Another year, another set of dozens of new bottlings for your intrepid spirits writer to taste through. Hey, it’s a tough job but someone has to do it. It’s a great time for the distilling business these days, with demand for spirits and cocktails growing across the board, and a variety of new craft distilleries continue to bloom across the globe. Here are my 10 favorite spirits that were either introduced or made their first U.S. appearance this year.
I know—half the list is whiskey. It was a good year for the brown stuff!
PEYCHAUD’S APERITIVO ($20)
Peychaud’s Bitters has always played second fiddle to its better-known cousin Angostura, but its unique anise-heavy flavor makes some amazing cocktails, like the Sazerac, possible. This new elixir reinvents the classic bitters as a low-proof liqueur you can simply sip over ice or mix into cocktails in larger quantities than just a few drops. Think of it a bit like Aperol: It’s a similar proof (heck, and similar color), and goes just as nicely with champagne in a Spritz.
GEM & BOLT MEZCAL ($49.99)
Created by a pair of mezcal-loving artists, Gem & Bolt infuses the spirit with damiana, an herb used in traditional medicine (and known as a supposed aphrodisiac) that’s often incorporated into liqueurs and agave-spirit cocktails in Mexico. So this is a flavored mezcal, but it’s not sweet, and it tastes good. The floral earthiness of the herb works nicely with the natural smokiness of the mezcal, making for a very cocktail-friendly spirit. It’s currently available in California, New York and Texas, and should be rolling out to more of the country in the coming year.
VIRGINIA BLACK AMERICAN WHISKEY ($35)
Drake’s a multi-talented guy: actor, rapper and, as of this summer, whiskey blender. He had a little help, though. The Canadian star teamed up with DeLeon Tequila creator Brent Hocking to create this bourbon, a mix of two, three, and four-year-old whiskies distilled in Indiana (the Virginia name has nothing to do with the state). It’s a surprisingly rich and smooth spirit for the price, good for sipping neat or mixing into classics like an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour. Unlike Drake’s relationships with Rihanna and Serena Williams, this one has staying power.
MARTELL BLUE SWIFT EAU DE VIE DE VIN ($50)
Legally, cognac may only be aged in French oak, which carries very different flavors than the American oak typically used to age whiskey. This groundbreaking spirit finished Martell’s excellent VSOP Cognac in Kentucky bourbon barrels, which gives it an intriguing set of caramel-vanilla notes (along with the unwieldy category name of eau de vie de vin). It turns out the combination of floral brandy and bourbon-barrel flavors makes for an excellent sipping spirit you’ll want to enjoy after any large meal.
PAUL JOHN EDITED SINGLE MALT WHISKY ($65)
No country in the world drinks more whiskey than India. The subcontinent consumes more than triple the whiskey than America does each year. They know their whiskey, and there’s a substantial set of domestic distilleries, but few of them export anything. Thankfully, that’s starting to change, and a few excellent local spirits are finding their way into the States. Paul John is a case in point: This fine single malt is produced in Goa, a tropical region on India’s west coast whose high temperatures make whiskey age faster than it would in Scotland or Kentucky. The Edited bottling is made using barley smoked with peat imported from Islay, giving it a mix of fruitiness and charred spice, like biting into a slice of peach fresh off the campfire.
MALFY GIN ($28)
Most people believe that gin has its origins in Holland or Belgium, but the makers of this newly imported spirit claim that monks in Italy were already combining spirits and juniper in the 11th century. That might or might not be true, but either way you should be glad this modern Italian gin is now being imported to the U.S. Thanks to the use of Amalfi Coast lemons, widely renowned as the world’s most flavorful, Malfy has a sunny brightness that can transport you to the Mediterranean coast with just a sip. It’s best used in a G&T—garnished with lemon instead of lime, of course.
BALLER SINGLE MALT WHISKEY ($65)
Northern California’s St. George Spirits has long been making a wide variety of spirits—from fruit brandies and absinthe to green chili vodka—but current master distiller Lance Winters’ true passion is single malt. This year, the spirits wizard came out with Baller, which he calls “a California take” on the Japanese spin on Scotch whisky. It’s a 100 percent malted-barley spirit, aged in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-French wine casks, then finished in barrels that held St. George’s house-made umeshu, a style of plum brandy popular in Japan. It offers a wonderful mix of peppery spice and fruit notes. With the prices of real Japanese whisky going through the roof, it’s a perfect alternative.
PLANTATION O.F.T.D. OVERPROOF RUM ($32)
Last year, Plantation made my best new spirits list with its pineapple-flavored rum, and this year the distillery’s done it again with its Old Fashioned Traditional Dark. Tiki-heads everywhere are losing their minds to this incredible rum, a deeply funky blend of aged bottlings from Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados that’s bottled at a staggering 138-proof. It’s still sippable despite the eye-watering alcohol content, but it’s of course at its best in a Mai Tai or other tropical classics. It has a strong pedigree in addition to its delicious taste: At Tales of the Cocktail 2015, a panel of seven eminent experts—including historian David Wondrich and tiki legends Martin Cate, “Beachbum” Berry and Paul McGee—started tasting the component rums that would become O.F.T.D.
NIKKA MIYAGIKYO SINGLE MALT WHISKY ($80)
If I’m gonna put an American imitation of a Japanese whisky on this list, there’d better be some of the real stuff, and here it is. Japan is the hottest country among whiskey-lovers in the last few years, with the most famous brands becoming nearly impossible to find. One of those brands is Nikka, which this year released new bottlings highlighting the terroir of its two distilleries: one in Yoichi, a chilly seaside town on Japan’s northernmost island, and the other in Miyagikyo, a more temperate river valley a couple hours north of Tokyo. The latter is a truly amazing spirit, with lots of red-fruit notes from aging in sherry barrels combined with a lovely roasty-toasty malt body.
LAGAVULIN 8 YEAR OLD SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY ($65)
In honor of its 200th anniversary, venerable Islay distillery Lagavulin put out two special new bottlings this year: a $1,200 25-year-old bottle that’s amazing but a bit out of reach for most normal humans, and then this tasty dram. Quite simply, it proves once and for all that older is not always better when it comes to whisky. Bottled much younger than most other single malts, Lagavulin 8 punches far above its weight, marrying a strong iodine-and-wood-smoke peatiness with sprightly fruit and citrus tones. It’s a near-perfect encapsulation of the Lagavulin house style.