In a year whose biggest surprise was more of the same, the following bottles stood out for bringing forth flavors that felt refreshingly new.
By Brad Japhe || December 16, 2021
There was no shortage of new spirit to sip through in 2021. As a professional in the space, I keep a running tabulation of all liquids I’m introduced to throughout the year. With only a few weeks left on the calendar, that number has raced past the 200 mark. There’s a dual edge to that sort of density; While it’s undoubtedly an exciting time to be a consumer of craft liquor, it’s a daunting time for producers to find meaningful separation. Too much gets lost on the shelf—or is simply forgotten—shortly after release.
Meaningful innovation is the only remedy. And an increasing number of brands are finding it through genre-bending—placing a primacy on flavor above a commitment to the traditions of any time-honored category.
Scotch is now being aged in mezcal barrels. Tequila is taking shape in orange wine casks. Destilado de Agave—Mexican spirit hailing from outside the sanctioned dominion of either mezcal or tequila—is emerging as a sought-after alternative. Juniper has faded from centerstage in many popular gins of the day, and many are maturing in oak, blurring the lines between these new expressions and herbal-forward whiskies and aquavits. A growing band of “spirits” contain no alcohol, at all.
Contemporary connoisseurs, for their part, are showing a willingness to experiment as never before. Their initial question is evolving from “What is it?” to “How does it taste?”
In service of that shift, we’ve shaped this year’s list of best new spirits not by style or category, but by fundamental flavor. Your very own tasting menu of tipples ensures that what you’re pouring is never boring.
Siete Misterios Espadin Mezcal
Although espadin is the most commonly used variety of agave in mezcal making, this particular offering is radically outside the norm. It flaunts a funky, umami-like nose that lands on the palate with a push of porcini mushrooms and aged parmesan. These unexpected characteristics are owed to ancestral production techniques; the agave is mashed by hand, fermented in wooden vats, and distilled in clay pots, much the same way it has been done in Oaxaca for centuries. The Mexican brand behind it launched in 2010 but just started entering more U.S. shelves recently, following a distribution deal with Chatham Imports, the company behind Michter’s Distillery.
The Macallan Harmony Collection Rich Cacao
Though there is no actual chocolate product in this single malt, the box that holds the bottle is constructed fully from recycled cacao pod husks, a thematic through line that Polly Logan—the brand’s first female whisky maker—continues in the non-age-statement scotch. The blend combines elements of European as well as American oak sherry casks, hand-pulled for exhibiting a particularly desert-y element. When brought together, the result does indeed call to mind dark confection. Namely: cocoa powder, cinnamon, and chocolate flour cake in a sustained finish.
Sông Cái Dry Gin
Vietnam’s first-ever gin brand has a backstory as fascinating as the liquid itself. The company was founded in 2018 by Daniel Ngyuen, a Vietnamese American distiller who moved to the country to develop sustainable agriculture along the Mekong River Delta. Today he works with more than 70 families from the region to make his gin, contracting them to preserve and forage native botanicals and heirloom grains. These ingredients form the backbone of a spice-forward liquid that hums with turmeric, pepper, and a scent of dried grapefruit.
Non-alcoholic offerings are suddenly everywhere. But this botanical blast out of Los Angeles is markedly livelier than the rest: Each serving holds 3.5mg of psychoactive THC, along with 3.5 mg CBD, and 3.5 mg Delta-8. (So yes, you will get buzzed.) Distiller Morgan McLachlan wanted to approach such cannabis-derived terpenes as limonene and eucalyptol as mere herbal flavor enhancements to go along with sumac, sorrel, mint, and rosemary— standouts of the 14 botanicals used in the recipe. It’s like sipping a garden in a glass, an experience currently available only in California.
Tamworth Skiklubben Aquavit
While the previous entry steers toward spring, this annual release out of New Hampshire is pure winter. It’s even named in honor of the oldest ski club in the country, founded not far from the distillery back in the late 1800s. Until recently aquavit was a category of spirit seldom seen outside Scandinavia. Tamworth is helping to broaden its stateside appeal by adding carrot and parsnip. Those root vegetables round out the caraway that still serves as the liquid’s primary flavor driver. (As with juniper in gin, to be an aquavit, the grain-neutral spirit must be distilled with either caraway or dill.) Also present are hints of clove and cardamom arriving before a slightly woody finish, which will likely appeal to whiskey fans who opt to drink it neat.
Mars Komagatake x Chichibu Malt Duo 2021
Blended malts have become commonplace in Scotland, where distilleries have been trading casks for centuries. But when Mars Shinshu and Chichibu exchanged distillates back in 2015, it was nothing short of revolutionary—a first in the modern era of Japanese whisky production. Enthusiasts ought to appreciate that audacity, as it resulted in one of the more interesting releases of 2021: a 110-proof palate pleaser with initial elements of brown sugar and Manuka honey. They both cede ground to tobacco spice in a sustained fade. Enjoy it while it lasts. Less than 1,200 bottles were shipped here in total.
Flor de Caña 130th Anniversary Rum
As the name implies, this 2021 bottling was released to commemorate the Nicaraguan brand’s 130th birthday. The fifth-generation rum purveyor, still going strong, here offers a rich, robust dram destined for after-dinner revelry. Its full body presents toasted hazelnut and roasted chestnut before creme brûlée and bananas Foster. Finally it fades with a lasting image of vanilla bean in the rear view.
Benriach Smoke Season Scotch
Peated scotch is typically associated with the Hebridean isle of Islay. In introducing the element to its Speyside liquid, Benriach is arriving at something altogether different. Unlike the medicinal, iodine-like notes that characterize the Islay stuff, this non-age-statement single malt is more about campfire smoke. There’s a touch of barbecue tanginess on the tongue, but it is counterbalanced by a creamy caramel undertone. You can thank time spent in unused American oak for that.
Hangar 1 Smoke Point Vodka
A good vodka for a great cause, Smoke Point is produced from Napa Valley merlot and malbec that was tainted by the region’s devastating 2020 fires. Rather than waste the juice, this Alameda, Calif.-based operation took it to the stills, where it was rendered into a largely neutral spirit. It’s not nearly as smoky as the name might have you believe, but is slightly laminated in licorice and butterscotch. It holds up as that most unlikely of liquor outlier: a sipping vodka. Proceeds from sales benefit the California Fire Foundation that provides economic relief for firefighters and their families.
El Tesoro Mundial Collection: The Laphroaig Edition
This añejo tequila spent its first nine months of aging in ex-bourbon barrels before a four-month finish in casks formerly reserved for Laphroaig 10-year- old single malt whisky. It represents the inaugural release of an ongoing series in which El Tesoro master distiller Carlos Camarena will experiment with a global assortment of pre-seasoned cooperage—and no, that famed Laphroaig peatiness doesn’t mean that this tequila now tastes like a mezcal. Here you’ll enjoy an alluring combination of maple barbecue and salted, cured bacon. Through it all, the earthiness of the agave holds true.
Sugar Monk Amari Akhenaten
This New York-based amari maker weaves rich tapestries of flavor, colored by esoteric herbs, spices, and other organic additives in its inventive renditions of the classic Italian herbal liqueur. Akhenaten incorporates more than 40 of them—tree bark, cumin, cedar, eucalyptus, basil and myrrh, to name but a few. Although bartenders could have a field day working the roasty, minty tonalities present here into high-minded cocktails, they’re compelling enough to approach neat or atop a solitary cube of ice. A bonus: 25% of all proceeds from this bottling go to the Harlem School of the Arts at the Herb Alpert Center.
Parker’s Heritage 11-Year-Old Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey
As opposed to bourbon, which requires a predominance of corn, this autumn 2021 release is built on a mashbill of 51% wheat. The shift in grain is just enough to imbue the liquid with a pleasant creaminess, reminiscent of sugared egg whites. Riding above the base is honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Despite a potentially intimidating alcohol by volume (ABV) of 61%, this copper-colored stunner remains eminently approachable.
Appleton Estate Hearts Collection 1995 Rum
For fans of funky Jamaican rum, it gets no better than this. The 25-year-old expression awakens your nose with pungent aromas of petrol and rubber cement. If you hunt hogo as avidly as me, you’re already licking your lips. But the sip is even more of a sensory overload. On the tongue, the typical over-ripened tropical fruit of a liquid with this provenance is redirected by way of candied orange and sour cherries. A tickle of high-octane heat wanes in its wake.
Old Forester Single Barrel Rye
This big, bold, unapologetic expression of the eponymous grain comes as a surprise, given that much of the premium category has been obsessing over ever-more-experimental barrel finishings. Master Taster Jackie Zykan positions the limited release as the closest you’ll get to drinking rye straight out of the barrelhouse. It comes from one of just 75 casks, which she hand- selected and bottled without dilution earlier this year. The one I tasted was 127 proof and yet lacked the heat you might expect from such a monster of a whiskey. After it opens for a minute in the glass, it offers roast and toast. And while the front palate might pick out some brown sugar sweetness, it’s all about dill, caraway, and cracked pepper once it finishes—a deli counter in liquid form. Pastrami and mustard sold separately.
Frapin VIP XO Cognac
The latest XO offering from Cognac Frapin is an ode to the complexity of the category. Built upon grapes from the Grande Champagne cru, its elegance is immediately evident through a floral, almost perfume-like nose. Make sure to use a proper brandy snifter to prioritize that potpourri. And sip slowly, because hints of orchard fruit and fresh baked gingerbread unfurl forcefully as it oxidizes in the glass.
Town Branch Bourbon: Sherry Cask Finished
Yes, Town Branch is located in the heart of bourbon country, but the Lexington, Ky., craft operation takes many of its production cues from the world of scotch, particularly in its most recent release. The liquid was distilled in large copper pot stills far more integral to Old World offerings. After six years of maturation in unused American oak, it was re-racked into ex-Oloroso Sherry butts for a final year. What emerges is a deep and rich American whiskey with the nutty mouthfeel and dark fruit flavor of a well- aged Speyside single malt. Have your Christmas cake and drink it, too.