Every year, Tasting Panel Magazine organizes a tour of a selection of double-gold medal winners from San Francisco World Spirits Competition (an event we closely follow, naturally). We love seeing the critical results... but we love tasting for ourselves even more. It's the one chance regular old people can turn the tables on the pros, taste something, and shout out: "What were they thinking?" When the tour comes to Chicago, this year hosted at the elegant Bin 36, we make a point of attending.
This year, 21 different award winners showed up in Chicago. These events always feel like speed dating to us. In dating sessions, you smile, you chat, you make mental notes, then you move on. Endless love only has so long to show itself. In the tour, you smell, you taste, you take paper notes, then you move on. Spiritual genius must raise itself quickly and obviously! Still, we found some champions in the lot... these are all spirits we would, having tasted, go well out of our way to make sure we stock in the home bar. If you see this on the shelf, imagine us like a little drunk Jiminy Cricket in your ear urging you to try.
Two James Corktown Distillery Rye Dog Whiskey
: this is one of the first times we've ever put a white whiskey on a list like this. Normally, every time we drink an un-aged whiskey we think, "Gosh, this un-aged whiskey would taste a lot better if it were aged." Not here. 100% rye grain bottled at 101 proof, it smells like healthy cereal and finishes like whispered sweet nothings. That smooth of a finish is ridiculous for something so high proof... we tasted 80 proof vodkas (at this event!) that were sharper and hotter than this 101 proof whiskey. More importantly, the taste is like a celebration of the rye grain. In classic cocktails, Two James will take on big market aged ryes and have them crying for mercy and mothers within moments.
Camus Borderies VSOP Cognac
: out of several cognacs and a whole pile of wine, this was the standout. It wasn't close. This particular cognac is sourced from 100% Borderies grapes, a small area within the cognac region of France, that is apparently watered by angels' tears. The aroma reminded us very much of apple—almost like a calvados—with a touch of pear. The taste was dry, silky, and warming. The price point at $55 is one where we feel like we're still getting a steal for the quality.
Infanta Lambanog Coconut Spirit
: the lambanog was the biggest surprise of the night. It's also the reason one should go to events like these. There is no force on earth that would have compelled us to buy a lambanog "coconut spirit" off the shelf at $30. We were told that lambanog is a traditional Philippines spirit that inspired tequila-making... whatever the case, the liquor smells faintly of coconut but also a warm, buttery flavor that we associate with cachaca or silver tequilas. Tasting, it reminds
of coconut rather than taste of coconut. It's a light, effervescent and so opposite and beyond the sickly, sweetened, coconut tsunami of competitor spirits that we were ashamed to associate it in that class. This is a spirit that will automatically elevate every fruit-forward or tiki-inspired cocktail in every drink book you have.
Infuse Cinnamon Apple Vodka
: we weren't exactly surprised that this was a good flavored vodka—after all, it was declared the overall winner of all flavored vodkas in the competition—but we've become so skeptical of flavored vodka as a category that we were dreading tasting it, fresh fruit in the bottle and accolades notwithstanding. Where the flavored vodka market has gone skipping past the line that demarcates market bravado and lunacy and dove headfirst into the crazy, this label comes in (wait for it) with subtlety
! Who ever heard of subtlety in the flavored vodka category? A bit more cinnamon than apple and sweetened only enough to keep it from being overly dry and astringent on the mouth. This is a savory flavored vodka in a world of crazed, predatory, dessert spirits. It will lead to endlessly inventive cocktails and just as easily fit comfortably in just ice and a glass.
SilverCoin Silver Tequila
: we've always regarded tequila as one of those spirits that would very quickly scale in quality relative to the price. SilverCoin is an excellent example of that quality-to-price relationship. At $40, it's within reach of most, Big Market premium tequila buyers. The quality comes from its production methods: it's a tequila that is distilled to proof, which means that instead of distilling to 100 proof-plus and blending back to bottling proof (typically 80) with water, SilverCoin is distilled to 80 proof and bottled without blending. This preserves an intensity of agave flavor that, when comparing to other bottles, demonstrates the lack. In other words, it's more tequila than tequila. Anyone who has tried cask strength whiskey will be familiar with this concept. We sipped it. But for anyone out there paying $40 for big market, celebrity-driven tequilas... you don't have to be one of those people; you can be better.
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky
: the poor, rural cousin in the whisky-world this marks the first time that a Canadian whisky has ever made a list of anything with us. Caribou Crossing did it. It's s till a mild, lightly fragrant whisky and a very mild 80 proof, it's hardly something that we would normally think of us a champion. But the flavors linger an impossibly long time after the swallow and makes us declare it the champion of mild, approachable whisky. We don't always drink Canadian whisky... but when we do, we (now) prefer Caribou Crossing.
Our gratitude to Tasting Panel for the invitation; it's a rare thing to get to try so many stellar products.
[by Neal MacDonald, Editor]