The awards will present the top dogs and runners up in many spirit categories (namely the ones I care about). Great care has been taken to avoid "category sprawl" (a term I use when I see award categories like "Best American Flavored Corn Whiskey Less Than 6 Years Old" - can you say niche?). I'm forcing categories themselves to go toe-to-toe for the sake of brevity and clout. For the categories that have any number of subcategories, there will always be an overall winner. Spirits are judged on multiple factors, including first impressions, nose, palate, finish, ingenuity, affordability, accessibility, and even authenticity (looking at all you ADL and LDL bottlers out there - although quality in this regard will always trump origin). I don't judge you on what you look like or where you came from. I judge you on your character and where you are going.
Runner up: Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka (40% ABV) - Another beautiful potato vodka (seeing a pattern here?), that just barely got edged out by Karlsson's peppery kick. Much more widely available in stores, it's definitely worth seeking out.
Runner up: Thomas Tew Authentic Pot-Still Rum (42% ABV) - On a totally different take from the smoothly integrated El Dorado, you have this blackstrap molasses rum from Thomas Tew's old stomping grounds in Newport, RI. Having toured the distillery myself and spoken to the head distiller, I can tell you that the rough-and-tumble nature of this rum comes from a deliberately chosen wider cut of the spirit coming off the still. The wood has time to mellow the sour and tarry notes, but I applaud the creators for their ingenuity and faithful recreation of "how rum used to be." Well-priced for a craft product, but largely limited to New England in availability.
Runner up: Tequila Avion Silver (40% ABV) - A raw, unvarnished look at tequila's pure agave nature without the heat or harshness that lesser distillers are happy to bottle on-the-cheap. It's priced like a premium tequila, but surprisingly affordable for what you're getting. Mix this one or have it neat - I find it makes the perfect digestif.
Runner up (London Dry Style): The Botanist Islay Dry Gin (40% ABV) - You've got to give it to Bruichladdich's old still "Ugly Betty", she makes a fabulous botanical concoction right alongside some world-class whiskies. So close to the London dry gin in style, but with a decidedly wry Islay twist. Well done, boys. I'll be revisiting this one in the years to come.
Runner up: Laphroaig "Cairdeas" Port Wood Edition Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky (51.3% ABV) - This was a special "friends" bottling for the distillery's Feis Ile (pronounced Fay-Sheel, a festival on Islay) celebration this year. I tasted it blind at Whiskey in the Winter in St. Louis and was floored (I then spent the rest of the evening savoring it off to the side). I would love to see some more Laphroaig like this!
Runner up: WhistlePig TripleOne Straight Rye Whiskey (55.5% ABV) - I told you I wouldn't hold origin against a good whiskey. Here we have liquid from Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL), bottled by WhistlePig in Vermont. This one's finished an extra year in bourbon barrels - starts like a rye, finishes like a bourbon. Sublime.
Runner up: Four Roses Single Barrel (Bottles Private Edition - 61.4% ABV) - A full-bodied high-rye bourbon that only lost to the Elijah Craig due to a subtle "sour" note on the finish. It's not off-putting in the least (or else why would I list it as runner up?), but then it's at half the price point and probably a quarter of the age of our category winner. I love how both of these bourbons have toned down the rye spice through maturation. Spicy is good, but balance is best.
Runner up: are you kidding me?