For our third annual Spirits of the Year Awards, we tasted more than 50 new contenders from innovators, traditionalists and everyone in between.
Angostura 5-Year-Old Dark Drinking a single malt this young would amount to robbing the cradle, but spirits grow up fast in the heat of the tropics; after just five years, this dark rum from Trinidad is as assertive as they come. During that time, it's almost as if some mad pastry chef had broken into the casks in the middle of the night to infuse the contents with the flavors of dark-chocolate-covered orange peel, white-pepper-scented crème brûlée and vanilla-infused tarte Tatin. All of that results in an Angostura that's exuberant and fun to drink. But make no mistake: This rum means business. Drink it instead of dessertand remind yourself that some things in life are worth not waiting for ($18).
Hennessy Private Reserve Besides owning the largest stock of old Cognacs on the planet, Hennessy has another world-class asset in the person of its master blender, Yann Fillioux. You could say he has several lifetimes of experience; his great-great-grandfather, who made Hennessy's first Private Reserve, in 1873, already represented the third generation of Fillioux working with the Hennessys. To make this gorgeous homage to his ancestor's 1873 invention, Yann raided casks of vintage brandies dating back to 1947. The resulting blend offers aromas of vanilla and candied lemon peel; a warm, lively taste of fresh fruits and flowers; and a mellow finish that promises to go on for at least another five generations ($150).
Best Scotch Whisky
Compass Box Asyla John Glaser, the man behind Compass Box, believes that the Scotch-whisky industry needs a swift kick in the kilt. A corporate refugee who walked away from Johnnie Walker, he's not the type to be made misty-eyed by the rolling-fog-crashing-waves image of Scotland. Hell, he whipped up his first batch of Compass Box in his kitchenin England. With three groundbreaking whiskies to his credit, he's finally given us his version of a Johnnie-style blended Scotch. To keep Asyla's delicious fruit flavors from getting too decadent, Glaser has balanced the blend with a strong shot of smoke ($37).
San Matas Añejo Gran Reserva Although Tequila San Matas de Jalisco has been in business since 1886, the company only recently got serious about shipping its products north of the border. One of the finest artisanal producers in Mexico, San Matas does just about everythingfrom farming to bottlingitself. (Matas even gets its water from a spring near the distillery.) That hands-on approach pays large dividends in this three-year-old spirit of rare subtlety. Balance is everything here, with a complex interplay of sweet and tart, and dark aromas of leather set against lighter ones of honey and vanilla. Hold the salt and limehold everythingand listen to what this quiet, refined tequila has to say ($30).
Best American Whisky
Michter's Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old This bourbon is a tribute to what may have been America's first distillery. Michter's was founded in eastern Pennsylvania back in 1753 and managed to survive the Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion. After closing during Prohibition, it reopened after World War II, only to close again, for good, in 1988. But though the distillery is gone, the legacy lives on. Chatham Imports, which now owns the Michter's name, believes this bourbon epitomizes what was best about the brand: an intense flavor neatly poised between sugar and acid, a slow heat that threatens to burn but never does. It drinks like a much older whisky ($50).
Best Irish Whiskey
Midleton Very Rare 2001 The warm flavor of this limited edition is highly reminiscent of Jameson. As well it should be, since the Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork makes both whiskeys under the direction of master distiller Barry Crockett and master blender Barry Walsh. The Barrys mixed old batches dating as far back as 1975 to create the apotheosis of Irish whiskey. The flavor is almost creamy, with hints of honey, spice and lemon. Add hot water and you'd almost have an instant hot toddybut you won't want to dilute this alluring blend of power and finesse ($110).
Hangar One How does a company that's never made vodka before win top honors? Well, first, they have an excellent nonvodka résumé; Hangar One is produced by St. George Spirits, the tiny distillery that makes some of America's best fruit brandies. Second, they have some novel ideas. They start with a wheat vodka, a fairly common approach, but mix in Viognier distillate, which is unprecedented. This addition results in a straight vodka that is anything but odorless and flavorless. Viognier is an intensely aromatic varietal, so even a small dose lends hints of pears and cherries. Also make sure to clear space in your liquor cabinet for Hangar One's outstanding line of fruit-infused vodkas, in varieties like kaffir lime and Buddha's-hand citron ($30 to $36).
Grappa Alexander If your last encounter with grappa left you breathing fire, you might be pleased to know that the people at Distilleria Bottega, north of Venice, don't consider you a wimp. No, they take the contrarian view that grappa drinking should not be a life-threatening event. Not only do they distill Grappa Alexander twice, for a rounder, softer flavor, but they also dilute it to an amiable 40 percent alcohol (some sadistic brands go as high as a throat-torching 50 percent). The result is a very approachable spirit with crisp fall-fruit flavors like Cortland apples and Bosc pears ($33 to $90).