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Ab Ovo #24: What’s Past is Prologue
What the most interesting new bottles of 2021 tell us about spirits in 2022 (and beyond)
Moving into the downslope of January means we’re firmly into that season in which the previous year’s data has been thoroughly crunched, the holiday sales accounted for, the tea leaves read, and the prognostications for the coming year divined. And everyone — absolutely everyone — wants you to know about it. In the beverage industry, everyone from spirits giant Bacardi to online alcohol delivery platform Drizly to Silicon Valley Bank gets in on this annual ritual, littering inboxes the world over with infographics and esoteric data points that spawn a continuous stream of media stories, each headlined with some variation of “This is What You’ll Be Drinking in 2022.”
TL;DR? We’ll be drinking more tequila (Drizly, DISCUS); celebrities will continue to sell lots of booze (especially tequila); we’ll drink more premium booze and more of it at home thanks to a pandemic-prompted interest in home bartending (Bacardi); we’ll lean more heavily on e-commerce to procure our alcohol (we bought $6 billion worth of alcohol online in the U.S. last year, says Rabobank, and globally we could be spending $42 billion for alcohol online in the next five years, says drinks market analysis shop IWSR ); we’ll be drinking more healthfully, with low- and no-alcohol beverages replacing some of our typical tipples (Bacardi, IWSR); and we’ll be drinking more mindfully, with an emphasis on local producers, craft distillers, and brands with sustainability credentials (Drizly, IWSR).
We’re also into that time of year where many of us are doing a bit of a reset, professionally and personally, as we move into the year ahead. For me, that means dusting off lots of notes collected over the past year and sorting through dozens and dozens (and dozens) of spirits samples that have accumulated in my office over the same period. According to my official tally, I sampled and took notes on more than 200 different spirits and a similar number of wines in 2021. That’s not counting the many beverages for which I failed to keep a record, for whatever reason. I tasted a lot of booze, in other words, and also got to experience firsthand where spirits producers are placing their bets on new products.
Ab Ovo’s research department doesn’t have the resources to conduct the kind of industry-wide surveys and analysis that produced some of the banner data points above, but I do have what I have and know what I know. Anecdotally, I can say all of the above mentioned trends ring true enough for me. But more precisely, I can look at some of the most interesting new spirits I tried in 2021 and relate what they tell me about the future of spirits (we’ll have to do wine another time).
By “most interesting,” I don’t necessarily mean “best.” We have too many “best of 2021” write-ups already circulating out there, and I’d hate to add to that chaos (though all of the spirits listed below are fantastic and worth seeking out, IMO). Rather, these are some of the more intriguing spirits that came across my desk over the past year, a small sampling of the many products that turned my head, made me rethink a bias, or otherwise surprised me in some way. Moreover, I think each tells us a little something about where the industry is going and — in many cases — who is going to take us there.
Milam & Greene ‘The Castle Hill Series’ Batch 1 Bourbon Whiskey
What we like: Between them, Master Distiller Marlene Holmes and Master Blender Heather Greene have spent decades immersed in the hallowed whiskey-making traditions of Kentucky and Scotland, plus many points beyond. So it would’ve been easy enough for the duo to settle in somewhere along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and make exceptional whiskey by the book. Instead, they set up shop in the heart of Texas Hill Country and started making whiskey their own way, most notably by blending whiskies they’ve distilled themselves with others they’ve sourced from elsewhere and matured in their own central Texas rickhouse. Early efforts like an absolutely fantastic port cask-finished rye released last year and this first edition of the distillery’s “Castle Hill Series” — a blend of 13-year-old (minimum) bourbons dripping with mature notes of vanilla, almond, oak and tobacco — have earned Milam & Greene a permanent place on our “if you see it, buy it” list.
What it tells us: For Holmes and Greene, ignoring conventions around sourcing versus distilling and instead focusing on creating the best possible blend has thus far yielded delicious results. Others in the American craft whiskey world are taking note.
What we like: Perfectly lovely on its own but electrifying when properly deployed in a cocktail, Pisco has enjoyed a spike in popularity lately, due in part to the increasing availability of quality pisco outside of South America. Suyo works with a handful of small producers in Peru to source its spirit and brings it to market in batches, delivering its first bottles to the U.S. just last year. Citrus, orchard fruit, and some smoky ferment funk on the nose tee up a palate of tart green apple and fresh cracked pepper.
What it tells us: Pisco ticks a lot of boxes, both for bartenders seeking something outside-the-mainstream and consumers pursuing a pandemic-induced passion for home bartending. The time is right. New year, new you, Suyo.
Salcombe “Rosé Sainte Marie” Gin
What we like: Pink gins — typically made by subjecting a conventional gin to a quick post-distillation maceration with some additional botanicals and/or fruits — have come back into fashion of late. But beware the many imposters loaded down with added sugar and artificial flavorings. Salcombe’s Rosé Sainte Marie is the real deal, drawing inspiration from the aromas and flavors of a Provençal herb garden. A brief post-distillation steeping in fresh strawberries adds some roundness, a very subtle sweetness, and the slightest bit of rosé coloration (it looks great on a bar cart).
What it tells us: Rosé Sainte Marie is outselling Salcombe’s very excellent but more traditional Start Point London Dry Gin two-to-one in the U.S., which really says it all.
Benriach Smoke Season
What we like: While there are of course exceptions, smoke-laden peated Scotches are generally associated with Scotland’s Hebridean island of Islay, while the mainland’s Speyside region is known for it’s lighter, fruitier, and (almost always) unpeated style. Speyside’s Benriach distillery has long ignored this norm, dedicating a few weeks each year to producing peated whiskies using Highland (rather than coastal or island) peat in its malting process. Aged in both conventional ex-bourbon barrels and less-typical virgin American oak, the resulting small batch whisky is packed with typical Speyside orchard fruit a distinctive sweet smoke — think barbecue smoked fruit and spiced, roasted apple — along with some caramel and charred orange peel.
What it tells us: Single malt Scotch remains atop the single malt whisky pyramid, but competition is on the rise as quality single malts emerge from other parts of the globe. But even in this most traditional (and legally constrained) corner of the whisky industry there’s plenty of room for creative producers to color outside the lines, to delicious effect.
Sông Cái Dry Gin
What we like: Vietnamese-American distiller Daniel Nguyen produces Vietnam’s first-ever gin brand (at least that we know of) with the help of more than 70 families that hand-forage 16 botanicals, flowers, and woods unique to Vietnam’s highlands. The resulting gin is both citrusy and piney, with a distinctive peppery mint note that gives way to savory spices and dried fruits (Sông Cái also makes a lovely “Floral Gin” that swaps out some of the drier spice notes for softer floral tones).
What it tells us: Shaped as it is by botanicals and flora, gin is a particularly capable conveyor of local terroir when the producer chooses to incorporate locally-sourced ingredients. Wholly unique gins like these remind us that the best places to make gin may not even be making gin yet.
Compass Box Orchard House
What we like: Since its founding in 2000, Compass Box has made the notion of a blending house cool again. Rather than pouring its energy into distillation, Compass Box buys liquid stocks from various distilleries, then blends them into unique, finely tuned whiskies that are more than the sum of their parts. Orchard House joins Compass Box’s core range of blended malts, incorporating whiskies purchased from distilleries like Linkwood and Clynelish known for their fruit-forward spirits. The result is a light whiskey that’s heavy on bright, fresh orchard fruits with some malty biscuit and vanilla notes mingling quietly in the background.
What it tells us: Despite outselling single malt Scotch by many millions of cases annually, blended Scotch often takes a backseat to single malt in discussions of quality. That’s a very limiting way to think about whisky, and Compass Box continues to wake consumers up to this point (see also: Milam and Greene).
Redwood Empire Rocket Top Rye
What we like: Redwood Empire turns out bourbons and ryes in the heart of California’s Russian River Valley wine region, taking advantage of Northern California’s temperate climate and the valley’s aquifer-sourced water to put its own stamp on the American whiskey genre. The mash bill for this bottled-in-bond rye contains some wheat — an ingredient not so commonly deployed in American rye whiskies — providing some roundness that softens the rye’s spicier edges. Aromas of sandalwood, cedar grove, and clove meet flavors of black pepper, soft vanilla, malt, and coffee.
What it tells us: If you haven’t yet tried a whiskey from one of the 48 states beyond Kentucky and Tennessee, the world is passing you by.
Mezcal Amaras Logias
What we like: The data says we’ll be drinking more tequila AND more mindfully. To me, drinking more agave spirits more mindfully means drinking more mezcal. Surging demand for tequila makes it more and more difficult to sustainably farm the Blue Weber agave upon which it depends. Mezcal Amarás plants, on average, seven agave seeds for each plant it harvests, and its limited edition Logia bottles are the embodiment of the brand’s sustainable ethos. Made in small batches and in limited runs, these expressions allow consumers to explore mezcals made from some less-than-common agave species secure in the knowledge that their ecosystems are being responsibly maintained.
What it tells us: Tequila isn’t going anywhere. But consumers are increasingly aware of the whole universe of agave spirits not named tequila, and mezcal producers are increasingly meeting them where they want to be met in ways tequila producers can’t. More of this, please.
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