From hemp-infused vodka to whiskey finished with Honey Locust, there were ample interesting products at the 2016 Wines & Spirits Wholesalers of America Conference (WSWA). The annual conference is opportunity for producers and importers to show off their newest releases for the distributors who provide product for retail stores and bars. Here are the 12 products that most grabbed our attention as we perused the vendor booths and suites this past week during the multi-day conference at Caesar’s in Las Vegas:
FitVine — Healthier Wine
Take one look at the FitVine logo and you know exactly what this brand is about. A muscular runner is mid-stride, holding a grape cluster in one hand and a wine glass to his nose with the other. FitVine produces wines with no residual sugar, sulfates, additives or chemicals, using grapes that are pesticide-free. “We crush grapes, you crush life,” explains the brand’s tagline.
You might think that the brand sacrifices flavor for its health focus. But its line of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were all tasty, the type of solid wines you could drink at the end of every day. They retail for $14-$15 per 750-ml. bottle, except the Pinot Noir, which is $19. FitVine launched a year-and-a-half ago and is now in 44 states and moving into New England. It just signed on with Whole Foods in nine states.
WhistlePig 15-Year-Old — Rye Finished in Vermont Oak
The premium rye brand will soon launch a new permanent line extension: their 15-Year-Old Straight Rye Whiskey. This spirit is more like WhistlePig’s 10-Year-Old in being a big bold rye, unlike the 12-Year-Old, which is on the sweeter, softer side, like cognac. The 15YO is finished in Vermont oak casks made from trees grown on WhistlePig’s new 1,200-acre farm.
The 15YO is 92 proof and retails for $199 per 750-ml. bottle. Its topper is handmade of pewter. This follows the launch late last year of the 12YO “Old World,” which is aged in European Sauternes, Madeira and Port wine casks, and retails for $124 per 750-ml. bottle.
Sierra Norte — Mexican Corn Whiskey
Mostly known for making mezcal, the Mexican state of Oaxaca is now home to an emerging whiskey industry. This includes Sierra Norte, a brand that makes Mexican whiskey named after the colors of the heritage corn used in production: Black, White, Red, and Yellow.
WSWA2016 was the first public presentation of Sierra Norte. Aging occurred in ex-red wine French Oak casks. Sierra Norte retails for $50-$55 per 750-ml. bottle, with the colors being pricer than the white. They tasted sweetly of their different corns, like how Hudson Whiskey of New York tastes of its heirloom corn.
Crafted Cocktails Shrubs — Colonial-Era Cocktail Enhancers
Crafted Cocktails already has a self-named line of pre-made mixed drinks. The company is doing another solid for busy mixologists by launching four “shrubs,” made of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. These include pineapple, ginger, Asian pear, and blackberry. Each is strong in flavor, perfect for the bartender who wants to batch an aspect of their cocktails to save time and energy.
They are 20 calories, gluten-free, and retail for $12.99 per 16-ounce bottle. Shrubs date back to Colonial times, as a way of preserving fruit. Since many top-tier cocktail bars make their own shrubs, Crafted Cocktails founder Felicia Vieira sees her newest product being more for mid-tier bars looking to speed up their beverage program while adding additional levels of taste and quality.
Moutai — The Most-Valuable Alcohol Brand
If the Chinese spirit Baijiu is going to make its mark in America, then why not try its top brand: Moutai. Baijiu is distilled from sorghum and other grains, and drank in celebration across China. And with China being a rather large country, Baijiu is technically the world’s most-drank spirit, with Moutai being the world’s most valuable alcohol brand.
The Baijius being released now in America tend to be on the sweeter side to match our palates. Not Moutai. This is the real deal. It tastes heavily of sorghum and comes in ceramic bottles that look like they should contain motor oil or spray paint. But the brand, founded in the 17th century, does not intend to change packaging or sweeten the product for Americans, preferring instead to uphold ancient Chinese traditions.
The Great Australian Wine Company — Australian Wines
Tony Gray of this importing company told me that the American perception of Australian wine as being cheap fruit bombs is officially dead and buried. This former stigma owned in large part to the enormous success in the U.S. of Yellow Tail. “God bless them for bringing our category so much into the American market,” Clark said. “What we have now is a lot of people graduating out of Yellow Tail and trading up in Australian wine.”
This includes the dry, cool-climate wines from top regions like Adelaide Hills, Mount Benson and Coonawarra. The latter is known as Australia’s best producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, and also makes a fine Pinot Noir. All three of these southern, maritime regions should be on your radar when looking for the best of Australian wines.
Cleveland Underground — Whiskeys With Unusual Finishes
The award for most-creative whiskey at WSWA goes to Cleveland Whiskey for their Underground line. These new bourbons were finished with Black Cherry, Hickory, Apple, or Honey Locust. As you can imagine, this imparts flavors upon the spirits unlike much else in the whiskey world.
Why don’t more brands finish this way? As explained Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey founder, barrels made of such woods would not hold up to the typical production methods of finishing. So he uses a pressurizing system wherein he places woods within the whiskey, and the spirit absorbs these unusual flavors. Next, Lix plans to release bourbons finished with Sugar Maple, Pistachio, Persimmon, and Mesquite. All are well worth a try for their uniqueness.
Sarego Imports — Wines of Moldova
Moldova is an Eastern European country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. Located on the 47th parallel — the same as Bordeaux — Moldova enjoys an ideal winemaking climate: ample sunshine, long summers and no extreme weather. The country features vineyards along rolling hills and produces fine wines defined by their dryness, minerality and balanced acidity.
Now the bad news: Moldova’s wine industry took a significant hit five years ago. A full 80% of the country’s wine imports had been going to Russia. Then Vladimir Putin hit Moldova with trade sanctions in 2011 in retaliation for the country’s support of western (read: American) ideals. Moldovian winemakers are now looking to expand more into America. The Sarego Imports lineup included a number of wines priced between $10-$20 per 750-ml. bottle. There’s value to be had here.
Vavoom Vodka — Eye-Catching Packaging
As is typical are at expos, a bounty of beautiful women showed off products at vendor booths throughout WSWA. And these women also took the form of the products themselves.
Vavoom Vodka comes in a busty bottle and retails for $48 per 750-ml unit. It’s intended for clubs and bars, said brand rep Luke Battilano, or “the guy who wants it in his bar at home because it looks cool.” Battilano said Vavoom is more typically poured as a cocktail ingredient than as a sipper.
First Class Vodka — Sipping Vodka
FCV wants to reach consumers on both ends of the price spectrum. Their Gold Vodka retails for $50 per 750-ml. bottle and is intended for sipping, whereas their Black and Coconut vodkas have a SRP of $18.
Brand Rep Courtney Scott said that the brand’s Gold Vodka is positioned for the high-end urban market, where the taste for premium spirits continues to grow.
Perfectomundo — Premium Tequila
There was plenty of premium tequila on display, including the fast-rising brand Alacran, Tragos Amargos Tequila, and La Gran Señora Tequila, which was in development by Mexican music star Jenni Rivera at the time of her sudden death.
The tequila craze continued with Perfectomundo, which retails for $39/$49/$80 for its Platinum (Blanco), Reposado, and Extra Añejo.
The latter is aged in a blend of three oak barrels: French, American, and slightly used ex-bourbon. The reposado rests within large white oak barrels called pipons. The brand is co-owned by star DJ Paul Oakenfold, continuing the trend of celebrities releasing tequila lines.
Said Perfectomundo co-founder Howard Balaban, “Premium tequila is taking off like crazy. People are getting over that ‘Jose Cuervo headache’ they had from that one bad night and are now getting into the premium stuff. And they’re realizing that tequila is the only upper in the alcohol market.”
Adirondack Distilling Company 601 Bourbon — Whiskey Value
This was a classically good bourbon — sweet, then smooth and complex upon the palate, before a spicy finish — and when I asked for the suggested retail price I expected $55-$65. When I heard $20 I nearly spit out the whiskey in surprise. Seriously.
The secret is that this new bourbon is still self-distributed by the distiller, and only throughout New York and Connecticut. But they did not believe that obtaining official distribution would significantly increase the cost. If so, this is one of the best values I’ve tasted in whiskey in some time.
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz.