Del Maguey mezcal at the Independent Spirits Expo
  • Julia Thiel
  • Del Maguey mezcal at the Independent Spirits Expo

Writing about food and drink means I get to try a lot of good things; and even more mediocre things; and once in a while, something truly terrible. (Whiskey mixed with peach liqueur and bacon-infused bourbon come to mind.) While the awful stuff can be kind of fun to write about, there’s really no need to dwell on it, so below are brief notes on a few of my favorite drinks of the year. It’s not comprehensive, since I don’t take notes on everything I drink—though I’ve been trying harder since I started writing a weekly blog post about booze. I’ve also tried not to include stuff that’s impossible to find (though I haven’t checked the current availability of anything on this list, so who knows).


Pipeworks, Hey Careful Man, There’s a Beverage Here: The first white stout I’ve ever seen—or heard of—is brewed with cacao, coffee, and vanilla, and looks nothing like an imperial stout. It smells like coffee, but when you taste it the coffee slips into the background; I get sweet coconut and milk chocolate instead. It’s not as heavy as most stouts, which makes it dangerously easy to drink at 10.5 percent ABV.

Ten Ninety, Imperial Witbier and Imperial Porter: I first tried Ten Ninety’s high-gravity beers at the Glunz Expo this spring, and ever since then I’ve been seeking them out at beer tastings (their beers are available on tap in some Chicago bars, but I haven’t come across them yet). My favorite is the imperial porter: brewed with cayenne pepper and pomegranate juice, it’s tart, spicy, and deeply chocolatey. But close behind is the imperial witbier, light but complex, with a rich mouthfeel and flavors of lemon zest and orange peel.

Furthermore, Knot Stock: An American pale ale cold-infused with cracked black pepper, it’s fairly hoppy, with some malty sweetness and a pepperiness that complements the hops instead of intensifying them. The spicy finish is a combination of hops and pepper, not overwhelming at all.

New Belgium coconut curry hefeweizen

New Belgium, Coconut Curry Hefeweizen: Part of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series, this is brewed with cinnamon, coriander, kaffir lime, cayenne, and fenugreek. The first time I tasted it, at the Oak Park Micro Brew Review, the guy pouring it described its flavor as “explosive” to the person in line in front of me—and then the new keg he tapped actually exploded on me when he tried to pour it. Anyway, it’s a pretty intense beer: the creamy coconut and intense spices come through first, and initially mask the distinct hefeweizen flavor. It’s there, though: after several seconds I began to taste a little bit of fruitiness, followed by ripe banana, which together with the spices creates a banana-bread flavor on the finish. It takes a few seconds for the heat to kick in. I’ve tasted this both on tap and from the bottle, and I prefer the draft version, which is a little less overwhelming in flavor, probably because it doesn’t have bits of spice-infused coconut cream floating in it.

Deschutes, Inversion IPA: Though Inversion is made with six varieties of hops and weighs in at 80 IBUs, it’s not overwhelmingly bitter. The hops are very present, but the biscuity maltiness balances out the subtle piney, citrusy bitterness nicely. When the bitterness really kicks in on the finish, though, it lingers. You could almost pretend this is hoppy amber ale rather than an IPA. Either way, it’s a beautifully complex beer.


Del Maguey mezcal: Each mezcal from Del Maguey is made in a single village in Oaxaca, and the various microclimates and soils in which the agave plants grow affect the taste of the finished mezcal tremendously. Among my favorites was Vida, which was smoky, fruity, and very complex—and at $40, it’s their least expensive bottle. Another was Pechuga, made with wild apples, plums, plantains, pineapples, almonds, and white rice; a chicken breast is suspended in the still during distillation. It’s fruity, slightly salty, and yes, tastes a little like chicken.

Pinckney Bend spirits

Pinckney Bend Distillery gin and tonic: Located in New Haven, Missouri, this distillery had one of the best gins I tried at the Independent Spirits Expo. What really stood out to me, though, was the tonic syrup that the distillery makes. Ralph Haynes, one of the founders of Pinckney Bend, claims that it’s the only gin on the planet that has a tonic made specifically to match its flavor profile. The syrup is made with sugar, more than a dozen botanicals, dessicated lemon peel, and essence of quinine. Haynes mixed equal parts gin and syrup and added soda water to make the best gin and tonic I’ve had in a while.

The People’s Old-Fashioned: I tasted this experimental cocktail by Robert Haynes and Henry Prendergast when I was working on a story about their new bar, Analogue (which has since opened). It’s a traditional old-fashioned, except that the whiskey (Four Roses Single Barrel) was infused with genmaicha tea (green tea with roasted brown rice), giving it a nutty, toasted, popcornlike flavor that was both entirely unexpected and entirely appropriate. There’s nothing that unusual about the cocktail, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I have no idea whether it’s on the menu at Analogue, but if there’s enough interest the owners might be persuaded to add it.

Ada St, Fistful of Dollars: Old Heaven Hill bourbon, Luxardo Amaro, mole bitters, mezcal mist, and orange flower water. It’s served chilled in a stemless wine glass, a shape that helps concentrate the intense scent—I sat there just smelling it for a minute or two, trying to sort out everything that was going on. A little smokiness comes through from the mezcal mist, some cocoa from the mole bitters. It tastes a lot like it smells, but more so; I kept being reminded of Mexican hot chocolate, and could swear I detected a little cinnamon (but maybe I just associate that with the other flavors). The drink was velvety—a texture as much as a taste—but not sweet, the chocolate flavor subtle but somehow omnipresent, developing more as the drink warmed up.


Vander Mill Totally Roasted cider

Vander Mill, Totally Roasted: This cider, brewed with cinnamon-roasted pecans and whole vanilla beans, is light but incredibly complex, with flavors so subtle they’re hard to pin down. I could taste nuttiness and a faint spiciness, though I’d have been hard-pressed to identify the flavors as pecan and cinnamon if I hadn’t known ahead of time what they were. The vanilla is more obvious, and there’s a very slight smokiness and an oaky finish (probably from the vanilla). This cider is now available in cans as well as large-format bottles.

Virtue Cider, the Mitten: I’m a fan of most of Virtue’s ciders, but this is my favorite of the lot. Aged in bourbon barrels and then blended with fresh cider and apple juice, it’s clean and bright, the barrel flavor subtle: the cider tastes a lot like a sweet, tart apple.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Wednesdays.