Booze | December 31, 2020 7:44 am

The Most Unusual and Interesting Spirits We Tried in 2020

Including hemp vodka, venison whiskey and spirits that defy the concept of time

Weirdest booze of 2020
Photo illustration by Mike Falco

Sometimes we get excited for a whiskey that ages in a different type of barrel (“Ooh, this used to hold Port wine!”). And then there times when we turn our palates toward spirits that take bigger chances. Like a barreled spirit that uses science to defy the process of aging (all with some financial backing from a Yankees baseball legend). Or vodka, which can be made from pretty much anything, really taking advantage of its loose definition and embracing base ingredients like hemp.

And yes, whiskey, but … venison flavored.

Not everything interesting or strange this year was good. Some was more discussion-worthy than quality, or maybe just a fun proof of concept. But there were also some spirit releases that went well beyond the norm and still excelled.

Below, a few strange (and strangely wonderful) booze releases of 2020:

FEW Spirits
FEW Spirits

Alice In Chains Helped Craft a Whiskey, and It Surprisingly Rocked

All Secrets Known by the Illinois-based FEW Spirits — in collaboration with the Seattle grunge legends — is a high-rye bourbon that’s spent an extra six months finished in ex-tequila barrels. Yes, we did just mock the “finished in a unique barrel” trope, but this was legitimately something we’d never considered before. The result, a spicy bourbon with the mouthfeel and distinct sweetness of agave, was surprisingly copacetic.

Tamworth Distilling
Tamworth Distilling

Slow-Smoked Venison Whiskey Is a Thing

A few years back, Tamworth Distilling launched a beaver sac spirit — a two-year bourbon with a bit of (FDA-approved) castoreum for “natural flavoring.” We tried it, and, well, we stopped there. Undeterred, the distillery recently launched The Deerslayer, a 3-year old white wheat whiskey distilled with “slow-smoked red deer venison and seasonal ingredients like porcini mushrooms, cranberries, juniper berries, and green peppercorns.” This one, we’re game to try.

Bespoken Spirits
Bespoken Spirits

A Derek Jeter-Backed Spirits Company Matures Whiskey in Days

Bespoken Spirits takes what is now a multi-year process in aging whiskey, rum or any other spirit (or liquid that needs barrel aging), and instead recreates the exact result you want in just days through the use of a UFO-shaped device called an ACTivation machine. Their behind-the-scenes work with other distilleries seems promising; their own stuff tasted a bit, well, young and immature (though admittedly, like a whiskey).

Crystal Head Onyx
Crystal Head

Vodka Is Getting … Interesting?

This year alone we tried an agave-based vodka (Crystal Head Onyx), a hemp-infused vodka (Humboldt’s Finest) and a vodka mixed with malted rye spirit (Belvedere Heritage 176). All three were legitimately flavorful and (surprise!) great, and could revitalize some of your more basic vodka-based cocktails. Admittedly, Humboldt’s was a bit, um, 420-friendly on the nose, but more like a nice gin on the palate.

Westland
Westland

Westland Is Rebuilding American Whiskey From the Ground Up

The Seattle distillery Westland’s new Outpost range focuses on never-before-used barrels and grains. In particular, the Garryana release relies on a barrel crafted from a tree native to the Pacific Northwest — Garry Oak, which is extremely hard to cultivate and only grows in the wild (the distillery only sources the wood from fallen trees).