The Best Spirits from the NYC Indie Spirits Expo 2018

Its that time of year again– New York City Indie Spirits Expo! As you might remember, last year I covered my top ten favorite spirits from the festival. This year there were even more spirits and even less time to taste, so I prioritized trying booze from new and different distilleries.

Here are some of the exceptionally interesting spirits that I loved and that you should try if you have the chance:


Catoctin Creek Rye — Cask Strength

This was my favorite spirit of the night. Coming from Purcellville, Virginia, it’s made from entirely organic rye. It’s aged in 30 gallon barrels, and it’s amazing.

The nose has a little bit of the pear smell that’s also present in single malts, but it’s more robust and buttery. It certainly has some of the classic rye spices on the taste, along with green apple, tobacco and port wine notes.

The cask strength is limited release, but the 92 proof and 80 proof versions are more easily available, and delicious as well. They are a little bit sweeter and slightly bourbon-y, even though they’re all 100% rye.

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Berkshire Mountain Distillers — Bourbon Smoke and Peat

If you like bourbon and smoky Islay scotch, you’d be missing out if you didn’t try this.

To make the Berkshire Bourbon Smoke and Peat, the distillers start with their bourbon recipe, made with locally sourced corn, and after it’s been aged in new oak, it’s put it in freshly used Laphroaig casks.

(For us whiskey nerds, the mash bill is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley)

The nose is light and floral, more like a bourbon. Just smelling it, you’d have no idea that it’s flavor is primarily smoked peat over a classic, vanilla-y bourbon, with a little bit of wood spice. Berkshire Bourbon and Peat is a perfect merging of scotch and corn whiskey. It’s like when two celebrities have a gorgeous, smart baby that looks like it might take over the world someday. Like George and Amal Clooney’s babies. That’s what this is like.

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The Real McCoy Rum

Well, I’m fudging things a little bit here, because all their aged rums are great. The 5 year rum is more like a bourbon, but the 12  year is on the more on the spicy, grassy, tobacco side while still being sweet. All their products have slight sea air and coconut notes, which I was told is from the particular water source they use in Barbados. The 10 year limited is a little on the unique side because it’s a blend of years, the youngest of which is 10 years old. It’s more molasses and eucalyptus-y, but only 3000 bottles were released, so good luck finding that one before it’s gone! I have Foursquare Distillery’s Port Cask aged rum at home which is super tasty, and could nearly fool you for a whiskey. That one’s limited too, but my point here is that any rum you get from The Real McCoy/Foursquare Distillery is bound to be worth it.

Aside from all the good things their rum does for your taste buds, Foursquare Distillery is also a no-waste distillery. Their labels are made from recycled paper, they take the leftover distillate, filter it and use it to water the sugar cane which eventually becomes rum. They’ve really thought it all out.

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Breuckelen Distilling — Bottled in Bond First Release Wheated Bourbon Project

I’d tried Breuckelen’s Local Rye and Corn before (it’s great, btw), but I had no idea that they don’t regularly do bourbon. I was even more confused that they don’t regularly do bourbon when I tried their bourbon project, because it’s fantastic. How does a distillery that doesn’t regularly do bourbon make a bourbon like….. this? And this is their first bourbon project too. What.

It’s rosy and floral, dry and grain-forward, with hints of cherry medicine. Looking at that description you’re probably thinking that it doesn’t sound much like a bourbon. Well, looking at the mash bill, its 60% corn, 20% red wheat, 20% barley. That red wheat makes a huge difference and creates an entirely different flavor profile than a normal bourbon.

It’s a limited release, and I’m waiting on the edge of my seat for whenever they put out a next one.

(Hey, Breuckelen distillers, if you’re reading this, could you make an Empire Rye? Pretty please?)

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Barking Irons Applejack

I didn’t even know Applejack was a thing until this past year, but it’s been around as long as the New World, and Barking Irons is carrying on that tradition. It started long ago when apples were one of the cheapest and easiest things to grow, and people froze apple cider barrels to remove the water. Voila, that’s the invention of Applejack!

Barking Irons Applejack is made from New York apples, and left to age in 10 gallon barrels (that’s small!). The finished product is one that’s heavy on the tongue with apple flavor–obviously– but also some baking spices, saltine cracker, and a little bit of savory cheese notes like you might get from a Barbera wine. I haven’t had many Applejacks, but this one is definitely top of my list.

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Balsam Private Reserve Vermouth

When I think of vermouth, I think of a Manhattan or a Martini. I generally don’t think of it as something to be had by itself, but that’s actually how you should be drinking vermouth, or at least good vermouth.

The Private Reserve Vermouth is certainly one that you can drink by itself; it feels almost like a cocktail in a bottle. A little tangy and funky like kombucha, a hint of savoriness and apricots. It’s the world’s first hand-picked, ice-wine-based vermouth, y’all. This is big.

I only had the chance to try one of their vermouths, but Balsam makes plenty more, an Amaro even. I think this whole concept is very fascinating because many people want to go straight into the whiskey business because that’s where all the buzz is, but there’s very interesting spirits to be had which aren’t being talked about enough.

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Don Ciccio & Figli — Finocchietto Artisanal Fennel and Dill Liqueur

Speaking of hidden gems of spirits, Don Ciccio & Figli are making very unique Italian spirits out of Washington D.C. The family business has real Italian roots in the Amalfi coast, and they’re continuing traditions and carrying on family recipes today.

Finocchietto means “wild fennel” and this liqueur is made of fennel and dill. I’d say that it’s most distinctive flavor is dill, but if you keep sipping, you get absinthe notes from the fennel. There’s hints of sweet pea and black licorice as well. It’s an absolutely unique kind of spirit that I didn’t know existed before the Indie Spirits Expo, and next time I’m in D.C. I’ll be down to their tasting room to try the rest of their products.

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I ran out of time to try Black Dirt Distillery‘s products, but it’s okay because I have a bourbon and a rye of theirs at home! I am eagerly awaiting their Empire Rye, which I expect will be phenomenal, as is customary with anything made at Black Dirt Distillery.


If you’re lucky enough to try any of these spirits, or if you’ve already tried them, I’d be interested to hear what you think. As always, I’m open for suggestions and recommendations as to what I should try or review next.

And now, I sit and wait until next year’s Indie Spirits Expo. 363 days to go.

The Basics of the New Empire Rye Whiskey

About a month ago there was a party celebrating the birth of a brand new classification of whiskey– Empire Rye.

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Here’s the specs of this new booze:

First of all, Empire Rye must be produced in the state of New York, just like Scotch must be produced in Scotland and Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of France. At minimum, 75% of the rye that the whiskey is made of should be grown in New York. The rest can be whatever grain the distillery chooses.

Second, like most American whiskies, it should not be distilled to more than 160 proof, (or 80% alcohol). But, unlike most American whiskies, it must be barreled at 115 proof or less– ten points lower than usual.

Next, Empire Rye must be aged for at least 2 years in charred, new, American oak barrels. No used barrels, no French oak. Capeesh?

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Fourth, it must be mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled– basically everything– in a single season at a single distillery. There are two 6-month seasons; January 1 through June 30 is spring, and fall is July 1 through December 31. Screw summer and winter, I guess?

Finally, if two (or more) New York distilleries mix their whiskies, all whiskies in the blend must adhere to the standards to be called blended Empire Rye. Otherwise, it’s a no go.

Okay, now that we got all that (really interesting) technical nerd stuff out of the way, now we can get to the actual taste of the whiskey which is what matters to those of us who don’t actually own their own craft distilleries. A girl can dream though, right?

So, just like any other classification of whiskey, there is variation within the type. I’ll go over a couple different Empire Ryes with you to help you make your drinking decisions.

My personal favorite out of the bunch is made by Coppersea Distilling, straight out of New Paltz, New York. It’s a very bold and spicy rye. It has a little bit of the bitter raw cacao flavor and — hear me out — a note of shiitake mushrooms.

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While this complicated whiskey is really good for people who already like and have tried a variety of whiskies, if you’re a whiskey n00b, you might want to try something still high-quality but a little more classic. Take Hudson Whiskey’s Manhattan Rye, for example. It still has some of the characteristic rye spiciness you can really find in Coppersea, but it’s much more toned down. The most prominent flavor is the vanilla coming from the barrel.

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If you’re a bourbon drinker, you might prefer Van Brunt Stillhouse Empire Rye. It’s a little sweeter, with some of the corn-y taste that you typically get from a bourbon. The rye spice is certainly there, but it’s secondary. There’s also a touch sourness, but not off-putting.

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If you want to try Empire Rye, but aren’t sure if you want to get a whole bottle yet, there are a couple places that you can go around the NYC area.

New York Distilling has tours of their distillery, and a free tasting with your tour. Alternatively, you can sip Empire Rye in their fantastic house bar, The Shanty.

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Kings County Distillery also has tours and tastings. They, too, have a house bar where you can try Empire Rye and all the other whiskies (and moonshine) they make.

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To find a distillery in New York making Empire Rye, click here.

Hopefully you find Empire Rye as delicious and interesting as I do (I have four different bottles of it already. Coming soon– a post on Kings County Distillery!

 

 

 

Cheap Whiskey Taste Test

When I turned 21 at the end of last year, I dived right in to the world of craft liquor. And because I went to college at a “dry” university, I totally missed the phase that most people go through at that time in their lives– shots of whatever’s cheapest.

Before this taste test I had never tried Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Dewar’s White Label, Jameson, or Johnnie Walker Red Label. At this point, I can sense heavy judgement coming my way. I know– shame on me for being late to the cheap whiskey party.

But, this disgrace actually turned into a shining opportunity, as these things do… opportunity for a taste test! I could nearly-objectively compare all these mainstream liquors!

So, with tiny liquor bottles in hand, my ever-patient boyfriend helped me set up a taste test. With little numbers on each tasting glass, he assigned a random number to each liquor and poured them accordingly. He hid the bottles so I couldn’t guess by color, set the glasses up in order by number, then I went to tasting.

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First, I went through and wrote tasting notes only.

Second, I went through and rated each out of five stars. Disclaimer: they’re all judged against each other only– in no way am I comparing these to Glenfiddich or Suntory. The basic meanings of each star are as follows:

1 star = never again

2 stars = wouldn’t drink, unless by drinking it, it somehow it cured world hunger

3 stars =  would drink if I was at a house party with no other liquor options

4 stars = would order it with Coke at a dive bar

5 stars = would buy a bottle for my home bar

Last, I guessed which one was which, but that didn’t go super great. I didn’t get any right. Methinks I should practice my whiskey tasting skills more often. Practice makes perfect, right?


Mystery Whiskey #1

2.5 stars 

This one had the lightest color of them all; it was more straw-colored than amber. It smelled of caramel or toffee and grass. The taste is very light– its earthy and sweet at first. The finish verges on the edge of sour. It really hits the front of the palate and is moderately dry.


Mystery Whiskey #2

3 stars

I thought this one smelled of vegetables and dirt after a rain. The taste was vaguely sweet, solidly smoky, and dry. Primarily though, there’s a distinctive plain alcohol flavor.   The ethanol fumes made my eyes burn and tear up– it’s not a good look for me.


Mystery Whiskey #3

4 stars

This whiskey had a little bit of a leafy scent to it. Mildly peat-y. The mouthfeel was surprisingly thick. The flavor was quite ambiguous, and the aftertaste was “weird af” as I wrote on my notecard. Poignant writing, I know.


Mystery Whiskey #4

3.5 stars

Whiskey #4 had a sweetish hint in the nose. It had a drying quality, and tasted like toffee and smoke. Like, seriously, I felt like I was in a smokehouse barbecue restaurant that lets customers smoke cigars with their meal.


Mystery Whiskey #5

4.5 stars

The darkest out of the line-up, this one was hard to put into specific words. It has an identifiable caramel smell. The other scent that came to mind was “outside.” That’s very vague, but really the only word that describes it. The closest descriptor I can tell you is “field,” but that’s not quite accurate. Anyway, the taste was probably the richest of the bunch, hence the darker color. It was also sweet, and tasted kind of yellow. *shrug* Sometimes you have to accept ambiguity.


Now for the big reveal.

Which whiskey is which?

Drum roll please…..


Mystery Whiskey #1

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Dewar’s White Label— I expected to like this one best, and I was surprised it turned out to be the lowest rated.


Mystery Whiskey #2

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Jim Beam— perfect if you want a whiskey that tastes like it’s mixed with vodka.


Mystery Whiskey #3

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Jameson— satisfactory.


Mystery Whiskey #4

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Johnnie Walker Red Label— ~smoke on the water, fire in the sky~


Mystery Whiskey #5

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Jack Daniels— color me impressed! I mistakenly assumed this would be the worst, but now I can wear my Jack Daniel’s shirt with a moderate amount of dignity.

As always my opinions are just that– opinions. Whatever your favorite whiskey is, go crazy. Not too crazy, because hangovers are terrible, but you know what I mean.

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