Almost daily, Im tasting a wide range of spirits, wines and beers, whether at restaurants and bars, distilleries, wineries or breweries or as samples crossing my desk. Over the past few months, there have been many new spirits releases, including these spring and winter releases since the year began.
I’ve been having fun experimenting with cocktails with recently released Cent-Anni Cocktails syrups from Victoria DAmato-Moran, who has been crafting lovely cocktails and these syrups for the full 15 years I’ve lived in SF. They are finally available for home and bar use, in three flavors: chocolate chili spice, lemon spice, pineapple spice (I’ve particularly enjoyed mixing bourbon, Campari and the chocolate chili spice syrup for a sweet-bitter-spiced cocktail).
Local Fernet Francisco is a more subtle, entry-level option in the Italian fernet amaro category, one that should please those who’d prefer a more understated fernet.
It was fascinating trying Indian spirit, Cashew Apple Feni, made in Goa, India, near the ocean from the apple of the cashew nut there are only a few in this spirit category imported to the US. The spirit is bright, tasting of tart apple, but also a bit candied, even artificial, finishing nutty and funky an acquired taste. I like it but am still playing with it in cocktails trying to find my preferred way of drinking it.
On the American whiskey side, Blade & Bow was released using “juice” from the legendary, long-defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery, the distillery where those of you privileged enough to know what Pappy Van Winkle once tasted like came from. With two releases, a 22 year bourbon and a straight bourbon, I found Blade & Bow a bit “hot” for only 45.5% ABV, but its rich fruit (peach and pear) sweetness and heavy oak shine.
Here are the spirits standouts across a number of categories of the past few months.
1. Griffo Distillery’s Scott Street Gin ($32)
Brand new Griffo Distillery in Petaluma is one to watch. You’ve been alerted. The delightful husband-wife duo of Michael and Jenny Griffo have just released their gin, with three whiskies aging and on the way (bourbon, rye and a corn/rye/barley whiskey). Michael’s PhD in physics plays specifically into the artistry and technical accuracy behind their spirits.
But let’s get back to Scott Street Gin. It’s got the balance and understatement of a perfect London dry gin and, yes, the juniper shines which means it stands strong in classic gin cocktail recipes. But it’s also decidedly New World in ethos, using local ingredients/botanicals whenever possible, including a hint of NorCal Meyer lemon as well as cubeb pepper, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon. Distilling from grain-to-glass on their custom Vendome still, a non-gmo corn base using corn from California’s Central Valley gives the spirit structure.
2. Singani 63 Bolivian Brandy ($30)
This spring, I first tasted Singani 63 thanks to Nicolas Torres at Lazy Bear, who I saw serving the spirit before it started popping up all over in recent weeks. He beautifully showcased it in his No Barrel Needed cocktail with Blenheim apricots blended and steeped in a house syrup, Leopolds Maraschino liqueur, lemon, Grains of Paradise and a touch of egg white (currently, he features a lovely, floral cocktail showing off Singani at brand new Black Sands called For Every Sin, mixing Singani 63 with Americano Bianco, lemon, fresh pluots, rosemary syrup, rose water).
Especially exciting is the fact that Singani is a category of spirit we haven’t seen in the US yet. This is undiscovered territory for us spirit geeks and global distillery travelers. Singani hails from Bolivia, a spirit distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes and grape pomace with an over 500 year tradition, reminding me of pisco, clear, unaged brandy/eau-de-vie and grappa with its bright, floral, earthy qualities.
I could happily sip it neat but as with those fascinating spirits, it works beautifully in a range of cocktails. Interestingly, the first imported singani is imported by film director Steven Soderbergh who has been working for seven years to get it to the States.
Where to Try/Buy: At this point, it’s mainly available in CA and NY, with a long list of where to taste or buy here.
3. Cannella Cinnamon Cordial ($25)
SF-based Joe Cannella just happens to have a last name that means “cinnamon.” Like me, he has Sicilian roots and recently released his Cannella Cinnamon Cordial, inspired by traditional cinnamon liqueurs he tried around Sicily over the years (the story here), distilled under Seven Stills, another SF-based company. You’ll find some direct commentary I gave as I tasted early iterations of Cannella pre-release on their website. Cannella is one of the top spirits releases of the year, filling and unfilled void for an understated, balanced, not cloying or too sweet cinnamon liqueur that has bright, zesty notes contrasted by a lovely, dusty cinnamon quality.
Where to Try/Buy: Here are a number of California sources to buy and taste Cannella.
4. Tempus Fugit Vermouths ($22-25)
Whatever Tempus Fugit releases, I’d vouch for. The quality and consistency of all of their spirits not to mention their historical accuracy is rarely matched in the spirits world. Over the past decade, I have been privileged to try iterations of their spirits in their formative stage, knowing first hand just how thorough and patient the owners and distiller are with finding the perfect balance before releasing each product.
So I had no doubt their Vermouth Chinato ($24.99) and Vermouth di Torino Rosso ($21.99), both red/sweet vermouths, would be standouts in the vermouth world, having tasted iterations of them over the years. The 19th century-style Chinato gets its subtle bitter from Cinchona bark and over 25 herbs, including grande and petite wormwood, a nearly bygone style of bitter vermouth… until now. At merely 16.5% ABV, its herbal notes shine.
The classic, 19th century-style di Torino was commonly called “Vino di Lusso” (luxury wine) and historically drunk on its own. Tempus Fugit uses Piedmont, Italy, wine as the base, as well as Grande and Petite Wormwood and over 25 herbs, roots and spices. The mouth-feel is indeed luxurious while the herbs and gently bitter citrus notes round it out.
5. Hibiki Harmony ($64.99)
No surprise: brand new Hibiki Harmony, a blend of over 10 malt and grain whiskies, is a beauty. The whiskies are from Beam Suntorys Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and the Chita grain distillery, aged in varying casks (mizunara, American white oak and sherry) in true Suntory form.
Sold in Hibiki’s signature decanter-style bottle, the whisky exhibits, first and foremost that Japanese aesthetic of balance and, yes, harmony. Citrus, stone fruit and blossoms are redolent on the nose and there on the palate but so is a subtle spice. Older Hibiki blends may make a bigger statement but this is a fine entrant in the line and a welcome option at this price point for Japanese whisky.
Where to Try/Buy: This nationwide release can be found at many bars and restaurants specializing in or offering Japanese whiskies.
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Compass Box and whiskymaker John Glaser have been crafting some of the most fascinating whisky/Scotch out there since 2000. Recently, they released three new whiskies, two of them priced at an affordable $25-45, the Great King St. Artist’s Blend and Great King St. Glasgow Blend.
I like all three and those affordable two can be used in cocktails, if so inclined. But I especially love the more expensive, limited edition (only around 5600 bottles) Hedonism Quindecimus, a tribute to their first bottling, the original Hedonism. Here, they blended older, rare whiskies to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary. It shows off the best of Compass Box combining grains from different distilleries, with bright yet supple whispers of caramel and coconut.
Where to Try/Buy: Locally, you can order it from K&L.
7. Diplomatico Prestige Range Rums
At Aspen Food & Wine this year I had the joy of tasting Diplomatico’s Prestige Rums, and though I have long been familiar with their regular line of Venezuelan rums, these sipping rums are both elegant, special occasion rums best enjoyed neat.
The Single Vintage 2000 Rum ($110) is aged for 12 years in bourbon casks and then one year in Spanish sherry casks. It’s lush and silky, redolent of tobacco, vanilla, caramel and almonds. With Ambassador Rum ($300), port and dried fruit, dark chocolate and coffee notes form its balanced flavor profile. It is aged in white oak barrels for a minimum of 12 years and then two more years in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.
8. Mezcal Amaras Cupreata ($60)
This summer they released their second mezcal, made from the cupreata agave plant, a varietal that shines in earthiness but also, as I tasted Amaras’ cupreata, in a fleshy, ripe juiciness that adds roundness to the earthy notes. It’s a wonderful new entrant in the mezcal category in a varietal we don’t often see imported.
Where to Try/Buy: K&L has it for $54.99.
9. Batiste Rhum ($39.99)
Calling itself “new wave French rhum”, Batiste Rhum Agricole is a release my favorite category of rum: French-style rhum agricole. There have been a lot changes since they first launched in 2008, including eco-friendly production processes (solar, no chemicals) and non-GMO, food grade sugar cane as the base.
It is produced in the Caribbean on the remote French island of Marie Galante and finished at Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma/Sonoma County, making use of their Japanese vacuum still, which essentially polishes and further finishes the rhum without additional fermentation. While the funky-grassy qualities of the fresh cane juice-based rhum agricole are what I love about the category, Batiste leans towards the fresher, grassy side, an elegant agricole for those who like a bit less funk. As any great agricole should, it makes a mean Ti Punch cocktail.
Where to Try/Buy: Currently only available in California, Batiste is available at a wide range of shops and restaurants/bars across the state listed here.
10. Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey ($49.99)
Where to Try/Buy: Purchase for $49.99 at K&L.