My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is less about tasting notes and more about what is unique, new or trending in spirits alongside my ratings (on a 1–5 rating scale). Now more than ever, small-batch distillers and drink producers need our aid. Please, support small business and quality! My 10 bottle picks and unique trends of the month, ideal for the holidays, gifts or all year ‘round:
Geijer Spirits California Amaro
Bay Area-based Martin Geijer (pronounced “yay-er”) of Geijer Spirits continues to produce quality spirits, from his California Fernet to fresh Orange Liqueur. Scandinavian specialities — Glögg Liqueur and California Aquavit — call on Martin’s Swedish roots, while California botanicals play prominent in each release. Released at the end of 2020, California Amaro is another winner in the line and a unique Amaro. With 31 botanicals, there are certainly layers unfolding from birch bark to sea buckthorn, rhubarb to gentian root. I get an intriguing hint of sarsaparilla and it is gentle on the bitter for those who prefer less of that in their amari. It sips beautifully neat or on the rocks, while adding nuance as I experiment with it in cocktails.
Taste rating: 4.5
A.G Perino Dry & Sweet Vermouth
Precept Wine’s new A.G. Perino Dry and Sweet Vermouths are a win for the affordable vermouth and Italian vermouth categories from winemaker Hal Landvoigt. He has been working on this product for over a decade, testing its workability in cocktails with bartenders. With clean, modern packaging and a $9.99 SRP, the quality/taste is a great value for the price. A.G. Perino Dry Vermouth is zesty and herbaceous, yet subtle enough to play nicely in cocktail classics like a martini. A.G. Perino Sweet Vermouth unfolds with subtle woodsy and nutty notes alongside vanilla, orange and cinnamon. As should be the case with any vermouth/vermut, both also drink nicely on the rocks.
Taste rating for both: 4
CACHACA & RTDs
Novo Fogo Graciosa & Canned Caipirinhas
Novo Fogo’s certified organic line of Brazilian cachaças have been a standout in the sugarcane spirit category since initial release. Their Graciosa is no exception. Initially a special release in 2016, this cachaça is thankfully now a regular part of their two-woods line and an industry favorite given its robust banana-like (ester-y) funk notes, creamy, nutty, spiced and gently floral riches. It’s primarily aged 2 years in repurposed oak, followed by an 18-month finish in castanheira do Pará (Brazil nut) barrels. In addition, Novo Fogo’s new canned cocktail line, including a classic lime sparkling caipirinha, plus passionfruit lime and mango lime versions, are top-notch with sweet–tart balance, flavor and effervescent quality.
Taste rating Graciosa: 4.5
Taste rating canned Caipirinhas: 5
Salcombe Gin Start Point London Dry & Rosé Sainte Marie Rosé Gin
Opened in the coastal English town of Salcombe in 2016, Salcombe Distilling Co.’s elegant (packaging to palate) Start Point London Dry gin makes for a gorgeous martini exuding complex layers from its 13 botanicals, including red grapefruit, lemon and lime peels, English coriander seeds, Macedonian juniper and orris root. The red grapefruit gives it a citrus-forward vibrancy while herbaceous juniper notes stand strong. Their Rosé Sainte Marie Gin is inspired by the Mediterranean coast and rosé wine from France’s Provence region. Dry and gorgeously subtle, it’s what I wish more “pink gins” were like, with its delicate whispers of juniper, strawberries, lemon verbena, pink peppercorns, rose petals and orange blossom. I’m less enthused with their new non-alcoholic New London Light. I long for that ever increasing and needed non-alcoholic spirit category to improve taste-wise but still find the palate often unpleasant. Just released in the States in November 2020, so far Salcombe is merely in New England, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Taste rating for both: 4.5
Released by Broad Creek Spirits Company and distilled at Six & Twenty Distillery in South Carolina, Bulrush Gin is named after a cattail or reed used in SC Low Country basket weaving. The gin melds citrus and herbaceous notes with a candied citrus finish, in a process involving both maceration and vapor infusion with their 13 botanicals. There is a cardamom and lavender hit, with that candied orange and lime finish. It is all pleasant, though the finish can overtake other layers, especially in cocktails. Still, its boldness holds up in cocktails, particularly on the citrus side.
Taste rating: 3.5
Yebiga PRVA Balkan Rakija
Rakija is essentially Bulgarian brandy distilled from fruit and/or herbs with farm and family roots dating back over 800 years. As in much of Eastern Europe, it’s a bracing spirit you’ll find made in homes across the Balkan region. As a longtime lover of fruit brandies (schnaps and all categories of fruit brandy), Yebiga PRVA ($38.99) intrigued immediately, a true rakija made with the most common fruit: plums (slivovitz or sljivovica, is a type of rakija and is the national drink of Serbia) from the mountains of Goc in Central Serbia. It’s robust and bracing as a traditional brandy/rakija is, with notes of vanilla, spice and even a bright kick of citrus, warming that plum richness. Fans of the category have bassist Bill Gould to thank (of the band Faith No More) for founding Yebiga PRVA and bringing it to the states (he fell for the spirit in the 1990s touring the Balkans). Initially in CA and IL, 2021 will see a new product in the line and expanded distribution in D.C., FL, NY and PA.
Taste rating: 4.5
The Funk Jamaican Rum
As hogo/funk lover for over 15 years, even the name — The Funk Jamaican Rum — seems made for just my niche of rum lover. But the Funk doesn’t quite achieve the promise. It’s got that ripe banana, estery hit I adore in many Jamaican rums, but instead of being accompanied by that grassy goodness common to rhum agricole, there are vegetal off notes. From Proof and Wood Ventures (behind Redemption Rye and Bourbon, deBorgen Genever, etc.), this 100 proof, unaged pot still rum seems made for cocktails, especially at a roughly $22.50 price point. It does work in cocktails but for me, so many other funky rums do better (and are lovely sipped neat, to boot), that I can’t quite seem to get on board with this one.
Taste rating: 3
Takachiyo 59 Junmai Nama Red Sake Yeast
This sake is tough tough to find, though the first sake store in the U.S. — San Francisco’s True Sake — is the place to find it if you’re going to. Takachiyo 59 Junmai Nama Sake is namasake (or fresh, unpasteurized nama), one of my favorite styles of sake, but this bottling is unique even in the nama category. Made with rare red yeast, it’s tart, berry and citrus-forward, with a subtly rosy hue and sweetness. I was turned onto it by sake master Stuart Morris at PABU in SF. As one of the nation’s few sake masters, he always has a take on what is rare, unusual, hidden sake gems and this bottling is just that sort of taste experience.
Taste rating: 4.5
Busker Irish Whiskey
Released in the States in Fall 2020, The Busker Irish Whiskey is produced at the Royal Oak Distillery in County Carlow, Ireland. It’s the only distillery/brand in Ireland producing all three styles: single malt, single grain, single pot still — and additional triple cask bottling. The Busker Blend Triple Cask Triple Smooth is the crowd-pleaser, layered from aging in bourbon, sherry and Cantine Florio marsala casks. It is, indeed, smooth. The standout for me is the The Busker Single Pot Still, as my first loves in Irish Whiskey were Redbreast and Green Spot pot still whiskeys. The Pot Still is robust yet still silky (being triple distilled), with welcome fruit and meaty qualities from bourbon and sherry casks. All four are worthwhile, especially given the $20s–30s price point.
Taste rating of Single Malt, Single Grain and Triple Cask: 4
Taste rating of Pot Still : 4.5
Wilderton Botanical Distillate
Let me start by saying I believe in the non-alcoholic spirit category. Having friends in recovery, time periods of abstaining, pregnancy and other reasons one needs to avoid drinking, ideally means we have quality drink options. The ever-growing zero ABV “spirits” category is reaching fever pitch as I’ve received no less than three new brands within a month. Wilderton Botanical Distillate ($33 per bottle) presents beautiful packaging with a “spirit” named Earthen (“reminiscent of a calming hike through dense Oregon rainforests mixed with memories from exotic spice markets of the East”) and Lustre (“inspired by picnics in the lush, fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest and dreams of sun-drenched Mediterranean coastlines”). Sadly, I continue to struggle with the taste profile of every non-alcoholic line. Almost consistently, the body feels thin, lacking viscosity, like flavored water. The palate is often sharp, tannic, even odd. Most improve with tonic water or in some sort of cocktail, though usually not by much. I want the category to thrive and the botanicals used in both bottlings intrigues. The Lustre is highly floral, almost soapy, like a thin tea. The Earthen offers more pleasing notes of nutmeg, allspice and white peppercorn but still finishes flat with an overwhelming floral note lingering.
Taste rating: 3