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:
Cinzano 1757 Rosso Vermouth di Torino
As a huge vermouth lover — one who often drinks it on the rocks, not just in cocktails (as intended in its roots in Italy) — I look for complexity and depth in my vermouth. It’s a bonus if it shines in cocktails. Cinzano’s 1757 Rosso Vermouth di Torino accomplishes all of the above. Full-bodied but not too sweet, round and lush yet also complex. Its herbal layers mingle with sweet notes of raisins and figs, while the gentian bitter is balanced, long, ever-present, but not overwhelming.
Taste rating: 5
Ron Abuelo XII Años Two Oaks, Selección Especial
Ron Abuelo XII Años Two Oaks rum from Panama — with its elegant hit of oak, smoke, coffee, vanilla, nuts, spices and caramel — is a blend ranging between 8 and over 40 years old (with the average around 11 years). With his team, company head Luis J. Varela, Jr. (of Ron Abuelo’s third generation Varela family), grows and hand-harvests all their sugarcane, aging this rum in white oak bourbon barrels, finishing it for an additional nine months in new, extra-charred American oak. Specific to this rum, they work with a cooperage house in Napa Valley to create unique barrel treatments, ensuring maximum surface extraction by techniques like a “slow and low” char (180°C / 356°F), finishing with a high temp char. The rum exudes a subtle smokiness but remains balanced in sweetness, velvety on the tongue, an ideal sipping rum.
Taste rating: 4.5
Stray Dog Wild Gin
Greek gins are a rarity (Grace Gin is the other one I’m aware of) and newcomer Stray Dog Gin is worth seeking out. Greek-American founder Johnny Livanos partners up with a third generation family-owned distillery in Aridea (near Thessaloniki), Melissanidi Distillery, to distill his Stray Dog recipe. At 43.5% ABV, the botanicals include juniper, coriander, orange, lemon, cardamom, rosemary, bay leaf, wild sage and fennel seed with a Greek element of mastiha (a piney tree resin). The result is vibrantly aromatic and herbaceous with a bright kick of citrus. What makes it sing is the gin’s silky, luxurious texture. As an animal lover, I am also touched that a portion of their sales supports animal welfare shelters in Greece.
Taste rating: 4.5
Still Austin American Gin
I reviewed Still Austin’s bourbon last year and find this product a versatile cocktail gin and a solid entrant in (another) heavily saturated spirit category. Recently rebranding their American Gin “The Naturalist,” this rye-based gin is a base of Brasetto Rye and non-GMO white corn from Texas farmers. It is then milled and distilled in 42-foot-tall custom column still in small 100-gallon batches. The gin hits with grapefruit, tarragon, elderflower, rye spice, cinnamon, allspice, juniper and white peppercorn, holding up in standards like a gin and tonic.
Taste rating: 4
I’ve previously reviewed LA-by-way-of-Copenhagen Amass’ gin, and am a fan of the gin’s texture, balance and elegance. Their recent launch of Amass Riverine is yet another in the growing number of non-alcoholic spirits on the market. Calling on Pacific Northwest botanicals, the juniper base brightened by sorrel, sumac, apple, thyme, mint, parsley and lemon peel. While the ever-present “thinness” and lack of body I weary of in distilled non-alcoholic spirits is still there, the flavor profile is herbaceous, evergreen and earthy and makes for some solid “mocktails.” I wish the body and boldness issue could be resolved with non-alcoholic spirits, but in the meantime, this is by far one of the better on the market.
Taste rating: 4
Founded in Colorado in 2018, Dano’s Tequila at first throws me off with silly claims like “Dano’s Dangerous Tequila” on the bottle and with “flavored” products like Pineapple & Jalapeño-infused tequila. But to taste, the pineapple-jalapeno is balanced and subtle, while their flagship blanco is a solid tequila using zero additives (they also have a Reposado and Añejo I haven’t tried). The brand began from Danny “Dano” Thompson’s popular fresh pineapple and jalapeño tequila infusions he made for friends and family, gaining a local following in his hometown of Steamboat Springs. Dano co-founded the brand with CEO Chris Timmerman, and they partnered with Hacienda de Reyes, the second oldest distillery in Mexico, to commission the Reyes family (who have run their small distillery since 1840) to exclusively produce Dano’s. These are strong cocktail tequilas, whether the understated Pineapple & Jalapeno Infusion or crowd-pleasing Blanco.
Taste rating for both tequilas: 4
Founded in 2009 by former bartenders Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz in Milwaukee, WI, Bittercube Bitters was one of the early trendsetters in bitters, producing a popular range of bitters for cocktails, but also baking and cooking. Their well-balanced line recently gained some new bitters. I’ve been enjoying playing with each, like rum and agave spirit-friendly Jamaican No. 1 Bitters (allspice, ginger, clove, black pepper) and Jamaican No. 2 Bitters (grapefruit, hibiscus, allspice, clove, ginger, black pepper, peppermint, gentian, vanilla). The new Trinity Bitters (combining their cherry bark vanilla bitters with their Bolivar and orange bitters) work well with whiskies and brandies, but also vinaigrettes and marinades. It’s hard not to find my favorite being their sarsaparilla, birch, anise and wintergreen-forward Root Beer Bitters.
Taste rating: 4 to 5 for each
Benriach Distillery’s Ultra Premium Whiskies
Speyside’s Benriach is “at it” again: this time releasing their new blends of 21, 25 and 30 year old whiskies (more on their rebrand last year). Thankfully, the elegant balance of peat and fruit are still a mainstay of master blender Rachel Barrie’s blends, with the 25 year Authenticus a favorite of mine in years past, I am in love with the shockingly youthful 30 year old ($739.99): its vibrant dark fruits, manuka honey and earthy chocolate notes. But the Twenty One ($199.99) and Twenty Five ($359.99) are both beauties playing with layers of peat-fruit-spice-chocolate, garnered from their four cask-matured blends. With modern, clean new packaging, this is how a historic brand stays classic but looks ahead.
Taste Rating for The Twenty One and The Twenty Five: 4.5 stars
Taste Rating for The Thirty: 5 stars
Owl’s Brew Boozy Teas
Women-founded and run, Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield Owl’s Brew began as two tea experts took on the cocktail world with tea-centric mixers for cocktails or non-alcoholic drinks. I’ve long appreciated their mixers and have been sampling their new line of fresh brewed, organic — and best of all, sparkling and boozy — teas since they were released in time for the holidays at the end of 2020. Using all real botanicals, the standout boozy tea flavors from their initial line of four were the Matcha Pineapple & Chamomile and White Tea, Raspberry & Watermelon, both with delicate yet noticeable flavor profiles.
Taste rating: 4.5
Tin Cup Rye Whiskey
TINCUP Original debuted 2014 with a mashbill of corn, rye and malted barley, aged for a minimum of four years in American white oak barrels, from the Rocky Mountain mining town of Tin Cup, Colorado, and founder Jess Graber. The newcomer to their line is TINCUP Rye, a mashbill of 95% Mid-Western rye grain and 5% barley, aged for three years and cut to proof with Rocky Mountain water. It’s rough and tumble —not so much harsh, as it is tannic and bracing— rounded out by the oak’s vanilla and caramel, with layers of rye spice and earthy tobacco. There are more balanced, refined and even bold rye whiskies out there, to be sure. But this is a solid entrant in a saturated field.
Taste rating Rye: 4
Taste rating Original: 3.5