The publication of VinePair’s annual 50 Best Spirits list marks a special moment on our calendar. The collection represents the culmination of hundreds of bottles, tasted across dozens of categories. Not just an annual release, it stands as a whole year’s work in the making.
So how might a bottle make it into the top 50 and what does the list represent?
To land upon the final ranking, VinePair creates a (long) shortlist of bottles that captured our attention throughout the year. Those bottles are then tasted multiple times by a team of staff members to narrow the offering down to 50. One final tasting then determines the position of each bottle on the list.
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When considering which bottles to include, we look at multiple factors: spirits that stand out as unrivaled ambassadors of quality within their category; new or limited-edition releases that deliver upon their hype or arrive with an unexpected bang; and bottles that aren’t afraid to venture into the left field and then justify their reason for doing so. Of course, there’s also price to consider. No amount (within reason) is off limits, but each release has to live up to the price at which it retails.
This year’s selection features 14 different styles of spirits from multiple continents across the globe. Aged or unaged, traditional or avant-garde, designed for cocktails or sipping neat, every interpretation of the art of distillation is represented in this collection of exceptional bottles.
Here are VinePair’s 50 Best Spirits of 2021, tasted and ranked.
50. Worthy Park Estate ‘Rum-Bar’ Overproof White Rum
Grassy, vegetal, and full of classic Jamaican funk, this unaged pot still rum arrives at 63 percent ABV. With an exuberant profile, this rum brings lots of options to the table when mixing cocktails. Don’t overlook it as an affordable, if complex, sipper either. Average price: $20.
49. Wild Roots Peach Infused Vodka
Is it time to revisit flavored vodka, bubblegum and birthday cake expressions notwithstanding? Based on the evidence of this expressive, fruity bottling from the Pacific Northwest, it might just be. Mix in highballs during the day then take it for a spin in a Vesper at night — shaken, not stirred, naturally. Average price: $21.
48. Olmeca Altos Plata Tequila
When Marg season kicks off, bar carts deserve a blanco tequila that delivers balance and authentic agave character at a reasonable price point. Olmeca Altos Plata nails this brief and even evokes the cocktail itself with hints of lime and salty brine on nose and palate. Average price: $21.
47. Ak Zanj Haitian Dark Rum
While its aromas lead to sweet molasses and prunes, this rum unfolds with the added complexity of vegetal and underripe tropical fruit on the palate. Sidestep bourbon and reach for this bottle for your next Old Fashioned. Average price: $30.
46. Italicus Bergamot Liqueur
The fragrance of zesty bergamot flourishes on the nose of this attractive, smooth sipping liqueur. Bottled at 20 percent ABV, it shares the bitter complexity of vermouth but arrives with a more approachable, punchy profile. Average price: $40.
45. Egan’s Vintage Grain Single Grain Irish Whiskey
Grain whiskey typically gets cast as a blending component but this 10-year-old release from Egan’s bucks that trend. Aged in bourbon casks, it serves a bright and spicy mix of dried fruit and vanilla notes. Meanwhile, its light-bodied, lively texture makes it a shoe-in for highballs and summer sipping. Average price: $28.
44. Montelobos Mezcal Artesanal Espadín
Multiple factors in mezcal production make it difficult for brands to offer a nationally available, reasonably priced expression. Campari-owned Montelobos not only ticks both of those boxes but also far exceeds expectations with the quality of this fruity and floral Espadín. This bottle should be a permanent bar cart fixture for cocktail-shaking mezcal drinkers. Average price: $40.
43. Suyo Pisco
Launched in 2021, Suyo works with a number of small-scale Peruvian producers, releasing its pisco on a batch-by-batch basis. The spirit’s aromas are bright and fruity, recalling orchard fruit with a slight sourness. The palate arrives tart and tangy, full of fruity flavor, and with a crisp finish. This release offers a world of opportunities beyond the Pisco Sour — but be sure to take a stop there along the way. Average price: $45.
42. Grateaud Bouquet des Borderies Cognac
Grateaud Bouquet des Borderies stood out among many enjoyable Cognacs this year, thanks to intriguing, savory herbal aromas, and a bright floral and fruity profile. This is another aged spirit that deserves equal consideration during the warmer summer months. Average price: $58.
41. Lejana Y Sola Mezcal Artesanal Joven
Made using a blend of Espadín and Cuishe agave, this mezcal delivers a vibrant mix of tropical fruit, briny jalapeños, and fresh floral notes. The category’s signature smokiness comes alive on the palate, where it’s matched by spicy, textural complexity. No need for cocktail shakers for this mezcal. Average price: $60.
40. Arran Barrel Reserve Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Made using 7- and 8-year-old whiskies combined with older expressions, this single malt’s light golden hue is the first giveaway of its more delicate nature. Bright and citrusy, the older stock lends a sweet kiss of vanilla to the palate. This is an attractive and approachable first step for any single malt journey. Average price: $55.
39. Tattersall Distilling Port Wine Barreled Straight Rye Whiskey
Barrel finishing is commonplace in the Scotch, Irish, and bourbon whiskey categories, but the practice has only recently taken hold within rye. Launched in October of this year, Tattersall’s port barrel–finished release provides an incredible representation of how the spicy grain-based whiskey can take on an exciting new lease on life with the help of used casks. Bold, flavorful, and nuanced, this wine-kissed release is a wonderful outlier. Average price: $50.
38. M&H Elements Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky
Scotch drinkers will be more than familiar with the wonders of sherry cask–aged or finished releases. Consider Israel’s M&H Distillery as the source of your next sherry bomb. Like booze-soaked raisins, luscious notes from the fortified wine define both nose and palate but don’t drown out the earthy character of malt. Average price: $65.
37. A. Smith Bowman Distillery ‘John J. Bowman’ Pioneer Spirit Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Virginia’s A. Smith Bowman enjoys little of the spotlight of its siblings in the Sazerac portfolio. For drinkers, the upshot of this is actually being able to find bottles, and at MSRP. Take a chance on this fruity, herbaceous bourbon and you won’t be disappointed. Average price: $62.
36. Phraya Deep Matured Gold Rum
This year gave us our first taste of rum from Thailand, and this expression, made from Thai-grown sugar cane, and aged 7 to 12 years, set a high bar. Decadent molasses, oak, and vanilla notes benefit from a kiss of red berries and a prickly spice on the finish. Average price: $46.
35. Stauning Floor Malted Rye Whisky
Local rye grains, floor malting, pot distillation — sounds like the stuff of American craft whiskey dreams. Yet this 3-year-old release hails from the West Coast of Denmark. Made to the same production standards as American rye, this is as close as it comes to a liquid form of rye bread, and concisely recalls the caraway seeds that typify Nordic cuisine in general. It’s young and pricey but packs a lot of personality. Average price: $80.
34. Belvedere Heritage 176 Vodka Mixed With Malted Rye Spirit
The highest-ranked vodka on this year’s list is not, in fact, technically a vodka. Except that it is for all intents and purposes beyond legal definitions. Made using a blend of Belvedere Vodka (98 percent) and malted rye spirit (2 percent), the latter adds distinct cereal and fruity character. Mix in Martinis and highballs for a vodka cocktail experience like no other. Average price: $35.
33. Komos Tequila Añejo Cristalino
Dogmatic agave aficionados be damned, Cristalino tequila is flourishing, both in the U.S. and its homeland. For those who find the savory, vegetal side of the spirit hard to come to terms with, the style offers the perfect jumping off point. This particular bottle lands on the palate like an agave-sweetened dessert with a sprinkling of peppery spice on the finish. Skip the last course and head straight for a glass of Komos Cristalino. Average price: $122.
32. Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin
The botanical bill for this Indian gin includes domestically grown ginger and cardamom, and Himalayan juniper. Further ingredients identify it as distinctly Indian, including mango and turmeric, which sing throughout. While not the ideal first or only gin for your bar cart, Hapusa’s unique personality offers a wide range of possibilities for culinary-inspired cocktail creation. Average price: $46.
31. El Silencio Ensamble Mezcal Artesanal
Though Espadín deserves recognition as more than just the “workhorse” agave in Mezcal, exploring blends (or ensambles) offers insight into the stunning breadth of profiles the spirit has to offer. This bottle from El Silencio is an exceptional example. Made with Tobasiche, Mexicano, and Espadín agave, it arrives with an inviting floral perfume, subtle smokiness, and a seasoning of fiery chipotle on the finish. Average price: $74.
30. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
By their very nature, single barrel bourbons are consistently inconsistent, in that each barrel offers a unique aromatic and flavor profile. In some instances, inconsistency stretches to quality, but that’s never a worry with the Russell’s Reserve line. Fruity, expressive, and with a peppering of Wild Turkey’s signature funk, this offering always hits the mark and over-delivers relative to other bourbons at this price point. Average price: $55.
29. Castle & Key Restoration Rye 2021 Batch #1
A small-batch blend, pulled from just 80 barrels, this is the third release from Castle & Key’s Restoration Rye series. Intense and expressive, it pleases the senses with floral and stone fruit aromas, and a sweet and spicy palate. This distillery is showing a lot of promise. Rye drinkers would be wise to add it and this series to their watchlists. Average price: $43.
28. Isle of Harris Gin
One of an increasing number of excellent Scottish gins, Isle of Harris landed on U.S. shores for the first time in 2021. Made in the Outer Hebrides, locally gathered sugar kelp takes a starring role in the botanical bill, infusing the spirit with a spray of seawater and truly capturing a sense of place. Mix in olive-garnished Martinis. Average price: $60.
27. Pinhook Vertical Series ‘Bourbon War’ 5 Year
The second release in Pinhook’s Bourbon War series, this whiskey adds a whole new dimension to the notion of a vertical tasting. The series tracks the evolution of 1,350 barrels of sourced MGP bourbon and rye, with 150 of the former released each year. With one extra year in barrel, light, tropical aromas present in the first release have taken on a more heady guise, while the palate has developed a rich, spicy character. Call the concept a gimmick if you will, but the whiskey inside the bottle stands on its own. Average price: $55.
26. Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Mitchell & Son this year re-released its “Blue Spot” single pot still Irish whiskey following a 50-year absence. The release launched to much fanfare and tasted great, but its limited quantity has now seen $85 bottles being flipped for $400-plus online. That’s not unique to this product, but the long and short of it is: If nothing else, that release provided an excellent reminder of what a great buy the brand’s more accessible “Green Spot” whiskey is. A blend of 7- and 10-year old single pot still whiskeys, it is simultaneously approachable and complex, and over-delivers on price. Average price: $64.
25. New Riff Single Barrel Bourbon
As an independent, relatively small distillery, New Riff enjoys the freedom to experiment and focus on techniques and ingredients that larger producers can’t. But New Riff has also consistently proved that it’s just as confident and competent with classic styles. The distillery’s Single Barrel line, which is bottled at cask strength, serves more nuance and hits more flavor notes than similarly priced bottles from bigger distilleries — all during an era when craft American whiskey remains decidedly hit or miss. Average price: $52.
24. Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass Rye Whiskey
Prepare yourself for a rye unlike any other. For this release, Barrell Craft Spirits takes a blend of American (Indiana and Tennessee) and Canadian rye whiskeys, and finishes each component separately in Martinique Rhum Agricole casks, apricot brandy casks, and Madeira barrels. It’s hard to land upon what’s most surprising: that the influence of each barrel is unmistakable, that the complex combination somehow works, or that it remains identifiably rye in character. This esoteric experiment is a resounding success. Average price: $90.
23. BenRiach The Smoky Twelve Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Introduced in 2020, this Speyside single malt arrives with playful experimentation and sleek, straightforward packaging. Comprising peated and unpeated whiskies, the spirits age in bourbon, sherry, and Marsala wine casks. The influence of peat is approachably tame, landing like a subtle seasoning that complements its fruit and spice notes, as well as the various casks used for finishing. Average price: $68.
22. Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin
This is not the first gin that aims to deliver a sense of place, nor the only on this list. Yet, Caorunn notably succeeds in that each of its five unique highland botanicals shine on nose and palate without taking the gin too far from the classic London dry style. Juniper and co. continue to lead the charge, and are even elevated by the inclusion of things like heather and apples. Average price: $33.
21. Oban 14 Year Old West Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Though a single malt and not a blend, Oban 14 seems to capture a range of different Scotch styles in one coherent, enjoyable sipping experience. It offers rich, honeyed fruits with a slight tropical edge, and follows with a concentrated spray of seawater. Allow it to sit in glass or on the palate and you’ll soon enjoy a pleasant wisp of smoke. Average price: $89.
20. 1792 Single Barrel Bourbon
Rightly or not, whenever you approach a bottle of Buffalo Trace–produced or owned whiskey, there’s an added weight of expectation because of the fanfare the company receives. Yet, every time we sat down with 1792’s single barrel release this year, it not only delivered but exceeded expectations. Decadent, sweet, and with a little spice, this whiskey is quintessentially American but also serves layers of complex nuance. In other words, it’s a crowd pleaser. Average price: $49.
19. Glenglassaugh Revival Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Everyone loves a comeback — especially when it tastes this good. The name “Revival” is a nod to the Glenglassaugh distillery having sat idle for decades before its stills were finally fired up once more in 2008. Aged in red wine and bourbon barrels, and finished in sherry casks, this non-age-statement single malt sings with rich fruitiness, and coats the palate with a sweet kiss of butterscotch. Average price: $60.
18. Dudognon Réserve Grande Champagne Cognac
Where Cognac usually inspires expectations of concentrated dried fruits, tobacco leaves, and used oak, this release takes a completely different path. Produced in the Grand Champagne region, crisp orchard fruit, zesty citrus, and perfumed floral notes await in the glass. Oak is an afterthought, taking a back seat if not an entirely different mode of transport. Single malt drinkers will love this release. Average price: $47.
17. Junipero Gin
In a world and at a time when so many gin producers are focusing on new and intriguing botanicals, this expression quadruples down on the spirit’s hero ingredient. A loving tribute to juniper, the piney, peppery berries are the unmistakable stars of the show in this release, while notes of lemon and black pepper bring balance. Junipero proves that, even when it comes to gin, less can mean more. Average price: $31.
16. Ardbeg Corryvreckan Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Cask strength and heavily peated, there’s nothing subtle about this Islay single malt. Still, it’s surprising just how easy it is to get along with, even if you don’t typically go for cask strength releases with heavy doses of scorched earth. There’s a rich, maple syrup streak to its profile, and a punchy burst of fresh berries, all followed by expected and powerful peat. Sipping this single malt is like wrestling with a cuddly adolescent tiger that remains on its best behavior. Average price: $95.
15. Knob Creek 12 Year Old Bourbon
Regular bourbon drinkers know we needn’t put too much stock in age statements, and that we certainly shouldn’t equate them to quality. But in the modern landscape, a widely available 12-year-old release, which retails for closer to $50 than $100, feels pretty remarkable. The whiskey inside this bottle lives up to its billing. It is powerful and intense, and showcases a broad range of flavors, with chocolate, peanuts, and oak taking prominence. Average price: $68.
14. Tequila Ocho Reposado
At a time when tequila aficionados retain a laser focus on additives and “natural” flavorings, Tequila Ocho continues to highlight the unbridled joy of pure agave character across all of its expressions. In truth, any could have made this year’s list, but the reposado made the final cut for being the finest expression of that style we tasted in 2021. The short aging period has added the gentlest touch of sweet oak, while the floral, honeyed, savory charm of the base distillate continues to shine. Average price: $55.
13. Talisker 18 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Talisker made a splash in 2021 when it introduced (limited run) 30- and 43-year-old releases, and the distillery also offers the more regularly available Talisker 25, if it’s age statements you crave. Yet, we think fans of aged, peated single malt should look no further than Talisker 18. Because while it remains pricy (at $180), at this age the whisky hits the absolute sweet spot for peated Scotch. Smoky, fruity, complex, and with a never-ending finish, this is the pinnacle. Older than this, the whisky risks losing some of the peated notes, which do such a great job of invigorating the experience. Average price: $180.
12. Lemorton Selection Calvados Domfrontais
If you’ve been waiting patiently for a “wildcard” selection on the list, this is it. We could take the high ground and point out that Calvados in general remains criminally underrated, offering a lighter, more energetic alternative to Cognac, and displaying much more fresh fruit character. Generalizations aside, this bottle will match your most prized Scotch, bourbon, mezcal, or gin for complexity, and proves just as adept at cocktail hour as it does during sipping occasions. Add a splash to your next Martini, Old Fashioned, or Manhattan and you’ll see why we consider this Calvados our “secret weapon.” Average price: $43.
11. Frey Ranch Straight Rye Whiskey
A bonafide “grain to glass” producer, Frey Ranch is one of the most exciting distilleries in America right now. This 100 percent rye whiskey — notable in its own respect — isn’t just distilled, aged, and bottled at Frey Ranch, but the producer also grows all of the winter cereal that makes up the entirety of the mash bill. Of course, this would count for nothing were it not for the fact this rye is among the most thought-provoking, savory, and herbaceous drams on the market. Average price: $66.
10. François Voyer X.O. Grande Champagne Cognac
Cognac proved to be an impressive and competitive category during VinePair’s tastings this year. That this bottle would therefore emerge as our favorite says a lot about its quality and sheer enjoyability. Aged for 14 years — four years more than the required minimum — this X.O. delivers a range of profiles, from decadent and sweet to fruity, punchy, and full of life. It evolves both in glass and on the palate, leading to a bonafide sipping “experience.” Average price: $130.
9. Mezcal Vago Espadín By Joel Barriga
This is high-intensity, high-definition mezcal. Bottled at 50.3 percent ABV, it packs a punch from minute one, and quickly reveals more than overwhelming smoke. Tropical fruit and floral notes are elevated by its higher-than-average alcohol content, while scorched earth notes linger around the perimeter of the palate. That combination lengthens the finish and ensures this is a mezcal you can turn to for cocktails, highballs, or sipping occasions. Average price: $56.
8. Appleton Estate 15 Black River Casks Jamaica Rum
It’s hard to think of many other styles of spirit where a 15-year-old release can retail at this price point. But details such as price and age seem mundane and distracting when considering the quality of this rum, which combines a blend of column- and pot-still Jamaican distillates. With an inviting cast of fruity, woody, and spiced notes, this special sipping rum easily goes toe to toe with similarly aged Scotches, Cognacs, and bourbons. Average price: $65.
7. Crown Royal Noble Collection Rye Aged 16 Years
Our favorite rye whiskey of 2021 arrived from north of the border. And, yes, pedants might note that by virtue of being a Canadian rye whiskey, this release can contain almost 10 percent wine or another spirit in the blend, as long as it aged for two years in oak. Spend just a moment with this release and you’ll have no qualms about liquor manufacturing regulations, for this is a stunning, inviting rye. Kettle corn, violet, and candy aromas dazzle on the nose, while oaky complexity blends with sweet pepper spice on the palate. Those 16 years in barrel come to the fore on the lengthy finish, by which point you’ll be wondering: How on earth does this bottle retail for so cheap? Average price: $73.
6. Tears of Llorona Extra Añejo Tequila
While two other brands grab the lion’s share of the attention in the ultra-premium aged tequila landscape, Tears of Llorona flies relatively under the radar. Granted, it’s a little pricier, but this is an exceptional extra añejo. Aged in sherry, Scotch, and Cognac casks, it maintains a strong presence of vegetal-spiced cooked agave from beginning to finish. The influence of the three barrels mainly comes into play on the palate, providing richness, complexity, and a velvet texture. Tears of Llorona is among, if not the finest, sipping tequila right now. Average price: $250.
5. Fords London Dry Gin
One of the few — perhaps only — downsides of tasting dozens of gins side by side for annual roundups is that the lines can become blurred: Bottles stand out for straying off the beaten path and for the inclusion of unusual botanicals. While none can question its exceptional balance, Fords might get lost in that arena. But the main occasion for drinking gin is not sipping neat but mixing in cocktails, and that’s where Fords shows its true potential. Search as much as you like, you will be hard pressed to find another gin that proves so versatile, and so specifically tailored for drinks like the G&T, Martini, Last Word, and Corpse Reviver. Then there’s the price: Mind bogglingly good. Average price $25.
4. Old Forester The 117 Series ‘High Angels’ Share’ Bourbon Whisky
When Old Forester released the first expression of its 117 Series “High Angels’ Share” in March 2021, master taster Jackie Zykan became the first woman in the distillery’s history whose signature would feature on a bottle label. The whiskey inside the bottles of the first release was similarly momentous — pulled from a selection of barrels that had lost a higher volume than average to evaporation during the aging process. In the glass, that translates to immensely concentrated aromas, intensity, weight, and richness on the palate, and a world of ever-evolving flavors to savor. Now for the catch: Old Forester’s 117 Series is only available for purchase at the distillery, and this particular release has now sold out (though bottles are fetching eye-watering amounts online). Normally that would have disqualified such a bottle for inclusion on this list, but given how impressed we were by this release, and how confident we are in the continued quality of subsequent releases, it would have been a crime not to honor this fine work. Bravo, Jackie! Average price: $50 (MSRP).
3. El Tesoro Blanco Tequila
El Tesoro Blanco does many things, and it does them all superbly. First, it challenges the notion that unaged tequila is only for cocktails, and aged tequila is for sipping. Next, it delivers among the purest expressions of fermented and distilled agave on the planet, while also breaking through into a new realm of tasting notes seldom experienced in tequila. This blanco is simultaneously floral, fruity, savory, briny, and perfumed. It glides across the palate with energy and grace, and hangs around on the finish for longer than you can resist taking another sip. Drink in cocktails, neat, over ice — however you damn well please. This is simply remarkable tequila. Average price: $46.
2. Mortlach 20 Year Old Cowie’s Blue Seal Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Mortlach’s Speyside single malts, which are unusually unpeated and “2.81-times distilled,” have for decades been used by parent company Diageo as a blending component, notably in Johnnie Walker Blue. That the single malt is these days also available as a dedicated bottling is a gift for all Scotch lovers, especially those who enjoy a hefty influence of sherry-cask maturation. Violet and sweet berry aromas set a lively tone, hinting at the nuance that soon follows, but belying the power and energy also present on the palate. This is a special single malt — one that more than lives up to its price tag, and the kind of spirit that makes you wish more special occasions are forthcoming so you can steal another pour from the bottle. Our only qualm? The “Beast of Dufftown” moniker. There’s nothing wild or unruly about this whisky. Average price: $240.
1. Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series FAE 01 Bourbon Whisky
Introduced in 2019, the Wood Finishing Series builds upon a process Bill Samuels Jr. pioneered when creating Maker’s Mark 46. Designed to produce “Maker’s on steroids,” the maturation process sees fully mature cask-strength Maker’s Mark transferred into barrels that contain a unique combination of wooden staves. The barrels then rest in the distillery’s limestone cellar, where whiskey, cask, and staves have time to interact and develop intriguing flavors and aromas. While the combination of staves always remains the same for Maker’s 46, the Wood Finishing Series features a different composition each year to amplify a different aspect of the spirit’s flavor profile.
Let’s start by making one thing clear: No matter how gimmicky the process sounds, the influence is both clear and profound throughout. FAE 01 — the acronym standing for “fatty acid esters” — arrived as the first of two releases in 2021. The final profile, as master of maturation Jane Bowie has described it, tastes “just like a barrel warehouse smells.” And the flavors of both charred and raw wood, dried fruits, and tobacco leaves, follow an intoxicating bouquet of potpourri, earth, and spice aromas.
Maker’s Mark’s Wood Finishing Series lies among the most fascinating and genuinely innovative bourbons being produced right now. The inclusion of this bottle at No. 1 spot is not just a sign of its individual quality but recognition that the series as a whole should be up there with the most anticipated annual releases on any spirits lover’s radar. Average price: $65.
The above news was originally posted on vinepair.com