We've said it each year before and we'll emphasize it once again: critical scores and user recommendations are fine but what really matters is your own tongue ! Read on for what we found were the best on offer.
No question about it, you yourself are your own best judge on what you like and the Distill America event in Madison is one of the best around in being able to sample a wide variety of the best liquor America has to offer. You taste the value brands, the expensive brands, and the limited edition bottles. The giant whiskey companies selling millions are present as well as the little guy that just opened up his still weeks ago. Flavors that you might never have the guts to slap down the money and buy are there for the sampling... dill, licorice, chocolate malt, all kinds of peppers, sorghum, and much, much more. A vast array of states are present: all the midwest plains states, Texas, Oregon, California, Washing, Colorado... the south from Louisiana, Georgia and even even over to West Virginia and New York (not to mention the famous whiskey states of Tennessee and Kentucky).
Best of all, in almost every case, experts are manning the booths. This is not the place for your car show model waving and smiling at cameras. Real people with real knowledge answering technical questions are everywhere. It's one of the best.
There's no way to try everything. We reached out ahead of time and tried to schedule out a way to taste as many spirits as we could with an emphasis on highlighting potentially lesser-known or new brands. Over the course of 4 hours we tasted (and talked about) 53 different spirits (out of what we estimate was probably approaching 300 different samples available). So, acknowledging that we actually tasted something approximating 20% of the total, here are the spirits we think were absolute revelations to the American Spirits landscape... the ones we unquestionably would buy (and indeed did buy in some cases as we left town) in alphabetical order:
Aeppeltreow Apple Brandy: one of the smaller distilleries in Wisconsin puts out a crisp, delightful apple brandy in the style of French Calvados. Flavors of vanilla, baking spice, and a touch of smoke set off the apple proving that America can be a match for France.
Anchor Distilling Hophead Vodka: one of the longest running craft distilleries around comes out of San Francisco and is putting their beer expertise to work by working a secret blend of hops into a vodka. In one of those revelatory moments where you think you're going to hate something until you actually drink it, the Hophead stands tall among all the exotic flavors we tried as something we're deeply interested in drinking for itself rather than mixing in complex cocktails. A must try for the beer drinker who's trying to cut back on carbs!
Colonel E.H. Taylor's Barrel Proof Small Batch Bourbon: with the Buffalo Trace whiskeys becoming more and more scarce as their star ascends, the Colonel EH Taylor may represent the next burst of available leading to hard-to-find whiskey. The barrel proof, with a little water, explodes in those flavors that the bourbon enthusiast most enjoys. Can't find Pappy? Can't find Handy? Can't find Blanton's? Turn here and savor.
Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit: made from the 45th Parallel Distillery in Minnesota (themselves, a distillery of good repute) this was one of the more amazing moments of the night. Dill? Aquavit? Answer: yes!! Fearing a mouthfull of tartar sauce we instead got a nuanced, sipping spirit that fills the mouth without overpowering in one of the most exotic flavors we've ever tried. This should be the glad challenge of any mixologist worthy of the name.
High West A Midsummer Night' Dram Rye Whiskey: High West is one of those distilleries that continues to impress time after time. Here, they take their Rendezvous Rye whiskey and give it a finish in port wine barrels along with a touch of French Oak barrel resting to give their rye a new depth of flavor and sophistication that explodes with a touch of water. Another limited edition run, it's one of those bottles that when found, you should buy and savor.
Prichard's Rye Whiskey: in another example of both the excellent rye whiskey being made as well as craft distilleries establishing their own whiskey stocks and ascending both skill and tenure, Tennessee's Prichard's comes out with a 7yr rye whiskey that is designed specifically for the classic rye cocktails like the Sazerac and Old Fashioned (not to mention sipping, which is our preference).
Real Russan Vodka: a little distillery in Galena, IL did something that's very, very hard to do to us anymore and that's get us excited about a vodka. This was one of the purest, cleanest, best vodkas we've ever tried. Ever. And we almost passed up the booth because we're so biased against vodka; what a tragedy that would've been.
Rehorst Gin: Great Lakes Distillery has been operating for some time now and putting a lot of good spirits. It's easy to overlook how well some of these established craft distilleries are doing when they start achieving tenure. Rehorst Gin still stands out in our minds as one of the finest examples of modern gin: lightly sweet, citrus forward, and as cleanly distilled as it comes.
Smooth Ambler Aged Gin: aged or rested gin is becoming less and less of an exotic entry and more often a bridge between the gin-drinkers and the whiskey-drinkers. Smooth Ambler offers their best product, in our opinion, in their aged gin with a beautiful whiskey like finish complementing the unusual flavors of their gin with a finish of cinnamon.
St George Spirits Terroir Gin: gin is another of those spirits that is becoming more hard to please critics who often feel they've seen it all. In a craft distillery scene that's swimming in gin and plenty of nose-in-the-air critics serving as the swimmers, the Terroir is one of the few universally acclaimed standouts. Sage and Pine dominate the flavors that we're told are meant to taste of California. Terroir is the perfect name for a gin that speaks so well for it's origins but still maintains a pure, singing flavor that stands proudly with the classics in the gin genre.
Whistle Pig Rye Whiskey: sometimes one finds a high proof spirit that has no business tasting like it does with that amount of ethanol in it. At 100 proof, Whistle Pig is still the softest, most feminine and approachable rye whiskey available on the market. It's also limited in stock: when it's gone, it's gone. Get some and treasure it.
Yerlo Aged Whiskey: this unusual rice spirit gets a sophisticated whiskey finish when they let it rest in oak for 4 months prior to bottling. It's a blend of skill, oak, and rice in a bottle that is highly recommended for those who like their spirits neat, unadulterated, and room temperature.
There are always a few spirits that we like to point out as "honorable mentions" not because they lack in quality but rather because their flavors are so exotic, so new, or so focused that we feel they'll inspire die-hard niche fans if not broad appeal.
45th Madison Avenue Parallel Orangecello: this is one of those rare liqueurs that smells almost exactly like orange juice that's dripping off the cut orange you just picked from the tree seconds ago. Gorgeous aromas backed by a sweet finish in the Italian style. For those who like the sweetened, Italian fruit liqueurs, this is an excellent product.
Breckenridge Bitters Liqueur: this Colorado distillery bottled up a bitters liqueur that's inspired by German and Italian bitters but looked for a little less bitter and a little less brown. The result is a cherry and fruit forward bitters liqueur that, when mixed with bourbon, makes some of the most outstanding Old Fashioned-style cocktails we've ever had. Perhaps weak when drinking straight, this is a delightful ingredient for cocktails in the world of mixers.
Corsair Triple Smoke Whiskey: this Tennessee distillery respects no boundaries in making spirits and the triple smoke is right in their wheelhouse with a malted mashbill smoked in a variety of wood styles that blurs the boundaries of single malt whiskey, smoke styles, and Islay scotch. For those who love experimenting in new styles of whiskey while smoking a cigar, this is well worth the try.
Death's Door Wondermint Liqueur: new enough to not even be on their website at the time of this writing, this is a spirit that makes the legions of those who recoil from a sourly remembered college experience involving peppermint schnapps, this is sweetened just barely enough with some complexity that includes a drop of St George Spirits absinthe. This makes something that's traditionally horrifyingly sweet and toothpasty drinkable and lovely.
This was the 6th annual Distill America event in Madison. It's gotten bigger, more organized, and better each year. In this event, we tasted better spirits, more frequently, crafted with more excellence, but with all the same fervor and commitment that marked the nascent craft distilling movement 6 years ago. They're already talking about 2015... make plans to be there.
by Neal MacDonald, Editor