Monday, December 15, 2014

2014: Favorite Spirits & Drink-Related Items

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 2014. I have already posted my Favorite Wine 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 Spirits & Cocktail Event: Last month, Thirst Boston 2014  was held at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, a four day event dedicated to the diversity of spirits, cocktails and other drinks. There was myriad of interesting and informative seminars, tasting rooms, several parties and much more. The event was well organized, and everything seemed to run smoothly. It was educational and fun, with lots of great drinks available. This is the second year of the event, and I highly recommend you check out next year's Thirst Boston.

Favorite Cocktail Supply Shop: Located near Davis Square in SomervilleThe Boston Shaker offers everything you need to create cocktails, except for the alcohol. Plenty of spirit & cocktail books, a wide range of bitters, shakers, stirrers, glasses, and so much more. They also run cocktail classes, book signings and other fun and informative events. It is an excellent place to purchase gifts for the holiday season for your cocktail loving family and friends.

Favorite Bourbon: The Hillrock Estate Distillery, in the Hudson Valley, New York, produces a Solera Aged Bourbon from corn grow on their estate. From my first sniff of this Bourbon, I was mesmerized. It possessed such an alluring nose, a complex blend of smells, and you would be tempted to simply sit with a glass and enjoy the aromas without even tasting it. However, the taste won't disappoint either, providing a complex melange of flavors, including caramel, vanilla, nuttiness, butterscotch, toffee, and plenty of spicy notes, There seemed to be be mere wisps of clove and cinnamon, mostly noticeable on the lengthy finish. This was a well balanced Bourbon, impressive in its complexity and quality.

Favorite Rye Whiskey: I received a bottle of Colonel E.H.Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye from my good friend, Fred Minnick, a well-known whiskey writer. I was surprised by this rye as I was expecting something with a bold spicy profile, and instead it was far more elegant and subtle. The taste was complex, silky smooth and filled with an intriguing melange of flavors. There were delicious savory spice notes, but also some sweet vanilla and caramel, complemented with hints of mocha and dried fruit. It was seductive on my palate, and the lingering finish left me craving more. A superb sipping whiskey,

Favorite Local Rye Whiskey: Made in a small distillery in Belmont, Massachusetts, the Damnation Alley Distillery Rye was an impressive whiskey, made from 72% rye, and the rest barley. The whiskey was aged for less than six months in a small barrel. It was smooth and spicy, more savory in taste, with a lingering and pleasing finish.

Favorite Highland Scotch Single Malt: The Aberlour A'bunadh is a cask strength whiskey that is aged in Oloroso casks. It is bottled only twice a year and made in a more traditional manner, which presented a compelling profile. It possessed a creamy mouth feel, with plenty of spice, dried fruit notes, caramel and a little sweetness. Lots of complexity, smooth and with a very lengthy finish. Simply delicious.

Favorite Lowlands Scotch Single Malt: The Auchentoshan Three Wood was matured in three different barrels, including American Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Pedro Ximenez Sherry. With a darker hue, you get more sherry notes on the nose, including brown sugar and raisins. The taste is rich and complex, with delicious flavors of caramel, dried fruits, baking spices, and nutty accents. It has some sweetness to it, but plenty of savory flavors too. With a lingering finish, this single malt intrigued and delighted me.

Favorite Islay Scotch Single Malt: The Bowmore 15 Year Old Darkest is aged in bourbon and sherry barrels, spending its final three years in Oloroso Sherry barrels, and that is why it has a dark amber color. This whiskey was smooth and complex, a delectable melange of smoke, baking spices, chocolate, dried fruit, vanilla and hints of nuttiness. The smokiness was around mild, but pervaded every taste, gently caressing your palate. The lingering finish seemed to go on and on, satisfying long after each sip. A superb Scotch that earns my highest recommendation.

Favorite Blended Scotch Whiskey: The Monkey Shoulder is a "triple malt," a blended Scotch whiskey, made from three different, Speyside single malts, from Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Kininvie. Each single malt is aged separately and then they are blended together, and aged for an additional three to six months. This is a mellow and easy drinking blended whiskey, with pleasing flavors of caramel, vanilla and mild spice notes. This can be enjoyed on its own, of mixed into a variety of cocktails.

Favorite Irish WhiskeyTullamore Dew Irish Whiskey is made from three varieties of grain, is triple distilled, and blends three types, pot still, malt and grain. It is aged in used bourbon and sherry casks. Though it is light and elegant, it has an certain intensity with flavors of citrus, spice, vanilla, and salted almonds. Easy drinking, this would be an excellent introductory whiskey.

Favorite Asian Whiskey: Kavalan Distillery, the only whiskey distillery in Taiwan, is producing an amazing portfolio of single malt whiskies. I loved the Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask Whisky, a single malt aged in Oloroso sherry casks. With a dark brown color, the same as an aged Oloroso, is provides an intriguing nose of dried fruit, nuts and spice. On the palate, it will remind you, in part, of aged Oloroso, with vanilla, nutty notes, spices, caramel, honey and raisins. It is fairly silky, with lots of complexity, and a very lengthy finish that never seems to stop. This is a whiskey you'll want to slowly savor over the course of an evening, reveling in its complex profile.

Favorite U.S. Single Malt Whiskey: Westland Distillery, located in Washington, is making serious whiskey, and is far larger than the typical craft distillery. Though it is still relatively new, their whiskies are impressive, and they will only continue to improve over time. The Westland Peated Whiskey, which even isn't on the market yet, is a whiskey you need to seek out soon when it becomes available. This Peated Whiskey reminded me of barbecued dirt, a smoky and earthy mix which I found especially compelling. The flavors were well balanced, and the smokiness didn't overpower the whiskey. It was silky smooth and delicious, with a complex blend of intriguing flavors, including vanilla, caramel, salted nuts, and subtle red fruit flavors. There were hints of chocolate, coffee and citrus, and the aroma alone delighted me. It was tempting to simply smell it and not even drink it, though I would love savoring a bottle with friends over a long fall afternoon.

Favorite Rum: From Puerto Rico, the Don Q Gran Anejo is a blend of rums aged 3-20 years and Solera rums aged up to 20 years. It possesses a complex melange of flavors and aromas, which will tantalize your palate. Silky smooth, it possesses a lingering and satisfying finish. It even possesses some Sherry-like qualities, which may also be a reason I enjoyed it so much. A high quality rum which I think is best on its own, slowly sipped with friends.

Runner-Up Favorite Rum: From Barbados, the Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum is distilled in both a column and pot still, and then aged in ex-whiskey casks and later finished in deep, charred ex-bourbon casks. Some of the rum used in the final blend may have been aged for up to seven years. The Black Barrel has a dark, amber color, like a fine whiskey, and if you tasted it blind, it would remind you far more of a rye whiskey than a rum. On the taste, there is a deep spice taste, caramel notes and a mild hint of vanilla. Layers of complexity, a lengthy finish (which has a touch of cinnamon), and a smooth, compelling taste.

Favorite Mezcal: Los Amantes Reposado remains my favorite Mezcal. Aged for about 6 months in American oak, it possesses a complex melange of flavors (including some citrus), pleasant smokiness and subtle accents of fruit. It is silky smooth, an excellent sipping spirit on its own on its own. It may remind you a little of an Islay Scotch due to its smoky accents.

Favorite Flavored Vodka: Though I am not generally a fan of flavored vodkas, I sometimes make an exception for those made more naturally. The Grand Ten Distilling Fire Puncher Black Vodka fits that bill, a collaboration with Grand Ten and Taza Chocolate. Starting with a chipotle pepper infused vodka, they add some Taza nubs and shells, and age it in an ex-bourbon barrel. With an alluring aroma, this is like a mole sauce in a bottle, a spicy chocolate mix that has a natural taste, not like the artificial flavored vodkas out there. An excellent cocktail mixer.

Favorite Local Grappa: The Hudson-Chatham Winery, in New York, produces two Grappas made from Baco Noir. Essentially, this is a distilled spirit using grape skins, and the grappa is produced for the winery by the local Harvest Spirits. The basic Grappa was aromatic and pleasant, with cherry and red berry flavors but the Grappa Reserve was my favorite. It sees some oak aging and was smoother, with delightful red fruit flavors enhanced by spice notes. It would be a pleasant digestif after a nice dinner.

Favorite Liqueur: The Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liquer, made in Mexico, relies on the signature crop of Puebla, the chile poblano. When this chile is dried, it is known as the ancho chile. This liqueur is lightly sweet with a spicy hot kick which will tingle your mouth but won't burn it. There are some other mild flavor notes beneath the spice, including some fruit and herbs. There are no artificial tastes in this liqueur. It is a very interesting liqueur which would be excellent in the right cocktail to add some heat.

Favorite Distillery Visit: My visit to the Hillrock Estate Distillery was informative and exciting, getting to see a distillery that is attempting to make their products as local as possible, a farm to glass operation. From their fields of corn, rye and barley, to their own malt house, owner Jeff Baker infected us with his passion for local spirits. It helped that their products, including a Solera Aged Bourbon, a Peated Single Malt and a Rye Whiskey were all delicious. If you visit the Hudson Valley, you must make sure to visit this distillery.

Favorite Restaurant Simple Cocktail: The classic Manhattan is simple, a mix of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. At the Blue Ox in Lynn, they elevate this simple cocktail as a  Barrel-Aged Manhattan, which is aged in oak for about two months. Barrel-aged cocktails are a new trend, and I found this Manhattan to be smooth and complex, with an added depth to it which is probably attributable to its aging. It is the type of well-balanced cocktail which I would have been satisfied drinking all night.

Favorite Restaurant Innovative Cocktail: At Fish Restaurant in Marlborough, I enjoyed the Spanish Armadamade from Torres Gran Reserva 10 year old Brandy, Fig Puree and Lustau East India Sherry. It had a prominent dried fruit and fig flavor, with some nutty elements. It was nicely balanced, without being too sweet, and it would also be easy to sit and drink a few of these over the course of an evening.

Favorite Cocktails: At Thirst Boston, there were an ample amount of cocktails for sampling and two of them especially caught my interest. The Chipotle Carrot Bloody Mary, with a slice of bacon as a garnish, had a tasty and intriguing blend of spice and carrot, and some smokiness from the bacon. A perfect accompaniment to breakfast or brunch. The Brass Gorilla was created by Christina Klein of Sonny's Restaurant & Lounge in Portland, Maine. This cocktail is made from Absolut Vanilla Vodka, orange juice, Galliano, pineapple syrup, and Fernet Whipped Cream and reminded me of an old-fashioned creamsicle, creamy and sweet (but not overly so) with a slight herbal tinge. If you want something sweet, this would please your palate.

Favorite Local Cider: Based in Salem, Massachusetts, the relatively new cidery, Far From The Tree, is making hard cider in a very old fashioned style, using primarily local ingredients such as apples and maple syrup from Central Massachusetts. Their ciders are clean, crisp and bone dry, with rich apple flavors, like a taste of autumn. The Roots is made only from pressed apples and maple syrup and is tasty on its own, and would also pair well with a variety of foods. The Rind is made with Saison yeast, coriander & orange rind, where the apple flavors are enhanced by citrus and spice notes. If you are a cider lover, you need to check out these delicious ciders.

Favorite Non-Local Hard Cider: From Virginia, the Potter's Craft Cider Farmhouse Dry is also an old style hard cider, reflecting the American farmhouse ciders. They use local, cider apples and tank aged the cider for 3-6 months What grabbed my attention was the complexity of this cider, the melange of aromas and flavors that I found within this bottle. Crisp and dry, it possessed bright fruit flavors of not only apple but also touches of pear, melon and even pineapple. A refreshing effervescence, a subtle tartness, a mild earthiness and a lengthy, pleasing finish.

Favorite Beer Drink: I'm not generally a fan of beer, but every once in awhile, a beer product garners my attention. At Bronwyn Restaurant, I tried the Stickum Uerige, a fascinating beer eau-de-vie, also known as "beer brandy" or "bierschnaps." Bronwyn carries three of their products, the Stickum Uerige Original, Stickum Uerige Château d’Yquem Barrel, and Stickum Uerige Plus Port Wine Oak Barrel. My preference was the Port Wine, which had almost no beer flavor, but plenty of concentration, depth and complexity. It does show Port wine characteristics, but you also realize that it is more than Port. There is enough acidity to balance the sweetness, and this may be my new favorite method of drinking beer.

Favorite Health Food Drink: I never would have thought I would have found a delicious health drink at the Seafood Expo. However, the Berry Kelp Smoothie impressed me. Made from bananas, frozen berries, mint leaves, kelp, and nondairy milk, it possessed a strong berry and fruity flavor, and you would never have known it contained kelp. This is a great and tasty way to get all those health benefits of kelp, and even veggie haters would love this smoothie. Kelp is gluten free and low in calories, carbohydrates and fat. It also is an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron, as well as one of the few foods with the nutrient iodine, which is essential for hormone balance.

Favorite Most Unusual Drink: At the same Seafood Expo, I savored an Uni Shooter, a shot glass filled with uni, ginger beer, and wasabi. It made for an intriguing shot, with the ginger flavors enhancing the natural briny flavors of the uni, and with a spicy kick from the wasabi. These shooters proved very popular with the attendees, and there was a long line when they were offered.

What were some of your favorite spirits and drink related items this year?

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