Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Martell Blue Swift

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Finishing Cognac is officially a thing. Hot on the heels of Bache-Gabrielsen’s new oak-finished Cognac comes this spin from major Cognac house Martell, a VSOP Cognac that is finished in previously used Kentucky bourbon casks. No word on the length of the finishing, but Martell does say this:

Martell Cognac’s latest offering represents the essence of the curious and audacious spirit of founder Jean Martell. Engraved on the bottle, Martell’s iconic swift emblem is significant as legend has it, Jean Martell was guided by the flight of a swift on his original journey from the island of Jersey to Charente, while the bird is famous for flying exceptionally long distances, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice a year. A tribute to the shared history between Martell and the United States, Martell Blue Swift joins the core lineup along with Martell VS, Martell VSOP, Martell Cordon Bleu, and Martell XO.

Blue Swift is a rousing success that shows how Cognac and bourbon can work beautifully together. The color of the spirit is bourbon-dark, much deeper in hue than any standard VSOP you’ll encounter. On the nose, there’s lots going on, the traditional raisin-plum notes of brandy mingling nicely with oaky whiskey notes, layering in some cinnamon, flamed banana, and a touch of almond.

The palate follows that up with aplomb. A relatively light body gives way to lush fruit, touched with oak. Currants and vanilla, figs and cocoa, hints of peppermint and gingerbread — they all come together into a surprisingly cohesive whole that showcases the best of both the brandy and bourbon worlds. The finish is light on its feet, not at all heavy, cloying, or otherwise overblown. Rather, it’s slightly drying and quite clean, its toasty wood notes lingering while echoing hints of fruity raisin.

It’s lovely in its own right, but I’m particularly hard-pressed to think of a better Cognac at this price point. Stock up!

80 proof.

A / $50 / martell.com

Review: Christian Brothers Sacred Bond Brandy Bottle-in-Bond 4 Years Old

christian-brothers-sacred-bond-750mlThe bonded spirits almost always finds a home with whiskey (particularly bourbon and sometimes rye). But there’s no rule that other liquor products can’t go through the bonding process, which involves storing the product in barrel in a special, government-regulated warehouse for at least four years, and bottling the finished product at 100 proof. The bottled-in-bond seal is a mark of quality, and everyone seems to love a “BiB” whiskey.

So… how about a bottled-in-bond brandy? Christian Brothers (part of Heaven Hill, which knows a thing or two about the bonded whiskey world) just launched one: Sacred Bond (get it?), a pot-distilled brandy that goes through the full rigmarole. It’s the first ever bottled-in-bond grape brandy produced (there are some BiB apple brandies out there).

Those used to (or looking for) sticky-sweet brandy won’t find it here. Sacred Bond is distinctly oaky on the nose, with curious notes of apple peels, salted caramel, strong tea, and just a hint of raisin. The palate is striking and unexpected. Again, any sense of sugar is nearly absent here, the brandy pumping out woody tannins, menthol, and some hospital notes. The impact of wood is so strong that my hands want to type “whiskey” every time I have to write “brandy,” but the follow-up notes of cayenne, plum, and saffron are entirely unique and far away from the typical whiskey character list. The finish is drying, spicy, and aromatic, but it’s a bit rough on the back of the throat, something I don’t chalk up entirely to the alcohol level.

This is a unique brandy that’s clearly designed for cocktails, but some may find its whiskeylike kick more suitable for exploring solo. Your mileage may vary.

100 proof.

B / $26 / christianbrothersbrandy.com

Review: Courvoisier VS, VSOP, and XO Cognac

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Courvoisier is revamping the packaging of its VS, VSOP, and XO expressions, with the VSOP getting the biggest switch, moving from its old, iconic, and unwieldy bottle design (called the Josephine) to a more stylish, modern look (see above). Changes to the VS and XO aren’t as extreme. We took the opportunity to review all of the above in their latest incarnations. Thoughts follow.

 

All are 80 proof.

Courvoisier VS Cognac – Aged from three to seven years old. A fairly garden variety Cognac, this VS is a showcase of caramel and vanilla, with just a hint of apple and raisin fruit bubbling up toward the back end. Easy to enjoy, but difficult to truly love, it’s fine for a sidecar but just doesn’t have enough going on to merit serious attention. The finish sees some more raw, ethyl alcohol notes pushing through, as well. B- / $31

Courvoisier VSOP Cognac – No specific aging information supplied, but reportedly under 10 years old. Bolder and a bit tannic, it’s a little rough at first, but eventually it settles into a groove that showcases raisins, chocolate, caramel sauce, and heavy baking spices — maybe a bit too much, as the cloves tend to dominate before the raisiny finish makes a reprise. More exciting than the VS, but still a bit unbalanced. B / $41

Courvoisier XO Cognac – From eaux de vie 11 to 25 years old. On the nose, it’s immediately heavy on almond/marzipan notes, then dried fruits, baking spice, and toasty wood. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet with slightly winey notes, with cherry overtones — bold, but far from overwhelming, and not incredibly complex. A little menthol creeps in on the finish, along with a touch of pepper plus some vaguely soapy notes. All told it’s a perfectly credible cognac, though it doesn’t drink as particularly old or austere. I think it might be the only XO I’ve tried that I’d have no qualms about using to mix a Sidecar. B+ / $125

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Review: Bache-Gabrielsen American Oak Cognac

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Bache-Gabrielsen’s Hors d’Age Cognac is a favorite around Drinkhacker HQ, and so it was with great anticipation that I met its latest release: A VS Cognac that is further finished in new American oak (officially Tennessee oak) barrels for six months. (The initial aging period in French oak isn’t noted on the label, but it is 2 years.) As the label says, it’s “an innovative and bicultural product” to be sure!

If nothing else, that American oak gives the brandy a ton of color. The color of strong tea, it looks more like a whiskey than any Cognac you’ve likely encountered. Smells and tastes that way, too. On the nose, that classic, raisiny sweetness pushes through some distinct (and a little jarring) lumberyard notes, with secondary aromas of mint and orange peel.

The body is where things really start to diverge, two feet firmly planted in two diverging worlds. First there’s chewy caramel and vanilla, then raisiny sweetness shortly thereafter. A big slug of spice hits next — cloves and cinnamon, the former particularly odd in a Cognac — followed by racy cayenne and black pepper, then ample notes of raw, toasty wood. It’s this finish that will really be divisive among drinkers. Echoing the flavor of many a young bourbon, the finish builds upon a heavy wood influence that will turn off fans of more delicate brandies, but will engage drinkers who like the burlier flavors found in whiskey. As it stands here, it’s quite incongruous on the palate, a mishmash of styles that both enchants and confuses. As a fan of both Cognac and whiskey, I find it in turns appealing and off-putting — but something I’d like to keep exploring as time goes on.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / bache-gabrielsen.com

Review: Chapters of Ampersand Et No. 1 Limited Edition Cognac

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Chapters of Ampersand is a new Swedish company that wants to bring the absolute finest in Cognac to the world. This isn’t going to be inexpensive, to say the least. For its first ultra-limited expression, called Et No. 1, the company is blending three Cognacs in collaboration with Tiffon Cognac: a Grande Champagne Cognac distilled in 1974, a Grande Champagne Cognac from 1943, and a pre-phylloxera Cognac from 1870. None of those are typos. The finished product is bottled in a unique piece of Swedish art glass crafted by artist Göran Wärff.

We received an understandably small sample to review. Let’s check it out!

The nose offers intense and nearly overwhelming complexity: raisin notes up front, then cinnamon, nougat, spiced nuts, and some dark cherry. A slight soapiness emerges with some time in glass, but this evolves into more of a powder room perfume character that doesn’t detract from the notes of nuts and old fruit.

On the palate, this character segues toward a maple syrup note, though it’s filtered through a heavy leather character, with some notes of fresh tobacco, those raisin notes settling into a Madeira character — winey, lightly balsamic, and moderately sweet. The finish is far lighter and livelier than I expected, going out gently and almost subtly with lightly toasted wood notes. It stands in a stark contrast to that punchy, brooding nose, but does offer a lingering touch of dried fruit that hangs around on the palate as a lovely little reminder of what’s come before.

Et No. 2 is reportedly in the works. Can’t wait to see what the Swedes unearth next time!

80 proof. 300 bottles produced.

A / $8395 / chaptersofampersand.com

Review: Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy One-Time Blend No. 23

Once Only

Germain-Robin makes some amazing brandies, but this may be the best I’ve seen from the company to date. The catch: it’s a one-time only blend, as the name suggests, so if this review catches your palate, better grab a bottle now.

The focus of this blend is French colombard grapes, which were the preferred grape in Cognac before the phylloxera era. As a blend, it is a single barrel mix of a number of different brandies aging in the Germain-Robin collection, primarily including the following distillates:

  • 1991 colombard from Ukiah Valley
  • 2003 and 2004 malolactic colombard from Hopland
  • 2006 colombard from Redwood Valley
  • 2006 viognier used for aromatics

Germain-Robin has all the technical information you could want here. While you’re digesting all of that, let’s give it a taste:

The nose is beautiful, that classic sweet raisin aroma — but as it develops in the glass it also develops an herbal note of rosemary and thyme, which makes for a fun study in contrasts. The palate keeps things more directed to the sweeter side of the street, where notes of baked apples, cinnamon buns, and golden raisins dominate. The finish offers some astringency, a mild reminder of the high-acidity colombard grapes used to make this spirit. Lightly spicy, even peppery at times, it lets you down easy, with a throat-coating brown sugar sweetness that absolutely begs for another sip or two.

Not only is the brandy worthwhile, it’s an excellent value at this price.

Aka Germain-Robin Only Once Blend No. 23.

84.2 proof.

A / $75 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Craft Distillers Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy

Millard Fillmore

Some of the best American brandy you can buy is coming from Ukiah, California-based Craft Distillers, but said brandy can often cost a pretty penny, if you can find it.

A few years ago, the company decided to see if it could produce a more affordable product that still offered high quality, and 3 1/2 years later, it’s here: Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy.

Naming a brandy after our 13th president — one of the least effective in the country’s history — is auspicious, to say the least, but let’s try not to judge a book by its cover. This brandy takes column-distilled grape spirit from the San Joaquin Valley and blends it with pot-distilled brandy from Germain-Robain’s old timey Cognac stills. The result is a hybrid of styles, but unfortunately it’s not a wholly effective one.

There’s lots of youth on Millard’s nose, both in the form of raw wood and raw alcohol. Gentle fruit notes line its pockets, but this brandy wears its inexperience on its sleeve. On the palate, it’s more of the same: dusty lumberyard character tempered by oily petrol notes, then finally some juicy red berries and plum notes to offer a counterpoint. Notes of licorice, tobacco, and oily leather bring up the rear, though it’s that immature wood character that makes the most lasting impression.

80 proof.

C+ / $35 / craftdistillers.com

Review: Barking Irons Applejack

BarkingIrons_Bottle_ByGievesAnderson

Barking Irons Applejack is a new apple brandy which is distilled (for its owners) at Black Dirt Distillery in upstate New York. The applejack starts with a distillate of jonagold, macoun, and gala apples that is aged in #2 char oak barrels (time unstated but said to be just a few months) at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Distilling before being individually bottled, hand-labeled, and numbered.

So, let’s see how this applejack fares in tasting.

On the nose, it’s rather racy stuff, immediately showing quite a lot of youth, with notes of raw wood and some petrol, though this is balanced out by a light lacing of apple cider character and some orange peel notes. On the palate, it quickly and thankfully reveals a much more well-rounded spirit, offering clear caramel-apple and butterscotch notes — though it’s backed up with more of that punchy lumberyard character. The finish is on the astringent side, though on the whole the spirit still manages to be quite sweet and fairly satisfying in the end.

All told, this is a young applejack that nonetheless manages to squeeze a whole lot of character out of that youth. Worth a look for apple brandy fans.

100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1 (400 cases produced).

B / $43 / barkingirons.com

Review: Gilles Brisson Cognac VS and VSOP

brisson cognac vs

Gilles Brisson, or just Brisson, is a Grande Champange-based producer of Cognac located in the Grande Champagne region of Châteaubernard. With just 65 hectares of production, Brisson is a relatively small producer, but it makes some impressive brandy from all estate fruit. Today we look at its two lower-level releases (a Napoleon and XO bottling are also available).

Both are 80 proof.

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VS – A bit rough and tumble, but it’ll work in a pinch. Initially a tad alcoholic and overtly woody on the nose, it opens up with time to reveal ample fruit and spice. The body leads the way with simple apple and cinnamon notes, vanilla touched with a bit of lemon peel, gingerbread, and grapefruit notes. The finish isn’t altogether clear, though, with a somewhat grainy character that isn’t unpleasant but which takes the focus off the fruit. I’d use this as a solid mixer or for straight sipping in pinch. B+ / $25

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VSOP – A clear step up, this Cognac offers immediately more maturity, its nose distinguished by more well-integrated wood notes complementing winey characteristics and well-matured fruit notes (think sultanas and figs). The body is seductive and dusky with notes of sherry, dried cherries, orange peel, and ample ginger. On the finish, a gentle coffee character comes to the fore, lingering alongside a complement of dried citrus. Lovely balance, and an outstanding value. A / $35

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