The Best New Spirits of 2017
2017 was a banner year for new expressions in all liquor (and liqueur) categories. Distillers and blenders have been experimenting with oak finishes, herbal infusions, unusual spirit bases, flavor profiles, and even with color. And each new expression changes how you approach a Manhattan, martini, or margarita. The following selections represent just the tip of this year’s stellar, boozy iceberg. They certainly make great holiday gifts and hostess presents, but they’re equally appropriate as personal purchases, perfect for making a cocktail to enjoy fireside when you’re ready for a break from the festivities.
Gin Lane 1751 ‘Victoria’ Pink Gin ($24)
After almost two centuries with virtually no new gin distilleries, London is now overflowing with them—and that’s a great thing. Gin Lane 1751 is created at the Thames Distillery by distiller Charles Maxwell, along with Geoff Curley of the gin-focused Bloomsbury Club. The brand takes its name from a notorious print by artist William Hogarth. The 18th-century artwork—probably created in league with London’s brewers as a smear campaign against gin, which was wildly popular at the time—portrays the distilled spirit as the destruction of all that is good and moral. Of course, Curley and Maxwell look back on this reactionary moment and prod it with a juniper-fueled laugh.
Reaching back into history, the duo has recreated a popular sailor’s “pre-batched” drink: gin and bitters, or “pink gin.” Reportedly created in the early 1800s in Angostura, Venezuela, as a curative and restorative against malaria, the drink caught on for a while and then silently vanished. It reemerged in the past couple of years, though, when a number of distillers released pink gins of their own. Gin Lane’s version is infused with natural spiced bitters that create a rosé-tinted drink. Here you’ll find the classic London Dry-style, juniper-forward gin, softened just a hair with hints of allspice. It’s perfect for pouring over ice, but you can add soda and a couple dashes of Campari for an even softer, more refreshing drink.
Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend Blended Scotch ($30)
Producers in Scotland seem to have caught on to the growing market for innovative, approachable, and high-quality interpretations of traditional Scotch. The landscape has been changing for a few years now, and 2017 saw a number of releases (both blended and single malt) that broke the bonds of tradition.
Johnnie Walker’s Wine Cask Blend is the latest in a series of limited-edition Blenders’ Batch experimental whiskies (2016 saw the release of the popular Triple Grain American Oak). Combining malt and grain whiskies from around Scotland, and incorporating certain whiskies matured in wine casks, the blend is light and crisp, with a fruit-driven nose and palate, perfect for whisky-and-gingers and highballs. Aimée Gibson, who supervised this blend, says that it’s designed to appeal to both longtime Johnnie Walker fans, and “those who might previously have thought that whisky isn’t for them.”
FAIR Quinoa Vodka ($30)
At a recent seminar on cocktail trends during the World Class Bartender of the Year Finals, industry legend Dre Masso noted that “sustainable and reusable methods and ingredients are becoming increasingly important.” It’s a trend that’s picking up pace in the spirits industry, where gravity-fed distilleries, water recycling/reclamation, and other efforts to reduce waste and energy consumption are becoming increasingly commonplace.
In the case of FAIR, a French company, the emphasis is on fair trade, responsible sourcing, and ensuring that growers and field workers are appropriately compensated for their work (booze is, after all, initially an agricultural product, and much of the raw material is grown in some of the poorest parts of the world). Founder Alexandre Koiransky is a soft-spoken, affable guy who says he is dedicated to keeping his brands on the straight-and-narrow when it comes to product sourcing and working with local farmers.
But, because you don’t want to just drink a cause, Koiransky and his team also work hard to create high quality, highly enjoyable spirits and liqueurs. FAIR Quinoa Vodka, which was released briefly in the US several years ago (we wrote about it at the time), is finally getting a proper distribution this year. FAIR sources the earthy, gluten-free cereal from a co-op of over 1,200 independent farmers in Bolivia, and then brings the grains to France, where the vodka is distilled in a single-column run to preserve the character and richness of the quinoa. The first sip might surprise you (it’s not your usual odorless and flavorless vodka), but if you’ve developed a penchant for more complex spirits like gin and mezcal, the earthy, slightly funky notes of FAIR vodka will be encouraging. Rather than serving as an inert “filler” in cocktails, it enhances the drink and stands up to bolder ingredients like ginger beer and amaro.
Knob Creek 25th Anniversary Bourbon ($130)
25 years or so ago, the bourbon landscape at your local liquor store was dominated by two or three major labels, each with only one or two expressions. There were only a handful of “upstarts” (think Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, and Knob Creek, each of which are now considered mainstays) dragging the bourbon drinker somewhat reluctantly into new, upscale territory. Today, of course, there are scores of brands and hundreds of expressions greeting you when you walk into a bourbon-focused store or bar.
“My dad, Booker Noe, developed [Knob Creek] initially,” says Fred Noe, the face of Jim Beam distilling (and Beam’s great-grandson). He did so with the goal of reintroducing a bolder, pre-Prohibition style of bourbon than was common in 1992. Noe says that while his dad enjoyed big, uncut, and unfiltered whiskies, he wasn’t keen on the emerging trend for single-barrel bourbons. Fred was, and he introduced the concept to Knob Creek for special releases under the Single Barrel Reserve program. The 25th anniversary Single Barrel Kentucky straight bourbon is a marriage of the whiskey-making styles of both generations of Noes.
“25 is a cask-strength, 13-year, extra aged bourbon, bottled straight from the barrel,” says Fred Noe. “There’s no filtration, it’s as pure as it gets.” Since each bottle is drawn from a single barrel, and individual barrel ages range between 12 and 13 years, expect slight variations if you buy more than one (and you should). Our sample is a deep, vibrant amber and remains spicy and clean, despite the extra years in wood. Big notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak are balanced with nut and ripe fruit flavors. Noe recommends adding a bit of water to cut the strength and open up the aromatics. Pro-tip: It also pairs incredibly with a stuffed rolled pork loin (meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda keyed us into this one!). We’re betting BBQ would also play nicely.
Codigo 1530 Rosa Tequila ($60)
Pink seems to be the color of 2017; whether it’s the ongoing steamroller that is Millennial Pink, or a spate of rosy spirits, it’s everywhere. Enter Codigo’s Rosa Tequila. If you haven’t stumbled across the relatively new label, it represents the efforts of Federico “Fede” Vaughan, Ron Snyder (former CEO of Crocs Footwear), and country legend George Straight to bring the sort of Mexico-only tequilas that they love to market in the US. Before you pooh-pooh it as just another rich-guy vanity label, know that these three—all longtime residents of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico—take their agave spirits very seriously.
This past year saw the launch of Rosa, a unique blanco that gets an extra month of barrel-aging in uncharred white oak barrels previously used to hold Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wine. Unlike some earlier “pink” tequilas that relied on hibiscus essence to color the liquid, the wine-soaked wood adds to, rather than masks, the tequila’s natural flavor and aromas. The wine colors and softens the tequila, but doesn’t distract from the floral and vegetal agave. The final product is remarkably smooth on its own, but it also blends perfectly into vibrant Palomas and elegant margaritas when using clarified lime juice.
Grey Goose Vodka Interpreted by Alain Ducasse ($100)
How to bring a refreshing new vibe to Grey Goose without resorting to wacky flavorings? For cellar master Francois Thibault, the answer was to partner with renowned French chef Alain Ducasse. Ducasse is the brains behind Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, London, and Monaco, and boasts die-hard fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Goose is famously distilled from French winter wheat for a clean, slightly sweetened taste. This new limited-edition expression takes that same wheat and applies various levels of toasting. According to Thibault and Ducasse, the concept of increasing levels of toasting originated with Ducasse’s recent purchase of a cocoa roaster for his house-made chocolates, and the fact the restaurants roast their own coffees. Ducasse said he wanted the vodka to reflect the “gastronomique” character of contemporary French cooking, with an emphasis on complex, yet balanced, flavors.
Light, medium, and heavy toasting levels for the wheat each contribute subtle aromatic and flavor notes to the classic Grey Goose profile. Though it’s still vodka, you’ll get hints of toasted bread, vanilla, roasted nuts, chocolate, and coffee. Sure, it can go into a Moscow mule or martini, but consider putting it into drinks featuring more savory elements, with mixers like sherry, almond liqueur, or coffee.
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey ($27)
Rye continues to have its moment, so it’s not surprising that brands best known for their bourbons have released rye expressions in the past few years. Now, the flagship for Tennessee Whiskey has produced its own take on the increasingly popular brown spirit.
Unlike many of the sourced ryes on the market that rely on a shared formula of 95% rye / 5% malted barley from Indiana powerhouse distillery MGP, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye starts with a mash bill of 70% rye, 18% corn, and 12% malted barley (and a “homegrown” yeast) for a distinctive, slightly less spicy style (yes, the brand’s iconic limestone Cave Spring waters and charcoal filtering are used here as in the traditional whiskey). The company released an unaged version of its rye (essentially a white whiskey) back in 2012, then a higher-priced Single Barrel expression in 2016.
While fans of big, bold, spicy ryes might not see eye-to-eye with this expression, if you’re new to rye, or just looking for a little variation from much of what’s on the market, this is a great departure. The resulting juice is a bit mellower than other popular rye, with nutty-sweet hints from the corn. But you still finish with a nice long pepper-and-spice note. Even better? The price won’t break your wallet, so you can buy a back up.
El Tesoro 80th Anniversary Extra Aged Tequila ($200)
Arguably the first premium tequila to give Americans a taste of something beyond Jose Cuervo, back in the 1990s, El Tesoro and its distiller Carlos Camarena quickly drew praise from aficionados and helped usher in what would be the first craze for ultra-premium tequilas in the late ‘90s. Though the label’s “only” been around for 27 years, the Camarena family has been crafting tequila at their La Alteña distillery in Jalisco, Mexico, for 80 years (Carlos is the grandson of founder Don Felipe Camarena).
The 80th Anniversary edition is the brand’s longest-aged tequila at eight years (most extra añejos on the market come in at around three to five years). One of the elements that make El Tesoro particularly intriguing for fans is that, rather than coming off the still at 130 proof or more, to be then watered down (a common practice for most spirits), the core blanco tequila is distilled to 80 proof and bottled at proof, retaining more of the agave character and giving the tequila a “rustic” vibe. Since the 80th anniversary edition was going to sit in barrels (where alcohol often evaporates, becoming the “angel’s share”), Camarena and his team distilled slightly higher, at 85 proof, and bottled at 83.
The result is a gloriously complex, rich, and wonderfully sippable extra añejo. Notes of agave, green olive, oak, flowers, and light fresh tobacco greet the nose on first sniff. The palate is grassy and complex with hints of licorice, oak, and banana. The light golden color and crisp freshness might be a surprise since it spends eight years in the barrel, but the age is evident in its full-bodied roundness and long finish. Yes, it’s pricey, but you’re worth it: Only eight casks were produced, and you’ll find it difficult to share this wonderfully smooth sipper.
Little Book “The Easy” Blended Straight Whiskey ($80)
If you’ve ever enjoyed Fred Noe’s (see above) annual releases of Booker’s Bourbon, you’re familiar with the concept that the series changes slightly each year, with different barrel and aging techniques, different barrel strength proofs, and so on. Now Freddie Noe—Fred’s son—affectionately nicknamed “Little Book” by grandfather Booker, has launched his own annual series of whiskies, and what’s truly intriguing, for this noble Kentucky family, is that it’s not officially a bourbon.
That’s because Freddie has decided to put his name to a whiskey that blends Kentucky straight bourbon with whiskies that emphasize various grain components of a traditional bourbon mash, but are individually distilled: corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and malted barley. At the most recent WhiskyFest in New York, Freddie Noe hosted a seminar and walked attendees through the component whiskeys of the first release, “The Easy.” Here, four-year-old bourbon gets blended with 13-year corn, six-year high rye, and six-year 100% malted barley whiskey. Noe says he spent a great deal of time playing with the ratios to get exactly the flavor profile he wanted.
On the nose, it leads with caramel, oak, toast, and light fruity notes. On the mouth, the interplay of the various grain bills seems to provide a symphony of highlights: caramel and toasted oak evolve into the nuttiness of corn, the pepper of rye and the richness of the malted barley. This one is best on its own, over ice; or in an Old Fashioned, where the complexity of the spirit gets highlighted.
Kimo Sabe Mezcal ($30)
Officially, this mezcal hit the US last year, but it’s only now seeing broader distribution and getting attention. The packaging is playful and contemporary, and the company, founded by father/daughter team Jim Walsh and Ashely Walsh Kvamme, is trying to make the often smoky, heavy, “other agave spirit” more accessible and nightlife-friendly. At the same time, this isn’t simply a frivolous party booze. The team behind Kimo Sabe takes its mission seriously, and aims to put out a solid mezcal at a friendly price (they have the industry awards to back up their pride in the brand). They’re also serious about creating a brand that highlights environmental sustainability, working closely with the state of Zacatecas to create a program called Building Bridges With Mexico.
The Joven (young) expression, is a good “starter” mezcal: less smoky and intense than many brands, it’s closer to a tequila, but with the honey and chocolate notes of espadin agave. You’ll find smoke and muskiness, yes, but also a touch of pepper and citrus. It’s best paired with cocktails that feature rich tropical fruit juices and/or intense sweeteners like dark honey and agave nectar. This year, in addition to its Joven and Reposado expressions, the company launched an Añejo ($55) that’s aged 18 months in the American oak casks that previously held the Reposado. They also kicked off a luxe Colleccion de las Maravillas with a limited-edition expression called Cinco de Noviembre ($511 a bottle), which debuted at last spring’s Tales of the Cocktail.
One thing we can’t help with is the potentially cringeworthy name. Translated as “trusted friend” by the brand, the term—most commonly associated with The Lone Ranger’s trusty Native American sidekick Tonto—has a fuzzy etymological history: It may or may not have Native American roots in Ottowa, among the Apache or Yavapai of Arizona, or even among native peoples in northern Mexico. Or it may be an Americanization of Spanish words used by some tribes, or wholly made up by Americans.
Highland Park Full Volume Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($100)
It’s been a busy year for Highland Park, the bold single malt Scotch whisky label from the wild and windy islands of Orkney. Earlier this year they launched Magnus, an ode to the company’s moonshining spiritual founder, Magnus Eunson. Now comes Full Volume, a limited-edition rock-and-roll tribute to classic British guitar-driven bands.
Master whisky maker Gordon Motion produced this full-bodied whisky employing 100% ex-Bourbon casks. The whisky was distilled 18 years ago, in 1999, and bottled in 2017. The result is rich and almost creamy, with a dialed-back peat and an undercurrent of toast, caramel, vanilla, pear, and spice.
The music analogy is drawn out in the packaging, with a tuner dial on the label and a box that evokes old-school guitar amps. The dials on the image are “tuned” to this particular expression’s balance of bourbon notes, smoke, vanilla, and fruit. Highland Park turned one dial to 11, and collaborated with producer/writer Saul Davies (from the rock band James) to create an original piece of music for Full Volume (Motion and Davies discuss the collaboration here).
Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin ($40)
Sloe Gin is gin steeped for months in sloe berries and sugar. This unique rendition from Australia twists the narrative, steeping high-proof Four Pillars Rare Dry gin in Yarra Valley Shiraz grapes for two months, lending the expression a beautiful ruby tint and intriguing flavors. Already popular among the gin’s fans in Australia, Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz finally arrived in the US in December, just in time for the holidays.
If the other tinted products on this list are a salmon pink, this gin is as deep a ruby as port. But because each small batch is unique, the next time you buy it, it may be slightly darker or lighter, slightly sweeter or less so. And the flavors evolve as they sit in the bottle, thanks to the wine component. Here you’ll find a non-cloying sweetness on the open, but also the classic peppery notes of Shiraz and the botanical edginess of gin.
Though the spirit is sweet on its own, and great with ice and an orange slice, it also works well in cocktails. Thanks to the inherent sweetness, you can cut back on the sugar and play with blending in tart citrus, astringent amari, and bitter digestifs. The gin plays particularly well with a mix of Campari, Orange Curaçao and lemon juice. Or it mix with soda and a touch of pine bitters for a unique holiday drink.
The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($30)
The first thing you notice about The Sexton is the bottle. Not only does it look nothing like your average Irish whiskey, but the squat, hexagonal vessel also doesn’t like anything else out there. That’s not simply intended to frustrate bartenders or encourage Instagram moments, though.
The Sexton breaks grounds on a number of fronts: Where there were once a relatively limited number of Irish whiskey labels, all produced from the same three distilleries, now there are scores of labels coming from all over Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most Irish whiskeys include a grain-whiskey component or a blend of malt styles, but this is a 100% barley single malt (Irish single malts are usually milder and less smoke-driven than Scottish versions, since they’re generally triple distilled and lacking a peat component). Rather than sitting in American oak for the minimum three years, this whiskey sits in Sherry butts for four. Finally, this particular Irish whiskey is the brainchild of master blender Alex Thomas, one of Ireland’s few female whiskey blenders.
This ideal tempest of innovation and tradition results in a smooth, rich whiskey, redolent with overtones of baked fruit, honey, nuts and chocolate. It hits the front of the palate with that familiar sweetness of Irish whiskey, but quickly moves into the savory Christmas flavors from the Sherry casks, before ending in a long, dark chocolate and spice finish. If you’re reading this and it’s still cold out, you know what to do: drop a shot into the best Irish coffee you can concoct.