In a year that gave us endless reasons to drink, we obliged. Many times that meant reaching for a favorite bottle—whether beer, wine, or liquor—that provided particular comfort or paired nicely with homemade bread and takeout from our neighborhood restaurants.
But throughout 2020, we sampled many great spirits across a range of categories and price tags. Some were discovered while browsing our local bottle shops, and others showed up in the mail. Each was tasted without bias and for the express purposes of enjoyment, research, and washing the taste of 2020 out of our mouths.
These 10 spirits represent some of the best drinks we tried this year. Several are newly released, while others have been around a few years, but each was consumed in 2020 and left a lasting impression. If you see one of these bottles in the wild, snatch it up before someone else does.
Garrison Brothers Balmorhea 2020 Bourbon
I only became familiar with the Texas bourbon maker in the last year, and have greatly enjoyed their Small Batch expression. The 2020 edition of their Balmorhea Bourbon, a twice-aged annual release, builds on everything I love about Small Batch, but with more intensity. There are the lovely vanilla cream and candied nut notes that are impossible not to compare to a Dairy Queen Blizzard, and an absolute wall of tannic, tongue-pressed-up-against-the-barrel oak that’s the next best thing to simply inserting yourself into a barrel of bourbon and aging along with it. —ET
Laphroaig The Ian Hunter Story – Book 2
Launched in 2019, the Ian Hunter series tells the story of Ian Hunter, the last of the Johnston family (Laphroaig’s founding fathers) to own and manage the distillery—he was at the helm from 1908 to 1944. The newly-released Book 2 is a non-chill filtered whisky aged for 30 years in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. Bottled at 48.2% ABV, the richly colored whisky is full and complex, with aromas of dried fruit, dark chocolate, licorice, sweet smoke, and peppery spice. The palate reveals honey, smoke, dry oak, and cigar box. This is an after-dinner dram meant to be sipped slowly, perhaps with a good book. Fortunately, Laphroaig packaged the bottle in a handsome book that documents part of Ian’s legacy. —KG
Cardenal Mendoza Clásico Brandy
I’m always delighted when a stellar representation of a category I had no idea even existed comes across my desk. In 2020 that spirit was Cardenal Mendoza Clásico, a Brandy de Jerez made by aging pot-distilled grape distillate in ex-Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks in the solera style for a minimum of 15 years. I love brandy, I love sherry, and this wonderful spirit encapsulates both with plenty of raisin, prune juice, and darkly sweet dates and figs. I’ve enjoyed it neat after dinner, but found that it makes a killer Old-Fashioned when combined with the bodega’s Angelus liqueur, which is made by macerating the brandy with cardamom, bitter oranges, and other ingredients. And at a suggested retail price of $36.99, it’s nice to know I can always refresh my stash without breaking the bank. —ET
WhistlePig The Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic
At a time when each new day seems to bring about a fresh cask-finished whiskey, Magellan’s Atlantic, the seventh edition of WhistlePig’s Boss Hog series, has managed to be genuinely surprising. The cask-strength, single-barrel rye used to create it is first aged for 17 years in American oak before finishes in Spanish oak and teak wood from South America. What the respectively lesser-seen and genuinely obscure casks bring to the table is a wonderful incense-like quality that harmonizes beautifully with the high-octane spice, plus a salinity that matches with the rye’s vanilla flavors to bring about something like salted caramel. Those intense flavors, combined with its spiced, epic-length finish, led me to call it “the boss battle of rye whiskey,” an assessment I stand by. —ET
Bosscal Mezcal Joven
Bosscal does things the old way—the hard way. The distillery’s focus on “mountain to market” spirits includes hand-harvesting wild agaves from the mountainous region of Durango, Mexico and distilling the plants via traditional techniques. The unaged joven expression is bottled at 42% ABV and loaded with aromas of herbs, minerals, tropical fruits, and green, earthy agave. Take a sip to find more tropical fruits, plus cooling herbs, and mild smoke. In a year that involved tasting 15-20 different mezcals, Bosscal stood apart from the pack with its unique profile representing that Durango mountain terroir. —KG
The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage
I’m a sucker for history, so the backstory of this 29-year-old release—it was inspired by a same-aged bottle originally purchased by three friends on the eve of WWI, which now sits undrank in the distiller’s museum—immediately drew me in. But I’m including it because of the juice inside, which began its nearly three decades of rest in Oloroso sherry casks before transferring to Pedro Ximénez. I love sherry finishes (and for that reason, GlenDronach), and the Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage takes those sherry-influenced notes of autumn fruits and blackberry jam to new heights before finishing with wonderfully rich leather and tobacco. As I’d cited in my review, it’s truly the GlenDronach lover’s Glendronach. —ET
R.L. Seale’s Finest 10-Year-Old Barbados Rum
Although not as popular among some rum experts whose reviews and opinions I respect, R.L. Seale’s Finest 10-Year-Old Rum has recently become one of my favorite daily sippers. While I’m a fan of practically anything coming out of Foursquare Distillery, the makers of this Bajan-style rum, most of the time they are cask strength expressions—yet this clocks in at a modest but respectable 43% ABV. The color is a straw yellow, and the nose immediately picks up bananas, tropical fruit and vanilla. On the palate are notes of caramel, toffee, vanilla, oak and spice with a hint of char. This rum finishes elegantly, though not long, with notes of dried fruit and nuts. It’s very easy drinking, and at a retail price below $30 ($26 in my local Bay Area market) I’ll be picking up several more bottles for my cabinet. —JH
WM Cadenhead Benrinnes 2000 18-Year-Old Barrel Select
I’ve been a huge fan of Benrinnes single malt scotch whiskies since purchasing my first bottle several years ago (a 17-year-old expression), and have bought several more bottles since then ranging in age from eight to 20 years old. While I enjoyed every bottle, this 18-year-old Benrinnes expression (by independent bottler WM Cadenhead) has come the closest to the magic of that first bottle. The color is a pleasant light honey gold, and the nose is full of fruit, vanilla, and rich pastry. On the palate, there’s a burst of flavors including pineapple, fruit cake, berries, and a tinge of oak. The finish is long and tingly, with notes of toffee and vanilla custard. Over the years, I’ve learned to really appreciate the depth and complexity of a cask strength spirit, and this one packs a punch with just a little heat going down. —JH
Castle & Key London Dry Gin: Autumn 2020 Recipe
When you think of Kentucky, you probably think of bourbon. But Castle & Key is hoping to change that one-track reputation by producing a variety of spirits: gin, vodka, and rye. Their seasonal-release gins include the Autumn 2020 Recipe, which is distilled from a mashbill of corn, rye, and malted barley and features 12 botanicals, including juniper, licorice root, caraway seed, nutmeg, rooibos tea, and cardamom. The unique gin is complex and spicy, with woodsy notes of cedar alongside tea, citrus, and campfire smoke. The 49% ABV gin isn’t my first choice for a Martini, but it makes a rather fascinating Gin & Tonic and Negroni, particularly when the latter is made with a bitter vermouth like Punt e Mes. —KG
Old Particular Ardmore 2009 10-Year-Old K&L Exclusive
No surprise here, another independent bottling of a cask strength single malt scotch whisky tops my list. This is a younger distillate coming in at 10 years old, and it’s from the Ardmore distillery in the Highland region of Scotland (bottled by Douglas Laing’s Old Particular brand). The color is a light golden hue, with aromas of citrus, malt, Highland peat, and a light smokiness. Fruity, malty sweetness dance on the palate with earthy notes of peat and bright notes of spice, gently caressed by a light veil of smokiness. The spice continues on the finish, with some hints of herbs, oak, and vanilla. Alas, this was a popular daily sipper between my whisky-loving neighbor and I (we both purchased several bottles each) and we may have purchased the last of K&L’s stock. Sorry, not sorry. —JH