In the rush and crush of the new spirits onslaught, sometimes the established brands upon which the distilled spirits category was built get temporarily neglected. True, everyone, including yours truly, likes the excitement of the new, the brassy and the untried. But once the flush of youthful promise has worn off or, as is frequently the case, fallen short, I find myself returning to the most trusted old and moderately new brands that brought many of us to the dance.

Through many of the fine liqueurs, whiskeys and apéritifs included in this Buying Guide sport familiar names, others are relatively new, but like their senior comrades exude the unmistakable aura of timeless quality. I bring special attention, therefore, to Charbay California Pastis, Edmond Briottet Crème de Cassis de Dijon, Glayva Liqueur, Henry McKenna 10 Year Old Bourbon, Compass Box Aslya Scotch Whisky and Rinquinquin Peach Apéritif. While I would never admit to regularly consuming liqueurs (I’m blessed by not having a sweet tooth), there are a handful that I always relish with gusto whenever I have them in hand. Indeed, a few of these liqueurs have graced tables for centuries (Chartreuse, Benedictine D.O.M), so illustrious is their pedigree. A share of the selected whiskeys from the U.S. and Scotland in this summary likewise own well known names: Old Fitzgerald, Ballantine’s, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Old Smuggler. Ditto the apéritifs with Lillet, Dubonnet and Campari.

—F. Paul Pacult


Classic (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Benedictine D.O.M. (France; Bacardi Martini USA, Miami, FL); 40% abv, $31. Developed in the early 16th century at Fécamp Abbey in France. The delicately herbal bouquet is an unusual combination of earth and flowers; one of the more seductive, unique and piquant liqueur perfumes in existence. In the mouth, the full texture coats the tongue as sweet flavors of honey, citrus peel, rosemary, sage and basil harmonize perfectly. Aftertaste is silky-smooth and extended. Magnificent. Best Buy.

Chartreuse Green (France; Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York, NY); 55% abv, $40. Invented by the Carthusian Order of Christian monks in Grenoble, France in the 1760s. Pale green-yellow color. Mesmerizing, multilayered, complex bouquet includes scents of licorice, anise, violets, spearmint and basil. On palate, it’s very spirity, with sweet tastes of candied banana, key lime pie and peppermint. Finishes mellow, herbal and minty. A one-of-a-kind legend.

Edmond Briottet Crème de Cassis de Dijon (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 20% abv, $25. Inky purple color. Opening bouquet is ripe, fruity, pulpy and correctly bitter; later sniffings discover intriguing notes of black pepper, cigar box and dried herbs. In the mouth, it’s silky, ripe, fruity, concentrated and jammy. Finishes long and satiny. Crème de cassis doesn’t come any better. A masterpiece. Best Buy.

Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Charbay California Pastis (USA; Domaine Charbay, Napa, CA); 45% abv, $59. Nose is divine in the first whiff, as evolved scents of fennel, anise and peanut butter impress the olfactory sense; later sniffings find the deep anise perfume enchanting. Beautifully balanced on the palate, with tantalizing, dry and sweet flavors of licorice. In my book, this intense thoroughbred runs rings around the category leaders.

Edmond Briottet Crème de Cerise (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 20% abv, $24. Resembles an old Burgundy in its weathered brick color. Bouquet is fruit stone-like, minerally at first, then a mature, ripe scent of black cherry fruit takes command. Very tart initially at palate entry, then turns concentrated, sweet and intensely cherry-like at midpalate. Aftertaste is sweet and ripe. Lovely. Best Buy.

Frangelico (Italy; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 28% abv, $19. Luminous, golden nectar-like hue. Smells of nut meat and nut butter with equal parts of dried herbs. Creamy tastes of hazelnut and butter are featured at midpalate. Finish showcases hazelnut. Classy, focused and delectable. Best Buy.

Glayva Liqueur (Scotland; Marie Brizard USA, Miami, FL); 35% abv, $25. Color of an amber amontillado Sherry. Assertive nose brims with clean, mildly sweet aromas of anise, honey, heather, bacon fat and malt whisky. Displays a controlled sweetness on the tongue; midpalate highlights astringent tastes of malt whisky, botanicals and herbs. A high-quality liqueur that deserves a wider audience. Best Buy.

Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge Liqueur (France; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $35. Goldenrod-orange color. Unique, sweet-sour bouquet of mandarin orange and a hint of Cognac. Supple, satiny on tongue; tastes of orange zest and sinewy Cognac; the alcohol-acid- fruit harmony is seamless. A timeless liqueur.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Celtic Crossing Original Celtic Liqueur (Ireland; Great Spirits Company, Manhasset, NY); 30% abv, $20. Light amber hue. Nose is very softly perfumed. In the mouth, this delicate liqueur is manageably sweet and round, offering hints of yellow fruit and honey. Ideal for people who don’t care for icky-sticky liqueurs.

Gran Gala Triple Orange Liqueur (Italy; Distillerie Stock USA, Woodside, NY); 40% abv, $19. Deep copper hue. First nosings detect intensely acidic notes of orange peel; later whiffs are treated to chunky aromas of marzipan, candied orange rind, dried apricot and almond oil. Palate entry is heavy, syrupy; midpalate is pleasantly fruity, orange-like and sweet. Finishes long and thick.

American Whiskey
Classic (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 50.5% abv, $39. Stunningly complex, harmonious bouquet that includes aromas of pepper, ripe apple, saddle leather, pecan and caramel; a regal bouquet that needs to be approached slowly. In the mouth, melded flavors of candied almond, walnut, vanilla extract, red fruit and old oak dazzle the taste buds. Warm, biscuity, toasted aftertaste. A gold standard for Bourbon.

W.L. Weller 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 45% abv, $17. Deep bronze hue. Mature aromas of lanolin, almond oil and creamed corn greet the olfactory sense; aeration unleashes full-throttle scents of toasty oak and vanilla extract: a top-notch Bourbon bouquet. Palate entry is dry, complex and toasty; midpalate offers sweet, grainy tastes of Wheat Thins, oil and sap. Aftertaste is oaky, sweet and intensely grainy. Another Weller triumph. Best Buy.

Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Booker’s Bourbon Kentucky Straight Bourbon Small Batch (USA); 63.25% abv, $50. One of the few uncut, unfiltered Bourbons. Dilute with mineral water at two parts whiskey to one part water. Iced tea color. Potent, heady, spirity bouquet leaps from the glass in fiery, sweet, tangy notes; inhale in small doses. On the palate, Booker’s offers high-flying flavors of wood, smoke and wine at entry; midpalate is sweet and corny. Memorable finish has tastes of fruit and nuts. A swashbuckling Bourbon that requires a whip and a chair.

George Dickel No. 12 Superior Brand Tennessee Whisky (USA); 45% abv, $16. Medium amber tint. Concentrated aromas of oak, ash and toasted grain are elegant yet profound; for me, it’s the prototypical Tennessee whisky bouquet. In the mouth, warm, roasted, ash- and tobacco-like flavors are scrumptious and intense. Oaky, grainy finish. The best bottling of George Dickel.

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 45% abv, $17. Radiant russet color. Sublime, sweet bouquet emits scents of fruit, vanilla, chocolate fudge, buttermilk and hazelnut; an impeccably balanced, state-of-the-art Bourbon bouquet. Displays mature tastes of shredded tobacco, caramel, fruit and pine. The smooth, dry and sinewy finish is luscious. Hands down, the finest bargain in American spirits. Best Buy.

Old Fitzgerald Very Special 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 45% abv, $35. Amber honey hue. Generous, friendly bouquet brims with roasted walnut, candied almond, maple syrup aromas; a remarkably charming nose. In the mouth, it begins sweet at entry, then turns succulent at midpalate as flavors of dried fruit, black pepper and oak resin compete for dominance. Sweet finish is clean and extended. A robust, uncomplicated Bourbon.

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 50% abv, $42. Chestnut color. Bouquet, at the pour, is deceptively powerful, as sweet, estery, fruity scents of peaches and grapes underscore the oaky vanilla aroma. The polite flavor profile offers two levels of enjoyment; the more obvious layer of cream, nuts and oak rests atop the more subtle layer of toasted cereal, mash and cocoa. Finishes with notes of toffee and sweet oak. Stately.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Fighting Cock 6 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 51.5% abv, $17. Deep amber-brown hue. First whiff is prickly due to 103 proof; as it settles down, aromas of baked apple, butterscotch and corn mash emerge. Palate entry is sweet; midpalate is manageably fiery. Finishes with mild heat and sweet corn. Slapped my palate around at first, then charmed it.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA); 50% abv, $27. Rich copper hue. Assertive, sweetish bouquet offers aromas of leather, spice, orange blossom, honeysuckle and grain. On the palate, the two-alarm flavors include charred oak, sweet corn, light toffee and spice. Mellow aftertaste. Workmanlike and straightforward. Doesn’t try to be something it’s not.

Average (80-84)
Basil Hayden’s 8 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon/Small Batch (USA); 40% abv, $30. Golden yellow color. Aromatic, surprisingly fiery nose of glycerin, honey and peppermint. Tastes of flowers, yellow fruit and grain at entry, then the flavor goes a bit flat by midpalate. Brief aftertaste offers simple notes of spice and apple. Drinkable, but unfocused.

Blended Scotch Whisky
Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Compass Box Asyla Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); 43% abv, $38. Pale yellow color. Offers unusual aromas of pear drop, banana and kiwi in the first passes; aeration stimulates reluctant scents of sunflower seeds, faint orange zest and grain mash. Flavor phase is strikingly rich, oily in texture, vanilla-like and fruity-sweet.
Old Smuggler Blended Whisky (Scotland); Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT); 43% abv, $12. Gold amber hue. Pleasantly zesty, piquant, floral and maize-like in the first sniffings, goes fruity in later whiffs. My palate is shocked by the graceful bearing and generous flavors of this blend. Finishes in waves of caramel, charcoal and English toffee. One of the better inexpensive Scotch blends around. Buy by the magnum. Best Buy.

Average (80-84)
Ballantine’s Finest Blended Whisky (Scotland; Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT); 43% abv, $15. Medium amber hue. No frills, one-note nose is well endowed with intensely grainy, cereal-like scents, but no hints at all of wood, smoke or peat. Blatantly sweet, bordering on syrupy, in the mouth at entry; midpalate is sugary and flabby. Aftertaste is fat and sugary sweet. Use as a mixer. Pedestrian, but drinkable.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Lillet Rouge (France; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 18% abv, $14. Cherry-red color. Assertive bouquet of freshly picked grapes, black cherries, black raspberries, apricots and pepper keeps the olfactory sense focused. In the mouth, it behaves like a fat, chewy red from the sun-drenched south of France; tastes ambrosial and clean. Finishes short, mildly fruity and ripe. Best Buy.

Lillet White (France; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 18% abv, $14. Straw yellow, white wine appearance. Perfumey, but gentle, bouquet offers hints of quinine, minerals, wine and citrus. Tart and acidic at palate entry; midpalate is clean, fresh, dry, winey, mildly citrusy and spicy. Aftertaste is brief, refreshing and squeaky clean. Elegant and sophisticated. Best Buy.

Rinquinquin Peach Apéritif (France; Crillon Importers, Paramus, NJ); 15% abv, $18. Straw-yellow color. Bouquet is dry, fruity and soft, with a trace of peach pit bitterness. On palate, the peach flavor is delicate, yet ripe; by midpalate, the ripe peach taste dominates. Aftertaste is fruity, but carries enough acidity to maintain crispness. Serve slightly chilled at 50-55F. Best Buy.

Average (80-84)
Campari Aperitivo (Italy; Skyy Spirits LLC, San Francisco, CA); 24% abv, $19. Cherry-red color. Nose is snappy and expectedly bitter in a woodsy, earthy, quinine-like way. Palate entry is mild in a sweet-sour fruity manner; midpalate is sweet and only moderately bitter. Finishes long and mildly quinine-like. While I’m not a bitters aficionado (more a bitter aficionado, really), Campari and orange do positively click. I’m savvy enough to know when not to argue with 58 million Italians.

Dubonnet Rouge Aperitif (USA); 19% abv, $10. Tawny color like an old Burgundy. Bouquet is vinegary and tart, with nuances of pine, underripe grapes and fruit stone. Fresh and clean on palate; thin flavor displays tastes of tart cranberry. Try it with some club soda and a slice of orange.

Published on August 29, 2005
About the Author
Dylan Garret

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