If you like drinking, you couldn't be living in a better time. Every month brings more fantastic new spirits on the market, more first-rate bars opening in more cities, more exciting distilleries launching. If you have to find a cloud in the silver lining, it's that we're not magically growing more liver cells to process all the deliciousness. And for a booze writer -- this booze writer, at least -- it becomes harder to squeeze in a mention of everything alcoholic that has brought him pleasure through the year. So think of this as a clearinghouse of sorts, a shout-out to some of the great people, places and drinks I've experienced over the last year and haven't had a chance to praise. And after reading it, of course, go out and drink/experience them yourself -- I'm sure they'll still be swell in 2014. Happy New Year!
Favorite Liqueur: Barrow's Intense Ginger. I encountered Barrow's a few months ago at a boozy function, and to be honest, I wasn't thrilled. I've had a rarely-touched bottle of Domaine de Canton, the only ginger liqueur most of us have heard of, gathering dust behind my bar for a few years now. Fortunately, I had a taste of the Barrow's before dismissing it, and was duly blown away. Despite the implications of the name, it's not overwhelmingly spicy, but it is the very essence of ginger, thanks no doubt to the vast amount of the stuff that distiller John Morton uses in its creation. He also uses pure cane sugar, but sparingly enough so that the finished product doesn't make your teeth ache, unlike so many liqueurs. Made in Brooklyn, Barrow's makes a great digestif, soothing the stomach after a big meal, and it goes great in cocktails too. You can even add it to club soda for a refreshing boozy ginger ale.
Favorite Music To Drink Tiki Cocktails To: Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica, Where Here Meets There. Kitsch this ain't. Yes, the Orchestrotica, led by ridiculously talented vibraphonist/percussionist Brian "Mr. Ho" O'Neill, are a little reminiscent of exotica masters Les Baxter and Martin Denny. But there's a lot more going on here than "Quiet Village" rehashes. On Where Here Meets There, this sophisticated four-piece outfit performs complex, evocative originals, and they put a totally original jungle-fied spin on Gershwin's Piano Preludes. Put on some headphones and really concentrate and you can really hear the classical, jazz and "third stream" influences that pop up throughout the record. But if that's not your bag, you can put it on in the background, whip up a Mai Tai or a Zombie, and all of a sudden your living room is magically transformed into the House of Bamboo. Mood music for 21st century armchair globetrotters.
Favorite NYC Bars: Dead Rabbit, Mayahuel, Flatiron Room. As the father of a three-year-old, I don't get to go out nearly as often as I'd like. But when I do go imbibing, I never tire of these three places. The Dead Rabbit is an incredible portal back to 19th century Irish-run NYC without being some sort of Disney-typed cocktail theme park; the drinks and the service really are astounding, and the Irish coffee is simply mind-blowing. It almost makes me wish I lived nearer the financial district.
The Flatiron Room on West 26th has a tremendous selection of American and Scotch whiskies, some very fine cocktails, excellent eats, the amazing whisky sommelier Heather Greene, and even live music ranging from hot jazz to bluegrass, in a very comfy room that never feels overcrowded even when it's at capacity.
As my mezcal obsession grew, I found myself at Mayahuel more than at any other bar this year (with the exception of the late lamented Beagle on Ave. A). Phil Ward's mezcal mecca provides ample opportunity to worship at the altar of agave, both in cocktail and flight form, plus truly excellent Mexican food that tastes delicious when you're sober and even more delicious if you've had a couple of Mexi-Gin Martinis or Tapachulas.
Favorite Ridiculously Expensive Spirits: The Macallan Masters Of Photography Collection ($2,425); Michter's Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey ($4,000). Booze, bells and whistles! The Masters of Photography series is an annual affair which pairs some of the Macallan's rarest whiskies with photographic interpretations of the booze by some of the world's most iconic photographers. This year's lensman, the legendary Elliott Erwitt (how legendary? Check this out), traveled around Scotland to put together an absolutely stunning book of original photographs, which are only available with an equally stunning batch of malts from the Macallan's vaults, 58 in all. Your two grand-and-change will score you 375 ml of one of those 58, plus a copy of the book and one of 35 different prints, signed by Mr. Erwitt himself.
Michter's Celebration, limited to 273 bottles worldwide, is one of the most expensive American whiskeys ever released, if not the most expensive. In addition to gold-embossed labels and a beautiful, elaborate wood and leather box, you get some incredibly rare sour mash whiskey (so called because it doesn't necessarily follow the guidelines to be called either bourbon or rye), aged up to 30 years and personally selected by Michter's master distiller Willie Pratt. As expected from whiskey this old, you'll taste a lot of wood and leather and spice, but it's also rich with vanilla, honey and dark fruits. Rich, robust and elegant, it's a whiskey that's meant to be drunk, not collected, although if you can't bear to open your bottle there are supposedly shots available at select watering holes for about $350 a pop. And if you can't afford a bottle or a shot, Michter's US-1 Sour Mash is excellent compensation, at a mere $50 a bottle.
Favorite Event/Pretty Much Favorite Thing In The World: WhiskyFest. Imagine walking into an enormous ballroom filled with dozens of whiskies of all kinds, from the fanciest Scotch single malts to moonshine from the latest Brooklyn startup, and being able to try every single one -- many of them with the distillers on hand to walk you through a tasting. Throw in an enormous buffet and an ample supply of water to keep you going for the duration and you've pretty much got heaven on earth, or as I like to call it, WhiskyFest. But wait, it gets better! There's also a day-long "seminar," which is WhiskyFest slang for a guided tasting of some of the rarest and most astounding whiskies you'll ever try, hosted by some of the industry's most illustrious names. Interested in a 1973 Ardbeg? Or maybe the Balvenie's "Offspring" (a hybrid of 1980, '82 and '86 vintages)? If you weren't at WhiskyFest, you were out of luck, as those two plus several others were bottled in a one-time limited edition of exactly twelve, just for WhiskyFest.
Seriously, if you like whisky and don't mind feeling like hell for a few days after (that's my typical recovery time, anyway), there is no better event on earth than WhiskyFest, which is put on every year by the fine folks at Whisky Advocate magazine. Chicago, San Francisco and New York will be graced with the Fest's presence in 2014; make sure you're at one of them, at least.
Favorite Spirit On Whose Bandwagon I Shamelessly Jumped: Mezcal. Mezcal -- tequila's smoky, funky, badass cousin -- has been the spirit of choice among next-big-thing seekers for a few years now, but 2013 was the year I finally got the hint. I spent a good chunk of the year rhapsodizing to the uneducated about mezcal's earthy, vegetal, unrefined flavor. And I spent another chunk of '13 actually drinking the stuff. One of these days I'll actually get around to writing about some of my favorite brands (I'm talking about you, Del Maguey and Pier de Almas!). Until then, if you run into me at a bar or booze event, do yourself a favor and don't mention mezcal in my presence.
Favorite Now-Discontinued Spirit: Johnnie Walker Green Label. Blended whiskies are generally made up of a bunch of different malt whiskies (including those fancy single malts we all love) plus grain whisky, a lighter, more thoroughly distilled animal that's halfway between whisky and vodka. That grain whisky, which accounts for the lion's share of most blends, is why blends are both smoother and less distinctive than most single malts.
However, there are also blended malts (also known as vatted malts) which are simply blends of single malts, sans grain whisky. It's a more expensive proposition, to be sure, but the results can be tremendous. Johnnie Walker's Green Label -- a blend of four single malts, including Talisker and Caol Ila, which have been aged for at least 15 years -- is one of my favorite blended malts. It's a beautiful combination of smoke, honeyed sweetness and a little peat, the best of all Scotch whisky worlds in one glass. Sadly, Johnnie Walker has revamped its line over the last year or two, and Green Label got the axe in the process. There's still plenty of it in circulation at reasonable prices, so hightail it over to your local Likker Barn and snap it up while you can. And if it's already gone, grab a bottle of Monkey Shoulder, another brilliant blended malt.
Spirit I Wish I'd Had Something To Say About This Year: Beefeater London Dry Gin. From cruddy dives to swanky gin palaces, you'll find Beefeater behind every bar. And you can do fancier or more artisanal, but you can't do much better. Beefeater is my go-to brand, the platonic ideal of what a gin should be -- dry, a little spicy, a little herbal, a little citric, but with juniper always proudly at the forefront, as the good Lord intended gin to be. Beefeater is perfect in virtually any cocktail that calls for London Dry gin. Beefeater has launched a few new expressions over the last several years, but the classic is still the best. The problem is that since it's so ubiquitous, it's been around for so long, and anyone who cares about gin knows what it tastes like, I've rarely found the opportunity to write about it. Until now. (Honorary mention goes to Tanqueray, another classic brand which makes a simply stellar gin & tonic and has a simply stellar brand ambassador, the charming and convivial Angus Winchester.)