David Jenison tipples his way around the Indie Spirits Expo and finds both the comedy and craft in these small batch distilleries.
Pace yourself and don’t arrive on an empty stomach. Those are words to live by at the Indie Spirits Expo, a celebration of small-batch distilleries that takes place each year in San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and NYC.
To compete in a market dominated by large-scale producers, independent distilleries must be innovative and bold, and the tastings provided at the recent NYC Expo mostly hit the mark. Repeated samplings of absinthe, mezcal and vodka can be a challenging endeavor, but Wandermelon sacrificed its liver and uncovered the wildest spirits on tap.
BLUE CHAIR BAY RUM
Country star Kenny Chesney watches Jerry Maguire, writes the film-inspired hit “You Had Me from Hello,” marries JM star Renee Zellweger and then gets dumped faster than Facebook stock. No wonder he needed his own line of rum. It is easy to be skeptical of a rum maker who sings “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” but KC proudly produces quality tropical flavors primed for spring break excess. www.bluechairbayrum.com
FIRE PUNCHER VODKA
According to an 1887 Boston Daily Globe article, a 19th-century fireman once battled a massive blaze with just his fists. The writer’s blatant use of exaggeration clearly influenced many of Boston’s future sportswriters, but it also inspired Fire Puncher Vodka, which spices up its spirit with bell peppers, local chipotle peppers and hickory smoke.
From the Scottish island of Islay, the unpronounceable Bruichladdich distillery makes its Botanist gin using 22 native botanicals (out of 31 total). The Islay herbs include mugwort leaves, bog myrtle, creeping thistle, lady’s bedstraw and other fixings you’ll swear you heard mentioned in a Harry Potter film.
Drinking chocolate mint, cucumber or crème brulee-flavored vodka might normally squelch your swagger, but not when the spirit is made from giant icebergs. This Canadian distillery produces vodka, gin and rum using chucks of 12,000-year-old Newfoundland icebergs, which means the vodka water is almost as old as your Grandpa’s recliner.
According to the Japan Times, the country now consumes more shochu than sake. The shift happened in 2003 as the grain spirit became popular with young women (and hence presumably with guys who order Malibu and Diet Coke). Not every Japanese trend is worth following – e.g., their chart-topping music acts include Bump of Chicken and Maximum the Hormone – but this spirit is sweet and refreshing with nearly three times the alcohol content of white wine. Indie distributor Caskers now imports Mizu Shochu, which is distilled from Japanese barley and black koji rice.
Do you like to make genital jokes about your spirit of choice? If so, this New York vodka company asks, “What size balls do you prefer?” Yes, they really say that. Balls Vodka is made from 100% corn, meaning their big fans of the Iowa caucus, though the guy laughing about “balls” probably has no idea what that means.
This mixer features real cinchona bark, which the ancient Quechua tribes of Peru and Bolivia used as a fever-reducing tonic. This means Tomr’s Tonic can help brace drinkers for a hangover, assuming it’s not the incurable Hangover 3. The mixer goes well with vodka, scotch, tequila and rum, though ideally not all four at the same time.
Locking up more awards than a Daniel Day-Lewis flick, Slovenia Vodka is the first luxury brand to use a hint of buckwheat in the distillation. Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov and chef Peter X. Kelly are all involved, though it is uncertain which of the three amigos pushed for the perfume bottle design.
LA CLANDESTINE ABSINTHE
Shortly after Switzerland lifted its century-long ban on absinthe, La Clandestine launched its distillery in the Swiss village of Couvet where modern absinthe was born. Using an all-natural recipe dating back to 1935, this handcrafted spirit has an understated elegance, but it still has the 100+ proof absinthe kick that inspired Vincent Van Gogh to pull a ‘Reservoir Dogs’ on his left ear.
The grain-centric company promotes itself as “booze for badasses,” but a person enticed by that tagline is probably just an ass. Will people really say, “You can tell that’s a bad mofo by his Quinoa Whiskey”? This southern distillery should keep the focus on its bold recipes instead, which include the popular Triple Smoke whiskey and cool experimental blends like Old Punk and Insane in the Grain.
Made with coral-filtered water, this classic Caribbean rum was first distilled on Barbados in 1884, so we’ll let them slide on the name, especially since other companies are far more blatant (see Chicken Cock Whiskey). Their Old Gold and Very Special Old Reserve are examples of their sophisticated side; the Cockspur Rooster working the dance floor at sponsored events not so much.
EL BUHO MEZCAL
Made in the heart of Oaxaca, this liquor calls itself the dark side of tequila. That’s frightening if it means our past tequila experiences were the light side.
The same company that got spicy with Fire Puncher goes sweet with this liqueur made from almonds and aged in American oak barrels. They also have botanical and cranberry liqueurs, but the almond flavor is sweetly unique.
KARLSSON GOLD VODKA
With a name like Karlsson, the vodka company is obviously Nordic, but their claim that each bottle contains 17 pounds of Swedish virgin potatoes begs the question: What is a non-virgin potato, and who’s making vodka with that?
Dancing Pines Distillery has some crazy flavors, but its Chai liqueur is its bestselling and best tasting. The Coloradoan company makes the liqueur with whole leaf black tea and five spices, and it earned a whopping 96-point score from Wine Enthusiast, who noted that tea is a hot flavor in mixology right now.
“Worms are for wimps,” so says the premium mezcal producer that puts a scorpion in every bottle. Actually, eating squishy worms sounds worse than a scorpion, assuming it is not still alive, but drink enough mezcal and you’ll eat them both. Scorpion Mezcal is a luxury brand that ages its spirit in French oak barrels. [Editor’s note: Most premium mezcals, such as Del Maguey, have a zero-tolerance policy for critters. You’ll find only great mezcal in the bottle].
The SCORPION MEZCAL Scorpion *
You didn’t think we’d miss the chance to eat a mezcal-soaked scorpion, did you? Served in a shot glass with the spirit, the scorpion had a crunchy exterior with soft insides, much like a stale peanut, but any anthropoid flavors were mooted by the mezcal.
(* Please note the creature lurking in the bottom of this bottle >)