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Spirits: The Tip of the Iceberg


It all started innocently enough. Over the last few years, I have seen a marked increase in spirits made by winemakers. I thought it would be fun to taste them and write them all up. That was the genesis for this report. But then more and more samples arrived, and before I knew it, the article had morphed into a broad survey of spirits of all kinds. This article is clearly not comprehensive to any one category, but rather intended as a collection of spirits I think Vinous readers will enjoy.

As I started tasting through these spirits, I wondered if my approach to tasting wine and Champagne would be applicable, or if instead, I needed an entirely new methodology for looking at quality. I asked myself if there are really marked differences between several raspberry eaux de vie, for example. It turns out spirits can absolutely be assessed for aromatics, fruit, texture, finish and a number of criteria used in evaluating wine. If anything, the alcohol in most categories acts as an amplifier of those qualities and also accentuates both strengths and flaws. And yes, raspberry eaux de vie can be very different.

Where possible I have indicated lot numbers, although these aren’t always available in the world of spirits. I would like to see that change so consumers can know they are buying the same product I tasted and reviewed. In this regard, parts of the spirits world share some basic principles with other beverages such as NV Champagne, but also soft drinks and beer, where the goal is to create a ‘consistent’ product from year to year. There are virtues in that, and it is a skill, but I believe small batch bottlings that are differentiated are far more interesting, certainly far more interesting for the inquisitive reader looking for something that is truly distinctive. For now, I have relaxed the rule I have for NV Champagne where I only review bottlings that have a base vintage or disgorgement date listed.

But that does make me wonder what the future is for craft spirits. About a decade ago, I sat in the Krug tasting room with then-CEO Margareth Henriquez and Olivier Krug and explained that I would not review their Grande Cuvée because there was no way to ensure the batch I tasted was the same wine in the market. I suggested adding a base vintage or disgorgement date, which would differentiate releases, make each release special, and then, in time create opportunities for thematic tastings and/or special packaging, like mixed cases. “Our customers have no interest in this information,” was the reply.

Readers might find this hard to believe, but at the time, the Grand Cuvée struggled mightily in the market. It did not sell. And this was not that long ago. For a time, the half bottles were dumped in elite New York City restaurants (likely elsewhere too), where they were sold for next to nothing. Then, Krug began experimenting with thematic names for each release, before settling on the Edition system. A stroke of genius. Guess what happened? For the first time ever, Grande Cuvée became an allocated wine. All sorts of comparative tastings emerged, as did boxed sets that offer a combination of releases.

To be sure, spirits are different. Many are made in tiny quantities and on a far smaller scale than wine or Champagne. Unlike wine, bottles are opened and often enjoyed over a period of time, so comparative tastings are less the norm. Even so, I would like to see better and more consumer-friendly labeling. There is a possible parallel with the world of grower Champagne, where an increasing number of producers detail varietal breakdown and the exact source of their fruit. Why would that not be applicable to a fine source of pears or raspberries for eau de vie, or a specific breakdown of lots in a Cognac? All information like that does is create greater consumer interest.

I tasted the spirits in this report in November and December 2022.

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