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 13 bottle reviews of the month:


Spirit Works Distillery Sloe Amaro


Long leading the way in women distillers, farm-to-glass and sustainable efforts, Spirit Works Distillery is a craft distilling treasure in Sebastopol (Sonoma County), CA. Their latest, distillery-only Spirit Works Distillery Sloe Amaro proves the point yet again, alongside their lovely gins, whiskies and more. Their sloe gin has long been the best I’ve ever tasted in the world: tart, fresh and real, from a generations-old recipe from co-owner Timo Marshall’s family featuring organic European sloe berries. Their brand new sloe amaro is the same base macerated with over a dozen botanicals. Its rich, warm bitter body plays with the vibrant sloe berries, like an Italian amaro meets a British sloe gin with NorCal sensibilities. Taste Rating: 4.5


Bayou Reserve Select Barrel Rum


Bayou Rum is most improved since I first tasted it as it launched in Lacassine, LA, in 2013. As Louisiana’s rum and locally grown sugarcane movement evolves in volume and quality, so do rums from the region. I only tasted the recent Bayou Reserve ($35), aged in ex-bourbon barrels for up to 4 years using the solera method. It’s a molasses sugarcane rum using local sugarcane and molasses from the U.S.’ oldest family-owned and operated sugar mill. It’s a touch sweeter with more vanilla than my rum preferences lean, but it’s not cloying in any way. In fact, it has those caramelized, blessedly musty notes that stand out in cocktails. It’s best as an affordable cocktail rum. Taste Rating: 3.5



MALFY Gin Limone


MALFY® Gin is distilled at Torino Distillati by Beppe Ronco (with owner Carlo Vergnano) in the foothills of Piedmont’s MonViso mountain in Italy. Malfy has been a hit with bartenders everywhere for a reason. The gins are balanced and approachable, with MALFY Gin Con Limone ($29.99) the ideal representation of a citrus-forward gin that appeals to those who don’t think they like juniper or “green” gins. I seek and crave juniper-forward, herbaceous gins, but this is one of the best universal representations of a citrus gin, showcasing Italian juniper plus five other botanicals with famed sfusato lemons from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s zesty, almost with a lemon cream note, essentially a sunny cocktail gin. Taste Rating: 4.5


Mala Mia Mezcal


Mala Mia just launched this summer with three agave varieties and a blend/ensemble ($59.99 to $129.99). I tried all except the Espadin. Unexpectedly as such a lover of Cuishe and Tepeztate varieties, I loved their complex Ensamble most. Each is elegant, restrained and does not lead with smokiness. Distilled by maestro mezcalero Saturnino Martínez Méndez in the village of Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, each showcases wild-harvested agave, while the Ensamble ($79.99) is a curated mix of two or more agave varieties roasted, fermented and distilled together in one batch. It’s mineral and herbaceous with intriguing whispers of smoke, black pepper and earth. The Cuishe ($99.99) is fresh yet dry, exuding pear and floral notes. Tepeztate ($129.99) is the longest aged plant in the line at 28 years typically, subtle with a creamy-tart note. This is a beautiful new line with sleek yet minimalist bottlings tributing Mexico’s Aztec roots. Taste Rating: 4.5 to 5  

NA (Non-Alcoholic)

Tilden Non-Alcoholic Cocktails


TILDEN Non-Alcoholic Cocktails is a new ready-to-drink/RTD line founded by two women who met at Harvard seeking better non-alcoholic cocktails sans adaptogens. Their natural, low sugar approach resulted in two initial NA cocktails. “Lacewing” includes cucumber, basil, fermented lemongrass and juniper extract, but on the palate leans heavy on lychee backed by pear. The balance runs a bit off from a saccharine note to heavy floral lychee sweetness and hint of soapiness on the finish. More and delicately tuned-in cucumber, basil, lemongrass and juniper could give it more herbaceous nuance with backbone beyond that lychee bomb. “Tandem” is the more savory cocktail of tart cherry, American oak, ginger, cayenne, rooibos, lapsang souchong extract and bitter orange. It’s lean and tannic, blessedly not sweet and restrained on the smokiness. It also runs a bit sharp, harsh and is missing a rounded element uniting it. Ready to pour over ice, I long to see more complex, unique NA RTDs. With some fine tuning on the palate and blend, these could fit the bill. Taste Rating: Lacewing 3, Tandem 3.5


• Celosa Rose Tequila


A long pink box and awkward, giant black ball bottle cap in a clear bottle holding soft pink liquid, Celosa is the latest in the prestige and rosa/rosé tequila categories at $130 per bottle. It’s 100% organic joven rosa tequila made from 7-year-old blue weber agaves, rested in red wine barrels from Napa Valley. Subtle berry and citrus notes make it pleasant on the rocks or with soda, but there’s a bit too much vanilla sweetness and oak for me, not allowing agave to shine (for example, the also breezy, pink Calirosa, reviewed last month, tastes fresher, though it’s not elegant). However, Celosa’s lean elegance and smooth, soft profile will win fans of a gentle tequila, even if it may be hard to justify the price point. Taste Rating: 3.5

• 21Seeds Cucumber Jalapeño Tequila


21Seeds Tequila ($29.99) has taken the bartending world by storm. When I first started seeing 21Seeds on different cocktail bar menus not long after its launch by three moms who love tequila — Kat Hantas, Nicole Emanuel and Sarika Singh — I was skeptical. “Flavored” tequila should be left to bartenders and is often bastardized at best. The brand’s celebrity buzz didn’t raise my confidence. Having only sampled their Valencia Orange and Grapefruit Hibiscus in cocktails, tasting their Cucumber Jalapeño Tequila neat and crafting my own drinks with it, its freshness and balance is on-point. It’s got enough jalepeño to be lively without going spicy. Cooled by cucumber, the two most important aspects are there: it tastes like a tequila/agave first, and ingredients taste authentic vs. synthetic, thanks to their use of real fruit and vegetable juice infusions produced in Jalisco, Mexico. Taste Rating: 4.5

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

• Bambucha Organic Hard Kombucha


Organic, chef-created Bambucha Kombucha just expanded and added a new hard kombucha flavor this summer, Raspberry Crush, alongside a new kombucha variety pack. The San Diego-based company launched in 2017 with five non-alcoholic flavors, releasing three hard kombuchas in 2021. Swiftly growing, they’re now in 9 states and I recently sampled four of their flavors. At 6% ABV, 140 calories per can with five grams of sugar, the hard kombuchas are light, lean with pleasant flavors: Tropical Guava, Blueberry Vanilla, Hawaiian Hibiscus and Raspberry Crush. The flavors are bright, tart, not too sweet, but the one element keeping me from rating them a bit higher is a subtle but present saccharine note to each. Taste Rating: 3-3.5

• Martha Stoumen Wine Spritzer


I dig the 6% ABV. I dig the lean subtlety. But I was looking for a bit more of those meyer lemon extract and orange blossom water notes in Martha Stoumen’s new natural wine spritzers. They’re blessedly dry and bubbly in 355ml bottle format, crushable with food. I’d like to see more in the line with slightly amped-up flavor. Helmed by winemaker Martha herself, this is a beloved cult winery in Sebastopol (Sonoma County), committed to sustainable and natural wine and farming, well worth seeking out for their wines. Taste Rating: 3.5


Hakata Whisky


Hakata whiskies are distilled and aged at Hikari Distillery (est. 1912) in Fukuoka, on Japan’s southern Kyushu island. They were just released in the U.S. June 2023 from ImpEx Beverages. I tasted through the range — Hakata 10-Year Whisky ($80), 12-Year Whisky ($100), 16-Year Whisky ($150) and 18-Year Whisky ($190) — all fermented with koji yeast, all distilled from 100% barley and aged in sherry casks. Koji is used for production of sake, soy sauce and miso, and you’ll taste all those notes in this unique line. The 10-year is more rounded, meaty, caramelized and robust. The 12-year is drier and more lean but also meaty with citrus notes to balance its richness. The 16-year is all umami, bouillon cubes and soy, tempered with coconut and stone fruit. The 18-year goes tart cherry and classic cola amid those meaty, umami notes, but bursts with elegant mushroom. The 12 and 16 year may be my favorites, but I truly appreciated all four of these Japanese whiskies. Taste Rating: 4.5 to 5 each 


Kurokame Honkaku Shochu


Kurokame Honkaku Shochu is available wholesale only, but I was able to try this special honkaku shochu during recent spirits judging, only discovering it post-judging. A Koganesengan sweet potato base provides the shochu’s silky, earthy depth, while its low 25% ABV belies the shochu’s bold flavor, unfolding with black pepper notes from black koji. It’s fermented in large ceramic pots called “kame” to bring out the sweet potatoes’ depth and a welcome balance of acid. Taste Rating: 4


Cockburn’s Tails of the Unexpected Ports

With colorful, hip artwork, Symington Family Estates Cockburn’s Tails of the Unexpected Ports ($32 SRP each) offer three styles of ports from Porto, Portugal: White Heights, Tawny Eyes and Ruby Soho. Though subtle, White Heights is my first pick, its subtle green apple skins and white peach notes making it an easy refresher on the rocks or mixed with other ports. Tawny Eyes and Ruby Soho are, in some ways, more similar. Both seem to beg to th base in a sangria — especially Tawny — while the Ruby’s soft red wine profile and gentle tannins go nicely with ginger beer. There are more dynamic ports out there, but these are approachable crowdpleasers for introducing the masses to Portuguese joys like Porto Tonico (white port and tonic). Taste Rating: Ruby and Tawny 3.5; White 4


Charles Goodnight Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey


In September 2023, Santa Rosa-based Foley Family Wines, which also produces spirits, re-released Charles Goodnight Bourbon ($79.99). It’s distilled and aged in Texas, tributing Bill Foley’s great, great uncle, a legendary Texas cattleman. First launched in 2017, this new release is higher proof (115 proof) with a new bottle design. It’s a high-rye whiskey (mash bill of 60% Texas-grown yellow #2 corn, 36% unmalted rye, 4% barley) aged 6 years. It hits hard on oak and caramelized brown sugar notes. Though I’m a cask strength and high-rye bourbon girl, the intense brown sugar profile is not my jam, even as I appreciate the whiskey’s robustness. For those who like that flavor, this will be a crowdpleaser. Taste Rating: 3.5

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.