by Neal MacDonald
It’s a time for retrospectives on 2012 and everyone seems to be publishing their Top Whatevers of the year. Here at Proof66, we get a chance to try many different spirits—some major labels on every person’s radar and some spirits quite off the beaten path.
So we thought about a massive “Best Of” or “Must Try” list from 2012… but we decided to go a different way.
In the interest of actually making those spirits available, we’re inspired to publish at year’s end a list of “Can’t Miss” spirits. This list is aimed squarely at the industry: the importers, the distributors, and the retailers. These are the labels we think can make money and deserve to make money. (See below for our criteria and other notes… or just read on for the list!) Just like “can’t miss” stock picks, these aren’t guarantees (of course!) but we do feel like they’re very, very good bets.
Bear Hug Infusions
Bear Hug infusions are a line of lightly proofed vodka and rum flavored spirits. For years now, we get more inquiries about Bear Hug than any other line of spirit. It’s presented magnificently with real ingredients perfectly suited for the “all-natural” crowd. It’s tasty. The price-point is excellent. This is as can’t-miss as it gets on the retail front. (Update: we're told that Bear Hug is also offers a papaya flavored tequila in addition to the infused rums and vodkas... more flavors on the horizon!)
BroVo is a line of “lady made liqueurs” from Seattle, Washington. They’re lightly proofed and very lightly sweetened botanical liqueurs. They’re perfectly suited to the young professional female crowd of the designer cocktail culture: they’re low-calorie, challenging and complex on the palate, and craft-produced at a local level. These are a must-have for the urban cocktail bar.
Death’s Door is a line of white spirits made famous by their white whiskey but also making an excellent gin and vodka. Their craftsmanship and simplistic styling are both excellent and can stand out in a crowded market. They’re capable of producing on a large scale. And the name is very, very catchy: we’ve seen it featured at a haunted house bar in Las Vegas, Playboy Magazine, and Halloween events. They were one of the first and one of the best in the white whiskey market.
High West Distillery
High West is both a distiller and bottler making their own line of whiskey and blending lots they buy up. Their tastes are excellent, particularly in their rye whiskey (a category that is surging in popularity). Their whiskey is sophisticated enough for any connoisseur and their range broad enough to satisfy a wide variety of tastes. In a craft distillery movement that is struggling to find its place in whiskey, High West has the category absolutely handled.
Hum Hibiscus Liqueur
Hum Hibiscus is really not much of a secret but we mention it here because we feel it still lacks the reputation it deserves. Along with St. Germain, it is one of the signature liqueur ingredients for designer cocktails in the modern era. It is spicy, it is sweet, and it is red (an important aspect in making visually appealing drinks!). The craftsmanship is pristine as are the flavors. It’s the kind of bottle that should have a home in any upscale hotel bar in the nation.
Kavalan Taiwan Whisky
The far east is becoming one of the greatest whisky markets in the world. It stands to reason that they’re making outstanding whisky. While Japan’s Suntory is leading the way with Yamazaki and others, Taiwan’s Kavalan has come down with some of the most outstanding critical scores we’ve ever seen. And that was before we got to taste a bottle this last fall of 2012. For the demanding whisky connoisseur, this label is going to become the signature bottle one has to carry to be a credible player in the market. To date, we’re not even sure it’s being imported in the United States.
New Holland Spirits
New Holland Distilling is a company we’ve been watching with interest at annual tasting events. They produce a huge variety of white and infused spirits along with distilled beer products. Their sense of flavor and expertise in distilling is fabulous. Their bottles are gorgeous borrowing the best designs from the European styling of magnified images on the back of bottles. Customers buying this will think they’ve found one of those secret treasures they’re reluctant to tell others about. To us, they will be as successful as the Rogue Spirits are in the west coast.
Real Matlatl Mezcal
Real Matlatl is a line of mezcal coming out of Oaxaca. Where the tequila market is crowded, mezcal is a product we feel is poised for growth and one we personally find a lot more exciting on the palate than the vast majority of traditional tequila. Real Matlatl delivers as the very best of any mezcal we’ve tasted, period. The story is a fantastic one of money capitalist turning to rural production. The expressions range from the premium to the limited edition unheard-of. While these mezcals won’t be sold by the case-load, enthusiasts will pay through the nose for these mezcals and pay gladly to do it again. We feel most drinkers of an Islay scotch can be converted with a single sip.
Vegefeuer Herbal Liqueur
If Proof66 were to open a bar, this bottle would replace every Jaggermeister shooter and we’d never look back. As a party liqueur, it can’t be beaten. It tastes better than Jagger, it looks better than Jagger, and its label (the fires of Purgatory) is cooler than Jagger. Even better, you’re supposed to set it on fire to drink it; which actually does dramatically change the taste. The pure theatrics of the liqueur is worth the price. But best of all, we tried this liqueur in every cocktail setting we could think of and it was beautiful in all of them. Vegefeueur still stands as one of the greatest Proof66 staff tastings we’ve ever conducted. It begs to be imported into the Las Vegas and Miami club scenes.
Our criteria in selecting these spirits were judged as follows:
We wetted our own tongues with it and liked it. And when we taste something, we taste with rigor in a lot of different settings. Listed here, it means we feel it was not only well-crafted but had a “universal elevation element” in most of the popular cocktail settings.
It isn’t already carried everywhere. There’s great stuff—both traditional and new—that blew the lids off sales… Jameson (boy did they have a good year in 2012), RumChata (ditto!), Pinnacle Whipped Cream (holy cow!). It doesn’t do us any good to show you labels you’ve already heard about. We’re trying to get you in on the ground floor.
We aimed for broad labels rather than individual expressions… that is to say, we want someone in the business to feel confident about ordering the whole range rather than ordering up one individual expression.
We have reason to believe that the liquor can scale. We’ve met a lot of craft distillers who actually aren’t interested in national distribution but want to remain local.
A little marketing appeal helps. We like to see stories or something compelling around the production and/or packaging.
As a final note: we’re independent. We don’t take compensation for our opinions. If it’s on this list, it’s because we really think it’s a winner and will make money. Many spirits we taste for free because they’re sent to us (not always) but otherwise, we’re lobby-free. If we’re under any influence at all it’s because we’ve been persuaded by a combination of the story and the taste. We’re happy to answer direct questions.