Yesterday, it was 18 degrees when I took my daughter to school. This morning, it was 12 degrees. Tomorrow I don't have to take her to school... because Mother Nature's about to crap on us again with another 6-10 inches of snow to add to the mounds of gray slush frozen solid into ice mountains on every street corner in Manhattan. There's technically five or so weeks of winter left, but I can't take it anymore. I'm waving the white flag, crying uncle, begging for mercy. In other words, giving up.
What does any of this have to do with spirits, liquor, alcohol or the hard stuff? Well, I've decided that the best way to deal with the polar vortex in all its soul and extremity-numbing fury is to drink my way through it. And fortunately, I've got a whole bunch of exciting new spirits to keep me company while it's too cold to venture outdoors. If you live somewhere that's also had its ass kicked by winter, then you'd do well to have at least a couple of these by your side for the duration as well. Whiskey, vodka, rum, mezcal... there's something here for every kind of imbiber. And if you're lucky enough to live somewhere warm -- or at least not snot-freezing cold -- they're worth a try as well. Here's to keeping warm the old-fashioned way!
AO VODKA (40 percent alcohol by volume, suggested retail price $50). I'm a vodka agnostic -- not a big fan of the stuff, but I do fancy the occasional chilled shot and vodkatini. So I was intrigued to try this new rice-based vodka from Japan, which is the new spirits hotbed of the planet thanks in part to Suntory, which sells Ao. Now, the whole point of vodka is to distill it and redistill it until you've pretty much cooked out most of what makes it distinctive. So does it taste much different than, say, wheat or potato-based vodkas? Well, yeah, sort of. It's quite clean, with a little sweetness that definitely tastes ricey (rice-ish?) to me -- not unlike sake, in fact -- and a glass-smooth finish. It's not going to revolutionize the category, but on the rare occasions I'm in the mood for a vodkatini, Ao will be one of my go-to brands.
CARPANO BIANCO VERMOUTH (14.9 percent ABV, $25). Carpano Antica is my go-to sweet vermouth because for cocktails it's almost idiot-proof. I wouldn't put myself in the idiotic category when it comes to mixing drinks, but a Rhodes scholar I ain't. Anyway, put Carpano Antica in any drink that calls for the stuff and it'll almost inevitably come out pretty tasty. Needless to say, when I heard Carpano's dry vermouth, Carpano Bianco, was coming to the U.S., I was pretty excited. A whole new set of idiot-proof cocktails! Well, it turns out that Bianco is not quite as infallible as Antica. Its white wine base is fortified with a whole bunch of botanicals, including coriander, thyme and artemisia, and very slightly sweetened. The result is a light, citrusy and rather floral vermouth that doesn't work with gins with similar flavor profiles, like Hendrick's. But put it in a bold, juniper-forward London Dry like Beefeater or one of my favorites, No. 3, and you've got a martini made in heaven. It's also quite tasty on its own, chilled or with an ice cube or two. Although in these Arctic conditions, a summery drink like vermouth on the rocks may not be quite the thing you're looking for. In which case, stick with martinis until the temperature hits 50.
COCKSPUR OVERPROOF RUM (65 percent ABV, $24). In the States, folks love their cask strength whiskeys, but "overproof" rums, as they're known, seem to be relegated to tiki drinks or flaming desserts (or, for that matter, flaming tiki drinks). In the Caribbean, however, it's another story. Overproof rum is what the locals drink, and they don't need to submerge it in a bunch of fruit juices and fancy syrups -- they like it for the taste. Cockspur Overproof is the new offering from the venerable Barbadian distillery, and it's... strong. But there's a lot more to it than just alcohol. The nose smells hot, to be sure, but you also get a strong whiff of banana. The palate is so jammed with lush tropical fruit flavors that you'll be calling out for sunscreen after a couple of shots. You also might be calling for a cab or a designated driver, because, damn, this stuff can get to you in a hurry. Only the finish is hot -- you can tame the fire with a bit of water, but I think it's best unadulterated, when the flavor comes on loud and proud.
COLLINGWOOD 21 YEAR OLD RYE CANADIAN WHISKY (40 percent ABV, aged 21 years, $70). Canadian whisky has gotten a bad rap over the years, much of it deservedly so. The bland, boring blended stuff our parents and grandparents drank was the antithesis of the big, powerful and distinctive whiskies today's drinkers go for. But of course a lot of American rye whiskey comes from rye grown, and sometimes even distilled, in Canada. And as of late the Canadians themselves have started to come around to the idea that the stuff they make should have a bit of backbone to it. Case in point -- this here one-score-and-one year old rye. Laid down in 1991 in Collingwood's Ontario distillery, this baby was finished in barrels made from Canadian maplewood, which gives the spicy rye a smooth, slightly sweet veneer. This whisky has character -- granted, it's a more genteel character than many crash-boom-bam American ryes, but still, this is an easy sipper that won't give you a case of the blahs. It's a one-time only release at a damn good price (if it came from the USA I guarantee it would cost twice as much), so snap it up while you can.
CUTTY SARK PROHIBITION EDITION BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY (50 percent ABV, no age statement, $30). I've never been a fan of standard Cutty Sark, which I find rather light and bland even for a blended whisky. But in recent months they've realy upped their game, first with the super-premium Tam O'Shanter bottling and now with this much more affordable homage to 1920s-style blends. The opaque black bottle is a throwback to the type of packaging used during Prohibition, when Captain William McCoy would smuggle Cutty Sark by boat into speakeasies up and down the Eastern seaboard. (Interestingly, Cutty Prohibition is the second spirit to pay homage to Captain McCoy, after The Real McCoy rum.) I don't know how the style of the spirit itself compares to Prohibition-era Scotch, but it's mighty fine. There's no provenance for the whiskies used in the blend, but given the sweet honey and vanilla flavors, you can bet that they're mostly from Speyside. It's bottled at 100 proof, giving it a bit more oomph than most blends, but it's still sweet and smooth and lovely to drink straight, with some water or in cocktails. And at $30 a bottle, it's an absolute steal. If you don't think you like blends, try this one on for size and you just might change your mind.
EL SILENCIO MEZCAL (40 percent ABV, not aged, $80). The thing I've seen mentioned most about El Silencio is that the name and the label were inspired by a David Lynch movie. Which didn't exactly get me all stoked to try the stuff, especially since I'd never even seen the movie in question. Mezcal is the hipster spirit du jour, but unlike its sibling tequila (which is also distilled from the agave plant), it's got a smoky, funky flavor that's definitely not for everyone. So I expected a watered-down version of the real thing. Boy, was I wrong. This sucker packs some serious smoke, some major earthiness, some intense vegetal funk. If you're a novice or not a bigtime mezcal fan, El Silencio might prove overwhelming. If you love the stuff, El Silencio is to mezcal what Laphroaig is to Scotch whisky -- not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle it, you'll be rewarded in spades.
GLENMORANGIE COMPANTA HIGHLAND SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY (46% ABV, no age statement, $99). French wine and Scotch whisky are two of life's great potable pleasures. And now you can get them both in a glass without having to mix a cocktail, thanks to Glenmorangie's latest entry in its Private Edition series. Plenty of single malts are finished in port pipes (also known as casks), and indeed, Companta is extra-matured in fortified wine casks from Cotes du Rhone. But Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart are also used, giving it a bolder, drier flavor than many port-finished whiskies. The reddish-amber color makes Companta one of the nicest looking whiskies around, and on the palate it doesn't disappoint -- mingling with Glenmorangie's distinctive zesty sweetness are hints of orange, dark fruits like cherries, and a bit of brown sugar. I don't think I've ever tried a Glenmorangie expression that isn't excellent, but this is one of the best. And it's a limited edition, so grab one (or two, if you're a hoarder like me) while you can.
MAISON LEBLON RESERVA ESPECIAL CACHAÇA (40 percent ABV, aged two years, $30/375ml bottle). If your local watering hole only stocks one brand of cachaça -- and many bars only do have one, if that -- chances are it'll be Leblon. The headway it's made in America is due to marketing dollars, not necessarily the quality of the spirit, but compared to the handful of other brands I've tried it's certainly not bad. Like rum, cachaça is a sugar-based spirit, though it's made from sugarcane juice rather than molasses, which gives it more in common with rhum agricole than your standard rum. Un-aged cachaça is pretty intense stuff; compared to standard white rum it's like standing Janis Joplin next to Norah Jones. But Maison Leblon has been tamed by two years in French Limousin oak barrels, which takes away a lot of the fire and replaces it with sweet vanilla notes followed by a dry grassiness that takes the flavor of rhums agricole to the next level. It's delicious neat, on the rocks or in cocktails (try it instead of whiskey in an Old Fashioned). It's cachaça in evening wear, but hey, what's wrong with that?
SOYOMBO SUPER PREMIUM MONGOLIAN VODKA (40 percent ABV, $30). Hey, if vodka can come from Japan, why not Mongolia? Distilled on the site of the last Emperor's palace in Ulaanbaatar, the country's capital, this wheat-based vodka is made using water from an 800,000 year old source, then distilled and filtered over five days through charcoal, quartz, silver and diamonds. Finally, a unicorn whose mane is made of golden threads spits into the bottle, and it's ready to roll. OK, so the unicorn stuff isn't true, but the rest of it is straight from the press release. Can you taste all that... Mongolian-ness? Well, not really, but it's a very pleasant vodka, quite soft and rather silky on the palate with some grain flavor and a moderate peppery kick on the back end. Chilled or in a vodka-tini, it makes for very fine quaffing. And it's even finer if you're telling the stories about the 800,000 year old water and the diamond filtering and, especially, the unicorn while you're quaffing it.
300 JOULES CINNAMON INFUSION LIQUEUR (13.4 percent ABV, $25). Used to be professionals sporting a midlife crisis and a rebellious streak would form bands (the most embarrassing of which is this one). Nowadays, they're likely as not to form distilleries. And that's OK... as long as the product is a good one. And 300 Joules, started up by a New Jersey cardiologist with a dream and some time on his hands, is a damn good one. Their Ginger Infusion and Lemon Infusion have been knocking my socks off for a few months; Cinnamon Infusion is the latest addition to the lineup, and it's the biggest sock-knocker-offer of the bunch. It's thick and creamy, and best served straight out of the freezer, where the flavors get focused and intensified and the texture makes it taste almost like a boozy milkshake. It's sweet, of course -- think cinnamon sugar, but with the warm tingle of the cinnamon emphasized and the sugar downplayed. 300 Joules may be low proof, but it's so easy to drink that you may find yourself plastered in short order regardless.