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 picks of the month:
Fortaleza Tequila Winter Blend 2022
In August 2022, I returned to the magical caves and grounds of Fortaleza Tequila — who I went on my first trip to the town of Tequila with back in 2010. What a gift. In part because I was among the early few to taste their limited edition Winter Blend 2022 ($130; 43.5% ABV; released November 2022). I loved last year’s blend, and 2022 is another unique beauty. It’s a blend of their reposado tequila aged separately in French oak casks that held Oloroso sherry and Hungarian oak barrels previously aging Tokaji Hungarian wine, each resting an average of 6 months. Blended together with a base of the regular reposado, the honeyed, nutty-spiced sweetness of the Tokaji and Oloroso-aged tequila uplift the reposado’s harmonious balance of vegetal-fresh agave, pepper, earth, citrus and vanilla. I tasted each liquid in the blend separately and at a slightly higher proof, especially loving the more robust latter. But the final release — and their continued commitment to tahona-crushed agave and old world methods long before a few in Tequila began to return to such methods — is a shining example of why Fortaleza remains one of the very best tequila houses out there well over a decade later. Taste Rating: 4.5
Lost Lantern Whiskies
Founded by Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski late 2020, Lost Lantern is an independent bottler focused on American whiskey akin to the long tradition of independent bottlers in Scotland. They hand-pick releases of single casks and blends, plus create their own American Vatted Malt Edition No. 1, a collaboration blend of American single malt whiskey with six U.S. distilleries. Their latest Summer 2022 collection of limited edition single casks. From a lively 2022 Single Cask #11: Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt aged 5 years in a Tequila barrel at only 126 bottles ($120; 129 proof), to a gorgeous 3 year-aged 2022 Single Cask #10: St. George Spirits California Single Malt Whiskey ($160; 106.7 proof) at only 215 bottles, each in the current line are complex and interesting, making me grateful such an independent bottler exists to showcase range and rare barrels in American whiskey. Taste Rating: 5
Royal Brackla 18 and 21 year Scotch Whisky
The Royal Brackla Scotch whisky — founded in 1812 by Captain William Fraser — recently re-launched its core range of whiskies, with malt master Stephanie Macleod experimenting with different casks before landing on sherry cask finishes from Bodegas Jose y Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain. I didn’t taste Royal Brackla 12 Year Old, but have sampled Royal Brackla 18 and 21 Year Old, all bottled at 46% ABV (from the previous 40% ABV) — the increased ABV is a win in flavor. Royal Brackla 18 ($299.99) is finished in Palo Cortado Sherry casks, imparting citrus notes and highlighting the fruity, chocolate, bold spice and vanilla Brackla whisky is known for. Royal Brackla 21 Year ($599.99) is finished in Pedro Ximénez, Oloroso and Palo Cortado Sherry casks, a harmonious blend exuding toffee notes, rich fruits, spice and muscovado sugar. Taste Rating for 18 and 21 Year: 5
GIN & VODKA
Linden Leaf 88 Organic Molecular Gin + Singularity Molecular Vodka
Linden Leaf 88 Molecular Gin and Singularity Molecular Vodka were founded by three Cambridge PhD scientists (Matthew Webster, Mukund Unavane, Paul Bennettand, each passionate global food travelers), the first distillery to actually break down each flavor molecule to achieve harmonious balance. They experimented with countless organic and GMO-free botanicals, extracting specific molecules to identify the “limiest lime” or the “‘yuzuist yuzu,” for example, then seek out which worked best together and with juniper.
The gin ($38.88) features 88 separate flavor molecules from 28 botanicals, its 70% fresh citrus (plus more than 20% fresh botanicals) lingering on the finish with bright yuzu and calamansi, while warm grains and herbaceousness hit first. The vodka ($28.99) is silky and, yes, for me, that dreaded word (meaning bland and entry-level): smooth. But it also has character. They broke down acidity/alkaline levels (pH) and mineral content of the spring water used in distillation, while the base alcohol is a blend of organic/non-GMO grains like wheat, barley, rye and spelt, distilled five times. Usually that much distillation eliminates all original base flavor, but barley, rye, apple and black pepper peek through. Taste Rating: 4.5
Forthave Blue Gin
I thought I’d be most into Forthave’s Genepi, which I reviewed last month, but find I’m more into their gin. Co-founders writer/producer Daniel de la Nuez and painter Aaron Fox launched small batch Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn also producing an aperitivo and French-style amaro. Their Blue bottle gin (each spirit sports a different-colored wax seal) ($34.99) is distilled with 18 botanicals, including mint, grapefruit, lavender, rose, cubeb seeds and very present lemon. It’s floral and citrusy, then herbaceous on the finish, its sugarcane neutral grain spirit base exuding fresh cane vibes. It holds up in cocktails. Taste Rating: 4
RTDs (Ready-to-Drink/Canned Cocktails/Drinks)
• Tattersall Distilling RTDs
I’ve long written about Tattersall Distilling, especially appreciating their aquavit. This summer they launched their first canned cocktail line. These four ready-to-drink cocktails are 7% ABV in 12-ounce cans, generally nicely balanced, from Easy Street (whiskey, peach tea, mint, lemon) to a Key Lime Gin + Tonic I wish was more tart and vibrant. Watermelon Bootlegger (vodka, citrus, watermelon, mint) is particularly crushable. Taste Rating: 3.5-4.5
• Sake High!
Los Angeles-based Sake High! Recently released cute black cans and bottle formats of Junmai Sake brewed in Kyoto, Japan, then canned in Napa with Bin to Bottle. Clean and silky at 15% ABV, this isn’t overly complex sake. but it’s good and easy to drink, ideal on picnics, at home or on the go with takeout. Taste Rating: 4
Hop Mez Mezcal
Distributor Frijolotes’ co-owner Fred Baptista created Hop Mez mezcal artesanal during the early stages of pandemic homebrewing in Oakland, marrying a love of beer and mezcal in one intriguing mezcal. Triple distilled with centennial hops by Celso Martinez Lopez maestro mezcalero in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, at 40% ABV, Hop Mez is balanced, tasting like an agave spirit/mezcal first, thankfully. As an already appealing mezcal, it unrolls with subtle hops tasting less like beer than a more piney, hoppy mezcal, akin to botanical or gin mezcals like Pierde Almas’ pioneering mezcal gin. It’s fruity-savory understatement keeps it from being gimmicky, even if “hop heads” may wish for more hops. Taste Rating: 4
Arcane Alpha American Whiskey with Hops
In my early days of spirits judging over a decade ago, hopped (and smoked) whiskies were one of the great banes of judging. Arcane’s Alpha ($45.99; 41.5% ABV) is “American Whiskey with Hops” and a huge improvement on the often imbalanced, hoppy beers-to-whiskey I’d judge by the dozens a decade ago. The Brooklyn brews-to-whiskey line has greatly improved the once fraught category with a balanced whiskey distilled from a triple IPA, hitting with citrusy Cascade and Mosaic hops, but tasting like whiskey with balanced oak, citrus and spice. It still isn’t my preferred style of dram (though I love IPAs), but for those who seek this style, it’s an affordable, balanced entrant. Taste Rating: 3.5
Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye 2022
Released July 2022, Michter’s first and only 2022 bottling of 10 Year Rye ($185) is out. Master distiller Dan McKee created another beauty although tough to face the reality (as one who tasted Michter’s on the regular 15 years ago) of how difficult it is to come by these whiskies now — case in point, their 10 Year Bourbon is held off until 2023 for release. Their single barrel, Kentucky-style rye holds a generous amount of corn and barley, which unfold with hints of citrus, chocolate, caramel, oak and a welcome whiff of eucalyptus. Taste Rating: 4.5
Ready for another round? Visit Virginia’s website for last month’s edition, plus personal recommendations on the best spots in cities around the world.