A Feather in your Nightcap
By Lou Bustamante
The last few years have been a breakout for Italian amari, those inky and viscous digestive herbal liqueurs. Yet despite their rising popularity (especially with folks working in the hospitality industry), the appeal may be more in the camaraderie that comes with the dare of drinking something so bitter.
The recent spate of newly released spirits serves to remind us that an after-dinner drink need not be punishing: A glass of good whiskey or a clean, well-made fruit cordial can provide closure to a meal without any bravado necessary. Here are my picks for the best of the new crop—spirits to be lingered over, with great conversation.
Old Pulteney Navigator Single Malt Whisky Old Pulteney, based in Wick in the Scottish Highlands, designed its latest release, Navigator, as an homage to its town's seafaring past: Wick was once renowned for its herring industry. There is no age statement, which means there's a big mix of different ages of whiskies, yet that doesn't mean it lacks flavor. Aged in a combination of used Bourbon and Sherry casks in a barrel warehouse near the sea, it's redolent of salt water and coastal grass, with a balanced sweetness, almond nuttiness and plenty of malt flavor.
Imported by IBHL USA, NY; 40% abv, $49
Talisker, known for producing a powerfully peat-smoked whisky from the Isle of Skye, has introduced an even more intense edition: Talisker Storm. Unlike their other offerings, it bears no age statement, allowing master distiller Mark Lochhead to favor barrel choices over age. The result is a dram with a concentrated smokiness. It's remarkably balanced, with enough sweet butterscotch and sea spray aromas to tame the smoke.
Imported by Diageo, Norwalk, CT; 45.8% abv, $66
The devil was once chased into the Bowmore barrel-aging warehouses, where empty casks were being filled with whisky bound for the mainland—or so the story goes. In the Bowmore Devil's Cask, the barrels are first-fill Oloroso Sherry casks, where this Islay whisky stays for ten years. It's smoky and intense, a savory whisky with a dark roasted-meat quality and tart sweetness.
Imported by Campari America, San Francisco, CA; 56.9% abv, $89
While brand new American oak casks are required to make Bourbon whiskey, used Bourbon butts are far more common in Scotland. Distillers will tell you that's because the used barrels impose less oak influence on the whisky, but Glen Garioch Virgin Oak dispels that theory. The oak is there in herbal, cinnamon and vanilla flavors, but it's plenty balanced by savory, dark-roast malt notes and violet fragrance.
Imported by Campari America, San Francisco, CA; 48% abv, $109
Distilled from a blend of peated and non-peated Scottish malted barley, this Speyside whisky is a fascinating blend of grain, fruit and smoke. Aged for most of its 17 years in used Bourbon barrels, it gets finished in Tawny Port casks. As soon as it's poured, a sweet incense-like smoke aroma puffs from the glass. Its flavors are both toasty and jammy; it recalls grilled fruit, like peaches and berries caramelized over a wood grill, with malt and a hint of oak spice holding it all in balance.
Imported by Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA; 50% abv, $99
Despite the impish green devil painted by Leonetto Cappiello on the label, Maurin Quina is a French apéritif, not absinthe. It's made by mixing a sweet white wine with neutral grape brandy infused with wild cherry and cinchona, then further fortifying it with cherry brandy, lemon and cherry juice. The result comes in bright cherry flavors braced with a quinine backbone—delicious alone on the rocks, but even better when stirred into your favorite whisky cocktail.
Imported by Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA; 16% abv, $34
It takes 35 pounds of pears to make just three-quarters of a liter of distillate for Pür Likör Williams Pear Liqueur, an intensity borne out in its perfume and its fresh, juicy pear flavor. The Spice Blood Orange liqueur has a good dose of cinnamon and clove flavoring the citrus, in a way that makes it a perfect dovetail to drinks that use sweet vermouth and bitters. Add a nice pour to your Manhattan for a little more orange and spice. These are just two of the six flavors from Pür Likör, a line made by a third-generation distiller in Germany's Bavaria.
Imported by Braverman, San Francisco, CA; Spice Blood Orange and Williams Pear liqueurs both 25% abv, $28/375ml
Since 1998, Laurent Cazottes has been making what are possibly the most painstakingly crafted liquors you can buy. He begins by growing his fruit biodynamically on his estate in Villeneuve-sur-Vère, in the southeast of Bordeaux. Then the fruit is hand-harvested, peeled, cut and seeded. A portion of the prepared fruit is crushed, fermented and distilled to make an eau-de-vie, while the remaining fruit is steeped in grape eau-de-vie for at least six months. Then the two are blended together to make an incredibly rich, clear snapshot of orchard fruit. The CImported by USA Wine Imports for PM Spirits, NY; Quince and Cèdrat both 18% abv, $65/375mldrat (citron or ethrog) is beautifully golden in color, fragrant with sweet and floral citrus peel, and redolent of both candied and fresh citrus. The Quince is amazing—tart, bright and pure. These are two liqueurs you'll want to enjoy simply, on their own.
Imported by USA Wine Imports for PM Spirits, NY; Quince and Cèdrat both 18% abv, $65/375ml
Giffard Liqueurs have been around since 1885, when French pharmacist Emile Giffard was looking for a way to incorporate the cooling and digestive properties of mint into a spirit. Recently, with the help of Erik Hakkinen, head bartender of the Zig Zag Café in Seattle, the liqueurs have finally arrived from the Loire Valley to the United States. Made by extracting fresh fruit in sugar beet alcohol with no artificial inputs, these are higher proof, less sweet and more intense than most. The Abricot du Roussillon in particular is a standout, extravagantly fruity and tart; also try the Banane du Brésil, an intensely tropical elixir that tastes like creamy ripe bananas drizzled with caramel. Use these in place of crème liqueurs in cocktails for a flash of flavor without the cloying sweetness.
Imported by Back Bar Project, Seattle, WA; Abricot du Roussillon and Banane du Brésil, both 25% abv, $29
This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, April 2014.