The Best New Spirits of 2015

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[Photos: Vicky Wasik]

It can be hard to see the big picture when you're an inch away from the canvas, so it's tricky to tell what 2015 will be remembered for while we're still at the tail end of the year. Will it be known as the year that Scotch lost its luster and American whiskey ascended the brown spirits throne? The year that Americans finally discovered that the Japanese make some pretty great whisky, too? The moment that bitter amari hit our collective sweet spot? Or will we think back on it as the year that scientific developments, many currently unknown to most laymen, began to change the spirits industry? I think the answer is "all of the above." But I wasn't chasing trends to write this piece: I just wanted to make a list of the best new booze. Of all the liquor I tried this year—somewhere between a hundred and two hundred different bottles, by my reckoning—these are the ones that I enjoyed the most; the whiskey, rum, gin, and amaro that I can't stop thinking about.

And of course, some of my selections don't fit into any particular trend. A flavored rum, a Canadian whisky, a Scotch single malt, a pisco—none of which were particularly 'hot' this year, but all of which are worth your time. And while we're in an age of super-ultra-mega-premium booze, when collectors shell out thousands of bucks for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle or several hundred for the Macallan's new no-age-statement single malt, none of these spirits approach $100 a bottle. In fact, most of them are under $50. And that's a trend I think we can all get behind.

Amaro di Angostura

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Saying Angostura makes bitters is kind of like saying that Heinz makes ketchup—Angostura makes the most popular bitters in the world, and the most universally beloved. But there are two kinds of bitters. There's cocktail bitters—like Angostura—that come in small bottles and which are added to mixed drinks by the dash. And then there are bitters like Campari or Fernet Branca, liqueurs that can be mixed or drunk on their own. If you've ever poured a bit of Angostura directly into your mouth, you know that it's almost palatable on its own, although by FDA law, cocktail bitters aren't supposed to be. And since bitters, also known as amari, are astoundingly popular among the booze hipsterati right now, it would only make sense for Angostura to leap into the fray with its own amaro.

And so they have, and the results are superb, since Angostura's bitters are the primary flavoring in Amaro di Angostura (around $25 for a 750 ml bottle). The source is immediately evident in the cinnamon and licorice notes that hit the palate. It's quite sweet, with an unmistakable birch beer flavor, and compared to amari like Fernet Branca, which really bring the bitter, it may seem a little wimpy. But there's still a lot going on here—hints of flamed orange peel, nutmeg, and pepper, to name a few. Its softness makes for a great change of pace from amari that double down on bitterness. It's a seamless, perfectly executed amaro, and proof that bitter isn't always better. Find Amaro di Angostura online here.

La Caravedo Pisco Puro Quebranta

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Most folks don't know much about pisco apart from the pisco sour, a frothy cocktail shaken with egg whites that's available at most Latin-influenced bars. So just to give you a quick primer, pisco is an un-aged spirit made from grapes in the winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Pisco can be distilled from eight different grape varieties and is often a blend; La Caravedo is called a "pisco puro," because it's made from a single type, the Quebranta grape.

La Caravedo is made at the distillery of the same name, which just happens to be the oldest distillery still in existence in the Americas—it was founded in 1684. If longevity alone isn't proof enough that they know what they're doing, the proof is in the tasting. Pisco can be rough going, but La Caravedo (around $25 for a 750 ml bottle) is a smooth, gentle ride from start to finish. Which isn't to say it's not flavorful. It's a truly fascinating sipper, with piney undertones, almost reminiscent of gin, atop which are layered flavors of butterscotch and pear. It dries out as it slides over the tongue, and on the finish it's a tad ashy, almost like a mezcal. Add an ice cube and floral and herbal notes come to the fore, but I prefer it neat. Or, of course, in a pisco sour. Find La Caravedo Pisco Puro Quebranta online here.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

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Canadian whisky has long been the poor little rich kid of the whisky world. It was the most popular whisky in the United States in the years after Prohibition—its smooth, light style was just what drinkers wanted after more than a decade of moonshine and rotgut whiskeys. But in the '80s and '90s, as single malts and higher-proof bourbons gained popularity among the whiskey cognescenti and then the drinking public at large, Canadian brands lost their luster. Most Canadian whiskies were bulked up with grain whisky—light, usually corn-based, with much of the flavor removed in the distilling process. The resulting spirits were easy to drink but not very interesting compared to a single barrel rye or a Scotch single malt. As sales began slipping, Canadian brands both big and small started upping their game with new, bigger and bolder expressions.

Crown Royal, whose squat bottle encased in a purple felt pouch was a staple of home bars in the 20th century, has been working overtime to bring its brand into the new millennium. With Northern Harvest Rye, they've succeeded, so much so that it's been named 'World Whisky Of The Year' in Jim Murray's renowned Whisky Bible. With a mashbill of 90% rye—far more than typical Canadian brands—this is big and flavorful, but still remarkably silky and easy-drinking. It starts off sweetly with butterscotch flavors coming through loud and clear, but the peppery spice of the rye and hints of dry oak quickly make their entrance. It's perfect for any drinking occasion: smooth enough to ignore if you're drinking to drown your sorrows, complex enough to mull over with each sip, and at around $30 for a 750 ml bottle, it's cheap enough to use in your favorite whisky cocktails. What's a Canadian Manhattan called, anyway? A Toronto? (Oh wait, that's a real thing.) Find Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye online here.

Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin

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Tanqueray dates back to the 1830s, so it only makes sense that they're using that history to their advantage by finding old recipes in the archives and then creating new/old gins from them. The first, Tanqueray Old Tom, was a smashing success last year. The second, Tanqueray Bloomsbury, has a somewhat less storied history. It's based on a recipe created by Charles Waugh Tanqueray, the son of the brand's founder, in 1880. The recipe is, in fact, written on the label, at least in part: "Italians berries [juniper], coriander, angelica, crushed cassia, savory." But unless you've had some experience distilling gin, that gives no indication of how it tastes, or whether it differs from the Tanqueray we drink today. So I'll tell you: it differs quite a bit.

Tanqueray is among the most juniper-forward of London Dry gins, with its sweet, walking-through-a-pine-forest scent and flavor. Bloomsbury (named for the area of London in which Tanqueray's distillery resided back in 1880) features a much milder juniper quotient—it's still the frontman, but you can hear the rest of the band more clearly. There's a slight citric sweetness to Bloomsbury (around $33 for a 1 liter bottle), as well as a dry herbal vibe dominated by coriander. Those who find standard Tanqueray too juniper-heavy will love Bloomsbury, and pretty much everyone will appreciate this balanced gin in a Martini or Negroni. There are a lot of terrific new gins hitting bars and liquor stores every month, but Bloomsbury was the one I kept going back to. The label says "Limited Edition"; let's hope the folks at Tanqueray change their mind. Find Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin online here.

Plantation Stiggins' Fancy Pineapple Rum

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Pineapple rum? What is this, a frat party? Not hardly. Stiggins' Fancy was inspired by Charles Dickens—not binge drinkers with a sweet tooth. The famed Pickwick Papers featured a Reverend Stiggins, who preached temperance at the pulpit but enjoyed his pineapple rum at the tavern. Yes, pineapple rum was a thing back in the early 1800s, and Stiggins' Fancy—created by Plantation's Alexandre Gabriel with cocktail historian/all-around prince of a guy David Wondrich—works from original 19th century recipes. The flesh of the pineapple is macerated in Plantation's Original Dark rum (a blend of Trinidadian rums matured in barrels that aged bourbon), while the rinds are distilled with Plantation's 3 Star white rum. The two are blended together and barrel-aged before bottling.

The finished product is a marvel. On first blush it's simply a big Caribbean rum, with all the vanilla, toffee, and molasses flavors you'd expect. The pineapple is there, but since this stuff is made from real fruit and not chemicals meant to smell and taste like pineapple, the flavor is much more subtle than you'd expect. It's a deep, rich, slightly funky tropical fruit tang that's hard to ignore but doesn't scream "pineapple!" It's a very fine sipper, but I was blown away when I used it in a Rum Old Fashioned (that's right, just take swap out the whiskey for rum.) I normally use dry Puerto Rican or New England rums in this concoction; I figured Stiggins' Fancy (around $35 for a 750 ml bottle) would be way too sweet. Au contraire—the fruitiness of the rum combined beautifully with the bitters (Angostura or Dale Degroff's Pimento Aromatic Bitters are my go-to brands), and a little sugar added even more depth. If you only own one flavored rum, this one should be it. Find Plantation Stiggins' Fancy Pineapple Rum online here or here.

Rational Spirits Santeria Rum

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There are game-changers and then there are game-changers, and this—THIS is a game-changer. For a few years now, distiller/amateur chemist Bryan Davis has been putting out some terrific rums through his own company, Lost Spirits, and they've developed quite a cult following among dedicated rummies. The Lost Spirits bottlings are dark, intensely flavorful, and carry a funk that's a hallmark of great pot-distilled aged Caribbean rums. What he didn't tell anyone was that Lost Spirits' rums were experiments in artificial rapid aging of spirits. Rapid aging has long been the holy grail of distillers; the usual gambit is to age the spirit in smaller barrels, thereby putting more liquid in contact with the wood. But as Davis explains, "Aging in smaller barrels will speed up the first thing the wood does. But you also need to speed up the eighth thing, and the ninth thing and so on, to get a spirit that really tastes aged."

So Davis came up with THEA One (THEA stands for "Targeted Hyper-Esterification Aging"), a chemical reactor (also known as a "fancy machine" by us laymen). It replicates twenty years of aging in a single week by speeding up the decomposition of the wood, and having the chemicals it releases absorbed by the rum. Rather than use it for his own booze, Davis is leasing the reactor to other companies, with the hope of transforming the entire spirits industry. There are still plenty of naysayers who either don't believe his claims or don't think the finished product is any good. But one sip of Santeria will convert a lot of non-believers. It's the first rum released by Charleston's Rational Spirits, and the very first by a company that leased the THEA One, though Davis still ran the reactor for the first batch.

Eight days of aging has transformed Santeria from clear, new-make spirit into a dark-as-night, opaque, well...aged rum. The flavor of this 115-proof monster matches the color—deep and intense, as rich as coffee or dark chocolate, with loads of molasses tang. The finish is bitter, slightly herbal, and reminiscent of overripe bananas. This is a down-and-dirty, funky rum that's delicious either as a sipper or in tiki drinks like the Mai Tai or the Jungle Bird. Santeria (around $40 for a 750 ml bottle) may be an important development in the history of distilled spirits, but most importantly for those of us who just want to drink the stuff, it's absolutely delicious. Heads up: the first 'test' batch of Santeria has already disappeared; more is coming in early 2016.

Cynar 70

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Cynar is everyone's favorite artichoke liqueur—but I promise it's not as bizarre as it sounds. Though Cynar's signature flavor does indeed come in part from artichoke leaves, it also contains a dozen other herbs and botanicals, so it doesn't taste like you're drinking an artichoke. Cynar is an amaro, meaning a bitter herbal liqueur that's often drunk as a digestif—though these days you're mostly likely to see it in a cocktail. The stuff is is typically bottled at a low 30 proof (15% alcohol), while the new Cynar 70 is bottled at, you guessed it, 70 proof. The result isn't just more alcoholic, it turns the flavor dial way up—if regular Cynar is a rich sepia tone, Cynar 70 is technicolor. Cynar 70 is Cynar only...more so. It's a tug of war between the sugar and bitter herbs, walking the fine tightrope between bitter and sweet. It's like a more intense sweet vermouth, with heightened herbal and bitter flavors, dry and syrupy at the same time. In fact, it makes a great substitute for vermouth in Negronis and Manhattans, the high proof lending extra potency and depth of flavor to the cocktail. And if you want to use it for its original purpose, it's still a fantastic sipper at the end of a heavy meal. Find Cynar 70 (around $40 for a liter bottle) online here or here.

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky

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Islay whiskies get their smoky-campfire flavor from the island's native peat which is burned in lieu of wood to roast, or malt, the barley before distillation. But the barley itself is farmed elsewhere in Scotland. Until now. Bruichladdich, one of Islay's most idiosyncratic distilleries, started making what it suggests may be the first Islay malt ever to be distilled entirely from native Islay barley.

Can you taste the terroir? So much of a whisky's flavor comes from barrels, and peat plays a huge part in how Islay whiskies taste, too. But Port Charlotte*—aged a mere six years, so it's quite young by single malt standards—does have a well-defined malty foundation, for which credit can be given to the grain. It's overlaid with hints of toasted bread and tropical fruit (think banana and coconut). Sure, the smoke and peat characteristic of Islay is there, but Port Charlotte Islay Barley (around $70 for a 750 ml bottle) doesn't have the typical mouthful-of-ashes feel of a Lagavulin or Laphroaig. In fact, it's quite tame, allowing the whisky to reveal its other charms, like a slight bitter herbaceousness that pops up before a long, dry finish. For Islay novices, it's an amazing introduction; for everyone else, it's simply an example of great whisky making. Find Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky online here or here.

*This was supposedly released in late 2014, but I didn't see it around anywhere until after New Year's, so I'm calling it a 2015 release. Hey, they do it at the Grammys all the time!

Hibiki Japanese Harmony

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There are two schools of thought regarding no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies. One is that the distilleries, having run low on aged stocks due to whisky's amazing surge in popularity, are mixing older and younger whiskies out of desperation. The other is that, when the blender is only beholden to flavor and not to a number that has to be put on the bottle, limitations are removed and creativity will know no bounds. Unfortunately, when you taste many of the NAS whiskies on the market, the desperation explanation seems to be true. Hibiki Japanese Harmony, the latest offering from Japanese whisky titan Suntory, is the exception to the rule. It's a blend of more than 10 different malt and grain whiskies—the same ones used in the first Hibiki blend, released in 1989—of varying origins and ages (up to 20 years). They're aged in different types of wood, including new American oak, Japanese Mizunara oak, and European oak casks that were used to age sherry.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony (around $65 for a 750 ml bottle) lives up to its name, with the different whiskies creating a whole that's greater than its parts. This is an exceedingly delicate whisky—if you want to make comparisons to Scotch whisky, think of a light, young Speyside malt. Its scent is quite floral, and on the palate it's clean and fresh, with notes of melon, lychee, honey, citrus, and a hint of wood. The oak kicks in more on the finish, but it's a smooth glide from start to finish. This whisky is a testament to the genius of Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo. And a challenge to the makers of all the lesser NAS whiskies that have hit the shelves of late. Find Hibiki Japanese Harmony online here or here.

Jefferson's Reserve Groth Cask Finish Bourbon

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Whiskey and wine aren't quite the peanut butter and chocolate of the booze world, but there have been some tremendous whiskies finished in wine barrels, including Glenmorangie's Nectar D'Or (Sauternes) and Angel's Envy bourbon (Port). What most of the wine-finished whiskies have in common is that they're aged in barrels that held sweeter dessert wines. Which is why Jefferson's Reserve Groth Cask stands out. It's standard six-year-old Jefferson's bourbon, finished for nine months in casks that previously held Cabernet Sauvignon from Groth Vineyards in California. It might be hard to imagine wine and bourbon together, but the result here is stellar. The winey bourbon is light and fruity (think green grapes, baked apple, and cherry) and heightened vanilla notes. Rich caramel, chocolate, and a bit of rye spice even out the sweetness. Groth Reserve Cask (around $80 for a 750 ml bottle) is bottled at a fairly hefty 90.2 proof (45.1% alcohol by volume), but not only is no water needed, it would be a crime to add any; this is perfectly balanced as-is. Find Jefferson's Reserve Groth Cask Finish Bourbon online here.

Note: Spirits samples provided for review consideration. Your purchase on Caskers helps support Serious Eats.