Lee Egbert lived for a year and a half in China and, like an explorer of old, traveled extensively throughout Asia and the subcontinent with an eye toward the spice trade. He’s brought this experience together in Dashfire, his bitters company, which serves as a corrective for the sad state so many commercial bitters have fallen into—relying on essential oils, glycerin and dyes for flavor, texture and color. Dashfire bitters are all-natural, and it comes through in the purity and honesty of their flavors. Witness the new Sichuan bitters. With an herbal bitterness, spicy tang and just a brief flicker of numbing, these bitters plunge deeply into gin and tequila drinks, bringing forth a subtle spice. New this year too: Creole bitters that function like Peychaud’s but without red dye No. 40.
Often the question surrounding American craft distillers is why: Why are you giving us yet another gin, vodka or immature whiskey? High Wire Distilling Co. repeatedly answers that query with novel spirits that speak to their South Carolina origins. Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall’s newest revelation is a whiskey made entirely from a nearly extinct local variety of corn, Jimmy Red, that turns vibrantly crimson when ripe and offers a sweet and nutty taste. Milled on site before slow fermentation and pot distillation, the whiskey comes out clear, but retains a rich, honeyed nuttiness. It’s also precocious—after only two years, it tastes like a mature four year-old Bourbon and is even smoother at bottling, which will be over 80 proof. High Wire’s first release—just 456 bottles—sold out in minutes, but this November’s release is larger. And, with Anson Mills now planting the corn for the distillery, production will continue to rise next year.
The vermouth category continues to expand with interesting entries, such as this orange-tinged, slightly sparkling version. A collaboration between Samantha Sheehan at Poe Wines in Napa and Chez Panisse kitchen alum Mike Emmanuel, D’Orange involved 300 pounds of Seville bitter oranges peeled and macerated in wine and eau-de-vie, then added to a couple barrels of Mendocino chardonnay along with select botanicals. The result, bottled with a bare hint of prickly bubbles, is a wonderful balancing act between warm orange flavor and a pleasantly mellow, lingering bitterness and bright acidity. It’s delicious on its own, but also works magically with both American whiskey and gin. Try it instead of sweet vermouth in your next Negroni.
In 2010, WhistlePig’s founders came out of the gate with tantalizingly smooth and spicy rye whiskey and a great story—they were going to grow their own rye on a farm in Vermont and make a true farm-to-bottle, single-site whiskey. The problem was that the initial spirit was sourced from Canada; their rye wouldn’t be available for years. It’s still not quite ready, but they used their own rye for a fifth of this whiskey, blended with some Canadian and Indiana stock. Vermont and Canada were both aged in native Vermont oak, as well. The result is a delicious—and highly encouraging—debut, fruity, spicy and bright, as rye should be. Whiskey ages slowly in Vermont, so it might be a while until that mature, 100-percent version comes around. But Farmstock is plenty to enjoy while we’re waiting.
Let’s not beat around the bush: This gin is blue. But before you slam it as a gimmick, taste it. It’s a precisely formulated beauty, balanced elegantly between the crispness of a London Dry and the botanical exoticism of the New Western style. Made on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, this gin was created specifically for the grandiose Fairmont Empress hotel, one of Victoria’s attractions, whose Victorian high-tea tradition carries into this gin, which incorporates the Empress’s signature tea blend. The blue hue comes from butterfly pea blossoms steeped post-distillation; they also provide a subtle earthy note to ground the juniper and grapefruit high tones. In a G&T, the blue fades into a gentle pink, which somehow contributes to the delight of the drink. Its vibrant color aside, this is one of the tastiest gins of the year.
From the misty Mazateca mountains of Oaxaca comes a rum so beautifully expressive of sugar cane that it might just make people forget about agave. Paranubes is made in a high-altitude “cloud forest” about six hours by car from Oaxaca City. Four varieties of cane are harvested in the forested hills, transported out by burro, then driven to the distillery. The fresh-pressed cane juice is fermented naturally in pine vats, then moved to a copper column-still fired by spent cane fiber. The rum is distilled to proof: nothing added or removed. The result is smooth, round and sweet—not as funky as rhum agricole and more elegant than cachaça. It’s complex and smooth enough to sip neat, but the silky texture makes for an irresistibly sleek daiquiri.
Founded by Francesco Amodeo in Washington, DC, Don Ciccio & Figli produces an astonishing line of amari, aperitivi and licori based on recipes Amodeo has adapted from his grandfather and great grandfather, both distillers on the Amalfi Coast. The line is now distributed nationally (by Domaine Select), including the newest product, C3 Carciofo. Based on three varieties of artichoke, cardoons and grapefruit, it’s full of baking spice and sarsaparilla notes, with the slightly bitter, slightly sweet flavor of roasted artichoke brightened by a fl ash of citrusy zest. It’s a natural for an aperitivo with soda and an orange slice or a satisfying post-meal corrective.
Mezcal continues to be the nation’s most exciting spirit category. Bozal bottles intriguing mezcals made from Castilla, Borrego and Cuixe—wild agave varieties hand harvested from often precarious sites on remote mountainsides—but I was particularly smitten by the Coyote variety, harvested from Villa Sola de Vega in Oaxaca. A nuanced smokiness takes a backseat to potent flavors of pear, green herbs, dried earth and dark chocolate. It’s full bodied and rich, perfect for slow sipping under the stars.
If you have never tried Rochelt, you don’t know schnapps. Like any great eau-de-vie, these Tyrolean treasures rely on fruit meticulously selected and harvested, carefully fermented and distilled to create a perfect snapshot of a fruit at ideal ripeness. But these spirits are aged an average of a decade in small glass demijohns to coalesce, mellow and concentrate. Most eau-de-vies are like perfume—you can only consume them in dabs. Rochelt’s schnapps, which come in a signature green-glass crystal bottle, are perfumes you can quaff. Balanced, flavorful and smooth even at a whopping 100 proof, the risk is drinking them too fast, which would be a mistake: Only eight bottles of each flavor— apple, morello cherry, muscat, black elderberry and apricot—entered the US this year.