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October's 10 Awesome Bottles: Craft Soju, Tamarind Cordial, and More!

Craft soju, lightbulb en rama sherry, honey water and more!

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Nick Solares

September was about remixed matcha and almond grappa. This month features a long-overdue craft soju, seasonal pumpkin booze, and more! Below, 10 excellent packaged drinks—both with alcohol and without—that are worth seeking out.


All photos by Nick Solares

All photos by Nick Solares.

1) Yobo Soju ($34/750ml): The last time you knocked back soju was probably during a late night Korean barbecue romp, the bracingly harsh liquor swiping your palate clean of kimchi and beef. With a vodka meets sake flavor, soju is the wildly popular South Korean spirit, usually about 20 percent ABV, distilled from grains, sweet potato or even tapioca. Most Korean restaurants, whether in New York or Los Angeles, stock the ubiquitous green label, aka "cheap hell in a bottle." But that's not to say high-end soju brands don't exist. They do, but most are produced in small batches and don't make it overseas to the U.S. (save for Hwayo). Enter Yobu Soju, the first ever grape-distilled, domestically-produced soju, clocking at 23 percent ABV and made up in New York's Finger Lakes region from local grapes, yeast and Finger Lakes water. This pure, silky, and clean-tasting spirit, with faint fruit flavors, contains no added sweeteners like many lower tier brands. Founders/couple James Kumm (owner of NYC's Landmark Wines) and Carolyn Kim noticed Manhattan's growing breed of innovative Korean eateries, yet realized the absence of a quality Korean spirit on par with such food. Explains Kumm "...we wanted something with more nuance and elegance." Yobo soft launched this month at a couple local restaurants (Oiji, Hanjan) and should be widely available soon.

2) Humm Kombucha ($3-4.50/12oz.): There's more than enough fermented tea kombucha on the market these days. In fact, enough so that certain bottles stick out amongst the crop. One such better brew brand is Bend, Oregon-based Humm Kombucha, a five-year-old company founded by Michelle Mitchell and Jamie Danek that's continuing to expand its nationwide spread. These modestly sweetened, naturally carbonated drinks pack healthy probiotics and B vitamins, and come in fun flavors like coconut-lime, apple sass and blueberry-mint.

3) Great Lakes Distillery, Pumpkin Spirit ($44/750ml): Produced for the last eight years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Great Lakes Distillery's Pumpkin Spirit is a seasonal, small-batch special of which this year just 3,060 bottles were made. Distilled using Pumpkin Lager from nearby Lakefront Brewery, the 45 percent ABV liquor is aged for up to 10 months (though it depends on the batch) in a blend of barrels previously housing rum and rye. While the Pumpkin Spirit would make sense in a Pumpkin Old Fashioned, Minneapolis' Spoon and Stable builds a Pumpkin Julep. Reminiscent of an eau de vie, expect a warm spirit with a hint of pumpkin on the finish.

4) Tempus Fugit, Gran Classico Bitter ($33/750ml): It's a shame that, in 2006, beloved Negroni component Campari changed up its ancient recipe, adding artificial red color in place of carmine dye (naturally made from red beetles). But the good news is that Tempus Fugita company which revives lost spirits and bitters from pre-Prohibition timesmakes an excellent, naturally burgundy-hued aperitif liqueur perfect to stand in any Negroni. Or classic Spritz recipe, too. Gran Classico's recipe is inspired by, as it reads on the label, "... the original Italian Bitter of Turin recipe dating from 1864," and derives its bittersweet flavor from a blend of 25 botanicals. This viscous, 28 percent ABV drink tastes of caramelized candied cherries, with bitter herbals notes on the back palate.

5) Eléctrico Fino, 3 Fase ($36/750ml): The light bulb isn't totally random. Bodegas Toro Albalá—a solid old bodega with reliable wines from the Montilla-Moriles D.O., about two and half hours north east of Jerez, Spain—is, in fact, situated in an old electric factory. Hence the name "Eléctrico" fino. And while this Pedro Ximénez-based fino sherry has been sold in Spain for years, it only hit the U.S. this past August, light bulb bottle and all. Note, this fino is an "en rama" or "raw" sherry, meaning that it's only lightly filtered, yielding a cloudy, more funky, and less stable beverage (since there's still flor in the bottle). Expect notes of lemony citrus, yeast, and nice acidity.

6) Singani 63 ($29/750ml): When director Steven Soderbergh traveled to Boliva in 2007 to shoot Che, he found himself, on a near-nightly basis, imbibing Boliva's national spirit, Singani. Relatively unknown in the U.S. (none was imported at the time), Singani (which isn't a brand but a Domaine of Origin classification and must be produced high up in the Andes mountains) is an unaged clear spirit distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Taken with the spirit/flavor of Bolivia, Soderbergh spent the last seven years launching his own label and bring the stuff home. The truth of the matter is, it would be easy to discount a big Hollywood director throwing money around pursuing a passion project. But much in the way Pisco and Cachaça were relatively unknown just 10 years ago, Soderbergh is pounding the pavement to educate bartenders and liquor enthusiasts about Singani, and his brand in particular is good stuff. He's got the right bars behind him (Brooklyn's Leyenda, LA's The Walker Inn), but ultimately Singani 63 (40 percent ABV) speaks for itselfboth in cocktails and when sipped neat, as is the Bolivian custom. Expect Bosc pear and caramelized sugar on the nose, followed by a jarringly floral, perfumey grape flavor.

7) Cynar 70 Proof ($34/750ml): Everyone is talking about amaro these days. In cocktails or sipped after dinner, it's one of Italy's greatest, long-established contributions to the world of booze. Cynar, a requisite amaro found behind any better bar, was developed in Italy in 1952 and just this month Campari America (Cynar's parent company) released Cynar 70 Proof, a stronger, move flavor-packed digestif liquor. Though the drink's logo centers on an artichoke, the amaro itself doesn't taste of the vegetable, rather a deep, sharp, bitter herbalness, matched with sweet. Cynarin, one of the 13 botanicals that flavor the liquor (and one that's believed to aid in digestion), gives the spirit its name. Cynar 70 Proof follows the same recipe just with more booze.

8) Vermouth Lacuesta Edición Limitada ($45/750ml): Hailing from the only vermouth producer in Rioja, Spain, Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta makes one of two vermouths in the world aged more than a year (the other is Yzaguirre Seleccion 1884 Gran Reserva, which spends 2 years in old Sauternes casks). Out of just a few thousand bottles released annually, about 1,000 hit the U.S. The juice rests for 14 months in oak barrels, which yields a delicious, raisiny wine macerated with wormwood, star anise and warm spices like cinnamon and cardamom. It's just sweet enough, and mildly bitter. On the bottle, this vermouth is classified as a dessert wine and would be best consumed as is or with an ice cube as an after dinner drink.

9) Tamworth Distilling, Von Humboldt's Natur Wasser Tamarind Cordial ($40/750ml): Steven Grasse is the guy behind Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum, and as of last month he's got a new boozy product to proffer. Inspired by and in collaboration with novelist Andrea Wulf and her new book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, Grasse has released a 20 percent ABV Tamarind Cordial, of which only 500 bottles were made at his New Hampshire distillery, Tamworth Distilling and Mercantile. As the story goes, Wulf writes about 19th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt who discovered tamarind during the 1800s and used the fruit to turn unpalatable water into a lemonade of sorts. That story served as the inspiration behind this sour-sweet tamarind elixir which works best to enhance cocktails.

10) Bella Beez, Sparkling Honey Water ($2-$3/12oz.): Despite the fact that a simple two ingredients go into Chicago-based Bella Beez Sparkling Honey Water, the end resulting beverage is a surprisingly sophisticated drink, beautifully floral, with just enough sweetness to know you're drinking honey. But this adult soda is by no means cloying, in fact quite the opposite thanks in part to its carbonation. Think clover honey sourced from urban bee keepers Westside Bee Boyz. Since Honey Water just launched this past July, right now it's only for sale in Chicago, but expanded distribution is slated for early next year. But if you need it sooner, owner Niki Mohrland just might ship it.