While my life may not have much in common with Bilbo Baggins, my experiences in the spirits realm are much like his in Middle Earth: fruits of an unexpected journey. 2012, for me, was a year full of novelty, surprises, and sips that took my palate to unexpected places. As I think back of the best spirits I tried this year—for my review series and for extra-curricular 'research', it wasn't necessarily the smoothest bourbon or the smokiest Scotch that sprung to mind. It was the unique and the novel booze, the under-rated and the foreign, that truly made the year for me. Here are 6 of the year's standouts from where I'm sipping.
Style: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
Green Spot is the unicorn of the Irish whiskey world—rare, delicate, ethereal, and pure magic. I was finally able to track down a bottle in Killarney while on vacation last year, and anxiously awaited an occasion worthy of the whiskey. When the appropriate time finally arrived, I was simultaneously excited and anxious. Could the legend possibly live up to the hype? Had I missed my chance at transcendence by not downing the bottle on the emerald isle in a thick wool sweater under a rainbow while dancing with a leprechaun?
On the first sniff my worries evaporated on a gust of apples and honey. Fresh, fruity, impossibly smooth, with a hint of nuttiness from the sherry casks, it rolls over the tongue like liquid gold. Although not bold enough to stand up to a decadent dessert or a cigar, it's more of a ray of sunshine in a glass. It's distilled by the Irish Distillers for Mitchell & Sons, who have recently released Yellow Spot, Green Spot's 12 year old big brother, but the first batch sold out across Ireland. There's currently a strict limit of one bottle per customer at most online retailers, and no plans to distribute to the USA at this point, but if you're flying through Dublin keep your eyes peeled at the duty free—and pick me up a bottle, please!!
Style: Blended Whiskey: Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye
The newest release out of the constantly innovative High West Distillery is a frankenwhiskey of the highest order, blending three of our favorite styles of the dark liquor into one frighteningly consumable bottle. Campfire is completely unlike anything I've ever tried. At first sniff, there's the smoky, peated Scotch doing a jig with fresh green spicy rye notes, while the bourbon brings dark cherries and a touch of oakiness.
The wonderful thing about this whiskey is that it keeps shifting. One moment Scotch is on top with smoky malt, then the rye fights back with sharp spices and grassy notes, and all the while bourbon in the background with brown sugar and wood sweetness. Each sip is a new revelation, as one whiskey takes center stage the others recede and share the spotlight. Despite the fluidity, no one spirit dominates or speaks out of turn; it's a remarkably harmonious blend, and the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Quite simply, there's nothing else on the market that tastes like this, and it tastes good. Highly recommended if you're into brave new imbibing experiences.
Full review here.
Parker's Heritage Blend of Mashbills
Style: Blended Bourbon
This year's offering of the Parker's Heritage Collection (an annual limited release by Heaven Hill of hand-picked barrels by Parker himself) is a bold entry into mixing whiskeys. It's a blend of two different bourbon mashbills—one rye-based, and one wheated. Selected from 11 year old barrels, blended, and bottled at cask strength (a huge 132 proof) without chill filtering, it's a unique offering of what is in a sense a four-grain Kentucky Strength Bourbon Whiskey (corn, malted barley, rye, and wheat).
The nose is assertive and snappy, with cinnamon, oak, and baking spices prevailing. The sweetness of the corn and the softness of the wheat are held in check by the brash and spicy rye. On the palate, and with a fair dash of water, this is thick nectar. So chewy you'll think it's a caramel candy—this is where the blend of mashbills really shines. The sweetness of the corn and the softness of the wheat are held in check by the assertive and spicy rye. A wonderful new approach to blended America whiskey from a major distiller.
Full review here.
Style: American Single Malt Whiskey
Smoky, peaty whiskey only comes from Scotland, right? Wrong! Lost Spirits Distillery of Monterey, California, decided that the highlanders didn't own exclusive rights to peat. They've embarked on a journey of discovery to test the terroir of peat. Their Leviathian I is a peat monster—at 110 ppm, it's right up there with the bad boys of Islay. Using California-grown barley smoked over Canadian peat, aged in oak casks used to age late harvest Cabernet, it's a completely novel beast.
This is powerful stuff, but not as smoky as you would expect. Make no mistake, there is peat on the nose, but without the medicinal tang common in heavily-peated Scotch, it's earthier, muddier. There is also a swampy aroma mixed with dark berries that I found off-putting at first, but have come to crave. Once you taste this dark, dark whiskey, it's swirling campfire and dark chocolate, with malt sweetness and more of the berries from the Cabernet balancing and rounding out. Honestly, it's a bizarre profile, but I can't even get through writing this paragraph without wanting a dram. Pairs perfectly with gingerbread and a fire in the fireplace.
Style: American White Rum
Sometimes spirits sneak up on you through cocktails. For me, this summer was the year of the daiquiri, sipped ice cold on sweltering Brooklyn rooftops with nary a palm tree in sight. It's perhaps appropriate, then, that my love affair with Hemingway's drink featured a rum made far from Caribbean plantations and pirate ship wrecks. Made in Portland, Oregon, Bull Run Distilling Company's Pacific Rum is double-distilled from fermented organic cane juice before getting aged for at least four weeks in ex-bourbon barrels. It's distinctly different from its molasses-based relatives.
Pouring a very light straw color, the Pacific Rum smells sweetly grainy and sorghum-esque, but with banana bread dancing in the background. It's luxuriously soft and oily on the palate with a hint of sugar sweetness, definite oak, and cacao nibs. Overall, it's a wonderfully balanced white rum experience, more than worthy of a sipping snifter for those in the mood. And it's made me a daiquiri drinker for life.
Full review here.
Style: Japanese Single Malt Whiskey
Some spirits are made more memorable by the setting, some occasions more memorable by the tipple. In rare, wonderful moments, the two come together to make an unforgettable evening. Nikka's Yoichi 10 had been on my radar for quite some time as a standout of Japanese whisky achievement. Unfortunately, Nikka wasn't available in the US, so I had to wait for the appropriate opportunity in a country with more civilized liquor laws or pay 30 pounds in shipping, no thank you (there's some good news, though, for Japanese whisky lovers in the States—stay tuned for a Serious Drinks Japanese whiskey roundup covering some exciting new imports in January!)
When I found myself in a bar in Reykjavik on the first night of an Icelandic excursion, and the Yoichi 10 appeared on the drinks menu, AND my newly-met host was buying, well, the stars aligned. I don't remember every aspect of the evening in detail (ahem), but I scored a bottle at the duty free to bring home and remember snowy nights on that magical glacier/volcano island. The whisky lives up to the memory—it's a Japanese maritime malt from the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, lightly peated, delicately floral, and incredibly round and whole. Sophistication and class that you could sniff all night and remember all day.
Ok, enough about me. What were your favorite bottles of 2012? Which spirits (new and newly-discovered) impressed you this year?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Samples of Campfire, Parker's Heritage, and Pacific Rum were provided for review consideration.