The World Cup is nearing its end—as is 2022. In service of such, we’re taking a moment to memorialize the best booze of the year. What does liquor have in common with soccer, you may ask? Not a whole lot if you’re watching it live in Qatar. But under usual circumstances, well-crafted spirit, just like the Beautiful Game, is a truly global phenomenon.
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And just as it’s been a particularly big year for soccer, it’s been for spirits, too, with a plethora of new releases kicking around bottle shops as of late. Over the past 12 months, I sipped my way through more than 150 expressions hailing from roughly 40 different countries. For those keeping score, that’s eight more entries than the total number of national teams qualifying for the World Cup.
For fans of high-end whiskeys, rums, vodkas, gins and more, there’s almost too much to cheer; according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, luxury brands increased by 23% in Q2 over that same quarter of 2021.
All this is to say, the field is increasingly crowded. Upon careful deliberation and review, I’ve managed to whittle it down to one-on-one matchups for every primary category of spirit, including some zero-proof entrants. But in each draw, it’s up to you to decide which side walks away with the trophy. Let’s get the ball rolling.…
Best Traditional Whiskey of 2022
UK versus USA
Last Drop Glenturret 1977 single malt Scotch
The Last Drop is an independent bottler specializing in rare, often obscure stocks of extra-matured liquids that stand up to the test of time. Its 27th release is a case in point: a 44-year-old single malt sourced from Glenturret, in the Highlands of Scotland, retailing for about $5,000 a bottle. Aged entirely in ex-sherry cooperage, the liquid remains vibrant after all these years. It’s rich in texture and brimming with ripened stone fruit. Peach, plum and apricot all parade triumphantly across the palate.
King of Kentucky 18-Year-Old bourbon
This annual single barrel release from Brown-Forman was first released in 2018 and has already blossomed into a cult sensation. The recipe is clear: delicious juice in supremely limited supply. This year’s iteration adds 130.3-proof fuel to that fire. Only 250 bottles of the cask-strength creation were brought to market, exclusively in Kentucky. It’s assertive yet creamy on the tongue, and finishes in a blaze of pecan pie glory. Although it initially retailed at $350, it’s now selling for as much as $10,000 on secondary markets. A slightly more attainable 15-year variation offers many of the same tasting notes for about a quarter of the price.
Best New World Whisky of 2022
Japan versus Denmark
Fuji 30-Year single grain Japanese whisky
Japanese whisky is commanding tons of attention these days, but the focus is fixed steadily on single malts and blends. Spicing up things is this single grain outlier from the foothills of Mt. Fuji, released initially in 2020 and making a fresh reappearance this year. (Like single malts, the “single” here refers to its being made at a single distillery, but it can actually be made from multiple grains.) The Fuji is crafted predominantly from corn and rested in ex-bourbon barrels for at least three decades, with some part of the blend almost four. Its medium body offers approachable hints of honey and molasses—overtures to American whiskey (it even mimics the spelling on its label) but subdued by subtlety and elegance. Look for this one on shelves at roughly $3,000 a bottle, a veritable steal compared to its similarly aged single malt counterparts.
Stauning El Clásico rye whisky
If you’re seeking something unexpected, look no further. This $90 Danish rye from the western edge of Jutland is aged for three years in American oak before undergoing an additional yearlong finish in ex-vermouth casks from Spain. Emerging from the barrel, it noses with spiced orchard fruit and drinks like an especially dry Manhattan. Cinnamon, nutmeg and citrus zest are the stars of the show.
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Best Gin of 2022
Kenya versus Australia
Procera Green Dot gin
Whereas most gins on the market today are made using dried juniper, this Nairobi-based distillery relies on fresh berries from the native Juniperus procera. Its 94-proof Green Dot ($120) incorporates all parts of the tree including the foliage and bark. The resulting liquid offers a pine-forward nose, typical to the category, but it warms the mouth with earthiness and a tickle of umami on the finish. It exists as that rarest of breeds: a sipping gin. Presented in a mouth-blown decanter of recycled glass, this gin exudes uniqueness inside and out.
Three Cuts Distiller’s Release Bold Exotic gin
The first Tasmanian gin to enter US markets is a floral roar thanks to the outsize presence of hibiscus, rose hips and rose petals. It’s all layered atop a grape spirit base, in stark contrast to the grain-derived base more typical to gin production. This difference gives the botanicals a smoother glide across the palate—a rounded mouthfeel, which slides away softly in shades of cardamom and coriander. An ideal foundation for an elevated gin and tonic.
Best Vodka of 2022
UK versus Greece
X Muse vodka
This barley-based vodka (pronounced “tenth muse”) retails for about $72 and is actually two vodkas blended into one, like a whisky. Each is distilled separately from its respective strain of Scottish heritage grain and then unified in precise measure to form a liquid that is subtle but never neutral. In the nose you’ll detect pear and green apples—both of which carry through onto the tongue, accompanied by fresh cracked black pepper. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that vodka ought to be odorless and flavorless, again.
Kástra Elión vodka
A vodka distilled from hand-harvested Greek olives under the shadows of an eponymous castle in Nafpaktos might seem a bit gimmicky to some. If only the $50-a-bottle result were not so singularly sensational. There is a pleasing imprint of salinity and citrus to the taste—the sort that lends itself effortlessly to a dirty martini—but what really stands out is the creaminess of the mouthfeel here.
Best Rum of 2022
Jamaica versus Dominican Republic
Papalin Jamaica 7 Years Old rum
This assertive banana-bomb from esteemed independent bottler Velier marks a melodious merger of two legendary producers from opposite ends of the Caribbean island. High-ester rum from Hampden and Worthy Park were pot-distilled and matured in their respective distilleries and warehouses before being combined into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, at about $60 a bottle. Ripened tropical fruit is on full display, and yet a thoughtful balance to the blend precludes the finish from overplaying its funk.
Andrés Brugal rum
This ruby-hued Dominican cane spirit is shaped by a double aging process, which involves both bourbon casks and oloroso sherry butts. It sings an aria in dark chocolate, coffee and clove—a drink that pairs as naturally against a crème brûlée as it does with a Macanudo. Only 50 crystal decanters of the liquid arrived on US shores this autumn, each one priced at $2,800. For any fan of ultra-premium rum, this is one worth obtaining for your top shelf.
Best Brandy of 2022
France versus Peru
Pierre Frapin Cuvée Rabelais cognac
The Frapin family has been crafting cognac in the Charente Valley since the 13th century. Today their estate consists of 600 acres worth of vines in the grande Champagne cru. Eau-de-vie distilled from this region is especially well-suited for lengthy aging, as this collectible $13,000 release convincingly demonstrates. It contains liquids that are 100 years old, and yet the XO exerts a spry vitality, pirouetting across the tongue with bright candied orange and stewed apricot. The mahogany liquid decants gracefully from a gold-necked vessel, crafted by the oldest glass manufacturer in France, Cristallerie Saint-Louis.
Suyo Pisco No. 1
Newcomer Suyo is working with small-scale Peruvian pisco producers to highlight the national spirit on a batch-by-batch basis. Its first offering is distilled wholly from Quebranta grapes and rested for a full year in nonreactive holding tanks. It’s big and bright with Bartlett pear aromatics and retails for about $50 a bottle. A fair bit of that fruit follows through into the sip, though it eventually evolves into tart and tangy gummy candy by the time it hits the back of the palate. After the sip, a slight hint of sandalwood emerges. It’s quite the complex ride for a brandy devoid of any oak influence, as is mandated by Peruvian pisco regulations.
Best Agave Spirit of 2022
Editor’s note: Because agave is mostly endemic to Mexico, regional differences in production and raw material are where taste and quality come into play. Here, Oaxaca versus JaliscoIlegal 7 Year Añejo mezcal Barrel aging isn’t a common practice among modern mezcal producers. But the latest limited release from Ilegal ($175) might persuade more of them to consider the cask. To make it, the palenque (distillery) in Tlacolula took its herbal-forward agave spirit and matured it for seven years in French oak—35 barrels’ worth of liquid in total. It’s woven with threads of roasted pineapple and chocolate-covered fig, and maintains a vegetal, eucalyptus-like undertone at its core.
Celosa Rose tequila
The latest entry into the suddenly crowded realm of pink-tinged, wine barrel-matured tequila enjoys a distinct competitive advantage. A proprietary blending technique fuses agave spirit of various ages prior to a charcoal filtration. The liquid is essentially a cristalino before enjoying a final resting in French oak formerly filled with Napa Valley red wine, which imparts a cherry top note to its nose, crushed red berry fruit upon the palate and the hallmark rosé hue to its body. Capping the $50 bottle is a chunk of Mexican marble.
Best Digestif of 2022
Portugal versus Iceland
Sandeman Old Tawny Porto 50 Years port
Port—perhaps the most famous of fortified wines—may be a contentious inclusion on a list of best spirits, but with a shelf-stable 20% ABV, this one will sit on your liquor cart for countless months alongside rum, brandy and whiskey without oxidizing or evolving in flavor. Plus, this rich-yet-rounded, $450 blend of wines ranging from 40 to 70 years in age is an eminently complex and delicious digestif. Swirl it in a snifter to discover cedar and cinnamon aromatics, then let it wash across the tongue with apricot jam drizzled in balsamic glaze. The Sandeman quinta intends to release roughly 1,000 bottles of its elder statesman each year.
Lagoon Bay orange bitter
If you’ve often bemoaned the lack of bright blue modifiers along the back bar, the fine folks of Iceland are here to quell your concerns. But don’t let appearances fool you. This turquoise-tinged liqueur—meant to evoke the country’s iconic geothermal spa—is actually orange-flavored like its curaçao cousin, but bitter like an amaro. In addition to the citrus at its core, the liquid is macerated with a litany of herbaceous additives and cut down with naturally alkaline water on the Reykjanes Peninsula. You’re left with an accessibly sweet post- or pre-dinner tipple that actually outperforms (and out-Instagrams) Aperol in spritz form with half the sugar.
Best Nonalcoholic Spirit of 2022
Italy versus USA
Martini & Rossi Floreale
The biggest name in Italian vermouth recently introduced this $20 contender featuring all of the aperitivo with none of the alcohol. To preserve the signature characteristics of its dry bianco vermouth, a bona fide wine base is stripped of its ABV and then infused with the same batch of botanicals, including artemisia and Roman chamomile. It’s bitter but not astringent, floral but not cloying. And it fits nicely alongside an upmarket tonic, on ice.
Pathfinder Hemp & Root
There’s so much to love about this nonalcoholic amaro that’s distilled from hemp. For one, it drinks shockingly similar to its alcoholic counterparts, splitting the difference between Campari and Averna. Dank and piney, it eagerly reveals a Pacific Northwestern provenance—elements that are easily amplified in the presence of soda water and ice. The $40 bottle’s cheeky apothecary-inspired labeling makes it a fun conversation starter when placed prominently atop the home bar. And because it’s nonalcoholic, you can order it anywhere in the country.