With the year coming to a close and everyone begins offering lists of various kinds for the year, we ask ourselves: what were the best spirits in 2009? Ultimately the consumer and the marketplace will decide. But if you want to elect an all-star group of classic spirits from the scores and ratings of 2009, then that elite group of "professionals" elected the following group of spirits...
Dry Fly Vodka: Winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for Best Vodka. It's a wheat-based vodka from a craft-distiller out of Spokane, Washington. Hard to find, perhaps, but apparently worth it.
Vodka ratings are notoriously volatile. Winners in one year plummet the next, upstart vodkas come and go, and craft-distillers everywhere are kicking out all manner of organics, featuring different kinds of waters, different sorts of bases (we added a vodka that used a milk base, of all things, and got very good ratings), and certainly many highly imaginative marketing ploys (highlighted by the popularity of Crystal Head Vodka with a skull-shaped bottle). Vodkas remain a bulwark of popularity in the modern cocktail age due to their versatility in accepting other flavors - -be it lemon-grass or acai berries or bacon fat-vodka takes it all and provide the foundation for experimentation in drinks.
Stolichnaya Elit Vodka: Highest-scoring neutral vodka in 2009 from the Beverage Testing Institute. This is another wheat-based vodka and made from one of the most storied vodkas in the world. The elit comes from a special sub-zero filtering process and separates it from the already respectable, popular, (and less-expensive) red-label Stolichnaya.
8-Way Tie: Wine Enthusiasts did not award any neutral vodkas with their highest, 96-100pt Superlative rating in 2009. But eight different vodkas did achieve a 90-95pt score of Superb/Highly Recommended, including, Cape North Vodka, a wheat-based spirit out of France; Crop Organic Vodka, a grain vodka from New York; Diamond Standard Vodka, a rye-based vodka from Poland; Double Cross Vodka, a wheat-based vodka from Slovakia; Purus Organic Vodka, a wheat-based spirit from Italy; Rehorst Vodka, a craft-distilled wheat-based vodka from Wisconsin; Stolichanaya (Red Label), the famous wheat-based vodka from Russia; and True North Vodka, one of our personal favorites in a rye-based vodka from Michigan.
Gins represented a spirit that is gradually gaining ground in respectability. Due to this golden age of craft-distillers, quality processing, and fresh ingredients, the wealth of gins - -both traditional and modern- - are exploding across the world to the breathless delight of martini drinkers everywhere. Gin-martini drinkers are both notoriously fickle and loyal to particular brands and flavors, but it's hard for even the stodgiest old-guard martini drinker not to get excited about some of the products hitting the shelves.
Bluecoat Gin: Winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for Best Gin. In another win for the craft-distilling movement, the Philadelphia Distilling Company won the competition with a more modern-style gin in a bright blue bottle.
Two-Way Tie: two gins tied for the best score of 94pts from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2009. The first was DH Krahn Gin, a London-dry gin out of New York from a craft distiller founded by Cornell graduates. The second was Hendrick's Gin, a modern gin in a replica medicine bottle from the UK's William Grant & Sons (the gin to be taken in a martini with a slice of cucumber!).
Old Raj Gin: The only gin awarded a 96-100pt Superlative rating by Wine Enthusiasts in 2009. Old Raj is a modern take in an historic bottle taking a very high-proof gin (92) with an addition of saffron, giving it a bit of a golden hue.
Angostura 1824 12yr Rum: Winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for Best Extra-Aged Rum. From out of Trinidad, this rum meant to celebrate the date of the Angostura Company's founding is a blend of selected rums aged in American Oak for at least 12 years.
Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum: highest rated rum in 2009 with 96 points from the Beverage Testing Institute. Cruzan offers a large line of respectable rums at reasonable/value pricing. This single-barrel rum is a premium product made from rums aged at least 12 years, then aged together for one additional year (vatted or married you might say) in a final barrel. Hard to find but well worth the effort.
Two-Way Tie: two aged rums tied with Superlative, 96-100pt ratings from Wine Enthusiasts in 2009. The first was English Harbour 25yr 1981 Rum. From Antigua Distillers, this rum was laid down in 1981 in smaller barrels to promote greater contact with the wood. The second was Renegade Rum 1997 Panama Don Jose Rum. The 10yr rum was selected from the Don Jose Distillery in Panama by the United Kingdom's Renegade Rum Company, who finished it with an additional aging in port wine casks.
Aged rums are beginning to creep into the ultra-premium classes of spirits around the world. Specific ages, vintages, and finishes once reserved for fancy scotch whiskies are now being declared on premium rum labels from all over South America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world. While not commanding the prices of traditional scotches, there is a great deal of increasing pride surrounding rum.
El Tesoro Paradiso Anejo Tequila: winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for Best Tequila. The El Tesoro tequilas - -in a time where premium tequilas are at dizzying heights for quality and demand - has as impressive a win-streak in professional ratings as any single spirit in the world. In 2009, the Paradiso expression - -aged for 5yrs in cognac barrel - takes top-prize.
Tequila gets a bad reputation from college youth who insist on shooting mixto tequila with a dash of body sweat over Spring Break bacchanalias. In fact, distilleries in Jalisco have become justifiably proud of their products and fine tequilas are achieving a breadth and depth of quality perhaps unmatched from any time in the past. Extra-aged tequilas specifically are achieving the legendary and exclusive status enjoyed by the finest whiskeys.
El Tesoro Paradiso Anejo Tequila: awarded the highest point total of any tequila in 2009 with 97pts from the Beverage Testing Institute. What? Again? Yes! The same anejo tequila that won the San Francisco Competition also won the best tequila tasted by BTI in 2009. This is the only spirit that hit The Double from anything we monitored. And incidentally, the El Tesoro Anejo was the only tequila in 2009 to get 96pts from BTI.
Four-Way Tie: two anejo, one reposado, and one blanco tequila were awarded a Superlative rating of 96-100pts by Wine Enthusiasts in 2009. The blanco was Herradura Silver, from the distillery Tequila Herradura with a long history of 100% Blue Weber Agave production. The silver is aged for a quick month in oak. The reposado was Los Arango Reposado Tequila, from Tequila Corralejo. The first of the two anejos was another win for Tequila Herradura with Herradura Anejo Tequila, aged for 25 months in American White Oak. The second (and far more expensive) anejo was Gran Patron Burdeos Anejo Tequila, a long way from their self-shot pouring younger brethren, the Burdeos is aged a year in French or American oak then an additional year in Bordeaux wine barrels.
Whiskey (please don't get on our case about the spelling... we know!)
Parker's Heritage Collection Cask Strength Kentucky Bourbon: winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition named Best in Show for brown spirits. This is the first time (we believe) that an American whiskey has claimed the top spot for all whiskeys in this prestigious competition. It is a limited edition of bourbon selected from a stock of 700,000 Heaven Hills Distillery barrels by Parker Beam, scion of the legendary family that nearly founded Kentucky whiskey.
Dalmore 40yr Single Malt Scotch: awarded the highest total of 98pts of all whiskeys in 2009 by the Beverage Testing Institute. The Famous Dalmore Distillery (owned by United Brewers Group) has been resting for four decades after being laid down in 1965 by the master distiller of the time. It was also awarded a double-gold medal in the 2009 San Francisco competition. At $3,000, it is as collectible a scotch whiskey as exists in 2009.
Whiskeys are, and continue to be, the ultimate achievement in spirits production. They command the greatest prices, they command the most loyalty, and provide a haven for every level of enthusiast from know-it-all, to snob, to true connoisseur. People's taste in whiskey is as individual as anything in the world and it is sheer madness to attempt to declare winners in a single category of whiskey, much less take on the different categories of bourbons, scotches, Irish whiskeys, world whiskeys, moonshine, and the like. But, we'll dip a toe into the pool of madness and offer these note-worthies from 2009.
In a year that saw the flavoring of vodkas, tequilas, rums, gins, and whiskeys, it seemed like liqueurs were almost the forgotten spirit despite some truly interesting and very reasonably priced offerings. As exotic as the flavorings were that entered the classic spirits and cocktail world, liqueurs are broadening as well in some truly fascinating dimensions even as the classics continue to command attention as well.
Coole Swan Superior Dairy Cream Liqueur: winner of the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits competition for Best of Show in Liqueurs. What? An Irish cream defeating the elderflowers, the gingers, and famous cognac-orange liqueurs of France? Yes!! This unassuming Irish Cream from the Coole Quay Liqueur Company of Ireland shook the world with this win based upon Madagascar vanilla and - apparently - great cows.
Radeberger Bitter Krautenlikor: awarded the highest point total in 2009 for any liqueur with 96pts from the Beverage Testing Institute. Unfortunately, we know little about this liqueur because their website's in German... but based upon the high recommendations of BTI and a very reasonable price reported at $20, it certainly seems worth trying. (We're going to.)
3-Way Tie: three liqueurs ended up with Superlative ratings of 96-100pts from Wine Enthusiasts in 2009. The first was our second of two Doubles of the year with Coole Swan Irish Cream Liqueur. An Irish cream winning San Francisco was outstanding enough but, based upon the all-star scoring, it is one of the two top-spirits of all of 2009. Very impressive. The second was Crispin's Rose Liqueur from Greenway Distillers of California. This is an herbal liqueur made with apple juice, honey, and freshly cut roses. The third was actually a suite of winners from Joseph Cartron of France that included Joseph Cartron Creme de Cerise de Bourgogne Cherry Liqueur,, Joseph Cartron Pomegranate Grenade Liqueur, and Joseph Cartron Creme de Cassis de Bourgnone Double Creme Black Currant Liqueur. All of these fruit liqueurs come from France and are made with all the French sensibilities and craftsmanship that vintners and distillers have been showing for years.
It has been a marvelous, outstanding year for the spirits industry for both quality and flavor. We greatly look forward to the innovations of 2010. Reader: you have your shopping list. Go forth, sample, and then come back to Proof66 to offer your own thoughts about each of these spirits.