Serious Eats: Drinks
Andrew Strenio's Top Ten Spirits of 2013
It's been a banner year in the spirits industry, with incredible new releases flowing fast and furious. After reviewing dozens for this site (and drinking even more beyond that), it's always difficult for me to choose favorites. Still, you're wondering what to seek out to tuck under the Christmas tree or order online as a gift to yourself, so I might as well try. Here are my top 10 spirits of the year, in no particular order.
Herradura Colección de la Casa, Port Cask Finish
The first in what is promised to be a series of annual releases of different cask-finished tequilas, this reposado from Herradura spends 11 months in medium-char American oak before finishing with 2 months in Douro Valley port casks. Bottled at 80 proof, it's a light straw color with a hint of darker golden, coppery ambitions. The aroma is intensely sawdusty, with salt, prickly pear, dried fruit, and a bit of sweetness hiding in the background.
And the flavor? It's lovely, round, and whole. There's a surprisingly sweet entry, progressing to a welcome agave bite. While massaging your tongue, it mellows out to plum, cinnamon, leather, and a sweet port-y undertone. Finishing long and warm, with no burn whatsoever, lingering oak and spices melt into chalky dark chocolate if you stick around for it. There are times where it tastes like a light highland Scotch, but in the end it's a spirit all of its own.
Laphroaig Triple Wood
Not entirely new this year, Laphroaig's Triple Wood made the jump from travel retail only to wide release this year, and in so doing secured a spot on the list. I've always had a soft spot for Laphroaig, and the Triple Wood (so named for its tripartite aging in ex-bourbon casks, small quarter casks, and finally Oloroso sherry casks) is no exception.
All of the trademark smokiness and iodine is here, but muted and filtered through oak and sherry prisms. The sherry particularly helps to round out the whisky, adding a fruity balance to the black pepper, brine, and peat that is as complicated as it is lovely.
This Tanqueray gin is both old and new—it's a re-release of a legendary spirit that helped jumpstart the modern cocktail movement—and it's easy to see why it's made the list. Grapefruit takes the lead, wrapped in a distinctly floral scent. The gin is soft and round, with prominent cinnamon and bubblegum flavors. It finishes clean and easy, almost leaving you wondering if you were drinking booze or rosewater.
Malacca really elevates the classic G&T to whole other level, creating an effortlessly amazing spiked citrus punch. It's a sip of history, and more balanced and sure of itself than many of its current imitators.
Angel's Envy Rye
Angel's Envy's entry into the world of rye is a deliciously successful experiment. Aged for six years in new charred American oak barrels, the rye is then finished in specially selected Caribbean rum barrels (which were themselves formerly cognac barrels). It's the first rye that's been given the rum treatment, and as a result it's a beast entirely unlike anything out there.
The scent is all spice, but not grassy, biting rye spices. Instead, it offers sweet baking spices—cloves, cinnamon, molasses—and maple syrup above all. The body is nicely chewy, and the dessert-rye hybrid keeps coming round again with gingerbread, molasses, maple, and only a hint of hot whiskey at the end.
It's clearly meant for sipping straight, but also uniquely suited for an amazing dessert-like twist on the Sazerac. Absolutely delicious.
Lock, Stock, and Barrel Rye
The latest release from Cooper Spirits, Lock, Stock, and Barrel has all of the stats for success. 13 years old, 100% Canadian rye, 101.3 proof, it's a whiskey with serious character. Sourced from Alberta Distillers, the aroma leaves no doubt that this is a world class rye. Aromas of spice, fruit, honey, caramel, and mint fairly explode out of the glass in a pleasantly aggressive way.
The flavor is similarly bold, yet balanced. It's quite spicy (no masking of the pure rye mashbill here), with loads of caramel balancing the winter spices, vanilla, and oak. It's huge stuff, and is equally as much fun on the rocks as it is neat. It just depends if you want an untamed or slightly more refined experience.
A mixture of whiskies aged in bourbon and Manzanilla sherry casks, this is my favorite Ardbeg to come out in some time. It strikes me as one of the more sherry-influenced Islay whiskies, and yet does a wonderful job of balancing out smoke, spice, and sweetness.
Earthy peat mixed with fruity sherry aromas draw you in, while typical Ardbeg campfire smoke and sea spray drifts from the glass. On drinking you'll find these flavors deepen and evolve, with an underlying caramel sweetness that ties together the oak, fruit, and smoke. Finishing long, complex, and satisfying, it's a thick and chewy dram that will stay with you all night.
Powers John's Lane
Crafted at the New Midleton Distillery, this is a single pot still Irish whiskey, aged at least 12 years. Aged predominately in first fill ex-bourbon casks, with a small amount of the spirit aged in Oloroso sherry butts, it's reminiscent of an unpeated, muscular Highland Scotch.
The aroma is snappy, with honey and spice notes competing with oily leather and charred wood, plus dark chocolate in the background. The whiskey is huge and chewy, and while it starts out quite spicy, vanilla and apricot round things out, and then sweet cereal grains bring balance, with loads of apples and fresh green fruit. It finishes long and warm, with charred wood and honey. Bottled at 92 proof, this is Irish whisky worth seeking out.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013 Release
The 12th yearly release in the annual series from Old Forester, this 2013 bottling is a 12 year old bourbon from barrels filled on a single day of production, and it's a remarkable effort. It's sweet, spicy, and complex, while at the same time dangerously drinkable.
Deep aromas of vanilla and well-seasoned oak jump out of the glass, supported by dark berries and chocolate. The flavor is incredibly well balanced, delivered with a wonderfully thick texture. Cinnamon and clove notes add complexity to the sweet vanilla base, with hints of walnuts and pistachios and even a bit of coconut rounding out the ensemble. Finishing long, rich, and warming, it's a challenge to get to the bottom of the glass because it somehow keeps getting refilled...Sadly, it may be hard to track down a bottle at this point. If you spot it anywhere, let us know!
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition: 125th Anniversary
Bottled at 110 proof, this beauty of a bourbon from Four Roses is simply a masterpiece. Vanilla and oak scents come through strong, with a hint of smoke and cherry. It offers a perfectly balanced body, managing to be creamy and rich yet dry and not syrupy. There's dried apricot, buttery maple, and a honeyed grain sweetness, culminating in a dry tobacco and sweet spice finish that lingers for minutes. Seriously, it's one of the longest lasting bourbon finishes I can remember.
This whiskey is smokier and a bit more wood-forward than past releases, but it's probably my favorite Four Roses yet, balancing aggressive spice and complex sweetness for an experience that gets better every time. Unfortunately, it looks like this limited bottling is already sold out.
Suntory Yamazaki 25
This standout Japanese Single Malt Whisky lists at around $1600 a bottle, but I was lucky enough to sample a glass at a press event earlier this year. Like all of Suntory's products, a fierce attention to detail echoes through the spirit. Aged in sherry casks , this is one of the darkest whiskies I've ever seen, pouring a deep glowing ruby/brown.
The aroma is exquisitely complex, full of ripe berries, citrus, and figs, with enough of an oaky undertone to balance. The taste is huge, soft, and buttery. Dried fruits, prunes, port-like flavors, and savory roasted coffee give the luscious body some backbone. Finishing slowly, the sweetness finally gives way to oak and pepper, continuously unfolding over the course of the evening. An utterly unique sherry and whisky lover's dream.
Find online at Hi-Time Wine Cellars.
What were some of your favorite spirits this year? Please share below in the comments.
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 as an independent producer in Brooklyn.
Tasting samples provided for review consideration.