My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is 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:
Heirloom Liqueurs Pineapple Amaro
Heirloom Brand was launched in 2016 from Bittercube’s Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz with R&D partner Brandon Reyes, distilled at Lawless Distilling in Minneapolis. These are whole botanical liqueurs, historic in ethos, high on quality ingredients, from an aromatic Creme de Flora to the spice-forward Alchermes, redolent of cinnamon, cardamom, coriander and vanilla. Heirloom’s Pineapple Amaro feels born for bartenders, a gently tropical yet bitter digestivo that exudes cinnamon, ginseng, caramel and cherry cola partnered with an earthy bitterness.
Taste Rating: 4.5
Rhum Barbancourt 15 years Haiti
At 15 years of age, Rhum Barbancourt Estate Reserve is 100% sugar cane rhum distilled at Haiti’s oldest distillery since 1862, Société du Rhum Barbancourt. Sans molasses, it exudes rhum agricole vibes, from its vegetal, grassy notes to its rich melange of fruits and spice, leather and pepper. It’s beautiful balance of oak and sweet and dry elements make it a Haitian r(h)um gem.
Taste rating: 4.5
WHISKY — FRENCH
Alfred Giraud French Malt Whisky
Keeping it French by finishing their whiskies in ex-Cognac casks (after aging in French and American oak), Alfred Giraud French whiskies — Heritage ($155) and Harmonie ($190) — are distilled in open flame Charente copper pot stills with no age statement, both capture balanced elegance, if not standing out as unusual. The Heritage is a blend exuding floral notes alongside spices, dried fruit and toasted wood, with a pleasing nuttiness. Heritage’s understated harmony (oddly enough, given the name of the other whisky) sat best with me as I revisited both, although the Harmonie is still a pleasing dram, reigning in yet showcasing peat with smoky, briny subtlety, dialing down the fruit found in Heritage.
Taste rating Heritage: 4.5
Taste rating Harmonie: 4
AGAVE SPIRITS — MEZCAL
Siete Misterios Doba Yej
Founded in 2010 by Julio and Eduardo Mestre, my initial visit to the magical state and city of Oaxaca in 2013 was visiting many producers who craft Los Siete Misterios mezcals. It was an unforgettable journey. From their standout Catrinas artwork labels to their range of agave varieties showcased, they were a longtime favorite, which I haven’t had the chance to revisit in awhile. This spring, they announced they are now owned and distributed by Chatham Imports — but thankfully still produced and managed by the Mestre brothers in Mexico. While I always worry about quality changes in such a transfer, this means more of the world will have the chance to taste their mezcals. Their Doba-Yej (Zapotec for Espadín, the most common agave variety from which mezcal is made) differs from their Espadín mezcal by being distilled in a copper still rather than traditional clay pot, with milling done by a horse-drawn tahona, rather than by hand. While I prefer clay pot, this is a more cocktail-friendly, clean version, lively with citrus, herbs and roasted agave, so an ideal conversion for mezcal newbies.
Taste Rating: 4
WHISKEY — INDIAN
Rampur Double Cask and Asava Single Malt
Radico Khaitan (formerly Rampur Distillery) is a New Delhi distilling pioneer since 1943, releasing Rampur Asava Single Malt ($89.99) late 2020, matured in American bourbon barrels, finished in Indian cabernet sauvignon casks. It tastes like the bold, faster-aging (due to heat and humidity) kind of whiskies we love from Taiwan and around India, evoking stone fruit, tobacco, lychee, even hops. Their more muted-but-still-vibrant Rampur Double Cask ($79.99) is made from Indian barley, lively with honeysuckle, hops and banana. Both are welcome entrants in the burgeoning Indian whisky category, though the layers and finish of the Asave give a little longer.
Taste Rating Asava: 4.5
Taste Rating Double Cask: 4
Bayab African Grown Gin
Distilled and bottled in South Africa, Bayab African Grown Gin may be the best gin I’ve tasted so far from Africa. Distilled in copper pot stills with African botanicals — and water sourced from S. Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, baobab fruit from Zambia and Madagascar imparts a vibrant citrus flavor and silkiness. This balanced gin unfolds with rosemary, cinnamon, lemon and orange peel.
Taste rating: 4.5
A newcomer in 2019, Portofino Gin showcases 21 botanicals, hand-picked in Portofino, the village’s iconic buildings marking the whimsical blue bottle. Lemon comes through strongly, tempered by juniper, lavender, rosemary, sweet fennel, cardamom, sage, marjoram, iris and rose. Produced at nearby Antica Distilleria Quaglia on an ancient Italian copper still, each botanical is individually macerated and vacuum distilled, preserving subtlety. This ensures that most botanicals do not dominate but for the citrus, making it a bright gin that evokes its Ligurian Riviera home, while the herbaceous finish lingers at the end.
Taste rating: 4
Dry Gin XII Gin Distille En Provence
Distilled in the South of France at Distilleries et Domaines de Provence (which dates back to 1898), Dry Gin XII Gin Distille En Provence ($32.99) was created to showcase the terroir and climate of Haute-Provence. Distilled in a copper plate column still, the gin features twelve botanicals, leaning floral, fresh and herbaceous with rosemary, basil, eucalyptus, thyme, sweet almond and mint, balanced by juniper.
Taste rating: 4
AGAVE SPIRITS: TEQUILA
A new import through SF’s Hotaling & Co., Severo small-batch tequilas are produced from a nearly 100 year old family recipe and 100% Blue Weber agave. While I’m generally a blanco/reposado lover first, being all about the agave with minimal to no oak, in the Severo line, it’s the Añejo and Añejo Cristalino that win me over. The Añejo Cristalino has rounder, more elegant notes compared to the sharper, citrus-forward Plata, a silky Cristalino soft with pear, pepper and star anise notes. Severo Reposado leans heavier on caramel, vanilla and general oak notes, which taste more integrated in the Añejo, which evokes dried fruit and citrus notes contrasting the oak after 18 months of aging.
Taste Rating Plata and Reposado: 3.5
Taste Rating Añejo Cristalino and Añejo: 4
Fabrizia Spirits Limoncello, Crema di Limoncello, Blood Orange Liquere
Started by second generation Italian-American Mastroianni brothers after visiting their family’s native region of Calabria, New Hampshire-based Fabrizia Spirits produces a limoncello, crema limoncello and blood orange “cello” or liqueur using Sicilian lemons. These cellos are maintain a bright, not-too-sweet balance as the flagship of their line. They just launched boozy pops and RTDs (canned cocktails) — sparkling/frizzante vodka sodas that also feature their fruits/citrus. While all are smartly not too sweet, the RTDs lack punch or definition, tasting more like juice lacking an acidic, bright kick that could make them great (they translate better in frozen pops). Fabrizia also launched Lemon Baking Company in November 2020, producing baked goods featuring their Limoncello in everything from cookies to biscotti.
Taste Rating Limoncello and Blood Orange Liqueure: 4
Taste Rating RTDs/canned cocktails: 3
• Griffo Distillery: Beloved Sonoma County (city of Petaluma) grain-to-glass distiller Griffo Distillery just got into the RTD game with two initial carbonated releases: A Whole Lotta Sunshine (Griffo vodka, grapefruit and lemon juices, Griffo Amaro, wildflower syrup) and Tomales Collins (Griffo Scott Street Gin, lemon and blood orange juices, cardamom clove syrup). I especially dig the bright, bubbly Collins showcasing their gin. Taste rating: 4
• Vervet: Featuring ingredients grown in CA farms or sourced from local Asian and Latin markets, Vervet models what I hope for more of in canned cocktails: creative, inspired cocktails like one might find in a bar. Their initial four canned cocktails ($19.99 for a 4-pack of 250ml cans) pack a punch at 10% ABV, ranging from a solid-yet-wishing-for-a-bit-more-definition and bitter profile (Angelicano: orange and grapefruit peels, Saigon cinnamon, burdock, sage, eucalyptus, star anise, hibiscus) to the 5-star Pale Mary, a spot-on showstopper that is lightly savory, herbal, lively yet balanced, featuring Ventura Spirits Wilder Gin, tomato water, celery, caraway, fennel, lemon. Taste rating: 3.5 to 5
• Luxardo: Yes, that Luxardo of the historic maraschino liqueur… Italy’s famed cherry producer just launched its first RTD/canned cocktail collection in June, produced in San Francisco by Hotaling & Co., Luxardo’s US importer. Each are balanced as you’d expect, reigning in everything from the bitter on the Aperitivo Spritz and the drier Bianco Spritz, to the subtle cherry on the Sour Cherry Gin & Tonic. Taste rating: 4 to 4.5
• Dashfire:Dashfire’s potent cocktails come boozy, full proof and in adorable mini-cans with sleek design. These will knock you on your a– if you’re not careful but actually retain the booze quotient of any average spirituous cocktail you’d have at a bar. Their White Russian or Martini are crowd-pleasers, while their canned coffee cocktails are bracing, silky, bold (like Rum Cafe Mocha). There is a reason this line is making waves in the RTD realm. Consider it a spirits/cocktail lovers’ line. Taste rating: 4 to 4.5
• The Finnish Long Drink: Created for the Finland Summer games in 1952, the Long Drink is a Finland classic, still considered the country’s most popular drink. This canned version will appeal to the gin lovers among us with its juniper and citrus hit — it’s also refreshing, light, crushable. I prefer the regular version compared to the zero sugar version (have not tried their cranberry or “strong” Long Drinks), but both are balanced and go down all too easy. Taste rating: 4