All of us will be glad to see the back of 2020, and at VinePair we wanted to go out with a bang. So it is with great pleasure that we publish our first-ever 50 Best Spirits of the Year, joining our annual beer and wine rankings.
This year delivered more occasions than most to stock our home bars. Whether to hone home bartending skills, batch cocktails for socially distanced meetups, or simply add color to our Groundhog Day-esque 2020 existence, spirits have been there every step of the way.
Bourbon continues to dominate on all fronts, from quality to value to sheer variation. It was a good year for aged spirits overall, which account for more than half of the bottles on this list. But those looking to discover their new favorite white spirits for cocktails, from Japanese gins to vodka that actually has character, will also find them on this list.
All the spirits on this list have been sampled and reviewed by VinePair’s tasting panel. After compiling an extensive list of contenders, we met for several rounds of responsible tastings (socially distanced six feet apart, outdoors), a few more rounds on Zoom for lengthy debates, and finally finished a list that we’re especially excited to publish for the first time.
Here are VinePair’s 50 Best Spirits of 2020, tasted and ranked.
This rye-based distillate proves that vodka can deliver distinct aromas and flavors. Toasted sourdough notes lead the nose, before a well-rounded palate that ends with a hint of rye spice. Average price: $29.
Elvelo’s higher-than-normal 44.5 percent alcohol content is no accident: This tequila was designed specifically with bartenders in mind. Its concentrated, savory character holds up in all manner of tequila-based cocktails. Whether batching Margaritas or sipping on Ranch Water, this should be your home-mixology house tequila. Average price: $30 (1-liter bottle).
A non-age-statement single malt from the Scottish Isle of Skye, Talisker Storm has a subtle nose but intense palate. Drenched in savory smoke, sweet malt, and brine, the whisky finishes with a distinct black pepper note that’s reminiscent of the (more expensive) Talisker 10. Perfect with oysters, this is an approachable intro to the realm of peated Scotch. Average price: $55.
Historic Cognac house Hardy boasts over 150 years of distilling experience, and its mastery of craft is easily detectable in this V.S.O.P. Sweet brown sugar, rich notes of plum and baked apple cinnamon are merely the beginning of this dessert-like Cognac’s pleasures. Silky on the palate, with the caramel-sweet character marrying with oaky earth, this expression has a warming sensation that soothes sip after sip, without ever cranking the heat (or sweet) too high. Like a spiced holiday punch or mulled wine enjoyed in a room full of friends, it’s comfort on the cusp of decadence. Average price: $48.
This Virginia single malt combines a blend of whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry, and Cuvée French red wine casks. Bearing much of the character of young Scotch on the nose, the palate strays slightly into bourbon territory, with notes of cocoa, caramel, and barrel spice, though without the sweet kiss of corn. After sampling this bottle, we’re excited to taste future, older releases. Average price: $72.
Distinctly brandy, though not as you may know it, Germain-Robin arrives in a sleek, minimalist bottle with a flashy glass closure. Distilled from California-grown Colombard grapes in traditional Pruhlo Charentais pot stills, this American brandy has a robust dried fruit core, textured with vanilla, toasted oak, and brown sugar. Average price: $65.
Don’t be fooled by this tequila’s sleek, modern bottle design — meaning, this is not simply a marketing ploy, and there’s serious liquor inside. With vegetal aromas, a faint hint of baking spices, and an invigorating spice that runs throughout, we love it mixed in Negronis in place of gin. Average price: $41.
Though single malt is more synonymous with Scotch, this whiskey from Ireland’s oldest distillery is a fine reminder of the Emerald Isle’s whiskey-making credentials. After 10 years in barrel, there’s no shortage of aged character, but fresh fruit notes and a relatively low ABV keep things spritely from start to finish. Average price: $40.
Another non-age-statement single malt, Ardbeg maintains its reputation as offering some of the peatiest drams on the planet. The words “Treacle. Bacon. Bonfires.” adorn the label, and there’s hardly a better way to sum up this whisky. But beneath the blanket of smoke, there’s character to be found, with notes of candied orange peel and dark chocolate standing out the most. (By the way, Americans, “treacle” means molasses.) Average price: $83.
Highclere Castle is best known as the main location of the historical British drama “Downtown Abbey.” In years to come, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that reputation change because of its association with this wonderful gin. It’s an archetypal London Dry, with distinct notes of juniper, rosemary, and black pepper. Compared with mass-market offerings, it offers extra layers, intrigue, and nuance. Average price: $38.