As part of my job, I get to taste a lot of booze. I mean a lot of booze. Not that I'm complaining, you understand. But there's only so much time in the day to both taste liquor and write about it. (And of course there's only so much liquor one can taste in a day before needing to take a nap at the keyboard.) Sometimes spirits that are good, or noteworthy, or both, simply get lost in the shuffle and disappear to the back of the liquor cabinet, never to return -- at least not until I throw a party and start digging out the dustier bottles.
This here grab-bag of totally random liquor -- the ones that almost got away -- is an attempt to remedy that situation. I've tried them all over the last several months and consider worth your time and, in many cases, your money. Whiskey, mezcal, cognac, liqueur... there's bound to be something here that suits your fancy and your budget. Possibly not the $39,000 cognac, but hey, I haven't seen your tax returns. Spirits are listed in ascending order of price, so you'll see the most affordable stuff first. Here's mud in your eye!
(FYI: All the spirits reviewed below were sent to me gratis for review purposes, with no strings attached. All opinions are strictly my own.)
STILLHOUSE ORIGINAL MOONSHINE (40% alcohol by volume, not aged, suggested retail price $28). 2015 was a banner year for booze sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), but one of the only categories to show a decline was white whiskey -- the stuff that's not aged, also known as moonshine, new make, or white dog. A lot of the small distilleries that sprang up a few years ago needed to generate some cashflow while their whiskeys aged; hence, white whiskey. Throw in some stories about how Grandpappy used the very same recipe in his basement still during Prohibition, and sales were all but guaranteed. What most consumers discovered during the white whiskey boomlet was that there's a reason whiskey is aged in wood. It tastes better that way. And now that those startups' whiskeys are beginning to mature, interest in white whiskeys is waning.
But don't tell that to the folks at Stillhouse, who are making a big splash with their new un-aged corn whiskey, available in six different flavors. I'm recusing myself from discussing the flavored stuff (although I did taste their Mint Chip), so I'll focus on the Original flavor. There's good white whiskey and there's bad white whiskey. The bad stuff is unbearably sweet and harsh, and tastes like you're drinking sweet corn mixed with Everclear. Stillhouse is the good stuff. It's not too sweet, not too harsh, it's quite smooth for a white dog, and it makes for an interesting change of pace in a cocktail like a White Old Fashioned. If only they'd age it in wood for a few years, they'd have a real winner.
BULLY BOY OLD FASHIONED (35.7% ABV, no age statement, $35). The press release calls the Old Fashioned "the classic cocktail that is easy to make, but hard to make well." As the maker of a pretty swell Old Fashioned myself, I greeted the arrival of this new bottled cocktail with some skepticism. And personally, I don't think it's that hard to make a good one. Soak a sugar cube in bitters, muddle it with perhaps a splash of water, pour a healthy amount of whiskey (or rum or tequila or whatever -- this is a versatile cocktail), add ice and voila. It's a cocktail that's as old as the cocktail itself; back in the early 1800s it was called a bittered sling. So it's only fitting that a distillery based in a colonial-era town should bottle its take on it.
Whether or not it's hard to make a good Old Fashioned, this is good -- a little sweeter than I'd make it, but it's got a nice balance between the kick of the whiskey, the complexity of the bitters and the sweetness of the sugar. If you want to kick up the alcohol a bit, you could always add an additional splash or two of Bully Boy's fine American Straight Whiskey, which is the base of the bottled cocktail.
CAMUS BORDERIES VSOP COGNAC (40% alcohol by volume, aged at least 4 years, $55). Just in case you need your memory refreshed (because heaven knows I'm no cognac expert myself): "VSOP," or "very special old pale," means a cognac blend whose youngest component has been aged in wood for at least four years, and doesn't contain any artificial coloring -- hence the "pale." Borderies is a specific, small region of Cognac which makes some very impressive brandy. Most cognacs are blends from several different regions of Cognac, but this baby is 100% "single growth certified" Borderies grapes. Most Borderies cognacs are pricy XOs (extra old, aged at least six years), so Borderies VSOP, which is limited to 15,000 bottles worldwide, is a nice change of pace both for the palate and the wallet.
Now that you know all that... this is a delicious cognac. If you're used to those woody, spicy XO cognacs, get ready to have your mind blown. Camus cognacs actually taste like fruit, which makes sense because, after all, they're made from fruit. Borderies VSOP is lively and vibrant, with notes of apple, plum, orange, pineapple, and of course luscious, ripe, sumptuous grapes. If you think you don't like cognac, try Borderies and your mind may be changed. And if you like it, try their Cliffside Cellar expression, which I think is even better. (And both are much more affordable than the other cognac mentioned here -- see below.)
MEZCAL VIEJO INDECENTE (48% ABV, no age statement, $60). I love mezcal. Love it. It's so smoky and herbal and smoky and funky and smoky and... well, you get the point. It's the Stones to tequila's Beatles, badass and unkempt and just a wee bit dangerous. But have you ever wondered what mezcal would be like without the smoke? Yeah, me neither. I always figured that the smoke was kind of an intrinsic part of the whole shebang, given that the hearts of the agave plant are roasted in underground pits over hot coals before fermentation. How could a mezcal not be smoky?
Well, the folks at Viejo Indecente figured out a way, and that's to steam the agave, same as tequila. Which begs the question -- does that make it tequila? Not hardly. This stuff is made in Oaxaca, not Jalisco, where tequila is produced. Viejo Indecente uses espadin agave, not tequila's blue agave. And it really does taste like mezcal. It's rich, herbaceous, spicy, a little salty, very slightly medicinal, a touch fruity... in other words, delicious. It's just not smoky. Whether that's a good thing depends on your personal taste. As a smoke lover, I think it's a pretty cool party trick myself -- "Look you guys, I can make a mezcal that isn't smoky!" But if you don't like having your mouth taste like a campfire, this should be your jam.
COL. E.H. TAYLOR SEASONED WOOD BOURBON (50% ABV, no age statement, $70). Buffalo Trace makes a big range of fascinating and delicious whiskeys, and their E.H. Taylor line is one of the most noteworthy. Over the course of seven limited edition releases, they've bottled everything from a single barrel to a bourbon that literally survived a tornado which hit the warehouse. The eighth release in the series, however, is definitely a case of "one of these things is not like the others." You see, every E.H. Taylor release until now has been a high-rye bourbon (and one straight rye whiskey), whereas this one is a wheated bourbon, meaning the secondary grain, after corn, is wheat, not rye -- Maker's Mark is the best known wheater. Why is it being released under the E.H. Taylor umbrella when Buffalo Trace could have released it under multiple other, perhaps more appropriate brand names? No idea, but they could call this one Late For Supper and it'd still be delicious. The "seasoned wood" was treated in an enzyme-rich bath, then left outside to dry for 6-12 months. For all I know the wood also received a shiatsu massage and mints on its pillow every night for a week. Whatever. The final product is fantastic -- smooth and creamy and ever so slightly fruity up front, spicy and a little rowdy on the finish. It's big and bold for a wheater, tasting more alcoholic than the 100 proof at which it's bottled, but no water is necessary. Worth hunting down while it's around, which probably won't be long.
DISARONNO RISERVA LIQUEUR (40% ABV, no age statement, $350). If you're making spirits, you can't just rest on your laurels nowadays. No matter how good the stuff you already make may be, if you're not making something new and exciting, you're history, you're last week's news, you're dead. Just ask the folks at Disaronno, makers of the venerable almond liqueur (you may know it as "Amaretto," which is the name of the category, not the brand). They've been a one-trick pony since, oh, 1525. But 490 years of success, doesn't mean a whole lot nowadays; according to Fortune magazine, U.S. sales of Disaronno slipped 3.2% last year. So, with nothing to lose, they're rolling out Disaronno Riserva, which is a blend of classic Disaronno with a bespoke blended Scotch whisky, finished in vintage wine casks in Sicily. It's limited to 10,000 cases worldwide, and at $350 a bottle, it costs almost 18 times as much as a bottle of old-school Disaronno.
So does Riserva do justice to the classic? At first blush, it's pretty similar -- that sweet, mouth-coating, intensely almond flavor that I remember so fondly from my younger drinking days (Amaretto sour, anyone?) and which I still enjoy revisiting from time to time. But take the time to savor Riserva and it's definitely more complex, owing not least to its higher alcohol content (80 proof compared to 56). It doesn't exactly taste like whisky, but it's definitely got more bite. You can't exactly taste the wine cask aging, but there is a certain fruitiness on the finish that isn't there with standard Disaronno. It may sound like heresy to say it's an improvement over classic Disaronno, but... hell, I think it's an improvement. I don't know if I'd spend $330 more on a bottle, but if someone offered me a glass, I'd jump at it.
HENNESSY 8 COGNAC (no age statement, $39,000 -- that's right, $39,000). There's cognac and then there's COGNAC. And there's COGNAC and then there's Hennessy 8. This blend, containing a mere eight cognacs (most blends contain dozens) was created to commemorate the passing of the torch from the seventh Master Blender in the brand's history, Yann Fillioux, to his nephew and eventual successor, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde. Hennessy 8 is Yann's au revoir and Renaud's bonjour, and it's a doozy. Talk about history in a glass -- it contains eaux-de-vie laid down during the tenure of every Master Blender in the company's history (all members of the Fillioux family, FYI), dating back to 1800, plus one chosen by Renaud, which was distilled by his grandfather.
It's a little hard to evaluate Hennessy 8 objectively after learning what's in the glass, but this is by any measure a spectacular cognac. Rich, velvety, with the dry elegance of the finest aged cognacs as well a vibrant, fruit-forwardness that belies its age, it's head and shoulders above... well, just about anything. The package is just as spectacular. The bottle is Baccarat crystal encased in eight crystal rings, each one signifying a Master Blender. The case is 25 layers of oak from the cooperage where Hennessy's barrels are made, coated with copper in the middle for an altogether hallucinogenic effect. Think the package looks crazy in the pic above? It looks just as unreal in person.
Only 250 bottles of Hennessy 8 are being produced for the worldwide market, and once they're gone, finis. Kanye supposedly already has his because, well, of course he would. For us mere mortals and non-rappers, a bottle is likely out of reach, but if you win the lottery or sign a big record contract, I suggest you contact Hennessy posthaste.