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Awards: Spirits of the Year 2003

How to choose fom the hundreds of new spirits released every year? No need: we've done the work for you. Here, our top 10 picks, chosen in a blind tasting.

Rum
Cognac
Irish Whiskey
Grappa
Scotch
Armagnac
Vodka
Calvados
Mezcal
Gin

Best Rum

Plantation Trinidad 1993
Unlike Scotch producers, rum distillers traditionally haven't played around with what's called the "wood finish"—the process of aging spirits in unusual casks. But that changed when Cognac houses like Pierre Ferrand began selling their used French-oak casks to distilleries around the Caribbean. The results of that practice can now be sampled in Gabriel & Andreu's Plantation rum series, of which this 1993 vintage from Trinidad is a breathtaking example. An inviting aroma of vanilla and orange segues into a light-bodied but complex flavor with floral undertones. The French connection is clearest in the long, winelike finish. Let's hope this is the start of a beautiful trans-Atlantic friendship ($23; www.gafrance.net).

Best Cognac

Croizet XO Gold Grande Champagne
The Croizet family believes the cliché that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. The eighth-generation Cognac makers control every stage of the process, right down to growing the grapes—in the case of the Croizet XO Gold, Grande Champagne grapes from their vineyard in France's Cognac region. The ripe, juicy fruit distills beautifully to create a spirit that tastes like wave after wave of orange, peach and plum. This is Cognac as it should be and too rarely is: Vibrant and mouthwatering, it achieves a new-world verve without giving up its old-world reserve ($90; www.croizet.fr).

Best Irish Whisky

Jameson 18-Year-Old
Jameson is like one of those country-club families in which each member is more alarmingly accomplished and attractive than the last. Every whiskey in the company's portfolio is distinguished for one reason or another. This self-confident 18-year-old shares the genetic predisposition toward appealingly warm flavors, with strong notes of honey, but here the blend and the production process create a new set of nuances. Jameson 18-Year-Old is made up of three whiskies, each one aged between 18 and 23 years, with a considerable portion of that time in Spanish sherry barrels and the rest in bourbon barrels. The result is a terrifically smooth blend that brings to mind spice, toasted nuts, lemon and fresh-cut lumber ($65; www.jameson.ie).

Best Grappa

Germain-Robin Grappa of Syrah
Germain-Robin revolutionized California brandy. Years ago, the state's brandy makers relied on grapes that the wineries didn't want, but Germain-Robin hunted down premium varietals to create first-rank products like its Anno Domini, made mostly from Pinot Noir. Now the small Mendocino-based company is applying the same philosophy to this grappa, distilled from bunches of North Coast Syrah grapes, stems and all. The nose is aromatic, floral and fruity, while the body is velvety and round—a surprise to anyone used to harsher grappas. Once again, Germain-Robin has proven that excellent raw ingredients make all the difference ($55; www.germain-robin.com).

Best Scotch

Bowmore 25
One standard election-year ploy is the unveiling of a "new" candidate—who always turns out to be the same old loser with a different haircut. If only someone could do for politicians what Bowmore just did for its award-winning 25-year-old single malt. Its master distiller changed the recipe—changed it so much that it truly is a new whisky. The fruitcake flavors of sherry are more prominent now, which will please some tasters more than others. Everyone will agree, though, that this new edition has a much longer and mellower finish, thanks to a higher proportion of older vintages. To avoid confusion with its earlier namesake, the 25-year-old is now packaged in a spiffy clear bottle instead of a ceramic decanter. Try that with Joe Lieberman ($160; www.bowmorescotch.com).

Best Armagnac

Baron de Lustrac 1980
Cognac is associated with powerhouse brands that are often name-dropped by rap stars; Armagnac is produced by hundreds of anonymous farmsteads scattered around the Gascony region of southwest France. Luckily, the négociant firm Baron de Lustrac scours the countryside in search of bottlings like this one, made by Domaine de la Croix Pelanne from a grape called Baco. Small-scale farming and microdistilling produce a spirit so perfect on its own that it doesn't need blending. More than two decades in oak have made it stunningly mellow, with a lingering caramel warmth that lasts so long it really shouldn't be called a "finish" ($75; 800-595-1768).

Best Vodka

Charbay
While the best whiskies and brandies are built from layer upon layer of flavor, vodka companies tend to focus on filtering flavors out. Charbay, a tiny producer in California's Napa Valley, takes a different approach altogether. After quadruple distillation in stainless steel, Charbay's vodka, at 96 percent alcohol, is almost impossibly strong and pure, so there are virtually no imperfections to eliminate. The spirit never runs through the multiple layers of charcoal that other brands use, so it effortlessly retains a natural sweetness, a round, luscious body and a smooth, squeaky-clean flavor ($28; www.charbay.com).

Best Calvados

Manoir D'Apreval Brut de Fut 1974
Apreval, a century-old family-owned domaine with its own orchards in Normandy, France, released two stunning Calvados in the past year. One, labeled XO, is what wine geeks would call a "hedonistic fruit bomb." The other, the Brut de Fut 1974, is the opposite: dry, austere, almost cerebral, but also powerful. (The product of a single cask, it's bottled at full strength, undiluted.) You'll taste fruit, but those flavors are held in check by hints of spice and coffee. This Calvados edged past its younger, blended and less expensive sibling in our blind tasting, earning extra points for its exquisite balance ($225; www.apreval.com).

Best Mezcal

Scorpion Añejo One Year
Ordinarily, the practice of siphoning various spirits into expensive crystal decanters seems just a bit twee. But some tweeness may be in order when it comes to this delicious mezcal, each bottle of which contains a real mummified scorpion. (Mezcal, which is similar to tequila but made from a different type of agave plant and older distillation methods, often contains a worm in the bottle.) You may not detect the scorpion flavor on the palate, unless you know what a scorpion is supposed to taste like. What you will experience is a fresh, nimble, nicely balanced spirit with a hint of melon flavor. And no sting at all ($50; www.scorpionmezcal.com).

Best Gin

Broker's Gin
The brothers who created Broker's aren't above making fun of their countrymen: Each bottle jauntily wears a bowler-shaped cap in honor of the hats English stockbrokers favor. Broker's is a good, old-fashioned London-style gin: dry as gunpowder, and with bold flavors that are a refreshing contrast to the new wave of mild gins. Some recent brands try to imitate vodka by toning down any eccentricities; Broker's flaunts its differences, showcasing the assertive flavors of bark, roots and berries. Orange and lemon zest freshen things up, and coriander adds its own peppery bite, but the dominant, classically English flavor—all rise, please, while the band plays "God Save the Queen"—is juniper ($20; www.brokersginusa.com).

Published December 2003
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