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Spirits of the Year Awards 2001

Had enough of trendy spirits? Distillers have introduced plenty of alternatives to tired fads. To help you find the best, we conducted a blind tasting of dozens of new ones that sell for under $100.

Grappa
Jacopo Poli Grappa di Sassicaia

Sassicaia, an Italian wine made with Cabernet grapes, is so unusual they had to invent a new term—Super-Tuscan—to describe it. Before it's aged, the grape skins are filtered out and pressed, and their juices are distilled into a spirit that's pretty unusual in its own right. Grappa di Sassicaia has a pale gold color (from hanging around in French oak for four years) and a mesmerizing aroma (pears, honey, raisins, butterscotch and...is that parsley?). The lush cooked-fruit flavors are offset by a slight herbal bitterness, and the finish is warm and soothing ($61).

"Absinthe"
Versinthe

Who knew we'd have this oddball category two years in a row? But the fin de siècle nostalgia that last year brought us Absente now gives us Versinthe, a nimble absinthe substitute in which the illegal wormwood has been supplanted by two kinds of mugwort, a near relative. A host of other botanicals—anise, and maybe tarragon, peppermint, and chamomile—make a taste startlingly fresh. Add water and the pale gold hue changes into the milky green that Degas and Verlaine so admired ($30).

Tequila
Hacienda del Cristero

Even in Mexico, blanco tequilas aren't taken too seriously. (Here, of course, they're dumped by the gallon into margarita machines.) But this premium clear tequila made by Herradura is changing that. Stop a minute to consider what you're drinking, and you'll notice all sorts of things. Your nose might pick up pineapple, lime and celery, while your tongue will puzzle its way from pear and plum to sweet caramelized onion and wood-roasted garlic. No kidding. Hacienda del Cristero isn't for beginners, but adventurous drinkers may want to start having a glass with dinner ($50).

American Whiskey
1992 Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel Bourbon

Every year, master distiller Parker Beam pokes around the Kentucky "rick house" where barrels of Evan Williams bourbon live, inspects the ones put there a decade earlier, then picks a few for bottling. And every year, the whiskey he chooses tastes better than last year's. This year saw the release of the 1992 vintage, a killer. The earthy, sweet smell has a hint of caramel apples, but the flavor recalls a cherry pie straight from the oven. Like an old cabinet, this whiskey has been polished to a warm, gorgeous glow ($25).

Irish Whiskey
Redbreast

OK, it's not really new. In fact, it's been around since the '30s. But it's new to America. Redbreast is a revered Irish whiskey that was known in its heyday as "the priest's bottle." Perhaps the priests failed to keep the faith, because the distillery closed in 1971. This robust 12-year-old was revived several years ago, but it didn't make it to the United States until recently. Aromas of honey, lemon and hot tea (instant hot toddy!) prepare the way for a mouthwatering balance of sweet and sour. Let's hope it's here to stay ($40).

Scotch Whisky
Aberlour 15-year-old Double Cask Matured

The "double cask" means sherry and bourbon barrels took turns aging this single malt Scotch. Like parents, each one left its impression on the child. From the bourbon, it gets a gravity and seriousness; from the sherry, an airy elegance. Like many hybrids, it's long-lived, with a never-ending finish. Right now, sadly, it's only sold in duty-free shops, but it's way too good for airports. Set this whisky free ($47)!

Vodka
The Jewel of Russia Ultra

Jewel of Russia's bottle is out there. Hand-painted Technicolor designs, an onion-dome cap, Cyrillic lettering (you have to turn the bottle around to see the words Jewel of Russia)—it's like watching Tarkovsky's great film Andrei Rublev on acid. Fortunately, the liquid within will steady your nerves. It's supposedly ultrafiltered and ultradistilled, but that didn't eliminate the hints of citrus or the sweetness and light spiciness of winter wheat and rye ($55).

Rum
Cruzan Estate Diamond 5-year Rum

The heat of the tropics can accomplish in five years what would take a decade in Scotland or even Kentucky. Cruzan's amber-gold five-year-old, distilled and aged in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has a busy complexity that belies its youth. You smell toasted coconut first, but after that come bananas, chocolate, pineapples and butterscotch; it almost adds up to a banana split. Sip it and you might think of raisins and fruitcake, too. And, perhaps because it doesn't sit around paying rent for 10 years, it's an astonishingly good buy ($17).

Gin
Hendrick's

Hendrick's has no shortage of eccentricities. It's the gin from Scotland. It's the gin in the cute green cardboard tube. It's the gin made with cucumbers. Yeah, pretty weird. But when you drink it, you know Hendrick's is more than its tagline, "a most peculiar gin," suggests. It was obviously crafted with care by distillers who understood why cucumber (and rose petals, too) would blend so nicely with juniper, coriander and lemon zest. Like all true eccentrics, it makes a strong impression—in this case, one well worth remembering ($30).

Published December 2001
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