Compiling a year-end best-of list like this tends to be a multistep process. First, I ask myself which spirits jump out at me after almost a year of tastings. Second, I peruse the shelves of my liquor cabinet and look back at reviews and writeups to refresh my memory. And then, after the list is complete, I try to figure out what, if anything, the best ones have in common.
This year, my list makes sense, given how nerve-wracking, traumatic, and depressing 2016 often was. Lots of whisky (Scotch) and whiskey (American), because we needed to steady our nerves with something more substantial than liqueurs or amaros. Lots of cask-strength spirits, because we needed something strong to get us through each news cycle. Lots of limited editions, perhaps to symbolize that nothing lasts forever—a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Lots of high-priced spirits, in line with the price this year exacted from all of us.
But no year is just one big monochromatic downer, and, if nothing else, 2016 produced some amazing new spirits that can stand proudly alongside the cream of any other year's crop. The whiskeys came from craft distillers and big conglomerates alike. Mezcal, gin, cognac, rum, and cachaça are all represented here with exciting new expressions. For every pricey bottle on this list, there's another one under $100, and four of them are $50 or less. So take heart and stock up on these 10 delicious newbies. They helped me get through 2016, and I hope they'll get you through 2017, whatever fate decides to throw at us.
Booker's Rye ($300, Limited Edition)
Booker Noe, the late master distiller of Jim Beam, is best remembered today for his Booker's Bourbon, a cask-strength monster that helped usher in a new age of American whiskey when it was first released, in the late '80s. In 2003, a year before Noe's death, he laid down 100 barrels of a rye whiskey that was unlike anything he'd ever done before. Standard Jim Beam rye is only barely a legal blend, meaning it has just over 51% rye content in the mash bill (corn and barley make up the rest). We're not sure exactly what Booker's Rye consists of, but we know it's more than 70% rye, which makes it a bigger, spicier whiskey. After letting it age 13 years in the barrel, Fred Noe, Booker's son and Beam's current master distiller, bottled the whole batch—which, after the angels took their share via evaporation, is likely fewer than 10,000 bottles. Hence the hefty price.
If you're a rye fan, though, it's worth every penny. Bottled at cask strength—a shade over 136 proof—you'd think it would singe your nose hairs on contact, but it's surprisingly palatable and complex, even without water. The flavor is robust, kicking off with dry oak and leather and balanced out by rich, sweet dark fruits, particularly cherries. Cinnamon and tobacco come through on the finish, which is very, very long and spicy.
It's almost a shame Booker's Rye is so good, because there's no more left and no exact recipe for how to make it. Even if Fred Noe gives it a shot, it won't be ready for another 13 years. In other words, stock up on this one while you can, price be damned.
Novo Fogo Graciosa Cachaça ($35)
The Rio Olympics made 2016 the summer of cachaça, a Brazilian sugarcane-based spirit. Known largely as a fiery, rougher-hewn cousin of rum, cachaça is drunk stateside in the caipirinha—a version of a mojito that's more citrus-forward and less sweet. Until recently, almost all cachaça available in the US was un-aged and, to American palates used to light rums, rather harsh-tasting. But aged cachaça has started to make its way here in the last few years, and Novo Fogo deserves a medal for its Graciosa expression. Aged for two years in used American oak barrels and finished for another 18 months in native Brazilian wood barrels (made from the castanheira do pará, or Brazil nut tree), it's tamer than the un-aged stuff, but its depth and complexity more than make up for that. It has a distinct custard-with-cherries vibe up front, the bright fruit intertwined with sweet vanilla. Along the way, the tannins from the wood take over, and dry oak and bitter chocolate come to the fore. The finish is long and multidimensional, with hints of oak, coffee, and anise. Aged cachaça is so different from the un-aged stuff that trying Graciosa is like tasting a whole new spirit. The next few years promise to be fascinating ones for the category; here's a great way to get in on the ground floor.
Hennessy Master Blender's Selection No. 1 Cognac ($80, Limited Edition)
In Hennessy's 251 years as a producer of cognac, it's had exactly eight master blenders. Yann Fillioux is the seventh. He's officially handed over the reins to number eight—his nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde—but, after more than 50 years in the family business (the Fillioux clan makes the cognac, the Hennessy family sells it), he's not quite ready to call it quits. Which is how Master Blender's Selection No. 1 came about. Much of a master blender's job involves creating historically consistent cognacs. A Hennessy VSOP, for instance, needs to taste like the VSOP Hennessy drinkers have come to expect over years, decades, and even centuries. Master Blender's Selection No. 1 is what happens when Fillioux has the freedom to create a blend in his own style.
This isn't your typical cognac: The bottle and label are more reminiscent of bourbon packaging, and the higher proof (86, while almost all other cognacs are 80) gives it a little more spicy zing. And the blend itself—more than 80 eaux de vie, aged between four and 16 years in casks of varying ages—is a fruity, full-bodied beauty that will tickle your taste buds, whether or not you're a cognac enthusiast. It opens round and creamy, coating the tongue with rich notes of almonds, plump grapes, ripe plums, and sweet melon. It follows up with tart apricot, before finishing with a spicy tingle and a woody, leathery afterglow. Master Blender's Selection No. 1 would probably taste great in cocktails, but it's such a perfect sipper that it seems almost a shame to dilute it. And, since this is a one-time-only creation, perhaps it's better to parcel it out more sparingly.
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Irish Whiskey ($270)
Irish whiskey has had a renaissance in the last few years, with sales exploding (it was the fastest-growing spirits category in the US in 2014), new distilleries opening, and lots of noteworthy expressions coming out. Midleton, which was founded almost 200 years ago, has a portfolio that includes some of Ireland's best and best-known whiskeys, including Jameson, Redbreast, and Green Spot.
For Dair Ghaelach, the distillery used some of its finest stocks, aged 15 to 22 years in American ex-bourbon barrels, then finished them for about a year in new Irish oak—the only Irish whiskey to use native oak. Irish oak has a different makeup from its American counterpart, and releases more of certain chemicals, most notably vanillins, into the whiskey. The result is a luscious blend of rich vanilla, banana, toffee, dark chocolate, and honey, with a fair amount of spice from the long aging time. The lingering finish conjures crème brûlée, with creamy vanilla overlaid with burnt caramel. At almost 58% alcohol by volume, it's not quite a dessert in a glass, but it's just as satisfying. Midleton promises to make as much Dair Ghaelach as limited supplies of Irish oak will allow; in the meantime, for the benefit of future generations of imbibers, it's planting more trees.
Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof Dark Rum ($25/1 Liter)
Overproof rum is usually consumed in cocktails (except in Jamaica, that is, where it's an everyday drink). But this is no ordinary overproof rum. Plantation's rum master, Alexandre Gabriel, handpicked a dream team of boozy luminaries to come up with this blend, among them historian/author/punchmaster David Wondrich; tiki scholar Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who owns Latitude 29 in New Orleans; and Paul McGee, owner of Chicago tiki mecca Lost Lake. Plantation sources its rums from all over the Caribbean, so the group had a lot of raw material to work with. They finally settled on a blend of rums from Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados. The group, rumor has it, cried en masse, "Oh f*%#, that's delicious!" when the perfect blend was reached—hence the O.F.T.D. name. Officially, at least, it now stands for "Old Fashioned Traditional Dark."
You may think, "Wow, that's strong!" on first whiff. But if you can make it past the 138-proof blast, you'll experience a sublime rum, dark and woody and even a little smoky, with cinnamon, baking spices, and brown sugar coming to the fore. Overripe, slightly funky tropical fruits, notably banana, sneak in mid-palate, followed by a long, spicy, and slightly bittersweet finish. If the alcohol is simply too much for you, try it in a fruity rum Old Fashioned with bitters, a sugar cube, muddled orange and cherry, and plenty of ice. Or, better yet, whip up an extra-strength Mai Tai. Before long, you too will be saying, "O.F.T.D.!"
Highland Park Ice Edition Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($300, Limited Edition)
Highland Park's 18 Year Old expression is rightly hailed as a classic single malt; Spirit Journal founder F. Paul Pacult has on multiple occasions named it the best spirit in the world. But this year, Highland Park found a way to top itself. Ice Edition comes in a mountain-shaped green- and blue-tinted bottle, encased in a wooden ark. The inspiration for the whisky supposedly comes from a Norse myth about ice giants battling the gods. (Vikings once inhabited the Orkney Islands, where Highland Park is made, though they were long gone by the time whisky was invented.) It's all a little bit silly, but the whisky is no joke. Aged at least 17 years, it's bottled at cask strength—53.9% alcohol by volume—which makes the flavors jump out on the palate, like 3-D compared to the lower-proof 18's flat-screen. Vanilla and pineapple morph into spicy ginger and intense smoke. The saga concludes with a staggeringly long finish, woody and spicy, with hints of anise. This is a dram for the ages, though, sadly, it'll be with us for a limited time only; fewer than 4,000 bottles were made. If you love Scotch whisky, $300 will seem like a bargain for this one. And if you miss out, its sibling Fire Edition is just hitting stores now.
The Revivalist Botanical Gin, Summertide Expression ($36)
It's amazing that, until around the turn of the millennium, American gins were few and far between. Today, the colonies are rivaling Mother England in making new and exciting gins, many with locally sourced botanicals. One of the new kids on the block is The Revivalist, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It's come out with four gins, each containing seasonally appropriate botanicals—cinnamon and clove in the autumnal Harvest Expression, for example. There's not a dud in the bunch, but the best of the four is Summertide. Unlike with many modern American gins, you can actually taste the juniper. Unlike classic London Dry gins, however, juniper shares the spotlight here with other botanicals, including lemon peel, jasmine, rose, and peppermint. It's soft, floral, and cooling—perfect for a warm-weather gin and tonic or martini, or by itself on the rocks. Though it has a summertime vibe, Summertide Expression is delicious year-round.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers Two Lanterns American Whiskey ($120, Limited Edition)
Whiskey starts its life as beer, or at least something close to it. In fact, the fermented, undistilled product that comes from the first steps of whiskey-making is called "distiller's beer." It's not really drinkable, and, of course, it doesn't have hops. But several years ago, a few intrepid distillers wondered what would happen if they distilled whiskey from actual finished beer. American craft distillers, like Charbay and Seven Stills, have produced some excellent beer-based whiskeys. In Scotland, Glenfiddich has gotten in on the act with its excellent India Pale Ale Cask Finished expression. The Massachusetts-based Berkshire Mountain Distillers has been working with neighboring brewery Samuel Adams, along with other craft brewers, for a few years now. Two Lanterns, the first whiskey to use Sam Adams' flagship Boston Lager, is a crowning achievement for both brands. Triple-distilled from Boston Lager and aged for more than four years, it tastes like, well, what it is—the concentrated essence of a classic brew—while remaining light and lively on the palate. It's quite sweet and fruity, coming on strong with pine, lychee, and melon before dry hops and barley move to the fore. The finish is a short and perfect sweet/dry combination. You don't have to be a beer drinker to love this whiskey.
Creyente Mezcal ($50)
Now that mezcal has gained a toehold in the US spirits market, manufacturers of the stuff seem to be doing their best to dumb it down, eliminating its earthy, somewhat funky, intensely smoky flavor and making it taste more like its refined sibling, tequila. If you need a quick primer, the big distinctions between tequila and mezcal are that tequila is distilled solely from Blue Weber agave, while mezcal uses many different varieties, and tequila distilleries steam the agave to release its juices, while mezcaleros roast it, giving it a very different flavor profile. Of course, we don't need a mezcal that tastes like tequila when there's already plenty of excellent tequila out there for the drinking.
Fortunately, the folks at Jose Cuervo realized that when creating the company's first-ever US-released mezcal. It's a blend of two separate mezcals made in two different regions of Mexico—Tlacolula, where the soil is richer, and the mountainous region of Yautepec. Both use Espadin agave, the agave most commonly found in mezcal. After distillation, the mezcals are blended together and cut with water down to 80 proof (like most mezcals, Creyente isn't aged). The result is a perfect balance of smooth and smoky, with hints of lemony citrus, cashew, and sweet grains underneath mesquite smoke. The finish is surprisingly clean, with hints of smoke sticking around but not setting off any fire alarms. If you want to know what a classic mezcal tastes like, Creyente is a great place for a novice to start, and a fun place for an expert to wind up.
Macallan 12 Year Old Double Cask Scotch Single Malt Whisky ($65)
Given the boom in American whiskey and corresponding decline in Scotch single malt sales over the last couple of years, it's no surprise that some Scotch whiskies are trying to affect a more bourbon-like flavor. Dewar's Scratched Cask, Auchentoshan American Oak, and The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve are a few examples of the category. But tasty though they are, if it's bourbon you want, it's better just to buy a bottle of bourbon, right? So it was easy to be a little cynical about The Macallan's latest gambit, Double Cask, for which its 12-year-old whisky is aged in new American oak (as bourbon is aged) as well as traditional European sherry casks. And the result is, unexpectedly, a tremendous whisky. While the standard 12-year-old can feel a tad heavy, the American oak brings lighter flavors to the mix, balancing out the orange peel and raisin influence of the sherry with vanilla, caramel, and hints of banana and honey. It glides to a spicy finish, with black pepper, leather, and oak on the back of the palate. The Double Cask actually improves on a classic whisky that didn't seem to need improving. Here's hoping we'll see more Double Cask expressions from The Macallan down the road.