Whew - it's been a while! Graduate school is taking its toll on my personal time, but I had to get this post out before the end of the year (and preferably in time to give you a chance to review the list for a gift). The form and the shape of the inaugural Highley Recommended awards has been stirring in my mind for a while. Think of it as something like my "Friday's Finest" posts, except I'm summarizing a whole year! In many categories, lots of spirited debate (pun intended) about the front-runners took place between me and my friends. Huge upsets happened at the last minute with exposure to some great year-end whisky shows. At the end of the day, it's still my call. [Just an aside: that's not a misspelling of "highly" - Highley is my last name. Nothing wrong with leveraging the brand, yaknow?] There can only be one!
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.
Highley Recommended: Karlsson's Gold Vodka (40% ABV) - The most kick-ass vodka I've ever experienced - those Swedes really know how to do it right. If you've never tried vodka neat (because hairspray) then this bottle will force you to reconsider. Unlike many vodkas, which strive for the most neutral character possible, Karlsson's (a potato vodka made from virgin golden potatoes) keeps loads of earth and spice on the palate. If you're mixing, stick with Ketel One. If you're sipping neat, there's simply no finer vodka on the market. Most easily found on the internet; store availability is very limited.
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.
Highley Recommended: El Dorado 21 Year Old Special Reserve (43% ABV) - An exquisite and insanely sweet little sugar cane bomb. The only oak influence here is a deep vanilla and subtle spice; crazy for a spirit that spent over two decades resting! This may be the oldest rum I've tasted, but it's widely available online and quite adequately priced. No other rum approaches this level of perfection and integration.
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.
Highley Recommended: Don Julio 1942 (40% ABV) - This tequila, bordering on extra anejo by only half a year or so, is quite simply the most well-integrated barrel-aged tequila I've tasted so far (and much more affordable than Don Julio REAL Extra Anejo). Lots of tequilas start to finish like bourbons once they've rested in the barrels for a year or so, but this one retains it's delightful agave character all the way to the end. You wouldn't mix this with margaritas, not unless you have some serious dinero to throw around. This is truly a special occasion sipping tequila, and well worth every penny.
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.
Highley Recommended (London Dry Style): Leopold's American Small Batch Gin (40% ABV) - That's right, an American gin taking the subcategory! I've sampled plenty of dry gins in my time, but this one is unique for its exquisite balance. It doesn't overpower like Hendrick's, but it also doesn't leave any botanical on the sidelines. It almost defines American Dry Gin as its own separate style. This has to stem from Leopold's unique distilling and blending method, but the truth is I don't care how they do it. Leopold's is mighty close to perfection.
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.
Highley Recommended (Barrel-Aged Gin): Berkshire Mountain Distiller's Barrel-Aged Ethereal Gin (40% ABV) - So small batch it's ridiculous, I almost didn't list this one for the fact that you probably can't find it in stores anymore. But then I decided that there just hasn't been a decisive effort from the competition (there won't be a runner up in this space). This is the standard that all barrel-aged gins should aspire to, and it might just be my favorite gin of all time. Note to BMD, you need to make this a permanent part of your line-up, not just a one-off. Perfect for mixing up in a Negroni.
Highley Recommended Gin (Overall)
Highley Recommended Single Malt Whisky: Suntory Hakushu Bourbon Barrel Japanese Whisky (48.2% ABV) - I'll never forget the first time I nosed and tasted this whisky, as it was my first exposure to the Japanese portfolio. While the "non-bourbon barrel" bottling (which is, ironically, still a product of bourbon barrels) is amazing in its own right, this particular bottling is entirely from first-fill bourbon barrels. It is, in a word, mind-blowing. Tons of complexity, subtle green smoke, creamy palate entry... just a whopper of a whisky, and proof that the Japanese have truly matched the Scots in skills of the trade.
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!
Highley Recommended Rye: Grand Traverse Distillery's Ole George Whiskey (100% rye, 46.5% ABV): A craft distiller takes the subcategory title! (Fist in the air!) In such a rising and saturated space as the market for rye whiskey, it seems like craft distillers would have a hard time standing out from the pack (what with all the ADL liquid floating around out there). Not so with the distillery team at Grand Traverse. My wife found this bottle for me while visiting family and brought it home on a whim. Boy am I glad she did, since few things get me riled up like good rye whiskey! None of that moldy, damp grass character or over-oaked suffocation here. Just clean, bright heathery rye and spice. Delicious!
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.
Highley Recommended Bourbon: Elijah Craig 21 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon (46% ABV) - Heaven Hill makes some heavenly whiskey, but nothing takes the title like a 21 year old high-rye bourbon. Strangely, the oak spice in this whiskey intermingles with the rye spice in a "destructive interference" sort of way. That brings out the honey and cornbread notes in droves. This is a sweet little honey-pot bourbon with a neat oak influence, mild bodied on the spice. Stunning. I only wish I could taste it at cask strength.
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.
Highley Recommended Corn Whiskey: Balcones True Blue Corn Whiskey (61.8% ABV) - The only palatable corn whiskey I've come across, Balcones is riding some serious waves from its success in producing competitive Texas single malts. True Blue (made from 100% blue hopi corn) is offered at cask strength, but no matter how much water you add (within reason, of course) it maintains its strong, sugary sweet and biscuity character. Interestingly, the oak maturation here has added a hefty dose of rye spice to the affair, which makes this taste more like a bourbon. The only corn whiskey I could possibly recommend right now, and a magnificent whiskey in its own right - on par with the best bourbons.
Runner up: are you kidding me?
Highley Recommended Whisky (Overall)
No other whisky in my entire year of tasting achieved such stunning complexity and integration as this whisky from the heights of the Japanese Alps. I specialize mainly in whisky here at Cereal Alchemist, since I tend to consider it the highest art form of distilled spirits. It's saying a lot that I view THIS WHISKY as the most exceptional craft creation of the entire year, an achievement that beats out so many incredible spirits that have (and have not) been named before on this blog. I don't know how to say "Slainte!" in Japanese, but men and women of all languages can appreciate a toast from this magnificent dream of a dram. Bravo Zulu!