Crush-worthy Spirits of the Flame
5 smoky spirits to swoon over.
“if we must
each other.” - from exile, by nayyira waheed
Nora Charles: Pretty girl.
Nick Charles: Yes. She's a very nice type.
Nora Charles: You got types?
Nick Charles: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws. - from The Thin Man, 1934
“Let me stand next to your fire” - Jimi Hendrix
I’ve said it before, but I’ve never understood why popular Valentine’s Day traditions involve consuming sticky-sweet confections. It’s that touch of bitterness that binds relationships after all, and fan the fires of passion. It makes much more sense to me to celebrate love with bittersweet flavors or things associated with fire. In the past I have compiled some cheeky cocktail recipes to celebrate love and all its complexities. However, this year, my colleague Claire McCafferty released an entire book on Romantic Cocktails (I especially love the idea of a drink called “The Friend Zone” with Pineau des Charentes), therefore I suggest picking up a copy if you’re so inclined to mix.
All that said, I have developed a few spirit crushes of late, and they all happen to be smoky or inspired by fiery elements. Some are limited releases that can be a little heartbreaking to part with once the bottle is finished, but better to have loved and lost and all that, right? Here are 5 to try.
50% ABV, $100
The Seattle-based distillery has released these limited smoky bottlings every year at the end of January for their Peat Week celebrations. I am all too aware going into it that my relationship with this whisky can never be more than a casual fling since the bottles are typically limited to around 1,000 and change (this year 1,083). The distillery’s goal is not to merely release the peatiest, smokiest, most aggro single malt they can (this year clocking in at 55ppms—phenol parts per million—using Baird’s Heavily Peated Distiller’s Malt). It’s about doing that while also showcasing complexity in the final product. Comforting layers peek through the peatiness in this year’s release, with a distinct orchard fruitiness, reminiscent of good apple cider, along with malty chocolate (think Yoo-hoo), Asian five spice powder and cardamom. The finish is pleasantly tobacco-smoky without tasting too much like licking an ashtray. If you can’t find this release, Westland’s perennial Peated Single Malt is also excellent, and won double gold in the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition.
Casa San Matías Los Vecinos Del Campo Mezcal Espadín
45% ABV, $34
This is the first release in the states of this line of mezcals produced among 10 distilleries in Valles Centrale, Oaxaca. The single varietal wild agave is on full display, just how I like it—all burning tire smoke and a funkiness worthy of its own sexy bass line—with bold herbaceousness and notes of yellow and red bell pepper, grapefruit, milk chocolate and a hint of apple. I’m more than happy to sip this spirit neat, but what would really set my heart a-flutter would be to sip it in a Paloma with maybe a drop or two of aperitivo, or use it as the base for a romantic, sunset-hued Sub Rosa cocktail.
53.7% ABV, contact distillery for availability
Pechuga is one of my favorite Mexican distilling traditions and I was excited to learn about this smoked apple brandy made here in the states combining that technique with local ingredients. Mexican pechuga is typically produced during autumn harvest season with poultry or rabbit (the Spanish word means “breast”) with seasonal fruits, nuts and botanicals suspended over mezcal during the final distillation, although there are also some vegan variations using fruit in place of the meat. Traditionally, this special spirit is reserved for celebratory occasions such as a wedding, family gathering or for Día de los Muertos. Baltimore spirits (2018 Maryland Producer of the Year in the NY International Spirits Competition) uses Maryland Country ham with paw paw, persimmon and black walnuts suspended over smoked apple brandy in its final run. They got my attention with the sheer nerdiness of this idea. They captivated my heart with how complex and delicious the final product is—like that bacon maple donut from Voodoo Donuts, but with added fresh apple flavors and a hint of barbecue smoke.
60.2% ABV, $96
Though not technically a super smoky furnace spirit, there is still a fiery element to this Highland Scotch. The story goes that this throwback whisky (the name means “of the origins” in Gaelic) is inspired by a bottle accidentally uncovered in 1975 by distillery workers who, while installing new stills, discovered it in a time capsule wrapped in a 1898 newspaper with a headline about the fire that nearly destroyed the distillery that year. The whisky from that time would have been matured exclusively in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks—a standard option back then, but rarely in practice now, as most Scotch is aged in refill casks, or only partial first-fill. Though the bottlings have become part of the standard Aberlour lineup, each one is a little different. I was instantly taken with the latest release (which happened to win silver in the 2018 NYISC) for its intense, cask-strength hit of sherry, which makes the whisky taste a bit like dark chocolate-covered cherries and roasted, slightly salty, cashews. Indeed, if you have a fireplace to sip this near, the opportunity should not be missed.
54.2% ABV, $80
These flirty spirits are a ton of fun, but it always feels good to spend time with an old standby, such as this one from Ardbeg’s core range that mingles whiskies aged in both ex-bourbon and sherry butts. Uigeadail (“Oog-a-dal” according to the website) is one of my favorite smoky Scotches from Islay, with pronounced sherriness (fruit and nuts) dancing between wafts of delicate charcoal and tobacco smoke and a wee bit of sea brine in the finish. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve sipped it along with a good pastrami sandwich (the only thing that could improve “what she’s having” in the Katz’s Deli scene in the great romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally) or lox on a bagel.