Nothing can replace a favorite watering hole, but a healthy pour of something delicious at home is a respectable alternative—one most of us have taken liberal advantage of as our beloved bars and restaurants have been forced to close. Fortunately, there were many excellent options to choose from.
Smaller craft distilleries were hit much, much harder by the pandemic than the big brands, most of which didn’t suffer, at least financially. So while it can’t be denied that the large “comfort brands” continued to release some really good spirits in 2020, it’s remarkable that the craft world was able to put out some stellar bottles as well. Let’s recognize all of these spirits, because when you find something pleasurable in trying times, even if it’s small and perhaps inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, it’s worth celebrating.
Here are some of the very best bottles that were released in the past year, from whiskey to rum to tequila to vodka (with whiskey most heavily represented, due to its many subcategories, and because it’s also the most intriguing in terms of flavor and complexity, in this writer’s opinion). Raise a glass and toast to a healthier future, and some more new spirits to drink in it.
Yes, I’m starting things out with vodka. Not because I love it, although I’m definitely not one of those virulent vodka haters who believes it belongs in hand sanitizer more than it does in a cocktail. Ultimately, it’s not about how Air Vodka tastes, which is pretty much what you’d expect—a slightly sweet, mostly flavorless neutral spirit. What’s cool about this vodka is that not only is it sustainable, it’s actually carbon negative. Basically, the company uses solar-powered proprietary technology to capture CO2 from the air and reform it, along with water, into alcohol, leaving behind only oxygen. With governments like our own actively contributing to climate change over the past four years (hopefully that’ll change soon), Air Vodka was a welcome addition to the spirits world.
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Salcombe Start Point Gin
This British, London dry-style gin recently launched here in the U.S., and it strikes a nice balance between being juniper-forward and citrus-heavy. Neither flavor upends the other, which means that this gin can work as well in a martini as it could in a gin and tonic. The distillery is located in southwest England, not far from Plymouth, another town well known for its gin. The main botanicals used to flavor the spirit include Macedonian juniper berries, red grapefruit, lemon, and lime, along with nine others (coriander seed jumps out in particular). Some might balk at paying $40 for a bottle of gin, but this category stands apart from cheaper but reliable options like Gordon’s or Beefeater.
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Kanosuke New Born
This little bottle of Japanese single malt whisky was one of the best of the entire year. First of all, unlike a surprisingly large amount of Japanese whisky, it was actually distilled in Japan. We can argue for days over whether that matters or not, but the most important thing is: How does it taste? Well, this whisky tastes excellent, especially given its young age. It was distilled at Kanosuke Distillery in February of 2018 using unpeated malt imported from the U.K., and spent only 16 months in ex-bourbon barrels that were also used to age shochu. The result is flavorful and complex, with notes of honey and spice throughout. And at 57 percent ABV, it packs a feisty little punch.
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2020 Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Special Release
Don’t sleep on what Jack Daniel’s has been up to over the past few years. For example, there’s the Tennessee Tasters’ Collection, the most recent releases of which have included a whiskey finished for 180 days in Jamaican allspice wood barrels, imparting it with sandalwood and nutmeg flavors, and the forthcoming 107-proof 14E19 “Twin” Blend, a mix of whiskey and rye that is about six years old. Speaking of rye, Jack has made several expressions using this as a dominant grain component. The most recent is this single barrel release, bottled at barrel proof and made from a mash bill of 70 percent rye, 12 percent malt, and 18 percent corn. ABV and flavor will vary based on the barrel (200 were selected), but the sample I got to try was robust, spicy, and peppery, with the signature JD banana notes lingering in the background.
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Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye
It’s not often that I find a Canadian whisky on my year-end list, but this new U.S. release made the cut. This no-age-statement, cask-strength, 100-percent rye is hot—the sample I tasted was 66 percent ABV. That’s really strong, but add a little water and notes of caramel, butterscotch, and swirling spice bring it all together at a more manageable proof. You’ll find older, lower-ABV rye whisky from Alberta Distillers on the market here under other brand names, so this one would be worth comparing side by side with, say, WhistlePig 10. Apparently this whisky is sold out up north at the moment, so grab a bottle in the States while it’s still around.
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Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond
The “bottled in bond” designation has a few key components: The whiskey was made at one distillery during one distillation season, it’s at least four years old, and it’s bottled at 100 proof. It’s become a popular selling point over the past few years, especially among craft producers who can legitimately use it as a marker of older whiskey than they’ve previously been able to release. This bourbon from Wild Turkey was actually aged for 17 years, much longer than required. And despite the fact that a lot of bourbon aged for this long won’t actually be that good, this expensive release knocks it out of the park. It’s oaky but not overly so, with huge notes of buttery caramel, ripe cherries, candied orange, and some smoky espresso underneath it all. This bottle is pricy, if you can find it at all these days, but it is truly a whiskey masterwork.
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Tattersall Bottled in Bond High Rye and Wheated Bourbon
Speaking of craft distilleries getting in on the BIB game, Tattersall recently released these high rye and wheated bourbons. Both were matured between four and five years and bottled at 100 proof, which dates the whiskeys to the Minnesota distillery’s early days of production. These are impressive craft whiskeys, with notes of caramel, pepper, and dried fig running through each sip. Tattersall puts out an expansive lineup of spirits and liqueurs, but these are some of the best I’ve tasted from the distillery, especially when compared to its younger rye whiskey. Yes, there’s still a bit of that “craft” flavor that comes from using some smaller barrel sizes for aging, but that doesn’t override their commanding presence.
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Knob Creek 12
Knob Creek brought back the nine-year-old age statement to its core bourbon expression in 2020, a welcome return for fans of this brand that is part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection. It also added a 12-year-old version to the core range, as well as a limited-edition 15-year-old. I loved the latter, but given that the 12 is much more readily available and also very good, that’s what made the cut here. So what do three more years in the barrel add to Knob Creek? Deeper char, more intense vanilla, bigger fruit notes, and burnt caramel flavors to start. This is a bit more expensive than its younger sister, but these flavors and the 100-proof strength (just like the original) make it a fantastic whiskey to use in an Old Fashioned.
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Widow Jane The Vaults 2020
The new bourbon from Brooklyn’s Widow Jane distillery is really, really good, if a bit on the expensive side. It’s comprised of 15- to 17-year-old bourbon sourced from Tennessee and Indiana that was blended together by distiller Lisa Wicker. Before bottling, though, the whiskey was put into air-seasoned Appalachian oak casks to finish for a period of time. This extra step has imparted the whiskey with fragrant sandalwood and spice notes that remind me a bit of WhistlePig’s excellent new Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic. You might cringe at paying $200 or more for a sourced whiskey like this, but if you have some extra holiday money burning a hole in your pocket, this is a bottle that’s definitely worth it.
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Woodford Reserve Very Fine Rare Bourbon
Have you ever tried Woodford Reserve, already a very fine if not so rare bourbon, and thought to yourself, “I’d like to taste this after a few more years in the barrel?” Maybe not unless you’re a bourbon nerd, and that’s probably for the best. But for those who have embarked upon this thought experiment, as well as those who have not, this new entry into the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection has the answer: Older Woodford is damn good. Some of the whiskey in these bottles is 17 years old (distilled in 2003), with the rest of the liquid somewhat younger than that. This is a deep, complex whiskey, with strong notes of tobacco, chocolate, cherry, and a whiff of smoke underneath it all. Use regular Woodford for your cocktails; sip this one on its own.
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New Riff Maltster Malted Rye and Malted Wheat Bourbon
I’ve been a fan of nearly everything that New Riff, a relatively new distillery in Newport, Kentucky, has been releasing over the past few years. The core range consists of non-chill filtered, bottled-in-bond bourbon and rye whiskeys that can stand up to anything from the major distilleries. More recently, New Riff has been putting out some more experimental releases as well, like these Maltster whiskeys. Both include malted flavoring grains in their mash bills—rye and wheat—a change that is especially striking when sampled side-by-side with the core expression. The effects are subtle but interesting, as the malted grain seems to impart a bit more fruitiness to the rye, while deepening the sweetness of the wheat. Both are non-chill filtered and aged for at least five years.
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Barrell Rye 003
There’s so much rye to choose from these days, as this spirits category has gotten more and more popular over the past decade. One of the best releases to hit the shelves in 2020 came from Barrell Bourbon, masters of sourcing and blending standout barrels of whiskey from around the world. This third batch included whiskey aged from four to 14 years distilled in Tennessee, Indiana, Canada, and Poland. Yep, Polish rye—not likely your go-to whiskey. At a cask strength of 116.7 proof, it is not overly hot, and the notes of spice, fruit, and brown sugar make this rye shine above many others, both distilled and sourced.
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Old Overholt 11-Year-Old
Admittedly, this was a hard one to include for a simple reason. What makes Old Overholt, a rye whiskey distilled by Jim Beam, so good is that it’s cheap and easy to drink, with a mash bill that contains just over 51 percent rye instead of 95 percent or higher. Last summer, the entire lineup was given an overhaul, raising the proof of the classic from 80 to 86 and discontinuing the chill filtration process. This 11-year-old version also joined the family, in limited numbers and at a higher price, and it’s delicious. Longtime fans who are familiar with Old Overholt as a workhorse cocktail rye will definitely enjoy sipping this mature, more refined version of what they’ve known for so long.
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Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Founder’s Collection Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Louisville’s Rabbit Hole Distillery hasn’t actually released any of the whiskey being made there, since it’s still aging in warehouses until fully mature. In the meantime, it’s been contract distilling bourbon and rye whiskeys. This first release in the Founder’s Collection series is an older, stronger version of the distillery’s Boxergrail Rye. The whiskey was aged for six years and bottled at cask strength of 114.6 proof from a mash bill of 95 percent rye and five percent malted rye. This is another whiskey with a price that might make you roll your eyes, but the flavor is undeniably excellent, with deep caramel and orange notes, and a nice dose of heat and spice. Overall, it is an exceedingly well-balanced rye whiskey.
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Virgil Kaine Ribbon-Rail Rye
Virgil Kaine is located in South Carolina, but it sources its whiskey from Indiana rye powerhouse MGP. The latest offering from the brand is a blend of two different whiskies that have been given a special finish: a four-year-old double barrel rye and a five-year-old straight rye, finished in chocolate malted porter barrels from Revelry Brewing. This last step has added rich cocoa and coffee notes to the mix, along with a bit of sweetness, fruitiness, and nuttiness. The result is a unique sipping rye, and one that would probably make a delicious Manhattan as well.
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The Macallan Double Cask 18
If you love sherry cask-matured scotch whisky, you are most likely already a fan of the Macallan. The distillery added a 12-year-old version of its Double Cask expression, aged in sherry-seasoned American and European oak, a few years ago. This past year the lineup was extended to both 15- and 18-year-old versions. The 18 in particular stands out, a perfect blend of honey, oak, spice, vanilla, and dried fruit that coats the palate as you sip. Yes, it’s the priciest one of the lot, but you won’t be disappointed with this exceptional single malt.
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Highland Park Cask Strength
Why drink cask strength whiskey? It’s not really about the higher proof, although that’s definitely a factor (and something you should pay close attention to so you don’t overdo it). It’s really because the whiskey hasn’t been watered down, allowing you to lower the ABV yourself (if you wish to), and therefore experience a breadth of flavors you would not find in an 80- or 90-proof version. I was excited to see this first cask strength release from Highland Park, a distillery that expertly balances soft notes of peat with spice and fruit from sherry cask maturation. At 63.3 percent ABV, it’s strong stuff, but brimming with character and flavor that ensure it a place on my shelf for a long time.
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Midleton Method and Madness
Most people drink Jameson or Redbreast or Powers and have no idea that they all come from the same distillery, the charming and immense Midleton just outside of Cork in Ireland. A few years ago I visited a smaller experimental distillery within the distillery, and now there are a couple of whiskey releases available that were produced in this micro-operation. The two I sampled were: a single pot still whiskey matured in sherry and bourbon casks, and finished in chestnut casks, with light citrus notes and faint balsa wood on the palate; and a single grain whiskey matured in bourbon barrels and finished in virgin Spanish oak, a delicious sipper that combines notes of grape, vanilla, and espresso beans. If you need further proof that Irish whiskey continues to be an exciting category, look no further.
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Dublin Liberties Murder Lane 13 Year Old Single Malt
This little Dublin distillery is busy at work making whiskey on its own stills, but for the time being it’s releasing some tasty sourced single malts that are finished in a variety of cask types. The 13-year-old, ominously called Murder Lane after an old alleyway where many reportedly met their maker in days of yore, was finished in Tokaji wine-seasoned casks from Hungary. This brings a gentle sweetness to the already fruity and floral spirit. Interestingly, another excellent option from across the sea in Scotland also used Tokaji wine casks in its construction, Glenmorangie’s A Tale of Cake. But surely the Irish would say they did it first.
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Tequila Ocho Barrel Select
Tequila Ocho is already an intriguing tequila brand, focusing on the concept of terroir in tequila by releasing single estate bottlings that are made from agave grown on one farm. Now, the brand has collaborated with cognac and rum house Maison Ferrand on this series of three tequila expressions, each finished in different cask types. Tropical is an añejo aged in rum casks from Fiji, Trinidad, and Panama; Continental was aged in Cognac Ferrand Ambré casks; and Transatlantic is an añejo that brings both worlds together by aging in rum and cognac casks. Across the board, the expressions bring sweet and fruity notes to the earthy, peppery, vanilla character at the core of these fine tequilas, making them altogether unique and quite fun to try one after the other.
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It’s relatively common for rum to be distilled and aged in two different countries before being blended together and perhaps aged further. But Equiano takes this to extremes, combining rum made at the renowned Barbados distillery Foursquare with rum made at Gray’s Distillery in Mauritius, linking together two different sides of the Atlantic. No color or sugar is added to this deep, rich rum, which was aged in cognac and bourbon casks. Go ahead and make a killer rum Old Fashioned, or just pour some over a large ice cube and enjoy the bursts of brown sugar, banana, and toasted oak that leap forth.
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Boulard VSOP Rye Cask Finish
Calvados doesn’t get much respect here in the U.S., but this French apple brandy is often a flavorful and intriguing sipper, one that works well in cocktails. The first entry in Boulard’s 12 Barrel Collection is this VSOP Calvados that was finished in American rye whiskey casks after initial maturation. This imparts notes of baking spice, fig, and raisin into the apple, lemon, and vanilla palate. Other releases in the collection will include finishes in “wheat casks” (wheated whiskey, I assume), bourbon casks, and Japanese Mizunara oak casks.
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Tamworth Garden VSOP Apple Brandy
Now that we’ve covered traditional French Calvados, let’s swing back to the States to talk about this amazing apple brandy from Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire. (Side note: What didn’t make this list was Deerslayer, a recently launched whiskey from the distillery literally flavored with venison, which is a weird and interesting spirit to taste.) This apple brandy, made in the style of Calvados, has been commanding my attention as a lovely spirit that any whiskey fan should try. Obviously, it’s not whiskey, but bottled-in-bond brandy distilled from heirloom Cortland apples. Tamworth is really pushing American craft brandy to a higher level.
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What do you do when you are forced out of your wildly successful rye whiskey company, and left with loads of money and time to start another spirits venture? Why, you turn to armagnac, of course. Raj Bhakta, founder of WhistlePig, has spent a lot of time thinking about cognac’s less popular sister spirit over the past few years, and this has turned out to be a good thing. Long story short, he procured a bunch of old vintages from farmer-producers in France and finished them in Islay whisky casks to add a boost of flavor and smoke into the already potent spirit. Bhakta 50 is expensive at $250 a bottle, but the argument is that it’s actually kind of reasonably priced considering the age of the liquid. The most recent news I’ve heard is that Raj is bringing an armagnac still to Vermont to start making his own spirit, so stay tuned for more.
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Source : Esquire