We take the guesswork out of buying booze, featuring rum, bourbon, whiskey, vodka and more.
Kings County Chocolate “Flavored” Whiskey, $35 for 375 mL
Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery is just a couple miles away from the Mast Brothers artisanal chocolate factory, so pairing their products was an obvious choice. An unaged whiskey made from New York-grown corn and infused with ground cacao husks, this is a strong and bitter spirit that tastes like midnight-dark chocolate.
Bully Boy Hub Punch, $29
In the late 1800s, a bottled rum punch based on a recipe from Boston’s Hub Hotel was all the rage in Beantown, but by the early 1900s, the stuff had pretty much disappeared completely. But it’s back, thanks to Bully Boy Distillers’ combo of barrel-aged rum and a secret mix of citrus, berries and herbs. Mix it with club soda, lemonade, iced tea or ginger ale for an instant cocktail.
Grand Poppy, $30
There are barely a handful of distilleries operating in Los Angeles proper, but one—Greenbar Craft Distillery—has the largest portfolio of organic spirits on the market, making a huge variety of whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, liqueurs and bitters. Grand Poppy is its take on a European-style aperitif, a bitter-and-sweet concoction flavored with poppies and a range of other California-grown botanicals. Try it with white wine, club soda or in place of Campari.
Pink Lightning, $29
The Santa Rita Hills just outside Santa Barbara may be known for pinot noir, but Ascendant Spirits (and its next-door neighbor Figueroa Mountain Brewing) is working to change that. This unique product is made from 100-percent-corn moonshine infused with locally grown strawberries. It’s remarkably smooth, with a nice real-fruit flavor that isn’t too sweet.
Charbay Blood Orange Flavored Vodka, $36
One of the oldest craft distilleries in the U.S., Northern California’s Charbay has some serious pedigree: Master distiller Marko Karasevic is the 13th generation of his family to make booze. All six of Charbay’s flavored vodkas use 100 percent real ingredients and no artificial flavors or extracts, but the blood orange is the real standout. It uses both fruit and peel for a taste that’s as true to an actual orange as you’ll find. It makes a gorgeous Cosmo.
Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO Brandy, $120
This stuff isn’t cognac, but that’s only because it’s not made in France. Besides being located in Ukiah, Calif., Germain-Robin does everything the great cognac houses do, distilling from high-quality wine grapes in a small still, and even aging in French-oak barrels. The distillery’s XO is a blend of 12 eaux-de-vie that age for more than a decade. It’s a sipper to savor after dinner.
Few Barrel Gin, $50
There’s been a rash of barrel-aged gins coming on the market in the last few years, and this one from just outside Chicago is among the best of the bunch. It really nails the balance between juniper-and-spice notes from the botanicals and vanilla-caramel essence from the oak, creating a spirit that’s pretty much halfway between a gin and a whiskey. Use it in cocktails calling for either one: It makes a beautiful Manhattan (well, Ginhattan, I guess) or a delicious Negroni.
Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon, $50
Named for the 19th-century buggy whips-and-corsets factory in Three Oaks, Mich., that now houses Journeyman Distillery, Featherbone is a promising young bourbon from an ambitious craft distiller. There’s only a little oak here, backed up by lots of grainy, nutty notes and a nice amount of spice and leather.
Garrison Brothers Fall 2013 Vintage Bourbon, $70
To make a consistent whiskey, distillers have to account for differences in weather conditions and grain harvests from year to year. Based in a speck on the central-Texas map called Hye, Garrison Brothers instead embraces those differences, releasing vintage-dated batches twice a year. This most recent bottling offers lots of spices, ranging from cinnamon and chile powder to vanilla.
Railean El Perico Silver, $29
Unless you live near Guadalajara, “local tequila” is a contradiction in terms: Tequila has to be made in specific parts of Mexico. That’s where this stuff comes in. It’s made from 100 percent blue agave, just like tequila, but it’s distilled in San Leon, Texas. The unaged El Perico Silver is a smooth and crisp, with that unmistakable agave bite. Use it in a Texas Margarita, or just pour shots.
Wild Roots Oregon Marionberry Vodka, $33
The latest addition to Portland’s burgeoning Distillery Row, Wild Roots uses more than a pound of berries per bottle for its fruit-infused vodkas. This one captures all the dark, earthy complexity of the beloved local marionberry, along with its tart sweetness. All that rich flavor screams out for bubbles; your best bet for a cocktail with this one involves club soda or sparkling wine.
Hedge Trimmer Gin, $26
Distillery/restaurant/watering hole Sun Liquor is a fixture of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, thanks largely to this tasty gin. It’s flavored with a pretty standard set of botanicals, plus rinds from Washington-grown watermelons, which gives it a unique vegetal undertone. Sun serves it with mint, lime, Angostura Bitters and ginger beer in a classic Gin-Gin Mule, and we can’t argue with that.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, $60
For the last few years, ex-pat Coloradans have been pining for this cult-favorite single malt distilled in Denver, as it could only be found in Colorado. Expanded production allowed the brand to roll out nationwide this fall, but that didn’t diminish its quality or amazing complexity at all. You’ll smell and taste coffee, tobacco, leather, honey, toffee and spice.
Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey, $45
Before Prohibition, when rye was hugely popular, there were two main regional styles: Pennsylvania (AKA Monongahela) rye was dry and spicy, while Maryland rye was more floral and fruity. This modern take on the latter from Denver showcases the softer side of rye, offering notes of strawberry, lavender and chocolate.
Bluecoat Gin, $28
Much as the Founding Fathers did, Philadelphia Distilling rebels against England with this all-American gin. It tweaks the juniper-heavy London dry style by adding a blend of organic citrus for a refreshing gin with a subtly earthy backbone. It’s different but not so crazy that it won’t still work well in classics like the Martini and Tom Collins.
Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky, $45
Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va., makes a single malt that’s absolutely nothing like Scotch. The barley is smoked with apple and cherry wood, giving the finished whisky a subtly fruity smoke on the nose and the palate. There are also other savory notes to be found, including olives, nuts and charred herbs, as well as apples and honey.
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, $40
The Tennessee whiskey category is dominated by Jack Daniel’s and the much smaller George Dickel, but for a taste of history, try this whiskey from a tiny distillery in Kelso, Tenn. As current distiller Phil Prichard’s great-great-great grandfather did in the early 1800s, he makes his whiskey from sugary white corn (most distilleries use starchier yellow), which gives the spirit an uncommonly sweet flavor.
Corsair Red Absinthe, $60
With stills in both Nashville and Bowling Green, Ky., Corsair Distillery is one of the most creative and influential craft distilleries in the nation. In fact, master distiller Darek Bell literally wrote the book on alternative whiskey styles. (It’s called Alt Whiskeys.) This unusual absinthe is no exception, adding citrus, tarragon and hibiscus (thus the red color) to the classic wormwood spirit. It has plenty of the traditional anise flavor, along with nice floral and tart essences.