The 10 Best Things I Drank in 2019
Our columnist shares his favorite beers, ciders, and spirits that he tasted over the last 12 months.
I get paid to drink. So, in a year you can imagine how many different beers, spirits and cocktails I get to taste. But a lot of it blurs together. No, that’s not because of the alcohol, but because of the sheer volume of things that I try. Fortunately, the best stuff cuts through the blur and really stands out. So what did I find that was good, notable and important? Read on and check out my ten picks, plus a bonus one!
My wife’s family mostly lives in upstate New York, near Rochester. Visits always include lots of fresh, local Genesee Cream Ale, a little beauty that has won more Great American Beer Festival gold medals than your juicy IPA du jour. But last January, my wife brought back a seasonal 12-pack of Genesee Schwarzbier, and I about lost my mind. Smooth with malt and chocolate flavors in a clean lager body, all kept down to a manageable 4.4 percent ABV. Repeat orders filled her trunk on subsequent trips, but it’s a winter-only release. Thank God it’s back again, and I’m starting to stockpile a cold storage locker that should last me into next August.
Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond 6-Year-Old was a steal, a nondescript bottle filled with a smashmouth brawler of a bourbon. In Kentucky, you could find all you wanted for $14 a bottle. Then the nerds discovered it. Too much demand for the supply ensued, and the six year old disappeared. Recently, it has reappeared in an admittedly cooler looking short-necked, old-timey bottle, a year older and nearly three times the price. Worth it? Compared to other $40 bourbons, I’d say definitely. This is no brawler, this is a prizefighter, stepping lightly and hitting hard, like Kentucky’s own Muhammad Ali...and like Ali, it’s a complex package that makes you take a second look. Honestly, I didn’t want to like this higher-priced replacement, but I loved it.
It’s a red-letter year: two excellent new bottled-in-bond releases! (Three, really: if this list was the twelve best things I’ve had this year, I’d be telling you about New Riff Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon.) When Dickel sent me this bottle, I was happy enough just to see new master distiller Nicole Austin stepping up to the controls before someone could put out another abomination, like the Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish. But a 13-year-old bonded bottling at $37 was an eye-catcher, and once I opened the bottle and tasted it, I was hooked. This is essence of Dickel—corn for miles; dusty, spicy cocoa—with the oaken structure Dickel usually doesn’t get. Some of the best Dickel I’ve ever had. I hope, pray, that there’s more of this stuff back in the holler.
Look, yes, I do get bottles like this $150 rye as free samples. But remember: we writers get free samples of some amazing stuff routinely, so it’s not like I give it special consideration because of its price. Also, I didn’t plonk down my money for it, so I have no need for it to be worth what I paid. I can tell you what I really think. And what I really think is that this stuff was so good a friend and I, surrounded by whiskies, finished it off in two days because we didn’t really want to drink anything else. Eddie Russell has learned that American whiskey—Wild Turkey Whiskey—doesn’t have to be old to be excellent. This bottling is stiff with oak where it needs it, and swift with rye where that’s what you want. Top-notch.
If you never thought of North Carolina as cider country, well, think again—microclimates in the Appalachians make this whole area excellent apple country. (Laird’s makes their apple brandy not too far northeast of here.) I chanced on a keg of Mountain Maelstrom at a family wedding celebration on the Blue Ridge, and promptly forgot the beer, whiskey and cocktails. I drank Mountain Maelstrom till the cows came home and the keg ran dry. Crisp and acidic with wild crab apples, delicious with dessert and cider apples, tannic enough to keep it honest. Can’t wait to get more.
“Tank beer” is Pilsner Urquell’s genius way of staking out relevancy in an increasingly over-beered world. Faced with broadening competition, new beers, new hops, and new breweries, the original inventors of pilsner didn’t try to “out-new” the competition. They went to their roots: the freshest, cleanest, untouched Pilsner Urquell that they could deliver. Unfiltered, unpasteurized, practically unpackaged: like drinking beer from the tanks at the brewery. Available only at limited outlets even in the Czech Republic, tank beer is at the end of a short, intensely-monitored supply chain from the brewery. I was lucky enough to get some in Europe this year. Smooth, zesty with Žatec hops, and positively creamy from a careful manipulation of the capable Czech-standard tap, this is a glass of beer worthy of the originators of pilsner. Find it, and bow down.
Shy Bear Brewing isn’t likely on your radar. But this nifty little brewery in central Pennsylvania is where I had my first taste of a beer brewed with kveik yeast from Norway, and I wanted to stay and drink it all night. Their Alpine Swift was clean, with a medium body, and citrus aromas that were downright enticing. Kveik brews like a dream: unaffected by temperature shifts, can take high alcohol levels, drops out of suspension when it’s done working, and tastes great, every time. Even if brewers don’t take advantage of the flavor profile, it should get them making better decisions on yeast health, and make it easy to produce better, cleaner beer. This was an important glass of beer for me.
I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing talking about tequila. But this five-year-old beauty from El Tesoro ($100) really shows master distiller Carlos Camarena’s philosophy on making tequila: let the piña do the talking. I’ve had other añejo tequilas that might as well have been whiskies; boxed up in heavy wood character. And even as a devoted whiskey drinker, I’m honestly put off by that much wood in a tequila. I want tequila to taste like tequila. But from the first pour of El Tesoro Extra Añejo, you can smell the peppery, fresh-sliced crispness of the agave. The wood comes through on the palate, a smoothly shaped substructure that displays the agave rather than disguises it. Used barrels win again, bringing youth and maturity together in a harmonious chorus. Grab a bottle and sing along.
Bacon. Coal. Smoked nuts. The crispy bits. Laphroaig is always a blast, but the Cairdeas releases are fun to see how the distillery can push its whisky to the extremes. This is a mix of whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry, and quarter casks, the last being re-coopered bourbon barrels made smaller, for more surface area. I’ve been given to understand that this release ($80) also has a significant amount of younger, seven- to nine-year-old whisky in the blend (there is no age statement on these bottlings). Distillery Manager John Campbell is a fan of Laphroaig aged about eight years in a bourbon barrel. Right around then you get some mint and menthol notes from the peat, and those make interesting layers in the whisky. This is rich, full, and indeed layered—yes, there are hints of menthol there. I like a whisky that delivers different flavor packages through the intake, the tongue-sprawl, the hold, the swallow, and the finish. (FYI Those are technical tasting terms that I just made up.) The Cairdeas does just that.
You haven’t seen this yet...but you might. I got a chance to try samples of this whiskey at the distillery in Northern Ireland with a couple other writers, and we confirmed what the brand was thinking: this stuff is great. Aged in bourbon and sherry barrels till 2004, and in Cognac casks since then, it was just brilliant at a cask strength of 53 percent ABV, like drinking gold. There was an almost equally good single malt aged in old bourbon casks, then finished for two years in premier cru Bordeaux wine barrels. It was surprisingly sherry-like, a bit stemmy, and just completely delicious. We urged them to bottle both as limited releases. Nothing definite was said, but thoughtful looks were exchanged. Bushmills has clearly been doing some interesting stuff behind the distillery walls. I hope to see these two on a shelf in 2020, and more to follow.