What were some of my favorite spirits and drink-related items of the past year?
Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of 2012. I have already posted my Top Ten Wines Under $15, Top Ten Wines Over $15, Top Wines Over $50 and Favorite Wine Related Items lists. This post will now concentrate on some of my Favorite Spirits and Drink Related Items. This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of compelling and memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year.
This is also a purely subjective list, based on my own preferences, and makes no claims about being the "best" of anything. But all of the items here have earned my strong recommendations and I hope you will enjoy them as well. This is the first year that this category has been given its own post because I have tasted and reviewed a far greater amount of spirits, cocktails and other drinks this year. For more spirits and drink related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.
Favorite Spirit & Cocktail Event: The first Boston Cocktail Summit was held this past October, a three day event dedicated to a great diversity of spirits and cocktails. Though there were a few logistical issues, which are common with most large, first time events, there was much to like about this summit. A myriad of interesting and informative seminars and discussions, three spirit tasting rooms, plenty of parties and much more. I had tons of fun, learned lots, consumed copious amounts of delicious spirits and cocktails and met plenty of cool people. I eagerly look forward to the next Summit and encourage everyone to check it out as well.
Favorite Spirits Trip: Last May, I visited Louisville, Kentucky to see the Kentucky Derby but also made plans to explore the world of bourbon. I got to hang out with my good friend Fred Minnick, who also put us up in his home for part of our trip. In addition, Fred helped me with some of my bourbon plans. I visited the distilleries of Four Roses and Buffalo Trace as well as met the owners of Jefferson's Bourbon. At different restaurants and bars, I sampled a myriad of bourbons, both straight and in cocktails (like Mint Juleps), as well as savored several foods prepared with bourbon, including a killer bourbon bread pudding. I had an exceptional time in Louisville and highly recommend it to anyone who loves bourbon. You should also check out my two Bourbon 101 posts, Part 1 and Part 2.
Favorite Bourbon: It is simply too difficult to choose a single favorite out of all the bourbons I tasted this year. There were too many bourbons that impressed me with their complexity, flavors, texture and more. So I will just list a handful of the bourbons which especially intrigued me, including: Elijah Craig 18 Year Old, Four Roses Japanese bourbons, Jefferson's Bourbons, Van Winkle Special Reserve, and Eagle Rare Antique. The bourbon world has much to offer and is well worthy of an exploration. Your palate will thank you.
Favorite Unusual Bourbon: If you like Bailey's Irish Cream, you will be amazed by the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream Liqueur. It is made with real cream and has a rich, creamy and sweet taste, just pure hedonistic pleasure. I even tried some mixed with some root beer, which was kind of like a float without the ice cream, and it was delicious. Sadly, this is currently only available at the distillery but we can hope that they will distribute it outside Kentucky in the near future.
Favorite Spirits Dinner: Dinners paired with spirits and cocktails are starting to make their presence in Boston and I am a big supporter. The Glenmorangie Distillery Dinner at Avila was an exceptional event, with plenty of superb food and scotch. The distillery has a diverse portfolio of scotches, each presenting a unique flavor profile, and the pairings worked quite well. My favorite was their 18 Year Old, which is finished in Oloroso Sherry casks. The dinner, from the Goat Cheese Croquettes to the Wagyu Beef Cheeks, impressed me, especially as my last experience at the restaurant, years before, had been less than stellar. I hope the trend of spirit paired dinners continues to grow in 2013.
Favorite Scotch: Again, this was a tough choice but I felt there was one Scotch that eeked out a win against the others, though the race was extremely close. The Glenlivet Nàdurra is a 16 year old Scotch, which is unfiltered and left at cask strength, so it has an alcohol content of 54%. I found the Nàdurra to possess very intense and complex flavors, a harmonious collection of spice, herbs, honey and much more. You really need to sit with a glass of this and sip it slowly, to better understand its nuances. Though there is some heat from the alcohol, it is much more balanced than you might think.
Favorite Blended Scotch: The blended Scotch, Pig's Nose by Spencerfield, received its name from an old saying: "Tis said that our Scotch is as soft and as smooth as a Pig's Nose." It certainly lives up to its name, presenting a silky smooth mouth feel that caresses your palate. It is a blend of oak-aged Speyside, Islay and Lowland malts with Invergordon gentle grain whiskies. Its flavors run the gamut from caramel to nuts, from dried fruits to subtle smoke notes. A very easy drinking and delicious blended Scotch, it is something to savor and enjoy.
Favorite Irish Whiskey: This category was a tie between the The Irishman Single Malt and the Jameson Black Barrel. The Irishman is produced from 100% malted barley, triple distilled and then matured in first-fill bourbon and sherry oak casks. It is a more serious whiskey, being complex, subtle and intriguing. There is less sweetness and more spice than their Original Clan and the finish is even longer and more pleasing. This is definitely a whiskey to slowly sip and savor, and will appeal to all whiskey aficionados. The Jameson was created to make a sweeter style whiskey and I believe they succeeded in their objective. The Black Barrel is a blend of pot still whiskey and small batch grain whiskey, and they use virgin bourbon casks for aging. It has a sweet aroma, actually reminding me a bit of a nice bourbon, and on the palate, there is plenty of sweetness, yet not cloying. There were creamy tastes of vanilla, caramel, honey and even toasted marshmallow. It was mellow and smooth, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. A fine sipping whiskey, especially on a chilly autumn or winter evening.
Favorite Rye Whisky: Whistlepig Straight Rye Whiskey is made from 100% Rye, which currently comes from Canada, and it is aged and bottled at a farm in Vermont. The rye is 100 proof and has been aged a minimum of 10 years, seven in new, charred oak barrels and three more in used bourbon barrels. The aroma is a complex melange of appealing spice notes, all which present themselves up front on the palate, including some clove, anise, nutmeg, as well as hints of vanilla and caramel. It is the lengthy finish though that is even more impressive, silky smooth with a rich and compelling taste of butterscotch, vanilla and mint. This is definitely a fine sipping whiskey, something to slow savor with good friends.
Favorite Local Rums: Rum is once again being produced in Massachusetts and the new micro-distilleries are creating some tasty products. My two favorite local rums include a white and an amber. Andrew Cabot of Privateer Rum produces the compelling Silver Reserve White Rum, made only from cane sugar and brown sugar, without any molasses. It is 80 proof, and had a very appealing nose, smells of tropical fruit, such as banana, with herbal accents. Both come out on the palate as well, especially the herbs, such as anise and fennel. It actually presents a fairly complex taste, very different from many other white rums, and I very much enjoyed its herbal elements. In addition, it is fairly smooth on the palate, with only a mild bite on the finish, and I could easily drink it on its own. On the other hand, Turkey Shore Distilleries makes an impressive amber rum, Old Ipswich Tavern Style Amber. I was really enamored with this rum, which had plenty of complexity and depth, and interesting flavors of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, herbs and a subtle smoky aspect. It actually reminded me of a whiskey in some regards, and I would certainly drink this on its own rather than mix into a cocktail.
Favorite Domestic Rum (Non-Local): Made in Colorado, the Montanya Distillers Oro Dark Rum is produced from water, sugar cane (from Maui, Hawaii), yeast and honey. It is aged in a fresh, American oak whiskey barrel that previously held Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. The Oro was a fine sipping rum, with a pleasant blend of flavors, including vanilla, honey, caramel, and mocha hints. Nice complexity, great flavors and a satisfying finish.
Favorite Spiced Rum: The good folks from Turkey Shore Distilleries have made a limited edition Old Ipswich Golden Marsh Spiced Rum, basically a blend of 80% of their White Cap rum and 20% of their Tavern Style Amber with the addition of ten different spices. The rum presents a bright, golden yellow color and a spicy aroma, which will bring to mind autumn and cool weather. It has a smooth taste, with delicious fall spice notes and hints of orange peel. This is definitely a rum to enjoy now, either on its own or in a cocktail. Try it with some hot apple cider.
Favorite Flavored Rum: The Dunc's Mill Elderflower Rum is an intriguing flavored rum made in Vermont. It is created with Vermont elderflower blossoms and Austrian elder essence, which is infused into a light rum. I was impressed with this rum, which possessed a delightful floral aroma, and on the palate was smooth, clean and dry with a prominent, but not overwhelming, taste of elderflower. It was a well balanced spirit which reminded me somewhat of a dry version of St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur.
Favorite Vodka: I am very selective when it comes to vodka but Cariel Vodka was able to appeal to me. Made in Sweden, it is created from Swedish winter wheat and barley, as well as glacial water from Lake Vattern. I found the vodka to have an almost subtle sweetness to the aroma, with an intriguing and smooth taste, elements of herbs, grain, and subtle peach flavors. It is definitely not a tasteless vodka but rather presents an enticing melange of subtle tastes. Great on its own or in a cocktail.
Favorite Flavored Vodka: I am generally not a fan of flavored vodkas, but I did like the Cariel Vanilla Vodka, which sees the addition of vanilla from Southern India and Madagascar. It had a big, bold vanilla aroma and flavor, yet it remained only mildly sweet, not cloying or artificial like many other flavored vodkas. I can see this working well in the right cocktail.
Favorite Tequila: The Tanteo Jalapeno Infused Blanco Tequila is a blanco tequila infused with hand-sliced, organic jalapenos which are mixed in a 10,000 gallon tank with the tequila. On the nose, there are some grassy notes as well as the typical agave, and on the palate, the tequila flavor was very prominent up front. On the finish, rather than the usual tequila bite, you ended up with a spicy and delicious jalapeno burn. It was not overly spicy, but very noticeable and I loved that heat. I could easily enjoy this on its own though it would make great cocktails as well.
Favorite Pisco: The Macchu Pisco La Diablada is intended to be a high-end Peruvian Pisco and is currently not available in the U.S. but that will hopefully change soon. They only make 1000 bottles so even when it becomes available, it will be in very limited supply. La Diablada is a blend of 3 Pisco grapes: Quebranta, Moscatel and Italia that is rested, not aged, for about 18 months and sees no oak. It is very aromatic with a smooth taste of herbs and fruit, with some underlying spiciness. A complex taste with a lengthy and pleasing finish. Though many know of the Pisco Sour, this is a Pisco that you might want to enjoy on its own, rather than as the base for a cocktail.
Favorite Mezcal: Delirio de Oaxaca is a traditional palenque in Matatlan, Oaxaca, producing Mezcal by Master Distiller Fernando Santibanez. The Mezcal Joven is double distilled in copper alembics from 100% Agave Espadin and only 10,000 bottles were produced. It had an intriguing smoky nose with a prominent taste of agave fruit and a mild smokiness. Quite tasty and I could drink it on its own or in a cocktail. The Mezcal Reposado has been aged for about 4 months in lightly toasted American oak and only 5000 bottles were produced. It had a lighter nose of smoke, and on the palate it was softer and more subtle, with the same delicious fruit flavors and hints of smoke. Again, another winner. My preference between the two, by a slim margin, is the Reposado.
Favorite Simple Cocktail: In the hot Douro region of Portugal, the Port and Tonic cocktail is very popular. I had the Fonseca Siroco White Port, a dry Port, with some added tonic in a tall glass on the rocks, with a lemon slice. It reminded me of a vodka & tonic, but with more citrus flavors and a slight nuttiness. It was a clean and refreshing cocktail, perfect for a summer day.
Favorite Cocktail: Post 390 has created two similar cocktails, the Peach n' Pig and the Fig n' Pig. The Peach n' Pig was bacon infused and made with house-smoked Bulleit Bourbon, Punt E Mes, homemade peach simple syrup, homemade bitters, and a grilled peach garnish. It was a well balanced drink, smoky with a mild sweetness and nice vanilla and peach flavors. The Fig n' Pig was similar, but with Fig instead of the Peach, and it pleased me even more, with a greater depth of flavor. Both also paired well with food, especially pork dishes.
Favorite Margarita: The Masa restaurant, with locations in Boston and Woburn, infuses their own Reposado tequila to make a Habanero Watermelon Margarita. I love the taste of watermelon and this cocktail presented a nice watermelon taste, not too sweet, with a tequila undertone and a very spicy finish. If you love fiery heat, then you should check out this Margarita.
Favorite Frozen Cocktail: I think there is a pattern here as I am once again raving about another spicy cocktail, this time the Burro Colada from the Painted Burro. The Burro Colada is a frozen cocktail made with Ron Virgin, Cream of Coconut and Cayenne Pineapple Juice. The addition of the cayenne elevated this cocktail, providing a delicious spicy kick on the finish, balancing out the initial chill. A great variation on the traditional Pina Colada.
Favorite Restaurant/Bar For Cocktails: Though there are plenty of excellent places to get cocktails in the Boston area, I want to highlight three places which especially impressed me this year. The Painted Burro, with its huge list of tequilas and mezcals and intriguing cocktails and margaritas. Post 390, with its fresh ingredients and innovative cocktail creations like the Fig n' Pig. ArtBar, with a constantly changing list of intriguing and well made cocktails (plus killer sweet potato tots).
Cocktail Cupcakes: Cupcakes are another trend which I wish wasn't still saturating the market. However, there are still a few standouts worthy of recognition. Cakes For Occasions, in Danvers, has created their Cupcakes After 5, where they use alcohol to make a variety of cupcakes. First, the cupcakes were compelling, all properly moist while the frosting was light and creamy. Second, some of the flavors were impressive, including the Rum & Coke, Sam Adams Cream Stout, and the Bailey's Irish Cream. They showcased the flavors of the alcohol without overwhelming the cupcakes. These cupcakes are still relatively new and they are continuing to hone the flavors, creating new ones all the time.
Favorite Hard Cider: The Woodchuck Farmhouse Select Original '91 is a small batch hard cider made with Vermont apples and Belgian beer yeast. The '91 simply reflects the year that Woodchuck started production, and does not indicate the year of brewing. It has an alcohol content of 6.9% and is unfiltered, so it looks a bit cloudy and there are tiny pieces of apple still in it. It is primarily dry with a fascinating and complex taste of apple and spice notes. It is absolutely delicious, well balanced, and once you have a glass, you will desire another. Some hard ciders are simple but tasty drinks while others attain for higher heights, to be something to slowly savor and enjoy. This Farmhouse Select reaches those heights.
Runner-Up Hard Cider: Made in Somerville, the Bantam Cider also impresses. It contains only fermented pressed apples, honey and sulfites. The apples are a mix of Cortland, Empire, Macintosh and green apples, all from western Massachusetts. They use a sparkling wine yeast and ferment it dry, adding the honey later more for body than sweetness. It has an alcohol content of 6%, is gluten free and is mostly dry, with only a light sweetness. There are lots of tasty apple flavors, hints of some floral elements and a fuller body than some other hard ciders. It was refreshing and the type of hard cider that you can easily drink a few bottles on a nice summer day.
Favorite Beer: I am generally not a beer guy so you rarely see beer reviews on my site. But this year I tasted a beer which did appeal to me, the Innis and Gunn Rum Cask. Innis and Gunn is a Scottish brewery, established in 2003, and they oak age their beers. This limited edition beer is aged in old rum barrels. This beer has a deep reddish color and the taste is compelling, a melange of tropical fruit and spice with a very mild beer flavor. It reminded me of the Caribbean, and I could see it also being food friendly. Even if you dislike beer, you should give this a chance.
Favorite New Alcohol Column: This year, I started a new series on my blog called Authors, Alcohol & Accolades. There are currently six installments of this series, each containing interviews with four different authors, asking them about their favorite drinks, alcoholic and nonalcoholic. In addition, each of the authors has written books which I enjoyed so I also provide book recommendations in these posts. It has been a fun series, and it has been cool to learn what some of my favorite authors like to drink.
What were some of your favorite spirits and drink related items this year?