Looking for a new flavor? Need a little help making your next choice at your local bar or bottle shop? Dining and drinks writer and judge Virginia Miller combs through new craft spirits releases to taste, review, and recommend. Here are her top 12 picks of the month, rated on a scale of one to five.

My bottle review column (last month’s edition here) is about what is unique, standout, new and/or trending in spirits with my review ratings on a 1-5 rating scale. My 10 bottle reviews of the month:


Blacklisted brandy

Blacklisted Brandy


Blacklisted Brandy is an exciting new line of fruit brandies. Think authentic Germanic schnaps, Eastern Europe or French eaux de vie, Old World fruit brandies: dry, bracing, elegant and aromatic. Even better, it’s female founded by Chicago native Draga Culic who is employing Serbian brandy techniques producing her February 2024-launched brand in four expressions: Heirloom Apricot, Heirloom Pear, Heirloom Quince, Aged Heirloom Plum ($59.99 each except for aged plum, which is $69.99). I’ve only tried the pear and aged plum. As a longtime fruit brandy lover, these are the “real deal.” Coming from the capitol of fruit brandies in the U.S. — NorCal — I’ve judged, written about and traveled regions around Austria and beyond studying my schnaps/eaux de vie. I appreciate the bracing yet restrained profile of Blacklisted brandies, showing off their bright, additive-free profiles with just two ingredients: purified water and 100% heirloom fruit from Serbia. As with any quality fruit brandy, it takes over 30 pounds of heirloom fruit for each bottle. It’s ever an expensive proposition but Culic is doing it right, from the aromatic pear, to the aged (18 months to 7 years) plum in Serbian oak barrels. I can only hope brands like this will increase the visibility of fruit brandies.
Taste Rating: 4 to 4.5


Vara Distillery Corona De Oro Rum


Albuquerque-based VARA Winery & Distillery is turning out rum, vodka and gin (see gin below) from head distiller Martin Ulloa and production manager Djuna Benjamin. VARA Corona de Oro Rum (SRP $40) kicks of VARA’s Solera program, with plans for more in the line. With a cane juice molasses base, the rum is aged in oloroso and cream sherry casks for 18 months. It’s a drier rum with nice balance and brown sugar notes that run lean vs. sweet. It’s not overly distinctive, lacking funk or bold flavors. But as a drier rum, it’s a good fit for certain cocktails and restrained for those who like a more elegant rum.
Taste Rating: 3.5


Mijenta Cristalino Tequila


Sustainable and additive-free, I’ve appreciated Mijenta’s tequila (my 2021 reposado review). Full disclosure: I’ve produced a Cristalino in Arandas for Avion (more on that here) in the highlands of Tequila, the same region Mijenta is produced, so I have particular thoughts on Cristalino. As an often bastardized, trend-created “category,” many Cristalinos are not worth drinking. But Mijenta has created a blessedly-no vanilla-added Cristalino, released February 2024 from a rare maestra tequilera (female distiller) in Mexico, Ana María Romero. It’s clean, but not without character. Aged approximately eight months, then charcoal filtered, it’s clear, slate-y and mineral with notes of coconut, agave and earth.
Taste Rating: 4


iichiko x Martiny’s Credit to Alex-Staniloff

iichiko Special


Single distilled in a copper pot still from barley and barley koji, iichiko Shochu’s new iichiko Special, is one-of-a-kind shochu, an increasingly popular Japanese spirit I wrote about in years past. Aging similar to whiskey for five to seven years in white oak and sherry casks, imbues a caramel color to the 30% ABV spirit. Unlike any other shochu on the market, iichiko is the brand that has done more than any other to mainstream shochu in the Western world. This unique, smooth release rolls from soft bubble gum, candied notes to subtle spice, oak and chocolate so seamlessly, you’d swear those flavors were meant to go together. A fascinating new release.
Taste Rating: 4.5

RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned or Bottled Drinks)

Courtesy of Moshi

Moshi Asian Flavors Sodas


Moshi’s line of Japanese-influenced sparkling sodas runs from their yuzu to matcha line, plus sparkling waters. Founded in 2020 by former chef Alton But, quality ingredients, real flavors and refreshing balance reflect their sodas. I particularly love the yuzu line (original, yuzu white peach, yuzu red shiso with apple, unsweetened), all made with yuzu from Japan. They taste fresh, dry, not sweet, while the matcha line showcases grassy Japanese matcha. Just launched February 2024, their sparkling waters are far better than most with intriguing flavor combos using real fruit juice (think Asian pear/white miso, honeydew melon and cream, fuji apple/Concord grape). There’s not a bad one in the lineup and they work beautifully in cocktails as they do on their own.
Taste Rating: 4-5


• The Botanist Aged Gins


As of February 1, 2024, The Botanist gin (Bruichladdich Distillery’s gin since 2010) released two new, cask-matured gins, The Botanist Islay Cask Matured Gin Series. As the first new release from the Scottish brand since 2010, these two gins showcase the Botanist’s 22 hand-foraged Islay botanicals with a touch of wood. There’s The Botanist Islay Cask Rested Gin: a cuvée (blend) of around 16 different casks from Bruichladdich’s warehouse, aged a minimum of six months. And The Botanist Islay Cask Aged Gin: a cuvée of around six cask types, aged a minimum of three years. I prefer the former since I don’t like botanicals masked in gin. A subtle touch of wood and spice doesn’t hide the botanicals, adding a touch of viscosity to the mouthfeel. The aged gin is more creamy, with heavier notes of orange, spice and vanilla from the wood.
Taste Rating: 4 (Rested Gin), 3.5 (Aged Gin)

• Vara Distillery High Desert Gin


Albuquerque-based VARA Winery & Distillery is turning out rum, vodka and gin (see rum above) from head distiller Martin Ulloa and production manager Djuna Benjamin. VARA High Desert Gin (SRP $30) is a grape-based gin, allowing for rounder notes and a silky palate that showcases green-forward botanicals representing New Mexico’s high desert: juniper, pine, sage with a hint of citrus. It’s a nicely balanced gin that works well in cocktails.
Taste Rating: 4


• Old Potrero Hotaling 16 Year Whiskey


Limited edition, brand new Old Potrero Hotaling’s American Whiskey ($200) is the latest release from the pioneering U.S. craft whiskey brand that started as Anchor Distilling Company in 1993 from the famed beermaker, Fritz Maytag. Decades later, it’s still being crafted by distiller Bruce Joseph. This new 16 year release tributes the whiskey’s original launch on the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire: April 18, 2024. Yes, there’s oak, but the 100% malted rye aged in once-used charred oak barrels, also exhibits rye spice, pear, apple and great depth. A worthy and memorable anniversary edition.
Taste Rating: 4.5

• Whiskey Del Bac Dorado Whiskey


Distilled in Tuscon’s Del Bac Distillery, Whiskey Del Bac ($60) reflects its surrounding Sonoran desert landscape. Copper pot distilled, this whiskey is made from 100% malted barley smoked with mesquite, aged 12-15 months. I’ve tasted other mesquite whiskies over the years and this is a strong addition exuding blessed balance. Father-daughter Stephen and Amanda Paul launched the distillery in 2011. Their whiskey unfolds with notes of smoky campfire, chocolate, tobacco and toasted caramel.
Taste Rating: 4

• Penelope Bourbon


Penelope Bourbon’s ($89.99) Tokaji Cask Finish returned in February 2024 in limited allocation. It’s a straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley) finished in casks that aged Hungary’s late harvest Tokaji dessert wine, adding sweet honey-caramel notes. Distilled at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and aged eight years, the packaging is elegant. As with so many American whiskies, the bourbon runs a bit too tannic, over-oaked and sweet, masking some of those cherry, dark chocolate, orange, tobacco, nutty notes.
Taste Rating: 3

Ready for another round? Visit Virginia’s website http://www.theperfectspotsf.com/wp02/for last month’s edition, plus personal recommendations on the best spots in cities around the world.

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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, Liquor.com, 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.