We know, you already have your favorite brand of bourbon and vodka. You’re in love with those particular spirits, so there’s no reason to venture into new territory, right? Wrong. Booze just keeps getting better, with new expressions hitting shelves every year. We sampled quite a few of them in 2015. Here are the best new spirits we tasted this year.
Best Canadian Whisky
Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye may be getting all the glory after getting top honors in Jim Murray’s The Whiskey Bible, but the Hand Selected Barrel bottling might be even better (and probably easier to find after all the Rye hype). This expression isn’t the usual Crown Royal blend; it’s the Coffey Rye recipe alone, with a deep flavor unlike any Canadian whisky you’ve tasted before.
Best Cask-Strength Whisky
Aberlour might not be the most widely recognized single malt scotch in the United States, but the brand has a really sophisticated range of expressions, including the outstanding A’bunadh. Batch number 52 of this cask-strength whisky is intensely flavorful, with nary a wisp of peat, and packs a punch at 121 proof. It’s aged in Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, bringing hints of raisin and cherry through both the nose and palate.
Best Flavored Vodka
Flavored vodka tends to bring up unpleasant imagery of saccharine cocktails served in a dizzying rainbow of colors; essentially, alcoholic candy. But California’s St. George Spirits, already producing some of the best domestic gin and single malt whiskey, has crafted a winner with its Valencia, Seville, and bergamot orange-flavored vodka. The nose is a blast of fragrant citrus, and the finish is fresh orange with only a hint of sweetness.
Best Inexpensive Rye
Convincing devotees of Old Overholt and Rittenhouse Rye to use any other budget rye in their Manhattans or Old Fashioneds is a hard sell. But Hochstadter’s, while a bit pricier at around $35 a bottle, should give you pause if you stumble across it at the liquor store. This spicy and pleasantly earthy rye is sourced from distilleries around the U.S. and Canada, and can be enjoyed mixed or on its own. And at 100 proof, it provides the kick you’re looking for.
Best Overall Rye
Pikesville Rye is a Heaven Hill product inspired by pre-Prohibition era Maryland rye whiskey. Heaven Hill is one of the best of the big Kentucky distilleries, and they certainly don’t stumble here, producing a six-year-old 110 proof rye that is well worth the $50 or more it will set you back. This is a complex, multi-layered whiskey that is rich and creamy, one of the best new expressions from Heaven Hill in some time.
Best Whiskey Not From America, Scotland, or Ireland
Bain’s is brand-new in the United States—a South African single grain whisky made from 100 percent South African yellow maize. It’s double matured, initially in first-fill bourbon casks for up to three years, then in another set of identical casks for 18-30 months, allowing it to soak up some extra flavor and color. The taste is more like Irish whiskey than bourbon, with an ultra smooth palate and slightly sweet and grainy nose. If you appreciate any type of whiskey at all, you should give Bain’s a try.
Amaro is a hot ingredient in the world of mixology at the moment, and for good reason. This bitter spirit is fragrant, herbal, and usually low in proof, the perfect companion to a variety of spirits (not to mention wonderful when drunk neat or over some ice). Cynar, a popular artichoke-based amaro from Italy, can now be enjoyed as a higher-end, premium 70 proof version, more than double the alcohol content of the original. The flavor is nearly identical, but the buzz is a lot more fun.