Since 1981, the Beverage Testing Institute has annually reviewed thousands of spirits, wines and beers, assigning each a score on a hundred-point scale and offering tasting notes. Last month, they released their top twenty-five spirits for 2023.
During dry January, if you still want to enjoy a wee drop of the highest quality, this is the list you want as your guide. Or, if you have a group of friends you like to drink with, convince them to pool their money to buy all twenty-five, break them down into 50ml sampler bottles, and throw a Top 25 party. (And send me an invite.)
Here’s the list of the Beverage Testing Institute’s top twenty-five spirits of the year, with explanations of less-than-familiar terms and a few comments. For tasting notes and points, visit tastings.com. For thoughts, smart-ass remarks, and the occasional insight… read on.
This whiskey is produced using a pot still, a distillation tool that’s something like 150 years old. What does that mean in terms of this spirit? It’s produced in a less-efficient manner than most modern spirits, which are largely distilled using a column still. Efficiency is great when you’re doing your taxes, but in my experience, the best flavors come from inefficiency. They won’t always be consistent from one batch to the next, but a different flavor of delicious suits my palate more than a consistent though less-than-delicious flavor.
If armagnac and cognac confuse you, welcome to my clubhouse. Both are forms of brandy, which means they are distilled from wine. That wine, in the case of armagnac, can be made from any combination of ten grape varietals; cognac can be made from seven, though it’s predominantly made with only one. Cognac must be distilled with a pot still, but armagnac can be distilled either in a column or pot still, and the majority of it is distilled in column stills. (So efficient. See “Blue Spot 7-Year-Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey,” above.)
Okay, tequila—now this is something about which I know something. This spirit was bottled and sat for a few years. Why? Because, contrary to popular opinion, spirits do change in glass. That’s not considered aging, per se. But they do evolve, often coming together in a more… elegant way? I hesitate to say smooth because that suggests the opposite of complex. It’s more like an orchestra getting better at hitting the same notes after years of playing together.
Okay, yet another Irish whiskey, three marks down from what’s been ranked by Bev Test as the Best Spirit of 2023, but at $599, significantly more expensive than the Blue Spot 7-Year-Old at $90. So, is the less expensive the best? Truly, there is no such thing as “best.” I’m not suggesting you should dismiss this whole list. This Redbreast at #4 may be exactly the taste to ignite your spark plugs after a cold winter walk, in a way that the Blue Spot at #1 doesn’t. We get so hung up on the idea that there’s an actual “best” that we miss the truth of it: that so many things, in the right context, are the best for a moment. Love the drink you’re with, man.
For this selection, let’s consider “still strength.” If you know about distillation, and you know about the English language, the implication of that term “still strength” suggests that (1) what is in this bottle is what came out of the still, which implies (2) that sometimes that’s not what you get in your bottle. And, sure enough, if we look at the alcohol-by-volume of this bottle compared to other bottles by the same producer, we see that this one clocks in at fifty-four percent (108 proof). A standard-release Blanco from Cazcanes might be released at only forty percent ABV (80 proof). What happened there? For the standard release, Cazcanes added water—which is a general operating procedure for spirits companies. So why didn’t they do that with this bottle? Well, Virginia, some ravenous tequila drinkers like their spirits strong. Does strength make it taste better? If you know how to taste tequila—know how to take tiny sips, ones that you savor—you’ll get a lot more of the flavors that light up your Christmas tree when it hasn’t been diluted with water. And that would be true of any spirit. But I’ll also say that “still strength” is misleading. (Though not as misleading as “single malt,” which we’ll get to.) It’s misleading because the distiller made cuts at some point during distillation. In other words, not everything that came out of the still went into that bottle. Some stuff from the beginning gets pulled out. Same with some stuff from the end. Where those cuts are made determines which of the elements of the distillation make it into the bottle, which determines the flavors and aromas and, ultimately, the alcohol content. So “still strength” suggests that this is all about the still. For my dollar, I’d say it’s more like a director’s cut.
There are a couple things I want to unpack, starting with the difference between Rest & Be Thankful and Long Pond. The latter is a distillery founded in the mid-1700s in Jamaica. As with any institution that old, it’s changed hands multiple times. Though it has released its own rums in its history, including Captain Morgan when it was owned by Seagram’s, it doesn’t now. It sells batches to brands—some of which use the ester-rich distillates to add flavor to their own rums, and others which simply bottle and release the purchases, as here with Rest & Be Thankful, a European company. The second thing is that phrase “Single Cask.” What is a “cask”? All barrels are casks, but not all casks are barrels. A cask, in spirits parlance, is simply a wooden container—one of any size. A barrel is a specific size of cask, generally understood to have a capacity of between 180 and 200 liters. Unless it’s British. Then it’s 164 liters. Hogshead, Port Pipe, Firkin… These are just some of the names given to casks of specific sizes. Difford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers has a great article on it—if that rabbit hole calls to you, click here.
At long, long last! We’re into an area where I really know something! Welcome to mezcal! Fear I’ll chase you off, I’ll keep it brief. The first point is that, in my estimation, mezcal (or, more accurately, heritage agave spirits) should have taken the first ten spots in this list. (I say that both to warn you of my biases, but also to relieve the pressure that’s been building in my head.) Second point is that this spirit is made using entirely pre-industrial methods. (Or maybe just mainly pre-industrial. It’s hard to tell.) Mezcalero Aurelio Gonzalez Tobon is cooking two different species (not varieties, species) of agave underground in a stone-lined earthen oven before milling using… I’m not sure. The Del Maguey website doesn’t say, nor does the label. I’m guessing Señor Gonzalez is using a massive horse-pulled volcanic stone wheel called a tahona to mill the cooked agave. But maybe not! I’m guessing he’s fermenting in open-air wooden barrels, letting wild yeasts do the job that the rest of the world leaves to their boarding-school industrial brethren. Distillation is done in a wood-fired copper-pot still that has a refrescador—a plate or helmet on the still that allows two distillations to occur in a single pass.
All this takes place in San Pablo Ameyaltepec, Puebla. Given that ninety percent of all mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca, I positively love that this highest-ranking-Mezcal-of-2023 (and 2022!) comes from the state north, source of less than four percent of all mezcal—which kinda-sorta reinforces my earlier point that inefficient is usually more delicious.
Genever? What the heck is Genever? Genever is a Dutch gin—though if you suggest that, the Dutch will unleash upon you a rabid boeman (a Dutch bogeyman). Like so many other Geographic Indicators, it has specific rules in terms of what you must do and what you cannot do if you wish to refer to your spirit as Genever. You can find a decent summary here. But all of that aside, and at the risk of having a rabid boeman gnawing on my shins, I think it’s cool that the first gin to make the list is from the Netherlands, where gin originated. And is barrel-aged. And clocks in at almost sixty percent ABV.
I don’t know how I missed this in the earlier Redbreast, but… “single pot still”? What does that mean, exactly? My head goes to “single-malt whiskey,” which doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. When I read the phrase, I assume that a single variety of barley (and there are dozens of kinds of barley) was used to make the whiskey. But no. It means that whiskey you’re enjoying is from a single batch—meaning they haven’t blended different batches to get to what’s in your glass. Which then begs the question, how do they define a batch? We’ll get to that with the next single malt. Let’s stick to the question of “single pot still,” which appears to be a specific style of Irish whiskey—one which is made by a single distillery (so why not “single-distillery Irish whiskey”?), fermented from both malted and unmalted barley (so why not “multigenerational barley Irish whiskey”?), and distilled using a pot still (so why not… oh, wait, never mind).
Jean-Marc XO Vodka ($59)
Vodka was famously defined by the TTB—the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States—as a “neutral spirit distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” And according to the general class definition, it must be distilled to a minimum of ninety-five percent alcohol by volume (190 proof). That makes me think two things. First, if the tasters at Bev Test say this is the tenth best spirit of the year, and that it “maintains the flavor of [its] French winter wheat [fermentation] base,” what exactly does “distinctive” mean to the U.S. government? (My friends tell me that in 2020 the TTB changed the definition to allow vodka to have a distinctive character. But, hey, I tend to live in the past and it seems so does the TTB. The old definition is still on their website.) Second, when exactly do we get our first “cristalino” vodka? This would be vodka aged in barrels, then filtered to remove all “distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”—which it really doesn’t do. I mean, outside of the color.
The legal definition of larceny is “the trespassory taking and carrying away of personal goods from the possession of another with intent to steal.” Who would name their bourbon distillery after a Class A misdemeanor? I mean, congratulations on being the first American whiskey to make the list, but…
Wait. Sorry. I really shouldn’t be drinking these spirits as I’m writing about them. Or should I? But the relevant point here is, let’s talk “Straight Bourbon.” That “straight” modifier is a phrase you’ll see on some bourbons, not others. What does that mean? Simply, it follows all the rules that allow the whiskey to be categorized as bourbon, and stored for at least two years in charred, new oak containers (also known as “casks”). How does that relate to being “straight,” exactly? Throw me into a whiskey barrel for a couple years, I’ll come out anything but straight.
Here we have the second armagnac on the list, before we even get our first cognac. Why does that intrigue me? Well, for starters, cognac is by far better known—and more widely consumed—than armagnac. If you believe the Bhakta Spirits website, 250 million bottles of cognac are produced annually, compared with four million bottles of armagnac. The brand even refers to cognac as the “more polished stepbrother” to armagnac. But that gets me back to thinking about tequila and mezcal, which could be described similarly, with tequila being that more polished stepbrother. If a “lack of polish” is more appealing to the Bev Test review panelists, as suggested here, then why does tequila land higher and more frequently on this list than mezcal? That’s not a criticism of Bev Test or this list—just a question that I want to explore. At some point. With a bunch of bottles of cognac, armagnac, tequila and mezcal in front of me. And an equal number of Bev Test review panelists at the table.
Let’s first jump on that phrase “very rare.” This appears to be a line for this celebrated distillery—they release “very rare” bottlings every year, and even list ten different “lines” under the “very rare” collection. And none of them, as far as I could tell, expresses how many liters were either made or bottled. It makes me wonder, if I ordered a rare steak from this distillery, would it bleed? I do love that the line is named in honor of an actual distiller. Seems like here in the USA, we only name our whiskeys after the bankers who funded them or the salesmen who sold them. Good on you, Ireland!
We already covered “straight.” So, let’s talk “bottled-in-bond” and “rye.” And “Kentucky,” while we’re at it. “Bottled-in-bond,” while that suggests to my ear that the process was watched over such that all the claims made on the label were verified by an independent third party… Well, it’s not that. It boils down to the fact that it was stored in oak barrels in a warehouse under government supervision for at least four years. Which seems like a sweet job for some bean counter, sitting around watching a warehouse full of booze. I mean, when the apocalypse hits, yeah, you’re going to be under siege. Realistically, though, if you walk away, who’s going to be angry? It’s the end of the world and you’re supposed to spend your final days protecting whiskey?
As for rye, if you don’t know that grain, go get a proper pastrami sandwich. The bread will generally be made primarily of rye. Often with some wheat. Which could also be said of rye whiskey. The TTB says it must be made of at least fifty-one-percent rye to qualify as rye whiskey. But they say that in a 2018 PowerPoint in which they use “whisky” instead of “whiskey,” when with-an-E is how we spell it when it’s made in the USA. So, consider the source. Go buy a vowel.
And, finally, if it says Kentucky, does it have to be made in Kentucky? A couple lifetimes ago, I worked at Rogue Ales in Oregon. The owner, Jack, told me how he threatened to sue Sam Adams for releasing what they were calling an Oregon Original Nut Brown Ale, made entirely in Massachusetts. He said they settled out of court, including changing the name, and Jack was proud of that. When I asked him how he could then release what he called a Russian Imperial Stout that was made in Oregon, he told me to shut up. So… You decide.
For a tequila to qualify as Extra Anejo, it must be aged at least three years in oak casks no larger than 600 liters. This golden reserve from Alquimia is aged fourteen years and bottled at fifty-percent ABV—same as it came out of the barrel. Which is weird to me. I mean, fifty-percent is such a round number, right? My understanding of barrel-aging is, something goes missing in the process: water or alcohol. I mean, other stuff, too, but what I’m thinking about here is that round one-hundred-proof number. The stuff that goes missing is generally referred to as the “angel’s share,” and in humid climates—as with Jalisco—you tend to lose more alcohol than water, at a rate of two to five percent a year. So where did the proof start in that barrel? If they barreled at sixty percent ABV, lost two percent a year, that’d bring them down to around forty-five percent after fourteen years. So carry the one, add the fourteen… By my calculations, they would have barreled at around 66.5 percent ABV. Is that right, Alquimia? If so, can I come help you bottle?
Elit Vodka ($40)
Wait, wait, wait. No scotch yet. No cognac. No bourbon. Only one mezcal. But we already have our second vodka?
Doc Swinson’s 5-Year-Old Exploratory Cask “Bossa Nova” Cask-Finished Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($80)
Ah! Bourbon! Speak of the devil! To qualify as a “straight bourbon whiskey,” Cornell Law School assures us that the spirit must be aged at least two years in new (previously unused) charred oak barrels. And while not included in the name here, I can see from the label that this spirit was “finished” in “Brazilian amburana casks.” Amburana, that’s a kind of tree native to South America—known among whiskey distillers as “Brazilian oak.” But that’s just wishful thinking. I mean, they’re both trees, but oak is genetically more closely related to birch, beech and walnut than to amburana. But, hey, so long as the booze sits in new oak for two years, you can finish in pine pickle barrels and still call it bourbon.
Bhakta is coming in hot! The founder of WhistlePig Whiskey is clearly doing some fascinating stuff with this project. But… What exactly is this? A blend of three distinct spirits, each with its own regulations, this doesn’t qualify as anything—except a canned cocktail. And that’s not to suggest you should turn up your nose at it. (Or at canned cocktails in general, either. I see you, canned cocktails. We’re good.) It’s just to say, man, where do you display this in a liquor store? From what I could find online, the mix here is sixty-percent straight rye whiskey from 2018, thirty-percent XO Calvados, with the remaining ten percent a blend of armagnacs from 1928, 1941, 1962, 1973 and 1996. And to that XO Calvados, that itself could also be a blend—calvados is brandy distilled from fermented apples and/or pears, and the XO designation means it was aged at least six years. But you can blend different batches and it qualifies as XO so long as each batch is at least six years old. Which makes me wonder, with all the specificity on the rye and the armagnacs, why no love for the calvados, Bhakta? Where are the details on that? And I’ll have mine with a twist of orange peel, please.
You know, I was going to go all howler monkey on this rum for not identifying as overproof on the label. But then I looked up the definition of overproof rum and it’s more than a little confusing, with some differences between what qualifies in the USA and what qualifies in the UK. So then I went to Black Tot’s website to get more information on this particular bottle and found a motherlode. There are eighteen different rums in the blend from four different countries, plus two additional rums that are themselves blends from previous releases. If you’re a geek for the details, the folks at Black Tot will be your new best friends. They even break down how to recycle all the elements of this release, where possible. Howler monkey out.
Mezcal Vago Mezcal Ensamble En Barro ($69)
Hello, mezcal! This being the second entry of the expression to the list, I can be calmer—focus on what you want to know as opposed to what I want to say. So, for starters, mezcal is a kind of agave spirit. So is tequila. In the same way that scotch and bourbon are kinds of whiskey, and armagnac and cognac are kinds of brandy, mezcal and tequila are specific kinds of agave spirits. And that specificity is expressed through a bunch of rules. If you want to know all the differences, I made a spreadsheet for you. But if drinking and spreadsheets aren’t a combination that excite you, let’s just say that you can make mezcal using any of the hundreds of kinds of agave that exist, so long as you make it in one of the regions where you can certify, which includes Oaxaca, where something like ninety percent of all mezcal is made.
“Ensamble,” in this context, means a variety of agaves were used to make this batch—seven, to be precise, covering six different species of agave. That’s a lot of biodiversity. And the “En Barro” translates roughly to “in clay,” which is a reference to the small, wood-fired clay pot stills that legendary mezcalero Tio Rey used to distill this. Why is that important, that he used clay stills? Well, there are a lot of articles comparing cooking in clay to metal—I especially like Todd Oppenheimer’s “The Laws of Thermo-Culinary Dynamics,” published in Craftsmanship earlier this year. But I think the relevant point here that I don’t often see is, the average clay pot can only hold fifty to sixty liters, while the copper or steel pot is rarely smaller than 200 liters, often 600 liters. And that’s just for the inefficient wood-fired stills. So, your batches coming out of clay stills will usually be smaller. Is smaller better? Not always. But in my experience, usually.
Here we go—finally hit a single-malt whiskey. (Note that I bought the vowel.) Before I dig in, let’s take a moment to recognize that while Scotland and Ireland are over in the corner fighting about who invented whiskey, Taiwan snuck into the room with the highest-rated single-malt. Atta-country, Taiwan! With that being said, can we talk about how confusing “single malt” is? Malt is basically what you call the developed sugars of a grain. Grains are seeds—they want to become plants. To become plants, they must convert their starches into sugars, so those sugars can become the energy that builds that new plant. So, you start the grain on that process with a little water, it pops a little baby plant (sprout) out, and then you stop it. Cut off the water. Dry it out. Now, presto, you have a little sugar sprout. That malted grain (not to be confused with malted milk balls which, I can tell you from experience, will not sprout any baby plants) becomes the sugar that is fermented into alcohol. So, when I read “single malt,” it suggests to me that the bottle is distilled from the fermented malt of a single variety of grain. But it’s not. What it means is that the whiskey came from a single distillery. So why isn’t it called “single-distillery whiskey”? I don’t know. Blame it on the Scottish. Or the Irish. You choose.
We’ve covered “barrel proof,” we’ve covered “straight.” So, let’s use this opportunity to talk about the corn requirements of bourbon. For a whiskey to qualify as bourbon, the TTB says it must be produced “from a fermented mash of not less than fifty-one percent corn.” What I’m not finding anywhere is any qualifiers as to what that corn consists of. Or what that fifty-one percent refers to. Is that by weight? By volume? And if the corn is malted corn, the impact on flavor and aroma of that fifty-one percent is significantly greater—according to Whiskipedia.com, a grain of unmalted barley is only about two-percent sugar, but sixty-percent starch. The malting will convert that starch into sugar, so then you’re closer to sixty-two percent sugars. If the same can be said of corn—and I couldn’t find anything, but if you do, holler at me—a fermented mash that consists of fifty-one percent malted corn will be a lot more corn-forward than fifty-one percent unmalted corn. And more to the point, a bourbon that is fifty-one percent unmalted corn and forty-nine percent malted barley is going to be significantly more barley-forward than corn. And not that that’s a bad thing. We like barley. Well… Never mind. Carry on.
Any spirit distilled from sugar cane can qualify as rum. But that cane comes to us in several forms, including processed sugar and molasses. What the folks at Kuleana are doing is pressing the juice from the fresh cane and fermenting that in what’s called an Agricole-style of rum. If you’ve not tried it, it’s funky. Even if you have tried it, it’s funky. If you’ve had it a second time, you clearly like funk. A friend once described it to me as reminiscent of Green Giant Whole Golden Corn Niblets and now I can’t get that out of my head. So now I guess I’ve just returned the favor. You’re welcome.
Wikinger Noorgaard Gin (around $34, but you may have to include the flight to Germany in the price)
Near as I can tell, the Vikings pillaged the world between the eighth and eleventh centuries, and gin didn’t materialize until the thirteenth century. But maybe that’s because the Vikings stole the recipe…?
And we’ll wrap with an example of a whiskey that is not single-malt—meaning that the spirit was distilled in more than one distillery. If you go to the Shin Group website, you’ll read that their master blender, Ken Usami, “selected [the] finest malt whiskies and finished them in casks made of Japanese Oak.” So, he went around to several distilleries, selected the flavors he wanted, and then blended them into what’s in this bottle, which gets high marks from several people in the know, in addition to BevTest.
Lists like this are meant to be instructive. A bunch of experts in specific spirits categories get together, taste the same things, make their notes, and then talk everything through. It’s not uncommon for there to be disagreements—even heated disagreements, though rarely bar fights—amongst the experts. Which is to say, if you want to try what the experts say is the best, cool. Maybe you’ll love it. But maybe you’ll hate it. They’re experts in what bourbon is meant to taste like, not in what you will like. I was traveling Mexico a few months ago with a friend who is gin-obsessed. I was excited to introduce him to my friend who makes what, to me, is the best gin I’ve ever had—and I don’t really like gin. Turns out, when you don’t really like gin and you find one you love, it maybe won’t excite someone who actually does like gin.
Be you, drink what you like, and don’t yuck someone else’s yum. Catch you next list!