One of the highlights of my year comes every March, when 38 of my colleagues and I convene in the Bay Area for a weekend to blind taste nearly 1,500 spirits from 64 countries. It's a great time to hang with some of the best bartenders, wine experts, writers, and spirits professionals in the business. But for as much fun as we have, this assembled crew of expert palates has work to do: We judge America's most prestigious spirits contest, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
You're probably wondering how can we taste that much alcohol in that short amount of time? First, we each have a spittoon so we're not half in the bag. Second, the organizers are on point. They break the spirits down into multiple categories (vodka, single-barrel bourbon, un-aged rum, etc.) and volunteers pour them into coded glasses so we can't know the distiller. Over the course of four days every judge tastes about 200 different products before taking notes and recording each with a score. By the end of each session, my palate is sore enough that I'd love to soak it in a bowl of milk. But it's more than worth it because of all the excellent alcohol I get to sample. From that nearly 1,500, I've compiled a list of my 11 favorites that—although not all of them took home top prizes—you should definitely sample yourself.
Comandon Cognac XO, Cognac, France - $129
Here's a simple rule that I like to follow with spirits: liquor made from grain tends to be better when it comes from large distilleries (hello, Heaven Hill bourbons), and liquor made from fruit tends to be better when it comes from small distilleries (single-village mezcals are a perfect example of this) There are exceptions to every rule, but this is not one of those times. Skip the stuff endorsed by celebrity musicians and pick up a cognac you won't see on TV, like Comandon. For a real treat, seek out their single-barrel XO. The terroir of Cognac is ultra-present here, with rich, leathery tobacco resting gently on top of bright, ripe grapes.
Ardbeg Single Malt Scotch Uigeadail, Islay, Scotland - $79
I like my Scotch whisky to bring the smells and tastes of a state fair: hot buttered popcorn, smoke, creosote, fireworks, caramel corn, hay, and barn animal funk. And this offering from the Ardbeg distillery has it all. If you've ever used the trite descriptor "smooth" to describe a whisky, this one's not for you.
Havana Club Rum Selección de Maestros, Santa Cruz del Norte, Cuba - $55
What a tease this entry is. It's both attractively priced and wonderfully delicious. Caramel sits right next to bright, fresh cane, and the whole thing is blanketed in a thin veneer of ocean air. The only problem here is that it's from Cuba and therefore completely unavailable in this country. So you'll have to do what the rest of us do: purchase it in duty-free while overseas and smuggle it in. Not that I'd ever condone such a thing…
El Tesoro Reposado Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico - $60
Reposado tequila is the perfect balance for me: after two months in an oak barrel, there is still that bright, vegetal, fruity tequila that I crave so much, but it's tempered by some light, soft, caramel and vanilla notes. And of all the reposado tequilas out there, few can come close to what the folks at El Tesoro produce. It stands out year after year.
LeCompte 25 Year Calvados, Pays d'Auge, France - $279
Yes, you read that right. It's a twenty-five year old Calvados, which is French apple brandy. The finest Calvados out there are all about showing terroir, and this one does it better than all the others. You can't help but think of being in a French apple orchard, surrounded by fragrant trees, ancient wooden roofs, horses and cows, and stinky cheese. Forget the hefty price tag. Keep it in the back of the liquor cabinet and use it to impress that friend who actually knows something.
Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, Paris, France - $200
Do you really want to spend two hundred bucks on the finest orange liqueur in the world, made with a blend of rare Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne Cognacs? Hell no. Do you want to sip on a glass after dinner when someone else is picking up the tab? Most definitely. You will not be disappointed.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon, Versailles, Ky. - $50
Throughout the weekend, one bourbon continued to stand out as it moved through the ranks. I kept my eye on it in order to discover what it was once the competition was over. I was so pleasantly surprised to find that I already had a bottle sitting on my shelf. This is one of the great bargains in Bourbon right now. It's world-class, and very affordable. It's rich a mahogany and leather den covered in a fresh coat of turpentine that's been blown dry by pipe tobacco. Don't skip this whiskey.
Ballast Point Mai Tai Mix, San Diego, Calif. - $6
Whoa. Hold the phone. I know what you're thinking, and I can explain. Why am I recommending a six-dollar Mai Tai mix? Well, I'll tell you. I'm recommending it because it's actually amazingly delicious. As someone who makes fantastic, hand-made, beautiful Mai Tais (mini tiki umbrella and all), I've got to tell you that this is the closest you're ever going to come to a well-constructed Mai Tai. I've honestly never seen a drink mix shine with such a balance of fresh lime and rich, sweet orgeat (almond syrup). We paired this mix with some beautiful aged Jamaican rum, and every bartender in the room agreed: it's fantastic. Using this bottle will ease the guilt you feel when you're too lazy to make a Mai Tai by hand.
Hibiki 12 Year Whisky, Osaka, Japan - $60
Soon we'll all be drinking a lot more Japanese whisky, so you'd might as well get started now. This one, which tastes of dried cherries, used cigar boxes, sea moss, and dark, bitter chocolate, has been my choice for highballs for years. I find Japanese whiskies to be particularly oily, which makes for a great drinking experience when combined with water—or how I like it, on the rocks with soda.
1876 Vodka, Dripping Springs, Texas - $14
Yes, I'd never heard of it either. But I hope to see a whole lot more of this product, and not just because it's really well made vodka with a creamy mouthfeel, fresh citrus notes, and a crystal-clean finish. No, I want this to become the most popular vodka in the world because it's actually priced as vodka should be. Trust me, vodka is the cheapest thing in the world to make, and if you're paying more than $14 for a bottle, you're only paying for their marketing campaign. These guys should be proud of themselves for being honest.
Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel Bourbon, Lawrenceberg, Ky. - $50
This is a little unfair, as every private selection single barrel is going to be different. But I think it's well worth mentioning that Four Roses' single barrel project has been putting out some exemplary whiskies, and every selection I've tried has been stunning. Somebody at the distillery has been picking out exceptional barrels for this program, so getting in on the ground floor is a really good idea here. See what's showing up in your area. I find that a lot of the better liquor stores in town are picking out their own barrels.
Photo by David L. Reamer