Tequila, Vodka, Brandy
96 Grand Marnier 100th Anniversary (Schieffelin & Somerset Co., NY/ Marnier-Lapostolle, France) 40% abv, $100. Deep amber, almost walnut in color; orange zest is found in the nose alongside a deep nuttiness, and the Cognac is evident in the backdrop. The body is thick, syrupy and buttery, and the palate shows wonderfully bitter orange zest, almonds and dates. As in the nose, the Cognac leans against a pillow at the back, adding sophistication and elegance to the experience. The finish is dry and very long. When tasting this blind we thought that this must be the 150th Anniversary bottling of Grand Marnier (see below). It's an elegant product containing Cognac that's at least 10 years old, and shows us that liqueurs can be as well constructed as fine spirits. Sip it neat.
93 La Belle Orange Cognac & Orange Liqueur (White Rock Distilleries, Inc., ME/Jules Bremant, France) 40% abv, $18. Burnished gold with an orange hue, this liqueur presents a wonderful balance of Cognac and orange zest in the nose—the Cognac being easily discernible. The body is big, smooth and syrupy, and the palate reverses the aromas with fresh orange zest bursting forth over a soft blanket of brandy. But the brandy shines through again in the finish, which, for a liqueur of any kind, is surprisingly dry and wonderfully peppery. A very well-constructed liqueur, and at this price, it's as at home in a mixed drink as it is in a snifter. Best Buy.
92 Mandarine Napoléon Grande Liqueur Impériale (Preiss Imports, CA/S.A. Fourcoy Renglet N.V., Belgium) 38% abv, $33. This gorgeous golden-orange liqueur bears fresh mandarin/tangerine aromas. The body is thick and buttery, and the palate follows the nose, but here the bold fruit flavor is well balanced with a tingling spiciness and notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. The finish is long and spicy/sweet.
91 Royale Montaine Fine Cognac and Orange Liqueur (Charles Jacquin et Cie, Inc., PA/Royale Montaine, France) 40% abv, $20. Light gold in color; fresh orange juice aromas, rather than zest, are predominant in the nose, with a hint of candied violets in the backdrop. The big, creamy body yields a palate rich in oranges, hazelnuts, nutmeg and cinnamon. The finish is long and very spicy. A great bottling. Reserve it for sipping neat after dinner. Best Buy.
90 Giori Lemoncillo Cream Liqueur (A.V. Imports, Inc., MD/Giori, Italy) 25% abv, $10. The color of farm-fresh cream, this liqueur displays a nose reminiscent of a lemon-scented zabaglione. The rich, creamy body follows suit with the lemon zest barely peeking through, but it's there all the same and provides a tart flavor that almost suggests lemon curd. The finish is rich, and more tart than the palate. Here's a novelty item that could catch on. Simple in nature, it works well in coffee—especially a dash or two in an espresso. Or try pouring some over a fresh fruit salad. Lovers of cream liqueurs are going to adore this one. Best Buy.
89 Giori Lemoncillo Liqueur (A.V. Imports, Inc., MD/Giori, Italy) 30% abv, $15. Opalescent yellow in color, the nose is of fresh lemon zest with a mildly sugary backdrop. The body is medium, a little syrupy, and the palate shows a good balance between the zest and the sugar, though it leans a tad to the sweet side. The finish is quite warm and pleasingly refreshing. Best served straight from the freezer as an inter-mezzo, for post-prandial sipping, or instead of dessert, this is a well-made product that's not as overpoweringly sweet as some other bottlings.
89 Grand Marnier (Schieffelin & Somerset Co., NY/Marnier-Lapostolle, France) 40% abv, $33. Medium amber in color; the aromas are distinctly bitter orange zest with some pears lurking in the backdrop. The body is big, oily, and creamy, and the palate—sweet but not overly sweet—follows the nose precisely. The finish is long, and here we find a delightful peppery characteristic that rounds out the experience. This is a well-constructed liqueur, if lacking a little in complexity. Sip it neat, on the rocks, or in coffee with a little extra Cognac.
88 Grand Marnier 150th Anniversary (Schieffelin & Somerset Co., NY/Marnier-Lapostolle, France) 40% abv, $160. Medium to deep amber in color; although orange zest predominates in the nose, a host of other fruits—dried cherries, dates, plums—and an aroma of toasted almonds are also found here. The body is rich and thick, and the palate, distinctly orange zest with a nutty backdrop, is somewhat of a letdown after the complex nose. The finish, though, is nutty/spicy and very long. This bottling is just a tad too sweet and not quite complex enough to gain higher points. We recommend that you sip this at a restaurant before buying a whole bottle.
88 Gran Gala Liqueur (Distillerie Stock U.S.A., Ltd., NY) 40% abv, $19. Deep amber with flecks of pink. The aroma is predominantly of fresh orange zest, with a fresh, sweet candy backdrop. The big, syrupy body yields a similar palate, but the brandy is in evidence here and nicely balanced with the sweet orange flavors and a touch of vanilla. The finish is both sweet and spicy, and fairly long. A "Rare Triple Orange Liqueur made with Fine Brandy" from Italy, this is a well-constructed liqueur that sips very well neat. Best Buy.
82 Sambuca Di Volano (A.V. Imports, Inc., MD/Giori, Italy) 40% abv, $13. Intense with aniseed in the nose, but with a faint nutty backdrop that helps with the balance. The body is rich and syrupy, and the palate shows a powerful amount of aniseed, but here, instead of nuts coming into play, it's sugar—a little too much sugar—that joins the game. The finish is extraordinarily spicy considering all the other aspects of this liqueur, and lasts a good long time.
81 Domanier Cognac à L'Orange Grand Liqueur (Duggan's Distiller's Products Corp., NY) 35% abv, $22. Medium gold in color; the nose is lightly scented with orange zest and a touch of vanilla just peeks through. The body is big and creamy, and the palate is overly sweet with toffee flavors almost masking the orange notes that do make an appearance, albeit a swift one. The finish is long and sweet.
80 Amaretto Di Volano (A.V. Imports, Inc., MD/Giori, Italy) 25% abv, $10. Walnut in color; a rich marzipan aroma is first up to the nose, followed by a very subtle dried-cherry note. The body is medium and quite buttery, and the palate, though initially sweet, gets a little drier in the mouth. Once again, marzipan predominates, but dried cherries make an appearance here, and a faint hint of orange zest is also present. The finish is medium. Many amarettos use peach or apricot pits as a flavoring agent to provide a bitter counterpoint to the sweet almond/marzipan flavors. If this is the case here, it doesn't quite go far enough.
94 Tequila Herradura Reposado 100% Agave (The Sazerac Company, LA) 40% abv, $29. Pale straw in color, the aromas are extremely vegetal, but a note of licorice also makes an appearance and provides a very interesting foil. The body is huge, and the palate unforgivingly fiery, but this heat isn't the seething burn of raw alcohol, it's just aggressive pepperiness that's reminiscent of roasted chiles—complex enough all on their own—married to a barely detectable underblanket of vanilla and oak. The finish is very long and pleasingly hot. Wow! A connoisseur's bottling that can be served any way you choose. Best Buy.
92 Tequila Herradura Silver 100% Agave (The Sazerac Company, LA) 40% abv, $25. Delightful paraffin aromas predominate in the nose, but notes of sugared almonds and citrus zest are also present. The medium body holds a palate that's initially very similar to the nose, but here there's also a fruitiness—mangoes, bananas—and very slight peppery notes that make for deep complexity. The finish is very long and very smooth. Quite simply a delightful bottling that sips well straight and also makes superlative margaritas.
90 Tequila Herradura Añejo 100% Agave (The Sazerac Company, LA) 40% abv, $43. Medium straw in color; the nose is somewhat sweet, but there's a nice perfumed backdrop here and an almost medicinal note that's weirdly reminiscent of Armagnac. Go figure. The body is medium, and the palate follows the nose precisely. The finish is medium and somewhat spicier than the rest of the experience would lead you to believe. What a strange bottling of tequila. There's no doubting that this is a well-made product, but we strongly suggest that you experience this one at a bar or restaurant before buying a whole bottle. Brandy lovers will be enamored of this tequila.
89 Tequila Herradura Selecion Suprema 100% Agave (The Sazerac Company, LA) 40% abv, $275. This pale, burnished-gold tequila holds a buttery nose with notes of almonds, cinnamon, and nutmeg showing through. The silky body presents a woody palate that's backed up with a candied sweetness and flowery notes—violets—providing the backdrop. The finish is fairly short. An idiosyncratic bottling that should be reserved for after-dinner consumption and much contemplation.
93 Kristaldzidrais Vodka (Baltic Trade Corporation, CO/Latvijas Balzams, Russia) 40% abv, $10. The nose is somewhat neutral save for a faint, pleasant, nutty note. The big body yields a palate so flavorful it's hard to think of this as vodka—nuts and spices dance on the tongue. The finish is long and soothingly warm. According to the importer of this vodka, it is made with the addition of caraway, almonds, and sugar "in accordance with original technology." It stands well on its own, served neat, or from the freezer, and makes a great martini (10 parts Kristaldzidrais to one part dry vermouth). Best Buy.
90 Mezzaluna Vodka [Italy] (Palm Bay Imports, NY) 40% abv, $30. Vegetal notes—almost a grassiness—are found in the aromas of this vodka. The medium body holds an initially sweet palate with flavors of citrus and toffee peeking through. The finish is medium and surprisingly flavorful. This is an interesting bottling that will appeal to vodka drinkers with a sweet tooth. We used six parts Mezzaluna to one part white crème de cacão and made a really good Chocolate Martini.
97 Salmalens Bas Armagnac, Distilled in 1900, Bottled in 1957 (Preiss Imports, CA) 42% abv, $3,000. The nose brings distinct wine aromas with oak, candied violets, and vanilla bringing up the rear. The body is medium and silky in texture, and the delicate dry palate presents a well-integrated mélange of almonds, prunes, leather and mangoes.
85 Salmalens Vielle Relique Bas Armagnac (Preiss Imports, CA) 42% abv, $95. This brandy bears the red-walnut hue of a fine tawny Port. The nose brings gentle aromas of violets, almonds, raisins and prunes. The body is big, lush and buttery, and the dry palate carries nutty flavors married to a faintly fruity backdrop. The finish is of medium length, and here the fruit found in the aromas makes a comeback. We could nose this Armagnac all day long, but unfortunately the palate is nowhere near as complex as the aromas promise.