Back in early December, when I first started thinking about writing this year-end wrap-up, I thought that 2011 was a pretty blah year for new spirits, especially compared to 2010, when a month didn't go by without at least one or two spectacular brands debuting in bars and on liquor store shelves. But my attitude quickly changed once I discovered how hard it was to narrow down all the newly-released booze I've tried this year to a mere ten brands. And that doesn't even count all the newbies that I somehow missed out on (Angel's Envy bourbon, you WILL be mine in 2012!)
In the end, I simply couldn't decide among the dozens of worthy spirits that first met taste buds in 2011, so I included another five "honorable mentions." Every one of them is worth trying, and I'll bet dollars to daiquiris that at least a couple of them will nudge aside your favorite brands in your liquor cabinet. And as always, feel free to weigh in with your own favorite new releases from the last calendar year.
10. BOLS BARREL-AGED GENEVER (Holland; 42% ABV, aged 18 months, $50). I'm not a huge genever fan, but with this barrel-aged gem, Bols has converted me. Genever is the Dutch forefather of the English gins we're familiar with today, but wood aging makes this version a lot closer to whiskey. In fact, my favorite way to use it is as a bourbon substitute in a Manhattan. It's a little sweet, a little malty, ridiculously smooth, and unlike many of the young bourbons which it resembles, doesn't have an alcoholic burn. It's also worth trying in a Martinez, the antecedent of the martini, which originally called for "Holland gin" -- or, in other words, genever.
9. 9. DRAMBUIE 15 LIQUEUR (Scotland; 43% ABV, aged 15 years, $56). I've always been a fan of Drambuie. The venerable brand, a combo of honey, herbs, spices and Scotch whisky, has been around for more than a century, so I know I'm not alone. But whether or not Drambuie is your thing -- even if you don't like liqueurs in general -- Drambuie 15 is worth a taste, or several. The difference is that they've replaced their normal blend of Highland and Speyside whiskies with higher-end 15-year-old Speysides, and they've also toned down the sweetness. So while this is still a Scotch-based liqueur, it's less liqueur and more Scotch. It's rich, smooth, sweet without being cloying, and it's got a ridiculously high alcohol content (86 proof) for a liqueur. As far as liqueurs go, this is the complete package.
8. BRUGAL 1888 RUM (Dominican Republic; aged 5-14 years, 40% ABV, $50). I've enjoyed Brugal for years as a mixing rum, but this new beauty, created to commemorate the year the company was founded, is designed for sipping -- and it's a sip to remember. This big, robust rum isn't for the faint-hearted, the lily-livered, or the weak-kneed. It's dark and very rich, with lots of chocolate, coffee, licorice and dark fruit notes, and a thick, luscious mouth feel. Its power and complexity make this a great rum for whiskey lovers. And of course, if you're a rum lover, it doesn't get much better, especially for the price -- a very reasonable $50 a bottle.
7. GRAND MARNIER QUINTESSENCE LIQUEUR (France; aged up to 60 years, 40% ABV, $800). Even the most ostentatious one-percenter wouldn't dream of using this orange liqueur in a margarita -- at least I hope not. Grand Marnier has always been a cut above triple secs and other orange liqueurs because of its cognac base, which gives it a unique complexity. Quintessence takes Grand Marnier to a whole 'nuther level by using some of its rarest and oldest cognacs going back to 1906, as well as a unique double maceration process to create the orange essence. The result is a deeper orange flavor, a richer, more velvety mouth feel, a more seamless blend of orange and cognac flavors... really, it's about as close to perfect as a liqueur can get. Only 2,000 bottles were produced, and since 1906 cognac is in limited supply, I don't foresee a second run.
6. HIGH WEST DOUBLE RYE! (Utah: 46% ABV, aged 2-16 years, $32). High West, its proprietor, David Perkins, and distiller Brendan Coyle are constantly coming up with new and exciting ways to make whiskey. One of the best they've come up with so far is Double Rye! -- exclamation point included, and rightfully so. It's a combination of a young rye (2 years old) with high rye content and an older one (16 years old) with more corn in the mash. The result is powerful and spicy, thanks to the young rye, but smooth and mellow thanks to the older whiskey. Lots of cinnamon, cocoa, anise and fruit notes combine with rye's familiar peppery spice and a touch of bourbon-y vanilla to create a rye that's unlike any I've ever tried, and better than the vast majority of them.
5. PIERRE-FERRAND 1840 ORIGINAL FORMULA COGNAC (France; 45% ABV, age not stated, $45). They don't make cognac like this anymore -- or at least they didn't until Pierre-Ferrand, working with cocktail historian David Wondrich, recreated it. Working from a well-preserved original bottle of the stuff dating back to 1840 (hence the name), this is not your standard 21st century cognac. 170 years ago, you see, cognacs were lighter, fruitier, and generally had more pizazz than their stodgy, wood-heavy modern counterparts. 1840 Original Formula works great in cocktails (try it in a julep instead of bourbon, or a Sazerac in place of rye), or on its own in a snifter. Either way, you'll never think of cognac the same way again.
4. AUCHENTOSHAN 1999 BORDEAUX CASK MATURED SCOTCH WHISKY (58% ABV; aged 11 years, $60). Here's something new for Scotch lovers - a whisky that's been aged from start to finish -- 11 years -- in used red wine casks of French Limousin oak, rather than the standard American bourbon barrels. The blend of the wine's rich, dark fruit flavors and the whisky's traditional vanilla and malt notes, along with pronounced woody undertones, make for a Eureka-type "your chocolate is in my peanut butter"-type revelation on first taste, and every sip thereafter. At 58% alcohol, it benefits from a few drops of water, which release more caramel and honey flavors and mute the alcoholic heat a bit. Even the color of the whisky, a vivid reddish amber, is stunning. Auchentoshan isn't a household name even among Scotch fans, but based on this bottling alone, it should be. (And Scotch fans, take note -- only a few hundred bottles made it into the States).
3. NO. 3 LONDON DRY GIN (England; 46% ABV, $40). For most of the millennium, one new gin after another has come down the pike proudly trumpeting how it doesn't taste like... well, like gin. Whether it's flavored with elderflower or orange or lemongrass or cucumber or what have you, the goal seems to be to mask gin's dominant juniper flavor with something a little "easier." Which is one reason why I love this new, simple, classic London Dry so much. Another reason, of course, is the taste. This gin is the essence of simplicity, using only three fruits and three spices to get its clean, robust flavor. You'll taste all six, but juniper is at the fore -- as it's supposed to be. No. 3 London Dry makes a world-class martini or gin and tonic, and it's also lovely on the rocks with a twist of lime. This is gin the way it ought to be -- and the bottle itself is as beautiful as the spirit inside it.
2. MACKINLAY'S "SHACKLETON" RARE OLD HIGHLAND MALT SCOTCH WHISKY (47.3% ABV, aged 8-30 years, $180). I feel like I've written about this Scotch ad nauseam since I first heard about it several months back. But a whisky that's this delicious, with a story this interesting, well, it makes me want to shout about it from the rooftops. In a nutshell, this is a faithful recreation of a century-old Scotch that was entombed in the Antarctic permafrost from 1909, when the famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left it there in the wake of his failed expedition to the South Pole, until last year, when it was excavated by distillers Whyte & Mackay. I haven't tasted the original (though I'm up for a dram if Whyte & Mackay still have some handy!), so I can't say just how faithful the recreation is. But it is damned good -- quite light and grassy with a lot of earth and mineral notes, becoming more sweet and honeyed with the addition of a couple of drops of water. It's a little pricey, but worth every penny -- and sure to become more valuable once the limited edition of 50,000 is sold out.
1. KNOB CREEK SINGLE BARREL RESERVE BOURBON (Kentucky; 60% alcohol by volume, aged 9 years, suggested retail price $40). Knob Creek isn't my favorite bourbon out there, but it's definitely my favorite that's easily found in liquor stores and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Its huge, bold, slightly untamed flavor makes it brilliant in cocktails, especially Manhattans. This is a whiskey that didn't need to be improved. But somehow, with Single Barrel Reserve, it has been. It comes from the same mashbill as the standard small-batch Knob Creek, and it's aged for the same amount of time, nine years. But the flavors, while similar -- lots of caramel, vanilla, pepper/cinnamon spice and a distinctive nuttiness -- blend a wee bit more smoothly, and the result is a whiskey that's as good for sipping as it is for mixing. It's hard to believe that Single Barrel Reserve is 120 proof (as opposed to 100 proof for the Small Batch), because it goes down so easy, even without water. Dangerous... and deliciously so.
DON JULIO AñEJO CLARO TEQUILA (Jalisco, Mexico; aged 18 months, 40% ABV, $70). Aged in wood and then charcoal-filtered, this is a fascinating hybrid of sophisticated añejo and vibrant blanco.
HIGH WEST SILVER OMG PURE RYE (Utah; not aged, 49.3% ABV, $37). The High West crew are such geniuses that they even do wonders with un-aged "white dog" whiskeys, which I'm not generally fond of. This one is made in the style of 19th century Pennsylvania ryes -- clean, sweet without being cloying, and it has a terrific malty finish that tempers the "wham" of the alcohol.
JOHNNIE WALKER DOUBLE BLACK (Blend, 40% ABV, no age stated, $40). With soft, sweet flavors unfolding into a powerful, smoky finish, this is a one of the best blended whiskies I've ever tried. Even single-malt snobs can love this one.
RON DE JEREMY RUM (Panama; aged 7 years, 40% alcohol by volume [ABV], $36). Of course a rum named after a porn star has the inevitable kitsch factor, but this bad boy would have just as much mojo if it were named after Art Linkletter. Dry and woody, with just a touch of vanilla/butterscotch sweetness, it's a rum for lovers of both fine spirits and adult entertainment.
THE VODKA BY RANSOM (Oregon; 40% ABV, $25). Saints be praised, a vodka that actually has some flavor! (Thanks to the triple-distilled white dog corn whiskey that's put back in during the distilling process.) Too bad it doesn't seem to be available anywhere, to the best of my knowledge.
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