Winter in California is a gorgeous affair, much like the rest of the year, with sunny, crisp days and nights interspersed with warm, summery waves. There are always nearby mountains when one craves snow for the weekend but winter leads into spring seamlessly and we drink refreshing cocktails as easily as spirituous drinks, thus all spirits flow year-round, from whiskey to pisco. Here are 5 standout new spirits lovely in cocktails or neat.
If you have been reading my spirits reviews for any length of time, you know I was crazy about Lost Spirits rums and truly sad to see production stop. Thankfully, mastermind distiller Bryan Davis helped make Santeria Rum ($37) with Charleston-based Rational Spirits, whose owner I met with during my November Charleston visit as their distillery was readying to open.
With Davis’ ground-breaking, patented reactor, he can replicate 20 year-aged spirits in days (!) and Santeria Rum is the first product to show off this process to impressive effect. Davis distilled the first batch from 100% grade molasses. With no cask and no aging, it exhibits all the funky, ripe, earthy, rich characteristics of a rum aged for years.
Though I am still missing the range and quality of Lost Spirits’ rums, Santeria is the right price and quite a value for rum lovers.
POLUGAR ?3 CARAWAY
Polugar was new to me and I suspect, to most of you. Sometimes called “Russian bread wine”, it’s an unaged grain spirit with a more robust flavor profile than countless vodkas. The spirit goes way back in Russian history, disappearing with the rise of vodka after Tsar Alexander III ordered all pot stills in Russia to be removed in 1895.
Thankfully, the always pioneering Henry Preiss recently brought the spirit to the US through his HPS Epicurean imports from Boris Rodionov, a Russian academic and vodka historian who uncovered the original bread wine spirit recipe. Crazily, legislation in Russia still forbids Polugar-style grain distillation so the Rodionov family restored an old distillery in Poland to produce the spirits, each triple-distilled in copper pot stills.
The Polugar single grain series showcases Russian rye and wheat grains to fine effect, but I particularly am intrigued by the infused range of four spirits, from garlic & pepper to honey & allspice, each only 38.5% ABV.
Polugar ?3 Caraway is my favorite, not in small part due to it being reminiscent of aquavit, the Scandinavian spirit heavy on caraway and/or dill. Polugar ?3 is all about caraway and coriander playing off that bread-y rye base with whispers of black pepper and fresh grass, begging to be paired with a Reuben pastrami sandwich, hearty dumplings, cured fish or crudo. It’s also lovely chilled (here are the HPS distributors nationally, to find stores and bars carrying the product in your state).
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Whenever I drink pisco, I think of Encanto, my favorite brand and the pisco I helped make and work with in Ica, Peru, a couple years ago. Early this year, they released Barkeep’s Whimsy (ABV 40.5%; $49.99), a new pisco blend of the same five grape varietals in their Grand & Noble pisco: Torontel, Quebranta, Moscatel, Mollar and Italia grapes.
The difference is the dominance of Torontel (also known as Torontés in Argentina). Barkeep’s Whimsy is aromatic with citrus and spice, made with bartenders who participated in Encanto’s Distiller’s Apprentice competition. With bartender input, it’s a particularly cocktail-friendly pisco begging to be used in a range of recipes.
NOVO FOGO CACHACA’s SINGLE BARREL 137
Novo Fogo’s silver cachaça has long been an affordable ($29.99), seamless expression of the Brazilian sugarcane spirit, aromatic with banana and even a little salinity.
With only 240 bottles made, the Single Barrel Cachaça 137 ($149.99) was a special release in 2015 (alongside a few other single barrel releases) where that banana and sugarcane funk (which I adore in agricole-style rum/rhum) shines alongside subtle spices and balanced oak. It’s ideal sipped neat, aged for 7 years in American oak at 42% ABV (cask proof).
GLENDALOUGH IRISH WHISKEY
The Glendalough Distillery, opened by five Irish friends, is part of a wave of craft, or rather small batch, distillers that have finally started opening across Ireland, which for many years had been limited to 3 large distilleries making all Irish whiskies.
The diversity bodes well for the category, exemplified by this smooth, easy drinking whiskey. While it’s a bit soft and mild for me, American Bourbon barrels and a finish in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks add some complexity and dried fruit depth to the light, floral, caramel/oak notes.
I’m curious about Glendalough’s other spirits: poitín (I’ve been waiting for a great poitín since the beautiful one from now-closed 1512 Spirits), gin and absinthe.