Every couple of months, when I've accumulated enough bottles of new and noteworthy spirits, I write them up in round-up pieces like this one. Sometimes they'll include a lot of the same type of spirits with the same general vibe, in roughly the same price range. But my favorite round-ups are the ones like this, where there's something for just about everyone except teetotalers. You'll find an $18 rum and a $4,500 single malt Scotch. Cask strength bourbon and flavored vodka. Japanese grain whisky and malt whiskey made in Kentucky. What do they all have in common? Well, whether you want your booze in a Lalique crystal decanter or you just want something good to put in the punch at your next frat party, they're all well made, they all taste good, and they'll all get you drunk. What more could an educated imbiber want?
ANGEL'S ENVY CASK STRENGTH BOURBON (61.5% alcohol by volume, aged up to 8 years, $150). Angel's Envy was the brainchild of legendary distiller Lincoln Henderson, who as the master distiller of Brown-Forman helped develop Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel's Single Barrel, to name just two, before coming out of retirement to craft this wildly acclaimed port pipe-finished beauty a few years ago. The rich, dark-fruit flavors of the port take Angel's Envy to a whole 'nother level, and make it distinctive from any other bourbon; one sip and you know exactly what you're tasting. The second, limited edition Cask Strength batch (the first was voted "Best Spirit In The World" last year by F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal) is Henderson's final legacy; he died in September, just before it hit at retail. And what a legacy it is. With no water added before bottling, it's like standard Angel's Envy, only bigger, rounder, fuller, and more intense. Only 350 cases of Cask Strength are going on the market, and if last year's batch is any indication, it'll be gone in the blink of an eye, so get on it fast.
CABO DIABLO COFFEE LIQUEUR (35% ABV, not aged, $23). I was planning to load up this review with digs at Sammy Hagar, the founder of Cabo Wabo Tequila (which also makes Cabo Diablo) and the second best singer in Van Halen. So I was saddened to learn that Mr. Hagar sold his share of Cabo Wabo a few years back. But I still can't help thinking that Cabo Diablo, a coffee liqueur with Cabo Wabo blanco tequila as a spirit base, is a lot like Sammy's big solo hit, "I Can't Drive 55." It's not the most sophisticated thing in the world, and it's not particularly original (Patron's inferior XO Cafe has been around for a while). But it's fun and it goes down easy, and there's nothing wrong with that. Since Cabo Diablo is a liqueur, it's obviously pretty sweet, so the chocolate, vanilla and hazelnut notes you'll find in many coffees are accentuated while the bitterness is toned way down. The tequila takes a while to hit, but it comes in on the back end with a nice little bite. It's a pleasant after-dinner drink chilled, and it makes for a hell of a boozy milkshake as well. The only other thing you need to get the party started is a little Van Halen cranking in the background... the David Lee Roth-era tracks, of course.
CAMUS FAMILY LEGACY COGNAC (40.8% ABV, age not stated, $1,300). I could tell you that the lastest expression from the good folks at Camus is blended with five different crus: Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bon Bois, Fin Bois and famous Borderies, using eight distinct steps to achieve the perfect blend. In fact, I did just tell you that. But hey, I'm not really a cognac guy, so such talk doesn't impress me. I can, however, tell you that I didn't realize how amazing cognac can be until I tried Camus' fabulous Cliffside Cellar bottling, which made the proverbial scales fall from my taste buds and helped me realize that there's more to this stuff than the big name brands had led me to think over the years. So while I could copy and paste some techy talk about Family Legacy, I'll just tell you that I love it. It's rich and vibrant and fruity, with luscious orange and apple notes, some vanilla and caramel, and just the right amount of spice on the back end. If you're a fan of dry, woody cognacs this may not be your thing, but for anyone else it should be a sheer joy. Yes, it will set you back a pretty penny, but it's housed in a swanky crystal decanter which you can keep long after the cognac is gone.
CROP ORGANIC SPICED PUMPKIN VODKA (35% ABV, not aged, $30). Whenever I drink Crop's flavored vodkas, I get to thinking, hmmm, maybe I am a flavored vodka fan after all. Then I try some other brands and I realize it's just that Crop is head and shoulders above the rest -- try a vodka-tini or a Bloody Mary with Crop's tomato and/or cucumber vodkas and see if you're not convinced. Spiced Pumpkin is the fourth in Crop's line of flavored vodkas, and along with maple it's the most overplayed flavor of the autumn. But if you're only going to get one pumpkin-flavored spirit this fall (and frankly, I hope you wouldn't consider buying too many more in the first place), this is the one to get. Taken neat, it starts out a wee bit on the sweet side before finishing with a warm, dying-embers glow. But of course, who drinks this stuff neat? On the rocks, it's delicious, the essence of pumpkin with hints of baking spices without the weird chemical notes that plague so many lesser flavored vodkas. And it makes a tremendous boozy milkshake -- like pumpkin pie with whipped cream in a glass. Perfect for Thanksgiving.
GLEN GARIOCH VIRGIN OAK SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY (48% ABV, age not stated, $110). If you know your single malts, you know that the vast majority of them are aged, for the most part, in American oak barrels that have been previously used one time to age bourbon (also known as "ex-bourbon barrels"). And if you know your Scotch distillers, you know they're always thinking about how to tinker with the tried-and-true formula to create something new and exciting using only malted barley, water, yeast and wood. The new offering from Glen Garioch is an interesting one, among the few aged from start to finish in virgin oak, untouched by bourbon or any other booze. And there's a reason for it, too; virgin oak is a hell of a flavor delivery system, so much so that it can easily overwhelm a whisky's natural flavors. Glen Garioch is naturally big and full-bodied, so it can stand up to the wood. The wood gets in its licks, though, imparting massive notes of vanilla and ginger spice, along with buttery caramel and of course oak. A fascinating whisky that's worth picking up before the thousand or so bottles available in the US have disappeared.
HUDSON MAPLE CASK RYE WHISKEY (46% ABV, aged less than 4 years, $40/375ml bottle). It seems like about 473 maple flavored whiskeys, give or take a few, have hit liquor store shelves this year. And while some are better than others, they all taste like, well, whiskey with maple flavoring added. Which is all well and good, but I've never understood why anyone drinks flavored whiskey over the real, unadulterated stuff. I mean, do you go around pouring maple syrup into your Michter's to make it taste better?
But Hudson's Maple Cask rye... now this is different. It's not whiskey with maple flavoring added after the fact. It's good ol' rye whiskey which has been finished in barrels previously used to age maple syrup. So while you get the maple flavor, it's much more natural and organic -- you don't think maple flavored whiskey. It's a bold, spicy rye with sweet, smooth notes of maple on the finish. Woodford Reserve did something similar a few years ago with an astoundingly good limited edition bourbon finished in maple casks. It's long gone now, and if you can even find a bottle it'll cost you a pretty penny. Maple Cask Rye is the next best thing, and it won't break the bank.
LOCK STOCK & BARREL STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY (50.65% ABV, aged 13 years, $119). Robert Cooper is best known as the guy who invented St-Germain elderflower liqueur, the era-defining spirit that went from zero to ubiquitous in Boozeville seemingly overnight a few years ago. But apparently Cooper's real passion lay in the harder stuff, notably rye whiskey. He recently released Hochstadter's Slow & Low, a rock & rye (basically an Old Fashioned in a glass, with rye whiskey, rock candy syrup and citrus flavors) that's a whole lot of fun. And now comes Lock Stock & Barrel. Sourced from rare and old stocks of 100% rye aged in new charred American oak barrels from Canada's Alberta Distilleries Limited and aged for 13 years, this is a big, big whiskey, with notes of caramel, grain and tobacco, plus a whole lot of the peppery spice for which rye whiskey is known. At more than 100 proof, Lock Stock & Barrel isn't for the faint of heart -- nor, at almost $120 a bottle, is it for the light of wallet. But the packaging (an elegant black bottle featuring a label with raised lettering, housed in a handsome wooden box) is nothing to sneeze at. And neither is the liquid inside the bottle.
THE MACALLAN "M" SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY (44.7% ABV, age not stated, $4,500). A big deal is being made about the Lalique crystal decanters which house the Macallan's latest top-of-the-line whisky, and of course a big deal is being made about the extravagant price tag. Yet it seems like surprisingly little attention is being paid to the whisky itself. M -- the most hoity-toity of the Macallan's new no-age-statement 1824 line -- was selected from seven of the rarest casks from the Macallan's stock of over 195,000 casks it currently has maturing, the oldest dating back to the 1940s (I've heard anywhere from '40 to '49). All the casks were previously used to age sherry, so of course M has that rich, deep, dense dark fruit vibe that's classic Macallan through and through. It's ridiculously smooth and buttery, with a finish so soft you'll hardly even realize you've swallowed it. Flavors of clove and cinnamon and raisins linger on the tongue for a good long while, and once it fades you'll be going back to that Lalique decanter for another dram. If you're the kind of boozehound who pays $4,500 for a bottle of whisky, jump on it now -- or pay more at auction next year, as only 1,750 bottles are available worldwide.
NIKKA COFFEY GRAIN WHISKY (45% ABV, age not stated, $70). You've tried grain whisky plenty of times even if you don't know it by name; it comprises the lion's share of most blended whiskies. It's made from various grains, usually corn, and it's distilled in a column still instead of a pot still. The result is a spirit that's high in alcohol and usually low on flavor; it's why single malts are generally so much more distinctive than blends, and it's why you'll rarely see a grain whisky bottled and marketed as such. Which is why it's so cool to see Nikka, a maker of Japanese malt and blended whiskies, releasing a grain whisky Stateside. Coffey Grain doesn't taste like a malt whisky, even Nikka's own -- it's very light and rather sweet thanks to the corn in the mashbill. Vanilla and melon notes up front segue into a spicy finish which tastes halfway between whisky and vodka. It may lack the gravitas of a malt whisky, but it's really quite pleasant and well-balanced. A great change of pace and a nice addition to any whisky shelf.
PENNY BLUE XO SINGLE ESTATE MAURITIAN RUM (44.1% ABV, age not stated, $80). Rum fans (of whom I count myself as one) argue that a fine sipping rum is as complex in its own way as a whiskey. Penny Blue, named after a misprinted 19th century Mauritian postage stamp that is now among the rarest and most valuable in the world, takes the comparison to the next level. Aged for an average of seven years in American whiskey, French Cognac and Scotch whisky barrels, the rum comes on sweet, all vanilla and coconut and brown sugar and a hint of citrus. But at mid-palate it's like a switch flips. The rum's mouthfeel thins out a bit and the sweet notes suddenly turn dry, oaky, spicy... whiskey-like, for lack of a better word. I prefer my rums a little richer and more viscous, but if you find most rums to be too sweet and cloying, then Penny Blue is one to try.
PLANTATION ORIGINAL DARK RUM (40% ABV, aged up to 10.5 years, $18). The world is filled with overpriced so-called "superpremium" booze (hello, Grey Goose!). But this is one of the only times I can remember thinking a spirit is underpriced. Plantation sources rums from all over the Caribbean and then finishes them in used cognac casks -- in Cognac, France, no less. Original Dark, from Trinidad, is aged 3-5 years before being married with an 8 year old rum in cognac casks for another 12-18 months. It's got a velvety butterscotch and caramel nose, with a lot of chocolate, toffee, and a fair amount of tannin on the palate. It's a good sipper, but it's intended for use in cocktails, and that's where it really shines. Its rich, dry flavors stand up very nicely to the sweet mixers and tart lime juice used in most rum drinks; it makes a stunning mai tai. I can't figure out why Original Dark is priced so low, but at less than $20 it's a hell of a bargain.
WOODFORD RESERVE STRAIGHT MALT WHISKEY & CLASSIC MALT WHISKEY (45.2% ABV, age not stated, $100 each). American malt whiskey -- meaning, in layman's terms, Scotch-styled whisky made in America -- is a work in progress. I've tasted a bunch of them, and some of them seem like they may be really good with a little more aging and refinement but aren't quite "there" yet. Even Corsair's Triple Smoke, the most acclaimed American malt whiskey to date, didn't really do it for me (although their Quinoa Whiskey knocks me out). But Woodford Reserve have come closest to hitting it out of the park with its new malt whiskey.
For the latest version of their annual "Master's Collection" series, distiller Chris Morris and the Woodford crew took 100% malted barley (no age statement, though I've heard that it's 9 years old -- young for a single malt, but whiskey ages faster in the more temperate climes of Kentucky) and aged it two ways. One batch ("Straight Malt") was aged in new charred American oak, the same as bourbon; the other ("Classic Malt") was aged in once-used bourbon barrels, the same as most Scotch whiskies. The difference is stunning. The light gold Classic Malt is packed with vanilla and spice, while a few drops of water bring out pear and apple notes, as well as stronger Scotch-like notes of barley. The amber Straight Malt is richer, with lots of chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, cinnamon... and just a hint of the barley from which it's distilled. Neither of them will make me forget my favorite Scotch whiskies... but they prove that American whiskey is a whole 'nother animal, and a worthy beast to boot.