Apr
15
2014

Imbiber

Westland First Peated-Virginia Miller

7 Washington Craft Spirits You Should Know

Article and Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Virginia Miller

Three Seattle visits in the past seven months centered around craft distillery and cocktail bar research means a few spirits have stood out among the dozens I’ve tasted from Washington state, most launched in recent years. Here are my top seven from the glut of craft distillers hitting the Washington market:

BroVo SPIRITS’ AMARO PROJECT

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

With “Lady & Mac Made Liquor” stated on each bottle, BroVo Spirits is an intriguing line of 17 amari (Italian herbal/bitter liqueurs) and counting, made by distiller/owner Mhairi Voelsgen and distiller Mac Kenney in collaboration with hand-selected bartenders from Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, with Atlanta soon to be released. No two amaro are alike, varying dramatically with each bartender’s recipe, ranging from spiced to floral, complex to crowd-pleasing.

Of the 11 BroVo amari I’ve tasted, I find #11 from Jon Christiansen in Seattle to be the most classic in the Italian amaro sense: balanced, bitter, herbal and sweet. He uses damiana, marigold, grapefruit peel and vanilla bean in his well-rounded amaro. One of Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, created the #14 recipe, a unique blend that includes chocolate, sarsaparilla, cinnamon and thyme notes. The San Francisco range is broad and refined: Amanda Womack’s (of Cask) delicate, floral # 8, Suzanne Miller’s (of Novela) Indian spiced beauty # 10, or Will Popko’s (of Hard Water) aromatic pineapple sage #9.

BETE from SIDETRACK DISTILLERY

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

A spirit that impresses me with every sip is the uncategorizable Bete from Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA. The spirit is distilled from sugar beets and like the great beet cocktails I’ve had over the years, it’s vegetal, earthy, while simultaneously light and bright.

Figuring out ways to use it in cocktails may seem initially daunting, but messing around at home, I find it plays beautifully with lime, lemon and other citrus, as well as vegetables like celery. A fascinating product, never has the essence of beets quite been captured like this.

WESTLAND DISTILLERY WHISKIES

Westland-Virginia MillerIn Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Westland‘s 13,000 sq. ft. distillery has been getting a lot of attention – for the dramatic space, yes – but most notably for the whiskies, which are easily among the stronger American whiskey releases in awhile.

It’s tough to choose a favorite, whether Deacon Seat Whiskey or their peated whiskies. American Single Malt Whiskey is made from a pale malt base grown in Washington, redolent of chocolate, caramel and coconut. First Peated American Single Malt Whiskey is a vatting of two separate new make spirits, the first a smoky mash of peated malt, the second is the WA pale malt which balances the peat with dried fruit and bright, spiced notes, the blend spending time in ex-Bourbon and Sherry casks.

EvenStar SHOCHU from SODO SPIRITS DISTILLERY

EvenStar Shochu-Virginia MillerOpened in 2009 as the first craft distillery license in Seattle proper, Sodo Spirits Distillery’s EvenStar Shochu at first glance sounds gimmicky: flavored shochu, starting with rosemary, their first product released in 2011. But one can actually taste the barley base in the shochu itself. Though a clean spirit, it is not flavorless. Eastern Washington-grown barley shines, and they use Koji mold spores from Japan, with no sugar or flavorings added. Whether rosemary, ginger or mint shochus, all are made with fresh macerated herbs and roots, so subtle as to be but a whisper. Chili shochu particularly stood out for its barley backbone and fresh, bright chili flavor.

HERITAGE DISTILLING CO.’s CASK CLUB GIN

Heritage Barrel Aged Gin-Virginia MillerHeritage Distilling Co.’s Cask Club offers members-only special releases: their Distillers Reserve 4 year gin stands out in the over-hyped barrel aged gin category. At a boozy cask strength (62.5% ABV), it’s a unique beauty that tastes like Christmas, treacle/syrup and spice, with a long, dry finish. While I’m not as big a fan of their regular gin release, this aged version boasts a memorable profile, a truly unique barrel aged gin.

SOUND SPIRITS’ AQUAVIT & OLD TOM GIN

Sound Spirits-Virginia MillerSound Spirits‘ Ebb + Flow Gin is a balanced gin, emphasizing both herbal and citrus notes. I enjoy this gin but am even more taken with Sound Spirits Aquavit, strong on the traditional caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, anise notes, all singing together in harmony. Likewise, their Old Tom Gin is exceptional in this category of 18th century-style gin, redolent of citrus/orange and cardamom tempered by a floral presence. While many aquavit and Old Tom gins I’ve tasted blend together (or can be downright bad), Sound stands out in both categories.

SAN JUAN ISLAND DISTILLERY’s MADRONE BRANDY

Madrone Brandy-Virginia MillerSuzy and Hawk Pingree, the husband/wife team behind San Juan Island Distillery, are an inspiring couple. In their 60′s, they’ve changed careers, pursuing a passion for Calvados/brandy and cider on San Juan Island where Hawk produces cider and Suzy distills a range of spirits from ingredients foraged on the island. Most of their spirits are available to purchase at the distillery only, so it’s all about experiencing the island’s resources in its natural setting.

I particularly enjoyed their madrone brandy ($85 at the distillery), made from blackberries, madrone bark and blossoms sourced on the island. It’s complex, an elegant brandy tinged with subtle bitter and spices.

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Mar
15
2014

Imbiber

Rarities: 50 Year Old Scotch & 1950 Cognac

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

When you get the rare chance to try 50 year old Scotch or Cognac, you do. When it’s a tasting with drink industry legends like James Espey, who is behind the creation of iconic brands like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Malibu Rum and even Johnnie Walker Blue, it’s an imperative. I enjoyed a rousing lunch at Hakkasan this week with James and Ben
Howkins of Royal Tokaji, one of the partners in his unique project, Last Drop Distillers.

With the tag line, “Before There is No More,” Espey and his three Last Drop business partners hunt for rare treasure: cellared casks, stored for decades undiscovered. They  release them in elegant, limited edition bottlings, and only in key markets: UK, US and China.

Tasting both the whisky and the Cognac, both coming with fascinating stories.

There’s only 388 bottles of this second edition/release of The Last Drop 50 Year Old Whisky (selling for about $4000 per bottle!), made from over 82 whiskies. They found three casks of this blend, forgotten in the back of a warehouse produced by many now-defunct distilleries around Scotland, married (blended) over 50 years ago.

This heaven of a whisky carries whispers of the enchanting country of Scotland in each sip. A woody, dried fruit and spice nose gives way to a taste that hints at the peat of Islay, alongside the balanced nuance of the Highlands. It’s rich, warm and unfolding, with a touch of water. It’s a privilege just to have tried this beauty.

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Likewise, The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac (selling for about $2800 per bottle) is revelatory. It’s story is romantic and inspired: they met a mother and daughter in the Cognac countryside, the mother 93 years old. She had distilled a Cognac when she was in her 30′s. Though much of what remained had evaporated, what survived was still shockingly lively, and the Last Drop boys bought up all her Cognac casks.

Aside from the unreal time I tasted 1805 and 1865 Cognacs with Salvatore Calabrese and Dale DeGroff during Tales of the Cocktail 2010, this is the best Cognac I’ve ever had. It’s shockingly fresh, clean and floral, yet retains the maturity and depth of a fine whisky, blessedly bottled at cask strength. It imparts a woody playfulness and welcome dryness.

More fun Espey facts: In June 2013, James received an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen “for services to the Whisky Industry.” He is also founder of The Keepers of the Quaich, a leading international Whisky Society, and recently published a book on building and marketing your brand (you), no matter the industry, Making Your Marque.

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Mar
15
2014

Imbiber

Tasting Old Blowhard & Barterhouse at Wingtip

Tasting Old Blowhard & Barterhouse at Wingtip

RARITIES: Two American Whiskies with Stitzel-Weller & Old Bernheim Ties

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Ode to the mighty Stitzel-Weller distillery

Ode to the mighty Stitzel-Weller distillery

As common as they are, “limited” whisk(e)y releases may seem like a lot of hype. But American whiskey fans (such as myself) perked up when we heard about Diageo‘s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. This new line of rare, essentially foraged or found whiskies, just launched with their first whiskies.

20 year Barterhouse and 26 year Old Blowhard bourbons were both found aging in the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery (which stopped distilling in 1991-92), filled with “juice” from the older (circa 1980′s) and the newer Bernheim distillery (sold to Heaven Hill in the late ’90′s), then bottled for Orphan Barrel at George Dickel in Tennessee.

Tasting Barterhouse at Wingtip

Tasting Barterhouse at Wingtip

Future Orphan Barrel whiskey releases will likely be sourced from a number of defunct distilleries.

Having the Stitzel-Weller name associated calls loudly to American whiskey fans. Now nearly impossible to procure Pappy Van Winkle whiskies were once produced at Stitzel-Weller, but have, since its closure, been produced by Buffalo Trace. Like many American whiskey fans, I first got turned on to the possibilities in American whiskey years ago, thanks to Pappy… particularly the rye. What I first tasted was the Stitzel-Weller juice. I was reminded last year in Louisville of its superiority when a colleague pulled out bottles of old Pappy distilled at Stitzel-Weller and I was refreshed on what made me fall in love with it in the first place.

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskies)

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

Any whiskies coming from Stitzel-Weller are a thrill for the whiskey aficionado. Given the rarity of these hand-selected barrels, bottles are pricey, although actually quite reasonable for rare, old, strictly allocated whiskies such as these.

I cleared my calendar for an Orphan Barrel trade and media tasting on March 3 at Wingtip. Though there are ultimately three initial bourbon releases, only sold in the US, the third, Rhetoric, will be released in the coming weeks. In keeping with the Bernheim formula, the mashbill of all three whiskies is 86% corn, 6% rye, 8% barley.

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

Barterhouse 20 year old (45.1% ABV – $75)
For 20 years of age, Barterhouse is surprisingly golden and young, with crisp green apple on the nose, and on the tongue, cereal, honeysuckle, warm woods, spices, and a slightly creamy mouthfeel.

Old Blowhard 26 year old (45.35% ABV – $150)
It was difficult to decide which of the two whiskies I liked more. While I loved the bright liveliness of the Barterhouse, I was smitten with the robust masculinity of the Old Blowhard (and it’s tongue-in-cheek name). Its bold, woody nose gives way to dark cherry, leather, tobacco, spice, toffee and toasted wood on the palate. Oak (and thus age) heavily dominates but it’s a pleasure nonetheless, begging for a comfy leather chair, roaring fireplace and a fine cigar.

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Oct
15
2013

Imbiber

WHISKYFEST 2013

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Balblair 1975Another great year of whiskey, whisky and beyond (Cognac, gin, beer, etc.) at WhiskyFest San Francisco on September 27th at the SF Marriott Marquis  – a massive whisk(e)y tasting event featuring distillers and brand ambassadors from around the world, held only in SF, NY and Chicago annually.

I’ve been going six years straight (read about past years here), and while it seems like VIP hour pours aren’t as rare or extensive as even 4 years ago, there is still plenty for both novices and those who eat, sleep and breathe whiskies to discover. An expansive underground ballroom in the Marriott houses booths of over 300 whiskies with some of the world’s experts pouring them. As with every year I’ve gone (and longer), many of the bourbon legends of Kentucky were present, from members of the Beam family, to Wild Turkey’s Eddie and Jimmy Russell, to Jim Rutledge of Four Roses.

Parkers HeritageClasses are often more than just another seminar, particularly when led by hilariously engaging brand ambassadors and Scotsmen, Martin Daraz of Highland Park or Johnnie Mundell of Morrison Bowmore Distillers. There are informative sessions from across the world, like Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang, talking Taiwanese whisky.

Erika Frey, of one of my favorite restaurants in Sonoma County, Campo Fina in Healdsburg, served three of her lovely Campo Fina cocktails featuring Famous Grouse whisky. The Ploughman was just what was needed in between serious whisk(e)y tasting: a refreshing palate cleanser showcasing the Scotch yet keeping it lively with lemon juice, Angostura bitters, and a vinegary pear shrub.

HakushuBesides the many classic and new whiskies I was happy to re-taste (oh, that peach-laden Bushmills 21 year Irish Whiskey! Bowmore’s fantastic 25 year Scotch! Buffalo Trace’s robust, new Stagg Jr., a fine stand-in for the fabulous but expensive and always sold-out George T. Stagg bourbon! Or gorgeous Taketsuru 21 year recently imported from Japan!), here were the top five, new-to-me tastes of this year’s WhiskyFest:

- Balblair 1975: During my last trip to Scotland, I fell in love with Balblair’s 1989 and especially the 2000 Scotch, bringing both home with me in my suitcase. What a treat it was this year to sample their full, layered, lush 1975 Scotch.
Stagg Jr- Hakushu Heavily Peated: The world’s great peated Japanese whisky just began importing their Heavily Peated Whisky to the US. As with the 12 year Hakushu and Japanese whisky in general, though utterly evocative of Scotch, even “heavily peated” is harmoniously balanced.
- Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope: Portions of sales fight ALS, which my whiskey hero, Parker Beam, was recently diagnosed with, and, as with every release in Parker’s line of impeccable American whiskies, Promise of Hope is another bold-yet-balanced whiskey.
- Glenfarclas Cask Strength Family Cask 1963: Though heavy on the wood and musky with age, it’s still a rare and memorable treat to be able to sample a spirit this old. It held complexity, spice, and warm wood tones in its rich, dark elixir.
- Angel’s Envy Cask Strength: With bourbon legend Lincoln Henderson’s recent passing last month, it’s even more poignant to taste Angel’s Envy Cask Strength bourbon. It’s a bracing, high strength version of the Henderson family’s lovely bourbon, and a fine tribute to Lincoln’s rich legacy, carried on by his son, Wes, and grandson, Kyle, who were both here interacting with attendees.

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Aug
01
2013

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Anchor Distilling's house and pool where I stopped in for a private Nikka whisky tasting

Stopping in at Anchor Distilling’s house for a private tasting of Nikka whisky

Unexpected Spirits at Tales of the Cocktail:
Gin Mezcal, African-influenced Vermouth, Rare Japanese & Irish Whiskies

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

At Tales of the Cocktail (2013 highlights covered here), one can easily taste hundreds of spirits in a week (not that one should). Most of what I find in tasting rooms and at events I’ve already had before, but there’s the occasional new release or product that might not have been released nationally. Here are two standout newcomers – and a few more to be imported to the US:

PIERDE ALMAS +9 – Gin Mezcal

Piedre Almas - Virginia MillerPierde Almas‘ line of mezcals has been one of few to come along since the great Del Maguey was imported to the States by Ron Cooper years back to make a big impression on me. Fully smoky, well-balanced, memorable, Pierde Almas mezcals are consistently excellent, whether a young, clean Tobaziche, or floral, green Tobala, available to taste in the Indie Spirits That Rock event during Tales.

Enter the first mezcal gin in the world. Produced as a mezcal (double distilled, made from roasted agave), Pierde Almas infuses their Espadín mezcal with gin botanicals for 24 hours, then distills it a third time, each run in a small, 100-liter copper pot alembic still. Though the effect of added botanicals doesn’t improve upon the best mezcal by any means, what I appreciate about this release is experimentation in new territory.

Rather than being juniper heavy, juniper subtly coexists alongside eight other botanicals (coriander, star anise, fennel seed, orange peel, cassia bark, angelica root, orris root, nutmeg). The taste of +9 is unique: like a gin carrying the smokiness of mezcal, smoother from triple-distillation.

L’AFRIQUE VERMOUTH

L'Afrique Vermouth - Virginia MillerProduced by Hammer & Tongs in Portland, Oregon, L’Afrique was the standout vermouth I tasted in the fascinating New Vermouth tasting room. Alongside vermouths I’ve written about before, like Vya, Imbue, Atsby, I sampled newer lines like light-and-lovely Uncouth Vermouth.

While I savored the citrus crisp of Hammer and Tongs’ Sac’Résine Fine Vermouth, it is the West and North African botanicals of L’Afrique that stayed with me. Hearkening to classic Italian and French vermouths, this unique vermouth holds whispers of African spice in its rich, earthy, complex layers.

To-be-imported to the US

NIKKA JAPANESE WHISKIES

San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling imports Nikka whiskies from Japan. At a private house gathering, I sampled a few of their current (Yoichi 15 and Taketsuru 12 year) and upcoming releases, including the soft, tropical, vanilla wafer notes of Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky (distilled in a historic Coffey still), the floral, sherry cask influences of Miyagikyo 12 year, the gentle peat and dried fruit whispers of Taketsuru 21 year. My favorite of the six is one I tasted last year at the Anchor Distillery: Taketsuru 17 year, gorgeous with spice, toffee, and a nuttiness made more alluring with soft smoke.

IRISH WHISKIES

g

Green & Yellow Spot Irish Whiskies

Not new but as of yet unavailable in the US, Green Spot (with its barely spice) and Yellow Spot (complex, toasted coffee and bright fruit notes) whiskies were poured at the invite-only Jameson House during Tales alongside bracingly beautiful Redbreast 12 year Cask Strength whiskey. Redbreast has long been my favorite Irish whiskey and the robust cask strength version ups the fruit and spice of Redbreast 12 year.

Enjoyed only when I’m in the UK and Ireland, I cannot wait for these to be available at home in the States. The crew pouring at the Jameson House still weren’t sure of dates but claimed the process is underway to finally bring these beauties to the States.

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Jul
01
2013

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On the Road in Kentucky: Visiting
Bardstown, Frankfort & Lexington Distillers

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Recently catching up on new restaurants, bars, and breakfast spots in Louisville during my second visit in two years, I also trekked to eight distilleries from Bardstown to Lexington, a mixture of “the big guys” (Heaven HillBuffalo Trace) alongside small batch, craft distillers, including Kentucky Bourbon Distillers/WilletLimestone BranchTown Branch, and Barrel House Distilling Co. Here’s a photo journey through my two days of distillery road tripping during a snowy March in Kentucky.

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May
01
2013

Imbiber

Hard Water bar

Hard Water bar

Cocktails at South at SFJazz

Cocktails at South at SFJazz

PHAN’S NEW ORLEANS DUO

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Hard Water cocktails made with house barrel of Willett bourbon

Hard Water cocktails made with house barrel of Willett bourbon

Chef powerhouse Charles Phan’s New Orleans-influenced Southern food and bourbon bar duo opened mid-March with similar menus focused on New Orleans-style bar snacks and menus run by the ever-talented Erik Adkins, who oversees cocktail bars at every Phan restaurant. Both are already destination bars in terms of quality and setting.

HARD WATER, Embarcadero (Pier 3, Ste. 3-102, 415-392-3021)

Hard Water is a sleek beauty of a bar designed by Olle Lundberg. The high-ceiling room is centered by dramatic marble-top horseshoe bar, no tables and seating along the walls. Though right on the water, the view isn’t waterside but of the passing bustle of the Embarcadero.

Boiled peanuts, cornmeal-crusted alligator ($12), and a delightful fried veggie snack of crispy milk-braised celery hearts ($12) typify bar food available, alongside entrees like braised rabbit and buttermilk dumplings in sage ($21) or okra etouffee ($17) over popcorn rice.

Bourbon cocktails

Bourbon cocktails

The shining star here, however, is the American whiskies strikingly lined against a glowing white wall. Adkins and crew journeyed to Kentucky to choose their own house barrels of 9 and 10 year old Willett Bourbon (a highlight of my Kentucky distillery visits this March). House whiskey, Weller 7 year, is used in ubiquitous classics like an Old Fashioned. The rarities on offer will thrill an American whiskey aficionado, like 2002 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, flights of the entire Van Winkle line, and even a few bottles of the put of production, very rare A.J. Hirsch 16 year and 20 year bourbons.

The bar is in excellent hands managed by Joel Baker who has been crafting fine cocktails since the early days of Bourbon & Branch, while the menu keeps it clean and simple with no more than 6-8 cocktails, mainly focused on classics with an occasional twist, like a version of a Whiskey Smash Adkins was experimenting with called a Trailer Smash with smoked maple syrup.

SOUTH at SFJAZZ, Hayes Valley (201 Franklin St. at Fell, 415-539-3905)

Boudin balls & fried oysters

Boudin balls & fried oysters

For an avid jazz fan such as myself, it’s been a thrill to see the country’s first fully dedicated jazz hall akin to a classical symphony hall open in San Francisco this spring. Already attending a few concerts, I’m delighted to find SFJazz’s house café, South at SFJazz, a welcome, glass-walled space that feels like a community hangout for jazz fans with SF-quality food and drink.

Black-eyed peas

Black-eyed pea succotash

Similarities exist between South and Hard Water’s menu, but the casual South at SFJazz menu also offers charcuterie platters with crostini, Creole mustard and celery root rèmoulade ($14), a simple field greens and pickled sweet red onion salad ($10) elevated by peanut vinaigrette, cheese grits ($6), or mini Muffaletta sandwiches ($6).

Cocktails at South at SFJazz

Cocktails at South at SFJazz

As at Hard Water, the bar is already another destination drinking spot with bar talent like Erik Ellestad and Ken Furusawa. The cocktail menu ($10) is again compiled by Erik Adkins, with Nola nods in name and style in drinks like The Battle of New Orleans (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, gum syrup, dashes of absinthe, Peychaud’s and orange bitters) or the Tchoupitoulas Street Guzzle (El Dorado 3 year rum, lime, ginger, Peychaud’s bitters).

Horse Thief Cocktail (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, absinthe) makes a lovely, clean aperitif with a bitter herbaceousness, while a classic Brandy Milk Punch is my kind of dessert: Germain Robin brandy, Barbancourt 8 year rum, Straus organic milk, and fresh nutmeg grated on top. During opening days, Adkins told me he hopes to add fun drinks like a boozy NY egg cream (brilliant idea) using bourbon or rum, Stumptown Coffee Liqueur, orgeat, cream and soda.

Cheese grits

Cheese grits

The wine list is no slouch with offerings like a local Sonoma wine I’ve been seeing pop up on a lot of menus lately: Vaughn Duffy Pinot Noir Rose, a dry, mineral, balanced partner to starters like crispy, meaty boudin balls ($9), cornmeal fried oysters ($9) or comforting black-eyed pea succotash ($7).

Staff are sensitive to timing so South is ideal for a pre-show bite and drink.

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Dec
15
2012

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10 Best Spirits Releases of 2012

Article by Virginia Miller, Press photos/from brand websites

Each year holds a range of interesting spirits released from around the globe. As the craft spirit industry continues to explode, there are many exciting newcomers this year. Here are some of the best of what’s crossed my desk in 2012.

FORD’s GIN ($27)The 86 Company is a new venture from spirits and cocktail world stars Simon Ford (former International Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin), Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (owners of New York’s Employees Only bar, authors of Speakeasy). Just last month, they released Caña Brava Rum (a Panama rum, aged 3 years), Aylesbury Duck Vodka, and Ford’s Gin. It’s the gin I’ve been mixing with at home in every kind of cocktail from a basic gin and tonic to complex Ramos Gin Fizz. The gin’s bright citrus-juniper properties shine in each – and the price is right. Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers, worked with Ford to develop Fords Gin, made with nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, cassia, jasmine, bitter orange, grapefruit peel. A nice, local connection (and environmental plus): distilled gin is shipped in bulk to and bottled by our own Charbay in Napa, cut with fresh Mendocino County water.

HIGH WEST CAMPIRE WHISKEY ($54) – Though I’ve been partial to Balcones Brimstone when it comes to a wild and wooly American smoked whiskey (in Balcones’ case, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak), High West’s new Campfire continues in that rugged vein,  smoky with Old West charm. Bourbon, rye and smoky single malt are blended together in a spicy, woody, sweet, floral whole that makes me crave BBQ.

IMBUE PETAL & THORN Vermouth ($27) - From Portland and the creators of bittersweet vermouth Imbue (Derek Einberger, Neil Kopplin, and Jennifer Kilfoil), Imbue’s Petal & Thorn is a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol – a truly unique elixir that’s lovely with soda on the rocks, in twists on classic cocktails like the Negroni, and on its own.

TEMPUS FUGIT KINA L’AVION D’OR ($35) – Fresh off the heels of their unparalleled Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao last year, Tempus Fugit does it again with Kina L’Avion D’or. Reminiscent of Lillet and Cocchi Americano but with a more intense flavor punch and elegant bitter quotient, it’s made from a hundred year old recipe from a Swiss distillery… a shining beauty in the quinquina family of aperitifs, distinct with quinine bite.

1512 SPIRITS Poitín ($39) – Poitín is a rare Irish spirit made in this case from potatoes and barley (the word poteen refers to small pot stills in which the liquor is historically made). Clear, bold and light, it evokes cucumber and Summer, with the spirit of an eau de vie and robustness of a white whiskey. There’s nothing quite like it.

WAHAKA MADRE CUISHE MEZCAL ($80) – New to the US this year, Wahaka Mezcals are solid across the line, from an affordable Espadin Joven ($30) to an award winning Tobala ($80). I especially appreciate the earthier Madre Cuishe ($80), made from the wild agave plant of the same name, evoking fresh earth, cigar ash, citrus even fresh, green vegetables. If you get a taste of their Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125), it’s blissfully like sucking on a stone, intensely earthy, fascinating – for the mezcal aficionado.

CHATEAU de LAUBADE BLANCE ARMAGNAC ($55) – From a Gascon, family-run Armagnac house established in 1870, this clear, refined Armagnac has more in common with an elegant grappa or pisco than beautifully rough and ready Armagnacs. Airy yet substantial with pear and floral notes, the lack of color is due to it being an unaged Armagnac. The purity of the base, made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes, shines. Consider it the cleaner, lighter side of brandy.

LEOPOLD BROTHERS FERNET ($35) – First tasting Leopold Brothers’ Fernet straight from the vat as it was fermenting when I visited their family-run Denver distillery in Sept. 2011, its release this year yielded a lighter, layered fernet-style amaro, where ginger, mint, cacao and floral notes peek out alongside the menthol bitterness Fernet is known for – the brothers (Todd and Scott) added sarsparilla root and molasses for a distinctly American touch.

GLENFIDDICH MASTER MALT Edition ($90)This limited-edition whisky was released in September from the classic distillery, one of only four in Scotland still owned and run by the same family since the 1800′s. At 18,000 bottles, it’s small production for Glenfiddich, celebrating their 125th anniversary. Malt Master Brian Kinsman crafted this double-matured whisky, which spent roughly 6 to 8 years in used Bourbon barrels, then 4 to 6 years in sherry casks. Sherry characteristics hit first but don’t overpower, with accompanying brine and spice.

FOUR ROSES 2012 Limited Edition SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($90)  – A bracing bourbon at 100-114 proof, depending on the barrel, with only 3600 bottles released, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has personally selected these uncut, unfiltered 12 year bourbon barrels for special release this year, among the more noteworthy whiskey tastes of 2012.

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