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 drink. My 12 bottle picks of the month:


Poli Cleopatra Moscato Oro Grappa
From early days at Bar 888 in SF’s Intercontinental Hotel, which opened in 2008 with one of the nation’s biggest grappa collections, to my magical 2013 travels in grappa’s hometown of Bassano del Grappa, I have loved the great Jacopo Poli. This producer typifies the most elegant grappas in famously striking bottles. Cleopatra Oro is part of Poli’s line of rare grappas, just released to the States at historic stores like D&M. Cleopatra is made from white muscat grapes, distilled in an innovative bain-marie (double boiler) vacuum still, then aged. Cleopatra exemplifies the glories grappa can reach. Aromatic, floral and evocative of tropical fruits — from pineapple to mango — it also exudes hints of citrus, ultimately showcasing the almighty grape in the way only grappa can. Taste rating: 5


Oka Kura Brand Japanese Bermutto
It delights me when I review a rare spirit, much less when I can list a category I’ve never listed before. In this case, “sake vermouth” is a first for me, a recent import from Oka Kura Brand Japanese Bermutto, imported by Skurnik. It’s produced at Tsutsumi Distillery in Kumamoto, Japan, which has been a shochu distillery for 141 years. At 18% ABV, it’s made from 100% rice and pure water from the Kuma River, with the addition of herbs and botanicals, pulling from long traditions in sake and aromatized/fortified wines in Europe. This Junmai Sake is fortified with rice shochu, then acidified with citrus (yuzu and kabosu), sansho peppercorn and yomogi (Japanese mugwort), imparting a subtle bitterness with herbaceous, grassy, citrus, sweet notes. It’s a fascinating example of tradition meeting innovation, resulting in something utterly new. Taste rating: 4.5


The Perfect Fifth Rare Scotch Sampling Boxes
The Perfect Fifth is a family-run, independent, single cask Scotch bottler in Miami. In pandemic, they noticed the craving for more premium products at home with the usual challenges of small production rarity. They started releasing rare Scotch series in limited cities, so they could meet more of the demand, with the initial release in San Francisco and San Diego. The series offer four bottles, each in dramatic miniature wooden cask boxes. Release one was a truly impressive lineup of Highland Park 31 Year, Cambus 42 Year Single Grain, Springbank 25 Year and Glen Scotia 27 Year Whiskys. The second release just came to San Francisco in August 2021. This is one of the fewer opportunities for Scotch fanatics to get multiple bottles with some real age, the kind of whiskies I sadly had access to constantly 15 years ago. In the initial lineup, the bottle production ranged from 138 to 522 bottles each, so all were extremely limited, and all were splurge-worthy. 
Taste rating: 5


Lejana Y Sola Mezcal
Lejana Y Sola
mezcal ($60) is a sister brand to PaQui Tequila, which I reviewed here. It’s a joven “ensemble” (or blend) mezcal of espadin and wild cuishe agave, produced in Lachila, Oaxaca, via traditional methods (meeting the requirements to be “mezcal artesanal”), including horse-drawn tahona to crush the agave plants, fermented in wooden tanks and on an estate with no electricity. The smoke is subtle, brightened by ripe fruit and citrus, its underlying earthy spice and vegetal sweetness tempered by minerality. It’s a mezcal that sings as a sipper and in cocktails. Taste rating: 4.5


SelvaRey Owner’s Reserve & White Rum
I am one to be unimpressed when a celebrity’s name is attached to a spirit — as these new rums are to musician Bruno Mars. I automatically expect the spirit to be subpar, more about the name and hype than the quality of the spirit. In this case, I can’t say that’s entirely wrong. The $32 SelvaRey White Rum is a three-year-old white rum aged in bourbon barrels, subtly sweet and rounded. For me, it’s too indistinctive, basically forgettable, though sweet rum drinkers should be pleased (I didn’t try the SelvaRey Coconut or Chocolate rums, which I imagine are at least as sweet). The $150 Owner’s Reserve is certainly more elegant and understated, blended by master blender Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez in Panama from rums aged between 15-25 years. For those whom “smooth” is the ultimate tasting note, this will appeal, silky with notes of brown sugar, nuts and baked apples. For me, smooth is not a selling point when character doesn’t dominate, especially at this price point. Sweet and pleasant enough, it doesn’t hold up to character-rich rums at half the price point. The Owner’s Reserve packaging is the winning point, with its sleek bottle and vivid, colorful, parrot-covered box. Taste rating Owner’s Reserve: 3.5; Taste rating White Rum: 3


Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai Sake

Available at shops like True Sake, at $31 a bottle, Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai is a steal of a sake with its layered profile and easy drinkability, making it both an everyday and a special occasion sake. It ranges from the umami subtlety of nutty, soy, black sesame and nori (dried seaweed) notes to fruity, dried apricot, bright citrus, cherry, honeydew and raisin aromas with a clean, crisp body. No wonder it has won multiple awards and gold medals. This is the kind of sake I would love to stock up on. 
Taste rating: 4.5


• Spirit Works Aged Old Tom Gin
Timo and Ashby Marshall’s Spirit Works Distillery in the Sonoma Co. town of Sebastopol was ADI’s 2020 Distillery of the Year, a grain-to-glass treasure that has employed female distillers from day one and produces the best Sloe Gin I’ve ever tasted. With the appointment of distiller Krystal Goulart early this year, their latest Batch 002 release of Old Tom Gin is a stunner. Featuring the same botanicals as Batch 001 (from cardamom to lemon and orange zest) and similarly aged a few months, this year’s edition has added liquorice, more orris root and honey, bringing a rounded, almost aquavit-esque balance of sweet and savory. It’s a tasting room-only release, so you have to visit to get it, but it’s worth seeking out. This is a superior Old Tom Gin to most made anywhere. Taste rating: 5

• Bently Heritage Estate Distillery Alpine Gin
Previously, I’ve reviewed Bently Heritage Estate’s Juniper Grove Gin and Atrium Gins. Recently, I tried their limited-edition estate Alpine Gin ($50), triple distilled in copper pot stills from a base of grains grown on their ranch, infused with 11 botanicals, including pinion cones foraged near their Minden, Nevada, distillery. It’s aromatic, certainly with a pine-y, alpine essence, yet also a robust showing of citrus. It’s definitely a Martini and spirituous cocktail kind of gin, also working nicely in a gin and tonic. Taste rating: 4.5

WHISKEY — Japanese

Mars Iwai 45 Japanese Whisky

Mars Whisky
has been a longtimer in Japan, and I’ve savored many of their vintage pours in bars around Japan. But it’s just gaining traction here in the States as a recent import. While I’ve not had their Tsunuki the First or Komagatake 2020, which were just released. But revisiting Mars Whisky Iwai 45, made up of 30% malt and 70% grain whisky (corn-dominant), aged in ex-bourbon barrels, it remains an easy drinking whisky. It’s fruity, floral, with notes of honey, wood and is even subtly buttery. While it’s not mind-blowing, it’s a great value, works well in cocktails and drinks nicely on its own, all you could ask for at this price point. Taste rating: 4

RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned)

Four Corners Brewing Buchalada: Dallas-based Four Corners Brewing has been a local favorite for over a decade, offering beers like a honey rye golden ale or speciality releases like a s’more stout. Their new Buchalada “boozy kombucha seltzer” line is of particular note. All three initial flavors — grapefruit sea salt, prickly pear ginger, raspberry hibiscus — are shining examples of crushable, robust-but-balanced kombuchas, especially the former two flavors. Taste rating: 4 to 4.5

Home School Bottled Negroni: Just released from Dave Phinney of Savage & Cooke distillery in Vallejo, CA, Home School is a 25% ABV bottled Negroni cocktail. Nearly two decades into this, I’m so weary of the (of course) great Negroni, I could scream — thousands of versions the world over later, I’d rather just make it home and if I’m buying, get something interesting, different, that I can’t easily make. I’ve also tasted dozens of bottled and canned versions. Despite the boredom of yet another Negroni in the RTD field when there is need for more rare bottled drinks, this is no slouch, thanks to its uber bitter, Italy-worthy profile, which drinks like an interesting amari-heavy Negroni. Taste rating: 4.5

WHISKEY — Bourbon

Limestone Branch Master Yellowstone® Limited Edition

Released this July from Limestone Branch Distillery, 2021 Yellowstone Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a blend of 7 and 15-year-old bourbons hand-selected by master distiller Stephen Beam, with some of the 7-year-old barrels finished in Amarone casks. At $99.99, it’s a sipping bourbon, and past iterations in the annual Yellowstone series (since 2015) have won numerous gold medals, including at various awards I blind judge in. Amarone casks add a tannic, red wine richness while a strong cherry, Manhattan cocktail vibe dominates. For me that means it masks some of the whiskey’s subtly, heavy on smoky caramel, black cherry, fig and plenty of brown sugar sweetness. Yet whispers of black pepper and leather do peek through. It’s robust at 101 proof (50.5% ABV) and runs a little hot/harsh on the finish, much as I love cask strength whiskies. Taste rating: 4