Best of the Year Spirits - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Best of the Year Spirits


photos by Nick Sansone

This year, our Los Angeles panels of bartenders and mixologists assessed more than 100 spirits, blind to producer and price. As spirits editor, I ran the panels and, later, chose these 14 bottlings as standouts within their categories. Taste and structure were big factors, but these spirits also elicited strong emotional responses. Each brings something new to the table, whether a sense of place or an unexpected juxtaposition of flavors. Each leaves an impression that keeps the mind turning for hours after the last taste.


BEST DOMESTIC GIN

Painted Lady New American Gin (90 Proof, $33)

Painted Lady launched in 2013 in Astoria, Oregon, under the direction of co-founder and Head Distiller Larry Cary. This is a complex gin that’s both citrusy and woodsy on the nose, leading with spice and herbs—sage, rosemary, coriander and a cinnamon note, vaguely reminiscent of Red Hots. The citrus scents are exotic—more Buddha’s hand than Meyer lemon—and, while the mouthfeel is lush and round, it’s not weighty, with scents of pink peppercorn and chamomile adding brightness. Less traditionally juniper-forward and more wildly herbaceous than most gins, this fascinated our panelists, who called it out for avid gin drinkers wanting to try something different and exciting. Mix it into an herbal cocktail, like a classic Last Word with green Chartreuse.
Pilot House Distilling, Astoria, OR


BEST IMPORTED GIN

Glendalough Wild Botanicals Irish Gin (82 Proof, $33)

This Irish Gin from the Wicklow Mountains in Glendalough is infused with local fir, elderflower and sorrel hand-picked by full-time forager Geraldine Kavanagh. Kavanagh gathers botanicals throughout all four seasons so that Head Distiller Ciarán “Rowdy” Rooney can create an herbal, floral and citrusy gin—a snapshot of the Irish wilderness. Scents of pine needles and spearmint mix with wild dandelion and coriander, but it’s the energy—like a rushing brook through the forest—that caught the most attention. No other gin this year carried such a sense of terroir. It felt like a cool mountain breeze after a rain, or the serenity of hiking through remote countryside. The scents and tastes drew us in, the city-noise around seemingly muted by the Irish wilderness in the glass.
Mark Anthony CraftedSpirits, Chicago, IL


BEST PISCO

Viñas de Oro Pisco Puro Quebranta (82 Proof, $43)

Located 133 miles south of Lima, Peru, in El Carmen, Chincha en Ica, Viñas de Oro farms close to 2,000 acres of vines planted to six Pisco grapes. Our panels were impressed by the distinctive expressions of each of these grapes, and the Piscos maintain a delicate, lifted feel. The Pisco Puro distilled from italia, an aromatic white variety, was a bouquet of roses, jasmine and orange blossom. The Puro from red-skinned negra criolla felt wintry and cranberry-driven. Quebranta, considered an non-aromatic variety, makes the classic Pisco, used most often for Peru’s signature drink, the Pisco Sour. But in our lineups, Viñas de Oro Pisco Puro Quebranta was anything but ordinary. Bright, fresh and complex, it has a silky-smooth, pillowy body while flavors of lime mix with red currant and sea breeze, lingering in the end.
Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA


BEST VODKA

Thinking Tree Butterfly Lavender Vodka (80 Proof, $30)

This transcends the flavored vodka category, a standout for its natural flavors, neither cloying nor heavy. It’s highly aromatic, with lavender, violet and vanilla scents, and a gin-like hint of juniper. The mouthfeel is smooth and silky, finishing with a slightly chalky texture, a contribution from Butterfly Pea Flowers which also provide the vibrant violet-blue color. Head Distiller Kaylon McAlister distills this vodka 21 times through a rectifying column still to remove any impurities before infusing it with local Oregon botanicals, like the lavender grown in-house. It also comes with a party trick: with the addition of citrus juice, or anything acidic, this spirit turns pink.
Thinking Tree Spirits, Eugene, OR


BEST BLANCO TEQUILA

Lalo Tequila (80 Proof, $50)

Maestro Tequilero Lalo González focuses solely on blanco Tequila, creating a pure, aromatic expression of the agave he sources from the Jalisco Highlands. González uses traditional stone steam ovens, called hornos de mamposteria, to steam the hearts of the agave plants, or piñas, for 20 to 32 hours, followed by 18 hours of rest. This starts with a bouquet of jasmine florals, peach nectar and prickly pear, then the purity of the roasted piñas shines through on the palate, bringing an electric energy. 71Above’s Rebecca Marie likened its essence to growing up in Arizona. She went into a reverie describing the taste, “as if someone carved stanzas of Neruda into the trunk of a paloverde tree, just after a swollen-creosote Sonoran monsoon…and then distilled it.”
Lalo Spirits, Austin, TX


BEST REPOSADO TEQUILA

El Cristiano Reposado Tequila (80 Proof, $65)

The El Cristiano Tequila line launched in 2022, focusing on agave spirits. Founder Karan Khanna and maestro tequileros José, César and Alvaro Aceves claim to use no additions, event hough the Consejo Regulador del Tequila allows bottles labeled “100% agave” to include up to one percent of additions like glycerin, caramel coloring, oak extract, and sugar-based syrup. Our panels found freshness and purity in their silver and reposado Tequilas. The reposado, made with six-year-aged Blue Webber agave, takes on caramel scents as it ages for six months in barrels. Still, the oak characteristics are only there to support the fresh lemon-lime and orange-oil flavors. Bright, energetic and complex, this Tequila is perfect on the rocks with a wedge of lime but would also make a great Cadillac Margarita.
El Cristiano Tequila, Manhasset, NY


BEST TENNESSEE WHISKEY

Jack Daniel’s 12-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey (107 Proof, $80)

Jack Daniel’s Whiskey is filtered through 10 feet of house-made sugar-maple charcoal over the course of three to five days before barrel aging. The distillers at Jack Daniel’s pioneered this technique, called the Lincoln County Process, which they claim imparts smoothness to their whiskeys and, in 2013, they were instrumental in integrating the process as a requirement for legally recognized Tennessee Whiskey. Jack Daniel’s brought attention to the category with its expansive lineup of whiskeys—we recommended five of them this year, particularly the 12-Year-Old. It has a fresh, foresty scent, autumnal with woody notes of tree bark. The flavors of apricot, praline and caramel are effortlessly integrated, a mellow sipper that retains lift and elegance, confident but not showy.
Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY


BEST AMERICAN RYE WHISKEY

Stellum Black The Lone Cyprus (115 Proof, $99)

Joe Beatrice creates small-batch, cask-strength whiskeys that focus on nuanced, innovative blends. His Lone Cyprus is a blend of three different rye whiskeys—an Indiana rye (with 5 percent malted barley), a barley-forward rye, and reserve stock from Tennessee and Kentucky—resulting in a spirit that is both savory and delicate, a standout for its aroma and flavor—leading one panelist to exclaim, “I want to swim in it!” Intensely floral and pepper-spiced on the nose, it’s balanced by oak spice and scents of maple and orange peel. There is an herbal note of tarragon and thyme, along with savory pine. The finish lingers, developing dried apricot and a salty-saline lift. While it clocks in at 115 proof, it’s so balanced it can, and should be, sipped by itself with a couple drops of water or a cube of ice.
Stellum Spirits, Louisville, KY


BEST EMPIRE RYE WHISKEY

Hudson Whiskey Do the Rye Thing (92 Proof, $40)

When Ralph Erenzo started Tuthilltown Spirits in 2003, he was the first distiller to produce whiskey in New York State since Prohibition. Erenzo was the driving force behind the Farm Distillery License, available to New York residents, requiring that they use at least 75 percent of state-grown produce in their spirits; he is also one of the founders of the Empire Rye category. Do the Rye Thing is made of 95 percent New York rye and 5 percent malted barley. Its scents of fresh-squeezed lemon, honey and black tea are bright and lifted. It has an electric energy, springing from the glass with complex herbal notes of caraway, tree bark and a touch of fresh mint, an elegant whiskey for a summer day in upstate New York, when you might mix it into a mint julep and sip it on your porch with friends.
Tuthill-town Spirits, Gardiner, NY


BEST BOURBON

Barrell Vantage Bourbon (115 Proof, $90)

Master Distiller Tripp Stimson and Blender Nic Christiansen source top-flight cask-strength whiskeys for their blends, offering distinctive, complex flavor profiles. Vantage is a blend of straight Bourbon finished in three kinds of oak barrels—Mizunara (Japanese), French and toasted American. They come together with a woodsy musk permeating the brown-sugar and caramel flavors. But the oak doesn’t dominate the palate. Instead, you might find tropical fruit notes of pineapple and banana, which incited ideas from our panel for tiki-style cocktails. Its complexity continues on the finish, full of buttery cashew and cracked black pepper; a showstopper within the Bourbon category.
Barrell Craft Spirits, Louisville, KY


BEST BUY BOURBON

Knob Creek Nine-Year-Old Bourbon (100 Proof, $37)

The majority of the Bourbons we tasted this year were $80 or more; Knob Creek’s Nine-Year-Old Bourbon tasted great at less than half the price. Launched in 1992, this whiskey has become a staple at most bars and liquor stores, an easy grab to bring to a party or to enjoy at home on a Tuesday night. Aged for nine years in charred American white oak, it delivers a flavor-packed punch full of maple sugar and caramel along with white peach and jasmine florals. Robust in body, the finish lingers pleasantly on the tongue, tasty enough to drink straight and bold enough to stand up to cocktail mixers.
Beam Suntory, Clermont, KY




BEST VERMOUTH

Elena Laz19 Vermouth di Torino Superiore (18 percent ABV, $50)

Elena Penna and Luca Currado Vietti both come from families that have been involved in the local tradition of Vermouth di Torino—Penna through hospitality and Currado Vietti through winemaking. They launched this project to revive that tradition in Italy’s Langhe hills. The base wine for the Laz19 Superiore is one-third Barolo Lazzarito and two-thirds arneis. They use only locally sourced, hand-harvested citrus and herbs, which they macerate in alcohol, then add to the wine base. The quality of the raw materials is apparent in this complex vermouth, its lasting flavors a mystery to contemplate but perhaps never solve. That’s tied up in a deep, savory and brooding aromatized wine full of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon tree-bark spice. Yet, even with these darker flavors, it manages to feel bright with undercurrents of red berries and rhubarb; an intriguing contradiction, like Christmas in July.
Dalla Terra, Napa, CA




BEST LIQUEUR

Distilleria dell’Alpe Liquore Kapriol (76 Proof, $30)

In 1948, Fernuccio di Bernard established Distilleria dell’Alpe in the Cansiglio forest of the Carnic Alps, and patented Kapriol, a Distillato del Bosco or “distillate of the forest,” whose history dates to the Middle Ages as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments. In 2002, the Maschio family, grappa producers from nearby Conegliano, bought the distillery and revived Kapriol. This may have been the most surprising spirit in our tastings this year. Most of our panelists had never heard of it, and it quickly became a new favorite. Kapriol tastes like the lovechild of gin and crème de menthe. This is a gin-lover’s liqueur, strongly featuring juniper berries; the body is more viscous, however, and slightly sweet, with pine needle and peppermint adding to its juniper flavors. It’s something you can sip after dinner, a hipper, crisper version of schnapps or sambuca. It would also make a great ice-cream topper.
Dalla Terra, Napa, CA


BEST CANNED COCKTAIL

Spirited Hive Bourbon ($20 for a pack of four)

Jack Espy’s low-ABV cocktails focus on real spirits and natural ingredients, something that made this canned cocktail stand out in a line-up of sugary or aspartame-flavored alternatives. Espy, who left real estate when the pandemic hit in 2020, spent time that year mixing drinks at home. He canned his first cocktails in 2022, including Spirited Hive Bourbon, a mix of rosemary, lemon and wildflower honey with whiskey sourced from Green River Distilling in Owensboro, Kentucky. It’s a refreshing drink that clocks in at 7 percent alcohol—perfect for Bourbon lovers who want to enjoy the flavor without the high ABV. The other canned cocktails in the lineup are also fresh and tasty (Gin, Vodka, Tequila).
Spirited Hive, Nashville, TN


Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Associate Editor at Wine & Spirits. She is also a sommelier at 71 Above and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.


This story appears in the print issue of Fall 2023.
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