Category Archives: Spirits

BTI Announces 2020 Best of Year Award Winners

After reviewing thousands and thousands of wines, beers and spirits this year, Beverage Testing Institute is proud to present the 2020 Best of Year award winners. These products represent the best in their categories and receive BTI’s highest recommendations for 2020.

All products were blindly evaluated by a panel of trade buyers and category experts using custom BTI software and their proprietary Cornell University co-developed methodology. As the only ASTM-conforming wine, beer and spirits competition, BTI scores and reviews have proven to be the most trustworthy and consistent in the industry.

Each BTI-reviewed product receiving a bronze medal or higher can be explored on Tastings.com, the organization’s consumer-facing publication outlet. Reviews, scores, medals, pairing or cocktail suggestions, category information and more are published bi-monthly. Executive Director Jerald O’Kennard highlights the importance of Tastings.com to retail sales this holiday season. “In light of the pandemic-related restrictions placed upon on-premise accounts, we’ve amplified our retail integrations for 2020. We’ve created powerful tools for beverage producers and marketers to convert Tastings.com viewers into their customers by seamlessly linking them to preferred e-commerce sites for each product we review.”

Many of these top winners are also featured in the interactive Tastings.com 2020 Holiday Gift Guide that launched earlier this week. The guide serves both consumers and the trade in highlighting vetted, insider picks alongside Best Buy value brands and trend-setting flavors. Retailers can use the guide’s picks to inform optimized shelf placements, POSM, and purchasing decisions. The guide features links to Tastings.com’s Buy-It-Now button so consumers can shop from their desktop or smartphone.

2020 Best Sparkling Flavored Wine: Giambellino Peach Bellini, Germany

2020 Best Fortified Wine: Auburn Road 2017 Vintage Ruby Fortified Wine, Chambourcin, Outer Coastal Plain

2020 Best Fruit Wine: Florida Orange Groves Winery NV Barrel Selection Peach

2020 Best Zinfandel: Maddalena 2018 Zinfandel, Paso Robles

2020 Best US Tempranillo: Jarvis 2016 Estate, Tempranillo, Napa Valley

2020 Best Rioja: Campo Viejo 2015 Reserva, Tempranillo, Rioja

2020 Best Syrah: Wildwood Oak Winery 2017 Abba Vineyard “Mamma Mia”, Syrah, Lodi

2020 Best Rhône Varietal Blend: Golden Rule Vineyards 2016 Commonwealth Rhone Blend, Willcox

2020 Best Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo: Carletto 2018 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC

2020 Best Red Meritage: Oak Farm Vineyards 2017 Genevieve, Lodi

2020 Best Primitivo: Cedar Mountain 2017 Sblendorio Vineyard Reserve, Primitivo, Livermore Valley

2020 Best Pinot Noir: Red Thread 2018 Pinot Noir, Carneros

2020 Best Barolo: Collina San Ponzio 2016 Barolo Fossati, Barolo DOCG

2020 Best Petite Sirah: Jacob Franklin 2015 Leeds and Pesch Vineyard, Petite Sirah, Napa Valley

2020 Best Petit Verdot: Auburn Road NV Volume One, Petit Verdot, Outer Coastal Plain (no link)

2020 Best US Red Blend: Porterhouse Winery 2016 Reserve Lot Red Blend, Santa Ynez Valley

2020 Best Shiraz: Jip Jip Rocks 2019 Shiraz Cabernet, Padthaway

2020 Best Merlot: Sharrott Winery 2018 Merlot, Outer Coastal Plain

2020 Best Malbec: Oak Farm Vineyards 2018 Malbec, Lodi

2020 Best Argentine Malbec: Alamos 2016 Selección, Malbec, Mendoza

2020 Best Italian Varietal Blend: Emporium 2017 Appassimento, Salento IGP

2020 Best Grenache: Crux Winery 2016 Grenache, Russian River Valley

2020 Best Chambourcin: Bellview Winery 2018 Estate Bottled, Chambourcin, Outer Coastal Plain

2020 Best Carmenère: Yorkville Cellars 2017 Rennie Vineyard, Carmenère, Yorkville Highlands

2020 Best Spanish Red: Anayón 2015 Carignane, Cariñena

2020 Best Cabernet Sauvignon: Reynolds Family Winery 2015 Reserve 300 Series, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

2020 Best Cabernet Franc: Monte De Oro 2016 Deportola Vineyard, Cabernet Franc, Temecula Valley

2020 Best Bordeaux Varietal Red: Sixteen Appellations 2016 Red Blend, Napa Valley

2020 Best Red Bordeaux Varietal Blend: San Simeon 2016 Stormwatch, Paso Robles

2020 Best French Rose: Jas Des Vignes 2019 Rosé, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

2020 Best Rose: Cantina Zaccagnini 2019 Dry Rosé Wine, Terre di Chieti IGT

2020 Best Prosecco: Ruggeri 2018 Giustino B. Extra Dry, Prosecco Superiore DOCG

2020 Best Moscato d’Asti: Risata 2019 Moscato d’Asti DOCG

2020 Best Pet Nat: Bellview Winery NV Pet Nat, Outer Coastal Plain

2020 Best Champagne: Heritage Prince Henri D’Orléans NV Blanc de Blancs, Champagne

2020 Best Cava: Cupcake NV Cava DO

2020 Best Blanc de Blancs: William Heritage 2017 Blanc De Blancs, Outer Coastal Plain (no link)

2020 Best Sweet Wine: St. Clair Winery 2018 Bellissimo, New Mexico

2020 Best Sweet Wine: Corte Bella Rosso

2020 Best Late Harvest Wine: Medal Royal 2018 Late Harvest with Natural Botrytis, Muscat, Curico Valley

2020 Best Bianco Vermouth: Drapo NV Bianco Vermouth, Italy

2020 Best Red Vermouth: Drapo NV Rosso Vermouth, Italy

2020 Best Viognier: Alexandria Nicole 2019 Crawford, Viognier, Columbia Valley

2020 Best Vignoles: Mount Pleasant Estates 2019 Vignoles, Augusta, Missouri

2020 Best International Sauvignon Blanc: Domaine Beausejour 2019 Les Silex, Sauvignon Blanc, Touraine

2020 Best US Sauvignon Blanc: Reynolds Family Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley

2020 Best Riesling: Wakefield/Taylors 2019 Riesling, Clare Valley

2020 Best Pinot Gris: Portlandia 2019 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley

2020 Best Pinot Grigio: Ca’ Montini 2018 Single Vineyard, Pinot Grigio, Trentino DOC

2020 Best Malvasia: Pillsbury Wine Company 2018 Bonnie Lee, Malvasia, Cochise County, Arizona

2020 Best Chenin Blanc: St. Clair Winery 2017 Special Reserve, Chenin Blanc, New Mexico

2020 Best Chardonnay: Publix Premium 2017 Limited Edition, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley

2020 Best Albarino: Alexandria Nicole 2019 Affinity, Albarino, Columbia Valley

2020 Best Cream Cocktail: Kringle Cream NV Latte

2020 Best Hard Seltzer: Greenhouse NV Pink Grapefruit Hard Seltzer, California

2020 Best Mimosa: Aldi NV Orange Mimosa, American

2020 Best Cognac: Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges XO Cognac

2020 Best Wood Aged Cachaca: Pitú Vitoriosa Cachaça

2020 Best Cachaca: Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça

2020 Best Gin: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin

2020 Best Barrel Aged Gin: District Made Barrel Rested Ivy City Gin

2020 Best Herbal Liqueur: June by G’Vine Gin Liqueur

2020 Best Liqueur: Tempus Fugit Creme de Banane Liqueur

2020 Best Orange Liqueur: Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge Liqueur

2020 Best Cream Liqueur: Trader Joe’s Cocoa Cream Liqueur

2020 Best Coffee Liqueur: Herencia de Plata Coffee Tequila Liqueur

2020 Best Aperitivo: Tempus Fugit Gran Classico Bitter Liqueur

2020 Best Mezcal: Mezcal Vago 2019 Espadin Mezcal Artesanal

2020 Best Non-Alcoholic Spirit: Ritual Zero Proof Tequila Alternative Other Spirit

2020 Best White Rum: Cane Run Rum

2020 Best Rum: Motörhead Premium Dark Rum

2020 Best Rum Aged 3 years or less: Bayou Select Barrel Reserve

2020 Best Flavored Rum: Jan Stephenson Pineapple-Flavored Rum

2020 Best Reposado Tequila: Cazcanes No. 7 Reposado Tequila

2020 Best Tequila: Alquimia Reserva de Oro 14 yr Organic Extra Añejo Tequila

2020 Best Cristalino Tequila: Cenote™ Cristalino Tequila

2020 Best Blanco Tequila: Cazcanes No. 9 Blanco Tequila

2020 Best Añejo Tequila: El Tesoro Anejo Tequila

2020 Best Vodka: elit Vodka

2020 Best Flavored Vodka: Zubrówka Bison Grass Flavored Vodka

2020 Best Craft Vodka: Heritage Distilling Co. D’s Seasoned Vodka

2020 Best Wheat Whiskey: Old Elk Straight Wheat Whiskey

2020 Best Rye Whisky: Old Elk Straight Rye Whiskey

2020 Best Bourbon: Doc Swinson’s 15-Yr Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

2020 Best Scotch Whisky: Aberlour A’bunadh Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky

2020 Best Whisky: Kavalan Solist Sherry Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky

2020 Best Japanese Blended Whisky: Tenjaku Blended Japanese Whisky

2020 Best Island Single Malt Scotch: Jura Tide 21 Year Old Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky

2020 Best Irish Whiskey: Midleton Dair Ghaelach Knockrath Forest Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey

2020 Best Irish Blended Whiskey: Jameson Bow Street 18 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey

2020 Best Highland Single Malt Scotch: Aberlour Casg Annamh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

2020 Best Flavored Whiskey: Journeyman Distillery Field Rye Fig Flavored Whiskey

2020 Best Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Widow Jane 10 Yr. Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey

2020 Best American Single Malt Whiskey: Boulder Bottled in Bond American Single Malt Whiskey

2020 Best American Blended Whiskey: Rebecca Creek Double Barrel Blended Whiskey

2020 Best Ready-to-Drink Cocktail: Kirkland Signature RTD Golden Margarita

2020 Best Sake: SakéOne Naginata Junmai Daiginjo Sake

2020 Best Heritage Cider: Two K Farms 2019 Russet Heritage Cider

2020 Best Fruit Cider: Kaneb Orchards Cranberry Crisp Cider

2020 Best French Cider: Maison Hérout 2017 Grand Cuvée Extra-Brut French Cider

2020 Best Wit: Damm Brewery Inedit Witbier

2020 Best Ale: Hofmühl Weissbier

2020 Best American Style IPA: Full Sail Brewing Co. West Coast Style IPA

2020 Best Pilsner: Hofmühl Privat Pils

2020 Best Lager: Hofmühl Hell

Clear Intent: Setting the Stage for Quality Vodka

“Vodka has its place, and it’s not just to pay the light bills.” – Allison Evanow, Founder of Square One Organic Spirits

Through the spirits market’s endless trend-shifting, vodka has cruised along both as a neutral springboard for cocktails and as a money-maker for small producers while their aged spirits develop. At BTI, we wager that curious consumers will be shifting their focus from mass-produced offerings to spirits that are unique and different. Understanding the reasons for this shift is crucial to predicting future success in the category, and in order to do so, we spoke with three producers whose unique methods of production have elevated what consumers can expect from vodka.

Easier is Almost Never Better 

With a standard production method of multiple distillations resulting in an odorless and colorless spirit, vodka can be produced from nearly any base material. Rachel de Caen, Owner of Royal Mash Vodka, says that “vodka can be relatively easy to make” which explains “why there are so many mass-produced vodkas on the market.” When Allison Evanow, Founder of Square One Organic Spirits, was getting into the spirits market, her friends assumed that she “must really like vodka,” but Evanow explains that “I actually didn’t like vodka…that’s why I started a vodka company.” In-line with de Caen, Evanow started with vodka as the flagship product for her all-organic line to challenge the perception that “it’s easy to do for money-making purposes and less about the process and how you make it.”

Tremaine Atkinson, Founder and CEO of CH Distillery, states that because it is “one of the biggest categories, there should be room for really well-made vodka.” Vodka has been Atkinson’s “go-to spirit” for over 35 years, and he defines a high-quality offering as one that is “clean and crisp and modern” because “when it’s made well, it’s interesting.” Though the category does sell an excess of “placeholders,” which Atkinson defines as when a producer is “buying grain neutral spirit from somebody else and doing something, not much, to it and then putting it in the bottle and putting a brand on it,” it is the high-quality of intentionally produced vodkas that is quietly driving consumers to the category. Atkinson points to these “real vodkas” as ones where “the distiller is doing the fermentation” because “ultimately the fermentation is where vodka starts and if you don’t control that aspect, you’re making somebody else’s vodka.”

When it comes to demand for premium vodka, de Caen assures that consumer interest is growing. “There is a combination of factors: international travel and a greater knowledge and appreciation of drinks and food leads people to want to discover things that are not only new and different but of high quality.” Royal Mash Vodka, for example, is produced from Jersey Royal potatoes, which have the tuber equivalent of an AOC. Atkinson has also risen to the uptick in consumer calls for excellence, explaining that “the demand for high-quality spirits and high-quality beverages in general is always on the rise.” He finds the root of this fast-growing demand in the fact that “younger generation drinkers have grown up with food and beverage celebrated all around them.” With a wide array of offerings in the market, these modern consumers are looking for depth and character in their spirits, as well as the story of why the producers made the recipe choices they did, like Atkinson making CH Distiller Vodka from Illinois grain with hometown pride and because “nobody was doing it.” Producers like Evanow, whose Square One Organic Vodka is made from 100% organic rye, feel that these intentional choices based on “good flavor profile” as opposed to “making anything, and cheaply” have the potential to create vodka fans from consumers that before were wary of the category because “most [of them] have not had a good vodka.”

Maintaining Integrity When Facing Challenges

The task of encouraging a consumer to shift from the inexpensive vodka that is made, as Evanow puts it, by “buying in bulk, backing the tanker truck up, and throwing it in a bottle,” to a higher-priced quality vodka that Atkinson describes as one “made from scratch and with an idea in mind” is not a simple one. Evanow nods to bartenders as “our biggest supporters” because they “have the education” to understand that “what we’re doing is more costly but it’s with more care and the result is a better-quality product.” Though it is widely acknowledged that the pandemic has made consumers less likely to go to bars, and Atkinson admits that many consumers wouldn’t otherwise know that good vodka exists “until it’s been put in front of them,” de Caen makes the point that when people do go out, though less frequently, their expectations are higher, meaning “the cocktails must be excellent, not just okay” and “premium drinks are made from premium spirits.”

Although Atkinson reassures that “on-premise isn’t going to be gone forever,” many smaller producers must reconsider how to reach their target market without the helping hands of knowledgeable bartenders in a pandemic-wounded industry. Evanow advises that instead of trying to convince non-vodka drinkers to make the switch, “it’s a big part of strategy to find those consumers who generally love vodka.” She explains that many of these imbibers generally go by what they know, and that it’s worth investing in educating at the consumer-facing level in order to grow sales. Evanow gives the example of one loyal customer in particular that switched to Square One Organic Vodka and reached out to her with glowing feedback, even detailing that he stocked up for a cross-country move because he wasn’t sure his favorite pour would be available in his new town. She spotlights this customer as encouragement for producers to “find those people and develop the relationship with them” because “they’ll tell their friends,” recognizing that while “it’s a slower build,” it’s ultimately an “authentic” one.

Further leaning into new challenges presented by the pandemic, de Caen’s insights on the contemporary consumer’s draw to high-quality new experiences suggest that if they are making cocktails at home, they will want well-made spirits in their recipes. Most consumers do not possess the blending skill set of a professional bartender, so if they’re starting with a high-quality product there will be less work for them to do. More time interacting directly with the spirit develops within the consumer a deeper understanding of quality, and de Caen believes that “a memorable product eventually becomes part of the [consumer’s] brand portfolio.” Though Atkinson does acquiesce that this relies on the type of consumer that is “willing to spend a little bit extra to get something that’s really of high quality,” he bolsters that “they’re going to buy it again because it’s good.”

Consumers’ exponentially growing demand for thoughtfully made products can be thanked for igniting the sales of high-quality spirits and ultimately raising the bar for the beverage industry as a whole. Now, more than ever, small producers have the opportunity to find their niches and grow; and in those expanding niches, Evanow promises that “vodka has its place, and it’s not just to pay the light bills.”

 

Our 2021 call for Vodka is on! Learn more about submitting your quality liquids to our 2021 review.

Market/ing Research in Reach

Beverage Testing Institute’s panel of spirits industry experts presented an American Distilling Institute 2020 Conference seminar about the simple and sophisticated market research tools available to craft brands. Featuring:

Monique Huston, Vice President of Wholesale Spirits for Winebow
Lee Zaremba, Corporate Beverage Director fof Boka restaurant group
Chuck Lyle, Director of Marketing and Innovation at Green River Spirits Company (Formerly Terressentia Corporation)
Jerald O’Kennard, Executive Director of Beverage Testing Institute
Laura Kruming-Berg, Associate Director of Beverage Testing Institute

A Defining Creativity: American Single Malt Whiskey Producers on the Category’s Push for Regulatory Recognition

“It’s time for people to understand that what’s being made in the States is just bonkers good, and it gets lost because there’s this perception that single malt whiskey must be imported.”

In the middle of a blizzard in March of 2016, at Chicago’s beloved Marcy Street Binny’s, nine distillers hunkered down for the first meeting of the American Single Malt Whiskey (ASMW) Commission. Their mission? To come to a consensus on the category’s standard of identity in order to, according to their site, “establish, promote, and protect” it. “We set aside three hours to hash it out, but it took us about 30 minutes to agree,” states Steve Hawley, President of the ASMW Commission and Director at Westland Distillery. Per that wintry night’s professional parley, an American Single Malt Whiskey must be:

Fermented from 100% malted barley

         Distilled at one distillery to no more than 80% ABV

                 Mashed, distilled, and matured in the USA

                          Matured in an oak cask of a capacity no greater than 700 liters

                                       Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV

That definition became a currently-pending petition to the TTB, and in the meantime, the commission’s members are finding multiple avenues to educate trade and consumers alike. BTI spoke with some of the member producers about their goals, their challenges, and their strategies for spreading the whiskey word.

Classification Begets Innovation

Why, with a broad spectrum of single malts available, should ASMW have its own unique, protected contribution? Rick Wasmund, Master Distiller at Copper Fox Distillery, believes that while the traditions of single malt whiskey from places like Scotland are “well-served,” the American category possesses endless opportunity for “variation, experimentation, and artistic expression.” One of his expressions, for example, uses a peachwood smoke on malted barley, followed by the inclusion of toasted peachwood chips inside of the oak barrel, resulting in flavors Wasmund describes as “different from anything else in the world.”

Steve Hawley points out that the creative space granted by an ASMW classification has not only been encouraged by single malt producers across the pond, but is additionally tinged with a bit of envy for that space. In regulating ASMW, Hawley explains that “what we’re doing helps solidify what single malt means in the world.” Hawley lauds the high quality of Scotland’s single malt whiskies, but notes that their traditions and regulations don’t leave as much room for the “freedom to try new things” that exists in the ASMW category. 

 This “freedom” is a cornerstone of ASMW, which is why John McKee, founding commission member and Co-Founder of Headframe Spirits, emphasizes that, in cementing a category standard, “we’ve always tried to be inclusive without limiting the category.” McKee further explains the need for ASMW to have its own recognition by shining a light on the fact that “for almost 20 or 30 years, really important entrants in the world of malt whiskey have come from America,” and “it’s time for people to understand that what’s being made in the States is just bonkers good, and it gets lost because there’s this perception that single malt whiskey must be imported.” 

“People that are shopping around for single malt whiskey are not walking to the bourbon section, the craft section, or the ‘other section.’ They’re going to the single malt section and we need to be there.”

Pushing the Rock Up the Hill

The path to ASMW’s regulated classification is not without its challenges. John McKee bluntly states that “the pace of the bureaucracy is the largest impediment to what we’re trying to do.” McKee further emphasizes that “we can convince people, we get the liquid to the lips and blow people away, but if we can’t get that change at the standards level, then every liquor store we go into, every bar we go into, we’re starting the conversation over from scratch of where it belongs and how to talk about it.” Paul Hletko, founding commission member and FEW Spirits Distiller, continues this issue by pointing out that lack of proper categorization then leaves trade and consumers alike to wonder “How do you stock this in your retail? How do you stock this in your bar? It doesn’t belong in the scotch, and it doesn’t belong with the bourbon or the ‘world whiskey.’ Where does it fit?”

Steve Hawley presses this importance of spatial distinction of the category, noting a huge disparity in production cost as well as difference in character. “We’re not bourbon. I think the price of corn these days is around seven cents a pound, whereas the price of our main raw ingredient starts at thirty five cents a pound and goes up to a dollar twenty a pound. It’s a whole different ball game. People that are shopping around for single malt whiskey are not walking to the bourbon section, the craft section, or the ‘other’ section. They’re going to the single malt section and we need to be there.” Hletko is optimistic that this is resolving as time goes on, with more ASMW producers adding more bottles demanding their own shelf, and while McKee agrees that “we will overcome this endeavour,” the slow passage of time has turned ASMW’s challenges into “not quite a Sisyphean task,” but “you’re pushin’ a rock up a hill.” 

“The pace of the bureaucracy is the largest impediment to what we’re trying to do. We can convince people, we can get the liquid to the lips and blow people away, but if we can’t get that change at the standards level, then every liquor store we go into, every bar we go into, we’re starting the conversation over from scratch.”

How to Package for Recognition 

In finding a space on liquor store whiskey shelves, it’s hard not to consider packaging. “It’s important that we don’t misrepresent our product,” says Rick Wasmund. “We say that it’s American Single Malt Whiskey, we don’t go out to the next level and say ‘This is not Scotch,’ we say ‘This is what we do.’”

Echoing this need for clarity, Paul Hletko believes that individual producers will have their own approaches, but that it’s important that the packaging is clear so that “if someone’s out there looking for ASMW, they know where to get it, and if they’re not looking for it and they find it, they will have comfort in having an idea of what they’re getting.”

Steve Hawley also emphasizes the importance of nomenclature, adding that “from a commission standpoint, it’s not our place to try and lobby our membership for a certain aesthetic approach.” When it comes to the notion of creating packaging comparable to well-known single malts of the world, Hawley admits that the line is less defined. “Does Westland packaging look traditional? No, but we put it in a box because that’s something consumers recognize as a single malt thing. Do we want it to look like it’s 100 years old because that’s what all the Scotch whiskies look like? No, because that’s not authentic. It’s a constant dance and decision making process when it gets into all the details of that stuff.”

John McKee also understands this dance. “You see some people will play in the green and brown bottle category, because that’s what people normally associate with malts. We elected to say, look, this is an American Single Malt and

we are doing things differently, so let’s go ahead and put it in a clear bottle and let them see the juice that’s inside.” McKee also felt that ASMW producers would benefit from the reduction in expensive secondary packaging proposed by “big players like Beam Suntory” at the most recent World Whiskey Forum in Seattle. The proposal was made with the mindset of environmentally conscious efforts, but McKee feels that by eliminating the fancy packaging that many smaller producers can’t afford, the shift could “take a little bit away from inequities in the marketing playing field.”

Simultaneously, McKee is also “not blind to the concept of what people’s eyes are drawn to when they think of a malt” and Headframe’s recent release of Kelley, their eight year American Single Malt Whiskey named for the nearby mineyard and a nod to the area’s Irish heritage, does “take liberties” in its packaging with a Celtic knot design on a green label. Ultimately, Hawley reiterates that what’s most important is the section that ASMW is found in, and that it “doesn’t have anything to do with a brand’s design preferences” but “everything to do with how a retailer decides they are gonna organize their store.”

“Through real world demonstration, we are certifying bars, restaurants and retailers to rally behind our cause.”

Fueling Momentum

As ASMW’s membership is full of innovative minds, there is constant growth in the category’s enlightenment momentum while the bureaucracy moves at its glacial pace. “Education,” states Steve Hawley, “is an important mission of the commission.” Westland’s strategy of spreading the category’s knowledge has been outreach, as well as regular trade and consumer events. As president of the commission, Hawley explains that, through “real world demonstration,” they are “certifying bars, restaurants, and retailers to rally behind our cause” because “it’s a hugely important part of our agenda to get them to recognize ASMW, whether there’s a federal definition or not.”

Paul Hletko follows this current, crediting the work of the ASMW commission in “spreading the story.” “We’re out talking to people, we talk to journalists and they write stories about it, and we talk about it with store owners and bartenders.” Hletko believes that if industry professionals are well-versed in the category then they become its “gatekeepers,” and while their distinction may not be the “law,” it “might as well be.” John McKee is in full agreement with taking ownership of the category’s successful integration into the market. “It’s on us,” McKee says, “and on all of us; the manufacturers and marketers and of course bartenders on the retail side, to help people recognize that we have this pride of what an American Single Malt Whiskey is. It’s a well-seasoned pride, we make extraordinary spirits.” 

Though it’s uncertain when the ribbon of a TTB-recognized American Single Malt Whiskey type will be cut, its dedicated producers have no plans to give up hope. Steve Hawley reassures us all that the commission’s work continues: “We’re a bunch of whiskey makers, so we’re used to being patient, but we’re not just sitting on our hands waiting on the regulatory process.” 

New Baijiu Flavor Wheel

The Debut of a Baijiu Flavor Wheel

Chinese baijiu is one of the oldest distillates in the world, and has been defined into 12 plus categories or “styles/substyles” based on aroma/flavor characteristics.

Several hundred chemical compounds have been defined as contributing to the composition and flavor profiles of the different styles or type of this Chinese Liquor. These include flavorful esters (often fruity in nature), fatty acids (often rancid, cheesy, goaty and dairy-like notes) and sulfur compounds – among a plethora of other flavorful molecules. These notes also include earthy/muddy and farmyard characteristics and savory, complex sweet notes, and roasted, nutty flavors. Baijiu is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Some estimates cite an annual production of 13 million kL in 2017 (1 kiloLiter = 1000L or 264.2 US gallons) or approximately 3,434 million gallons. 9.43L annually per Chinese citizen!

Two works discussing Baijiu in some detail are those of Sandhaus (see references). Sandhaus notes that around 10000 distilleries of varying sizes and capacities exist in mainland China today after peaking at between 18-36000 by the early 1990’s. Between them it is also estimated that there are tens of thousands of baijiu products available. Generally categorized as light-aroma type, strong-aroma-type, soy sauce-aroma type, sweet- and honey-aroma type and miscellaneous-aroma-type liquors. A more expanded nomenclature appears for the different styles or types as shown in Figure 1.

12 Baijiu Flavor and Aroma Styles

Figure 1. The first known flavor wheel covering the general flavor impressions or expectations from the 12 main types or styles of Baijiu.

This flavor wheel, presented here for the first time – being a work in progress – covers the general classifications – based on flavor profiles (aroma and taste = flavor) for a dozen generally recognized styles or types of the Chinese liquor known as Baijiu. English and Chinese names for each class are presented along with general impressions and a little more flavor detail. It should hopefully be a useful tool for sensory panels and in spirits judging competitions.

Unlike most alcoholic beverages known in the Western World, the raw materials, and manufacturing processes, including fermentation, distillation and aging, plus the flavor characteristics of baijiu and other Chinese liquors are all quite different from our general understanding of wine, whiskey and brandy production. This is mainly because baijiu is a product of solid-state fermentation and distillation. In a nutshell, grains and a complex starter culture of microorganisms (see Figure 2 – Baijiu Production) are mixed together and simultaneous saccharification and fermentation in a solid (rather than submerged) state takes place. The mixed-culture of organisms (yeasts, bacteria and molds) – embedded in a fermentation starter known as Daqu or Qu are actively involved and solid-state steam distillation processes are employed – sometimes with the implementation of multiple reiterations of fermentation and distillation. Aging of base liquor is then allowed to occur in sealed jars, followed by blending and bottling. Figure 2 shows the general outline of baijiu production.

Baijiu Production

Figure 2 – Baijiu Production

As noted from above in Figure 2, a very complex and time-consuming process is involved in the production of the various styles of baijiu. With all the raw materials used, the special microbiological and enzymatic properties of the varied types of Qu or daqu, the spontaneous inoculation of additional yeasts, bacteria and molds from mud pits and the surroundings where baijiu is produced, and the reactions occurring during the fermentations, distillations and aging it can be seen how the complex flavor profiles associated with baijiu are developed.

Baijiu is thus clearly differentiated from other liquors based on its distinctive flavor, taste, and production process. Each style has been the subject of extensive research and the focus of dozens of papers. While detail could not be provided here, one key fruity flavor of note in baijiu is the compound ethyl hexanoate. This ester exhibits a fruity, floral and sweet aroma and has apple-aniseed-like qualities. Its flavor/aroma potency comes through well in Chinese liquors, especially in strong-aroma type baijiu. Other esters convey tropical and other fruit notes. A potent odorant in Chinese sesame-flavor baijiu is known as furfurylthiol (a sulfur compound). This compound along with other related aromatic thiols contribute roasted sesame, grapefruit, passion fruit and boxwood characters with thresholds for detection in the parts per trillion range. Soy sauce-aroma type baijiu is also associated with some components conveying a key retronasal burnt flavor. While much more could be said about the multiple flavor components, this short review covers only an outline with the general flavor impressions or expectations from the 12 main types or styles of Baijiu being presented in Figure 1. A paper by the present author and Jamie Baxter is currently in press with much more coverage of Baijiu.

References:

Sandhaus, D. BAIJIU: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. Penguin Books. (2014).

Sandhaus, D. Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture. Potomac Books. (2019)

Jin. G., Zhu, Y. and Xu, Y. Mystery behind Chinese liquor fermentation. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 63; 18-28. (2017).

Liu, H. and Sun, B. Effect of Fermentation Processing on the Flavor of Baijiu. J. Agric. Food Chem. 66; 5425-5432. (2018).

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2020 State of Vodka with Hyatt’s National Director of Bars

As Americans dive deeper into the wave of craft cocktails, they are often at the whim of tidal trends. A new product will hit the shelves and, subsequently, local cocktail menus and bar guests clamour to taste it. But as those fads fade, there are lulls in which an imbiber will undoubtedly return to their standbys and vodka, in particular, has resurfaced as the steadfast choice for the drinkers of the world.

For a long time, vodka held a poor reputation for those looking to consume elevated beverages. Its rise in popularity occurred in the 1950s, a time when America’s culinary scene was as dismal as it has ever been and unfortunately vodka carried the infamy of this era with it. This decade’s top dishes included things like meatloaf, frozen dinners, deviled eggs, and tuna casserole and many of these meals were washed down with a crisp, “breathless” vodka concoction. Just as culinary culture at the time was removed from highlighting its individual components, so too was vodka enveloped in a blanket of blandness. Due to this lamentable history, vodka has long borne the reputation of poor quality and character. Yes, vodka has always “paid the bills,” but not often with pride.

Luckily, as distillation, mixology, distribution, and customer education have advanced, so has the quality and variety of vodkas on the market, and people around the world are starting to see the depth of possibility that the category maintains. Not only does vodka possess a range of flavors, but its textural diversity and purity have become desirable traits in the imbibing world.

With the advent of Instagram, consumers are not only able to read and select from cocktail menus before even arriving at a bar, they are now also able to follow the stories of the products available to them. In knowing the history behind the production of what they are ordering, they feel more involved in and connected to the product’s journey, and more emboldened in ordering their favorite brands wherever they go.

In a single aisle, bottles boast flavors and textures gained from different base materials, distillation methods, and filtration techniques. Latvia’s elit vodka, for example, boasts “single-source grain,” “artesian well water,” and filtration through “super-fine quartz sand” and “Russian birch charcoal” in order to attain its premium purity. Another vodka, Leaf, emphasizes its water sources (an Alaskan glacier for “pure, smooth taste” and the Rocky Mountains for “unusual richness and complexity) as the keys to its individuality. A vodka’s base materials (water, grain, corn, potato, etc) coupled with thoughtful distillation techniques can create an array of options.

If a beverage director or bartender is going to feature vodka on their menu, they want different flavour profiles to highlight and inspire the cocktail’s composition, accentuating the vodka character as a base as opposed to just using its neutrally-cloaked ABV to bolster the rest of the ingredient list.

Miranda Breedlove is the National Director of Bars for Hyatt, and her spirits selections influence a wide span of properties across the US and Canada. “If I am creating a cocktail, I will choose the brand that is priced best for that drink that has the characteristics or story I am looking for.” Bartending has become a more viable and respected career path, and beverage professionals are looking for deeper education, including consideration of the production methods that a spirit uses. “What is it made of? Where is it made? How is it made?” Breedlove consistently considers these factors when making her bottle selections. “Overall my preference is most dependent on the quality and style of the spirit depending on what I’m using it for. Secondly, I look to the brand relationship and education I have received.” Breedlove’s focus on quality and education means that producers must amplify their outreach, sharing their passion for their products through genuine elevation of industry professionals by creating educational opportunities about their product, offering opportunities to finance further study, and participating in industry-focused fundraisers. Breedlove especially pays attention to these components when it comes to premium products. “I am not generally one to pay for marketing gimmicks, but there are certain higher-priced vodkas that I will spring for during certain occasions as I have either had good experiences with them, they taste on par with their pricing, or they’re preferred by guests I am entertaining.”

2020 holds countless possibilities for the products that uphold consumer and trade expectations. Freed from its debut as a bland background for 1950s’ casseroles and TV dinners and with the right attention to quality and education, vodka is poised to stand proudly in this new decade’s spirits spotlight.