2014 was such an exciting year for spirits that narrowing down my list of favorites was a truly difficult task. This year's bottlings have raised the bar for future distillers in many ways. The level of quality is so high that these spirits and liqueurs finally being seen for what they are—not just as great mixers in cocktails, but as delicious drinks on their own. The best are also made to express a distinct sense of place and personality.
And while there are plenty of uninspired products still packing liquor store shelves (please, no more flavored this-and-that!), it's worth taking the time to sort through the noise and marketing gimmicks, because when you find that unique gem that stops you in your tracks and captivates your taste buds, it's been worth the search.
Below, you'll find 16 spirits that did just that for me, from both American and international producers. These products take a bold flavor stance with inspiring results. While some were technically released last year or earlier, they're still just getting to many markets around the US, which is why I've included them here.
I've focused on several specific categories that have blossomed this year. This doesn't mean I haven't tasted some great vodka, Armagnac, sherry, or Scotch lately (believe me, I have, and I'm happy to chat about that should the spirit move you to leave a comment). But these are the bottles that really stood out to me in 2014.
Gin, Gin, and More Gin!
Gin is one of the most thrilling categories to watch right now, as bottlings expand into uncharted flavor territory. We're seeing experimental (and oftentimes regional) ingredients like lavender and saffron take center-stage in recipes, old styles being revived, and an influx of creative styles arriving from overseas as well.
This new-to-the-US gin had American bartenders all aflutter when it landed in the states this fall, because it's only of the few geographically designated gins in the world. Hailing from Menorca, Spain, Mahon Gin by Xoriguer ($47.99 for 1 liter) has a remarkably pure and clean floral flavor with a fresh-cut-flower and juniper taste supported by swaths of lemongrass and an even layer of white pepper and woody cedar. Its big citrusy personality makes it an excellent option for a Spanish-style gin and tonic, served in a big goblet with a complementary brand of tonic water, with rosemary to draw out the herbal side of the gin.
Tanqueray Old Tom Gin
Old Tom is a delectable vintage style that's seeing a stateside revival right now, with a flavor that bridges the gap between malty Dutch genever and juniper-laced London Dry. Tanqueray's interpretation of Old Tom ($32.99 for 750 mL) is one of the most delicious replications available. It's a perfect option for people looking for less of an herbal bite, because it has an explicitly creamy texture and balanced botanical profile. These qualities help it mix well with lush vermouth in one of my favorite cocktails—the Martinez—but it's also tasty in an assortment of other drinks.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin
Made by Black Forest Distillers in Germany, this eccentric gin falls outside of the "normal" gin flavor profile on many counts. With a whopping 47 ingredients macerated in molasses alcohol and spring water, Monkey 47 ($44.99 for 375 mL) has a piney, resinous profile with oily orange peels, black pepper, and a slight lingering bitterness on the finish. I found it too assertively unique for a traditional martini structure, but when paired with a light tonic like Q, it tasted delightful.
Koval Dry Gin
A bouquet of mint, rosemary, and juniper shine bright in the Dry Gin ($35 for 750 mL) from Koval Distillery in Chicago, making it great for fans of the traditional London Dry style. The white whiskey base adds a sweet personality to the otherwise strongly herbaceous gin, and it has a satisfyingly crisp, dry finish with hints of lime zest and zaps of black pepper. Bottom shelf tonic water or vermouth won't complement the nuanced complexities in this gin, but the botanicals jigsaw together perfectly with Jack Rudy's tonic syrup. Add a sprig of rosemary or thyme to complement the herbal elements, and you've got a truly high-class G&T.
2014 was a banner year for agave spirits. Sure, tequila continues to grow in popularity, and bartenders are finding exciting new ways to mix smoky mezcal into cocktails. But now a whole range of new and interesting agave spirits are also being imported into America—some of which are the first of their kind to hit the states. It's a brave new world for tequila lovers with new options like raicilla, bacanora, and sotol to add to the liquor cabinet, and since we're only starting to tap the surface of the deep spirits culture in Mexico, it's only going to get better from here. My picks below represent a range of agave spirits, each one with a wildly unique and distinct personality.
Mezcal Vago Elote
We've got more quality mezcal choices available in the states than ever before, and one that stands out above the noise is the Elote ($52 for 750 mL) from Mezcal Vago. It's defining characteristic: an infusion of roasted corn that occurs between the second and third distillations. It has the same big-bodied bite that the other Vago products have, but with a more sweet-yet-smoky flavor flush with dry stones, honeycomb, mint, and a slightly tropical fruit (think: papaya or mango) teasing through the finish. I love sipping it ever-so-slightly diluted, alongside an orange slice and sal de gusano (yes, worm salt) to balance out the sweetness.
La Venenosa Raicilla Sierra (Black Label)
Raicilla is an agave spirit that falls within the technical definition of mezcal but can't be labeled as such because it's made in Jalisco—outside the regions officially designated for mezcal production. Each bottle in the new Venenosa line (four hit the states this year) is made with a different agave species that has been cultivated from a specific area within the region. The Black Label ($70 for 750 mL) comes from Sierra Occidental de Jalisco, an area with rich and somewhat rocky soil that gets a lot of rain. The result is a softly earthy, mineral flavor, with nuanced layers of tropical fruit. You won't find such a strong smoky personality here: it's all wet grass, delicate fruit and dirt, with a healthy acidity making it perfect for sipping neat. It's without a doubt one of the most strikingly interesting and exquisite agave spirits I've tasted to date.
Cielo Rojo Blanco Bacanora
Bacanora offers a personality that's less grassy than sotol and more floral than raicilla. Or at least that's how the Cielo Rojo Blanco ($62 for 750 mL) tastes. It's the first legal bacanora imported into the states a few years ago, made in a manner that's similar to mezcal production, but following its own set of specific production rules. For example, it has to be made in the northern state of Sonora, using only espadin agave. The Cielo Rojo Blanco has a thin body with a lovely rainwater-like sweetness, hints of fresh lime, and a quiet but noticeable floral character. Herbaceous notes emerge when it's added to a margarita, but it also tastes wonderful sipped neat.
Dulce Vida Extra Anejo Tequila
I have tasted quite a few rare and limited release spirits this year, and found that most of them were lacking in the panache that makes them worthy of their high price tags. But the Extra Anejo from Dulce Vida ($169.00 for 750 mL), which is aged for 5 years in used Napa Valley wine barrels, is truly impressive stuff. For tequila connoisseurs (with deep pockets), this is a great option because it nails the balance between woody flavors from the barrel and the true essence of agave, which is something not all aged tequilas manage to achieve; a soft layer of tannins and vanilla are present but not overwhelming, so the herbal soul of the tequila shines through. At 100 proof, it's a bit too hot to sip neat, but when diluted just a tad, the flavors blossom into a buttery tequila with a silky finish. I wouldn't mix it with anything other than maybe some mole bitters and a dash of agave syrup for a fancy Mexican Old Fashioned. Otherwise, stick to sipping it neat from a proper snifter.
Whiskey and Other Barrel-Aged Spirits
The warm and welcoming vanilla, cinnamon, oak, and caramel flavors derived from barrel-aging a spirit have a long history in the US and abroad, and this year was packed with solid releases. The bottles listed below are a small representation of the wonderful things producers are doing with barrel-aging around the world, spanning a variety of categories from rum and whiskey to Armagnac.
House Spirits Westward Whiskey
Scotch and bourbon drinkers alike will adore this whiskey made by the House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon. 100% malted barley is fermented with Scottish and American ale yeasts to enhance the complexity of the Westward whiskey ($49.95 for 375 mL), which is then aged in new American oak barrels for two years before bottling. A big, booming handful of grainy malts lead the flavor, balanced out by port-like sugars and dry, woody oak. I'd put it on par with any good Scotch, thanks to its huge flavor, balance, and a refinement that makes it enjoyable to sip neat.
Plantation Pineapple Rum 'Stiggin's Fancy'
This intriguing collaboration debuted at Tales of the Cocktail this past summer, and now, after a successful limited run the company has decided to make it an annual addition to the Plantation portfolio. The recipe for Stiggin's Fancy ($29.99 for 750 mL), developed by cocktail expert David Wondrich and Alexandre Gabriel of Pierre Ferrand, features ripe pineapples aged in Plantation's original dark rum for three months, blended with a separate distillate of the bare rind of the fruit also macerated in rum. It has a punchy pineapple personality, supported by the warming oak and vanilla imparted by its time aging in the barrel, and brings a fun, fruity flavor to a Daiquiri or Mai Tai.
Brugal 1888 Ron Gran Reserva Familiar
This classy rum isn't brand new to the market (it was released in 2011), but it came to my attention this year, and I fancy it's an excellent discovery for any whiskey lover looking to get into the world of rum. After spending six to eight years resting in American white oak, followed to two to four years in Spanish sherry oak casks, Brugal's 1888 ($49.99 for 750 mL) has a thick layer of toffee flavors with a lace of licorice and cinnamon. It has a well-developed raisin-like sweetness, but I also like the dry aspect it adds to a rum Old Fashioned.
Aperitifs and Liqueurs
Most drinkers know that America has a booming craft spirits industry, but what's not discussed as often is how these distillers and producers are also making great secondary ingredients—liqueurs, fortified wines, and other creative inventions primed for sipping and mixing into cocktails. All of the bottles below would be a fantastic gift to enhance a home bar already stocked with the basics.
BroVo Spirits Boomerang
Micah Melton, the new beverage director at Chicago's renowned cocktail bar The Aviary teamed up with Seattle distillery BroVo Spirits to concoct this thick, fruity cherry liqueur called Boomerang ($26.99 for 750 mL, and $9.99 for 200 mL). It works as a gorgeous substitute for mainstream cherry liqueurs like Cherry Heering, but interestingly also functions well as a nutty component in cocktails, thanks to the inclusion of walnuts in the recipe. Orange and vanilla flavors are big and bright supporters of the dominant cherry flavor in the liqueur, and a slight sprinkle of cayenne and peppercorn helps balance out the sweetness. Melton suggests drinking it on the rocks, or in a classic Blood and Sand cocktail.
St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur
St. George Spirits released many stimulating new products this year, but the one that really stole my heart is the New Orleans-inspired NOLA coffee liqueur ($35 for 750 mL). French chicory root, Ethiopian coffee beans, and Madagascar vanilla come together in harmony to create a spice-filled, slightly bitter liqueur that celebrates the spirit of New Orleans. It's far less sweet than your average coffee liqueur (but still works fine in a White Russian), and also tastes brilliant in the Caffeinated Sicilian cocktail, a riff on the Americano cocktail developed by St. George's Lauren Asta, where 2 ounces of the liqueur are combined with an ounce of Campari, 3/4 ounces of sweet vermouth and a touch of simple syrup. Top with club soda and garnish with an orange peel for maximum effect.
Rivulet Pecan Liqueur
I'm a sucker for warm, nutty flavors when the weather gets colder, so when I first tried Rivulet Pecan Liqueur from Kentucky ($34.99 for 750 mL), I was instantly hooked. The recipe features two-year-old barrel aged California brandy that's blended with a pecan distillate to create the final product. There's nothing shy about Rivulet; the pecan flavor is huge, with an appropriate level of syrupy sugar to support the nutty dryness. I've made plenty of pecan syrups for cocktails in my day, but none of them have ever captured the true essence of the nut like this liqueur does, which helps it really shine through in cocktails. Specifically, it's a smash hit when paired with whiskey. I've used it as a substitute for simple syrup in both the Old Fashioned cocktail and whiskey sour to great effect.
Lejay Crème de Cassis
This year I got a little obsessed with the black currant liqueur cassis, a largely forgotten but delightfully perky cocktail ingredient. Of all of the brands I tasted, the Lejay Crème de Cassis ($29.99 for 750 mL), which only just arrived in America this year (though its been in production in France since 1841), really grabbed my attention. Lejay has a deep, captivating juicy black currant flavor, with a zesty grapefruit-like perk and a subtle layer of dark rose flavors. It's excellent mixed with tequila, lime, and ginger beer, or on the rocks with soda water.
Hammer & Tongs Vermouth
When I first tasted Hammer & Tongs vermouth out of Portland for this story on American vermouths, I was floored. I've never had a fortified wine with such expressive flavors and deep complexity. The company makes two versions: the exotic Syrah-based L'Afrique ($34.99 for 750 mL), with a impressive contrast of dark black cherry, cedar, and chocolate flavors, and Sac'Resine ($39.99 for 750 mL) a floral and citrusy blend with a Pinot Blanc foundation and incense-like botanicals like frankincense and myrrh. Both are beautiful interpretations of what vermouth can taste like—they're lush and juicy but still balanced with an appropriate amount of spice and herbal elements. I've tasted a few cocktails in bars where they are used well, but with such unusual flavors, I prefer letting their unadulterated nature shine by simply sipping them the rocks.
Disclosure: Tasting samples provided for review consideration.