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From Bourbon to Tequila: The 13 Best Spirits Right Now

The distiller's art grows ever more interesting with new experiments in cask type, flavor profiles and longer aging.

best of the best spirits illustration Illustration by Mathilde Crétier

The Big Idea: A Rise in Rarities

Once, the challenge facing every distillery was consistency: how to create a Macallan 18 or a Pappy 23 that tasted like every other Macallan 18 or Pappy 23, no matter the vagaries of weather or warehousing. That’s now passé. Many distillers saw a need to attract new audiences and responded with relish, cask-aging whiskeys and tequilas—yes, now tequilas—for longer than ever, and we’re just now experiencing the exceptional results.

Only a few barrels can ever really go the long haul, and because the liquid evaporates over time, smaller and smaller quantities remain the more a spirit is aged. Of some ultimate rarities—say, a Dalmore 60—there might be just enough to produce a few decanters.

Such unique beauties seem destined to enter the auction market, where scarce bottles continue to dominate. But there are signs of slowing. At several recent Zachys auctions, a 45 Year Old Glenlivet with a top estimate of $2,800 failed to bring a single bid, and a two-bottle set of Ardbeg Auriverdes valued at $2,000 to $3,000 also received a pass. (Macallan, however, continues to command high prices: At one of the Zachys auctions, a bottle of Macallan 1982 Gran Reserva commanded well above predicted prices at $1,700.)

For the real excitement, turn to the rickhouse instead of the auction house. In addition to extensive time in cask, spirits are increasingly put into unique finishing vessels at distillers across genres, with rum and tequila now finished in bourbon-seasoned casks, scotch finished in Champagne or rum casks, bourbon in former tawny port barrels and Irish whiskey in hard-to-get Mizunara oak—all to create one-off editions.

And these sorts of special releases are gaining steam. Glenmorangie has seized the zeitgeist with its dedicated test lab called the Lighthouse—a barn filled with shiny new copper stills and mash tuns made for small batches—as the Scotch Whisky Association just relaxed the rules last year about what kinds of casks distillers can use to age (not just finish) their spirits. After years of sherry- and bourbon-seasoned casks dominating the lengthy aging process, this radical shift has transformed once hidebound Scotland into the Wild West of the whisky world. In response, expect distillers around the globe to unleash their full imaginations, barrels blazing.