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 for the month:

Empirical’s Canned Beverages, Copenhagen
I was already a fan of Empirical (formerly Empirical Spirits) from my Copenhagen travels, admiring their experimental fruit, herb, botanical and vegetable-distilled spirits. Leave it to Empirical to trailblaze in RTDs (ready-to-drink cans), too, available in the US this summer. Can 01 and 02 kick us off, starting with a base spirit distilled from beet molasses and Belgian saison yeast, lightly carbonated. Can 01 also includes oolong tea, green gooseberry, sour cherry juice, young pine cones, Douglas fir, pomelo zest and toasted birch. Can 02 is sour cherry, black currant buds, walnut wood, pine cones, maqaw pepper and keemun black tea. These are unlike any RTDs out there, appealing to spirits and cocktail geeks, adventurous palates, yet crowd-pleasing, balanced, refreshing. They can be shipped nationwide and are available in high profile restaurants and bars like The Aviary/NEXT in Chicago or Mister Jiu’s HOHO in SF. More of this kind of canned innovation-meets-deliciousness, please.
Taste rating: 5

Tamworth Garden VSOP Apple Brandy
Just released in June 2020, Tamworth Distilling’s V.S.O.P. Apple Brandy is distilled from heirloom Cortland apples grown in Concord, New Hampshire, at Carter Hill Apple Orchard, one of the oldest active orchards in the U.S. Double distilled in a traditional alembic still, this elegant sipper recalls Calvados, exuding fresh apple on the nose balanced by a deep layer of wood, from aging a minimum of 4 years in their bonded barrelhouse. It’s intense at 50 proof yet still refined, exuding stewed apples, clove, even a whisper of tobacco. It’s a prime example of what American apple brandy can be.
Taste rating: 4.5

The GlenDronach 15 year Revival Scotch Whisky
In classic sherry cask Scotch, The GlenDronach is under-the-radar-enough, though they can line up their medals and awards. They are the rare Scotch fully matured in sherry casks, a far more expensive proposition than using ex-bourbon barrels. When I first fell in love with Mortlach 16 year Scotch well over a decade ago (the original, when it was less than $50 a bottle), I “got” sherry cask for the first time. It went beyond the overly sweet notes I’d suffered through in some, instead exuding “meatiness” and spice complexity. The GlenDronach is sibling to that old school Mortlach 16 year. The GlenDronach 12 year is their flagship, the sweetest of the line, though still in balance. The divine 18 year old exudes its Oloroso sherry cask glory at a robustly elegant 46% ABV. 15 year “Revival” hits the sweet spot, thankfully back in production after they stopped making it in 2015. Combining Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, the 15 year alternates between cherry, dark chocolate, walnut, orange and fig notes. Perfection.
Taste rating: 5

Deau Cognac XO
This small Cognac house defines the elegance brandy geeks like me hunt for. Yes, the bottling is dramatic and striking as higher-end Cognac bottlings typically are. But it’s “the juice” inside that wins with its floral burst on the nose, unfolding in wood, plum, even a whisper of leather and spice on the palate. As a blend of eaux-de-vie from Petite Champagne and Fins Bois grapes, Deau’s XO Cognac has been aged a minimum of 10 years and given its small house/name, is a true value at roughly $110-130 per bottle.
Taste rating: 5

Carbonadi Vodka
Whether it’s worth the $69.99 price tag is another conversation, but Carbonadi Vodka does accomplish that rarity for a vodka: interesting enough to stand out to non-vodka drinkers (neutrality is of no interest to me), while neutral enough to still be a vodka. Created by African American entrepreneur, Ricky Miller III, this “premium vodka” is distilled in Italy’s beloved wine region, Piedmont. Distilled five times is another element that doesn’t speak to me, as it means the spirit is that much more stripped down and smoothed out, removing the flavors of the base ingredient/s. They employ a rare filtration process utilizing carbonados (“black diamonds”) that is purported to remove impurities. It does achieve “smoothness” (which to me always reads: characterless) in texture but thankfully does not strip all flavor. The organic wheat base comes through on the nose and palate, alongside whispers of white pepper and coconut.
Taste rating: 4

Seven Stills Wood Isle Dry Gin
San Francisco distillery-brewery Seven Stills is known for their beers and range of interesting whiskies distilled from beers. But they have pushed into gin and just released their Wood Isle Gin barrel aged gin, rested in new charred American Oak. The botanicals come through: lemon, juniper, peppermint, lavender, even green tea. But that “Christmas-y” holiday vibe you get from many barrel aged gins stands out… with a balanced hand. Pine and sarsaparilla mingle with a subtly sweet cinnamon, red hots vibe. It’s sips nicely neat as it shines with quality tonic or in a few cocktails I experimented with.
Taste rating: 4.5

Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Blonde Rum
At roughly $25, it’s hard to top the value for taste of Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Blonde Rum. One of the great rum educators in the world, Ed Hamilton schooled me on agricole, dunder and blessed rum funk a good 15 years ago and the passion has stayed with me. His Ministry of Rum events in those days and his education on all things rhum agricole also led to me falling for other ester-y rum categories, like Jamaican rums. Hamilton’s Jamaican Pot Still rums are shining examples of affordable funky rums, while the Blonde (with the same base as his Pot Still Gold and Black rums) exudes all that ripe banana and tropical goodness that makes a classic Daiquiri, Ti Punch or other r(h)um cocktail next-level. 
Taste rating: 4.5 

Starward Two-Fold Double Grain Whisky
Starward, an Australian double-grain whisky, produces both the higher-priced Nova and the value driven Two-Fold (low $30s USD) Australian whisky. Featuring malted barley, like the Nova, Two-Fold’s Australian wheat adds another layer, as does its aging in Australian red wine barrels. Sweet roundess, warm grains, vanilla, red apples and caramel make it more of a cocktail whisky: complex enough to bring some heft to cocktails but doesn’t disappoint neat.
Taste rating: 4

Uncle Val’s Restorative, Botanical & Peppered Gins
Produced in Sonoma, CA, Uncle Val’s Restorative, Botanical and Peppered Gins are all strong gin options that stand up in cocktails. Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin may be the most interesting, with few comparable on the market, though all three are strong gins. The Peppered’s balanced hit of juniper, black peppercorn, red bell pepper and pimento pepper veers from vegetal to herbaceous with a touch of earth, adding complexity to gin and tonics and savory layers to cocktails.
Taste rating: 4

Ragged Branch Wheated Bourbon
In Charlottesville, Virginia, Alex Toomy grows all his own grain for Ragged Branch’s range of bourbons and a rye whiskey, while their spent mash is fed to Angus cattle roaming their grounds. I find the Wheated Straight Virginia Bourbon is the standout in their portfolio, with the Double-Oaked Wheated Bourbon veering a bit too tannic. Their mashbill is heavy on corn, with a strong dose of wheat and malted barley. Though it still hits a bit hot at only 45% ABV, its vanilla and caramel wood notes threaten to overwhelm but then it unfolds nicely with nutty spice and a fresh corn cereal mash kick.
Taste rating: 4

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Founding The Perfect Spot in 2007 sharing top recommends globally in food and drink, Virginia Miller is W. North America Academy Chair for The World's 50 Best Restaurants, regular columnist at The Bold Italic and Medium, Distiller Magazine, American Whiskey Magazine, Whisky Magazine, VOICES,, Gin Magazine, etc. She held roles as Zagat SF/NorCal editor, SF Guardian restaurant critic, Table8 National Editor/VP of Content. Published in over 60 international publications, she’s covered global dining, travel, spirits, cocktails, hotels and bars with regular columns at Time Out, Where Traveler, Google’s Touringbird, Food Republic, Thrillist, Travelux, to name a few. She wrote The Official Emily in Paris Cocktail Book. Virginia consults in dining, spirits, cocktails and drink. She co-created Avion’s Reserva Cristalino tequila with Pernod Ricard’s House of Tequila innovation, marketing and distilling teams and is now working multiple agave spirits projects in Mexico over recent years, including cutting edge innovation products and blends for different clients. She consults for multiple distilleries on short-term projects, whether evaluating and providing feedback on samples or products or multiple versions. She helps create various samples and flavor profiles with distilling teams or in labs, edits or writes tasting notes, provides feedback on marketing materials and leads tastings virtually or in-person. She leads tastings virtually for Whiskies of the World and for company parties or private events, educating on a range of spirits. Virginia creates drink menus for Michelin-starred restaurants (like Dominique Crenn’s Golden Poppy in Paris, a multi-month project creating an entire menu of cocktails and non-alcoholic cocktails with stories and photos for the restaurant’s launch). She aids in honing and curating food and drink menus and provides feedback on dishes and drinks. Virginia judges in many international dining, food, spirits, cocktails and bars competitions and awards (including SF World Spirits, ADI Craft Distilling, Tales of the Cocktail, Good Food Awards, IWSC in London, Nola Spirits Comp, Whiskies of the World, etc.) and has visited over 13,000 restaurants and even more. top bars around the world.