By John deBary
THE YEAR 2018 was an eventful one, no matter where you looked. This is no less true in the spirits world. Even as cannabis continued to boom as an intoxicant of choice and manufacturers pivot to weed beer, there have been innovations in almost every type of booze, from Japanese gin to bartender-made brandy to a Danish spirit from a team of Noma alums that defies categorization.
The spirits we selected as “best in show” represent a bunch of delicious, weird, and pioneering bottles divided into three categories: classics that are newly available from distributors; true innovators; and the purely best in class — plus an honorable mention that warrants its own space, because, well, it’s a not even alcoholic. If you’re in the market for a few different bottles in 2019, each of these is worth cracking open.
OLD IS THE NEW NEW
Many of these spirits have been available for years, if not centuries, though not necessarily in the US Better late than never.
Amaro dell’Etna. Made from a 1901 recipe of 26 botanicals, this Sicilian bitter is a great addition to the expansive lineup of digestif-style amaro. Bright and citrusy, with hits of vanilla and a satisfying smokiness, it’s best served neat.
Chateau de Leberon 1987 29-year Armagnac. Produced from grapes grown on an estate established in 1939 from 40- to 60-year-old vines, this unfiltered and undiluted brandy packs quite a punch at 49.9% alcohol by volume. But once you power through the heat, you’re left with deep, luxurious notes of coffee, tobacco, and baking spice. A slow sipper for long winter nights.
Clairin Vaval rum. Handmade and distilled to proof from a single varietal of sugar cane juice, like rhum agricole from Martinique, rather than molasses, Clairin stands apart significantly from rums you might be familiar with — it’s grassy, complex, and somewhat briny. Made near the beaches of southwestern Haiti, Clairin Vaval can be a great substitute for standard white rum in citrus-forward drinks such as a daiquiri or mojito.
Estancia Distillery raicilla. Raicilla has been produced in Mexico for more than 400 years, but it wasn’t until tequila took off that the spirit had much international visibility. This expression made in Jalisco roasts the piña of the Maximiliana agave in a way similar to mezcal (tequila’s are steamed), yet the resulting distillation remains super floral and fruity. It’s a good fit for someone who’s looking to branch out from more mainstream agave spirits.
Kilbeggan small-batch rye. Most Irish whiskies are made predominately from barley, but Kilbeggan dusted off an 1890s recipe that includes 30% rye grain — making it singular among Irish expressions available today. Certainly great as a neat pour, with inviting notes of mulled apple cider, this whiskey would make a superb wintertime Manhattan or boulevardier.
RENEGADES AND INNOVATORS
These pathbreaking products turned heads last year.
Greenhook Gin & Tonic. Stephen DeAngelo has been making wonderful gin in his distillery in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn for years. Having established itself as a go-to for gin and tonic lovers with its flagship American dry gin, with notes of ginger and chamomile, Greenhook Ginsmiths has gone one step further and given us the whole drink in a sleek little can. Technically superior because both the gin and the tonic are carbonated, the drink is perfect for hot summer days.
Neversink whiskey. Fledgling distillery Neversink Spirits, an hour’s drive north of New York City, has been making delightful apple and pear brandies for a few years, and in 2018 it made its first foray into whiskey. A mash of corn, winter wheat, and malted barley is distilled, then aged for two years in American oak before finishing in apple brandy casks. It’s an engaging detour for those looking to mix things up with some non-Kentucky bourbons.
Empirical Spirits Helena. This stuff is wild. Helena comes to us via a collaboration between Danish distiller Empirical Spirits, co-founded by Noma alums Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, and Sam Anderson, the wine and beverage director at Contra, Wildair, and Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan. It’s made from three distinct barley varieties fermented with a custom koji mold and distilled in a vacuum still at low temperature. Mind-bending complexity makes this challenging to work with in cocktails — it might be best served neat or on the rocks — but it’s still extremely rewarding.
Black Cow vodka. Although this spirit came out in 2017, we’re giving it a variance because it’s hardly gotten any traction in the US — and it’s legitimately great. Made from whey, a by-product of cheese production, Black Cow is super lush and creamy, with an eye toward waste reduction and sustainability. It’s quite versatile, too, with just enough character to hold up in mixed drinks without overpowering.
Montreu Chardonnay single-grape brandy. Produced in the Cognac-adjacent town of Pons, France, this brandy can’t technically be called Cognac because of its Chardonnay base. (Cognac laws only allow certain grapes to be used.) But don’t let that turn you off — this light, floral spirit spends its time aging in French and American oak casks on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a brisk, bright option for those looking to buck tradition.
TOP OF THEIR GAME
This stuff is just plain good. It’s as simple as that.
Bertoux brandy. Dreamt up by Jeff Bell, the general manager of PDT, and the NoMad’s Thomas Pastuszak, this California brandy is tailor-made for cocktails. Complex and full of stewed fruit and floral aromas, Bertoux slots in perfectly in all sorts of applications. It’s accessible enough to be a home-bar mixing mainstay, yet it’s tasty enough to sip neat, working wonders in both classic brandy cocktails such as the Sidecar and Vieux Carre and more innovative menus from coast to coast.
Mount Gay XO Peat Expression rum. Mount Gay only released about 6,000 bottles of this super-unique XO rum, aged eight to 15 years before finishing for six months in barrels previously reserved for peaty Scotch whisky. This combination might not sound amazing on paper, but it’s superb stuff, with a rich sweetness trailing into a long tail of smoke. Worth the cost (about $250) and effort if you can track it down.
Suntory Roku gin. If Japan was able to reverse-engineer (and some might argue improve) Scotch whisky, there’s no reason to think distillers there couldn’t do it with gin. And they did. This bright, tasty gin adds six (roku means “six” in Japanese) traditional botanicals — yuzu, sansho pepper, two kinds of green tea, cherry blossom, and cherry tree leaf — to a classic base of juniper, lemon peel, and coriander. Useful in a wide variety of applications, this just might give London dry gins a run for their money.
Compass Box “The Story of the Spaniard” whisky. Inspired by a one-off made for New York pub the Spaniard, this whisky is the industry-shaking producer’s first permanent release in four years. The blend is a hybrid of Scotch aged both in sherry casks and Spanish red wine casks. With lots of berries, citrus, baking spice, and slight tannins from the wine casks, I almost want to call it Christmas-y.
Del Maguey Wild Jabalí mezcal. This bottle has been racking up awards all year — and for good reason: Made from 100% Jabalí agave, which is notorious for being difficult to distill, this mezcal is wildly complex with rich fruit on the nose and woody herbal notes on the palate. I wouldn’t do anything else with this other than pour it in a glass and drink it.
NONSPIRIT “SPIRIT” HONORABLE MENTION
Seedlip Grove 42. The third entry in this line of alcohol-free botanical “spirits” blends three varieties of orange, plus lemon, ginger, and lemongrass to offer something a bit zestier and piquant than the prior variants. It’s best on the rocks with a splash of soda and can be used in more complex cocktails alongside ingredients that support Grove’s citrusy profile.