It's that time of year again: Awards season. As 2022 comes to a close, it's time to recognize the top performers, shakers and movers, and most inventive voices in all the land. For the world of drinks in particular, it has been a wondrous year. Maybe it was the nature of 2022, or perhaps the lessons we learned from the trying previous two years. Whatever the reason, the drinks business really flexed its muscles this year — not in terms of dramatic volumes or over-the-top options (although there were certainly those), but in terms of top-quality options that reflect exactly what we want in our glasses right now.
It's been quite a year for agave spirits and gin especially. The former had a record-breaking year in terms of sales, and the latter really embraced terroir, shapeshifting into a spirit that can go toe-to-toe with the best of 'em, even just neat in the glass. Oh, and whiskey got a new category. We can't wait to taste more of these as they come online and name the best of 2023.
For now, here are the best spirits of 2022.
Mezcal may have enjoyed its best year to date, at least here in the states. Bartenders have really embraced the stuff, and our collective palate has evolved, yearning more and more for mezcal's unique flavor profile. And no, they're not all smoky.
We selected Catedral for a host of reasons. One, it's made by six master mezcaleros, so there's experience in every offering. Second, the mezcals are balanced with big flavors that still glide in as very approachable. Third, there's a real focus on sustainable farming and distillation. Cheers.
El Tesoro Tequila
Much can be said for tequila, which finally seemed to achieve its long-overdue sipping status this year, even among the longtime naysayers. Tesoro is our winner, a producer that tends to overdeliver. The price points paint a picture of a slightly above-average tequila, but it's very much top shelf.
We like all of those floral and spicy qualities, especially when they coexist in harmony with the earthy agave components. Plus, the tequila has just enough citrus and sweet fruit notes to really round it all out.
Best spiced rum
Spiced rum is so often overlooked or reserved for the holiday season. That's a shame, as this great option declares itself loudly and proudly. Candela is from the Dominican Republic, and it's not just any spiced rum. It's a very place-specific batch made with the spirit, honey, and a host of spices otherwise known as mamajuana. Many Dominicans make their own batches at home.
We love the woodsy elements in this version of the famed beverage, which are offset nicely by the heat of the rum and some warming backing spices. Sip it neat or mix it up in any number of great spiced rum cocktails.
Rum had a nice year too, if for no other reason than the fact that more people decided to branch out and give it a chance (and yes, you're likely still drinking it wrong). Renegade stands out from the pack, with its generous flavor profile screaming of candied plantains and tropical fruit. It's an absolute winner, especially for an un-aged expression. Normally, this style tastes like alcohol and sugar. This one, however, has layer upon delicious layer and needs nothing more than your favorite glass.
Uncle Nearest hit the ground running when it debuted a few years back, bolstered by an amazing story and some great offerings. Since then, the brand has garnered many awards, all well deserved. From the entry-level releases to the reserve selections, the bourbons are all outstanding. Perhaps more importantly, they're both raising the American whiskey bar (no pun intended) and making the industry more reflective of our diverse population.
Best rye whiskey
Frey Ranch has a couple of key things going for it. The Nevada distiller is helping to spearhead the estate movement in whiskey production, meaning they grow all of the ingredients (namely grain) on site and oversee the entire farm-to-bottle process. So far, the results are impressive. The rye is especially dynamic with deep, lasting flavors that simply don't want to leave the palate. If it's a sign of things to come for the American homegrown whiskey scene, we could not be more excited.
Gray Whale Gin
Gin, this is your comeback year. Sure, you had it great during the Gatsby age, the first real golden era of cocktails. Then you were nothing more than a clear spirit people poured tonic over. Now you're back, flexing botanicals foraged from right where you're being made.
Gray Whale is the ultimate example of this newly reinvigorated push for terroir in the spirit, made from a host of ingredients that reflect the diversity of California. Better, you actually taste what's put in: The Temecula Valley limes, the fir from Sonoma, the Santa Cruz mint. Okay, you might not detect as much of the kelp from the Mendocino coast, but the end result is as vibrant a gin as there is out there right now.
Brandy used to be the stuff your grandparents pulled out on special occasions, often to a less-than-enthusiastic crowd. This year showed what brandy can do. The grape spirit is being made with extra care these days, and while cognac still produces the cream of the crop, some new producers (in the states especially) are making some tasty versions.
Grand Brulot is a model cognac producer, the work of a fifth-generation maker. That said, the brandy is excellent. But Brulot goes a step further by mixing up the spirit with coffee for a truly unique option that's changing the way we thing about brandy in general. Aged 18 months in the barrel, it's all kinds of smooth and flavorful.
This new release from Hood River Distillers is everything a good vodka should be. It's clean, soft on the palate, and comes in a gorgeous bottle. Made from local apples and glacier-fed water from nearby Mt. Hood, the spirit has just enough body (with a kiss of fruit) while maintaining its refined nature. It goes to show that vodka does not have to be weak and it also doesn't have to try too hard; there's a happy middle ground in there, and Timberline is proof.
There you have it: The best spirits of 2022. If you have yet to try them, get on it. Whether you love a classic cocktail or enjoy sipping specific spirits on their own, you will be very, very pleased with any (or all) of these picks.
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