The newly appointed editor-in-chief of Esquire Magazine, Michael Sebastian, recently told the press that he wants to get away from the idea that the magazine’s reader is “a middle-age white guy who likes brown liquor and brown leather”). Which should send chills down the ad dept’s spine working on those Scotch and bourbon accounts!
True, Millennials may drink more vodka—which the U.S. Standards of Identity defines as “neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color”—but overall, whiskey is second and rum third (though white rums dominate that category) in total volume and sales. (I have no figures for the sales of brown leather.)
Brown spirits are doing very well indeed: According to The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), 2018 marked the ninth straight year of record spirits sales and volumes, at $27.5 billion, up 5 million cases from the prior year, with higher priced “premium” and “ultra-premium” spirits growing faster than the overall industry. According to DISCUS’s chief economist, David Ozgo, the key drivers were American whiskey, up 6.6; tequila, up 10.2 percent; Cognac, up 14.2 percent; Irish whiskey, up 12.0 percent; and Single malt Scotch, up 9.4 percent.
Which leaves me to consider some current releases in the brown spirits category. Spirits companies are constantly coming out with new products to engage both the confirmed drinkers and to attract newcomers. Sometimes this means little more than the same old booze in a brand new bottle, or the alleged discovery of some very old demi-johns sitting up in a warehouse attic—of which there seems to be a near-endless supply if there’s a market for it.
Here are some of the more interesting whiskies and other brown spirits I’m enjoying this summer and will well into fall.
CAMUS VSOP COGNAC ($40)—Five generations of the Camus family, dating to 1863, have locked in the brand’s reputation. The current scion, Cyril Camus, has broadened his brand through Chinese distribution. Located in the Borderies cru area, which comprises only five percent of the region’s AOC’s, Camus uses eaux-de-vie from that region as well as from the other five Cognac crus. The VS Elegance is a very good example of the Camus style, but the VSOP has even more individuality and character, particularly in its aromatic and fruit notes.
ADMIRAL RODNEY HMS PRINCESSA RUM ($50)—In more ways than one, this is quite a mouthful, a blend of rums aged between five and nine years in former bourbon and Port casks. It is named after Admiral George B. Rodney, who broke the French line at the Battle of the Saints off Jamaica in 1782, giving England control of the Caribbean sea lanes. Though not his ship, the HMS Princessa was crucial to the success of the attack. It’s a rum from St. Lucia, which is itself something of a rarity—the island only has three distilleries —and it has a rich mahogany color and sweet underpinnings. The blend is a little younger than the label’s two other rums and therefore a bit lighter on the palate.
MICHTER’S 10 YEAR SINGLE BARREL STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY ($160)—For several years now Michter’s has been a pioneer in experimenting with new styles of bourbon and rye, and this one just came on the market this month. They even have a “Master of Maturation” (AndreaWilson) who gives the final sign-off on Master Distillers Pam Heilmann and Willie Pratt’s production. There is some corn and malted barley in with the rye to add complexity, and that decade in barrel has given it layers of nutty, faintly sweet flavors that make it an end-of-the-evening pleasure. Like most of Michter’s labels, this is a limited edition and will not be re-issued this year.
GEORGE BENTHAM’S BARREL FINISHED GIN ($44)—I know: Gin is usually a clear, colorless spirit, not brown. But this remarkable gin is actually a lovely gold color, not unlike what the original gins from the Netherlands looked like. The English lightened gin up, and since then the spirit is almost never aged. So Bentham’s, out of California’s Sonoma County, comes as a happy surprise, for it really does have much more flavor than the usual gin, aging at least three months in 5-year-old Zinfandel wine barrels. As someone who is not much of a gin or martini drinker, this is one I could happily sip or mix with quinine and thoroughly enjoy all summer long.
WARRE’S OTIMA 10 YEAR OLD TAWNY PORT ($23)—I am also well aware that Port is not a brown spirit, though its deep reddish-brown color counts for something, and it’s a wine to be savored on its own, although it’s the ideal complement to cheese. As a tawny, it needs no decanting, and its decade of aging has really rounded out its considerable pleasures of big fruit, modest tannins, light caramel and warmth of character. Warre’s was the first British Port established in Portugal, and their products are known for their freshness. And what a great price for such a marvelous Port!