (he’s son of tequilero Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz Lombardo, the creator of Chinaco) undergirds his study of brandy (Cognac and Armagnac) techniques. Utilizing his family’s personal tequila reserves in this blend, aged five years in three types of barrels (Scotch, brandy, sherry), it’s a tequila with a brandy and whiskey essence. Despite an annoying wax seal that crumbles into the bottle with swing top closure, this is an elegant sipping tequila that maintains rusticity and soul, exhibiting agave earthiness, nuttiness, oak, tannins and warm caramel.
Taste rating: 5
PaQuí Blanco Tequila
Though PaQuí Tequila has been around awhile, it was just late 2020 that it became available in 6 states. It has a quality taste profile, certainly, but from a distilling approach and trends perspective, founder John Chappell’s goal was to create a tequila lacking the harsh bite or heat some consumers complain about in tequila. The smoothness is achieved by Jaliscan master distiller Gilberto Jasso’s technique with these three factors: using only agave piñas at exactly 26 brix ripeness (sugar level); fresh wine yeast vs. airborne yeast; tight cuts of the heads and tails from the “heart” of the distillate. Thankfully, silky and smooth doesn’t mean character-less as the bright agave notes come through in this youthful, floral blanco.
Taste rating: 4
Juniper Grove American Dry Gin or Atrium Gin
Distilled at the Bently Heritage Estate — currently producing gin, vodka and liqueurs, with whiskey on the way — they focus on sustainability, using 100% estate-grown grains from their Nevada land, a grain-to-glass process on their ranch, from aging to bottling. Their American Dry Gin is triple-distilled, finished in copper pot stills, showcasing five botanicals. It’s classic, dry and with a bold hit of juniper and citrus. Their Atrium gin is similarly processed but with 10 botanicals, more floral notes, grapefruit and lavender. The heavier citrus hit of Atrium will please many, but I prefer the stronger juniper balance of the American Dry. Both are a welcome 46% ABV, ensuring they stand up in cocktails [Note: I have not tried their Alpine Gin]. I especially appreciate their gorgeous green bottles.
Taste rating, American Dry Gin: 4
Taste rating, Atrium Gin: 4
Coconut Cartel Rum
Despite the word “coconut,” this is not a “coconut rum.” Coconut Cartel Special Añejo Rum is an aged (up to 12 years) Guatemalan rum, proofed down to the standard 40% ABV not with typical water, but with locally grown (in Guatemala) coconut water. While you get notes of vanilla, oak, salt and coconut, this is blessedly not sweet but rather fresh and light with a natural minerality. Brother and sister, Dani and Mike Zig, who initially had a whole, raw coconut importation business to South Florida, were inspired to create this product off their bestselling bar shot of aged Guatemalan Rum with their fresh coconut water. Retailing around $36.99, this is a cocktail rum adding a soft yet bright aspect to rum cocktails.
Taste rating: 4
Fluére Original, Raspberry, Spiced Cane and Smoked Agave
The non-alcoholic spirits game has been in full flush and I’m still struggling with the thin, watery palate and often odd flavors coming through on many of releases, beautiful as the packaging often is. Who knew a brand from The Netherlands would start to convince me in a category I see the great need and importance for? Fluére (pronounced flew-air) just hit the U.S. in December 2020 with three expressions: Original, Raspberry, Spiced Cane, with a fourth — Smoked Agave — soon following (currently sold on Amazon or at select brick and mortar locations in CA, IL and MA via Hearts + Tales Beverage Company). Quality of ingredients is apparent and the flavor balance “on,” even if the Original and Raspberry still come across thin. They all do, but the Smoked Agave works well in non-alcoholic versions of agave cocktails, though with an prominent soapy note when sipped neat. The sweet Spiced Cane is the most realized and solid on it’s own, working well in rum drinks like a classic Daiquiri or Cuba Libre.
Taste rating, Original: 3.5
Taste rating, Raspberry and Smoked Agave: 4
Taste rating, Spiced Cane: 4.5
Balcones Lineage Texas Whiskey
One of the “burdens” about having been tasting, judging and covering spirits and cocktails over 15 years is one remembers “when.” Though many of my peers have been in this longer than my 20 years of research, I’ve been around long enough to remember when Chip Tate started Balcones Distilling (he now runs Tate & Co. Distillery). I was tasting his unique whiskies from sample bottles he’d carry around as he’d mingle with fellow distillers and colleagues in our industry. Much drama went down in the changing of hands from Tate to the current owners. I’m not sure of the facts. I do know it was enough to keep me from caring to even try the arguably more commercial distillery it morphed into. But it has been long enough that it was time to revisit. Though the new Balcones Lineage lacks the pure excitement of tasting Brimstone for the first time back in the day, at merely $39.99 a bottle and with its long, robust — yet never hot — finish of red wine, black tea, honey and oak notes, it’s a good value whiskey showcasing the evolution of American Single Malt.
Taste rating: 4
Rebru Spirits is a smart environmental fix: taking unused beer/liquid from San Diego’s 150+ craft breweries and distilling them (which they dub “re-crafted” spirits, hence the name Rebru). It’s a great case of repurposing from founder Dennis O’Connor and master distiller Neil Lotz (Rebru’s story here). When it comes to taste profile, however, I find their spirits good for cocktails, if not exactly equaling standout spirits when tasted side-by-side. The vodka plays a little funky, its oily texture employing a buttery mouthfeel. The IPA-based gin exhibits a balance of citrus-juniper-coriander, despite a sharp finish. I’m not sure what to do with their peppermint whisky, even as a lifelong peppermint lover. It’s balanced and minty but almost feels like sipping mouthwash, not exactly inspiring cocktail recipes. Still, I can imagine it could work in some cocktails as a classic Germanic peppermint schnapps does.
Taste rating Gin: 3.5
Taste rating Vodka: 3
Taste rating Peppermint Whiskey: 3