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Spirits Articles

2003 Best Spirits
The Beverage Testing Institute is pleased to announce the 2003 Best Spirits from our annual International Review of Spirits competition.

Posted: December 31st, 2003

By Jerald O'Kennard, jerald@tastings.com

2003 was a very exciting year for spirits; we found out about a lot of great new products and got reacquainted with some classics. Our panelists tasted approximately three hundred spirits and conducted the largest tasting of mezcals ever held outside of Mexico. From these tastings, we have distilled the best of the best for your bar and ongoing enjoyment.

Cognac:

Louis Royer XO Cognac

An elegant XO cognac with a sumptuous nose and deliciously balanced flavor that is made with Petite, Grande Champagnes and a small proportion of oldest Fins Bois and Borderies grapes. Perfect for long nights in front of the fireplace.

Eau de Vie:

Fassbind Williams Eau-de-Vie

A purely made and elegantly flavored Swiss pear fruit eau-de-vie that would make a fine ending to a gourmet meal as a digestif or an interesting substitute for vodka in a variety of cocktails. A world-class, platinum medal eau-de-vie.

Gin:

Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength Gin

This is one of the finest of a new wave of gins that features a bright citrus and floral character with a foundation of assertive, London-dry-style juniper flavor. Pure glacial water from remote Icelandic spring and a secret botanical ingredient put the finishing touches on this tasty, designer English gin.

Cream Liqueur:

Baileys' Original Irish Cream Liqueur

There is a very good reason for success of many of the classic spirit brands beyond marketing strategies and savvy—they taste great! Bailey's, the number one selling liqueur in the world, proves this yet again in our tastings with its lush, fresh cream character, gentle nuttiness, and perfectly balanced dash of Irish whiskey. Make sure to refrigerate the bottle after you open it or try the convenient new “minis” package.

Fruit Liqueur:

Mathilde Cassis Liqueur

A rich, French fruit liqueur that places the emphasis on natural, preserve-like black fruit flavors and tart, herbal nuances instead of cloying sweetness. Try with ice cream or in a kir royale cocktail.

Herb/Spice Liqueur:

Dr. McGillicuddy's Mentholmint Schnapps

This modest priced schnapps delivers big, distinctive, peppermint and menthol flavors with a gutsy, yet well-balanced, blast. The good doctor's tonic earned our Best Buy award and a nod for truth in advertising.

Añejo Mezcal:

Embajador de Oaxaca Mezcal Reserva Especial-7 Year Old French Oak Finish

This recently imported aged mezcal (a kissing cousin of tequila) was one of the revelations of our massive mezcal tasting this year. It is made by a small artisanal producer who is obsessed with pushing the envelope of the mescal category by experimenting with a variety of wood finishes—a la single malt Scotch. The results are fantastic, with delicious Cognac-like flavors and spicy agave. A producer to watch.

Blanco Mezcal:

Del Maguey Tobala Wild Mountain Single Village Mezcal

A platinum medal winning unaged mezcal that is crisp, dry, and exotically smoky with all elements in fantastic balance. This remarkable spirit is organically produced in small batches in remote mountainous alembic stills by Oaxacan Indian mezcaleros from wild, uncultivated Tobala agave. Take a walk on the wild side.

Mezcal Reposado:

Mixes Kënikx Në Mezcal Reposado

A very attractive, lightly aged mezcal that distinguished itself from a tough group of competitors by its solid fruity flavors, peppery spice, and effortless drinkability. Not yet available in the US, but well worth seeking out in Mexico—comes in a distinctive bottle.

Aged Rum:

Plantation 1992 Vintage Venezuela Rum

A merchant bottling of vintage rum by the distinguished Gabriel & Andreu Cognac house that is sourced from the finest 10-year-old barrels of top Venezuela distilleries. Tropical fruit sweetness, caramel, and spiciness all blend beautifully into a very decadent sipping rum.

Dark Rum:

Inner Circle Green Dot Rum

This over-the-top, high proof dark rum from Australia is made in copper pot stills and aged for several years to add mellowness and depth. What impressed us was its balance of rich flavor and spicy heat that that explodes on the palate, but never gets searing or overbearing. A hearty rum with class.

Scotch Highland Single Malt Whisky:

The Macallan "Cask Strength" Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

An unusual 117.2 Proof bottling from the prestigious Macallan distillery that has recently released a historic series of older vintages while struggling to keep up with the worldwide demand for its benchmark 18-year-old bottling. This cask-strength Scotch will appease fans of the rich 18-year-old Macallan with its distinctive, spicy, yet balanced, Sherried character. A bonus is the fact that this bottle should last longer since the addition of spring water opens up the spirit beautifully and stretches out the span of enjoyment.

Scotch Island Single Malt Whisky:

Highland Park 18 Year Old Orkney Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The Highland Park distillery, located on the remote northern island of Orkney, is on quite a few critics' short lists for superb quality and consistency. This 18-year-old bottling displays a great balance of honeyed malt, Sherry wood, spice, and peat. If you are not familiar with island malts and the subtle effect the sea has on whisky aging, seek this out.

Anejo Tequila:

Espolon Añejo Tequila

Espolon Añejo is about as good as it gets in the tequila world, as confirmed by our tequila tasting and those of the Mexican trade group, the Tequila Academy, in 2003. Rich, dried fruits, honeyed agave, and lavish spiciness are the result of fastidious and experimental growing and aging methods of this very experienced, family run agave producer and distiller. Treat yourself to the best.

Reposado Tequila:

Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila

This fine tequila is made by Jose Cuervo International and shows their real commitment to quality in their 100% blue agave tequila products. Soft, smooth, and elegant this would make a great high-end margarita as well as smooth sipping tequila before or after a gourmet Mexican meal.

Silver Tequila:

Espolon Silver Tequila

It's often said that real tequila connoisseurs prefer blanco, or unaged, tequila because the true flavor of the agave is not masked by the influence of the barrel. If that is the case, then this blanco from the remarkable Espolon distillery has nothing to fear from a close examination and everything to show in its true, clean, zesty, agave flavor profile. Try it neat or on the rocks with a twist of lime and you will see the light as well.

Flavored Vodka:

Stolichnaya Stoli Persik Vodka

The story of Stolichnaya has become a very interesting saga in recent years with stories of high-stakes Russian stand-offs, lawsuits, arrests, embargoes, and espionage popping up in the news from time-to-time. Someday it will make a great novel and Hollywood movie, but in the meantime we're pleased to report that Stoli's taste and quality hasn't been affected by all the drama. In fact, the company that pioneered the use and marketing of naturally flavored vodkas clearly demonstrated their “star power” by placing very high in our 2003 vodka tastings with several of their products. The Persik is a peach flavored treat with incredibly clean, peach essence that's so natural you can taste the skin's fuzz.

Vodka:

Stolichnaya Gold Vodka

This vodka laughs in the face of those who would characterize Russian vodkas as fiery, chest-hair-growing tonic with its lush texture, subtle and complex flavors of citrus and spice. Instead it demands the most discriminating vodka drinker to take notice and give it its due with every sip.

Vodka:

Monopolowa Potato Vodka

Traveling to different distilleries throughout the world, we often wonder what makes one producer's wares different from the next. This is especially true of the unaged spirit and marketing phenomenon known as unflavored vodka, where one is distilled six hundred times, another is filtered through fossilized mastodon tusks, and the ultimate is based on Tutankhamen's original recipe. The jury is out—far out, in fact—on what matters in terms of making great tasting vodka as we continue to see high priced, high concept brands thoroughly bested by modest, traditionally made ones. This year was no exception, and the humble family owned, Monopolowa distillery showed that their creamy, super smooth, vodka was one of the world's best tasting and best value vodkas. Go figure.

Bourbon Whiskey:

George T. Stagg 15 Yr. Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky

This massively proportioned, barrel proof, beast of a bourbon literally attacked the taste buds of our spirits panel. But is was a battle that we were happy to fight as all parties emerged victorious after seemingly endless melees of flavor, spice, and heat finished amicably and left us with great inner peace. Seriously, grab this monumental, limited edition bourbon while you still can, you'll never forget it if you do and you'll never forgive yourself if you don't.

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