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And now, underrated stars of the spirits world

The Unsung Hero has long been a part of American culture. An honor once reserved for the faceless soldiers who risk their lives to serve our country without being recognized by name, the concept now seems to apply to anyone who works hard and isn't a celebrity (a standard currently under review by the Department of Redundancy Department).

With Unsung Hero awards handed out by everyone from local television newscasts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see part 224 FW 7, release 402; Google it if you doubt me), I don't think I can cheapen the idea any more by applying it to wines and spirits. So here's a look at some of the better brands you've probably never heard of.

McWilliam's Hanwood Estate: As family-owned wineries go, McWilliam's Wines is one of the largest in Australia, but their fame hasn't quite spread to the United States. They don't have the vast size or the international reputation of Rosemount Estate, and their wines aren't as aggressively discounted as the top-selling Yellow Tail brand. Despite being distributed by industry giant E&J Gallo, the brand isn't that heavily promoted, at least not locally. But having tasted the entire range for the past three vintages (courtesy of their astute P.R. firm), I've been impressed with the improvements from year to year, and with the vibrant fruit flavors that separate these wines from their competition.

Voyant Chai Cream: Chai is a still-reasonably trendy beverage from India, made with black tea, sweetened milk and a variety of spices. As common as a half-caf-latte in its native country, chai has an element of Far Eastern mysticism about it for the people here who contemplate life over a hot cup. I, however, prefer having my beverages cold and my consciousness raised the old-fashioned way, which is why Voyant is my favorite new product. It's a cream liqueur that tastes exactly like chai - so much so that you don't really notice the healthy dose of Virgin Islands rum.

For excellence in the shadow of a more famous original, Voyant is as notable as Jason Lee, star of the NBC sitcom "My Name Is Earl." He makes this surprisingly clever show quite watchable, even though his character is a virtual clone of Nicholas Cage's in "Raising Arizona" - and even though he pretty much has only one facial expression (I'm guessing he and Adam Carolla go to the same place for their botox).

Fris Vodka: Even though vodka is one of the least expensive spirits to produce - it's made with simple ingredients, usually distilled in large, cost-efficient batches, and it doesn't have the expense of barrel aging - the trend has been to create increasingly pricey brands. Some of them are worth the money, and all of them are better than the cheapest industrial-grade brands. But there's a surprising amount of variation in a product that's required by law to be odorless and tasteless (twice the restrictions imposed on VH1's "The Surreal Life"), and the most expensive brands aren't always the right choice.

My current favorite drink is the chocolate martini (3 shots vodka, 2 shots white creme de cacao), and after making it with a few vodkas that are far more famous, I settled on Fris, which gave the drink a noticeably cleaner taste. Made in Denmark, this brand, owned by the producers of Absolut, is moderately priced and silky-smooth - just like the current unsung hero of the Buffalo Sabres, defenseman Teppo Numminen (he's also the least appreciated of the Marx Brothers).

OK, technically he's from Finland, not Denmark. I'll buy a bottle of Finlandia Vodka and get back to you.

Howard Riedel is a local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on WBFO-FM. His e-mail is hriedel@wbfo.org.

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