Tasting Panel Magazine once again graciously invited us to the Chicago stop on their invitational tour of Double Gold Medal winners featuring some of the best of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. That particular competition is now well over 1,000 entrants in the spirits category… in other words, it dominates. It’s one of the reasons we follow it: if a spirit can thrive in that jungle of competition, then it emerges as a true standout.
The competition takes place in the very early spring and then a cross-country tour takes place with a selection of the double-gold winning candidates (that is, a unanimous gold medal decision by the entire judging panel). This year—hosted by Bin 36 of Chicago—we got to taste almost two-dozen various spirits. It’s fascinating to see the line-up. These are literally the top 1% of spirits among over a thousand competitors… and here come the press to taste and sniff and opine. Have you ever felt silly after watching a football game and saying something akin to “That guy totally should’ve caught that pass… he sucks!” knowing full well that even stepping on the field at that level requires a superior athlete? It’s kind of like that.
Yet we always manage to learn something. The great thing about these events is that the drinking brings out conversation and friendly behavior even among the press snobs—this is no exception. This year, we met a gentleman from Diageo, the largest spirits corporation on the planet, and got to grill him about their potential ruination of small brands that they acquire. “Not so!” he cried. “Why would we do that? We buy them because they bring something special… and we want them to keep doing that. Changing what makes them special is the very last thing we want to do!”
Oh yeah? Well, what about rumors that Diageo is looking into accelerating aging? What about that?
“There’s no way,” he replied. And he told us the story about a scotch master (in Scotland, of course) who knows that wood requires years of aging before it opens very particular flavor characteristics that create the body and soul of scotch whisky. “It’s magic,” he says, “and there’s nothing we can do to accelerate that.”
Not to be deterred, we demanded an explanation for the explosion of dessert flavors in vodka. There, he merely shrugged. “You have to follow the market, you know? What’re we supposed to do? If it’s where the market is headed, then that’s where we have to go.”
So, for the record: Diageo does not try to destroy small brands, believes in traditional aging of whiskey, and will sell dessert-flavored “shock vodkas” as long as you all keep buying them. And that’s what we love about this event: getting to taste great spirits but also the opportunity it affords us to ask very direct questions of Important People in the Industry. If only we could get a few legislators from Texas and ask them to defend their position of not allowing shipment of liquor.
As for the liquor itself, we try to be careful about this: we taste, we taste again with a little ice, we swirl, we drink lots of water and try to keep the palate fresh, we nose, we start with clear and end with aged… but one we thing we do not do is spit. We swallowed every spirit we tasted. With that caveat, out of the dozen or so we tried, here are some of the most notable spirits we tasted (alphabetical order):
- 8 Viboras Espadin Joven Mezcal: we’ve been claiming that some of the most exciting things going on in the spirits industry is mezcal. Here’s another shining example. Winning best in show, it comes in delicate and light despite 90 proof with a balance of smoke and agave. A little water brings out earthy flavors and a little citrus. It’s a glowing spirit… it’s the long-standing glow of a happily married couple rather than fiery love of newlyweds.
- Chila Orchata Rum Cream: for the record, we’re big fans of RumChata, which is the original horchata rum cream liqueur for all we know. Until we tried the Chila, it had no peer. Yet for the first time, in drinking the Chila, we found a spicy complexity that was very appealing but also a kind of staid dryness to the flavor that didn’t bring the thunderous sweetness that so many cream liqueurs do. This is one that can mix and mix quite well to elevate cocktails. We think of this as the elitist mixologist version of rum cream liqueur and the first true peer to RumChata.
- Grand Teton Vodka: the excellence of this vodka was not a surprise to us because we reviewed it once before and found it to be one of the most appealing spirits we’ve tasted. But it’s good to get reminded when the vodka is keeping such elite company and still stand out. The earthy-flavored entry coupled by the long, lingering finish makes it a star in the vodka world. Highly recommended for Vodka Martini drinkers out there.
- James Pepper Bourbon: in what is becoming a crowded market, the 1776 James E Pepper bourbon is a terrific example of what this proud American whiskey can be. It has a lot of corn—that most American of grains—with aggressive oak character but shockingly smooth for the high 100 proof that it is. With a little water deep, rich aromas come out. It envelopes the palate in ways that a weaker bourbon cannot. For any bourbon enthusiast, this is one to actively seek out.
- Louis Royer Force 53 Cognac: this is the “best cognac” of the year, according to the competition, and it deserves it. This is a fascinating spirit because it enters the mouth with the softness and delicacy of a ballerina… it teases with flavor. But then, once you swallow, it’s a cirque du soleil show of dancing flavors with all the strength and power that comes from their acrobatics. The finish is like a parallel universe of flavor. This is the very reason that people drink brandy.
- Miodula Honey Vodka: this flavored vodka—in a world where flavored vodka becomes more and more ridiculous every day—was nothing short of fantastic. The base is Akademicka vodka from Poland and the honey is a rare Polish variety coming from tree flowers. It’s a dark and thin honey that’s not especially popular on its own but it’s nothing short of wonderful in vodka. We found the flavor sweet but also immensely complex. It could’ve been our favorite spirit of the night. In a market where it’s too easy to get lost, we hope this is a flavored vodka that stands out and succeeds.
We feel compelled to mention a few highly specialized spirits that may not have broad appeal but are great examples of the style. Honorable Mentions:
- INOX Cachaca: we feel that cachacas seldom belong in the sipping straight category and the green, jungle character of the spirit can be a little off-putting to those who aren’t ready for it. But mixing—particularly in the signature Brazilian Caipirinha cocktail—can change your life. If you love cachaca, then you’ll love this. INOX is a perfect example of the balance and flavor of cachaca, which is sure to enjoy a surge of popularity as the summer Olympics of 2016 roll around for Rio.
- Red Leg Spiced Rum: spiced rum isn’t for everyone but it’s another category that need not be dominated by shots and wallowing about in mass-market colas. Red Leg comes in at 75 proof (a little higher than typical) and very sweet. But it has lots of character with ginger, vanilla and—we swear—lavender. A professional that was with claimed that the lavender was actually a sign of natural vanilla but we could swear the flower was in there. Nonetheless, in a world where people like to be able to drink things right out of the bottle, this is very close to “ready-to-drink” on a little ice. It easily crushes competition in the category from big-name brands.
Thanks again to Tasting Panel Magazine for inviting us. And for those who might be reading, let us remind you: these opportunities to taste spirits are often open to the public… do them! It’s very, very exciting to try different options and see how they show. We bet you’ll be surprised.