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. Small-batch distillers and drink producers need our aid. Please, support small businesses and quality drink. My 10 bottle picks of the month:
Angry Orchard Pommeau of Walden
Calvados French apple brandy is one of my most beloved under-the-radar spirits categories. Pommeau, its little sister, is even more rare. Mixing apple juice with apple brandy, it’s like a fresher, more youthful Calvados. From Angry Orchard, a cidery and orchard in Walden, NY, a new release of Pommeau of Walden ($48 for 375mL bottle) brings a much-needed entrant into this still obscure category. It’s their highest ABV as a cider producer (24% ABV), an apple wine aged in French oak for three years, then blended with juice in traditional methods with French bittersweet apples. Apple certainly comes through, but this pommeau as much recalls plum wine as it does pommeau, with black cherry notes, a whisper of earthy chocolate and a dusty orchard sweetness.
Taste rating: 4
Philadelphia Distilling Vigo Amaro
At 65 proof or 32.5% ABV, Philadelphia Distilling’s Vigo Amaro is a beauty of an American amaro. Distiller Aaron Selya nailed the balance of bitter and well-roundedness. Pleasing whispers of sarsaparilla give way to ginger, cinnamon and other warming spices, a comforting earthy woodiness. As important as how richly it sips on its own is how well it mixes in cocktails.
Taste rating: 4.5
Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Aperitif
As the much-needed quality non-alcoholic spirits/drink trend continues to explode, Wilfred’s is a standout non-alcoholic aperitif worth sipping on its own for those who love their aperitivos, vermouths, spritzes or Aperol. It’s not as bitter as our beloved amaris or even Campari, but it has got a subtle bittersweet with its blend of rosemary, bitter orange, rhubarb and clove. While I find it gets lots in cocktails/with too much dilution, as I do with most non-alcoholic spirits or drinks, I prefer it on the rocks or with merely a splash of soda. Created by engineer and inventor Chris Wilfred Hughes, his love of cocktails and no-ABV alternatives led to over 100 recipes and 18 months of experimentation to perfect this recipe, sourcing botanicals like rare Japanese hibiscus, rosemary from his mother’s garden and bitter oranges used in his father’s marmalade.
Taste rating: 4.5
Castle & Key Roots of Ruin Harvest Seasonal Gin
With an artful, striking label designed by Stranger & Stranger, Castle & Key’s Roots of Ruin Harvest Seasonal Gin ($36.99) is the fifth in their line of seasonal gins from the Frankfort, KY, distillery. At 51% ABV, it’s bracing but balanced, showcasing the season with pine, berries, star anise, sumac, fennel, bay leaf and botanicals they’ve never used in seasonal releases prior. Using both vapor infusion and steeping, Henry Bradley distills the gin from the same mashbill and production methods behind Castle & Key’s rye whiskey. The result is aromatic, woodsy and peppery, with soft pine, cedar and licorice elements, all of which I’d like to taste just a bit more of. A subtly sweet berry spice lingers on the finish.
Taste rating: 4
AGAVE — Tequila
El Tequileno Platinum Bianco
Reviewing El Tequileno’s Reposado Rare in 2020, it’s no surprise that the rest of tequila line is packed with excellence. A “Platinum Blanco” may seem unnecessary on top of a classic blanco, but not when of this calibur/taste. Made from 100% estate-grown agave in the Jaliscan Highlands, the blanco is not aged but “mellowed” in American Oak for a minimum of 14 days pre-bottling. It’s herbal, green notes are touched with anise, black pepper and subtle spice. El Tequileño has Cuervo family connections but was actually a small distillery started by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo in 1959, remaining family-run by master distiller and Jorge’s grandson, Tony. This line of tequilas has become one of my all-time favorites.
Taste rating: 4.5
All the Bitter
As the non-alcoholic movement continues to rise in quality and range, non-alcoholic bitters were destined to be next. All The Bitter was created by two former sommeliers of legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley: Ian and Carly Blessing. These alcohol-free bitters benefit from precise, balanced flavor profiles and quality ingredients (think organic dandelion root, burdock, lemon balm, milk thistle seed). The texture and sweetness runs a touch more syrup-esque than typical bitters, but still packs that bitter punch that gives backbone, especially to cocktails made with non-alcoholic spirits, many of which still lack body. These bitters step in on that front as I tried them in cocktails, both with and without booze. All three initial flavors — a boldly spiced Aromatic, classic Orange bitters and New Orleans bitters — are inspired by Antoine Peychaud’s historic Peychaud’s bitters. All three are lovely, but my favorite is the New Orleans bitters with its hit of anise and tart cherry.
Taste rating: 4.5-5
WHISKEY — Irish
Limavady Irish Whiskey
Master distiller Darryl McNally brought back Limavady Irish Whiskey, one of Ireland’s oldest whiskeys dating back to 1750. As a descendant of one of the Limavady’s 18th century owners/operators, McNally grew up miles from the Old Bushmills Distillery, where he worked in addition to his time at Dublin Liberties Distillery. Partnering with WhistlePig Whiskey, now expanding beyond their brand to launch a global portfolio, Limavady fulfills McNally’s dream of creating the world’s first single barrel Irish whiskey ($49.99) under this historic name/brand. From 100% malted barley, the triple distilled whiskey is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. It exudes an Irish Whiskey spirit with American whiskey brazenness: fruity, floral, vanilla maltiness, orange marmalade, ginger and allspice.
Taste rating: 4.5
WHISKEY — American
• Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Whiskey
Distilled in Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits’ Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey feature a Scotch-like, malted barley base, from the Single Malt to the Cask Strength whiskies or the Apple Brandy Cask-Finished version. Rather than peat-smoked, these are mesquite-smoked. While I’ve tasted numerous mesquite-smoked whiskies over the years, they’ve been in the corn, bourbon, etc. mode rather than barley-based, although that trend is rising (I’ve not yet tried the likes of Ranger Creek’s Rimfire or Whiskey Del Bac Dorado Mesquite Smoked Single Malt). High desert temps led to a climate-controlled barrel warehouse, but the standout element of all three Southwestern whiskies is their restraint, not always typical in small batch/craft whiskies. Letting the whiskey shine, each hint at just enough smoke, never too much. I find myself most drawn to the more robust Cask Strength and Apple Brandy whiskies, and am particularly interested in trying the distillery’s pine resin liqueur, Atapino.
Taste rating Cask Strength and Apple Brandy-Finished: 4.5
Taste rating Single Malt: 4
• Dexter Bourbon
With the first bottling of Dexter Bourbon ($49.95) released in January 2021, the high rye (36% rye) bourbon was launched by Brain Brew Distillery co-founders Doug Hall and Joe Girgash in Newtown, OH, who facilitate custom distilling. Self-labeled “WoodCraft Finishing,” the bourbon is finished in vintage 200 Year Oak, maple and cherry woods. The whiskey drinks bracing but not too hot, with elements of chocolate-orange, rye spice, and caramel and vanillans from the wood.
Taste rating: 3.5
VODKA (+ Bourbon)
Village Garage Bourbon and Vodka
Glen Sauer and Matt Cushman opened new Village Garage Distillery in August 2021 in their hometown of Bennington, Vermont. Housed in a former garage, they’re about to open a restaurant in addition to their distillery tours and tastings. Their first launches are a robust bourbon ($50; think cask-forward toasted oak and butterscotch), a clean, white peppery vodka ($22) and a rye, which I have not tasted. I sampled their limited Bonfire Bourbon, touched with Vermont maple syrup but not too sweet, an example of their goal to establish a VT style of whiskey. On a virtual tasting, I tried their Village Old Fashioned with maple syrup as they partner locally in VT to further showcase a regional style. The initial bourbon is made at another Vermont distillery to Village Garage’s specifications, but their first batches of in-house bourbon are aging and due out Summer 2023), sourced from local grains, with water from natural mountain stream, Bolles Brook.
Taste rating Vodka: 4
Taste rating Bourbon: 3.5