If you like to hit the hard stuff, 2013 was a good year for you. The craft spirits business is booming, with new mom and pop distilleries sprouting across the country, and the big boys churning out some of their most interesting bottles to date. The year saw a few interesting trends take hold, from organic potatoes to ultra high proof tequila to aged gin. Envelopes were pushed, master distillers released booze from their own stash, and Jim Beam invoked the Devil. Here are Paste’s picks for the best spirits released this year.
Tequila Herradura is a massive tequila manufacturer (they produce the most popular tequila in Mexico), that has only recently begun dipping their toes in the small batch tequila market. The Colleccion is aged in American oak barrels for 11 months, then transferred to French cognac casks for three months. This isn’t a shooter, it’s a sipper and a damned good whiskey substitute if you want to take some of your favorite cocktails south of the border. 94 proof.
I’m a sucker for an aged rum. Putting the sweet liquor in whiskey barrels adds a complexity to sailor’s hooch that, when done well, catapults the rum into a gender-bending category that’s as confusing as The Crying Game. But in a good way. Aged for an average of seven years in cognac, whisky, and bourbon casks, Penny Blue XO doesn’t disappoint, with flavor notes that shift from tropical fruit to vanilla, all of which are pleasant. 88 proof.
In whiskey distilling, the term “angel’s share” refers to the amount of whiskey that’s lost in the barrel aging process. Over the years, the wood in the barrels absorbs a share of the liquid held inside. For Devil’s Cut, Jim Beam steals that whiskey back by sweating the barrels to extract two gallons of the intense whiskey that’s been absorbed. Then Beam puts that whiskey back into the batch for more flavor. How’s it taste? The Devil’s Cut won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year. It’s also a budget buy at $24. 90 proof.
Woody Creek distillery opened in May of this year and quickly made a name for itself by taking the locavore angle to new heights. Woody Creek grows their own potatoes for their vodka, and sources their water from a spring near the distillery in Aspen Valley. Kudos for the effort, bravo for the taste. Expect hints of mint, rosemary, and pepper from this clean vodka. And call me old fashioned, but I like potato-based vodka’s richer texture over wheat varieties. 80 proof.
Okay, this rum is named after a booze-smuggling schooner from the days of Prohibition, but really, every new bottle of liquor is named after a booze-smuggling ship from Prohibition, so forget the back story. What you need to know is that pure sugar cane is crafted into rum in the Dominic Republic, then aged for 12 years in American oak barrels. All that time in the holding tanks gives the rum a rich color and bomber notes of vanilla and oak. And it’s only $40. 80 proof.
The majority of whiskeys you’ll come across are blended using a number of different barrels from the distillery’s stock to create a more uniform, consistent flavor. All of the whiskey in a “single barrel” bottle comes from just one barrel, meaning it can have a more distinct, robust flavor. Wild Turkey produces Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel, which comes from barrels that are hand-picked by master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. The distillery eschewed the typical chilled filtration process, leaving Russel’s with plenty of spice and heat, but also the classic notes of vanilla and caramel that bourbon lovers drool over. Russel’s Reserve is younger than some of the other annual limited releases from big distilleries, aged between eight and nine years, but it manages to walk the tightrope between spice and sweetness while carrying the woodsy flavor of the barrel on its shoulders. 110 proof.
If you haven’t had an aged gin yet, you’re probably going to get the chance soon. Beefeater released an aged gin in the U.S. this year, as did New York Distilling Company, and Few released an aged gin late in 2012. St. George’s version hangs out in American oak barrels and French casks for 18 months. It’s fruity, it’s spicy, and it’s great in whiskey cocktails like the Negroni. 98 proof.
Chicago mixologist (that’s fancy speak for a well-paid bartender) Charles Joy has released a batch of pre-bottled, hand-crafted cocktails. Bottled cocktails are a beautiful concept that makes the slow and laborious process of crafting a decent cocktail as easy as twisting a bottle cap. The Southside is Joy’s own signature cocktail, a mix of gin, lime juice, sugar, and mint. The drink is 100% all natural, made with small batch white wheat gin, pure lime juice and real cane sugar. Hell, it’s even gluten free. 15.4% ABV.
Tequila is going bigger with higher proof, high-end batches hitting the masses in 2013 (Tarantula Tequila released a 100-proof, 100 percent blue agave tequila this year). Tapatio 110 is the highest proof tequila allowed by law. Imagine a really good tequila, but bolder, and more flavorful. More agave, more spice. Like most top shelf blanco tequilas, this one is aged for six months in stainless steel, and the master distiller behind the new Tapatio gets mad props from tequila-philes. Not that you care. You care that it tastes good when you shoot it, or put it in a margarita. And it does. 110 proof.
Tequila is so 1997. Everyone who’s anyone is drinking Mezcal now, you know, that stuff with the worm in it. Mezcal, the other alcohol made from the agave plant, is making a huge comeback this year, and getting a top shelf makeover in the process. Yes, both Mezcal and tequila are made from the same plant, but Mezcal is distinguished by an intense smokiness. Montelobos could be the perfect entry into the wonderful world of Mezcal, thanks to the practice of double distilling which helps control some of that smoke that puts off newcomers. Montelobos actually launched in the U.S. at the end of 2012, but it’s just now beginning to make its way across the states. Just don’t go looking for a worm in the bottom of the bottle. Premium Mezcal ditches the worm. 86.4 proof.
Named after Hemingway’s boat (there’s a boat theme to naming rums, you see)
Papa’s Pilar rums are sourced from other distilleries, then aged and blended, the way most of the bourbon on your liquor store’s shelf is created. The Blonde is blended from rums aged between three and seven years, then finished in Sherry casks. It tastes like butter that’s been hanging out with a slice of vanilla cake in your fridge. Papa’s Pilar Blonde made a splash this year at the 2013 Rum XP International Tasting in Miami, winning best in class. 86 proof.
Flavored whiskey is all the rage (honey is the new maraschino cherry), but it’s mostly bourbon that’s getting the Sweet n’ Low treatment. Pow-Wow uses a rye, known for its razor-sharp bite, and works botanicals more commonly found in gin into the mix. You still get some vanilla notes, common with whiskey, but you’ll get hints of orange and saffron. It’s fine for sipping, but Pow-Wow was built for creating complex cocktails. 90 proof.
New Columbia (as in the District of) uses red winter wheat packed with fennel seed, sage, angelica root, and a few other botanicals that I’ve never heard of to create a big flavored gin that’s meant for sipping, not mixing. Also of note: New Columbia produces small batch seasonal releases by aging their gin and hybrid gin/aquavit in various barrels. 82 proof.
The much anticipated, ridiculously high-proof, annual release from Buffalo Trace’s antique collection is the kind of bourbon you have to put your name on a list at the liquor store in order to get. Previous releases have neared the 151 proof mark. The 2013 version is a mild 128.2 proof. Buffalo Trace doesn’t filter it, doesn’t cut it. They just bottle it. I could throw out adjectives like “bold” or “intense,” but those words wouldn’t do the bourbon justice. Obviously, you’re gonna add a little water or ice to this bourbon. For balance, the 16 years of sitting in barrels adds all kinds of sweet notes to this one, which happened to win the silver at the San Francisco Spirits Competition this year. 128.2 proof.
This annual release differs slightly each year. The barrels, which are aged an average of 13 years, are handpicked by Four Roses’ master distiller, then treated like Holy Water, remaining uncut and unfiltered and bottled at barrel strength. Imagine the typical bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak, only more intense because of the lack of filtration. Some of the most respected whiskey writers in the country have fallen head over heels for the Single Barrel this year. And did I mention it’s Four Roses 125th anniversary? Happy birthday to one of the best distilleries in the country, nay, world.