The Best Of New Spirits In The Market

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Liquor used to be so easy to buy when there wasn’t all that much to choose from. In my father’s liquor cabinet there was a bottle each of Dewar’s and Cutty Sark Scotch, Gilbey’s gin, Bacardi rum, Canadian Club rye and maybe Smirnoff vodka. Options were more than sufficient at the liquor store but he, like most people in those days, found a favorite label and stuck to it.

This was before distillers discovered they could make single malts, barrel strength, uncut, reserves, vintage and legions of whiskies aged in various wooden barrels and before vodkas (defined by the U.S. Standards of Identity as a neutral, odorless, colorless, tasteless spirit) were being filtered over diamonds or made in the Czar’s own kettle from water that came from 10,000 feet underground.

What used to be an easy choice has become a bewildering one, and marketing and advertising have a great deal to do with it. The spirits industry caught on to the way wines marketed their labels—including dazzling new graphics—and the media joined right in. Recently I read a report on a new rum described as smelling and tasting like “Bananas Foster. Over-baked almond shortbread. Chicle. New Suede.” Little of which I want to taste when I drink rum.

Nevertheless it is my job, and pleasure, to sample the new spirits in the market and, aside from those that are obviously made to a flavor profile for a niche audience, I am truly impressed by the “iterations” available. That said, here are some of those I’ve been impressed with for various reasons, none of them owing to New Suede, so I shall refrain from struggling to come up with some specious silliness as to what they taste like beyond descriptions of what makes them distinctive.

Rhum J.M, Martinique’s largest distillery, now owned by Group Bernard Hayot and dating to 1845 Macuba at the foot of Mount Pelée, has launched its EDDEN Project aimed to maximize its rhum’s sustainability movement by innovative sugarcane harvesting and volcanic soil cultivation; water waste treatment techniques and reduction of emissions by more than 90%. They produce a range of rhums from 40% to 55% alcohol, including an aged in re-charred bourbon barrels and a 15 Year Old ($280) at 41.7%.

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Old Elk Double Wheat Straight Whiskey out of Fort Collins, Colorado, is a combination of two of their other products: Old Elk Straight Wheat Whiskey ($70) and Old Elk Wheat Bourbon ($55), which yields a higher proof (107.1), emphasizing its fruity character after aging for six to eight years, with a mashbill of 71.5% Wheat, 25% Corn, and 3.5%, released at 53.55%.

France’s Mirabeau now makes a Dry Rose Gin ($43) of a very pretty color and flavors from botanicals growing wild near Saint Tropez. It uses a 100% grape-based neutral spirit with botanicals that include lemon, coriander as well as orris and angelica roots, rose petals, lavender, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary. It would make what in the 19th century was a favorite cocktail called pink gin that got its color from bitters.

Keeper’s Heart ($54) is an unusual marriage of Master Distiller Brian Nation in collaboration with David Perkins, founder of High West Whiskey, to combine Irish Grain, Irish Pot Still and the Peppery American Bourbon. The former two give it an earthier quality while the bourbon’s corn provides sweetness.

Speyburn, which has been around since 1897, has gone pretty far in coming up with a range of “expressions,” from its 10 Year Old Speyside Single Malt ($35) and 15 Year Old Speyside Single Malt ($70) to a smoky Hopkins Reserve ($51) to Arranta Single Malt ($45) aged in bourbon casks and the sweeter Companion Cask, the last two sold exclusively in the U.S.

Master Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich this spring released a 26 Year Old Grande Couronne Single Malt Scotch for a whopping $600, finished in Cognac casks and released at 43.8% alcohol. A tad downscale is its Grand Cru 23 Year old at $300 and a Grand Reserva 21 Year Old at $180. For a peatier style, Glenfiddich also makes Fire & Cane, finished in Latin rum casks with 43% alcohol ($50).

The Balvenie is made in Dufftown in the region of Speyside, and its range runs from a Doublewood 12 Year Old ($60), aged in a traditional oak whiskey barrel and European sherry casks, to Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old ($75), which uses Caribbean rum casks. There is also one aged in Port wood ($225).

Zacapa is a Guatemalan Highlands rum, now made by Master Blender Lorena Vásquez at a high altitude of 7,500 feet, which prevents temperature swings. They are designed to be sipped, not as mixers. Zacapa No. 23 ($45) uses rums aged between 6 and 23 years, while its Rum XO ($99) contains some 25 year-old spirits, aged in Cognac barrels.