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Spirits: Top-Shelf Help | Best Boutique Bottles

In a world of single-barrel bourbons, limited-edition tequilas and vodkas made out of everything from wheat to soy, how can you tell a fancy bottle at a fancy price from a truly great spirit? Here, the best boutique offerings and a few hidden bargains.

Vodka

Jean-Marc XO, $50 Finding an expensive vodka isn't hard. Finding one that's odorless and flavorless—as vodka legally should be—yet still distinctive, that's tough. Jean-Marc XO, from the Cognac-producing Daucourt family, does this better than any vodka I've ever had. Made from wheat and distilled nine times, it's as silky and classically elegant as an Hermès scarf.

Value Pearl, $21 Made from winter wheat, this vodka from Canada is focused and pure, without any burn.

Tequila

Corazón de Agave Añejo, $49 Añejo tequilas are extensively aged in wood to make them smooth, complex and elegant. But some añejos, which can be very expensive, taste more like the barrels they're stored in than the agave they're made from. Corazón's añejo balances its crème brûlée richness with the spicy, vegetal note of agave.

Value El Tesoro Platinum, $36 One hundred percent blue agave tequilas are never cheap, but they're worth the price. This one is terrific—fresh and clean.

Gin

Plymouth, $25 Gin is a fantastic value these days, and even the best bottles are underpriced. Plymouth is one of them. It has the ideal proportion of juniper to citrus notes, and a light earthiness, too, a sort of classic, old England feel—appropriate, as it's been made in the same building in Plymouth since 1793.

Value Beefeater, $17 Even boutique gins are not that expensive to begin with. But for under $20, Beefeater, which starts on a firm juniper note and finishes dry and fresh, definitely has the best price-quality ratio.

Single-Malt Scotch

Bruichladdich 20-Year-Old Second Edition "Flirtation," $185 Bruichladdich's "Flirtation" is many things—floral, smoky, licoricey, malty, fruity (think currants and cherries). It also happens to be slightly pink. That's odd, but if you were stored for five weeks inside Mourvèdre wine casks, you'd turn pink, too.

Value Caol Ila 12-Year-Old, $40 This Islay malt, from a distillery formerly hard to find in the U.S., has a saline tang that suggests seaside breezes, a hint of peat smoke and a spicy finish.

Rum

Ron Zacapa Centenario, $38 Not long ago, a friend gave me a bottle of Centenario and said, "This is the most amazing rum you'll ever drink." I looked at the palm frond-covered bottle, thought, "No, it's the goofiest-looking rum I've ever seen," and put it away. My mistake. Centenario is amazing. A blend of 23-year-old Guatemalan rums, it glides down effortlessly, a touch sweet, entirely seductive.

Value Appleton Estate V/X, $17 Sultry and smooth, V/X is a blend of Jamaican rums aged for up to 10 years.

Bourbon

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, $55 Having once been attacked by a wild turkey (the feathered kind), I've always had a sentimental bias toward Wild Turkey (the liquid kind). It happens that Kentucky Spirit is sublime. Master distiller Jimmy Russell picks his favorite barrels in the warehouse for this generous, gently sweet sipping whiskey.

Value Evan Williams Single Barrel 1995, $25 Each year sees a new vintage of this impressive bourbon. The lush '95 is as smooth as corn silk.

Published June 2005
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