"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." -
Rumors of my demise have been ... largely exaggerated :-) It is so good to be back in this space, and there's not much time before the clock tolls 2015, so let's do what is necessary to fulfill all righteousness and get some recognition out of the way. Last year's Highley Recommended spirits were based on an extraordinary sample size and the whimsies/opinions of one man - your author, J.R. Highley (Cereal Alchemist). This year, the awards are taking on a much different shape, partly to satisfy expediency, but partly because I have had so many other demands on my attention - and missed out on so much - that the "awards" need to take their rightful place as recommendations. My chief recommendations. Which, if I flatter myself (not that I would ever do such a thing), means a lot. I'm pretty critical when it comes to taste, and praise of this magnitude is not meted out to satisfy anyone's self-esteem. From the Happy Warrior and my family comes 2014's list of Highley Recommended... stuff. Starting with!
2014's Highley Recommended Whisky
I hate to say it, but Scotch whisky was left in the dirt this year. I can't recall more than a few drams that really succeeded in impressing me, and most of those came from independent bottlers. Even Jim Murray admonished the Scotch industry in his 2015 edition of the Whisky Bible (not a single Scotch was in his top 5). It's clear that the whisky glut has taken its toll on old, quality spirit stock (Scotch is a whisky that needs plenty of time to mature, more so than other world whiskies), and overall pricing and quality have left Scotch fans suffering this year. Luckily, there are outstanding foreign distillers taking up the slack, and none more able than the Japanese whisky shokunin.
Last year's Highley Recommended whisky was a Japanese single malt (Suntory's Hakushu: Bourbon Barrel), and this year Nikka followed through with their signature grain whisky. If Hakushu is outshining Scots at their own game, then Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky is taking on grain whisky's older brother - the Irish. This whisky is so sweet, so delicately matured, so simply delightful that I'm amazed you can find it around town and online for only $60. What. The Actual. Heck. Nikka could easily sell this whisky for twice that price. It meets all the wickets, and its the only whisky this year that had me continuously coming back for more.
2014's Highley Recommended Literature
This book was actually published in 2013. Up until this week I was prepared to recommend the only "drinks" book outside of school that had succeeded in grabbing my attention this year - Proof: The Science of Booze. Proof is a great book for the scolar and the uninitiated alike, but its writing feels (no offense, if this is your thing) more like a lengthy Gawker article. It's fun, it's hip, it's refreshing, but if you want adult literature you reach first for Amy Stewart's clinical masterpiece The Drunken Botanist.
Part of the joy of spirits - and the drinking world as a whole - is discovering just how much the natural world (a.k.a. Provenance) is responsible for all that we call good drinkin'. Plants and micro-organisms are a huge part of it. Many of them have arguably domesticated us while we were domesticating them. This book is a fascinating read, and its research is so illuminating that nearly each page repels a common alcohol myth or misperception. It is the ground truth - pun intended - for all things related to what's in that drink. It's cold outside. Grab a book. LeVar Burton wills it.
2014's Highley Recommended Spirit Shop
I don't get paid for my recommendations, or reimbursed in any way. So why do I bother talking about retail? Quite simply, I know many of you who don't have a local shop that offers many of the things I talk about here. I also know that many of you are quite proud of some of your local dives (Joyal's, Vicker's, Bottles Fine Wine & Spirits, the list goes on). Sooner or later though, you'll be looking for that one bottle that can't be found on a shelf but can be found on Google. Whom do you trust?
If you've avoided turning to online retail because (1) you don't trust online purchasing or (2) you worry you'll be roped into some book club you didn't sign up for, I think it's time for you to reconsider. I've ordered from many online retailers, but none of them have as slick and direct a website as Caskers. Yes, they do have clubs for those of you interested, but their prices are exactly what you would expect to see in a store and their shipping is prompt and secure. One of these days I'll update my blog with a list of all my trusted online retailers, but now you know that I consider Caskers to be the cream of the crop.
2014's Highley Recommended Distiller / Distillery Tour
I've been told by several reputable sources that no state boasts more active distilleries outside of Kentucky than Colorado. I do know that I've tasted a lot of good hooch from several Colorado upstarts, but I don't know that I've ever had more pure, unadulterated fun visiting any distillery than when my wife and I swung by Breckenridge Distillers last March (Colorado in spring - or any time of the year really - is divine). It's easy to find, easy to tour, and best of all - they make amazing whisky. You may have heard of it. "The bourbon that beat Pappy"? People don't kid about that stuff.
Many can speak to what's in the Breckenridge bottle, but what I'm really impressed to see is a craft distiller eschewing micro-cask maturation. No shortcuts, no tricks, no over-oaked stave rape. The altitude and the temperature swings almost surely lend that Amrut bit of speed to what's in their warehouse, but then American whisky always does pretty well given 3-7 years of maturation. If you're planning a Colorado visit, you will enjoy every minute you spend at this place, all while tasting some of the finest craft whisky in the nation / world. Breckenridge Distillers - 2014's most Highley Recommended distillery and tour.
That's it! No lengthy vivisection of the past year's. No prophetic wisdom to usher in the new. Just a fine bottle of whisky and some great people bringing joy to the masses - from my family to yours. God's blessings to you and yours in the new year.
Sole author and editor of Cereal Alchemist