Specialty Spirits to Watch
By Neil Shrodo Super Buy-Rite JC
The Rise of Mezcal
The finest spirit made by our southern neighbor is getting a run for its money. Mezcal, once known as that stuff with the worm in the bottle, is finally getting the respect it deserves. Mezcal can be made from any of the 11 different types of maguey, or the local name for the agave plant. However, most mezcal is made from agave espadín, and many consider the heart of mezcal to be Oaxaca which accounts for 60 percent of its production—much of it still made in the traditional manner. Tequila is, in fact, just one type of mezcal, and is made from blue agave in the area around the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco.
Over time, tequila eclipsed mezcal in demand and transformed it from a cheap and rough spirit to one of premier quality, akin to a single malt or a high-end bourbon. That desire for high-quality tequila has energized the mezcal world, with many family or craft distilleries coming to America for us to try.
Mezcal del Maguey
These single village mezcals are bottled to show off the difference not only in the type of maguey used, but also the point of origin. Start with Vida de San Luis del Rio, an 84 proof Mezcal Blanco made from espadín. ($34.99)
Gem & Bolt
Made in Oaxaca, this mezcal is distilled with the local herb Damiana, used by the Aztecs and Mayans for centuries as a euphoric aphrodisiac. ($42.99)
Derrumbes Zacatecas Mezcal
Handcrafted mezcals each representing the style of a different state, the Zacatecas is made from Tequiliana Weber agave grown in Hacienda de Guadalupe and uses copper pot distillation and is 96 proof. ($59.99)
Japanese Whiskey Boom
Japanese whisky is one of the hottest spirits in the U.S. today, but less than 20 years ago, it was virtually unheard of, and rarely exported from Japan. “Scotch” made in Japan dates back to the 1920s, when Shinjiro Torii established the company that would become Suntory, and decided to build Japan’s first distillery. He chose the perfect place, Yamazaki, famed for its water quality, a key part of the scotch process. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had spent time in Scotland in the early 1920’s learning the distillation and aging process. Together they built the distillery, until 1934, when Taketsuru decided to build his own, and established Nikka Distillery in Hokkaido and became Suntory’s main rival.
Japanese whiskey was almost exclusively drunk in Japan until 2001, when Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt was submitted to Whisky Magazine. To everyone’s surprise, it won Best of the Best! This was followed in 2003 by Suntory’s 18-year Yamazaki taking the gold in the International Spirits Challenge. Nowadays, both whiskeys are very hard to come by so here are some selections that will ease you into the world of Japanese whisky.
This is a blend of Suntory’s three main distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita. It is blended to be smooth and perfect in a highball. Aromas of orchard fruits pair with flavors of citrus, herbs, almonds and a kiss of vanilla on the finish.
Nikka Coffey Grain
These are single grain whiskys distilled in a Coffey still. Closer to a bourbon than a scotch, it is a good introduction to the quality of Nikka’s whiskys. ($59.99 on sale)
Kaiyo “The Single” 7 year old Japanese Whisky
These are great single malt Japanese whiskys that are finished in Japan’s own mizunara oak barrels. This imparts a unique sweet, yet spicy oak that is loaded with vanilla overtones that integrate well with the whisky. ($49.99)
Regional Rum Renaissance
High-quality rum is coming to the States like never before. As a versatile offering, they differ from dark to light to young or aged. The taste can vary depending on a region’s specific style, resulting in a flavor profile that ranges from sweet, smokey, buttery or spicy. Check out these smaller distilleries that emphasize local ingredients and regional character.
Venezuela: Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva
Distilled from sugarcane honeys in copper pot stills and aged in small oak casks for up to 12 years. Rich flavors of sweet toffee, orange peel, and licorice on an elegant finish. ($34.99 on sale)
Dominican Republic: Kirk and Sweeney 23 Year Old Rum
Distilled from raw sugarcane in the Dominican Republic, this rum is aged in American oak, which results in a deep amber color and flavors of dried fruits, toasted bread, honey and toffee with a finish of almonds and sweet vanilla. ($46.99 on sale)
Guatemala: Ron Zacapa Sistema 23 Solera Gran Reserva
First created in 1976 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the town Zacapa, this rum uses exclusively the first press of sugarcane honey that is fermented in copper lined column stills with a special local yeast strain. It is then aged in a mix of bourbon, Oloroso sherry, Pedro Ximinez sherry casks and cross blended by type and year. Sweet notes of roast coffee, butterscotch, vanilla, and dark chocolate are followed by citrus and apricot and finishing with nutmeg and ginger. ($39.99 on sale)